Denim and diamonds, p.15
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       Denim and Diamonds, p.15

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  “I want to sleep with you today, Mommy.”

  “All right, sweetheart.”

  Cricket climbed into the chair across from Letty, which Joy had recently vacated, and curled up, wrapping her blanket around her. Letty knew her daughter would be asleep within five minutes.

  Watching the child, Letty was grateful that Cricket would be in the morning kindergarten class, since she still seemed to need an afternoon nap.

  Joy worked in the kitchen for a few minutes, then paused in the doorway, smiled at Cricket and waved goodbye. Letty heard the back door close as her friend left the house.

  In an hour or so Chase would come to check on her. Letty cherished these serene moments alone and lay down on the couch to nap, too. A few minutes later she realized she wasn’t tired, and feeling good about that, she sat up. The extra time was like an unexpected gift, and her gaze fell on the carton her brother had brought. Carefully Letty pried open the lid.

  Sorting through her mother’s personal things was bound to be a painful task, Letty thought as she lovingly removed each neatly packed item from the cardboard container.

  She pulled out a stack of old pattern books and set those aside. Her mother had loved to sew, often spending a winter evening flipping through these pages, planning new projects. Letty had learned her sewing skills from Maren, although it had been years since she’d sat down at a sewing machine.

  Sudden tears welled up in Letty’s eyes at the memories of her mother. Happy memories of a loving mother who’d worked much too hard and died far too young. A twinge of resentment struck her. Maren Ellison had given her life’s blood to the Bar E Ranch. It had been her husband’s dream, not hers, and yet her mother had made the sacrifice.

  Letty wiped away her tears and felt a surge of sorrow over her mother’s death, coming so soon after her father’s. Maren had deserved a life so much better than the one she’d lived.

  Once Letty’s eyes had cleared enough to continue her task, she lifted out several large strips of brightly colored material in odd shapes and sizes and set them on the sofa. Bits and pieces of projects that had been carefully planned by her mother and now waited endlessly for completion.

  Then Letty withdrew what had apparently been her mother’s last project. With extreme caution, she unfolded the top of a vividly colored quilt, painstakingly stitched by hand.

  Examining the patchwork piece produced a sense of awe in Letty. She was astonished by the time and effort invested in the work, and even more astonished that she recognized several swatches of the material her mother had used in the quilt. The huge red star at the very center had been created from a piece of leftover fabric from a dress her mother had made for Letty the summer she’d left home. A plaid piece in one corner was from an old Western shirt she’d worn for years. After recognizing one swatch of material after another, Letty realized that her mother must have been making the quilt as a Christmas or birthday gift for her.

  Lovingly, she ran the tips of her fingers over the cloth as her heart lurched with a sadness that came from deep within. Then it dawned on her that without too much difficulty she’d be able to finish the quilt herself. Everything she needed was right here. The task would be something to look forward to next winter, when the days were short and the nights were arctic cold.

  After folding the quilt top and placing it back in the box, Letty discovered a sketchbook, tucked against the side of the carton. Her heart soared with excitement as she reverently picked it up. Her mother had loved to draw, and her talent was undeniable.

  The first sketch was of a large willow against the backdrop of an evening sky. Letty recognized the tree immediately. Her mother had sketched it from their front porch years ago. The willow had been cut down when Letty was in her early teens, after lightning struck it.

  Letty had often found her mother sketching, but the opportunity to complete any full-scale paintings had been rare. The book contained a handful of sketches, and once more Letty felt a wave of resentment. Maren Ellison had deserved the right to follow her own dreams. She was an artist, a woman who’d loved with a generosity that touched everyone she knew.

  “Letty.” Chase broke into her thoughts as he hurried into the house. He paused when he saw Cricket asleep in the chair. “I saw Joy leave,” he said, his voice a whisper.

  “Chase, there’s no need to worry. I can stay by myself for an hour or two.”

  He nodded, then wiped his forearm over his brow and awkwardly leaned over to brush his lips over her cheek. “I figured I’d drop in and make sure everything’s under control.”

