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


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Felipa left Carmen at the foot of the stairs, striding off without another word. Hopefully she wasn’t offended. Carmen put a foot on the first step and then heard voices. As she glanced up, Morino and Alex started down the stairs, the tall lanky foreman taking two at a time. Alex followed him with familiar quick steps.
“When did it happen?” Alex asked.
“About ten or fifteen minutes ago. We were checking the mare and she bolted, knocking the stable boy down. He wasn’t hurt,” he interjected. “Then she ran straight into the fence – like she didn’t see it.”
“What did she eat today?” Alex asked as they reached the bottom step. His gaze flitted to Carmen as they passed. “I’ll be back in a little while, sweetheart.”
And then they were walking out the door, still talking about the mare.
Carmen sighed. It was nice to hear English spoken without a Spanish accent. How long had Morino lived in America? Not that his speech was any indication. Apparently Señor Medena and his daughters had lived here all their lives. Dulce was the oldest of the girls, yet her accent was the most prominent.
Carmen carried Destiny back to their room and got her ready for bed. Jonathan was sitting on his bed, watching TV in his pajamas. He used the remote to shut the television off.
“I’m going to bed early. Dad said we were going to watch some horses race tomorrow.”
“Here?” Carmen asked.
“Yeah, out by the corral.” Jonathan slipped under the covers. “Good night.”
“Good night.” Carmen turned the light off and shut the door.
After flipping through a few channels, Carmen decided to take a long bath. Even so, Alex wasn’t back by the time she got out. Slipping into the new nightgown, she slid between the sheets. It wasn’t the first time she had gone to bed while he was out on a call, but it was the first time she had done so away from home. For a moment a pang of homesickness engulfed her. Their routine had changed so much that it seemed their lives had been turned upside down. If this was what defined a vacation away from home, she’d just as soon stay at home.
She was still awake an hour later when Alex came through the door. He stumbled over something and exclaimed before she turned on the lamp beside her bed.
“Are you alright?” She asked.
He groaned. “I guess. I didn’t know you were awake.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
“Well I sure could. I’m exhausted.”
“How is the mare?”
“Better. I think she was foundered. We’ll know more about her recovery tomorrow. One of the men is staying up with her.”
Carmen leaned on her pillow and watched him dress for bed. “Jonathan said you were taking him to some kind of horse race tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I think it’s more like a miniature rodeo.” He shrugged into the pajama shirt. “Oh, I was supposed to tell you about a party.”
“Felipa was telling me. Is it formal? I don’t have anything formal.”
“I thought I remembered you telling me that,” he said, sitting down on the bed. “I arranged to have their seamstress sew you one. You’re supposed to go down to be measured in the morning.”
His gaze dropped to her nightgown and his brows lifted. “That’s more like it.” Lifting the covers, he climbed into bed and moved close to her.
Carmen reached over and flipped off the light. Turning toward him, she melted into his warm embrace. The room felt comfortable and the children were asleep. It was time. She cuddled close to him and lifted her face for his affection. For a moment she lay waiting, and then realized he had fallen asleep.
“Alex?” she whispered. But he didn’t answer.
How could anyone fall asleep that fast? He must have been really exhausted. Well, a horse was a lot of weight to handle, and it had been a long day of activity. She kissed his lips softly and rolled away from him. At least he couldn’t blame her for any lack of attention this time.

In the morning she showered and dressed before he woke. Jonathan was up early and ready to go, so Alex hurriedly showered and dressed. Carmen dressed Destiny while they went down for breakfast. A few minutes after they left, Felipa arrived with an older woman she introduced simply as Maria. Maria was supposed to watch Destiny until they got back.
Carmen shook her head. “No offence, but Destiny doesn’t know her. She’ll be frightened.”
“Oh,” Felipa said. “Then we will all go down together and Maria can get acquainted with her while you are measured for a dress. You will need a sitter for the party anyway.”
After dressing Destiny, Felipa led them downstairs to a large room where a Spanish woman was working with some material.
“Nina, this is Carmen,” Felipa introduced her. “You know, Alex’s wife.”
“Oh yes!” Nina said, her eyes expressing delight. Her calculating gaze ran over Carmen from head to toe and she smiled. “I have much to work with!”
Felipa turned a pleased smile on Carmen. “She is the best seamstress in Houston!”
Nina waved a hand modestly. “No, only in this county.”
They all laughed. For the next two hours, the women talked delightfully about meaningless things that kept them laughing. How being fitted for a dress could be so much fun was hard to explain, but it was.
After the fitting, Carmen retrieved Destiny. Felipa guided them to Alex and Jonathan. As they approached a large building, a lot of whooping and yelling could be heard beyond it.
Felipa smiled at Carmen’s inquisitive look. “I think they are all having fun with Alex.”
Carmen frowned. “I hope not the way they did the last time.”
Felipa laughed. “But the horse did not buck him off.”
