Denim and diamonds, p.9
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       Denim and Diamonds, p.9

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  Cricket followed Letty inside.

  “I made some iced tea. Would you like some?”

  “Please.” Letty sat in the compact living room; as always, Cricket was at her side.

  “Cricket, I have some Play-Doh in the kitchen if you’d like to play with that. My second-graders still enjoy it. I’ve also got some juice just for you.”

  Cricket looked to her mother and Letty nodded. The child trotted into the kitchen after Joy. Letty could hear them chatting, and although it was difficult to stay where she was, she did so the two of them could become better acquainted.

  Joy returned a few minutes later with frosty glasses of iced tea. She set one in front of Letty, then took the chair opposite her.

  “Cricket certainly is a well-behaved child. You must be very proud of her.”

  “Thank you, I am.” Letty’s gaze fell to her fingers, which were tightly clenched on the glass of iced tea. “I take it you and Lonny have come to some sort of agreement?”

  Joy sighed, her shoulders rising reflexively, then sagging with defeat. “To be honest, I think it’s best if he and I don’t have anything to do with each other. I don’t know what it is about your brother that irritates me so much. I mean, last fall we seemed to get along okay. But—and I’m sorry to say this, Letty—he’s just so arrogant. He acted like I was supposed to be really impressed that he was a rodeo champion back in the day. And he kept calling me a hopeless city slicker because I’m from Seattle.” She shook her head. “Now we can’t even talk civilly to each other.”

  Letty doubted Joy would believe her if she claimed Lonny was still attracted to her. The problem was that he was fighting it so hard.

  “You may find this difficult to believe,” she said, “but Lonny’s normally a calm, in-control type of guy. I swear to you, Joy, I’ve never seen him behave the way he has lately.”

  “I’ve known him for almost a year, but I had no idea he was that kind of hothead.”

  “Trust me, he usually isn’t.”

  “He phoned me last Sunday.”

  At Letty’s obvious surprise, Joy continued, eyes just managing to avoid her guest. “He started in about his stupid truck again. Then he mentioned something about an argument with you and how that was my fault—and then apparently you fainted, but he didn’t really explain. Anyway, I hung up on him.” She glanced over at Letty. “What happened to you? He sounded upset.”

  “He was, but mostly he was angry with himself. We got into an argument—which was not your fault—and, well, we both said things we didn’t mean and immediately regretted. I went outside to work in the garden and…I don’t know,” she murmured. “The sun must’ve bothered me, because the next thing I knew, I’d fainted.”

  “Oh, Letty! Are you all right?”

  “I am, thanks.” Letty realized she was beginning to get good at exaggerating the state of her health.

  “Did you see a doctor?”

  “Yes. Everything’s under control, so don’t worry.”

  Cricket wandered in from the kitchen with a miniature cookie sheet holding several flat Play-Doh circles. “Mommy, I’m baking chocolate chip cookies for Chase.”

  “Good, sweetheart. Will you bake me some, too?”

  The child nodded, then smiled shyly up at Joy. “Did you ask her, Mommy?”

  “Not yet.”

  Letty’s gaze followed Cricket back into the kitchen. She could feel Joy’s curiosity, and wished she’d been able to lead into the subject of Cricket’s staying with her a little more naturally.

  “There’s a possibility I’ll need to be away for a week or two in the near future,” she said, holding the glass with both hands. “Unfortunately I won’t be able to take Cricket with me, and I doubt Lonny could watch her for that length of time.”

  “I wouldn’t trust your brother to care for Cricket’s dolls,” Joy said stiffly, then looked embarrassed.

  “Don’t worry, I don’t think I’d feel any differently toward my brother if I were in your shoes,” Letty said, understanding her friend’s feelings.

  “As you were saying?” Joy prompted, obviously disturbed that the subject of Lonny had crept into the conversation.

  “Yes,” Letty said, and straightened. This wasn’t easy; it was a lot to ask of someone she’d known for only a little while. “As I explained, I may have to go away for a couple of weeks, and since I can’t leave Cricket with my brother, I’m looking for someone she could stay with while I’m gone.”

