Sunday night Alex left again, but this time with a promise to come back for Easter. This time they didn’t kiss good bye, and Carmen was sure that Lori was the reason. Alex and Lori had been together most of the day. Apparently their conversation in the barn had scared him off. If he thought Lori was less complicated, he was in for another shock. But then, he wasn’t looking for a permanent relationship, and Lori wouldn’t be nudging him to get married. Lori would be content with things the way they were. Time was galloping by and now she was further from her goal than ever. Before Alex came on the scene, marriage was only a yes down the road. Now she couldn’t marry Josh - and couldn’t bring herself to break the news to him. Why burn that bridge when she might get desperate enough to cross it? Maybe her feelings for Alex were nothing more than temporary infatuation. Alex might have given up on her, but Josh had doubled his efforts. He was around nearly every day now, and when he didn’t show up, he called on the phone. He was actually making an effort to please her as well. He’d even taken her dancing once, and yesterday he picked her a mess of greens. He wouldn’t be caught dead with a bouquet of wildflowers and there was no way he was going to waste money on flowers that would wither and die within a week. It wasn’t the money he objected to so much as the irrational logic. She tried to help him drive Alex from her mind, but at times it seemed an impossible chore. The man in her dreams often started out as Josh, but always ended up being Alex. Yet even in her dreams, Alex was the only one who could excite her. Maybe that was why the days before his arrival were so long. Easter weekend finally drew near.
Good Friday was exactly that - warm and sunny with only a few marshmallow clouds drifting overhead. Katie was busy sewing something for her hope chest, so Carmen grabbed her cane pole and some liver from the refrigerator, and strolled down to the pond. Kicking off her shoes, she rolled up her pants legs and settled in for a good time. She baited the hook and threw it in the pond, watching as tiny waves rippled out from the bobber and gently lapped at the grassy shore. Dropping to the ground, she plucked a piece of grass and tucked it between her lips as she leaned back against the old apple tree. Above her, bees buzzed around the aromatic apple blossoms. Somewhere in the distance a meadowlark began its melodic whistle, and a hen sang industriously up by the house. From the lip of the pond, the panoramic scene was breathtaking. The hills were a profusion of snowy dogwood and pink plum and cherry blossoms. Wild phlox filled the air with a heavenly scent that rivaled lilacs. Nature was at her peak, blending the wild blooms with various shades of green. She closed her eyes and dozed in the warm sun. It was a heavenly day.
A light wind whispered across the grass and a cloud drifted over, blocking the sun from her face. She opened her eyes and blinked at the form above her.
She snatched the piece of grass from her mouth and scrambled to her feet, feeling the blood burning her neck and cheeks. He looked delicious in that dark suit.
Alex laughed. “Oh, if I only had a camera.” She unrolled her pants legs and slipped into her shoes, giving him a chagrined smile.
“I didn’t think you were coming in until this afternoon.”
He brushed some grass from her back.
“I didn’t have any classes today and I decided to take off work. I was lucky enough to get an early flight.” He reached down and grabbed her cane pole from the ground. “What’s this?”
At that moment, the bobber plunged under the surface of the water. Alex jerked the pole, setting the hook, and then glanced at her as the fish fought for freedom.
“Now what? There’s no reel.”
“Pull back on the line, like this.”
She grabbed the line and pulled it toward them. She stepped back and watched as he excitedly hauled the little mud cat to the shore and released it.
He stooped to rinse his hands in the pond and smiled up at her.
“You really know how to live, you know that, Heidi?”
He stood and shook the water from his hands. “This brings back childhood memories.” He glanced around. “Only the country wasn’t near as pretty.” His gaze fell on her and his smile broadened, including the dimple. “Beauty everywhere I look - and to think I only have three days to enjoy it.” He reached for her and she dodged playfully.
“Come on. I’ll show you the swimming hole.” She darted around the apple tree and half skipped, half ran down the hill toward the creek. At the path she slowed, and he caught up with her, following her to the edge of the creek. A huge white sycamore skeleton sprawled on the gravel beach, its bark long gone. She kicked a pile of leaves from the branches where the floodwaters had deposited it a few weeks ago. Climbing up the trunk, she found a smooth spot and sat down. Alex leaned against the trunk and grinned up at her.
