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Authors: Brenda Minton

The Rancher Takes a Bride

BOOK: The Rancher Takes a Bride
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His Secret Daughter

Duke Martin is a father! The former army medic is stunned when old love Oregon Jeffries tells him the news. Given his troubled past, the hardworking rancher and diner owner understands why Oregon kept his daughter a secret for twelve years. But now Duke desperately wants to make up for lost time. As he sets out to be a true father to Lilly, he soon realizes his feelings for Oregon are growing stronger. When Oregon's health falters, he's ready to care for her and prove that he's worthy of her love. Could this be Duke's second chance with the woman he never should have let get away?

“We'll get through this,” Duke said.

Oregon glanced at him. “I know we will.”

She watched him stack boxes along the back of the truck. He turned, keeping his head ducked because the truck didn't allow for his height. “You don't sound convinced.”

“I'm trying,” she assured him.

He jumped down, landing next to her. He touched her cheek with a large, calloused hand, gently forcing her to look at him. That meant looking into blue eyes that were as clear as a summer sky. She could lose herself in his eyes, in the promises she saw in them. His mouth curved in an easy smile as he leaned a little toward her.

“You need to start believing.” He spoke softly. “Because I won't let us fail as a family.”

Family.
But they weren't one, she thought to tell him, but she couldn't form the words.

For a moment she was lost because she'd honestly thought he meant to kiss her when he leaned close. And she couldn't let that happen.

Brenda Minton
lives in the Ozarks with her husband, children, cats, dogs and strays. She is a pastor's wife, Sunday school teacher, coffee addict and sleep deprived. Not in that order. Her dream to be an author for Harlequin started somewhere in the pages of a romance novel about a young American woman stranded in a Spanish castle. Her dreams came true and twenty-plus books later, she is an author hoping to inspire young girls to dream.

Books by Brenda Minton

Love Inspired

Martin's Crossing

A Rancher for Christmas

The Rancher Takes a Bride

Cooper Creek

Christmas Gifts

“Her Christmas Cowboy”

The Cowboy's Holiday Blessing

The Bull Rider's Baby

The Rancher's Secret Wife

The Cowboy's Healing Ways

The Cowboy Lawman

The Cowboy's Christmas Courtship

The Cowboy's Reunited Family

Single Dad Cowboy

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles

THE RANCHER
TAKES A BRIDE

Brenda Minton

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.

—Ephesians
1:18

In memory of my father-in-law, Jacob Minton. Real men read romance, and he read every book.

Chapter One

S
pring in Martin's Crossing, Texas, meant one thing to Oregon Jeffries. It meant another year of working up the courage to do the right thing. As she pushed petunias into the soil of the planter outside her shop, Oregon's All Things, she thought about taking that step to make things right.

“Mom, you're going to kill it pushing it in like that.” Her daughter, Lilly, appeared next to her, peering in at the plant.

She had a point. The petunia looked a little droopy from the handling it had received. One stem even appeared to be broken. Oregon pushed hair back from her face and patted the soil more gently.

“You're right. I should be more careful.”

“Do you want me to finish them later?” Lilly, at twelve, was willing to do almost anything to help. Except maybe laundry.

“No, I'll do them. Don't you have a job to get to?”

Lilly glanced across the street, her blue eyes focusing on Duke's No Bar and Grill. It was a long, low building with wood siding and a covered front deck running the length of the restaurant.

“Yeah, Duke said I could sweep up and water flowers. But I know you don't like me working for him.”

“I didn't say...” Well, maybe she had said something about wishing her daughter would find other jobs. But Lilly wanted a horse, and they'd made a deal that she had to work and earn the money to pay for the horse and the upkeep. As a single mom, Oregon couldn't handle the expense of a horse. Plus, she thought her daughter would appreciate it more if she helped pay for the animal.

The townspeople in Martin's Crossing had pitched in and given Lilly odd jobs. Each time she got paid, Lilly put most of the money in the jar she kept hidden in her room. And she put a portion in the offering at church.

