Alex gazed in awed silence at the brilliant sunset. March had come in like a lion and quickly settled down. Hopefully it would be an early spring. The kaleidoscopic display of orange, yellow, deep blue and gray was both beautiful and ominous. Hopefully the threat wasn’t snow. This part of northwest Arkansas enjoyed four full seasons. The variety was nice, but he was ready for spring.
Across the field, two elk grazed on the hill below the tree line. The other two must be back in the forested hills. The horse paddock was empty. Carmen had already put them in the barn for the night. Beyond the paddock was the area where he had confined the buffalo cow. She plodded slowly away from her feed trough. The hollows in her sides were deep shadows. It wouldn’t be long now - maybe tomorrow. Her stomach was huge. It might be a big bull calf. She was still skittish, so he hadn’t done much examining of her. The difficult task of rounding her up and holding her down wasn’t his greatest concern about an examination. The calf could be injured, and she might develop a fear of those caring for her. If an examination were a necessity, it would justify the risks, but Mother Nature usually did well enough without human interference. Some might consider that a strange thing for a veterinarian to think, but it was reality.
  Tucking gloved hands into the pockets of his leather coat, he headed toward the house. Carmen had fed and watered the rest of the animals before he came home from the clinic. She’d be setting the table by now and the kitchen would smell of freshly fried chicken and peach cobbler. She was by far the best cook he’d ever known. Sometimes he had to pinch himself to make sure he was still alive and this wasn’t heaven.
  When he came home tonight, she had been wearing blue jeans and a short blouse. She was reaching for something in the cabinets and that flat abdomen with its velvety skin was exposed. Whatever Carmen wore, she looked slim and graceful - feminine. Still, she had an exciting figure that jeans didn’t give justice – especially so when they hid such beautiful legs.
  He smiled again as he remembered their first summer together...the year they were married. She looked so elegant in those sundresses. Maybe jeans were more comfortable. Then again, after the way Josh acted, maybe she felt safer in jeans.
  Josh and Lori were fighting most of the time now, and Josh was drinking more. Carmen seemed unaware that Josh still had romantic thoughts about her, but Lori noticed. Lori didn’t deserve the way he treated her. He was taking advantage of the fact that she was crazy about him...or at least had been. It was unreasonable of Josh to expect her to keep the marriage together on her own. If what Lori told him was true, Josh made little to no effort. Of course, there were two sides to every story, but from what he had observed first hand, she was right. Sooner or later Lori would give up on him. When she left, Josh would probably attempt to recapture Carmen.
  Carmen’s intentions were honorable, but she was incredibly naïve. She insisted that Josh would never cheat on Lori. Where Carmen was concerned, Josh was unpredictable. He would likely use her desire for a biological child as a ploy. If she got desperate enough, that desire might become her husband’s Achilles Heel.
Carmen said she was afraid of adopting because the mother could take the child back after they learned to love it. The odds of that happening were slim to none. She agreed, but steadfastly refused to adopt on that issue. Of course, her fear was founded on the fact that it had happened to her parents. Carmen was an only child, born to aging parents. They were poor farmers. Their age and financial situation probably had as much to do with the mother’s success in reclaiming her child as anything else. Arkansas had a waiting period of 6 months, in which time the child was in the adoptive home and the birth mother still had the opportunity to change her mind. Carmen’s parents might have been able to fight it if they had the money for a good lawyer. Alex couldn’t give Carmen a child because he was sterile, but he did have money for the adoption and a good lawyer. Carmen accepted that in theory, but she was still hesitant.
  Carmen could love a child that wasn’t her flesh and blood as easily as she could love her own. Watching her with children had convinced him of that. She was hung up on the biological issue – insisting that if they were patient, God would work miracles and they would have a child, as her parents had. He didn’t want to wait until he was in his fifties to start having children. She could have a biological child. It simply wouldn’t be his. He had no problem with that. As the saying went, there was more to being a father than planting the seed. Yet Carmen insisted that any artificial method of conception was sinful – playing God. She was a master at building her own moral roadblocks, placing her goals frustratingly out of reach. Why a woman would choose to go through the discomfort of carrying a baby for nine months instead of adopting was beyond him.
