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As a matter of fact, Letty had gotten pretty philosophical about death. The hole in her heart had been small enough to go undetected most of her life, but it was there, and unless she had the necessary surgery, it would soon be lights out, belly up, buy the farm, kick the bucket or whatever else people said when they were about to die.
The physicians had made her lack of options abundantly clear when she was pregnant with Cricket, her daughter. If her heart defect hadn't been discovered then and had remained undetected, her doctor had assured her she'd be dead before she reached thirty.
And so Letty had come home. Home to Wyoming. Home to the Bar E Ranch. Home to face whatever lay before her. Life or death.
In her dreams, Letty had often imagined her triumphant return. She saw herself riding through town sitting in the back of a red convertible, dressed in a strapless gown, holding bouquets of red roses. The high school band would lead the procession. Naturally the good people of Red Springs would be lining Main Street, hoping to get a look at her. Being the amiable soul she was, Letty would give out autographs and speak kindly to people she hardly remembered.
Her actual return had been quite different from what she'd envisioned. Lonny had met her at the Rock Springs Airport when she'd arrived with Cricket the evening before. It really had been wonderful to see her older brother. Unexpected tears had filled her eyes as they hugged. Lonny might be a onetime rodeo champ and now a hard-bitten rancher, but he was the only living relative she and Cricket had. And if anything were to happen to her, she hoped her brother would love and care for Cricket with the same dedication Letty herself had. So far, she hadn't told him about her condition, and she didn't know when she would. When the time felt right, she supposed.
Sunlight filtered in through the curtain, and drawing in a deep breath, Letty sat up in bed and examined her old bedroom. So little had changed in the past nine years. The lace doily decorating the old bureau was the same one that had been there when she was growing up. The photograph of her and her pony hung on the wall. How Letty had loved old Nellie. Even her bed was covered with the same quilted spread that had been there when she was eighteen, the one her mother had made.
Nothing had changed and yet everything was different. Because she was different.
The innocent girl who'd once slept in this room was gone forever. Instead Letty was now a woman who'd become disenchanted with dreams and disillusioned by life. She could never go back to the guileless teen she'd been, but she wouldn't give up the woman she'd become, either.
With that thought in mind, she folded back the covers and climbed out of bed. Her first night home, and she'd slept soundly. She might not be the same, but the sense of welcome she felt in this old house was.
Checking in the smallest bedroom across the hall, Letty found her daughter still asleep, her faded yellow "blankey" clutched protectively against her chest. Letty and Cricket had arrived exhausted. With little more than a hug from Lonny, she and her daughter had fallen into bed. Letty had promised Lonny they'd talk later.
Dressing quickly, she walked down the stairs and was surprised to discover her brother sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for her.
"I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever wake up," he said, grinning. The years had been good to Lonny. He'd always been handsome—as dozens of young women had noticed while he was on the rodeo circuit. He'd quit eight years ago, when his father got sick, and had dedicated himself to the Bar E ever since. Still, Letty couldn't understand why he'd stayed single all this time. Then again, she could. Lonny, like Chase Brown, their neighbor, lived for his land and his precious herd of cattle. That was what their whole lives revolved around. Lonny wasn't married because he hadn't met a woman he considered an asset to the Bar E.
"How come you aren't out rounding up cattle or repairing fences or whatever it is you do in the mornings?" she teased, smiling at him.
"I wanted to welcome you home properly."
After pouring herself a cup of coffee, Letty walked to the table, leaned over and kissed his sun-bronzed cheek. "It's great to be back."
Letty meant that. Her pride had kept her away all these years. How silly that seemed now, how pointless and stubborn not to admit her name wasn't going to light up any marquee, when she'd lived and breathed that knowledge each and every day in California. Letty had talent; she'd known that when she left the Bar E nine years ago. It was the blind ambition and ruthless drive she'd lacked. Oh, there'd been brief periods of promise and limited success. She'd sung radio commercials and done some backup work for a couple of rising stars, but she'd long ago given up the hope of ever making it big herself. At one time, becoming a singer had meant the world to her. Now it meant practically nothing.
