Chapter One


     Carmen Barnett curled up on the window seat and watched from the bay window as the sun cast its first rays on the farmstead below. Like pieces of white glitter, frost winked back at the sun from the grass and the top of the old farmhouse. If it hadn’t been for the tree falling on the house, that roof still wouldn’t be repaired. The old tool shed was leaning further to the side each year. They would have to knock it down one of these days. The white block walls of the dairy remained solid, but the windows were dark. It was milking time...somewhere. All but a few of the goats had been gone over a year now, but she rarely had time to think about them anymore. Even the old chicken coop was empty, replaced by the new one Alex had built out back. The stock pond stared up at her coldly from the tawny pasture like a huge eye, the ice-covered edges surrounding a deep blue iris. A white wisp of fog was the only clue that it was actually warmer than the crisp March morning. She sighed and wrapped her arms around her knees. It would be cold down there in that old house - cold and lonely.
    Bare feet padded across the hardwood floor behind her, announcing that Alex was awake. Warm muscular arms slipped around her waist and she leaned her head back against his bare chest, gazing up into the sweet chocolate eyes. He smiled down at her.
    "Come back to bed, Mrs. Barnett. Your husband is hungry."
    She laughed softly. "Then maybe I should cook him some breakfast."
    He gathered her in his arms and gently lifted her from the couch. She squealed in mock protest and he chuckled.
    "We'll worry about breakfast later - right now we have other fish to fry."
    She clung to his neck as he carried her to their bedroom and gently deposited her on the bed. He disentangled her arms from his neck and crawled into bed beside her.
    "The way you keep staring down at that old house makes me wonder if you're sorry you married me." He leaned over her, gazing down at her tenderly. "Is that so?"
    She touched his lips with her fingertips. "You know that isn't true."
    He kissed her fingers. "Never?" He stroked her cheek softly.
    She shook her head, feeling giddy as she gazed up at his smooth bronze features. He was so handsome.
    "Never," she whispered, and drew his mouth down to hers.
    His lips were as warm as the hands that gently drew her body to his. How could she tell him that the restlessness she had been feeling had nothing to do with their relationship? She couldn't have found a more attentive or protective husband. He was everything he had promised, and much more. The logical side of her mind had accepted the fact that he couldn't give her a child, but the emotional side still rebelled. That illogical, immature holdout still blamed him for winning her love before he told her.
    She drew back. "You're going to be late for work," she said, squirming half-heartedly in his arms.
    He propped his head up on an elbow and gazed down at her, the fingers of one hand working at the tie on her nightgown. "The clinic doesn't open for another hour and a half, and I can dress in five minutes. Besides, I'm the boss. What are they going to say?"
    Hogwash. Sure, he owned the veterinary clinic, but he asked no more of his employees than he did of himself. In fact, his workday often began before he arrived at the clinic. She tugged playfully at some hair on his chest.
    "Aren't you supposed to look at one of Josh's cows this morning?"
    His fingers gave up their futile attempt on the ribbon and the dark eyes lost some of their softness.
    “I’m trying to make love to you. I’d appreciate it if you kept his name out of this bedroom.”
    She wrinkled her nose at him. “Are you two ever going to like each other?”
    He grimaced. “I doubt it. There's something about him that rubs me the wrong way.”
    She smiled up at him. “You can't forget that we were once almost engaged, can you?”
    “I remember he can give you something I can’t. I see that look in your eyes when you watch a baby in church. It kills me that I can’t....”
    She touched his lips again. “Don’t. I love you. That’s more important.”
    He kissed her ardently. “I love you too. Since the day I met you...until eternity.” He pulled her close and kissed her hungrily.
    She melted in his arms, consumed by the raging fire of emotion his embrace never failed to ignite.     After nearly two years of marriage, nothing had changed – absolutely nothing.

    An hour later he pushed back from his empty plate and stood. “I’d better get going.” He pulled her close and kissed her lips. “You be careful around those horses. They’re gentle, but one misplaced foot could cripple a little thing like you.”
    She smiled up at him. “I’ll be careful. I always am.”
    He kissed her again and released her. “One of these days we're going to take that honeymoon I promised you.”
    She laughed softly. “Where could we go that would be more fun than here?”
    He eyed her suspiciously. “You keep saying that, but I think you’re chronically frugal. Either that or you haven’t been around much.” He flipped her chin with a curled index finger. “We both know it’s the latter.”
