Denim and diamonds, p.8
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       Denim and Diamonds, p.8

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  Yet he’d rejected the child’s request flat out. And he’d been equally unwilling to talk to Letty last night. Chase didn’t know how to explain his own actions. He was behaving like an idiot.

  On second thought, his actions made perfect sense. He was protecting himself, and with good reason. He figured that if Letty really planned to make a life for herself in Red Springs, she’d be doing something about finding a decent job and settling down. She hadn’t done that. Every piece of evidence pointed in the direction of her leaving again. She behaved as if this was an extended vacation and once she’d rested, she’d be on her way. Other than the garden she’d planted, he couldn’t see any sign of permanence.

  Chase couldn’t allow his emotions to get involved with Letty a second time. He hadn’t fully healed from the first. It wasn’t that simple, however. He loved her, and frankly, he doubted he’d ever stop.

  Rubbing his face, Chase drew in a deep, shuddering breath. He hadn’t meant to touch her the night before, but her outrage, her eyes shooting sparks, had reminded him of the old Letty. The Letty who’d been naive, perhaps, but confident and self-assured, certain of her own opinions. He’d forgotten that he’d promised himself he’d never touch her again. One kiss and he’d been lost….

  Even now, hours later, the memory of the way she’d melted in his embrace had the power to arouse him. He pushed it out of his mind. The best thing to do was forget it ever happened.

  He went outside and got into the truck, deciding he’d go into town and do some shopping. Perhaps keeping busy would ease the ache in his heart.

  Still confused, Chase wondered if he’d feel differently if Letty had made more of an effort to acknowledge their kisses. Cricket had come running up to him after the church service and Letty wouldn’t even meet his eye. Obviously the memory of their encounter embarrassed her.

  That pleased him.

  And it infuriated him.

  If Letty was disconcerted by their kissing, it said she didn’t often let men touch her like that—which made him glad. The thought of another man making love to her was enough to produce a fireball of resentment in the pit of his stomach.

  But her actions that morning also infuriated him, because she so obviously regretted what they’d done. While he’d spent the night dreaming of holding her and kissing her, she’d apparently been filled with remorse. Maybe she thought he wasn’t good enough for her.

  Telephone poles whizzed past him as he considered that bleak possibility.

  A flash of red caught his attention. He looked again. It was Cricket, standing alone at the end of the Bar E driveway, crying. She was wearing the same dress she’d worn at church.

  Chase stepped on his brakes and quickly backed up. When he reached the little girl, she looked up and immediately started running to him.

  “Chase…oh, Mr. Chase!”

  “Cricket,” he said sternly, climbing out of the truck, angry with Letty for being so irresponsible. “What are you doing here? Where’s your mother?”

  Sobbing, the little girl ran and hugged his waist. “Uncle Lonny and Mommy shouted at each other. Then Uncle Lonny left and Mommy went outside. Now she’s sleeping in the garden and I can’t wake her up.”

  Chapter 6

  Letty sat on the porch steps, rubbing her eyes. Her knees felt weak and her eyes stubbornly refused to focus. It had been through sheer force of will that she’d made it from the garden to the back steps. She trembled with fear and alarm. Although she’d called for Cricket, the little girl was nowhere in the house or garden. Letty had to find her daughter despite the waves of nausea and weakness.

  The last thing Letty remembered clearly was standing in the garden, shoveling for all she was worth, weeding because she was furious with Lonny and equally upset with herself for being drawn into such a pointless argument.

  “Cricket!” Letty called out again, shocked by how unsteady her voice sounded. Her daughter had been standing beside her only a few minutes before. Now she was gone.

  The roar of an approaching truck was nearly deafening. Letty didn’t have the strength to get up, so she sat there and waited. Whoever it was would have to come to her.

  “Letty?”

  “Mommy! Mommy!”

  Chase leaped out of the pickup and quickly covered the space that separated them. Cricket was directly behind him, her face wet and streaked with tears.

  Confused, Letty glanced up at them. She had no idea how Cricket had come to be with Chase. Even more surprising was the way he looked, as though he was ill himself. His face was gray, set and determined, but she couldn’t understand why.

