When Alex didn't find anyone in the house, he headed for the barn. Katie probably had the kids. Carmen would be milking the goats early so they could spend Friday night alone. He smiled in anticipation. He hadn't called to let her know he was coming home early. Once a month they had Friday night and Saturday morning alone. He intended to make the most of it.
He gently opened the barn door and stepped inside, careful not to make any noise. The smell of fresh straw mingled with molasses and oats. A light was on in the addition and Carmen was humming. A couple goat kids were bleating from one of the stalls. They needn't worry. Carmen would save some milk for them.
He crept across the barn and paused in the doorway long enough to locate Carmen. She was straining milk into a gallon jar at the worktable. The milk would be immediately placed into the little refrigerator so it would cool as quickly as possible. Carmen was meticulous about the process, claiming it was a key to maintaining the quality and flavor of the milk. She would know, having managed a goat dairy before they were married. Whatever the case, the milk was always good.
He walked slowly toward her, careful not to step on anything that would alert her to his approach. He targeted her slender hips as a landing zone for his hands. Then they would taxi up to her waist and…
She paused, lifting her head to listen. He stopped, waiting for her to resume working. She finally did, but he was certain she knew he was there. She appeared alert…prepared. He dropped his hands to his sides and took a careless step forward. She knew he was there.
At that moment two forms ruptured from the hay in the nearest stall and lunged toward him. Even from the corner of his eye, he knew they were not baby goats. He swung around to defend himself and cried out in surprise.
"Daddy!" two little voices screamed in harmony. Natalie and Matthew threw themselves at him gleefully.
Carmen doubled over with laughter. "That'll teach you to sneak up on me," she gasped, and went into a fresh bout of giggling.
Alex knelt and hugged the twins individually. "I thought Katie would have the children by now."
Carmen wiped her eyes. "She took Jonathan and Destiny to a party with Tim and Jim. She'll be back to pick up Matthew and Natalie in a little while."
Alex stood, a child sitting on each arm, each with an arm around his neck. Natalie and Matthew were nearly four years old, and while they were small for their age, they were still an arm load. Then again, it could be his age. He'd be 39 in September, a mere 5 months away. He'd been pulling a few gray hairs out of his head lately. Carmen didn’t have any gray hair. She didn’t have any wrinkles, either. She looked ten years younger than he did, instead of five. They'd been married nine years already. For the most part, they had been happy years.
Natalie had inherited Carmen’s blonde hair and the touch of violet in her eyes. Matthew had dark eyes and dark hair. People frequently commented that they didn’t look like twins. They were, born from a surrogate mother. Maybe that had something to do with it.
Alex stood the children on the floor and joined Carmen. "Can I help you?"
She nodded. "You can put that milk in the refrigerator. I'll clean up here. Supper is in the oven. It's ready; I just left it in there to keep it warm."
There was a time that he might have asked what was for supper, but it had ceased to matter. Whatever it was, it would be delicious. Carmen was an excellent cook - not in the elegant cuisine way, but always healthy, hearty and tasty.
Alex put the jar of milk in the refrigerator and turned to find the twins watching him. He grabbed a happy squealing child under each arm. He pushed the barn door open with one foot and exited the door sideways. Carmen released the goats and followed him to the house. As they entered the kitchen, he paused, noting that the table was set and ready for them. He headed for the bathroom, speaking over his shoulder to Carmen.
"We'll wash our hands while you get the food on the table."
Amid an inordinate amount of giggling, they all managed to get their hands washed and dried. Alex grabbed them by the back of their pants and shirt, a writhing giggling child in each hand, and toted them to the kitchen where he ceremoniously deposited each in a chair at the table.
"Okay, settle down now," he said.
Leaning down, he kissed Carmen on the cheek before settling into his chair at the head of the table. For the next few minutes they each bowed their heads in silent prayer. They had no more than finished prayers when the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," Carmen said as she stood. "It's probably Katie."
She left the room for a few minutes and when she returned, Katie followed her into the kitchen. Katie glanced at Alex and the children, her expression reflecting surprise. "Oh, you're eating. I'm going to pick up the pizza we ordered on the way back."
