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


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The euphoria lasted for three heavenly weeks, and then she woke one morning with that old feeling of impending doom. It was so strong this time that she actually felt nauseated by it. Why couldn't she shake the feeling? Was it a premonition, or something else?
She fixed breakfast and kissed Alex good-by before he left for work. If he noticed anything, he didn't mention it. Maybe she should tell him — keep the line of communication open. But what good would it do? It wasn't as if there was any basis for the feeling.
For the next week, she woke with that same feeling every morning. Then it disappeared — only to return with a vengeance two weeks later. This time she was actually so sick she threw up. Something was wrong. A check with her calendar confirmed she was more than three weeks late. It was easy enough to remember the last time she cycled — the day Alex left for South America. Grudgingly, she set up an appointment with the doctor. No point in telling Alex anything yet. He would only worry and tell her she wasn't eating right. She wasn't. Nothing tasted good or settled on her stomach. If it were possible, she would have thought she was pregnant. But it wasn't possible. That much she had accepted. A dozen things crossed her mind — none of them good.
She sat in the doctor's office waiting for the results of the test, and when he came in smiling, she relaxed. He would hardly be smiling if she had cancer or something like that.
He dropped her chart on the table. "Well, the rabbit died."
She stared at him. "What?"
He peered at her over the top of his glasses.
"Mrs. Barnett, you're four to six weeks pregnant. Congratulations." He held out a hand.
She stared at his hand and shook her head. "I can't be."
The smile faded from his lips. "There is only one method of birth control that sure, and I doubt your husband would tolerate it."
She shook her head numbly. "He's sterile. He said ..."
The doctor smiled knowingly. "That's been said before — with about the same results. Is he actually sterile, or is his count so low that conception is highly unlikely?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. We never discussed it in detail. He said he had mumps when he was twelve. "She met his gaze bravely. "Is it possible that something else could cause a false test?"
He rubbed his chin. "Yes. Why don't we set you up for some more tests?"
She nodded. "I'd like to be sure."

Carmen waited in impatient silence for an agonizing week for the ultrasound. Fortunately her nausea was controlled by soda crackers. Fixing supper required several. Then there were the excuses why she wasn’t hungry. Long before the ultrasound, she was certain that her problem was pregnancy. Still, she didn’t want to say anything to Alex until she had proof. Otherwise Alex would insist it was an infection or something. Finally the day arrived and she went in for the ultrasound. It was hard to believe the little nodule on the screen was actually a baby, but the doctor was certain. By their goofy math, which figured from the first day of her last period, she was 9 weeks pregnant. In actuality, it was 7 weeks. She was certain exactly when she conceived. It was in the magic room — it had to be. Whatever the case, it was an undeniable fact now. She was pregnant! It was possible after all! Adoption was unnecessary. Alex would be delighted. She imagined the surprised look on his face — what he would say. Once before she had thought she was pregnant, and he had been sorry when she found out she wasn’t.
In spite of the fact that she was anxious to tell him, she waited for the exact moment. The first two nights he was out on calls half the night and gone to work all day. He was sleep deprived and not exactly in the mood. She wasn’t in the best of moods either. The prenatal vitamins made her nausea worse. It must have been a man who named this stuff morning sickness. She was sick off and on all day long.
Finally, what seemed like the perfect opportunity arrived. On Sunday after church they were feeding the horses when they began a friendly frolic. He grabbed her by the waist and swung her around. Lifting her feet so that she lay in his arms, he smiled down at her.
"You're putting on a little weight, there, aren't you?" he teased.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and gazed into his eyes.
"It happens that way."
He laughed shortly, still holding her in his arms. "I don't know how. You don't eat enough to keep a bird alive. What's the matter with you lately? Worms?"
She laughed lightly. "Morning sickness."
The smile faded from his lips. "Don't joke about that. It's not a laughing matter — not to me, anyway."
She snuggled against his neck. "I know. But it's true."
He dropped her feet to the ground abruptly. "Stop it." His voice held a warning note.
