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The Unexpected Wife(5)

By:Mary Burton

“I believe you are right, my dear,” Stewart said. “The matter is settled. Abigail will marry the butcher as soon as it can be arranged.”

Abby’s stomach curdled. “I’m not marrying the butcher. I am marrying Mr. Barrington.”

“Abigail,” Stewart said. “Don’t you have work to do in the kitchen?”

Clutching Mr. Barrington’s letter in her hand, she glared at her uncle. “You can’t dismiss me like this!”

Gertrude and Joanne stared at Abby in shocked silence.

“Return to the kitchens. I’ve my breakfast to finish.” He shifted his attention back to his paper.

Frustrated, Abby rushed out of the room. Instead of going to the kitchens she ran up the center staircase to her third-floor room. Breathless, she slammed the door to her room and sat down on her bed. Sweat beaded on her forehead as her heart pounded her ribs.

Minutes passed before she remembered the letter clutched in her hand. Slowly, she uncurled her clenched fingers and smoothed out the envelope.

Her frustration faded as she looked at the familiar handwriting. Lifting the letter to her nose, she inhaled the scents of wood smoke. She closed her eyes as she had done a hundred times before and tried to picture Matthias Barrington.

For reasons she could not explain, she pictured an older man, with weathered features and kind eyes that hinted at his loneliness. She imagined their marriage would be founded on friendship, hard work and the desire to build a life together.

Calmer, Abby pulled out the letter and unfolded it.

Miss Smyth, I am so pleased you’ve accepted my marriage offer. You will be a welcome addition to our little valley and everyone is quite excited to meet you. I have enclosed twenty-five dollars for your travel expenses. I spoke with the gentleman who runs the stage line into Crickhollow, a Mr. Holden McGowan, and he assures me that at this time of year, you should have nothing but a safe and pleasant journey. I count the days until you arrive.

M. Barrington.

Abby carefully folded the letter and replaced it in the envelope. She moved to the small chest at the foot of her bed that contained everything that belonged to her—a faded tintype of her parents, a small mirror that had been her mother’s, her grandmother’s tablecloth, two dresses and the neatly bound stack of letters Mr. Barrington had written her.

She drew in a steadying breath. “By month’s end, Mr. Barrington.”

At midnight, only a small gaslight sconce flickered in the hallway as Abby slipped down the back staircase. Careful not to make a sound, she clutched her belongings, now bundled in her grandmother’s white linen tablecloth. The house was quiet.

Gingerly, Abby set down her bundle by the door and tiptoed into her uncle’s study. She’d long ago learned from one of the servants where he kept his money. Her uncle always thought himself clever with his secret hiding places but there was little the servants didn’t know or discuss about their employers.

Lighting a wall gas lamp, she moved across the thick-carpeted floor to his bookcase. She found the richly bound copy of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and opened it. Carefully, she counted out twenty-five crisp dollars and tucked them in her reticule.

Quietly replacing the book she moved across the room and turned the gaslight off. She picked up her bundle and opened the study door, wincing when it squeaked unexpectedly.

Abby swallowed her fear and hurried down the back hallway, her heart thundering in her chest.

Like it or not, after tonight, there would be no coming home.

She was committed to Montana and Mr. Barrington.

Chapter Two

Every muscle in Abby’s body ached.

She’d been in the stagecoach for nearly twelve hours and was certain that if the wheels hit another rut or the wagon was forced to detour around another swollen river, or her traveling companion, Mr. Stokes, began snoring again, she’d scream.

The wagon came to an abrupt halt, and she toppled forward into the oversize lap of Mr. Stokes. He started awake and wiped the spittle from his mouth, staring down at her. He smiled. “Madam.”

Mr. Craig Stokes had been riding with her for the last ten hours. A scout for the railroad, Mr. Stokes chatted endlessly about his job. Dirt grayed his black wool suit and his cuffs and collar had long ago turned brown. Flecks of food still nested in his mustache and he smelled of sausages and sweat. When he was not snoring in his sleep, he was staring at her.

Abby scrambled off his lap and retreated to her corner of the coach. “Excuse me. I lost my balance.”

“Any time.” He tugged his vest down over his ample belly. “It’s beyond me why a woman of quality like yourself would be traveling alone in these parts. It’s rough county, miss, and no place for a woman.”