Chapter Nine

In the week that followed, they drifted further apart. Their friendship had been destroyed by one night of passion. Their innocence replaced with guilt. Why had they allowed themselves to completely lose control? Had it meant anything at all to Cade, or was it merely a moment of desire? Was it the first time for him? It shouldn’t make any difference, but it did. Cade was the man of her dreams, but was Mary the woman of his? Had he given himself to the wrong woman? Was that why he was so remorseful?
She stabbed the spade into the flowerbed and gazed off into the distance. It was such a beautiful ranch, so quiet and secluded. A hawk made a wide swing across the grassland and suddenly dived, jerking up at the last second, its great wings straining as it pumped back into the air with added weight. A rabbit writhed in its claws, screaming in terror.
She shuddered. One moment things could be so tranquil and then the next... She sighed. It depended on how a person looked at it. For the rabbit, it was a bad day. For the hawk and her young, it was a good day.
A shadow fell over her and she turned into the sun, shading her eyes with a gloved hand. Cade was standing over her, a puzzled expression on his face as he contemplated her work.
“What are you doing?”
“Digging up these bulbs. I noticed they were getting crowded. I’m going to move some of them over there.” She indicated a cultivated area not far from where she was working. “I hope you don’t mind.”
He rubbed his jaw and stared absently at the spot. “Not at all.” He glanced around. “As a matter of fact, the place could use a little sprucing up.”
Was he hinting that she should give more attention to the exterior of the house?  She pushed away from the ground stiffly and rubbed at the sore muscles in her back while she surveyed the house. Actually, it could stand a good washing and a paint job, but surely he didn’t expect her to do that.
She slapped at a mosquito on her arm and glanced up at him. “I didn’t expect you so soon. I’ll go in and start supper.” She removed her gloves, wondering about the slow flush that was darkening his somber features.
He jabbed his hands in his pockets and looked away.
“You haven’t been in to see Mary for a while. Why don’t we go out for pizza tonight? We could stop by and pick her up.”
“Why don’t you go in by yourself?”
He glanced at her sharply and regarded her thoughtfully for a few moments.
“Does friendship mean so little to you that you can toss it aside so easily?”
She stared at him. “Mary and I aren’t fighting.”
He opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again, shaking his head. He squatted and took some of the freshly dug soil in his hand, crushing the lumps and letting the dust run through his fingers.
If he wanted to see Mary, why did he have to drag her along? Of course, after the other night... She slapped her gloves together to remove some of the mud.
“You don’t have to feel obligated to take me everywhere you go. If you want to visit Mary, why don’t you go see her?” She turned and headed for the house without waiting for an answer. Her eyes were filling with tears and she didn’t want him to see. She jerked the kitchen door open, not realizing he was close until she heard his voice behind her.
“If you’re not fighting, why don’t you go see her?” He dodged the screen door as it narrowly missed his forehead. “Are you angry with me again?”
“No.” She reached for the doorknob and he grabbed her arm.
“I’ve said something to upset you.” It was a statement, not a question.
Her eyes were probably bloodshot and tears were beginning to blur her vision. She averted her face. “I told you. I’m not angry.” She tried to sound convincing, but her voice faltered.
“Then why are you crying?” His hand still held her arm captive.
“I’m not crying.”
“Then look at me.” She could feel his intent gaze on her.
“I don’t feel good.” She reached for the door with the other hand. “If you want to go into town for pizza, please don’t feel obligated to invite me. I’m your housekeeper, remember? I work for you. I’m your employee.” She pushed the door open and hurried to the sink. “Would you like some coffee or something?”
He stared at her with a perplexed expression and finally shook his head. “I’m going to go wash up. We’ll talk when you cool off and get yourself together.”
He strode off into the other room.
She stared after him. Maybe she was reacting emotionally. The best thing to do was to calmly tell him she would rather not go. That would leave him free to go alone. But she didn’t want him to go. Nor did she want him to see Mary.
When he returned to the kitchen, she was still staring absently into the refrigerator. She glanced up as he walked across the floor and poured a cup of coffee. He met her gaze.
“You still don’t want to go?”
“No, I’m not in the mood. Why don’t you go on alone?”
He sipped the hot coffee and lowered the cup, staring down into the dark liquid.
“No, go ahead and fix something if you want. I thought you might like an evening off.”
She avoided his eyes by examining the contents of the refrigerator. “We have a lot of left-overs and Scruffy is getting ridiculously fat.”
“Left-overs are fine.” He swirled the coffee in his cup. “Speaking of Scruffy, have you seen him lately?”
She pulled a couple of bowls out of the refrigerator. “No, but there’s nothing odd about a Tom cat wandering off for a few days. He’s done it before and I’m sure he’ll do it again.”
He nodded, setting his cup on the counter. “While you’re heating that stuff up, I think I’ll go out and lock Princess in the barn. I think she’s ready to foal and it looks like a storm is brewing out there.”
With that, he exited the kitchen.