Natalie and Matthew looked at each other and cried in unison. "Pizza!"
Alex glanced at Carmen and she shrugged. Pizza wasn’t something they ate often, but once in a while they had a treat.
Katie gave Carmen a covert look. "Did you tell him?"
"Tell me what," Alex asked Carmen.
Carmen looked embarrassed. Alex looked up at Katie. "Tell me what?" he repeated.
"We looked at some motor homes this morning," Carmen said. "That's all."
"To rent?" he asked Carmen.
Katie groaned. "Oh for goodness sake, Alex. Don't be such a tight wad for once. If she wants to buy a motor home, let her. It isn't as if you can't afford it. That way she wouldn't have to haul luggage and kids back and forth to hotels every night while you're traveling. You could have it stocked and ready to go. Think of the money you could save on food and hotel. You could stay anywhere you wanted in comfort."
Alex choked back a caustic reply. Much as he loved his sister, he wished she would learn to mind her own business. If it hadn't been for Bill, Katie's inheritance would all be gone now. Alex forked a steak from the serving dish and passed the dish to Carmen as he spoke. "You could do all that if you rented one, and you wouldn't have the expense of maintenance every year."
Katie rolled her eyes, but Carmen backed him up. "Actually, I think Alex has a good point. Why buy when you can rent and not have the financial commitment?" She shrugged. "Maybe we wouldn't even like traveling that way. It might be better to get a pop-up trailer."
Apparently Carmen had been doing a lot of research on accommodations for their vacation. His preference would be to make hotel reservations, fly out there and rent a van, but the kids wanted to camp. Carmen was stuck on the idea of finding some wild horses to observe - as if the wild ones were any different than the ten they had on their 180 acre wildlife safari. Of course, the mustangs were mixed breeds, while hers were purebreds - except for the gelding she bought a few years ago for the tour business.
Carmen had been running their American Wildlife Safari for the last few years with an assistant who would be taking care of the place in their absence. This sudden request for a vacation in southern Arizona had taken him by surprise. Arkansas had barely emerged from winter and it was in the full beauty of new foliage and bloom. He was reluctant to leave. Of course, when she had first expressed a desire to go on a vacation to that hot dry desert, it had been cold, wet and cloudy for weeks on end. She was full swing into planning now, so there would be no changing her mind. The kids were all excited and Katie was pumping them all up.
"I'm sorry," Carmen said, breaking into his thoughts. "I should have talked to you before I went to look at the motor homes."
Katie shook her head and sighed in despair. "Well, I'm out of here. Come on kids."
After she left, Alex turned to Carmen. "I wish you wouldn't say stuff like that in front of her. It makes me look like a dictator."
Carmen caught her breath. "It isn't like that at all. I’m sure Katie didn’t think of it that way. She just has a different idea of what marriage should be like."
"No, Carmen. You’re the one who has a different perspective on marriage. One minute you're all independent and planning our vacation in minute detail and the next you think you have to ask me before you go shopping. Why would I care if you went to look at some motor homes? It would be different if you had bought one without considering my input."
"I'd never do that." She said; her expression solemn.
He had no doubt about that fact. Still, the fact that she was uncomfortable about telling him that she was looking at them was reason for concern. It might simply be that she knew he wasn't enthused about the trip and didn't want to start an unpleasant discussion. She had approached him about the possibility of using a tent, but he had discouraged that idea. They would be too vulnerable to scorpions and snakes. While she attributed his concern to a phobia about snakes, she had acknowledged that a camper might be more comfortable for everyone. No doubt her desire to camp was heavily influenced by the children.
Katie attributed his resistance to the fact that the vacation was Carmen’s idea, not his. Maybe she was right, to some degree. There were times in the past when he had invited Carmen to join him on a trip and she had declined. This time he wanted to decline but didn’t feel comfortable about it. The decision not to go in the past had been Carmen’s, but the fact remained that she wanted to go now.
