The next morning dawned clear and crisp outside, but the stove was warming the living room as Carmen came through. She plunged into her coat and stomped into her boots. Alex was at it again.
Crunching across the yard to the dairy, she found the stove there burning warm as well. Alex had broken the ice off the top of the water trough by the time she got there and every stall was filled with fresh hay. She should have been delighted instead of feeling frustrated. Did he have to be underfoot all the time? She was standing in the middle of the dairy, scowling, when he emerged from the barn.
“Hey, Heidi.” His smile faded as he noted her expression. “Is something wrong?” “No,” she answered shortly. “Everything is absolutely perfect.” He arched a brow, a smile lurking in those dark eyes.
“And that’s a bad thing?”
Even his voice held a mocking note. He knew why she was upset. Knew and wanted to rub it in. She swung around and headed for the door. “The chickens need to be fed and watered.” “Done.” She paused mid-stride and threw a response over her shoulder without looking at him.
“Then I guess I’ll clean my room. I know you haven’t been there.”
Although at the moment she wouldn’t swear to it. Why did he have to be so good at everything? Couldn’t he stumble - just once?
As her fingers closed around the doorknob, Alex brought her up short. “Hey. Where are you going? I thought we might have a chance to talk a little. Am I that boring?” She glanced back at him. “Talk?” she echoed stupidly. He moved toward her, his lips twisting into a sardonic smile.
“Yeah, you know. When you open your mouth and something totally off the wall slips out. You’re good at it.”
Great. Now she was supposed to be an entertainment committee to a sophisticated fat cat. She eyed him sourly.
“Why? Do you need some more quaint hill talk to add to your collection? I haven’t given you enough to keep the office entertained for a while?”
He stared at her, his expression going sober.
“Is that what you think I’m doing? Making fun of you?” He shook his head. “I enjoy your little colloquialisms. They have a spicy flavor I find refreshing.”
She met his solemn gaze. It was ridiculous to stand here, trying to match wits with such a polished salesman. She shrugged.
“If conversation is all you have in mind, why don’t we go in and talk over a cup of coffee - maybe play a game or two with Katie.”
He looked disappointed. “That sounds fine to me.” Maybe conversation wasn’t all he had in mind. If so, she didn’t give him time to pursue anything else for the next three days. As the weather improved, the goats began kidding in earnest. Still, no matter how early she got up, the stove was always burning and Alex preceded her to the dairy. One thing became obvious. Alex should have stayed in college. He had a way with animals, winning Brutus’ love and respect, and the trust of the entire dairy herd as well. Yet his help was troubling enough to make her look forward to his departure. With his organization, the barn would never be the same again. It was obvious he was used to running things, but his help often became an attempt to take over the barn. Why did men always seem to confuse helping out with assuming command? And yet, in spite of his efforts, Alex couldn’t work miracles. One day he caught her in the dairy and gently informed her that the hen had passed away. She heaved a warm bucket of water from the sink and suppressed a smile as she met his concerned gaze. If he was expecting tears, he was going to be surprised. “It’s all right,” she consoled him. “I didn’t expect her to live. She was two years old - ready for the pot, anyway.” He frowned. “If you felt that way, why didn’t you let the fox have it?” Obviously he felt his efforts to save the hen were not appreciated. Actually, she hadn’t given much thought to his motive for working on the hen, assuming it was merely something to pass the time. She was ransacking her brain for a good save when he reached down and grabbed the bucket. “Women!” He ground out, shaking his head in disgust. “If I live to be a thousand years old I’ll never understand them. One minute they’re all sweet and caring and the next they stab you in the back.” She stared after him as he strode away from her. What was that all about? And whom was she stabbing in the back - the chicken, the fox or Alex? She followed him to one of the stalls, trying to remember the circumstances of his rejected love. The girl had been poor, beautiful and with the voice of a dove. That much she remembered Katie saying. Apparently he had given her a car, bought clothes for her and generally made a fool out of himself over her. He had even footed the bill for their almost wedding. From there on the details were sketchy. Apparently the girl had hocked the ring and run off with a Nashville agent, leaving Alex at the altar to explain everything to the guests. Carmen worked at the hay with the toe of her boot. So what was the connection? The only thing she had in common with that girl was the fact that they were both poor. Apparently he thought she was heartless, as well - over a stupid bird? How long had it been since he had been jilted - five years? And he was still bitter? She jammed her hands in her pockets. “Once bitten, twice shy,” she muttered under her breath. He glanced back at her. “What?”
