Midnight Rider by Diana Palmer
(Fawcett, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-449-00324-8
****
In Midnight Rider, Diana Palmer has mixed an overtired plot device the marriage of convenience with a setting so overused it's trampled southwest Texas and some hackneyed secondary characters, yet made me care about the central characters and their relationships. I recommend reading this spicy concoction. This summer, Diana Palmer uses fresh approaches to season a traditional stew.

Twenty-year-old Bernadette Barron is the daughter of widower Colston Barron, a wealthy owner of ranches and railroads in the area between San Antonio and the Mexican border in 1900. An Irish immigrant, Colston progressed from railroad worker to rancher and railroad magnate. He married the love of his life, a talented woman who was wife, mother and the bookkeeper for their ranch. Then Colston's world fell apart his wife died soon after giving birth to Bernadette, his son chose to live in Maine, finally his older daughter died in childbirth. Only Bernadette remains with him. While she has inherited her mother's looks and talents, she is a constant reminder of his personal losses.

The book opens with Bernadette in her garden contemplating her future. As an asthmatic, she cannot enjoy her garden when it is most beautiful to others, in full flower. Her asthma limits her options despite her intelligence and independent nature. Her father is intent on achieving acceptance in his provincial world by arranging a marriage between Bernadette and a titled European. Bernadette has driven away a potential suitor and daydreams about her handsome neighbor, Eduardo Ramires.

Eduardo is a widower with a shadowed past and, in turn-of-the-century Texas, a tainted heritage, since he is the "half-breed" son of a Spanish nobleman and a San Antonio socialite. Bernadette and Eduardo have known each other for several years and have had encounters in which they have befriended each other. As she has matured and become more conscious of her attraction to Eduardo, Bernadette vacillates between considering him her enemy and a man she is destined to love from afar. Since her father belittles her ability to attract men, she is convinced Eduardo can never be physically attracted to her.

Regardless of his caring about Bernadette, Eduardo is not in the market for a wife, and he definitely does not believe in love. After experiencing his mother's infidelity and losing his father when he was eight, Eduardo was raised in Spain by his grandmother, the Condessa Dolores Maria Cortes. The Condessa loves her grandson dearly. She arranged his first marriage to a Spanish woman, and, despite the tragic ending of that relationship, she believes he should once again enter an arranged marriage with his cousin, Lupe, who is related by blood to Spain's royal family.

Eduardo's ranch is facing financial disaster due to his mother's profligacy and mishandling of the ranch. The mutual needs of Bernadette and Eduardo, coupled with Colston's pressuring her to choose among unappealing suitors, lead up to an agreement among the three that Bernadette will wed Eduardo, and, Colston will give his prospective son-in-law a loan to salvage the Ramires ranching operation. Just as Bernadette and Eduardo are working through their misgivings about entering into such a negotiated marriage, his grandmother and cousin arrive from Spain. The effect is akin to throwing ice water on the couple.

The heart of this book is the story of Eduardo's and Bernadette's surviving the manipulations of scheming relatives and learning to trust each other. Despite their reasons for entering into their marriage bargain, they are honorable, honest and intelligent. It's heartwarming to witness their journey to happiness and a healthy marriage.

Along the way, Colston Barron regains his humanity, and the rigid Condessa learns to judge women as individuals rather than by bitter personal experiences. Colston and the Condessa are wonderful characters. Though products of different social strata and cultures, they are both bigoted and provincial. If the scene were not so realistic, it would have been comical to observe Colston as he looks down upon the Cortes family and grudgingly acknowledges Eduardo is not a total loss since his mother was half Irish.

Some weaknesses in this book possibly stem from inattention by Fawcett's editors. After a heartwarming climax, the story meandered toward a limp ending. And Eduardo's cousin, Lupe, was a caricature of a conniving "other woman" rather than a believable character. With those caveats, I recommend rounding out your summer reading list by adding Midnight Rider.

--Sue Klock


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