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

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Señor Medena met them at the airport, a pretty dark haired girl at his side. Alex didn’t look at Carmen, which was her first inkling that something was amiss. When Señor Medena introduced the girl as his daughter, Carmen caught her breath and looked at Alex for an explanation.
Alex wasn’t much help, though. He continued to avoid her gaze, focusing on Felipa instead.
Felipa looked to be in her early twenties and had a sunshine smile that made Carmen feel welcome. Big brown eyes shined on them enthusiastically while dangling earrings sparkled with the movement of her head. Her dark shining hair was pulled back loosely with bejeweled combs and hung in loose curls down her back. When she spoke, she welcomed them with a soft melodic voice made all the more attractive with a Spanish accent.
“I have been so excited since father said you were coming!” she said to Alex, but her eyes included Carmen. She hugged both Alex and Carmen.
Carmen accepted the hug and stepped back, startled to silence. Alex had been hiding more than a father. Why?
If Felipa noticed her reaction, she gave no indication. Señor Medena eyed Carmen thoughtfully, but like Alex, there was no way of knowing what was on his mind.
Carmen tried to focus on Felipa, but her mind was full of questions. Maybe Katie wasn’t the only one who had been overlooked by Señor Medena when it came to inheritance. Maybe his father favored boys. Then again, maybe Felipa was as reluctant to inherit as Alex was. That seemed unlikely, though. She came to the airport with him.
Felipa held her hands out to Destiny. “Can I hold her?” she asked Alex.
Alex carefully detached Destiny from his neck. “I doubt if she’ll go to you. She’s . . .” The words trailed off as Destiny reached for Felipa.
Felipa took her from his arms and held her. “She is so cute! Look at those big gray eyes and that beautiful red hair! Ohhh!” she said, hugging Destiny. “She is adorable!”
Destiny was watching her as though she were a favorite TV show. Maybe it was the soft accent that held her attention. Whatever the cause, Destiny was drawn to Felipa from the start.
Alex was cordial to his father and formal to his sister. Felipa didn’t seem to notice anything unusual in his attitude, so maybe he had always treated them that way. In fact, maybe he didn’t know her very well. If their meeting today was any indication, this visit was going to be interesting – if not uncomfortable.
After they retrieved their luggage, Señor Medena instructed a man to carry it to a white limousine. Carmen tried to hide her surprise. Renting a fancy car wasn’t going to impress her or Alex. Still, the gesture was nice, and from the little she had heard, he could afford it.
Alex helped the man get the luggage into the trunk and then hurried to assist Carmen into the car before the man could touch her. Felipa giggled. Alex climbed into the car beside Carmen and placed his arm protectively on the back of the seat behind her neck. His cool gaze shifted idly from Felipa to Señor Medena.
Carmen scooted closer to him, wondering if he heard Felipa. Some might consider his response silly or controlling, yet to her it was sweet and reassuring. He wanted to protect her and preserve her innocence. The fact that there was nothing to protect her from was irrelevant.
She gazed out the window as if she hadn’t noticed anything unusual. “It’s all so . . . busy. Don’t you feel overwhelmed by it?” she asked Alex.
He shook his head. “You’ll get used to it.”
That she doubted, but his tone was confident. Well, he did say he would go because she and Jonathan wanted to. She turned to Felipa.
“Is the ranch far from here?”
“No, it is not too far. You will love it there” Felipa said enthusiastically.
“I’m sure. It’s so warm down here. Is it always like this?”
Felipa shrugged a shoulder elegantly. “It is a beautiful day, but yesterday it was cold. We have some cold days, but mostly it is warm.”
Señor Medena was watching Alex, but from the corner of her eye Carmen could see Alex was looking out the window. Was he actually avoiding conversation with his father?
“Alex tells me you have some nice horses on your ranch,” Carmen said to Señor Medena. “What breed do you raise?”
“Mostly Arabian,” he said, shifting his attention to Carmen. “You like horses, yes?”
“Oh yes, very much. We have Appaloosas.”
Felipa smiled. “I love Appaloosas. How many do you have?”
“Six counting Alex’s stallion. I have a mare; and we have a five-year-old mare with a colt, a four year-old filly, and a two-year-old filly . . . oh, and my mare is going to foal again in January.”
