A Change of Hearts (Chapter Eight, page 1 of 1)

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Nina wasn’t the only one awaiting her arrival. Felipa and Alondra were there as well. Alondra was dressed in a pale yellow gown that did wonders for her thin figure and highlighted her flawless complexion.
“Wow,” Carmen said. “That dress is really YOU!”
Alondra smiled shyly but her eyes shined. “Wait until you see what Nina has sewn for you.”
In that moment of obvious joy, Alondra barely had an accent. Was it possible that their accent was in large, contrived? That made no sense.
Felipa was wearing a perky red satin gown with spaghetti straps and full skirt. Her figure was not as well developed as Alondra or Dulce, but she looked nice in the style and color.
“Did Nina make your dresses too?” Carmen asked.
“She always makes our clothes,” Felipa said. “She is such a good seamstress.”
“I will go get your dress,” Nina said to Carmen, and left the room.
It was nice seeing Alondra like this. Maybe getting away from Dulce had helped. The big question was, would her confidence last? But then, maybe Alondra was one of those people who simply took a long time to warm to strangers.
Nina returned with a dress made of dark purple velvet and satin. She smiled as Carmen put hands to her mouth in surprise.
Nina’s smile was broad. “I look at those eyes and I remember this fabric I buy but never use.”
She helped Carmen into the new dress. The satin bodice came down to a velvet V at her waist, and the velvet top dropped off her shoulders, exposing too much breast for her taste. She hiked it up and Felipa rolled her eyes.
“You are so beautiful. Why do you want to cover yourself so much?”
Carmen shrugged. “I guess because the only one who should be looking at it is my husband.”
All three girls laughed.
“What a waste,” Nina said. “You have such lovely . . .” She turned to the side and motioned to indicate large breasts on herself. “I would have so much to look at!”
Alondra and Felipa laughed when Carmen blushed. She was well aware that her breasts were over-proportioned, but it was the first time anyone had openly mentioned it in the presence of others.
Carmen swirled around, enjoying the feel of the skirt as she eyed her image in the mirror. Stopping suddenly, she caught her breath. “It’s beautiful,” she said breathlessly. Her waist looked tiny, swathed in velvet and surrounded by satin.
“Now I will fix your hair,” Felipa said.
They sat her in front of a mirror while Felipa worked. Alondra stood by watching, her expression pleased. Felipa pulled the hair up and used combs with amethyst jewels on them, giving the impression of long hair. The overall effect was surprising.
“You see”, Felipa said. “You have a very pretty neck. It is so slender and long. You hide everything that is lovely.”
Finally Alondra guided an Amethyst necklace around Carmen’s neck. “These are from Alex,” she said, and handed her matching earrings.
“Alex bought these?” Carmen asked in surprise.
“He said they were like your eyes,” Felipa said, stepping back to survey the overall effects as Carmen donned the earrings. She smiled.
“He will be pleased.”
“I hope so,” Carmen said, arranging the necklace so the long center stone didn’t draw attention to her breasts. “These weren’t cheap.”
Nina laughed. “You are so funny.”
Felipa finally took her by the arm. “Come. It’s time for you to join the others. The rest of us will be along soon.”
According to Felipa, the party was to be held in the main entrance, where the Christmas tree was. Felipa led Carmen to the top of the stairs.
“I will join you later,” she said, and promptly left Carmen alone.
Taking a deep breath, Carmen started down the stairs. Lifting the skirt slightly with one hand so she wouldn’t trip on it, she let the other hand slide lightly down the banister for added balance. As she rounded the curve in the staircase, the room became silent. Everyone was looking at her. For a moment she almost panicked. In the sea of faces, she didn’t see Alex. Did she arrive before him? It crossed her mind to turn and run back up the stairs, but that would embarrass him. She stood frozen, searching for him. And then he stepped forward, looking elegant in a dark tuxedo.
He offered her an arm. “Come on sweetheart. We’re the guests of honor tonight.”