    She made a face. “I was born and brought up in these wild Arkansas hills. Just because I haven’t been anyplace else, doesn’t mean that there is any place better. You’ve been all over the world and you decided to move here.” She shrugged one shoulder and met his amused gaze triumphantly. “I rest my case.”
    The chocolate gaze melted. “Yes, but you were here.” He kissed his fingertips and touched them gently to her lips. “I've got to go, sweetheart.”
    She watched as he crossed the room to the door, his broad shoulders swaying gracefully with each step. His square toed boots clicked across the floor with that quick step she had learned to recognize. As usual, his western shirt was tucked neatly into crisp indigo jeans. His lean build gave the impression that he was tall, but he was only five feet nine inches tall. Not that it mattered; he still had her beat by a good six inches.
    He paused at the door and half-turned toward her. The large belt buckle at his lean waist lay flat against a washboard stomach. Her gaze lifted to his face enquiringly and found the dark eyes sparkling with humor. He knew what she was thinking about - knew and enjoyed the attention. He lifted a brow.
    “Maybe you'd like me to take the day off?” Noting her rising color, he chuckled. “I can still make you blush.”
    She wrinkled her nose at him. “You egotistical little Banty,” she teased.
    When he grinned, the large dimple below his eye appeared. “I’m not little.”
    She picked his plate up from the table. “You're seventy-five percent testosterone and the other half is ego.”
    He laughed, his eyes sparkling with a devilish thought. “And which part do you like the best?”
    Her cheeks burned hotter. “You'd better hurry up. You're going to be late.”
    He was still chuckling as he stepped off the porch. A few minutes later the truck engine started and he backed the Dodge 4 x 4 pickup out of the garage. She watched from the bay window as he left a trail of dust to the main road.
    She sighed heavily and turned to the table. Tomorrow was Saturday, and they could spend the entire day together. She shifted her attention to the housework. It didn't take long to clean up after two people.     After that it was time to do the chores - her favorite job. Donning a heavy coat, she escaped through the patio doors and hurried out to the barn.
    A chorus of nickering and snorting greeted her as she entered the barn. Ed and Princess were in the first two stalls. The matching Appaloosas were ready to eat. She peeled off a couple of leaves of hay and threw them into Ed’s stall.
    “Eat hardy, boy. I'm going to ride you today. Princess is getting a little close to her due date.”
    She grabbed more hay and stepped around the buggy Alex was restoring for her - a surrey with a fringe on top - exactly like she had always wanted. The black frame with its hunter green trim rested on blocks right now. A blacksmith in Gravette was making the wheels, but the rest of the buggy was complete, right down to the leather seats. She could hardly wait to hitch it up and take a ride.
In the third stall was Casper. The white Appaloosa would be three years old in July. Alex was gentle training her to ride. In the next stall was Random. She wouldn’t be two years old until December. Alex had named the little filly Random because she never seemed to have a schedule for anything. Alex was halter training her. It was something she would have liked to do, but Alex insisted that it was too dangerous. Sometimes he was overly protective. Still, it felt secure to have someone look after her the way he did.
    Carmen gave the horses some grain and went to feed and water the chickens. After she fed the rabbits, she came back to find the horses had finished their grain. She opened the stall door to release Princess, Casper and Random in the pasture. She saddled Ed and took him outside. Princess followed as she led Ed out of the corral, but Random and Casper decided to stay near the house.
    Carmen mounted and turned Ed toward the field, kicking him into a lope. Brushing a blond curl from her face, she reined him toward the buffalo pen. A quick glance back revealed Princess following, steam puffing from her mouth and nose with every labored step. It wouldn't be long now.
    Down the hill, across the creek and across the field to the buffalo shed - the crisp air traced their progress with a wisp of steam. Alex had the shed built so that she could feed the buffalo without going into the pen, but today she wanted to check on the cow. Last night Alex thought she was getting ready to give birth.
    Carmen urged Ed through the gate and shut it before Princess could join them. Princess snorted and scraped the ground with a front hoof. Carmen laughed.
    "You stay here, girl. I know that buffalo cow has always been gentle, but if she has a calf, she could get defensive. I don't want to take any chances with the future of my horse ranch."
    It took her the better part of an hour to locate the cow, and if it hadn't been for the white form that raced out to meet them, she might have missed the cow in the hollow with her two calves. Ed snorted and side-stepped as the Great Pyrenees guard dog slid to a stop beside them. Carmen barely kept her seat as the horse pranced nervously.