  He sighed heavily. Everyone had their issues and her shortcomings were far outweighed by all her good qualities. Carmen was unlike any woman he had ever known. Ninety-five percent of the time her decisions put his best interest to mind – even above her own. As Mums had predicted, she threw herself wholeheartedly into making their marriage a success. She loved him with a passion that he never could have imagined – and still wasn’t sure he deserved.
  A barred owl called “you-all” in a southern drawl, jarring him to the reality that the sun had set. Letting out a long sigh of vapor, he climbed the steps and walked across the open courtyard. The storm door groaned as he opened it, and then he was opening the door to the kitchen, breathing the aroma of good food.
Carmen turned from the stove and smiled a greeting. Her amethyst gaze traveled over him in appreciation, coming back to his face. The blush started, as if she had been caught doing something unladylike. He might have questioned why it still embarrassed her, if it hadn’t been for the fact that he was busy questioning why her reaction still excited him.
  He shut the door and shucked his coat, hanging it on the chair before turning to her with open arms. She ran to him, kissing him as if she hadn’t done so an hour ago before he left to do the chores. She liked to kiss, and she certainly felt good molded to him that way. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close until she finally ended the embrace.
  “Supper is ready,” she said in a soft southern drawl.
  He washed his hands and held her chair while she sat. After a silent grace, they began filling their plates. It was a typical evening – one some people might consider boring, but to him it was pure pleasure.
  Finally Carmen spoke. “I think Princess is getting restless. Her stomach is so big. Do you think it might be a colt this time?”
  “That might be a good thing,” Alex said as he spooned mashed potatoes to his plate. “We could trade it for a filly.”
  Carmen frowned. “Why would we do that? I could use some geldings on my horse ranch.
  He smiled. “At the rate Ed is having female offspring; he’ll have to be one of your geldings.” He winked at her. “You’re the one with a degree in animal husbandry.”
She blushed and ducked her head. “I suppose you’re right. I need to look into bringing some unrelated mares to the ranch. I’ve had to keep Casper away from him lately.”
Alex shrugged. “Why don’t you take her to another stud?”
  “She won’t be three until July. Ideally, she shouldn’t be bred until she’s four.”
  Alex cleared his throat. “Maybe we should reinforce Ed’s pasture.”
  Carmen glanced up at him, her expression compassionate. “Poor Ed. He’s so lonely in that pasture all by himself.”
  Alex grinned. “Then do some advertising and keep him busy.”
  Her blush deepened. “He’s your horse.”
  Alex chuckled. “You’ve been keeping him busy with your mares until now.”
  She gulped, nearly choking on her food. “I have not. I just let him...I didn’t separate him from the other horses until now.”
  He chuckled again and she kicked his foot under the table. There had always been that element of humor between them. They both enjoyed pestering each other...and being pestered. Carmen had a quick wit and a gentle temperament – most of the time. She was the most honest and virtuous woman that he had ever met. Sometimes her old fashioned moral standards were a point of contention, but her integrity was never under question. For the first time in his life, he had found someone he could trust with his heart. Finally life was good, and she was largely responsible. The other factor was that he was doing what he had always dreamed of doing. No one here was telling him he could or should do more with his life. Carmen was more than satisfied with their home and what she called a lavish budget. Their lifestyle was less than he had grown up with, but in his estimation, it was better quality. If they could get past the adoption issue, they could give their children a better life than he had.
  Carmen was a change-of-life baby – the only child of aging parents. As if that were not trial enough, her parents had been ultra religious and conservative. Their social life was church. They had no television and even when Carmen had attended college, they had requested that she stay at home every night instead of living in a dorm. Carmen was obedient. How much was in her nature and how much was the result of strict upbringing was hard to determine. Maybe that backward upbringing was the reason she wanted him to be the decision maker. On the other hand, maybe she was simply uncomfortable with making decisions. Whatever the case, it worked well for them.

