Authors: Maya Stirling
Tags: #Romance, #historical 1800s
Aaron's Montana Bride
Montana Ranchers and Brides series
Gillespie Ranch, Montana 1887
Eva Gillespie watched the mourners move away from her father's freshly covered grave. She saw the sadness reflected in their lowered heads and slumped shoulders. Eva glanced down at the new covering of soil and felt a sharp stab of pain. Her father was gone. She'd just have to accept it, even though the hurt cut deep into her soul.
The twenty or so ranch hands trailed behind the minister who'd come from Great Falls to carry out the burial service. They all made their way slowly and respectfully down the hill toward the Gillespie ranch house. Reverend Jones had delivered a beautiful and solemn service. Even though the sorrow bit hard, Eva was content that her father was now, finally, at peace. Recent months had been so difficult for him. His illness had dragged him down bit by bit, and even the care Eva had provided to him had only gone so far in alleviating his suffering. But, now it was all over. Gabriel Gillespie was at rest now. He'd been a good man. A fine father. A man that Eva had always been proud to call her pa.
The weather had held steady during the funeral. Eva was glad it hadn't rained. A gentle wind drifted up from the valley. The soft whisper of the branches above her head was strangely reassuring. Eva closed her eyes and felt the breeze against her face. She was sure her father would have approved of the service. It had been dignified and solemn. Eva opened her eyes and glanced around the little enclosure that was now the last resting place of her father and mother. The low wooden fence created a tidy space in the center of the small grove of trees that had been her parents' favorite place to come and have a peaceful time away from the labors of ranch life. Now they were together, in their most loved place, at peace, side by side.
Life would be so different now, Eva thought. She'd grown accustomed to being with her father, sharing the struggles and difficulties of maintaining the ranch. Now she was on her own. She'd make her own way, now that the ranch would belong to her. Eva was no stranger to ranch life, having grown up on the family spread. But she already knew how to handle most situations that came up. Her father had taught her well.
A gust of wind rustled the trees and there was a sudden chill in the air. Eva reached down and grasped her skirt, keeping it from flapping in the breeze. Suddenly, she became aware of a presence behind her, the sound of cracking twigs underfoot. She whirled around, and her heart sank.
It was him again.
"Jude!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing there. You startled me," she exclaimed raising a gloved hand to her throat. "I thought you'd gone down with the others."
Jude Arabin, the foreman of the Gillespie ranch, froze on the spot just outside the enclosure gate. He was a tall, thin man with lank fair hair, and a long nose which flushed red, a suspicious sign of Arabin's fondness for drink. While undeniably physically strong for a man in his thirties, his lean frame had an awkward and off-putting quality to it that Eva had never gotten used to in the years she'd known him. He was over ten years her senior, but he seemed so much older to Eva.
"Sorry, Miss Eva. I didn't mean to surprise you," he said in a soft, thin voice that hardly rose above the sound of the wind through the trees.
Eva stiffened. In the weeks leading up to her father's passing, Jude had been spending more time than usual in her company. She'd not found his attentions to be something she was entirely comfortable with.
"It was a beautiful service," Jude said, removing his hat and stepping into the enclosure. Eva watched him as he came closer to her. Her glance didn't go unnoticed by him. Jude paused, keeping his distance.
"Indeed it was," she answered.
"He was a good man," Jude said nodding his head slowly.
Eva didn't reply, merely gazing down at the soft pile of earth.
Jude cleared his throat. The sound seemed inappropriate, curiously loud and intrusive, at such a moment and Eva frowned at him.
"I came up to tell you that Silas is here," Jude explained.
Eva's brows furrowed. "So soon?"
Jude's lips tightened and his eyes locked on Eva. "He asked me to come up and tell you that he's waiting for you down at the house," he said.
Silas Dunn was the new lawyer that Eva's father had been using in recent weeks to deal with all things legal. Ever since their old family lawyer, John McRae had moved his practice to Billings, Silas Dunn had been the only local legal advisor who could give advice and take care of all the tedious administrative details of running a ranch. And Eva couldn't believe just how complicated running a ranch could be at times. She didn't know Dunn that well, but the fact that her father had trusted him to take over from John McRae had been good enough for Eva.
Eva glanced down at the mound of earth. "I'll be down in a few minutes," she said.
Jude didn't move. Eva turned and peered at him, saying nothing, but made it clear that she didn't want the foreman to accompany her back down to the house. Jude's posture stiffened, but he finally got the message. He stepped outside the enclosure and put his hat on. "I'll let him know you'll be there shortly," Jude said.
Eva nodded and watched Jude start of down the hill. In the distance she could see the ranch hands beginning to spread out from the house, toward the bunking house, corral and stable. Eva figured there was nothing like a days hard work to push the thoughts of a recently buried employer firmly to the back of their minds. They were all good men, every one of them hand picked by her father. Some of them had worked the ranch for years. They were like family to her. Except for Jude. To Eva's mind he just seemed like the unwelcome visitor around whom you never quite felt comfortable.
Eva spent a blessed few, peaceful moments by her father's graveside. The words that she began to speak to herself over her father's resting place were private, heart felt and genuine. After she'd spoken them she felt better, more at peace, reconciled with the sadness that lingered in her heart. But it was time to move on. And the first thing to do was to go down the hill and have Silas Dunn tell her the contents of her father's will. Even if she already knew that everything she could see below her and far into the distance now belonged to her.
Eva found Silas Dunn waiting for her in the parlor of the ranch house. Dunn was seated at the table next to the window, papers spread out before him. His face was flushed, as if through overexertion, or even worry, Eva thought.
Dunn looked up as Eva entered. "Miss Gillespie," he said rising from his seat. Dunn was short and rotund. His dark suit fitted tight around his middle. He pulled self consciously at his waistcoat. "My most sincere condolences on your loss," he said.
