Chapter Five

Cade escorted her to town and purchased everything on the list - plus a few more items. When she reminded him that he was going over the thousand-dollar figure he had thrown out, he merely shrugged.
“It will be worth the investment.”
She wondered what would be worth the investment, but didn’t want to wind up in the middle of a feud. Was he trying to show his sister up? Impress her? It seemed totally out of character. Nothing Cade did indicated that he gave a hoot about what anyone else thought.
As they packed the last of the items into the back of his truck, he glanced up at her.
“It’s early. Let’s go by and take a look at your truck while we’re in town. If it doesn’t look too complicated, maybe I can fix it.”
She stared at him. “I...You don’t have to do that.” He was already responsible for her food and housing. “I can get it towed to a shop.”
His eyes held a touch of humor. “You don’t want me to interfere?”
“It isn’t that. It’s just that...well; it’s not your responsibility.”
“I know. But it would be nice to know you had a way to get out and do things without fear of taking the only vehicle. I know you feel uncomfortable about driving my truck.  You haven’t used it once.”
“Then I’ll get mine fixed. I had no idea it was troubling you.” Little did he know that she wouldn’t have left the ranch if her truck had been available. The ranch was too beautiful - too interesting and too much like home.
He eyed her thoughtfully. “It isn’t troubling me, but if you really don’t want me messing with it...”
She sighed and shook her head. “You do what you please.”

Cade launched into an investigation of the old truck while Cynthia and Mary caught up on the latest gossip. Finally he stepped back from the vehicle and wiped his hands with a rag.
“I think I know what it is. I’m going to go get a part. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Cynthia reached for her purse. “Let me give you some money. How much do you need?”
He lifted a hand and shook his head. “No, I’ll get it. If it doesn’t work, it’s my problem. If it does, then you can pay me back if you want.”
“Parts plus labor,” she insisted.
He eyed her sternly. “I’m not a mechanic.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “That’s a fine thing to be telling me while you’re working on my truck.”
His eyes twinkled with mirth, but he refused to let the rest of his face respond. Mary stood by, unusually quiet, but when Cade left she found her voice.
“So, can you still tell me you’re not romantically interested in him?”
Cynthia rolled her eyes. “Let’s not go through this again. Nothing is going on and nothing is going to happen.”
Mary shrugged and smiled wryly. “Then why were you flirting with him?”
Cynthia gasped. “Flirting with him? I wasn’t flirting with him.” She knew her face was getting red. Had she been flirting - unconsciously? A Freudian slip? And more important, did Cade think she was flirting?
Mary contemplated her soberly for a few moments and then spoke gently. “Be careful, Cindy. I know you’re sure you can stay in control, but...”
“I can,” Cynthia replied archly. “And anyway, Cade definitely isn’t romantically interested in me, so there’s absolutely nothing to be concerned about.” Both statements came from the heart. People had limited control over their emotions, but they could certainly remain in control of their actions.
Mary shrugged. “Well, if I were in your shoes, I’d see my doctor about some form of birth control. People have urges and sometimes things just happen.”
“Oh, Mary. The best method of birth control is abstinence and a little pill is no substitute for morality. Anyway, things don’t just happen. Not to people who have a little dignity and self control.” At Mary’s startled look, she was afraid she had stepped over the line. Did Mary speak from experience? It was none of her business and she certainly didn’t want to hurt Mary’s feelings. “Well, maybe it does for some people, but not a hard hearted old witch like me.”
Mary laughed shortly. “You two make a fine pair, you know that? Who do you think you’re fooling? Under that facade of indifference beats a heart primed for breaking.”
“Maybe so, but not right now. I’m having too much fun.” She launched into an explanation of the truckload of supplies and a description of her new room.
Mary listened thoughtfully. “Claudette has no reason to be concerned about Mrs. Cade’s furniture. It isn’t...” She cut her explanation off short as Cade pulled into the drive. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

