For Better or Worse (Chapter Four, page 1 of 1)

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Alex and Bill never found the bear, but they did find some disturbing evidence that put the entire incident in a different perspective. What they found was the tracks of two small bears. The bear was a sow with two cubs. At least that would explain her bold behavior. It was spring and she was ravenously hungry. Alex said it was a possibility that she would see their outbuildings as a food source. He had contacted the department of forestry about having the bear removed and put in a more remote area on Hobbs Estate. Until that was done, the back 80 and its proximity were off limits to all of them. They left the bull where it lay, reasoning that if they removed it, the bear might go hunting fresh meat.
Meanwhile, another problem surfaced. Carmen was waiting for Alex outside the clinic with Destiny one day when the red-headed man strolled up to the car.
“Nice looking car,” he said in a conversational tone. “How do you like it?”
“It handles well and gets good gas mileage,” she answered, hoping Alex would be out soon.
“What’s the mileage on it?” He leaned his head into the window to look at the odometer.
It was one of those uncomfortable moments that left her wondering if the odometer was what he was interested in. She pushed back away from him into the seat as much as possible. Ordinarily she would have thumped him on top of the head or yelled, but fearful of offending a customer, she tolerated his invasion of her space.
When he finally pulled his head back out of the car, Alex was approaching. Alex eyed the man suspiciously as he said goodbye and walked away. Alex opened the passenger door and climbed into the car, his attention equally divided between the retreating figure and Carmen. Carmen waited until he closed the car door.
“Who was that?” she asked.
Alex looked surprised. “I thought he was one of your friends.”
She stared at him. “I thought he was one of your customers. I didn’t want to offend him, but . . . What are you grinning about?”
“It looks like you’ve got an admirer,” Alex said, chuckling. He looked relieved.
She hit him playfully. “It isn’t funny. What if he had followed me home?”
His smile faded. “You’re right. It’s not funny. In the future, if you don’t recognize someone, don’t wave at them.”
She nodded. “I wouldn’t have, but . . .” She glanced at him and he looked away running a hand through his hair. She kept her voice even.
“I didn’t wave today, which means you saw him at the strip mall. So that’s why you followed me home so quickly. You were checking up on me.” Remembering Lori’s car, her stomach tightened. Surely he wouldn’t, but . . . “You met Lori that day, didn’t you?”
“Let’s not talk about it now, Carmen,” he said, glancing at Destiny.
“A simple yes or no would suffice.”
“Not now. His tone was firm.
“Fine. Just tell me I have no reason to be jealous.”
His attention came sharply back to her. “You know better than that.”
Did she? Was a guilty conscience the cause of his insomnia? If he had simply said he was going to meet Lori, she might have been concerned about Destiny, but she would never have considered the idea that he and Lori were . . . but the fact that he had hidden the meeting and was now reluctant to talk about it was setting off alarms. How many times had he met her?
“You lied to me,” she said.
“I didn’t lie,” he said with indignation.
“Alright, not straight out, but you intentionally tried to deceive me.”
“I did not. I simply didn’t say anything. A person has a right to privacy.”
“I see. So if you had come home and that man was there, you’d respect my privacy, right?”
He looked disgusted. “Lori and I aren’t having an affair, Carmen.”
Her brows shot up. “I didn’t say you were – and I didn’t say what I was doing with that man, either. You simply assumed it. I wonder why.”
“Carmen, you’re letting your emotions rule your mind.” His voice was stern again. He thought he was in control.
“Well, at least one of us is showing emotion. And you’d be upset too if I was doing this to you.”
“Doing what?”
She sighed heavily and dropped her forehead to her forearms on the steering wheel. After counting to ten and taking two deep breaths, she lifted her head and met his troubled gaze.
“Alright, Alex. Have it your way. We won’t talk about this right now. But remember, I’m not a child. Destiny is as much a part of me as she is of you. I want to know what is happening. Not the abbreviated version contrived for a witless or hysterical wife, but the whole thing – including any designs Lori has on you . . . or you have for her.”
