A cold gust of wind ripped brittle brown leaves from the limbs of the oak tree, tossing them carelessly in front of the headstone below. Carmen brushed them away and returned to her prayer. So far her prayers had been unanswered.
Lifting her chin, she stared absently at the old house and let out a long sigh. The promise of winter lurked in a puff of condensation that escaped her mouth. Alex wanted an answer, yet the only thing she was sure of was doubt. This might be the most difficult decision she would ever make. It might be their last chance to have a biological child. They had two adopted children already. Was it greedy to want one of their own as well? What about all the other children who needed a home? More important, were they playing god by using this method?
Alex reasoned that they wanted a child and would love and care for it. It would be their child, unlike adoption, where the mother could change her mind after they learned to love it. Unlike adopting a child from an unplanned pregnancy, this child would be intentionally conceived. The gestational carrier for this child already had a husband and two children. She would be helping them achieve a miracle and they would be helping her with a financial problem. They weren’t paying for a baby. They were paying for a service – like a baby sitter. He made it all sound so innocent – even noble.
And yet, didn’t clinical words like selective reduction and gestational carrier mask the facts? They were using an unnatural method to circumvent god’s decision - that they would not have a child of their own. Her gaze dropped reverently to the grave of their only natural child. Alexia had arrived long before her due date, with the emergency removal of Carmen’s womb. Alex was supposed to be sterile, but they had been wrong about that. Even now they waited for news that the eggs that had been taken from her body had been artificially fertilized. It was possible after all - but was it moral?
There would be no selective reduction. On that subject she was adamant. Only two eggs could be used for IVF – one of her conditions. Alex cautioned that it would seriously reduce their odds of success, but they and the surrogate mother were agreeable to twins, if it should happen. This would be the only attempt they would make. Alex had agreed without argument. Maybe he thought she would change her mind, but it wasn’t going to happen. It simply didn’t feel right – not then or now. Of course, as Alex pointed out, god always had the final word anyway. There might not even be one fertilized egg, and even if there were two, pregnancy wasn’t guaranteed.
She stood and stepped around the tree, gazing down at the old farm. That was her inheritance - eighty acres and an old house. The goat dairy was built by the Reynolds family – even Josh, although under protest. He couldn’t understand why she was so determined to make it on her own when she could simply marry him. The truth was, she didn’t know then either – not until Alex came along. There were sparks between them from the start. She smiled to herself – and not always because he rubbed her the wrong way. It seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do better than her, and he was always taking command of things. At some point, that stopped bugging her and became an attraction. In the beginning, she had denied romantic attraction to him. If he hadn’t been so sophisticated, it might have been a thought to ponder – but at that point any idea of him quitting his job as a top salesman and moving to Arkansas to become a veterinarian would have been ludicrous. He was simply the brother of her roommate, visiting for a few weeks.
A stream of smoke drifted from the chimney of the renovated old house. The renters would be there until Easter, when they planned to go back up north. Meanwhile the couple helped them feed the animals in exchange for reduced rent. They even agreed to take care of the animals while Alex and Carmen took their first vacation. In addition to the assistance from the renters, the money finally gave her an income of her own and the token independence that went with it. Alex had provided the money to remodel the home, but insisted that it stay in her name only. It wasn’t simply a financial thing, as he would have her believe. Alex was romantic enough to understand the sentimental significance of the home she had inherited. He had no family left now except his sister, Katie, and the birth father they were going to visit in Texas.
She frowned. “Half-sister,” she amended aloud.
It was the first time she thought of Katie that way. Did Alex think of her that way? There was so much he hadn’t told her. That stung a little, but it was such a personal thing that she could hardly blame him. Obviously he was still struggling with it. Maybe that was why having a biological child was so important to him.
Strolling down to the footbridge, she leaned on the railing. A white truck came down the road leading a dust trail. When it slowed for the drive, the dust caught up, hiding it in a swirling cloud. A glance at her watch confirmed it wasn’t lunch time yet, so why was Alex coming home already? Maybe things were slow at the veterinary clinic and he decided to take an early lunch. He did that sometimes when another doctor was available. They could function without him, though. He’d have to leave someone in charge when they all went to his father’s home in Texas for Christmas.
Leaving her thoughts behind, she started up the hill to meet Alex. He walked down the hill, pausing a moment respectfully at the headstone, and then ducked under a limb as he continued down the hill. His shoulders swayed gracefully, the open denim jacket swinging loosely in the breeze. The large belt buckle at his lean waist traced the rhythm of his stride. Watching him move was always a pleasure.
