Carmen and Alex hosted Thanksgiving Dinner for all the family they had in Arkansas. Bill was family because he was married to Alex’s sister. In the same way, Grandma and Grandpa Reynolds were related because they were Destiny’s biological grandparents. That made all their children her aunts and uncles, and their grandchildren her cousins. In a way, Carmen and Alex had adopted a family. Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds had been like second parents to Carmen since she was a child. Their daughters were almost grown when Carmen was born, but their son was her age. Josh had been her childhood playmate.
When Carmen’s father died, she thought she was alone in the world, yet all these people had been there for her. Alex had been the one who helped her see them as true family, and yet he was having issues accepting his own father. Apparently his greatest concern was the fact that his mother was married to his adoptive father at the time he was conceived. That was a double-edged hurt, though, because Alex adored his adoptive father. How he actually felt about his mother was a mystery, though, as were most of his personal feelings. To be fair, his father hadn’t made things any better by offering money to Alex and not his sister. Maybe this trip to visit him would help. Now Alex would have the support of his own little family.
With so many people in their house, it was fortunate that the weather was warm and dry so they could utilize the courtyard for the children. That served another purpose when the conversation turned to the possibility of another child. Carmen had already spoken to Mums about it. Mrs. Reynolds, like Carmen, had reservations about the morality of their method, but was otherwise supportive. Mr. Reynolds was indifferent to the subject, though. Like Alex, he saw the logic in surrogacy, as did Bill. Katie saw no harm in it, nor did all the Reynolds girls but Mary. Mary was adamant about the fact that, for the surrogate mother, it was basically trafficking babies. That idea was troublesome to Carmen as well.
When Josh died, Mary had indicated that she felt Carmen was at least partially responsible. Carmen had given Josh no encouragement. In fact, at times she had been almost brutally clear that she was no longer interested in him. She wasn’t vain enough to think that turned him to drinking, though. Josh was possessive – he always had been. More than likely his persistence had roots in the need to dominate her. Whatever the case, Mary questioned anything that might indicate discord between Carmen and Alex. Maybe it was her way of keeping Josh alive. At any rate, today was no different.
After the meal, Carmen started washing her dishes by hand. She didn’t like putting her mother’s old China in the dishwasher. Almost everyone else had already left, so Katie and Mary volunteered to help. That was when Mary decided to relieve her mind of a troubling thought.
“Tell me, Carmen,” Mary said as she dried a dish. “What did you really think when you found out Alex was a Mexican? I can’t imagine what he was thinking to hide a thing like that from you.”
Carmen stopped washing the dish in her hand and stared at Mary in mute silence.
Katie immediately came to her brother’s defense. “He isn’t a Mexican.” She set a plate on the table to be placed in the china cabinet later. “His father is a Spaniard, so he’s only part Spanish.”
Mary snorted. “Now that’s splitting hairs.”
Carmen finally found her tongue. “First of all, I married Alex because I love him. I didn’t ask about his family tree.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “That’s obvious.”
“Second,” Katie cut in, “His father’s family has been in this country longer than yours.”
Carmen shrugged. “Second,” she continued as if she hadn’t been interrupted, “I never thought about the ethnic background when I found out about his father. All I could think about was that I had a living father-in-law.”
Mary added another plate to the stack. “Well, that’s good. I like Alex. I just wondered how you felt about him hiding things from you.”
Carmen rinsed a dish and sighed. “I’m not too keen on that part.” She placed the dish in the rack and glanced at Katie. “I don’t know if he is actually trying to hide things, or simply doesn’t know how to initiate the subject. I guess as long as I don’t ask, he evades the issue. Maybe he figures it isn’t important.”
Katie picked up the plate, her focus on Carmen. “Is it?”
Carmen shrugged again, plunging her hands into the warm dishwater. “Sometimes, but usually not – except that I feel left out because he didn’t tell me.”
Katie wiped the plate slowly with a dishtowel. “Did you tell him how it makes you feel?”
Carmen made a face. Communicating feelings with Alex wasn’t always easy. The deeper the feeling, the more he attempted to cover it. He was such a wonderful person in so many ways. He had a right to a few quirks.
Katie shook her head and sighed. “Just about time I think the two of you are making progress, something like this comes up.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Carmen said, and launched into another subject. Alex got a relief when the conversation turned to something else and stayed there for the rest of the evening.
After everyone left, both Alex and Carmen were in good spirits. Christmas was coming up and life in general felt festive. The radio had shifted into Christmas mode, with one song after another. Jonathan was playing cars with Destiny in the family room floor while Carmen straightened up the clutter left by so many people.
When a Christmas waltz began, a hand gripped Carmen’s elbow. Alex gently turned her around and took her into his arms. With slow graceful steps, he pulled her into dance. She surrendered to his moment of play and fell into step with him. They circled the room twice before a hand reached up and tapped Alex on the shoulder. He turned to find Jonathan grinning up at him. Alex chuckled and relinquished the remainder of the waltz to him. A moment later, Alex passed them, Destiny laughing in his arms as they danced. He swung around, his eyes twinkling with humor and that cute dimple teasing his cheek.
