Denim and diamonds, p.16
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       Denim and Diamonds, p.16

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  Chase drew himself up when she joined him. “What are you doing here?” he asked. He sounded harsher than he’d intended.

  “You didn’t come back to the house for lunch,” she murmured.

  “Did it occur to you that I might not be hungry?” He was exhausted and impatient and hated the way he was speaking to her, but he felt himself fighting powerful emotions whenever he was near her.

  “I brought you some lunch,” Letty said, not reacting to his rudeness. “I thought we…we might have a picnic.”

  “A picnic?” he echoed with a short, sarcastic laugh.

  Letty seemed determined to ignore his mood and smiled up at him, her eyes gleaming with mischief. “Yes,” she said, “a picnic. You work too hard, Chase. It’s about time you relaxed a little.”

  “Where’s Cricket?” he asked, his tongue nearly sticking to the roof of his mouth. It was difficult enough keeping his eyes off Letty without having to laze around on some nice, soft grass and pretend he had an appetite. Oh, he was hungry, all right, but it was Letty he needed; only his wife would satisfy his cravings.

  “Cricket went into town with Joy,” she said, sliding down from the mare. “She’s helping Joy get her new classroom ready, although it’s questionable how much help she’ll actually be. School’s only a couple of weeks away, you know.”

  While she was speaking, Letty emptied the saddlebags. She didn’t look back at him as she spread a blanket across the grass, obviously assuming he’d join her without further argument. Next she opened a large brown sack, then knelt and pulled out sandwiches and a thermos.

  “Chase?” She looked up at him.

  “I…I’m not hungry.”

  “You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to, but at least take a break.”

  Reluctantly Chase climbed out of the saddle. It was either that or sit where he was and stare down her blouse.

  Despite the fact that Letty had spent weeks inside the house recuperating, her skin was glowing and healthy, Chase noted. Always slender, she’d lost weight and had worked at putting it back on, but he’d never guess it, looking at her now. Her jeans fit snugly, and her lithe, elegant body seemed to call out to him….

  “I made fresh lemonade. Would you like some?” She interrupted his tortured thoughts, opening the thermos and filling a paper cup, ready to hand it to him.

  “No,…thanks.” Chase felt both awkward and out of place. He moved closer to her, drawn by an invisible cord. He stared at her longingly, then dropped to his knees, simply because standing demanded so much energy.

  “The lemonade’s cold,” she coaxed. As if to prove her point, she took a sip.

  The tip of her tongue came out and she licked her lips. Watching that small action, innocent yet sensuous, was like being kicked in the stomach.

  “I said I didn’t want any,” he said gruffly.

  They were facing each other, and Letty’s gaze found his. Her eyes were wide, hurt and confused. She looked so beautiful.

  He realized he should explain that he knew she was planning to go back to California, but his tongue refused to cooperate. Letty continued to peer at him, frowning slightly, as though trying to identify the source of his anger.

  At that instant, Chase knew he was going to kiss her and there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop himself. The ache to touch her had consumed him for weeks. He reached out for her now, easing her into his embrace. She came willingly, offering no resistance.

  “Letty…”

  Intuitively she must have known his intent, because she closed her eyes and tilted back her head.

  At first, as if testing the limits of his control, Chase merely touched his mouth to hers. The way her fingers curled into his chest told him she was as eager for his touch as he was for hers. He waited, savoring the taste and feel of her in his arms, and when he could deny himself no longer, he deepened the kiss.

  With a soft sigh, Letty brought her arms around his neck. Chase’s heart was pounding and he pulled back for a moment, breathing in her delectable scent—wildflowers and some clean-smelling floral soap.

  He ran his fingers through her hair as he kissed her again. He stopped to breathe, then slowly lowered them both to the ground, lying side by side. Then, he sought her mouth once more. He felt consumed with such need, yet forced himself to go slowly, gently….

