Bill made arrangements to move in with Katie after they were married. There was plenty of room in the old house and Katie would continue helping with the chores until they found a place to live. Alex called on Thursday to see if Carmen still wanted to keep Ed. She agreed and he made arrangements to drive up Friday. They were so busy with wedding arrangements that Carmen couldn’t afford time to miss him - but somehow she managed to do it anyway. Late Friday evening she was returning from the barn when he drove into the yard in a white Dodge Ram Pick up. It was a late model 4 x 4 with an extended cab, exactly like the one in Rogers that she had been drooling over the last three months. Behind the truck was a one-horse trailer - old, but in good condition. She got a glimpse of the horse in the trailer. It was an Appaloosa - her favorite breed. And to think she once thought she and Alex had nothing in common. He was climbing out of the cab as she came around the front of the truck. He grinned and reached for her, drawing her close in an embrace. His kiss was ardent and she returned it with equal passion. When they finally drew apart, they were both breathless. “I didn’t know you were a pickup man,” she teased. He grinned and slipped an arm around her waist as they turned toward the trailer. She put an arm around his waist and together they strolled back to take a look at Ed. Carmen stepped back as he unloaded the horse and then put her hand out to it. She moved too quickly and the stallion snorted. “Easy boy,” Alex said gently. “You’re going to have to get it into your head to like her. You’re expendable.” Carmen punched his arm playfully. “Alex. You’re terrible.” He chuckled and handed her the reins. “Here. Hold him a minute while I park the trailer and unhitch it. Where do you want me to put it?” “Over there by the trail leading to the pond.” He nodded. “Are you sure it won’t be in the way?” “If it is, I can get Bill or Josh to move it.” He glanced at her sharply and then shook his head. Hopping into the cab he turned the truck around, expertly backing the trailer into the spot she had indicated. One thing was for sure; if anything needed moving, he was the one she was going to get to do it. She turned her attention to Ed. She ran a hand along his sleek neck and patted the muscular shoulder. He was in excellent condition. Of course, she would have expected nothing less of any animal Alex owned. “You’re going to like it here, boy,” she said, giving him another pat. Something tugged on her belt loop and Alex swung her around, jerking her into his embrace. “Me Too,” he said, and pulled her close, kissing her in a way that made her legs weak. She stepped back, trying to take the electricity out of the air with a little humor. “Sure, you say that now, but come Monday morning you’ll be six hundred miles away.” He gazed down at her soberly. “So, come back with me.” She laughed nervously. “What about Ed and the farm?” He reached out and touched her temple lightly. “Katie and Bill can watch the farm and we can take Ed back with us. We can ride him along the beaches together all day.” His fingers slid down her cheek in an exciting caress as his gaze searched her face hungrily. “And make love all night.” She swallowed down a surge of excitement. He was actually serious. But she couldn’t leave the farm. It was her responsibility.
“It sounds nice, but I want time to make plans for my wedding.”
He caught his breath and stepped back, lowering his hand. He snatched the reins from her hand and turned to Ed. “Yeah. Well, I guess we can cross that bridge when we come to it,” he answered curtly. She stared at his back as he led Ed to the truck. What had she said wrong? Did he think she expected him to pay for her wedding? Did the prospect of marriage dig up old bones? She watched as he meticulously saddled Ed and tightened the cinch. Then he mounted and rode past her. “I’m going to take him for a ride to loosen up. I’ll be back in a little while.” He nudged the horse in the ribs and Ed broke into a lope. They stopped at the gate and Alex leaned down, opening the gate. He rode through and closed it, never looking her way. Carmen turned toward the house, dashing a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand. He still wasn’t over his last love. Katie was on the couch sewing when Carmen entered the living room. Katie glanced up, the needle pausing in mid air.
“Wasn’t that Alex?”
She nodded. “Yes, he took his horse for a ride.” She kept her head down, pretending she had a sliver in her finger. At the moment she was glad she hadn’t told Katie about their newfound relationship - because now it was lost. Was love always such a roller coaster of emotions? Sure, she and Josh had their share of ups and downs, but never like this. With Alex, the relationship seemed to be either grinding up a long hill or plunging perilously toward the depths of despair. There was so little time at the top. Carmen went to her room and stayed there until the banging of pots and pans announced that Katie was cooking supper. She helped Katie until Alex returned and then declined to eat, using the excuse that she didn’t feel well. It was the truth. In fact, she couldn’t remember a time when she had felt worse. Physical ills were miserable, but this depression was unbearable. She curled up on her bed and cried herself to sleep. Dawn brought cool air and dense fog. It was a good match for her mood. The dairy door groaned as she opened it and Ed whinnied from his stall in the barn. She smiled in spite of everything. It was going to be nice to hear him every morning. She opened the barn door and flipped on the light. Ed peered over the stall at her and nickered softly.
“Hold your horses,” she said, snickering over the pun.
She hurried to his stall and hugged his neck. He nibbled at her jacket and nickered again. She rubbed her cheek against the soft hair on his neck.
“You’re such a sweetie,” she said, patting his neck. “We’re going to have to take a ride pretty soon. I thought maybe yesterday . . . but I guess he had a lot on his mind.” She rubbed his jaw. “I guess he thinks I’m going to ransack his wallet or something.” She moved back and patted him on the neck again. “I’ll get you some hay.”
