The pre-dawn was unnaturally quiet . . . and cold. The stove must be out again. She pulled the warm blankets over her head. Why didn’t Katie take some initiative to get the fire going in the dairy? Or even in the house? She threw the covers back and rolled out of bed, gasping when her bare feet hit the cold floor. It wasn’t Katie’s farm and this pity party wasn’t getting the chores done. Muffled steps hurried down the hall toward her door and Katie pounded on the door. “Carmen, get up. It snowed again - and I mean snowed.” Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Carmen trudged across the room and drew the curtains back from her window. It was still snowing - huge flakes that lit softly on the heavy blanket of snow on the ground. The cedar tree was bent over with the weight of a heavy load of wet snow. It was beautiful. She grabbed her jeans as Katie beat on the door again. “Carmen? Did you hear me?” “I heard you,” she answered testily. “I’m getting my clothes on. Did the stove go out again?” “Yes, but don’t worry about it. I’ll get Alex.” “Don’t bother him . . .” but the answer was an echo of footsteps, retreating down the hall and thumping up the stairs. Poor Bill. Did he have any idea what he was getting himself into? She dressed hurriedly and was tugging on her boots when Katie returned. “He’s not up there.” Her voice was approaching panic. “He’s not anywhere in the house. I hope he didn’t freeze!” Carmen jerked the door open. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Katie. I’m sure he has enough sense to come in out of the cold. He’s probably in the barn.” Katie gave her a sour look. “Who, pretty boy?” Carmen grinned. “Are you still in a snit about that?” Katie shrugged. “I wasn’t mad.” She turned toward the kitchen. “I’ll fix breakfast while you go check on him.” Carmen slipped into her coat and stepped out on the porch. Snow had drifted across the steps and onto the porch. There must be a good twelve inches on the ground already. She carefully felt her way down the steps and pushed a trail across the yard to the barn. Had Alex spent the night in the barn, or had it snowed this much in a few hours? The dairy was warm, a fire burning brightly in the home made wood stove. Alex was here . . . and he knew how to light a fire. The door to the kidding stalls was open and she stepped through, moving swiftly as she checked each stall. She paused at the last stall and smiled. In the hay beside their mother, lay two tiny bodies, soft and clean. And propped against the wall, breathing softly in sleep, was Alex. How long had he been asleep? It couldn’t have been too long since he stoked the stove. She leaned over the gate, calling his name softly so that the goats wouldn’t be frightened. Instantly he was awake - not simply sitting there with his eyes open, but completely awake. She smiled at him mischievously. “Fine goat herder you are. Falling asleep in the hay.” He stood and stretched. Wincing, he rubbed his neck and grinned at her. Why did some people look so good in the morning? And how must she appear to him? In her concern for his safety, she hadn’t showered or changed clothes - or even combed her hair. Of course, as long as she kept the hood up, he needn’t know her hair was a mess. He ran fingers through hair that didn’t need straightening and brushed the straw from his pants. She moved away from the gate, tearing her gaze from his lean muscular thighs.
“I guess it must have snowed since you came out here. I didn’t see any tracks from the house.”
