Denim and diamonds, p.11
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       Denim and Diamonds, p.11

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  In contrast, Letty’s relationship with Chase had deteriorated to the point that they’d become, at best, mere acquaintances. Chase went out of his way to avoid talking to her. It was as if their last meeting in the cemetery, several weeks before, had killed whatever love there’d ever been between them.

  Letty watched from the porch as Chase slid out of the saddle and onto the ground, then lifted Cricket down after her short ride. He wore the same kind of silly grin as Lonny, looking exceptionally pleased with himself.

  “Well, what do you think?” Lonny asked, rocking back on his heels, hands in his pockets. He seemed almost as excited as Cricket.

  “About what?” Letty felt as if everyone except her was in on some big secret.

  Lonny glanced at her. “Chase bought the pony for Cricket.”

  “What?” Letty exploded.

  “It’s a surprise,” Lonny whispered.

  “You’re telling me! Didn’t it cross his mind—or yours—to discuss the matter with me? I’m her mother….I should have some say in this decision, don’t you think?”

  For the first time, Lonny revealed signs of uneasiness. “Actually, Chase did bring up the subject with me, and I’m the one who told him it was okay. After all, I’ll be responsible for feeding it and paying the vet’s bills, for that matter. I assumed you’d be as thrilled as Cricket.”

  “I am, but I wish one of you had thought to ask me first. It’s…it’s common courtesy.”

  “You’re not going to make a federal case out of this, are you?” Lonny asked, his gaze accusing. “Chase is just doing something nice for her.”

  “I know,” she sighed. But that wasn’t the issue.

  Chase and Cricket were standing next to the pony when Letty approached them in the yard. Apparently Chase had just told her daughter the pony now belonged to her, because Cricket threw her arms around Chase’s neck, shouting with glee. Laughing, Chase twirled her in a circle, holding her by the waist. Cricket’s short legs flew out and she looked like a tiny top spinning around and around.

  Letty felt like an outsider in this touching scene, although she made an effort to smile and act pleased. Perhaps Cricket sensed Letty’s feelings, because as soon as she was back on the ground, she hurried to her mother’s side and hugged her tightly.

  “Mommy, did you see Jennybird? That’s the name of my very own pony.”

  Chase walked over and placed his hands on the little girl’s shoulders. “You don’t object, do you?” he asked Letty.

  How could she? “Of course not. It’s very thoughtful of you, Chase.” She gazed down at her daughter and restrained herself from telling him she wished he’d consulted her beforehand. “Did you thank him, sweetheart?”

  “Oh, yes, a hundred million, zillion times.”

  Letty turned back to the porch, fearing that if she stood there any longer, watching the two of them, she’d start to weep. The emotions she felt disturbed her. Crazy as it seemed, the most prominent one bordered on jealousy. How she yearned for Chase to look at her with the same tenderness he did Cricket. Imagine being envious of her own daughter!

  Chase didn’t hide his affection for the child. In the span of a few weeks, the pair had become great friends, and Letty felt excluded, as if she were on the outside looking in. Suddenly she couldn’t bear to stand there anymore and pretend everything was fine. As unobtrusively as possible, she walked back to the house. She’d almost reached the door when Chase stopped her.

  “Letty?”

  She turned to see him standing at the bottom of the steps, a frown furrowing his brow.

  “You dropped this.” He extended the plain envelope to her.

  The instant she realized what it was, Letty was mortified. Chase stood below her, holding out her welfare check, his face distorted with shock and what she was sure must be scorn. When she took the check, his eyes seemed to spark with questions. Before he could ask a single one, she whirled around and raced into the house.

  —

  It shouldn’t have surprised Letty that she couldn’t sleep that night, although she seemed to be the only member of the family with that problem. After all the excitement with Jennybird, Cricket had fallen asleep almost immediately after dinner. Lonny had been snoring softly when Letty dressed and tiptoed past his bedroom on her way downstairs.

