Gradually winter released its grip and flowers erupted from the ground in celebration of spring. Even Scruffy seemed to acknowledge its arrival, allowing Cynthia to remain on the porch when he ate the table scraps. Eventually her attempts to tame him paid off, and he allowed her to touch him - provided she was careful not to move too quickly. Not unlike another male on the ranch.
Cade was trying to be accommodating, but sometimes he was as skittish about conversation as the cat was about being touched - and likely for the same reason. Neither of them had a clue what was on her mind. In Cade’s case, that was probably a blessing at times. Hopefully he had no idea how her heart beat double time occasionally at the strangest things. Like the way his broad shoulders swayed so gracefully with each step as he strode to the corral - or the way he lounged in a doorway, coffee in one hand, one long leg thrown carelessly over the other. And lately her curiosity had been going beyond the usual questions about his mysterious family tree - beyond the questing of his vast knowledge of the ranch. Was it normal to have sudden flashing questions like...what would it be like to kiss him? Was it simply loneliness? Most important, did he ever suspect her foolish thoughts? If he did, he gave no indication. Although at times she caught him watching her thoughtfully. Thankfully it had never been one of the times that she was thinking about him though. Otherwise her expression might have revealed her torrid thoughts. She sighed and wandered through the spotless kitchen. She needed something else to do - something creative. She paused in the kitchen doorway, envisioning the family room redecorated. It wasn’t the first time she had done so, but this morning she had run across some curtains and rugs in the attic. Should she ask him about putting them up? So far she had never mentioned her excursions to the attic, but when things got too dull around the house, she went up to explore. The discovery of a second room in the attic had provided more hours of entertainment.
The radio was playing a waltz as she walked through the family room and she moved to the sway of it, dancing with an imaginary friend. She stopped, suddenly aware that Cade was propped against the kitchen door jam, nursing a cup of coffee. Warmth invaded her cheeks and she giggled nervously.
“Don’t just stand there. Come join me in a dance. This other guy keeps stepping on my toes.”
“I don’t do floors,” he answered dryly.
She laughed at his dry humor. “You mean you don’t know how to dance.”
He shook his head soberly. “No reason to learn. I’d rather not make a fool out of myself.” He turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
She snapped the radio off. Was he trying to tell her she was acting like a fool? Well, it must have looked that way. She shook her head. Supper was ready and he was probably hungry. But when she came into the kitchen he was nowhere in sight. She pulled the roast from the oven. The carrots and potatoes packed around it were the perfect consistency. She set the table and glanced up when the screen door squeaked.
He didn’t wear a coat today and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to reveal brown muscular forearms. The heart thing happened again and she busied herself at the table.
He crossed to the sink. “I’m starved.”
“It’s ready when you are.” She kept her face averted until the warmth left her cheeks. “I still don’t know how you can stand that cold wind.”
He dropped into his chair. “It feels warm today, but I always keep a light jacket in my saddle bags. I need it when I get in the high country.” He accepted the platter of food and heaped his plate. They ate in silence until he finally turned a concerned gaze on her. “Is something on your mind?”
Her cheeks flushed again and in her desperate search for something to explain her preoccupation, she plunged into the subject of the curtains. “You know, this house wouldn’t be as cold if there were some curtains on the window and some rugs on the floor.”
He took a sip of coffee before responding. “Curtains shut out the light. This place is dark enough as it is.” He took a bite of food and watched her intently. Finally he swallowed and spoke. “Does the cold bother you that much?”
“Sometimes. Anyway, it’s the paneling that makes the room so dark, not the curtains over the windows. If you use the right colors, and brighten the walls with a few large pictures, or some mirrors, it wouldn’t be so dark. The house could use a little cheerful decorating.”
For a minute she was afraid she had stepped over the line. He stared at her and frowned. Finally he spoke.
“You think the atmosphere in this house is depressing?”
“Don’t you?” Surely he must have noticed.
He gave his attention to the food in his plate. Was he angry? It was hard to tell. Either she had never seen him angry or he had cleverly concealed it - like every other emotion. Finally he finished his meal and scooted his chair back.
“Is that apple pie I smell?”
