When Last We Loved

Fran Baker

when last we loved fran baker ebookPrice: $2.99

She hadn’t planned on love…

She was a dirt farmer’s daughter from west Texas, passionately involved with the boss of the Diamond T empire. But Cassie Creighton was driven to achieve stardom in country music, her passport to wealth, independence, self-respect.

She thought she could leave Hoyt Temple behind – until he took charge of her career and left her heart on hold. Suddenly, she was a star. But she couldn’t forget the embraces that left her breathless and the dizzying rapture she felt in his arms.

Silhouette Desire #5

Chapter 1

Cassie Creighton’s navy slingbacks tapped out a sassy rhythm on the weed- cracked sidewalks she’d traveled nearly every day of her twenty years. An eastbound 747 wedged a quick, welcome shadow between the hot sun and the main-street gravel of Coyote Bend.

That perpetual west Texas wind sifted prairie dust over the weathered gray buildings that defined the town’s business district A square tin sign swung cockeyed on a rusting chain. Its corroding blue letters proclaimed that Fensom’s Pharmacy was the place to purchase those miracle cure-alls, to have photos of the family reunion developed, and to make funeral arrangements in times of bereavement.

“Hey, Cassie, wait up a minute!” Widow Evans shifted a bulging grocery bag and hailed her young friend with a plump hand.

Hoyt Temple’s Jeep whipped up a tornado of dirt as it screeched to a stop in front of the feedstore, and Cassie’s heart dove into a tailspin. She was trapped now between the handsome cowboy she’d hoped to avoid and the lonely old woman hurrying to catch up with her.

“It’s gonna be mighty lonesome around here when you’re gone,” Widow puffed. Her gingery-hued face resembled poorly grained hide, and a tenant farmer’s worries had etched crow’s-feet around her soft brown eyes. “You know, I can’t rightly recall when a Creighton wasn’t plowing up that old place of yours.”

“I’m not producing enough by myself to pay the rent, much less turn a decent profit” Cassie was anxious to wind up her business affairs and put the past to rest, but no rush in the world justified being rude to the Widow. “Besides, Hoyt has already hired the new tenants. They’re supposed to move in the day after tomorrow.”

“Those Temples never did waste much time when their pocketbook was involved,” Widow noted wryly.

“I’m the one who gave notice.” Cassie’s answer was sharper than she’d intended. She bit her tongue before she revealed something she might regret. It wouldn’t serve any purpose on her last day in town to arouse suspicion about the nature of her relationship with the notorious Hoyt Temple.

“Well, good for you.” Widow chuckled. “Turnabout’s fair play every once in a while.” Her eyes probed for the root of Cassie’s agitation, but politeness dictated the direction of the conversation. “I just hope those slickers in Nashville realize how much talent you’ve got. My hands are still stinging like fire from clapping along with you at that barn dance last weekend.”

“It’s a crazy business I’m going to try to break into.” Cassie sighed. “Promise you’ll keep your fingers crossed for me.”

“If it counts for anything, darling, you’ve already won over the toughest audiences you’ll ever play to,” Widow said. “When poor farmers quit stewing about the bills and the drought to kick up their heels the way they do for you, that’s a pretty powerful compliment.”

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” Cassie smiled. “It’s too bad that I can’t just pack everybody around here in a suitcase and take them to Nashville with me. Those producers would have to sit up and take notice then.”

“I wish I’d had an ounce of your courage while I was still young and pretty,” Widow mused. “I’d have hightailed it to the city so fast, they wouldn’t know what hit them.” She smiled coyly. “You couldn’t judge it by my appearance today, but I was something of a looker in my prime. I’ve beat off my share of men with broomsticks, believe it or not.”

Cassie didn’t doubt it one bit.

“It’s a crying shame that your ma and pa aren’t here to see you on your way.” Widow shook her head in condolence as she shuffled toward her dirt-caked sedan. “God rest ‘em, they never had two extra pennies to rub together, but they were as proud as the day is long. Remember your roots, Cassie, and serve them well.”

Cassie turned away, stung by the unwitting irony in Widow’s farewell. She swiped at the orange dirt and greasy fingerprints which smudged the vacant window of yet another deserted store, and a year’s grime transferred itself onto the crumpled tissue that she used. Everyone in Coyote Bend had marveled at her stamina as she’d juggled farm chores and Saturday night singing jobs while caring for her terminally ill mother. What no one had ever suspected, though, was that the source of her strength was the same man they cussed so readily when the bills came due.

The wind rustled the jersey folds molding her porcelain-doll figure. Midnight- black waves framed the lovely, pensive face reflected in the temporary mirror, but Cassie’s violet eyes could only see as far as her memories.

