Cynthia was careful not to flirt with Cade again, putting on a professional front when he was around. He couldn’t have asked for a better housekeeper, but the atmosphere between them had become strained. Why was it so hard to joke with him without flirting? And Cade had become more solemn in the last few weeks, as if he sensed her dilemma and felt uncomfortable as well.
The tension was taking its toll in another way. Nearly a week early on her monthly cycle, she was caught unprepared. The few supplies she had would barely last the night, especially since the flow was unusually heavy. That meant she would have to drive to town tonight, and she wasn’t feeling up to it. She sighed as she set out the supper dishes. Oh well, life was full of unpleasantness and this was a minor one.
Cade came through the kitchen door and pitched his hat on the peg. “Smells good. I’m starving.”
“Well, sit down then. It’s ready.”
He washed and bellied up to the table, proving his statement as he delved into the food. Cynthia picked at her food, pushing it around the plate more than anything else. Nothing looked good and she felt feverish. Finally she put down her fork and gave up the pretense.
“What’s the matter?” Cade asked. “Are you feeling puny tonight?”
She shrugged. “I was just thinking. I need to go to town for something so I’d better get started. Maybe I can get back before dark.”
“Why don’t you let me go in and get it for you? I needed some things anyway and I don’t mind driving in the dark.”
She picked up her plate and scraped the food into a scrap bowl for the cat. “That’s all right. It’s kind of personal.”
“Oh. Well, why don’t you go with me then?”
Dark splotches hindered her vision and she paused, planting a hand firmly on the counter for support. Surely she wasn’t going to faint. Never in her life had she fainted. The room began to spin, and she grabbed the edge of the sink. Her knees buckled and hit the cabinet. Cade’s’ chair scraped the floor and his boot heels hit the floor twice before he grabbed her waist. A burning sensation began in her throat and she realized she was going to heave. The back door was too far away for her rubbery legs, and the only alternative was the sink. She leaned over the sink, retching uncontrollably. Suddenly cool hands were pulling her hair back and turning on the water. She coughed, and tears stung her eyes. It wasn’t bad enough she had to pitch her cookies in front of him, now she was going to cry. As she dashed the cool water on her face, the strength returned to her legs.
Cade handed her a towel and gently rubbed her back. His expression was openly compassionate as he reached out, drawing her into his arms and guiding her head to his shoulder.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were sick? You don’t have to wait on me hand and foot, you know.” He brushed the hair back from her face and stroked her cheek gently.
She buried her face in his shoulder, hoping he wouldn’t notice she was crying. But he wasn’t fooled. He patted her shoulder.
“What’s the matter, Cindy?”
“Nothing,” she managed to respond in a weak voice.
“Then why are you crying? Is it this house? Are you lonely? Do you need to see a doctor?”
“No.” His sympathy only made matters worse and she hiccupped.
His voice was anxious. “You’re not going to throw up again, are you?” He lifted her chin with two fingers, and the expression on his face might have been amusing under different circumstances.
“No, I feel better now.” She said, stepping away from him. She grabbed a tissue from the box on the counter and blew her nose. “I’m sorry. It happened so suddenly that I didn’t realize it was coming.”
He was still watching her intently. Pulling out a drawer, he removed a paper and pencil.
“Write down what you need and I’ll get it. Surely it can’t be that personal, and you’re in no condition to be going to town.”
She stared at the paper. How did she get herself into predicaments like this? She shook her head. “I can go. I feel better now.”
He frowned at her suspiciously. “Is it a female thing?”
When she blushed, he nodded. “Write down exactly what you want.” When she still hesitated his expression became exasperated. “Come on, Cynthia. We’re both adults. There’s no reason to feel embarrassed about a normal body function.”
“I’m not embarrassed.” She grabbed the note pad and wrote a brand name and quantity. “They carry these at the store where we always shop.”
He glanced at the paper and nodded. “I know what to get, now you go lay down on the couch until I get back. I don’t want you fainting and breaking your neck or something.”
“I’m all right. I can go...”
