Alex released Carmen’s hand as she stepped into the house. For a moment his gaze lingered on her slender figure as she walked into the kitchen. She had soft curves in all the right places.
He forced his attention back to Mr. Reynolds and the other men waiting in the relative cool of the screened-in porch. Carmen had grown up with these people. They were like family to her, and soon to be for him.
“Alex,” Mr. Reynolds said, his gnarled finger pointing at tall thin blond man. “This is Sean; Joan’s husband. She’s my oldest daughter.”
“Sean,” Alex repeated, offering a hand.
Sean gripped his hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Well Sean,” Alex replied in a dry tone, “I hope some of it was good.”
Even Josh couldn’t contain a chuckle. He’d likely be the source of anything bad.
A short stocky man in a white T-shirt and matching sneakers jabbed a hand at Alex. “I’m Larry...of Mary and Larry,” he said in a southern drawl.
Alex gripped his hand and chuckled. “I’ll remember that, Larry.”
“And I’m Carl,” a thin man with a graying mustache said, pumping Alex’s hand. “I belong to Alice...at least, that’s what she says.” The deep set blue eyes held a smile that belied his solemn expression.
The last two men Alex knew well, Josh and Paul. Paul was the husband of the clinic receptionist, Saundra. Paul shook his hand, but Josh suddenly found interest in the dust on his boots.
“Looks like we could use some rain,” he said in a casual tone.
Mr. Reynolds furrowed silver brows in a futile reprimand of his son. When the gray gaze came back to Alex, the brows lifted in resignation.
Alex shrugged. Whether or not Josh was civil to him wouldn’t make or break his day. Josh still had his nose out of joint about Carmen. If he wanted to keep his marriage together, he’d best let go of his past with Carmen and start focusing on Lori.
Mrs. Reynolds joined them, holding up a large plastic container. “Here are some sandwiches to keep your strength up,” she said, and winked.
Josh took the sandwiches. “Thanks, Ma.”
Mr. Reynolds opened the screen door.
“We’d better start working on that Buffalo shed before it gets too hot.”
The others followed him and Alex called after them.
“I’ll meet you at the house. I need to talk to Carmen for a minute.”
A symphony of chuckles was the only response. As he turned toward the house, Mrs. Reynolds was preparing to go up the steps. She paused and smiled up at him, one eye almost covered by a wave of gray hair.
“I guess the best man couldn’t make it,” she said.
Alex smiled. “Bill had to work today. As for being the best man...” he left the sentence hanging and winked at her.
She smiled, blue eyes twinkling above round flushed cheeks.
“Carmen has her own idea about who is the best man, and it isn’t Bill.”
Alex laughed softly, assisting her up the steps with one hand on her plump elbow.
“I hope it’s me,” he said.
She grunted as she mounted the last step into the kitchen. “You know it is.”
Alex paused, staring wistfully out the window.
“I wonder sometimes if she’ll go through with it.” He shook his head and grimaced. “I guess I would though, considering my experience.” His gaze shifted to Mrs. Reynolds. “Still, we’re so different, and she’s giving up so much – the goat dairy, her home....”
“The goat dairy wasn’t that important to Carmen. That’s obvious by the fact that she gave it up so easily. Carmen throws herself whole heartedly into everything she does. I can’t imagine marriage being any different.”
She arranged the cake on the table.
Alex lifted his brows. “She was sure stubborn about the goats with Josh.”
Mrs. Reynolds shrugged. “That’s because Josh gave her an ultimatum...him or the goats.” Her gaze lifted to Alex. “You let it be her choice.”
Her shoulders dropped as she sighed. “That goat dairy was what kept her going, financially and emotionally. She was about as close to her parents as any child I’ve ever seen. When they both died, she was lost. The dairy gave her purpose...hope. She was a change of life baby and they were so conservative and religious. When kids teased her about her outdated moral convictions, she got defensive and withdrew. I think that was the only reason she and Josh became an item. He understood and accepted her.”
She shrugged and turned to the cabinet, removing some paper plates.
“I love her almost as much as I do my own children. I knew she didn’t really love Josh, but I didn’t know how to tell them – or even if I should.”
She placed the plates on the table and looked up at him, her smile sad.
“Then you came along. Josh was so jealous. He knew he had been bested from the first day. He wanted to hate you – wanted you to fall on your face. I don’t think he has accepted yet that he admires you.”
Alex stared at her. If Josh admired him, he certainly hid it well. Maybe she wanted to see it that way. It wouldn’t be the first time his wealth or position had attracted people. Yet most of the Reynolds family seemed to be above that. They were confident in their self worth and appeared to accept people at face value. Like Carmen, their concept of friendship was two-way, with more focus on giving than receiving. They saw people not for who they were or what they had, but for what kind of person they were. That made their friendship all the more valuable.