  Joy didn’t hesitate for a second. “I’d be more than happy to keep her for you. But there’s one problem. I’ve still got three more weeks of school. I wouldn’t be able to take her until the first week of June. Would you need to leave before then?”

  “No,…I’d make sure of that.” For the first time, Letty felt the urge to tell someone about her condition. It would be so good to share this burden with someone she considered a friend, someone who’d calm and reassure her. Someone she trusted.

  But Joy was a recent friend, and it seemed wrong to shift the burden onto her shoulders. And if Lonny somehow discovered Letty’s secret, he’d be justifiably angry that she’d confided her troubles in someone she barely knew and not her own flesh and blood.

  “Letty…”

  She looked up then and realized her thoughts had consumed her to the point that she’d missed whatever Joy had been saying. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning toward her.

  “I was just suggesting that perhaps you could leave Cricket with me for an afternoon soon—give us the opportunity to get better acquainted. That way she won’t feel so lost while you’re away.”

  “That would be wonderful.”

  As if knowing the adults had been discussing her, Cricket came into the living room. “Your chocolate chip cookies are almost cooked, Mommy.”

  “Thank you, sweetheart. I’m in the mood for something chocolate.”

  “Me, too,” Joy agreed, smiling.

  “Mommy will share with you,” Cricket stated confidently. “She loves chocolate.”

  All three laughed.

  “Since Cricket’s doing so well, why don’t you leave her here for an hour or two?”

  Letty stood. “Cricket?” She looked at her daughter, wanting to be sure the child felt comfortable enough to be here alone with Joy.

  “I have to stay,” Cricket said. “My cookies aren’t finished cooking yet.”

  “I’d be delighted with the company,” Joy said so sincerely Letty couldn’t doubt her words. “I haven’t got anything planned for the next hour or so, and since you’re already here, it would save you a trip into town later on.”

  “All right,” Letty said, not knowing exactly where she’d go to kill time. Of course, she could drive back to the Bar E, but there was nothing for her there. She reached for her purse. “I’ll be back…soon.”

  “Take your time,” Joy said, walking her to the door. Cricket came, too, and kissed Letty goodbye with such calm acceptance it tugged at her heart.

  Once inside her brother’s battered pickup, she drove aimlessly through town. That was when she decided to visit the town cemetery. No doubt her parents’ graves had been neglected over the years. The thought saddened her and yet filled her with purpose.

  She parked outside the gates and ambled over the green lawn until she arrived at their grave sites. To her surprise they were well maintained. Lonny had obviously been out here recently.

  Standing silent, feeling oppressed by an overwhelming sense of loss, Letty bowed her head. Tears gathered in her eyes, but Letty wiped them aside; she hadn’t come here to weep. Her visit had been an impromptu one, although the emotions were churning inside her.

  “Hi, Daddy,” she whispered. “Hi, Mom. I’m back….I tried California, but it didn’t work out. I never knew there were so many talented singers in the world.” She paused, as though they’d have some comment to make, but there was only silence. “Lonny welcomed me home. He didn’t have to, but he did. I suppose you know about my heart….That’s what
finally convinced me I had to be here.”

  She waited, not expecting a voice of authority to rain down from the heavens, yet needing something…except she didn’t know what.

  “What’s it like…on the other side?” Letty realized that even asking such a question as if they could answer was preposterous, but after her visit with Dr. Faraday, she’d entertained serious doubts that she’d ever recover. “Don’t worry, I don’t actually think you’re going to tell me. Anyway, I always did like surprises.”

  Despite her melancholy, Letty smiled. She knelt beside the tombstones and reverently ran the tips of her fingers over the names and dates engraved in the marble. Blunt facts that said so little about their lives and those who’d loved them so deeply.

