Over the next couple of weeks, Cynthia made a few visits to town, once taking in a movie before she returned. But if Mary and Cade met, there was no indication. Maybe they were having a fight.
One beautiful day followed another and she gradually wandered farther from the house exploring the ranch - sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot. It was on one of these occasions that she wandered farther than she realized. A low rumble brought her attention to the horizon. The clouds were low and moving fast. In the distance they were dark and threatening. She turned to go back to the house and realized she wouldn’t be able to make it before the storm caught up with her. Her heart in her throat, she raced down the hill. She turned at the drum of hooves behind her and watched Cade plunge his horse down a steep embankment and turn toward her. He rode as if he were part of the horse, his lean body swaying with the stride of the graceful animal. He drew his mount to a halt beside her and kicked one foot free of the stirrup, offering a hand up.
Wasting no time, she jabbed her left foot in the stirrup and lifted her hand to be swallowed in his. He pulled as she lunged up, and as soon as she was settled behind him, he urged the horse into a lope. The storm kicked up dust behind them, but they managed to beat it to the corral. Tiny drops of rain spattered their faces as she took his hand again and dismounted.
She glanced up at him in surprise. Was she imagining things, or did his fingertips actually linger to caress her palm? His solemn features gave no clue.
“Thanks,” she said breathlessly, and stepped away from the horse. He touched his hat and turned the horse toward the barn.
Wind and rain slashed at her as she reached the kitchen doorway and she hurried into the house. The chicken was done. She had set it in the oven to stay warm before she left the house. The salad was in the refrigerator and coffee was ready on the stove. She prepared the table and was putting the food on when Cade opened the door. Even his hat was sagging with moisture. His boots sloshed as he tiptoed across the kitchen floor.
“Hold that food while I change.”
He returned to the kitchen after a few minutes in dry clothes, his hair freshly combed. She poured him a cup of coffee and sat down at the table.
The storm moved over them as they ate, rumbling and flashing angrily. Cade ignored the uproar and gave proper attention to his meal. Was he going to say something about the fact that she wandered too far from the house? Was he going to wait until later? Finally she could bear the suspense no longer.
“I didn’t notice how far I was wandering this evening.”
“It can happen to anyone.”
He continued to eat, ignoring her presence, and she squirmed in her chair.
“You’re not going to lecture me about it?”
He glanced up at her and frowned. “Lecture you? Why? Everything turned out fine and you learned a lesson. What more could I say?”
She smiled at him gratefully. “Behind that facade of indifference, there’s a very nice person.”
His brows lifted in genuine surprise. “Me?”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You.”
He shrugged nonchalantly, but his gaze rested on her thoughtfully for a few moments before he finished his meal.
The storm passed quickly, but the night remained warm. There was probably another one brewing. It was that time of year. When she crawled into bed and turned off the light, the night sky performed a fireworks display in the distance. She stretched and tried to relax, but her mind kept returning to Cade - thinking of his warm touch on the palm of her hand. Funny how little things like that could stay in a person’s thoughts for hours. He was clumsy at expressing verbal emotion and physical emotion was beyond him, but his eyes. She shook her head. It was all wishful thinking. Gradually her eyelids drooped and then she was dreaming again.
She was riding behind Cade, her hands clinging to his lean hips. Lightning flashed around them and thunder rumbled. He leaned forward as he helped her dismount at the barn, rain rolling off the brim of his hat in a stream. His fingers caressed her palm warmly. He brushed the hair away from her cheek. She stood on her toes and stretched upward to kiss his lips. He was leaning down to meet her, but they couldn’t seem to touch.
She came awake with a start as thunder rattled the entire house. A stream of rain was splattering on the patio. A bolt of lightning lit up the bedroom. She threw the pillow over her head, drawing the light blanket up against her chin. Her heart was pounding and the storm wasn't the only reason. She shivered in her light cotton nightgown and curled up into a ball. How could it be so cold during an electrical storm? A brilliant flash of lightning was immediately followed by thunder so loud that it rattled the windowpane. A rumble began and it took her a moment to realize the sound was hail pounding on the roof.
