The Unexpected Wife – Jess Michaels

Owen Gregory liked a great deal about being an investigator, but there was one task that he despised above all others: telling a person that someone they loved was dead. There was often weeping and shouting and denying and even blaming involved, and those emotions would wash over him and almost stick, hanging there for days. He was here in Twiddleport, a small village with a very silly name, to do exactly that. Tell a woman that her husband was dead. He had to tell her a great deal more and perhaps even worse than that, but he almost couldn’t think about all of it at once or it got jumbled in his mind. He shifted in his saddle and urged his horse, Lucius, a bit faster. The woman, Celeste Montgomery, had not been at the small, rather ramshackle home she and her late husband had let in town, so he had been directed to a cottage just outside Twiddleport where her parents lived. Based on the directions he’d been given, the home in the distance was the one he sought. He pulled up after he entered the gate and dismounted, then took a good look at the place. Moderately sized, well kept, a rather pretty place, if nondescript. He made his way to the door and knocked. There was a great commotion from inside, with dogs barking and shouts from within, but at last the door opened and a rather beleaguered-looking older woman with a kerchief wrapped around her head stood there. The housekeeper, he thought, and smiled at her. “Good afternoon, madam. I have come to call on Mrs.

Montgomery. I have been told she is here visiting her parents.” The woman looked him up and down slowly with a faint sniff. “And who are you?” He withdrew a card from the inside pocket of his jacket and held it out. The cards were meant to impress; he had designed them thus, with gold filigree and fine paper. “Mr. Owen Gregory, at your service.” “I don’t think you are expected, sir. I wasn’t told the family was receiving guests.” She moved to close the door, but Owen wedged his boot in at the last moment, stopping her from locking him out.

“I understand,” he said, forcing what he hoped was a friendly but firm expression to his face. “But what I have come to discuss cannot wait. I’ve news from London about Mr. Montgomery. Urgent news.” A bit of interest lit up in the housekeeper’s expression, and she glanced him over a second time before she opened the door and motioned him into the foyer. “Wait here, if you will,” she said. “I’ll ascertain if they’ll see you.” He nodded and took a seat on a bench along one wall of the foyer. He tugged his riding gloves off as he did so and stretched his fingers while he looked around the entryway.

If the outside of the home had been nondescript, the foyer was trying for another impression: opulence. Every item, from the cushion on the benches to the wall hangings to the golden pitcher and other baubles on a table along the opposite wall, looked expensive. The entryway was clearly meant to impress whatever guests came. To tell them that the inhabitants of the home were important, even if Sir Timothy was only a baronet. The housekeeper returned to the foyer, and he rose. “The family will see you,” she said, and motioned for him to follow her. He did so, taking a subtle peek into the rooms with open doors as he walked. Some were very plain, others all done up like the foyer. For show and for life. He supposed many families lived thus.

The parlor he entered was one of the plain ones. Perhaps the family had heard his name and not recognized it as one of import, so they hadn’t felt a drive to move to a showier chamber. It didn’t really matter. What he had to say would have to be said no matter the quality of the wallpaper. His stomach hurt at the thought of it as he searched the inhabitants of the room for Mrs. Montgomery. Lady Hendricks and Sir Timothy stood at the sideboard together, a slim lady with dark hair and an older gentleman, all gray and angled, as he looked to his wife to address this situation. Which left the woman standing next to the fireplace as his quarry. Owen had read up on her—as much as he could, of course. She was in her early thirties, and had been a spinster until the marriage had been arranged with Erasmus Montgomery after the briefest of courtships.

Owen had made a picture of her in his head as he rode from London to perform this horrid duty: older than her years, made haggard by life. The woman before him was not that picture. He caught his breath at how beautiful she was. She was tall and curvaceous, with dark auburn hair, like a fire that was smoldering and waiting to explode. Her eyes were a gray-blue. They held his with question and he thought a bit of hesitance, as if she had already determined that C whatever news he came with, it wasn’t good. That dragged him from the inappropriate study of her beauty and back to reality. He was here to fulfill a duty, not to ogle the widow who didn’t yet know she was a widow. “Good afternoon—Mr. Gregory, is it?” Lady Hendricks said as she moved toward him.

