Midnight Rider

By: Diana Palmer

“I have a title and quite an old family name. My grandmother is a direct descendant of the family of Isabella, Queen of Spain, and we have connections to most of the royal houses of Europe, as well.”

“Why, my dear lad, of course. There isn’t a soul hereabouts that’s unaware of your lineage—even though you never speak of it.”

“There was no reason to, until now.” He didn’t add that he considered it bad manners to boast of such connections. Everyone in Valladolid County knew that he was only half Spanish, that his wife had died mysteriously and that he was a count. Despite his title, he wouldn’t be most men’s choice for a son-in-law. But Colston Barron wanted royal connections, and even if his were a bit unusual, he still had them. He stared off into the distance, aware of his neighbor’s unblinking stare. “If I married Bernadette, you would have the titled son-in-law and social acceptance you seek. On the other hand, I would have the desperately needed funds to save my ranch from bankruptcy.”

Colston was struck dumb. He just stared, breathless, mindless, at the tall man beside him. After a minute he let out the breath he was holding. “You’d marry her? Her!”

Muscles clenched all over Eduardo’s body at the way the man referred to his daughter, but he nodded.

“I’ll be damned!”

Eduardo didn’t reply. He looked down at Bernadette’s unloving father and waited.

Colston let out another rush of breath and put a hand to his forehead. “Well, this comes as a shock. I mean, you and the girl don’t even like each other. You fight all the time.”

“It would be a merger,” he pointed out, “not a love match. Bernadette will be cared for.”

“But, man, you’ll want an heir. She can’t give you a child!”

Eduardo’s brows drew together. “Why?”

“Her mother and her older sister both died in childbirth,” Colston said. “The girl is terrified of having a child. It’s the reason she fights me so hard about arranging a marriage for her. You didn’t know?”

Eduardo shook his head. He looked worried, and he was. “I assumed that she didn’t want to be forced to marry a man only because he had a title.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, I’m afraid.” Colston sighed heavily. “She’s not as frail as her mother and sister, even with her weak lungs. But she has an unnatural fear of childbirth, and with good cause. You might never be able to—” The older man stopped and coughed uncomfortably. “Well, I’m sure you understand.”

There was a long silence. It was a disappointment, but it still didn’t alter the facts. If Eduardo didn’t do something, and soon, he was going to lose Rancho Escondido for good. He could live without a son for the time being. Later on, after he had his precious heritage safe from the bankers and the courts, he could worry about Bernadette’s aversion to pregnancy.

“I would still like to marry her,” Eduardo said.

Colston was shocked and delighted. “My dear boy,” he said, grasping Eduardo’s hand to shake it fervently. “My dear boy, I can’t tell you how happy you’ve made me!”

“It won’t make her happy,” Eduardo pointed out solemnly. “And I think it would be best not to mention to her that we’ve spoken.”

“I see. You want to win her.”

Eduardo shrugged. “I will court her,” he corrected. “Formally and very correctly. There is no need to make her feel like a bargain bride in the process.”

“It won’t be easy,” Colston said. “She’s already run off one prospective suitor,” he recalled darkly. “Damned little nuisance that she is, she takes pleasure in defying me! She’s a prickly thing at best.”

Eduardo knew that, but he was remembering what had happened in the conservatory. Bernadette was vulnerable to him physically. He could play on that attraction, use it to win her. It wasn’t going to be particularly hard, either. He felt like something of a blackguard for arranging things this way, but he was running out of choices. He could never work for wages or go begging to his grandmother for money. If he lost the ranch, those would be his only choices. He would rather slit his own throat.

“What do you want me to do?” Colston asked suddenly.

“Invite me to the ball, of course,” came the dry reply. “I’ll handle the rest.”


* * *

BERNADETTE, TOTALLY UNAWARE of the plotting that was going on around her, got over her asthma attack and helped Maria in the kitchen.

“Ah, el conde is such a man,” Maria said, still dreamy as she made bread in the old wooden bread tray. “Such a man. And he carried you into the house in his arms.”

Bernadette colored, embarrassed. “I was faint,” she said curtly. “The pollen in my flowers had reduced me to coughing spasms that I couldn’t control.” She shifted as she stacked plates. “Besides, you know that there’s nothing between me and Eduardo. He doesn’t like me.”

“Liking is not always a necessity, señorita. Sometimes it is an obstacle.” She glanced at the other woman mischievously. “He is very handsome, is he not?”