“Hey Heidi,” his warm baritone voice called to her.
“Are you down here taking inventory or doing a lot of thinking?”
She returned his smile. “Thinking . . . I think.”
He reached her and turned, walking beside her as they started back up the hill to the house. Hands shoved backwards into his back pockets, he took slow deliberate steps, as if he had something on his mind.
She glanced up at his face, but it gave no clue of his mood. That delicious chocolate gaze drifted over her face reflectively, bringing a blush to her cheeks. Humor danced in his eyes and twisted those smooth lips.
“Is Destiny with Grandma Reynolds today?”
Her heart was starting to flutter.
“Yes, and Jonathan is at school. We’re all alone.”
Warmth flooded her face as if it were a bold thing to say. Would she ever outgrow the things mama had taught her? Maybe it would have been different if mama had lived to see her married. She and Dad would have loved Alex.
A sudden gust of wind circled them and whispered words in her mind.
“Your little Texas stud.”
She stopped, sucking her breath in sharply and glanced around. The voice and words belonged to Josh, and yet he had been dead for more than two years. Why would she suddenly remember that phrase?
“What is it?” Alex said, glancing around.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head to clear it. “Just an unexpected memory, I guess.”
He arched a dark brow “Alexia?”
She shook her head. “No.”
The dark gaze held hers a moment. “Josh?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
He shrugged. No doubt it mattered to him. Her long term relationship with Josh was still very much alive in his mind, even though it had never been particularly romantic.
As they continued toward the house, he cleared his throat.
“The doctor called today.”
She stiffened. “Oh?”
His searching gaze ran over her face again. “They have two fertilized eggs and they want final consent.”
She let her breath out slowly. Was it a sign from god - or a last chance to change her mind?
“We can stop right here if you want, Carmen.” Dark eyes studied her intently.
“We’ve spent so much getting this far.”
She stopped and gazed up at his face. He was head of the house – the one who made final decisions. Only this time she would have to decide. He had done all he could do.
Clutching her light jacket closer, she turned toward the house.
“Let’s get in out of this cold wind.”
He wanted... needed an answer. She sighed heavily. Step by step she was working her way through this, not actually making a decision. This was the final step. No matter what happened, she had to be 100% on this decision. Either she wanted it or she didn’t. Of course, there had never been any question about wanting another baby. So, the decision she had to make was whether she could allow a surrogate mother to carry their child. It was no small decision for her.
They entered the house and she glanced at the dark fireplace. “Could you start a fire, honey?”
Without answering, he headed for the fireplace and opened the wood box.
“I’ll get us some coffee,” she said, heading for the kitchen.
In the kitchen she removed two cups from the mug holder and reached for the coffee pot. This was a decision she had already made once - but not really. The decision had been to go along with Alex and hope god resolved it. Even so, she had accepted it in her mind to a degree. She would take hormones toward the last so that she would produce milk. Alex was doing everything in his power to provide her with all the experiences of a natural mother. The joy of expectation was what they missed after Alexia was conceived. Alex had destroyed it then with suspicion and accusations. Would she be the one who destroyed the opportunity this time... with doubt?
Slowly carrying the full cups into the living room, she handed one to Alex. A small cluster of flames was struggling to stay alive in a pile of logs. She gazed down at him as he knelt beside the fire. His smooth bronzed features were sober as he gazed up at her expectantly. Long dark lashes and black curly hair – he had it all.
“Did I ever tell you that you’re the most handsome man I’ve ever seen?” It was true, and it brought color to his neck, but he didn’t comment.
She sighed and walked over to the window seat. Staring out the bay window at the old house, she abandoned her coffee cup on the window sill.
“I never thought I could do it.”
He stood and walked over to her.
“Renovate the old farmhouse, or consent to artificially producing a child?”
She glanced up at him as he stopped beside her. “Either, I guess. I suppose they’re both a little artificial. Still,” she said, returning her attention to the old house.
“Sometimes we have to accept change if we want to move forward.”
They were both silent for a few minutes. The fire snapped as it grew. At this point, abandoning the two fertilized eggs might be a worse sin. Once again she sighed deeply.
“Let’s do it,” she finally said unceremoniously.
“Are you sure?” His expression was pensive.
She laughed without humor. “No, but I can’t sit on the fence forever - and I do want another baby.”
A warm hand rested on her waist. “It’s ours, Carmen. It came from us.” His voice was controlled. “It isn’t as though god didn’t give us the ability to have children of our own. An accident caused this situation.”