 Chapter One

  Carmen Barnett curled up on the window seat and watched from the bay window as the sun cast its first rays on the farmstead below. Like pieces of white glitter, frost winked back at the sun from the grass and the top of the old farmhouse. If it hadn’t been for the tree falling on the house, that roof still wouldn’t be repaired. The old tool shed was leaning further to the side each year. They would have to knock it down one of these days. The white block walls of the dairy remained solid, but the windows were dark. It was milking time...somewhere. All but a few of the goats had been gone over a year now, but she rarely had time to think about them anymore. Even the old chicken coop was empty, replaced by the new one Alex had built out back. The stock pond stared up at her coldly from the tawny pasture like a huge eye, the ice-covered edges surrounding a deep blue iris. A white wisp of fog was the only clue that it was actually warmer than the crisp March morning. She sighed and wrapped her arms around her knees. It would be cold down there in that old house - cold and lonely.
  Bare feet padded across the hardwood floor behind her, announcing that Alex was awake. Warm muscular arms slipped around her waist and she leaned her head back against his bare chest, gazing up into the sweet chocolate eyes. He smiled down at her.
  "Come back to bed, Mrs. Barnett. Your husband is hungry."
  She laughed softly. "Then maybe I should cook him some breakfast."
  He gathered her in his arms and gently lifted her from the couch. She squealed in mock protest and he chuckled.
  "We'll worry about breakfast later - right now we have other fish to fry."
  She clung to his neck as he carried her to their bedroom and gently deposited her on the bed. He disentangled her arms from his neck and crawled into bed beside her.
  "The way you keep staring down at that old house makes me wonder if you're sorry you married me." He leaned over her, gazing down at her tenderly. "Is that so?"
  She touched his lips with her fingertips. "You know that isn't true."
  He kissed her fingers. "Never?" He stroked her cheek softly.
  She shook her head, feeling giddy as she gazed up at his smooth bronze features. He was so handsome.
  "Never," she whispered, and drew his mouth down to hers.
  His lips were as warm as the hands that gently drew her body to his. How could she tell him that the restlessness she had been feeling had nothing to do with their relationship? She couldn't have found a more attentive or protective husband. He was everything he had promised, and much more. The logical side of her mind had accepted the fact that he couldn't give her a child, but the emotional side still rebelled. That illogical, immature holdout still blamed him for winning her love before he told her.
  She drew back. "You're going to be late for work," she said, squirming half-heartedly in his arms.
  He propped his head up on an elbow and gazed down at her, the fingers of one hand working at the tie on her nightgown. "The clinic doesn't open for another hour and a half, and I can dress in five minutes. Besides, I'm the boss. What are they going to say?"
  Hogwash. Sure, he owned the veterinary clinic, but he asked no more of his employees than he did of himself. In fact, his workday often began before he arrived at the clinic. She tugged playfully at some hair on his chest.
  "Aren't you supposed to look at one of Josh's cows this morning?"
  His fingers gave up their futile attempt on the ribbon and the dark eyes lost some of their softness.
  “I’m trying to make love to you. I’d appreciate it if you kept his name out of this bedroom.”
  She wrinkled her nose at him. “Are you two ever going to like each other?”
  He grimaced. “I doubt it. There's something about him that rubs me the wrong way.”
  She smiled up at him. “You can't forget that we were once almost engaged, can you?”
  “I remember he can give you something I can’t. I see that look in your eyes when you watch a baby in church. It kills me that I can’t....”
  She touched his lips again. “Don’t. I love you. That’s more important.”
  He kissed her ardently. “I love you too. Since the day I met you...until eternity.” He pulled her close and kissed her hungrily.
  She melted in his arms, consumed by the raging fire of emotion his embrace never failed to ignite. After nearly two years of marriage, nothing had changed – absolutely nothing.

  An hour later he pushed back from his empty plate and stood. “I’d better get going.” He pulled her close and kissed her lips. “You be careful around those horses. They’re gentle, but one misplaced foot could cripple a little thing like you.”
  She smiled up at him. “I’ll be careful. I always am.”
  He kissed her again and released her. “One of these days we're going to take that honeymoon I promised you.”
  She laughed softly. “Where could we go that would be more fun than here?”
  He eyed her suspiciously. “You keep saying that, but I think you’re chronically frugal. Either that or you haven’t been around much.” He flipped her chin with a curled index finger. “We both know it’s the latter.”
  She made a face. “I was born and brought up in these wild Arkansas hills. Just because I haven’t been anyplace else, doesn’t mean that there is any place better. You’ve been all over the world and you decided to move here.” She shrugged one shoulder and met his amused gaze triumphantly. “I rest my case.”
