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

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Alex never said anything about seeing the doctor, and she was reluctant to ask. Why revive the issue? If the news had been good, surely he would have said something by now. His silence indicated he hadn't taken the test ... or it was negative? By his actions, she was betting it was negative. Then how had she conceived? Was it magic?
Things were uncomfortable between them, but they hadn't given up. He was courteous to her instead of affectionate, but they were talking — if simple questions and answers could be called conversation. She thought when she asked him if he wanted to go with her for the twelve week ultrasound that he would say no, but he didn’t.
He watched as the tiny hands wiggled on the monitor, and even moved closer to examine the fetus. Was it medical interest that drew him closer, or an interest in the baby? Was he beginning to adjust to the idea?
When they returned to the house, she warmed up some leftover spaghetti and sat down at the table to eat with him. Finally she dragged up the courage to broach the subject.
"Alex, do you think you will ever look forward to having a baby in the house?"
He glanced up sharply from his food. His gaze fell to her stomach and then lifted back to her face.
"I want children, Carmen. Remember? I'm the one who's been pushing to adopt a baby. You're the one who wouldn't settle for less than your own blood. I would want this baby no matter who was having it, but especially so because it's a part of you."
"It's a part of us," she corrected gently. "And the issue wasn't genetics. It was the idea that the mother could come back later and reclaim her child after we had learned to love it."
He twirled his fork in the spaghetti and glanced out the window. He wasn't buying any of it. If only she could convince him. If they could only bring back the joy they once shared — the trust. He was trying to make the best of a situation most men would have considered grounds for divorce. Did he want a child this much, or was he afraid of what people would think if he walked out on her when she was pregnant? She gnawed on her lower lip.
"Do you want me to leave?"
His gaze was back on her, intent and stern. "We promised to take each other for better or worse, Carmen. You don't trash a marriage the first time an obstacle comes along."
It was commitment, then. He was going to stick by her because he made a vow. Honorable, even admirable, but what kind of a marriage would that be? What kind of atmosphere for their child? She sighed.
"But you seem so unhappy."
He shrugged, returning his attention to the food. "I'm disappointed. I'll get over it."
Her stomach recoiled with the bite of his words. He was disappointed in her? She had done nothing wrong. Her voice was caustic.
"Because you think I've been unfaithful?"
He pushed his plate aside, avoiding her eyes. "I don't want to discuss it right now."
No, he didn't want to consider the possibility that he might be wrong. He could simply turn the subject off, like a radio, leaving her in shamed silence.
"But you said we should always keep the lines of communication open."
He stood and gulped the last of his coffee. "I've got to go down to the buffalo shed." He turned at the door. "And by the way, I don't want you lifting around on anything."
"The doctor said if I'm use to it, I can ..."
"I don't care what the doctor said about it. I said no lifting." He pushed the patio door back and left the house.
She stared after him. It was hard to tell what he was feeling. He obviously took his role as head of the house seriously. As always, he was protective and decisive. Those two traits had been important factors in her decision to marry him. In many ways he was the perfect husband, but trust in a woman had never been his strong point. Was that why he had remained a bachelor until he was thirty? He had finally found a woman he could trust, and now he believed she had betrayed him. By turns she was furious and felt sorry for him. This wasn’t easy for him — or her.

The cold wet days of May had thawed into the warmth of June, yet their marriage remained cold and lifeless. It was time to plan the nursery and shop for clothes, but that could wait. Eventually Alex would come around, and working on the room together would be joy shared. Maternity clothes would only serve to remind him that she was pregnant, rather than underline the fact that they were sharing a miracle. It could all wait, but the waiting was lonely. She had spent her life alone; she had plenty of practice. If it had not been for Mums, she didn’t know how she would have survived.
She fed Princes and watched the foal nurse. Princess lifted her head and uttered a soft whinny to her baby. When she received no response, she swung her head to Carmen and nickered.
Carmen touched the velvety muzzle. "I know. I wish I could talk to Alex about my baby." She caught her breath. "My baby. That's the way it feels ... like this baby is mine alone." She sighed. "Will she look like me? Will he look like Alex? I hope the baby has his beautiful brown eyes." She patted Princess on the neck. "He couldn't deny it was his then, could he?"
She started to cry again and Princess nuzzled her.
"I miss him so much. I love him so much. How could this wonderful thing tear us apart this way? I wish I could hear him laugh, see that adoring look in his eyes again."
