Russell Cade rode his horse to the top of the ridge and stopped, gazing down at the valley below. It had been a long winter, but the valley was beginning to show a little green. Winter wasn't over yet, though, and there would likely be at least one more snowfall. His small herd of Angus cattle was still in the south pasture where they had the protection of a pole barn. The grass in the valley needed to grow a little longer before he brought them here.
He turned the horse and rode back down the hill. It was Friday and he wanted to talk to that girl at the restaurant...Cynthia. He'd been thinking about what he wanted to say for weeks. He had no idea what her wages were and he didn't want to insult her with wages that were too low, but he had figured out what it was worth to him. What he needed was someone to take care of the house while he was working the ranch. It wouldn't cost that much more for two people to eat than one, and he had plenty of room for a live-in maid. He had thought to get an older woman, but ever since he had been going to the restaurant, Cynthia had been on his mind. She was personable and professional. She seemed more mature than the others...not given to inane giggling and gossip. She treated him with respect, never participating in the behind-the-hand snickering that the others did.
He was well aware that he was an abnormal sort...and equally aware that he wasn't going to change. It had been three years since he came home and found his mother dead in her room. He had been aware that she was miserable alone in that big house. She had grown up in a large house with nice things and lots of parties. His father, her first husband, had tolerated her insatiable desire for socializing almost thirteen years, but ultimately it led to divorce. It had occurred to him many times she never really loved his father. Whether she had finally found true love or simply matured, she seemed to be content at the ranch when Mr. Cade was alive. Russ had good memories of those days. He loved everything about the new set-up, including his step-father. The solitude of the wild beautiful country suited his temperament more than the city had. He enjoyed working with Mr. Cade on the ranch. When Mr. Cade died of a sudden heart attack, Russ had grieved the loss every bit as much as his half-siblings. He had been happy the day he was adopted and was still proud to wear the name Cade. His step-sisters and brothers had not warmed to him, though. It was something he learned to accept. He buried himself in school and the ranch, further alienating them. They all married and left the ranch with no intent to return, but he had stayed, helping Mr. Cade until his death. His mother inherited the ranch and a modest income until her death. She left the ranch to him. The others didn't want the ranch, but they resented the fact that he ultimately inherited what belonged to their father.
At the barn, Cade unsaddled his horse and rubbed him down. He gave him some hay and headed for the house. There he bathed and dressed. A trip through the house assured him that everything was in order, so he headed to town for a meal and a night out. It wasn't something he looked forward to in the beginning. It was something he felt he needed to do. Already people referred to him as a hermit. It wasn't that he didn't like people. He simply preferred the open range to an office. Granted, since his mother's death he had pretty much severed contact with the rest of the world. Grief and guilt had haunted him long enough, though. It was time to rejoin civilization, even if it was only in the form of a meal at the diner once a week. It wasn't something he wanted to do...not at first. Each time Cynthia came to his table with a bright smile and spoke to him, he warmed a little more to the idea. After a while he began to entertain the idea of a maid in his home. It would be nice to come in from the range to a hot meal and a smile. It wouldn't be like his mother, who felt obligated to stay at the ranch. Hired help could leave any time they wanted if they found the place too depressing. He'd even give them the run of the ranch and the loan of a horse to do it. He'd have to find someone who liked that type of thing, though. He wasn't sure why he thought Cynthia was a good fit for the job, but he'd find out before he hired her. He wasn't going to make the job sound like fun. The house was cold and the only form of entertainment was a wall full of books. He had always found them more entertaining than a television. An occasional trip to town to see a movie was all the socializing he could stand for a couple of months. People were up and down the aisles constantly going to the restroom or buying huge buckets of popcorn and candy. Sometimes he wondered whether they came to see the movie or eat. Then there were the parents who dropped their boisterous kids off so they could have an evening alone. Did the kids act that way at home? He'd rather take a long ride through the hills of his three thousand acre ranch. Nothing on that big screen could compare to its beauty, and the quiet country was soothing. He always slept well at night after a long day of work on the range.
He was acutely aware that his taste in entertainment and everything else was out of tune with the rest of the world. Still, he couldn't withdraw from the world. He had seen what it had done to his mother. He wouldn't let himself be drawn into that kind of isolation.
He grabbed the old western hat that had belonged to his step-father from the hook on the wall beside the door. Clamping it on his head, he opened the door. Tonight was like any other chore. It had to be done and it had to start somewhere.