  Since Letty had returned to Red Springs, Chase had kissed her a number of times. For the past few weeks he’d gone to sleep each night remembering how good she’d felt in his arms. He had treasured the memories, not knowing when he’d be able to hold her and kiss her again. Soon, he always promised himself; he’d make love to her soon. Every detail of every time he’d touched her was emblazoned on his mind, and he could think of little else.

  Now that she was actually in his arms, he discovered that the anticipation hadn’t prepared him for how perfect it would be. The reality outdistanced his memory—and his imagination.

  His mouth came down hard on hers, releasing all the tension inside him. Letty’s breathing was labored and harsh and her fingers curled more tightly into the fabric of his shirt, then began to relax as she gave herself completely over to his kiss.

  Chase was drowning, sinking fast. At first he associated the rumbling in his ears with the thunder of his own heartbeat. It took him a moment to realize it was the sound of an approaching horse.

  Chase rolled away from Letty with a groan.

  She sat up and looked at him, dazed, hurt, confused.

  “Someone’s riding toward us,” he said tersely.

  “Oh.”

  That one word bespoke frustration and disappointment and a multitude of other emotions that reflected his own. He retrieved his gloves and stood, using his body to shield Letty from any curious onlooker.

  Within seconds, Lonny trotted into view.

  “It’s your brother,” Chase warned, then added something low and guttural that wasn’t meant for her ears. His friend had quite the sense of timing.

  Chase saw Letty turn away and busy herself with laying out their lunch.

  As Lonny rode up, pulling on his horse’s reins, Chase glared at him.

  More than a little chagrined, Lonny muttered, “Am I interrupting something?”

  “Of course not,” Letty said, sounding unlike herself. She kept her back to him, making a task of unfolding napkins and unwrapping sandwiches.

  Chase contradicted her words with a scowl. The last person he wanted to see was Lonny. To his credit, his brother-in-law looked as if he wanted to find a hole to hide in, but that didn’t help now.

  “Actually, I was looking for Letty,” Lonny explained, after clearing his throat. “I wanted to talk to her about…something. I stopped at the house, but there wasn’t anyone around. Your new guy, Mel, was working in the barn and he told me she’d come out here. I guess, uh, I should’ve figured it out.”

  “It would’ve been appreciated,” Chase muttered savagely.

  “I brought lunch out to Chase,” Letty said.

  Chase marveled that she could recover so quickly.

  “There’s plenty if you’d care to join us,” she added.

  “You might as well,” Chase said, confirming the invitation. The moment had been ruined and he doubted they’d be able to recapture it.

  Lonny’s gaze traveled from one to the other. “Another time,” he said, turning his horse. “I’ll talk to you later, sis.”

  Letty nodded, and Lonny rode off.

  “You should go back to the house yourself,” Chase said without meeting her eyes.

  It wasn’t until Letty had repacked the saddlebags and ridden after her brother that Chase could breathe normally again.

  —

  Lonny was waiting for Letty when she trotted into the yard on Chase’s mare. His expression was sheepish, she saw, as he helped her down from the saddle, although she was more than capable of doing it on her own.

  “I’m sorry, Letty,” he mumbled. Hot color circled his ears. “I should’ve thought before I
went traipsing out there looking for you.”

  “It’s all right,” she said, offering him a gracious smile. There was no point in telling him he’d interrupted a scene she’d been plotting for days. Actually, her time with Chase told her several things, and all of them excited her. He was going crazy with desire for her. He wanted her as much as she wanted him.

  “You may be willing to forgive me, but I don’t think Chase is going to be nearly as generous.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” she returned absently. Her brother had foiled Plan A, but Plan B would go into action that very evening.

  “Come on in and I’ll get you a glass of lemonade.”

  “I could use one,” Lonny said, obediently following his sister into the kitchen.

  Letty could see that something was troubling her brother, and whatever it was appeared to be serious. His eyes seemed clouded and stubbornly refused to meet hers.