“Those tattletale eyes give you away every time.” Hoyt Temple’s whispering kisses had danced across her magnolia-cream skin like ripples on a pond. “When I want to know what you’re thinking, I only have to search as far as . . . this.” His lips had brushed her eyelids closed. She’d lifted her head, hungry for the feel of his mouth on hers. Desire raged through her veins like wildfire on the open prairie, and she was consumed again by the flames of passion.

Hoyt Temple had played a shadow role in Cassie’s life for as long as she could remember. He was the owner’s son, the breakaway black sheep who’d chosen the rodeo circuit over the family business, the bad example held over every errant child’s head. He was temptation in a handsome package, and Cassie had always obeyed her parents’ strictly worded order to keep the maximum amount of distance between herself and the irresponsible cowboy.

When his father suffered a crippling stroke, Hoyt abandoned his bronc- busting days and heartbreaking nights to assume control of the Diamond T empire. To the surprise of his Dallas contemporaries, the virile vagabond had proved to possess a shrewd eye for turning a profit. To the dismay of his Coyote Bend employees, he’d immediately demanded increased production and started spending weeks at a time overseeing the tenant farms.

“The most valuable commodity today is land. It’s an irreplaceable resource,

Cassie. You know that as well as I do.” Hoyt had sprawled in her shabby but immaculate living room the night he’d confronted her with the unpleasant facts. “If there were any way we could afford to let your account ride a while longer, we would. But this place has lost so damned much money this past year, I’m not sure it’s even salvageable with good management.”

Cassie had steeled herself for his visit when the crops withered in the fields for the second time in a row. The idea that this magnetic man would one day be her reason for living was the furthest thing from her mind that awful night.

“The sooner you face the fact that you’re not cut out to be a farmer, the sooner we can tackle this mess and get the account back in order.”

Hoyt was as sleekly muscled as a quarter horse. His wide shoulders tapered to a reed-slim waist, and a dusty pair of cords encased long legs used to kneeing rogue stallions into submission. The scuffed toes of his Luchesse boots said he didn’t worry about replacing the expensive items that Cassie only dreamed of owning someday.

“Why don’t you take your mother to town and put her in Doc’s clinic?”

He seemed so preoccupied with his ledgers that Cassie didn’t respond. She sat with her hands clenched in her lap. A sudden, overpowering attraction to this forbidden, blue-eyed threat warred with her angry embarrassment about the circumstances that had forced his call.

“She’d be more comfortable, and we’re certainly willing to pick up part of the tab.” His coaxing tone urged her to accept these unusually generous terms. “Look at it this way, we’ll be able to turn this place over to someone who knows how to run it And if your mother is in good hands, you’ll be free to accept more of those singing jobs I hear you enjoy.”

“How dare you sit there and plan my life to suit your bank account!” Cassie’s vehemence startled her, but she’d listened to his dreary list of her failures as long as she could stand it.

“I’ve damned near killed myself working this pitiful excuse for a farm, and your only concern is money.” Her voice underscored her contempt for the root of her problems. She wasn’t really aiming her fury at Hoyt, but the bottled-up frustration spilled over like lava erupting from a volcano.

“My mother was born here, and she’s going to die here. It’s the only home she’s ever known, and nobody is going to take it away from her.” Cassie hated the cat-and-mouse turn their meeting had taken, but she had no intention of backing down. “If you’ve come to evict us, then you’d better get busy recruiting the army it’s going to take to complete the job.”

“You jump to conclusions faster than a leapfrog,” he grumbled, but she noticed the way his eyes sparkled when he stood and blocked her path. “There’s no need to show me the door. If you’re that bent on staying here, it’s fine with me. But the least you can do is help me work out a plan to keep this old place from sinking any deeper into debt.”

She’d slumped against his hard frame then, too proud to cry and so relieved that she couldn’t reply.

His words weren’t just another empty promise. Cassie worked harder and learned more about the land’s potential in those next weeks than she’d ever dreamed possible. Hoyt’s constant presence and encouragement were the shot in the arm she’d needed for months.

When Cassie opened her eyes at dawn, his Jeep was already parked in the yard. As she pulled on her work clothes and tied back her hair, she watched the lean six-footer strip to the waist and pick up where they’d left off the day before. Side by side, they dug the irrigation ditches and planted the fields. When the sun reached high noon and heat seethed over the plains, they retreated to the fan-cooled farmhouse and Hoyt would help her tend her mother. His gentle hands and patient manner belied his hard-bitten reputation. When the fireflies began their nightly ballet, Cassie and Hoyt shared laughter and their life stories over supper in her modest kitchen.

