For Better or Worse
Linda Louise Rigsbee
Prologue


  Alex replaced the receiver and leaned forward in his chair, rubbing his face as if it would remove the conversation. It had never been his intention to hide his past from Carmen. It wasn’t as if he had anything to be ashamed of. Still, there were some things that would be better left in the past. Carmen was all about honesty and innocence. There was little of that in the life he chose to leave behind.
He stood and headed for the door, shutting off the light as he left his home office. It was late, so he made his usual rounds. He lifted Destiny from the rug in her room where she had fallen asleep and gently placed her in her bed. He tucked the blanket around her and leaned down, kissing her on the forehead. Destiny would be two years old before long. Since Carmen had been the one to initiate that adoption, it was safe to assume she was over her adoption phobia. She once had said she wanted five children. He’d never set a number, but right now two hardly seemed enough.
  He picked up the toys Destiny had been playing with and put them in the toy box. He exited the room as quietly as possible, leaving the door open so they would hear if she woke in the night.
  Down the hall, he opened the door to Jonathan’s room. He smiled. Stepping into the room, he took the book from a limp hand and placed it quietly on the night stand. Shutting off the reading lamp, he backed out of the room and silently shut the door. On Jonathan’s ninth birthday, in October, they had given him the responsibility of taking care of Random. He had been helping train her. When she was old enough to have a foal, she would be his. It wasn’t a bribe to get him to do his chores. Jonathan was enthusiastic enough about those. They could afford to buy him a horse of his own, but he would learn more this way.
  Careful not to let the heels of his boots make noise in the hallway, he headed for the living room. He checked the front door to make sure it was locked before quietly walking through the living room. He paused in the dining room doorway, watching as Carmen stretched to put a glass in the cabinet. Long ago he’d learned to let her do things by herself. She was self-conscious about her small stature and any attempt to assist usually became an encouragement to push herself beyond her limits. Left alone, she rarely did that.
  She shut the cabinet door and hung the towel over the oven door handle to dry. Turning toward the dining room, she glanced up and drew a quick breath.
  “Oh!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands to her mouth. Her amethyst eyes were unusually large. She breathed a sigh of relief as she dropped her hands. “You startled me. I didn’t know you were standing there.”
  “The kids are asleep,” he said, moving toward her.
  The full lips curved into a shy smile as she stepped eagerly forward to meet him. Carmen was as passionate as she was beautiful.
  He leaned down; kissing the soft part of her neck that pulsed with excitement. Taking her face in his hands, his thumbs stroked the soft skin on her cheeks. He searched her face, reading it like a book. She was lonely. No surprise. In the last week he had been out on night calls three times. She deserved better than that. Fortunately she had a forgiving nature. He lightly touched her lips with his.
She gripped his arms and pressed close to him, her warm lips seeking his.
  He gently disentangled his arms from her hands and gripped her waist, pulling her close. For a moment he cradled her in his arms, caressing her back.
  Finding new ways to excite her had become a game – one that increased his excitement as well.
Carmen didn’t warm to people instantly, nor was she generally impressed by praise...which was why it came as such a surprise that mere words were such powerful tools. Something as simple as calling her sweetheart or pointing out one of her many attributes could put her in a romantic mood. Coupling words with a gentle caress or lifting her into his arms and carrying her to their bedroom never failed to excite her. Today was no different.

  Later, he lay awake, arms behind his head while she slept. His sister, Katie, had insisted that they were destined to be together. If he’d met Carmen any later, she probably would have been married to Josh. If he’d married Tessa, he wouldn’t have met Carmen at all. It wasn’t destiny at all. Life was simply a maze of possibilities waiting on decisions.
  Carmen once said she wasn’t like Tessa. She wasn’t, but one thing drew him to each of them. He thought they needed him to take care of them. Tessa needed someone to take care of her, but Carmen didn’t. He was the one who needed to take care of her. Carmen was small and delicately built, but she had spirit. There was very little she wouldn’t tackle – including things she shouldn’t. That made it hard to protect her at times. Still, she didn’t usually resist his attempts. In fact, she seemed to enjoy that form of attention.