Eva nodded. "Thank you Mr. Dunn. Please have a seat," she said gesturing to the chair. She sat across from him and glanced at the papers spread across the tabletop.
Dunn wiped his sweat covered brow with a white handkerchief. "Forgive me. The ride out from Great Falls seems to have been harder than I anticipated," he said.
"Would you like some tea? Or perhaps a glass of water," Eva offered.
Dunn waved a hand. "No, Miss. Gillespie. I am fine. I'm not as young as I once was. Horse riding was never my forte," he explained with a wan smile.
Eva glanced out the window. She saw the lanky figure of Jude Arabin leaning against the corral on the far side of the yard. He was chewing on a matchstick, and watching one of the ranch hands dealing with a particularly boisterous mare. Occasionally his head turned, and Eva was certain his dark eyes flashed urgent and frequent glances toward the parlor window.
"I suppose you know why I am here," Dunn said, interrupting Eva's scrutiny of the foreman. She looked at the lawyer. Why did he look so uncomfortable? Eva didn't believe it was simply the ride out to the ranch from town that had put the man out of sorts. Dunn looked worried about something. A knot of anxiety began to grow in Eva's middle.
"My father's will," Eva said.
"Exactly," Dunn said drawing a large envelope out from his leather satchel.
"This is what your father wanted. He called on me only a few weeks ago, after I took over the affairs of the ranch from Mr. McRae. Your father gave me these instructions, and I drew this up," Dunn said tapping the envelope.
Eva looked at the envelope. Her entire future was tied to the contents of the rather drab and ordinary looking brown envelope.
"Would you like me to continue?" Dunn asked.
Eva looked into the man's eyes. They seemed dull, even expressionless. It was as if his mind was on other matters.
Eva nodded. "Please, Mr. Dunn. Proceed."
Dunn took a silver letter opener from his satchel and broke the seal on the envelope. As he drew out the piece of paper from inside the envelope, Eva was sure that Dunn glanced momentarily out the window toward the figure of Jude Arabin.
Dunn laid the out the document and pressed the creases flat. He cleared his throat and began to read. "I, Gabriel Gillespie, being of sound mind do hereby declare that this is my last will and testament. The following are my wishes which I state to be sincere and the result of careful deliberation."
Dunn looked up at Eva. She nodded for him to continue. "In the matters of my property and affairs, having given due consideration to everything of importance, I hereby grant full title and ownership of the Gillespie ranch to my loving daughter, Eva Gillespie."
Dunn looked up and smiled weakly. His eyes seemed to search Eva's face for any kind of reaction to what he'd just said. Eva remained poised, breathing deeply. But, her heart was thumping fast inside her, and her throat had suddenly become inexplicably tight.
Dunn continued: "This is in acknowledgment of the care and support she has provided me in recent times, and in recognition that she has always been a kind and generous daughter. One that her dear mother would have been proud of."
When she heard those last words, Eva had to restrain the surge of emotion that rose inside her. She felt her face color, her eyes moisten. Once again Dunn paused and glanced at her. Eva nodded for him to continue.
"However, I have, after much deliberation come to the conclusion that it would be best for my daughter to set out on her new life as a ranch owner with all the necessary support that she may need."
Eva felt the knot of worry from earlier start to twist even harder inside her stomach. What did her father mean by that? Dunn's voice suddenly sounded strangely distant as he continued: "With that in mind, I have set one condition to my daughter Eva Gillespie inheriting the ranch."
Dunn paused, but this time he didn't look up at Eva, and she felt the most terrible sensation sweep through her body. She reached out and grasped the edge of the table.
"Please finish reading, Mr. Dunn," Eva said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Dunn nodded wordlessly and carried on reading. "The condition I make for Eva to inherit the ranch, is that she agree to marry as soon as possible after my passing."
There was a thudding in her ears, the room seemed to spin, and Eva suddenly felt as if she would crash to the floor.
"And the man who I consider a perfect partner, especially since he knows so much about the Gillespie ranch already, is our foreman, Jude Arabin."
It couldn't be true!
Eva heard a roaring noise in her ears and she was sure that the room started to spin. Eva's chest tightened, her black gown suddenly constricting like a rigid band around her ribs, forcing her to draw in a sharp deep breath.
She refused to believe it!
Her father wanted her to marry Jude Arabin? Why on earth would he do such a terrible thing? Hadn't he known just how much Eva loathed and detested the man? And Arabin was so much older than Eva, not to mention the fact that she'd always harbored doubts about his character. Sure, he'd been the foreman on the ranch for years, and was owed a certain amount of respect because of his loyalty. But, he was not the kind of man who Eva could even imagine for one moment making her husband.
"Are you well, Miss Gillespie?" Dunn asked from across the table. His brows furrowed and his eyes peered intently at her.
Eva's legs felt weak under the table and her fingers had become inexplicably cold. She coughed and forced herself to maintain an upright demeanor. She needed to maintain at least some semblance of decorum. After all, these were her father's last wishes. She had to show some respect toward them, even if the merest thought of what they would mean for her future life sent a cold shiver up her spine.
"Forgive me for saying this Miss. Gillespie, but you appear to be somewhat put out by this news," Dunn said slowly.
Eva rested her hands in her lap, drew her shoulders back, and took a long, slow breath. "I am not in the least put out, Mr. Dunn," she declared firmly. Eva peered straight into Dunn's eyes. This wasn't the time to show any kind of weakness. She had to maintain the firm appearance of calm and control.
But, inside her there was anything but composure and equilibrium. Eva's mind had started to race. Violently. Eva closed her eyes briefly, and hoped that Dunn would assume she was merely trying to compose her thoughts.