Sugar and Spice
When Cass arrived at ten on Thanksgiving morning to find Ian's house empty, she drew a huge sigh of relief. As long as they weren't alone together, she could function as simply the hired help. She'd make dinner, be polite to his family, and then she'd never have to see him again. Him or his beautiful home.
The turkey went into the oven at noon, and Ian hadn't shown up. She started on her special green bean casserole, peeled the potatoes, and put them in the pot, and he still hadn't arrived. Two o'clock drew ever closer. Ian didn't come home.
Just as she set the yeast dough to rise for the first time, the front doorbell rang. With no other choice, she smoothed her hair, took off her apron, and prepared to face the Baker family. Alone.
She opened the door. Standing on the porch was an assortment of adults, while a couple of little boys raced around the front lawn.
Cass swallowed hard and called up some kind of smile. "Hi. You must be Mr. and Mrs. Baker." She searched for the oldest faces. "I'm Cassandra Stuart. Please, come in."
As Mrs. Baker stepped inside, Cass realized that Ian looked like his mother. The same bone structure, the same deep-set blue eyes, which were surveying her now with outright suspicion. "Where is Ian?"
"Where do you think he is, Dorothy?" Mr. Baker came in behind his wife, an approachable man with dark hair and twinkling eyes. "Where he always is?? at work." He held out a hand. "I'm Jeff Baker, Ms. Stuart. Good to meet you." His grin was like Ian's, definitely sexy even in his rounder face. "This is my son Jeff, Junior, and his wife, Honey, and that's our daughter, Melissa, with her husband, Todd. Those hooligans outside are Jason and Joshua."
"I'm pleased to meet all of you." Cass held on to her poise by a thread. "Ian is still at the hospital?? there was an accident on the interstate this morning and I imagine he's been called in to operate. But I'll make you as comfortable as I can. Would you like to go to your rooms for a bit? And then I'll serve some appetizers while we wait for Ian to get here."
With Mrs. Baker's assent, they went upstairs. Cass showed them to the rooms she'd thought they would like, and was gratified to hear murmurs of appreciation up and down the hall. Okay, she'd gotten that part right. Now, all she had to do was survive the rest of the afternoon.
Ian drove home at six-thirty in a state of exhaustion coupled with dread. No woman would forgive a man who put her in the position he'd left Cass facing today?? welcoming strangers to a house where she had no real place or authority.
That wasn't true, of course. Cass was the heart of his home, the soul of his life. If he hadn't realized that truth before, these past days without her would have done it. Today had brought him, once again, up against life or death choices and the realization of how precious time can be. There might never be enough.
As he came in from the garage, he was surprised to hear his father's roar of laughter in the dining room. Baffled by sounds of celebration where he'd expected chilly silence, Ian stopped in the doorway to survey the scene.
His family was clearly enjoying its collective self. His brother and sister and their spouses looked comfortable. He didn't see the nephews at first, but a quick glance into the family room found them playing some kind of video game on his new TV.
Cass had joined them at the dining room table, her face flushed with effort and pleasure and, maybe, a glass of wine. She seemed perfectly at ease with his dad and his siblings. No one was ever at ease with Dorothy Baker, but as far as he could tell, Cass appeared to have made a truce.
Of course she had. She was too gracious, too generous, not to have charmed even his mother.
Ian cleared his throat. "Hi, everybody. Sorry I'm late."
Chairs scraped the floor as they all surged around him for hugs. The chaos finally subsided when his mother filled his plate with her own hands and set it before him, along with a full glass of wine. Since he hadn't eaten since dawn, Ian was glad to dig in. As he looked around before that first bite, however, he found one face missing.
"Where's Cass?" They all looked puzzled?? no one had seen her leave. Ian got to his feet again. "Excuse me a minute." His mother protested, but he waved her back. He would not let the woman he loved get away this time.
He found her standing on the driveway staring at her car, blocked at the rear by his dad's SUV and on the side by his Saab. She would have to drive on the grass to get out. And Cass wasn't the kind to drive on the grass.
"Where are you going?" he asked quietly, coming up behind her in the chilly darkness.
"I left the kitchen clean," she said, without facing him. "You'll just need to put the dishes in to wash and store the leftovers."
Ian smiled. "But isn't that part of what I hired you to do?"
"Well, I'm sorry." She faced him, then, and he could see her temper had flared. "I wasn't supposed to have to entertain people all afternoon as well as cook. I thought the least you could do was clean up, but if that's too much?" Marching past him, she headed toward the house.
"Cass." He caught her arm, pulled her up against him and heard her gasp. "I'm apologizing again. I'm not sure exactly what for, though. I mean?why did you get so upset over a cat?"
With surprising strength, she tried to pull away. "Because it's more than the cat, idiot! If you don't want her, you don't want me. Is that too hard to understand?"
But Ian didn't let her go. And, after a minute of concentrated thought, he began to see. He'd told her to keep the cat he didn't want. Which meant? "Boy, did I blow it." Chuckling, he put his arms around her stiff shoulders. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to send you away. I was too tired to think straight."
"Are you allergic to me, too?" Though she didn't look up, she'd softened in his arms.
"Not in the least. You, I can't live without." He lifted her chin so he could see her beautiful brown eyes. "And there are allergy shots. If you'll only come to me with the cat, then that's the way it'll have to be."
"Ian?" Cass stopped, and dropped her gaze. He simply held her, waiting. Drawing a deep breath, she met his eyes. "I love you."
"Yeah? What took you so long?"
Finally, that wonderful smile warmed her face. "I was waiting for you, of course."
"That's something you'll be doing a lot of, I guess. I can't seem to show up on time." Then he lowered his head, kissed her softly once, and again. "But never again for this. I love you, Cass Stuart. Today and always." They shared a real kiss, then, the kind he'd ached for in the long, lonely nights just past. When he raised his head, they were both breathing hard. "Let's go in and introduce my mother to the future Mrs. Baker."
Halfway up the steps, Cass stopped and tugged on his hand. "That's really neat, you know."
"I'll be Cassandra Baker."
He bent down for another kiss. "I like the idea, myself."
She gave him the kiss, but then shook her head. "No, I mean I'll be Cassandra Baker?of Sugar and Spice, Inc. Perfect, isn't it?"
Ian grinned. "Whatever you think, love. You're the boss."