“Nothing.” She held the gate as he carried the bucket of water into the stall.
He exited the stall and closed the gate, staring down at her defiantly.
“I threw the hen into the woods, so the fox will probably get it anyway.”
“You what?” Carmen glared up at him. “Of all the . . . Now he’ll get a taste for chickens and start raiding my hen house every night. Thanks a lot for training him to hunt my chickens.” He stared at her in surprise. “Hello? The fox was already in your chicken house. That’s why the chicken died, remember? I’m not training him to do anything.” “Well, you didn’t have to give the chicken to the fox. We could have slaughtered it.” “How thoughtless of me,” he said dryly. “Maybe you’d like me to hike out to the highway and scrape up some road kill for supper.” She met his bittersweet chocolate gaze defiantly, their noses literally inches apart. And then the bitterness was gone from his eyes, leaving only the sweetness . . . and a touch of something else. An uneasy feeling began in the pit of her stomach. He smelled faintly of cologne and leather and his lips were smooth and . . . Wait a minute. Weren’t they in the middle of an argument? She took a quick step backward, blood racing up her neck and warming her cheeks.
“Oh, what’s the use? In a little while you’ll be gone. If the fox gets fat on my hens, it’s no skin off your nose. You’ll be propped on your backside eating shrimp and steak. I’m wasting my breath.”
A smile played at the corners of his mouth and danced in his eyes. The jerk. He knew she had been flustered by his close presence and he was enjoying it.
“Well, anyway,” he concluded. “I poured cement in the hole he dug under the hen house. He won’t be back in there.” He moved toward her. “Now why don’t we discuss what’s really on our minds.”
She turned away from him and started for the barn door. “The only thing on my mind is keeping this farm solvent.” Did he think she was going to fall into his arms? She glanced over her shoulder as she reached the door. “If I need any help, I can always depend on Josh.” His crestfallen look should have been a victory, but instead she wished she could eat the words. It was a mean thing to say, especially since he had been working so hard to help. She paused in the doorway and stared at the floor. It served no purpose to smash his magnificent ego. “I’m sorry. No wonder you think I’m insensitive. The truth is, you’ve been a lot of help to us.” She glanced up and met his wary gaze. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.” He brushed his hands on his pants. “Yeah, well no offense taken.” He eyed her appreciably. “And just for the record, I think you’re quite a woman.” He was quite the man with flowery statements, but did they mean anything? It didn’t matter, anyway. In only three more days he’d be gone. Three more days and she’d have the dairy back to herself again. She stepped into the dairy, leaving him pondering over one of the goats. It wasn’t his ego - or the way he did everything so well. It was the weather that made her so irritable. She switched on the radio and picked up the broom. Oh, spring, hurry up. A slow waltz began playing and she closed her eyes, imagining the bright sunlight and flowers bursting from swollen buds. She moved in rhythm with the music, brushing the floor softly as she hummed along. Suddenly strong warm hands were on her waist, sweeping her into gentle arms. She opened her eyes and gasped as Alex took the broom away and pulled her into the middle of the room. “What are you doing?” she asked. “We’re going to dance.” His bronze features were smooth except for the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. Those eyes were warm, reflecting a mood somewhere between sober and light humor. “That’s silly,” she said, hesitantly following his steps. “Is it?” His deep voice was as soft and warm as his gaze. He gracefully swung her around. It was silly, but it was also fun. She laughed as she put an arm on his shoulder and fell into step with him. They dipped and whirled and danced around the dairy floor until the music ended. She gazed up at him, idly wondering when he was going to release her. They stood that way for a few moments. Finally he gently pulled her toward him. “Did I say I was going to miss you?” His voice was warm and husky. She laughed softly, and gently pushed away from him. “Yes, and I didn’t believe you then, either.”