Why did he do that every time he disagreed with her? She scooted her chair back without responding and went to the laundry room where the pie was cooling. As she re-entered the kitchen, he watched her cross to the table. He rubbed his jaw reflectively.
“There are some curtains and rugs in the attic - I’m sure you’ve already found them. If you want to put them up, go ahead. I don’t spend that much time in the house anyway.”
She sliced the pie absently. “What makes you think I found them?”
He gave her a sour look. “Don’t toy with my mind. Anyone as bright and curious as you would have to explore that attic. Now cut me a piece of that pie.”
Warmth flooded her neck and crawled up her cheeks. It was bad enough to be caught snooping in his things, but being accused of deception as well - and for the second time. She cut a piece of the pie and served it to him on a clean saucer. Did he really think she was bright? Handing out compliments seemed to be out of character for him, but hadn’t he always been honest and direct?
She sat down with a piece of pie and poked at it. “I noticed some crocus and daffodils coming up in the front. It’s almost spring.”
He never looked up from his food. “Do you like flowers?”
She laughed softly. “Does a dog have ears?”
He glanced up at her laugh and watched her intently. What was he thinking when he did that? Finally he shrugged. “Down in the lower pastures there are already some flowers in bloom. If you’d like, I’ll bring a few home sometime.”
She blushed again. “That would be nice.” To him it was nothing more than bringing home a gallon of milk or a sack of feed. Yet it was touching and somehow personal. The darkening shadows sharpened his features and highlighted the crows’ feet around his eyes. He finished his pie and leaned back in his chair, his gaze meeting hers. She knew the color was deepening in her cheeks.
He watched her thoughtfully, running a hand across his mouth absently. “You know, that family room could use a woman’s touch.”
She jumped at the diversion. “It needs something light and not too distracting from the natural beauty of the room - something that would complement the antique quality.”
He nodded. “It has a lot of character.” He leaned back and gazed into the room. “I always did like this house. I suppose I should modernize it, though. I thought about putting central heat in it. That would increase the value of the house.” He paused and glanced at her. “Don’t you think?”
“Of course - but it would be expensive.”
He nodded and lapsed into silence. His financial status was a complete mystery to her. Every Friday they went to town for groceries and he never questioned what she bought. He paid for the supplies with a check and took her and Mary out to eat. He said she deserved the rest and he wanted her to keep in touch with her friends. Why that was so important to him, she wasn’t sure, and he never explained.
One thing sure, though. Mary liked him, and the feelings were obviously mutual. He was no more expressive around Mary than anyone else, but he often asked her opinion on things. Mary, on the other hand, was vocal about her opinion of Cade, even to the point of stating that he would be the greatest catch of the century - no doubt, even an exaggeration in Mary’s mind. Yet it left her wondering if Mary was still romantically interested in him. To her amazement, that idea spawned an unwelcome pang of rivalry. Was it possible that he was equally interested in Mary?
“How are things going between you and scruffy?”
His question brought her to the present and she glanced up sharply, warmth crawling up her neck again.
“Scruffy? Oh, he lets me pet him now, but he doesn’t want me to pick him up.”
He nodded absently as he searched through the mail. He stopped on a small aqua envelope and frowned at the return address.
The single word was a combined expression of disgust and distress. She leaned forward and studied the envelope.
“Is something the matter?”
He opened the envelope and read the note, his lips thinning down almost to nonexistence. He tossed the note to her.
“My sister is coming to visit.”
She stared at him, shocked by his bitter tone. “I gather you two aren’t the best of friends?” She glanced down at the signature.
“Your loving sister, Claudette Cade-Lander.” She read the words aloud and he snorted.
“Her visits are nothing more than an inspection tour.”
“Inspection of what?”
He pushed his chair away from the table and crossed to the family room doorway. He was silent so long that she decided he wasn’t going to answer. As she picked up the dishes and turned toward the sink he finally responded. His voice still had a bitter edge, but there was a touch of musing in it now.
“To make sure I’m not keeping up with the Jones’, I suppose.” He lounged against the doorway; arms folded across his chest, and contemplated the family room. “Cindy, how would you like to do some redecorating for me?”
She stared at him in surprise. He had never used the nickname – always before it had been Cynthia. Maybe hearing Mary say it so often had burned it into his brain.