“This is registered horses?” Señor Medena asked.
“Oh yes. We also have a couple of wild asses. Alex got them a month ago. We . . . actually, I . . . was thinking about adopting a few wild horses from out west where they have too many.”
The conversation drifted on, with Jonathan occasionally contributing, but Alex was stoic in his position at the window. Surely he didn’t intend to be verbally invisible the entire visit. It wasn’t like him to be petty. Maybe he felt excluded – or maybe he simply needed a little encouragement. She turned to him.
“Is the gulf far from here?”
His empty gaze shifted momentarily from the window to her face. In that moment she cringed inwardly. This wasn’t the Alex she knew. She searched his face for some indication of comprehension, eventually finding it only in his voice.
“Not far, why? Do you want to see it?”
Still feeling the sobering effects of that cool regard, she forced a smile.
“I’d like to, but if it’s too much trouble . . .”
She left the sentence hanging, but he simply turned back to the window.
Señor Medena was watching him intently. Alex had directed the little he said to her only. It simply wasn’t like him to be rude like that. Maybe a little levity would help. She leaned back against his arm, watching his profile as he looked out the window.
“You did make me an offer about that beach once.”
It was a long time back, before they were married. He asked her to go back to Houston with him, enticing her with rides on the beach - and love all night.
His head turned suddenly, his bewildered gaze searching her face.
“I remember you declined,” he defended archly.
She met his gaze and smiled. “Only because you had the cart before the horse.”
The smile came slowly, warming his eyes – touching them with humor. His hand dropped to her shoulder and he squeezed it.
“We’ll see.”
When her attention returned to the others, she caught Señor Medena and Felipa watching them. The expression on Felipa’s face reflected both humor and interest. It was impossible to know what was going on in Señor Medena’s mind by observing his expression.
“Will we see any dolphins, Dad?” Jonathan asked.
Alex shifted a faintly amused gaze to Carmen.
“Now look what you started.”
Carmen wrinkled her nose at him. “That’s what you get for waiting so long. Now I have reinforcements.”
He nodded toward Destiny. “She’s asleep.”
“Jonathan and I will make sure we fill her in on anything she missed.”
His chuckle was soft. “I’ll bet you will.”
For the remainder of the trip to the ranch, Alex remained in a good mood. Maybe he was simply tired.

When they reached their destination, Alex pulled her aside and gently corrected her. It was a hacienda, not a ranch, and Señor Medena was the patrón.
More than likely the correction was to prevent her from being embarrassed.
At any rate, the Medena hacienda was impressive. The three-story building looked big enough to cover a city block. The Spanish design with its ivory stucco walls reminded her of a mission. A wide porch stretched the length of the building, and above it were two balconies with black wrought iron banisters that curved out gracefully. The porch posts were black metal with a filigree design. The rural countryside that surrounded the building rolled gracefully to trees that looked like Oaks, but it was winter and they still had their leaves.
If the outside was impressive, the inside was magnificent. Large Mahogany doors swung into an entry graced with antique furnishings. The maroon tapestry mirrored highlights in the rich hardwood floor. From the foyer, they entered a huge room with a wide staircase that curved gracefully from the balcony on the second floor. A tall perfectly formed and decorated Christmas tree stood beside the staircase.
Destiny wiggled in Felipa’s arms and pointed, declaring in a loud voice. “Wook Mama. A Cwismas twee!”
“Yes. Isn’t it pretty?” Carmen said, grabbing her hand and kissing the chubby little fingers.
Destiny reached for Alex. “Daddy, I wana hold wou.”
Alex retrieved her from Felipa and shifted her so that she sat on his arm, one of her arms around his neck. His gaze sought Carmen and the sides of his mouth turned up in a warm smile. It was something he often did when their surroundings became uncomfortable. It was his way of focusing in – pulling her close without the intimacy of touching. Sometimes he even did it when there was a room full of people between them.
It crossed her mind that Alex might be more than uncomfortable in these surroundings. Maybe it resurrected memories that were unpleasant – even painful.
Carmen met his gaze for a moment – long enough to reunite, and then they both turned back to the others.
