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

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Morning dawned with the promised chill. May was less than a week old and the temperature was still volatile. Carmen lay still for a few minutes, soaking up the body heat from Alex. No one had remembered to turn the heat on last night. All she had to do was get up and flip a switch. It wasn’t like in the old house, where she would have slept cold, got up to a colder house and had to start a fire in an old stove, then wait an hour until she could no longer see her breath. Encouraged by the comparison, she threw back the covers and swung her feet to the cold hardwood floor. Wincing and hugging herself, she darted to the door, opened it and dashed down the hall. One flip of the switch and she retraced her steps, quietly slipping under the covers to snuggle close to Alex again.
He recoiled. “Geeze, Carmen,” he moaned sleepily.
“Well,” she giggled “you could have got out of bed and turned on the furnace. Then I could whine.”
He rolled over and propped his head up on one elbow, frowning down at her.
“I wasn’t whining.”
She gasped and jerked on the covers. “Will you lie down and stop pulling the covers off of me? I’m cold.”
He sighed heavily and dropped to the bed.
Immediately she snuggled against him again.
“I remember a time when you would have welcomed a cold morning so we could cuddle.”
He grunted, slipping an obligatory arm around her. Reluctant or not, his body heat was welcome. He used to be awake instantly - another indication that this thing with Lori was troubling him deeper than he would admit.
After the house warmed, she lifted his arm to get up. Unable to resist, she kissed his palm before putting it down.
After a shower, she dressed and headed for the kitchen to cook breakfast. By the time Alex walked into the kitchen, she was retrieving a pan of biscuits from the oven.
“Smells good,” he said, pulling a chair out and dropping into it. “I’m sorry.”
“No problem,” she said. He looked tired.
Even his groan sounded tired. “Yes it is. But it’s not of your making.”
“You’re sleep deprived.”
“Don’t make excuses for me.”
She sighed. “They’re not excuses. They’re reasons. There’s a difference.”
Picking up the glass of orange juice, he took a swallow. “I’m glad this is Friday.”
“Why don’t you just stay home today and get some rest?” I have a teacher’s conference at 9:00 and then I have to pick up a package at the Post Office. Katie wants to keep Destiny today, so I’ll drop her off and then take Jonathan to the school for his field trip when I go for the conference.”
A wry smile twisted his lips. “Stop it. You’re making me feel guilty.” He sobered and shrugged. “But maybe I will stay home today. I have a light schedule today anyway . . . nothing that can’t wait.”
She hefted the cast iron skillet and spooned some scrambled eggs into his plate. Leaning over, she kissed his cheek. “Maybe you should. They can function without your direction, you know.”
He chuckled. “And without my example, I’m sure.” Picking up a fork, he paused, smiling as he eyed her mischievously. “Are you going to be back soon?”
It would have been difficult not to smile, even if she didn’t want to. “Would you get any rest?”
His smile broadened until the dimple appeared. “It’s doubtful.”
Spooning eggs into a plate for Jonathan and a bowl for Destiny, she returned the pan to the stovetop.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Alex asked.
“I don’t have time. I’ll eat something later. I still have to water the horses and let them out.”
“I’ll take care of them. It sounds like you’ve got enough on your plate . . . except food,” he added. “No wonder you’re getting so thin.”
Thin? I’ve gained five pounds.”
“Right, in how many years? And that was all muscle from doing things you should have left for me.”
Carmen lifted a brow. “Are you complaining about the way I look?”
He looked startled for a second, and then the dimple appeared along with a twinkle in his eyes. He eyed her from head to toe with an open appreciation that brought warmth to her face.
“Not hardly,” he finally said. “I like the way it’s all arranged.”
Jonathan walked into the kitchen fully dressed and looking refreshed. “I’m hungry,” he announced in his usual soft manner.
Carmen sat the butter on the table “Your breakfast is ready and I packed a sack lunch for you. It’s in the refrigerator. I’ll go get Destiny ready while you eat.”
Alex shook his head as she walked by him. “Whatever you’re getting paid, it’s not enough.”
She dropped a hand to his shoulder and squeezed it. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got the check book.”
His soft chuckled followed her as she left the room.
It took exactly one hour to take Destiny over to Katie’s and drop Jonathan off at the school before meeting with his teacher. If it weren’t for the joy of hearing the usual glowing report, the conference would almost be a waste of time – almost. Jonathan was one of those children people dream about having. What a shame his father saw only a deformed arm and a financial burden. Yet Jonathan had adjusted quickly to his new family.
By 10:30 she had mailed the package and decided to stop at a little restaurant in the strip mall for something to eat. Maybe she should go home and eat with Alex, but it was nice simply enjoying some time alone.
As she entered the parking lot, she spotted Lori’s car. So Lori was still in Arkansas. There was no point ruining her brunch thinking about that situation. Alex was losing enough sleep over it for both of them.
It was almost 11:30 when she emerged from the restaurant. As she stepped out into the bright sunlight, a tall figure caught her attention. For some reason he reminded her of Josh. Maybe it was the wild red hair. He was as tall as Josh, but he was built heavier – and not as good looking either. He grinned at her and waved as if he knew who she was. She smiled and waved back. He was probably one of Alex’s customers. Alex could remember every one, even if he only met them once, but she had trouble remembering the names and faces of people she saw monthly. No doubt because she didn’t have to do it on a regular basis as Alex did.
