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

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Carmen Barnett curled up on the window seat and watched from the bay window as the sun cast its first rays on the farmstead below. Like pieces of white glitter, frost winked back at the sun from the grass and the top of the old farmhouse. If it hadn’t been for the tree falling on the house, that roof still wouldn’t be repaired. The old tool shed was leaning further to the side each year. They would have to knock it down one of these days. The white block walls of the dairy remained solid, but the windows were dark. It was milking time  somewhere. All but a few of the goats had been gone over a year now, but she rarely had time to think about them anymore. Even the old chicken coop was empty, replaced by the new one Alex had built out back. The stock pond stared up at her coldly from the tawny pasture like a huge eye, the ice-covered edges surrounding a deep blue iris. A white wisp of fog was the only clue that it was actually warmer than the crisp March morning. She sighed and wrapped her arms around her knees. It would be cold down there in that old house  cold and lonely.
Bare feet padded across the hardwood floor behind her, announcing that Alex was awake. Warm muscular arms slipped around her waist and she leaned her head back against his bare chest, gazing up into the sweet chocolate eyes. He smiled down at her.
"Come back to bed, Mrs. Barnett. Your husband is hungry."
She laughed softly. "Then maybe I should cook him some breakfast."
He gathered her in his arms and gently lifted her from the couch. She squealed in mock protest and he chuckled.
"We'll worry about breakfast later  right now we have other fish to fry."
She clung to his neck as he carried her to their bedroom and gently deposited her on the bed. Then he disentangled her arms from his neck and crawled into bed beside her.
"The way you keep staring down at that old house makes me wonder if you're sorry you married me." He leaned over her, gazing down at her tenderly. "Is that so?"
She touched his lips with her fingertips. "You know that isn't true."
He kissed her fingers. "Never?" He stroked her cheek softly.
She shook her head, feeling giddy as she gazed up at his smooth bronze features. He was so handsome.
"Never," she whispered, and drew his mouth down to hers.
His lips were as warm as the hands that gently drew her body to his. How could she tell him that the restlessness she had been feeling had nothing to do with their relationship? She couldn't have found a more attentive or protective husband. He was everything he had promised, and much more. The logical side of her mind had accepted the fact that he couldn't give her a child, but the emotional side still rebelled. That illogical, immature holdout still blamed him for winning her love before he told her.
She drew back. "You're going to be late for work," she said, and squirmed half-heartedly in his arms.
He propped his head up on an elbow and gazed down at her, the fingers of one hand working at the tie on her nightgown.
"The clinic doesn't open for another hour and a half, and I can dress in five minutes. Besides, I'm the boss. What are they going to say?"
Hogwash. Sure, he owned the veterinary clinic, but he asked no more of his employees than he did of himself. In fact, his workday often began before he arrived at the clinic. She tugged playfully at some hair on his chest.
"Aren't you supposed to look at one of Josh's cows this morning?"
His fingers stopped their futile attempt on the ribbon and the dark eyes lost some of their softness.
“I’m trying to make love to you. I’d appreciate it if you kept his name out of this bedroom.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Are you two ever going to like each other?”
He grimaced. “I doubt it. There's something about him that rubs me the wrong way.”
She smiled up at him. “You can't forget that we were once almost engaged, can you?”
“I remember he can give you something I can’t. I see that look in your eyes when you watch a baby in church. It kills me that I can’t ...”
She touched his lips again. “Don’t. I love you. That’s more important.”
He kissed her ardently. “I love you too. Since the day I met you ... until eternity.” He pulled her close and kissed her hungrily.
She melted in his arms, consumed by the raging fire of emotion his embrace never failed to ignite. After nearly two years of marriage, nothing had changed – absolutely nothing.

An hour later he pushed back from his empty plate and stood. “I’d better get going.” He pulled her close and kissed her lips. “You be careful around those horses. They’re gentle, but one misplaced foot could cripple a little thing like you.”
