Russell Cade was a meticulous driver. He drove the speed limit...no more; no less. He maneuvered each turn with precision. The dim instrument panel light revealed a strong profile with an aquiline nose and prominent cheekbones. He was by no means a handsome man but his facial features did suggest a stolid character. The years had not been kind to him. He looked closer to forty than thirty. That might be the result of too much exposure to the elements. Apparently he spent a lot of time on the back of a horse, riding his range in all kinds of weather - a fact that prompted more than one comment by townsfolk that he had wasted a good college education. Considering his comment about ambition, he probably didn’t consider the education wasted. Obviously he liked ranch work better than anything he had studied. She shifted in the seat and peered into the night. They must be nearing their destination. Her gaze tried to outrun the headlights and gave up, following the broken line on the highway as it leaped from the dark and shot forward, disappearing under the truck. She rubbed her eyes and tilted her watch crystal around until the light reflected enough to read the dial...ten-thirty. She yawned. This would be one Saturday she wouldn’t have to crawl out of bed and get ready to go to the diner. From now on it would be crawl out of bed and cook, clean and then maybe rest a little. What was the house like? Even Mr. Cade had hinted that it was unusually large. Again she wondered if she had bitten off more than she could chew. The truck turned off the main road and lurched down a long drive. A structure loomed dark against the lighter horizon. Could that be the house? She held her breath as they approached and turned into the circular drive. As the truck came to a halt in front of the house, she stared up at it in awe. Mary was right. It had an eerie atmosphere, almost as if it were leaning over the truck, investigating the new arrival.
She followed Cade up the steps and across the wide porch, waiting as he unlocked the door. He stepped back to let her enter first. Inside was a spacious foyer sporting a long graceful stairway. To the left was a tall narrow window, bare to the coldness of the room. To their right was a doorway into a huge family room. In one corner a piano perched silently. The embers of a fire still cast a faint glow from a massive fireplace. She shivered, clutching her coat closer. A strong hand gripped her elbow.
“I told you the house was drafty. Here, let me show you where you will sleep.” He led her down a short hallway and opened the first door. Reaching inside the door, he flipped the light switch and the room was flooded with light from a ceiling fan. “I fixed the door so it locks from the inside.” He dug in his pocket and produced two keys still on their original ring. “Here are the keys. That door over there is your personal bathroom.” He turned abruptly and left the room.
The sting of his cool hospitality was quickly replaced with awe as she turned back to the room. She gazed at the room in rapt silence. The large room contained some of the most beautiful antique furniture she had ever seen. The wood appeared to be cherry, and although it could use a coat of wax, it still had a deep luster. Instead of a closet, a large wardrobe stood at one end of the room, dwarfing a vanity desk with a large oval mirror. A chest of drawers with copper handles sat beside the bed - and what a bed it was. The carved headboard was beautiful but it was the lace canopy and matching bedspread that caught and held her attention. It was fit for a queen.
“I hope you don’t find all this too primitive,” Cade spoke behind her. She swung around and stared at him. “Primitive?” “The furniture - it was handed down to my mother and she left it to me. It’s old, but still in good condition. I recently put a new inner spring mattress on the bed, but the rest of it is exactly as she left it.”
“Left it? Did your mother pass away?”
“She died.” He answered in a brusque tone as he deposited her things in the middle of the room. “I’ll show you around a little before I turn in.”
They trekked back down the hallway to the family room and then into a spacious kitchen. The appliances were modern but the cabinets were old and solid. The floor was as clean as the counters. Copper-bottomed cookware hung from hooks on one wall. A small round table and two chairs were placed in a corner near the doorway to the family room, providing a view of the fireplace. “I eat in here,” he said. “I only use the dining room when I have company.” The laundry room was also clean and an old wringer tub still sat in one corner, as though unwilling to completely surrender to modern appliances. Cade stretched and yawned. “Well, make yourself at home. I’m going to turn in. If you need anything, my room is at the end of the hall. You’ll find extra blankets in the entry closet if you need them.”
