He poured carbonated red grape juice into a long-stemmed glass and set the bottle back in the refrigerator. With the glass in one hand and the letter in another, he sauntered into his office. The handwriting on the letter was neat and feminine. Taking a sip of the juice, he set the glass in a coaster on the smooth mahogany desk and dropped the letter beside it. The room was too warm. Every time the weather got cold outside, other residents in the complex cranked their heaters up and then he had to adjust his own thermostat. He removed his jacket, folding it carefully and placing it over the back of the visitor’s chair. Loosening his tie, he dropped into the leather office chair and retrieved the envelope.
“Alexander Mathew Barnett,” he read aloud. His laugh was little more than an expulsion of air.
Only in the last year had his sister started writing, and it was always stiff and formal. At least she was willing to communicate now. No doubt the opening of dialogue was due to her roommate. Carmen must be quite a woman to inspire such admiration from Katie. He’d like to meet her sometime.
He pulled out a drawer and selected a wooden handled letter opener with gold inlay. Slicing the end of the envelope open with one smooth movement, he placed the letter opener back where it belonged and shoved the drawer shut. Pressing on the sides of the envelope to open the end, he blew into it, exposing the letter inside. As he plucked the letter out, a picture fell on the table, face down.
“Carmen at the fair,” was written on the back of it.
He flipped it over as he opened the letter. One glance led to a double-take. He abandoned the letter. He sat up straight and picked up the picture, whistling in admiration. Blond curls framed one of the prettiest faces he had ever seen. The smile with those full lips was sad, sweet and somehow innocent. She was squatting beside a goat, one knee lower than the other.
He leaned back in his chair, the letter forgotten as he studied the girl in the picture. She looked to be about twenty-two or three. In his mind’s eye, he had pictured her much older – probably because of the way Katie spoke of her. A girl that young didn’t usually have much common sense.
The swell of well developed breasts peeked from a tank top that might have looked suggestive on someone else. This lady wore it with the finesse of a duchess. In modest shorts, her legs were smooth – shapely, without the sharp angles of a muscular build. Slim ankles and lean upper thighs gave her the look of a model. And yet, according to Katie, she ran a budding goat dairy on a run-down farm in Northwest Arkansas.
He tossed the picture on the desk and leaned forward to pick up the letter. Yes, he definitely wanted to meet her.
According to Katie’s letter, kidding season was almost on them and they were getting the barn ready. She said they were working their tails off. He grunted. If he knew Katie, Carmen was probably doing most of the work outside. Katie wasn’t lazy, but she didn’t like getting dirt under her fingernails. She’d make some man a nice housewife one day.
Once again she was inviting him to visit, but this time she said Carmen had offered to let him use a room upstairs. They were a long way from the nearest hotel and Katie wanted to see him as much as possible. That didn't sound like Katie. When she left his apartment, all she took was a suitcase full of clothes. She even left his picture on her nightstand – a final insult that still stung. At the time she had told him if she never saw him again, it would be too soon. Granted, she was in the middle of a tantrum, but two years had passed without a word from her except notification when their aunt died. She had been cool toward him at the funeral, but that may have been due to the fact that she was grieving. Then a few months later she had sent the first letter, saying that she had a roommate and was working on a farm. That was a shocker. Well, she would turn 21 in a few months and her inheritance would be available. She could buy her own place then.
He carefully folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. Retrieving the glass of grape sparkly, he picked up the picture and leaned back in the chair. There he sat for a while, sipping the juice while he studied the picture again. Something about her stirred his insides in a way that he thought might never happen again. Once before he had felt that way about a woman and she had literally left him waiting at the altar while she ran off with another man. Katie said it was because he was so controlling. Maybe she was right. Maybe he would never find a compatible mate. So far he’d managed to chase two women off before he reached thirty.
He tossed the picture back on the table and drained the glass. He wasn’t going to go through that pain again. No woman was worth that. He stood and took the glass to the kitchen. Rinsing it, he placed it in the dishwasher and shut the door. A quick glance around the kitchen revealed sparkling clean countertops. Sterile was the word that came to mind. That described his life right now. Between college and work, there wasn’t much time left for anything else.