She was setting the last bowl on the table when he returned. He came through the door, his hands behind him and a smug look on his face.
“I have some bad news.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “What?”
“Scruffy isn’t a Tom cat.” He pulled his hands from behind his back and held them out to her. Cupped in his hand was a tiny black kitten, its eyes still closed.
She gasped, reaching out to touch the kitten. “Oh, how darling.” She glanced up at him. “Is it the only one?”
He shook his head, a wry smile twisting his lips. “Five more.”
“Oh my gosh.” She delicately plucked the kitten from his hand and cuddled it against her cheek. “It’s so soft.”
He watched her with an amused expression as she petted the kitten and talked to it. Finally he reached out his hand. “I’d better put it back before Scruffy comes looking for it.”
She reluctantly relinquished the kitten and watched him retrace his steps to the barn. He hated cats, but he carried the kitten all the way to the kitchen and back simply to show her one. She smiled wistfully and turned back to the table. Why did he try so hard to cover his feelings?
The kittens were a catalyst to crumbling the walls of tension that had been built between them. Over supper they talked of the expected foal, the ranch, and everything but why they hadn’t talked much for the last four days. Finally she cleared the table while he sat back with a cup of coffee. After she washed several dishes, she heard a chair scrape the floor behind her. Cade was beside her, lifting the towel from the hook and a pan from the dish rack.
She caught her breath. “You don’t have to do that. That’s what you pay me to do. You’ve worked all day long. Why don’t you sit down and rest and I’ll bring you a piece of pie.”
He lifted a quizzical brow. “You want me to get out of your hair?”
Her cheeks felt warm. “No, I... It’s just that I should be doing this.”
He nodded, continuing to dry the pan. “What were you doing all day today?”
She grinned. “Not working as hard as you, that’s for sure.” She made a face at him. “How’s that for squirming out of a leading question?”
It was the first time she saw him break down and indulge in a heart felt smile. She gazed up at him, completely disarmed by his smile, and yet somehow proud that she had been the one to put it there.
“All the same,” he said, “You’re entitled to a little free time yourself. You shouldn’t be cooped up with a sour old man every evening.”
“You’re not old.” She caught her breath and glanced up at him with wide eyes. “I’m sorry. You’re not sour either.”
His mouth twisted into what might have passed for a smile. “Just a little taciturn, huh?” He tucked the pan into the cabinet.
“You don’t seem to be very happy. Sometimes I wonder if you...” Her voice trailed off. Why was he looking at her like that?
“If I have any feelings at all?” His eyes were dark and distressed. He reached out, gently slipping a hand behind her neck. His thumb caressed her jaw as he gazed down into her face. “You still wonder, Cindy - Even after the other night?” His voice was soft and husky. He cupped her face in his hands and leaned down, brushing her lips softly with his. His lips were warm and inviting, and she involuntarily responded to their query. If only he would always be this way.
Tenderly, he gripped her shoulders, pulling her close. His hands slid down her back to her waist and stopped, drawing her against his warm body. Her arms slid around his neck of their own volition and she pressed close to him passionately returning his affection.
He lifted her into his arms and turned toward the family room door. She squirmed and he lowered her to the floor. She dodged his arms.
“Cade, I haven’t finished the dishes.”
He frowned. “You’re off the clock now.” And with that he swept her into his arms and claimed her lips.
She tried to resist the desire that ransacked her body, but his lips and hands broke down every wall she built - shut off every avenue of escape until she no longer wanted to escape... until she no longer questioned his love. Why resist? What could happen that hadn’t already happened? He loved her and she loved him. What was more important?
“Russ.” She whispered softly as she slipped her arms around his neck and returned his passionate kiss. He lifted her into his arms and carried her to his bedroom, gently lowering her to the bed. This time there was no hesitation, no rush. Everything was going to be all right now.

But nothing was different when she woke in his arms hours later. Again she had abandoned morality and shamed herself in front of him. Why had she thought he loved her? He was merely devastatingly accomplished at lovemaking - sex. Nothing more. She had allowed herself to fall into the role of mistress. At least he had the decency to remind her she was off the clock and therefore not a whore - or was she?
She slipped from his bed, feeling sick to her stomach. This was the last time. From now on she would tell him to keep his hands to himself. It wasn’t his fault. Hadn’t she been entirely accommodating? How could he know she had become serious about him? As far as he knew, she made a habit of this kind of activity. Could a man tell when he was her first?
Her one saving grace was the fact that the next morning he didn’t act as though nothing had happened. As he sat sipping his coffee after breakfast he glanced at her.
“I missed you this morning.”
She searched his face suspiciously but there was no leer in his expression. The statement was simple and honest, and somehow it made her feel better.
“We shouldn’t have... We can’t let it happen again.” she stammered.
“Why?” Again the question was devoid of implication.
“Because it isn’t right... I mean... well you being my employer and all. I’m not a ...”
