The Rancher’s Mysterious Wealthy Bride – Ava Winters

“One, two…” Estelle Williams tiptoed away from her best friend. She knew the secret to hide and seek was to be as quiet as possible. Sounds would always betray you. It also helped that she had a plan and knew exactly where she was going to hide. “…three, four…” Megan was counting too fast, Estelle thought. Her heart raced. There was a tiny nook outside her father’s office and, if she could get there, she could curl up and hide inside. There was no way Megan could find her there. The question was, could she get there before Megan made it to ten? “…five, six…” Estelle inched up the stairs, light as a ballerina, wary of the steps that creaked. It was the house she had grown up in, so she had that advantage going for her. It also helped that she was still so small, even for an eleven-year-old. “…seven, eight…” She was almost there. The nook was just down the hall. She could do it. She held her breath and scurried her feet, making sure that each of her steps was perfectly silent.

“…nine…” The nook was right there. She climbed inside right as Megan said… “…ten! Ready or not, I’m going to find you.” Estelle took in light, shallow, quick breaths, none of them reaching the bottom of her lungs. She felt tense and scared, with heightened awareness of the sounds that Megan made downstairs. Estelle could hear her walking into the den and could almost sense her looking around corners; then she heard the quick footsteps of Megan moving across the wooden floor to look somewhere else. So long as Megan stayed downstairs, Estelle was safe. The office door opened and closed. Estelle put her ear to the wall and listened as her father walked in, talking to someone else. “Take a seat,” he said. “Now, let’s go over this.

What’s your proposal?” It sounded like grown-up talk, the kind of thing that Estelle wouldn’t usually be interested in, but something about them not knowing she was listening made it exciting. This was grown-up talk that Estelle wasn’t supposed to hear. “Richard, this is my son, Ethan.” That was a voice Estelle didn’t recognize. “Pleasure to meet you, young man.” “Likewise, sir.” That was the man’s son. He definitely didn’t sound like a child, but he didn’t quite sound like a grown-up, either. Estelle peeked through the thin spaces in the wood to try and get a look at him, but all she could see were the pants the men were wearing. She was too low to see any faces.

“Firm handshake, my lad. That’s the sign of a good man.” “Thank you, sir.” The other grown-up continued. “It is my understanding that you don’t have a son of your own to continue the family banking business.” “No, just one beautiful daughter.” “Quite beautiful.” “She takes after her mother.” The other man laughed. “Of course, she does! Now, what I propose to you is my son, who has just recently finished his education at the University of Pennsylvania, studying business and economics… Son, tell him your grades.

” There was a pause. “Go on, tell him.” “All A’s, sir.” “That’s mighty impressive,” Estelle’s father said. “Don’t be shy, that’s something to boast about.” “Thank you, sir.” The other adult continued. “I propose an arrangement whereby we agree that my son will marry your daughter, when she comes of age. In the meantime, you will act as Ethan’s mentor, with the eventual goal being to merge our two banks with him eventually, down the line, acting as successor to us both.” Did Estelle hear them right? Was this her future husband in the other room? She imagined the weddings that she used to play out with her dolls when she was younger.

Did she want to see him? Estelle had just reached an age where the boys at school, once vile little things that the world would be better without, had become slightly interesting. A few years earlier, she would have felt sick at the idea that she would have to someday marry a boy, but now it didn’t seem so bad— depending on what he looked like. Part of her wanted to see her future husband. Would he be tall and handsome? Or maybe he would have dirty blond hair and a smile that could make her heart flutter. “Gotcha!” Megan tagged Estelle, giggling. Estelle turned toward Megan, putting an index finger to her lips. “Shh!” “What is it?” Megan whispered. “What’s going on?” Estelle pointed to the slit between the wood. “In there, it’s the man I’m going to marry.” “Well, then,” Megan replied, pulling Estelle up, “we have to meet him.

” “What? No, Megan!” Megan pulled her out of the nook and tugged her down the hall. Estelle wasn’t ready to make that decision on her own, but Megan dragged her into it. Through the doorway, Estelle saw the man. He was tall and certainly older than a child, maybe in his 20s, with thick locks of golden blond hair and a very slim build. He was an utter disappointment. And he was shaking her father’s hand. “I believe we have a deal, young man,” her father said. This was her Prince Charming? This was the man she was going to make babies with? Maybe someone else would find him attractive—indeed, he was attractive, in a boyish sort of way, but that’s not what Estelle wanted in a husband. She wanted to one day marry a man who was strong and could take care of her. This man just looked like a grown-up brat.

