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7/30/2019 To Thine Own Self http://slidepdf.com/reader/full/to-thine-own-self 1/158 To Thine Own Self Prologue Alex paid for his ticket and tucked the wallet inside his suit jacket. Mrs. Kenan smiled. "Thanks, Mr. Barnett. I'm sure Carmen will be glad you're home." Alex nodded as he turned toward the auditorium door. Everyone he met tonight was aware he had been gone for two weeks. Carmen was incredibly naïve about people. After the stabbing, she should realize that living in the country didn't exempt them from crime. She had been raised to believe people were basically good. Maybe most were, but there was that percentage - no matter where you went - who were looking for easy victims. In seven years of marriage, he had not been able to teach her how to avoid being one of them. He opened the door to the school auditorium. The school was sponsoring a play with reversed roles - students playing the part of parents and vice versa. Carmen and  Jonathan were both in the play, as well as Katie's twins. His decision to stay at the hacienda last night had nearly caused him to miss it, but that was another story altogether. He shut the door and straightened his suit while his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Somewhere in that sea of people was his family - including his sister and her husband. Katie and Bill would be watching Natalie, Matthew and Destiny. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he started down the side isle. He spotted Katie & Bill on the second row and waited for an opportunity to catch Katie's attention.  The audience laughed and he glanced up at the stage. Carmen was dressed in a short pink dress and white tights. She had an oversized lollipop in her hand and her two front teeth had been colored out. Her long curly blond hair had been pulled up in pig tails and tied with huge bows. Jonathan was dressed in a dark suit and had a mustache and goatee. Evidently remembering his lines wasn't near as difficult as keeping his face straight. As Alex made his way down to Katie, Carmen left the stage. The curtains closed and the lights came on. He walked around the front row and squeezed down the shortest route. Destiny spotted him first and stood on her chair, bouncing up and down with excitement. "Look! Daddy's here!"  The echo of little voices inspired several snickers from around them.

To Thine Own Self

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    To Thine Own Self

    Prologue

    Alex paid for his ticket and tucked the wallet inside his suit jacket.

    Mrs. Kenan smiled. "Thanks, Mr. Barnett. I'm sure Carmen will be glad you're home."

    Alex nodded as he turned toward the auditorium door. Everyone he met tonight was

    aware he had been gone for two weeks. Carmen was incredibly nave about people.

    After the stabbing, she should realize that living in the country didn't exempt them

    from crime. She had been raised to believe people were basically good. Maybe most

    were, but there was that percentage - no matter where you went - who were looking

    for easy victims. In seven years of marriage, he had not been able to teach her how

    to avoid being one of them.

    He opened the door to the school auditorium. The school was sponsoring a play with

    reversed roles - students playing the part of parents and vice versa. Carmen and

    Jonathan were both in the play, as well as Katie's twins. His decision to stay at the

    hacienda last night had nearly caused him to miss it, but that was another story

    altogether.

    He shut the door and straightened his suit while his eyes adjusted to the dim light.

    Somewhere in that sea of people was his family - including his sister and her

    husband. Katie and Bill would be watching Natalie, Matthew and Destiny.

    As his eyes adjusted to the light, he started down the side isle. He spotted Katie &

    Bill on the second row and waited for an opportunity to catch Katie's attention.

    The audience laughed and he glanced up at the stage. Carmen was dressed in a

    short pink dress and white tights. She had an oversized lollipop in her hand and her

    two front teeth had been colored out. Her long curly blond hair had been pulled up

    in pig tails and tied with huge bows. Jonathan was dressed in a dark suit and had a

    mustache and goatee. Evidently remembering his lines wasn't near as difficult as

    keeping his face straight.

    As Alex made his way down to Katie, Carmen left the stage. The curtains closed and

    the lights came on. He walked around the front row and squeezed down the

    shortest route. Destiny spotted him first and stood on her chair, bouncing up and

    down with excitement.

    "Look! Daddy's here!"

    The echo of little voices inspired several snickers from around them.

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    He plucked Natalie from her chair and sat down between Katie and Destiny.

    Matthew leaned out from between Katie and Bill.

    "Daee," he cooed, reaching for him. His brown eyes were intent as he tried to

    navigate Katie's lap.

    Katie giggled and assisted him so that he could hug his daddy, but kept him in her

    lap. Alex hugged Matthew and kissed him before turning his attention to Natalie.

    She was quiet and reserved for a two year old. Her gaze was fixed on him,

    something obviously going on behind eyes that couldn't decide whether they were

    green or blue. Mums said that was what Carmen's eyes looked like when she was a

    baby. One of Natalie's fingers twisted a curly blond lock while the other hand held a

    thumb firmly in her mouth.

    Destiny grabbed Alex around the neck and planted a wet kiss on his cheek.

    "I missed you, Daddy!"

    Her auburn curls were drawn up into a decorative band at the side of her head.

    Gray eyes studied him, waiting for a response.

    He kissed her. "I missed you all too, sweetheart." He hugged her for a moment and

    then released her. "Now sit down. They're getting ready to open the curtains again."

    Katie smiled at him. "I thought you were going to miss it."

    As the curtain lifted, the props had been changed so the room looked like a kitchen,

    with cardboard cut-out's of stove, sink and refrigerator. A table had been placed in

    the middle, and Jonathan sat at it, disguised as a man with graying hair. A studentin a gray wig and exaggerated backside was at the sink, pretending to wash dishes.

    She turned to Jonathan and asked where Susie was. He replied that she was still

    primping.

    Carmen arrived on stage with an energy that kept her ponytail bobbing. She was

    dressed in typical teenage garb and her large amethyst eyes were accentuated with

    heavy makeup. She wore black leggings and a mini-skirt with a dropped waistline.

    The halter top she wore exposed her trim midriff. In spite of the fact that she was

    now 32, she actually looked like a teenager. Being petite helped, but she still had

    the smooth lines of a young girl.

    He barely noticed the others as Carmen played her part. She was still beautiful - still

    had that innocent look about her. No wonder they selected her for the part. It was a

    skit about the typical problems faced by both adults and students. Jonathan was

    doing a surprisingly convincing job on his part.

    Katie leaned toward Alex. "She's so cute, and Jonathan looks like a little man."

    He nodded, not removing his attention from Carmen.

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    Katie lowered her voice. "Do you want me to watch the kids tonight?"

    He glanced at her, his neck growing warm.

    "No, I haven't seen them in two weeks."

    Katie shrugged. "Well, if you change your mind ..."

    "Where are Jim & Tim?" he asked.

    She made a face. "You missed them. Our twins were in the first skit."

    "I'm sorry."

    She shrugged. "It's alright. Carmen was a little disappointed, though. She'll be glad

    you got to see the rest of it."

    When the play was over, he left the children with Katie and Bill and went back

    stage. He found Carmen talking to the principle. Her head was tipped back so thatshe could see his face and her excitement was personified in the dancing of her

    pony tail. She looked so lovely in that garb that he simply stood and watched in

    silence.

    The principle glanced up and saw him and Carmen followed his gaze. At first she

    looked surprised, and then her eyes lit up like two gems.

    "Alex!" she exclaimed and ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck. "Oh," she

    gasped. "I missed you SO much!"

    He gripped her waist with his hands, preventing her from getting an inch closer orfurther away.

    "You look beautiful," he said.

    She smiled up at him sweetly, that tiny dimple playing at the corner of her mouth.

    "How did you like the play?"

    "You all did a good job," he said. "Are you ready to go home?"

    Carmen turned and looked at the principle. "I need to help clean up."

    The principle waived a hand. "Go on. You've done your part."

    Carmen looked relieved. Every emotion she experienced used to be written on her

    face. Tonight was like that. It was a pleasant reminder of the innocent bride he once

    knew.

    Carmen moved to his side and put an arm around his waist. Gazing up at him, she

    sighed.

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    "I was afraid you would miss it all, but I was glad to hear you decided to spend a

    little more time with your father."

    He squeezed her shoulders with one arm. Let her think that was the reason for his

    delay. He was sworn to secrecy anyway."I'm starving. Why don't we stop and get

    pizza?"

    She smiled. "I've got everything ready for supper. I just need to warm it. I'll get

    Natalie, Matthew and Destiny. Can you get Jonathan? I'll have supper on the table

    by the time you two get home."

    It seemed an unlikely prospect, but on issues where the children were involved, she

    was generally correct. She had once told him that children were her greatest dream

    ... next to a husband, she had amended. Her expression confessed that the first

    statement was true, though. Once that fact had gnawed at him, but he had come to

    terms with it. She had the children now and she was still a devoted wife. They had

    been through a lot, and she had stood beside him. He was a lucky man - but not

    because he had a wife who wanted him to be in control, as Katie believed.

    Carmen had been raised poor by aging and conservative parents who were old time

    religious. She had been protected from outside influence - partly by having no

    television and partly by the fact that neither of her parents worked away from the

    home. Her father farmed 80 acres and her mother worked hard. From what Mums

    said, she generally did without any of the luxuries that other women took for

    granted. That might explain why Carmen was content with so little, but some

    people brought up in those circumstances would be even more determined not to

    live that way. Carmen was one of the most selfless people he had ever met -

    probably much like her mother.

    Carmen was certain that her parents would have loved him, but he wasn't so sure.