He stood and carried his coffee cup to the sink, pouring out the remains. “I pay you to take care of the house while I’m out working. I guess that makes me your employer.” He carefully placed the cup in the sink and ran water into it. “But what we do with our time after work is strictly between the two of us.” He lifted his head and met her gaze. “If you don’t want to sleep with me, I don’t want you to feel obligated to do so to keep your job.”
She caught her breath. “Oh, no. It isn’t that at all. It’s just that... well, it isn’t right for two people who aren’t...” She stopped. Would he think she was pressuring him into marriage now?
He quirked a brow. “Aren’t married?” At her nod he shrugged. “Isn’t it a little late to start worrying about that sort of thing?”
“I should have thought about it before, but it’s never too late to stop doing something you know is wrong.”
He walked across the kitchen and paused at the door. “People should get married because they want to spend the rest of their days together, not because they’ve already shared a few nights.” He lifted his hat from the peg and clamped it on his head and then paused, one hand on the door while he studied her face. Finally he shrugged.
“I’ll see you tonight.”
She stared at the door after he left. He was making it plain enough. He wasn’t interested in marriage and he didn’t want her trying to manipulate him into it. At least now she knew where they stood. Tears flooded her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. How could he have been so ardent last night and so thoroughly indifferent this morning? Last night she could have sworn he loved her. Now his only concern was that she had his meal ready when he came home for supper. What a fool she had been. Hadn’t Mary warned her? But no, she had been so certain, so naive. Not once, but twice. There would be no third time. Of course, hadn’t she said that twice already? The smartest thing for her to do was to pack up and leave. This was a no-win situation.
But instead of packing, she cleaned the house and went for a ride. Bad as the situation was, she still couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the ranch. And for what? At least while she was here she could save some money. If she went back to the diner she would be lonely and broke. None of this would have happened if they hadn’t been alone in the house. Maybe she could do something about that and help Cade make some money at the same time. She had been reluctant to mention her idea before, but now she was desperate enough to risk his anger.
So, that evening at supper she broached the subject.
“You know Cade; you could make a profit off this ranch other ways than running cattle.”
He jerked his head up and regarded her for a moment with a sour expression.
She hesitated, intimidated by his obvious displeasure. But too much was at stake, so she pushed on.
“Have you ever thought of turning this place into a dude ranch? You have the extra bedrooms and...”
“The last thing I want is a half-dozen little brats running around here tearing things up. Adults are bad enough, but when they bring their unruly offspring, it’s unbearable.” He scowled at her. “Besides, I like coming home to a quiet house every evening.”
She picked at her food and finally pushed it away. That left only one thing. She had to leave - the sooner the better. She carried her plate to the sink. Scraping the left-overs into a bowl, she ran water to wash the dishes. Cade brought his dishes to the sink and paused gazing down at her, but she refused to look up.
His hands touched her waist for a moment. He slipped his arms around her from behind and drew her back against his chest.
“Cindy,” he whispered, kissing her neck in a way that made her heart dance with excitement.
She stiffened. “Stop it, Cade. Nothing is going to happen - not tonight or any other night.”
He dropped his hands and stepped away, frowning down at her. “If it’s that important to you, I guess we could try a few guests. But if this is because you’re lonely ...”
“I’m not lonely. And having guests here won’t make me crawl into bed with you again, either. I wouldn’t use you that way.”
“I never said…“
“You never said a lot of things,” she cut him off shortly.
“You’re angry with me again.”
“I’m not angry with you. I’m angry with me. I don’t know how I got into this situation in the first place. I always swore I’d never...” He didn’t want to hear about her moral ethics - especially since she had thrown them all to the dogs anyway. Face it. She was having an affair with her boss. How much lower could she sink? Loving him was no excuse, because even knowing he didn’t love her, she still couldn’t find the decency to leave. How could she blame him when she had offered no resistance?
He turned to the stove, pouring himself another cup of coffee and leaned against the counter, watching her thoughtfully as he sipped the coffee. Finally he cleared his throat.
“What would it take to make you happy, Cindy? I have a feeling you’re getting ready to fly the coop. If you want me to leave you alone, it’s done. I never meant to push myself on you in the first place. I thought you were...” He paused, as if searching for a tasteful word.
“Eager? Easy?” She supplied bitterly as she rinsed the last dish and put it into the rack.
“There you go, putting words in my mouth again. I didn’t mean that at all.” He swirled the coffee in his cup and shifted uncomfortably. “But you did seem to enjoy it.”
She jerked the plug out of the sink and dried her hands. “I did.” She looked him straight in the eye. “Does that shock you?” She threw the towel on the counter. “Well, it shocks me.” She swung around and left the kitchen. It was time to pack. After breakfast tomorrow she would leave. He managed without a housekeeper before she came, and he could get along fine now. Maybe a housekeeper wasn’t what he had planned on hiring in the first place.

Continue to Chapter Ten

Courtship of the Recluse
                   Linda Louise Rigsbee