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

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As the days passed, her mood did improve. Whether that was the passing of the monthly cycle or her determination to make things better was a toss-up. Whatever the case, the feeling of impending doom continued. By the end of the first week she had to face another enemy — a thunderstorm.
She woke in the dark of pre-dawn to the sound of thunder. Instinctively she reached over to wake Alex. A cold pillow received her hand. She lay still, praying that the storm would go around them this time.
A brilliant flash of lightning made the furniture in their bedroom stand out in relief. Immediately a clap of thunder made the room shudder. It took a moment before she realized that the continued sound was actually someone banging on the front door. Who would be visiting at this hour during a thunderstorm?
Grabbing her robe, she hurried to the living room. Through the bay window she could see Josh standing on the porch. She unlocked the door and opened it, stepping aside as his tall lean frame dripped through the door.
“What's the matter?” she asked.
He stepped into the room and removed his hat, running a hand through an unruly shock of red hair. He squinted down at her in the dim light, his gray eyes smoldering with unmasked anger.
“Have you seen Lori?”
She shook her head mutely. “What time is it?”
He glanced at his watch. “Five a.m.”
She suppressed a groan. Apparently they were fighting again.
“Maybe she went to your mother’s,” she offered hopefully.
He shrugged. “Maybe so.”
Why didn’t he check there first? Why would he think his wife would be here at this hour? Carmen waited for him to decide to leave, but he stood there as if wanting to talk. She should be a friend and listen, but this wasn’t any of her business. Once they were like brother and sister, but he had changed. He had always been hot headed, but never mean like he often was now. Even his sisters were scratching their heads. Only Mums defended him, as most mothers do. But Mums was also sympathetic to Lori. They were a conservative family, and Mums said Lori’s behavior when she was young was forgivable. Apparently Josh thought so too when he married her. Was that what had come between them now? When they were first married, they fought over the fact that he wanted a baby and she didn’t.
Lightning flashed brilliantly and a clap of thunder followed. In that instant the telephone rang. She had been waiting for that call. Grabbing the receiver, she answered breathlessly.
“Yes sweetheart. You answered the phone mighty fast. Were you up? Is something wrong?”
“No.” She paused. The last thing he needed to know was that Josh was there before the sun.
Lightning flashed again, and thunder rattled the windowpanes.
“Tell him you’ll call him back,” Josh ordered sharply.
A pause. “Who's that?” Alex queried anxiously.
She sighed. “It’s Josh, he ...”
Josh snatched the phone from her hand, barking at Alex.
“Call her back in a few hours. We’re in the middle of an electrical storm.”
He slammed the receiver back on the phone. “The fool. Doesn’t he know you can get electrocuted that way?”
Carmen regained control of her gaping jaw. “Of course he knows, and as soon as I told him there was a storm, he would have insisted on calling me back. You had no right ...”
He waved a hand. “So call him back when the storm is over. Big deal.”
She jammed her hands on her hips and glared at him.
“I don't know where he is, you interfering martinet. Now he’ll be worried.”
For a moment she thought Josh was going to hit her. She stepped back. “You’d better leave.”
He shrugged. “I guess so.” He strode to the door, leaving a trail of water. Opening the door, he paused as he stepped out on the porch.
“If you see Lori, tell her I said to get her tail back home where she belongs.”
“That should bring her running back,” she muttered dryly, and slammed the door behind him ... thankful for the umpteenth time that she hadn’t married him. What must Alex think? At least he was safe.
She mopped up the water and sat down on the window seat. Leaning against the wall, she stared out into the storm. He had been gone over a week now, but the premonition persisted. What was he doing right now? She stared up at the clouds angrily. If they weren’t there she would be able to look at the moon and know he could see it as well. Her eyelids drooped and she drowsed.
The telephone rang and she opened her eyes. The storm had passed. She leaped off the window seat and dashed for the phone, catching it on the second ring.
