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The Unexpected Wife(7)

By:Mary Burton



There was Mrs. Clements. She’d taken in the boys the first couple of weeks after Elise had died. He and Frank were so torn up with sorrow they weren’t able to properly care for the boys.

Mrs. Clements had done right by the boys but farming them out stuck in Matthias’s craw. He liked having his children close. But with so much work to be done he didn’t know what else to do.

When Matthias reached the wagon, his youngest, three-year-old Tommy, held out his hands and started to cry. Instinctively, he reached out and lifted the boy. The child laid his head on his father’s shoulder.

Tommy hated riding in wagons. They upset his stomach. Matthias glanced at his oldest boy’s dirty face. Four-year-old Quinn grinned up at him.

“Pa, do we get to ride in the coach?”

Matthias shoved out a sigh. “Sure do.”

Frank came up behind him. “We don’t mind waiting with you here while you fix the wagon.”

Matthias glared at Frank. “I’d rather the boys get into town so Mrs. Clements can give them a hot meal.”

“I got hard tack in the pack. We don’t mind helping you.”

“I want the boys in town by dark.”

“But…”

“No buts.” Irritation gave each word extra bite.

Frank’s sudden desire to stay behind puzzled him. The man was hell-bent on leaving, and Matthias had spent the better part of the morning arguing with Frank about his decision to leave. Later, pride had kept him from asking Frank to stay again, but seeing the boys now made him rethink a lot of things in his life. “Frank, any way you can postpone this trip East? Just a couple of months.”

Frank glanced toward the stagecoach. “Time I got on with my life.”

Matthias bit back the oath that sprang to mind. Frank’s leaving had put him in a predicament. “Get on the stage with the boys. When I’ve fixed the wheel, I’ll follow.”

Frank picked up his bag. “Sure.”

Matthias took Quinn in his arms. The boys clung to his neck as he walked the twenty yards to the stage.

He nodded to Holden. “Again, I’m obliged.”

“Think nothing of it.” Nervous, Holden tightened the reins around his gloved hand. “There’s only room enough for the boys inside. Frank, you’ll have to ride up top with me.”

Frank glanced toward the coach’s interior as if he were worried. “Fine.”

Matthias set Quinn down so that he could reach for the door handle. The boy fussed and clung to his leg. Inwardly Matthias sighed. The boys, who both shared their mother’s blond hair and deep blue eyes, had been clingy and restless since Elise had died last year. He’d hoped time would take care of that, but lately the boys seemed more fretful than ever. Last night they’d been so restless he’d pulled them in bed with him. That had been a mistake. Quinn had ended up sleeping sideways in the bed, poking him in the ribs with his feet most of the night. While Tommy had snored so loud that Matthias would have sworn he was sleeping with a three-hundred-pound cowhand.

With a boy in each arm, Matthias strode to the wagon door. Society Miss, with her perky nose and fussy clothes stared at him. He could only imagine her thoughts. He looked rougher than a dried prairie and the boys looked just as bad.

But as they got closer, she didn’t cower, but studied him with sharp intelligent eyes that didn’t seem to miss a detail.

Her gaze shifted to the boys, who he had to admit smelled bad. Miss Society’s eyes softened when she looked at Tommy and Quinn. She pitied them, he reckoned. They looked wild and untamed as if wolves had raised them.

Pride had him straightening his shoulders. Elise had always kept the boys scrubbed clean, but since she’d died he’d not had the time to fuss over them.

Guilt ate at his gut. Lately, he did everything half-ass. Even with Frank’s help there was never enough time to do anything right. Before Elise had gotten sick it had been a struggle to keep up, but lately he was fighting a losing battle.

If he hadn’t loved this land so much, he’d have left when Elise died. But with only three months before he owned his land free and clear, he hated to quit. If he could hold on, he’d have a legacy for his boys that they would be proud of.

Matthias reached for the stagecoach door handle.

Frank pushed past him and grabbed it first. “I’ll settle the boys inside. You get back to the wagon.”

Tommy started to fuss and cling to Matthias tighter. “I want Pa.”

Matthias held on to the boy. “I’ll settle the children.”

Matthias opened the door and was surprised to see that Society Miss was not alone. A large man wearing a dusty black suit glared at him. Society Miss’s wide-eyed expression had given him the impression that she wasn’t married. Of course, it only made sense that she was and that this man was likely her husband. Only a half-witted woman would travel to Montana alone.

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