Lonny reached for her fingers. "It's good to have you home, sis. You've been away too long."
She sat across from him, holding her coffee mug with both hands, and gazed down at the old Formica tabletop. In nine years, Lonny hadn't replaced a single piece of furniture.
It wasn't easy to admit, but Letty needed to say it. "I should've come back before now." She thought it was best to let him know this before she told him about her heart.
"Yeah," Lonny said evenly. "I wanted you back when Mom died."
"It was too soon then. I'd been in California less than two years."
It hurt Letty to think about losing her mother. Maren Ellison's death had been sudden. Although Maren had begged her not to leave Red Springs, she was a large part of the reason Letty had gone. Her mother had had talent, too. She'd been an artist whose skill had lain dormant while she wasted away on a ranch, unappreciated and unfulfilled. All her life, Letty had heard her mother talk about painting in oils someday. But that day had never come. Then, when everyone had least expected it, Maren had died—less than a year after her husband. In each case, Letty had flown in for the funerals, then returned to California the next morning.
"What are your plans now?" Lonny asked, watching her closely.
Letty's immediate future involved dealing with social workers, filling out volumes of forms and having a dozen doctors examine her to tell her what she already knew. Heart surgery didn't come cheap. "The first thing I thought I'd do was clean the house," she said, deliberately misunderstanding him.
A guilty look appeared on her brother's face and Letty chuckled softly.
"I suppose the place is a real mess." Lonny glanced furtively around. "I've let things go around here for the past few years. When you phoned and said you were coming, I picked up what I could. You've probably guessed I'm not much of a housekeeper."
"I don't expect you to be when you're dealing with several hundred head of cattle."
Lonny seemed surprised by her understanding. He stood and grabbed his hat, adjusting it on his head. "How long do you plan to stay?"
Letty shrugged. "I'm not sure yet. Is my being here a problem?"
"Not in the least," Lonny rushed to assure her. "Stay as long as you like. I welcome the company—and decent meals for a change. If you want, I can see about finding you a job in town."
"I don't think there's much call for a failed singer in Red Springs, is there?"
"I thought you said you'd worked as a secretary."
"I did, part-time, and as a temp." In order to have flexible hours, she'd done what she'd had to in order to survive, but in following her dream she'd missed out on health insurance benefits.
"There ought to be something for you, then. I'll ask around."
"Don't," Letty said urgently. "Not yet, anyway." After the surgery would be soon enough to locate employment. For the time being, she had to concentrate on making arrangements with the appropriate authorities. She should probably tell Lonny about her heart condition, she decided reluctantly, but it was too much to hit him with right away. There'd be plenty of time later, after the arrangements had been made. No point in upsetting him now. Besides, she wanted him to become acquainted with Cricket before he found out she'd be listing him as her daughter's guardian.
"Relax for a while," Lonny said. "Take a vacation. There's no need for you to work if you don't want to."
"Thanks, I appreciate that."
"What are brothers for?" he joked, and drained his coffee. "I should get busy," he said, rinsing his cup and setting it on the kitchen counter. "I should've gotten started hours ago, but I wanted to talk to you first."
"What time will you be back?"
Lonny's eyes widened, as though he didn't understand. "Five or so, I guess. Why?"
"I just wanted to know when to plan dinner."
"Six should be fine."
Letty stood, her arms wrapped protectively around her waist. One question had been burning in her mind from the minute she'd pulled into the yard. One she needed to ask, but whose answer she feared. She tentatively broached the subject. "Will you be seeing Chase?"
"I do most days."
"Does he know I'm back?"
Lonny's fingers gripped the back door handle. "He knows," he said without looking at her.
Letty nodded and she curled her hands into fists. "Is he…married?"
Lonny shook his head. "Nope, and I don't imagine he ever will be, either." He hesitated before adding, "Chase is a lot different now from the guy you used to know. I hope you're not expecting anything from him, because you're headed for a big disappointment if you are. You'll know what I mean once you see him."
