The Ryder Townhouse:
For a moment Blake stared down at Cassandra, surprised to realize how affected he was by the sight of her. When he’d entered the house, he had hoped to find her there waiting for him, but he hadn’t for a second expected to see what was standing before him right now.
In essence he still saw his shy young wife standing there, but the effort she’d made to enhance her appearance was obvious. It attracted his notice far more than he could say.
His hand rose slightly of its own accord, wanting only to reach out and touch the soft wave of dark curls that framed her beautiful face. But mindful of whom they both were, he quickly stifled the notion, fisting his hand at his side to prevent it from following the whim of his heart.
Would she condemn him for wanting to tell her how attractive he found her at that moment? Uncertain, he opened his mouth repeatedly, unable to conjure any other response in place of the words he really wanted to say. He was afraid of somehow frightening her away, yet he couldn’t contain the need to speak the truth.
Cassandra was mystified by Blake’s silence. She could see how hesitant he appeared, something he had rarely ever been before. Deep down she felt a strange tension mounting between them, something unlike anything she’d ever experienced before. A feeling of trepidation rose strong in her heart, yet this time she fought against her natural impulse to withdraw from his side. This time she forced herself to dig down deep, to find the courage she remembered possessing only a few moments ago.
As he drew in a slow breath, Blake had to wonder if he was somehow seeing Cassandra again for the first time. It was apparent she’d made a sincere effort to soften her appearance, and he was unable to deny the way it appealed to his senses. The dress she was wearing, although he was sure he’d seen it before, fit the curves of her body in a way he had never noticed before. He felt his body responding to the sight of her in a manner he’d never known before. It was strange, yet pleasant surprise.
Clearing his throat slightly, he finally managed to breathe, “You look incredible today.”
Startled by the unexpected compliment, she blushed as a small smile began forming on her face. He had never said anything like that to her before. The sound of such words helped reassure her that he was indeed pleased with the changes she’d made to her appearance. Knowing that helped hearten her resolve, allowing her the courage to continue following the path she had earlier set before herself.
Seeing he was about to unlace his cloak, a task that any good wife would gladly want to help assist in, she offered, “Let me help you with that.”
If only for this one day, fearful or not, she was determined to prove to Blake that she could behave in every respect as a proper wife should. Her desire to impress him had never been so important to her.
Thrown off-guard once more, his hands dropped to his sides at once. Cassandra was closer to him right now than she’d ever dared come before. It was the first time she’d been so close that he could honestly inhale the faintly sweet scent of her skin. He swallowed involuntarily, both pleased, yet curious to understand all that he was suddenly experiencing. What was going on, he had to wonder.
When the final lace was untied, she stretched upward to help him shrug off the garment. On impulse, she stopped what she was doing to place a small, single kiss on his cheek. “Welcome home, Blake,” she whispered softly.
Bowing to her slightly as she took the cloak from his shoulders, he found himself held immobile when she had walked away to hang it on a hook by the front door. He blinked in rapid succession, completely beyond thinking now. The feel of her soft lips touching his skin was an act that defied any expectations he’d had of their first meeting when he’d walked through the front door only a moment ago.
“How was your trip,” she asked him as casually as she could manage. She was so incredibly unsure of every move she was making, having no real idea what he might think of her impetuous decision to suddenly kiss him. It just felt like the natural thing to do at that moment.
“My trip,” he repeated in turn, finding it difficult to form a coherent thought just yet. He was still staring agape at her back as she slowly fussed to straighten the material so the garment would hang just right on the hook. There was a hint of trepidation in her movements as she worked. The slight trembling of her hands was unmistakable, yet still she remained, so close in his presence. The question lingering on the edge of his tongue dared to be spoken aloud. Why was she pushing herself to do the things that so obviously still scared her? Why now?
He refused to let himself ask it though. He would allow nothing in the world to spoil this moment or discourage the effort she was obviously trying to make today. He could only hope that by some miracle she’d finally come to the same conclusion he had. Somehow, they needed to find a way to make this marriage work… To make it real…
Blake’s need to clarify such a simple question brought another small smile to her face, finally giving her the courage to turn around and face him. Could it be that he really was as surprised by her actions as she’d hoped he would be?
“To the courts,” she continued, pretending not to notice his momentary lapse. Stepping back by his side, she reached up to take hold of his upper arm, intending to escort him further into the house. “Did you have a good time on your trip there?”
“It was work,” he managed to reply, failing to take heed of the gesture she was making to lead him away from the door. Instead, his hand reached up rather instinctively to cover hers as he looked down into her eyes, searching for some nameless something that might help him better understand what was going on in her head.