  “What happened?” Chase demanded.

  For a long moment her mind refused to function. “I…I think I fainted.”

  “Fainted?”

  “I must have.” She wiped her forehead, forcing a smile. By sheer resolve, she started to stand, but before she was fully on her feet, Chase had scooped her up in his arms.

  “Chase,” she protested. “Put me down…I’m perfectly all right.”

  “Like hell you are.”

  He seemed furious, as if she’d purposely fainted in a ploy to gain his sympathy. That added to her frustration and she tried to get free. Her efforts, however, were futile; Chase merely tightened his grip.

  Cricket ran ahead of him and opened the back door. “Is Mommy sick?”

  “Yes,” Chase answered, his mouth a white line of impatience. He didn’t so much as look at Letty as he strode through the house.

  “I’m fine, sweetheart,” Letty countered, trying to reassure her daughter, who ran beside Chase, intently studying her mother. Cricket looked so worried and frightened, which only distressed Letty more.

  Chase gently deposited Letty on the sofa, then knelt beside her, his gaze roaming her face, inspecting her for any injury. Reluctantly, as if he was still annoyed, he brought his hand to her forehead. “You’re not feverish,” he announced.

  “Of course I’m not,” she shot back, awkwardly rising to an upright position. If everyone would give her a few minutes alone and some breathing room, she’d feel better. “I’m fine. I was weeding the garden, and next thing I knew I was on the ground. Obviously I got too much sun.”

  Cricket knelt on the carpet. “I couldn’t wake you up,” she murmured, her blue eyes round, her face shiny with tears.

  Letty reached out to hug her. “I’m sorry I scared you, honey.”

  “Did you hit your head?” Chase asked.

  “I don’t think so.” Tentatively she touched the back of her skull. As far as she could tell, there wasn’t even a lump to suggest she’d hit anything besides the soft dirt.

  “Cricket, go get your mother a glass of water.”

  The child took off running as if Chase’s request were a matter of life and death.

  “How did Cricket ever find you?” Letty asked, frowning. Her daughter wouldn’t have known the way to Chase’s ranch, and even if she had, it was several minutes away by car.

  “I saw her on the road.”

  “The road,” Letty repeated, horrified. “She got that far?”

  “She was in a panic, and with Lonny gone, she didn’t know what else to do.”

  Letty stared at Chase. “I’m grateful you stopped. Thank you.”

  Cricket charged into the living room with the glass of water, which was only partially full. Letty assumed the other half had spilled. She planted a soft kiss on her daughter’s cheek as a thank-you.

  “I think your mother could use a blanket, too,” Chase murmured. His mouth was set and obstinate, but for what reason Letty could only speculate. It was unreasonable for him to be angry with her because she’d fainted!

  Once more Cricket raced out of the room.

  Chase continued to frown at Letty. He seemed to think that if he did that long enough, he’d discover why she’d taken ill. She boldly met his look and did her best to reassure him with a smile, but obviously failed.

  Chase closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, the agony
that briefly fluttered into his gaze was a shock. He turned away from her as if he couldn’t bear to have her look at him.

  “Letty, I didn’t know what to think when I found Cricket,” he said, and dragged a breath between clenched teeth. “For all I knew you could have been dead.”

  Motivated by something other than reason, Letty raised her hand to his face, running the tips of her fingers along his tense jaw. “Would you have cared?” she whispered.

  “Yes!” he cried. “I don’t want to, but heaven help me, I do.”

  He reached for her, kissing her awkwardly, then hungrily, his mouth roving from one side of her face to the other, brushing against her eyes, her cheeks, her ears, and finally her throat.

  They were interrupted by Cricket, who dashed into the room.

  “I brought Mommy a blankey,” Cricket said. She edged her way between Letty and Chase and draped her yellow knit blanket across Letty’s lap.

  “Thank you, sweetheart.”

  Chase rose and paced the floor in front of the sofa. “I’m calling Doc Hanley.”