“I do not think we are acquainted, nor that we had an appointment.” “No on both accounts,” he conceded with a slight bow of his head. “And I apologize for intruding upon your hospitality in such an uncouth way. But I have urgent news for Mrs. Montgomery and I could not stand on propriety, nor wait for an appointment to deliver it.” Mrs. Montgomery tilted her head and stepped forward. “The housekeeper, Mrs. Blythe, said that you had a message for me about my husband. I cannot imagine what it could be.

” There was a hint of disdain to her tone as she said the word husband that Owen could not help but mark. She had no warm feelings for Erasmus Montgomery, it seemed. He would not ease that tension before this day was through. “Yes, and why would our dear Mr. Montgomery not come here with the news himself?” Lady Hendricks said, stepping closer and all but cutting off Owen’s view of Mrs. Montgomery. Lady Hendricks had clearly bestowed her daughter with those lovely grayblue eyes, but the older woman’s version was sharp, narrow, seeking. There was little warmth within. Owen cleared his throat and side-stepped Lady Hendricks to focus, yet again, on Mrs. Montgomery rather than her mother.

“There is no easy way to say this, and I am sorry for the pain it will no doubt cause you. I have come here to…” He drew a long breath to steady himself for what was to follow. “Mr. Montgomery is dead, Mrs. Montgomery. And I fear that is not the worst of the news I am bound to bring to you.” eleste Montgomery felt the world stop turning in the moments this handsome stranger said those four words. Mr. Montgomery is dead . They hit her square in the chest like a shotgun blast, and she nearly went to her backside in front of the fire before she reached back and steadied herself on the mantel, toppling one of her mother’s little figurines.

She saw Lady Hendricks’ eyes narrow at the sight of that unforgiveable indiscretion, even as she shrieked like it was her husband who was dead. Sir Timothy caught her as she slumped into an elegant heap. Celeste had seen this kind of reaction so many times over the years, she refused to rise to the bait, but she was surprised when Mr. Gregory, the stranger who had just ripped her world out from under her, hardly reacted to it either. He continued watching her, not her mother as she heaved while she “came to” from her fit. “Mrs. Montgomery, did you hear me?” he asked, stepping closer. She realized she was still gripping the mantel with all her might, and released it as she stared at him. He was a very handsome man. An odd thing to think about in this moment, but facts were facts.

He had brown hair that was a little too long, a well-defined jawline and a mouth that clearly smiled often, though he was certainly not doing so now. His eyes were also very fine, a pale brown that held hers steadily. “Mrs. Montgomery?” he said again. She shook herself. “I-I’m sorry,” she said over her mother’s hysterical weeping in the background. “I am shocked. You are telling me that Mr. Montgomery is…dead. Truly? And you are certain it is Erasmus Montgomery?” He nodded.

“I am very certain, I’m afraid.” “How…when…?” she whispered. His gaze lit up a fraction, as if she had said something he approved of. “In London… quite suddenly, a few days ago.” She stepped toward him and her knees gave way unexpectedly. Mr. Gregory lunged forward and caught her elbow, drawing her against his chest as he guided her to the nearest chair. When she was situated, he released her and she felt a bit colder for the lack of his warmth. She gripped the armrests with both fists, clinging there for purchase. As she did so, her parents each took a place on the settee, her mother wiping her tears with a perfectly monogrammed handkerchief.

Lady Hendricks motioned to the chair beside Celeste for Mr. Gregory to sit. “I cannot believe this terrible news! Oh, to lose one so young and so beloved!” her mother moaned. Then she leaned forward and speared Mr. Gregory with a pointed, bright stare. “Tell me everything about the circumstances.” Celeste caught her breath at the nosy cruelty of her mother’s desire for gossip. “Mama!” she said, and earned a glare from her mother and a slight shake of the head from her very pale and normally silent father. She ignored them both and focused again on Mr. Gregory.

