In the next month, her schedule became routine. Once the floors had been waxed and the furniture polished, the house sparkled - in an empty kind of way. The work was rewarding, though, as the house began to take on a homey atmosphere. If only there were some curtains on the windows and rugs on the floors.
The house wasn’t the only thing changing, though. Both occupants were gaining a healthy glow...and gaining was the operative word. Cade had put on enough weight to take the hollows out of his cheeks, making him look a good ten years younger. As for Cynthia, her cheeks weren’t the only things filling out. All her dresses now fit snugly across the bust, and even her skinny legs were beginning to have some attractive curves. Some of the money she had saved would have to go into new clothing - and soon.
Cade was slowly emerging from his shell, but the cat was still as wild as ever. Scraps from the table coaxed him out even during the daylight hours - but only when she stepped back into the house. She watched from the family room window as he wolfed the food - a habit that had prompted Cade to dub him Scruffy. It was another indication of that underlying humor. If only he would smile with something besides his eyes.
The weather grew intermittently warmer and on one of those sunny warm days, Cade invited her to pack a lunch and join him in a ride on the ranch. The idea was especially welcome, as she had become so organized that cleaning took no more than half the day.
Cade selected a bay mare for her and then reluctantly surrendered the duty of saddling. When Cynthia finished tightening the cinch and lowered the stirrup, she turned to find him watching her. His eyes expressed approval and the thin lips twitched in what she had grown to accept as a smile - fleeting as it was. She wrinkled her nose at him.
“I know. I’m slow.”
“The job is done - and done correctly.”
That was as close to praise as she was likely to get from him and she smiled her appreciation. Tucking a toe in the stirrup, she swung up into the saddle. Cade mounted a gray gelding and they headed out across the treeless hills.
After nearly an hour of riding, they descended the steep walls of a draw and followed it to a small valley. Protected from the harsh winter storms, the valley was already lush and green. The valley was speckled with healthy Angus cattle. Here and there, calves frolicked with each other, kicking their heels in the air and bellowing their delight at the balmy weather. The adults ignored them, grazing contentedly on the deep grass.
They rode through the herd, which paid little attention to their passage. The animals were sleek and their black fur shone in the sunlight. Cynthia leaned over as they drew near one and tried to pet it, but the cow moved away a few steps and began grazing again. She glanced up to find Cade watching her. His pupils were contracted by the bright sunlight and his light green eyes contrasted sharply with his bronze tan. At that moment he was surprisingly attractive.
She smiled at him. “I guess they’re not as tame as they look.”
He shrugged. “I’m the only human they see most of the time, and I represent no harm to them. This is the herd I’ve been developing for about five years. I started with a few select cows and a good bull. I replaced the bull last year to prevent inbreeding, but I’ve been pleased with the offspring.”
“They’re beautiful. I don’t know what traits you look for in beef cattle, but they look healthy.”
He nodded. “They are, and hardy.” He turned his horse and started through the herd. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
She followed him across the valley and up a steep slope. The inside of her legs were so sore that walking might be more comfortable. He probably didn’t realize she wasn’t used to riding.
They rode across a mesa and descended to a wide creek. The grass around the creek was new, giving it a velvety look. The creek was clear and swift. When they paused on the bank, she could stand the pain no longer. Leaning into one stirrup, she forced her other leg over the back of the horse and dismounted. Her legs were so numb that she staggered and grabbed the stirrup. The horse snorted and sidestepped, letting her fall to the ground.
Instantly Cade was beside her, helping her up. “Why didn’t you say you were tired? We could have stopped any time.”
Her face was hot as she pushed away from him, avoiding his gaze. What a pansy he must think she was.
“I’m all right. I’m just a little stiff.”
Actually, her legs felt like stumps and her groin muscles were knotted with pain. She hobbled to the edge of the creek. The surface of the water ruptured, spewing a colorful fish into the air. The fish flipped and dived back into the water. Cynthia gasped. Did you see that?” she asked breathlessly. It looked like a Rainbow Trout. She leaned forward, examining the lurking figures under the surface. “There are lots of them. Do you ever fish here?”