  Now she sat under the stars, her knees under her chin, on the hillside where she’d so often met Chase when they were young. Chase had listened to her talk about her dreams and all the wonderful things in store for her. He’d held her close and kissed her and believed in her and with her.

  That secure feeling, that sense of being loved, had driven Letty back to this spot now. There’d been no place else for her to go. She felt more alone than ever, more isolated—cut off from the people she loved, who loved her. She was facing the most difficult problem of her life and she was doing it utterly alone.

  Letty knew she should be pleased with the unexpected change in Chase’s attitude toward Cricket…and she was. It was more than she’d ever expected from him, more than she’d dared to hope. And yet, she longed with all her heart for Chase to love her.

  But he didn’t. That was a fact he’d made abundantly clear.

  It was hard to be depressed out here, Letty mused, as she studied the spectacular display in the heavens. The stars were like frosty jewels scattered across black velvet. The moon was full and brilliant, a madcap adventurer in a heaven filled with like-minded wanderers.

  Despite her low spirits, Letty found she was smiling. So long ago, she’d sat under the same glittering moon, confident that nothing but good things would ever come into her life.

  “What are you doing here?”

  The crisp voice behind her startled Letty. “Hello, Chase,” she said evenly, refusing to turn around. “Are you going to order me off your land?”

  —

  Chase had seen Letty approach the hillside from the house. He’d decided the best tactic was to ignore her. She’d leave soon enough. Only she hadn’t. For more than an hour she’d sat under the stars, barely moving. Unable to resist anymore, he’d gone over to the hill without knowing what he’d say or do.

  “Do you want me to leave?” she asked. He hadn’t answered her earlier question.

  “No,” he answered gruffly.

  His reply seemed to please her and he felt her tension subside. She relaxed, clasped her bent knees and said, “I haven’t seen a night this clear in…forever.” Her voice was low and enticing. “The stars look like diamonds, don’t they?”

  They did, but Chase didn’t respond. He shifted his weight restlessly as he stood behind her, gazing up at the heavens, too.

  “I remember the last time I sat on this hill with you, but…but that seems a million years ago now.”

  “It was,” he said brusquely.

  “That was the night you asked me to marry you.”

  “We were both young and foolish,” he said, striving for a flippant air. He would have liked Letty to believe the ridiculous part had been in wanting her for his wife, but the truth was, he’d hoped with everything in him that she’d consent. Despite all the heartbreak, he felt the same way this very moment.

  To his surprise, Letty laughed softly. “Now we’re both older and wiser, aren’t we?”

  “I can’t speak for anyone but myself.” Before he was even conscious of moving, Chase was on the ground, sitting next to her, his legs stretched out in front of him.

  “I wish I knew then what I do now,” she continued. “If, by some miracle, we were able to turn back the clock to that night, I’d like you to know I’d jump at your proposal.”

  A shocked silence followed her words. Chase wished he could believe her, but he couldn’t.

  “You were after diamonds, Letty, and all I had to offer you was denim.”

  “But the diamonds were here all along,” she whispered, staring up at the stars.

  Chase closed his eyes to the pain that squeezed his heart. He hadn’t been good enough for her then
, and he wasn’t now. He didn’t doubt for an instant that she was waiting to leave Red Springs. When the time came, she’d run so fast his head would spin. In fact, he didn’t know what was keeping her here now.

  The crux of the problem was that he didn’t trust Letty. He couldn’t—not anymore, not since he’d learned she was seeing some man in Rock Springs. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to stop caring for her. But in all the years he’d cherished Letty, the only thing his love had gotten him was pain and heartache.

  When she’d first come back to Wyoming, he’d carefully allowed himself to hope. He’d dreamed that they’d find a way to turn back time, just as she’d said, and discover a life together. But in the past few weeks, she’d proved to him over and over how impossible that was.