He turned, starting for the living room, and then stopped. Retracing his steps to the office, he retrieved the picture. Striding back to the kitchen, he deliberately removed the caduceus magnet and centered the picture on the refrigerator door – eye level. Smiling, he anchored it with the magnet. A man could always dream.
The doorbell demanded his attention and he answered the door to find a tall young man standing in the hallway.
“So, where are you going on your vacation?” The younger man said with a big grin.
“Come in, Gerald,” Alex responded dryly as he stepped aside to allow the lanky salesman into the room. “Forced vacation...isn't that an oxymoron?”
Gerald walked into the room and favored Alex with a wry smile. “You’re the only person I’ve ever known who has had to be forced to take a vacation.” He strolled into the kitchen and glanced around. “Not a speck of food in sight.”
Alex chuckled. “There’s some sandwich stuff in the refrigerator. Help yourself.”
Gerald stopped with one hand on the refrigerator door, his attention fixed on the photo.
“What’s this?” he said, leaning down to examine it. “Wow!” He moved the magnet and plucked the picture from the door.
“My sister’s room mate,” Alex said, removing it from his hand and replacing it on the refrigerator. “What you’re after is inside the refrigerator.”
Gerald grinned at him. “Private stock, huh?”
“No, I've never met her.”
Gerald opened the refrigerator door. “Why not? Didn’t you say your sister has been asking you to visit?” He piled ham, sandwich spread, lettuce, a tomato and bread in his arms and allowed the door to shut on its own. “What are you waiting for?”
“She has a boyfriend.”
Gerald piled the food on the table and looked up at Alex. “Your sister or her roommate?”
Alex pulled out a chair. “Both. Shove some of that food over here.”
Gerald got a couple of plates from the cabinet and two knives. “Who’d think mighty-mite would let a little thing like a boyfriend stop him.” He shoved a plate and knife toward Alex and then sat down.
The nickname had been given him by three other salesmen at the office. It wasn’t that he was so small. They were simply very tall – all well over six feet. Still, his tenacity was what had inspired the name, not his size.
Alex built a sandwich without responding.
Gerald stood and grabbed the picture from the refrigerator again. Sitting back down, he examined it.
“Maybe I’ll go visit your sister. I might get lucky.”
Alex reached over and snatched the picture from his hand, tucking it into his shirt pocket. "Don't talk about her that way.”
Gerald put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his hands. “I wasn’t talking about your sister.”
Alex gave him a level look. “I didn’t think you were.”
Gerald grinned. “Well, well. You might not know it yet, buddy, but you’re hooked.”
Alex gathered his sandwich and lifted it. “My life is complicated enough,” he said, and took a bite out of the sandwich.
They ate in silence for a while and finally Gerald spoke, his tone conversational. “So when are you leaving?”
Without looking up, Alex responded. “In a week or so, I guess. It sounds like they could use some help.”
Nothing more was said about the subject.
After Gerald left, Alex showered and changed into jeans, a western shirt and square-toed harness boots. Tucking the picture in his shirt pocket, he left the apartment and drove straight to the stable. There he saddled Ed and rode out to the exercise field. He did some of his best thinking in the saddle.
A merciless wind gripped the house with icy fingers, shaking it so hard that the windows rattled in their frames. The frigid air crept under the house and oozed up walls void of insulation. From there it leisurely drifted into the rooms around light switches, mop boards and cracks in the wall. Even the bare hardwood floor offered gaps and knot holes as free ports of entry. The farm house was old and decrepit - isolated on 80 acres of similar neglect. It hadn't always been that way though.
Carmen Pulock huddled beside the ancient potbellied stove, pulling her heavy chore coat tight against the cold. Winters in Northwest Arkansas were usually mild, but this was the coldest in her memory. The fourth of this month Rogers set an all-time record of negative twelve degrees Fahrenheit. Tomorrow would be the first day of March. It had been a miserable winter - partly because of the cold, but mostly because it was the first one that neither parent had lived to see. Kind eyes looked down on her from a frame on the wall. What would Dad have thought of the goat dairy? Nothing seemed to work out lately - not the dairy and certainly not her love life.
“Happy Birthday,” she muttered bitterly.