He turned and left the room, his boots clicking across the tile floor and then fading as he moved across the hardwood family room floor and down the hall.
She glanced around the kitchen, knowing she should familiarize herself before breakfast, but feeling uncomfortable about exploring so soon after her arrival. What would he want for breakfast? The best way to decide was to find out what he had in the refrigerator. She opened the refrigerator - milk, eggs, and bacon - the usual supplies. A little more exploring revealed that the cabinets were stocked with sufficient supplies of dry goods and the potato and onion bins were full. Was there anything Cade didn’t do efficiently? The answer came to her so quickly that it brought a smile to her lips. Participate in conversation. Returning to her designated room, she hung all her clothes in the cedar lined wardrobe and tucked her personals in the spacious dresser. At eleven she finally crawled into the bed. She was exhausted, and morning would arrive all too soon. She set the alarm and fluffed the pillows, but it did no good to close her eyes. They kept popping back open. Her mind was up, wandering the huge house - and Cade’s mind. Why had he suddenly decided he needed a maid - or was it sudden? Could there be truth to Mary’s suspicions. No. She couldn’t believe that there was any thought of romance going on in Cade’s mind. He had probably reached a point that the ranch and house were too much work. Seeing her at the diner probably gave him the idea of getting help.
She glanced at the door, realizing she had forgotten to lock it. Not that it mattered. If he intended her harm, he would hardly have fixed the door so it would lock from the inside. Of course, he could have had more keys made - in which case, it wouldn’t matter if it was locked or not. She thought of the movie Psycho and immediately wished she had never watched it. The night was cold and she was cozy in the bed. There was no point in freezing her buns off darting across the cold floor to lock the door. Her eyelids drooped and finally she slept.
The alarm clock buzzed insistently and she reached over to slap the snooze button, squinting at the iridescent hands. Five a.m. She threw the covers back and gasped. It was miserably cold in the bedroom. Tossing her gown aside, she hurriedly pulled on some sweats and made the bed. Opening her door quietly she carried her shoes to the kitchen before putting them on. Then she lit the oven and washed her hands.
By the time Cade arrived in the kitchen she had biscuits, gravy, bacon and eggs ready. Cade dropped into a chair and immediately began to put away the food. She poured him a cup of coffee and he glanced up at her.
“Sit down and eat.” “I never eat this early in the morning.” Still, she poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. “Do you want me to pack you a lunch?” He shook his head, declining to answer until he had swallowed the food in his mouth. “I’ll be in at twelve.” He sipped his coffee. “Sandwiches will be fine today. Spend some time exploring the house. Make a list of anything you need and I’ll drive into town Monday.” Would she be invited along, or would she be expected to stay on the ranch? Always? She sipped her coffee reflectively and finally found the courage ask him a question that had been nagging her since his offer. “Mr. Cade, do you mind if I have a friend over now and then?” His head lifted and he frowned at her. “Russ, or Russell. Don’t call me Mr. Cade. It makes me feel old.” He swigged the last of his coffee and set the cup in his plate, carefully placing the flatware across the plate before he continued. “You may call or have friends over anytime you wish...as long as they don’t interfere with your work.” He pushed his chair back and stood. “I’ve got to get going. The sun will be up soon.” He lifted his hat from a peg on the wall and shrugged into his coat. “See you at lunch.” He said as he walked out the door. Cynthia finished the dishes and wiped the counters. Last night she had noticed a few clothes in a hamper in the laundry room. As she passed through the living, room she paused and smiled. A fire burned brightly in the fireplace. Cade had been busy this morning. Removing the laundry from her room, she walked down the hall and hesitated at Cade’s bedroom door. Somehow it seemed an invasion of his privacy, but it was part of the job. She turned the porcelain knob and pushed the door open. His room was also filled with antique furniture, although his appeared to be mahogany. The bed was made and she found his clothes in the hamper. The master bath was tidy, so she left the room and pulled the door shut, breathing a long sigh. With the laundry washing and the sun peeping through curtainless panes, she set out to explore the house. First she opened the double doors in the kitchen and found the formal dining room. A long oak table graced the center of the room, its ten carved chairs at attention. A matching china cabinet held fine china, crystal and silverware. The silverware needed polishing and the furniture could use a good dusting. She closed the doors when she left the room, anticipation increasing her pulse. It was such an interesting house.