  Chase’s gut twisted with the knowledge. He’d done everything he could to blot her out of his life. In the beginning, when he’d recognized his feelings for Cricket, he’d thought he would fight for Letty’s love, show her how things could change. But could they really? All he could offer her was a humble life on a cattle ranch—exactly what he’d offered her nine years ago. Evidently someone else had given her something better. She’d fallen for some bastard in California, someone unworthy of her love, and now, apparently she was doing it again, blatantly meeting another man. Good riddance, then. The guy with the mustache was welcome to her. All Chase wanted was for her to get out of his life, because the pain of having her so close was more than he could stand.

  “I think Cricket will remember today as long as she lives,” Letty said, blithely unaware of his thoughts. “You’ve made her the happiest five-year-old in the world.”

  He didn’t say anything; he didn’t want to discuss Cricket. The little girl made him vulnerable to Letty. Once he’d lowered his guard, it was as if a dam of love had broken. He didn’t know what he’d do when Letty moved away and took the little girl with her.

  “She thinks you’re the sun and the moon,” Letty said in a way that suggested he need not have done a thing for Cricket to worship him.

  “She’s a sweet kid.” That was the most he was willing to admit.

  “Jason reminded me of you.” She spoke so softly it was difficult to make out her words.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Jason was Cricket’s father.”

  That man was the last person Chase wanted to hear about, but before he could tell Letty so, she continued in a voice filled with pain and remembered humiliation.

  “He asked me out for weeks before I finally accepted. I’d written you and asked you to join me in California, and time and again you turned me down.”

  “You wanted me to be your manager! I’m a rancher. What did I know about the music business?”

  “Nothing….I was asking the impossible,” she said, her voice level, her words devoid of blame. “It was ridiculous—I realize that now. But I was so lonely for you, so lost.”

  “Apparently you found some comfort.”

  She let the gibe pass, although he saw her flinch and knew his words had hit their mark. He said things like that to hurt her, but the curious thing was, he suffered, too. He hurt himself as much as he hurt Letty, maybe more.

  “He took me to the best restaurants in town, told me everything I wanted to hear. I was so desperate to believe him that a few inconsistencies didn’t trouble me. He pretended to be my friend, and I needed one so badly. He seemed to share my dream the way you always had. I couldn’t come back to Wyoming a nobody. You understand that, don’t you?”

  Chase didn’t give her an answer and she went on without waiting for one.

  “I was still chasing my dreams, but I was so lonely they were losing their appeal.

  “I never planned to go so far with Jason, but it happened, and for days afterward I was in shock. I was—”

  “Letty, stop—I don’t want to hear this.” Her relationship with Cricket’s father was a part of her life he wanted to remove completely from his mind.

  Letty ignored him, her voice shaky but determined. “Soon afterward I found out I was pregnant. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die, but that wasn’t the worst part. When I told Jason, he misunderstood….He seemed to think I wanted him to marry me. But I didn’t. I told him because, well, because he was Cricket’s father. That’s when I learned he was married. Married. All that time and he’d had a wife.”

  “Stop, Letty. I’m the last person you should be telling this to. In fact, I don’t want to hear any of it,” Chase shouted. He clenched his fists in impotent rage, hating the man who’d used and deceived Letty like this.

  “It hurts to talk about it, but I feel I have to. I want you to know that—”

  “Whatever you have to say doesn’t matter anymore.”

  “But, Chase, it does, because as difficult as you may find this to believe, I’ve always loved you…as much then as I do now.”

  “Why didn’t you come home when you found out you were pregnant?”

  “How could I have? Pregnant and a failure, too. Everyone expected me to make a name for Red Springs. I was so ashamed, so unhappy, and there was nowhere to go.”

  She turned away and Chase saw her wipe the tears from her eyes. He ached to hold and comfort her, his heart heavy with her grief, but he refused to make himself vulnerable to her again. She spoke of loving him, but she didn’t mean it. She couldn’t, not when there was someone else in her life.

  “What changed your mind?” he asked. “What made you decide to come back now?”