“Josh was always so possessive about her,” Mrs. Reynolds continued, shaking her head. If another boy gave her so much as a second look, he had words with him.”
Alex’s laugh was short and humorless. “Yeah, I know that. He was snarling at me from the day we met.” He lifted his brows and shrugged. “But then, he was dead on about my intent, too.”
Mrs. Reynolds smiled at him, her eyes regaining the familiar sparkle.
“You knew what you wanted and you went after it. Carmen likes your confidence and tenacity.”
Carmen knew what she was after too, and it wasn’t a man who couldn’t give her children the natural way. He wanted her and he went after her. For a while there, it was deja vu. This wasn’t the first time he had been engaged. The last fiancé had left him at the altar. Tessa ran off and married a man who could give her what he couldn’t. That experience had been so painful that he avoided meaningful relationships – until he met Carmen. When Carmen discovered he couldn’t have children, she had called their engagement off. He had sworn to not let a woman hurt him again that way. And yet, he couldn’t walk away from Carmen. Was it his tenacity that had changed her mind? Now she said their relationship was more important than having children. She meant it now, but would she regret it later? Would she back out at the last minute the way Tessa had?
Alex absently ran fingers through his hair and sighed heavily. He was taking on a lot of responsibility – maybe more than he could handle. The veterinary clinic and other investments were enough to keep him busy. He had no false illusions, though. Carmen was going to be a handful. She might get over the phobia about adoption – if that was actually the problem. It might be more an obsession about biological kin. And then there was the issue of one person making decisions. He wasn’t opposed to making decisions, but marriage should be a partnership. There were some decisions that should be made jointly, and being in control meant taking full responsibility. Still, Carmen had an independent nature. She was strong willed – especially when it came to issues about morality. Even though she carried it to extreme, he admired her integrity.
His attention turned to the purpose for coming inside the house.
“I need to talk to Carmen before I leave,” he said, heading for the doorway to the living room.
As he stepped through the doorway, all eyes turned to him. Normally he wouldn’t mind having the attention of a room full of females, but this was different. In two weeks, they’d be relatives...kind of.
He ran a hand through his hair again. Taking a deep breath, he walked toward Carmen. She was sitting in a chair beside Katie, watching him with rapt attention.
From the first time he saw a photo of her, she had held his interest. In the months since he had come to know her, she had grown from a beautiful face to a beautiful woman. There was a passion about her. That much he had discovered the first time they kissed. Yet she was always trying to conceal that passion. At times it seemed that she might be afraid of him. That was a disturbing thought. Surely she must know he would never do anything to harm her.
He knelt in front of her, gazing into amethyst eyes that openly adored him. She had the most expressive face he had ever seen. Every emotion lay there waiting to be read. The full lips parted as she smiled. A tiny dimple appeared at the corner of her mouth. She was a little apprehensive right now. That wasn’t too surprising, considering the fact that she insisted she wasn’t a social person. Actually, a protected childhood probably left her ill prepared for socializing. Carmen was a straightforward person, and didn’t pretend she was something she wasn’t. It was one of the many things he admired about her.
He asked a few questions to make sure she would be able to contact him when she was ready to leave, and then stood. He would love to take her in his arms, but that would embarrass her. Instead, he squeezed her shoulder and left. There would be time enough for affection after the party – when they were alone.
He reluctantly left the room. The guys were generous enough to offer assistance building the buffalo shed and he didn’t want to keep them waiting.
The Reynolds home was the perfect place for Carmen’s bridal shower. Everyone in attendance was a member of the Reynolds family except Lori, a childhood playmate; Katie, the groom’s sister; and Saundra, the receptionist at the groom’s veterinary clinic – and of course, Carmen, the bride. In addition to family ties, the Reynolds farmhouse was centrally located and large enough to accommodate all the guests.
Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds had three girls, Joan, Mary and Alice – in that order and each born two years after the other, more or less. Their only boy came along unexpectedly nine years later. All the girls were now married and had children. Josh had only been married to Lori a few months. Oh yes, that would make Lori a member of the Reynolds family too – technically. In actuality, she was accepted because she was Josh’s wife. Lori’s past was a little too liberal for such a conservative family. Since they all expected Josh to marry Carmen, his marriage to Lori came as a disappointment. They considered his relationship with Lori to be mere infatuation.
Ma Reynolds - Mums, was the undisputed matriarch of the Reynolds family, and she made it clear that Lori would be treated with respect. With the exception of an occasional remark or look, her daughters obeyed.
Carmen was only two years younger than Josh, so it was no surprise that they had become inseparable playmates. In fact, Carmen had spent so much time in the Reynolds kitchen growing up that neighbors began to think she belonged there. As they matured, so did their relationship. Carmen and Josh had never discussed marriage. Everyone simply assumed they would marry. Their unplanned, unannounced engagement had stretched on indefinitely until Carmen began to silently question her lack of enthusiasm. What Josh represented to her at that time was security and family. Maybe that was why having children had been such a non-negotiable part of her plan for the future. After meeting Alex, she discovered there could be much more to a relationship – something she didn’t want to live without.