But when the weekends rolled around, Hoyt returned to Dallas and Cassie filled the long hours entertaining audiences, writing songs, and wrestling with her crazy wishes and jumbled emotions.

“Do you have to go back to Dallas tonight?” It was Friday and she hated the thought of those two lonely days stretching out before her. “My job for tomorrow night was canceled. If you’d stay, we could go on a picnic or do something fun for a change.” She pretended to concentrate on her plate so he wouldn’t see the hope that filled her eyes.

“Look at me.” He broke the awkward silence with a terse command that she obeyed. “If I stay, it’s not because I’m interested in going on a picnic.” He reached for her hand and she absorbed the sure, warm strength that had renewed her faith in life. “If I stay, Cassie, I’m going to make love to you.”

A shiver of desire raced through her. Hoyt’s wild streak was supposed to run a mile wide, but he’d shown her another, more tender side of himself and she wasn’t afraid. Cassie nodded her head, acknowledging his terms and her surrender to them. Even as she’d led him into her tiny bedroom, though, a doomsday sadness had crushed down upon her.

Their backgrounds were as different as night and day, and tenacious ambition drove them in opposite directions. Hoyt had made it perfectly clear all along that he was married to his business. Cassie envied his slide-trombone ability to ease in and out of her dreary world, but in her heart she knew these few months were all they’d ever have. She didn’t—couldn’t—share his passion for the land, and she harbored no illusions that she could ever measure up to the society standards of his Dallas life.

Their first intimate moments were treasured memories. Hoyt’s deft fingers unbuttoned her thin cotton shirt and pulled it open. Cassie’s breasts spilled free and his blue eyes devoured her.

“You’re beautiful.” His warm breath was honey against her creamy flesh. Hoyt bent his head and kissed her slender neck. Cassie stroked the muscular cords of his shoulders; then she tentatively guided his head lower. Hoyt’s sure hands unzipped her jeans and slipped them over her softly rounded hips. Cassie’s heart pounded and her entire body was aflame with new feelings. Hoyt knelt with his arms around her, nuzzling her bare skin with his searching mouth.

“Come down here with me,” he murmured against the ivory smoothness of her stomach.

They knelt together on the brightly colored braided rug beside her narrow iron bed. His body burned against hers, arousing needs that were no less intense because they were new. The fires grew hotter, stoked by his caressing hands and sensuous mouth. Hoyt lifted his head and searched Cassie’s desire- darkened eyes.

“Do you want me to stop?” His mouth moved against her trembling lips. She shook her head, feeling the black length of her hair brush against her naked back. His gentle kisses had stilled her fears.

“I’ve wanted you for a very long time.” His voice was husky. “And you’re everything I expected.” All the while, his lips and hands were adding fuel to the fire raging inside her.

“Make love to me, Hoyt,” she whispered haltingly as she laid her head on his shoulder. Her mind was free of doubt. This moment was her only reality.

Cassie was sinking into the unfamiliar depths of desire. Their bodies melded in a whirlwind of passion that swept her up, up, up.

“Hoyt.” She breathed his name as their lovemaking lifted her to heights of pleasure she had never imagined. Cassie was oblivious to everything but the strong body guiding her to an exquisite crescendo of sensations.

“I like pleasing you, Cassie.” Hoyt cradled her in his arms as they lay side by side, completely satisfied, their two hearts beating as one.

“You sure know how!” Cassie blushed pink at her unexpectedly bold response.

Hoyt laughed heartily, but an uncertain smile touched her sensuous lips. Cassie closed her eyes, fending off the approaching sense of sadness and disquiet

“Tell me more about San Francisco.” They lay tangled in the muslin sheets, quietly talking and listening to the whippoorwills until the moon hung in the sky like a big butterscotch drop. Cassie rested her head on Hoyt’s chest and he spun another story In his gently resonating baritone. Cheyenne, Tucson, New York City—he’d introduced her to an exciting world that she fully intended to challenge.

Cassie had watched her parents grow old before their time, baffling the whims of nature and the cracked brown earth while juggling the exorbitant payments their anxious creditors demanded. She’d worried with them over red- ink crops, and had seen them do without too often to let herself become snared in the same hopeless trap. Her talent was her ticket out of Coyote Bend, and heaven help anyone who tried to keep her from cashing in on it.

“I’ve worked up an appetite, but not for those things.” Hoyt always brought her a box of Godiva chocolates from Neiman-Marcus after his trips into Dallas. A smoldering smile creased his handsome face when he refused her offer to share the candy. Cassie tried to ignore the welcome-home heat that warned her she’d missed him too much, that she’d become too dependent on the bright splashes he painted in the monochromatic pattern of her life.

