By the end of the second day, she had adapted to the guests and felt completely at ease - a state that Claudette apparently wanted to shatter. Cynthia was peeling potatoes when Claudette wandered into the kitchen. Cynthia glanced up and smiled warmly.
“Can I get you something?”
“No. As a matter of fact, you’ve spoiled us both and we’ll never be able to get along with our present housekeeper again.”
Cynthia laughed. “Oh, she can’t be that bad.”
Claudette shrugged. “No, you’re just that good.”
Claudette laced her fingers and leaned against the counter, eyeing Cynthia with a puzzled expression.
“You know, I’ve never seen Russie look so fit. You two seem to get along well together.”
“Most of the time.”
Claudette arched well maintained brows. “How well?”
Her intent was obvious, but Cynthia decided to play dumb. “Oh, we disagree now and then, but we never come to blows.”
Claudette rolled her eyes. “No, that wasn’t what I meant.” She moved away from the counter. “Of course, what goes on between you two in this big lonely house when no one else is around is between the two of you.”
It would be disrespectful of Cade for her to do anything but defend his honor. She rinsed a potato and dropped it in the kettle.
“Mrs. Lander,” she began in a cordial tone. “There is nothing going on between Mr. Cade and me that anyone isn’t welcome to watch. I am the housekeeper, not his mistress.”
Claudette's laugh was short. “Maybe so, but I’ve seen the way you look at him when you forget yourself. You’d like to be his housekeeper all right - and more, I suspect.”
Cynthia didn’t dignify her statement with an answer. Any denial would be immediately detected as a lie, anyway. At the moment, it was her honor at stake, not Cade’s. She completed peeling another potato and rinsed it before Claudette finally gave up on a response with an audible sigh.
“Well, it doesn’t matter anyway, I suppose. Russie is a lost cause. I mean, he isn’t interested in women.”
Cynthia jerked her head around and stared at Claudette. What kind of comment was that to make about her brother? And what, exactly, did she mean?
Claudette frowned. “Surely you’ve heard. He likes guys. He’s gay.”
Confusion flooded Cynthia’s mind, drowning her in doubt and questions. Was it possible? No. It didn’t fit in with anything Mary had said. And yet, Claudette was his sister. Maybe...no.
“Your brother’s sexual preferences are none of my business.”
Claudette stared at her. “Russie? He’s not my real brother. He’s not even a Cade. You mean you didn’t know that, either?” She shook her head and clicked her tongue against the top of her mouth. “Russie has been keeping secrets from you. I wonder why?”
Cynthia picked up another potato and eviscerated an eye. “No, I didn’t know. And it’s none of my business. And Mr. Cade has done nothing to make me think he is anything but a normal man who simply enjoys his solitude.” She felt sick to her stomach. Was it possible that Cade actually was a homosexual? Was it wishful thinking that made her so certain that he wasn’t?
Claudette shrugged her lovely shoulders. “Well, he did spend a lot of time with his mother. She was such a strange woman - just like Russie. I never did understand why Dad married her. Did you know she actually spun the wool to knit sweaters? I mean it wasn’t like we didn’t have the money to buy clothes or anything like that. And that old furniture she brought here. Dad would have given her anything she wanted. He was crazy about her. She hated this house, though. Not that I blame her.” She glanced at Cynthia. “Oh, you have it fixed up nice, but don’t you think it’s a monstrosity?”
“No. As a matter of fact, I think it has character.”
“Anyway,” Claudette continued. “When Dad died, he left this ranch to his wife and stepson and his fortune went to the rest of us kids.” Claudette turned her palms to the air. “As far as I’m concerned, good riddance to the ranch.”
Cynthia frowned. “You have other sisters and brothers?”
Claudette nodded. “A brother in Maine and a sister in Washington DC.”
The diversion didn’t last long. Claudette brushed some lint from the bodice of her dress. “Like I said, Russie’s mother was always strange, but after Dad died, she really became eccentric. Locked herself in her room for days working on layette sets for the grand children Russie would never provide. I actually felt a little sorry for her. It was so pathetic. Anyway she finally got so lonely and depressed that she locked herself in her room one day and shot herself. Russie came home that night and found her.”