“Snow?” In one lithe movement he vaulted the gate and bolted toward the door. “I slept here last night,” he threw over his shoulder. The sky hung like a gray sheet over the white landscape and huge flakes continued to fall. Daylight was making a feeble attempt to break through the heavy cloud cover. Alex stared in amazed appreciation. “It looks like a Christmas card. I was hoping to see some snow, but this is fantastic.” Was this the first time he had seen snow? She stepped out into the frigid morning, her boots sinking into the snow with a squeaking sound. “Katie should have breakfast ready. Let’s go in and eat before I start the chores.” Normally the animals were her first concern, but if Alex had spent the night in the barn, he needed the warmth a good hot meal could offer. Thanks to him, there was nothing in the barn that couldn’t wait. Half way to the house she turned to find him slowly following, absorbed in the beauty of the winter storm. She reached down, scooping up a hand full of the moist snow, and forced it into a loose ball. “So you were hoping it would snow, were you?” With deadly accuracy, she threw the ball at him, laughing when it bounced off his leather coat and sprayed a mist of white crystals in his face. He sputtered and wiped the snow from his face, grinning at her as he proceeded to make a snowball of his own. She squealed and bent over to collect more snow. As she straightened, his snowball was already in the air. She ducked and the ball of ice grazed off her hood. Again she lobbed a snowball at him, but in her haste she missed him by a wide margin. Not to be outdone, he already had another one formed and raised his hand to throw it at her. She turned and ran, her laughter muffled in the waterlogged air. From the corner of her eye she saw the gray truck pushing a trail down the drive and dodged out of its path, completely forgetting about the stump hidden under the snow. Her knee hit the solid chunk of wood with a nauseating thump. She dropped to the snow, clutching her knee and moaning. A truck door slammed and strong hands plucked her out of the snow. “Here now Shorty. What are you doing running around here like a chicken with its head cut off?” Josh lifted her into his arms and started for the house. “Put me down,” she managed on the end of an agonized moan. “Is she all right?” Alex asked as he caught up with them. Josh turned his head sharply and snorted. “I should have known.” He released her abruptly and she staggered on the injured leg, nearly falling in the snow again. Alex reached out to steady her and grinned. “Maybe you should have stayed where you were.” “In the barn?” she asked innocently, and glanced up in time to see the poisonous look Josh was shooting at Alex. Fortunately Alex didn’t notice. He laughed and tousled her hair. With a rush of blood to her face, she realized the hood had slipped off her head. She tugged the hood back over her head and glanced at Josh. “You’re just in time for breakfast. Come on in and join us.” She limped toward the house, pushing away the helping arm Alex offered. Josh had left childhood behind long ago and this little frolic in the snow probably looked anything but innocent to him. Katie met them at the door. “There you are, Alex. What took you two so long? Oh, hi Josh.” “He was asleep,” Carmen answered. “I had to wake him up with a snow ball.” She grinned up at Alex as she hung her coat. “I’ve got to go comb my hair. I’ll meet you guys in the kitchen.” She could shower and change after the chores were done. In her room she ran a comb threw her curls and stared back at the violet eyes haunting her from the mirror. It was time to give Josh some kind of answer. It wasn’t only her life that had been on hold. He was ready to start a family as well - had been for a long time. It was unfair to string Josh along this way. If she was having this much trouble making a decision, he couldn’t be the right man. Alex was lifting a pot of coffee from the stove when she entered the room. Josh glanced up from his plate of sausage and eggs and reached over, pulling out a chair for her. She dropped into the chair and scooted it forward. Alex picked the coffeepot back up again and she realized he had intended to push her chair in for her. She blushed as he leaned over her shoulder to fill her cup. “So tell me,” she began, trying to hide her embarrassment. “Did you get to witness the birth?” He chuckled. “Yes, sleepy head. Too bad you couldn’t stay awake.” “No problems, I gather.” She sipped her coffee, aware that Josh was watching her intently. “No, I couldn’t believe how easy she made it look.” Alex replaced the pot on the burner and resumed his place at the table. Lifting the cup of fresh coffee to his lips, he glanced up at her. “I’d hate to have to put that many cows in that little barn. I guess the feed bill is considerably smaller, too. Other than that and their size, what’s the advantage?” Josh snorted. “It bugs the heck out of me.” Carmen