    More likely they would have thought he was leading their daughter astray. Maybe

    he was. He had talked her into surrogacy even though she believed it was wrong.

    Even now he was helping Katie push her out into the wicked world. He had spent

    years encouraging her to become involved with the rest of the world. Now that she

    was doing so, she was becoming more independent. That was a good thing - or so

    he kept telling himself. Unfortunately, the more independent she became, the less

    she listened to his advice.

    Katie insisted that Carmen had been a door mat where he was concerned. To hisway of thinking, Carmen drifted his way most of the time because she either agreed

    or it didn't matter. Katie had reason to know how stubborn and spirited Carmen

    could be when she did care. Katie was right about one thing, though. Carmen had

    withdrawn from the world outside their home and he had been enabling her.

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    It took nearly a half hour to find Jonathan and another fifteen minutes to separate

    him from two attractive girls. Jonathan was poised to enter his teens in style and a

    deformed left arm wasn't going to hold him back. No surprise there. It never had.

    Still, he was a good looking boy - tall for his age and lean. Carmen said he had

    learned the gift of gab from his Dad, but Jonathan had always been perceptive

    about people. Maybe he had learned it from his mother, or maybe he had inheritedthe tendency.

    Jonathan was silent so long on the way home that Alex prodded him for a reason.

    "Are you tired?" Alex asked, keeping his eyes on the road."No ..." Jonathan

    hesitated.Alex glanced at him and raised a brow.

    Jonathan shrugged. "I'm just thinking." Alex said nothing. When he was ready,

    Jonathan would talk.

    Jonathan stared out the window for a while. Finally he spoke.

    "I'm trying to get a group together for a band."

    He was good enough with the violin now. The band wasn't a bad idea - as long as he

    wasn't doing it to impress the girls. School was out for the summer, but by the time

    they could get a band going good, it would be time to go back. Carmen would want

    to encourage him in this and Katie would consider it a social achievement.

    Alex rubbed the back of his neck. "Have you talked to your mom about it?"

    Jonathan nodded. "She said to ask you."

    He was the default for most of the decisions she felt uncomfortable about making,

    but those decisions rarely included the children. Maybe he was supposed to lecture

    him about girls again. A father could go only so far with things like that until the son

    would cease to listen. If it were something specific, it would be one thing, but

    Jonathan was a good boy and he didn't want to stifle him the way Carmen's parents

    did her.

    He maneuvered a turn. "Don't let your grades suffer."

    Jonathan's blue eyes sparkled as he smiled with relief. "I won't."

    By the time they arrived at home, Carmen had supper on the table. She had

    changed her clothes and washed the makeup from her face. Katie had been helping

    her select clothing and she certainly knew how to make the most of Carmen's soft

    curves. The lavender striped knit top exposed soft shoulders and the beginning

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    swell of generous breasts as modestly as it did her smooth flat midriff. The faded

    jeans circled her slender hips slightly below the naval. Every inch of her was firm

    from working outside, and the tan simply put a finishing touch to all of it

    When his gaze returned to hers, she was smiling - enjoying the attention. There was

    a time when she would have blushed, but that time was gone. Sometimes hemissed that innocence.

    Supper was the usual savory cuisine and pleasant conversation. Much as he wanted

    to talk to Carmen, he opted for a ride afterward. There were things he still needed

    to sort out and Carmen was a distraction - a delightful one for sure, but a distraction

    all the same. It wasn't unusual for him to unwind after a trip by taking a ride and

    Carmen accepted it with the usual grace.

    The Appaloosa tossed his head in anticipation. He could depend on Carmen to take

    good care of the stallion in his absence, but the horse missed him - or maybe it was

    the other way around. Their relationship went back a long way - almost twenty

    years. A gift from his Dad, Ed had always been a good friend and listener.

    The evening was already casting long shadows when he leaned down from the

    saddle and opened the gate to the south pasture. He breathed deeply of the early

    summer air and closed his eyes, enjoying the smell of the horse and sound of

    creaking leather. A whippoorwill was calling down by the creek, beginning each

    chorus with a kiss. Tree frogs were chirping so abundantly that they sounded like

    crickets. This was home more than any place he had ever lived.

    As he rode, problems bobbed to the surface of his mind like driftwood released from

    quicksand - ready to be plucked from the surface and worked into something

    useable. He had intended to spend a few hours with his family in Texas while he

    waited for his flight out of Houston. That was the plan, but after talking to his father

    and Morino, he decided to stay the night. They had decided that their discussion

    that night would stay between the three of them for a while. It would upset the girls

    if they knew and there was nothing they could do about it anyway. At least for the

    present, the fewer people who knew, the better.

    Yesterday he had been numb with shock, but today his mind had been painfully

    active. Mortality had been uppermost on his mind during the flight back - first his

    own and then Carmen's. Still, a person could go only so far in planning their life.

    After that, luck took over.

    This was one time he wanted to talk to Carmen. Ultimately it would probably impact

    their lives and she would have insight he needed. In the meantime he had been

    placed in the center of a controversy he alone couldn't resolve. In fact, the two most

    important people had been left out of their confidence. It wasn't forever, though. He

    had promised not to tell anyone until later. Until then he could only wait and see

    how things played out.

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    In the meantime he needed to encourage Carmen to become more careful about

    her own safety. That wasn't going to be easy. From the day he met her - when she

    needlessly challenged the fox in the chicken house - it had been apparent that she

    needed his protection. Carmen plunged into things courageously without taking the

    time to think things through. It had been so with the wild dogs - and the bear. Even

    her loyal defense of Brutus against the wild dogs had included a needless risk to herlife. He couldn't protect her all the time, though. He had created her dependency on

    his judgment and now it was up to him to make sure she learned to defend herself.

    The phone call from Gerald yesterday provided the perfect opportunity.

    Gerald and two other men wanted to rent Carmen's house for three weeks this

    summer. It was the perfect excuse to teach Carmen how to handle a gun. She would

    need to guide the men up into the hills. He would be at work, so she would be on

    her own. In any case, the house rental was her business and she needed to gain the

    confidence of running it without his direction.

    By the time he returned to the barn, it was getting dark. He unsaddled Ed andrubbed him down before putting him in his stall. He tossed in some fresh alfalfa hay

    and glanced around the barn. It was tidy - and empty. It seemed strange to have

    only Ed in the barn. At least that was one way Carmen had shown initiative. She had

    finally separated Ed from his daughters before inbreeding began. The mares were

    now kept in the renovated dairy barn and they ran in a separate pasture. Ed wasn't

    too crazy about the arrangement, but castrating a 23-year old stallion wasn't

    something he would want to do even if it wasn't his friend. Ed was still a good stud,

    throwing a majority of quality fillies.

    Alex turned the light off in the barn as he left. Carmen was waiting and he was

    ready to give her his full attention - as soon as they got the children to bed.

    Chapter One

    Carmen watched from the porch as Alex leaned down from his horse and opened thepasture gate. He looked so elegant in that suit, and yet he moved as if the horse werepart of him. Alex was an accomplished horseman a fact she had discovered whenthey visited his fathers ranch in Texas. In the two years since, he seemed to be gettingcloser to a normal relationship with his father, so when he called to say he was stayingan extra day, it was a relief. Yet something was wrong. There was nothing unusualabout Alex riding Ed to unwind after a trip, but this was the first time he had done so

    without changing his clothes.

    She sighed heavily and glanced down at Matthew. His tiny fist clutched the outerseam of her jeans. His chocolate gaze was fixed on her face, exploring every inch of it.He was so much like Alex. She lifted him into her arms and opened the door to thehouse. Alex would be back when he finished working out his issues.

    Mommys little angel, she whispered to Matthew, and kissed his soft dark hair.

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    Inside, she sat down on the window seat with him. Immediately Natalie joined them,climbing onto her lap. Natalie pushed at Matthew, struggling to find equal place inmamas arms.

    Dont shove Matthew, honey.

    Carmen shifted him to one arm and allowed Natalie to settle into her lap. All of thechildren missed Alex when he was gone, but it seemed that Natalie missed him themost. Maybe it was the age. Destiny was that way when she was younger. Now nothingseemed to trouble her for long. She was interested in everything and everyone. Shewas such a happy girl. Jonathan had a pleasant nature as well. Maybe it was because

    Alex was such a good influence. He was so confident and seemed to always know whathe wanted. A man with a plan that was Alex.

    She picked up a book to read to them and rested her back against the wall.Matthew snuggled against her, trying to get into a position to suckle. Carmen shifted her

    body, foiling his attempt. Alex had warned her against nursing him too long, but itseemed right at the time.

    Natalie shoved a thumb in her mouth and stared at the book. Matthew whined alittle, but finally settled down, lulled by the sound of her voice as she read.

    By the time Alex returned, the twins were asleep. Alex helped her put them in bedbefore Destiny latched on to him. When he sat down in his recliner, she brought him herfavorite book. Carmen and Jonathan folded clothes while they listened to him read.

    It was good to have things back to normal again. His deep voice was so muchbetter than television. Jonathan nudged Carmens arm with his elbow and snickered

    softly. Destinys eyelids kept drooping and then she would open her eyes wide as ifafraid she might miss something good.

    When Destiny finally fell asleep, Alex carried her to her room. Jonathan picked uphis clothes and said goodnight before retiring to his room. A few minutes later the softrefrain of a violin drifted into the kitchen. Carmen listened while loading the supperdishes in the dishwasher. He was getting so good.