“You can go lay down, like I said.” He followed her to the family room and made sure she was safely lying down before he left. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
It was ridiculous - sending him into town after such personal items when she was perfectly capable of going by herself. Of course, if he was already going to the store to get something... A mental picture of Cade shopping for such items brought a smile to her lips. Cade probably wouldn’t be the least bit intimidated by the task, though.
Giving him a few minutes to traverse the drive, she got up and went into the kitchen. After she cleaned the table and finished the dishes, she went to her room to get some aspirin. By the time she reached the top of the stairs, tiny flecks of light were dancing across her vision. In her bathroom, she wiped her face with a cold rag and took a couple of aspirin. Pulling back the covers on her bed, she slipped between the cool sheets and let exhaustion take its course.
Cool fingers brushed her cheek lightly and she woke to find Cade leaning over her. The lamp beside her bed was on and he had a sack in one hand.
“Are you feeling any better?”
She rolled on her back and smiled up at him.
“Good.” He set the sack on the night table. “I’ll leave this here for you. “Would you like some ice cream?”
She sat up and grabbed her throbbing head. “I’ll come down in a few minutes.”
He felt her forehead and rubbed her back. “Headache?” At her nod he stroked her hair. “The ice cream will help.”
After he left the room she opened the sack to get her things and smiled. Inside was everything she had ordered - as well as a box of chocolates. Cade knew how to be a friend, even if he didn’t know what to say. She put the things in her bathroom and was returning to the bedroom when Cade knocked on her open door.
“Room service.” In his hand he held a bowl of ice cream, and his eyes held a welcome spark of humor.
“Oh, Cade,” she laughed. “That’s so sweet.”
He grimaced. “Don’t get mushy on me.”
He sat on the end of the bed and watched reflectively as she ate the ice cream.
“You know,” he finally said. “I think I’ll sleep in tomorrow, so don’t bother to get up early. I could use a day cleaning up the barn.”
She rolled her eyes. “I was out there yesterday when I came back from riding and noticed that the barn was almost as clean as this house. I know what you’re up to and thanks for the concern, but I’m fine now.” She jabbed the spoon in the ice cream and sighed. “I feel like such a baby.”
He frowned. “Why? You’ve been working for me for almost three months now and this is the first time I’ve ever seen you sick.”
She made a face. “That and the time when I was trying to get the salt shaker from behind the stove.”
He shrugged. “That was nothing. It happens to all of us now and then.”
She stirred the ice cream until it was soft. “This is good.” She threw him a sideways look. “And thanks for the chocolates, too.”
He nodded absently and fell silent while she finished the ice cream. He reached for the bowl. “I’ll take that back down on my way.” He tucked her under the covers as if she were a child. “Now get some rest.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek lightly and straightened. For a moment he gazed down at her as though something were troubling him, but he finally turned. “Good night,” he said as he snapped off the light. He left the room, pulling the door snugly closed behind him.
Such a strange man. Was he beginning to view her as a ward? Lately his actions were more fatherly than anything else. Maybe he was one of those men who felt they needed to protect and care for all women. Chauvinistic, no doubt, but it was kind of nice to be looked after.
She snuggled down into the covers and yawned. She was warm and Cade was in the house. She felt safe and secure.
The next day Cade worked close to the house - trying to keep an eye on her, no doubt. He was wasting a day because of her. She felt fine. When he came into the house for his fourth cup of coffee before noon she decided to salvage something from the day.
“It’s such a beautiful day. Why don’t I pack a lunch so we can go down to the pond for a picnic?”
He shrugged. “If you’re feeling up to it.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m fine. How many times do I have to tell you?”
He set the coffee mug on the counter. “All right, you pack a lunch and bring a blanket and I’ll go get the weed whip and knock down some of the tall grass.”
By the time she brought lunch and a blanket down, he had a large area cleared under the cottonwood tree. He took the blanket from her and spread it on the ground. There they knelt and ate their lunch in silence.
A meadowlark pierced the silence with its sharp whistling song. She glanced at Cade.
“You know what would be nice?”
His eyes reflected interest, so she continued.