  Until now, money had aided him in taking care of her. After the telephone call tonight, he wasn’t so sure money was an asset. Of course, money wasn’t the entire issue. Carmen had shown little interest in their financial status. Maybe she thought it was better than it actually was - maybe less. She still maintained that the money he came into the marriage with was his. If he had believed in prenuptial agreements, he might have thought her attitude was a good idea. He didn’t. But then, maybe she felt that way because she knew he was financially responsible. He was. After Tessa broke their engagement - at the last minute - there had been no reason for him to hold his end of the bargain...nothing but integrity. He had paid for the car and told her it was hers. Regardless of what well-meaning friends and relatives said, he refused demand the return of the car.
  The truth was; he bought the clinic and their home with money he inherited. Now they were living off money from the clinic. The rest of the money was tied up in investments - other than what was in the special savings account drawing interest until he could decide whether to return it or accept the responsibility that went with it.
  He sighed heavily and rolled over, putting an arm around Carmen’s waist and snuggling close to her. She moaned softly in her sleep and smiled, caressing his arm.
  He hugged her. Carmen was always willing to listen, whether it was something happening at work or his plans about the wildlife safari. This latest thing was different, though. Burdening her with something like that wasn’t fair.
  He kissed her neck. Whatever lay ahead, being with her would make it more pleasant.

CHAPTER 1

  Carmen pitched the disposable diaper in the trash and hefted Destiny from the changing table. At 14 months, she was already getting difficult to lift. Destiny was big for her age. Katie insisted she was going to be tall like Josh. That might be true. She favored him in many ways.
  Destiny was born less than a week after Josh died. As soon as Lori was able, she signed the adoption papers and left the state with her sister. With the exception of a Christmas card the first year, no one had heard from her since. Alex and Carmen were the only parents Destiny had ever known. Unlike Jonathan, though, Destiny had natural grandparents to spoil her – and they did.
  Josh’s mother and father lived on a farm within walking distance of Carmen and Alex – and from the farm where Lori and Josh lived when Josh died. Mums, as everyone called Mrs. Reynolds, had been like a second mother to Lori and Carmen. Lori’s father had remarried after her mother died and Mums was the only stability she had known. Mums thought the lack of good parenting was why Lori went wild. Maybe it was also why she never wanted children.
  Josh was gone now, and Lori didn’t want anything to do with Destiny. Carmen was torn between gratitude that Lori gave Destiny to them and disappointment that Lori could abandon her child so totally. But then, it was Josh who wanted a baby, not Lori. They had fought all through her pregnancy. Once Josh had considered substituting her birth control pills with candy. Had he? Surely Lori would have known the difference. Lori said Josh wanted Carmen and Alex to have the baby if anything happened to him. Josh’s sister had made a few comments to indicate that she thought Josh might have ended his life purposely because he still loved Carmen. Certainly their marriage was a failure, but it was hard to believe Josh would do something like that.
  Focusing on the present, Carmen straightened Destiny’s frilly yellow Easter dress and brushed the thumb from her mouth. Destiny stared up at her with big gray eyes that questioned her motive. Her auburn curls lay in no particular style – so much like Josh.
  Setting Destiny back on the changing table again, Carmen pushed a shoe back on her foot and tickled her under the arm. Destiny giggled, revealing top and bottom teeth in matching pairs. Thank goodness the molar nightmare was over.
  “As soon as Daddy and Jonathan finish getting dressed, we’ll go to church.”
  Destiny’s eyes lit up. “Daddy?”
  Carmen sighed. It was no surprise both children were so devoted to Alex. She smiled, remembering the day they took Destiny home from the hospital. The expression on Alex’s face when he took her from the nurse was one Carmen had never seen before – not even with Jonathan. All eyes were on him as he held the infant in front of him, one hand under her body and the other supporting her head. Carmen sighed contentedly, remembering the gentle warm voice as it said those words the first time: “Come to daddy.” Like her adoptive mother, Destiny was mesmerized by the chocolate gaze and rich deep voice. From that moment on, her heart belonged to him. With Jonathan, it had been instantaneous as well. From the time Alex brought him home for a visit, they had been like father and son. It had been Alex who convinced her to take the risk and adopt Jonathan. She had always feared learning to love a child, only to have the mother change her mind. But Jonathan’s mother had passed away, and his father didn’t want a cripple. Alex had been so shocked when Carmen offered to take Destiny home unconditionally. Fortunately, he had the foresight to make it a legal adoption.