These things were on Carmen’s mind as she settled into one of the chairs set up in the family room. Katie came in behind her and sat in a nearby chair.
“You look so serious,” Katie said, her large blue eyes searching Carmen’s face. “What are you thinking about – having second thoughts?”
Carmen focused her gaze on Katie. “No, I was just thinking about how all this came to be. I’m still a little stunned.”
Katie chuckled softly. “I know. So much has happened in the last three months.” She ran a hand across her expanding stomach. “I can’t believe I’m going to be a mommy in December. That’s less than five months away.”
Katie and Bill were going to have a baby. Before Alex came along, Carmen had never given much thought to who the father of her children might be – only that she wanted children. Now, more than anything else, she wanted a baby with Alex. It was strange how a person got to thinking that way after they learned to love someone.
Katie’s musings interrupted her thoughts.
“Just think, it was the goat dairy that brought Alex to you, and I was the one who came up with the idea.”
Carmen frowned. “The goat dairy or bringing him to me?”
Katie laughed. “The goat dairy. I didn’t think your dad willed you that 80-acre farm so it could become your private Arkansas jungle.” She shrugged one shoulder, her eyes sparkling with humor. “Of course, that’s what it will be when Alex is done with it.”
That was one way of looking at it. Alex had purchased 120 acres adjoining hers and built a log home on it. His plan was to turn their combined acreage into a safari of North American wildlife. It would take a lot of money to complete, but Alex had money. How much was a mystery even to her, but that didn’t matter. She would have married him if he had been penniless. Still, his pay-as-you-go philosophy implied he didn’t take money for granted.
For Carmen, Alex was a blend of excitement and security. For the first time in her life she was looking forward to winter. It would be her first winter in a house that wasn’t cold and drafty. It would be the first winter she would be able to do chores without freezing her buns off. And, of course the first winter she would have a warm body to sleep next to.
A warm deep voice drifted in from the kitchen and Carmen’s gaze riveted on the kitchen doorway. Alex was talking to someone. When he entered the living room where the women were gathering, his gaze immediately found Carmen. He ran a hand through short curly black hair that didn’t need straightening. His chocolate gaze scanned the room full of women uncomfortably as he walked toward Carmen. His square-toed boots clicked the hardwood floor with each brisk step. The large western belt buckle at his lean waist moved with the graceful rhythm of his stride. Indigo jeans outlined the long lean muscles in his thighs, and the sleeves of his western shirt were rolled up to reveal tanned muscular forearms. Alex wasn’t a big man. He was neither tall nor muscle bound, but everything had been put together nicely. He was the best looking man she had ever seen.
Reaching her side, Alex squatted close to Carmen, his head almost level with hers. Had anyone else been that close, she would have felt her space was being invaded, but in this case the smell of his cologne and his proximity increased her pulse. He spoke quietly, but his voice carried well.
“We’re all going over to work on the buffalo shed now. Do you have your cell phone?”
She gazed at his smooth bronzed features and nodded.
“Is it turned on?” Humor put a twinkle in his eyes.
She smiled. “Yes.”
He stood in one fluid movement. “Well, call me when you’re ready to go home and I’ll come get you.” His hand rested on her shoulder for a moment, warm and reassuring. He wouldn’t kiss her goodbye in front of all of the women. He turned and strode from the room.
Katie rolled her eyes. “I swear. That would drive me insane.”
“Yeah,” Alice said with a long dreamy sigh. “Me too.” Then, molding her expression into mock comprehension, she added: “Oh, you meant the way he was telling her what to do?”
They all laughed and Joan shook her head. “He’s a cutie all right, but I have to agree with Katie. It would drive me nuts to have someone instructing me through every move.”
Carmen shrugged. “He’s a little over-protective at times, but he means well.”
“Have you ever left your telephone behind – or off when he needed to reach you?” The voice belonged to Mums. She must have entered the room when Alex came in. With crochet needles in her lap, Mums eyed Carmen over the rim of her reading glasses.
Carmen squirmed in her chair. “A few times; I’m not used to having a phone in the house, much less carrying a cell phone. That was his idea, not mine.”
Mums nodded. “Alex is a good boy.”
“Boy?” Alice said. “He’ll turn thirty in a couple months. He’s a mature male.”
Mums rocked in her chair and finished counting stitches before she responded. “He’s book smart and business savvy, but he’s still a boy in some ways.” Her gentle gaze came back to Carmen. “Besides, Carmen likes being looked after, don’t you honey?”
Carmen hesitated a moment before nodding. “I haven’t felt so safe since before Dad died. I guess I do like being protected. He did save me from the wild dogs, you know.”