    Alex came back into the living room and glanced at her before striding to his chair.Within seconds he was absorbed in the evening paper. Hed tell her what was on hismind eventually when he was ready.

    She sighed. Katie wouldnt approve of that attitude. Katie accused her of allowingAlex to make decisions because she had no confidence in herself and that Alex wastaking advantage of her because he had a controlling personality. Alex did like to be incontrol, there was no denying that, but he certainly didnt dominate her. They discussedthings. He simply had the final say most of the time. Alex was better educated andhad more business experience. That was fact, not lack of confidence speaking. If shefelt more comfortable with him at the helm, he could hardly be accused of controlling

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    her. Still, maybe Alex was tired of the responsibility. More important, she wasnt going togain experience by leaving it all to him.

    Under Katies tutelage, she was gaining confidence. Still, Alex was her knight inshining armor. Sure, he had faults like being secretive. Mums always said that youhad to learn to look over their faults forgive them as you would want them to forgiveyours. Still, in most ways Alex was the perfect husband. He was sweet and thoughtful,protective and an ardent lover. Yet from the beginning, too many important facts hadbeen shrouded in secrecy. First it had been his inability to have children; then money;and finally, a family. What next? As Katie had pointed out, if she had shown a healthyinterest, she would have detected something. Maybe so, but she didnt want to be anosy suspicious wife. If you trusted a man, you allowed him some privacy. As it turnedout, nothing he had kept secret was actually detrimental to their relationship. She hadprotested the morality of AI until she lost her uterus, finally giving in to surrogacy a fewyears ago. Children had been a possibility after all. The wealth he had never concealed.In fact, he had repeatedly encouraged her to browse his financial records. She hadrefused because money had no part in her attraction to him or maybe because shewas afraid he would think that was why she married him. Those things he didnt hide,but he did hide his family. Alex was the reluctant heir to an enormous amount of landand money. Sometimes it was difficult to accept that he actually preferred this lifestyle. Ithad occurred to her that he was avoiding responsibility. Yet Alex was the mostresponsible person she had ever met. Still, people did change. He might decide toaccept that inheritance. Where would that leave her? Of course, she was his wife andshe would follow him to the end of the Earth - but what about him? Would he grow tiredof her?

    Maybe that was why both he and Katie were encouraging her to change. Certainly itwas the main reason she was trying to improve to keep him interested. At first it was

    exciting, like playing dress-up, but now it felt insincere and she was afraid he would seethrough the faade. Alex always seemed to know what was on her mind. Maybe heknew and thought she would adjust. Maybe she would. Still, what was it Dad used tosay? You cant make a silk purse out of a sows ear. Was it even in her? She had totry ... for Alex.

    She closed the dishwasher door and turned it on. Pouring two cups of coffee, sheheaded for the living room. She set one steaming cup on a coaster beside him andplaced hers on the window sill. Sinking to the window seat, she watched him read thepaper. She had missed their evening chats in the last two weeks. Still, these seminarshelped him stay competitive with his veterinary clinic. Alex was competitive by nature,

    but being a veterinarian had always been his dream. If you loved a man, you shared hisdreams.

    Alex methodically folded the paper, his gaze roving over her face. He rose from hischair and removed his jacket, carefully folding it and laying it over the back of therecliner. Next he removed the vest and placed it neatly beside the jacket. He loosenedhis tie and rolled his sleeves up, exposing weather darkened forearms.

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    The charcoal gray trousers made the most of his lean torso. He was a delight tobehold.

    He picked up his coffee and met her gaze with a touch of humor. With feline grace,he strode across the room. Placing the coffee cup on the window sill, he ran a hand

    through thick black hair that curled in all the right places. He was uncomfortable forsome reason. He kicked his shoes off beside the window seat and sat down on theopposite end from her. Picking up his coffee cup, he finally settled back against the wall.His gaze drifted over her face before settling on her eyes. The smooth bronze featureswere sober as he spoke.

    Theyre all asleep now except Jonathan, and hes in bed.

    As she met that sweet chocolate gaze, her pulse did the usual dance. He was sogood looking and had such a sexy voice. He was the whole package, for sure. Onceagain she was struck by their mysterious attraction to each other. They were total

    opposites in many ways.

    I missed you, she said.

    I missed you too, sweetheart.

    She sighed and leaned back against the wall.

    You must have had a lot on your mind tonight.

    He frowned. Im sorry. Im afraid I lost track of time while I was riding.

    She smiled. I meant because you didnt change your clothes before you went for aride.

    Oh. He glanced down at his clothes. Actually, the suit is comfortable enough - theoxfords, not so much.

    He was drawing the subject away. Why?

    So how was the visit with your father? Did the two of you get along okay? Is hebugging you about the inheritance again?

    We got along fine.

    It was hard to tell whether he was being secretive or there simply wasnt anything totell.

    How was the seminar?

    He sipped his coffee before responding.

    Informative worth the trip, I guess.

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    She smiled. How about the visit with your father? Did you two talk much?

    He shrugged. For a while.

    How are Felipa and Alondra?

    Theyre doing fine. He sipped his coffee again. Youre looking especially nicetonight.

    Thank you.

    He obviously didnt want to discuss his visit to the hacienda. It was frustrating, butthe only thing she was accomplishing with this interrogation was making theirconversation stiff and formal.

    She leaned forward and launched a new subject.

    While you were gone I had the sign painted on Dads old truck.

    His brows lifted. AWS?

    She nodded. And then in smaller letters below it: American Wildlife Safari. I chosesilver for the lettering. It looks so nice on that electric blue.

    He took another sip of his coffee and then absently set it on the window sill.Something was troubling him and he was trying to figure out the best way to approachit.

    She sighed. You wanted to make the arrangements yourself?

    He glanced up quickly. No. Im sure it looks great. In any case, its your truck your business.

    Actually, technically it was their collective business, but there was no point ingetting into that right now. She nodded.

    Yes, its my truck, but youre the one who had it restored.

    His smile was wry. For you.

    She shrugged. It was a nice birthday present. Im sure Dad would have loved to

    see his old 65 Ford restored like that.

    He shifted his attention to the window and stared out into the moonlit night. He hadrestored the truck and the house. Was he agonizing about leaving them behind? Did hewant to tell her they were moving to Texas?

    He cleared his throat and met her inquiring gaze.

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    I talked to Gerald. He wants to rent your house he and a couple of other guys. Itold him you were ready.

    So that was it. He had booked some customers for her. This wouldnt be like theirannual snowbirds who simply wanted to escape the cold winters up north, though. The

    Sanders had even helped her with the chores sometimes. It wouldnt be that way withhis friends.

    But Im not ready, she said.

    His brows lifted and a faint smile touched the corners of his lips.

    Sure you are. All you need is a little confidence. Youll build that as you work. Illtake you up to the mountain to scout out a safe trail. You need to do a little targetpractice too. Ill help you with that.

    Hed help her alright. Hed show her how he wanted it done. Would it ever actuallybe her business? How would he feel if she started organizing his clinic? But that wasntfair. He was merely protecting his investment. If she had secured a loan to get herbusiness started, they would have made their own stipulations. At least this way shehad no loan payments no set business income to meet every month. And yet, herchildhood dream of a horse ranch had fizzled out. He would be disappointed in her if heknew. She still wanted horses, but how could she tell him that she had stolen his dream

    that the safari was her greatest interest now? Maybe it was simply that she hadachieved her dream of a horse ranch and was moving on to the next taking over hisdream. She forced her mind back to the current issue.

    When is he ... are they coming?

    He shrugged. Thats up to the two of you. I gave him your cell phone number.

    She sighed again and leaned back against the wall, gazing out the window at theold renovated house. The cream colored siding looked iridescent in the moonlight. Thewindows were blank. The Sanders had been gone almost two months now and she hadmade no attempt to rent the house. She should take more interest in it if only for hissake. Then again, if she gained more confidence, maybe it would make both Alex andKatie feel that she wasnt a lost cause. It was her responsibility now and having a jobwould give her the opportunity for a more modern approach to being a wife and mother.It would be good for the children as well. It might prevent them from feeling as out of

    place as she did in her youth.

    His voice startled her out of her thoughts.

    I think Jonathan really enjoyed the play tonight.

    He picked up his coffee cup and took a drink.

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    She smiled. He was very good. I think right now hed do anything to get theattention of the girls. She made a face. The only thing boys his age think about ispropagate, propagate.

    Alex choked on his coffee and set the cup back on the sill. His eyes sparkled with

    humor and the dimple appeared under one eye.

    Carmen! he finally exclaimed.

    She grinned. You know what I mean.

    He chuckled. I think I speak for all men when I say that word never crossed mymind.

    She sobered. Maybe it would be better if it crossed his.

    He nodded and sobered. Ill talk to him. His voice lowered and he spoke softly.

    Now lets forget about everything else for a while. He sat up straight and motioned herto join him on his side of the window seat.

    His sultry expression quickened her pulse. He smiled, obviously well aware of herunspoken thoughts. The rest of the night was theirs to spend as they pleased.

    She slid to his side and snuggled against him. When his arms surrounded her, theworld outside them ceased to exist. He smelled of expensive cologne and felt warmagainst her chest.

    His index finger lifted her chin and he softly kissed her forehead.