Was it lost forever? What if the baby didn't look anything like him? She caught her breath. What if the baby had red hair? Grandpa Pulock had red hair! She had inherited violet eyes from her mother, but what if the baby had blue eyes like Dad? But a DNA test would prove it was his ... if he would agree to one. And if he wouldn't?
She shook her head. All this wasn't doing anyone a bit of good. Faith and courage were the only things that would get them through this dark hour. Speculation and suspicion had done enough harm already. They each had their weaknesses, and with Alex, it was trust. She knew that when she married him, and it was something she would have to deal with now. Alex would come around when the baby was born.

Sunday the sermon was about trust, and she could feel Alex watching her. She glanced up and met his gaze. For a moment they looked into each other's eyes, and the bond was there again ... briefly. He turned his attention back to the preacher, and she felt alone again. Was he coming around?
After church, he rode out alone on Ed and she cried some more. Maybe he needed the time to himself to hash this out in his mind. She wandered into the living room and stared out the bay window. The old house beckoned — a friend in an uncertain world — home. She left the house and walked down the hill to the creek. It gurgled an invitation as it raced by on its way from the old swimming hole. She followed, eager to leave the present behind and reminisce a few happy moments in her past.
The rope swing still hung from the tree, faded and frayed. On the other side of the pool was the fallen sycamore tree where Alex had made his decision to buy the land adjoining hers. She stared into the pool, remembering a lonely childhood. Of course, there had been good times. Like when Lori and Josh would come over and they would all go swimming. Josh was different then — loving and protective. Lori had loved him then, but his heart had belonged to Carmen. Did it still? Was that why he and Lori fought so much? Was that why he always ended up at their house, looking for Lori? Was he looking for Lori, or a lost friend? No wonder Alex had his doubts. But they were baseless. Even if she were still interested in Josh, she would never cheat on Alex — nor was it likely that Josh would cheat on Lori.
She wandered down stream to the place where they had drug huge slabs of stone to make a walkway across the creek. The stones were sunk in the sand now, covered by a couple inches of water. She sat down on a rock and removed her shoes and socks. She could pick them up on the way back. Rolling up her pants legs, she waded across the creek. The icy water tickled her toes as it leaped over her feet and danced around the rocks. It gurgled contentedly as it slowed to round the bend.
Once across the creek, she pushed her way up the overgrown trail and across the field, pausing to watch a couple of ducks on the pond. The old Apple tree leaned from its perch on a mound of earth to throw shadows on the pond. Sometime she would have to get out the old cane pole and fish like she used to. She sighed heavily and trudged on to the old farmhouse.
The wooden planks on the old porch cracked a smart welcome and the screen door squealed with delight when she opened it. The room was quiet — lonely. She climbed the stairs and paused in the little bedroom. Her gaze was drawn instantly to the bed. She blushed and straightened the covers. Glancing around the room, she searched for that feeling of peace. From the window a flower box was visible, overgrown with weeds. A bird's nest was built on one end and cobwebs covered the window. The room smelled of stale air and mold. Where was the magic?
She wandered down stairs and into the kitchen. How many pints of fruits and vegetables had been processed in this kitchen over the years? The old oak table stood where they had left it, the chairs covered with dust. In her mind's eye, she could see Mom, gray-haired, wrinkled and tired - but still taking joy in putting food on the table for Dad. And Dad, worn out from working the farm all day; disgruntled by years of fighting a losing battle with nature - of never having enough money to take care of his family properly. And yet, they had been happy with each other. They disagreed, and sometimes they even spent a few days not talking to each other, but they always worked things out.
Suddenly tired, she sat at the table and held her head in her hands. Tears flowed freely. If only Mom and Dad were alive. Maybe if she visited their graves — but no. The last thing she needed right now was to be reminded of their loss. If only she could talk to Josh. Maybe he could explain why Alex was acting this way. Yet she dared not talk to him. If he knew Alex was making her unhappy, he’d be upset. He had enough to worry about with Lori.
Wiping the tears from her eyes, she stood. It was getting late and Alex would be worried. She left the house and wandered across the field, taking in the beauty of the country. The farm was still in her name — eighty acres. Alex had insisted on keeping it that way in case something happened to him. He was always looking out for her — at least he used to.
Back at the house, she crossed the living room floor barefoot; her shoes in one hand and socks in the other. She had a feeling of being watched and glanced up to find Alex lounging on the window seat, watching her reflectively.
"Come here," he said gently.