ignored his remark. “The land would get overgrown with brush in the summer if I didn’t have the goats to keep it cleared off.” Josh shook his head. “If you hadn’t sold off all the farm equipment, you could have kept it brush hogged. I could run a passel of cattle on that land.” She stared at her plate. “I had to sell something to pay for the funeral.” Josh grimaced. “I would have paid for that, but you wouldn’t hear of it. Your father was like an uncle to me.” She put a hand on his arm. “I know you would have, but it was my debt, not yours. Anyway, I didn’t figure I’d be running the farm for a while.” Josh groaned. “Yeah, then along came Katie with her wild ideas about a goat dairy. That’s when all the trouble started.” Alex pushed his empty plate back and swigged the rest of his coffee. “Katie, why don’t you and I go check on the goats?” Katie gulped her coffee and followed him out the door, pausing to mouth “mother hen” to Carmen. Then she made a face at Josh and left the room. Josh was silent until they heard the front door close. “What’s this about you two sleeping in the barn last night?” he asked, jabbing a fork into his eggs. Carmen stared at him. “Not that it’s any of your business, but he slept in the barn and I slept in my room.” He glanced up sharply. “What do you mean; it isn’t any of my business? We’re practically engaged. I don’t like . . .” “We’re not engaged,” she cut him off sharply, “practically or otherwise.” It wasn’t the way she had planned to break the news, but he was being so irrational. He stared at her. “So that’s how it is. Some pretty dandy comes along and right away you drop me like a . . .” “And I haven’t dropped you, either.” She ran a hand through her hair and moaned. “Oh, let’s not talk about this right now. I’m tired and I have a splitting head ache.” He chased a piece of sausage around his plate with the fork. “You’re tired because you work too hard.” He dropped the fork and turned to her. “Marry me, Carmen. Sell this place to Katie, or lease it to her. It’s just a matter of time until she and Bill get married and you know how Bill always liked this place. He can take care of it right. Or you can merge it with mine, I don’t care. Let’s not wait any longer.” She stood and began removing the plates from the table. He had no regard for the sentimental value of the farm where she grew up, nor any confidence that she was capable of running it. Sure, Bill could fix up the place. He had a good income and access to his father’s equipment. It wasn’t fair. Josh wasn’t considering her obstacles. But then, he didn’t expect a woman to be able to work a farm . . . it wasn’t natural. “Josh, have you ever considered the thought that we’re not right for each other? I mean, we grew up together, so we have a lot in common, but . . .” He slammed his hands on the table and lurched from his chair.
“It’s Alex, isn’t it? The way he fussed over you at the restaurant and you two frolicking in the snow this morning like two lovers.”
“Oh Josh, get real. He’s been here less than two days.” She placed the dishes on the counter beside the sink. “Why do you always do this?” “Do what?” Was it possible he actually didn’t know? She clamped her hands on her hips and scowled up at him.
“Every time I even look at another man you get crazy. If you’re like this now, what would you be like after we got married?”
He kicked his chair aside, his face growing red with anger.
“Carmen, I want to marry you in the worst way, but if you think I’m going to be the kind of man to stand back while my woman flirts with another man, you’re sadly mistaken.”
It was ludicrous. There was no hope for him. She picked up a coffee cup and met his cold gaze.
“Well, you said it. You want to marry me in the worst way. When I get married, I want it to be in the best way. I want mutual trust and love. I want a partner - someone I can work beside, not after.”
He stared at her for a moment and then shook his head. “Don’t do it, Carmen. He’s a walk away Joe if I’ve ever seen one.” He paused and his expression turned sour. “You’d better give it some thought, Shorty. When he’s tired of playing house with you, I might not be available any more.” It was her turn to stare, and tears burned her eyes. They had saved themselves for each other and now he was telling her he didn’t want her if she was tainted. He had no faith in her self-control; her moral commitment. What kind of person did he think she was? And who did he think he was? It was the final blow. “Of all the hard headed, vain . . . OH!”
She slammed the coffee cup in the sink and the hot liquid splashed against the window. She pointed at the door with a trembling finger.
“Josh Reynolds, you can march your jealous carcass right out that door and don’t you come back until you can talk to me like I’m a reasonably intelligent and decent person.”
His face contorted in rage and one long step brought him close enough to grab her shoulders. He shook her so hard that her head throbbed.