  “I went to the doctor today,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “I’m scared, Mom. Remember how you used to comfort me when I was a little girl? I wish I could crawl into your lap now and hear you tell me that everything’s going to be all right.” With the back of her hand, she dashed away the tears that slid unrestrained down her cheeks.

  “There’s so much I want to live for now, so many things I want to experience.” She remembered how she’d joked and kidded with the California doctors about her condition. But the surgery was imminent, and Letty wasn’t laughing anymore.

  “Mom. Dad.” She straightened, coming to her feet. “I know you loved me—never once did I doubt that—and I loved you with all my heart…damaged though it is,” she said with a hysterical laugh. “I wish you were with me now….I need you both so much.”

  Letty waited a couple of minutes, staring down at the graves of the two people who’d shaped and guided her life with such tender care. A tranquillity came to her then, a deep inner knowledge that if it had been humanly possible, her mother would have thrown both arms around her, hugged her close and given her the assurance she craved.

  “I need someone,” Letty admitted openly. Her burden was becoming almost more than she could bear. “Could you send me a friend?” she whispered. “Someone I can talk to who’ll understand?” Names slipped in and out of her mind. The pastor was a good choice. Dorothy Martin was another.

  “Letty?”

  At the sound of her name, she turned and looked into Chase’s eyes.

  Chapter 7

  “I saw Lonny’s pickup on the road,” Chase said, glancing over his shoulder. His hat was tipped back on his head as he studied her, his expression severe. “What are you doing here, Letty?”

  She looked down at her parents’ graves as a warm, gentle breeze blew over her. “I came to talk to Mom and Dad.”

  Her answer didn’t seem to please him and he frowned. “Where’s Cricket?”

  “She’s with Joy Fuller.”

  “Joy Fuller.” He repeated the name slowly. “Lonny’s Joy Fuller?”

  “One and the same.”

  A sudden smile appeared on his face. “Lonny’s certainly taken a dislike to that woman, although he was pretty keen on her for a while there.”

  “Lonny’s making an utter fool of himself,” Letty said.

  “That’s easy enough to do,” Chase returned grimly. His face tightened. “Did you make an appointment with the doctor like you promised?”

  Letty nodded. She’d hoped to avoid the subject, but she should have known Chase wouldn’t allow that.

  “And?” he barked impatiently. “Did you see him?”

  “This afternoon.” She would have thought that would satisfy him, but apparently it didn’t. If anything, his frown grew darker.

  “What did he say?”

  “Not to vent my anger in the hot sun,” she told him flippantly, then regretted responding to Chase’s concern in such a glib manner. He was a friend, perhaps the best she’d ever had, and instead of answering him in an offhand way, Letty should be grateful for his thoughtfulness. Only minutes before she’d been praying for someone with whom she could share her burdens, and then Chase had appeared like someone out of a dream.

  He could, in every sense, be the answer to her prayer.

  “Chase,” she said, moving between the headstones, unsure how to broach the difficult subject. “Have you thought very much about death?”

  “No,” he said curtly.

  Strangely stung by his sharp reaction, she continued strolling, her hands behind her back. “I’ve thought about it a lot lately,” she said, hoping he’d ask her why.

  “That’s sick, Letty.”

  “I don’t think so,” she said, carefully measuring each word. “Death, like birth, is a natural part of life. It’s sunrise and sunset, just the way the song says.”

  “Is that the reason you’re wandering among the tombstones like…like some vampire?”

  It took her several moments to swallow a furious response. Did she need to hit this man over the head before he realized what she was trying to tell him? “Oh, Chase, that’s a mean thing to say.”

  “Do you often stroll through graveyards as if they’re park grounds?” he asked, his voice clipped. “Or is this a recent pastime?”

  “Recent,” she said, smiling at him. She hoped he understood that no matter how much he goaded her, she wasn’t going to react to his anger.

  “Then may I suggest you snap out of whatever trance you’re in and join the land of the living? There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored.”

  “But the world isn’t always a friendly place. Bad things happen every day. No one said life’s fair. I wish it were, believe me, but it isn’t.”