“Yeah.” His voice was caustic. “Is the storm over?”
“Yes. It’s still raining, but it isn’t lightning any more.”
“Who took the phone from you? Josh?”
She sighed heavily. “Who else would be so rude?”
“What was he doing there so early in the morning?”
She ignored the significance in his tone. If he was so worried, he shouldn’t have gone on this stupid trip.
“He was looking for Lori.”
A pause, then, “Again? Why does he always come to our house when she decides to take off?”
“I don't know. We’re closest, I guess — and she’s my friend — as well as yours.”
Why were they talking about Josh and Lori? “How has your trip been?”
“Not bad. I guess TAYCO got what they wanted.”
“Alex?” she cuddled the phone to her ear and spoke softly into the receiver. “I miss you. It’s so lonely here without you.”
“I miss you too. In fact, I was calling to tell you that I’m coming home early. I’ve got a flight into Dallas tomorrow — well, actually it would be today — late evening. Keep your cell phone handy. If I get in early enough, I’ll try to catch an earlier flight.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “I’ll be waiting by the phone. Don’t get in such a rush that you take a flight out in bad weather, though.”
“Do you still have that bad feeling?”
“Something awful.”
“I’ll be careful.” His deep voice was as smooth as velvet.
She clung to the phone. “I love you — so much”
“I love you, too. Now let’s hang up on the count of three, okay?”
She nodded and then realized he couldn’t see her. “Okay.”
“One, two, three.”
The line clicked, but she stood there holding the telephone. She closed her eyes and prayed for his safe return. Finally she replaced the receiver.
She dressed and did the chores. Ten O'clock found her hanging over the telephone, her cell phone on her hip. Finally, at ten minutes after twelve, her cell phone rang. She popped it open.
“Hey, sweetheart. I’m in Tulsa and they’re announcing my flight as I speak. Meet me at the airport.”
“I’ll be there. Bye.”
She dashed out the door and jumped into the car. It would take her as long to drive to Fayetteville as it would for him to fly there from Tulsa. She hit every red light on the way and arrived at the airport fifteen minutes later than she had anticipated. Entering the terminal, she glanced around anxiously.
A lean figure in a gray business suit stepped out of a crowd of new arrivals. Alex took her elbow and led her toward the door. She gazed up at him in rapt silence. He was back — and he was fine. The premonition was wrong.
“Is it really you?” she finally managed through a constricted throat.
He opened the car door for her and his eyes twinkled with humor.
“Wait until we get home and I’ll show you.”
She laughed. “It’s you alright. Nobody else could have that on their mind so frequently.”
He smiled. “That’s because I have the sexiest wife in the world.”
She squeezed his arm. “You would know, you little globe trotter.”
He walked around the car and climbed in the other side. Once inside, he reached out and took her hand, pulling her across the car seat. Kissing her ardently, he finally released her.
“I’m not going any place without you again. That was miserable. You were right. I shouldn’t have gone.”
They spent the rest of the day lounging around the house and making up for lost time. It was wonderful having him back, but the feeling of doom persisted. Maybe it had nothing to do with the trip.
The next morning, after church, they doubled up on Ed and rode into the hills. Alex had made arrangements in Houston to purchase a pair of Texas Longhorns, and he was scouting out some more fence line. The area where the goats had been provided good grazing, but he was concerned about the wild dog problem she had experienced in the past. Of course, attacking an adult Texas long horn was a little different than a herd of hornless goats, but the cow was supposed to be carrying a calf. Eventually they would run the Longhorns with the buffalo, and then Brutus could stay with all of them, but the animals would have to be quarantined at first and then allowed to adjust to each other.
Together, they entered the back forty acres through a makeshift gate. The terrain was rough, covered with brush choked ravines and sharp granite bluffs. The perfect place for rattlesnakes — and the warm late March sun would bring them out today. She wrapped her arms around Alex’s waist and hugged him close. He wouldn’t let any snakes near her.