“So did Josh,” Mary said without looking up from the magazine she was flipping through.
It was true. Josh had saved her life on more than one occasion. So why did she feel safer with Alex? Of course, with Alex it went deeper than safety. Alex was chivalrous. Was that it – pretty words and gentlemanly deeds?
Lori picked up a magazine, obviously trying to forget the history between Carmen and her husband.
“Ahem!” Joan interrupted, waving a tablet over her head. “I’m ready to start the questions.” Her friendly gaze fell on Carmen. “There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They’re just for fun. Are you ready?”
“Ready,” Carmen said, grateful for the diversion.
“One...what do you consider your fiancé’s best feature to be?”
Carmen thought about the question a moment. There were so many choices. “Do you mean facial feature?”
“Woooo....” went around the room.
Joan produced an exaggerated sigh. “Yes Carmen, let’s limit it to his face. We only have two hours.”
“I guess I should have asked whether you meant a physical feature or personality,” Carmen clarified and then paused, thinking. “I’ll say his eyes.”
“Hmm, the window to the soul,” Mums mused.
“Those eyes,” Alice sighed. “Why do men always have the long dark eyelashes?”
Katie groaned. “Alice, you do remember you’re already married, right?”
“Next question,” Joan interrupted again. “Two…what is your greatest fear about getting married?”
Seven pair of eyes landed on Carmen as she considered the question. Finally she shrugged.
“I guess my greatest fear is that he will be disappointed in me.”
Joan used the tablet as a shield, as if hiding her comment from Carmen while informing the entire room.
“He hasn’t sampled her...wares...yet.”
Mary’s tone was sarcastic as she glanced up from the magazine in her lap.
“If you can lie on your back for five minutes, he won’t be disappointed.”
Carmen’s face felt warm. “Actually, I was referring to the fact that he’s so sophisticated and I’m such a hick.”
Much about Alex was shrouded in the past. When they met he was still a high ranking salesman for a large corporation. He was accustomed to being around sophisticated people; she was anything but that. Any fears about sex were mostly restricted to the first time. At twenty-five, that kind of thing wouldn’t be an issue for most women. Maybe if she hadn’t been such a hermit – but no. Being ultra conservative and religious didn’t make her parents wrong. Sometimes it was difficult to know which virtues they taught her were worthy and which were simply out-dated. Everyone seemed to have a different perspective on what was morally acceptable – especially when it came to sex. That was one reason why they never had a television when she was growing up.
“Well,” Saundra said, uncrossing her long skinny legs. “I don’t think Alex is all that impressed with sophistication.”
Katie snorted. “I can guarantee that.”
”Number three,” Joan interrupted again. “If he were a tree,” she started to giggle and lowered the tablet. “What kind would he be?”
Carmen crossed her eyes and then laughed. “A tree? Let’s see. She gave it some thought and then answered. “How about a hickory?”
“Why a hickory tree?” Alice asked.
Carmen turned her palms up. “He’s well formed, slender, not too tall, and strong - but bends with the wind.”
Alice clapped her hands. “Very good! But I’d think a petite woman like you would consider him tall. He’s about 6 inches taller than you, isn’t he?”
Carmen nodded. “Yeah, but he’s still only five-nine.”
“And he’s slight of build,” Mary added. “The two of you together wouldn’t weigh 150 pounds soaking wet.”
Actually, 250 combined pounds would be a fairly accurate figure. Carmen made a face. “He weighs that by himself. Anyway, he’s not slight of build. He’s perfect. Not too thin and not too heavy. I like the fact that he’s not all muscled up like a wrestler.”
“Don’t get her going,” Alice said with a grin. “To listen to her talk, you’d think he was six feet tall and bullet proof.”
“Oh, I love number four,” Joan broke in. “What is he...Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?” She looked up from the tablet. “Remember when we used to chant that?”
Mums laughed. “I do, but I’ll bet Carmen doesn’t.”
Carmen lifted her brows. “Well, I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t remember pondering it as a child. I guess I’ll do that now.” She recited it in her mind. “Of course, we all know he’s a doctor, but I have to say Indian Chief isn’t too far off, either.” She giggled.
“Neither is rich man,” Mary supplied, her lips twisting into a wry smile.
“Number five,” Joan said. She laughed “His pet nickname for you.”
A chorus of “Heidi” filled the room before Carmen could speak.
“OK,” Joan said, shifting in her chair as she read the tablet. “On the next five questions, you’re supposed to tell us how Alex would respond.”
“This should be good,” Carmen remarked in a dry tone that sent another bout of laughter around the room.
“Number six. What physical feature does he like best about you?”
Warmth ran up Carmen’s neck again, invading her cheeks. Considering the number of times she had pushed his hands away, it must be her breasts.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Her eyes,” Katie supplied. “He’s always talking about her amethyst eyes.” She laughed. “I keep telling him they’re violet, but you know how men are. He says blond hair and amethyst eyes are a killer combination.”
