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

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Princess picked Sunday to foal, and Carmen found her in heavy labor when they came home from church. Seeing the mare suffer twisted Carmen’s stomach into a knot. When she raced back to the house screaming for Alex, he bolted out of the back door.
“What is it?” he asked, anxiously glancing behind her.
“Princess — she’s hurting something terrible.”
“What happened to her?”
Carmen stared at him. “She’s having her foal.”
The dark eyes lost their concern and gained a spark of humor.
“Oh, that. I figured it would happen today.”
She caught her breath. “You knew, and we went to church anyway?”
He laughed softly. “Calm down, Carmen. It isn’t her first foal. She can do this thing without us, you know. In fact, she'd probably prefer we weren’t there.”
It was difficult to imagine how a veterinarian could be so unconcerned about the pain of any animal, much less Princess.
She frowned at him. “Aren’t you going to do anything?”
He dropped an arm around her shoulder and smiled down at her as they turned toward the barn.
“I’ll go check on her if it will make you feel any better.”
If she had known what he was going to do, it wouldn’t have made her feel any better. Princess was up and down, obviously in pain, but Alex merely checked her over and proclaimed everything normal.
“It’ll be an hour or so. We might as well leave her in peace.”
Carmen caressed the velvety muzzle and glanced up at Alex in exasperation.
“Aren’t you going to give her anything for pain?”
He grinned. “She's a horse, Carmen.”
“So? She has feelings too. If she was a human you’d be giving her something for pain.”
He took her elbow and urged her toward the house. “If she was a human, she wouldn’t be giving birth out here in the barn. Do you want her in your bed, or shall we call an ambulance?”
She stared up into mocking eyes that were twinkling with humor.
“You’re making fun of me.”
He sobered immediately and took her arm, leading her toward the door.
“Come on, sweetheart. Your anxiety will only make things more difficult for her.”
They retired to the house, where Carmen began to pace. He was probably right, but poor Princess. She stopped and stared out the patio doors at the barn. How long had it been?
Alex touched her shoulder and she glanced up at him. He caressed her cheek softly. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Everything is going to be okay.”
His eyes were so tender — so sweet. He lifted her into his arms and started for their bedroom. She squirmed.
“Not now, Alex — for heaven's sake. How can you think of that at a time like this?”
Lowering her to the floor, he turned away. Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he lounged against the counter dejectedly. He stared down at his coffee, and when she touched his arm, he glanced up questioningly.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I'm just not in the mood.”
The dark eyes wandered over her face in reflective silence. Finally he shrugged.
“It's all right. I was being insensitive.”
“No, you were only trying to distract me. I understand, and I appreciate the gesture, but ...” She glanced away, her face growing warm. “Don't take me for that reason. It wouldn’t be making love. It would only be having sex.”
He set the coffee cup on the table and pulled her into his arms. “You have the strangest ideas. Anytime we’re intimate; we’re making love. Could it ever be anything else between us?”
She snuggled against his chest and sighed. “I suppose not, but I’m still not in the mood.”
He kissed her forehead. “That's okay.”
She leaned her head back and gazed up into his face. “Are you disappointed in me?”
He smiled tenderly. “I love you.”
Maybe he wasn’t disappointed in her, but he could hardly be proud of her either. She was over-reacting again.
For the next hour, his attention was divided between her and Princess. In spite of all her anxiety, Alex was right. Princess presented them with a healthy foal, without complications or assistance. As they gazed proudly down at the little filly, Alex dropped a hand to her shoulder and squeezed it.
“Congratulations. Your horse ranch is shaping up nicely.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Four horses doesn't make a horse ranch.”
“Five,” he reminded her in a stern tone. “What was once mine is now ours.”
She arched a brow. “Well then, I guess it isn’t my horse ranch, either. It’s ours. Or don’t the same rules apply to the wife?”
He smiled. “Sure, but it was your dream.”
She frowned. “A dream I always hoped to share with my husband.”
He pulled her into his arms and gazed down at her. “Do you ever think about how much we have? How fortunate we are?”
She snuggled against his chest and sighed contentedly.
“All the time. I have to pinch myself every morning to make sure I'm not dreaming.”
He kissed the top of her head. “I know.”
He was silent for a long time. They stood there holding each other, listening to the sound of the horses munching on hay and smelling the sweet aroma of oats and alfalfa. Life couldn’t get any better.
Finally she tipped her head back and gazed up into his face. He was watching Ed with an expression that looked almost wistful. She frowned.
“Do you miss riding on the beach with him?”
Alex glanced down at her. “I wasn't thinking of that at all. I was thinking that we should share all this — not hog it all to ourselves.”