Carmen had taken over the running of the safari with an efficiency that left him doubting his own. The truth was; she didn’t need him now. If he decided not to go, she would probably take the children and go without him. That wasn’t safe – not even for a woman as resourceful as Carmen. A beautiful petite woman was live bait for some men. Carmen would stand out like a rare orchid in a cactus patch. Maybe he wanted to believe she needed him – maybe he needed to believe that. When they were first married, she said she wanted him to make the final decisions. He wasn’t crazy about that idea, but he had accepted it. He’d made some poor decisions with regard to her welfare, but she had forgiven him. It had taken Carmen a long time to get to the level of confidence she now enjoyed. She deserved the enjoyment it was bringing her now. Yet he couldn’t help but feel at times that she was leaving him in the dust.
In Carmen’s eyes they were more a team now than they had ever been. He should be happy with that. It was a healthy way to live. She was the same woman that he married; simply more confident – maybe too confident.
Two years ago his Appaloosa had died in an accident and Carmen felt responsible because she was riding him at the time. He wasn’t ready to replace the stallion his father had given him. Maybe he never would be, but they had enough horses to ride. Sure, he didn’t ride as much now as he did then, but he was busy with the clinic. It had grown faster than he had anticipated, leaving him short-handed. He had been interviewing people, but hadn’t found the right person yet. Right now simply wasn’t a good time to leave. Maybe in a few months…a year at most…he would have more time to be with his family. Carmen didn’t want to wait. She was growing impatient. It wasn’t as though he didn’t want to spend more time with his wife and children. There weren’t enough hours in the day to run the veterinary clinic and take care of everything at home.
Perhaps it was normal for a man standing on the edge of 40 to see the rest of his life as a downhill slope. They’d had a fantastic life together, but lately he had been slipping. Sometimes he forgot things and even fell asleep when she was talking to him. He wasn’t all he used to be in the romance department either. No wonder Carmen was looking for other sources of excitement in her life.
He loved Carmen more every year they were together. He couldn’t imagine life without her. His woes weren’t due to any shortage of good times – quite the opposite. His only problem was that life was so full of good times that it was overcrowded. So it was that he found someone to take his place while he was gone. It wasn’t a solution he liked, but it was better than the alternative – disappointing Carmen.
Carmen didn’t ask for much and his past failures to provide what little she did want were much on his mind lately. She used to think he could do anything. Since she discovered how much she could do, his polish had faded. He wanted her to look at him the way she did when their love was young. Maybe he was being unrealistic. Maybe people didn’t feel the same excitement after so many years of marriage. Maybe some people didn’t, but he did. Carmen was every bit as desirable now – possibly even more – as she had been when they first got married. She never forgot anything. How she kept the social life of each child in order and ran the Wildlife Safari at the same time was beyond him. But then, four years ago he remembered a lot more.
He didn’t want to go on this vacation. The timing was all wrong for him, but he had set everything aside so that he could be with his family. Carmen was right. They needed some family time. He had been neglecting them all. It would only be for two weeks. He could spare that much time for them. As she had pointed out, the clinic would still be there when they returned. That was true enough. It was the possibility that some of his clients wouldn’t still be there that troubled him. One in particular was already complaining about the fact that he had lost a horse and foal because Alex wasn’t available. He wished he could say it wouldn’t have made any difference if he had been there instead of another doctor. The fact was; he wasn’t there so he couldn’t be sure. All he was sure about was that he couldn’t be two places fifteen miles away from each other at the same time.
The client was furious because he felt Alex had made a poor choice on priorities. Actually, he didn’t have a choice because the other client had called first. The fact that one was a goat and the other a race horse worth thousands of dollars was irrelevant. A life was a life. He had saved the goat and the horse had died. He had gone over it a hundred times or more in his mind. Maybe he should have had the other doctor take care of the goat while he shifted his attention to the horse. He had more experience with horses. Still, if the goat had died, its owner would have been irate. Whatever the case, he couldn’t go back and do it differently. If the owner of the horse wanted to sue him, he would simply have to take more time from his schedule at the clinic and meet the man in court. That wouldn’t be for a while, though. He had plenty of time to get into more trouble.
As the tail lights of Katie's car disappeared around the bend, warm arms came from behind Carmen, circling her waist and pulling her back against Alex. She closed her eyes and welcomed the rush of excitement as he kissed her neck. They had the evening to themselves and they would make the most of it, as they always did. His hands slid up and cupped her breasts.
