The Darkest Hour (Chapter Eight, page 1 of 1)


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Saturday morning she was cleaning the house when Alex left to check on the longhorns. Today they would put the buffalo and longhorns in the same pasture. After she finished dishes, she watered the chickens and added water to the horse tank. Then she brought Princess from the barn and saddled her. Alex should be back soon and this was one day they would work together. The foal was feeling frisky and kicking up its heels. The idea furrowed her brows. It was 5 months old. Would it go through life with a name like, "the foal?"
A sound caught her attention and she glanced up to see Alex entering the corral on Ed. Ed was prancing sideways, the way he always did when Alex was holding him in. Alex was in short sleeves today, his brown muscular arms exposed to the warm sun. He dismounted in one lithe movement and tied Ed to the fence. His shoulders moved with a graceful swing that defied the quick step. The indigo jeans fit snugly against his lean hips and muscular thighs. The western belt buckle at his waist traced the masculine swing of his stride. She had forgotten how pleasing it was to watch him move. She glanced up at his face and found him watching her with mingled surprise and humor. She knew she was blushing.
Turning to Princess, she spoke.
"I'm ready to help with the buffalo. Is the pen ready?"
He stepped around her, smiling down at her in a fetching kind of way. She met his gaze and smiled back shyly. That dimple sure was cute. He helped her into the saddle, which was entirely unnecessary, and then lifted a coiled rope from the fence post.
"We might need this." He said.
Untying the reins, he threw the rope over the saddle horn and mounted in one fluid movement. Carmen settled into the saddle and followed him out of the corral. Casper, Random and the foal followed them as they loped across the field to the buffalo shed. Alex had made a temporary gate between the two fields. Now all they needed to do was find the Buffalo cow and her calves and drive them through. That was all.
They entered the field and left the other horses behind. The presence of so many horses would only make the cow nervous.
It took at least a half-hour to locate the buffalo cow, and then she didn't want to be herded. Alex finally roped one of the calves and started back to the shed. Carmen circled Princess around behind the cow and she finally decided to follow the captured calf. It took another hour to complete the ordeal.. The fence had been altered so that the shed was now included in the new pasture. The longhorns had been grazing against the fence with the buffalo for the last two weeks, so they would be accustomed to each other.
Alex wiped his brow. "I have a surprise for you at the barn."
She glanced up at him, but his expression revealed nothing.
"What?"
He grinned. "If I told you, it wouldn't be a surprise, would it?"
She wrinkled her nose at him. "You and your surprises."
He chuckled and swung Ed around, heading for the barn. She followed, again struck by the graceful way he rode. Was it natural or a result of practice?
At the barn, they dismounted and Alex took her elbow.
"Cover your eyes."
She obliged and he led her across the barn, telling her to stand still for a minute. It sounded like he was pulling the tarp off the buggy.
"Okay. Now look."
She lowered her hands and stared at the completed buggy.
"The wheels finally came in!"
She walked slowly around the wagon, admiring his handiwork, and finally glanced up at his face.
"Nice."
He smiled. "Happy anniversary, sweetheart."
She stared at him. She had forgotten. Warmth crawled up her face and sprawled on her cheeks. How could she forget after only two years?
The smile faded from his lips. "I said something wrong?"
She shook her head. "No. It's just that ... I didn't get you anything."
The smile returned to his lips and spread to his eyes. "Oh yes you did."
"Honestly. I … I forgot." Her face was flaming.
He nodded. "I know. It's all right. You've had a lot on your mind lately. Anyway, it isn’t until Tuesday, so technically, you didn’t forget."
That was one way of putting it. She stared at the floor.
"Katie says I need to see a shrink."
She could feel his gaze on her.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"I don't want to go." She finally looked up. His expression was unreadable as he gazed down at her.
He shrugged. "Then don't."
Did he think she didn't need help, or was this another instance where he couldn't bring himself to make a decision? The old Alex would have made that decision for her. She wouldn't have had to wonder — he would have known what to do. But not now. She met his gaze defiantly.
"But you think I'm ... crazy."
The dark eyes softened. "I think you're struggling with something only you can work your way through."
He reached out, gently lifting her chin with a curled index finger and gazing into her eyes.
"I think you're doing just fine on your own. Hang in there — and when you're ready to talk, I'm ready to listen."
She frowned. Talk about what?
"You don't want me to go to a shrink?"
He lifted a harness from the wall and strode over to Ed.
"Personally, I think people would be better off if they'd work out there own problems. I'm sure there are exceptions, but for the most part, I think people do just as well with their clergy or a friend — though maybe not as fast. It's up to you. If you think you'd benefit, you probably will. By the same token, if someone forces you to go, I don't think it's going to do you much good. You have to want to get better."
She watched as he harnessed Ed. "Then you do think I'm ... mentally disturbed. Do you think I don't want to get better?"
He glanced up sharply. "Don't put words in my mouth, Carmen. You're getting better. And don't use the term, mentally disturbed. I prefer, troubled. You're not crazy, Carmen. You've been through a traumatic experience. You're a very resourceful and courageous person. You're going to get through this."
Through what? Why did everyone think she needed help? The only thing she needed was to have everyone leave her alone. Everyone but Alex. Where he'd been the last month was a mystery, but he was here now — and for some reason, what he was saying made her feel better. He was wrong, though. She wasn't troubled about anything — or was she? That fleeting thought was there again — so brief. What was it she was supposed to remember? That dark shadow drifted over again and she shuddered. Maybe it was best she couldn't remember.
Alex completed harnessing Ed and surveyed his work. "Do you want to take a ride?"
Carmen laughed. "Are you talking to me or Ed?"
He glanced at her. "That sounds nice."
