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 lifeacceptance 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
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 clothesjeans 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 himemotions 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.
"He has hopes of an alliance with a titled European family," Eduardo replied. "Have you?"
"I'd rather take poison," she said quietly. "I've already sent one potential suitor running for the border, but my father won't give up. He's planning a ball to celebrate his latest railroad acquisitionbut more because he's found another two impoverished European noblemen to throw at my feet."
She took a deep breath and coughed helplessly until she was able to get her lungs under control. The pollen sometimes affected her. She hated showing her weakness to Eduardo.
He crossed his forearms over the pommel of his saddle and leaned forward. "A garden is hardly a good place for an asthmatic," he pointed out.
"I like flowers." She took a frilled, embroidered handkerchief from her belt and held it to her mouth. Her eyes above it were green and hostile. "Why don't you go home and flog your serfs?" she retorted.
"I don't have serfs. Only loyal workers who tend my cattle and watch over my house." He ran a hand slowly over one powerful thigh while he studied her with unusual interest. "I thought your father had given up throwing you at every available titled man."
"He hasn't run out of candidates yet." She sighed and looked up at him with more of her concern showing than she realized. "Lucky you, not to be on the firing line."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Well, you're titled, aren't you?"
He laughed softly. "In a sense."
"You're a count, el conde," she persisted.
"I am. But your father knows that I have had no wish to marry since I lost my son. And my wife," he added bitterly.
"Well, it's reassuring that you don't want to get married again," she said.
She knew little of his tragedy except that for a space of days after it, the "ice man" had become a local legend for his rage, which was as majestic as his bloodlines. Grown men had hidden from him. On one occasion Bernadette had encountered him when he was dangerously intoxicated and wildly waving a revolver____No one knew exactly what had happened, except that Eduardo had come home to find his infant son dead. His wife had died suddenly soon afterward of a gunshot wound to the head. No arrest had ever been made, no charges brought. Eduardo never spoke of what had happened, but inevitably there were whispers that he had blamed his wife for the child's death, and that he had killed her. Looking at him now she could almost believe him capable of murder. He was as hard a man as she'd ever known, and one she judged to be merciless when he had reason to become angry. He rarely lost his temper overtly, but his icy manner was somehow more threatening than yelling.
She herself had seen him shoot a man with cold nerve, a drunken cowboy in town who'd come at him with pistols blazing.
Eduardo hadn't even bothered to duck. He stood in a hail of bullets and calmly took aim and fired. The man went down, wounded but not dead, and he was left at the doctor's office. Eduardo had been nicked in the arm and refused Ber-nadette's offer of first aid. Such a scratch, he'd said calmly, was hardly worth a fuss.
She had hoped against hope that her father might one day consider making a match for her with this man. Eduardo was the very reason her heart beat. Just the thought of those hard, cool hands on her bare skin made her tingle all over. But an alliance between the families had never been discussed. Her father had looked only to Europe for her prospective bridegrooms, not closer to home.
"You have no wish to marry?" he asked suddenly.
The question caught her unaware. "I have bad lungs," she said. "And I'm not even pretty. My father has money, which makes me very eligible, but only to fortune-seekers." She twisted a fold of her skirt unconsciously in her slender, pretty hands. "I want to be worth more than that."
"You want to be loved."
Shock brought her eyes up. How had he known that? He did know. It was in his face.
"Love is a rare and often dangerous thing," he continued carelessly. "One does well to avoid it."
"I've been avoiding it successfully all my life," she agreed with smothered humor.
His eyes narrowed. Still watching her, he pulled a thin black cigar from a gold-plated case in his jacket. He replaced the case deftly, struck a match to light the cigar and threw the spent match into the dust with careless grace. "All your life," he murmured. "Twenty years. You must have been ten when your family moved here," he added thoughtfully. "I remember your first ride on horseback."
She did, too. The horse had pitched her over its head into a mud puddle. Eduardo had found her there, dazed. Ignoring the mud that covered her front liberally, he'd taken her up in the saddle before him and delivered her to her father.
She nodded uncomfortably. "You were forever finding me in embarrassing situations." She didn't even want to remember the last one____
"His name was Charles, wasn't it?" he asked, as if he'd read her mind, and he smiled mockingly.
She glared at him. "It could have happened to anyone! Buggy horses do run away, you know!"
"Yes. But that horse had the mark of a whip clearly on its flank. And the 'gentleman' in question had you flat on your back, struggling like a landed fish, and your dress"
"Please!" She held a hand to her throat, horribly embarrassed.
His eyes went to her bodice with a smile that chilled her.
He'd seen more than her corset. Charles had roughly exposed her small breasts from beneath her thin muslin chemise and Eduardo had had a vivid glimpse of them before she struggled to get them covered again. Charles had barely had time to speak before el conde was on him.
In a very rare display of rage, the usually calm and collected Eduardo had knocked the younger man around with an utter disregard for his family's great wealth until the son of the shipping magnate was bleeding and begging on his knees for mercy. He'd headed for town, walking fast, and he hadn't been seen again. Naturally, Bernadette's father had been given a very smoothed-over explanation for Charles's absence and her own ruffled state. He'd accepted it, even if he hadn't believed it. But it hadn't stopped him from throwing titled men at her.
"Your father is obsessed," Eduardo murmured, taking a puff from the cigar and letting it out angrily. "He puts you at risk."
"If I'd had my pistol, Mr. Charles Ramsey would have been lying on the ground with a bullet in him!"
He only smiled. To his knowledge, Bernadette couldn't even load a gun, much less shoot one. He smoked his cigar in silence as he studied her. "Did you ever hear from the unfortunate Charles again?" he asked abruptly.
"Not one word." She searched his hard, lean face and remembered graphically how it had looked when he hit Charles. "You were frightening."
"Surely not to you."
"You're so controlled most of the time," she said, underscoring the words "most of the time."
Something moved in his face, something indefinable. "Any man is capable of strong passion. Even me."
The way he was looking at her made her heart skip. Unwelcome thoughts came into her mind, only to be banished immediately. They were too disturbing to entertain. She looked away and asked, "Are you coming to the ball?"
"If I'm invited," he said easily.
Her eyebrows arched. "Why wouldn't you be? You're one of the upper class that my father so envies."
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 had already 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 been among 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 blooming 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.