She smiled up at him. “I’ll be careful. I always am.”
He kissed her again and released her. “One of these days we're going to take that honeymoon I promised you.”
She laughed softly. “Where could we go that would be more fun than here?”
He eyed her suspiciously. “You keep saying that, but I think you’re chronically frugal. Either that or you haven’t been around much.” He flipped her chin with a curled index finger. “We both know it’s the latter.”
She made a face. “I was born and brought up in these wild Arkansas hills. Just because I haven’t been anyplace else, doesn’t mean that there is any place better. You’ve been all over the world and you decided to move here.” She shrugged one shoulder and met his amused gaze triumphantly. “I rest my case.”
The chocolate gaze melted. “Yes, but you were here.” He kissed his fingertips and touched them gently to her lips. “I've got to go, sweetheart.”
She watched as he crossed the room to the door, his broad shoulders swaying gracefully with each step. His square toed boots clicked across the floor with that quick step she had learned to recognize. As usual, his western shirt was tucked neatly into crisp indigo jeans. His lean build gave the impression that he was tall, but he was only five feet nine inches. Not that it mattered; he still had her beat by a good six inches.
He paused at the door and half-turned toward her. The large belt buckle at his lean waist lay flat against a washboard stomach. Her gaze lifted to his face enquiringly and found the dark eyes sparkling with humor. He knew what she was thinking about  knew and enjoyed the attention. He lifted a brow.
“Maybe you'd like me to take the day off?” Noting her rising color, he chuckled. “I can still make you blush.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You egotistical little Banty,” she teased.
When he grinned, the large dimple below his eye appeared. “I’m not little.”
She picked his plate up from the table. “You're seventy-five percent testosterone and the other half is ego.”
He laughed, his eyes sparkling with a devilish thought. “And which part do you like the best?”
Her cheeks burned hotter. “You'd better hurry up. You're going to be late.”
He was still chuckling as he stepped off the porch. A few minutes later the truck engine started and he backed the Dodge 4x4 pickup out of the garage. She watched from the bay window as he left a trail of dust to the main road.
She sighed heavily and turned to the table. Tomorrow was Saturday, and they could spend the entire day together. She shifted her attention to the housework. It didn't take long to clean up after two people, and then it was time to do the chores  her favorite job. Donning a heavy coat, she escaped through the patio doors and hurried out to the barn.
A chorus of nickering and snorting greeted her as she entered the barn. Ed and Princess were in the first two stalls. The matching Appaloosas were ready to eat. She pealed off a couple of leaves of hay and threw them into Ed’s stall.
“Eat hardy, boy. I'm going to ride you today. Princess is getting a little close to her due date.”
She grabbed more hay and stepped around the buggy Alex was restoring for her - a surrey with a fringe on top  exactly like she had always wanted. The black frame with its hunter green trim rested on blocks right now. A blacksmith in Gravette was making the wheels, but the rest of the buggy was complete, right down to the leather seats. She could hardly wait to hitch it up and take a ride.
In the third stall was Casper. The white Appaloosa would be three years old in July. Alex was gentle training her to ride. In the next stall was Random. She wouldn’t be two years old until December. Alex had named the little filly Random because she never seemed to have a schedule for anything. Alex was halter training her. It was something she would have liked to do, but Alex insisted that it was too dangerous. Sometimes he was overly protective. Still, it felt secure to have someone look after her the way he did.
Carmen gave the horses some grain and went to feed and water the chickens. After she fed the rabbits, she came back to find the horses had finished their grain. She opened the stall door to release Princess, Casper and Random in the pasture, and then saddled Ed. Princess followed as she led Ed to the corral, but Random and Casper decided to stay near the house.
Carmen mounted and turned Ed toward the field, kicking him into a lope. Brushing a blond curl from her face, she reined him toward the buffalo pen. A quick glance back revealed Princess following, steam puffing from her mouth and nose with every labored step. It wouldn't be long now.