    Mi pequea flor.

    She closed her eyes and sighed in contentment. Which flower?

    He chuckled. Es importante

    She shrugged. I guess not.

    At the moment his French lesson was unwelcome. If she wanted to learn French orSpanish, shed take lessons. Right now it was enough to hear his deep voice,regardless of which language he spoke. She tipped her head back, inviting his lips to

    join hers. When he kissed a hot trail down her neck, she moaned with pleasure.

    Oh Alex, I love you so much.

    His reply was a soft groan as his fingers caressed their way down her back. Heguided her closer, his lips seeking hers in hungry response.

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    The one good thing about Alex being gone for two weeks was the way he made upfor lost time. He had always been a good lover, but maybe absence did make the heartgrow fonder.

    Chapter Two

    Even though her ten year class reunion was scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Alexchose that morning to start her training. Immediately after breakfast he took them all outfor a buggy ride. Ed kept looking back as if to ask how many more people they thoughthe could pull. Soon the surrey would be altered for two horses.

    Alex took them to the place where he target practiced with Bill and Jonathan.Pulling her rifle from the box under the seat, he left Jonathan with the younger childrenand walked Carmen to a spot facing the target.

    It wasnt the first time Carmen had used a gun, but it was the first time Alex hadseen her use one. Dad had taught her how to shoot when she was only ten years old.She hadnt practiced since she had met Alex, though. To her, the rifle was a method ofdefending herself or getting food when there would otherwise be none. Alex had beenaround to protect her for the last seven years physically and financially. Regardless,she didnt like to shoot with anything but a camera - and they didnt need the food.

    In spite of the time lapse between practice sessions, she did well enough to win hispraise. There had always been a loaded gun in their house when she was young. Dadhad taught her early that it was a weapon, not a toy. She had shot a few rabbits with it,and once a skunk that threatened the chickens. Other than that, she had given his gunlittle use. She had given his rifle to Josh before she met Alex. After Josh died, Lori hadgiven it back to her. Alex had taken care of it all this time.

    Jonathan was eager to get his turn, so Carmen watched Matthew, Natalie andDestiny. Alex had taught Jonathan to shoot the first year after they had adopted him, buttoday he still got the same precautionary lecture that her father had given her. It wastimes like this that she realized how much they had in common. It was difficult to believethat Alex had been brought up wealthy. But then, maybe things werent that different forwealthy people.

    Destiny covered her ears after the first shot. Matthew whined while Carmen cuddledhim, and Natalie couldnt be consoled until Alex lifted her from the carriage. The session

    was mercifully short and they decided to go to check out the renovated house and makesure it was ready for the new renters.

    Once in the house, they all scattered. The children ran upstairs and Alex set out tocheck the bathroom for leaks. Carmen changed filters and turned on the air conditionerfor the summer. With that done, she went to the kitchen. The refrigerator was clean andthere was no sign of mice or insects.

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    As she closed the cabinet door under the sink and straightened, gentle hands foundher waist. She straightened, allowing Alex to pull her back against his warm muscularbody. His voice was low at her ear.

    Are you looking for something to eat? He asked, and then chuckled.

    She relaxed against him and sighed. It looks like Jonathan has been here ahead ofme.

    He laughed softly and slid his arms around her, kissing her on the neck.

    When he and Destiny go to school this fall, why dont we take a vacation just youand I?

    She turned her head, avoiding his lips as she spoke.

    We couldnt do that. Jonathan and Destiny might understand, but the twins

    wouldnt.

    He sighed. I guess not.

    She turned and captured his neck in the loop of her arms. Meeting his gaze, shesmiled.

    Though I must admit it is tempting.

    He kissed her lips briefly. We should have gone when it was only the two of us.

    She giggled. What was there to get away from then?

    He lifted a brow. Get away? Am I to understand you would like to get away fromour children?

    She wrinkled her nose. Maybe for a few days. Id like to spend a few days in yourarms - with no interruptions.

    He chuckled as he drew her close. That shouldnt be too difficult to arrange.

    For a moment they kissed only a moment. Little feet pounded across the livingroom into the kitchen and Destiny interrupted them in an excited voice.

    Mama! A bird built a nest in the flower box and it has little baby birds!

    Carmen broke away from Alex.

    The flower box outside the upstairs window?

    Destiny nodded vigorously. And the baby birds have their mouths open like this.

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    She tipped her head back and opened her little mouth as wide as she could get it.Then she shut her mouth and studied Alex intently.

    Should we help them? She asked.

    Alex was successful in keeping the smile from his lips, but his eyes held a twinkle ofamusement.

    Mama bird will be back to feed them.

    At that point Jonathan came into the kitchen with Matthew holding on to one handand Natalie clinging desperately to the hand on his short arm.

    A bird came and brought a great big worm. She tore it up and shoved part of itdown the throat of each of the babies. It was cool!

    Carmen glanced at Alex and he grinned at her.

    Still hungry?

    I am! Jonathan proclaimed. Are we going to have pizza for lunch?

    Carmen stepped around Alex, smiling up at him.

    I thought ... maybe spaghetti?

    He laughed and slapped her playfully on the backside.

    Pizza it is, he said to Jonathan, but his amused gaze clung to Carmens. Lets

    take them out for lunch and then to Katie and Bills house. I want to finish somepaperwork before we leave for the reunion.

    At least he was planning on attending. He wasnt too keen on the idea when shefirst told him about it. She could hardly blame him. He wouldnt know anyone there. Shetold him she wanted to show him off. In a way, that was true. Alex was quite a treasureand she was proud of him, but the truth was, this was the first time she had been incharge of anything so detailed and she wanted his support. Maybe he knew that. Hewas pretty intuitive.

    After they dropped the children off and returned home, Alex worked in his office

    while Carmen took a shower and started getting ready. Katie had helped her pick outthe dress. It was the first time she had worn a long dress, but Katie assured her it wouldmake her look taller. Carmen had selected the black sandal heels for that purpose aswell. The black dress was fitted and had off-the-shoulder sleeves. A slit ran down theside from a little above her knee. She left her hair down, brushing it until the long blondecurls shined. Surveying herself in the mirror, she decided that the hanging pearlearrings would set off a little brooch Alex had given her. She was searching in the

    jewelry box for it when Alex came into the bedroom.

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    He stopped and whistled his appreciation.

    You look lovelier than ever tonight.

    She smiled up at him. Thank you. I thought that little broach you gave me would

    look nice on this dress.

    She continued her search and finally found it.

    Here, let me help you, Alex said.

    After pinning it on her dress, he pulled her close.

    We have almost an hour before it starts. Why dont we take advantage of this timealone?

    She met his hopeful gaze. It would take me that long to look like this again.

    He lifted a brow. Well ... it would be worth it, wouldnt it?

    She wrinkled her nose at him. I dont want to be late.

    He sighed and released her. I guess so, he said in a disappointed tone.

    She giggled and turned to the dresser, closing the jewelry box lid.

    Alex cleared his throat. So what do you want me to wear?

    Carmen glanced up at his image in the mirror. Not once had he ever asked her

    what he should wear. He appeared to be serious, though.

    Whatever you want to wear, she answered as she turned. Its up to you. I haveno idea what other people will be wearing.

    He shrugged. I guess Ill wear a suit. His gaze ran over her dress and he lifted abrow. The black one?

    She eyed him suspiciously. Outwardly he gave no indication that he wasuncomfortable. He appeared to be relaxed. So why would he suddenly want her toselect the clothes he wore to an informal party where he knew no one. Maybe that wasit. Maybe he wanted to make sure he didnt embarrass her. Fat chance. She was the

    country bumpkin, not him.

    She smiled. The black suit would be nice. You look so sophisticated in it ... andeverything else.

    He favored her with a wry smile. Im sure youre the only one who thinks that.

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    While he showered and dressed, she went over the list to make sure nothing hadbeen forgotten. She had the key to the building in her purse. The band had set up lastnight, and the caterers werent supposed to be there until 6:00 pm. Everything wasready. Then why was she so nervous?

    Once they were in the car, the jitters left. With Alex driving, it felt like he was incontrol again. Katie would think she was backsliding, but that was the way she felt.

    They arrived thirty minutes early, but there were already people waiting to get in.She unlocked the door and stepped inside to turn the light on. It was a relief to hearpeople commenting on how nice the room looked.Some of the people had driven a long way to attend. It was interesting how people haddrifted away. One couple was now living in New Jersey. What was even more surprisingwas the number of people she didnt recognize. Though, in all fairness, ten years hadchanged some people enormously. While most of the people present had actually

    graduated from the same school, a few had moved away before they graduated.Candice was one of them. She had moved to Texas at the end of her junior year.

    Carmen was standing at the punch bowl greeting people and Alex was behind hertalking to someone when Candice stopped at the table.

    Carmen! she gasped. You look absolutely stunning! She eyed Carmens dressappreciably and smiled. Ive never seen you in anything so ... She paused, obviouslyreconsidering what she was about to say.

    Stylish? Carmen supplied.

    Candice blushed. Flattering, she amended. That wasnt very nice, I guess, butyou always tried to hide your figure though I cant for the life of me figure out why.

    Actually, she had never tried to hide her figure. She simply wore what her mothersewed for her. If she had cared about fashion, it might have been an issue. It still didntmatter unless she wanted to please Alex or Katie.