Felipa leaned toward her, speaking softly.
I think it is so cute the way you two flirt with each other. I hope to have a love like yours some day.”
Carmen glanced at her in surprise. Flirt? Well . . . they had been flirting with each other in the car. Cute? Actually, she hadn’t thought how it looked to others - and there had never been any doubt in her mind that she was fortunate to have Alex.
Her attention focused on two girls who entered the room and stopped beside Señor Medena.
“Carmen,” Señor Medena said. “These are my other two daughters, Dulce and Alondra.”
Carmen refrained from looking at Alex or displaying the shock she felt at the introduction of two more siblings he had never mentioned – an entire family. No wonder he didn’t want to bring her here. And yet, he did. Why had he hidden them – and why had he decided to reveal them?
Dulce had a perpetual pout, her lower lip larger than the top one. Her eyes were almond shaped, the brown of the iris so dark that it was almost black. Her jet black hair was swept up gracefully into a plaited crown. Feature by feature, Dulce was beautiful, but the hostile expression on her face when she looked at Carmen was decidedly unattractive. Dulce looked nothing like Alex. Of course, they didn’t have the same mother, either.
Alondra was attractive in a delicate way – her features more refined. Her dark hair was pulled back severely from a narrow face. Like her father, the dark eyes that examined Carmen revealed little emotion. And yet, there was something about her that suggested she was in uncharted waters – maybe body language.
Carmen held out a hand. “It’s nice to meet you both.”
Alondra offered a timid handshake, but Dulce must have thought it was an invitation to a wrestling match. Their welcome to Alex appeared to be genuine. Each of them hugged him and talked briefly to Destiny. Alex introduced Jonathan and their welcome to him was equally warm.
“Let me show you to your rooms,” Felipa said, taking Carmen by the arm.
Jonathan put his small hand in the crook of Alex’s arm and looked up at him anxiously. Alex smiled down at him in a reassuring way. He probably didn’t realize that his hostility toward Señor Medena was being transferred to Jonathan as anxiety.
The four of them followed Felipa upstairs. Their rooms were adjoined with a door, but each bedroom had its own bathroom. Jonathan and Destiny’s room had two twin beds in it, as well as a television. Jonathan immediately grabbed the remote control and plopped down on one of the beds.
Back in their room, Felipa turned to them. “I know you must be tired, so I will let you rest. If you need anything at all, be sure to let us know. Dinner will be ready at six O’clock. She glanced at Carmen. “It is casual dress.”
After she left the room, Carmen glanced down at her dress and then at Alex. “Does that mean I’m supposed to change, or that what I’m wearing is considered casual?”
Amusement twinkled in his eyes and played with the corners of his mouth. “I think she was merely directing the comment at you because she thought you might want to know. What you have on is fine, but if you want to freshen up and wear something else, go ahead. I’ll watch the kids.”
“Are you going to change?”
He grinned. “I hadn’t planned on it. Do I need to?”
Warmth crawled up her neck. “No. Do they ever have a formal dinner? I didn’t bring anything formal.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve only been in the house a few times, and I couldn’t care less what they were wearing. I don’t remember ever feeling underdressed, though. Don’t worry about it. Just be yourself.”
She eyed his lean frame. “That’s easy for you to say. You could wear a feed sack at a formal dinner and not look underdressed.”
His brows lifted and his chuckle was deep and warm. “I wish everyone wore rose colored glasses the way you do.”
She smiled and nodded to indicate Destiny, who had fallen asleep in his arms. “Why don’t you put her on the bed in their room?” As he started toward the doorway to their room, she called after him. “And leave the door open, would you? I don’t want her to wake up in a strange room and not be able to find us.”
Someone knocked on the door and when she answered it, a man brought in their luggage. After he left, she lifted one of the suitcases and placed it on the bed. Popping it open, she started hanging their things in the closet.
Alex walked in and closed the door to the other bedroom. “Jonathan is in there,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt. “Do you have a short-sleeved shirt in there for me? I’m too warm in this one.”
She frowned, looking at the suitcase. “I have a couple of polo shirts, but no light shirts. It’s winter – or was at home.”
He pulled the shirt tails out of his pants and shucked it. “I guess that will do.”