The mental picture of Cade finding his mother that way made Cynthia’s stomach lurch uncomfortably. So that was why Cade felt responsible for his mothers’ death. How sad. She thought of the layette sets in the chest. Obviously Cade’s mother didn’t subscribe to the gay story - or was that what finally drove her over the edge? Yet Cade had kept the baby clothes - and the furniture.
Claudette shook her head. “That’s when Russie got the ranch.” She made a face. “Now he’s as strange as his mother was. Hanging on to this place and working it like a cowboy. I don’t know why he doesn’t he get the proper equipment and run it like a modern ranch. I swear, sometimes I think he’s completely against progress.”
Cynthia began slicing the potatoes in the pot. “I think this place is beautiful, and apparently the ranch is paying for itself. At any rate, Mr. Cade seems to be happy with his lifestyle. Who are we to suggest that it’s wrong?”
“He’s such a hermit. Everyone laughs behind his back. It’s so embarrassing. Every year I come out here and try to convince him to get with the times, but it’s to no avail. I guess he enjoys the privacy of isolation. That way he can do what he wants and who’s to know? He doesn’t date. Would you believe he covers up with the excuse that he’s saving himself for one special girl?” She laughed in a single expulsion of air. “I mean, he’s a twenty eight year old man, for heavens’ sake. If he hasn’t been with a woman, it’s probably because he’s had other ways of ...” She let her voice trail of suggestively and shrugged again.
Cynthia ran water in the pot. “Why is it virtuous for a woman to practice chastity, and ludicrous for a man? I share his philosophy and no one has accused me of...enjoying the same sex.”
Claudette digested the response reflectively and finally lifted her shoulders in a graceful shrug again.
“You defend him because you work for him and you’re a loyal employee, but I’ll bet you’ve wondered why he’s so unresponsive.”
Cynthia didn’t answer. It was a loaded statement. If she said he was responsive, Claudette would assume something was going on. If she confirmed that Cade was unresponsive she would be as much as endorsing an ugly rumor. Because Cade was so reclusive and entertained controversial ideas, he was a target for that kind of gossip. But it didn’t fit the man she had come to know, and she wasn’t about to believe it simply because he hadn’t made a pass at her yet. She’d like to give Claudette a piece of her mind, but that would be unprofessional. It was Cade’s house and sister. As the hired help, she was supposed to be supportive of Cade without upsetting Claudette.
Claudette dropped the subject and Cynthia thought it would never be brought up again. She was wrong - as usual. The very next day she was straining over the counter to reach behind the stove when Cade came into the kitchen.
“What are you doing?”
She lifted her head. “I dropped the salt shaker behind the stove.”
“Here, let me pull out the stove.”
She slid off the counter and straightened too quickly. The blood drained from her head, leaving her dizzy and disoriented. She lifted a hand to her head and her knees started to buckle. Instantly a strong arm gripped her around the waist.
“Are you all right?”
She staggered on legs of rubber and he lifted her to the counter, sitting her in front of him.
“Put your head down.” He grabbed the towel and turned the cold water on. Lifting the hair off the back of her neck, he applied the cool towel. “Better?”
“I feel stupid,” she answered through her hands.
Finally he removed the towel and she straightened cautiously. “I think I’m all right now.”
He helped her down, his hands lingering on her waist as he gazed down at her. “Are you sure you’re all right. I think you’ve been working too hard lately.”
She laughed nervously, acutely aware of the warmth of his hands through her cotton dress.
“Don’t be silly. I was simply hanging upside down too long.”
Her heart was pounding hard and warmth invaded her neck. The way he was looking at her - was he going to kiss her?
Unsure what to do with her hands, she rested them on his arms. Through his shirt sleeves she could feel the swell of his biceps and her heart jumped into high gear. A wave of warmth rushed up her neck and broke over her cheeks.