“Don’t issue orders to me like I’m a little boy. You hear me?” For the first time she knew fear of him. He had always been hot headed, but violent anger had always been directed toward someone else - a man. Her neck popped, sending a shot of pain down her back. “Josh,” she cried frantically. “You’re hurting me.” “Josh!” The masculine voice was sharp and commanding. Josh released her and turned on Alex, who waited tensely in the kitchen doorway; hopelessly outmatched, but obviously determined. Even when Josh moved toward him with raised fists, Alex didn’t falter. He reminded her of a Banty rooster facing it off with a big Leghorn. Josh swung, and Alex ducked. With lightning speed, Alex moved in close, jerking one of Josh’s legs out from under him. Josh hit the floor with enough force to take the breath out of the average man. But Josh wasn’t the average man. He rolled over, springing to his feet and lunged at Alex. Josh had the advantage of size, but Alex was faster. Alex feigned and then hooked Josh’s leg again with the toe of his boot, sending Josh to the floor twice in as many minutes. Josh wasn’t as fast to rise this time, and when he finally regained his footing, he shook his head. Alex watched him suspiciously when he lifted his hands in submission, but Josh moved around him and left the house. Carmen let out her breath slowly. Josh was no stranger to a fistfight, and he was considered by many to be a formidable opponent. Josh didn’t walk away because he was afraid to tackle Alex. Of that she was certain. Maybe Alex had knocked a little sense into him. She watched Alex with newfound respect. He was no dandy, and that was a fact. Alex stared after Josh, obviously surprised by the unnecessary surrender. He took a deep breath and turned his attention to Carmen. “Are you all right?” She rubbed her neck. “I think so. I felt something pop in my neck, but I don’t think it’s serious.” He swore under his breath as he crossed the room to examine her neck.
“Maybe we should take you in to see a doctor.”
“In this snow?” She twisted her neck. “You know, my headache is gone.” She giggled nervously as his warm fingers touched her neck. “Maybe I should thank him.” “For what? Trying to break your neck?” He began massaging the stiff muscles. “Has he ever been violent like this before?” He must think they were in an abusive relationship.
“No, and he wasn’t trying to break my neck. He has a hot temper, but this is the first time he was ever anything but gentle with me. I shouldn’t have provoked him.”
“He wasn’t so gentle this morning,” he replied in a dry tone. “And don’t make excuses for him.” His fingers left her neck, working down the muscles on either side of her spine. He didn’t ask how she had provoked him. Had he heard their conversation? Maybe he figured it wasn’t any of his business - or he didn’t want to know. Probably the latter. She closed her eyes, and in spite of the situation, his fingers slowly siphoned the tenseness from her back. And then his hands were on her waist, turning her to face him. She opened her eyes to find him gazing down at her. Her heart fluttered lightly as she met his gaze, and began to pound as his hands slid up her arms in a gentle caress. Her lips parted, but the command to remove his hands never escaped her mouth. He gently gripped her shoulders and leaned forward. Hypnotized by his somber gaze, she lifted her face to accept his affection. He blinked and caught his breath, gently pushing her away.
“I almost forgot. Katie sent me in to get some cat food.”
Warmth flooded her face as she stepped away from him. What was she thinking of? He must think she was as easy as a primed pump. She made a job of searching through the cabinet for the cat food and avoided his gaze as she handed him the box. “She came back, did she?” He took the box from her hand. “Yeah, and she brought some company.” Involuntarily she glanced up at him. “She didn’t.” The dark eyes sparkled with humor. “I’m afraid so. Why don’t you have her fixed so this won’t happen again?” “I can’t afford it. Anyway, she’s just a stray that wandered up one day and attached herself to us.” He lifted the box and grinned. “I’m not surprised. Don’t you know feeding a cat is the same as throwing out a welcome mat?” She smiled and shrugged a shoulder. “Oh well, now she’ll have plenty of reason to kill off the mice.” He shook his head. “You’re kind of tough on wildlife, aren’t you?” He turned toward the door. “I told Katie I’d be right back.” After he left, Carmen turned to the sink of dishes. Maybe Josh wasn’t so crazy after all. Had Alex contemplated kissing her, and if so, why had he changed his mind? Maybe it was never on his mind - only hers. She blushed again at the thought. And why was it on her mind? No wonder Josh was so concerned. Josh was probably right about Alex, though. He was a walk away Joe. There was certainly nothing here to hold him, and a little country hick would be the last female he would consider seriously. No, they were both vulnerable right now. Alex was bored and she was depressed. Right now, any affection would be welcome; and Alex was obviously an affectionate person. She sighed. There were chores to do and she’d best get at them.
