The Darkest Hour
Linda Louise Rigsbee
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    Under the old Oak tree, among the cheerful flowers, was a headstone for Alexia Barnett. Carmen tasted the name on her tongue. It was beautiful. He had given her in death what he denied her in life. It was a reminder of what they once shared and lost - a lesson that for some things, there is only one chance.
    A golden leaf floated down in the cool morning mist and joined a carpet of others under the tree. It was October already. Carmen turned away from the grave site. Alex and Jonathan were asleep when she left the house. This was something she felt the need to do on her own. She was the only one who had not come to the funeral that day. She was four months late doing so, but it was done now, and at last the haunting feeling was laid to rest.
    Retracing her steps to the house, she found Alex and Jonathan preparing breakfast. Alex looked up when she came in. He knew where she had been - and why. His chocolate gaze enveloped her in a warm embrace that left her feeling giddy. That much about their relationship had returned to normal.
Breakfast was interrupted by the telephone, and Alex went to answer it. He spoke in a hushed tone and when he came back to the kitchen, his face was pale. He motioned for Carmen to follow him. She left the table, wondering if it was something about Jonathan. Alex took her arm and led her to the window seat, where he sat down beside her and took her hand. For a few minutes he simply sat there, as if organizing what he wanted to say. Finally he began.
    “That was Lori. She’s at the hospital.” He took a breath and finally met her anxious gaze. “Josh was in an accident. He was drinking again and...he ran off the road and hit a tree.”
    Carmen watched him, knowing there was more. Finally he squeezed her hand, his gaze holding hers. “He died this morning.”
    Carmen felt the shock of it as if she had been slapped. “Josh?” It couldn’t be. And yet, somewhere deep inside she had feared it would come to this. It was fortunate that he didn’t take someone else with him. She caught her breath and looked up at Alex.
    “What about Lori?”
    “She wasn’t with him at the time. She’s at the hospital now. Do you feel up to going to see her?”
    “Of course. How could I not go?”
    “We,” he said firmly. “I need to drop Jonathan by the home first. He doesn’t need to go through this too. I’ll talk to him while you dress.”
    In their room she changed into a charcoal gray suit and combed her hair. Her face looked thin in the mirror, and her eyes looked large. Replacing the brush, she turned away. Their baby was due the last of the month. Lori must be devastated.
    She sat with Jonathan while Alex dressed.
    “I’m sorry we have to take you back to the home, Jonathan, but we will bring you back here.”
    He nodded. “That’s what Mr. Barnett said. It’s alright. I’m sorry about your friend.”
    Her friend. So that’s how he had explained her relationship with Josh. Well, he had been for many years. Maybe it was best to leave it at that. It crossed her mind that Lori might be better off. For a while it had looked like Josh was returning to his old self. It was hard to tell what he and Lori were actually going through, though. Obviously whatever Josh was struggling with had not been resolved.
    Alex emerged from the bedroom looking lean and handsome in a dark suit. His expression was unreadable. He had no ties with Josh, but surely must feel sympathy for Lori.
They dropped Jonathan off and drove straight to the hospital.
    The waiting room was full of Reynolds family members. Mr. Reynolds was comforting a weeping Mums, and all of Josh’s sisters had their husbands to comfort them. No one was comforting Lori. Hopefully that wasn’t intentional, but the fact that Lori called Alex indicated that it might have been going on for a while. Lori looked exhausted. Her eyes were bloodshot and her face swollen from crying. Dark circles underlined her eyes. It was heart-rending to see her that way. Alex and Carmen took a chair on either side of her and Alex put an arm around her shoulders.
    “I’m sorry, Lori,” He said. “Do you have relatives I could contact for you?”
    She sniffed and wiped her eyes with a well-used tissue. “My sister is supposed to fly into Fayetteville later today. She’s going to stay with me until after the...funeral.”
    “Good. Have you seen a doctor?”
    She shook her head. “I’m alright.”
    “Probably so, but you need to contact your doctor and let him know about this. He can give you something that won’t affect the baby.”
    She started to cry again and Carmen pulled a fresh tissue from her purse. Her throat felt tight and her eyes were prickling with tears. It was amazing how Alex could retain his composure.
    Lori thanked her for the tissue and wiped her eyes again. “I can’t stop crying,” she said.
    Alex patted her on the back. “There’s nothing you can do here. Why don’t we take you home? You need to get off your feet. Carmen can stay with you while I go pick up your sister.”
    Lori nodded assent and Alex set out to determine if anything needed to be done before they left. He talked to Mums and Mr. Reynolds briefly before leaving the waiting room.
    Carmen sat mutely beside Lori, not knowing what to say but sensing that nothing she could say would be any help. She wanted to talk to Mums or one of Josh’s sisters but was afraid of upsetting them further. Not wanting to abandon Lori, she did nothing.