She frowned. "What?"
"The laugh."
Had it been so long since she laughed? Had she been a complete bore lately?
Alex backed Ed between the tugs of the buggy and hitched him up. Carmen locked the foal in the corral with Princess, Random and Casper. Then she helped him opened the big doors. Alex lifted her to the seat and climbed up after her. He slapped the reins on Ed's back and the buggy rolled out of the barn.
"When are you going to start your business," Alex asked as he maneuvered the buggy around the house.
"What business?"
He glanced down at her and lifted a brow. "The one you've been putting off since we got married — the horse ranch — the stable and buggy rides."
"Oh, that." Without selling the farm, she had no money. Without the dairy she had no income. The only money she had was in her savings account. Maybe he felt she had equal rights to the money he had accumulated before they were married, but she didn't — especially not now.
"It's the money, isn't it?" He was watching her again.
"What money?"
He sighed and shook his head. "I promised to make you happy, Carmen, and I'm doing a lousy job of it. I've managed to destroy all of your dreams. I've betrayed your trust ..." He cleared his throat. "Let me do something for you. I don't want you to walk out on me again."
She jerked her head around and stared at him. Again? "I never walked out ..." Of course. He had found the suitcase and unpacked it. Another thing she had forgotten. "I wasn't leaving. I was going to move into the old house for a while. I couldn't stand the way you looked at me ... the way you ..."
"Carmen," he groaned. "I can't turn back time, but I can do something about the future."
He was asking for a second chance, but could they ever reclaim the relationship they had once enjoyed? Would things ever be the same again? She had entrusted him with the fragile framework of her dreams and he had stumbled. It wasn't as though he had callously tossed it aside. The framework would have to be redesigned now, but it wasn't thoroughly destroyed. He was trying to put the pieces together now — a job that would be difficult enough if she merely stood back and watched. If she continued to slap it out of his hands, it would be impossible.
She sighed heavily. "I want things to be the way they used to be between us, Alex, but I'm lost. I don't know how to get there from here."
He brought the buggy to a halt and took her hand in his. Those dark eyes were pools of emotion.
"Together we can find the way, sweetheart. We found it once. We can find it again. Let's pull this relationship out of the ditch and get it back on the road. You're my wife. We share and share alike. Prenuptial agreements are created for people who approach a marriage with the preconceived idea that it may not succeed. We entered it with the determination and faith to make a marriage work. It can't get much worse than what we've already endured. Let go of the past and plunge in with me. We might sputter under the water now and then, but if we stick together we can help each other through the rapids. "
He actually made the plunge into that bottomless black pool sound almost enticing. The polished salesman was back. Actually, what choice did she have? It was either plunge in with him or be eaten up by the loneliness that had been snapping at her heels all her life. She smiled wryly.
"All right, but don't be surprised if I panic now and then and try to scramble out of the water — or even pull you under with me."
He smiled. "You won't be sorry ..." The smile faded from his lips. He had said those words before, and he thought she was sorry now.
She squeezed his hand. "I'm not sorry I married you, Alex. I only hope you're not sorry you married me."
He lifted her hand and kissed it. "I made a wise choice. My only regrets are my mistakes."
"You don't think I'm immature?" The words forced themselves out of her mouth and she gazed up at him with bated breath.
A shadow of guilt darkened his eyes. "I shouldn't have talked to you that way. I thought ... I thought wrong." The muscles worked in his jaw and he glanced away. He cleared his throat. "You're inexperienced, innocent — even naive, but you're not immature."
She released her breath in a sigh. "Just cold."
He glanced down at her again with misty eyes. "Distant sometimes, but never cold. I was the one who was cold — unforgiving. Even when I said I was willing to forgive you ... for something you didn't do. I wasn't, though. Not really. I realized that when I went up into the hills that day. I thought about it and realized I was merely accepting it — and holding it over your head. I knew that if we were ever going to make it together, I would have to truly forgive you. I did, Carmen — even though the need for forgiveness only existed in my mind."
She met his tortured gaze. "Why, Alex? Why would you think I would do such a thing? Is it because of Tessa? I'm not Tessa. I've never ..."
"No," He interrupted sternly. "It wasn't you. It wasn't Tessa." He stared across the field. He started to speak several times, and then stopped. Finally he took a slow breath and let it out, his shoulders drooping as if under some great load.
"Mom was cheating on Dad. She told him she wasn’t, and he said he believed her. I heard them talking.” He shook his head, refusing to look at her as he spoke. "Maybe he didn’t know she was making him look like a fool in front of his friends. But then, he forgave her once before, in spite of it all.” He was quiet for a few minutes, and then finally spoke in a controlled tone. “I heard her tell ... him ... that she couldn’t leave as long as she had no money of her own. It was some kind of honor thing, I guess.” He shook his head again. “Honor ... where was the honor for Dad?”
Carmen stared at him. That explained a lot of things, like why he had insisted she keep the farm in her name, and his anger that day in the barn. She touched his arm.
"Does Katie know?"
He glanced at her sharply. "Not then, and we’ve never discussed it.”
No surprise there. They’d been married two years now and this was the first time he had mentioned it. It must have hurt him deeply.
Carmen sighed. "I guess people don't realize the far-reaching aspects of cheating."
He gazed at her absently, his expression reflective. Finally he nodded. "I never thought of it that way before." He picked up the reins. "I always wondered if it was because Dad was gone so much, or maybe because he refused to buy her flowers."
She remembered the flowers in his hand that day. And then a dark cold feeling swept over her. The rest she didn't want to remember. She tucked it away again, and turned her attention to the future.
"Let's go look at the old farmstead. I have an idea I want to get your opinion about."

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