Joan laughed and her response was sarcastic. “Yeah, that’s what I’ve observed him looking at the most – her eyes.”
A ripple of smothered laughter circled the room.
Actually, Alex did look into her eyes a lot – and his gaze wandered over her face sometimes in a way that left her wondering what was on his mind.
“Number seven. What does he fantasize doing with you?” Joan dropped the tablet to her lap. “Well, duh!”
Carmen laughed nervously. “Riding horses on the beach all day.” Of course, Alex had added: and making love all night. Joan was right. That was an obvious question.
“Number eight. What is his favorite thing to do?”
Carmen laughed. “Where did you get all these questions?”
“Alice found them on the Internet.” Joan said, giggling. “So what is his favorite thing to do?”
Carmen sighed. “I guess taking care of animals.”
Katie smirked. “Well, for a veterinarian, that’s bound to be in the top ten.”
“Number nine. This is a good one. Even I know the answer. What would he say was your greatest character trait?”
It was a good one alright - a good one to stump her. Carmen lifted her palms again. “I still don’t know what attracted him to me.”
Katie’s tone was dry. “It must be your modesty.”
Lori glanced at Carmen. “Beauty is obvious, but beyond that, I’d say innocence.”
“Her kindness,” Alice said. “That and her beauty – but that’s not a character trait, is it?”
“Hardly,” Mums said. “My guess would be her integrity.”
“Geez you guys.” Joan said with an exasperated sigh. “It’s staring you right in the face. She wants the man to make all the decisions. What man wouldn’t like that?”
Carmen frowned, her face growing warm again. “I don’t want him to make all the decisions. I just want him to have the final say.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Splitting hairs again.”
“OK, last question.” Joan broke in. “Number ten. As your husband, what will he consider his most important function?”
“Protecting me,” Carmen said instantly.
“Well, that’s probably not what most men would say,” Joan said with a shrug, “But I think we all agree that Alex isn’t the average male.”
Lori lifted her brows. “He’s not that different.”
Carmen looked down, pushing an indecent thought away. If Lori and Alex had been intimate in the past, it was none of her business. She had accepted the idea that she wouldn’t be his first. Maybe his experience would come in handy on their wedding night.
“Well, I don’t know,” Alice said. “I sure can’t picture him bungee jumping.” When Carmen glanced at her, she quickly amended: “Not that he isn’t brave enough; he’s just so conservative – like you. He’s so serious.”
“Hmmm,” Joan mused. “I don’t know. I could picture him bronc-busting.
Saundra nodded. “Me too. He really relates to horses, and I hear his riding skills are very good.” She glanced at Alice. “He’s not all that serious, either. You should see him at work. He has a quiet humor that goes unnoticed if you’re not paying close attention. Everyone adores him.”
Mums put aside her yarn. “It would be hard not to.” She groaned as she pushed her large frame from the chair. “I’ll get the cake ready. You girls put the presents over here close to Carmen.”
Lori stood and followed her. “I’ll help you with the cake.”
Joan tossed the tablet on a table behind her and turned her attention on Carmen. “Aren’t they building that buffalo shed on your land?”
“Yes.” Carmen said. “We’re going to run the buffalo in the north pasture with the goats.”
Alice laughed. “I hear he plans to get two of everything. Has he started the ark yet?”
Carmen laughed softly. “I guess he figures if he starts with a male and a female, they’ll reproduce. Later he wants to fix the old house up and rent it to tourists. Needless to say, we have a lot of work to do.”
Katie laughed. “What’s this about a new car he’s buying for you?”
Carmen made a face. “He insists on that. I don’t know.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, for starters, we’re not married yet. Considering what happened to him before – with his fiancé leaving him after he spent all that money….”
Katie lifted a dark brow, her eyes twinkling with the very devil. “Are you planning on running - or do you think he is?”
Mums walked into the room with two pieces of cake. Handing one to Carmen, she spoke gently. “You would do well to leave such things in the past.” She leaned down and handed the other piece of cake to Katie. “You think he dominates her, but here he is trying to give her the means to be independent and what does she do?”
Katie accepted the cake. “I don’t mean to sound so negative about him. I know he’ll be a good provider, and I know he’s loyal. After Mom and Dad died, he made sacrifices to take care of me. But he was domineering.”
Alice sighed. “I don’t know why you don’t just move in with him now. It’s only two weeks until your wedding. It seems kind of silly for you to get up every morning and walk over there to clean his house and do his chores – then go back to your house. I mean, you’re going to be back there again to fix his supper. What’s the big deal?”
Mary’s laugh was more a snort. “I’m sure she’s the only one who cares whether she’s a virgin on her wedding day.”