    If only she could talk to Lori the way Alex did. His method was direct – addressing her needs with simple statements and questions. Taking a cue from him, she asked Lori if she was hungry. Lori wanted nothing but a cup of coffee, so Carmen went to the snack room to get one. As she walked out with the full cup, she noticed Alex talking to a man in a white smock. He was probably a doctor. Her attention shifted to the nurse behind the counter, who was taking full inventory of Alex. It reminded her of what Katie had said about other women wanting him. In that instant, it occurred to her that Lori might be one of them. It might explain why Josh had become such a mess. She shook her head. No, only Josh could claim credit for that. Alex was not only attractive, but had a magnetic personality. If Lori was romantically attracted to him, she probably wasn’t the only one - a fact that Alex was probably fully aware of. If Lori had said anything to him, she was certain he would not repeat it.
    Alex rejoined them a short time later, saying that everything was in order. He sat with Lori for a few minutes so Carmen could talk to the others. Mums hugged her tightly, too emotional to speak. Joan and     Alice each hugged her and then turned to their husbands. Mary, who had always been opposed to Josh marrying Lori, was the only one who spoke. As she hugged Carmen, her voice shook with emotion.
    “He never stopped loving you.”
    Carmen patted her on the back. Grief made people say cruel things, sometimes. Her implication that a lost love was the cause of a lost life was painful.
They took Lori home and helped her into the house. When they had her settled in bed, Alex left for the airport.
    Sitting alone in Josh’s living room while Lori slept, all Carmen could think about was the last moments for Josh. Hopefully he was too drunk to know what happened. It was difficult to think of him in any way but gone – not dead. Strange she should think of him that way too. Did everyone think that way about people they loved? Maybe it provided a buffer zone to protect the mind.
Anxious to keep her mind off Josh, she picked up a magazine and sat on the couch. There she waited for Alex to arrive with Lori’s sister.
    They arrived about an hour later. Lori was still asleep, so Alex and Carmen went to the store to pick up a few things for them. Lori was still asleep when they dropped the supplies off. Since there was nothing more they could do, they went home.
    Breakfast had long since worn off and they were hungry. Carmen didn’t feel like cooking, so she made sandwiches.
    Alex watched her work. “You held up very well,” he said. “I’m impressed.”
    “Thank you.” She completed the sandwiches and put them on plates. Considering the way she had been acting for the last four months, he probably thought she’d get hysterical.
    He pulled his jacket and vest off and carefully laid them over the back of a chair. Rolling up his shirtsleeves, he washed his hands in the kitchen sink. He methodically dried them off with a towel and turned to her. Drawing her into his arms, he kissed her forehead.
    “Now you can cry.”
    She gazed up into his face. “I don’t feel like crying.”
    He looked surprised. “That’s an unusual thing to say considering how long you’ve known him.”
    She sighed and put her head on his chest. “He’s been gone a long time. Maybe I never really knew him. I feel so sorry for Lori. She had this baby because he wanted it, and now that he’s gone, she’ll have to raise it all alone.”
    He kissed the top of her head. “She won’t be completely alone, sweetheart. She has the entire Reynolds family – and we’ll be there for her.”
    She lifted her head. “Do you think they will be there for her?”
    He frowned. “Why wouldn’t they? She’s Josh’s wife and she’s carrying his baby.”
She laid her head back on his chest. “I’d hate to think that my unborn child was the only tie I had with his family.”
    His hands caressed her arms. “Yeah,” he finally said.
    They stood that way for a while and finally she lifted her head. As she gazed up at his face, she had that giddy feeling again. A slow smile found his lips and put a twinkle in his eyes.
    She smiled and pulled away. “We’d better eat lunch.”
    He glanced at his watch. “Or supper.”

    The next morning they helped Lori make funeral arrangements. To their surprise, Josh had a $150,000 insurance policy Lori didn’t know about. But even more surprising was the fact that everything named Carmen as the benefactor – including his farm. Most likely he had arranged it that way when he thought they were going to get married. Still, it wasn’t like Josh to forget such important details.
When she expressed the thought to Alex, he contacted a lawyer. According to the lawyer, Lori could contest the will – which would be expensive and straining on everyone. The other option was to accept the will, and when Carmen was awarded the money and farm, simply turn it all over to Lori.
Lori said she didn’t care what they did. It was obvious that she already had enough on her plate. At the moment it probably wasn’t the foremost issue for her, but later it would matter. She needed a place to stay and money for the baby.
    Meanwhile, Alex and Carmen signed the papers to adopt Jonathan. It would be a long and uncertain wait before he was released to their custody. That gave them time to make more permanent plans for the room that would become Jonathan’s bedroom. Carmen suggested a family project of redecorating the room to his taste, and Alex was in full agreement. It would shift the focus from Lori to Jonathan and make him feel more welcome.

Continue to Chapter 17