Standing at the car digging in her purse for the key, she spied Alex’s truck. What was he doing here? He probably had to pick up something at the market. It crossed her mind to go in and find him, but he didn’t need assistance and probably needed the time to himself as well.
She drove straight home, but still arrived at the house only minutes ahead of him. He came in empty-handed.
“Couldn’t find what you needed?” she asked as she removed a roast from the refrigerator.
He paused, creases forming between his brows. “Pardon me?”
She frowned. “I thought you went to the market.”
He stared at her for a moment before the creases disappeared. He shrugged.
“I had to go out for a while.”
Maybe it wasn’t his truck. There were a lot of trucks out there like his. She placed the roast in a pan and reached for a knife to trim the fat off of it. Alex came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. When his warm lips pressed against the soft area behind her ear, she abandoned the knife and turned around, expecting to see a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his lips. Instead his expression was troubled as he gazed down at her.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
His dark gaze searched hers. “I don’t know, is there?”
“Nothing more than usual.” Other than the situation with Lori and the fact that it was a busy day, nothing was different than any other day. But then, any other day he wasn’t home, so he wouldn’t know.
His close proximity had the usual effect of quickening her pulse. She slowly slid her hands up his chest, enjoying the feel of the smooth muscles beneath his shirt. Capturing his neck in the noose of her arms, she snuggled her body close to his. She pulled his head down and softly kissed his lips.
For a moment he didn’t respond. She dropped her arms, tipping her head back to search his face for the reason. For a long moment they gazed into each other’s eyes. What was he thinking when he did that? Probably not the same thing she was.
Finally he lifted his hands and cradled her face in them, the thumbs gently caressing her cheeks. He kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose and then paused briefly on her lips with a light tantalizing brush. His warm hands dropped to her waist and slid to the back, pulling her gently against him. The warmth of his hands as he slid them under her blouse made her heart pound. He began with soft warm kisses along her jaw line and followed her neck all the way down to the first button of her blouse before traveling back up again. The blood was pounding in her neck when he nibbled on her earlobe.
She turned her head, seeking and finding his lips again. Capturing his neck again with eager arms, she molded her body to his, forcing his lips hard down onto her own. He felt so good she couldn’t get close enough.
He kissed her hungrily at first and then gently untangled her arms from his neck. He lifted his head and smiled.
“Slow down, sweetheart. We have the entire afternoon alone for once. Let’s savor this.”
Her cheeks burned as she buried her face in his chest. Alex had always been an ardent lover. It had been a delightful discovery on their wedding night when she had been frightened and unsure. At the moment it was embarrassing, but he would make her forget that too.
She had chosen him partly for his ability to assume control while keeping everyone’s best interest in mind . . . and partly because he aroused a passion she never knew existed. Marriage was supposed to cool that passion, or so they said. It hadn’t for her. In fact, getting to know him better had only increased it. She lifted her head and kissed his neck.
“I love you so much,” she said in a voice choked with emotion.
His response was a soft groan that vibrated delightfully against her lips. He smelled of cologne and something she always defined as masculinity. It was something wonderful, exciting and indistinct.
Without a word, he lifted her into his arms and carried her to the world of ecstasy they called their bedroom. Why he liked to carry her was still a mystery. Maybe it was macho or part of the control thing. As now, it was usually a prelude to lovemaking. Whatever motivated him, it was certainly delightful.

Much later she was back in the kitchen, preparing the roast while he slept. She sighed contentedly and shut the oven door. Alex was in control most of the time, and she liked it that way. He didn’t have that position because he was a male, as her friends often thought. He had it because he was incredibly good at it. He had earned the position, mostly in the time they were courting, but certainly since they had been married. She felt secure knowing that he was in charge. He was human, and there had been times that he had slipped, but it wasn’t because he was thinking only of himself.
Alex came complete with deep pockets . . . every woman’s dream, but he was conservative when it came to spending. He subscribed to the ‘pay as you go’ idea. That idea was fine with her, as she had a dominant frugal gene. Alex had always been supportive of her ideas. He had helped her blend her dream of a horse ranch into a profit making package of a guest ranch.
So absorbed was she in thought that she didn’t notice when he entered the room behind her. His arms slipped around her waist, drawing her back against him.
“Hey Heidi. Why don’t we go for a ride? It’s been a long time since we did that, just you and I.”
She glanced at her watch. “Well, Jonathan will be home in a couple of hours.”
“Is the bus bringing him, or do you have to go get him?”
“The bus is bringing him.
He nodded. “Well, just write him a note and if we don’t make it back before he gets home, it shouldn’t be too much longer. What about the roast?”
“I can turn the heat down and it will cook slower – might even be better.”
“Great, I’ll go saddle the horses. Meet me in the barn.”
After he left, she turned the heat down and wrote a note to Jonathan. Sticking it to the refrigerator with a magnet, she headed for the barn.
Alex was tightening the cinch on Princes when she opened the barn door.