The white athletic undershirt contrasted attractively with his bronzed skin. His was not the chest of a body builder, nor did he have six-pack abs. The muscles on his chest and arms were not well defined. They swelled and blended smoothly - and that flat tummy was so masculine. In fact, everything about him was masculine.
Her wandering gaze came up to his face and warmth shot painfully up her neck. That pleased smile was on his lips again and his eyes held a glint of humor. Once again he had caught her ogling him.
He tossed the shirt on the bed and walked silently to her. The smile faded and his expression became ardent. Gathering her in his arms, he pulled her close – his lips seeking hers hungrily. For a moment she surrendered to his warm lips and secure embrace, clinging to him as her heart stepped up pace. Finally she pushed away from his embrace.
“Not now,” she whispered. “The kids are in the next room.”
His voice was husky. “Destiny is asleep and Jonathan is watching a space movie on television. He’ll be stuck to that TV for hours. He has his own remote control.” He drew her close again, his lips kissing their way down her throat.
“Carmen,” he moaned against her neck.
“Destiny might wake up,” she reasoned in an uncertain voice.
“I’ll lock the door,” he said, his lips returning to hers and lingering in a way that made her feel weak.
She drew back. “Not now.” The words lacked the conviction she intended in them. All the same, he was the one who broke the embrace.
“Maybe so,” he said as he released her. “Give me one of those polo shirts and I’ll go wash up.”
Give me?” she teased, trying to lighten the mood. She handed him a light blue shirt. “I thought you weren’t going to change.”
He took the shirt, his smile wry. “Not for them.” he said, and turned to the bathroom.
Not now implied later, but that didn’t feel comfortable either. They had never been anywhere else overnight together. The idea of making love in a strange bedroom was disturbing enough, but with only a door between them and the children, locked or not, it didn’t feel right. Still, it wasn’t fair to put him off on their vacation – especially for two weeks. Things would get better. She’d start feeling more comfortable with the room. Tonight, when it was dark, she could pretend they were at home.

Dinner was interesting. Maybe his family didn’t consider the meal formal, but their attire was certainly better quality than she was accustomed to. Still, she didn’t feel uncomfortable. Alondra would have been stiff and formal no matter what she wore – or maybe she was the one who felt uncomfortable. Señor Medena sat at the head of the long dining table, his three daughters on his left. Alex sat to his immediate right, with Destiny, Carmen and Jonathan beside him, in that order. The man sitting at the other end of the table was introduced to them as Morino el capataz – their foreman, Morino. The boy who sat beside him was his son. Alfonso looked to be a year or so older than Jonathan. Apparently the duo was considered part of the family.
Señor Medena looked at Alex. “This is a fine meal, do you think?”
“Very nice,” Alex agreed without looking up. “Thank you for inviting us.”
“We have the finest chef in Texas,” Señor Medena added, still watching Alex.
“That’s nice,” Alex said quietly, focusing on his plate.
“Do you eat so good?” he persisted.
Alex finally looked at him. “Carmen is a very good cook.”
Señor Medena’s reflective gaze rested on Carmen. “Oh yes. I see what you mean.” His gaze shifted back to Alex. “Tell us about your . . . clinic.”
Alex shrugged. “There’s nothing much to tell. It’s just a veterinary clinic. You saw it.”
Carmen wanted to shrivel out of sight. Never had she seen Alex so hostile – not even with Josh. He was being positively rude. When Jonathan spoke, the distraction was welcome. She turned her head to watch him.
Jonathan leaned forward so that he had a full view of Señor Medena. “Do you have many horses here? Could I ride one?”
“Jonathan,” Alex began gently, but Señor Medena interrupted him.
“Yes, we have many horses. Tomorrow you each shall ride one.”
“Destiny!” Alex said sharply.
Carmen whipped her head around. Destiny had a fist full of mashed potatoes, the white mash oozing from between her fingers. Alex captured her hand and forced her to drop the potatoes.
Destiny stared up at Alex, obviously startled. Her lower lip pushed out and then she started to cry.
Carmen grabbed a napkin and began wiping the mashed potatoes from her hand.
