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His laughter was cold. "Me? I'm a half-breed, don't you remember?" He shifted in the saddle. "My grandmother can't make a match for me in Spain because my wife died under mysterious circumstances and I'm staring poverty in the face. In my own way, I have as few opportunities for marriage as you do."
She hadn't thought of it that way. "You're titled."
"Of course," he conceded. "But only in Spain, and I have no plans to live there." He was looking at her, but now his mind was working on the problem of bankruptcy, which was staring him in the face. His late father had made a fortune, but his profligate mother had thrown it away. She had drained the financial resources of the ranch, and since he'd come of age Eduardo had been hard-pressed to keep it solvent. Only his mother's marriage to some minor millionaire in New York had stopped her from bleeding the ranch dry. She had forfeited her inheritance the day she remarried, but the damage already had been done.
Eduardo stared down at Bernadette and wheels turned in his mind. Her father was rich. He wanted a titled son-in-law. Eduardo was upper class, despite his mixed ancestry. Perhaps ... Bernadette sighed heavily, smothering another cough. "At least you'll never have to worry about being married for your father's money."
"And this idea of marrying a title and a respected name has no appeal at all for you?" he asked slowly.
"None," she said honestly. She grimaced. "I'm so tired of being on display, like a bargain that my father's offering for sale!" she said, drawing in a long, labored breath. She coughed suddenly, aware of a renewed tightness in her chest. She hadn't realized how long she'd beenamong her flowers, with their potent quantities of pollen. "I have to go in," she said as the cough came again. "The flowers smell wonderful, but they bother my lungs when I spend too much time with them."
He scowled. "Then why are you out here?"
She coughed once again. "The house ... my father has men repainting the ballroom. The paint bothers me."
"Then going inside the front of the house is hardly a solution, is it?"
She tried to clear her throat enough to answer him, but thick mucus was all but choking her.
Eduardo threw his cigar down and swung gracefully out of the saddle. Seconds later, he lifted her into his arms.
"Eduardo!" she cried, shocked at the unaccustomed familiarity, the strength and hard warmth of those arms around her. She could see his eyes far too closely, feel his warm breath at her temple, touch, if she wished, the hard, cruel curve of his beautiful mouth....
"Calmarte," he murmured softly, searching her taut face. "I mean only to take you in through the kitchen to the conservatory. There are no bloom-ing plants there to cause you discomfort." He shook her gently. "Put your arms around my neck, Bernadette. Don't lie like a log against me."
She shivered and obeyed him, secretly all but swooning at the pure joy of being so close to him. He smelled of leather and exotic cologne, a secret, intimate smell that wasn't noticeable at a distance. Oddly, it didn't disturb her lungs as some scents did.
She laid her cheek gingerly against his shoulder and closed her eyes with a tiny sigh that she hoped he wouldn't hear. It was all of heaven to be carried by him. She hadn't dreamed of such an unexpected pleasure coming to her out of the blue.
His strong, hard arms seemed to contract for an instant. Then, all too soon, they reached the kitchen. He put her down, opened the door, and coaxed her through it. Maria was in the kitchen making a chicken dish for the midday meal. She glanced up, flustered, to see their landed neighbor inside her own kitchen, with his hat respectfully in his hand.
"Señor Conde! What an honor!" Maria gasped.
"I am only Mr. Ramirez, Maria," he said with an affectionate smile.
She made a gesture. "You are el conde to me. My son continues to please you with his work, I hope?"
"Your son is a master with unbroken horses," he said in rare praise. "I am fortunate to have him at the rancho."
"He is equally fortunate to serve you, Señor Conde."
Obviously, Eduardo thought, he wasn't destined to have much luck in persuading Maria to stop using his title.
Bernadette tried to smile, but the cough came back, worse than ever.
"Ay, ay, ay," Maria said, shaking her head. "Again, it is the flowers, and I fuss and fuss but you will not listen!"