His presence gave her courage to descend the last few steps. Slipping her hand through his extended elbow, she let him lead her into the center of the room. A live band started playing a waltz and he dropped a hand to her waist. Taking her hand in his, he swept her gracefully into dance.
As he swung her around, he spoke into her ear.
“For a minute there I thought you were going to bolt and run.”
She smiled up at him sweetly. “For a minute there, I was ready to do just that.”
He chuckled softly. “You look stunning.”
“Thank you for the necklace and earrings. They’re beautiful.”
It was unlike him to buy something so extravagant when she would probably never have occasion to wear it again. She leaned back and looked up at his face.
“Why did you do all this?”
“First of all, I wasn’t the only one involved. Felipa and Alondra insisted on providing the dress.” He lifted a brow. “They’re pretty fond of you. Did you know that?”
Carmen gazed up at him, shaking her head. “No, I didn’t.”
“As for my part,” His eyes were like soft chocolate pools as he gazed into hers. “Every woman should have her princess moment, don’t you think?”
It was a strange thing for a man to say. But then, Alex had always been fluent in pretty talk. It was something she had always liked about him, mostly because he was sincere about it. It wasn’t so much that he knew the politically correct things to say, but an instinct for reading people and finding their good qualities. Maybe that was what made him such a good salesman in the past. Most girls wanted to be a princess at some point in their youth, though she couldn’t specifically remember that wish. Certainly she wanted to feel special to Alex – and did.
She shrugged. “I suppose. I’ve never thought about it before.”
He had gone to a lot of effort and expense to make this a moment for her to remember. She smiled up at him. “I already have my handsome prince, though.”
His eyes sparkled with humor. “And he’s going to take you to his room after the dance.”
She raised her brows. His room?”
He grinned, the dimple playing below one of his twinkling eyes.
A tall young man tapped his shoulder and Alex surrendered her to the second dance of the evening.
The man, or boy, couldn’t have been more than twenty, yet his steps were as sure as the hands that whirled her around the room. Even Alex never held her so close. At one point as he swung her around, she saw Alex and tried to implore him, but he just laughed and waived a hand in dismissal. It was a good thing he found it so amusing.
She was relieved when an older gentleman cut in. The proper distance was maintained – and proper was the operative word. Yet he too was an excellent dancer – or maybe everyone’s dancing skills were so much better than hers that it only appeared so to her.
Between dances, the young man took over again. Alex was busy talking to a lady with a low-cut bodice. By the expression on his face, he wasn’t exactly enjoying the conversation. She was beautiful, though . . . stunning, as Alex would say.
The young man finally became bold enough to talk.
“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Your eyes . . . they are so unusual.”
Carmen wrinkled her nose. “I guess violet eyes are unusual, but I think they look the same from my viewpoint.”
His flawless complexion was interrupted briefly with a frown, and then he nodded.
“Yes, I suppose.”
That was the extent of their conversation before Señor Medena cut in. He looked even more distinguished than usual in his Spanish garb. With sure graceful movements, he danced her around the room. Finally he bowed over her hand.
“You are the most beautiful woman in the room tonight. Alex must be proud.”
While Alex appreciated beauty, his pride would hardly depend on it. She was beginning to see why Alex wasn’t impressed with Señor Medena. He could issue the highest complement and make it sound like an insult. He was the opposite of a gentleman, as far as she was concerned. Alex was ten times the man Señor Medena would ever be.
Speaking of which, where was Alex? She scanned the room, but didn’t spot him. There were so many people she had never seen – lots of good looking women. One had a bodice cut so low and her breasts shoved so high that they were in imminent danger of escaping. It was a colorful room, though, with all those beautiful gowns.
“May I have this dance?” A soft southern voice drawled behind her.
Carmen turned and tipped her head back to look at the face of the man who towered over her. He looked to be about her age and his blond hair was neatly combed into a fashionable style. Light blue eyes surveyed her while thin lips twisted into a sardonic smile. For some reason it crossed her mind that he would be fun to know.