He shook his head. “I’m not much of a fisherman.”
“Oh, I’d love to come here and fish sometime. Would you mind?”
He gazed down the creek, his expression unreadable. “As long as you eat what you catch. I don’t believe in catch-and-release except if the fish is simply too small. We Americans have a nasty habit of playing with our food - like a cat. If you hunt, it should be for food, not pleasure.”
She couldn’t agree with him more, but it was an unusual viewpoint for a man. She stretched and walked around, gradually gaining feeling in her legs. That might have been a mistake. Every muscle complained so painfully that she wished the numbness would return. She tried to work the muscles in her lower back with her fingertips, but the effort was worse than the benefit.
Suddenly strong fingers began working her shoulder muscles, delightfully descending to the muscles on either side of her spine. She moaned.
“Oh, that feels so good. You can’t imagine how sore I am.”
“Do you want to go back?”
“How long have we been out?”
“About three hours.”
Three more hours back? How could she endure the ride? She tried to smile cheerfully as she looked at him over one shoulder. “Aren’t you getting hungry? I’ll be fine after we rest for a little bit.”
“Sure.” The fingers ceased their massage and he took her arm, leading her to a dry rock. “Why don’t you rest here a few minutes and I’ll do the serving for once.”
“But I can...”
His hand pressed down on her shoulder. “So can I. I got along before I hired you and I think I can manage one meal now.”
She stretched out on the rock, its warmth penetrating her shirt and further relaxing her muscles. Closing her eyes against the bright sunlight, she absorbed its warmth. She breathed deeply of the clear air and listened to the sound of the creek darting over rocks - swirling against its banks. Somewhere in the distance, a Meadowlark called, its melodic song adding sweetness to the smell of wild roses. It was spring again - at last.
“Are you asleep?”
She opened her eyes and squinted up at him through the sunlight. Languidly lifting a hand, she shaded her eyes and smiled at him.
“No. I’m enjoying this immensely, though.” She took the sandwich he offered and grinned. “Is this what you do out here all day long?”
The lips twitched and a brow quirked. “Do you want to swap jobs?”
She laughed. “Only if this is all I have to do.”
He squatted beside her and scanned the horizon soberly. “If you figure out a way to do this all day and still make the ranch turn a profit, you could make a fortune teaching your method at seminars.”
She sat up and glanced around at the magnificent scenery. “I know the work is hard and the weather is forbidding at times, but do you know how lucky you are?”
He stared at her intently while he chewed a mouthful of food. Finally he swallowed and nodded.
“I know, but there are a lot of people who don’t understand.”
She crossed her legs painfully and stared down at her sandwich. “Different strokes for different folks,” she quipped, and took a bite of the sandwich.
They ate in silence then, enjoying the tranquility of Mother Nature's work around them. Tomorrow would be another day at the house, and she intended to enjoy every minute of this day with Cade. He made an excellent companion, a fact that hadn’t occurred to her before that moment. Who would have thought it? Certainly she wouldn’t have on the day he offered her the job. But then, a lot of things had changed since that day.
He stood and walked to the edge of the creek, stooping to wash his hands. He was so meticulous - so thoroughly masculine and sexy. She stared down at her sandwich, shocked that the thought had crossed her mind. Cade...sexy? Yet there was something about the way he moved, so full of grace and power. Animal magnetism. That was it - nothing more.
She finished her sandwich and drank some coffee, shoving the thought to the deepest recesses of her mind. Cade was her boss, and thinking such things was not only disrespectful of him, but job threatening as well - especially if he suspected the existence of such thoughts.
Lunch finished, they mounted and started back to the house. The country was beautiful, poised on the edge of spring. A crisp wind caught up with them on the plateau, where not even a tree hindered its progress. She unfolded her jacket collar and hunkered down in the saddle, cold and miserable.
Cade reined in and pointed. Her gaze followed in the direction he indicated. About two hundred yards away a lone wolf stood poised for flight, watching them cautiously. Its legs were long and lean and its head was held low, ears erect. It looked hungry and cold. Cynthia glanced up at Cade.
“Do you lose many cattle to wolves?”