This wasn't going as well as she had planned. She gazed up at him soberly.
"I'm serious. We're going to have a baby."
He stared down at her. Surprised wasn’t the right word. His gaze scoured her face, something obviously going on behind eyes that were darker than normal. He still didn't believe her. He was beginning to look upset — probably because he thought she was jumping to conclusions again.
"I know.” She continued. “I didn’t believe it at first either, but It’s true. “I’ve been to the doctor and they even did an ultrasound. I’m eight weeks pregnant."
He frowned, his gaze becoming distant. He was probably calculating the time. Slowly his gaze returned to her face. His eyed her suspiciously.”
“That was while I was gone.”
It took a few seconds for the import of his words to sink in. A hot flush shot up her neck.
“Right after you got back,” she corrected, pushing aside the irritation. Of course he would be suspicious. He was certain it wasn’t possible. He needed time to think about it.
His eyes flashed darkly and his face went pale under the tan. A thin white line formed around his lips.
"You mean while I was gone. We're not having a baby. You are."
She gasped and took a step away from him.
"Alex!"
He continued. "I knew this thing about having a baby was still upsetting you, but I never thought you'd stoop to something like this!" His hands were balled into fists at his sides and the knuckles were white. Who was it?" he hissed, his eyes burning with fury. "Josh?"
Her face was hot and cold by turns and she felt nauseated. How could he think she would do such a thing? She lifted a trembling hand to her mouth.
"It's yours. Don't you remember? That day upstairs in the house. I told you the room was magic."
She winced at the disdain in his eyes. His voice was crisp.
"So that's how you figured to get away with it. Just how gullible do you think I am? Do you honestly think I haven't asked for more than one doctor's opinion? I even went to another doctor just before we got married. He said it was impossible. Now you come to me with this ... fairy tale fantasy about a magic room. Grow up, Carmen."
Tears blurred her vision. "It isn't impossible," she reasoned. "Maybe it was because you waited ..."
"Yes," he spit the word out. "I waited." He glared down at her. "And to think I trusted you to do the same." His voice was rising. "That's why Josh was here the night I called, wasn't it?” Before she could answer, he erupted. “You little slu ..."
She slapped him before he could get the word out — an open hand across the face as hard as she could hit. The sound echoed through the barn and her fingers burned with the force of it.
Caught unprepared, he took the full force of it on his cheek. For a moment he stared at her in disbelief — and then his eyes flared with renewed fury. He grabbed her hands and shoved her against the barn wall.
"You want to play rough, do you? All right, we'll play rough." He grabbed her blouse and ripped it open. "I'll make it mine."
His temper was free and running and she tried to do the same, but he caught her and threw her on the hay.
"You want to act like an animal? We'll take care of this little chore right here in the barn." His voice was cold and ugly.
He dived into the hay after her and she twisted away. As if from far away, she heard herself scream. He grabbed her and pulled her back, ripping the blouse from her shoulder.
"What's wrong? Your husband isn't good enough for you anymore?"
A calmness washed over her and she stared up at him coldly.
"You're not my husband right now. My husband would never rape me."
The handprint was a bright red blotch on his pale face as he stared down at her. Reason gradually returned to the dark eyes. He leaped away from her.
"You're right. I shouldn't lower myself to your games."
With that, he turned on one heel and stomped out of the barn.
She tugged the torn sleeve up on her shoulder and stared after him numbly. The barn was still and cold. The tears arrived without warning. She buried her face in her hands as long agonizing sobs wracked her body to the core.
How could he believe she would do anything so disgusting? Why would such a thing even enter his mind? Where did all the anger and violence come from? Alex had never been anything but gentle. Until now she would never have believed him capable of such rage.
As the sobs subsided, so did reason. Why hadn't it occurred to her that he might think the baby wasn't his? How could she have been such a fool, throwing it at him that way? She should have walked away and given him a chance to think about it, instead of slapping that awful word from his mouth? Alex liked to be in control — not of her, but of life in general.
She staggered on trembling legs. She had to find him. Explain it all to him. They couldn't walk away from each other like this. Not now, when everything they wanted was so close.