It would probably have been more effective had she left off the last part, but he was right. Emotion did have control of her tongue. Whether he believed it or not, Lori was a threat to their relationship.
His jaws worked and his eyes were so dark they were like two coals in a burning face. He opened the door and climbed out, leaning down to speak to her.
“Never mind. I’ll go get something on my own.”
He shut the door and strode stiffly to his truck, digging in his pocket for the keys.
She stared after him as he drove away, wondering if he would be home for supper – or if he was going to eat alone. Shaking her head, she stared at the steering wheel. It was ridiculous to fight with him this way. It might drive him to the very arms she was trying to slap away from him. If he was interested in Lori, the damage had already been done. If not, she could do a lot more damage by accusing him of something he wasn’t doing. Alex had trust issues and now she was adopting them. Giving him up without a fight wasn’t something she intended to do, but fighting like this was marital suicide.

Alex didn’t get home at his normal time and that caused her worry. It wasn’t like Alex to let anger disrupt his schedule. If Lori hadn’t admitted that she loved Alex the day Destiny was born, the idea that the two of them were romantically involved probably wouldn’t have crossed her mind. Still, Alex had no right to be angry with her doubts. After all, he had accused her of having an affair with Josh. The idea brought her tirade up short. No wonder Alex couldn’t put that horrible incident out of his mind. She was still holding it over his head. Alex had loved once before, long time ago, and that girl had betrayed him. Putting such a thing behind him was difficult, but it would be folly to forget the lessons he had learned with that experience.
Carmen sighed as she placed a plate on the table. She had no such experience or excuse. Alex had given her no reason to think he would be unfaithful. It was nothing but pure jealousy that guided her thoughts – and fear of losing him. Alex was secretive. She knew that when she married him.
The front door swung open behind her and his boots clicked across the hardwood floor, stopping at the kitchen doorway. She put down the last plate and turned around to see what he was doing.
He was standing at the edge of the kitchen, a bouquet of wildflowers in one hand and concern etched in that delicious chocolate gaze.
The breath she had been unconsciously holding escaped in a quick sigh.
“Oh Alex . . . I’m so sorry.”
He met her half the distance and folded her in a warm embrace, his lips seeking hers briefly.
“I didn’t mean to make you feel unimportant.”
It wasn’t what she had said, nor would she have used those words to describe her feelings. And yet, he was right. Obviously he had been listening and thinking about what she said. She took the flowers and put them into a vase.
Coming up behind her, he grasped her waist and pulled her into the circle of his arms.
“I love you,” he said over her shoulder.
She closed her eyes and leaned back against his chest cupping her hands over his.
“I love you too.”
For a few moments they stood that way. Finally he spoke.
“She doesn’t want to give up, even though she knows she doesn’t have a legal right. She keeps saying you promised.”
Carmen turned to face him. “And what did you say?”
They could have said that much over the telephone. There was no need for them to meet. She waited quietly for his response.
“I told her I was the one who insisted on adoption.”
“That must have impressed her,” she said sarcastically.
His smile was sardonic. “It didn’t. She asked if I ever let you talk for yourself.” He shrugged. “I should have seen that one coming.”
She smiled up at him. “Well, actually, I was speaking for myself when I told her that wasn’t I?”
He put his hands on her shoulders and his troubled gaze met hers.
“Yes, and then I spoke for you - again.” He sighed heavily. “I wanted to work this thing out by myself. I didn’t want you to get hurt.” He pulled her close. “I don’t know what to say any more. I feel sorry for her, but . . . I can’t let her take Destiny away from you.”
She leaned back and looked up at his face.
“From me?”
“From all of us, but especially you. Not after what I did to you.”
She gazed into his eyes. “Is this always going to hang between us, Alex? It’s done. I shouldn’t have had the DNA test on Alexia just to prove she was yours. You were ready to accept that fact already. What happened was horrible – for both of us, but we can’t go back and change it. I don’t want you to love me out of guilt or pity.”