"Strong coffee, Maria, black and strong," Eduardo instructed. "You will bring it to the conservatory, yes? And then inform Señor Barron that I am here?"
"But of course! He is in the barn with a new foal, but he will return shortly."
"Then I will find him myself, once I have made Bernadette comfortable. I am pressed for time." He took Bernadette's arm and propelled her down the long, tiled hall to a sunny room where green plants, but no flowering ones, grew in profusion and a water garden flourished in its glassed-in confines.
She sat down with her face in her hands, struggling to breathe.
He muttered something and knelt before her, his hands capturing hers. "Breathe slowly, Berna-dette. Slowly." His hands pressed hers firmly. "Try not to panic. It will pass, as it always does."
She tried, but it was an effort. Her tired eyes met his and she was surprised again at the concern there. How very odd that her enemy seemed at times like her best friend. And how much more odd that he seemed to know exactly what to do for her asthma. She said it aloud without thinking.
"Yes, we do fight sometimes, don't we?" he murmured, searching her face. "But the wounds always heal."
"Not all of them."
His eyebrows lifted.
"You say harsh things when you're angry," she reminded him, averting her eyes.
"And what have I said, most recently, that piques you?"
She shifted restlessly, unwilling to recall the blistering lecture she'd received from him after her unfortunate ride with Charles.
He tilted her face back to his. "Tell me."
"You can't remember?" she asked mutinously.
"I said that you had no judgment about men," he recalled. "And that it was just as well that ..." His mouth closed abruptly.
"I see that you do remember," she muttered irritably, avoiding his dark, unblinking gaze.
"Bernadette," he began softly, pressing her hands more gently, and choosing his words very carefully, calculatingly, "didn't you realize that the words were more frustration than accusation? I barely arrived in time to save you from that lout, and I was upset."
"It was cruel."
"And untrue," he added. "Come on, look at me."
She did, still mutinous and resentful.
He leaned forward, his breath warm on her lips as he spoke. "I said it was just as well that you had money as you had so few attributes physically with which to tempt a man."
She started to speak, but his gloved finger pressed hard against her lips and stilled them. "The sight of you like that, so disheveled, stirred me," he said very quietly. "It isn't a thing that a gentleman should admit, and I was taking pains to conceal what I felt. I spoke in frustration. I didn't mean to hurt you."
She was horribly embarrassed now. "As if your opinion of my ... of my body matters to me!"
"You have little enough self-esteem," he continued, as if she hadn't spoken at all. "It was unkind of me to do further damage to it." He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it tenderly. "Forgive me."
She tried to pull her hand away. "Please ... don't do that," she said breathlessly.
He looked into her eyes and held them with a suddenly glittery, piercing stare. "Does it disturb you to feel my mouth on your skin, Bernadette?" he chided very softly.
She was terribly uncomfortable and it was showing. The breathlessness now was as much excitement as asthma, and his expression told her that he knew it.
His thumb smoothed over the back of her hand in a slow, sensuous tracing that made the breathlessness worse. "You're far too innocent," he said huskily. "Like a Spanish maiden cloistered with her duenna. You understand your own feelings even less than you understand mine."
"I don't understand anything," she choked out.
"I realize that." His fingers moved to her mouth and slowly, gently, traced its soft outline in a silence that throbbed with excitement and dark promise.
It was the first intimate contact she'd ever had with a man and it unnerved her. "Eduardo," she whispered uncertainly.
His thumb pressed hard against her lips, part-ing them. Something flashed in his eyes as he felt her mouth tremble under the sudden rough caress of his thumb bruising the inside of her lips back against her teeth.
She gasped and he made a sound deep in his throat, somewhere between a groan and a growl.
The lace at her throat was shaking wildly. She saw his eyes go there and then, inexplicably, to her bodice. His breath drew in sharply. She looked down, curious even through her excitement, to see what had brought that sound from his lips.