The stove popped an angry protest about the growing flames, causing her to flinch. She kicked the cantankerous old piece of junk. It would be another hour before the room was warm enough to hide her breath. The ancient farmhouse was in desperate need of repair - or a demolition crew - neither of which she could afford. The house and eighty wild acres of Arkansas hills and hollows she had recently inherited represented her total wealth. Well, almost. But every dime spent on the house meant that much less she could invest in the dairy - and the dairy was the one thing that stood a chance of stimulating her anemic savings account. If the dairy didn’t prove profitable, she would have to go back to Wal-Mart. Working for someone else wasn’t her idea of a career. Besides, if the dairy went belly up, it would please Josh too much.
A door slammed down the hall and Katie sprinted into the room, hugging herself. Her words were barely comprehensible through chattering teeth as she leaned over the stove.
“Wh…en d...d...id it…t go out?
“Huh? Oh, the stove?” Carmen made a face. “I don’t know. I was so tired last night I didn’t even wake up to add wood. I had to break an icicle off my lip this morning when I woke up.”
Katie giggled. “Only you would think of such a thing.” Blue eyes sparkled like sapphires in her round face, and a dimple danced at the corner of her generous mouth. She leaned down; peering through the soot smudged glass on the stove door.
“It looks like it’s starting to burn good.” She straightened and spread plump hands out toward the stove. “Alex sure picked a fine time to visit, didn't he?”
There was no good time for Katie’s brother to visit, but this had to be the worst. Frozen water pipes and unheated bedrooms had to be something new for a wealthy socialite. Surely Katie must realize he would be slumming it - and why. Carmen grabbed a chunk of wood from the box and jerked the stove door open. She tossed the fuel in and slammed the door before sparks could hop out on the stove pad. She moaned. “If he had the sense God gave a goose, he’d stay in Houston until spring.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “Spring will be too late to witness the kidding. Anyway, he studied veterinary medicine for three years. All that education might come in handy if we have trouble.”
Carmen gave Katie a sour look. “That was nearly seven years ago. I imagine he’s forgotten half of the information, and the other half is probably outdated. I don’t want him practicing on my hand picked stock. I can’t afford to lose any of them at this point. If we need help, we can hire a real vet.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Carmen, they’re goats, not race horses.” At Carmen’s sharp look, she shrugged. “Anyway, we could use a man around the place for a while.”
Alex wasn’t likely to be much help with the farm, but it wouldn't do any good to argue the point with Katie. Let her find out when he arrived. At least he would provide decent companionship for Katie.
Carmen ran bluntly manicured fingers through her cropped off curls as her tongue explored a new crack in her dry lips. “Josh is all the help we need, and he’s right down the road.” Actually, Josh was more than she needed, and Katie was more than she could afford.
Katie gnawed on her lower lip and let her gaze shift to a watermark on the yellowed wallpaper. “Yeah, but you two haven’t seen much of each other lately, and ...”
“That’s what I thought,” Carmen interrupted in a caustic tone. “You’re trying to play matchmaker again, aren’t you?”
Blue eyes flashed in a face staining quickly with red. “Of course not. I told you it was his idea to come up to see me.”
Carmen stood. “And if you’d gone down there one of the zillion times he’s invited you in the last two years, he wouldn’t feel obligated to come now.”
Katie scowled. “I wish you’d get out of this black mood you’ve been in lately. Last month you said it would be fine if he came up for a visit. Don’t you think it’s a little late to back out now? He’s probably already on the plane.”
Carmen took a deep breath and let it out slowly. How could she explain her mood to Katie when she had so little understanding of it herself? At any rate, Katie was right. It was too late to change her mind now - and what difference did it make why Alex was coming? At least he was finally making an effort to see his sister - and Katie was actually excited about his visit. Didn’t they know how fortunate they were to have each other - to have any family? She headed for the door, tossing a grumpy reply over her shoulder.
“I’m not backing out. But he’s going to miss the telephone and television - and that tiny bedroom upstairs isn’t exactly the Hotel Hilton.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “Oh Carmen, just because he’s wealthy doesn’t mean he’s a preppie.” She shrugged into her coat. “Anyway, I suppose I owe him something for the three years he bossed me around. Especially considering the way I deserted him after graduation.”
Carmen paused with her hand on the doorknob. Inviting Alex to visit this farm sounded more like a payback than a gesture of appreciation.