Carmen shrugged. “If you don’t draw the line at the wedding date, then when do you draw it?”
“Back in the early 1900’s,” Mary said sarcastically. “If you keep leaving him sexually frustrated, he’s likely to start looking for a substitute.”
Carmen sighed. “As Alice said, it’s only two more weeks. A man either cheats or he doesn’t. If he’s going to cheat, I’d rather find out now.”
“Aren’t you ever tempted to spend the night with him?” Alice persisted.
Carmen’s face flamed. Temptation had been pounding on the door with a sledge hammer lately. “I’ve been able to push temptation away.”
Lori came in and handed cake to Joan, Mary and Alice. “I thought Alex was always a gentleman,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Everyone laughed. Actually, Alex was a gentleman, but he was a man. Who was it that used the term ‘mature male’? Strange, but she had never thought of him that way. Usually, he was simply Alex – as exciting as that might be.
“Well,” Katie said. “This celibacy thing is fine as far as it goes, but everything will change after they exchange vows. Then he’ll turn into the big bad wolf. He’ll huff and puff and hoe her blouse down!”
Her transposed humor brought waves of laughter around the room.
“Yeah.” Alice giggled, her large gray eyes seeking out Carmen. “He’ll carry you over the threshold and pretend to fall to the floor. Then, oops. It will be all over.”
Joan laughed. “Is that what happened to you, Alice?”
They were all joking, of course, but how much would Alex change once they exchanged vows? Would he still be gentle and respectful, or would he suddenly demand husbandly rights? Would he continue to consider her input, or would he simply take control?
“Are you nervous about the first night?” Mary asked Carmen.
Carmen hesitated, her face growing warm as all eyes turned to her.
“It’s strange. I never gave a thought to the pain of childbirth, but here I am worried about pain the first time. I guess it’s because I’m afraid I’ll ruin everything with tears.”
“It’s nothing,” Alice said. “I was worried about it too, but I didn’t have any pain.”
“I did,” Lori said. “But then, I was so young.”
Mary gave her a scorching look, but said nothing. It was general knowledge that Lori had been promiscuous in her youth. Maybe that was why Josh had never shown much interest in her then.
Mums leaned forward. “The best advice I can give you is to try to relax. Getting tense will only make it worse. Talk to Alex about your concerns. He’s a doctor.”
Carmen laughed. “He’s veterinarian. Besides, I couldn’t talk to him about something like that. He already thinks I’m naïve. I don’t want him to think I’m a baby too.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “Oh Carmen, you’re 25, not 16. In a few weeks he’ll know your most intimate secrets.”
Lori’s expression was contemplative. “Well, he has told me on more than one occasion that he was fascinated with your innocence. Considering the fact that he makes such an effort at protecting you, I don’t think he’d take your concerns lightly or think any less of you because you had them. I agree with Mums. You should talk to him about it. And a veterinarian is a doctor.”
Lori had been with Alex so much when she was helping him with his real estate needs that everyone thought they were interested in each other. Apparently Alex had spent a good deal of that time talking to Lori about another woman. Still, even knowing that Lori was interested in Josh, it was hard to imagine that she wasn’t attracted to Alex. Neither Lori nor Alex would have considered it inappropriate to have relations – as long as they weren’t engaged to anyone at the time. Even Josh had said something to indicate a relationship between the two of them existed. But, it was all water under the bridge. Surely Alex had been intimate with other women. It was a tough thing to swallow, especially since she had remained chaste. But again, if that were the most important issue, she should have married Josh.
Putting the thought from her mind, she began opening presents. She was relieved to discover her request of nothing expensive had been honored. She relaxed and enjoyed the continuation of light banter. These people were as close to family as she would ever have.
Carmen was alone in the living room picking up wrapping paper when the men returned. One minute they were talking in the kitchen and the next they were gone. When she looked up, Alex was leaning against the kitchen door frame watching her.
“Why didn’t you call?” He asked, furrows between lowered brows.
“I wasn’t ready yet,” she said, holding up a handful of wrapping paper. “Someone has to clean up this mess I made.”
The furrows disappeared and he chuckled as he moved away from the door jam.
“Then let’s work on it together.”
They cleaned the room, folded the chairs and carried the gifts out to his truck. When the gifts were all packed in the truck, Carmen left Alex at the truck and went back in to thank Mums and those who had remained at the house. As she walked through the screened porch, a tall figure stepped out of the evening shadows.
She sucked in her breath quickly, letting it escape in a relieved sigh when she realized it was Josh. “You startled me,” she said. “I didn’t know you were there.”
Josh towered over her, gazing down at her with unreadable gray eyes. The shock of red hair on the top of his head was unruly, as if he had been running his fingers through it. When he spoke, his voice was low and tense.
“Are you sure about this, Carmen? It’s not too late to change your mind.”