Down the hill, across the creek and across the field to the buffalo shed  the crisp air traced their progress with a wisp of steam. Alex had the shed built so that she could feed the buffalo without going into the pen, but today she wanted to check on the cow. Last night Alex thought she was getting ready to give birth.
Carmen urged Ed through the gate and shut it before Princess could join them. Princess snorted and scraped the ground with a front hoof. Carmen laughed.
"You stay here, girl. I know that buffalo cow has always been gentle, but if she has a calf, she could get defensive. I don't want to take any chances with the future of my horse ranch."
It took her the better part of an hour to locate the cow, and if it hadn't been for the white form that raced out to meet them, she might have missed the cow in the hollow with her two calves. Ed snorted and side-stepped as the Great Pyrenees guard dog slid to a stop beside them. Carmen barely kept her seat as the horse pranced nervously.
"Brutus," Carmen scolded the dog without conviction. "You know better than that."
He looked like he was grinning. His huge tongue hung out of the side of his mouth like a thick slice of bologna. As he barked a welcome, steam rolled out of his mouth in a cloud.
The buffalo cow faced them, her massive head swaying back and forth in warning. Carmen stood in the stirrups and studied the two calves  both females. Alex was going to be delighted. She'd have to call him when she got back to the house. She swung Ed around.
“Come on Brutus. I brought you some of that dog food you like.”
She put the horse into a lope and headed for the shed. Brutus followed, and the two calves tagged along awkwardly behind him. The cow had no choice but to follow her offspring. At the barn, Carmen fed and watered Brutus and threw some hay to the cow. Reaching through the slot, she poured the cow some grain. The sun had melted a thin layer of water over the ice in the water trough. She took a rock and broke the ice, reaching in the frigid water with her fingers to pull out the jagged pieces of ice.
With that done, she mounted again and leaned down to open the gate. Once outside the pen, she latched the gate back and turned Ed toward the forest. Princess followed them as she walked Ed. Somewhere up there past the tree line were the four Elk Alex had coerced from the Game and Fish Commission. Shipped to Arkansas for reintroduction, they had sustained injuries that made them vulnerable to predators. Alex had nursed them back to health and released them in the area where the goats had been kept when she owned the dairy. A Nubian goat and her three kids shared the rocky terrain, along with a couple of Angora goats. Alex had written the Game and Fish Commissions in several western states, hoping for a chance at a mountain goat or sheep. The odds were slim, but because his purpose was educational, he might have a chance. White tailed deer, as well as an abundance of smaller wildlife already frequented the ranch, so his North American Safari had its foundation. The next step was renovating the old farmhouse for visitors. The dairy and adjoining barns would make a nice bunkhouse - sometime. The money from the dairy equipment and stock was still in the bank. Not yet enough to complete the work.
Ed perked his ears forward and snorted at something in the tall grass. Princess stopped, staring in the same direction. Carmen stood in the stirrups and craned her neck to see what was troubling him. Something was creeping along the ground — stocking, probably. She nudged Ed closer and then smiled. A red fox was stocking a cottontail. As she watched, the fox lunged for the rabbit. The rabbit leaped into the air, and bolted across the field, his white tail visible above the tall grass with each bound.
Unwilling to root for either animal, Carmen turned Ed back toward the tree line.
Forty acres were fenced in around the old house. Forty more lay behind that — all wild and unimproved. She would have to wait for Alex before she could explore that area. Alex had strictly forbidden her to ride alone there after the wild dog problem. He wouldn't be pleased if he knew she was riding up here alone now. She glanced back over her shoulder at the log house on the hill. He had selected the perfect setting for their home. When the Elk grazed on this hill, they could be seen from the bay window. She and Alex spent a lot of time on that window seat, admiring their combined efforts and property.
She glanced at her watch. It was nearly eleven. Alex might come home for lunch today. Grudgingly, she turned Ed back toward the house.