His hand covered hers warmly and then he caressed her arm. This was where he had trailed the wild dogs that had attacked her and the dairy herd so long ago. He had been there for her then, and later he had sworn to protect her always.
They crossed a small spring and Alex drew Ed to a halt, glancing down at the ground.
“Look.” His tone was terse, and yet laced with excitement.
In the mud was a deer track, and overlaying it, the paw print of a big cat — too big to be a bobcat. She glanced up at his anxious face.
“Our Mountain Lion is back?”
“It looks like it.” He patted her arm. “Better keep it under your hat, though. Somebody will be out here trying to harvest it.” He glanced around the hills. “I’d better figure on building a pen close to the house to quarantine the Longhorns in. That cat probably won’t bother the adults as long as there are deer around, but it might go after the calf.”
Alex was alert for the rest of the ride, even noting a bear track once. They needed to get all their land fenced so no hunters would be wandering in and killing off the wildlife. The animals would have a kind of sanctuary here. If they fenced Alex’s land as well, it would provide a combined area of a quarter section - 160 acres. Not much in the way of a game reserve, but nothing to sneeze at, either.
Noon found them back on the hill overlooking the old farmstead. Across from them was the log house — home. They stopped on the hill and ate the lunch she had packed. They sat in comfortable silence, watching a couple of squirrel’s frolic in the warm spring sun.
Alex finished his sandwich and brushed the crumbs from his pants.
“If I had a gun with me, we could have some squirrel for supper.”
He was joking, of course. Alex always carried a rifle in the boot when he rode into the hills. He wasn’t likely to be caught unprepared in the wild country that surrounded their house. She punched his shoulder.
“Alex! And you a veterinarian. Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of the animals?”
His eyes twinkled. “I would — just as soon as I shot him. Do you know how to fix squirrel and dumplings?”
She kicked his boot. “And to think you once told me I was hard on the wildlife.”
He chuckled as he stood. “Come on; let’s go take a stroll down memory lane. Let’s go down to your old house and see how it's holding up.”
She pushed away from the ground and began gathering the trash.
“I thought you had enough of that place before we were married.”
He shook his head. “Actually, I’ve been thinking of restoring it — and your old truck. Those ‘65 Chevy trucks are worth a bundle now.”
She gazed down the hill at the aging farmstead. The old truck was still parked where Josh had left it when he towed it home for her nearly two years ago.
“I don’t want to sell the truck.”
He shrugged. “I know. I wasn’t thinking of selling it. It just seems a shame to let it sit there and rot. I know it has sentimental value to you because your dad bought it new.”
He mounted Ed and kicked his foot out of the stirrup, holding a hand down for her. She put a foot in the stirrup and swung up behind him, wrapping her arms around his waist. Together they rode down to the old house. Alex tied Ed to one of the rough cedar porch posts. Then he opened the door for her and they stepped into the house.
It had the stale smell of an abandoned building. No one had lived here since they got married. She glanced around the house. She had been glad to move out, but it still felt like home. Why not? The old house was where she had been raised. She ran a finger across the top of the potbellied stove and pulled away a sooty finger. Alex was behind her and she could feel him watching her. She glanced up and met his intent gaze. For a moment they stared at each other, and then she shrugged.
“You’re right. It brings back a lot of memories — some of them not so good.”
“I’m sorry. I know you had a lonely childhood.” He moved toward her. “On the other hand, I have nothing but great memories of this house.” He smiled down at her, a twinkle entering his eyes. “You know, there was something I always wanted to do when I was visiting in this house.”
She smiled up at him. “And what was that?”
Without warning, he reached out and grabbed her by the waist. Throwing her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, he climbed the stairs.
She giggled all the way up. “You did not.”
He kicked the door open and entered a small bedroom.
“I swear. Every time I was here I fantasized about this.” He set her on the floor and she smiled up at him.
