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The Unexpected Wife(6)

By:Mary Burton



Abby had asked herself that same question a half-dozen times over the last couple of days. Living in her aunt and uncle’s San Francisco house, she felt her life had become an endless stream of work, but there she understood the predictable pattern. Here everything was unknown, including the man she’d intended to marry.

“I assure you, I am fine.”

Mr. Stokes shrugged. “If you insist.” Suddenly restless now, he banged on top of the carriage. “What is it this time, man?”

“A rider up ahead and a wagon with a broken wheel,” the driver shouted back.

Abby pushed back the carriage window drape and poked her head out to get a better look.

Twenty yards ahead, she saw an old man sitting on the side of the road next to a wagon. Two small young boys, their dirty faces peeking out from their floppy hats, squatted beside him, jabbing sticks in the mud. The wagon tilted to the right, the wheel burrowed deeply in the thick mud. The team of horses, two fine-looking chestnut mares, had been unhitched from the wagon and were grazing beside the road.

Her heart melted when she saw the two young boys. She raised her hand to wave when she spotted another man standing next to the wagon. Her appraisal took only seconds but it was enough to know the man was angry. The scowl on his rawboned face had her lowering her hand and retreating back a fraction.

The stranger glanced up toward the coach, his eyes narrowing. He started to walk toward them, moving with the grace and power of a wild animal. He was tall, with broad well-muscled shoulders that made her think of the bare-knuckled boxers she’d seen at a carnival years ago.

Utterly masculine. A hint of warmth had her blushing. Abby was surprised by her reaction. Passion was the last thing she needed or wanted.

Still, she looked deeper beneath his black Stetson and studied his dark hair tied back at the nape of his neck with a piece of rawhide. His hair accentuated his chiseled features, and the uncompromising hardness of a jaw covered in dark stubble. His range coat flapped open as he moved, revealing muddied work pants and a dark blue shirt and scuffed boots that stretched to his knees.

Whoever this man was, he was dangerous.





Matthias Barrington was in a foul mood.

He nodded back to his father-in-law Frank and his sons. “I’ll be right back. Keep an eye on the boys. I need to talk to Holden.”

Frank stood, tapping his bony fingers against his thigh. “Looks like he’s got a woman aboard.”

“I don’t care.” He strode toward the stagecoach.

The day had started going sour from the minute he’d risen. Not only did his wagon have a broken wheel, but his father-in-law had announced this morning that he was leaving Crickhollow and heading back to Missouri. Matthias knew the old man wasn’t happy and that this past winter had been hard on him, but he’d thought Frank would stay at least the summer.

Without Frank to watch over the boys, he was in trouble. Matthias didn’t dare dwell on how far behind schedule he was already this early in the season.

Matthias glanced up toward the stagecoach driver, Holden McGowan, and extended his hand. He’d known Holden since Matthias and his late wife had arrived in the valley five years ago. The man always had a quick smile and a joke to share. But today when he looked at Matthias, his expression was tight, nervous even.

“Everything all right?” Matthias said.

Holden nodded, as if recovering from the shock of seeing him. “Right as rain. I just wasn’t expecting to see you here. Looks like you hit a bit of trouble, though.”

Frank came up behind Matthias. “Our wagon hit a rut and broke a wheel.”

Holden glanced quickly at Frank. “Shame.”

Matthias pulled off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. “You got room to take Frank and the children into town? I’ll fix the wagon and follow behind you in the next hour or two.”

Holden shifted in his seat. “Oh sure, will do.”

Matthias nodded. “Thanks.”

He glanced up and saw a woman staring at him. She had wide green eyes that testified to just how naive she was. Her cheeks turned pink when their gazes locked and she retreated back into the coach.

He swore under his breath.

Crickhollow was a barren, isolated town where few women ventured. If this Society Miss, with her wide-eyed expression, pale skin and fancy hat, had half a brain, she’d run from this wild territory, which chewed up nearly every woman that tried to call it home.

He strode back to the buckboard where his sons played. If Montana was going to be tamed, it needed women who knew how to work—not genteel ladies like Society Miss.

He glanced down at his boys, wondering what he was going to do with them now that Frank was leaving. At three and four, they were too young to leave alone at the cabin or take out on the range with him each day.

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