A Baby to Bind His Bride

By: Caitlin Crews

CHAPTER ONE

“THEY CALL HIM the Count,” the gruff man told her as he led her deeper and deeper into the wild, wearing more flannel and plaid than Susannah Betancur had ever seen on a single person. “Never a name, always the Count. But they treat him like a god.”

“An actual god or a pretend god?” Susannah asked, as if that would make any difference. If the Count was the man she sought, it certainly wouldn’t.

Her guide shot her a look. “Not sure it really matters this far up the side of a hill, ma’am.”

The hill they were trudging up was more properly a mountain, to Susannah’s way of thinking, but then, everything in the American Rockies appeared to be built on a grand scale. Her impression of the Wild, Wild West was that it was an endless sprawl of jaw-dropping mountains bedecked with evergreens and quaint place names, as if the towering splendor in every direction could be contained by calling the highest peak around something like Little Summit.

“How droll,” Susannah muttered beneath her breath as she dug in and tried her best not to topple down the way she’d come. Or give in to what she thought was the high elevation, making her feel a little bit light-headed.

That she was also breathless went without saying.

Her friend in flannel had driven as far as he could on what passed for a road out in the remote Idaho wilderness. It was more properly a rutted, muddy dirt track that had wound deeper and deeper into the thick woods even as the sharp incline clearly indicated that they were going higher and higher at the same time. Then he’d stopped, long after Susannah had resigned herself to that lurching and bouncing lasting forever, or at least until it jostled her into a thousand tiny little jet-lagged pieces. Her driver had then indicated they needed to walk the rest of the way to what he called the compound, and little as Susannah had wanted to do anything of the kind after flying all the way here from the far more settled and civilized hills of her home on the other side of the world in Rome, she’d followed along.

Because Susannah might not be a particularly avid hiker. But she was the Widow Betancur, whether she liked it or not. She had no choice but to see this through.

She concentrated on putting one booted foot in front of the other now, well aware that her clothes were not exactly suited to an adventure in the great outdoors. It hadn’t occurred to her that she’d actually be in the wilderness instead of merely adjacent to it. Unlike every person she’d seen since the Betancur private jet had landed on an airfield in the middle of nowhere, Susannah wore head-to-toe black to announce her state of permanent mourning at a glance. It was her custom. Today it was a sleek cashmere coat over a winter dress in merino wool and deceptively sturdy knee-high boots, because she’d expected the cold, just not the forced march to go along with it.

“Are you sure you don’t want to change?” her guide had asked her. They’d stared each other down in his ramshackle little cabin standing at lopsided attention in an overgrown field strewn with various auto parts. It had made her security detail twitchy. It had been his office, presumably. “Something less…?”

“Less?” Susannah had echoed as if she failed to catch his meaning, lifting a brow in an approximation of the ruthless husband she’d lost.

“There’s no real road in,” her guide had replied, eyeing her as if he expected her to wilt before him at that news. As if a mountain man or even the Rocky Mountains themselves, however challenging, could compare to the intrigues of her own complicated life and the multinational Betancur Corporation that had been in her control, at least nominally, these last few years, because she’d refused to let the rest of them win—her family and her late husband’s family and the entire board that had been so sure they could steamroll right over her. “It’s off the grid in the sense it’s, you know. Rough. You might want to dress for the elements.”

Susannah had politely demurred. She wore only black in public and had done so ever since the funeral, because she held the dubious distinction of being the very young widow of one of the richest men in the world. She found that relentless black broadcast the right message about her intention to remain in mourning indefinitely, no matter what designs her conspiring parents and in-laws, or anyone else, had on her at any given time.

She intended to remain the Widow Betancur for a very long while. No new husbands to take the reins and take control, no matter how hard she was pushed from all sides to remarry.

If it was up to her she’d wear black forever, because her widowhood kept her free.

Unless, that was, Leonidas Cristiano Betancur hadn’t actually died four years ago in that plane crash, which was exactly what Susannah had hauled herself across the planet to find out.

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