She threw the covers back and dashed to the patio doors, staring outside. Hail meant turbulence, and turbulence meant there could be a tornado close. She took a quick step back. If it was a tornado, standing next to glass doors wasn’t the smartest thing to do. What was? She wracked her mind for tornado safety rules. Get to the lowest story, in a central location away from hallways and windows. She grabbed her blanket and hurried down stairs. Where was Cade? Was it possible for him to sleep through this weather? As she entered the family room, a warm glow beckoned from the fireplace. A dark form hunkered before the fire, feeding small twigs to the flames.
Her bare feet made no noise as she moved across the room toward him, so when she reached his side he glanced up sharply. He let his breath out slowly.
“You startled me.”
“I’m sorry. I was just... well, the storm was so violent, and it was so cold.”
He glanced at the blanket. “Make sure you don’t get any sparks on that thing.” He turned his attention to the fire and tucked another piece of bark into the bright coals. His bare shoulders glistened in the flickering firelight. He wore only pajama bottoms, his feet bare as well.
She clutched the blanket under her chin and shivered. That was when she noticed the chill bumps on his arm. He wasn’t about to let on that he was also cold. She scooted closer to him, shifting the blanket so that she could drape the excess around his shoulders.
He glanced at her and declined the blanket. “I’m fine. Why don’t you curl up on the couch and get your bare feet off this cold floor?”
Feeling rejected, she nodded and moved to the couch. She sat on her feet and huddled under the blanket, watching the flames grow. Maybe the stories were true. Maybe she and Mary were merely his friends. Maybe that was why Mary seemed so concerned that she would become romantically involved with Cade. It would certainly explain Cade’s actions. Was he confused – alone and fighting a desire he detested?
Cade finally left the fire and sat down beside her on the couch. He rubbed his arms, unable to completely suppress a shudder.
“Here,” she said, draping the blanket around his shoulders again. “There’s no point in being uncomfortable just so you can prove what a macho man you are.”
He accepted the blanket with a sour look. “I wasn’t trying to play macho man.”
She snuggled close, letting his body draw warmth from hers. The storm raged on around them and finally began to abate. Thunder rumbled in the distance and Cade’s chin slumped to his chest. Leaning forward, she relinquished the blanket and urged him to lie down on the couch. His fingers gripped her wrist as she started to move away.
“Don’t go,” he muttered sleepily.
She hesitated. It was a risky thing, lying down on the couch with a man, but this was Cade - half asleep and asking her to stay - Cade, who never asked for anything. Cade who felt no desire for a woman? A few minutes wouldn’t hurt, and then he would be sound asleep. She could leave and he would never know the difference. He probably wasn’t even awake enough to know who she was.
She stretched out on the couch beside him; resting her head on his chest and he draped the blanket across her shoulders, his arm falling loosely on her waist. Almost immediately his breathing changed and she knew he was asleep. She'd give him a few more minutes to get completely relaxed before she left.
Cynthia was dreaming again. Cade was beside her; resting on one elbow as he stared down at her. He smiled, brushing a strand of hair from her cheek. Only in a dream, she thought sluggishly and reached out to touch his cheek. He turned his head and kissed her fingers. She smiled languidly. He leaned down and kissed her cheek softly and she rolled her head, finally touching his lips briefly with hers.
He drew back, gazing down at her with a perplexed expression. Hesitantly he leaned forward again, softly brushing her lips with his. His lips were warm. She gazed up at him, her heart beginning to flutter. A queasy feeling began in her stomach. Again he bent his head and his lips questioned hers gently at first, and then with more emotion when she responded.
With a start she realized that this was no dream. Cade was actually kissing her - and very well. For a moment she lay still, afraid any movement would frighten him away like a wild cat in the daylight. But they shouldn’t be doing this. Not here alone on the couch. She put her hand on his chest with the intention of pushing him away, but the warmth of his muscular chest on her palm was exciting. Instead, her fingers slid across the smooth muscles and up to his neck, drawing his mouth down harder on hers.
He finally drew away. “Cindy?” His voice was husky and bewildered as he gazed down at her.
Now was the time to stop this. She should tell him to let her up. That was simple enough. But no words came from her mouth as she lay there, mesmerized by his ardent expression.