  Several moments passed, far longer than necessary to answer a simple question. Obviously something had happened that had brought her running back to the Bar E when she’d managed to stay away all those years. Something traumatic.

  “I suppose it was a matter of accepting defeat,” she finally said. “In the years after Cricket’s birth, the determination to succeed as a singer left me. I dabbled in the industry, but mainly I did temp work. As the years passed, I couldn’t feel ashamed of Cricket. She’s the joy of my life.”

  “But it took you nine years, Letty. Nine years.”

  She looked up at him, her eyes filled with pain, clearly revealed in the moonlight that seemed as bright as day.

  The anger was still with him. The senselessness of it all—a dream that had ruined their lives. And for what? “I loved you once,” he said starkly, “but I don’t now, and I doubt I ever will again. You taught me that the only thing love brings is heartache.”

  She lowered her head and he saw new tears.

  “I could hate you for the things you’ve done,” he said in a low, angry voice.

  “I think you do,” she whispered.

  Chase hadn’t known what to expect, but it wasn’t this calm, almost humble acceptance of his resentment.

  Maybe the proud, confident Letty was gone forever, but he couldn’t believe that was true. Every once in a while, he saw flashes of the old Letty. Just enough to give him hope.

  “I don’t hate you, Letty,” he murmured in a tormented whisper. “I wish I could, but I can’t…I can’t.”

  Chase intended to kiss her once, then release her and send her back to the house. It was late, and they both had to get up early. But their kiss sparked, then caught fire, leaping to sudden brilliance. She sighed, and the sound was so soft, so exciting, that Chase knew he was lost even before he pressed her against the cool, fragrant grass.

  Lying down beside her, Chase felt helpless, caught in a maze of love and desire. He tried to slow his breathing, gain control of his senses, but it was impossible, especially when Letty raised her hand and stroked his shoulders through the fabric of his shirt, then glided her fingers around to his back.

  Chase felt engulfed by his love for her, lost, drowning, and it didn’t matter, nothing did, except the warm feeling of her beside him, longing for him as desperately as he longed for her.

  Again and again he kissed her, and when he paused to collect his senses, she eased her hand around his neck and gently brought his mouth back to hers.

&nbs
p; Their need for each other was urgent. Fierce. Chase couldn’t get enough of her. He kissed her eyes, her cheeks, her forehead, and tenderly nuzzled her throat.

  Eventually he released her and she sagged breathlessly against him. No other woman affected him the way Letty did. Why her? Of all the women in the world, why did he have to love her? For years she’d rewarded his loyalty with nothing but pain.

  But it wasn’t distress he was feeling now. The pleasure she brought him was so intense he wanted to cry out with it. He kissed her and her soft, gasping breaths mingled with his own. Chase was shaking and he couldn’t seem to stop—shaking with anticipation and desire, shaking with the resolve not to make love to her, not to claim her completely, because once he did, he’d never be able to let her go. He wanted her, but he needed her to love him as much as he loved her. A love that came from their hearts and minds—not just the passionate dictates of their bodies.

  His jaw tight with restraint, he closed his hands around hers and gently lifted her away from him.

  “Chase?” she whispered, perplexed.

  If she was confused, it was nothing compared to the emotions churning inside him. He’d always loved her, still did, yet he was turning her away again, and it was agonizing. She wanted him, and she’d let him know that. But he wouldn’t make love to her. Not now.

  “Letty…no.”

  She bowed her head. “You…don’t want to make love to me?” she whispered tremulously. “Just one time…”

  “No,” he told her bluntly. “It wouldn’t be enough.”

  He stroked her hair and kissed her gently. Then he realized the true significance of what she’d said. She only wanted him to love her one time. “You’re going away, aren’t you, Letty?” He felt her tense in his arms before her startled gaze found his.

  “Who told you?”

  Without responding, he pushed her away from him and stood.

  “Chase?”

  “No one told me,” he said, the love and tenderness he felt evaporating in the heat of her betrayal. “I guessed.”

 
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