True, but her answer left Carmen’s stomach tied in a knot. They rounded the corner of the building to see a group of men lounging against the fence, watching a display that made Carmen’s blood run cold. It was a combination of hurdles, poles, barrels and open space – down which Alex was riding a horse at a gallop. He leaned forward as the horse leaped, and then back as he slowed it down, then sideways at an impossible angle as it scrambled around the barrel. From there the horse dashed in and out of the poles and came to a stop on his haunches. Then he turned to do it all in reverse. Once repeated, the horse came to a halt in a cloud of dust, Alex leaping off before it settled.
“Is he not wonderful?” Felipa gasped.
Wonderful wasn’t the word for it. He was magnificent - and reckless. How could he do such a thing in front of Jonathan . . . and where was Jonathan? Finally she spotted him, plastered against the fence, watching Alex.
Alex handed the reins to a caretaker and dusted himself off as he headed for the gate. He looked pleased with himself until he saw Carmen. The smile faded from his lips and he motioned for Jonathan to join him.
“Will you show me how to do that?” Jonathan asked Alex excitedly as they joined Carmen and Felipa.
“I think your mother would nail my hide to the wall,” he responded as he finished putting his belt on. His gaze lifted innocently to Carmen. “It was all just good clean fun.”
She reached out and brushed dirt from his shoulder without commenting.
Felipa hugged him. “You were wonderful! Did you win?”
He laughed. “I don’t think anyone was timing me. They were too busy watching to see if I would fall off.”
Carmen rolled her eyes. “Life just isn’t dangerous enough without that.”
He put an arm around her waist and kissed her cheek. “Let’s go look at the horses. They have some very nice animals.”
He said they as if the horses belonged to the ranch hands. Maybe he felt more comfortable thinking of it that way.
Felipa left them to their family outing and returned to the house. Destiny begged Alex for a ride on his shoulders. Alex obliged and then the four of them continued to a lot where some horses grazed. Alex pointed at a white horse prancing along the fence.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” He asked Carmen.
Beautiful he was, but he also looked high spirited. More than likely Alex didn’t want to hear any more about danger, though. He wasn’t going to buy it. He was merely admiring it.
She nodded. “Yes, very beautiful.”
His gaze dropped to her face and wandered over it. “You don’t sound impressed.”
She shrugged. “To me, a beautiful horse is one that looks friendly.”
One brow shot up. “Beauty is as beauty does?”
She laughed. “I suppose so.”
“Daddy,” Destiny said as she leaned down, twisting his head around with tiny hands so he was forced to look at her face – nose to nose. “Where is baby howse? Show Mommy.”
“It’s over here,” Jonathan said, leading them toward a large shed.
They admired the new foal and a few other horses. On the way back to the house, Alex offered to take them to the gulf for a family outing. Everyone liked the idea, so they returned to their rooms and cleaned up.
Within an hour they were headed south toward Galveston Island. A stop for lunch and then a drive over the biggest bridge Carmen had ever seen - and then they were in Galveston. The architecture was fantastic, but not near as exciting as the ride on a ferry. On the way across the open water, they saw several dolphins. The weather was balmy, adding to the enjoyment of the day. Now it seemed more like a vacation.
Pleasant as it was, they had to go back. They were expected for dinner and it wouldn’t be polite to disappoint his family. By the time they got back and dressed for supper, Destiny’s eyelids were drooping. She was so worn out that she fell asleep at the table. She made no fuss when Maria picked her up and took her to their room.
Dulce glanced at Carmen, her expression unreadable. “It is nice to have so many people to take care of your children, yes?”
Remembering what Felipa had said about the girls being out of a home if Alex refused the inheritance, she smiled.
“Yes. But I like taking care of my children.” From the corner of her eye, she saw Alex watching her. “I can hardly wait for the new baby.”
Señor Medena put his fork down and folded his hands. “You have much room for this new baby?”
“We have plenty of room at the house,” Alex stated brusquely.
“We’ve all been working on the room for the baby,” Carmen added.
“Will this be your last baby?” Dulce asked.
Alex shot her a stern look and she made a face. “I know. Eat my dinner.”
Señor Medena leaned back in his chair, watching Alex. A faint smile was on his lips and in his eyes. If he thought Alex was warming to him, he saw more than she did.
That night after Jonathan was in bed, Carmen turned to Alex.
“Do you think I’m high maintenance?”
He frowned. “High maint . . . who put that in your head?”
She shrugged. “Dulce said I want a lot.”
He pulled her into his arms. “Do me a favor and don’t listen to Dulce. It’s all sour grapes.”
She sighed, gazing up at him. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” He paused, looking uncomfortable. “Did I fall asleep last night while we were making love?”
“You fell asleep alright, but we didn’t get that far.”
“Whew,” he said with a grin. “For a minute there I thought I was getting forgetful.” The grin faded and his gaze became intense. “The kids are asleep and we’re alone.”