Her blush brought a shy smile to his lips. “You know, Cindy, we could ...”
But he got no farther. Claudette spoke sarcastically from the kitchen doorway.
“Well, well - isn’t this cozy.”
Cynthia fairly leaped away from Cade, her face flaming.
“It isn’t what you think. I...”
“Oh, I believe you,” Claudette interrupted flippantly. “Now if you been a male...”
Cade looked as if he’d been slapped. He glared at Claudette and swung around, jerking the range from its cove.
“You can get that salt shaker now, Cynthia.”
She moved past him and gingerly felt behind the stove until her fingers closed around the shaker.
“I’ve got it.” She pulled the shaker out and glanced up at Cade.
His face was pale and drawn as he shoved the range back into place. His jaw muscles worked as he spun on one heel and marched to the outside door, slamming it as he left.
Cynthia turned on Claudette. “That was a mean thing to say. Don’t you care that you hurt his feelings?”
Claudette laughed. “Russie? He doesn’t have any feelings. Haven’t you learned that yet?”
Claudette had gone one step too far. Cynthia slammed the shaker on the counter, spraying salt on the floor.
“Everyone has feelings, Claudette, though some people are extremely successful at hiding them. If you knew Mr. Cade nearly as well as you think you do, you would know that he is actually very sensitive.”
Claudette shook her head. “You’ve really got a case on him, haven’t you?”
Cynthia clammed up. What was the use? It was best to stay out of the entire thing - if they would only let her. Tomorrow they would be leaving, and it couldn’t come fast enough. She turned to the stove to prepare supper and Claudette left the room.
Later, as she was straining the water from the potatoes, Cade wandered in. He took a mug from the cupboard and poured himself a cup of coffee. He leaned against the wall, sipping his coffee silently as he watched her mash the potatoes. It was obvious that he wanted to clear the air, but couldn’t decide where to start. Finally he pushed away from the wall and crossed to the table. Glancing into the family room, he turned back to Cynthia.
“I shouldn’t let her get to me that way.”
Cynthia glanced at him and frowned. “She seems to have so much animosity toward you. Why?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? Wild imagination, listening to too many stories, or maybe because I have the ranch. She doesn’t want it, but it irks her to think that it was left to me - the weirdo.”
Cynthia smiled. “She can’t make up her mind whether you’re having an affair with me or hiding something. It kind of leaves you in trouble either way, doesn’t it? Like the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
He glanced up sharply, his lips thinning down and his face paling. He slammed the mug on the table and stood, crossing the distance between them in two long strides.
He jerked her around and grabbed her shoulders roughly.
“I couldn’t care less what Claudette thinks, but let me take the question out of your mind.”
His lips crushed down on hers, bruising them as his fingers dug into her shoulders. She pounded his chest with her fists and tried to scream. He released her as suddenly as he had begun the assault. She swung hard and her open hand cracked against his face.”
His voice was barely more than a whisper. “Nice touch.”
That was when she noticed Claudette standing in the kitchen doorway. So it had all been a show for Claudette.
“Of all the...” Tears stung her eyes as she brought her hand around and struck his other cheek with a ringing blow. How could he betray her trust so utterly - for the sole purpose of proving a point to Claudette?
He grabbed her hand. “That’s enough, Cynthia.”
A sob tore from her throat. “Not nearly.” She jerked her hand free and darted past the wide-eyed Claudette - up the stairs and into the safety of her room. Flinging herself on the bed, she sobbed out the anger and hurt. Why couldn’t he have confronted Claudette, instead of acting like a beast? And to think she had trusted him. Didn’t he know that his brutal assault proved nothing? Did Cade even know how to be romantic? How she would have welcomed a loving hug or kiss from him. But now he had ruined everything. It was bad enough that his actions warranted her decision to leave, but now she actually feared him.
Someone knocked on her door and she wiped her eyes and blew her nose before responding.
“Who is it?”
“Claudette.” The voice was strangely timid.