  “It is.” His chaste kiss only frustrated Letty. She wanted to shout at him that the time had come for him to act like a married man instead of a saint.

  Letty suspected he slept only three hours a night. He never went to bed at the same time she did, and he was always up before she even stirred. Occasionally, she heard him slip between the sheets, but he stayed so far over on his side of the bed that they didn’t even touch.

  “What’s all this?” Chase asked, glancing around her.

  “A quilt,” Letty said, pointing at the cardboard box.

  “Is that the box Lonny brought here?”

  “Yes. Mom was apparently working on it when she died. She was making it for me.” Letty had to swallow the lump in her throat before she could talk again. She turned and pointed to the other things she’d found. “There are some pieces of material in here and pattern books, as well.”

  “What’s this?”

  “A sketch pad. Mom was an artist,” Letty said proudly.

  His eyebrows drew together. “I didn’t realize that,” he said slowly. He flipped through the book of pencil sketches. “She was very talented.”

  Chase sounded a little surprised that he hadn’t known about her mother’s artistic abilities. “Mom was an incredible woman. I don’t think anyone ever fully appreciated that—I know I didn’t.”

  Chase stepped closer and massaged Letty’s shoulders with tenderness and sympathy. “You still miss her, don’t you?”

  Letty nodded. Her throat felt thick, and she couldn’t express everything she was feeling, all the emotion rising inside her.

  Chase knelt in front of her, his gaze level with hers. He slipped his callused hands around the nape of her neck as he brought her into his arms. Letty rested her head against his shoulder, reveling in his warm embrace. It had been so long since he’d held her and even longer since he’d kissed her…really kissed her.

  Raising her head slightly, she ran the moist tip of her tongue along the side of his jaw. He filled her senses. Chase tensed, but still Letty continued her sensual movements, nibbling at his earlobe, taking it into her mouth…

  “Letty,” he groaned, “no.”

  “No what?” she asked coyly, already knowing his answer. Her mouth roved where it wanted, while she held his face in her hands, directing him as she wished. She savored the edge of his mouth, teasing him, tantalizing him, until he moaned anew.

  “Letty.” He brought his hands to her shoulders.

  Letty was certain he’d meant to push her away, but before he could, she raised her arms and slid them around his neck. Then she leaned against him. Chase held her there.

  “Letty.” Her name was a plea.

  “Chase, kiss me, please,” she whispered. “I’ve missed you so much.”

  Slowly, as if uncertain he was doing the right thing, Chase lowered his mouth to touch her parted lips with his. Letty didn’t move, didn’t breathe, for fear he’d stop. She would have screamed in frustration if he had. His brotherly pecks on the cheek were worse than no kisses at all; they just made her crave everything she’d been missing. Apparently Chase had been feeling equally deprived, because he settled his mouth over hers with a passion and need that demanded her very breath.

  “What’s taken you so long?” she asked, her voice urgent.

  He answered her with another fiery kiss that robbed her of what little strength she still had. Letty heard a faint moan from d
eep within his chest.

  “Letty…this is ridiculous,” he murmured, breaking away, his shoulders heaving.

  “What is?” she demanded.

  “My kissing you like this.”

  He thrust his fingers through his hair. His features were dark and angry.

  “I’m your wife, Chase Brown. Can’t a man kiss his wife?”

  “Not like this…not when she’s—You’re recovering from heart surgery.” He moved away from her and briefly closed his eyes, as though he needed an extra moment to compose himself. “Besides, Cricket’s here.”

  “I’m your wife,” Letty returned, not knowing what else to say.

  “You think I need to be reminded of that?” he shot back. He got awkwardly to his feet and grabbed his hat and gloves. “I have to get to work,” he said, slamming his hat on top of his head. “I’ll be home in a couple of hours.”

  Letty couldn’t have answered him had she tried. She felt like a fool now.

  “Do you need anything before I go?” he asked without looking at her.

  “No.”