She smiled up at him as his hand found her waist. Dancing with someone that tall was going to be . . . interesting. She rested one hand on his upper arm and surrendered her other to a hand that engulfed hers.
“I didn’t think I would ever meet you.” He said. “I was a little surprised at the invitation. We all knew about his family, but the way he acted, it was as if he wanted to hide them from us.” He grinned. “I thought maybe I wasn’t high society material.”
His grin was infectious. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about that,” she said. “I’m just a country hick myself.”
He nodded, his pale eyes darkening enough to twinkle. “Yeah, little Heidi.”
She shrugged. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage . . . who are you?”
He laughed, swirling her around. “I’m Gerald. I used to work with Alex as a Jr. Salesman at TAYCO.”
“Oh.” Alex had never mentioned him. But then, Alex hadn’t mentioned his family to her, either.
Gerald made a face. “Don’t tell me he’s never mentioned me.”
Warmth ran up her neck and she bit her lower lip.
He laughed. “I figured he was hiding something when I saw your picture on his refrigerator. He was protective of you before he even met you. Did you know that?”
The warmth spilled onto her cheeks. “No.”
His hand gently pressed on her waist, drawing her closer as he leaned down. His expression sobered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“It’s okay,” she said as she turned her head to search the room for Alex. If Alex felt the need to protect her from Gerald, maybe she shouldn’t be dancing with him.
Maybe it was because he was so tall – or the vast difference in their height. Whatever the case, they had no flow together. Truthfully, Gerald wasn’t all that good a dancer. Somehow that was a relief.
Gerald continued. “I worked with him for two years before I discovered who he really was.”
Carmen smiled to herself. If he knew who Alex really was, he probably knew more than Alex did.
Gerald was staring across the room. “If it hadn’t been for his sister, I probably still wouldn’t know,” he mused.
Carmen frowned. “Katie?”
His gaze focused back on her. “No, Felipa.” His mouth twisted into a wry smile. “Getting information about him from Katie is too much work.”
That was certainly true – at least it had been for her. Of course, she knew Alex well enough now to know he didn’t like people to hand out information about him. Maybe Katie was simply trying to stay out of trouble. What would Alex have done if she had talked? Other than the one time he had lost his temper with her, she had never known him to be anything but gentle. He wasn’t gentle then. The memory brought goose bumps to her arms.
“Are you cold?” Gerald asked.
She smiled up at him. “No, I’m fine.”
“Alex seems to be doing well,” he said after a long pause. “I couldn’t even imagine him in a comma. He’s always been so alert and in control. That must have been really difficult for you.”
Carmen lifted her chin and studied his face. He didn’t seem to be prompting her. She nodded, searching the room again for Alex. Most people would have said it was difficult for Alex. But then, that was obvious.
“It was even more difficult for Destiny and Jonathan, I think.”
“Your children?” The phrase was upturned on the end as if it was a question, but his expression labeled it a statement.
She smiled up at him, feeling a sudden need for levity.
“Yes, and we’re expecting another.”
His gaze dropped to her waist and an eyebrow shot up. “Congratulations . . . another adoption?”
She shook her head. “No, this one is ours.”
He looked uncertain. “I never would have guessed. When is it due?”
She giggled. “I’m not sure. We just found out.”
“Oh,” he said, smiling. “That explains it.”
Carmen gazed up at him innocently. “What does it explain?”
He sobered, his face coloring. “I didn’t think . . . Alex said he . . . you look so . . .”
Carmen started to laugh. “It’s a surrogacy.”
That was the first time she had said it to anyone. Somehow talking to him was easy.
His smile was relieved. “That’s wonderful.” His hand squeezed her waist. “You little stinker. I can see why Alex fell so hard for you.”
They danced for a few minutes in comfortable silence, and finally he spoke again.
“I never thought of him as being anything else but a salesman until I saw him tonight, but he seems so . . . comfortable now.”
Carmen gazed up at his somber features. They must have been close, and yet, to the best of her memory, Alex had not spoken of Gerald. What had happened that made him ditch everything he knew and come to Arkansas? More important - would he stay? Strange how such a placid moment could stir up such emotional turmoil. From the moment she realized she was in love with him, that had been her biggest concern – whether he could be happy with a simple life in Arkansas.