Cynthia Turley was in the middle of cleaning his favorite table when he walked through the diner door. Something about the lean rancher urged her to reach out to him. Maybe it was the fact that he never smiled, or the loneliness in those green eyes. Whatever the case, she always made sure his table was ready when he arrived. She could set her clock by his arrival - eight o’clock every Friday night - in a blue plaid western shirt and battered black cowboy hat.
His tall frame swayed across the room with feline grace. Removing his hat, he glided into the booth. He glanced up at her; the sun darkened face with its thin lips completely devoid of emotion.
“The usual,” he said.
She nodded. He wasn’t much for conversation. Other than occasional attempts to draw him out, she respected his privacy. She moved to the counter without writing anything down.
“Steak and Potatoes,” she announced to the cook, ignoring the stifled snickers of the other two waitresses. Why they found it so amusing that Mr. Cade was a recluse evaded her comprehension. Right now he was simply a customer.
She poured a cup of coffee and delivered it to him - along with a cheerful smile. “Cold out there, isn’t it?”
He shrugged. He never wore a coat and she wondered if he even felt the cold west Texas wind.
She started to walk away, but his adverse response lured her to pause.
“Spring is around the corner.”
She smiled again. “It’s still two months away, though. I can hardly wait.”
He nodded again and turned away, staring out the window while he sipped the coffee. The conversation was over - or so she thought.
When she delivered his meal, he glanced up at her.
“What time do you get off?”
She stared at him. “Nine.”
He nodded. “I’d like to talk to you. May I wait here until then?”
She nodded, still regarding him with disbelief. “Of course.”
What would he have to talk to her about? If all their conversations in the three months he had been coming to the diner were put together, it was doubtful that they would make a respectable paragraph. On the positive side, at that rate their conversation should be over by five minutes after nine. Then she could walk home in peace. The clattering of dishes, the hectic scramble at lunch, and the incessant gossiping of her coworkers left her at the edge of her patience at the end of the day. That quiet walk home was her chance to relax - that and a good book.
Promptly at nine, she removed her apron and crossed to the table where Cade sat nursing his fifth cup of coffee. She slid into the opposite bench and let her gaze drop significantly to the cup in his hand. “You’re not going to sleep a wink tonight.”
He stared down at the cup absently. “Never has any effect on me.”
Somehow that was no surprise. She waited for him to open the conversation, idly wondering if it would be ten before he spoke. Finally she cleared her throat. “The diner closes at ten.”
He glanced up and nodded. “How long have you been working here?”
“Six months - since Dad died. I took care of him for three years - ever since I graduated from high school.”
He nodded and fell silent again.
She crossed and uncrossed her legs, studied her fingernails and finally decided to prompt him again. “I understand you have a big ranch west of here.”
He gave the usual nod. “Forty miles.”
She pursed her lips and whistled softly. “That’s a long way to drive for steak and potatoes.”
For a second she thought he was going to smile. His eyes flashed with humor, but it was gone before it could reach his lips.
“Do you like working here?” He finally asked.
She shrugged. “The work isn’t so bad.” When he continued to watch her, she gave him a wry smile. “I’m not much of a social person I guess.”
“I see.” He was watching her with an intent expression. “You’d be happier taking care of a rambling old house in the middle of nowhere?”
She laughed. “That’s not as far out as you might think.” She sobered and stared at her hands. “I guess I should go to college and make something of myself. When I was taking care of Dad there wasn’t time to take classes and he died owing a lot of money, so I had to sell the house.”
Why was she revealing her private affairs to this stranger? She shrugged, her face growing warm. “I guess those are all excuses. I suppose I’m simply not very ambitious.”
His brows lifted slightly and his gaze was direct. “What is ambition?”
She stared at him. Surely his vocabulary included such a simple word. “It’s ...” She paused, realizing he was looking for a deeper meaning. She shrugged again. “I suppose it is different things for different people - dreams or goals.”
He was still watching her intently. “So looking after a rambling old house could be an ambition?”
She squirmed under his penetrating stare. What was this thing he had about an old rambling house? She finally shrugged once more. “I suppose so.”
He shifted his attention to the lighted street. Apparently he was merely looking for companionship - his kind. She was beginning to relax when he launched the question.
“Would you be interested in minding my place?”
She gaped at him. “Your place?”
He nodded. “It’s an heirloom of sorts; a big old house - too much for me to take care of and work the ranch as well.” He paused, watching her expectantly. “I don’t know what kind of wages you draw here, but I’d be willing to pay you a hundred a week plus room and board.”
Slowly the facts were beginning to seep through the layer of shock. He was offering her a job as a live-in maid. The wages weren’t all that great, but deducting rent, utilities and groceries from her present salary, it wound up being a good deal more. Basically she would be saving $400 a month instead of $10. Was it merely coincidence that her lease would be up next Friday and the landlord was raising the rent? She gnawed at her lower lip. But staying out there alone with a man?