“I don’t understand, sir. My…husband seemed in good health when last I saw him.” “And when was that?” Mr. Gregory asked, his light brown gaze holding hers. She shifted with discomfort, with humiliation as she dropped her eyes to her hands clenched in her lap. “Six—six months ago,” she admitted. She dared to lift her gaze and found Mr. Gregory had arched one of those brows and was watching her carefully. But before he could say anything to respond to that horrible admission, her mother leapt to her feet. “Our Mr.

Montgomery was such a busy man. If you knew him, you would be aware of how very important he was. The son of an earl, sir. How could he always be here when he had so much to do and influence? But when he returned to our daughter, it was always to the most wonderful reunion. Two so in love, I have never seen.” Celeste’s stomach turned at that lie, the one that Mr. Gregory didn’t seem all that moved by, though he looked her mother up and down carefully, as if he were taking the measure of her. Why, Celeste couldn’t say. If he were simply a messenger sent to tell her the news of Erasmus’s death, why was he asking questions about her last meeting with the man? Why was he judging and seeking? And what had he meant when he told her there was worse news beyond Erasmus’s death? She’d been so shocked by that fact, the rest hadn’t sunk in, but now it did. “—wasn’t it, my dear?” her mother was still saying, though now she’d put the full force of her attention on Celeste’s father.

Sir Timothy rose to his feet and gave a nervous glance first to Celeste and then to Mr. Gregory. “I-Indeed, the day our daughter married was m-most happy,” he stammered, as he was wont to do when his wife made him lie. Celeste tried not to be drawn back to that horrible day when her fate had been sealed. How she’d made an attempt to escape out a window, only to be dragged back in and marched, almost at bayonet point, to the altar. Erasmus Montgomery hadn’t even looked at her when he said his vows. He’d yawned while she said hers. All his pretense was gone once he knew he’d have the little dowry that accompanied her entrance into their marriage. As for the wedding night…well, that hadn’t been much fun, either. “Of course we will all go to London.

Arrangements must be made for our dearest Erasmus,” Lady Hendricks continued. “I’m sure the earl will be most pleased that we will make ourselves part of their deep grief. It is Erasmus’s brother who holds the title, is it not?” Celeste flinched, for her mother’s ramblings were only making clearer the state of her marriage. She had been Mrs. Montgomery for almost a year and had never met her husband’s family or friends. She had never been brought to London to see her home there. He had let her a…well, it was hardly more than a hovel here in Twiddleport, and she wasn’t entirely certain he paid the rent on time on that. But that didn’t stop her mother from grasping, as usual. Seeing the death as an opportunity to insert herself into higher society if she could. Just as she had been Celeste’s entire life.

Celeste cleared her throat, tired of the theatrics and the questions. “Mr. Gregory,” she said above her mother’s continued plots and plans. “You said a few moments ago that you had more to tell me than just that my husband was dead. Something worse than that news. I can be held in suspense no longer—what could be worse than that he is dead?” Owen Gregory had been watching the room with interest, quiet but observant, for the last few moments. But when she asked that question, his posture changed. She could see discomfort take over and it…frightened her. This man didn’t want to tell her the rest. Which meant it was very bad, indeed, for he had no affiliation with her, no reason to want to protect her.

“You might want to retake your seat,” he said, and motioned to the chair she had abandoned. She did so and gripped the armrests with all her might. As if they might support her, for no one and nothing else in the room would. “Please just say it,” she whispered. “The suspense is horrible.” He nodded. “Of course. I am sorry, Mrs. Montgomery, your husband didn’t just die. He was…he was murdered.

” “Murder!” her mother screamed, and was about to launch into another round of hysterics when Mr. Gregory raised a hand. “My lady, please! I am not finished.” There was something about his tone that did the impossible: it silenced her mother. Celeste leaned forward as the word murder echoed in her head. “What else is there?” He swallowed. She watched the action move his Adam’s apple, noted the subtle shift in his position. “It has been determined that…that Mr. Montgomery was a bigamist, madam. You are the third of three wives that the man held at his death.

Your marriage, I’m afraid, was not legal.”

.

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