The Unexpected Wife - Jess Michaels

Chapter 1

Summer 1813

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