As the weekend drew nearer, the tension grew. What would Cade say? Would he be angry? Would he insist she have an abortion? Could he?
She wiped a table and turned to take the dishes to the kitchen. A tall lean figure entered the diner and she froze – Cade. Why was he here?
He paused only long enough to locate her, and then made a straight line for her. Her heart was pounding as he stopped in front of her.
“I want to talk to you.” His tone was brusque.
She moved around him with the tray. “All right, I get off at nine.”
He stepped in front of her and took the tray. “No, now.”
“All right, I’ll ask for a break.” Did he know?
He slammed the tray on the counter and Chet glanced up sharply, eyeing Cade suspiciously.
“Do you need help, Cynthia?”
“No,” she answered quickly. “I just need a short break.”
Cade shook his head and with a quick move, untied her apron strings. He lifted the apron over her head.
“We’re going somewhere else to talk.”
“But I can’t just...”
“Sure you can.” He wadded the apron into a ball.
“Cade, I’m trying to do my job, you can’t just march into a person’s life and disrupt it and then...”
Her words trailed off at his raised brows.
“Hold that thought,” He pitched the apron at Chet. “Go get your own girl and leave mine alone.”
“Cade!” Was he drunk?
“Russ,” He corrected as he gripped her arm and led her to the door. “Why is it that you can only remember my first name when we’re making love?”
His voice was low and she was sure no one else heard, but her face burned furiously. What had gotten into him?
He led her to his truck and opened the door, helping her into the truck. He slammed the door and strode purposefully around to the other side, jerking the driver’s side door open. If she had felt the least bit threatened, it would have been easy enough to jump out of the truck. But in spite of his aggressive behavior, she felt safe with him. He obviously had something definite on his mind. And why had he told Chet that she was his girl?
He parked the truck in front of the courthouse and turned to her, dragging a paper from his pocket.
“Explain this - if you can.”
She unfolded the paper and gasped. “How did you get this?” And then she saw the note clipped to the adoption form. The familiar scrawl belonged to Mary.
“Thought you should know.”
She glanced up at him, her face burning again. Did he feel obligated to marry her now?
He watched her intently, his expression injured.
“Why, Cindy? Didn’t you think I had the right to know?”
She swallowed hard. “I was going to come out this weekend and talk to you. I knew you didn’t want children.”
His brows shot up. “And how did you determine that?”
“You said you didn’t want any little brats tearing your house up.”
He rolled his eyes “I wasn’t talking about my children. I was talking about other people’s children. Mine will be taught to mind.”
She gnawed on her lower lip. “I didn’t want you to think you had to marry me. You don’t, you know. I can raise the baby...”
“Have to marry you?” He shook his head in disbelief. “I tried to ask you more than once, but someone was always interrupting and throwing a new kink in my plans. Remember when Claudette interrupted us in the kitchen? The moment was so perfect - and then she walked in and said that... ruined everything. I could have wrung her neck.” He shook his head, obviously still distraught by the mere thought of it. “And you jumped right in and assured her things weren’t as they appeared. All that wasn’t bad enough, but she had to drag up that old rumor – and I thought you believed it.”
She stared at him. “You were going to propose?”
He nodded. “Remember the picnic beside the pond? You know, when Mary put in her untimely appearance. Not that I was having much luck, anyway. Every time I found a way to lead into it, you came up with something else. Then when Mary arrived, you ran off. At the time I thought it was another diversionary tactic. Why did you do that?”
“I thought you were upset because Mary caught us together. I mean, you did visit her the night before, and I thought maybe you two were...”
“Mary and me?” He shook his head. “I stopped by to see her on my way to the store. I wanted to know what I could do to help you. You weren’t giving me much information.” He frowned. “So that’s why you acted so cool for a while.”
She folded her hands in her lap and stared at them. Until now she would have sworn that he was the one who never expressed his feelings. Obviously they were both guilty. Now was the time to clear the air, and there was one thing about all this that didn’t make sense.
“If you were trying to ask me to marry you, why did you act that way after we...” It was still hard to accept what they had done. She wrung her hands. “Spent the night on the couch,” she concluded in a mumble. “I thought you didn’t respect me any more.”
He touched her arm. “Cindy,” he spoke gently. “I’ve always respected you.” He lifted her chin with a curled index finger and forced her to meet his solemn gaze. “I swear, I never intended for things to go that far. I thought I could control my emotions. I always have before. But when you kissed me, something snapped inside. It was my fault. I knew I was losing control and I should have stopped then. To be perfectly honest, at that point, I didn’t want to.”
She gazed up into his face. “Why should you? I was completely submissive. I thought there was no situation I couldn’t handle outside of rape - and I didn’t believe you would do that.” She shook her head in amazement. “It wasn’t that I didn’t know when things started getting out of control. It’s just that...well, after that, it all happened so fast.”
He colored and looked away, dropping his hand.
“I’m sorry. I guess we both lacked experience. I didn’t mean to hurt you. When I heard you crying in the bathroom...” He brushed a crumb from the seat and cleared his throat. “I knew I had ruined everything between us. I felt sick to my stomach.”
She stared at him. “I wanted you to say something - anything. Instead, you acted like you wanted to forget the whole thing.”
They were both silent for a few moments, remembering that emotion packed morning - and another one. “Russ?” His name came easily to her lips this time.
He glanced up. “Yes?”
“If you wanted to marry me, why did you tell me you only wanted to spend a few nights with me? Don’t you know how bad that hurt?”
He stared at her blankly. “I never said that.”
“Yes you did. You said marriage was for people who wanted to spend a lifetime together, not a few nights.”