  He took several steps away from her, stopped abruptly, then turned around. “It’s going to be months before we can do—before we can be husband and wife in the full sense,” he said grimly. “I think it would be best if we avoided situations like this in the future. Don’t you agree?”

  Letty shrugged. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

  “So am I,” he returned grimly and left the house.

  —

  “Mommy, I want to learn how to play another song,” Cricket called from the living room. She was sitting at the upright piano, her feet crossed and swinging. Letty had taught her “Chopsticks” earlier in the day. She’d been impressed with how easily her daughter had picked up the song. Cricket had played it at least twenty times and was eager to master more tunes.

  “In a little while,” Letty said. She sat at the kitchen table, peeling potatoes for dinner and feeling especially proud of herself for this minor accomplishment. Chase would be surprised and probably a little concerned when he realized what she’d done. But the surgery was several weeks behind her and it was time to take on some of the lighter responsibilities. Preparing dinner was hardly an onerous task; neither was playing the piano with her daughter.

  Seeking her mother’s full attention, Cricket headed into the kitchen and reached for a peeler and a potato. “I’ll help you.”

  “All right, sweetheart.”

  The chore took only a few minutes, Letty peeling four spuds to Cricket’s one. Next, the child helped her collect the peelings and clean off the table before leading her back into the living room.

  “Play something else, Mommy,” the little girl insisted, sitting on the bench beside Letty.

  Letty’s fingers ran lazily up and down the keyboard in a quick exercise. She hadn’t touched the piano until after her surgery. Letty supposed there was some psychological reason for this, but she didn’t want to analyze it now. Until Cricket’s birth, music had dominated her life. But after her daughter’s arrival, her life had turned in a different direction. Music had become a way of entertaining herself and occasionally brought her some paying work, although—obviously—that was no longer the case.

  “Play a song for me,” Cricket commanded.

  Letty did, smiling as the familiar keys responded to her touch. This piano represented so much love and so many good times. Her mother had recognized Letty’s musical gift when she was a child, only a little older than Cricket. Letty had started taking piano lessons in first grade. When she’d learned as much as the local music instructors could teach her, Maren had driven her into Rock Springs every week. A two-hour drive for a half-hour lesson.

  “Now show me how to do it like you,” Cricket said, completely serious. “I want to play just as good as you.”

  “Sweetheart, I took lessons for seven years.”

  “That’s okay, ’cause I’m five.”

  Letty laughed. “Here, I’ll play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and then you can move your fingers the way I do.” Slowly she played the first lines, then dropped her hands on her lap while Cricket perfectly mimicked the simple notes.

  “This is fun,” Cricket said, beaming with pride.

  Ten minutes later, she’d memorized the whole song. With two musical pieces in her repertoire, Cricket was convinced she was possibly the most gifted musical student in the history of Red Springs.

  The minute Chase was in the door, Cricket flew to his side. “Chase! Chase, come listen.”

  “Sweetie, let him wash up first,” Letty said with a smile.

  “What is it?” Chase asked, his amused gaze shifting from Cricket to Letty, then to Cricket again.

  “It’s a surprise,” Cricket said, practically jumping up and down with enthusiasm.

  “You’d better go listen,” Letty told him. “She’s been waiting for you to come inside.”

  Chase washed his hands at the kitchen sink, but hesitated when he saw the panful of peeled potatoes. “Who did this?”

  “Mommy and me,” Cricket told him impatiently.

  “Letty?”

  “And I lived to tell about it. I’m feeling stronger every day,” she pointed out, “and there’s no reason I can’t start taking up the slack around here a little more.”

  “But—”

  “Don’t argue with me, Chase,” she said in what she hoped was a firm voice.

  “It hasn’t been a month yet,” he countered, frowning.

  “I feel fine!”

  It looked as if he wanted to argue, but he apparently decided not to, probably because Cricket was tugging anxiously at his arm, wanting him to sit down in the living room so he could hear her recital.

  Letty followed them and stood back as Cricket directed Chase to his favorite overstuffed chair.

  “You stay here,” she said.