“And to think I slept in the room right under this one.” She slapped his arm playfully. Every time? Even the first time you visited?”
He nodded and then sobered. “There’s something about this room.” He glanced around at the single window and the 3/4 bed. “It's ...”
“Magical,” she supplied instantly. “Mom and Dad wouldn't let me come up here when I was little because they were afraid I would fall down the stairs. It only made me more determined, though. I was drawn to this room. I thought it had magic. I came up here to pray for the most important things.” She went to the window and stared down at the flowers. “This is where I prayed you’d be mine — when I was only sixteen.”
He laughed shortly. “You didn’t even know me then.”
She met his gaze seriously. “Yes I did. I just hadn't met you yet.”
The smile faded from his lips as his gaze held hers. He took her face in his hands.
“I was in love with you the first day we met. Remember?” His thumbs caressed her cheeks and his voice was soft. “Remember the first time we made love?”
Warmth flooded her face and she tore her gaze from his. “I remember. The night we got married. Our first night in your new log house.”
“Our house,” he gently corrected.
“Our house,” she conceded. “I didn’t know what to expect. It was so embarrassing. After all, I was twenty-five years old. I should have known. I never knew anything could hurt so much and feel so good at the same time.” She smiled up at him shyly. “I didn't know ... I thought it would be that way every time. Kind of silly, huh? I don’t know how I got through college and stayed so stupid.”
He frowned. “I'm sorry, sweetheart. I never knew you felt that way. You never said ... you must have been disappointed.”
She laughed softly. “Only for a little while.”
He kissed her lips gently. “You're not stupid. You were innocent. You were brought up with old-fashioned morals, so you simply didn't discuss things like that. I should have anticipated it. When you cried, I thought it was because you lost your innocence. Let's always keep the lines of communication open between us. Let's always be close — like we are right now.”
He bent his head down and brushed her lips softly with his. “Forever.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and drew his mouth down to hers.
“It's this room, Alex,” she whispered against his lips. “Don't you feel the magic?”
His hands left her face and slid down her shoulders and back in a gentle caress that ended on her waist. Pulling her body against his, he kissed her ardently.
“It isn't the room, Carmen,” he spoke in a husky voice as his arms surrounded her. “It's us. We make the magic. Don't you know that? We always have.”
Yes, the first time they met, there had been electricity between them. Still, the little girl inside wanted to believe the magic room had weaved its spell once again. How else could she have landed such a perfect husband?
He lifted her into his arms and carried her to the bed. There she melted in his arms, giving herself to him as if it were the first time.
Later, as they descended the stairs, she laughed. “I bet Ed is wondering what happened to us.”
“I wonder myself,” he said wistfully.
She glanced up at his face and he smiled down at her tenderly. She returned his smile.
“You're such a romantic. Like throwing that kiss from the airplane window — and I just stared. Isn't it the woman who is supposed to be romantically inclined? I think we've got our roles reversed.”
His dark gaze reflected concern. “You don't think a man should be romantic?”
She shrugged. “Sure. I think it's terrific. It's just unusual.”
He eyed her skeptically as he held the door open for her. “Probably not as unusual as you think. Most men are probably closet romantics — like you.”
Closet romantic? Well, maybe so. If she enjoyed the romantic side of him, it must be because there was a bit of romance deep inside her own heart. She gazed up at him soberly.
“Does it trouble you that I'm not demonstrative?”
He smiled wryly. “No, but it would be nice to have you throw a kiss at me now and then. Just so I'll know I'm not making a complete fool of myself.”
“You never act like a fool. I'll try to be a little more considerate.”
Actually, he was right. She was something of a romantic — or maybe she was the fool. Did the room actually have a magical strength, or was it simply a childish fantasy? The only thing she knew for sure was that something special had happened in that room today. Would they always be like this? Right now she felt more contented than she had ever felt in her life. It was all too good to be true. What had she ever done to deserve such overwhelming happiness?

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