    A tall man joined Candice and she turned to him.

    This is my husband, Donald. Donald, this is Carmen Pulock ... umm, I mean ...what is your name now? I heard you got married.

    Barnett. Carmen glanced up as Alex joined her. This is my husband, Alex.

    Alex glanced at Donald as he offered a hand to Candice. When his gaze shifted toCandice, he stiffened, his expression becoming wary.

    Candice had started to lift her hand, but it froze as she stared at him. When shefound her voice, it fairly dripped with sarcasm.

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    Well, if it isnt the reluctant prince of Medena Castle.

    Donalds perplexed gaze went from Candice to Alex and then finally soughtCarmen. No doubt he had no idea what his wife was talking about.

    Alex continued to hold out his hand until Candice accepted it.

    Im sorry, she said to Alex without explaining her comment.

    A few years ago Carmen wouldnt have had a clue what Candice was talking about.Now she knew Candice was referring to the Medena hacienda and Alexs reluctance toinherit. What she still didnt know was how Candice knew and why it annoyed her.

    At that moment the band began playing. Carmen turned to Alex.

    I think Id like to dance now.

    Alex immediately offered an arm and escorted her to the dance floor. As he drewher into the circle of his arms, she followed his steps, wrapping her arms around hisneck. She met his bewildered gaze and wrinkled her nose.

    Dont pay any attention to miss snooty-face. I think shes jealous.

    The smile came so quickly that it seemed the dimple arrived first. He shook hishead, his smile becoming wry again.

    The only thing she feels for me is distain. Im not sure which of my sins sheconsiders worst - being a Medena offspring or refusing my heritage.

    Carmen gazed up at him as they swayed to the sound of the music.

    I cant imagine why either would matter to her?

    When he looked uncomfortable, she smiled.

    Thats what I thought.

    I wasnt interested in her, he said quickly.

    Carmen lifted her brows. Oh I know. You had eyes only for Tessa.

    His neck colored and he frowned. I didnt even know Tessa then.

    Carmen sighed. And the list goes on and on.

    They stopped dancing and he gazed down at her with a solemn expression.

    Youre the only one for me, Carmen.

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    I was teasing you, Alex. You were almost thirty when we met. As sweet as you are,I knew I couldnt be the only one who ever loved you.

    Sweet? The wry smile returned and they resumed dancing. Im sure my heritageattracted more than anything else.

    Carmen frowned. Yes, I suppose for those who knew of it when they met you.Money means a lot to some people. But you are sweet ... She smiled. Andhandsome.

    He sighed. She said I thought I was better than her and my family.

    Carmen laid her head on his chest. Why had it never occurred to her that wealthypeople carried such a burden? When they first met, she had assumed he would bebored without the luxuries she assumed he was accustomed to. People assumed a lotabout others. Alex had endured a lot of embarrassment because of the relationship

    between his mother and biological father and now this. Small wonder he had tried tobury that part of his life.

    When the dance ended, Alex got them some punch and they sat down at a table. Afew minutes later they were joined by a girl Carmen hadnt seen since high school.

    Carmen, Lillie gasped. I couldnt believe it when I saw you dancing with someonebesides Josh! Where is he now?

    Carmen glanced at Alex, but he was watching someone across the room. Surely hewouldnt be so sensitive about that name now. She turned her attention back to Lillie.

    Josh died in a car accident about five years ago.

    The smile left Lillies face. Oh, Im sorry. She glanced at Alex. How long have youtwo been married?

    Seven years in August, Carmen said.

    Lillie frowned. Oh, then you and Josh never married?

    Carmen shook her head. No. It wasnt something she wanted to discuss.

    Lillie sighed. I got married right out of high school. It lasted almost ten years. She

    made a face. I guess we just grew away from each other.

    Im sorry, Carmen said.

    Alex was watching Lillie absently, clearly lost in thought.

    A voice announced that the next dance would be a contest the Cha Cha. Alexcame out of his trance and looked at Carmen, lifting a brow.

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    Carmen shook her head. Not me! I barely do a good waltz, and thats becauseyoure a good dancer.

    He laughed. You do fine.

    Lillie perked up. I can Cha Cha. She glanced from Carmen to Alex uneasily.

    Carmen laughed. Go ahead, you two. Win the contest.

    Are you sure you dont mind? Alex asked.

    Go! she said, pushing him playfully.

    Lillie was tall maybe an inch taller than Alex. Once again Carmen was remindedof the fact that Alex wasnt a tall man. At five-nine, he seemed tall to her probablybecause she was so short, but possibly because he was so well proportioned.

    Alex was lithe and graceful light on his feet. He managed the attitude of the ChaCha without the usual extreme movement of the hips. Once again he was doingsomething that might be considered effeminate in another man, and yet he lookedtotally masculine. Where did he learn to dance like that?

    Lillie twisted and turned, always in perfect time with him. Her dress lifted out,revealing long graceful legs. They were a lovely couple and every eye in the room wason them as they danced to a lively Latin tune.

    As she watched, Carmens gaze found Candice. The expression on her faceindicated she disapproved. Was Candice jealous? Had there been a relationship

    between them? Alex didnt actually deny a relationship. She sighed. It didnt matter.That was a long time ago. And yet, the old question returned. Was she holding himback? Tonight she was having fun, but it wasnt something she would enjoy doing on aregular basis. That might not be true for Alex, though. He was certainly enjoying himselfright now. Did he miss the social life he had in Houston? More importantly, would theygrow apart like Lillie and her husband? She forced the thought from her mind. It was aquestion that only time could answer. Marriage required vigilance and maintenance. Itshould never be taken for granted. If seven years with Alex had taught her nothing else,it was that.

    Carmen?

    Carmen glanced up to find a tall blonde standing beside their table.

    Im Freda, she said with a smile and stuck out her hand.

    Carmen shook her hand. Yes, I remember you. I think we shared a geometry classthe last year of school.

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    Yes. You helped me with my homework a lot. She glanced around. WheresJosh?

    If Alex had been where he could hear that for the second time tonight, it probablywould have bothered him. Carmen explained what had happened and introduced Alex

    with a point of the finger.

    Oh, so he belongs to you. I wondered He has such kind eyes.

    Yes, Alex did have kind eyes, though she had never actually thought of it that waybefore. Carmen offered a chair at their table, but Freda had friends on the other side ofthe room. She visited briefly and then joined them.

    Not surprising at all, Alex and Lillie won the contest. When they returned to thetable out of breath and laughing, Carmen complimented them. Lillie was glowing withexcitement.

    I just love to do the Cha Cha and Alex is a Prince!

    Carmen looked at Alex. Lillie was the second woman to call him a prince thisevening. She had never thought of him that way, but it did fit. Whether it was love orblood that made his father insist that Alex inherit the estate, Alex was as trapped as aprince.

    Alex lifted his brows and shrugged.

    She stared absently at her glass of punch. So much was expected of him. It mustbe difficult to live up to so many peoples expectations. Then again, many people would

    enjoy the attention. He didnt seem to mind it tonight. In fact, he appeared to be relaxed in his element. In the last few years, since he had made peace with his father, he hadfinally brushed the chip from his shoulder. He no longer bristled at the mention of thename Medena, nor did he avoid them. He actually sought them out to spend time withthem, as he had on this last trip. Alex had changed, but had she?

    A hand squeezed her shoulder and she glanced up to find Alex watching her.

    I wouldnt have danced with her if I had known it would bother you.

    She smiled. It didnt bother me. It was much more fun watching you two than itwould have been having you pick me up off the floor repeatedly.

    Their conversation was interrupted briefly while a man asked Lillie to dance. Shewas off again, leaving them at the table alone.

    Dont put yourself down like that. Alex said. Youre a good dancer.

    Carmen sobered. Not like Lillie.

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    His brows lifted for a moment. I have a feeling Lilly likes to party all the time.

    She sighed. Meaning shes had a lot of practice?

    He didnt answer. His gaze moved around the room as he sipped on his glass of

    punch.

    Carmen studied his face as she spoke.

    I suppose dancing that well would require a lot of practice. So where did youlearn?

    His gaze shot back to her and he choked on his drink, spilling it on his suit.

    Carmen grabbed a napkin and began dabbing at the punch. He pushed her handaway and divided his attention between wiping his suit off and coughing. When he hadthem both under control, he finally turned to her, his brows lowered.

    My mother insisted I go to dance school.

    Carmen smiled. Im glad she did. Now you can teach me.

    He coughed again and frowned. The Cha Cha?

    Carmen nodded. Why not?

    He shook his head. I never would have guessed youd be interested. Why dontyou just take dancing lessons?

    She shrugged. Fair enough. Obviously he resented having to go to dance school.Did he resent everything he was pushed into? She resisted a smile as the answer cameto her instantly. Yes. Maybe that was to be expected of a personality like his. Alex likedto be in full control. Fortunately he was also caring and compassionate.

    The evening slipped by and when the band took a break, special requests wereplayed on a stereo. When hers started, she took Alex by the hand and led him to thedance floor.

    This waltz is for you and me, she said as she turned to face him.

    He lifted a brow, a faint smile on his lips. When the music began, he tookpossession of her and they danced around the room. He lead and she followed. If onlylife were that simple. She gazed up at him, softly singing along with the recording.

