Midnight Rider

By: Diana Palmer

She stiffened, wishing with all her heart that she could tell him what she really thought of his treatment of her. But she had no choice at the moment. If her situation ever changed, she promised herself, this self-important little jackass was going to get an earful!

“It was you who told me to make my own clothes so that I wouldn’t be a financial burden on you, Father,” she said.

He colored. “The whole purpose of this ball is to find you a husband!”

“And you a titled son-in-law!” she said, rising to her feet with bristling fury. “So that you can mingle with the ‘right sort of people.’”

“Don’t you speak to me like that!” he said furiously.

“Then don’t you treat me like a disease you might catch!” she returned, green eyes sparkling with temper. “I can’t help it that I’ve got bad lungs, and I never asked to be born! I don’t need second sight to know that you blame me for my mother’s death!”

He took a sharp breath and seemed to grow two inches. “Sure and that’s just what you did,” he said through his teeth. “You killed her.”

“Through no fault of my own,” she replied. Her heartbeat was so rapid and forceful that it was making her whole body shake. She could barely breathe. She hated arguing. It brought on the dreaded attacks. But she wasn’t going to back down. “You won’t get her back by treating me like your worst enemy, either.”

He took a huge swallow of brandy and let out a rough sigh. “I loved her more than my own life,” he said almost to himself. “She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. I never could understand what she saw in me, but she was the very heart of me. Then you came,” he added, turning to her with eyes as cold as they had been tender when he spoke of his late wife. “And my Eloise was gone forever.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” she said.

He glared at her. “It wasn’t anyone else’s,” he retorted. He finished his brandy and put down the snifter. “Well, I may have lost my treasure, but I’ll get some satisfaction from seeing you properly wed.” He gave her a long, calculating look. “I’ve invited two European noblemen to the ball.”

“Both impoverished, no doubt,” she said mockingly.

The glare was more fierce. “They both come from fine European families and they need wives. And so help me, if you dare to embarrass me as you did the last time—blacking your teeth and wearing pants, for the love of Christ!—I will—”

“It was your own fault,” she interrupted with more courage than she actually felt. It didn’t do to show weakness to this man. “You can tell your new candidates that they needn’t look for a wife here,” she said stubbornly.

“They can and they will. You’ll marry who I say,” he told her in an uncompromising tone. “You can rant and rave all you like, but you’ll do it! Otherwise,” he added harshly, “I’ll put you out, so help me, I will!”

She couldn’t believe she was hearing this. Her face went deathly white as she stared at him with eyes like saucers. “Would you, then?” she returned. “And who’d keep your books and balance your accounts, pay your bills and keep you to a budget so the ranch is financially sound?”

His fists clenched by his side. “I fought off Indians and Northerners and people who hated me because I was Irish when I worked on the railroads! And yet even all that was less trouble than you give me every day of me life! You took Eloise from me! Does bookkeeping make up for that?”

She sat down and stared at him, praying that her lungs wouldn’t go into spasm yet again. You could never show weakness in front of the enemy!

Colston let out the breath that was choking him. Only then did he seem to realize what he’d said to her. He moved to the window and looked out, his back ramrod stiff. “That was a bit harsh,” he bit off. “I wouldn’t really throw you out. You’re me only daughter, in spite of everything. But don’t go against me, girl,” he cautioned. “I mean to have respectability, and there’s nothing I won’t do to get it. You’ll marry!”

“A man I don’t even know.” She was fighting tears of rage and impotence. “A stranger who’ll take me to some cold foreign country to die.”

He whirled. “Sure and you won’t die, you little fool!” he exclaimed. “You’ll have maids and other servants to look after you. Someone to cook and clean for you. You’ll be treated like a queen!”

“I’ll be an interloper,” she returned. “Unwanted and hated because I’ve been married for your money!”

He threw up his hands. “I offer you the world, and you want to put labels on everything!”

She was dying inside. He was going to sell her, and she’d never see Eduardo again. Never, never...

“There is an alternative,” he said after a minute.

She looked up.

He studied his boots, caked with mud. “You might consider marrying Eduardo.”

Her heart went right up into her throat. She put a hand to it, to keep it from jumping out onto the floor. “Wh-what?”