Chapter One Seven years later By her 18th birthday, Estelle had all but forgotten about the blond man. Her father had never mentioned him to her, so she thought perhaps she had only imagined it. She had been known for her wild imagination as a child, so it would stand to reason that maybe she’d just made the whole thing up. His face seemed so specific, though, more like a real person she had met than a fuzzy picture of someone that her imagination would come up with. The blond man wasn’t on Estelle’s mind at all when her father told her that somebody would be joining them for dinner and he would very much like her to meet him. The guest was a man that her father had been working with for a long time at the bank, and so he wanted her to be on her best behavior. “My lord, father,” Estelle said. “I’m an adult now. You don’t need to talk to me like a child.” “I know, I know,” he said.

“I just want to be very clear that you need to be using your pleases and thank yous and demonstrating proper manners. This is a very important evening for both of us.” Estelle assumed this would be an older gentleman who was interested in some sort of business deal that only affected her tangentially. He was not an older gentleman, however, and when he arrived and removed his hat, she recognized him by his eyebrows and the odd way his nose seemed to turn up toward her. “Hello, Miss Williams,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.” She backed away from him, frightened. It was as though he was a monster from her childhood, hidden in the shadows of her bedroom, who had suddenly returned to her as an adult. She had dismissed what she had seen with her own two eyes as the delusions of a child, but now realized she should have trusted her instinct all along. “She’s quite shy,” her father said, “but once she becomes accustomed to you, I’m sure that will go away.” Her father turned toward her.

“This is Ethan Fitzgerald, darling. He’s been my protégé for some time now. He’s an upstanding young gentleman, if I may say so myself.” Estelle had no response to that. Her tongue remained frozen in her mouth, unable to make any sounds—certainly none that were appropriate, given the setting. Thoughts raced through her head as her heartbeat quickened and she felt dizzy as though she were about to faint. “I think I need to sit down,” she said. “Perhaps you’re just hungry,” Ethan said. “I understand that you have a wonderful dinner planned for us tonight?” Estelle’s father nodded. “Yes, we do.

May I take your coat?” “Please.” He took them into the kitchen, where Estelle sat down next to her father at the far end of the table and across from Ethan. “You know, Father,” Estelle said, “I don’t have much of an appetite this evening. May I be excused?” “What’s come over you, Estelle?” her father asked. “Perhaps it’s the heat?” Ethan suggested. “Yes,” Estelle said, “that must be it. The heat. I think it’s best if I lie down.” Her father flashed her a disapproving look. “We can discuss business, Mr.

Williams, it’s fine,” Ethan said. Her father considered the idea, but clearly did not want to make a scene in front of the guest. “Go along, then,” he said. Estelle got up from the table and, as quickly as she could, left the room and ascended the staircase to her room. She laid down on her bed and took as deep a breath as her corset would allow, then bit her lip to keep herself from crying. By the time her father came to check on her, she had already fallen asleep. *** The following day was sunny and bright, with temperate weather that would have been a tragedy to waste. Estelle went next door to ask Megan, still her friend after all these years, if she’d like to join her on a picnic at the park. Upon arriving there, the two of them spread out on a blanket just as the sun hid behind a cloud, diffusing the light across the sky and softening their features. They began with pleasantries, but Estelle quickly moved into telling her friend about Ethan.

“You’ll never believe who my father brought home last night,” Estelle said, trying to phrase it as a happy thought and not something that had been burrowing in her mind since the day before. “Who?” “Do you remember the funny man we met as a child? In my house? The one my father said would be my husband?” Megan looked at Estelle as though she was speaking another language. “I don’t, no.” “You’d think you’d remember something like that.” Megan shrugged. “I’m sorry, Estelle, I don’t.” Estelle hoped she might be able to trigger Megan’s memory. “We couldn’t have been much older than 11 or so. We were playing hide and seek in the house and there was a blond man and I told you he was going to be my husband.” “Is he handsome?” “In his own way,” Estelle said, cautiously.

“I expect I’d remember him if he was handsome.” Estelle was struggling to find the words. He wasn’t particularly unattractive, but that wasn’t the part that bothered her. There was another element to him that simply rubbed her the wrong way. She didn’t have the words, and the ones she did have made her seem silly. Maybe it was the way he looked at her. When his eyes fixed on her, they didn’t blink. The stare was so intense that she felt as though it might never leave. He frightened her. He sent a chill down her spine just being in the same room as her.

She hadn’t been lying to her father when she’d told him she wasn’t feeling well. Her stomach was, indeed, turning. But that sounded melodramatic. She’d have to say something simpler. “He’s pleasant enough to look at, but is it too much to want to be wooed by a man rather than just assigned to him?” “Perhaps he will try to woo you if you’d only give him a chance.” “Or, perhaps I don’t wish to be wooed by him.” Megan nodded. “This, I understand.” She reached inside of her picnic basket and pulled out a large pamphlet, which she handed to Estelle. “I think I may have a solution for you.

” Estelle looked at the pamphlet, unsure of how it could possibly help her. “What is this?” “Are you familiar with the concept of a mail-order bride?” Megan asked. A mail-order bride? “Is that what it sounds like?”

.

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