    Ill always remember the song they were playing the first time we danced and Iknew. As we swayed to the music and held to each other, I fell in love with you. Could Ihave this dance for the rest of my life? Would you be my partner every night? Whenwere together it feels so right. Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?

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    As he listened to the words, his gaze traveled over her face. Maybe he wasremembering the first time they danced in her goat dairy. Was that when she fell inlove with him?

    She closed her eyes as they glided around the room, oblivious to the other dancers.If only the rest of their lives could be as blissful as this dance.

    The evening flew by and finally they came to the last dance, a waltz. Alex swept hergracefully around the room again while the band played The Last Waltz.

    By the time they left, she was exhausted. She fell asleep in the truck and wokewhen Alex lifted her out of the vehicle in the garage. She lay in his arms, gazing up athim until he gently lowered her feet to the ground. Her pulse quickened as he drew herinto his arms. She removed his tie and opened the first few buttons on his shirt. For a

    moment they gazed into each others eyes. The feel of his body against hers wasexciting. She slid a hand up his chest and around to the back of his neck, urging hishead down. Lifting her chin for his affection, she forced his lips down to hers.

    Their kiss was electrifying the result of a tantalizing evening in each others arms,no doubt. His arms pressed her closer, his smooth lips seeking hers in ardent pleasure.When his lips left hers, they seared a hot trail down her neck and onto her breast.

    She groaned and he released her. He unlocked the door and pushed it open beforelifting her into his arms again. This time he carried her into the house and shut the doorwith a foot. Pausing only long enough to lock it, he carried her to their bedroom. Theywere alone and she had him to herself for the night. For that amount of time, they wouldfall back into their old roles, with Alex in control. She sighed in contentment.

    Chapter Three

    Carmen woke the next morning to the sound of a rooster crowing. Alex lay against herback with an arm around her; a hand cradling one of her breasts. The soft puff of breathon her neck indicated he was still asleep. It was after six am, but still not full daylight.They were supposed to get up early so that Alex could help her scout out a trail before

    church. She didnt want to move. It was all so cozy and romantic. Alex was the perfecthusband for her. She traced the veins on his hand and caressed his arm. Every inch ofhim was delightful.

    His breathing changed and he moved, kissing her bare shoulder before he spoke.

    Wed better get up if were going to scout out that trail before we go to church.

    Carmen sighed. I suppose.

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    He chuckled softly. It is nice to have the house to ourselves, isnt it?

    She rolled over to face him, snuggling into his arms. No interruptions.

    When they kissed, the room lit up with a brilliant flash of lightning.

    Alex drew back and lifted a brow. Wow!

    Carmens giggle was drowned by a rumble of thunder.

    Alex drew her back into his arms. No interruptions.

    Their lovemaking lasted only a few minutes before his cell phone rang. He pulledaway with an exasperated sigh and answered the phone. His side of the conversationindicated there was an emergency. He closed the phone and gazed down at her for amoment.

    Apparently I was wrong, he said in a dejected tone.

    She wrinkled her nose and pulled away from him.

    Next time we decide to spend some time alone, Im going to bury your telephone.

    He chuckled as he crawled out of bed and began dressing. He owned the clinic, sohe could tell them to send someone else, but Alex loved his work. Of course, that wasntall of it. Alex was conscientious and he would never ask his employees to do anythinghe wouldnt do. It was his responsibility and, Alex being the person he was, could donothing but step up to it.

    Less than a half hour later he was out the door. As she watched his truck leave theyard, she turned and headed for the shower. She might as well pick up the children.

    After a shower, she was dressing when her phone rang. She resisted the urge tofinish dressing before answering it. It wasnt as if they could see her.

    Hello? she said as she dressed with the phone to her ear.

    Carmen? an unfamiliar male voice asked.

    Yes.

    This is Gerald. Remember me?

    Oh, yes. Alex said you were going to call.

    Carmen hastily began dressing.

    Alex said you were ready to have guests. I wanted to make a reservation for June if its open.

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    Carmen pulled the other arm up and began buttoning her blouse.

    All of June?

    Three weeks starting the 30th of May, actually.

    That was less than two weeks away. She would need to take some notes. Sheheaded for Alexs office, the fingers on her left hand still fumbling with the last button.

    Geralds voice was concerned. Is that alright? If you have other plans...

    No, she said as she climbed the stairs. Its fine. Im just looking for a piece ofpaper and pencil.

    Oh.

    She found a pad and pen on his desk. Slipping into his chair, she continued their

    conversation.

    Alright, Ive got it now. I think Alex said you would have two friends with you?

    One of my friends and a co-worker of his, he corrected. My friends name isAaron Blankenship and his co-workers name is Robert Sein. Thats spelled S-e-i-n. Iunderstand he goes by Rob. I havent met him yet. He paused and then added, Oh,and my last name is Wilson.

    Carmen scribbled the names on a piece of paper. What else did she need to know?She should have asked Alex.

    And you want to rent the house for the first three weeks in June - from May 30thuntil June 21st, is that right?

    Yes. I dont know what time well be arriving because we still have to make flightarrangements.

    Do you need someone to pick you up at the airport?

    No, well rent a car and drive from there. We will need instructions how to get toyour place, though.

    The rest of their conversation was taken up in directions to the house andinstructions about the rental contract she would fax them. Gerald was easy to talk toand his conversation generally led her in the direction she needed to go. It was a goodthing he was her first summer tenant. Had Alex encouraged him to be? It didnt matter.

    According to Alex, Gerald had expressed interest several years ago when the summercottage thing was only an idea.

    After the phone call, she finished getting ready for church and faxed the form. Thatout of the way, she left to pick up the children.

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    Alex joined them at church half way through the sermon, looking handsome andsophisticated in a light gray suit. He quietly slid into the seat next to her. Natalie andMatthew were in the nursery and Jonathan and Destiny were still in Sunday schoolclasses.

    After the sermon, they all stood to sing. Alex shared the hymn book with her, hisdeep rich voice strong and confident. He couldnt carry a tune if she stapled it in a paperbag for him, but he was blissfully unaware of that fact. Each Sunday it was a reminderthat there were some things at which he wasnt accomplished.

    After church they all met at Katie and Bills house for lunch. The morning storm hadleft a fresh beautiful day and the children were playing in the back yard. Alex, Bill andJonathan were examining a lawn mower that wouldnt start while Carmen and Katiewere preparing the food. Carmen was telling Katie about the new customers andmentioned that the morning storm had interrupted their plans to scout out a trail.

    Katie placed a bowl of mashed potatoes on the table and paused, hands on herhips as she gave Carmen an exasperated look.

    Excuse me, but isnt that your land and dont you know every inch of it? Youvespent your entire life there. What makes him think he needs to scout a trail for you?

    Warmth crawled up Carmens neck. Yes, I know the land, but it will ease his mindto know where Ill be.

    Katie rolled her eyes. This is your business literally. Tell him to butt out. Honestly,Carmen, if you dont take a stand, hes going to control you all your life.

    Carmen shrugged and smiled. Youre the only one who seems to be concernedabout that.

    Katie sighed and threw her hands in the air as she turned away. As she opened therefrigerator door, her voice sounded despaired.

    Just about time I think youre progressing, you back slide. Dont you have anydesire to be your own person?

    Of course I do, Carmen answered crisply as she slid the platter of sliced meatloafon the table. He doesnt question the way I run the house or argue with me about myanimals

    Katie pulled her head out of the refrigerator, her sharp gaze falling on Carmen.Your animals, your chores thats right. As long as you stick to the things he hasassigned to you, he has no reason to argue. She pulled the margarine out of therefrigerator and shut the door. Ill make you a bet. Let him select a route for you andthen suggest an alternate route. Ill bet you he gets mad.

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    Carmen grinned. Somehow I think Ill wind up on the losing side no matter whathappens. She sobered. If I dont care which route I use and he does, why should Icontest him? Thats just inviting problems stirring up conflict where it doesnt exist.

    Katie methodically placed the margarine on the table. Alright, I see your point, but

    what about the things you do care about? What about this cell phone thing withJonathan?

    Carmen shrugged. I said no and Alex is beside me on it. That only proves mypoint.

    Katies smile was wry. He isnt arguing the point, but is he really supporting yourdecision?

    Carmen shrugged again. He has a right to his opinion just like I do. I dont alwaysagree with his views on how to raise children either, but we dont contest each other in

    front of the children. If we disagree, we do so privately.

    Katie sighed. Sometimes youre so nave. Do you honestly think the kids dontknow you disagree about it? Did you know Jonathan told our twins that Alex wants toget him a cell phone but youre being a unreasonable about it?

    Carmen pushed away the anger her words aroused. Jonathan had reached pubertyin full rebellion, which was one of the reasons she didnt think he should have a cellphone. He didnt need a constant source of ideas from friends who were having thesame identity crisis. Lately she had to stay after him to get his chores done. It had allstarted after they came back from their visit to Texas. At first she had thought it wasonly a stage. Maybe it was the continued contact with Alfonso. Some children were

    simply bad combinations. Alfonso wasnt a bad boy, but when he and Jonathan got theirheads together, they made some poor choices. The money making scam last summerwas a good example. Neither boy had ever been deprived of anything they actuallyneeded. Certainly neither had been taught to misrepresent for their own profit.Fortunately Morino saw the ad for Apple Hors Devours in the local paper andrecognized Alfonsos cell phone number before they made their first sale. They actuallyhad some horse manure boxed up and ready to ship. Apparently the idea came upwhen the boys heard it called road apples. Alex had been embarrassed, but Morinosresponse was basically boys will be boys. Surprisingly, Senor Medena reprimandedboth Morino and Alfonso. Alfonso lost the use of his cell phone for a month and Alexgrounded Jonathan for the same amount of time.