She could feel the blood pumping in her neck. Could he see it? She needed to put some distance between them.
“Why not?” He pulled her close again and leaned down, softly brushing her lips with his. The effect was devastating. Her heart pounded wildly. What was he thinking of? She squirmed out of his arms. “Stop it.” The words didn’t come out with the conviction she intended, and he reached for her again. “Why? Didn’t you like it?” She dodged his hand. “You egotistical . . . jerk. What kind of girl do you think I am? What about Josh?” He stopped, his expression growing wary again. “What about him? Are you two engaged?” “Practically,” she lied, dodging backwards and putting a stanchion between them. He leaped up on the stanchion. “Then maybe it’s time somebody let him know what it’s going to take to keep a woman like you.” He stepped off the stanchion and moved toward her. She took a quick step back, glancing around for something to use as a weapon.
“What do you mean, a woman like me?”
He chuckled softly. “Don’t get your hackles up. I only meant you’re special.” He followed her. She made a lunge and grabbed the broom, wielding the handle like a club.
“Sure, I’m special. And don’t you forget it.”
Her voice was as crisp as the morning air and twice as sharp. Gone was the desire, replaced with genuine concern. Surely he wasn’t going to attack her. Fueled by her own imagination, she took a swing at him with the broom.
His eyes flashed and one hand shot out, snatching the broom from her hands. She screamed and darted for the door, but he caught her and pulled her close again. She turned her face away from him. Where was Katie? “I won’t forget it,” he spoke softly against her neck, and then abruptly released her. She staggered away from him and grabbed the doorknob.
“From now on, I’ll thank you to keep your hands to yourself.”
Was it fear or the heady feeling of his strong arms that left her shaken?
Alex pushed her aside and opened the door. “Carmen, I want you, and some day I’ll have you - but not that way. I want you to come to me all sweet and willing - without dragging Josh along.” She stared after him as he strode down the path to the porch. Alex wanted her? What possible interest could he have in her? And wasn’t he everything she had taken pains to avoid? He was a polished businessman who would be as disappointed in her rustic lifestyle as she would be with his lavish way of living. His idea of roughing it was probably a car without a navigational system. Her idea of selecting the right fork brought to mind the choice between a table fork and a pitchfork. No, Alex certainly didn’t meet her requirements for husband material. Obviously there was a mutual physical attraction between them, but that was all. That physical attraction was responsible for the pounding of her heart right now. Or was it fear? No, a moment ago she had been startled by his uncharacteristic advance, but not frightened. Alex would never hurt her - for some reason she was certain of that fact. Sure, he had stepped over the line, but hadn’t she invited him by encouraging his attention? In the kitchen after Josh left, and here now, when she had willingly danced with him. And hadn’t she thrown Josh at him? Dragged him along, as Alex put it. He must have heard their conversation in the kitchen. How could he have missed it? Then he knew she lied when she said they were practically engaged. Why did things always seem to work out this way? She and Josh had everything in common, yet there were no sparks. What did she and Alex have in common? Zilch. Yet his presence was electrifying - had been since the first day. Had he felt the same then? Had Katie been right . . . again? But Katie had planned it this way. She had probably pumped Alex full of information about her. Misinformation, no doubt. Otherwise he wouldn’t be interested at all. She sighed as she trudged toward the house. The entire situation was ludicrous. The best thing she could do was put his impulsive statement out of her mind. No doubt Alex would, as soon as he got back to civilization - and sanity. The next three days flew by without incident - probably because they were all too busy to start any mischief. The kids were taken off their mothers and the dairy was semi-operational. That meant milking morning and night and bottle feeding the kids - all twenty-seven of them. Alex never mentioned their conversation again, and she was careful not to be caught alone with him. By now he was probably wishing he hadn’t said anything. He had become the perfect gentleman, and that suited her fine. Yet, if their days were filled with work, their evenings were filled with camaraderie. They played everything from cards to Clue, and the conversation was dominated by childhood memories shared between Alex and Katie. As the days passed, it was obvious that Alex had fallen back into Katie’s good graces. As Carmen expected, when Alex was ready to leave, he invited Katie to go back with him. Katie didn’t give the question a moment’s consideration.