“I don’t pity you, Carmen. But I do owe you for the joy of pregnancy that I took away from you.” He silently held her close for a moment. “Maybe you would have lost her anyway, but at least we would have had some joy for a while. I’d like to say I learned something about jealousy and trust, but sometimes I feel so . . . It doesn’t matter. I loved you from the day we met, and it had nothing to do with guilt or pity. Nothing about that has changed.” He squeezed her again and then released her. “Maybe I should invite Lori over here and we could both talk to her.”
The subject of Lori wasn’t something she wanted to get back into. But there was something else – something that might actually be at the core of Lori’s resistance.
“Alex, Lori had a crush on Josh when they were kids.”
He frowned. “You told me that, but Josh was interested in you, not Lori.”
She nodded. “But he married Lori.”
His brows furrowed deeper. “That’s because you and I . . .”
“But Lori loved you,” she interrupted.
He stared at her. “So you said. What’s your point?”
“So in her eyes, I took Josh and you from her – and now Destiny.”
His expression transformed slowly from perplexed to comprehension.
“So you think she wants to get back at you by taking me away?”
“Maybe - or by splitting us up. It’s something to keep in mind. Maybe she’d like to take both you and Destiny away from me.”
He lifted a brow, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“And that she doesn’t really want either of us?”
Carmen smiled in a coy way and leaned toward him. “Now how could that possibly be?”
He grinned. “Maybe she sent that good looking man to sweep you off your feet and take you out of the picture.”
It was intended as a joke, but the thought was disturbing. Could Lori have sent the man? Each time he made an appearance, Alex was close enough to see. Maybe Lori wanted Alex to think his wife was having an affair. That was kind of far out, even for Lori. If that was her intent, she knew by now that it had been foiled.
“Well, it’s all something to keep in mind. We can talk about this later. I saw Jonathan headed for the house. I’d better get supper on the table.”
After he left the room, the situation with Lori stayed on her mind. Maybe it would be best if Lori spoke to them about this only through an attorney. It was possible that Alex was making no progress with her because she actually didn’t want what she was asking for. By now she had to know she wasn’t going to lure Alex away. She also must know why it was so important to him that she didn’t take Destiny. They would have to keep an eye on her. If her present methods were not working, she might simply decide to take Destiny and run – if Destiny was what she wanted. If she wanted revenge, she might simply try to break them up. Again the red headed man crossed her mind. Was he an admirer, as Alex thought, or was he paid to make it look like they were involved? That might explain the way he stuck his head inside the car. She shuddered.

Later that evening while they were alone, Carmen and Alex decided that the next time Lori came by or called, Carmen would talk to her and tell her that the option to take Destiny back had passed. After that, neither of them would discuss the matter further with her. If she continued to push it, they would get a restraining order against her. It wasn’t something either of them wanted to do, but the situation had grown out of control.
Several nights later the telephone rang and Carmen answered it. Alex was sitting in his chair, reading a magazine and glanced up when she spoke.
“Is Alex there?” Lori asked in a cool voice.
“Lori?” Carmen asked, trying to establish identity.
“Alex is here, but I’d like to talk to you.”
When Lori didn’t respond, Carmen continued. “Lori, I know I told you in the hospital that I would let you have Destiny when you were ready, but I hadn’t talked to Alex about it yet. I was thinking about you then, not Alex or Destiny. I was wrong. That’s why we went ahead and adopted her. We both made the decision to adopt her and we told you it would be permanent, remember?”
“I remember, but you said you’d give her back.”
“Lori, legally and emotionally she is our daughter. You need to get on with your life. You’re welcome to come see her as long as we feel that it is in everyone’s best interest.”
Lori hesitated a moment. “What’s that supposed to mean? It’s an open adoption. I can see her whenever I want to. It says so on the papers.”