“I know you think he was high handed about it, but as your guardian, it was his responsibility to encourage you to get a good education. After all, didn’t you say your parents left a will dedicating money for that purpose? You said he quit college to take care of you. Obviously he thought...”
“I cheated him out of his chance at a good education?” Katie cut in defensively.
“Obviously he thought family ties were more important than education,” Carmen persisted. “Anyway, there’s nothing stopping him from finishing school now if he’s still interested in becoming a veterinarian. The truth is, he probably likes being a salesman, and why not? He travels all over the world and makes enough money to do it in style. He has everything.”
Katie contemplated Carmen with eyes wiser than her twenty years. “Not everything. Money can’t buy love.”
Carmen heaved an impatient sigh. “Neither can poverty.”
The last thing she wanted to hear this morning was how poor little Alex had been jilted at the altar. Alex had a lot going for him. If he was having problems finding a virtuous mate, the fault more likely lay in a character flaw than his looks - as Katie had so often implied. Being ugly as a mud fence hadn’t stopped Alex from becoming a financial success. And being attractive hadn’t improved her life much. Carmen jerked the door open and gasped at the rush of frigid air.
“And he doesn't have to do chores in all kinds of weather,” she concluded with a shiver.
They darted outside and closed the door before the room lost the little warmth it had gained. The wind yanked Carmen’s hair with icy fingers. She pulled her hood up against its furious roar. Ahead of her, Katie stepped off the wooden porch into the ankle high snow and followed the trail Carmen had broken earlier on her trip to light the stove in the dairy. The sun wouldn’t be up for another hour, but the block walls of the dairy loomed clearly in the white landscape. The snow crunched under their feet and the icy wind carried Katie’s words back in a cloud of steam.
“I didn’t run off just because he wanted me to go to college, you know. I left because he’s a smothering mother hen. Always telling me what to do - ordering me around. That may be your idea of an ideal relationship, but I had to get away from him if I was going to have a life of my own.”
Carmen took a few quick steps to catch up with Katie’s stride. A life of her own? Katie had gone directly from Alex to her Aunt Polly. When her aunt had died, Katie had moved in with Carmen. It was hard to imagine Katie conducting her life without the help of others. No wonder Alex concocted this ridiculous trip to coax Katie back to Houston. He had his work cut out for him, though. Katie might have been brought up by a socialite, but she was all redneck now. There was only one thing Katie treasured more than the farm. Bill Carlson, co-owner of Carl & Son’s Feed Store. Fortunately, Bill was equally smitten with Katie. Yeah, sometimes it actually worked out that way.
Carmen eyed Katie coolly and responded in a dry tone. “Being bossed around isn’t my idea of marital bliss. I don’t want to be completely dominated. I know it’s an archaic idea for a woman to want the man to wear the pants, but I’m entitled to my opinion the same as you and Lori. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be cherished and protected. For the right man, I’m willing to turn over the running of the farm and become his helpmate. After all, it worked for Mom and Dad.”
Katie laughed without humor. “Yeah, but your mother and father were from a different generation. Being subservient is taking a backward step for women.”
Carmen shook her head. “I have no intention of being subservient - and how is that taking a backward step, anyway? I think it was a backward step when women started stooping to the morals of men.”
Katie breathed a heavy sigh of resignation. “All right, all right. Do me a favor and don’t climb back up on your soapbox. Anyway, you don’t know what it’s like to have a bossy brother. Then again, you did have Josh. Obviously he isn’t as overbearing as Alex.”
“Give Alex a break. Being left in charge of your kid sister when you’re not much more than a kid yourself isn’t a fair test. I don’t know anything about your brother - except the fact that he got you through school. Considering the things you say you did, that was an accomplishment in itself. Josh never had to deal with anything like that. He appointed himself as my big brother when we were still toddlers. The worst of it is, now he thinks he has some kind of claim staked on me. The way I figure it, he’s more in love with the idea of having a woman worship him than he is with me. Sure, he says he wants a woman who doesn’t work out of the home, but he thinks she should spend all her time doing housework and raising children. I didn’t get a degree in animal husbandry so I could sit in the house knitting booties.”
They paused in front of the dairy door and Katie stared down at Carmen in surprise. “That’s a strange thing to come from your lips. I thought having children was your greatest dream.”