“Eat your heart out,” he said, and swung Destiny into a fresh bout of giggling.
Such a pleasant day and evening should have ended with a restful night and happy dreams, but it didn’t. Instead, Josh returned. His disappointed expression as he looked down at her was so real that for a moment after she woke, it was difficult to separate dream from reality. She sat up, pulling the blanket around her nightgown and shivered. What was he disappointed about? The new baby? He wouldn’t have approved. Of that she was certain. But then, she hadn’t approved of his drinking or the way he treated Lori either. Then there was the money he left to Carmen. Would he be disappointed that Lori got it? He shouldn’t be.
On the other hand, the dream was in her head, not his. What was she making him disappointed about? That was a no-brainer. It had to be the new baby. It was one thing to tell herself everything was resolved, but quite another to thoroughly accept something she had always considered wrong. And so, if she couldn’t have it in her head, she’d put it into his. A long sigh escaped her lips as she slid back down under the covers. How long would these mind games go on?
“Alex,” she whispered. “Are you awake?”
“I am now,” he responded sleepily. “What’s the matter? Bad dream?”
“Yes.” What could he do about it but lose more sleep? Talking about it might help her, but they had already talked the subject lifeless. He was respectful of her concerns, but they didn’t see eye-to-eye on any of it – except the fact that they both wanted another child.
Alex rolled over and faced her. “Do you want to tell me about it?” He sounded wide awake.
She hesitated a moment. “I guess not. There isn’t much to tell.” One thing he didn’t need to know was that she was having dreams about Josh – even if they were actually nightmares.
He reached out with one arm and drew her toward him. She slid over, cuddling close to him, her head on his pillow.
“Cold?” he asked softly.
“I was,” she whispered. “But you’re so warm. I’m so glad I have you.”
His warm lips brushed her forehead. “And I you,” he said softly.
Sleep reclaimed her mind after a few minutes and the dream didn’t return that night.
The next morning she crawled out of bed and dressed while Alex slept. For the next three days the clinic would be closed. He needed the rest.
The balmy weather of Thanksgiving Day had given way overnight to a frosty day after. She went to the chicken shed first and watered them. Thanks to Alex, that chore had been turned into a simple twist of a knob. No more searching for frozen half-tires in the snow and stomping the water out of them. The coop was a comfortable 48°F – warm enough to keep the eggs from freezing, but cold enough that the chickens didn’t get shocked by the temperature change when they went out of the coop. She fed them and gathered the few eggs they had laid.
A trip back to the house to drop off the eggs revealed a house still silent. Back outside, she headed for the barn. Princess was supposed to foal again in January. The Appaloosa mare lifted her head over the stall when Carmen came into the barn, and nickered. From the next stall, Dawn answered. Random whinnied at Princess and Dawn. Ed merely looked at them and then back at Carmen. Casper eyed Carmen silently.
“Are you guys ready to eat and go outside?” Carmen asked.
She scooped up some oats and fed each of the horses. Alex and Jonathan had started halter training Dawn, though it would be another year before they could ride her. Alex had been gentle breaking Random. She would soon be ready for Jonathan to ride her. The idea of a horse ranch had slipped into a dream again, in spite of all the support and encouragement she received from Alex and Jonathan. Somehow it simply wasn’t top priority in her life right now. Horses were high maintenance animals, and there would be no profit until the safari and the guest ranch were completed. At least at this point, the old house was paying for itself.
Once the horses were fed, watered and released, she went back to the house. Her fingers were cold inside the gloves and her nose probably looked like Rudolph’s. Alex met her at the door, a steaming cup of coffee in one hand.
“Here, you look like you’re freezing. I wish you had called me. I would have helped.”
“I figured you could use the rest. Besides, those are my animals.” She grabbed the coffee cup and took a sip as she stepped around him. “I’ll take care of the others if you want to watch the kids.”
“They can wait until Jonathan gets up. We’ll take care of them together.” He slapped her on the backside playfully as she passed.
“What’s for breakfast?”
She laughed. “I don’t know. What are you going to fix?”
“How does biscuits and scrambled eggs sound?”
“Sounds great.” She stopped in the kitchen when she spotted the skillet of scrambled eggs and a pan of biscuits beside it. “Wow.”
He came up behind her and took the coffee cup from her hands, sitting it on the table. “What do you mean, ‘wow’? It isn’t the first time I’ve cooked.” His warm hands slid around her waist, pulling her back against him.
The warmth of his body and the feel of his hands brought a soft moan to her lips. Turning, she put her arms around his neck and kissed his lips.
He pulled her close in an embrace, his lips warm against hers in response to her silent query. For a few minutes they held on to each other, kissing as if they hadn’t seen each other in a week. Finally he pulled away.
“We’d better eat breakfast before it gets cold.”
She nodded. “And stop this necking before the kids come in.”