She put her shoes and socks on the floor next to the couch and walked over to him hesitantly. What now? He dropped a leg off the window seat to make room for her and she sat down in front of him. He gently drew her shoulders back until her back rested against his chest, and then he slipped his arms around her waist. She rested her hands on his arms and they gazed out the window, watching the shadows darken on the farmstead. The ducks flapped their wings and splashed across the pond, finally becoming airborne. The old farmstead was empty.
Alex cleared his throat. "I don't want to hear any more of this nonsense about magic." His hand slipped down and caressed her stomach. "God is ultimately responsible for the creation of this child, not magic."
She sighed. "Maybe they're one and the same."
"Maybe for a child, but not for a parent. Magic is a child's interpretation of a miracle, or anything they can't understand."
Was that the problem? He thought she wasn't mature enough to be a mother? Was she?
He continued. "We'll get through this — with faith and determination, not magic."
He must have been watching — must have known why she went to the house. She snuggled deeper into his arms, her voice forlorn.
"It wasn't there this time."
He hugged her gently. "It never was, sweetheart. I told you. It wasn't the room. It was the love we feel for each other."
"And when I was a child? What was it then?"
"The imagination of a lonely girl reaching out for someone — something."
He leaned down and kissed her temple. "You don't have to go to that room any more, Carmen. Come to me. I'm the one you should turn to now — and God. Not a fantasy room or ..." His voice trailed off.
He wanted to say Josh. She glanced up at his face. "You've been pushing me away."
His arms relaxed and he gazed down at her somberly. "Do you think this has been easy for me? This is a baby, Carmen. Not a little doll to change and bathe. It's a lifelong responsibility."
"I know that," she responded tersely. "Do you think I have no sense of responsibility?" And she wasn't the only one having this child. That was when it hit her. Of course he thought her sense of responsibility was lacking. He still thought the baby belonged to Josh.
"Did you ever go to the doctor?"
He shifted his attention to the darkness outside the window. "Yes. The test was negative."
"This time." Her hopes were dashed. It was going to take a DNA test.
He glanced down at her with a despairing expression. "I'm bushed. Let's go to bed."
Maybe it was his rejection, or maybe hormones. Whatever the case, she started to cry again. How could having a baby cause so much sadness for two people who wanted one so badly?
She moved away from him and he reached for her, but she dodged his hand. He had used the term sweetheart for the first time since this all began. He had actually talked about the baby as if it were theirs. Still, she didn’t want his pity.

A restless night made her a morning grouch. She showered and slipped into some jeans, but couldn't get them zipped over her stomach. It should have been a happy moment. This was a time she had always looked forward to — so why did it have to be so difficult? Why did everything have to be so difficult? Without warning, she started to cry.
Alex stepped to the door of the bathroom, a toothbrush in one hand, and stared at her.
"What's the matter?"
Of all the stupid questions. What did he think was the matter? There was no point getting into it, so she focused on the immediate problem.
"I can't get my pants zipped up," she blubbered.
He shook his head in dismay.
"I don't think it's going to do any good to cry. Wear a dress for once." He ducked back into the bathroom.
She wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand and went to the closet, selecting a sundress with no waistline. It was silly to cry, but didn't he have any sensitivity? And what did he mean, for once? Why did he have to wait until her figure started to fall apart before he complained about seldom seeing her in a dress?
She dressed and went to the kitchen to start breakfast. She had biscuits in the oven and was heating up a pan to fry some eggs when Alex walked in. He glanced at the dress and dropped into a chair at the table.
"It doesn't look like you've given any of this much thought. Didn't you realize you would have to buy some maternity clothes? Was this a spur of the moment thing? Grab the opportunity when it came along? Honestly, Carmen. You need to grow up."
She jerked her head around and stared at him. "Spur of the moment? You tell me. Frankly, I would have called it a spontaneous event — unless you took me for a ride that day with the intent of ending up in that bedroom."
His gaze sharpened. "Knock it off, Carmen. I know how much you wanted a baby. You were desperate and you made a mistake. Admit it. I'm ready to forgive you, but we're never going to put this in the past if you keep up this farce."
She whirled around, gripping an egg in one hand. "Farce? That does it. I'm going to get a DNA test made on this baby."
"No you're not!" His eyes flashed a warning. "It doesn't matter who planted the seed. I'm going to be the father, and you're not going to risk the baby with another stupid test. I've been in twice now, and the results were the same. I can live with that. I can live with the idea that the baby belongs to Josh. I can even live with the idea that he made love to my wife. What I can't live with is your deceit."
It was the last straw. She threw the egg at him and it landed square in the middle of his forehead.
"You bull headed, suspicious ..."