“You’re supposed to eat with a spoon or a fork,” she instructed calmly as she finished wiping the little hand.
Alex leaned over and kissed Destiny’s cheek. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He put a spoon in her hand. “Now eat with this.”
Destiny whimpered for a few moments and then directed her attention to using the spoon to rearrange the potatoes on her plate.
Carmen glanced around the table, but everyone seemed to be more amused than disturbed . . . everyone but Señor Medena. His contemplative regard fell on Carmen.
“This new baby . . . it will not be too much?”
Carmen shot a glance at Alex, who was giving his meal undue attention.
“We’ll adjust,” she said, and stared down at her plate. There was no reason Alex shouldn’t tell his father. It was no secret.
“New baby?” Felipa said excitedly. “You are pregnant? How exciting!”
Carmen glanced at Alex again. How much had he told Señor Medena – or how little?
Finally he glanced up and met her questioning gaze. Without comment, he shifted his attention back to his plate.
Señor Medena cleared his throat. “Someone else carries this baby for you. This is true?”
Carmen met his mocking gaze. “They call her a gestational carrier.” It sounded so cold – so clinical. “She will have the baby for us because I have no womb, but it is our baby.”
A test tube baby?” Dulce said using an incredulous tone. “This does not bother you?”
Carmen kicked Alex under the table. He glanced at her and then at Dulce. Pointing his fork at her plate, he spoke sternly. “Eat your dinner.”
Dulce graced him with a saccharine smile and said no more.
Later, as they walked back to their room, Jonathan looked up at Carmen. “I don’t understand. Why is it good when you adopt a baby that isn’t yours, but bad if it’s yours and you don’t give birth to it?”
Carmen stared at him. It was a logical question, but to come out of the mouth of a 10-year-old? Obviously Alex had discussed the baby with him in greater detail than she had. She put a comforting arm around his shoulders.
“I guess it’s just something different – something we aren’t used to yet.”
There was no way to defend her moral objections without seeding doubt in his mind. He didn’t need any preconceived ideas about his little brother or sister. She had enough for the entire family.
When the kids were settled in their room, she turned on Alex.
“Did the cat get your tongue at the table? Why didn’t you say something?”
He eyed her sourly. “What did you want me to say?” He hesitated, his gaze becoming intense. “How long is this going to be your dirty little secret?”
She gasped. What a horrible thought. “It isn’t a dirty . . .” she began. Or was it? Having a baby was something they should be excited about – talking about to others. And yet, she was reluctant to say anything to church members – even family members. And now she was even resenting Alex for telling his father. She sank to the bed.
“I’m sorry.”
He rested a hand on her shoulder and sighed, gazing down at her tenderly.
“No, I’m sorry. This isn’t easy for you, is it?”
She smiled up at him. “It isn’t going to get any easier, so I’d better shape up. I can’t just take the baby and shift the responsibility of how it came about to your shoulders. I agreed to this and I want the baby as much as you do. I don’t want a shadow hanging over him.”
A slow smile spread over his mouth and spilled into his eyes. “Him?”
“Why not? Jonathan wants a little brother, not a little sister.”
He laughed. “What about Destiny? She’ll be closer to her age.”
She?” Carmen mimicked. “So you want another girl. Your experience with Destiny and me must have been pretty impressive.”
He shoved her back on the bed playfully. “What about Jonathan and me? You do realize that if it’s a girl, we’re going to be unevenly matched.” He crawled onto the bed and lay down beside her, his expression becoming sober.
She rolled over and sat up, but he stopped her with a hand on her arm. Looking down at him, she sighed.
“Not now, Alex.”
He rose up on one elbow and frowned. “Why not? The kids are asleep.”
“I know, but . . . we’re guests in this house, and . . .” She sighed heavily. “Do you realize we’ve never made love any place besides our home?”
She hesitated as his troubled gaze ran over her face. Maybe he was thinking about Alexia, but that was still on their land, in the old house before it was renovated. Or maybe he was thinking about their conversation last night. But this wasn’t about intimacy – was it? It was about privacy and morality.
Finally he sat up, a glint of humor in his eyes. “I sure hope you brought that ugly nightgown.”
Relief brought a smile to her lips. “As a matter of fact, I did.”

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