Cynthia hesitated. Was Claudette here to gloat? If she was, she had picked a poor time. This time there would be no holding back. Claudette was going to get a piece of her mind.
Claudette pushed the door open slowly and demurely made her way across the room. She sat on the edge of the bed, contemplating Cynthia with a compassionate expression.
“I’m sorry. I guess I was wrong about both of you.”
She was wrong, all right - and she had no idea how wrong she was. Claudette hadn’t interrupted Cade making a pass. In fact, she had been nothing more than a spectator for a convincing role Cade was playing. And worse yet, Cade had thought she was going along with his skit.
Claudette folded her hands in her lap. “If you want to get away from here, I’d hire you. We have a beautiful house and lots of parties. You wouldn’t be so lonely there.”
It was in her mind to tell Claudette to take a long walk off a short pier, but a cool voice interrupted them at that moment.
“Head hunting, Claudette?” Cade was standing in the doorway, coffee mug in hand.
Claudette stood and smiled down at Cynthia. “I’m serious, Cynthia. If you decide you want to go, you can leave with us tomorrow morning.” She brushed past Cade, giving him a stern look as she left the room.
Cade wandered across the room and stared out the patio doors, sipping from the coffee mug. For a long time he simply stood there, and when he finally spoke, his voice was controlled.
“I want to apologize for forcing myself on you and I want to assure you that it will never happen again. I took all my frustration and anger out on you. I was way out of line.”
“You didn’t have to prove anything to me, you know. I didn’t believe Claudette.”
He glanced around sharply. “Then you’re the only one. People are always willing to believe the worst about others. I’m not sure who started that story, but it floated around here for my last two years of high school. It looks like Claudette is determined to keep it alive.”
“So you kissed me in front of her. That way she would know you liked women.”
He frowned. “No, I didn’t even know Claudette was standing there until you slapped me. Then I wondered if you were putting on a show for her to prove nothing was going on between us.” He shook his head. “If the show had been for Claudette, would I have been so rough?”
She tucked her legs under her skirt and gnawed at her lower lip. “Then why were you so rough? It was the first time you’ve ever been anything with me but a perfect gentleman. It frightened me. You’re so strong.” She threw him an accusing look. “Don’t you see what you’ve done? It’s inevitable that two people living in the same house are going to be at odds sometimes, but from now on I’ll never feel completely safe. If you’d fired me, or even hit me ”
“I’d never hit you.” The words were swift and emotional and she had no doubt he spoke the truth. He rubbed his forehead and ran his fingers though his hair until it stood on end. “I know what you mean. I betrayed your trust. And I insulted you by being such a brute. I didn’t mean for it to be that way. I was so angry, and Claudette picked the worst time to...” He shook his head. “I have no excuse. I was wrong and I admit it. I told you. It will never happen again.”
Obviously he did realize the consequences of his actions. His anger was unfounded, but she had to accept some of the blame for his method of approach. If she hadn’t flirted with him, kissing her probably wouldn’t have come to mind. Looking back, her words did sound like a challenge. He moved toward her, his expression far from bland. In fact, tortured would be a better description. Yet when he spoke, his voice was decisive.
“Look, Cynthia. If you think you’d be happier with Claudette, I won’t stand in your way, but I want to make it clear that I don’t want you to go. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had and things around here could never be the same without you.”
She gaped up at him, finally snapping jaws shut. “Best friend? I never knew you thought of me as anything but a housekeeper - an opinionated one at that.”
He frowned. “There’s nothing wrong with having a different opinion. It only proves you have a mind of your own.” He stared down at his coffee with a sour expression. “I’ve always been a little inept at expressing my feelings.”
A little? That was the understatement of the year. Yet, he stood before her, conceding his shortcomings frankly. She smiled up at him. “Practice makes perfect,” she quipped.
He stared at her. “Does that mean you’re giving me another chance? You’re staying?”
She sighed heavily and slid off the bed. “I suppose so.” She slipped her shoes on. “I left supper half done. I’d better go finish it.”