“No,” she answered with a shake of the head. “I like it here. Why don’t you move up here?”
Alex laughed shortly and glanced at Carmen.
“I’m kind of tied to Houston at the moment. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”
For a crazy instant, Carmen wasn’t sure who he was talking to. Surely he didn’t expect her to hop on a plane and fly down there with him. No, it was mere chance that he was looking at her while he spoke to Katie. He hugged Katie good-by and motioned for Carmen to follow him as he stepped out on the porch. Carmen shrugged at Katie’s questioning look, and stepped through the door, closing it against prying ears. If he was getting ready to make an indecent proposal, she didn’t want Katie to hear the squelching reply she had planned. They stood on the porch, awkwardly staring off into the cold night. Carmen started to shiver and Alex set his suitcase on the porch. “Well, Carmen. Do you think you could shake loose a good-bye kiss?” It was dark and she couldn’t see his expression, but his voice sounded controlled. Was he angry that she hadn’t volunteered? Of course, there was no reason to refuse. After all, he was on his way to the airport. What could happen now? Obviously he wanted to forget his earlier remark about wanting her. He was making a point of saying good-bye. Now they could part friends. She moved toward him hesitantly. His warm fingers touched her face - finding his mark, no doubt. She tipped her head back and leaned forward, offering a cheek. Instead, he took her face in his hands, caressing her cheeks with his thumbs. Finally he kissed her softly on the lips - a questioning kiss, brief and timid. For some reason, it was a kiss that left her desiring more. She clutched his wrists, the logical side of her brain preparing to remove his hands from her face, the emotional side wishing he would repeat the kiss. He smelled of leather and cologne and his breath was warm on her cheek. What was he waiting for - an answer to that questioning kiss? It was on her mind to move away, but instead she found her face lifting to his - seeking out his lips. His hands dropped to her waist and he pulled her close. This time there was nothing timid about his kiss. His lips were warm and inviting, lingering on hers. Her heart pounded wildly as she pressed closer, her arms encircling his neck. Inside his leather jacket it was warm and cozy - falsely secure. That was when the logical part of her brain jerked her back to reality. This was supposed to be a good-bye kiss, not an invitation. She pushed away from him and drug in deeply of the cold night air. Her laugh sounded nervous.
“Now that was a good bye kiss.”
He chuckled softly. “More like hello.” He picked up his suitcase. “Well, I hate to leave, but I’d better get going or I’ll miss my plane.” She watched from the porch as he strode to his car. There, he tossed his suitcase in the back and dug in his pockets for the keys. In the glow of the dome light he glanced up at her. Slowly and deliberately he threw her a kiss. It was silly - and romantic. Something Josh would have considered both childish and demeaning. Yet somehow Alex pulled it off without appearing either. Unsure how to respond, she merely stood there, hands at her side. He chuckled softly and climbed into the car. The dome light went off as he shut the door. The engine turned over once and then headlights blinded her until he turned the car around. She watched his tail lights disappear down the road and wondered if she would ever see him again. If the kiss was any indication, yes. But did he kiss every girl that way? Probably so. She sighed and turned to the house. Not that it mattered. There were too many miles between them to make her secret desires anything more than a dream.