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Terms of a Texas Marriage

By:Lauren Canan

One

Shea Hardin had to admit the man didn’t look like the devil. No horns sprouted up through Alec Morreston’s thick, expertly styled, mahogany-brown hair, although a few defiant tendrils fell lazily over his forehead. The wide mouth and well-defined lips, while appearing unrelenting, didn’t make it to a complete snarl. The near-perfect white teeth, seen briefly in the forced smile as introductions were made, didn’t include fangs. In fact, the sculpted features of his face had the potential to be exceedingly handsome, but the lack of any emotion other than cold indifference reduced that potential to tolerable. Just.

She’d sensed his glance several times since entering the conference room adjacent to her attorney’s office. She didn’t need to look in his direction to know he watched her, silently, recording his first impressions, probably sizing up her abilities, weighing her strengths, discreetly alert to any hint of weakness.

Feminine instinct told her his assessment wasn’t limited to her ability to handle this situation. He was also taking in every curve of her body, noting every breath she took, watching every move she made. It was a frank and candid assessment of her female attributes without any effort to conceal his interest. Intuition told her here was a man who knew what a woman needed and exactly how to provide it. His subtle arrogance was at once insulting and alluring.

She tried to swallow but her mouth had gone dry. Endeavoring not to appear affected by this man, she crossed her legs, shook the hair back from her face and fixed her eyes on the old pendulum wall clock. But in spite of her determination to ignore him, there was no denying the heat radiating throughout her body, inflaming her senses, fueling the unwanted need pooling in her lower belly.

Picking up a pencil, she scribbled furiously on the open notepad. She was reacting like a besotted teenager. How could she possibly feel any attraction whatsoever to this man? His chosen path in life was destroying the past; tearing down the treasured remains of bygone eras, replacing them with cold glass and steel fabrications. And this man wanted her ranch. The awareness of her body’s traitorous response both stunned and angered her.

She was not going to be intimidated—or enticed—by him or his attorney. The very reason they sat across from her should be enough to dispel any thoughts that Alec Morreston would ever be someone she’d want to know better.

“If everyone is ready, I suggest we begin,” said Ben Rucker, her attorney and longtime family friend. He switched on a small tape recorder sitting on the polished conference table amid the varying papers, notepads and legal documents.

“Today is April twenty-sixth. The purpose of this meeting is to address the issue of tenancy concerning the home and land currently occupied by Shea Hardin. In attendance are Alec Morreston, owner of the property, his attorney, Thomas Long, Shea Hardin and myself, Ben Rucker, legal counsel for Ms. Hardin.”

Shea smiled at Ben. His tired but astute gray eyes reflected his concern over the situation. He’d practiced law for almost forty years, and she had complete confidence in his abilities, as her father had before her.

“At the turn of the nineteenth century, five thousand one hundred and twenty acres of land running along the western boundary and into what is now the National Forest and Grassland Reserve in Calico County, Texas, were acquired by William Alec Morreston. Later that year, he transferred the entire parcel to a widow, Mary Josephine Hardin. Since that time, descendants of Mary Hardin have continued to live on the land, today licensed as the Bar H Ranch.”

Ben reached for his glasses, placed them on his nose and picked up his copy of the original paperwork.

“Rather than a purchase, this transfer of land was handled in a manner similar to what we today call a lease.” He glanced over the top of his glasses. “I believe you each have a copy of the original paperwork?” When everyone nodded, he continued. “You’ll note the duration was ninety-nine years with a renewal option.

“The first lease term was renewed by Cyrus Hardin, Shea’s great-grandfather. The second term, currently in effect, is due to expire at the end of this month—in five days, to be precise. Ms. Hardin would like to retain possession of the property. Mr. Morreston has indicated a desire to reclaim it for his own use. This can be achieved only if Ms. Hardin has not, or does not meet all of the renewal requirements by the end of the month.”

Shea glanced at Alec Morreston and once again encountered the full intensity of his gaze. A powerful energy emanated from him, the full force of it focused directly on her. She swallowed hard and looked away, ignoring the increasing tempo of her pulse.