His face was a road map of emotion, traveling from puzzled, to comprehensive and then on to frustration. He grimaced.
“I can see right now that I’m going to have to be more explicit when I talk to you. If you’ll think back, my message was that spending a few nights together wasn’t a good reason to get married. I wanted you to tell me that wasn’t your sole reason for wanting to get married. When you didn’t answer, I thought maybe it was your only reason and you thought better of it.”
She reached out and touched his cheek. “Which made three times you were broaching the subject of matrimony and I thwarted your attempts. I must have been driving you crazy. I guess that’s what you meant in the diner when you told me to hold that thought.”
“Exactly.” His hand covered hers and he took it in his, kissing it tenderly. “The worst of it was when I got that adoption form in the mail today. I called Mary to see if you were there and she filled me in on the whole thing.” His expression was a fifty-fifty mixture of pain and anger. “How could you think I would turn away my own child? What kind of monster do you think I am?”
“Oh, Russ,” she forced the words through constricted vocal cords. “I knew you would take the responsibility, even if you didn’t want the baby. That’s why I had so much trouble telling you.” She stared down at the seat. “I got so depressed when you never called, and I started imagining all sorts of things. Then I started worrying about how I was going to take care of the baby and how much it would miss because I didn’t have the money to...” She swallowed a lump in her throat. “So I got to thinking about adoption. I knew I’d have to talk to you about it sooner or later, but I didn’t want to hold the financial burden of an unplanned pregnancy over your head like a club. Nor did I want you to feel obligated to marry me to save my honor. I couldn’t give the baby up, either. That’s why I never finished the form. I decided to talk to you this weekend, but I guess Mary found the form and took it upon herself to mail it to you.” She glanced up and met his intent gaze. “I’m sorry. That’s a terrible way to find out.”
“Don’t blame Mary. I’m glad she cared enough to interfere. No telling how long we’d have continued this crazy sidestepping dance - even if you had shown up this weekend. I thought you decided you couldn’t live with the loneliness on the ranch because I was gone so much. I thought maybe that was what you were trying to tell me that day at the hay field.” He gripped her hand and pulled her close. “I didn’t want to lose you, but I didn’t want you to be unhappy like mother either. I actually considered selling the ranch.” His hand stroked her hair. “If you’d only said something - told me how you felt. Cindy, our baby wouldn’t be a burden to me even if my financial status was shaky - and it isn’t. I want this baby. I want you. I love you. Don’t you know that?”
A tear slipped down her cheek. “Not until now.”
He wiped the tear away with a thumb and opened the glove compartment. Pulling out a tissue he handed it to her. “Here, get yourself together and we’ll go in and get a marriage license.”
She caught her breath. “Right now?”
He popped the glove compartment shut and stared at her. “Do you have some reason you want to put it off for a while?”
She smiled through her tears. “No.” She wiped her eyes. “But tell me something. When you offered me a job, were you thinking of me in any way other than a housekeeper?”
He colored slightly. “I noticed you were a good looking woman, if that’s what you mean. But it was a good hot meal that brought me into the diner the first time. It was the meal and a friendly waitress that brought me back. After that I got to thinking how nice it would be if I had someone to cook me a meal every day. One thing led to another and I finally worked up the courage to offer you the job.” He shrugged. “I’m not sure exactly when I started falling in love with you. I guess it happened gradually. Little things like the way you took in that stupid cat. And the way you faced everything with a smile. Even the way you felt about that attic. I knew, because I felt the same way. And then that day we rode together. I could tell you saw the ranch the same way I did.” He frowned at her hand. “I never told anyone, but I avoided getting involved with any woman because of what happened to Mom. The loneliness drove her mad. I should have moved away, but I couldn’t stand to leave the ranch.”
“But Russ, she could have moved away. You weren’t responsible for her state of mental health. Obviously she was the dependent type or she wouldn’t have stayed out there.”
He nodded. “I know. I wanted a wife and children, but I didn’t want to risk losing them because of the ranch. I suppose if I had met a woman and loved her enough, I would have given up the ranch, but I knew I would be resentful, so I simply avoided any situation that might end up in romance.”
“So you hired a housekeeper with a professional attitude.” Her smile was wry. “It must have nearly scared you to death when I started flirting with you.”
Color returned to his cheeks. “On the contrary, I was flattered. Anyway, it seemed like innocent flirtation.” He stared absently out the window and continued. “Then we took that ride and you were so impressed with the country. That’s when it first crossed my mind that you might be the one.” He took a deep breath and turned to her again. “Then the day you fell on the ladder and I caught you - I figured you suspected then.” He paused and lifted a brow.
It was her turn to blush as she recalled the dream that episode had inspired. “Maybe I did, subconsciously. I think it was a turning point for me, too. I thought you were going to...” Her face grew warmer.
He smiled. “Kiss you? I thought about it, but I was afraid you’d get mad. Anyway, I was doing my best not to let things get out of control. You can’t believe how many cold showers I’ve taken.”
She bit her lower lip and looked down at her hands again. All this time she thought she was the only one with the torrid thoughts.
He chuckled and ran cool fingers across her hot cheek. “By the time Claudette showed up, I knew for sure. She must have suspected as well. That’s when I decided to ask you to marry me.” He shrugged. “The rest you already know.”
“About the courtship of the recluse?” She leaned toward him and he met her half way. Their kiss was warm and exciting - deeply gratifying. Still, his next words were the most gratifying of all.
“Let’s get married as soon as we can. The house has been unbearably lonely without you.”
Russell Cade - the recluse - was lonely without her.