    Im sorry, Katie said. I guess I shouldnt have said anything, but dont you realizethat the way Alex treats you gives Jonathan reason to question your authority?

    Carmen stared at her. Was that possible? Her father had been the final authority,but never had she questioned her mothers authority. If she had, her father would haveset her straight. Alex would do the same wouldnt he?

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    That evening at home they were eating supper when Jonathan again asked Alex ifhe could get a cell phone. Alex frowned at him.

    Your mother said no, didnt she?

    Later, when they were alone, Carmen challenged Alex about his response. Alexlooked surprised.

    I was backing you up, he said indignantly.

    No, Carmen said firmly. You were blaming me making me responsible for hisdilemma.

    His gaze became distant in thought for a few moments. Finally he rubbed the backof his neck and gave her a chagrined smile.

    Maybe youre right. Ill choose my words more carefully next time.

    Katie was wrong about Alex. He made mistakes, but he was willing to takeownership and responsible enough to take corrective action.

    Chapter Four

    The weekend before her guests were scheduled to arrive, they finally found the time toscout out a trail. They left Natalie, Mathew and Destiny with a sitter. Jonathan waspracticing with some friends for a band they were forming. Maybe the band would helpsettle him down. Jonathan said Alex had told him to ask her for permission. If her

    answer had been no, he would have again put her in a position where she would be toblame for Jonathans state of unhappiness. Why didnt Alex make the decision? Hadtheir discussion been for nothing?

    They rode double on Ed from the house to the stable. There, Carmen saddledPrincess while Alex waited.

    Today is Eds birthday, she told him as she tightened the cinch. Hes 23 yearsold.

    Alex nodded, his gaze drifting over her body. Hes in good condition, he saidabsently.

    Normally she would have welcomed the attention, but his expression was notpleased. She had specifically selected her clothing today to please him. Maybe hethought the weather was too cool for bare shoulders and midriff. It was overcast, butwarm. The knit pants hugged her figure, but they were comfortable and stretched whenshe did.

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    His gaze lifted to her face. Youre not going to wear that when you take the guyson a tour, are you?

    Warmth flooded her cheeks as she met his gaze.

    If you didnt trust me with other men, why did you encourage it?

    He frowned. I didnt say that. I didnt think that.

    She mounted Princess and gazed down at him. You didnt say those words, butyou implied I would lead them on.

    The furrows between his brows deepened. I did not. I only wanted to know Hepaused and the furrows vanished as his brows lifted.

    If I would dress this way when I took them on a tour. She concluded. No. Idressed this way because I thought you would like it.

    His gaze drifted over her body again and then lifted to her face. I like it.

    For a moment they looked into each others eyes, and then he turned to Ed. He puta foot into the stirrup and mounted in one lithe movement. Turning Ed toward the gate,he leaned over, lifted the latch and pushed it open. Pulling Ed to the side, he allowedCarmen to go through the gate first. As she passed, he grinned.

    She smiled and nudged Princess into a lope, leaving him to shut the gate and catchup. It still rankled that he thought she had to be reminded to dress in a professional way.It wasnt the first time he had made a remark that indicated he was less than pleased

    about the way she dressed. Did it embarrass him? While the clothes she wore todaywere comfortable, they certainly wouldnt have been her choice. Katie chose them, buthe thought they were suggestive. When she selected her clothing, he thought it was oldfashioned. Before the guests arrived, shed do some shopping on her own. Maybe Alexwouldnt like that either, but she would.

    Alex rode ahead of her. Obviously he had a trail in mind. Hed probably beenthinking about it all week. The trail they followed led around the base of a bluff. Therewas a shorter way up the side of the bluff. She had shown it to him years ago when theyvisited her parents graves. He didnt want her to take that route, though, because it wastoo dangerous. They werent in a race, though, and the longer route would give herguests more time to explore.

    A few small stones clattered down the bluff and they glanced up in time to see abighorn sheep. Two lambs followed their mother as the ewe leaped from one ledge toanother. This was why their guests would enjoy the route. Alex knew the sheep likedthis area. There were three of them well, six now. Three lambs had been born thisspring.

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    Alex glanced back at her and grinned. Gerald should find this route rewarding.The smile faded. If I can find a good way up to those ruins. He glanced around. Ithought the creek was close, but I dont hear it.

    Carmen urged Princess up beside Ed and pointed. Its over there. I suppose the

    rain this week has it flowing faster.

    They paused at the creek while Ed and Princess drank. The water moved silentlyover moss and lichen covered slabs of rocks, forming small pools in the low spots. Asudden breeze whistled through the trees over them, startling the horses. Their heads

    jerked up, water dripping from their muzzles as they looked around, their ears perkedforward searching for any sound that might indicate danger. Leather creaked as Alexshifted in the saddle. Honeysuckle blossoms sent a sweet invitation and a bee buzzedby them in answer. Ed snorted and returned to drinking. Princess nickered and steppedforward. She was ready to move on.

    Alex urged Ed into a walk and they continued their mission. They found the ruinsabout a mile further where the creek followed a gorge between two high cliffs. Her fatherhad discovered the rock cluster shortly after he bought the land. He thought it might bea shelter that Civil War soldiers had built. Large rocks had been stacked, forming anoutside wall that made a room under an overhanging cliff. It was close to water but highenough to escape floods. How long had they lived there? Was it in the winter orsummer? Her gaze lifted to the top of the cliff on her right.

    High above them were the graves of her parents. She and her father had buriedMoms ashes there, and then after he died, Josh had helped her bury his ashes theretoo. She shivered. This place always gave her the creeps. It was different standing

    beside what was left of her parents and looking down. Down here it was as if the ghostsof soldiers wandered. Did they die here from hunger?

    She sighed. I hope no one wants to spend too much time here.

    Alex turned quickly and studied her face. Why?

    She shrugged. I dont know. I just dont like it here.

    His gaze lifted to the cliff top. I suppose it would be a sad memory.

    He used to be able to read her every thought, but lately he seemed to do more

    misreading than anything else. In this case, it didnt matter, though. Better he shouldthink it was a sad memory than to think she was afraid of ghosts.

    The route Alex chose meandered through the gorge and then up a steep deer trailto the top of the mountain. They stopped at the spring where they had found the deadlonghorn bull years ago and dismounted to let the horses rest. This was where they haddiscovered the mother bear that Alex had to kill. That was the summer he learned athird language sign language. That was the summer he had been stabbed and lost hisvoice nearly lost his life. In seven years they had made more memories on her place

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    than she had in the previous twenty-five. This was her land in name only. It was a partof both of them. She glanced up to find Alex watching her in a strange way.

    Are you nervous?

    She frowned. Nervous? About what?

    About your guests.

    She smiled. If youre wondering if Im concerned about being up here alone withthree strange men, the answer is no. You wouldnt have allowed them to come here ifyou didnt trust them.

    His brows shot up. I havent even met two of them.

    She met his gaze. Then you must have a lot of confidence in Gerald.

    He nodded soberly. That I do, but Im not going to know all of your guests. Youll

    have to develop some skill in reading people if you want to make this a business.

    Actually, she wasnt that interested in making a business out of it, but she felt theneed to make some monetary contribution to their marriage. He had left the farm in hername and it was up to her to see that it was productive.

    Alex was trying his best to teach her to be independent. Why, after years ofinsistence on domination? Katie was probably the cause for this latest change. Maybethey were both putting too much faith in Katie. Who was Katie to teach herindependence anyway? Seven years ago Katie had insisted Carmen was tooindependent. Of course, that was before she met Alex and surrendered everything in

    marriage.

    She leaned against a pine tree, her gaze falling on a little green snake with stripeson it. She looked away, trying not to bring his attention to it. Alex had a phobia aboutserpents.

    Alex sucked in a quick breath and grabbed her arm, jerking her toward him. Lookout!

    She smiled and spoke in a calm voice. Its only a garden snake.

    His brows furrowed. Its a snake and you almost stepped on it. What if it had been

    a rattler?

    She grinned. I guess it would have died after it bit me. I should take better care ofour wildlife.

    He rolled his eyes. You see, this is what I mean. Youre careful about everyoneelse, but careless about your own safety.

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    She frowned. Is that whats been in your craw lately? I saw it and I knew it wasntpoisonous. Anyway, danger is all around us. You cant live inside a bubble, you know.

    I know that, but you set yourself up for it.

    She frowned. How?

    He eyed her for a moment, as though he couldnt understand why she didnt know.Finally he shrugged. Like telling everyone I was gone for two weeks. You should knowhow dangerous that could be.

    She stared at him for a moment. I didnt tell anyone that you were gone.

    Arms folded over his chest, his expression indicated he thought he had trapped herin a lie.

    Then how did they know?

    She exhaled in a silent snort. Let me guess, she said sarcastically. Someonecalled the office and asked for you?

    His gaze drifted over her face and then color started up his neck. His armsdropped to his side and he rubbed the back of his neck again.