A short silence followed while Letty considered her brother's words. "You needn't worry that I've come home expecting things to be the way they were between Chase and me. If he's different… that's fine. We've all changed."
Lonny nodded and was gone.
The house was quiet after her brother left. His warning about Chase seemed to taunt her. The Chase Brown she knew was gentle, kind, good. When Letty was seventeen he'd been the only one who really understood her dreams. Although it had broken his heart, he'd loved her enough to encourage her to seek her destiny. Chase had loved her more than anyone before or since.
And she'd thrown his love away.
"Mommy, you were gone when I woke up." Looking forlorn, five-year-old Cricket stood in the doorway of the kitchen, her yellow blanket clutched in her hand and dragging on the faded red linoleum floor.
"I was just downstairs," Letty said, holding out her arms to the youngster, who ran eagerly to her mother, climbing onto Letty's lap.
"I'll bet you are." Letty brushed the dark hair away from her daughter's face and kissed her forehead. "I was talking to Uncle Lonny this morning."
Cricket stared up at her with deep blue eyes that were a reflection of her own. She'd inherited little in the way of looks from her father. The dark hair and blue eyes were Ellison family traits. On rare occasions, Letty would see traces of Jason in their child, but not often. She tried not to think about him or their disastrous affair. He was out of her life and she wanted no part of him— except for Christina Maren, her Cricket.
"You know what I thought we'd do today?" Letty said.
"After breakfast." She smiled. "I thought we'd clean house and bake a pie for Uncle Lonny."
"Apple pie," Cricket announced with a firm nod.
"I'm sure apple pie's his favorite."
Together they cooked oatmeal. Cricket insisted on helping by setting the table and getting the milk from the refrigerator.
As soon as they'd finished, Letty mopped the floor and washed the cupboards. Lonny's declaration about not being much of a housekeeper had been an understatement. He'd done the bare minimum for years, and the house was badly in need of a thorough cleaning. Usually, physical activity quickly wore Letty out and she became breathless and light-headed. But this morning she was filled with an enthusiasm that provided her with energy.
By noon, however, she was exhausted. At nap time, Letty lay down with Cricket, and didn't wake until early afternoon, when the sound of male voices drifted up the stairs. She realized almost immediately that Chase Brown was with her brother.
Running a brush through her short curly hair, Letty composed herself for the coming confrontation with Chase and walked calmly down the stairs.
He and her brother were sitting at the table, drinking coffee.
Lonny glanced up when she entered the room, but Chase looked away from her. Her brother had made a point of telling her that Chase was different, and she could see the truth of his words. Chase's dark hair had become streaked with gray in her absence. Deep crevices marked his forehead and grooved the sides of his mouth. In nine years he'd aged twenty, Letty thought with a stab of regret. Part of her longed to wrap her arms around him the way she had so many years before. She yearned to bury her head in his shoulder and weep for the pain she'd caused him.
But she knew she couldn't.
"Hello, Chase," she said softly, walking over to the stove and reaching for the coffeepot.
"Letty." He lowered his head in greeting, but kept his eyes averted.
"It's good to see you again."
He didn't answer that; instead he returned his attention to her brother. "I was thinking about separating part of the herd, driving them a mile or so south. Of course, that'd mean hauling the feed a lot farther, but I believe the benefits will outweigh that inconvenience."
"I think you're going to a lot of effort for nothing," Lonny said, frowning.
Letty pulled out a chair and sat across from Chase. He could only ignore her for so long. Still his gaze skirted hers, and he did his utmost to avoid looking at her.
"Who are you?"
Letty turned to the doorway, where Cricket was standing, blanket held tightly in her hand.
"Cricket, this is Uncle Lonny's neighbor, Mr. Brown."
"I'm Cricket," she said, grinning cheerfully.
"Hello." Chase spoke in a gruff unfriendly tone, obviously doing his best to disregard the little girl in the same manner he chose to overlook her mother.