Yes, it was an accident. She had blamed him at first for giving them permission to remove her uterus, but it was a life and death decision – one that wasn’t easy for him. He hadn’t caused the miscarriage. In fact, he had given her strict orders not to lift anything. The suitcase didn’t seem that heavy at the time. Maybe lifting had nothing to do with it. Maybe something was wrong all along. Certainly she had been under a lot of stress. She pushed the thought from her mind and turned to him.
Alex set his cup down beside hers. Taking her in his arms, he held her close for a moment and then planted a kiss on her forehead. His lips were firm and warm.
Tipping her head back, she invited his affection with her eyes. His somber gaze met hers and then drifted to her lips. Lowering his head, his lips touched hers. His kiss began softly, slowly gaining passion. His warm hands slid under her jacket, caressing her back through the thin T-shirt.
Reluctantly she pulled away, her pulse and respiration in a race.
“Do you have to go back right away?”
His eyes twinkled. “No.” He reached for her again.
Her face warmed. “I meant... do I have time to fix you a hot lunch?”
“Later,” he said with a grin that summoned the dimple below one eye. He pulled her into his arms again.
This time her hands felt their way up his smooth muscular chest - up to his shoulders and then up the back of his neck. Pulling his head down, she met those warm lips again and surrendered to the passion he always managed to arouse.
“Alex,” she whispered softly against his lips. “I love you so much.”
He groaned and lifted her into his arms, carrying her to their bedroom. If anything could take her mind off the worry of surrogacy, he could.
Later, she lay in bed, tucked warmly under the covers as his boots clicked away from her on the hardwood floor - down the hall and into the den. He was going to call the doctor. Her sigh was a mixture of contentment and relief. Right or wrong, the decision had been made. Now they would wait for a positive pregnancy test – like any other couple.
The gestational carrier was prepared and ready to receive the fertilized eggs, so it would happen in the next day or so. All the papers had been signed and the money provided. It would be four to six weeks before they knew whether the procedure was successful. In the meantime, Thanksgiving was coming up – and then Christmas. They already had the tickets to fly to Texas while Jonathan was off school for Christmas vacation.
Alex was uneasy because he and his biological father had never seen eye to eye. She was uneasy because she had never been on a plane before. If Alex knew that, he gave no indication – and she had no intention of telling him. Her innocence appealed to him, but he probably wouldn’t find this facet of her inexperience attractive. His birth father already suspected she was a country bumpkin. He didn’t need proof.
She stretched and sat up, reaching for her clothes. Boots clicked in the hallway and she instinctively pulled the blanket around her torso modestly. Alex walked into the room, smiling when he saw what she had done.
“Why do you always do that?”
“What?” she asked.
“We’ve been married for nearly five years, and we just made love. What are you going to hide from me that I haven’t already seen?”
Her face was burning. “Well then, I must not be hiding anything.”
He bent over, picked up her clothes and tossed them to her. “I’m going to make myself a sandwich and get back to work.”
“But you said . . .”
“I said later. Why don’t we go out for supper tonight – just us and the kids?”
“Well, if my cooking is that bad...” she teased.
He chuckled. “There’s nothing wrong with your cooking. Are you opposed to a break now and then?”
“No.” She glanced down at the clothes, wondering if he was going to leave the room soon.
He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I’ll be in the kitchen... when you get decent.” He walked out of the room chuckling.
He was right. It was utterly ridiculous to be embarrassed about letting him see her undressed. But logic had nothing to do with emotion. Once the fire of passion was gone, it was embarrassing. It was embarrassing when that twinkle came in his eye because he read her torrid thoughts about him. After nearly five years of marriage, her heart shouldn’t beat overtime when he simply walked into the room. Yet it did.
After dressing and freshening up, she found him in the kitchen wolfing down a sandwich.
“What’s the hurry? Are you afraid of getting fired?” she asked with a grin.
He glanced at his watch and swallowed before answering. “We’ve got a meeting at two and it’s almost one-thirty now.”
She caught her breath, warmth crawling up her neck again.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
His eyes twinkled. “When?”
“Before,” she said, knowing her face must be red.
He stood and tossed the last bite into his mouth, washing it down with the last of his milk.
“I’ve got to go. See you at five, OK?”
Without waiting for her to reply, he strode away, pausing only long enough to shrug into his denim jacket.
She followed him out the door and watched as he hopped into the truck and started the engine. Waking from her stupor, she blew him a kiss. He grinned and waved. Turning the truck around, he headed back down the drive.
It seemed there was always something dragging him away – usually work. And yet, he came home after work every night. No one could deny that Alex was a devoted husband and father. Maybe this vacation would give them some much needed time together.