Secure in the knowledge that Hoyt desired her, that her pleasure was his, Cassie didn’t question the fact that he never took her anywhere. She understood that they couldn’t be seen together in public, but that didn’t keep her from hating the employer-employee facade they were forced to present in town. When Hoyt’s frequent calls failed to trigger off the ugly gossip she’d feared, Cassie decided that the interest rate on borrowed trouble wasn’t worth it and put her worries in layaway.

Lovely May mornings drifted into the firecracker swelter of July, and Cassie stored memories like a chipmunk preparing for the first hard freeze of winter.

“Something’s bothering you.” Hoyt had cupped her chin in his hand, trying to decipher the sorrow in her eyes. Lightning presaged the summer storm that would soak the greening fields they’d worked. The electric bolts illuminated his hard male profile.

“We won’t be able to see each other for a while.” Cassie had trained her gaze

When Last We Loved Fran Baker

on the ceiling so that Hoyt wouldn’t detect her lie. The stabbing pain in her heart was almost more than she could stand, but a million tears couldn’t dull the ache of her dual-edged sorrow.

“Is it bad news about your mother?” Hoyt’s concern was genuine, and Cassie was touched more deeply than she dared admit

She nodded her head. “Doc’s going to stay with me from now on. The medicine isn’t helping anymore and she needs shots every four hours.” She’d inhaled, mustering courage to begin severing her ties. “He says it’s a matter of days, a week at the most.”

“I’m sorry.” His husky sentiment was comforting, but there was no way he could understand the full scope of her anguish. “Promise that you’ll let me know what I can do to help. If you need money, an ambulance into Dallas, or just a shoulder to cry on, I’m available.”

Cassie nodded but she knew she wouldn’t take him up on his offer.

“One thing you can do is start looking for some new tenants. I don’t think I’m going to be able to afford you much longer.” She smiled at her feeble joke, relieved that she could lighten the mood.

“You’re welcome to stay here until hell freezes over if you like.” His mouth teased her with soft kisses. “But I suppose it will be more convenient for you to live in town.”

Cassie’s confession quivered on the tip of her tongue. She swallowed the words before she could tell him that she’d be leaving Coyote Bend. There was no sense in spoiling their last night with a futile argument

Their lovemaking was bittersweet, a spontaneous combustion that rivaled the storm raging at the windows. Cassie had tangled her fingers in Hoyt’s hair, arching against him with a fiercely felt need to hold him as close as possible one last time. Dynamite blasts of thunder echoing through the tiny bedroom had drowned out her sobs. Passion was a bottomless pit that she plunged into with a wanton disregard for tomorrow’s despair.

****

The old tin sign banged against the building. Cassie ducked out of her memories and swerved sideways to avoid a blow to the head. Judge Foley’s fin- tailed Cadillac was already parked in front of the drugstore when she pushed open the wooden screen door to keep her appointment with freedom.

The oak-planked floors were permeated with the aroma of freshly perked coffee mingling with the smell of yesterday’s grilled onions. Dusty packages of pain relievers vied for shelf space with out-of-date greeting cards. Tanya Tucker’s scorching desire to be laid to rest beneath Texas soil competed with the hissing static common to every radio station north of the Rio Grande.

“Morning.” Judge was hunched over a hand of cards and didn’t look up to greet his client. Even though she was anxious to get down to business, Cassie knew better than to try to interrupt this daily ritual.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get along without your famous chocolate shakes, Ray. Guess I’ll just have to kidnap you and drag you with me to Nashville.” She hoisted herself onto one of the tall round stools covered with cracked brown vinyl and dangled her shapely legs as she rotated from side to side.

“Still bent on chasing that rainbow, are you?” Ray Fensom looked up from his hand of pitch and peered at her through the horn-rimmed bifocals perched near the tip of his bulbous nose.

“I’m going to give it my best shot,” she affirmed. “It’s all I have left now.” Cassie knew his concern stemmed from the same paternal affection he’d showered on her since her father caught that stray bullet in a hunting accident two years ago. “It won’t do any good for you to start lecturing me again, Ray, because I’ve made up my mind. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m going to do it.”

The seeds of Cassie’s aspiration had been planted in her childhood by her banjo-picking father and her hum-along mother, both of whom knew every rockabilly or western song played on the radio. Her parents had given her a secondhand, flattop guitar when she was sixteen, and she’d immediately devoted every spare minute to the music she loved. Church socials, square dances, and honky-tonks became the training grounds where she practiced projection and delivery. Like a butterfly emerging from its silky cocoon, Cassie’s style developed with experience, and her honey-rich voice endeared her to the many small-town audiences who danced or clapped along with her.