He shrugged. “It’s hard to say. I lose some cattle every year. Usually they succumb to the cold, heat or disease, but sometimes they simply disappear. Most of the losses are calves, though. There again, it’s hard to say whether they die from natural causes or attacks by predators. Of course, that includes Pumas and coyotes as well.”
The wolf finally decided they were no threat and turned his back on them, trotting away across the vast grassland.
“I noticed that you always carry a rifle when you go out. Do you ever shoot any wolves?”
He scowled at her. “The rifle is for emergencies only. I try to live in harmony with nature.” He watched the wolf disappear into the tall grass. “The fact is, when wolves attack a herd, they always take the weakest animal. That’s the natural selection process at work - survival of the fittest. Farmers don’t butcher their best animals, either. They leave them for breeding purposes. It’s the hunter that throws nature out of balance, selecting only the best game.”
“So you’re against hunters and fishermen?”
He glanced at her and his lip twitched. “No, I simply think there is a proper way to do things, and humans have a habit of doing what pleases them at the moment, not what is best for the future.”
“So you’re saying the wolves improve your herd by culling out the weakest animals?”
Again the lip twitched. “In a manner of speaking. Of course, it would be more profitable for the ranch if I culled those animals by taking them to the slaughter house.”
“That’s why the other ranchers want to kill off the wolf? To improve their profits?”
“More likely so they can stay in the black. I have enough acreage and cattle to absorb some of the loss. Most of the ranchers are barely getting along as it is.” He grimaced. “The trouble is; my ranch has been a safe haven and even headquarters for the wolf population around here. So far I don’t think I have a problem, but I have to consider those other ranchers when I decide how many wolves this land can support. The more they get to eat, the more offspring they will produce, and some of those offspring will need to stake out new territory. So far, deer and rabbits are easier for a few wolves to pull down than a healthy cow, but if the pack gets too big they may go after cattle. I don’t make the decisions alone, though. State game officials are involved as well.” He turned his horse and they started out again.
She hugged her arms and hunched down into her jacket, her teeth chattering. The more she learned about the way he thought, the more she was convinced that people around him were the strange ones, not Cade.
The next time she talked to Mary, she said as much. Mary smiled knowingly.
“I told you so.”
“Told me what?”
“You’d fall for him.”
Cynthia caught her breath. “I haven’t fallen for him. I was simply stating that I agree with the man.”
“Sure, and you haven’t entertained a single romantic thought about him?” Mary watched her intently.
Cynthia knew her face was getting red. She could feel the warmth of the blush as it crawled up her neck. She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be silly. He’s a good eight years older than I am.”
“Six, but who’s counting? Oh, I forgot. You were the one who thought about it long enough to calculate it out.” Mary smiled; a devilish twinkle in her eye.
The blush was developing into a burning flame. “Nothing is going on, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
Mary shrugged. “Not yet, anyway.”
Cynthia winced. “Don’t you have any faith in me at all?”
Mary gnawed on her lower lip and it was her turn to blush. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m judging you by what I’d be doing in your shoes. I had an awful crush on him when we were in high school. He was the one that kept me honest. I sure didn’t have that much will power.”
Cynthia sighed. “I thought you were mighty interested in him. I should have known. Well, he isn’t interested in me, so the door is still open for you.”
Mary studied her reflectively and finally spoke in a hushed tone, as if she didn’t actually want to know the answer to her question.
“You say he’s not interested in you. Are you interested in him?”
The blood bounded back into her neck. “Only as a friend.”
Mary smiled and the twinkle came back into her eyes. “Now he’s a friend. Before that he was a boss. What will it be a month from now? Don’t try to fool an old fool. I can tell by the color in your cheeks. You’re falling for him.”
“I am not,” she snapped and then shrugged. “Let’s not argue about it.”
Mary raised her brows and then nodded. “All right, let’s talk about something else. How is it going with Scruffy?”
Thankful for the change of subject, Cynthia launched into a description of her latest conquests with the cat, again tucking that nagging doubt to the back of her mind. Thinking about Cade in that way could lead to no good. She was simply lonely out there and he was good company - the only company.