“Are there neighbors near you?”
He shook his head. “I have over three thousand acres. It’s isolated and lonely and I’m gone most of every day. In the winter the landscape is bleak and the house is drafty. The house sits more than a mile off the snow plow route, so sometimes I’m snowed in for a week or so.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You make it sound so attractive. How could I refuse?”
He stared at her for a moment. “Are you accepting the job?”
It was hard to tell whether the sarcasm had gone over his head or he simply wasn’t amused. She sighed.
“Not yet. What would my duties entail?”
His expression was bland – his voice unemotional, as if he were discussing the weather. “Laundry, dishes - general housekeeping - cooking my meals. I eat breakfast at six in the morning and supper at six in the evening. Sometimes I come in for lunch and sometimes I’d expect you to pack me a lunch. The rest of the time you’re free to do as you please. I have some horses you can ride and there are several creeks, ponds and even a small lake on the land.”
She rested her elbows on the table and cupped her chin in her hands, staring out into the night. The last sentence was the clincher. Riding horses was one of her favorite pastimes, and the country out that way was gorgeous - winter or summer. Best of all, she could save a substantial amount of money for a down payment on her own place. It all seemed to be tailor made to her preferences - all but the part about staying alone in the house with him. Of course, Mr. Cade hardly seemed the seductive type and she certainly wasn’t going to encourage it. Finally she met his patient gaze.
“Let me think about it for a while. Okay?”
His nod was nonchalant. “Fine. I’ll be in next Friday. If you decide to take the job, have your things ready then.”
He gulped the last of his coffee and stood. “Thanks for your time.”
With that he turned and left the diner.
The walk home was quiet, but hardly relaxing. In fact, she was so keyed up when she reached her apartment that she decided to call her best friend with the news.
“Mary? This is Cynthia.” She said when a familiar voice answered on the fifth ring. “Hey, you’ll never guess what happened tonight.”
The voice on the other end of the line responded in a dry tone. “You accepted a date.”
“That’s as far out as I can get. What happened?”
“You know that man I was telling you about - the one who comes in at exactly eight every Friday night?”
“The good looking one?”
“I didn’t say he was good looking,” Cynthia said. “I said he had interesting eyes.”
“Yeah, okay - whatever. Did he ask you out?”
“No - well, in a way, I guess. He offered me a job out at his place.”
A moment of silence preceded Mary’s response. “Let me get this straight. You are talking about the guy everyone in town calls the hermit - Russell Cade.”
Cynthia grinned. “One and the same. He needs someone to look after his house while he’s working the ranch.”
After a long pause, Mary’s voice sounded concerned. “Cindy, that’s forty miles out in the middle of nowhere. Have you seen that house? It looks like something out of a horror movie. Besides, it’s huge.”
“So he says. No, I haven’t seen it, but I won’t be driving the forty miles every day, either. He offered me a hundred dollars a week plus room and board.”
Mary gasped. “You intend to stay out there - alone with him?”
Cynthia looped the coils of the telephone cord around her finger. “It does sound a little eccentric, doesn’t it?”
“Eccentric? It sounds downright scary.”
“Oh, he’s not mean. He just isn’t social. What can you expect out of a recluse?”
“Cindy, I’ve known Russell Cade since he first moved to this area - since high school. He’s as sweet as he can be and I have no doubt his intentions are honorable. But aren’t you a little concerned about what people will say? I mean, a pretty young girl living alone with an eccentric bachelor - and what about Russ? Don’t you think he might get ideas?”
“You make him sound like an old lecher. Do you know something I don’t? As for what the town thinks, I don’t care. I didn’t grow up around here like you, and I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life working at the diner. Not that anyone cares what I do. We’re living in the 20th century, Mary - the end of it at that. Anyway, I’m not pretty. In fact, I’m tall, skinny and awkward. My mouth is too big and all teeth.”
“You’d put on some weight if you’d slow down a little. You do more work than the other two girls put together. Sure, you’re thin, but you’ve got everything situated right. If he isn’t blind or dead, I’m sure he’s noticed. As for your mouth, people are always commenting on your beautiful smile and how those blue eyes of yours are so full of life. Are you trying to tell me he hasn’t even noticed all that?”
“Don’t forget the mess of red hair and freckles. I suppose he missed those. Oh, and you know what they say: Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
“Auburn hair - and you barely have enough freckles for anyone to notice. Don’t get on that kick about how ugly you are. I’ve noticed the guys eyeing you - glasses and all. Now tell me. What else does the hermit want for his $100 a week?”