She cut the strings and pulled a few leaves from a new bale of alfalfa hay. As she lifted the hay and turned, a figure moved in the hay on the floor. She screamed and leaped back before she realized it was Alex. “What in the world are you doing in here?” He lay with his arms behind his head and his eyes held a twinkle of humor that never reached his mouth.
“I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been out here since about three this morning. I was just getting off to sleep when you turned the light on.” The twinkle left his eyes. “Funny, the things you can say to an animal, isn’t it?”
Warmth surged up her neck. “You were eavesdropping.” “No I wasn’t, I was listening.” He pushed up from the floor and brushed hay from his clothes. “Which was more than I was doing yesterday, it seems.” She handed Ed a clump of hay and he delicately plucked it from her fingers.
“You were listening,” she said. “You just didn’t like what you were hearing.”
He made a face. “That’s true. I wasn’t here five minutes before you mentioned Josh. The next thing I knew you were talking about marriage.” She stared at him. “I was talking marriage? You were the one who started talking about riding the beaches and making l . . .”
A cold feeling gripped her throat and strangled the words from her lungs. He wasn’t proposing marriage - he was proposing an affair. Her face flamed.
He smiled sourly. “Love, Carmen. Making Love. Are the words so difficult to say or does your rule book say it’s something perverted.” She faced him coolly, trying to control her temper.
“No, Alex. There’s nothing wrong with a man and woman making love - as long as it’s sanctioned by marriage.”
He rubbed the back of his neck and his gaze became somber. “Carmen, if and when I decide to get married, I’ll do the asking - without being prompted, coaxed, coerced or blackmailed.” Anger and humiliation boiled up inside her and spilled over in a froth of rage.
“Of all the . . . you egotistical, male chauvinistic pig! Why is it that men think a woman is perverted when she won’t sacrifice her morals for him, but she’s a slut when she gives in for the other guy? Men can use every ploy in the book to get a woman to submit, but if she mistakes that proposition for a proposal of marriage, right away she’s blackmailing him.”
He stared at her, his neck growing red. “All right, men are hormone driven fools. I was out of line. I apologize. You’re so nai . . . innocent. I guess men have always got to push women as far as they’ll go.” “Josh didn’t,” she shot at him. His eyes flashed darkly. “Go ahead, Carmen. Beat me over the head with Josh. But tell me, if he’s so much better than me, why aren’t you asking him to marry you?” She glared at him. “I didn’t have to ask him. He was man enough to ask me.” They stared at each other, shocked by the things they were saying. This was no good. If they kept on lashing at each other like this, their relationship would be torn to shreds. If they cared enough to fight like this, they had to care enough to make up.
She gazed up into his angry red face, knowing she had gone one step too far. Her lip quivered and a sob threatened to choke off her voice.
Alex moved around her. “If you want him that bad, don’t let me stand in your way.” “Alex,” she croaked, and grabbed his arm. He paused, glancing down at her. His eyes were haunted. She had put that pain there. Only she could take it away. “I don’t want Josh. I want you. I love you.” He watched her suspiciously. “Why?” She fought for control. If she cried, if she pleaded - he would pity her. That was one emotion she didn’t want him to feel for her - anger, even rage, but not pity. She swallowed down a sob and wiped her eyes free of tears. Renewed with courage born of desperation, she met his gaze steadily. “We’ve both said some things we shouldn’t have said. And I . . . I didn’t mean you weren’t a man. I was angry and hurt. Maybe Josh never pushed me about sex because we’re too much like sister and brother.” His gaze softened and he watched her reflectively. Finally he reached out and took her hand. “I won’t push you if you won’t push me. I’m simply not ready to face that kind of commitment yet. Maybe I’ve been a bachelor too long. All I know is, I have doubts - and marriage is going to be hard enough with no doubts. When I get married it will be because I’m ready to put the effort into a permanent relationship. Neither of us knows each other that well yet. I thought, maybe if you came down and stayed with me a while . . .” She touched his lips with her fingertips. “I know. I didn’t realize you were feeling pushed - you always seem so sure of yourself. I won’t say anything more about it.” Alex might have his doubts, but she didn’t. Alex was the one. She was surer of that now than she had ever been. And he had said when I get married, not if. So he was serious all right. Was it too much to allow him time to think about it? After all, shouldn’t she be doing some thinking as well? Could she entrust him with her heart? He gazed down into her eyes and his voice was choked with emotion.
“I love you, Carmen. I’m afraid if I don’t do something soon, Josh is going to get you back. He can give you things I can’t.”
She smiled up at him. “Josh can’t give me anything more than you can. As a matter of fact, he can’t give me the thing I want most. Love - the story book kind.” He took her in his arms then, and his lips were warm on hers. She slipped her arms around his neck and drew his mouth down harder on her own. They clung to each other, molding their bodies as one until the raging fire of passion consumed her. This time it was Alex who broke off the lovemaking. “Carmen,” he whispered huskily with a nervous laugh. “We’d better stop, or I’m going to get into trouble again.” She stepped away from him and raised a shaking hand to her bruised lips. “I’m sorry.” He leaned a shoulder against the wall. “If you want me to behave myself, we’re going to have to stop this. Frankly, I don’t think either of us can stand up to this kind of pressure.” Warmth crawled up her neck with the realization that she had lost control - and Alex had been aware of it. He could have taken advantage of the moment. After all, it wasn’t violating any of his principles. And yet, in her moment of surrender, he had set his desires aside and assumed responsibility. Yes, she had crossed that last hurdle of doubt. Alex had proven he could be trusted with her heart. He was man enough to wear the pants.