The long curving stairway invited and she ascended to the second floor. The landing paused at the Y of two long hallways. The floor creaked as she chose the one on the right. Three empty bedrooms were closed off to the heat, as well as a full bath that looked as though it hadn’t been used in years. Apparently the water had been shut off up here to keep it from freezing. Retracing her steps, she advanced down the second hallway. Another full bath and two more bedrooms - all empty. As she glanced into the last bedroom, she noticed it had a patio door. Closer investigation revealed a balcony that overlooked the driveway. This room also had a fireplace and a door adjoining the bathroom. She ran her fingers along the smooth marble mantle. What a beautiful room - and empty. Even as the idea occurred that she would rather have this room, she knew she couldn’t ask. He had made his choice - suggesting something else would be rude. Still, the rich hardwood floor reflected the weak morning sun in a cheerful manner that spawned reluctance to continue the tour. This would be a good place to come to relax, though - when the weather warmed. She rubbed her arms and left the room.
At the end of the hall, a steep set of stairs led to the attic. The stairs groaned as she climbed and the door squealed as she opened it. A small frosted window allowed light to enter the room that was obviously a storage space for heirlooms. A spinning wheel stood in one corner, partially covered by a dusty sheet, and beside it, a mahogany rocker with a cobbler seat. There was an old treadle sewing machine with carved drawers and even a grandfathers’ clock, stating the permanent time of three p.m. Imagine the stories that must lurk in the walls of this house. A large chest invited, and she knelt, touching the lid. Something private - or more interesting antiques? She lifted the lid. Inside were tiny sweaters and booties. Each set was carefully sealed in a clear zipper bag. They looked unused...his mothers’ hobby, or was there a sad story? She closed the lid and ran her fingers across the dull copper latch. It was dusty. This was one place Cade obviously didn’t spend much time. She stood and glanced around the room again. Such beautiful things should be displayed in the rooms downstairs. The grandfather clock would look beautiful in the foyer, and the rocker should be in the living room, near the piano. She sighed and left the room, carefully pulling the door shut. As she descended the long stairway again, her palm caressed the smooth dark wood of the banisters. It was such a beautiful house - and so cold. She rubbed her arms again and headed for the living room, which was now comfortable. The fire was burning down, though, so she added more wood. She stared into the flames, wondering why none of the windows had curtains, and why so many things were left to gather dust in the attic. The floor was cold. Why no rugs? She curled up on the couch and fell asleep. Waking with a start, she glanced at her watch. Fifteen minutes until twelve. She leaped from the couch and darted into the kitchen. Her first day and she had fallen asleep on the job. Working as fast as she could, she started a pot of coffee and sliced some ham. As she completed setting the table, the screen door squealed and Cade opened the door. He stomped his boots and shook white flakes from his hat and coat before entering the house Cynthia poured them both a cup of coffee as he washed at the sink. “How long has it been snowing?” She asked. He dried his hands with the towel. “It just started. It looks like it might get bad. Do you have a list yet?” She blushed. “No, I’m afraid I didn’t get around to it yet.” He noted her rising color and shrugged. “No problem. I don’t think we need much of anything.” He dropped to a chair and built himself a sandwich. “Did you call your friend yet?” “No. I didn’t...I thought...It’s long distance, you know.” He shrugged again without looking up. “Keep in touch with people. It gets lonely out here.” He should know. Which came first, the recluse or the loneliness? She set the coffeepot back on the stove. “Are you lonely?” “No.” He took a bite of his sandwich and washed it down with coffee. She fashioned a sandwich. “Was your mother lonely?” He glanced up at her, and his mouth twitched. “Yes.” “What happened to her?” He swallowed his food. “Eat your lunch.” His attention was back on his food. Her face felt hot and cold by turns. His cool reproach smarted, but the previous terse answers about his mother should have warned her that it was a touchy subject. At any rate, he was a recluse and he probably didn’t want a babbling female around. She took a bite of her sandwich and glanced up when he finally spoke, his tone brusque. “She died of a broken heart. I thought everybody around here knew about the Cade’s.” “I’m not from around here. I grew up thirty miles to the north.” She paused and her voice took on a sardonic tone. “Where Cade wasn’t a household word,” she concluded. He glanced up sharply, his gaze searching her face. She stood, picking up a plate. “I apologize for badgering you about your mother. I didn’t realize you were so sensitive about it.” “I’m not sensitive.” The words were curt.