She stiffened. “Sure, we’ll get the guest ranch going some day.”
“Yeah,” he answered absently.

As the days passed, the little filly grew stronger and they finally released her in the pasture with her mother and sisters. The week slipped by and all too soon it was time for Alex to catch his plane. Of course he wasn’t going to cancel a business trip simply because she didn’t want him to go. Still, if she made it uncomfortable for him this time, maybe he’d be sure to ask her how she felt next time. Hopefully there wouldn’t be a next time. Deep down inside, a voice suggested that he was getting bored with her and wanted to be a salesman again.
He pushed away his breakfast dishes and stared out the patio doors at the low hanging clouds. Did he feel the impending doom? He watched absently as Carmen buttered another piece of toast. She was stalling and it would do no good. Finally he rose from his chair and brushed crumbs from his gray business suit. He looked so elegant — so sophisticated. He glanced down at her.
“Do you want to drive me to the Airport and keep the car?”
She studied the toast. “No. I don’t want to watch you leave.”
He sighed in resignation. “All right, if that’s the way you feel. I hope you don’t hold this against me all the time I’m gone.”
She glanced up at him sourly. “It was your decision to go, not mine. Did you expect me to be happy about it?”
He gazed down at her with a disappointed expression.
“No, but I didn’t expect you to pout, either.” He shook his head. “Well, I guess this is it. I’ll call you.”
She kept her attention on the toast. She wasn’t pouting, but she wasn’t going to watch him leave either.
He picked up his luggage and strode across the room. The storm door squealed a protest as he left the house, and the porch moaned with each step he took away from her. Quick steps, and then he was down the concrete stairs. Tears burned her eyes. How could she let him leave this way when it might be the last time she saw him?
She dropped the piece of toast and darted out the front door, locking it behind her. He was starting the car as she ran across the porch and down the steps. The car was backing out of the garage when she grabbed the door on the passenger side.
He slammed on the brakes and leaned over to open the door for her. She slipped into the seat and slammed the door shut, avoiding his eyes while she buckled her seat belt. Finally she glanced up at him.
The dark eyes were tender. “Atta girl.”
She smiled without enthusiasm. “I’m still not going to watch your plane leave.”
He nodded, putting an arm across the back of the seat as he backed the car.
“One step at a time.”
Katie had offered to take her to the airport to pick up the car after he left. That way she could simply drive it back. It made more sense that way, but secretly she had hoped he would change his mind. It took the better part of forty-five minutes to reach Drake Field. Every inch of the way she prayed he would change his mind - but he didn't.
Inside the airport terminal, she kissed him good-by. For a moment she clung to him. Would this be their last kiss? She gazed up at him, wanting to beg him not to go, but they had been all over that and it would only annoy him.
He lifted her chin with a curled index finger
“Everything will be fine, sweetheart.”
If everything was going to be fine, then why did she feel like their world was ending? She tried to force a smile, but her lips wouldn’t cooperate.
He dropped his hand and shook his head. He was disappointed in her. She couldn’t blame him for that. She wasn’t too proud of herself at the moment. This wasn’t the way to send him off.
“I’ve got to go.” He said. “I’ll be back in no time.”
Without another word, he turned and walked away from her. It took every ounce of willpower not to run after him. Instead she turned toward the door. She wasn’t going to watch him go. All the way to the car she kept reminding herself of that. As she unlocked the car, his plane roared down the runway. She wasn’t going to watch him leave. Yet, as she opened the car door, her gaze was drawn to the commuter plane. Alex was at the last window, blowing her a kiss. She stood in shocked silence as the plane left the ground. Mesmerized by its movement, she watched as it disappeared into the clouds.
Alex.” The word was ripped from her throat in a sob.
She drove home in a fog of doubt. If she could only shake the awful feeling that he wouldn’t return. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that his parents had died in a plane crash. Maybe it was because her entire life had been lonely until she met him. Whatever the reason, gloom tugged at her heart with a heavy hand.
At home that evening, everything she looked at reminded her of him. She cried so often that when she finally went to bed, she was exhausted. Even so, she couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t gone to sleep nights without him. Yet this was different. Now he wasn’t out on a call. He wouldn’t crawl into their bed at midnight and snuggle close to her. He wouldn’t be home for two whole weeks. He would be in another country — maybe hungry or hurting.
Sleep finally came, though, and next morning she woke to the sound of birds outside her window. How could they be so happy while Alex was away? She moaned and rolled out of bed. It wasn’t like she was getting much sleep there, anyway. Even her nightmares had been vague, with an unidentified entity stalking her.
She showered and dressed, skipping breakfast. The animals were hungry and they were the only things that stood a chance of taking her mind off Alex.