“Great timing,” he said as she stepped inside the barn.
He led the horses outside and helped her up on Princess. In one fluid motion, he mounted Ed.
Dawn and Random followed their mother as they trotted out to the pasture. Random was three now and Dawn was almost two. If Alex was right, Princess was pregnant again. They left Casper in the corral. She was too close to her due date to be running around in the hills.
Shutting the last gate, Alex glanced at her and grinned. “Come on,” he said, kicking Ed into a gallop. The Appaloosa stallion loved to run, and Princess couldn’t be left behind.
Carmen gave Princess free rein as she followed Ed and Alex up the hill to the tree line. There they slowed down and let the horses get their wind again. It was one of those perfect spring days that held the promise of summer. The scene from the hill was breathtaking. The Dogwood trees were in full bloom, their aromatic blossoms creating white blotches on the hills. Around the tree by the pond, daffodils tipped their trumpets away from the light breeze. The old farm house had been wrapped in insulation and sided. A metal roof replaced the old shingles. In all, it barely resembled the old house. Inside, all the walls and ceilings had been covered with sheetrock. They were mudded, sanded and ready to paint. Alex had seen to all of that before she called a halt to the work. It was silly and sentimental, but she wanted to paint the master bedroom first. Yet as pointless as it might seem, Alex had readily agreed. He had a sentimental streak in him a mile wide, but he’d never admit it.
Alex slowed and dropped back beside her. “Have you seen the Longhorn bull lately?”
“No, but sometimes I don’t see him for a week or more. He always eats the grain I leave for him.”
He grunted. “Or something does.”
True. In addition to the native deer, the Elk or buffalo could have eaten the grain.
They continued up the hill, past the place where the wild dogs had broken through so long ago, and on toward the spring. Alex stopped, pointing at something on the ground.
“Look, a bear track. It looks fresh, too. Maybe we scared him.”
Carmen stared at the track. We scared him?”
Alex grinned. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of your own wildlife.”
“I never had a bear on the place until you came along.”
He laughed. “I’m not a bear.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Yes you are. A Teddy-Bear. Anyway, I meant I’ve never seen a bear on this land before.”
“Well, people are moving in around us all the time. I suppose it’s no surprise that wildlife is moving onto our land. That’s one more thing we won’t have to buy.”
“Yeah, and one more thing we can’t control.”
His chuckle was low and soft. “When are you going to have that house finished? I thought you planned to have paying customers in it this summer.”
“I bought the paint. Pretty soon it’s going to be hot. I keep thinking I’ll get it done some weekend, but I always seem to be busy with something else.”
“You need help,” he said. “Why don’t I watch the kids while you paint on it next weekend?”
She arched a brow. “Do you think you’re up to it?”
He laughed shortly. It can’t be all that hard.”
“You’re on. I never knew time would be such a precious commodity. I always figured being a stay-at-home mom would be a plush job.”
He studied her reflectively. “Are you sorry?”
“Nope.” She grinned. “Just pleasantly surprised. But then, I never expected you to get up at night and take care of the baby when I was worn out. Did I ever say thank you?”
The twinkle came back into his eyes. “So many times and in so many ways.”
She sighed. “Are you ever sorry you got married?”
He rolled his eyes. “Come on, Heidi. Let’s see if we can find that bull before the bear does. Tangling with either has got to be less dangerous than answering your domestic questions.”
He slipped the rifle out of its boot and led the way through the underbrush. More than likely that bear was far away by now, but Alex wasn’t one to take unnecessary chances.
As they approached the spring, the smell of rotting flesh was strong. Alex lifted the rifle and examined the brush around them carefully.
They found the bull close to the spring, dead and partially consumed, his horns still entangled in brush.
Alex dismounted and squatted to examine the remains. “Bear, I think.” He leaned closer to get a better look.
“Did the bear kill him?” Carmen asked. The thought that the bull might have starved made her stomach turn.
“It looks like it. He hasn’t been missing long enough to have starved. Look at the way the brush is beat down. He struggled for a while.” He stood, still frowning. His gaze searched the woods behind them in a way that made her nervous. “It looks like the bear staked this out as his kill, so . . .”
Ed threw up his head and snorted.
“Woah boy!” Alex said, grabbing the reins. “Hold Princess in, Carmen. He smells something.”
She gripped the reins as Princess threw her head back, snorting and side-stepping. It happened so fast that in spite of his warning, she was nearly unseated. She hung on to the horn, talking to the horse. “It’s alright girl.” Dawn and Random snorted and crowded close to Princess.
Alex pointed the rifle into the air and fired twice. Something big plunged away through the brush and Alex swore under his breath.
“He must have been following us.”
The idea raised hair on the back of her neck. She had been riding in the rear.
“He couldn’t have been too close or the horses would have smelled him.”
“What little breeze there is was in his favor.” Alex said. “Let’s get back to the house. I’ll get Bill and a few guys. We need to do something about that bear.”
“Because he killed the bull?”
“Because he’s too bold – and we’re not that far from the house.” He mounted. “Stay close to me,” he said as he kicked Ed into motion.
He needn’t worry. If that bear came back, Alex would have to peal her off his back.

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