Duke Martin, owner of Duke's No Bar and Grill, had been giving Lilly various jobs since he learned of her quest to buy a horse. He'd even offered to help her pick a good, well-broke horse when she had all the money saved.

“You can go to Duke's. Just don't be a nuisance,” she warned.

Lilly kissed her cheek, and Oregon nearly cried. Her daughter no longer had to stand on tiptoes; instead, Lilly leaned down a bit because she'd outgrown Oregon over the winter.

“Thanks, Mom.”

Oregon nodded and went back to her flowers.

As she reached for another petunia, tires screeched, followed by shouting and then a sickening thud. Oregon turned, screaming as she saw her daughter fall to the asphalt. Everything slowed. Except her heart, which beat rapidly in her chest as she stood frozen on the sidewalk.

The driver of the car jumped out. Duke ran down the steps of the restaurant. Oregon couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. She heard Duke yell at her, then everything returned to normal speed.

There were people everywhere. Where did they all come from? Oregon felt a hand on her arm, a voice comforting her. “She's going to be okay. You need to go to her.”

It was Joe, the vagrant who had appeared in town last winter. He held her arm and walked with her to Lilly's crumpled body. Duke knelt next to her daughter. His large body hovered, his fingers touching Lilly's neck, then her wrist.

“Don't move,” he whispered when she tried to sit up. And then he saw Oregon. “Your mom is here. Stay still, sweetheart. Stay still.”

Oregon knelt next to her baby girl, brushing dark hair back from her pale face, noticing the bruises on her temple and cheek. Lilly opened her eyes and whispered that it hurt. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. Duke stopped Oregon from scooping her up and holding her close.

“You can't do that, Oregon.” He yelled for someone to bring a blanket.

Oregon saw that her daughter was trembling and pale.

“Oregon, hold it together.” Duke's voice whispered in her ear. “Talk to her.”

She nodded and leaned in, unsure of what to say. Duke's hand was on her back. Oregon wanted to sob. But she didn't. Instead, she took Lilly's hand and held it. “The ambulance is on the way, honey. We'll get you help. You'll be okay.”

A man shouted that he hadn't seen her. That she'd come out of nowhere. Duke stood up and headed for the driver of the car. Six feet eight inches of Duke Martin had the man backing away, holding his hands up.

Oregon heard him tell the driver to sit and save his explanations. Right now they were going to take care of the child he'd hit. Her child. Oregon's hand shook as she smoothed her daughter's hair back from her face once more.

If Duke only knew, Oregon thought. She kissed her daughter's cheek. “It's going to be okay. I hear the ambulance.”

“Mommy, it hurts.”

“Can you tell me where it hurts, Lilly?” Duke once again took charge. He'd been an army medic in Afghanistan.

“Everywhere,” Lilly answered. “My leg. And my head. My stomach.”

“Do you remember where you were going?” he asked.

“To school,” she responded.

Though she had tried to fight it, the tears overtook Oregon. She felt strong hands on her shoulders. Joe pulled her to her feet and led her away. The ambulance pulled up, and Duke spoke with quiet authority as they assessed her daughter.

“I need to be with her.” Oregon tried to pull away from Joe.

“No, you need to stand here and let them do their job,” he insisted, his voice soft but firm. “Stay here with me and when they're ready to leave, you can give her a kiss and tell her you'll meet her at the hospital.”

“But I should go with her...”

“You can't.” Joe led her toward the stretcher holding her daughter. Her baby. She tried to pull away from Joe, but he held tight. “Oregon, take a deep breath and tell our girl she'll be okay.”

Our girl.
The words registered faintly. Everyone in town considered Lilly their girl. People here loved them, cared about them. It was one of the reasons she'd stayed in Martin's Crossing. Because for the first time in her life, she felt as if she truly belonged. Though she had wanted it more for her daughter than herself, that sense of belonging somewhere.

Joe led her back to Lilly and held her hand as she kissed her daughter on the forehead, said a quick prayer and told her they would meet her at the hospital.

“Mommy, I'll be okay.” Lilly's voice shook as she said the words.