  Movement outside the window caught Carmen’s attention. A blue BMW crept up the drive and stopped in the yard. A slender lady dressed in an expensive looking dark suit swung out of the car and stood, slowly shutting the door. Something about the woman looked familiar, but it was hard to identify her from behind. The woman walked toward the porch with her head down. Surely no one would come all the way out here on a Sunday to seek veterinary services from Alex – especially not dressed like that...and on Easter morning. It must be someone from church.
  Carmen lifted Destiny from the changing table again and turned as Alex walked into the room. His attention was immediately drawn to the car outside the window. His soft chocolate gaze went from the car to Carmen. One dark brow lifted in silent query. As he opened his mouth to speak, the doorbell rang. He smiled.
  “I’ll get it,” he said as he turned away.
  He strode away confidently. Good, he could explain why he wasn’t available today, though it should be obvious.
  There was something about Alex that commanded respect. Maybe it was the years he spent as a salesman. On the other hand, maybe his personality was what made him an accomplished salesman. He had given up being a salesman to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a veterinarian. He mastered that with no problem. Maybe it was simply his confidence that impressed people.
  Carmen forced her mind from dreamland again and stood Destiny on the floor. Glancing at her reflection in the mirror, Carmen straightened her dress. The smooth lines of the dress flattered her petite figure, but more important was the fact that Alex liked it. She gave her blond curls a quick lift with her fingers. She had decided to let it grow long, even though she feared the weight of it would remove the curls. Fortunately, the curls were now loose waves. She sighed and turned to the door.
Alex was talking to someone in the living room as she led Destiny down the hallway. It was hard to tell if the visitor was unwelcome, as he always maintained a professional tone when talking to customers or strangers.
  She stopped at Jonathan’s door to make sure he was ready. He was dressed in a suit identical to the one Alex wore. No surprise there. Whatever Alex was wearing, Jonathan was usually dressed the same. Alex took pride in that fact. In jest, he stated that Jonathan was merely seeking the best fashion example he could find. In truth, Alex felt the full responsibility of being a role model. He appreciated the adoration Jonathan bestowed on him.
  The suit jacket had not been altered to accommodate Jonathan’s short arm. Around the farm and at school, he rolled his left sleeve up to make all available use of the deformed appendage, but when he dressed for church he always wanted it covered. His reasoning was that God already knew what it looked like and it shouldn’t be a distraction for others. His logic and acceptance of the deformity was amazingly positive and mature for a 9-year-old.
  Carmen smiled at him. “My, don’t you look nice.”
  He beamed, blue eyes twinkling with pride. Jonathan wasn’t much of a talker. Even so, he managed to communicate better than the average person, and when he did say something, it was generally well thought out.
  Alex stepped into the hallway. “Carmen?” His tone was pensive.
  “What’s wrong?” she asked as Destiny abandoned her hand and flung herself at him.
  “Daddy!”
  Alex lifted Destiny and sat her on his arm. “It’s Lori.”
  Carmen’s first impulse was to snatch Destiny back, but the six months waiting period had long passed. Any claim Lori might have on Destiny was lost. The only thing she might be able to contest was the will. She could have all the rest. Carmen sucked her breath in and let it out slowly. It was an open adoption and Lori had every right to see Destiny.
When they entered the living room, Lori’s full attention riveted on Destiny. She put a hand to her mouth and gasped.
  “Oh my! She looks just like Josh!”
  After a moment, she stepped forward and held out her hands to Destiny.
  “May I hold you?”
  Destiny drew back, clutching Alex around the neck possessively as she stared at Lori. The thumb went to her mouth and she started sucking it vigorously as she eyed the newcomer suspiciously.
Warm fingers clutched Carmen’s hand and she looked down to find Jonathan watching her anxiously. She squeezed his hand and smiled at him with feigned confidence.
  Lori’s voice brought Carmen’s attention back to the visitor.
  “She doesn’t recognize me.”
  Lori’s disappointed statement left the impression that she expected Destiny to know her. Lori glanced at Alex.
  “What’s her name?”
  “Destiny,” Alex said, watching Lori expectantly.
  “Destiny….” Lori tested the name and glanced from Carmen to Alex. “Who named her?”
  “Jonathan,” Alex said with a smile.
  For the first time Lori acknowledged the presence of Jonathan. Her expression was doubtful.
  “You let someone...else name her?”
  The implication was as obvious as it was annoying. Jonathan was no more blood relation to them than Destiny, but neither child could have been loved more deeply nor considered more a family member.
  “We all thought the name was perfect,” Alex said, refusing to give her concern credence.