In spite of her irritation, she couldn’t help smiling. Actually there was nothing sensitive about Russell Cade. He was merely a private person - private and unsociable. She knew that when she accepted the job so any complaint at this point would be out of line.
She shrugged. “No, I suppose not.” He watched her intently for a few moments longer and then turned his attention to his food. How he did it, she couldn’t say, but when he finished his meal, not even a crumb was left on the plate. He strode to the door, clamped on his hat, shrugged into his coat and left the house without so much as a good-bye. She watched him head for the barn and wondered how he could stand being out in the cold all day. He was probably used to it. The snow was coming down in big heavy flakes now. She rubbed her arms again. Why didn’t he do something about this cold house? But he had warned her about the cold - warned her about the snow. Would they be snowed in for a week now? No point mulling over a decision she had already made. The best way to beat the cold was to work up some heat. The first thing she needed to do was the dishes. Then make that list.
An hour later she found herself staring vacantly into the fire again. She shook her head free of pointless thoughts and began dusting. There was enough to do around here and she intended to earn her pay - without supervision. First she dusted the dining room and polished the silverware. Then she began cleaning the family room. Carrying a chair from the kitchen, she stretched to dust the top shelf of one of the bookcases beside the fireplace. A large green book caught her attention. The Lonely Hills, by Elizabeth Cade. She removed the book from the shelf and opened it to the dedication page. “To my only friend, Russell Cade.” His mother or his wife? She leafed through the book, looking for a clue.
The screen door squeaked and the kitchen floor complained as someone crossed it. Cade? She stared at the kitchen doorway, waiting breathlessly for the person to appear. When Cade finally stepped through the doorway holding a cup of coffee, her breath escaped in a long sigh. “I wasn’t sure who came in.” She lifted the book to replace it and he noticed the cover. “Were you reading that?” Her face felt hot again. “No...Well, yes. I glanced through it.” Was he angry? He eyed her sardonically. “You’re welcome to read anything in the house. It isn’t necessary to cover up your interest.” She shoved the book back into its place and gave the shelf a last swipe, curbing her tongue as she dismounted the chair. She lifted the chair and ignored his offer to carry it to the kitchen for her. He was outspoken and direct, but why did it sound so much like he had caught her in a lie? He followed her to the kitchen. “Are you angry with me?” She scooted the chair under the table and tossed the rag in the hamper. “Does it matter? I’m here to do a job.” He was quiet long enough to rouse her interest, and she glanced up to determine the cause of his silence. He was lounging against the kitchen doorway, staring down into his coffee cup. Finally he glanced up and met her gaze. “It matters.” She turned and rested her hands on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. “Look, Mr. Cade.” “Russ,” he interrupted irritably. She lifted her palms in resignation. “All right, Russ. All you have to do is lay down the ground rules. If you don’t want to talk about your mother, we won’t. But if I’m supposed to avoid the subject, don’t act like I’m in the middle of some deceitful act when I try.”
He was clearly surprised. “What makes you think the topic of my mother is...” He stopped mid-sentence and shrugged in resignation. He strode across the room and poured his coffee in the sink. “All right. It’s a subject I’d rather not discuss. Not because she did anything wrong, though. I hold myself responsible for her death.”