"I love you, Carmen." He whispered as he nibbled her earlobe.
She turned, pushing his hands aside, and wrapped her arms around his neck. "I love you too." She pulled his lips down to hers and kissed him with total abandon. Their lovemaking had lost none of its fire.
He lifted her into his arms and carried her into the house. There he stopped and locked the door. "That's so you can't get out." His eyes were full of passion, but a smile played at the corners of his mouth.
She feigned alarm. "What are you going to do to me?"
He lowered her feet to the floor and placed a hand on either side of her, trapping her against the wall. "Anything I want," he answered in a voice husky with passion. His index finger lightly traced her lips, her jaw line and slid down her neck. "You're still the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."
She met his gaze. All the humor was gone, leaving only passion. For a few moments they gazed into each other’s eyes. When she met him nine years ago she thought he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. The years and his sweet personality had only improved his looks.
He cupped her face in his hands and lifted her chin as he lowered his lips to hers. His lips were warm and firm on hers, seeking and finding her deepest passion.
She unsnapped his western shirt and slid her hands inside, up his pectoral muscles and around his neck again. His arms surrounded her, crushing her to him until she moaned with desire. Finally he lifted her into his arms again and carried her to their bedroom, kicking the door shut with one foot. There was nothing wrong with their love life that a little secluded time together couldn't rectify.
Later that night she woke to find his arm still around her, one breast cupped in his hand. He was asleep, but still hanging on.
She breathed a deep contented sigh. It was good to love and be loved. Even now sometimes she wondered if it could possibly last. How did a person earn the right to so much happiness?
Yet something had been troubling Alex lately. Typical of Alex; he refused to discuss it. The clinic was gradually consuming more and more of his time. He had been so absorbed in it that he forgot her birthday. It wasn’t so important that he forgot, but simply the change. It was something Alex never forgot. She hadn’t mentioned it, but when he did remember, he was horrified he had forgotten. She hadn’t been thinking about how he would react when he realized he had missed it. She had been thinking it wasn’t that important – to her. Obviously it was important to him. Live and learn.
While she was certain that what was troubling him was personal, she also recognized that he was feeling overwhelmed at work. Alex wanted to be in control all the time, at work or at home. It was difficult for him to relinquish any responsibility to others, even when he knew they were qualified. He had far too many clients who requested him personally. He wouldn’t say no.
Alex didn’t want to go on this vacation. He didn’t say that, but she could see it in his eyes every time she mentioned the vacation. It was too late to cancel it now. The children were looking forward to it. It was the first time they had been on vacation any place but Texas, visiting relatives on his father’s lavish hacienda.
Alex needed this vacation too, even if he didn’t want it. She was certain that once they were on the road, he would enjoy it – though it might take some time and effort to get his mind off the clinic. It would only be for two weeks. The clinic wouldn’t fall apart in that amount of time. Whether or not she could keep him from calling them on a daily basis was another story.
Meanwhile, she tried to avoid mentioning the vacation to him. Katie shouldn’t have said anything about looking at the motor homes. If it had come up in a week or so that she had looked inside a motor home, he probably would have expressed interest, but Katie made it sound like she was hiding it from him because she thought he wouldn’t want her to look. She hadn’t actually seriously considered buying one. Katie was the one who wanted to look at the motor homes. Renting a van made the most sense to Carmen and she had already checked out that idea. It was within her budget. She had talked to Alex about it and he thought it was a good idea. She had even researched the cost of renting a pop-up trailer after they got to Arizona. That way they wouldn’t have to tow it across three states. Again, it was feasible. The children wanted to camp with a tent, but Alex didn’t want to do that. It seemed that whatever she mentioned, he was against it. A few years ago she would have thought it was because he didn’t think she was capable of making a good decision, but he had complimented her frequently on how well she was managing the American Wildlife Safari. Actually, she was certain that he simply didn’t want to go, so he was shooting down everything. Surely he knew that wasn’t going to make her give up on the idea. Hopefully when they got on the road, he would relax.