  Letty was overcome with panic. She’d purposely avoided the physician, who’d been seeing her family for as long as she could remember. Although she trusted Doc Hanley implicitly, he wasn’t a heart specialist, and if she was seen going in and out of his office on a regular basis there might be talk that would filter back to Lonny or Chase and cause them concern.

  “Chase,” she said, “calling Doc Hanley isn’t necessary. I was in the sun too long—that’s all. I should’ve known better.”

  “You’re in the sun every day. Something’s wrong. I want you to see a doctor.”

  “All right,” she agreed, thinking fast. “I’ll make an appointment, if you want, but I can’t today—none of the offices are open.”

  “I’ll drive you to the hospital,” he insisted.

  “The nearest hospital’s an hour from here.”

  “I don’t care.”

  “Chase, please, I’m a little unsettled, but basically I’m fine. What I need more than anything is some rest. The last thing I want to do is sit in a hot, stuffy truck and ride all the way into Rock Springs so some doctor can tell me I got too much sun.”

  Chase paced back and forth, clearly undecided.

  “I’ll just go upstairs and lie down. It’s about time for Cricket’s nap, anyway,” Letty said calmly, although her heart was racing. She really did feel terrible. Dizzy. Disoriented. Nauseous.

  Chase wasn’t pleased about Letty’s proposal, but he nodded. “I’ll stay here in case you need me later.”

  “That really isn’t necessary,” she said again.

  He turned and glared at her. “Don’t argue with me. I’m not in the mood.”

  That was obvious. With some effort, although she struggled to conceal it, Letty stood and walked up the stairs. Chase followed her as though he suspected she might not make it. Letty was exhausted by the time she entered her bedroom.

  “I’ll take a nap and feel totally refreshed in a couple of hours. You wait and see.”

  “Right,” Chase said tersely. As soon as she was lying down, he left.

  —

  Letty sat across the desk from Dr. Faraday the next afternoon. He’d wanted to talk to her after the examination.

  “I haven’t received your records from your physician in California yet, but I’m expecting them any day,” he said.

  Letty nodded, making an effort to disguise her uneasiness. As she’d promised Chase, she’d contacted the heart specialist in Rock Springs first thing Monday morning. She’d seen Dr. Faraday the week before and he’d asked that she come in right away. His brooding look troubled her.

  “Generally speaking, how are you?”

  “Fine.” That was a slight exaggeration, but other than being excessively tired and the one fainting spell, she had felt healthy most of the time.

  Dr. Faraday nodded and made a notation in her file. It was all Letty could do not to stand up and try to read what he’d written. He was a large man, his face dominated by a bushy mustache that reminded Letty of an umbrella. His eyes were piercing, and Letty doubted that much got past him.

  “The results from the tests we did last week are in, and I’ve had a chance to review them. My opinion is that we shouldn’t delay surgery much longer. I’ll confer with my colleague, Dr. Frederickson, and make my report to the state. I’m going to ask that they put a rush on their approval.”

  Letty nodded and watched as he lifted his prescription pad from the corner of his desk. “I want you to start taking these pills right away.”

  “Okay,” Letty agreed. “How long will I be in the hospital, Doctor?” Although she tried to appear calm, Letty was frightened. She’d never felt more alone. Her sense of humor, which had helped her earlier, seemed to have deserted her.

  “You should plan on being in the hospital and then the convalescent center for up to two weeks,” he replied absently, writing out a second prescription.

  “Two weeks?” Letty cried. That was far longer than she’d expected.

  His eyes met hers. “Is that a problem?”

  “Not…exactly.” It seemed foolish now, but Letty had automatically assumed that Lonny would be able to watch Cricket for her. He’d be happy to do that, she was confident, if her hospital stay was going to be only a few days. Even with the responsibilities of the ranch, he’d have found a way to look after the five-year-old, maybe hiring a part-time babysitter. True, it would have been an inconvenience for him, but Lonny was family. Yet two weeks was too long for Letty to even consider asking him.