Gerald smiled – a wide smile that exposed well maintained teeth and a healthy twinkle in his eyes.
“He’s right. Your face is a road map to your emotions.” He chuckled. “He always wanted to be a veterinarian. I guess the only thing he wanted more than that was a good woman and children. He’s living his dream.”
Carmen felt her face growing warm. “So am I.”
The dance ended and he released her, bending over her hand. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
She pulled her hand back, her face growing warmer. “Likewise.”
He turned and walked away, his head nearly a foot above the others.
Carmen rubbed her sore neck and searched the room for Alex again, but didn’t find him. As another dance began, a flash of yellow drew her attention to Alondra, dancing with Morino. For a moment she watched them gracefully move across the room – totally in sync. They were both so tall and slender – their movements smooth and measured. Alondra smiled up at him in a way that suggested their relationship went farther than employment extended.
Dulce appeared at Carmen’s side, dressed in a dark blue gown with a high collar. She looked too proper to be considered beautiful, and her expression was lofty.
“You look for Alex?” she asked, continuing before Carmen could respond. “He is very busy with Tessa tonight, do you think?”
Carmen caught her breath, instinctively searching the sea of faces. Why did he hide the fact that his first love would be here tonight? And why didn’t he introduce her? Of course, that might be uncomfortable, but surely he must know that spending so much time with her might prove uncomfortable later. She made a face. Boy, did that sound familiar.
When Carmen’s gaze returned to Dulce, the woman had a smug smile on her lips.
“I think maybe Alex married you to get away from his family.”
It wasn’t true, of course. In fact, it was ludicrous – but it still hurt.
“I would introduce you to Tessa, yes?” Dulce said.
The thick accent and clumsy wording suddenly annoyed Carmen. If his family had lived in the United States for centuries, why didn’t they learn to speak proper English? They must be cultivating their own language. Even as she thought it, she knew her anger had nothing to do with their heritage. Her beef was with Dulce – and maybe Alex. Where was he? Right now she needed that steady gaze – his visual touch of reassurance.
Finally she spotted him talking to his father. Focusing on his profile, she willed him to look her way. People passing between them were a blur. Only his profile existed in her quest. Finally his head turned slowly, as if feeling her intense gaze. When he spotted her, that sweet chocolate gaze locked on her, visually embracing her from across the room. His smile reassured her, sapping the ire and replacing it with peace. Confidence returned with a warm rush. Then he turned back to his father, who was watching him with interest. At least they were talking.
When Carmen turned, Dulce was watching her with the same expression.
“You speak to each other across the room with your eyes,” she said as if it were some incredible feat.
Carmen shrugged, not knowing what to say. “Sometimes that’s the only way you can reach each other.” Of course, she could have used sign language, but that would have been distracting – and it wouldn’t have been as personal.
Dulce regarded her reflectively for a moment longer and then walked away without saying another word.
A search in the direction she had seen Alex revealed he was no longer there. It also revealed something that gave her pause for thought. Gerald and Felipa were standing beside the door talking to each other. Something about the way Felipa was smiling up at him suggested she was anticipating a good night kiss. The idea was reinforced when Gerald turned and walked out the door without doing so. Felipa looked disappointed.
A strong hand grabbed Carmen’s arm as the band started another song. She turned to find Alex smiling down at her.
“My turn,” he said softly. “You’re certainly popular tonight.”
“I wondered if you were ever going to come back,” she said, moving eagerly into step with him. His warm hand on her waist was reassuring. “Who is she?”
“Who?” he asked, his expression quizzical.
“The lady you were talking to.”
His gaze shifted away from her.
“Tessa,” he said quickly, and swung her around.
She stared up at his face, but he ignored her. If it were totally innocent, he would have volunteered more information. But Tessa wasn’t simply another pretty face. Tessa was the girl who left him standing at the altar once. He had loved a singer, but he had married the farmer’s daughter. The words ‘on the rebound’ came swiftly to her mind. Had he married her to escape his family?
