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The Unexpected Wife(9)

By:Mary Burton

She stared at his long tapered fingers, calloused by hard labor. His dark eyes cut into her and suddenly the idea of going anywhere with him unsettled.

“It’s all right,” she reassured the boy. “A damp cloth and it’ll be good as new.”

The stranger peered past her. “Tommy, you all right, son?”

Tommy shrugged. “I feel good now.”

The father shook his head. “That’s good. Can you sit tight for a minute with your brother while I clean up this lady?”

“Yes, Pa.”

“I’ll help her,” Frank, the old man, said from behind him. “I know you got that wagon wheel to fix.”

“Climb on up to your seat, Frank. I can handle it on my own.”

Frank exchanged glances with Holden then reluctantly climbed up top.

He took her hand in his. Through her crocheted black gloves she felt the heat and strength of his fingers. She could feel the color rising in her cheeks.

But the father was all business. Instead of cajoling, he tugged her forward and before she could react banded his long fingers around her narrow waist. Without a word, he lifted her out of the carriage and set her on the hard ground.

Abby stumbled back, shocked at her own reaction. “This really isn’t necessary.”

Still silent, he pulled a bandanna from his coat pocket and grabbed the hem of her skirt, lifting it so that her petticoats showed.

Abby searched for her voice as she yanked her skirt from his hand. “I am engaged to be married. This kind of interaction can’t be proper.” She’d not spoken of her engagement out loud before and it sounded strange, so unfamiliar as if she were talking about someone else.

“I don’t have time for niceties.” He brushed her hand away and finished cleaning the skirt.

The bite in the stranger’s tone rankled her nerves. “There’s no need to be rude,” she said, using the tone she reserved for difficult shopkeepers and surly chimney sweeps.

He looked at her as if she’d grown a third eye. “You want polite, then go back to wherever you came from. I don’t have time for it.”

“I shall tell my fiancé about this.”

He glanced up at Stokes, who still had a handkerchief pressed over his nose. “Your man doesn’t look willing to help you.”

Abby followed his angry gaze to Mr. Stokes. “Mr. Stokes is not my fiancé.”

A flicker of surprise flashed in the stranger’s eyes but was gone as quickly as it came.

Mr. Stokes shifted in his seat. “Lady, get in the carriage. I want to make town by nightfall.”

“Time is wasting, lady,” the coachman said.

Irritated, she snatched her skirt back and reached for the handle by the door with the other. Her shoe heel caught on the hem of her skirt and she cursed vanity for choosing to wear her gray Sunday best dress. At the time, she’d wanted to make a good impression on her husband-to-be. But the dress’s full skirts and high-heeled shoes, which were fine for church in the city, were completely impractical in Montana. Now she wished she’d remained in her simple calico with the streamlined skirt.

Strong hands again wrapped around her waist. Away from the stifling air of the coach, she caught a whiff of the stranger’s masculine scent. No coiling aftershaves or scented soaps like Mr. Stokes. His scent was purely masculine and not unpleasant, she realized.

This stranger had stirred more emotions and reactions in her in the last five minutes than the butcher had in a year. She couldn’t say if it were him or that all her senses had been heightened by her unknown future. She hoped her intended didn’t make her feel like this, too. She wanted safety and comfort, not passion.

He set her in the carriage and waited until she’d retaken her seat next to the boys. She could still feel his fingers on her as she straightened her skirts.

“Thank you for your help.”

“Ma’am.” He winked and smiled at the children. The smile vanished when he shifted his gaze to her. He touched the brim of his hat. “I’ll see you in town, Miss Smyth. Take good care of my boys.”

The softly spoken words were laced with warning. This man protected his own.

A shiver passed down her spin as she wondered what it felt like to be protected by this man. She swallowed amazed at the direction of her thoughts.

Oily peacocks like Mr. Stokes and hard, dangerous men like this stranger.

What was her new husband going to be like?

Chapter Three

The tingling in Abby’s limbs quickly faded when she saw the two boys huddled together on the seat. Both looked pale, their lips drawn into tight lines.

Abby sat next to the boys. She placed her hand on the forehead of the little boy. “What’s your name?”