It had occurred to her that Alex might be more interested if they took a flight to Arizona and then rented a van. She had looked into that possibility as well. Looked was all she did, though. No matter how often she told herself that flying was safer than driving, she still had a phobia about it. Even though it wouldn’t be her first flight, she remained afraid of flying. It was an unreasoning fear. She could talk herself into it and think she was fine with it, but the minute she saw the airfield, she was terrified. She couldn’t remember anything traumatic in her childhood that had made her so frightened. It was one of the many things she would like to ask her parents, but they had both died before she met Alex.
Driving to Arizona made more sense anyway. First of all, they would see more than Arizona. They would see the states between as well. Second, if they flew, they would have to purchase all their camping equipment when they got to Arizona. It would be cheaper than purchasing it here and paying for the extra baggage. Of course, then they would have to sell it or pay again to bring it back. Third, as Katie had mentioned, if they rented a van and a pop-up camper, they wouldn’t have to drag their luggage from one hotel to the next. They were all good solid logical reasons she could give Alex for not wanting to fly – except he never asked for a reason.
In the morning, Alex was silent over breakfast, apparently preoccupied with work again. Carmen let him ponder for a while, but it was their time to be with each other, so she finally interrupted his thoughts with something she was certain would get his attention.
“You were great last night.”
His eyes riveted on hers and a twinkle came into his eyes. “So were you.”
“It’s nice to have some time to ourselves, isn’t it?”
His expression became guarded. “You don’t have to drive a thousand miles away to be together.”
She smiled at him. “We won’t have much time to ourselves on the trip. Is that what’s eating at you?”
“Nothing’s eating at me.”
“Oh.” She stood. “Would you like more coffee?”
“Sure.” He leaned back in his chair and watched her pour coffee into his cup. “Have you got someone lined up to take care of the safari while we’re gone?”
“Yep.” She replaced the coffee pot and sat in her chair again. “I’ve had that lined up for months now. Vacation is only two weeks away.”
His laugh was a short forceful exhale of air. “Is that what you call it - vacation? I thought a vacation was when you relaxed.”
She stared at her cup. She didn’t want to get into that conversation. A person found enjoyment only when they made time for it. Hopefully, when the time came, he would make time for it.
He leaned forward and picked up his cup. “If this is what you want to do, I’m ready to go with you.”
“It isn’t only me, Alex. The children want to go as well.”
He nodded. “Children are impressionable. They follow your lead.”
“Well, if they were all that impressionable, they would keep their rooms clean without prompting.”
He grinned. “I didn’t mean to imply that you were brainwashing them. I just meant that they were caught up in your enthusiasm.”
She sighed. “At least someone is.”
He sobered. “I’m going. It just isn’t a good time for me.”
“It’s never a good time for you. Sometimes I think that clinic means more to you than we do.”
He stared at his coffee, swirling it around in his cup. Finally his gaze lifted to hers. “You know better than that.” He shrugged. “I never thought I had to choose.”
“You don’t. You’re a good provider and you love your work. I just wish you would make time for more than one night a month.”
His brows lifted. “Are you complaining about our sex life? We’ve been married nine years. Surely you didn’t expect it to continue forever.”
She met his gaze. “No. I’m talking about time, and not the quality, but the quantity. The problem is that we let other things dominate our time.”
He leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “By we, you mean me, myself and I.”
“By we, I mean you and I. With me it’s the safari and with you it’s the clinic. We make time for our one night a month, but what about the children? I thought with this vacation we would be forced to be a family for a while. We would have to leave our jobs behind.”
“Why didn’t you simply say something? We don’t have to run away from home to be a family.”
“I did say something, Alex. The trouble is, with you, it’s always as soon as I finish this project, which never happens because you always have another one going. With me, it’s as soon as this customer leaves, and then another customer calls. Even if we did find time between customers and projects, it would never be at the same time.”
He sipped his drink, obviously considering her words. “Okay, so we take a vacation together. Why Arizona? Why wild horses?”
“I didn’t choose Arizona. Jonathan did. I chose the wild horses. If that’s all that is bothering you, I can drop that part.”
He shook his head. “No, if that’s what you want to do, then we’ll find some wild horses. If Jonathan wants to see Arizona, then we’ll see Arizona.”