“No, Lori. It clearly states that we have the right to decide when and where. We have simply allowed you to see her whenever you want.”
“So you intend to keep her from me. That isn’t a wise decision, Carmen. I can make it unpleasant for you.”
“Don’t threaten me, Lori. I’m sorry things didn’t work out well for you, but I can’t do anything about it.”
The receiver clicked and the dial tone buzzed. Carmen hung up and looked at Alex.
“She said she could make it unpleasant for me.”
He nodded. “I think it’s time to get that restraining order – before she does something. I’m afraid this is going to get ugly.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, Carmen.”
“It isn’t your fault.”
His smile was wry. “Possibly, but I’m still sorry.”
He tossed the magazine aside and stood. For a moment his gaze wandered over her face reflectively.
“What?” she asked.
Amusement danced in his eyes and around his mouth. “Nothing.”
“Why were you looking at me that way?”
“Why do you look at me that way sometimes . . . all over?”
Her face grew warm again. “You know.”
He grinned. “Sure, but tell me anyway.”
The warmth grew into a flame and she tossed her head defiantly. “I’m allowed to look at you that way. You are my husband.”
He chuckled as he reached for her. “You’re one in a million, Carmen. Do you have any idea how good it makes a man feel to have a beautiful woman look at him that way?”
When his hand touched her arm, she moved toward him. “Beautiful?” She laughed nervously.
His hands slid down her arms and his palms touched hers warmly as his fingers laced through hers. They stood that way, inches apart, for a few moments. Finally he released one hand and lifted it to her face, crooking a finger under her chin to lift it.
“Beautiful,” he said softly, his eyes velvety chocolate pools. “Violet eyes and blond hair - what a combination.” And then he kissed her.
After a long and fulfilling kiss, she laid her head on his chest and hugged him. For a moment she was silent, thinking about Alexia. For the first time the memory wasn’t painful, but a reminder that despite all odds, something magical had happened between them.
“Do you ever wonder what she would have looked like?” she finally asked.
“Who?” His voice was soft, and then comprehension changed it. “I try not to think about it at all.”
She squeezed him. “I’m sorry. It’s just that . . . you’re so perfect. It seems like such a waste that . . . but, I can’t do anything about it anyway.”
He was silent a moment. “If it means that much to you, there is a way.”
“No. God has said no. I don’t believe in that.” There she was, thinking only about herself again. She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. “Do you want to?”
For a long moment he looked into her eyes. Finally he pulled her close.
“Sometimes, but if it’s against your morals, then no.”
It was strange to have him turning to her for an answer on something. And who was she to deprive him because of her beliefs? And yet, in her heart she was sure it was wrong. Maybe because that was the way she had been raised. Did everyone have these agonizing doubts? Maybe he wasn’t as perfect to the world as he was in her eyes. For her, he was the perfect soul mate. She could live a lifetime and never find someone so perfectly fit to her wants and desires. She sighed heavily and squeezed him again.
“I’d rather die than lose you.”
He grunted surprise. “Don’t talk that way. I’m not going anywhere.”
Finally he gently pulled her back and smiled down at her.
“Heidi, the rest of your flock has been in bed for a half-hour.”
Pushing the moment to the recesses of her mind where she could cherish it another time, she smiled up at him, lightening to his mood.
“Well then,” she said, tugging his hand as she turned toward the bedroom. “What are we waiting for?”
Life was so different than she had planned or expected, and yet, it was so much better. Alex hadn’t fathered their children, but had it not been for him, it never would have happened. He had the courage to step forward and take chances, and the ability to persuade her to follow. Having a child that was part of them was a dream. What they had now was reality. In a way, these children were a part of them too. The situation with Lori had been her greatest fear of adoption. Facing it wasn’t nearly as bad as she thought it would be, and having Alex at her side was the biggest reason it wasn’t. He always seemed to know the best thing to do, and when. How wonderful it must feel to be so sure of what he was doing.

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