“Well, you know my area code and phone number if you need anything.” Ray smiled as he shuffled the cards.

“Be with you in a minute, young lady,” Judge said without looking up from the cards fanned out in front of him. “I need just two more points to put this varmint in his place, and I’m the bidder.”

“Three.” Ray challenged Judge’s bid and the game was on. Cassie watched as they slapped the cards onto the counter.

“High, low, jick, jack, and game.” Ray tallied his triumph and Judge grumbled as he threw the loser’s thirty cents down to pay for the coffee that was cooling in thick china mugs.

“I haven’t beaten him in a month of Sundays.” Judge winked. “Think I’ll order me a new deck of cards out of the catalogue.” He smiled and pulled a sheaf of folded papers out of the chest pocket of his plaid flannel shirt. “Got the releases from the Temples yesterday, and the bank notarized the title to your daddy’s car, so I think we’ve got everything in order here. Are you ready to wade through this pile of legal mumbo jumbo?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” She reached for the documents that freed her from the hardscrabble life her family had led for two generations, and scribbled her name on the black lines without reading the contents. Judge knew the law as well as a Sunday-school teacher knew Bible verse, and she trusted him completely.

“I’ve gotta admit that I’m kind of looking forward to bragging to people that I knew you when.” Ray grinned and slid a freshly blended chocolate shake across the yellowed Formica counter.

“Don’t count my chickens before they’re hatched.” She handed the pen she’d used back to Judge. “I sure don’t feel right about your waiving your fee.”

“Your folks did me plenty of favors, little lady. I’m just glad I finally got a chance to repay a few of them.”

“I hope you know what a hard row you’ve picked to hoe.” Ray polished a soda glass with a white cotton rag.

“No harder than what I’ve been doing all my life,” Cassie replied. Another family would move into the tired old farmhouse, sorely in need of a fresh paint job. Other women would work their fingers to the bone scrubbing faded linoleum, working the fields, and preparing the endless meals to feed a gnawing hunger that was never quite satisfied.

When Last We Loved Fran Baker

“When do you plan on leaving?” Judge struck a match on the sole of his shoe and lit his briarwood pipe.

“I’m going tomorrow morning.” Cassie folded the precious paper transferring title to the twenty-year-old sedan to her. “I thought that I’d try to get an early start. Maybe I’ll miss the rush-hour traffic in Dallas.”

Actually, she planned to drive straight through to Texarkana, but she didn’t admit it out loud. Judge and Ray would only caution her about the danger of pushing herself on the highway. But she didn’t have the cash to spend too many nights in motels, even cheap ones.

“Have you got enough money to tide you over until you’re settled in Nashville?” Judge scrutinized her with squinted eyes that had borne witness to the paltry sum she’d withdrawn when she closed her mother’s bank account.

A hot flush warmed Cassie’s cheeks. She’d sworn she wouldn’t accept a penny from anyone.

“I’ll make it all right,” she asserted. Her lips curved in silent thanks that Judge hadn’t divulged the sorry state of her finances. “I’ll probably have to get a job while I’m pounding the pavement and making the rounds of producers’ offices, but I’m sure I’ll be able to find something.”

It was time to leave. She still had to pack and straighten the house for the new family. Cassie slid off the stool and walked around the counter to say good- bye to Ray.

“Let us hear from you once in a while.” He wiped his eyes with his polishing rag. “Speck of dust,” he muttered.

When Judge stood and shook her hand, Cassie swallowed hard to keep the tears at bay. Crying wouldn’t help or change a thing. Whether she failed or succeeded, all of them knew that she would never return to Coyote Bend.

“Thanks for everything.” Her trembling voice affirmed her gratitude for favors large and small through the years. She turned and ran out of the drugstore before she burst into tears.

The oppressive heat hit her with full force when she stepped outside. Hoyt Temple’s Jeep still occupied the space in front of the feedstore—a good omen. She’d never told him she was leaving.

She drove home without seeing the ramshackle buildings that punctuated the parched countryside or the brittle tumbleweeds that the wind blew across the road.

Cassie was tempted to stop and sit for a while in the small cemetery where her mother and father rested, but her foot remained glued to the accelerator and she sped on past. She’d said good-bye once, and she didn’t think she could bear to see their graves again, or those of the babies born before herself that her mother had grieved over when she’d stooped to weed the trio of tiny tombstones every Sunday.