“And what about Alex? What does he want to do?”
His smile was wry. “I think we’ve already discussed that and you found it unacceptable.”
She groaned. “Alex, if all you want to do is work at the clinic, then you do need a vacation - somewhere else than here.”
He shook his head. “I have everything I need right here. Come on, you understand. It was you who didn’t want to take a honeymoon.”
“It was I who didn’t want to fly anywhere. I regret that, but there is nothing I can do about it now.”
He stood and carried his cup to the sink. “I told you I would go.”
Yes, he said he would go – like he said he would go visit his father in Texas for Christmas. He did it for her and he made it clear he didn’t want to be there. Hopefully he had learned something from that life lesson, but she had a dark feeling that he hadn’t. Alex was near perfect for her in many ways, but he could be a trial when he got his head set about doing something for her or the children.
A week before they were supposed to leave, Carmen reserved a van. She didn’t reserve a hotel room because doing so would put them on a restricted schedule. If they were going to relax, they needed to stop when they were ready to rest rather than struggle extra miles. Nevertheless, she did have a schedule of sorts. They had two weeks to drive to southern Arizona, camp in the desert and drive back. It would take two days to get to their destination, which meant that it would take two days to get back. Alex would want a few days to relax before going back to work, so that left eight days to camp and explore the desert.
She could hardly wait and the children felt the same way. Jonathan would be fifteen in November and Destiny would be seven in October. They were growing up fast. In only three years Jonathan would graduate and go away to college.
Jonathan was mature for his age. Maybe it was because he was the oldest, or maybe because of his handicap. Jonathan had been born with one short arm, but he never let it hold him back. The short arm had a small hand with completely functional fingers. If he was ever embarrassed about his handicap, he had never indicated so – not even when other children stared at him. His confidence helped others to get past the awkward situation. Some people joked about their abnormalities to clear the air. Jonathan never joked about it. To him, it was simply different. Some people had dark hair or blue eyes. He had one short arm. He might wish he had black hair or brown eyes, or two arms the same length, but he accepted what he had.
Jonathan was a good looking boy. He had curly blond hair, kind blue eyes and lips that smiled often. He had a sweet personality and a quick wit. Jonathan was interested in anything and everything, which probably explained why he learned so fast. If Carmen and Alex had one thing to be concerned about with Jonathan it was the fact that he was always surrounded by girls. So far that hadn’t distracted him from his school work.
At almost seven years old, Destiny insisted on mothering Natalie and Matthew. Carmen often heard her words repeated when they were playing. Most of the time it was the kind of thing she was glad Destiny repeated, but all too often lately Destiny assumed the role of a working parent. Her large gray eyes were increasingly serious. Destiny’s hair was red like her birth father’s, but it was a darker color that would probably become auburn when she got older. She had a cute sprinkle of freckles over her nose that was often the target for teasing. Like Josh, she didn’t respond well to teasing. Hopefully she would grow up less like her biological father and more like her adoptive father.
They had adopted Jonathan when he was Destiny’s age, but Destiny had come to them shortly after birth, the year they lost their first little girl. Up to that point Alex had thought he was sterile. Now they had Natalie and Matthew. She was glad she let Alex talk her into surrogacy, but she wouldn’t do it again. They had four beautiful children. That was enough.
Alex had been a wealthy man when she met him and nothing had changed in that area. Even so, they lived conservatively. The money was in the bank, not in fine things surrounding them. They had all the things they needed and lived in a spacious house with modern conveniences. Carmen had grown up in the old house they had converted to a guest house. Most of the time when she was young they had an outside toilet and a single wood stove to keep them warm in the winter. Carmen didn’t want their children to live like that, but she didn’t want everything given to them either. Jonathan and Destiny helped clean the house and do the chores. Even the twins had chores now.
This was the first year Carmen had hired a tutor for home schooling. It gave the children more individualized help in a controlled environment without distractions, but it also removed them from the contagions of public schools. It gave them a flexible schedule so that an early vacation was possible.
Life was good and they cherished it, but the children needed more than financial security. They needed the love and attention of both their parents. Of course, they had that, but the trip would give them their undivided attention.