It was a warm morning, with the promise of spring lurking in the Easter lilies she had planted along the fence line. They were in full bloom, their bright yellow blossoms contrasting starkly against the soft green of new grass.
Such a beautiful day would normally have put her in good spirits, but she did the chores without interest. Thinking a ride might put her in a better mood, she saddled Ed and released Princess and her daughters in the pasture. She needed to give the foal a name, but nothing came to mind. All this time to think about it and she was still stumped. Oh well, it would come some day, when the foal did something unusual.
The five of them raced across the pasture, toward the buffalo pen. Alex would have scolded her for being so careless. One step in a hole and she could lie out here mortally wounded with no one to know. She slowed Ed to a lope. Why the rush? She had all day — two weeks, to be exact.
Across the creek, on the hillside, two elk grazed contentedly. She pulled Ed to a stop and curled a knee around the saddle horn, watching the scene. Who would have guessed three years ago that she would be running Elk and buffalo on her land? Certainly not Josh. He might have pictured cattle or horses — even goats, but elk and buffalo? With any luck, by this time next year there would be a couple of pronghorn antelope. Alex already had the permit.
He was such a go-getter. Was there anything he couldn't accomplish? She sighed. Yes, one thing. And yet, there was always the possibility of adoption — maybe sometime in the future — maybe. If it could be done, Alex could do it, though.
She lowered her foot to the stirrup and turned Ed back toward the buffalo shed. Right now they would have to stick to adopting animals. It was a lot easier ... and final. No one could take them back once the papers were signed. She had to stop thinking of it that way. It was time to accept that they would never have biological children. Mums was right. It wasn’t fair to Alex.
Her attention was drawn to the little filly. She was standing with her long legs stretched out, sniffing at a rabbit. The rabbit tired of her inquisition and hopped away a few steps. The foal followed, poking her nose at the rabbit. The rabbit thumped the ground once and then leaped into the air, its tail flashing in the sunlight as it lashed out with its hind legs.
The foal snorted and danced back a few steps. Then she joined the fun, leaping and lashing her feet into the air as she twisted her belly toward the sun. What she possessed in exuberance, she lacked in coordination, though. As her hind legs came down, she staggered and fell.
Carmen caught her breath and put a hand to her mouth anxiously, but the foal scrambled up from the ground and shook herself.
Children and animals. They were never defeated. They didn't know the meaning of the word. Maybe it would be best if adults forgot it as well. Was that why Alex was so successful?
She shook her head. Here she was, thinking of Alex again. It was going to be a long two weeks.
That evening when she was getting ready for bed, she began cramping. Maybe that explained her dark mood. It was yet another reminder that there would be no pregnancy — at least not this month.

Katie dropped by the next morning and left the twins for the day. She had some shopping to do and the boys were in the way. Well, that wasn’t exactly the way Katie worded it. She said that they were too rowdy, which converted to the fact that she didn’t want to take the time to discipline them. Tim and Jim were thirteen months old going on three years. Both had been walking for a good four months, and they were already saying short sentences. What Tim didn’t think of, Jim did. They were healthy inquisitive toddlers. No doubt that got old at times. Still, it would be nice to have the opportunity to be irritated by her own children some day.
Carmen played with them outside until they started fighting. Then she took them in and fixed lunch. Both Tim and Jim had brown hair and blue eyes, but their personalities were as different as day and night — just like Katie and Alex.
What had it been like for their parents? What had it been like for Alex raising Katie after their parents died? Katie had forgiven his inexperienced blundering, but as she had grown closer to Alex, she had drifted further from Carmen. Katie had always been immature, maybe even a little lazy. Still, in most ways she was a good wife and mother.
Carmen’s attention drifted from the boys and she gazed out the bay window at the old farmhouse. Her father had been raised in that house, and she had lived there throughout her childhood. She had played in the creek with Lori and Josh, and finally she had met Alex there. As an only child growing up with aging parents and no relatives, life had often been lonely. Yet there had been enough love to go around. And then, there was the magic room upstairs, where she had spent many hours playing as a child — and many hours dreaming as a teen. It was the room where she had gone to cry when her father joined his wife in the ever after. She was only 21 then. Finally, it was the room where Alex had stayed when he came to visit his sister. How many stories did that room have to tell?
Tim squealed, bringing Carmen’s attention back to the boys. Jim was trying to take food from Tim’s plate. Why he wanted to do that was a mystery. He still had food on his own plate.
She sighted heavily. “How would you two like some ice cream?”
Both looked up at her. Tim mimicked her, but Jim merely nodded his head quickly twice.
They could all use the diversion.

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