Sliding her arms around his neck, she pressed against him. “I noticed,” she said softly. When his warm lips met hers, she returned his kiss passionately. His warm hand slid under her blouse, against her bare back. His fingers pressed gently, guiding her closer. Then they caressed their way up her side, his thumb sliding under her bra and gently up the curve of her breast.
She pressed against him, moaning with delight. Planting kisses on the corner of his mouth, she whispered.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
He groaned and captured her lips again.
Someone knocked at the door.
Alex released her. “Oh for . . . That better not be Dulce.”
He opened the door and spoke quietly to someone. Carmen couldn’t make out more than a few words, but one of them was mare.
Alex turned back to her. “It’s Morino. I’ll be back in a little while.”
Carmen stood looking after him and then sighed.
“Let’s see,” she said under her breath. “A cold shower or a warm bath?” She opted for the warm bath again.
The warm bubble bath was relaxing. Emerging from the bathroom an hour later half asleep, she put the new nightgown on and climbed into bed. She slept so soundly that she didn’t wake when Alex returned.
In the morning she opened her eyes to find Destiny’s face only inches away from hers.
“Mommy, is it Cwismas?”
“Not yet.” Carmen helped Destiny into the bed beside her and hugged her close. “You’ve been a very good girl. Do you know that?”
“Are wou pwoud of me?” Destiny asked.
“Very. I’m so glad we have you and Jonathan.”
“Jonatan is my best fwiend. I know who wou best fwiend is.” She lifted her head, copper curls falling across her eyes. “Daddy!”
Carmen hugged her again. Strange, but she had never thought of Alex as her best friend. A friend, certainly, but their relationship was so romantic that best friend didn’t seem a good description. When she glanced at Alex, he was watching her intently. She smiled.
“Yes. I couldn’t find a better friend than Alex, could I?” she said.
His response was a warm smile.
Jonathan came into the room, fully dressed. “What are we going to do today, Dad?”
Alex sat up and scooted back so he could lean on the headboard. “I don’t know. Did you have something in mind?” His gaze shifted to include Carmen.
Is it too far to go to Austin?” she asked.
“No, not too far, but the party is tonight, so we need to stay close.”
Carmen sat up. “Well, whatever we do, I’d like to do it as a family. I feel like we’re drifting apart here.”
Alex regarded her soberly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you felt that way.” His gaze became wary and he spoke softly. “Because of last night?”
Jonathan was watching them intently.
“A little,” she said. “It seems like you’ve become the resident veterinarian and the vacation is over. I understand when they have an emergency and you’re handy, but surely they don’t have emergencies all the time. If so, maybe they should put one on the payroll.”
His expression was reflective as he continued to regard her. Finally his brows lifted briefly.
“Maybe they think they have.”
It wasn’t something she had considered before, but another thought followed his. Maybe they knew what kind of bait to throw out. Alex was going to college when his parents died in the plane crash. His dream of being a veterinarian had been put on hold while he raised his sister – and the money to go back to college. He had started the clinic shortly after they were married, so his dream was barely being realized. Then came Alexia and then the stabbing. Now his father was putting a damper on it with his all consuming, self-serving plots. Was the man capable of thinking of someone other than himself?
Alex laid a hand on her arm. “Don’t be angry, honey.”
She glanced up in surprise. “I’m not angry with you.”
Jonathan was watching them, his mouth hanging open. Maybe he didn’t know Alex was spending half his nights tending horses, or maybe he was realizing the impact it had on their relationship. He was growing up and she needed to keep that in mind – and some things off his mind.
She sighed. “It doesn’t matter. Felipa said it was supposed to be nice outside today. Maybe we could have a picnic, or play ball together.”
Jonathan perked up. “Yeah!”
“Yeah!” Destiny chimed in.
After lunch, all four of them went outside to play ball. Carmen made a ball out of a pair of socks. It made a safe ball that didn’t go far, which was perfect for Destiny. Jonathan found a stick larger on one end than the other to use for a bat. What the game lacked in professionalism, it more than made up for in creativity and fun. They did the cheering and the jeering – and lots of laughing.

Before long, Felipa joined them to increase their players. They were having so much fun that even Alondra broke down and joined them. Dulce watched briefly, but after a failed attempt to get Alondra to leave the childish game behind, she stalked away. Señor Medena came out and watched for a while. He didn’t join them, but he was clearly enjoying watching them, even laughing once when Destiny gave up her home run to chase down the ball. It was the first time Carmen had seen Alondra actually laugh.
Exhaustion eventually ended the game and everyone but Dulce gathered in the kitchen for an ice cream snack. Some might think Dulce didn’t know what she was missing, but Carmen suspected she did. How sad that she would be too proud to have fun.
After the ice cream “party”, as Destiny called it, they all went to their rooms to rest and prepare for the real party. Alex and Carmen watched a children’s movie with Jonathan and Destiny. Then Carmen showered and left for the dress fitting, leaving Alex with Jonathan and Destiny until Maria arrived.

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