“Oh for crying out loud, Mary. Don’t you think he’s a little old for me? Anyway, he’s about as romantic as a doorstop. All he wants is a housekeeper.”
“Old? Oh yeah. I forgot. He’s almost thirty - like me.” She sighed. “So you’re not the least bit interested in him?”
“Not romantically. If I were, I wouldn’t take the job. Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No, just naive.”
“Why? Because I’m still looking for a guy who doesn’t make me feel like a tease when I won’t sleep with him - or because you think I’ll never find a man like that?”
“Because I think you just did. I don’t know if the years have changed his philosophy, but he used to feel the same way you do. No hanky-panky until after marriage.”
“Good for him, but what does that have to do with me working for him? I’d think that would make you even more comfortable with the idea. Or do you think I’m going to lead him astray? Honestly, Mary. It sounds like you’ve got a case on him. You can have him. All I want is the job.”
The line was silent for a few moments. Finally Mary let loose with a heavy sigh. “We’re all only human. We can all be tempted. It’s fine to have high ideals about not going too far, but the reality of it is, it can happen before you realize what is happening.”
“Oh, come on. When you start removing your clothes, naive or not, you’ve got to realize you’re doing something wrong. All it takes is the resolve to stop - provided you actually want to stop.”
“Bingo. Maybe you won’t want to.”
“With Mr. Cade?” Cynthia rolled her eyes in exasperation. “You have nothing to worry about. Even if he were a gorgeous stud, I wouldn’t become romantically involved with my boss. You know how I feel about that sort of thing.”
Mary’s tone became dry again. “I know. You’ve told me a zillion times. But ... Oh, what’s the use? Did you call me to get my opinion or to tell me you’re going to take the job? It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.”
“I know. It’s just that it sounds so right. You can’t imagine how I’ve missed the country. I hate it in town, and the diner is so...boring. Besides, this way I can save some money. The way things are going now, I’m lucky to save ten dollars a week.”
“How many times have I offered to let you stay with me - free? Even if you paid me half my rent, you could still save money.”
“I know, and I appreciate your offer. But that’s a good way to ruin a terrific friendship. We’ve been all through this a zillion times.”
“I’m still here. You’d better give this some serious thought. I know you’re attracted to him, but...”
“The only thing I’m attracted to is his job offer - and the idea of getting out of this gossipy little town.”
“Whatever. Just think it over and don’t jump into something you might live to regret.”
For the next week Cynthia listened to - and even found herself instigating - discussions about Mr. Cade. When picking up her mail at the post office, she often talked to Adrena. Being the only postal employee in a small town, the petite extrovert was always ready for conversation. She had an opinion about everything – and an uncanny habit of being right.
“Nothing today,” Adrena said as Cynthia dug in her purse for the box key.
“Again” Cynthia sighed, abandoning her search. “How are things going today?”
“Same old same old. How about you?”
“Nothing much – as usual.”
“You ought to go out once in a while. People are starting to wonder if you don’t like them.”
Adrena never minced words. Cynthia shrugged.
“You know how I am.”
“Yeah,” Adrena snickered. “Not much better than the hermit. At least he’s coming to town regular now – regular for him.”
“He does seem a bit reclusive.” Cynthia responded, focusing her attention on a speck of dirt on the counter. “I don’t know much about him.”
Adrena's laugh was short and humorless. “You haven’t missed much.”
Cynthia looked up at Adrena. “Do you know him?”
Adrena rolled her eyes. “Nobody knows Russell Cade. Do you remember that rumor in school? Oh yeah, you weren’t around here then. I never believed it anyway. I figured his sister started it because she was jealous of him. I guess his stepfather thought more of him than her. After she got married and moved to Colorado the family information stopped – if you know what I mean. He comes in now and then to get things, but don’t talk much.” Adrena grinned. “Kind of like you.”
Cynthia smiled. “Maybe he’d rather listen than talk.”
Adrena stamped a letter. “I guess so. From what I hear, he’s pretty...frugal; I guess would be the best word. Dependable, though. Mr. Catlin at the bank says he’s as honest as they come. The ranchers around here say they can always count on him to help when they’re in a bind. Even so, I don’t know anyone who admits to understanding him - much less calling him a friend. He’s a strange one.”
“It sounds like he’s a respectable person who likes to keep to himself.”
“Yeah.” Adrena said, wrinkling her nose. “A regular hermit.”