Her step was too long, making contact with his foot. For a moment her heart beat overtime and it looked as though she might fall, but Alex smoothly caught her and stepped around, covering her fumbling so well that no one appeared to notice.
His gaze traveled over her face expressionlessly as they danced away from the spot.
“I wondered what was keeping you so long.” She continued. “I thought he was going to beat you to me again,”
“Who?” he asked again.
Her smile was wry as she gazed up at his face. “My, aren’t you the night owl tonight - the boy who has been dancing with me half the night.”
His smile was strained. “Oh, him. He’s harmless.”
“I see.” She sighed, leaning back and gazing into his eyes. “He said I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. I guess we could say he hasn’t been around much.”
The smile warmed his eyes. “We could say he has excellent taste.”
“Who is he?”
He raised a brow. “He danced with you that often and didn’t tell you his name?”
She made a face at him. “I guess he was stunned by my beauty.”
The smile broadened, including the dimple. “I guess.”
“Are you going to tell me who he is?”
He swept her around. “His name is Eduardo, and he is my cousin. He just turned twenty-one and he thinks he is a man now.”
Well, that explained a lot about him. But he wasn’t her concern tonight. She glanced up at Alex.
“So what did Tessa want?”
Alex wouldn’t lie, but if he was given enough time to think about it, he could certainly evade the issue.
His hand tightened on her waist. “She didn’t come here to talk to me. She was invited to the party.”
“Really. By whom - and why?”
His shrug and tone were nonchalant. “By whoever invited all these other people - I suppose because she was someone I knew.”
Someone he knew. So the party was actually for him, not both of them. If it had been for both of them, they would have invited some of her friends - like Katie and Bill. After all, he knew Katie too, but they only wanted the people he knew before he met his wife – excluding his sister.
As the dance came to an end, she gazed up at him.
“I met Gerald. He said he used to work with you.”
He nodded. “He was a junior salesman.”
She lifted a brow. “And your friend?”
He nodded again. “We’ve kept in touch.”
She stood silently watching him until he looked uncomfortable. Finally she spoke. “You weren’t going to introduce him to me . . . or Tessa?”
His brows drew together. “I didn’t think you’d be interested in meeting her . . . or him. You don’t know either of them.”
Hands on hips, she smiled up at him dryly. “I’m not ever going to know them if I never meet them, am I?”
He shrugged. “I guess not,” he said, glancing around. “Gerald had to leave, but you met him.” He frowned. “I don’t see Tessa right now. I’ll introduce you when I find her.”
She sighed. “You don’t have to go to the trouble. I just wish you’d stop hiding everything from me.”
His eyes flashed for a fraction of a second, and then all emotion was removed from them. His gaze wandered over her face in that familiar way. Finally he shrugged again.
“It wasn’t my intent to hide anything from you.”
Possibly not, but that was the end result. Maybe he’d think about it next time. It wasn’t worth arguing about right now.
When the band took a break, Carmen was looking for something cool to drink. Someone offered her a glass of punch. Water would have been her choice. Sweets usually made her thirstier - but it was wet. She took a sip and barely concealed her disappointment. It was far too sweet and had a bitter aftertaste.
Alex raised a brow. “Not good?”
She laughed. “I guess I wasn’t very polite, making a face like that.”
He took the glass from her hand and sipped it. “Yuck,” he said barely above a whisper. “But it’s wet.” He tipped the glass up and drained it. He grinned down at her. “That way you don’t have to taste it.” He gagged and coughed. “Much.”
Carmen giggled. “I’m glad you saved me the trouble.”
While the band was on break, Eduardo entertained them with some Spanish guitar. He was amazingly good, his fingers plucking the strings with quick nimble strokes. When the band came back Alondra and Felipa danced Flamenco in duet. They were so synchronized and fluid that Carmen asked Alex if they danced often. He didn’t know. How did these people know him so well when he knew so little about them - and why were they so fond of him when he held them in such reproach? Actually, it was only his father that he seemed to dislike . . . and maybe Dulce.
