Prologue


    Alex gazed in awed silence at the brilliant sunset. March had come in like a lion and quickly settled down. Hopefully it would be an early spring. The kaleidoscopic display of orange, yellow, deep blue and gray was both beautiful and ominous. Hopefully the threat wasn’t snow. This part of northwest Arkansas enjoyed four full seasons. The variety was nice, but he was ready for spring.
Across the field, two elk grazed on the hill below the tree line. The other two must be back in the forested hills. The horse paddock was empty. Carmen had already put them in the barn for the night. Beyond the paddock was the area where he had confined the buffalo cow. She plodded slowly away from her feed trough. The hollows in her sides were deep shadows. It wouldn’t be long now - maybe tomorrow. Her stomach was huge. It might be a big bull calf. She was still skittish, so he hadn’t done much examining of her. The difficult task of rounding her up and holding her down wasn’t his greatest concern about an examination. The calf could be injured, and she might develop a fear of those caring for her. If an examination were a necessity, it would justify the risks, but Mother Nature usually did well enough without human interference. Some might consider that a strange thing for a veterinarian to think, but it was reality.
    Tucking gloved hands into the pockets of his leather coat, he headed toward the house. Carmen had fed and watered the rest of the animals before he came home from the clinic. She’d be setting the table by now and the kitchen would smell of freshly fried chicken and peach cobbler. She was by far the best cook he’d ever known. Sometimes he had to pinch himself to make sure he was still alive and this wasn’t heaven.
    When he came home tonight, she had been wearing blue jeans and a short blouse. She was reaching for something in the cabinets and that flat abdomen with its velvety skin was exposed. Whatever Carmen wore, she looked slim and graceful - feminine. Still, she had an exciting figure that jeans didn’t give justice – especially so when they hid such beautiful legs.
    He smiled again as he remembered their first summer together...the year they were married. She looked so elegant in those sundresses. Maybe jeans were more comfortable. Then again, after the way Josh acted, maybe she felt safer in jeans.
    Josh and Lori were fighting most of the time now, and Josh was drinking more. Carmen seemed unaware that Josh still had romantic thoughts about her, but Lori noticed. Lori didn’t deserve the way he treated her. He was taking advantage of the fact that she was crazy about him...or at least had been. It was unreasonable of Josh to expect her to keep the marriage together on her own. If what Lori told him was true, Josh made little to no effort. Of course, there were two sides to every story, but from what he had observed first hand, she was right. Sooner or later Lori would give up on him. When she left, Josh would probably attempt to recapture Carmen.
    Carmen’s intentions were honorable, but she was incredibly naïve. She insisted that Josh would never cheat on Lori. Where Carmen was concerned, Josh was unpredictable. He would likely use her desire for a biological child as a ploy. If she got desperate enough, that desire might become her husband’s Achilles Heel.
Carmen said she was afraid of adopting because the mother could take the child back after they learned to love it. The odds of that happening were slim to none. She agreed, but steadfastly refused to adopt on that issue. Of course, her fear was founded on the fact that it had happened to her parents. Carmen was an only child, born to aging parents. They were poor farmers. Their age and financial situation probably had as much to do with the mother’s success in reclaiming her child as anything else. Arkansas had a waiting period of 6 months, in which time the child was in the adoptive home and the birth mother still had the opportunity to change her mind. Carmen’s parents might have been able to fight it if they had the money for a good lawyer. Alex couldn’t give Carmen a child because he was sterile, but he did have money for the adoption and a good lawyer. Carmen accepted that in theory, but she was still hesitant.
    Carmen could love a child that wasn’t her flesh and blood as easily as she could love her own. Watching her with children had convinced him of that. She was hung up on the biological issue – insisting that if they were patient, God would work miracles and they would have a child, as her parents had. He didn’t want to wait until he was in his fifties to start having children. She could have a biological child. It simply wouldn’t be his. He had no problem with that. As the saying went, there was more to being a father than planting the seed. Yet Carmen insisted that any artificial method of conception was sinful – playing God. She was a master at building her own moral roadblocks, placing her goals frustratingly out of reach. Why a woman would choose to go through the discomfort of carrying a baby for nine months instead of adopting was beyond him.