  The chocolate gaze melted. “Yes, but you were here.” He kissed his fingertips and touched them gently to her lips. “I've got to go, sweetheart.”
  She watched as he crossed the room to the door, his broad shoulders swaying gracefully with each step. His square toed boots clicked across the floor with that quick step she had learned to recognize. As usual, his western shirt was tucked neatly into crisp indigo jeans. His lean build gave the impression that he was tall, but he was only five feet nine inches tall. Not that it mattered; he still had her beat by a good six inches.
  He paused at the door and half-turned toward her. The large belt buckle at his lean waist lay flat against a washboard stomach. Her gaze lifted to his face enquiringly and found the dark eyes sparkling with humor. He knew what she was thinking about - knew and enjoyed the attention. He lifted a brow.
  “Maybe you'd like me to take the day off?” Noting her rising color, he chuckled. “I can still make you blush.”
  She wrinkled her nose at him. “You egotistical little Banty,” she teased.
  When he grinned, the large dimple below his eye appeared. “I’m not little.”
  She picked his plate up from the table. “You're seventy-five percent testosterone and the other half is ego.”
  He laughed, his eyes sparkling with a devilish thought. “And which part do you like the best?”
  Her cheeks burned hotter. “You'd better hurry up. You're going to be late.”
  He was still chuckling as he stepped off the porch. A few minutes later the truck engine started and he backed the Dodge 4 x 4 pickup out of the garage. She watched from the bay window as he left a trail of dust to the main road.
  She sighed heavily and turned to the table. Tomorrow was Saturday, and they could spend the entire day together. She shifted her attention to the housework. It didn't take long to clean up after two people. After that it was time to do the chores - her favorite job. Donning a heavy coat, she escaped through the patio doors and hurried out to the barn.
  A chorus of nickering and snorting greeted her as she entered the barn. Ed and Princess were in the first two stalls. The matching Appaloosas were ready to eat. She peeled off a couple of leaves of hay and threw them into Ed’s stall.
  “Eat hardy, boy. I'm going to ride you today. Princess is getting a little close to her due date.”
  She grabbed more hay and stepped around the buggy Alex was restoring for her - a surrey with a fringe on top - exactly like she had always wanted. The black frame with its hunter green trim rested on blocks right now. A blacksmith in Gravette was making the wheels, but the rest of the buggy was complete, right down to the leather seats. She could hardly wait to hitch it up and take a ride.
In the third stall was Casper. The white Appaloosa would be three years old in July. Alex was gentle training her to ride. In the next stall was Random. She wouldn’t be two years old until December. Alex had named the little filly Random because she never seemed to have a schedule for anything. Alex was halter training her. It was something she would have liked to do, but Alex insisted that it was too dangerous. Sometimes he was overly protective. Still, it felt secure to have someone look after her the way he did.
  Carmen gave the horses some grain and went to feed and water the chickens. After she fed the rabbits, she came back to find the horses had finished their grain. She opened the stall door to release Princess, Casper and Random in the pasture. She saddled Ed and took him outside. Princess followed as she led Ed out of the corral, but Random and Casper decided to stay near the house.
  Carmen mounted and turned Ed toward the field, kicking him into a lope. Brushing a blond curl from her face, she reined him toward the buffalo pen. A quick glance back revealed Princess following, steam puffing from her mouth and nose with every labored step. It wouldn't be long now.
  Down the hill, across the creek and across the field to the buffalo shed - the crisp air traced their progress with a wisp of steam. Alex had the shed built so that she could feed the buffalo without going into the pen, but today she wanted to check on the cow. Last night Alex thought she was getting ready to give birth.
  Carmen urged Ed through the gate and shut it before Princess could join them. Princess snorted and scraped the ground with a front hoof. Carmen laughed.
  "You stay here, girl. I know that buffalo cow has always been gentle, but if she has a calf, she could get defensive. I don't want to take any chances with the future of my horse ranch."
  It took her the better part of an hour to locate the cow, and if it hadn't been for the white form that raced out to meet them, she might have missed the cow in the hollow with her two calves. Ed snorted and side-stepped as the Great Pyrenees guard dog slid to a stop beside them. Carmen barely kept her seat as the horse pranced nervously.