  “What did you want to talk to me about?”

  He sat down at the scarred oak table. Removing his hat, he set it on the chair beside him. “Do you remember how when you first came home, you invited Mary Brandon over to the house?”

  Letty wasn’t likely to forget it; the evening had been a catastrophe.

  “You seemed to think I needed a wife,” Lonny continued.

  “Yes…mainly because you’d become consumed by the ranch. Your rodeo days are over—”

  “My glory days,” he said with a self-conscious laugh.

  “You quit because you had to come back to the Bar E when Dad got sick. Now you’re so wrapped up in the ranch, all your energy’s channeled in that one direction.”

  He nodded, agreeing with her, which surprised Letty.

  “The way I see it, Lonny, you work too hard. You’ve given up—been forced to give up—too much. You’ve grown so…short-tempered. In my arrogant way, I saw you as lonely and decided to do something about it.” She was nervous about her next remark but made it anyway. “I was afraid this place was going to suck the life out of you, like I thought it had with Mom.”

  “Are you still on that kick?” he asked, suddenly angry. Then he sighed, a sound of resignation.

  “We had a big fight over this once, and I swore I wouldn’t mention it again, but honestly, Letty, you’re seeing Mom as some kind of martyr. She loved the ranch….She loved Wyoming.”

  “I know,” Letty answered quietly.

  “Then why are you arguing with me about it?”

  Letty ignored the question, deciding that discretion was well advised at the moment. “It came to me after I sorted through the carton of her things that you brought over,” she said, toying with her glass. “I studied the quilt Mom was making and realized that her talent wasn’t wasted. She just transferred it to another form—quilting. At first I was surprised that she hadn’t used the sewing machine to join the squares. Every stitch in that quilt top was made by hand, every single one of them.”

  “I think she felt there was more of herself in it that way,” Lonny suggested.

  Letty smiled in agreement. “I’m going to finish it this winter. I’ll do the actual quilting—and I’ll do it by hand, just like she did.”

  “It’s going to be beautiful,” Lonny said. “Really beautiful.”

  Letty nodded. “The blending of colors, the design—it all spells out how much love and skill Mom put into it. When I decided to leave Red Springs after high school, I went because I didn’t want to end up like Mom, and now I realize I couldn’t strive toward a finer goal.”

  Lonny frowned again. “I don’t understand. You left for California because you didn’t want to be a rancher’s wife, and yet you married Chase….”

  “I know. But I love Chase. I always have. It wasn’t being a rancher’s wife that I objected to so much. Yes, the life is hard. But the rewards are plentiful. I knew that nine years ago, and I know it even more profoundly now. My biggest fear was that I’d end up dedicating my life to ranching like Mom did and never achieve my own dreams.”

  “But Mom was happy. I never once heard her complain. I guess that’s why I took such offense when you made it sound as if she’d wasted her life. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

  “I know that now,” Letty murmured. “But I didn’t understand it for a long time. What upset me most was that I felt she could never paint the way she wanted to. There was always something else that needed her attention, some other project that demanded her time. It wasn’t until I saw the quilt that I understood….She sketched for her own enjoyment, but the other things she made were for the people she loved. The quilt she was working on when she died was for me, and it’s taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson of my life.”

  Lonny’s face relaxed into a smile. “I’m glad, Letty. In the back of my mind I had the feeling that once you’d recuperated from the surgery, you’d get restless. But you won’t, will you?”

  “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said with a laugh. “I’m a married woman, you know.” She twisted the diamond wedding band around her finger. “My place is here, with Chase. I plan to spend the rest of my life with him.”

  “I’m glad to hear that,” he said again, his relief evident.

  “We got off the subject, didn’t we?” she said apologetically. “You wanted to talk to me.” He hadn’t told her why, but she could guess….

  “Yes….Well, it has to do with…” He hesitated, as if saying Joy Fuller’s name would somehow conjure her up.

  “Joy?” Letty asked.