    I suppose that could have happened.

    She sighed. I appreciate your concern, but I can take care of myself.

    His gaze shot back to her face and he shook his head, groaning. That phrase

    usually comes out of your mouth right before you do something really st He cut thesentence short and turned to Ed. Lets get back to the house.

    She mounted Princess and followed him. Something stupid? Certainly she haddone her share of stupid things. Okay, maybe more than her share, but he wasntexactly immune.

    They rode out of the forest on the hillside above the guest house and rested thehorses again. She planned to leave Princess at the stable and ride with him the rest ofthe way to the house.

    His gaze settled on her. Do you think you can remember that route?

    She choked down a sharp response and met his gaze. Is that the route yourecommend?

    A wry smile twisted his lips and the dark eyes reflected humor. Thats the route Idlike you to take.

    She nodded. Ill take it under advisement.

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    Actually, there was nothing wrong with the route and normally she would haveaccepted his request without comment. This time Katies words hung between them. Hewas demeaning her. She was more familiar with the land than he was. His wasnt theonly route and despite his opinion, she was as capable of finding a safe route as hewas. Furthermore, she wasnt stupid.

    She nudged Princess forward. Ill meet you at the house. I want to work in the barnfor a while.

    She left him there and didnt look back until she reached the barn. He was stillwatching her probably wondering what he had done to irritate her maybe evenwondering if she was upset or merely busy. It was amazing how someone could be soperceptive at one moment and clueless the next.

    She led Princess into a stall and removed the saddle and bridle. Then she threw aleaf of alfalfa hay into her stall. Grabbing a bucket, she headed for what used to be her

    goat dairy. It had been converted to a tack room but the faucet was handy for wateringthe horses. Alex had helped her with the conversion

    She sighed. Katie had her questioning his every motive. She didnt need his help.She could hire someone for that. What she wanted was his direction. What she neededwas his companionship. Already she missed him. It wasnt often that they had time tothemselves. Why was she allowing Katie to influence her thoughts and actions?

    Still, Katie was right to a degree. Unless she stood up to him, she would never learnto run the business. He wanted her to be more independent, but when she tried, hehung on to her. Hed get over these butterflies about letting her run the business whenhe discovered she could do it without his direction. Until then she would have to run itthe way she saw fit.

    She carried the water to Princess and then crossed the tack room to the othersection of the barn. She left the tack room door open while she stacked the newestdelivery of hay. The smell of alfalfa and leather soothed her nerves. Nerves? Maybe

    Alex was right. Maybe she was letting the stress of the new responsibilities get herdown.

    Music drifted in from the tack room. Alex must have turned it on. She glanced up ashe came to the doorway. He watched her lift a bale of hay and step up on the pile. In aninstant he was beside her, trying to take the bale from her hands.

    Here, let me do that. You shouldnt be lifting things that heavy. Why dont you hiresomeone to help you with all this stuff?

    She surrendered the bale to him and watched him toss it on top of the pile. Shesighed.

    Is this another thing I cant do by myself? I wonder if you fret all day about thingsbeing done right.

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    Her question caught him as he lifted another bale. He stopped, his gaze searchingher face. Finally he gave her a wry smile.

    This is a hauntingly familiar conversation to have in this barn. I thought we hadsettled that question seven years ago, but I guess not.

    No, I just got rid of the goats and started doing the work you thought I was suitedto.

    He winced. I didnt realize I was keeping you from what you wanted to do. I thoughtthe dairy was nothing more than an income.

    She lifted her brows. And you replaced that.

    He dropped the bale, his eyes flashing and his lips thinning. My mistake.

    Great, now she had stepped all over his ego. She took a step toward him and

    smiled.

    I married a wonderful person, not a bankroll.

    He eyed her warily and then leaned over to retrieve the bale. Lifting it, he steppedup on the pile of hay and tossed the bale on top, straightening it before stepping down.

    I know you want to protect me, she said. But youre smothering me.

    He paused, his gaze traveling over her face. Finally he brushed the hay from hisshirt and jeans, his gaze downcast as he spoke.

    Im sorry. Ill step back and give you room. His gaze lifted and fixed on hers. Butthink about your own safety, will you?

    It was true that she was more concerned about the safety of others than her own,but wasnt everyone? Still, even though he was willing to compromise, he had a right tovoice his concerns.

    She sighed and lifted her palms in surrender. Ill try to be more careful.

    He smiled in relief. Thats my girl. He glanced at the hay. Shall we do thistogether?

    They worked for a while and finally Carmen looked up at him and made a face.

    I enjoy our time alone, but I miss the children. Am I crazy?

    His expression was solemn as he studied her face. When he spoke, his voice wasquiet.

    How would you feel about another child?

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    She had come to terms with her part in the surrogacy, but still wasnt sure it wasmoral. A part of her still believed it was playing god, though obviously God blessed thetwins. God might not be so forgiving if they did it again. She shook her head.

    No Alex, once was enough.

    He smiled. No, I mean adopt one.

    She eyed him warily. If he had been scouting around, he had given no indication.She had always said she wanted five children. Maybe he felt the need to provide thefifth. She sighed.

    I know I said I wanted five children, but that was two adopted children and a set oftwins ago. I had no idea how much energy five children would require.

    He nodded, reaching for another bale of hay. I suppose thats true enough.

    Did you want another child? She said, assisting him with the bale.

    Together they tossed the bale to the top of the pile and he climbed up to position it.He didnt answer until he had it placed. As he climbed back down, he wiped perspirationfrom his forehead with the back of his hand.

    I thought maybe a boy about Jonathans age would be nice.

    She gazed up at him, trying to read his expression. It was impossible. She shookher head.

    Dont you think Jonathan has enough competition for attention as it is? Besides, Idont know if I could handle two teen-aged boys. Think how difficult it would be for theboy to adjust with all this going on.

    He frowned. All of what? Every family has issues to work out. Jonathan is a goodboy.

    She turned away and nodded as she pulled her gloves off.

    Hes a good boy, but now hes going through a difficult stage. Another child mightbe a bad influence. Theres no telling what another child might have gone through atthis point. He could have been abused, or

    Maybe he would be an orphan. Why do you always look for the worst?

    Carmen swung around and stared at him. I didnt think I was being negative, buttheres a lot to think about, Alex.

    He tugged his gloves off and avoided her eyes. I know. Im sorry. Of course youwould need time to think about it and more facts.

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    He said nothing more about it, but it stayed in her mind. Did Alex think that adoptinganother child would resolve Jonathans issues? She wasnt being negative. From whatshe had read and gleaned from conversations with mothers of teen boys, Jonathan wastypical for his age. Actually he was much better than some. Frankly, the idea of doublingtheir problems was downright frightening.

    Chapter Five

    Carmen arranged for the twins and Destiny to stay with Grandma Reynolds so that shewouldnt be distracted when her guests arrived. Jonathan had band practice with hisfriends and Alex was in his recliner, reading a letter from a wildlife management area inColorado. He had been quiet all week, obviously resigned to the fact that she was goingto run things her way. When his friend knocked on the door, he waited for Carmen toanswer it and when Gerald made the introductions, Alex said nothing not even whenRob made a comment that would normally have raised an eyebrow.

    Aaron offered a hand to Carmen, his gaze meeting hers in a shy way and thenslipping away as he gave a canned salutation. Rob boldly looked her up and down, hishandshake firm and lingering. His auburn brows lifted in surprise as he whistled.

    Wow! Gerald. Why didnt you tell us she was a looker?

    Geralds gaze shifted briefly to Alex, who continued reading as if he hadnt heardtheir conversation. When his gaze returned to Carmen, it held a brief warning. Thiswasnt his friend and he wasnt going to defend or reprimand him. That was fine withher. Rob wasnt the first man to make that kind of remark and he probably wouldnt bethe last. Like the others, he would stop when it didnt get the results he wanted.

    Rob was taller than Alex, but not as tall as Gerald. He had an athletic build,muscular and well proportioned. Hazel eyes held a hint of humor all the time, and hisauburn hair had a stylish cut. The way he dressed and acted indicated he was used tofeminine attention.

    Aaron was the opposite of Rob. He was short, thin and if not homely, certainly nothandsome. He had black hair and dark brown eyes that never seemed to look directly atanyone. What he did have was a shy smile that warmed the heart. Carmen liked himinstantly.

    Gerald stood a head taller than all of them. Yet, unlike so many tall people Carmenhad met, Gerald didnt slouch. He stood with his back straight, as if proud of every inch.His complexion was dark for a blonde man, as if he spent a lot of time outside. He hadput on a few pounds since she last saw him and it looked good on him. His thin lips slidinto that familiar wry smile as he shook her hand.

    At first I thought you had a white buffalo out there and then I realized it was a dog.

    She smiled. That was Brutus. I hope he didnt give you any trouble.

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    Gerald shook his head. No, he was just lying on the porch.

    Carmen glanced at Alex and he immediately headed for the door. Brutus didntnormally hang around the house, and he always barked at strangers.

    Gerald looked concerned. I hope nothing is wrong.

    Carmen withdrew her hand from his and watched anxiously as Alex walked out thedoor.

    Hes getting old. I guess he thinks he should be retired. God knows he deserves it.

    They talked for a few minutes and then all eyes turned to Alex when he came backin the house.

    Im going to walk him out to the barn and fix him a place to s