  “Would you let me hold her?” Lori’s voice held an edge.
  Alex tried to disentangle Destiny, but she held on tight and started to whine. He shrugged.
  “Not now. Let her get used to you first.”
  “I’m not going to be here that long,” Lori said defensively. “I just want to hold her for a minute. Then I promise I’ll give her back.”
  Alex nodded. “She’s been taught to avoid strangers. I won’t push her into it when she’s afraid.”
  Lori’s brows furrowed. “But I’m not a stranger. I’m her mother. Why should she be afraid of me?”
  Carmen stared at her. Could she actually be that ignorant? She glanced at Alex, but his full attention was on Lori. More than likely he was concerned that she would start a scene. He tried to shift Destiny so that he had an unobstructed view of Lori. It had to be difficult to maintain any semblance of authority with a toddler clinging to his face, but he managed to do it.
  “It’s been 14 months, Lori. Carmen is the only mother she knows. We talked about this the day you signed the adoption papers.”
  Lori’s gaze implored Carmen. “You told me I could have her back when I....”
  “That’s enough, Lori,” Alex interrupted sternly. He pealed Destiny from his neck and handed her to Carmen, his voice softening as he spoke to Destiny. “Go to Mommy, honey.”
  Destiny let go of him and reluctantly transferred to Carmen. Carmen cuddled Destiny close while keeping her attention on Alex and Lori.
  Alex straightened his coat and tucked the tie back into his vest. Running a hand through his hair in a way that Carmen had grown to recognize as a nervous habit, he addressed Lori in a tone that was both stern and conversational.
  “We can discuss this later.” When Lori opened her mouth to protest, he continued. “If you’re not going to be around more than a few hours, it couldn’t be that important to you. It’s Easter morning and we’re on our way to church. I’ll be glad to talk to you afterward. You did get to see her.”
  Lori eyed him doubtfully. “I’ll have to talk to my lawyer about this.”
  “I think that’s an excellent idea,” Alex said, his voice calm and even.
  Lori marched out of the house stiffly without saying goodbye.
  “Do you think she’ll try to take her back?” Carmen asked anxiously. “She can’t, can she? I mean, if she was going to try, she should have come back before the six months was up...right?”
  “I don’t know,” Alex said. “Technically that’s true, but maybe she has an angle. She must at least think she has or surely she wouldn’t have shown up after all this time and started a fuss about something that we all settled long time ago. I’ll contact a lawyer tomorrow.” He hesitated, watching as Lori’s car head back down the drive. “Being wrong won’t stop her from taking Destiny if she’s determined, though.”
  Carmen’s mouth went dry. “Do you think she might kidnap her?”
  “It’s hard to say. She wouldn’t be the first. I think I read someplace that most kidnapped children are taken by a parent.”
  “I shouldn’t have told her she could have her back when she....”
  “It doesn’t matter, Carmen,” he interrupted gently. “When she signed the adoption papers she was told that it was permanent. I know she was because I told her so. I also told her that I wasn’t in agreement with your terms. She agreed because she didn’t want Destiny then.”
  “She was grieving. She didn’t know what she wanted.”
  He nodded. “I know. I wonder if that’s what she’ll work on, and if she actually has a lawyer.”
  “She wants you too. She always did.”
  Alex glanced at Jonathan pointedly before his attention returned to Carmen.
  “How terrible it must be to hunger for things that belong to someone else – especially when one of those things is your own daughter. I never could understand why she would want to give up her own child.” He sighed. “We’re so fortunate, Carmen.”
  Life hadn’t always been so generous with either of them. Alex had lost his parents and had to quit college to raise his little sister. Carmen had lost her parents before she met Alex. And then there was the baby she and Alex had lost before it reached full term. It was the only baby they would ever have. While Destiny could never take her place, she had filled the void. Lori and Josh had everything going for them, but they were unhappy with each other. Lori could have kept the baby, the farm and the money, but she chose to “escape” instead. Yet Alex was right. They were fortunate - fortunate to have each other and fortunate to have adopted two wonderful children. What they all had together, no amount of money could buy. For her, the last seventeen months had been nothing short of heaven on earth. Alex was the biggest source of her contentment.
  She met his expectant gaze. “Yes, we’re fortunate and I’m grateful for what we have.”