  "Brutus," Carmen scolded the dog without conviction. "You know better than that."
  He looked like he was grinning. His huge tongue hung out of the side of his mouth like a thick slice of bologna. As he barked a welcome, steam rolled out of his mouth in a cloud.
  The buffalo cow faced them, her massive head swaying back and forth in warning. Carmen stood in the stirrups and studied the two calves - both females. Alex was going to be delighted. She'd have to call him when she got back to the house. She swung Ed around.
  “Come on Brutus. I brought you some of that dog food you like.”
  She put the horse into a lope and headed for the shed. Brutus followed and the two calves tagged along unsteady on their feet behind him. The cow had no choice but to follow her offspring. At the barn, Carmen fed and watered Brutus and threw some hay to the cow. Reaching through the slot, she poured the cow some grain. The sun had melted a thin layer of water over the ice in the water trough. She took a rock and broke the ice, reaching in the frigid water with her fingers to pull out the jagged pieces of ice.
  With that done, she mounted again and leaned down to open the gate. Once outside the pen, she latched the gate and turned Ed toward the forest. Princess followed them as she walked Ed. Somewhere up there past the tree line there were four Elk that Alex had coerced from the Game and Fish Commission. Shipped to Arkansas for reintroduction, they had sustained injuries that made them vulnerable to predators. Alex had nursed them back to health and released them in the area where the goats had been kept when she owned the dairy. A Nubian goat and her three kids shared the rocky terrain, along with a couple of Angora goats. Alex had written the Game and Fish Commissions in several western states, hoping for a chance at a mountain goat or sheep. The odds were slim, but because his purpose was educational, he might have a chance. White tailed deer, as well as an abundance of smaller wildlife already frequented the ranch, so his North American Safari had its foundation. The next step was renovating the old farmhouse for visitors. The dairy and adjoining barns would make a nice bunkhouse - sometime. The money from the dairy equipment and stock was still in the bank. Not yet enough to complete the work.
  Ed perked his ears forward and snorted at something in the tall grass. Princess stopped, staring in the same direction. Carmen stood in the stirrups and craned her neck to see what was troubling him. Something was creeping along the ground - stalking, probably. She nudged Ed closer. She smiled. A red fox was stalking a cottontail. As she watched, the fox lunged for the rabbit. The rabbit leaped into the air and bolted across the field, his white tail visible above the tall grass with each bound.
  Unwilling to root for either animal, Carmen turned Ed back toward the tree line.
  Forty acres were fenced around the old house. Forty more lay behind that - all wild and unimproved. She would have to wait for Alex before she could explore that area. Alex had strictly forbidden her to ride alone there after the wild dog problem. He wouldn't be pleased if he knew she was riding up here alone now. She glanced back over her shoulder at the log house on the hill. He had selected the perfect setting for their home. When the elk grazed on this hill, they could be seen from the bay window. She and Alex spent a lot of time on that window seat, admiring their combined efforts and property.
  She glanced at her watch. It was nearly eleven. Alex might come home for lunch today. Grudgingly, she turned Ed back toward the house.
  “Come on, Princess,” she called to the mare. You've had enough exercise for today.”
  Back at the barn, she unsaddled Ed and rubbed him down. Hefting the saddle to its proper place, she released the horses in their separate pastures.
  As she neared the back door, she heard the telephone ringing. She slapped a hand over her mouth. She had forgotten her cell phone on the night stand again. Hurrying up the stairs, she dashed through the dining room and grabbed the receiver.
  "Hello," she answered breathlessly.
  "Hi, sweetheart. Did I catch you out at the barn?"
  "It started ringing as I came into the house. Is something wrong?"
  "No. I’m sorry I made you run. I didn’t want to disturb you in the middle of chores, so I called the land line. Would you like to meet me for lunch?”
  She glanced at her watch. Forty-five minutes from now. “Sure, where?”
  “Just meet me at the clinic. I want to talk to you about something.”
  She stared at the receiver for a moment and finally shrugged. “See you at twelve.”
  What more could he have to say in the little time since they had last talked? Had Josh said something to upset him again? No, he wouldn’t be taking her to lunch to discuss Josh.
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by Linda Louise Rigsbee
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Women's Romantic Fiction