“It is, but it isn't my only dream. I haven’t given up on that horse ranch dream yet. The trouble is; Josh doesn’t care what I want. That’s obvious from the way he acts about the goats. Do you know he actually gave me an ultimatum? Either the goats go or he goes!”
Katie jerked on the dairy door and the crack of frozen boards echoed in the pregnant silence. She stared at Carmen. “Imagine that,” she finally said in a dry tone. “I wondered what you two weren’t talking about. If it’s that important to him, why don’t you just sell the goats? I’m the one who talked you into this goat dairy business.”
“It isn’t about the goats.” Carmen threw her hands in the air. “Oh, never mind.”
Why did she waste her breath discussing this matter with Katie? Much as she liked Katie, they were miles apart in their opinions and dreams. She ducked under Katie’s arm and entered the dairy.
Katie followed her into the dairy and closed the door against the wind. “If you’re so displeased with Josh, why don’t you shop around some?”
Carmen's laugh was short. “Like Josh would let me. Anyway, none of the guys are interested - and if they were, Josh would see to it that they became uninterested.”
Katie stared at her. “You sound like you’ve given the idea some thought.” When Carmen didn’t respond, Katie shrugged, “Anyway, there are plenty of guys interested. You are right about one thing, though. They figure Josh is tough competition - but do you really think Josh could scare them off if they knew you were interested?”
Who else was interested? Not that it mattered. She wasn’t much in the mood for shopping around anyway. As a matter of fact, she was starting to think that her idea of the right man was merely romantic fantasy. Was she setting her sights too high? She heaved a heavy sigh.
“There aren't plenty of guys around here.” She shrugged. “All of which is neither here nor there. The last thing I want is to have men fighting over me.”
“Oh, great. Then stay single the rest of your life. You’ve got a good start on it now.”
Carmen blinked. “I’m only twenty-five. What about your brother? He’s what - thirty-five? He’s not married yet. Harp at him for a while. Give me a rest.”
“He’s not quite thirty. And anyway he’s not interested in getting married. You are. If you keep on waiting, you’re going to be having children in your fifties, like your parents. That’s why you’re alone now.” Katie shook her head in dismay. “What’s so terrible about Josh, anyway? He just happens to be the most eligible bachelor in Benton County. Not to mention the best looking man I’ve ever laid eyes on. Lori’s been drooling over him for years. If you don’t want him, why don’t you throw him back so she can have a chance at catching him?”
Carmen caught her breath. Why hadn't she thought of that before? Maybe it had never occurred to her because Josh had never shown any interest in Lori. In any case, it wasn't as if she had no interest in Josh. She did love him, but not in the wild and crazy way girls did in the romance stories. Maybe that kind of love didn't exist - or maybe that kind of excitement existed only in newfound relationships. Even so, shouldn’t there be magic in his kiss? Of course, Josh wasn’t exactly the romantic type - nor was she. Still, it sure would be nice to have someone open doors, send flowers, and compliment her on a nice dress or a job well done. Why couldn’t Josh express his feelings for her in some way besides jealousy?
Carmen jerked her arm out of the coat sleeve. “Josh wants to wear the pants, but he doesn’t have much respect for a subservient woman. He says women should stay home and watch the kids, but I’ve heard him talk about some of the girls that do. He says they’re too lazy to work.”
Katie shrugged. “Some of them are. They got married so they wouldn’t have to work. It’s different with you. You have the goats.”
Carmen slammed her hands on her hips and raised her brows at Katie.
“And he wants me to get rid of them. I rest my case.”
Katie sighed. “So help him with his farm, start your horse ranch. What an opportunity! When you combine your property with his, you’ll have over two hundred acres.”
Carmen groaned. “Are we talking about a marriage or a dynasty?”
Carmen wiggled out of her coat and hung it on the rack. Why couldn’t Katie understand that there was a principle involved? Josh didn’t know about the horse ranch, and she wasn’t about to tell him - not as long as he was holding the goats over her head like a club. For all he knew, the goats were her greatest dream. If he was so determined to crush that dream, how could she trust him with her future happiness?
“You know,” she continued as she scooped grain into a stanchion, “it really galls me that Josh is always encouraging Lori with her work, but he never misses an opportunity to belittle mine.
