The Ryder Townhouse:
Cassandra descended the steps down to the first floor of the townhouse with a feeling nervous anticipation in her heart. One look around told her no one had arrived yet.
Passing a side glance to the mirror on the wall across the room, she looked herself over, slightly disappointed with what she saw. The dark rose colored gown she'd chosen to wear complimented her dark hair and eyes, but she wanted to look her best for Blake's homecoming today. Giving her appearance on honest look for some reason left her feeling as though she'd failed miserably. Trying to achieve the essence of beauty seemed like such an effort in futility for her at times.
She was tired today and feeling rather stressed from all she'd been thinking about over the last few days. Blake's arrival always had a strong effect on her emotions, but this time it was so different. It was more important than ever to her that she should make a good impression on her husband when he saw her again for the first time. There were things she'd been thinking about during their last few weeks of separation—thoughts that literally scared her half to death to even dream about, yet she was compelled by forces that she almost felt she had no control over. Now that the hour of his arrival was so close at hand, she felt her heart fluttering a bit harder in her chest. What would he think of her when he arrived home this time, she wondered fleetingly.
Casting a long look at herself in the mirror, she thought about the conversation she'd just had with Blake's mother upstairs. She'd been talking about the idea of how to try and make herself more appealing to Blake, something she'd never really wondered about before. Perhaps it would have been better served to let her long hair flow freely for this one occasion. Always held back tightly—so reserved in appearance, Cassandra wondered if it might not hurt just this once to allow the youth in her appearance to show through. Appealing to her husband was suddenly of the utmost importance to her for once.
Down the hall at the front of the building, the door could be heard creaking open which caused her heart to literally jump out of her chest for a moment. Forcing her excitement down, she flattened her palms over her skirts and proceeded to walk as demurely as possible towards the entrance.
"Oh, Cassandra," called out Blake's father, Stephen. A smile of true pleasure broke out over his face as he caught sight of her. "Don't you look lovely today," he complimented her openly.
Accepting his words with a small smile, she watched him shut the door and remove his dark cloak. She felt herself calming immeasurably to see him entering the front room. She was both relieved and a little disappointed, although it was suddenly a lot easier to breathe to realize she still had a little bit more time to prepare herself mentally for Blake's arrival.
"Welcome home," she greeted him warmly, curious to see that he'd gone out at all. She hadn't thought wild horses would have been able to drag him away from the house this day. Both his son and daughter were going to be in his home for the first time in months. It was all he had been talking about for the last week.
"I had to see if Catherine's doctor wanted to send her on her trip with a mild sedative tomorrow," he explained. "Plus," he admitted with a sheepish grin, "I thought I'd at least give a quick look throughout town to see if Blake might have decided to stop and spend the night somewhere to wait out the storm."
He shrugged mildly to stave off his bit of disappointment, stating without words that he hadn't found his son anywhere. A pleasant smile spread across his face a moment later as he stepped forward and pressed a small squeeze to her cold hands. Even through the thin material of her gloves, he could feel how cold her hands were. Understanding some of what she must be feeling, he tried to impart a bit of strength into her with a second small squeeze before he passed by her to the stairs.
"Did Meredith help finish getting my wife dressed," he asked as he stepped up the first step.
"Actually, I just left her room. Catherine is sitting peacefully by the window in her room. She seems to realize who is coming today, so she's intent on looking down over the front yard right now."
"Really," he smiled with a small measure of surprise. Maybe—just maybe Catherine's doctors were right this time. Perhaps a reunion with her family really was all the medicine his wife needed right now. He certainly hoped so.
Cassandra stood watching a measure of peace overcoming the older man's being as he walked up the stairs to go find his wife. Such a wonderful and caring man Blake's father was, she thought to herself. Each day she spent in his home she truly felt blessed to be surrounded by his loving family. It was such a far cry from how she'd been living just one year earlier.
Even today, she'd spent some time sitting in Catherine's room, talking to her in confidence, as always. Though it was rare for Blake's mother to ever speak in return during their conversations, it soothed her so much just to be able to share her hopes, dreams and fears with someone. Despite her mental incapacity, Catherine had become such a familiar companion to her during these last few months. Between Stephen and Catherine, she truly felt welcomed and loved in this family—something she had once doubted could ever exist in her future.
Turning her eyes to stare out the front window, she fairly willed the vision of Blake's carriage into being. There was only one small piece of the puzzle still missing from her life right now and as she'd been telling Catherine, for the first time in her life she was seriously contemplating what she would have to do in order to brave the waters to get what she felt was still lacking in her life. There was only one person who could help her figure it all out and that man might still be a dozen miles away from home yet.