His eyes mocked her. “Yeah, Heidi. We wouldn’t want them to think we were in love, or doing anything immoral.”
She picked up her coffee cup and took another sip, her eyes searching his over the rim. His tone suggested impatience, but his expression gave no clue as to why.
“Sit down,” he ordered gruffly, but his eyes were twinkling with mirth.
“I’ve got to go wash my hands and shuck this coat,” she said.
As she left the kitchen, his voice followed her.
“It’s always something, isn’t it? Did you back-talk your parents this way?”
She didn’t reply. He intended it as a joke, but the memory it resurrected was painful. She would never have considered back-talking her parents. She was the only child of aging parents – a change of life baby who had been very welcome. They put her through college and it was her intent to stay with them as long as they needed her. When they were in their 70’s, she turned twenty-one. They had each suddenly left her - Mom with complications of the common flu, and Dad with complications of a broken heart. For her, losing them was painful enough, but losing a mate – that would be agonizing.
Sometimes she wondered what it would be like if they were alive today. They would have loved Alex – of that she was certain. She was equally certain that he would have loved them. If they were looking down on the house, they would like the way he had renovated it. In business transactions Alex was frugal with his money, but when it came to his family, he was generous. The household account he had set up for her was healthy and growing with the monthly deposits he made. Katie said that was because Carmen had been raised poor and had become frugal. That might be true, but there was no point in working at becoming a spendthrift simply because he had money. In fact, that was a good way to make sure he didn’t.
The holiday weekend passed pleasantly. It was nice having Alex home all day and having the family together, but all good things come to an end. With his return to work, things at the house shifted to a faster pace. There was shopping and packing to be done before they left on vacation.
As busy as she was, time had to be set aside for play with Destiny. One day they were sitting at the table working on coloring books when Alex came home early. Carmen glanced quickly outside to see if the threatening snow had arrived. Assured that it had not, she turned back to him.
“What’s going on?”
He grinned. “I just thought it would be fun for the man to tell the wife this for once.” He plopped down in a chair, his intense gaze fixed on her. “We’re pregnant.”
It should have been an exciting moment, but frightening would have better described the sudden pounding of her heart. For one terrifying moment the enormity of what they had done brought her close to panic. It must have shown on her face.
The grin faded from his face, replaced with a bewildered expression.
“You said to go ahead.”
She forced a smile. “Yes, I did.”
He studied her face. “But you’re still not comfortable with the decision, are you? I thought maybe by now you would have adjusted.”
Of course he would, and she should have. Maybe she would have if she hadn’t been shoving it from her mind.
“I’m alright. I just... I guess I didn’t expect the news so soon.”
His penetrating gaze prowled over her face and pounced on her eyes.
“Or not at all. I hope you accept this by the time the baby is born.” His expression and tone were anything but understanding.
How could she blame him? She was a veritable garden of indecision. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. In fact, she had made a different decision about it so many times that his head must be spinning.
“I’m sorry,” she said with a sigh. “I guess I have to get used to the idea now. I still don’t know if we’ve committed a sin. But I guess if we have, it’s no worse than having a child out of wedlock.”
Alex stared at her, his expression sour. “I wish you could hear yourself talking. We’re going to have a baby, not a sin. If god thought it was wrong, nothing we could have done would have been successful. We can only do so much. Beyond that, god has control.”
“I know. I’ve told myself that a hundred times.”
His tone and expression awoke an old unwelcome feeling. He thought it would be fun for the man to tell the woman. It wouldn’t have been so much fun for him if she had reacted the way he did when she told him she was pregnant. But then, he had reason – in his head – to believe it wasn’t his. Come to think of it, she might be able to claim it wasn’t hers this time.
Nothing could be gained by dwelling on such thoughts. They had to move forward and leave the past behind them.
She straightened and smiled at him. “I won’t talk about it any more,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll direct all my efforts into preparing for our new baby. I’ll accept it now that it is certain. I want this baby as much as you do, Alex. I want it because it’s a part of you and me, but mostly I want it because I want a baby.”
He leaned back, looking perplexed. “I’m sure there’s some feminine logic in that, but it’s lost on me.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re going to have a baby,” she said with genuine enthusiasm.
Destiny was watching them intently and Carmen touched her arm. “You’re going to have a little brother or sister. Isn’t that exciting?”
Destiny stared at her, gray eyes large with wonder. “Jonatan?”
Carmen laughed. “Not Jonathan – baby.” Maybe she shouldn’t bother with the gender right now. She turned to Alex.
“How long will it be until we know if it’s a girl or a boy?”
He shrugged. “Two to four weeks – maybe more. They should be doing an ultrasound in a couple of weeks. I don’t know if they’ll be able to tell that early or not. Does it matter?”
“No, I guess I’m just eager to start shopping and decorating. It will be so much fun to work on it with Jonathan and Destiny.”
“Oh.” He looked uncertain.
“Of course, if you prefer, we can wait until you come home from work and make it a fun family event.”
“I prefer,” he said with a smile.