“Like a little lynx. Do you do this often?”
She wrinkled her nose. “You mean climb trees?” “And run through the fields like a little filly.” She grinned. “Make up your mind. Am I a horse or a cat?” He grabbed her leg and with a quick jerk, dislodged her from the tree - right into his waiting arms. She squealed and he lowered her feet to the ground, gently pulling her close. “I missed you,” he whispered against her lips and then proceeded to show her how much. His lips were as warm as the hands that gripped her waist. For a moment she returned his kiss passionately, her arms encircling his neck and drawing him closer. “I missed you too,” she whispered breathlessly.
They shouldn’t be alone out here in the woods, necking like this. She should do something. She drew back and met his hungry gaze. It was a mistake. In an instant he pulled her back into his arms and reclaimed her lips. She did nothing - nothing to stop him, anyway. It was as if they were one person, clinging to each other - neither wanting to be the first to end the embrace. But it had already gone too far and his fingers were sliding down her neck, into her blouse.
She pushed away from him, gasping for air.
“Alex, don’t do that.”
He reached for her again, his voice husky with emotion.
“I want you, Carmen.”
His words were like a dash of cold water. He wanted her - like he wanted her in the barn that day. He wanted her and he was going to have her some day. He wasn’t talking about marriage. He was talking about sex. How could she have been so . . . naive? And he expected her to come to him all sweet and willing. Tears blurred her vision as she slapped at his hand. “That’s all you ever wanted, wasn’t it? A tumble in the hay with the farmers’ daughter.” He stared at her. “Of all the . . . do you actually think I traveled six hundred miles just for a tumble in the hay with you? Do you think I’m that desperate or are you implying your reputation is that good?” She blinked back a tear, but it escaped and slid down her cheek. That did sound a little vain.
“I don’t have a reputation,” she responded archly.
He grimaced. “Yes you do, and I might be the only man who could ruin it.” She frowned up at him. “Now who’s being vain?” His lips twisted into a lopsided smile.
“I’m being honest, and you know it.”
Yes, she knew it, but this was one time she wasn’t going to spill her guts. She rolled her eyes and stepped around him.
“It was just a kiss, Alex. Don’t let your head swell up that way. It’s unsightly.”
He silently followed her up the trail and then fell in beside her as they crossed the field. He gazed down at her reflectively. “Just a kiss?” His expression was pensive. Hiding her desire for him seemed a wise thing to do a few minutes ago, but maybe he thought she kissed every man like that. In truth, she had never kissed any man like that, and it troubled her that he might think she was easy. She stared up at him, struggling over her next move. Slowly a twinkle started in his eyes and a smile plucked at the corners of his mouth. He knew. Warmth flooded up her neck and she smiled.
“Katie is going to be worried. I’ve been gone a long time.”
He chuckled. “Bill picked Katie up a half hour ago.” Her heart lurched. They were alone? She wiped sweaty palms on her jeans and swallowed a lump in her throat. How could Katie run off like that? Alex cleared his throat. “I thought we might go out for lunch and do some site seeing.” “That would be nice,” she answered quickly. This time the car he rented was a little white 4-door car. It was simple and comfortable. Lunch was at a rustic little seafood place in Rogers called Catfish John’s, and afterward she directed him to the War Eagle Mill. The narrow black highway ribboned smoothly down hill under a canopy of trees. Soon a green river winked at them playfully between rocks and bushes, and roared impressively as they entered the clearing at the mill site. Three stories tall, the old mill stood picturesquely at the edge of the river, an old metal one-lane bridge at one side beckoned travelers to visit the lush pastures on the other side. They spent the next fifteen minutes exploring the inside of the mill, and then they went out to the bridge. Alex took her hand as they started up the wooden ramp, and laced his fingers through hers. She glanced up at him and he pressed his warm palm against hers. Somehow he made it seem so intimate. He gazed down at her somberly. What was going on behind those dark eyes? They found a place on the side of the bridge and stared down at the water as it roared over the spillway. A car crossed the bridge behind them, leaving a wake of squeaking and groaning metal and wood. Alex slipped a protective arm around her waist and gazed at the mill.