    "Brutus," Carmen scolded the dog without conviction. "You know better than that."
    He looked like he was grinning. His huge tongue hung out of the side of his mouth like a thick slice of bologna. As he barked a welcome, steam rolled out of his mouth in a cloud.
    The buffalo cow faced them, her massive head swaying back and forth in warning. Carmen stood in the stirrups and studied the two calves - both females. Alex was going to be delighted. She'd have to call him when she got back to the house. She swung Ed around.
    “Come on Brutus. I brought you some of that dog food you like.”
    She put the horse into a lope and headed for the shed. Brutus followed and the two calves tagged along unsteady on their feet behind him. The cow had no choice but to follow her offspring. At the barn, Carmen fed and watered Brutus and threw some hay to the cow. Reaching through the slot, she poured the cow some grain. The sun had melted a thin layer of water over the ice in the water trough. She took a rock and broke the ice, reaching in the frigid water with her fingers to pull out the jagged pieces of ice.
    With that done, she mounted again and leaned down to open the gate. Once outside the pen, she latched the gate and turned Ed toward the forest. Princess followed them as she walked Ed. Somewhere up there past the tree line there were four Elk that Alex had coerced from the Game and Fish Commission. Shipped to Arkansas for reintroduction, they had sustained injuries that made them vulnerable to predators. Alex had nursed them back to health and released them in the area where the goats had been kept when she owned the dairy. A Nubian goat and her three kids shared the rocky terrain, along with a couple of Angora goats. Alex had written the Game and Fish Commissions in several western states, hoping for a chance at a mountain goat or sheep. The odds were slim, but because his purpose was educational, he might have a chance. White tailed deer, as well as an abundance of smaller wildlife already frequented the ranch, so his North American Safari had its foundation. The next step was renovating the old farmhouse for visitors. The dairy and adjoining barns would make a nice bunkhouse - sometime. The money from the dairy equipment and stock was still in the bank. Not yet enough to complete the work.
    Ed perked his ears forward and snorted at something in the tall grass. Princess stopped, staring in the same direction. Carmen stood in the stirrups and craned her neck to see what was troubling him. Something was creeping along the ground - stalking, probably. She nudged Ed closer. She smiled. A red fox was stalking a cottontail. As she watched, the fox lunged for the rabbit. The rabbit leaped into the air and bolted across the field, his white tail visible above the tall grass with each bound.
    Unwilling to root for either animal, Carmen turned Ed back toward the tree line.
    Forty acres were fenced around the old house. Forty more lay behind that - all wild and unimproved.     She would have to wait for Alex before she could explore that area. Alex had strictly forbidden her to ride alone there after the wild dog problem. He wouldn't be pleased if he knew she was riding up here alone now. She glanced back over her shoulder at the log house on the hill. He had selected the perfect setting for their home. When the elk grazed on this hill, they could be seen from the bay window.     She and Alex spent a lot of time on that window seat, admiring their combined efforts and property.
    She glanced at her watch. It was nearly eleven. Alex might come home for lunch today. Grudgingly, she turned Ed back toward the house.
    “Come on, Princess,” she called to the mare. You've had enough exercise for today.”
    Back at the barn, she unsaddled Ed and rubbed him down. Hefting the saddle to its proper place, she released the horses in their separate pastures.
    As she neared the back door, she heard the telephone ringing. She slapped a hand over her mouth.     She had forgotten her cell phone on the night stand again. Hurrying up the stairs, she dashed through the dining room and grabbed the receiver.
    "Hello," she answered breathlessly.
    "Hi, sweetheart. Did I catch you out at the barn?"
    "It started ringing as I came into the house. Is something wrong?"
    "No. I’m sorry I made you run. I didn’t want to disturb you in the middle of chores, so I called the land line. Would you like to meet me for lunch?”
    She glanced at her watch. Forty-five minutes from now. “Sure, where?”
    “Just meet me at the clinic. I want to talk to you about something.”
    She stared at the receiver for a moment and finally shrugged. “See you at twelve.”
    What more could he have to say in the little time since they had last talked? Had Josh said something to upset him again? No, he wouldn’t be taking her to lunch to discuss Josh.


Continue to Chapter 2



The Darkest Hour
Linda Louise Rigsbee
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