The statement was an open invitation but she was several conversations wiser now, and waited for him to volunteer the rest of the story. He obviously considered the subject closed and remained silent. So on to something else.
“The book I was holding. Did your mother write it?” He nodded. “That and a couple dozen others. She had a short career as a writer.” He rinsed his cup and turned from the sink. As he strode across the room she chanced a last remark. “I’ll try not to be so inquisitive.” He stopped and turned, frowning down at her. “There’s no harm in a healthy curiosity. It’s flapping jaws that get people into trouble.” She stared at him. “Do you think my jaws flap too much?” His expression became sour. “I can get into enough trouble without people squeezing imaginary insults out of my words.” He turned and headed for the family room door again. “I’m going to take a warm shower. Do you think you could scare us up a warm snack?” He didn’t wait for an answer.
She glanced at her watch. It was three pm. A warm snack? What kind of snack could she whip up in fifteen minutes? She mused through the kitchen cabinets, her attention settling on the can of cocoa. That would do, but what about something to eat with it. Maybe her favorite would work. It was worth a try. She turned on the broiler and buttered some bread.
When Cade came into the kitchen she placed a cup of hot chocolate and a saucer of cinnamon toast before him. He quirked a brow. “An interesting combination. Smells delicious.” She smiled. “I hope you like it. It always hits the spot for me on cold days.” He tasted the toast and nodded approvingly. “One thing you should know.” He glanced up at her. “I don’t think you could find anything I wouldn’t like. I enjoy variety and I’m not afraid to try anything new, so just cook what you like.” They finished the snack in silence. Afterward he took a book from the shelf and retired to his room. The living room floor could use a mopping and then it would be time to start supper. A glance out the window revealed that the snow had piled up to four or five inches. Was Cade weathering out the storm? The wood box was looking skimpy. Where did he keep the rest of the wood? She wandered through the house, peering out the window until she spotted a small shed. That was probably it. Donning a heavy coat and some rubber boots that she found in the entry closet, she battled the storm to the shed. Opening the door, she found her assumption correct. The shed was piled high with wood. She leaned over and picked up a block of wood. A yellow ball of hissing fur flew past her. She dropped the wood and screamed before she realized it was only a young cat. She stumbled to the door. “Here kitty kitty.” But the cat had no intention of coming near her. “Are you hungry?” She called to him as he hunkered down beside a rose bush with a few brown leaves clinging to it. He stared at her suspiciously. She shrugged and went back for an armload of wood. Had the cat been locked in the shed, or had he found a way through the old walls? She piled one arm high and closed the door. If he couldn’t get in the shed, he’d probably find some other place to stay warm. She crunched through the snow back to the house and removed her coat and boots before entering the living room. Cade leaped from the couch as she entered. “Here. I’ll get that.” He took the wood from her arms and dropped it into the wood box. “You don’t need to be carrying heavy things and getting out in this weather. I’ll do it.”
“It’s all right. I enjoyed the fresh air and I even found a potential friend. Did you know you have a cat in the wood shed?”
He made a face. “He comes in through a hole in the floor. I guess I’ll have to put something over it. The offspring of some stray, I guess.” “Well, at least you won’t have mice in the woodshed.” She watched as he added more wood to the fire and stirred the coals up with the poker. “Do you ever feed him?” Another sour look. “You start that and he’ll hang around for sure.” She dropped to the floor in front of the fireplace and crossed her legs. “I take it you don’t like cats.” He squatted beside the fire. “I take it you do.” She shrugged. “It’s your ranch. If you don’t want me to feed it, all you have to do is say so.” He jabbed at the fire a few times. “I don’t care. If you think he’ll make good company, go ahead and feed him.” He stood and returned the poker to its holder. “Just don’t try to tame any of those black kitties with the white stripes down their backs.” She stared up at him. He was obviously making a joke, but she would never have guessed it from the expression on his face. He looked so tall, standing over her that way. She shifted her attention to the fire and rubbed the beginnings of a crick from her neck. Working for Cade might not be as dull as she had first thought.