They mingled with the guests a little longer and then Carmen excused herself. It was late and they planned to go to church tomorrow for a Christmas Eve program. Alex followed her and stumbled on the stairs. Obviously the long week was taking its toll on him as well.
When they reached their room, Alex paid the sitter, who informed them that both Destiny and Jonathan were asleep. Shutting the door after her, Alex reached for Carmen. Even as tired as she was, his arms were a welcome haven. Snuggling close, she lifted her face to accept his kiss. His breath smelled of liquor. When did he leave - or was she blissfully unaware of its presence at the party? The kitchen was open all the time, but Alex didn’t drink – or never had to her knowledge.
He fumbled with her dress, trying to pull it down. It wasn’t like Alex to be so clumsy – or forward. Maybe it was the effect of the liquor.
“Wait,” she said softly, trying to unzip it in the back. “You’ll ruin it.” She turned around so he could unzip it - which he did without hesitation. She had to grab it to keep it from falling to the floor.
Alex pulled her too him, his lips seeking hers hungrily.
“Wait a minute,” she said again. “Let me get . . .”
“Wait . . . not now . . . stop,” he mimicked in falsetto. “I’m tired of waiting.” He pushed her against the wall, pulling at her dress again.
She pushed him back, speaking as firmly as she could without talking loud enough for the children to hear.
“Stop it. I don’t like it when you’re rough like that.”
For a moment he looked confused, and then turned away. “Whatever,” he said, and walked unsteadily to the bed. He sat down on the edge of the bed, staring at his feet . . . and then keeled over on the bed.
Carmen rushed to him, but found that he was either asleep or passed out. Never had he seemed so unattractive to her. In fact, what she felt was pity. He wouldn’t like that. Hopefully, this was his one and only session with drinking too much. She removed his Tux and shoes, rolling him around the bed in the process. He never woke. Pulling the covers over him, she picked up his clothes and laid them on a chair. Changing into her night gown, she decided to sleep on the love seat. Being groped by him again wasn’t something she was looking forward to. Alex was a romantic lover . . . while he was sober. The way he acted tonight was a little too much like he did when he came home from the hospital. Maybe the effects of the liquor would wear off by morning.
In spite of the uncomfortable sleeping accommodations and the situation, she fell asleep almost instantly. Sometime in the night she woke to find Alex standing over her in his pajamas. He must have changed clothes during the night.
“Carmen?” he whispered. “What are you doing over here?”
His voice sounded sober, but then, he didn’t sound drunk earlier. She sat up. I thought it would be better if I slept here.” She rubbed a sore spot in her lower back. “But it isn’t more comfortable.”
“Someone must have spiked my punch,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “Did I hurt you?”
Spiked his punch? Actually, someone had spiked her punch and he drank it. Who had handed it to her? And then she remembered seeing Dulce watching her when she accepted the drink. At the time she had thought Dulce was annoyed because she didn’t like the punch. It was something Alex didn’t need to know. He would be angry enough with Dulce if he knew she spiked his drink; but if he realized who she had actually intended the spiked drink for, he would be livid.
“Was I disrespectful?” he insisted.
“It’s alright,” she said, standing. “I’m going to bed.”
They crawled into bed and she rolled on her side with her back to him. The mattress felt so good. Alex hesitantly put an arm around her waist, relaxing when she caressed his hand.
“Carmen,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”
“I know. It’s alright.”
“I love you,” he whispered against her ear, nuzzling it.
“I love you too,” she said, snuggling closer to him.
His warm lips kissed their way down her neck and across her shoulder.
“Carmen,” he said again softly.
Something about his voice quickened her pulse. She rolled over to face him, sliding eagerly into his embrace. His lips covered hers in a long warm kiss that left her short of breath. She was no longer tired – no longer concerned about the children or the strange room. When they made love, it wasn’t necessary to pretend they were at home. Home was any place they were together.

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