“I guess being reclusive is a poor way to make friends.” Cynthia shrugged. “On the other hand, maybe it’s a good way to avoid trouble.”
Adrena tipped her head to the side and studied Cynthia thoughtfully for a moment. “Is that why you don’t date?”
Cynthia’s face grew warm. “Maybe so. Men can be a trial sometimes.”
“Like your father?” Adrena’s gaze was probing.
“That was different. My father couldn’t do anything about his health.”
Adrena lifted her brows and tossed the letter in a slot. “He could have gone to a nursing home so he wasn’t such a burden on his daughter.”
“He offered to do that. I wouldn’t let him. How could I enjoy myself knowing he was being tended to and surrounded by strangers?”
Adrena nodded. “That sounds like your kind of logic - always thinking of the other person first. Admirable, but you’re never going to get anywhere doing that.”
“All I want is a small place of my own. Somewhere I can have a garden and maybe a horse. I guess that’s my idea of getting somewhere.”
“Well, if that’s what you want. Go for it. Maybe you could hire on as a nanny at Old Man Taylor’s ranch. He’s got two boys that...well, calling them a handful would be an understatement. Maybe that’s not too good an idea after all.” She snickered. “I bet if anyone could straighten them out, it would be you, though.”
Cynthia caught her breath. “Geez, is my reputation that bad?”
“Bad? I’d like to have your reputation. Your boss says you’re the best thing that ever happened to the diner. The guys think you’re...”
“A prude?” Cynthia interjected.
“Conservative would be a good word.”
“Dull would be another.”
“I wouldn’t call you dull, just inactive.”
“Well, whatever I am, I’d better get home. It’s almost time for you to close. Have a nice evening.”
Cynthia left the post office feeling better about Russell Cade than she did about herself. Still, what about the rumor? What could have happened so long ago that people still remembered it? But then, they seemed to remember everything - probably because they kept it revived for entertainment. Where Russell Cade was concerned, the only thing they seemed to have against him was the fact that he provided them no new topics. Good for him.
The conversation with Adrena was comforting, but Mary maintained her viewpoint. She couldn’t argue his virtues, but she still insisted that the situation was conducive to trouble. Apparently she found Mr. Cade not only attractive, but also irresistible. Obviously it had been a long time since she had seen or talked to Mr. Cade. That was one facet of the job that didn’t trouble Cynthia. Her greatest concern was whether she could manage such a large house on her own. Even the isolation didn’t trouble her. Still, there was one question she couldn’t ask the townspeople. Why had Cade singled her out for the job? Jennie was the logical choice. The voluptuous brunette was pert and sophisticated. Angie was buxom and plump, but she was a hilarious entertainer. It was a question she’d have to ask Cade.
Everything considered, it was easier to make the decision to take the job than to placate Mary. Eventually Mary accepted the inevitable and even offered the use of an old shed to store everything Cynthia wouldn’t take with her. The house was furnished, so she didn’t have much to move – just a few pieces of her parent’s furniture and some summer clothes. Dad’s old truck had been sitting at Mary’s since it broke down.
When Mr. Cade strode into the diner Friday night, Cynthia’s clothes were packed and stored in the back room of the diner. Chet glanced at her. He had said his peace Wednesday when she gave notice. He liked Cade, but not the situation.
She approached Cade’s table hesitantly. What if he had changed his mind? After all, he was a recluse and undoubtedly enjoyed the solitude of a quiet ranch.
His brows lifted when she stopped at his table. “Well?”
She twisted her apron with nervous fingers. “I have my things ready...but I have a few questions first.”
He watched her expectantly so she dove in.
“Why me? There are two other waitresses here.”
He glanced across the room at Jennie and Angie. “You seem to enjoy your work - and you are respectful toward me.”
She considered his response. “I suppose I do enjoy the work, and I try to act respectful to all our customers.”
He nodded. “Exactly. Your attitude is professional.”
He watched her for a moment and finally lifted his brows again. “You said several.”
She smiled. “Your answers were all encompassing.”
His nod was brief. “Are you ready to go?”
“My shift doesn’t end until nine.”
He nodded. “Do you have a car?”
“No. I have a truck, but it hasn’t started for a month. I live close enough, so I simply walked. I parked it at a friends’ house.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. One day it wouldn’t start. I bought a battery, but it didn’t do any good. I was trying to save enough money to get it repaired.”
“Well, show me where your things are and I’ll take them out to my truck while I wait. Go ahead and order my supper.” He stood and stared down at her. “Have you had anything to eat yet?”
“I ate a while ago on my break.”
She led him to the back room where her things were piled and resumed her last hour of work at the diner.