She nodded and pointed at the old cypress water wheel.
“See? The water goes under the wheel to turn it. It’s the only working one like it in the United States.”
He smiled. “You have such an inquisitive mind, crammed full of unusual facts. That’s one of the things I love about you.” She stared at him, but his attention was on the mill again. Love? Surely he didn’t mean love in the romantic sense. He must have meant love in a family way - like he loved his sister. On the other hand, that was no sisterly kiss. Maybe it meant nothing to him. She stared at the churning water. Why was everything so complicated? Alex grabbed her hand again. “We’d better get back, Heidi. It’s almost milking time again.” She nodded absently. It was always milking time any more - or time to feed the kids. Was that part of her problem? Was she too involved with the farm? Alex took her home, changed into his western garb, and helped her with the chores. Afterward, she was writing some information down in her dairy journal when Alex wandered by. “What’s that?” he asked. She closed the book. “I keep records on each goat and how many pounds of milk she gives daily, when she reached peak production and how long she lactated. It’s for breeding and culling purposes.” “Sounds interesting, may I look at it?” She handed him the book and he followed her into the barn, flipping through the pages. She paused and gazed out the barn door at the scenic view. Alex paused at the hay pile and sat down, cross-legged, while he examined a chart.
“This is darn good.”
“Thanks,” she said, and dropped to the hay beside him. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s all beginning to pay off now. By the end of the summer I’ll have enough profit to roof the house.” She stretched out on her stomach and absently poked a piece of straw into her mouth. Propping her chin up with her hands, she stared out at the hills. Maybe some day she would have enough to start her horse ranch. Alex tossed the book aside and stretched out beside her, following her gaze through the door. “It sure is beautiful country.” She nodded. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” She glanced up at him. “I wanted to have a horse ranch. Did I ever tell you that?” He was resting on one elbow, watching her in a disturbing way. “Katie said something about it once.” She turned and looked back out the door. “She thinks I’ll never do it on my own.” She sighed. “Maybe she’s right. I’m always cutting off more than I can chew.” He rubbed her back gently. “You’ll make it. Don’t lose faith in yourself.” She smiled up at him. “You know, you’re the first person to tell me that. It feels good.” He frowned. “That’s terrible. Everybody should have someone to share their dreams with. His fingers worked at the tenseness along her back. “You know,” he spoke slowly. “I always wanted a ranch too. I wanted to put native wildlife on it. You know, like buffalo, pronghorn, and Dall sheep - wildlife native to the United States. That’s what got me started saving money.” He sighed. “I almost forgot about it until you started talking about the horse ranch.” She stared out the door. “I think it’s a wonderful dream. It sounds like a lot of fun - and expensive.” He laughed shortly. “Yeah, I got sidetracked, though. Then it didn’t matter much.” His fingers were gently massaging the muscles on either side of her backbone - warm and relaxing. She closed her eyes. The barn smelled of fresh hay, oats and molasses. “It’s so peaceful this time of year,” she said sleepily. “I feel fat and lazy.” He chuckled softly. “Well, you’re not - either one.” His fingers slipped under her shirt, warmly working at the muscles in her back. “I’ve got an idea.” She stiffened, resisting an urge to tell him to remove his hand. After all, it would have been perfectly acceptable if she were in a swim suit and he had been applying sun lotion. They were fully dressed and he was merely rubbing her back. Besides, it felt delightful. “What?” “Why don’t I bring Ed up here and stable him? I’ve been spending all my free time up here anyway, and that way you could give him some exercise when I’m not here. I’d pay you.” His fingers were working up her back, relaxing every muscle. She sighed deeply. “I’d be glad to keep him here, but I don’t want any money.” “Nonsense. I pay to board him now.” His hand slipped to her side, gently exploring upward until it reached her breast. Her heart pounded and she rolled over on her back, dislodging his hand. He smiled down at her. “Besides, I’ve been neglecting him lately. Another filly has caught my eye.” She propped up on one elbow and met his gaze. “Has she? How many fillies do you have now?” The smile faded from his lips. “Don’t go there.” He traced her jaw with a finger and his gaze became tender. “So beautiful.” She stared at him. “You were thinking of her.” He frowned. “Her?” She made a face. “The girl who jil . . . left you.” His gaze sharpened. “She has a name, you know.” “What?” He hesitated and then ground out. “Tessa.” Carmen stared at him. So that was why he acted that way when she told him what she named her goat. Did he think she had named the goat after his girlfriend? She dropped back on the hay and wrinkled her nose at him. “I always hated that name.” The dark gaze softened and a smile played at the corners of his mouth. He clamped one hand around her waist and slid her closer, leaning over her as he spoke.