Again he stroked her cheek and bent his head. This time his lips left hers and wandered to her neck, sending her heartbeat into frenzy. His hand moved down her side to her waist and then down to her leg, caressing the back of her knee in a delightful way. He was so gentle, so sweet. Could this actually be Cade? And then he moved over her, his fingers sliding up her arm as it lay beside her head. Lacing his fingers through hers, his palms touched hers – so warm and exciting. His lips became more urgent as they found hers again.
For a moment she had the shocking realization that the situation was out of control. She squirmed to get out from under him, but the movement was misinterpreted. She caught her breath in a startled gasp of pain.
“Darling,” He spoke in a husky whisper. His warm breath quickened against her throat. His lips found hers in an ardent kiss.
In the fog of desire she knew one thing - it was too late to protest. All desire to push him away vanished and she clung to him, lost in the ecstasy of his urgent lovemaking.
Some time later she awoke in his arms. The fire flickered feebly, its passion curbed by time as well. She stared at the fire, shocked by the enormity of what she had done. How could she have allowed this to happen? She should never have lain down on the couch with him. She knew that at the time, so why had she pushed reason aside? Because it was Cade. Not only because she loved him, but also because she trusted him. Had Cade planned to seduce her, or was he also a victim of mislaid trust? After all, she had made the first move, turning her head as he kissed her cheek.
She moved away from him and stared down at his relaxed features. When had he changed from the unattractive older man she met in the diner to the good looking young man who now lay beside her? Was she blinded by love now, or had she merely been unobservant before?
She gently worked her nightgown out from under him, hoping all the while that he wouldn’t wake. Who would wake from that sleeping body? The man she made love to last night or the recluse - Cade? Her cheeks burned. How many times had she sworn she would never do that with anyone but her husband? She had been so sure it would never happen with her consent. But Cade hadn’t raped her. She had been a willing participant. In her confused state of mind, she had convinced herself that he loved her. But now her head was clear. Cade only wanted one thing - and she had foolishly submitted. For him it was nothing more than a brief episode of pleasure.
Tears spilled down her cheeks as she slipped away from the couch. Cade still slept peacefully - not that he would have cared if she left at this point anyway. A lump was forming in her throat and she was afraid she was going to retch. She hurried to her bathroom.
Half an hour later, her eyes swollen and her chest sore from sobbing, she turned her face up to the warm water in the shower. Clenching her hands together she prayed fervently. “Oh God,” she cried softly. “Please let me wake up and find out this was only a dream.” But when she opened her eyes, it was no dream. She scrubbed her skin rosy for nearly an hour and finally abandoned the attempt to remove the guilt. She dressed as the sun was sending its first rays through the bathroom window. Time couldn’t be turned back. The mistake had been made and she had no choice but to acknowledge it and get on with her life. It wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. She stopped at the door and caught her breath. No, certainly not. It could be much worse. But it was only once. She shook her head. That was all it took, providing it was the right time. Was it? She tried to calculate, and the blood pumped in her neck. And this could be exactly the right time.
She jerked the door open. Stop thinking about it. It was too late or too early to do anything about it now. In a few more weeks she could make a routine visit to the doctor. She might be worrying for no reason. After all, even if it was the right time, it didn’t mean pregnancy was inevitable.
When she came through the living room the fire was roaring, but Cade was nowhere in sight. For that much she was grateful. Yet, when the smell of bacon lured him to the kitchen, she found herself wishing he would address the subject. Instead he was withdrawn and somber, even picking at his food. Finally he pushed his plate aside and rose from the chair.
“See you tonight,” he mumbled as he headed for the door.
“Do you want me to pack you a lunch?”
He clamped his hat on. “No. I don’t want anything.” Without another word, he left the house.
She stared after him. Would he prefer she wasn’t here when he got back tonight? Was he angry with her? After all, if she hadn’t turned her head when he kissed her on the cheek, maybe things wouldn’t have turned out the same way.
Warmth invaded her cheeks as she thought of something else. Maybe he was afraid she would insist he make an honest woman of her. She slammed the plates into the sink. Well he needn’t worry. The last thing she wanted was a reluctant husband. If he wanted to forget it had ever happened, so much the better. It shouldn’t have - and it never would again.