  Deep inside, all she could think about was that Lori might want revenge more than she wanted Destiny. One person had taken everything from Lori. The man she wanted (twice), the farm, the money and then her daughter. The money and the farm meant nothing to Carmen. Her life revolved around Alex, Jonathan and Destiny. They would be Lori’s tools of manipulation. It was something to keep in mind.

  After church, they talked to Katie and Bill about the situation with Lori. Alex and Bill had wandered off with Jonathan and the twins, as usual, which left Carmen with Katie and Destiny. Alex’s sister generally had an opinion about everything, so it was no surprise that Katie had one about Lori.
  “I doubt she came back to get Destiny,” Katie said. “She never wanted children. I imagine she figures if she gets Destiny, she’ll get the farm and the insurance money. Of course, she doesn’t want the farm either, so she’ll sell that. Poor Destiny will be left with nothing.”
  “Nothing?” Carmen said with mock indignation. “I beg your pardon. She has Alex and me.” She sighed heavily and sobered. “I can’t forget that she said she loved Alex and hoped we would split up.”
  “That would have been a mistake for her. But then, she probably knew that. We used to talk a lot, you know. Alex wouldn’t have been interested in her. He could search years and never find a woman like you. He likes having a wife who wants him to boss her around. He knows how good he’s got it. He likes to be in control.” Katie lifted a hand when Carmen opened her mouth to protest. “I know, you think he had his hands full raising me, and I’m sure he did, but if I had let him, he would have told me which side to chew my breakfast on.”
  “He’s not controlling me,” Carmen finally inserted. “And he’s not bossy. Someone needs to have the final say or some decisions could go on and on. I think he’s better equipped than I am. He is well educated, understanding and intelligent. He always has our best interest in mind. He’s a wonderful provider.”
  Katie lifted one shoulder in an elegant shrug. “Well, I have to admit he’s all of those.” Her gaze sharpened. “Still, you know how stubborn he can be. What you two need is to learn the art of compromise, not designate a final decision maker.” She sighed. “Anyway, I don’t want anyone taking over the decision making for me. Maybe I’ll make mistakes, but at least they’ll be my own.”
Maybe she had a point. Lori was certainly independent – and ambitious. Surely Katie realized Alex remained head of the household because he liked the position – and because he was married to a person who liked him in that position. Katie was wrong, though. Alex didn’t dominate her. Maybe it was a relationship that was difficult for the modern wife to understand.
  Pushing that part of the issue aside, she focused on the real problem. It was hard to believe Josh left Lori out of his will completely. They grew up together, and Lori had a crush on him since they were teens. It was possible that he never had the will changed from the time that he considered Carmen his only choice as a partner. If she had realized he put her in his will, Carmen would have said something then. Lori was his wife and the mother of his child. If he had lived, maybe Lori would have kept Destiny. In any case, Lori deserved to have something – and probably would have if she had contested the will instead of running away. Carmen had worked with Josh’s parents to reserve both the money and the farm for Destiny. Until she was of age, Josh’s sister, Alice, and her husband would live on the farm and maintain it. Josh had purchased an insurance policy on the loan and it had paid off the farm after his death, so they would live there rent free. Josh would have wanted it that way – but what about Lori?
  Alex had already set aside a trust fund for both Jonathan and Destiny, and Carmen was listed as an equal partner in everything. She had protested, but he said something could happen to him and he would want her to have it. The death of Josh had underlined that thought. If they broke up, she still had the farm she had inherited. Alex refused to let her attach his name to that, so she had made provisions for it to be left to Jonathan and Destiny. Property ownership certainly had its problems. There were only three things that mattered to her – Alex, Jonathan and Destiny. Of course, that was easy to say when she had everything she needed now. Poor Lori.

  Sunday morning had always been a contemplative time for Carmen, but Easter Sunday was something special. Long after they returned home and changed clothes, it stayed on her mind. It probably would have been so anyway, but Lori’s visit made it more so. Giving up a child of any age had to be difficult. The fact that Lori said she didn’t want Destiny when she was born didn’t mean that she wasn’t feeling bad about it now. Life in general was going down hill for her then. If her clothes and car were any indication, life was improving for her now. Maybe that was what inspired her to come back to get her daughter. They hadn’t even asked Lori about her life. They’d been so focused on their own. Next time would be different.

  They expected Lori to return that day, but she didn’t. Maybe she wanted to talk to a lawyer first. It was probably a good idea.

Continue to Chapter 2
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Women's Romantic Fiction