"Carmen!" He shot out of the chair, clawing egg from his face as he lunged toward her.
Her heart skipped a beat and she dodged out of his way.
"Don't you hit me!"
But he was headed for the sink and the sprayer. He washed the egg from his face and grabbed the towel.
"I've had about enough of your childish pranks."
"I've had enough of it all, too," she snarled. "As far as I'm concerned you can take your filthy minded accusations and get out of here."
He pulled the towel from his face and stared down at her, but she didn't give him time to verbally attack her again. She clamped a lid on her temper and turned the fire down to simmer. What she had to say required a clear mind and a calm approach.
"I never cheated on you. I never will. Ruling out divine intervention, this baby is yours. I don't know how it happened. I only know there's never been anyone but you. I know it looks suspicious, but you've got to learn to trust me. If you didn't think you could trust me, then why did you leave? I haven't done anything to be forgiven for and you're making my life miserable. It's our baby, Alex. We should be enjoying this miracle, not fighting and accusing."
The dark eyes softened, even reflected shame — and then they hardened. He threw the towel on the counter.
"Nice try, but tests don't lie — people do."
He spun on one heel and marched out of the house.
Carmen stared after him, tears burning her eyes and her stomach twisting in knots. Enough of this cold war. She marched to the bedroom and jerked the set of suitcases from the closet. Anything was better than this constant conflict. She would move her things down to the old house and stay there until he could get his head together. She threw her cell phone on the bed. It wasn’t as if they used it to communicate anyway.
How could they have come to this point? More important, how could they get out? Surely their marriage could never survive this kind of abuse. Marriage was based on mutual respect. At the moment they had little for each other. The way he talked to her today, she wasn't even sure if she liked him any more. How could he believe she had done such a thing? She choked back a sob. Crying wasn't going to help. Nothing was going to help. Her self-esteem was slowly sinking into a bottomless pit. And then she remembered something her mother had said. The darkest hour is just before the dawn. Dawn must be getting close, because she had never seen things darker than they were right now.
She heaved the heavy luggage up to the bed. A sharp pain ripped through her body and she gasped. What was that?
The pain abated and she waited a few minutes. When it didn't return, she opened the suitcase and began tossing clothes into it. When she had cast aside all the jeans she couldn't wear, there was room for everything else. She closed the lid and jerked the suitcase off the bed, hefting it down the hall, across the living room and out the door. She paused on the porch and then hefted it again, marching down to the car. That was when she noticed that his truck was still in the garage. Alex was still at home.
She shrugged and unlocked the trunk. Then he would know she left. She was lifting the suitcase into the trunk when the second pain hit. It doubled her over, and she leaned over the back of the car, retching.
When the pain finally subsided, she headed for the house to get her purse. She'd better go to the doctor. She barely made it to the porch steps when the third pain hit. She fell to her knees, groaning. She glanced around the farm.
"Alex!" She screamed.
No answer. She had to get to the phone. If she hadn’t thrown her cell phone on the bed, she could have called him. She climbed the next stair and grabbed the porch rail as another pain wracked her body. Again she screamed for Alex, but there was no response. Where was he? A strange sensation made her glance down and she saw the drop of blood hit the porch. Something was very wrong. She took a few more steps and made it to the door. Another pain and more blood. She felt weak. Getting through the door wasn’t easy. Black spots clouded her vision as she grabbed the receiver, and then she fell. Blackness pushed the pain away.

Vaguely, she heard someone on the porch and recognized the quick steps.
"Alex," she called weakly, and heard him pause on the porch. Apparently he saw the blood, because his step quickened.
"Carmen?" His voice was anxious as he burst through the door. In his hand was a bouquet of wild flowers, which he promptly threw to the side when he saw her on the floor.
"Oh my God, Carmen. What happened?"
"I don't know," she moaned. "It hurts so badly, and I'm bleeding something awful."
He grabbed the phone off the floor and dialed a number. "Lie still," he directed, and put a gentle hand on her stomach.
He made two calls; one for an ambulance and the other to Josh, who was instructed to direct the ambulance in to their house. He replaced the receiver and turned back to her.
"How long ago did this start?"
"I don't know. Maybe thirty minutes. I don't know how long I was out."
He pressed down on her stomach. "You're hemorrhaging."
She gasped as another pain started. "Alex, please don't let me lose our baby."
He stared down at her, his eyes full of pain. It was too late and he knew it.
"Hang in there sweetheart. The ambulance is on the way."
The pain was subsiding as darkness surrounded her again.

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