The Unexpected Wife

By: Mary Burton

“I thought caring for the boys was going to be my job.”





He swung his gaze to meet hers. He was certain that he’d heard wrong. “Ma’am?”

She held his gaze, though he sensed she was nervous. Still she pulled back her shoulders. “I mean, since I am going to be your wife, it only seems right that the children stay with us.”

For a moment his head swam as if a prizefighter had landed a knockout punch. “My what?”

Mrs. Clements stepped forward, wearing a broad grin that hinted at trouble. “Miss Smyth is the bit of news I was referring to.”

Matthias’s head started to throb. The last thing he needed was a riddle. “What the devil are you talking about, Mrs. Clements?”

The older woman smoothed her hands over her white apron and cleared her throat. “We ordered you a wife. Miss Smyth is your fiancée.”





Prologue




Crickhollow, Montana

May, 1879



Hilda Marie Clements held open the door to her mercantile, as two men with low crowned hats and upturned collars filed through. Each carried a lantern, but the meager lights did little to chase away the predawn shadows that stretched across the assortment of boxes, barrels and crates. A chill clung to the early morning air, a reminder that even though June was but weeks away, winter had not fully released its cruel grip.

Mrs. Clements moved toward her counter as her visitors took seats on twin barrels nearby.

Closest to her was Holden McGowan. His long lean body, draped in buckskin, was well muscled by years of driving a stagecoach team. Nearing his thirty-fifth year, Holden had been in the valley for seven years. A trapper first and later a miner, he’d moved into town three years ago to open the Starlight stage line.

Next to Holden sat Frank Trotter. He’d moved to the valley eighteen months ago to help his daughter, Elise, and his son-in-law Matthias when Elise had become ill during her third pregnancy. Elise and her stillborn child had died six days after Frank had arrived. Trotter’s graying beard and hollow eyes testified to the sorrow he’d endured since he’d buried his wife and then his only child. He’d aged fifteen years in the last two years.

Mrs. Clements was impatient to get the meeting started. Her husband, Seth, would wake soon and she wasn’t interested in a lecture on meddling. “I know Frank ain’t got much time. He’s got to get on the trail at first light so he can get back to the ranch in time for lunch. So let’s get to business.”

Frank nodded, silent and grim. Of the three, he looked the most uneasy, the most worried.

Holden swung his gaze to Mrs. Clements. The plump Virginian had agreed to handle all their correspondence. “You said she wrote us another letter.”

Mrs. Clements pushed back a stray wisp of hair before she dug pudgy fingers into the deep pockets of her apron and pulled out a wrinkled envelope. “She sure did.”

Holden leaned forward a fraction, nervously tapping his long fingers on his thigh. “So did she accept our marriage proposal?”

Mrs. Clements grinned. “She’s ready and willing to travel to Crickhollow on our instruction.” She shifted in her seat with excitement. “And she has sent along a tintype for us to look at. Now she’s warned us that it’s a couple of years old, but she says it’s still very accurate.”

Holden’s gaze brightened as he held out his hand to Mrs. Clements. “A woman who thinks about the details. I like that.”

Mrs. Clements hesitated before she handed Holden the picture. “She’s not a real beauty,” she said, passing the picture to the coachman as he moved closer. “But she looks sturdy—good hearty peasant stock as my mother used to say. Looks like she’d weather many a winter here.”

Holden tilted the picture closer to the lantern light as he studied it. Frank stayed seated, nervously tapping his knee with his hand.

The coachman’s eyebrows knotted as he studied the tintype. A small oval face, slightly pointed chin, and peaches-and-cream complexion. A simple hat obscured most of her hair, but her unsmiling lips were full and her pale eyes filled with a softness that made her approachable. She wore a dark gray dress with a high collar. No hint of lace adorned the simple dress. “She looks a bit severe.”

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