“We didn’t inspect the house and outbuildings,” Mr. Long advised without preamble. “But we are satisfied that everything appears in satisfactory condition. We concede all stipulations relating to the condition of the property have been met.”

Shea closed her eyes as relief washed over her. Reaching out to Ben, she squeezed his arm and then looked at Mr. Long and Alec Morreston. So grateful they’d been honest in their findings, she even managed to send a stiff smile of thanks in his direction. He hesitantly tipped his head as if to say you’re welcome, but she couldn’t help but notice the raised eyebrow and the hint of a smirk in the hard lines of his face, almost as if he knew something she didn’t.

Shea returned her attention to Ben. He wasn’t smiling, and didn’t appear to share in her feeling of relief. No one switched off the tape recorder. No one stood up. It was as though a silent warning had begun to flash in a quickly ascending elevator, indicating the bottom was about to drop out.

“In addition to the condition of the property,” Ben said, still not meeting her glance. “Apparently the ancestors of Ms. Hardin and Mr. Morreston believed it necessary to add what I would describe as a personal clause.”

“Personal clause?” Frowning, Shea began to page through her copy of the old, handwritten document.

“On page four, about two-thirds down the page.” Ben removed his glasses and put down the paper as if he could recall the words from memory. His voice was quiet, his manner unusually gentle. “It states in addition to the actual upkeep, if the renewal of the lease is awarded to a woman, she must be legally wed by or before the expiration of the lease.”

Her head snapped up, staring at Ben’s face.

“What?” Her jaw dropped in astonishment. She frowned, not understanding or wanting to believe the implications of what she’d just heard.

“It further states—” Ben again donned the thick glasses and raised his chin, a motion that enabled him to use the lower, bi-focal portion of the lenses. “‘If the female lessee has no husband or betrothed, the oldest adult male, unmarried, in the Morreston family will be joined to her in matrimony, legally and spiritually, and they shall live as husband and wife for a period of not less than one year to ensure her protection against any and all perils, assist her with all ranching endeavors and ensure she is given fair and equal consideration.

“‘The failure of either party to meet these terms will result in the forfeiture of the property to the other. If a marriage does occur between the principal parties, such marriage can be terminated at the end of one year, and at such time the land will go to the Hardin family for another ninety-nine-year duration.’”

He sat back in his chair and tossed the documents onto the tabletop. “You gotta love the Morreston family chivalry.”

Silence momentarily filled the small room.

“For what it’s worth, Shea,” Ben said, “I’d guess the families were very close, and this was their way of ensuring the safety of any woman who might be single and head of household when the lease expired. As you know, it used to be a man’s world and a woman by herself didn’t have much of a chance. The one year marriage provision was probably intended to ensure she had full support with the ranch. If either didn’t want to stay married after that, they wouldn’t be required to do so. Ironically—” his eyes narrowed as he looked at Alec Morreston “—the clause was probably intended to protect any female of the Hardin family from the crooks who might try and take advantage of her.”

The only reaction from Alec Morreston was a deepening of the tiny lines around his eyes, a silent indication he found amusement in Ben’s assessment.

“But...” Leaning forward, she placed her elbows on the table for support and rubbed her fingers against her temple, willing her brain to click back into gear. “You’re saying...You’re telling me the lease can’t be renewed because I’m a single woman?”

“If I may,” Thomas Long interjected. “What it means, Ms. Hardin, in the simplest terms, is that in order for you to renew the lease you must currently be married or you must agree to marry Alec within the next five days and remain married for at least one year. If you don’t agree, the lease cancels. If Alec does not agree to such a marriage, should you choose that option, the lease will be renewed.”

For a few moments, speech was impossible. Her eyes remained fixed on Mr. Long as her mind tried to make some sense out of his words. She was stupefied.

“You’ve got to be kidding. This is a sick joke. It’s archaic.” Although attempting to remain calm, her resolve was quickly slipping away. “This kind of thing isn’t legal.” She looked at Ben, who sat quietly, tapping his pencil on the tabletop. “Is it?”

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