The truck was in the garage, but Alex was nowhere to be found. She trudged to the bathroom and washed the tears from her face. Her eyes were swollen and red, and there were dark circles under them. She changed her blouse and threw the torn garment on the bed.
A movement at the corner of her eye made her turn. Alex was standing in the doorway, watching her. His face was pale except for the red handprint. His mouth formed a grim line and his eyes were bloodshot.
Part of her wanted to reach out to him in his agony, and part of her wanted to make a matching imprint on the other side of his face. She jerked her dresser drawer open and grabbed an armload of clothes. Placing them on the bed, she turned to the closet to get the suitcases. She had no intention of staying where she wasn't wanted, nor did she want to live with a man who had no respect for her.
Alex gathered her clothes and calmly placed them back in the drawer.
"No, Carmen. We're not going that route." He pushed the drawer shut and started toward her.
Her involuntary cringe stopped him for a second and the dark eyes reflected equal portions of shame and hurt. He reached out and gently took her arm, pulling her towards him. Leaning over, he circled her legs and lifted her into his arms. Without a word, he carried her to the window seat. There he sat with his arms forming a protective shield around her. The Alex she knew had returned. Maybe having a little time to think about it had calmed him down.
His chest felt warm against her back as she stared blindly out the window. They sat in silence for a long time. Finally he spoke in a controlled voice.
"I'm sorry about what happened in the barn. I know there's nothing I can say to justify my actions. I can't undo what I did, but I will promise you that it will never happen again."
She tipped her head back and gazed up into his somber features. "I shouldn't have hit you."
He shook his head. "That didn't justify what I did."
It didn't, for a fact. And he had no right to say what he did. Still, it didn't make her any less guilty.
"I shouldn't have told you that way. I know how you like surprises, and I just never thought about ..." Her voice broke.
He didn't respond. He needed time to adjust to the idea. It couldn't be easy for him — and the way Josh answered the phone that night — no wonder he was suspicious.
He finally broke the terrible silence. "Are you sure? Maybe you should see another doctor. Maybe ...”
At least he wasn't quite so willing to accept the idea that she had been unfaithful. And now she would have to break his security bubble.
"I’m sure, but I’ll go see another doctor if it will make you feel any better."
He was quiet a long time. "I shouldn't have gone on that trip. You asked me not to go. You tried to tell me."
Tell him what? That if he left, she would cheat? She felt sick to her stomach. Did he have such a low opinion of her? Why was he so certain that it wasn't his? She took a deep breath.
"Why don't you go see the doctor again?"
Another long pause. "I will."
The conviction in his tone was poignant. It hurt to think he questioned her fidelity, but at least he was willing to listen to reason. Once he saw the doctor, the entire issue would be settled. He would know the baby was his. Or would he? If he thought she would be unfaithful so that she could have the baby she always wanted, then why wouldn't he think she would be unfaithful because she was lonely? Her stomach rolled. Hadn't it happened to him before? Years ago he had been jilted at the altar by a girl he thought he loved. Now he thought he had been betrayed by the one person that he had believed he could trust. Underneath that facade of ego, there lurked a vulnerable heart.
She leaned back against his chest. "I love you, Alex."
He was silent for a long time. "I love you, too," he finally answered in a constricted voice. She wouldn't look, but she knew he was crying.
She cupped her hand over his and they watched as the evening slipped into night. Finally he lifted her from the window seat and carried her to their bed. There, he gently undressed her and pulled the covers up around her neck. Right now she needed him as a husband, not a father figure. It would have been easier if he had made love to her that night, but he didn't. Not that night or any of the following week.
Even Lori and Katie noticed their coolness toward each other at church. They made an effort at being polite, but the sparkle had left their eyes. Katie teased Carmen privately, saying that the honeymoon was over, and Lori asked what they were fighting about. Much as she would like to have discussed it with someone, it was a private issue. Sharing it with anyone else would be a betrayal to Alex, not to mention an embarrassment to herself.

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