Carmen frowned. “Why does everyone wonder if I’m doing the right thing? What is it that you dislike about Alex?”
Josh shook his head. “I don’t dislike Alex – even if he did steal you from me.”
“He didn’t steal me from you.”
“Yeah,” Josh ran a hand through his hair. “Well, whatever. It’s not Alex that I’m concerned about. It’s you. I don’t want you to make a mistake. I never thought you’d marry a man who couldn’t give you children. I can’t figure you.”
Carmen shrugged. “I love him. It’s as simple as that. I want to grow old with him.”
He leaned against the wall with one shoulder and gazed down at her. “I always thought you wanted to grow old with me. I thought your children would be mine – or was it only me who wanted that so badly?”
Carmen took a step back and reached for the door. “Don’t, Josh.”
His gaze softened. “Don’t? Who’s going to take you up to the mountain now?” The right side of his lip lifted in distain. “Have you gone there with him yet? My guess is, no. He’d laugh at you.”
She lifted her chin and glared at him.
“No he wouldn’t.”
His eyes flashed triumph.
“Then you haven’t told him.”
Her fingers closed around the screen door handle.
“It’s personal, that’s all. After we’re married....”
He grabbed her arm. It didn’t hurt, but his grip was tight enough to be uncomfortable.
“After you’re married he’ll think you deceived him. Have you ever thought of that?”
She jerked her arm from his hand. “I haven’t told him yet because he’d worry about me going up there alone.”
His smile was wry. “Or because you and I went there so often.”
“We didn’t go there that often.” When he made no attempt to reclaim her arm, she continued. “Obviously you thought it was a little eccentric, though, or you wouldn’t assume he would see it that way.”
He snorted. “Eccentric? More like childish. But I understand why you did it. He won’t. I warned you about him.” He jammed his hands into his pants pockets. “You saved yourself for a man who would crawl into bed with a woman on the first date. Doesn’t that bother you? Do you think he’ll be as tolerant of your principles as I am?”
The words twisted her heart into a knot. He didn’t take her up on the hill because he understood. He took her there for the same reason he sacrificed so much else for her. It made him feel good to think she needed him. Well, she could go alone. She didn’t need him.
She met his gaze with as much determination as she could muster.
“Stop it, Josh. What Alex did before we became engaged is none of my business. I don’t want to know. Waiting until after marriage is following my morals, not his.”
He sneered. “And you wouldn’t think of pushing your morals down someone else’s throat.”
She met his gaze. “If I have offended you or anyone with my morals, I’m sorry. But that doesn’t mean I have to abandon them.”
His expression softened. “You haven’t offended me. I just wish….” He shook his head. “I love...loved you so much, Carmen. If he ever hurts you, just remember. I’ll be there for you.”
“Thank you,” she said, and left him there.
In what capacity would he be there for her? It was an ugly thought, but she couldn’t shake loose the idea that he would drop Lori if things didn’t work out with Alex. No matter what happened to his relationship or hers, there was no going back now. Surely he knew that. Maybe she was being vain. In any case, she couldn’t...wouldn’t, let him take her up the mountain again. She’d tell Alex in due time, but the time was not now.
After thanking Mums, Carmen returned to the truck and waited while Alex opened the door for her. He paused before shutting it.
“What did Josh want?”
She stiffened and avoided his gaze. “Nothing. He just wanted to play big brother.”
Alex grimaced as he shut the door. His step was brisk as he walked around to the other side, but when he climbed into the truck, his expression was bland.
As he maneuvered the truck through muddy ruts in the drive, she covertly studied his profile. The phrase ‘mature male’ rattled around in her thoughts. He was that. Did he think of her as a mature female? Probably not. A feeling of disappointment welled up for a moment, but she pushed it away.
Alex’s deep voice interrupted her thoughts. “You’re quiet this evening. Did someone say something to upset you?”
“No, I was just thinking.”
He neared the intersection where the road branched to her house and his. “Where do you want to put the gifts?”
She glanced at him. “At your place, I guess. There’s no point in moving them twice.”
“Our house,” he corrected.
“We’re not married yet, so it’s still your house.”
It wasn’t intended as an argument – simply setting the record straight. Alex glanced at her, his expression quizzical.
“Exhausted. I don’t know why I’m so tired. I haven’t done enough work today to justify my existence.” She sighed heavily.
“I think you’re missing the goats,” Alex said as he maneuvered the last turn to his house.
“Maybe – or maybe I just don’t know what to do with all that time. I’ve cleaned the chicken house and...I don’t know. Maybe I should get a job.”
He hesitated. “Well, if you want to, but you’ll have plenty to do after we’re married - and I was looking forward to having you home.” He pulled into the yard, put the truck in park and turned off the engine.
Selling the dairy goats had erased a part of her identity. Getting married would erase her name as well. For a moment the idea of totally losing her identity was a frightening reality. Her life was going to change when they married. Actually, it already had to a degree. She was becoming more dependent on him.