Katie tossed her coat at the rack and watched anxiously as the pole danced around the concrete floor before settling down.
“Oh, I wouldn’t take it personally. He can understand a career in real estate. Goats are a mystery to him - not to mention an embarrassment. Everyone teases him, you know - Josh and the goat lady. You know how he hates to be cut out of the herd.”
“I know, and that’s another thing that bothers me. What’s wrong with being different? Everyone admires a person who does their own thing - as long as what they are doing is cool.” She strode across the room to the stainless steel sink. “I’m going to make this dairy a success if it kills me.” She turned on the faucet, plunging her hands under the icy stream of water and gasped. “And it just might.”
Katie joined her at the sink. “You’re so competitive. Which is more important? Proving you can make this dairy profitable, or enjoying your work?”
Carmen caught her breath again and stared at Katie. “I enjoy my work. And I’m not competitive. I’m conscientious. If you’re going to do a job, you might as well do it right.”
Katie took the towel from Carmen’s hands. “Do tell,” she responded dryly. She wiped her hands and tossed the towel on the counter. “All the same, you’d better take a good, long look at what you’re thinking about giving up.”
Carmen picked up the towel and hung it on the rack. “I’d be less than honest if I said the security Josh can offer wasn’t tempting - that and the idea of having an instant family. His folks were there when I was born and they’re like second parents to me, but I’m not going to marry Josh because I’m lonely and poor.”
Katie opened the barn door and let four goats into the dairy. They sprinted across the floor and leaped up to the elevated platforms, poking their soft muzzles into the stanchions to gobble the grain. Katie glanced at Carmen.
“So what kind of man are you looking for?”
“I’m not looking for a man,” Carmen answered sullenly as she examined the first doe for signs of impending birth.
“Okay,” Katie responded amiably as she worked with another doe. “Just for the sake of conversation, what kind of man would appeal to you?”
What kind of man? Carmen shrugged. “Well for starters, I’d want a man to be taller than me.”
Katie’s eyes twinkled. “That shouldn’t be hard to find.” She sobered. “But seriously, there are a lot of women who love men shorter than them. Does physical appearance make so much difference?”
Carmen frowned. “I don’t give a hoot what he looks like. I just don’t want our kids to go through life being teased about being short.”
Katie nodded. “I guess so, but I wonder sometimes if heredity is the major factor. I mean, look at Alex and me. We’re both short, and both Mom and Dad were average height.” She hesitated, as if wanting to elaborate and then shrugged.
No doubt Katie was going to say something about short people and thought better of it for fear of hurting Carmen's feelings. Still, there must have been someone in the family who was short. Never having met Alex or any other members of the family besides their Aunt Polly, it was hard to guess. Aunt Polly wasn’t exactly tall.
“Whatever,” Carmen finally replied. “Other than that, I’d want a man who was confident and assertive.”
Katie laughed. “So you’ve just described Josh.”
Carmen wrinkled her nose. “Oh, and one more thing; religious…and understanding.”
“That’s two more - and too much. Josh is religious, but there aren’t many men who would claim to understand women. Are you sure you wouldn’t settle for tall, dark and handsome?”
Carmen sighed heavily. “I know, Josh.”
Katie shrugged and turned her palms up in resignation. “I’m just trying to pry your eyes open.”
Carmen continued to work with the goat. Her eyes were wide open - possibly for the first time in her life. Open enough to see that Josh would be a fine catch...for someone.
She tried to focus on the job at hand. It would be at least four more weeks before the dairy would be in full production again, but each goat received a ration of oats and corn as well as a thorough examination. It was a ritual they had been performing morning and night for the past two weeks. The brief winter rest was over and the grueling days of spring and summer were in the near future.
Into this chaos, Katie had invited her sophisticated brother. The supply of chevon and chicken in the freezer was getting low, but they still had plenty of home canned corn and green beans. Alex was bound to be bored, cold and disappointed. The best she could hope for was that he wouldn’t spend much time in the dairy.
After they completed the morning chores Katie headed out to pick up her brother at the airport. Carmen held the gate open as the old truck sputtered through...and died.
Carmen tapped on the window and Katie rolled it down.
“Are you sure you can handle this thing on snow?”