  Once Chase was seated, she walked proudly over to the piano and climbed onto the bench. Then she looked over her shoulder and ceremoniously raised her hands. Lowering them, she put every bit of emotion her five-year-old heart possessed into playing “Chopsticks.”

  When she’d finished, she slid off the seat, tucked her arm around her middle and bowed. “You’re supposed to clap now,” she told Chase.

  He obliged enthusiastically, and Letty stifled a laugh at how seriously Cricket was taking this.

  “For my next number, I’ll play—” She stopped abruptly. “I want you to guess.”

  Letty sat on the arm of the chair, resting her hand on his shoulder. “She’s such a ham.”

  Chase grinned up at her, his eyes twinkling with shared amusement.

  “I must have quiet,” Cricket grumbled. “You aren’t supposed to talk now….”

  Once more, Cricket gave an Oscar-quality performance.

  “Bravo, bravo!” Chase shouted when she’d slipped off the piano bench.

  Cricket flew to Chase’s side and climbed into his lap. “Mommy taught me.”

  “She seems to have a flair for music,” Letty said.

  “I’m not as good as Mommy, though.” Cricket sighed dramatically. “She can play anything…and she sings pretty, too. She played for me today and we had so much fun.”

  Letty laughed. “I’m thinking of giving Cricket piano lessons myself,” Letty said, sure that Chase would add his wholehearted approval.

  To her surprise, Letty felt him tense beneath her fingers. It was as if all the joy had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from the room.

  “Chase, what’s wrong?” Letty whispered.

  “Nothing.”

  “Cricket, go get Chase a glass of iced tea,” Letty said. “It’s in the refrigerator.”

  “Okay,” the child said, eager as always to do anything for Chase.

  As soon as the little girl had left, Letty spoke. “Do you object to Cricket taking piano lessons?”

  “Why should I?” he asked, without revealing any emotion. “As you say, she’s obviously got talent.”

  “Ye
s, but—”

  “We both know where she got it from, don’t we,” he said with a resigned sigh.

  “I would think you’d be pleased.” Chase had always loved it when she played and sang; now he could barely stand it if she so much as looked at the piano.

  “I am pleased,” he declared. With that, he walked into the kitchen, leaving Letty more perplexed than ever.

  For several minutes, Letty sat there numbly while Chase talked to Cricket, praising her efforts.

  Letty had thought Chase would be happy, but he clearly wasn’t. She didn’t understand it.

  “Someday,” she heard him tell Cricket, his voice full of regret, “you’ll play as well as your mother.”

  Chapter 12

  Astride Firepower at the top of a hill overlooking his herd, Chase stared vacantly into the distance. Letty was leaving; he’d known it from the moment he discovered she’d been playing the piano again. The niggling fear had been with him for days, gnawing at his heart.

  Marrying her had been a gamble, a big one, but he’d accepted it, grateful for the opportunity to have her and Cricket in his life, even if it was destined to be for a short time. Somehow, he’d find the courage to smile and let her walk away. He’d managed it once and, if he had to, he could do it again.

  “Chase.”

  At the sound of his name, carried softly on the wind, Chase twisted in the saddle, causing the leather to creak. He frowned as he recognized Letty, riding one of his mares, advancing slowly toward him. Her face was lit with a bright smile and she waved, looking elated. Sadly he shared little of her exhilaration. All he could think about was his certainty that she’d soon be gone.

  Letty rode with a natural grace, as if she’d been born to it. Her beauty almost broke his heart.

  Chase swallowed, and a sense of dread swelled up inside him. Dread and confusion—the same confusion that being alone with Letty always brought. He wanted her, and yet he had to restrain himself for the sake of her health. He wanted to keep her with him, and yet he’d have to let her go if that was her choice.

  Sweat broke out across his upper lip. He hadn’t touched Letty from the moment he’d learned of her heart condition. Now she needed to recover from her surgery. It was debatable, however, whether he could continue to resist her much longer. Each day became more taxing than the one before. Just being close to her sapped his strength. Sleeping with her only inches away had become almost impossible, and as a result he was constantly tired…as well as frustrated.

 
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