  Lonny and Cricket were just beginning to find their footing with each other. Cricket had accepted him, and Lonny seemed to think that as kids went, his niece was all right. Letty smiled to herself—she didn’t want to do anything that would threaten their budding relationship.

  A list of people who could possibly watch Cricket flashed through Letty’s mind. There were several older women from church who’d been her mother’s friends, women Letty would feel comfortable asking. Any one of them would take excellent care of her daughter. Whoever Letty found would have her hands full, though. Cricket had never spent much time away from Letty.

  “I’d like you to make an appointment for Thursday,” Dr. Faraday said, adding a couple of notes to her file. “See my receptionist before you leave and she’ll give you a time.”

  Letty nodded, chewing on her lower lip. She wondered what she was going to say to Lonny about needing the truck again so soon.

  Cricket was waiting for her in the hallway outside Dr. Faraday’s office. She sat next to the receptionist and was busy coloring in her activity book. The child looked up and smiled when Letty came out. She placed her crayons neatly back in the box, closed her book and crawled down from the chair, hurrying to Letty’s side.

  Letty made her appointment for later in the week, then she and Cricket headed for the parking lot.

  It was during the long drive home that Letty decided to broach the subject of their being separated.

  “Cricket, Mommy may have to go away for a few days.”

  “Can I go with you?”

  “Not this time. Uncle Lonny will be busy with the ranch, so you won’t be able to stay with him, either.”

  Cricket shrugged.

  Letty didn’t think she’d mind not staying with Lonny. Her brother still hadn’t come to appreciate the finer points of watching cartoons.

  “Do you remember Mrs. Martin from church?” Letty asked. “She was my mommy’s good friend.” Dorothy Martin was a dear soul, although she’d aged considerably since her husband’s death. Letty knew her mother’s friend would agree to care for Cricket until Letty was able to do so herself.

  “Does Mrs. Martin have gray hair and sing as bad as Uncle Lonny?”

  “That’s the one. I was thinking you could stay with her while I’m away.”

  “Don’t want to.” Cricket rejected Mrs. Martin without further comment.

  “I see.” Letty sighed. There were
other choices, of course, but they were all women Cricket had met only briefly.

  “What about—”

  Cricket didn’t allow her to finish.

  “If you’re going away and I can’t go with you, then I want to stay with Chase. I bet he’d let me ride Firepower again, and we could make chocolate chip cookies.”

  Letty should have guessed Chase would be her first choice.

  “He’d read me stories like you do and let me blow out the lights at bedtime,” Cricket continued. “We’d have lots of fun together. I like Chase better than anyone ’cept you.” She paused, then added as extra incentive, “We could sit in church together and everything.”

  A tight knot formed in Letty’s throat. In making her decision to return to Red Springs, she could never have predicted that Cricket would take such a strong and instant liking to Chase Brown.

  “Mommy, could I?”

  “I’m afraid Chase has to work on his ranch the same way Uncle Lonny does.”

  “Oh.” Cricket sighed in disappointment.

  “Think of all the people we’ve met since we came to live with Uncle Lonny,” Letty suggested. “Who do you like best other than Chase?”

  Cricket seemed to need time to mull over the question. She crossed her legs and tugged at one pigtail, winding the dark hair around her index finger as she considered this important decision.

  “I like the lady who plays the organ second-best.”

  Joy Fuller was the perfect choice, although Letty was certain Lonny wouldn’t take Cricket’s preference sitting down. “I like Ms. Fuller, too,” she told her daughter. “I’ll talk to her. But my going away isn’t for sure yet, honey, so there’s no need to say anything to anyone. Okay?”

  “Is it a surprise?”

  “Yes.” Letty’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. She hated to mislead Cricket, but she couldn’t have her daughter announce to Chase or her brother that she was going away and leaving Cricket behind.

  “Oh, goody. I won’t tell anyone,” she said, pretending to zip her mouth closed.

  —

  “It’s so nice to see you, Letty,” Joy said as she stood in the doorway of her small rental house. “You, too, Cricket.” A smile lit up Joy’s face. “Your phone call came as a pleasant surprise.”

 
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