What would it take, she had asked Catherine. How frightening would it really be to test the waters with Blake? But, more importantly, was she even brave enough to try? Those were the questions which had been plaguing her thoughts these days, compelling her to wonder what she could do to try and change the situation she found herself in with Blake.
One hand unconsciously crept up to touch the tightly restrained hair at the nape of her neck. It was at that precise moment that she suddenly felt herself coming to a final resolution of sorts. She knew what it was going to take to cross the barriers with Blake, but she had done nothing but daydream and wonder and fantasize about it for weeks. At that moment she felt some small part of herself daring to push the boundaries just a little, to try and make her dream a reality, at last.
Shoving away from the window as though the wind itself had forced her back, she turned toward the hallway, pulling a pin from her hair as she walked. Her feet carried her to the stairs as she thought only of Blake. Come what may, she was determined to find a way to bridge the gap between them—somehow…
Between the two of them there was an invisible wall that neither had ever worked to try and overcome. It was really her own fault that the barrier existed, she knew, but somehow there had to be a way to begin breaking it down. There had to be a way…
Entering the apartment that Blake's parents had constructed for them as a wedding present, she ran to her bedroom and shut the door with the heel of her foot. She was working between unlacing her dress and unfastening the pins in her hair all at the same time. Before long, she was nearly unclothed with her dark hair flowing in waves down her back.
Licking her lips, she stood before the mirror on her dresser and forced her brown eyes to slowly lift up to look into it. Wearing a measured frown, she viewed the thick strips of fabric that bound the upper half of her body. It was with sincere difficulty that she dared to reach up and touch the first wrap, so fearful to even think about what she wanted to try and do.
Those wrappings were such an enormous part of her very being. They were virtually her armor and protection, in effect denying to the world that a woman even existed somewhere beneath them. She rarely even allowed herself to view that part of her being, not even while she was bathing.
The idea of shedding them petrified her beyond belief, but fear and determination were both at war in her very soul. She was held captive there, unmoving as her hand hovered just above the clasp of the first binding.
There was a time—not so long ago—when she'd covered herself so fully, not just to conceal her femininity, but also to conceal the dozens of bruises that often covered her pale skin. Those marks were the telltale signs of the abuse she'd suffered at the hands of her father—signs which even she did not care to witness.
Removing the wrappings right now should have felt like the most natural thing in the world to do. In her heart, she wanted so dearly to believe that she would be safe in revealing that part of herself to Blake, her husband, the man who had never done a thing in the world to breach the wall that she had erected between them from the very beginning. There was a chance he might not even notice the subtle changes in her figure anyway, she reasoned. But, it was the knowledge in her own mind that could make the difference. Just knowing in her heart that she was no longer going to shield herself from him... That would be the difference…
Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she allowed herself to begin the process of unfastening and removing the numerous layers of bindings down to her waist. One by one they fell to the floor until she stood there, staring at the strangeness of what she saw in the mirror.
Would Blake think she was beautiful, she wondered wistfully. In comparison to some of his former conquests, those he'd possessed during his playboy days, would she compare to them in a flattering light?
It was such an uncommon thing to stand so freely in the nude that she was forced to turn away from the sight of herself time and again. Completely uncertain whether she liked what she saw or not, she gave up completely on the debate. As much as it was going to discomfort her today, she was determined to try and move forward with Blake, at least this much.
Perhaps their relationship would not jump forward in leaps and bounds, but for once she was going to make a sincere and honest effort to let him try and become her husband—for real. In the end they might both gain the one thing that she hoped could truly bond them together as a family—truly as a husband and a wife.
As she dressed herself in the only undergarments she owned, she grimaced slightly to imagine what a difference they were going to make in the way her clothes fit. There was a chance he might not notice, but as she refastened the laces of her gown, she had to admit the odds were slim. On the bright side, with such a deep blush staining her cheeks, at least she wouldn't appear so pale for a change.
But what if he did notice? What then, she wondered. Should she tell him the reason for the changes she was making? She could only imagine how he was going to react when she finally told him what she really wanted and had been craving for weeks and weeks.
Her mindless debating continued as she tried to fashion her hair in a far less severe style than was normally custom. After fastening a few pins to hold her hair up rather loosely, she fluffed out the hair at her temples, allowing several long wisps to trail down the sides of her neck.
Satisfied with what she saw, she picked up the gloves that matched the dress and began to don them quite slowly. Taking a fearful breath for what she saw, she closed her eyes and willed herself to try and believe that she was making the right decision here. It may have been months since she'd lived under the roof of a barbarian, but sometimes it still seemed like just yesterday to her…
Just then, she heard a pleasant shout resounding the rooms downstairs as the sound of a door slammed shut in the driveway out front. A loud commotion began to echo throughout the entire house, signaling the moment that she had been waiting for all day. Blake was home…
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