Pushing the thought from her mind, she released her seat belt and opened the door without waiting for him. Scrambling down out of the cab, she reached in the back for one of the boxes.
Alex dropped to the ground on the other side. “I’ll get them,” he said. “I’ll put them on the porch and you can take them in the house if you want to.”
Unable to resist, she lifted a box and carried it to the door on her way in. After Alex unlocked the door and opened it for her, he went back for the rest of the boxes. As he brought the boxes to the porch, she carried them inside. There were so many things – things they didn’t need, but appreciated all the same.
Once all the boxes were in the house, he turned to her. “I’ll put them up later – or you can when you’re here next – or we can together....”
It wasn’t like him to flounder over small decisions. He gazed down at her in the dimming light, his expression readable for once. It was pure desire. The words “mature male” crossed her mind again. If she refused him, would he find satisfaction somewhere else? Desire was burning the circuits of her mind as well. She wanted to spend the night with him. No one seemed to think there was any reason for them to wait. In fact, some would never believe they had waited. Why miss out on the magic of tonight? The moon was full, the temperature cool for early August.
Dragging her mind kicking and screaming back from desire, she sighed.
“I’d better go.”
“Well, if you’re tired.” He reached into his pocket for the truck keys.
“No, I’ll walk,” she said.
“Walk? You can’t walk. It’s dark.”
She smiled up at him. “It isn’t dark yet. In any case, I’ve walked that path many times from or to the creek at night.”
“It’s not safe. There could be a snake.”
She turned to the door, ignoring the internal voice that begged her to spend the night at his home.
“There could be a snake in the daylight.”
“Yes, but you could see it then.” He followed her to the door and onto the porch, snapping on the light.
“Carmen,” his voice was stern. “Don’t walk across there.”
“I can still see.” She kept walking and he followed. Finally he caught up with her and swung her around. Grabbing her shoulders, he stared down at her.
“Why are you doing this?”
Why? Because if she stayed with him any longer, she might be sorry in the morning. Why couldn’t a mature male understand that without being told?
His hands slid off her shoulders and down to her arms.
“Josh said something to upset you, didn’t he?”
“No,” she said.
“Then what?” His warm hands on her arms did wild things to her pulse.
If she needed to start talking to him about intimate things, this was a good one. While they were dating, it had seemed wise to avoid making him aware of her desire for him. With only two weeks remaining before their wedding, that was a moot issue. If he was going to take advantage of her, he certainly would have done it before now.
She met his perplexed gaze, her face growing warm. “If I stay any longer, I’m afraid I might not go home tonight.”
Comprehension washed the confusion from his face. His smile started as a twinkle in his eyes and spread to his lips. As it broadened into a smile, a large dimple appeared in the upper part of his right cheek.
“Well, don’t,” he said.
She gazed up at him. “I’d be sorry tomorrow, and I don’t ever want to be sorry about time I spent with you.”
One dark brow lifted. “Well put.” He stepped over to the truck and opened the door. “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
“I can walk. It’s not far.”
“Don’t be stubborn.” His voice was soft, but his tone was firm.
She climbed into the truck and remained silent until they got to her house. Opening the door, she slid out of the truck, thankful that he didn’t get out of the truck or try to assist. For a moment she paused, gazing up at him. Was he angry? Was she being a prude?
“Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome.” He gazed down at her, his expression difficult to see in the fading light. Finally he spoke, his voice soft and controlled.
“You’d better go inside, sweetheart.”
She shut the door firmly and walked away. The truck lights stayed on the door while she unlocked it, and for several minutes after she was inside with the door closed. For a few minutes she was afraid he would come to the door, but finally the truck turned around and left the yard. Watching the house on the hill from the kitchen window, she knew a moment of regret when his lean silhouette disappeared into his house. The lights went out and the night was stark. She stood in the darkness for a long time. Finally she went to bed.
Was she being immature? Everyone seemed to think so. Maybe there was no reason to wait, but moving in with him didn’t feel right. It went against everything she had been brought up to believe. Maybe her parent’s morals were old and outdated, but why would a person change their moral beliefs simply to fit in?
Alex didn’t try to take advantage of her, nor did he think she was being immature. He seemed to understand so much. Maybe he’d understand about the place on the mountain. Of course, most people would understand the principle. It wasn’t that uncommon. What was uncommon was the way she had done it. Josh was right about one thing. She was avoiding the subject with Alex, and mostly it was because she was afraid he would think what she had done was childish – and dangerous for her to go alone. If he didn’t know, he couldn’t tell her not to go – and that was childish. She should simply tell him about it. The truth was; childish or not, she didn’t want to give it up. Maybe it was childish to believe in spirits of the past. Sometimes it was the only place she felt she could go to escape the modern world. That part would trouble Alex.