“Come on, Princess,” she called to the mare. You've had enough exercise for today.”
Back at the barn, she unsaddled Ed and rubbed him down. Hefting the saddle to its proper place, she released the horses in their separate pastures.
As she neared the back door, she heard the telephone ringing. She slapped a hand over her mouth. She had forgotten her cell phone on the dresser again. Hurrying up the stairs, she dashed through the dining room and grabbed the receiver.
"Hello," she answered breathlessly.
"Hi, sweetheart. Did I catch you out at the barn?"
"It started ringing as I came into the house. Is something wrong?"
"No. I’m sorry I made you run. I didn’t want to disturb you in the middle of chores, so I called the land line. Would you like to meet me for lunch?”
She glanced at her watch. Forty-five minutes from now. “Sure, where?”
“Just meet me at the clinic. I want to talk to you about something.”
She stared at the receiver and then shrugged.
“See you at twelve.”
What more could he have to say in the little time since they had last talked? Had Josh said something to upset him again? No, he wouldn’t be taking her to lunch to discuss Josh.
It took her exactly thirty minutes to shower and change. Fifteen minutes to travel six miles to the clinic — most of it rough gravel roads. The scary part was, she made it with three minutes to spare. Even so, Alex was waiting outside when she pulled into the parking lot. He hopped into the car, directing her to the small Cafe a few miles down the road.
After they ordered dinner, he pondered over his water glass. What was so terrible that he couldn’t come out with it in his usual candid manner? Finally he cleared his throat.
“TAYCO called today.”
She tensed. “Don't tell me,” she responded dryly. “They just now realized you quit.”
The dark eyes shifted to her face soberly. “Apparently not. They want me to make another sales trip — to South America.”
She stared at him, a gnawing feeling beginning in her stomach that had nothing to do with hunger.
“You said no, didn’t you?”
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“They offered me a good package.”
“But we don't need the money.”
His mouth twisted into a wry smile and the dark eyes glinted with something less than humor.
“Nobody gets to the point that they can’t use more money, sweetheart. Besides, the clinic and the house took a chunk out of my savings.”
She sighed heavily. “It isn't the money. You’re just too kind hearted to tell anybody no when they ask for help.”
He leaned back in his chair and frowned at her.
“I can say no. I just think it’s too good an offer to turn down.”
She stared at her empty plate. “Didn’t they hire someone to replace you?”
He shrugged. “Sure, but the customer is familiar with me, and I'm bilingual.”
She glanced up at him. “That sounds awful. Is there a cure?”
He laughed shortly. “Yuck it up.”
Across the table, their gazes locked and she had that giddy feeling again. Would she ever get over it? She tore her gaze from his.
“I don't want you to go.”
“It's only two weeks.”
She caught her breath. “Two weeks? I’ll be an old woman by the time you get back. I’ll have forgotten who you are.”
The dark eyes twinkled suggestively. “I’ll remind you.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Don’t be vulgar.”
He laughed softly. “You didn’t think it was vulgar this morning in the shower.”
Warmth crawled up her neck and she glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to hear. They were alone, though. She ignored his implication that they showered together. He was simply trying to lead the subject away. She shook her head.
“I don’t want you to go,” she repeated tersely.
He took a sip from his glass and avoided her eyes.
“I’ve already told them I would go.”
Her stomach twisted painfully. “You could tell them you changed your mind,” she suggested hopefully.
He shook his head. “They've already made arrangements.”
She twisted her glass around in the puddle of condensation.
“You could take me with you.”
“You'd be bored out of your mind. And who’d take care of the stock?”
Bill or Josh would be glad to take care of the animals, and he knew it. He didn’t want her to go because he would be concerned about her safety in South America. Of course, stating so would be an admission the he was taking a risk as well.
He leaned toward her and rested his arms on the table.
“Two weeks isn’t so long. I’ll be back before you know it.”
Tears blurred her eyes. “How will I make it without you? You’ve spoiled me rotten, you know.” She met his gaze accusingly.