“That filly left the stable long time ago. Stop leaving grain out for her.”
She saw it coming too late, and he had her pinned to the floor on her back before she could squirm away. Her heart pounded as he moved over her and claimed her lips. She jerked her head to the side. “Don’t, Alex,” she panted. As he slid away, his belt buckle gouged into her stomach and she cried out in pain. “Hey! What’s going on here?” Josh strode across the barn, his hands balled into fists, gray eyes smoldering like hot coals. Alex was on his feet instantly, watching Josh intently. Alex reached one hand down to help Carmen to her feet.
“Are you all right?” he asked without looking at her.
“Yes.” He stepped away from her, facing off with Josh.
“It isn’t what it looks like.”
Josh smiled without humor. “Now that’s a familiar line. Seems like I heard it just this morning - from your lips.” He moved toward Alex. “I think it’s about time to let you know who’s . . .” Carmen lunged at Josh, grabbing his arm and jerking on it.
“No, Josh. Don’t.”
Josh glanced down at her coldly and flexed his arm.
“Get out of the way.”
She fell to the floor and Alex glanced at her, allowing his attention to stray from Josh for a second. Josh swung at Alex, grazing his head with a fist as Alex ducked. Carmen was on her feet again, and jumped between them.
“Stop it. You’re not going to fight in my barn.”
This time Alex gently pushed her aside.
“Get back, Carmen, before you get hurt.”
She staggered back, but she wasn’t about to let them fight over her. She stepped in between them again, distracting Alex to the point that Josh came close to hitting him. Alex pushed her away again. “Then get back before you get me hurt.” But before she could get out of the way, Josh bounced a blow off her shoulder. Wincing, she fell to the floor, turning pleading eyes on Josh. He lowered his fists and shook his head.
“It looks like Carmen is the only one getting anything out of this.”
He eyed Alex disdainfully. “I don’t know what it is about you that inspires women to defend you, but I’m getting tired of talking to you about it.”
Alex kneeled beside Carmen and felt her shoulder. “Does it hurt badly?” She shook her head. “He barely hit me.” Alex glanced up at Josh coolly.
“I told you before. There’s nothing going on between Lori and me.”
Josh snorted. “Sure, like nothing was going on here.” Alex gave him a level look. “What goes on between Carmen and me is none of your business.” “It is if you hurt her.” Alex scowled at him.
“Touching, but don’t you think your concern is a little belated?”
Josh shook a finger at Alex. “Listen, you little strutting Banty. Maybe the women are impressed by you, but I’m not. If you want Carmen, you’d better make your intentions honorable. If you toy with her and then run off, I’m going to be on you like ugly on a bear.” Alex stood, eyeing him coldly. “I’m getting tired of your threats and insinuations. If you’re trying to pick a fight, have after it. I’m not running, and I don’t need any woman to protect me.” Carmen stared from one of them to the other, unable to believe her ears and eyes. What had Josh caught Alex and Lori doing? And why was Josh worried about what might be happening between Alex and Lori, anyway? Josh was making fight sounds, but if he had wanted to fight Alex, nothing she could have done would have stopped him. So why was he holding back? Two things came to mind. He admired Alex for his courage - and he thought Alex might be telling the truth. She struggled to rise and Alex helped her to her feet. She turned to Josh.
“Alex is a guest here, and I’d appreciate it if you’d keep that in mind the next time you show up.”
Josh wiped his forehead with a sleeve and gazed down at her. “I didn’t mean to hit you.” She nodded, rubbing her shoulder. “I know.” He shook his head and left the barn. She stood beside Alex and listened to the truck door slam and the engine race when Josh started it. After Josh left the farm, she stared at the empty doorway. Well, that bridge was burned to a crisp.