But the opportunity to talk privately didn’t offer itself the rest of the day. As it turned out, the truck repair was minor, so she was able to follow Cade home that evening. It would be nice to know she could leave the ranch at will without leaving Cade afoot, but she doubted if she would be driving to town soon. For a while she was going to be far too busy.
The next morning, after Cade left, she threw a roast in the oven and eagerly set to work on the family room. By noon she had the pictures and mirrors on the walls and was hanging the curtains when Cade came in. He glanced around the room and his troubled gaze halted on her.
“Don’t over do it.”
She glanced around the room anxiously. She was little more than half-done and already he thought it was too much? What was it he found so objectionable? Unable to discern the source of his objection, she finally turned an inquisitive gaze on him.
“You don’t like it?”
He actually smiled, though it was so brief that she questioned whether she had imagined it. No, it had been there - brief and beguiling. And now it was gone, not even a trace lingering as he spoke.
“I meant don’t over work yourself.”
“Oh.” She took a step down and missed the next rung - plunging her shin against the step. She gave a startled squeal and fumbled on the unsteady ladder.
Instantly strong arms scooped her off the ladder and lowered her safely to the floor. It all happened so fast that she didn’t have time to think, only to cling to the one solid thing she could find - Cade. The arms that rescued her continued to cradle her gently, and what the fall had failed to do to her heart beat, his close proximity completed.
Color raced to her cheeks. What must he be thinking to hold on to her like that? She chanced a glance at his face, but he was contemplating the ladder.
“I’d better get a screwdriver and tighten that ladder before you fall and break your neck.”
He glanced down and noted her color with obvious confusion. One arm tightened around her in a light hug. He released her, striding away after a screwdriver.
She stared after him, still perplexed by the hug - a fatherly or brotherly demonstration of fondness - or maybe an expression of relief that she wasn’t injured? She rubbed her shin. Not badly, anyway.

Maybe that incident inspired her dream that night. How the dream began, she couldn’t remember but she was in his arms and he was gazing down at her, his expression as bland as usual. She lifted her face to receive his kiss and he leaned forward, giving her a fatherly peck on the cheek - and a friendly squeeze. She clutched his sleeve as he turned away.
She woke, her fingers entwined in the sheet, feeling aroused and frustrated. She untangled her fingers from the sheet and punched her pillow. What was it about him that she found so attractive? And why couldn’t she force these erotic thoughts from her mind? Nothing but heartache could come of it. Cade was completely uninterested. Even in her dream she knew it, so why the persistent desire? Should she walk away from this job? Could she walk away from it - and Cade? The job would be harder to walk away from than Cade - wouldn’t it? Mary was right about one thing. She was falling for Cade. It was time to pack up and get out - as soon as the visit from his sister was over. He could always find another maid and she could go back to the diner.

For the next week, she tried to stay too busy to think about him. In her spare time she read “The Lonely Hills.” Elizabeth Cade was a lonely woman - lonely and unhappy. Cynthia closed the book and gazed out the window. Why didn’t his mother see the beauty of the ranch? She crossed to the window and stood watching another majestic sunset.
Vaguely she heard Cade close his book and cross the room. He stood beside her and they both watched Mother Nature's display in rapt silence. Finally she spoke.
“It’s so beautiful. Don’t you think?”
“Yes.” Something about his tone made her glance up and she caught him watching her instead of the sunset. He reached out and took one of her curls in his hand. “Just like burnished copper.”
She smiled up at him shyly. “I was talking about the sunset.”
His eyes crinkled and a smile played at the corners of his mouth. She was flirting with him and he knew it. She could see it in his eyes.
She tugged the curl from his hand and turned to the old piano as a diversion tactic.
“Did your mother play?”
He nodded. “Do you?”
She laughed softly. “Chop sticks.”
A brow quirked and he motioned to the bench. “Have a seat. Let’s play a duet, then.”
She made her way clumsily through one episode and then watched as his long fingers moved gracefully over the keys. The tune was haunting and yet somehow soothing. He coaxed one melody after another from the old piano until finally he folded the lid down.
“That’s enough. I don’t want to bore you to death. It’s getting late.”
“I’m not bored, but it is getting late.”
“And tomorrow is a long day. I’m trying to get everything caught up so I can spend a little time with Claudette.”
“Are you beginning to looking forward to seeing her?”
He shook his head and ran his fingers along the rich top of the piano. “No.”
"But she’s your sister. You must have had some good times.”
“Not really.” He stretched. “See you in the morning.”
She watched his tall figure move gracefully down the hall, forcing unwelcome warmth to crawl up her neck. Some people lived their entire lives without ever being close to anyone. Maybe he simply wasn’t capable of having a relationship deeper than surface friendship. At any rate, it was none of her business. A fact he had made abundantly clear.