A few minutes later she was kicking snow around in the chicken yard until the toe of her boot struck something solid. She buried a gloved hand in the snow and extracted the half tire that served as a watering trough. Flipping it over, she stomped on the bottom until the ice broke loose. The chickens fought for position in the tiny coop door as they watched her pour a bucket of water into the tire. They squawked and pecked at each other as she broke a trail from the tire to the coop. She jumped aside, allowing the fowl avalanche to plunge down the trail. Pushing each other aside, they buried their beaks in the water and lifted their heads, eyeing her suspiciously as the water trickled down their throats. Then they sneezed and shook the cold water from their waddles and drank again. They seemed unconcerned that their feet were buried in snow. Did they know winter would soon be replaced by spring? She glanced at the low gray clouds. It had stopped snowing, but it looked like it could start again any minute.
She sighed deeply. Would winter be less miserable if the house was warm? Not that it mattered. It would be years before she could afford to remodel it. But wouldn’t a fireplace and central heat be nice - and windows that would permit the light to brighten a room without seeping cold air - a place like Josh’s? She trudged through the snow to the shed and filled a plastic bucket with pellets. Had she made the right decision - and if so, why the empty feeling? Losing Josh was like losing a brother. Why couldn’t they simply be friends? Inside the coup, she dumped the pellets into the hanging feeder. It was done now, and for that much she felt a sense of relief. She left the chicken coup and broke another trail to the barn. Katie and Alex weren’t there. They were probably in the house by now. Was Alex avoiding her? A sweep through the barn failed to reveal any imminent births. Maybe the goats had some kind of control over commencement of labor. The middle of a snowstorm was no time to give birth. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten more than two bites of her breakfast. A cup of coffee and some toast would be nice. She headed for the house. Alex was lounging on the couch, reading a book when she entered the house. The sound of running water from the bathroom proclaimed that Katie was taking a shower. Carmen hung her coat and tugged the boots off her wet feet. “I might as well go barefoot,” she muttered, limping to the stove. Alex glanced up and smiled. “You need some hip boots. Maybe you should borrow mine.” She glanced at him with mock innocence. “You brought some hip boots?” He grinned, his eyes twinkling again. “No.” She made a face at him. “Well, with all that bull you’ve been peddling, somebody around here is bound to need them eventually. He laughed and tossed the book on the couch. “Carmen, I’m going to miss you. Why don’t you come back with me?” He was joking, of course, but it was nice to think someone enjoyed her weird sense of humor. Certainly Josh never had. She plopped down in the chair and pulled her socks off, holding her feet up to the stove. “No, I think I’ll stay here where it’s warm and sunny.” He pushed away from the couch and sauntered over to the stove, holding his hands over its warmth. “Well, if you ever decide to get down my way, drop in and see me.” He gazed down at her soberly. “And I really mean that.” Yep, he was a salesman, all right. He even had to qualify his statements as to their sincerity. Of course, what were the odds that she would ever get down to Houston? Zilch. She wiggled her toes. “Well, if you ever get back up this way again, you be sure to drop by. We’ll have us a good old mess of Poke weed and fat back. Alex chuckled. Turning his back to the stove, he held his hands behind him. He gazed out the window at the winter scene. “March came in like a lion, didn’t it?” She nodded. His gaze shifted to her. “It must be nice to only have a birthday once every four years.” She met that delicious chocolate gaze and smiled. “It does get awkward, but we celebrate it on the 28th when there isn’t a 29th.” For a moment he gazed into her eyes, his expression unreadable. Finally he spoke. “Amethyst is the birthstone for February.” Color flooded her cheeks. “I know.” So that was why he was looking into her eyes that way. She straightened in the chair, acutely aware that he was still watching her. “You’re a beautiful woman,” he said in a conversational tone. She stood, avoiding his eyes, and headed for the kitchen. From behind her his voice instructed gently.
“If it bothers you; say thank you and just let it drop.”
She swung around and smiled at him.
“Thank you. Just let it drop.”
The smile began in his eyes; then touched his lips; and finally the dimple appeared.
“Not likely,” he said
She shrugged and turned toward the kitchen again.
“I’m hungry. I didn’t eat much this morning. I’m going to see what I can find. Would you like a snack?”
He didn’t respond and she didn’t look back. If he wanted something, he could come get it.