Midnight Rider

By: Diana Palmer
CHAPTER ONE

Southwestern Texas, 1900

IN ALL THE WORLD THERE WAS nothing Bernadette Barron loved more than her garden, despite the asthma that sometimes sent her running from it in the spring months. There were plenty of flowers in southwestern Texas, and many occasions to fill her father’s elaborate Victorian home with them. Colston Barron owned at least half of Valladolid County, which was midway between the prosperous city of San Antonio and the smaller city of Del Rio on the Mexican border.

He had done extremely well for an Irish immigrant who got his start working on building the railroads. Now, thirty-three years after his arrival in the United States, he owned two. He had money to burn, but little family to spend it on.

Despite his wealth, there was one thing still lacking in his life—acceptance and respect from elite society. His rude Irish brogue and lack of conventional manners isolated him from the prominent families of the day, a situation he was determined to change. And Bernadette was going to be the means of it.

His beloved wife, Eloise, had died of an infection just after giving birth to Bernadette. His eldest daughter had died in childbirth. His only son, married with a small child, lived back East, worked as a fisherman and kept contact with his father to a minimum. Albert was in disgrace because he’d married for love, refusing the social match his father had planned for him. Only Bernadette was left at home now. Her brother could barely support his own small family, so running to him was not an option unless she was able to work, which was impossible because her health was too precarious to allow her to hold down a job such as teaching. Meanwhile, she had to cope with her father’s fanatical social aspirations.

It wasn’t that Bernadette didn’t want to marry, eventually. She had her own dreams of a home and family. But her father wanted to choose her husband on the basis of his social prominence. Wealth alone would not do. Colston Barron was determined to marry off Bernadette to a man with a title or, if he were an American, to a man of immense social prestige. His first choice, a British duke, had been a total loss. The impoverished nobleman was willing enough. Then he was introduced to Bernadette, who had appeared at the first meeting, for reasons known only to herself and God, in her brother’s tattered jeans, a dirty shirt, with two of her teeth blackened with wax and her long, beautiful platinum hair smeared with what looked like axle grease. The duke had left immediately, excusing himself with the sudden news of an impending death in the family. Although how he could have known of it in this isolated region of southwest Texas...

All Colston’s mad raving hadn’t made Bernadette repent. She was not, she informed him saucily, marrying any man for a title! Her brother had left some of his old clothes at the ranch and Bernadette wasn’t a bit averse to dressing like a madwoman anytime her father brought a marriage prospect home. Today, though, she was off her guard. In a blue-checked dress with her platinum-blond hair in its familiar loose bun and her green eyes soft with affection for the roses she was tending, she didn’t seem a virago at all. Not to the man watching her unseen from his elegant black stallion.

All at once she felt as if she were being watched...scrutinized...by a pair of fierce, dark eyes. His eyes, of course. Amazing, she thought, how she always seemed to sense him, no matter how quietly he came upon her.

She got to her feet and turned, her high cheekbones flushed, her pale green eyes glittering at the elegant black-clad man in his working clothes—jeans and boots and chaps, a chambray shirt under a denim jacket, his straight black hair barely visible under a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed his face from the hot sun.

“Shall I curtsey, your excellence?” she asked, throwing down the gauntlet with a wicked smile. There was always a slight antagonism between them.

Eduardo Rodrigo Ramirez y Cortes gave her a mocking nod of his head and a smile from his thin, cruel-looking mouth. He was as handsome as a dark angel, except for the slash down one cheek, allegedly garnered in a knife fight in his youth. He was thirty-six now, sharp-faced, olive-skinned, black-eyed and dangerous.

His father, a titled Spanish nobleman, had been dead for many years. His mother, a beautiful blonde San Antonio socialite, was in New York with her second husband. Eduardo had no more inherited his mother’s looks than he had absorbed her behavior and temperament. He was in all ways Spanish. To the workers on his ranch he was El Jefe, the patron or boss. In Spain, he was El Conde, a count whose relatives could be found in all the royal families across Europe. To Bernadette, he was the enemy. Well, sometimes he was. She fought with him to make sure that he didn’t realize what she really felt for him—emotions that had been harder these past two years to conceal than ever.

“If you’re looking for my father, he’s busy thinking of rich San Antonio families to invite to his ball a month from next Saturday evening,” she informed him, silently seething. From the shadow his brim made on his lean face, the black glitter of his eyes was just visible. He looked her over insolently for such a gentleman and then dismissively, as if he found nothing to interest him in her slender but rounded figure and small breasts. His late wife, she recalled, although a titled Spanish lady of high quality, had been nothing less than voluptuous. Bernadette had tried to gain weight so that she could appeal to him more, but her slender frame refused to add pounds despite her efforts.