“Me?” She asked.
He quirked a brow. “Is there another Cindy in the house?”
“But I don’t know anything about...I mean, I don’t have any training in interior decorating.”
The lip twitched. “You seemed pretty sure of yourself a while ago.”
Her face flamed. “I didn’t mean to sound like some kind of authority on the subject. I was merely expressing a personal opinion.”
He dropped his arms and turned to face her. “Then let me express a personal opinion as well. I think you have impeccable taste. You don’t need training - especially not from the people who come up with this fashionable cluttered look. You have a natural instinct for the simple but elegant. For me everything is functional, but you have style.”
She stared at him, too surprised to respond immediately. Never in her wildest dreams would she have considered her taste stylish or elegant. Of course, she had never given it much thought, either. She knew what she liked, and it rarely had anything to do with what was in style. But then, he didn’t say her taste was stylish - he said it had style. Obviously his taste was compatible with hers. But redecorating the family room? What if he didn’t like it after she was done? He was still watching her expectantly.
“I don’t know if you realize how expensive it would be. I mean, there would be the cost of drapes, rugs, pictures and other things. I...”
“Make me a list of the things we would need and I’ll take you into town. We’re not talking over a thousand dollars, are we?”
She shook her head in mute silence.
“Then go ahead.”
“But what if you don’t like it?”
He sauntered to the stove and poured himself another cup of steaming coffee. “I’ll like it.” He sipped the hot liquid and winced. “Of course, if you think it would be too much work...you’ll only have two weeks.”
“No, that should be plenty of time.” She moved to the sink and turned on the water. As she watched the sink fill, she considered his proposal - and that other thing. This might be a good time to ask.
“I think it would be a good idea if I moved upstairs.” She glanced up as she spoke, and his expression became wary.
“Why? If there was anything going on in this house, it’s not like your rooming upstairs would make it look any different.”
She caught her breath as the blood lunged painfully up her neck. “I didn’t mean that.”
It was his turn to color up. “Then what?”
“I meant...Well; sometimes girls are more sensitive about things. I mean, it might be hurtful for your sister to see me using your mothers’ things.”
The lip twitched again. “There’s nothing sensitive about Claudette, but if you want to move into that room upstairs with the balcony, go ahead.”
Her face didn’t lose its warmth and she gnawed at her lower lip. “What made you single out that room?”
He tucked his hands in his back pockets and shuffled his feet, the color in his face deepening. “I figured...” He shrugged. “I saw you up there one time.”
If she thought her face could get no warmer, she was unpleasantly surprised. How often had he watched her sunbathing? It could only have been in the last few weeks since the weather had turned warm. She didn’t own a swimsuit, so bra and panties had been her option. The rest of her clothes were there in the room in case he came into the house, and she thought the deck was as private as her bedroom with him out on the range wet nursing his cattle. Apparently she was wrong. She stared down into the sink, feeling violated.
He must have sensed the cause of her sudden withdrawal, and spoke gently.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to...I forgot my rope in the barn and had to come back yesterday. I wasn’t...I mean I didn’t...I looked away.”
She glanced up at his tortured face and had to smile. The stoical Russell Cade was stammering around like a school boy. And why? Actually, the bra and panties were far less revealing than a bikini. Was he embarrassed because she was scantily dressed, or because he had inadvertently invaded her privacy?
“It wasn’t your fault. If I want to sunbathe, I should buy appropriate clothing.” She rinsed a plate and dropped the subject. “I think it would be fun to redecorate the family room. Actually, I haven’t had enough to do around here lately.”
The extra color was beginning to fade from his face and he turned toward the family room. “When you’re done with the dishes, let me know. There is a chest of drawers and a three-quarter bed in the attic. Between the two of us we ought to be able to carry them down to that room.” He took a few steps and then paused, glancing back at her. “Feel free to get anything you want out of the attic. I know you’ll take care of it.” And then he walked away, his shoulders swaying like a pendulum with his stride.
His absence sucked the energy from the room and she stared down at the dishwater. Was Mary right? Was she falling for him? No, it couldn’t happen. She wouldn’t let it happen. Not when everything else was working out so well. She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that romantic thoughts would cease to invade her newfound paradise.