Katie gave a short laugh as she whirled the motor over and pumped the accelerator. “This thing wouldn’t be easy to handle on a red carpet, but I think I can make it all right. The snow is getting mushy. If I don’t get stuck in the mud, I should be able to make it to the highway.”
The engine turned over and backfired, black smoke frothing out of the tail pipe. Katie scraped gears and smirked through her hand. “See you in a little while.”
Carmen glanced up at the sky. The clouds were breaking up and the wind had switched around to the south. It was a good twenty degrees warmer than when they got up this morning and the snow was even beginning to melt - a sure thing to bring on kidding.
“Well, be careful. If you have any problems, call Josh. You have his number, don’t you?”
“I have it. But if I make it to the airport in Fayetteville, I’m sure Alex can handle anything after that. No need to rout Josh out and make him drive 60 miles for nothing.”
Carmen nodded. She wished she could share Katie’s faith in her brother, but the only picture she could summons was a short, pale, overweight man with more brains for business than aptitude in mechanics. Why that picture settled into her brain, she couldn’t say. The only picture Katie had of her family was an old family photo. Alex was an obvious six-year-old with two missing front teeth. Katie was an infant. Surely she had other pictures, but for the time being, Katie wasn’t displaying them. When asked if she had more current pictures of her family, Katie grew sullen. Hopefully she hadn’t thrown away all her pictures in a fit of anger. Since Katie had invited him up several times, she had obviously matured enough to forgive him.
Carmen closed the gate and sloshed back to the barn. The goats were going to need more hay and alfalfa pellets. After that the chickens needed to be fed and she needed to get that chevon roast in the oven so it would be ready for lunch. They had some canned peaches left. Did Alex like peach pie?
An hour later she was back in the barn, - and just in time. Two of the goats had gone into labor. She transferred them to the building on the release side of the dairy where they had set up temporary kidding stalls. She forked some hay into each of the stalls and checked the herd again. Two of the does had hollow looking stomachs and their udders were shiny. Better keep an eye on them. She returned to the first stall to find two new arrivals and another on the way. Everything looked normal, so she gave the doe her privacy. In the next stall the goat was lying on her side, straining...could be a problem there.
She hurried to the house and checked the roast. The pie was done, so she put it on the counter to cool. Pouring some coffee into a thermos, she headed for the barn again. Katie should be back soon.
The warm wind assisted the sun in melting the snow and most of it was already gone, leaving a trail of sloppy mud to the barn. Inside the dairy she shucked her coat and rubber boots, slipping into a pair of western boots she always kept in the barn. Abandoning her thermos on the counter, she stoked the fire and returned to the kidding stalls.
Three pair of blue eyes stared back at her from the first stall. Tiny pink cleft muzzles lifted in a cute imitation of their mother’s broken cry of joy. Each cleansing lick from the doe nearly knocked them off their feet, but they staggered close to her for more nourishment.
An agonizing bleat from the next stall indicated all was not well there. Carmen moved to the next stall to find the doe lying on her side, pawing at the ground and panting. As the doe strained, one tiny hoof emerged. It disappeared as the contraction subsided. One hoof? Two hoofs and a nose should be the proper presentation. Was something wrong?
Carmen entered the stall and knelt beside the doe. “Come on girl,” she said, tugging on the collar. “Get on your feet. It’ll be easier that way.”
The doe lurched to her feet and immediately went into another contraction. Squatting, the doe strained again and one hoof presented again, only to disappear again after the contraction ended.
What did the books say to do in this situation? Elevate the rear, wasn’t it? That way the kid could reposition naturally. She tugged on the back end of the goat, but that method was obviously going to take someone much taller. Maybe if she made the doe kneel. She tugged at each front foot until the goat was on her knees, her hind end in the air. But that lasted no more than a few minutes before the doe dropped to the ground and strained with another contraction. Had it been long enough?
Within seconds the one hoof was visible again and the doe was screaming in agony. What now? Manually reposition the kid inside the doe? Something she had only read about. And where was that book? Oh yes, with all the emergency supplies they had gathered for this occasion.
Racing to the dairy, she jerked out a drawer and removed the book; some disposable gloves; a pair of scissors; some cord and a bottle of iodine. She slammed the drawer shut and tucked the supplies into her arms. Where was Katie? She should be here by now. Alex might or might not be able to help. At any rate, he might not find the task at hand as unpleasant as she anticipated it would be. If he did, at least one of them could go call for help.