He snorted. “Geese?”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Yeah, you know. Honk, honk? Can’t you just picture them swimming around on that pond, ducking their heads gracefully to feed.”
He shook his head. “How about a few chickens instead?”
“On the pond?”
“What’s so great about this pond?” He slapped his arm. “All it does is breed mosquitoes and attract snakes.”
She glanced around nervously. “Snakes?”
He picked up a piece of straw and leaned his back against the tree, picking his teeth. “There are probably a half dozen of them waiting out there in the grass.”
She leaned forward to examine his face, but his expression told her nothing. She sighed and drew her knees up against her chest. “I think you’re trying to scare me.”
He gazed off across the hills. “You like it here, don’t you.”
She nodded. “Yes. It’s a beautiful ranch.”
“You don’t mind the loneliness?”
“Solitude,” she corrected. “And no, I don’t mind. I was raised on a farm, and being an only child, I learned not to depend on others for entertainment.”
He stood and walked to the edge of the pond. “You don’t miss your friends?”
“I see Mary once a week.”
He stooped and selected several rocks. “No boyfriend?” One by one he tossed the rocks into the pond.
She stood and picked up the blanket. “No. I’ve dated some guys, but...” She paused, folding the blanket. How could she explain in a delicate manner, why she had virtually given up dating? He was watching her intently so she shrugged. “I got tired of being pawed.”
He glanced away quickly, his features gaining a rosy color. “You’re a nice looking woman. It’s only natural that men want to touch you.”
She stared at him. Was he including himself in that statement? Was that why he had kissed her that day? No, he said he did it because he was angry. He was merely trying to get her to go out more. Maybe he would like a few evenings to himself and she was always underfoot.
He glanced sharply in the direction of the drive and swore under his breath. Following his gaze, Cynthia saw the little green Ford coming up the drive. Why would he be upset with Mary for paying them a visit? Unless - Maybe he was upset at being caught picnicking with his housekeeper.
In the next few minutes she had reason to believe that wasn’t his only cause for concern. Mary strode down the path toward them, a hand shielding the sun from her eyes. She smiled as she reached them.
“You must be feeling better, Cynthia. Russ said you were sick last night.”
“Oh, it was nothing.”
So Cade had visited Mary last night. Had that been the purpose for his trip to town? Why didn’t he simply say he wanted to go see Mary? Cynthia blushed. Were her feelings for Cade so obvious that he had detected them? Was that what their conversation had been about today? He wanted her to look elsewhere for romantic attention. Now his girlfriend had caught them together. It didn’t look good for him. She laughed nervously.
“I twisted Cade’s arm to get him to come out here with me for a picnic lunch.” She picked up the blanket. “I’d better get this stuff back into the house before it’s crawling with ants.”
With that, she left them alone. Hopefully Mary wouldn’t be too angry with him. Mary had never been the jealous type, but then, where love was concerned, people changed.
She had barely finished putting the things away when Mary knocked on the kitchen door.
“Come in. It’s open,” Cynthia called.
Mary entered the kitchen and frowned. “Why did you go running off like that? Did I interrupt something?”
Cynthia blushed again. “No. We were finished with lunch and having a discussion about the pond.”
Mary smiled knowingly. “The pond? Is that all?”
Cynthia shrugged. “No, if you must know, he was trying to encourage me to get out and date. I think he wants me out of the house so he can bring someone home.”
Mary quirked a brow. “And that doesn’t bother you?”
“No, why should it?”
Mary threw her hands in the air. “Oh yes. I forgot for a minute. There’s nothing going on here.”
Cynthia frowned. “That’s right - nothing but honest work.”
Mary shrugged. “Whatever. I came out here to enjoy your company, not argue with you. So, how’s scruffy doing?”
Cynthia grabbed the opportunity to change the subject.
“He’s a regular pet now. And he’s getting as fat as a hog on all the table scraps.”
They talked for several hours and when Mary left, Cade was nowhere in sight. Had Mary accused him as well? He came in for supper and ate in silence. After supper he went to his room with a book. The evening was young and she had ruined his chance to spend it with Mary. She had to get out some so he could have a life.