She saw nothing except the sharp points of her nipples against the fabric, but why should that disturb him?
His eyes moved back up to hers. His fingers traced her chin and lifted it. His eyes fell to her soft mouth. He moved, just enough to bring him so close that she could taste the coffee scent and cigar smoke on his mouth as it hovered near hers.
She had a hold on his dark jacket. She didn't realize how tight a hold it was until she became aware of the cool cloth in her fingers.
"Bernadette," he whispered in a tone she'd never heard him use before. She was frozen in time, in space. She wanted his mouth to come down and cover hers. She wanted to taste it, as she'd wanted to so often in the past two years, even as she feared the change that it would bring to their turbulent relationship. But at the moment, the blood was surging through her veins and she was hungry for something she'd never known. The lack of restraint made her reckless.
Involuntarily, she leaned closer to him, her lips approaching his as she forgot all her upbringing in the heat of sudden desire.
He was tempted as he hadn't been in many years. He was painfully tempted. But suddenly, he murmured something violent in Spanish, something she was certain he'd never have given voice if he'd suspected how fluent she was in Spanish. She'd never told him that she had learned his language, for fear of him knowing the reason--that she wanted to speak it because it was his native tongue.
He drew back, his expression curiously taut and odd. He stared at her with narrowed eyes and she flushed at her own forward, outrageous behavior and dropped her gaze to his jacket in a flurry of embarrassment.
Tension flowed between them as the sudden sound of hard shoes on tile broke the pregnant silence like pistol shots. Eduardo moved away from her to the window and grasped the thick curtain in his lean hand as Maria came through the open doorway carrying a silver tray.
She was looking at it, not at the occupants of the room, so Bernadette had a few precious seconds to compose herself. Her hands still shook badly, but she managed to clasp them in her lap while Maria put the cups and saucers along with a pitcher of cream and a sugar dish on the table against the wall. She poured thick coffee into the cups and then laid napkins and spoons beside them. By the time she brought the coffee to Bernadette, the younger woman was pale but smiling. "Thank you, Maria," she said hoarsely, and tried to sip the hot coffee, almost burning her mouth in the process.
"This disease of the lungs is something you must be careful about, niña," Maria said firmly. "You must take better care of yourself. Is this not so, Señor Conde?"
He turned from the window and faced them with his usual composure. "Yes, it is," he agreed, although his voice sounded huskier than usual. "Will you stay with her, Maria?" he added curtly. "I'll go find her father myself. There's something I need to discuss with him."
"Do you not want your coffee?" she asked, surprised.
"Not at the moment, grácias." He barely glanced at Bernadette. With a courteous nod, he leftthe room.
"What odd behavior," Maria murmured.
Bernadette didn't say a word. She'd shamed herself so badly that she wondered if she'd ever be able to look Eduardo in the eye again. Why couldn't she have controlled her wild heartbeat, her scant but rapid breathing, when he was so close? How could she have leaned so close to him, as if she were begging him to kiss her?
She groaned aloud, and Maria hovered worriedly. "I'm all right," she assured the servant. "It's just that ... that the coffee is hot," she said finally.
"This is so, but it will help your lungs," Maria coaxed with a smile.
Yes, it would help the lungs. Strong black coffee often stopped an attack of asthma stone cold.
But it wasn't going to do much for the renegade heart that was beating like a drum in her chest or the shame she'd brought on herself in a moment of ungoverned passion. Amazing that she could feel such emotions with Eduardo. He didn't even want her. But if he didn't, then why had he come so close, spoken so seductively? It was the first time since she'd known him that he'd ever behaved in that way with her. They fought constantly. But there were times when he had been tender with her, concerned for her, as even her own father wasn't. But this, today, was different. He'd treated her for the first time as a woman he desired. It gave her an extraordinary feeling of power, of maturity.
She let herself dream, for a space of seconds, that he felt the same helpless attraction for her that she felt for him. Only a dream, but so sweet!