  “Stop talking like that. Wake up, Letty!” He stepped toward her as if he’d experienced a sudden urge to shake her, but if that was the case, he restrained himself.

  “I’m awake,” she returned calmly, yearning for him to understand that she loved life but was powerless to control her own destiny. She felt a deep need to prepare him for her vulnerability to death. Now if only he’d listen.

  “It’s really very lovely here, don’t you think?” she asked. “The air is crisp and clear, and there’s the faint scent of sage mingled with the wildflowers. Can’t you smell it?”

  “No.”

  Letty ignored his lack of appreciation. “The sky is lovely today. So blue….When it’s this bright I sometimes think it’s actually going to touch the earth.” She paused, waiting for Chase to make some kind of response, but he remained resolutely silent. “Those huge white clouds resemble Spanish galleons sailing across the seas, don’t they?”

  “I suppose.”

  Her linked hands behind her back, she wandered down a short hill. Chase continued to walk with her, but the silence between them was uneasy. Just when Letty felt the courage building inside her to mention the surgery, he spoke.

  “You lied to me, Letty.”

  His words were stark. Surprised, she turned to him and met his gaze. It was oddly impassive, as if her supposed deceit didn’t matter to him, as though he’d come to expect such things from her.

  “When?” she demanded.

  “Just now. I phoned Doc Hanley’s office and they said you hadn’t so much as called. You’re a liar—on top of everything else.”

  Letty’s breath caught painfully in her throat. The words to prove him wrong burned on her lips. “You don’t have any right to check up on me.” She took a deep breath. “Nevertheless, I didn’t lie to you. I never have. But I’m not going to argue with you, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

  “Are you saying Doc Hanley’s office lied?”

  “I’m not going to discuss this. Believe what you want.” She quickened her steps as she turned and headed toward the wrought-iron gates at the cemetery entrance. He followed her until they stood next to the trucks.

  “Letty?”

  She looked at him. Anger kindled in his eyes like tiny white flames, but Letty was too hurt to appease him with an explanation. She’d wanted to reveal a deep part of herself to this man because she trusted and loved him. She couldn’t now. His accusation had ruined what she’d wanted to share.

 
He reached out and clasped her shoulders. “I need to know. Did you or did you not lie to me?”

  The scorn was gone from his eyes, replaced with a pain that melted her own.

  “No,…I did see a doctor, I swear to you.” She held her head at a proud angle, her gaze unwavering, but when she spoke, her voice cracked.

  His eyes drifted closed as if he didn’t know what to believe anymore. Whatever he was thinking, he didn’t say. Instead, he pulled her firmly into his embrace and settled his mouth on hers.

  A tingling current traveled down her body at his touch. Letty whimpered—angry, hurt, excited, pleased. Still kissing her, Chase let his hands slide down to caress her back, tugging her against him. Her body was already aflame and trembling with need.

  Chase held her tightly as he slipped one hand up to tangle in her short curls. His actions were slow, hesitant, as if he was desperately trying to stop himself from kissing her.

  “Letty…” he moaned, his breath featherlight against her upturned face. “You make me want you….”

  She bowed her head. The desire she felt for him was equally ravenous.

  Chase dragged in a heavy breath and expelled it loudly. “I don’t want to feel the things I do.”

  “I know.” It was heady knowledge, and Letty took delight in it. She moved against him, craving the feel of his arms around her.

  Chase groaned. His mouth found hers once more and he kissed her tentatively, as if he didn’t really want to be touching her again but couldn’t help himself. This increased Letty’s reckless sensation of power.

  He slid his hands up her arms and gripped her shoulders. Letty shyly moved her body against him; unfortunately, the loving torment wasn’t his alone, and she halted abruptly at the intense heat that surged through her.

  A car drove past them, sounding its horn.

  Letty had forgotten that they were standing on the edge of the road. Groaning with embarrassment, she buried her face against his heaving chest. Chase’s heart felt like a hammer beating against her, matching her own excited pulse.

 
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