She darted back to the kidding stall and knelt beside the goat again. The goat was still on her side, pawing the ground with her forelegs and bleating miserably as she strained in vain. Carmen stroked the thin neck.
"Poor thing," she said, her voice breaking. It was difficult watching the goat suffer. If there was more time, she would have run over to Josh's place to call a vet. It was times like this that she wished she had a phone. Unfortunately, she couldn't afford the cost of running lines down this way. Cell phone service was unreliable and she couldn't afford that service either.
She flipped through the book to the part on kidding problems and scanned down the directions. Fighting down a wave of nausea, she kneeled at the tail of the goat. This was no time to get squeamish. She tugged the disposable gloves on and waited until the contraction passed. Taking a deep breath, she hesitantly inserted her hand into the birth canal and carefully slid it along the tiny leg until she felt the muzzle. Where was the other leg? And then she felt another soft hoof. Her fingers explored the leg; feeling for a hock to make sure it wasn’t a hind leg. Reaching under the tiny limb with a finger, she gently pulled the leg forward.
“Carmen?” Katie called through the open door of the dairy. “Where are you?”
“In here...in the second kidding stall. Hurry.”
Carmen stood and backed away as the doe lurched to her feet and went into another contraction. This time both legs presented and then the little pink nose. The doe cried out again and heaved, expelling the tiny body.
“Finally,” Carmen said with a sigh, glancing up at Katie. “I thought...”
Her entire thought train derailed as she gaped at the man beside Katie. Could this hunk be Katie’s brother?
Soft chocolate eyes regarded her with veiled humor and his mouth held the promise of a smile. The bronze features were smooth and perfectly formed - almost too perfect, and yet, not effeminate. His black curly hair was cut short, every hair in place. His angular jaws were freshly shaved. He was lean, with broad shoulders, narrow hips and a flat abdomen. His gray suit looked expensive and the silk tie added a touch of elegance. Michelangelo couldn’t have created anything better.
Carmen clamped her sagging jaw shut and tore her gaze from him, an uncomfortable warmth flooding her neck and face. She glued her attention on the doe, which was now licking life into her infant. Carmen pealed the gloves from her hands and tried to make her voice sound casual.
“The kid had one leg caught back underneath it. For a little while there I was afraid I might have to go for help.”
“You've done this before, I presume?”
The warm baritone voice induced a fresh bout of blushing. She laughed nervously.
“Then you presumed wrong.” She retrieved the book from the floor, along with all the other supplies. “I think she can handle the rest, though.”
“Oh,” Katie said. “This is my brother, Alex Barnett. Alex, this is Carmen Pulock.”
Alex held out a hand and smiled. “Your picture doesn’t do you justice. You’re much more beautiful in person.”
The color returned with a vengeance. Flowery words. She ran a hand through her hair. She must look a sight. Had she even combed her hair this morning? And what about her clothes - all wrinkled and dirty. Was he mocking her, or did he think she was naive enough to believe his outrageous flattery?
She accepted his hand and gave him a saccharine smile. “Why thank you. I labored all day to look like this. It’s nice to meet someone with such a discerning eye.”
Tiny lines materialized around the dark eyes as his smile broadened into a grin. A large dimple formed in the upper part of his right cheek, lending character to the smooth features.
“A beautiful blond with a quick wit?”
His humor was infectious. She tugged her hand from his and grinned, shrugging one shoulder. “Go figure.”
He nodded at the doe, sobering. “Do you need help?”
She surveyed his clothes with a skeptic eye. In that garb he’d make a better spectator than anything else. “No. Why don’t we go in for lunch? The roast should be done by now. You two go ahead while I put this stuff away.”
Her last thought as she watched him open the door for Katie was that he’d make a good pinup. Shaking her head, she deposited the supplies on the counter. She kicked her cowboy boots off and pulled the mud boots on. At best he was going to be a distraction - at worst he would be one more thing to stumble over in the barn. Not that he was going to spend much time in the barn, anyway. The barn represented work, and by the look of him and the feel of his smooth hands, he knew how to avoid physical labor.