When Claudette arrived, the room was finished and the house in order. Cade answered the door and ushered his sister into the family room where Cynthia was doing some last minute dusting. She glanced up as they entered - and then stared.
Claudette was a knockout. She had large brown eyes with thick black lashes and matching hair that was stacked becomingly on top of her head. From her long neck to her slender ankles, Claudette was dainty and feminine. Her rosebud mouth curved into a smile that never reached her eyes. She was attached to the arm of good-looking man wearing a business suit.
Cade made the introductions.
“This is Cynthia Turley. I hired her as a housekeeper a few months ago. Cynthia, this is Claudette Lander and her husband Carl.”
Cynthia offered a hand to Carl and he accepted it cordially. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I didn’t know Russell had a maid.”
Claudette glanced around the room. “It’s about time he did something with this old house.” Finally her gaze came back to Cynthia. “I assume you’re the one responsible for the new look. Nice job.”
Cade was standing behind Claudette and her husband. He winked and made the OK hand sign. Obviously the room had passed an important inspection. He picked up the luggage.
“I’ll show you where you will sleep while Cynthia gets supper on the table.”

Supper was ready and the table set. Cindy carefully laid out the food in an attractive manner and retired to the kitchen. A few minutes later Cade popped his head around the door.
“Is everything ready?”
“Yes. It’s all on the table. Go ahead and eat. I’ll bring desert in after a little while.”
He frowned and stepped into the kitchen. “You’re not eating? Are you feeling ill?”
“No. I’ll eat later.”
He shook his head. “No. You’ll eat with us.”
“But it wouldn’t be proper. I’m the hired help.”
He scowled at her. “I don’t care. You eat with us. That’s an order.”
“Yes sir.”
“And none of that yes sir stuff, either. I want someone who can contribute intelligent conversation, not grovel at my feet.”
She raised her brows. “And so you asked me? Don’t you think you’re setting yourself up for a disappointment?”
His eyes twinkled and he jabbed a thumb at the dining room. “Save the smart talk for later. Get on in there and set yourself a place - or do I have to do that?”
She wrinkled her nose at him as she brushed by and he tugged playfully at her hair. She quirked a brow and made an exaggerated point of putting her hair back in order, tossing her head pertly and smiling up at him.
Claudette and Carl were waiting patiently in the dining room when Cynthia and Cade entered. Sobering, Cynthia addressed them.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I didn’t realize I was supposed to dine with you. Go ahead and take a seat while I set another place.”
Ignoring the raised brow that Claudette gave her husband, Cynthia hastily set another place and graciously submitted to improper treatment as Cade helped her with her chair and then seated himself. It was hard to tell whether he was trying to impress his sister or shock her. Somehow the latter seemed more likely with Cade.
During and after supper, conversation seemed to continually migrate back to Cynthia. Were the Landers actually interested in her mundane life, or was there some other reason for their questions? The evening was long and she was grateful when Cade announced he was going to bed.
Once she was certain Cade and his guests were comfortable, she retreated to her room with a book. She wasn’t actually tired, but reading was relaxing. Inside the quiet room, the balcony beckoned, so she slid the patio door open and stepped out into the balmy night. She leaned on the banister and breathed deeply of the clean air. Down by the pond, frogs were singing their night songs and the sky was filled with bright stars. Somewhere out on the range a lone wolf called, its eerie howl reminding the intruding humans that they had not yet won. She sighed contentedly. This was heaven on earth. How could it get any better? And then she thought of Cade. A cool breeze touched the warmth of her cheeks. Why couldn’t she stop thinking of him that way? What was it about him that attracted her so? No matter how often she asked herself the question, the answer remained elusive. Could it be that his stoic personality was the very thing that kept her interest perked? People always wanted what seemed unobtainable. Was that the case? If he returned her affection, would she grow tired of him?