    He sighed heavily. Everyone had their issues and her shortcomings were far outweighed by all her good qualities. Carmen was unlike any woman he had ever known. Ninety-five percent of the time her decisions put his best interest to mind – even above her own. As Mums had predicted, she threw herself wholeheartedly into making their marriage a success. She loved him with a passion that he never could have imagined – and still wasn’t sure he deserved.
    A barred owl called “you-all” in a southern drawl, jarring him to the reality that the sun had set. Letting out a long sigh of vapor, he climbed the steps and walked across the open courtyard. The storm door groaned as he opened it, and then he was opening the door to the kitchen, breathing the aroma of good food.
Carmen turned from the stove and smiled a greeting. Her amethyst gaze traveled over him in appreciation, coming back to his face. The blush started, as if she had been caught doing something unladylike. He might have questioned why it still embarrassed her, if it hadn’t been for the fact that he was busy questioning why her reaction still excited him.
    He shut the door and shucked his coat, hanging it on the chair before turning to her with open arms. She ran to him, kissing him as if she hadn’t done so an hour ago before he left to do the chores. She liked to kiss, and she certainly felt good molded to him that way. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close until she finally ended the embrace.
    “Supper is ready,” she said in a soft southern drawl.
    He washed his hands and held her chair while she sat. After a silent grace, they began filling their plates. It was a typical evening – one some people might consider boring, but to him it was pure pleasure.
    Finally Carmen spoke. “I think Princess is getting restless. Her stomach is so big. Do you think it might be a colt this time?”
    “That might be a good thing,” Alex said as he spooned mashed potatoes to his plate. “We could trade it for a filly.”
    Carmen frowned. “Why would we do that? I could use some geldings on my horse ranch.
    He smiled. “At the rate Ed is having female offspring; he’ll have to be one of your geldings.” He winked at her. “You’re the one with a degree in animal husbandry.”
She blushed and ducked her head. “I suppose you’re right. I need to look into bringing some unrelated mares to the ranch. I’ve had to keep Casper away from him lately.”
Alex shrugged. “Why don’t you take her to another stud?”
    “She won’t be three until July. Ideally, she shouldn’t be bred until she’s four.”
    Alex cleared his throat. “Maybe we should reinforce Ed’s pasture.”
    Carmen glanced up at him, her expression compassionate. “Poor Ed. He’s so lonely in that pasture all by himself.”
    Alex grinned. “Then do some advertising and keep him busy.”
    Her blush deepened. “He’s your horse.”
    Alex chuckled. “You’ve been keeping him busy with your mares until now.”
    She gulped, nearly choking on her food. “I have not. I just let him...I didn’t separate him from the other horses until now.”
    He chuckled again and she kicked his foot under the table. There had always been that element of humor between them. They both enjoyed pestering each other...and being pestered. Carmen had a quick wit and a gentle temperament – most of the time. She was the most honest and virtuous woman that he had ever met. Sometimes her old fashioned moral standards were a point of contention, but her integrity was never under question. For the first time in his life, he had found someone he could trust with his heart. Finally life was good, and she was largely responsible. The other factor was that he was doing what he had always dreamed of doing. No one here was telling him he could or should do more with his life. Carmen was more than satisfied with their home and what she called a lavish budget. Their lifestyle was less than he had grown up with, but in his estimation, it was better quality. If they could get past the adoption issue, they could give their children a better life than he had.
    Carmen was a change-of-life baby – the only child of aging parents. As if that were not trial enough, her parents had been ultra religious and conservative. Their social life was church. They had no television and even when Carmen had attended college, they had requested that she stay at home every night instead of living in a dorm. Carmen was obedient. How much was in her nature and how much was the result of strict upbringing was hard to determine. Maybe that backward upbringing was the reason she wanted him to be the decision maker. On the other hand, maybe she was simply uncomfortable with making decisions. Whatever the case, it worked well for them.



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The Darkest Hour
Linda Louise Rigsbee
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