  Lonny nodded.

  “What about her?”

  In response, Lonny jerked his fingers through his hair and glared at the ceiling. “I’m telling you, Letty, no one’s more shocked by this than me. I’ve discovered that I like her. I…mean I really like her. The fact is, I can’t stop thinking about Joy, but every time I try to talk to her, I say something stupid, and before I know it, we’re arguing.”

  Letty bent her head to show she understood. She’d witnessed more than one of her brother’s clashes with Joy.

  “We don’t just argue like normal civilized people,” Lonny continued. “She can make me so angry I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore.”

  Letty lowered her eyes, afraid her smile would annoy her brother, especially since he’d come to her for help. Except that, at the moment, she didn’t feel qualified to offer him any advice.

  “The worst part is,” he went on, “I was in town this morning, and I heard that Joy’s agreed to go out with Glen Brewster. The thought of her dating another man has me all twisted up inside.”

  “Glen Brewster?” That surprised Letty. “Isn’t he the guy who manages the grocery store?”

  “One and the same,” Lonny confirmed, scowling. “Can you imagine her going out with someone like Glen? He’s all wrong for her!”

  “Have you asked Joy out yourself?”

  The way the color streaked his face told Letty what she needed to know. “I don’t think I should answer that.” He lifted his eyes piteously. “I want to take her out, but everyone’s working against me.”

  “Everyone?”

  He cleared his throat. “No, not everyone. I guess I’m my own worst enemy—I know that sounds crazy. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t had girlfriends before. But she’s different from the girls I met on the rodeo circuit.” He stared down at the newly waxed kitchen floor. “All I want you to do is tell me what a woman wants from a man. A woman like Joy. If I know that, then maybe I can do something right—for once.”

  The door slammed in the distance. Lonny’s gaze flew up to meet Letty’s. “Joy?”

  “Probably.”

  “Oh, great,” he groaned.

  “Don’t panic.”

  “Me?” he asked with a short, sarcastic laugh. “Why should I do that? The woman’s told me in no uncertain terms that she never wants to see me again. Her last words to me were—and I quote—‘take a flying leap into the nearest cow pile.’ ”

  “What did you say to her, for heaven’s sake?”


  He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “I’d better not repeat it.”

  “Oh, Lonny! Don’t you ever learn? She’s not one of your rodeo groupies—but you already know that. Maybe if you’d quit insulting her, you’d be able to have a civil conversation.”

  “I’ve decided something,” he said. “I don’t know how or when, but I’m going to marry her.” The words had no sooner left his lips than the screen door opened.

  Cricket came flying into the kitchen, bursting to tell her mother about all her adventures with Joy at the school. She started speaking so fast that the words ran together. “I-saw-my-classroom-and-I-got-to-meet-Mrs.-Webber…and I sat in a real desk and everything!”

  Joy followed Cricket into the kitchen, but stopped abruptly when she saw Lonny. The expression on her face suggested that if he said one word to her—one word—she’d leave.

  As if taking his cue, Lonny reached for his hat and stood. “I’d better get back to work. Good talking to you, Letty,” he said stiffly. His gaze skipped from his sister to Joy, and he inclined his head politely. “Hello, Ms. Fuller.”

  “Mr. Ellison.” Joy dipped her head, too, ever so slightly.

  They gave each other a wide berth as Lonny stalked out of the kitchen. Before he opened the screen door, he sent a pleading glance at Letty, but she wasn’t sure what he expected her to do.

  —

  Chase didn’t come in for dinner, but that didn’t surprise Letty. He’d avoided her so much lately that she rarely saw him in the evenings anymore. Even Cricket had commented on it. She obviously missed him, although he made an effort to work with her and Jennybird, the pony.

  The house was dark, and Cricket had been asleep for hours, when Letty heard the back door open. Judging by the muffled sounds Chase was making, she knew he was in the kitchen, washing up. Next he would shower.

 
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