Cassandra’s breath caught in her throat to feel his warm hand covering hers as he remained where he was. The intense stare of his crystalline eyes searching hers set her heart thudding in her chest. She could see that he was trying to figure out what had caused so many drastic changes in her behavior. Would he ask her to tell him what was in her heart already, she wondered. And, if he did, was she really prepared to tell him what she’d been dreaming about saying these last few days?
Blake’s words were cut off when the front door opened up, sending an immediate chill into the air. Realizing they were no longer alone in the room, Blake unconsciously continued to keep hold of Cassandra’s hand on his upper arm as he moved them out of the way of the door. She made no move to dislodge herself from his side, which in itself seemed another miracle of sorts that did not pass his notice.
Caleb entered the house carrying a few packages which he set by the door, before helping guide the woman inside whom he’d brought along as Kyra’s midwife. She was an older woman, heavily clothed to protect her from the frigid air outside.
Cassandra eyed the older woman for a long moment as Caleb helped her remove her thick winter wrappings. Recognition burned in her eyes, and her hold on Blake’s arm tensed a bit when Caleb finally managed to introduce her to them.
“This is the woman who is going to help deliver our child when the time comes,” he explained as he led her into the room.
As they passed by, Cassandra couldn’t contain her curiosity to hear the woman’s name. “Who is she, Caleb,” she asked as she unconsciously tried to move closer to get a better look. She didn’t get the impression that the woman recognized her at all.
“Her name is Samantha Gordon. She came calling a few months back with good references,” he told her.
“I’ve been helping to deliver babies for over three decades,” the older woman smiled with pride. “When I heard there was a need for services at Damon Manor, I couldn’t resist inquiring about the position.”
Cassandra merely nodded, although she found herself pulling back just a bit, realizing that it was indeed the same woman she’d remembered from her childhood. Though the woman seemed pleasant enough at the moment, Cassandra did not recall liking her at all when she’d worked for her father many years ago. Samantha had been the attending nurse who’d looked over her mother during the final months before she’d passed away.
“This is Blake and Cassandra Ryder,” Caleb introduced in return. “Did Stephen say precisely which room I should take her too,” he asked Blake as he turned to lead the woman toward the stairs.
“The first door on the left is my mother’s room,” he replied. “Just knock and ask my father, since he should still be in there with Kyra right now.”
“Ah, true,” Caleb nodded and turned toward the stairs.
“I get the impression that you know her,” Blake remarked when the two of them had moved far enough out of earshot.
Surprised that he’d noticed when Caleb hadn’t, she asked, “How did you know that?”
Softly squeezing her hand for effect, he answered, “I had a small hunch when you first saw her.”
“Oh,” she replied softly, realizing once again how perceptive a man Blake really was. The smallest things rarely passed his notice, she knew. “I know of her,” she admitted without explaining any further. The idea of bringing up any reminders of the past was certainly not on her agenda today.
Seeing she was not inclined to discuss the woman further, Blake decided not to press the issue. Instead, he returned to the thought he’d been having before Caleb entered the house.
Even knowing there was a chance he might spoil the remarkable mood she was in today, he knew it was going to be weeks before he’d have the chance to speak with her again. He didn’t want to miss his chance, especially since she seemed in such a receptive mood at the moment.
“Cassandra,” he began again, staring down at the hand that was still covering hers. His fingers splayed lightly over hers for merely an instant before he looked into her dark eyes and finally asked, “Do you think it would be possible to take some time to talk this evening after everything quiets down in the house?”
Licking her lips slightly, her curiosity was immediately piqued. “To talk about what,” she asked, knowing she’d been wondering how to ask him exactly the same question. She knew what she wanted to discuss, but she couldn’t imagine what was on his mind.
Debating the idea of telling her for less than a fraction of a second, he shook his head and merely replied, “Later, all right?”
Refusing to let thoughts turn pessimistic, she finally nodded up at him. “Of course,” she agreed.
“All right,” he repeated, finally letting go of her hand with a tinge of regret. Feeling the need to explain himself, he said, “I haven’t seen my mother in quite some time. I’m just going to head up to check on how she’s doing.”
“Yes, do,” she encouraged him whole-heartedly. She knew how much his mother meant to him. Never had she seen more love for a mother from her son than what she saw between Blake and Catherine. At times, it had been the act of witnessing that level of devotion in him that helped her realize what a gentleman he really could be.
“I’ll see you in just a bit then,” he asked, almost expecting her to merely shrug and turn away in uncertainty. Her reaction was just the opposite.
“I’ll be helping the kitchen staff set up a nice meal for everyone, now that they are all here. You’ll find me in there, if you need me.”
Held where he was for a second more, he finally nodded down at her thoughtfully before turning to head towards the stairs. He couldn’t imagine what had come over Cassandra during these last few weeks away, but he certainly felt blessed to see the changes that had been made.
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