He covered her hand with his. “I can’t believe this is the same woman who climbed down my throat every time I tried to help her with the dairy. What’s the matter — really?”
“I’m afraid,”" she blurted out. “I have a bad feeling about this trip — like I’m going to lose you.”
He eyed her critically. “You could lose me any time. You know that — in a car wreck or ...”
“I don't want you to go,” she interrupted forcefully.
He gazed down at her sternly. “So you said - several times. But I am going.” He leaned back and lifted his glass again.
She frowned at him. “You didn’t even ask me how I felt before you made your decision.”
He gave her a level look over his glass.
“It’s a business deal, Carmen. We agreed that I would make those decisions.”
She gnawed at her lower lip. “I know, but when it affects me personally ...”
He nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t anticipate all this static.”
He glanced up as the waitress delivered their food. He smiled and thanked her and when she left, he turned an imploring gaze back to Carmen.
“Come on, Carmen. Get your chin off the table. I’ve had trips before. You never acted this way then.”
“We weren't married then.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “If you've got your mind set on it, there's nothing I can do, but I don't have to like it.”
One side of his mouth tipped up in a wry smile. “Like it? Who said I wanted you to like it? I want you to miss me something fierce.”
She kicked his boot under the table. “You sadist.”
Dark brows shot up over twinkling eyes and he winced. “Oh, you cut me to the core.”
She smiled in spite of the situation. “So, when are you leaving?”
“Next Thursday.” He picked up a fork and lit into his lunch.
She picked at her food for a few minutes and then remembered the buffalo.
“Oh, I almost forgot. I have a surprise for you.”
He glanced up from his food and lifted a brow. Alex loved surprises.
“Your buffalo cow had two calves.”
His eyes lit up with excitement. “Two? Really? And are they healthy?”
She shrugged. “You're the vet. Go look for yourself.” She stole a glance at his troubled features and then laughed. “They looked great to me.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes and then he spoke again.
“Katie called me today. She wanted to know if I could pick the boys up from the sitter tonight. She has to work late.”
Carmen made a face. “What's wrong with Bill? Doesn’t he have time for his own kids?”
Alex shrugged. “I know the twins make you nervous, but they are my nephews. I’ll keep them out of your hair.”
“They don’t make me nervous, and I don’t mind watching them. I just think your sister should be at home with her children. It isn’t like they couldn't survive without her contribution to the income. Sometimes I think Katie took that job to get away from the boys.”
He shrugged again. “Maybe so, but that’s their business. Meanwhile, the boys could use some attention. Why don’t we take them out for pizza?”
“You'd make a great daddy.” The words slipped out before she thought about what she was saying. He glanced up sharply and a shadow passed over those warm eyes. He fell on the comment like a hungry dog on a steak.
“So why don’t we adopt a child?”
It was her turn to squirm in her chair. “You know how I feel about that. I don’t want to set myself up for that kind of hurt.”
He was watching her intently. “There’s a worse pain, Carmen. Growing old and waking up some day to realize you’re alone because you were afraid to take a chance. It’s only a remote chance at that.”
He was right, but deep inside she hadn’t completely accepted the fact that they wouldn’t have one of their own. All her prayers had fallen on deaf ears
or as Alex had once said; God was answering. He was saying no. It was so hard to accept. Alex was so virile. He practically oozed testosterone. How could it be? Mumps at twelve, he explained, but could the damage be reversed? And now this trip. The haunting feeling returned. Would she see him again after Thursday - alive? What a morbid thought.
She glanced out the window. Think of something else - anything. Her gaze fell on a little blond-headed girl, her pigtails dancing with each step. Carmen tore her gaze from the child and realized Alex was still watching her. She forced a smile.
“Maybe you’re right. I’ll keep it in mind.”
He nodded, eyeing her suspiciously for a moment. Sometimes she was afraid he could read her mind.

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