She turned away from the beauty of the ranch, reminding herself that she had made the decision to leave. How could she stay, feeling as she did about Cade? Sooner or later it would become obvious to Cade himself. And then what would he do - suggest she find attention elsewhere? So many questions and so few answers. She settled into the old rocker and snapped on the lamp. A few chapters would take her mind off Cade.
But it didn’t, and even when she slept, she dreamed of him again. This time they were on the balcony, gazing into the night, his arm around her waist. She snuggled against his body, but this time when she lifted her lips for his affection, he laughed.
She woke with a start. She rolled over and punched her pillow. Now that was a good example of her imagination working over time. Cade laughing? Did Cade secretly laugh at the way she flirted with him? The idea brought a rush of heat to her neck. She tossed her head to throw the curls from her face and rolled over in bed. Stop thinking about him. It was that simple. All she had to do was put her mind to it.
The clock ticked away the minutes and she finally sat up and squinted at it - four-thirty. What time would Cade want to get up this morning? She threw back the covers. She might as well shower and dress. She wasn’t going to be able to sleep any more.
With her bed made, she crept down the stairs and across the family room floor. A sliver of light under Cade’s door suggested he was already awake. She quietly crossed to the kitchen and put some water on the stove for coffee. Scruffy was meowing at the kitchen door. Taking a zip-lock bag of scraps from the refrigerator, she opened the door and stepped out into the cool dawn. Scruffy limped to the bowl and she kneeled beside him.
“Come here, kitty. What’s the matter with your foot?”
She lifted the cat to her lap and turned so the light from the doorway would fall on the foot. One of the claws was ripped almost completely out. She shuddered.
“Poor little thing. What happened? Did you get caught in a trap?”
A tall figure darkened the doorway and she looked up to find Cade watching her. He knelt beside her and reached for the cat.
“Let me look at him.”
To her surprise, the cat gave him no resistance. Cade examined the claw and stood. “I have some salve in the barn. Let’s go put some on it.”
“Should we bandage it?”
His features twisted into what might have passed for a wry smile. “Bandages are for humans, not animals - not for things like this, anyway. He’ll limp around for a week or so and then he’ll be fine.”
She smiled up at him. “You like him, don’t you?”
He eyed her sourly. “I hate cats.”
“Right. That’s obvious. “Her smile broadened into a grin as she reached for the cat. “Come on scruffy. Daddy wants to fix your foot.”
Cade handed her the cat and cuffed her playfully. She giggled and cuddled the cat close. “He’s so soft. Don’t you think he’s cute?”
“Yeah,” he commented dryly as they turned toward the barn. “You’ve been around that furry thing so long that you’re beginning to look like him.” He reached out and brushed her hair away from her face. “You’re even getting hair in your ears.”
She made a face and he smiled. Not a twitch of the mouth or a brief glimpse of teeth, but a regular smile. She caught her breath, realizing for the first time that he was actually an attractive man. How sad that his smile was so rare.
“Do you realize that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you smile? You have a lovely smile, you know that?”
“Get out of here.” The smile was replaced by a surge of color as he jerked the barn door open. “Let’s get that paw fixed and then go in. I’m about to starve to death.”

Continue to Chapter Six

Courtship of the Recluse
                   Linda Louise Rigsbee