“Of course you'll be okay,” Oregon managed in a voice that remained steady. Because she was the mom. She would make sure her daughter was okay. God couldn't take her baby. They needed each other too much.

As she stepped back, Joe touched Lilly's brow. He smiled at her and whispered that she'd be home soon, and they'd talk more about that horse. Oregon wanted to tell him not to make promises. Oregon knew how easily they were broken.

Duke stood next to the ambulance as Lilly was loaded on. He spoke to the paramedics. Then he nodded and said something to Lilly. And Oregon stood there, letting him take charge because she couldn't move. Couldn't think.

Her body began to shake as the ambulance pulled away. “I have to go.” Oregon headed for her shop and apartment. She had to find her purse, her keys...

“Oregon, wait.”

She turned to see Duke striding across the street toward her. Joe came with him. She looked from Joe with his weathered face, gray hair and easy smile to Duke, a giant of a man with sandy-brown hair starting to grow out from the buzz cut he'd had, unshaved face and piercing blue eyes.

“What?” Her voice trembled, and for a scary moment everything faded. She took a deep breath and her vision cleared.

Duke's features softened as he looked at her.

“I'm driving.” He had his truck keys out. “Lock up your shop and let's go.”

“I can drive. You really don't have to.”

He let out a long sigh. “Oregon, don't argue with me. You're in no condition to drive. I'm taking you.”

She nodded and hurried inside, finding her purse and her keys, leaving the petunias on the stoop to be planted later. As she walked out the front door, locking it behind her, Joe was telling Duke he'd like to ride along. Duke looked to Oregon, and she nodded.

Joe was little more than a stranger, a homeless man who had worked for Duke and moved into a small house down the street. But he was a good man, and Lilly adored him.

Today she needed these two men. And she needed for Lilly to be okay. She needed to know that God heard her prayers.

She needed the strength of Duke's arms as he walked her to his waiting truck. Those big arms made her rethink everything. It was time to tell the truth. Her heart ached, worrying about her daughter, about their future and Duke's reaction to the news she would tell him.

* * *

Duke risked a cautious look at Oregon to make sure she was holding it together. She'd been unusually quiet on the ride to Austin. Joe, who sat next to her, was also quiet. He saw that Oregon's eyes were closed, and her lips were moving as she prayed.

He didn't know much about her, but he did know she attended Martin's Crossing Community Church. He'd seen her there the few times he'd darkened the door. Now he knew she was a praying woman. He also knew that she had a mom who liked to stir up trouble and who wasn't too fond of Oregon's religion.

He'd like to reclaim his own faith, but he and God were having some issues about prayers he'd said for kids in Afghanistan. He shook his head, not wanting to focus on that, not right now with Lilly on her way to the hospital.

He reached for Oregon's hand and squeezed it. “She's going to be okay.”

“I know. I know.” Oregon wiped away the tears that streamed down her cheeks. “She was talking. That's a good sign. Isn't it?”

“Yes, always a good sign.”

Anger suddenly flashed in her eyes. Funny, he'd thought they were hazel; now he realized they were the warmest shade of gray possible. “Don't tell me what you think I want to hear, Duke. You were a medic. I want your opinion.”

“A medic, not a doctor. And kids aren't exactly my area of expertise.”

“Duke, please.”

He slowed for a stoplight. “Only a mile to the hospital.”

“What are you trying to hide?”

“I'm not hiding anything. I'm just trying to decide the best answer because I don't want to say the wrong thing.”

“Tell me she's going to be okay,” she sobbed.

Yeah, that's exactly what he was avoiding. “I think she had broken bones and possibly some internal injuries. I'm going by my own assessment and the paramedics' conversation as they loaded her in the ambulance.”

Oregon nodded, the conversation ending in nervous silence. Joe patted Oregon's leg and said that he knew one thing with certainty; that God would take care of Lilly. Duke didn't say that he'd seen a lot of prayers go unanswered during his time in Afghanistan.

“Here we are.” He pulled his truck into the hospital parking lot and found a space close to the emergency room. He exited and then waited for Oregon.

Something happened in that moment as he watched and waited for her to get out. It was like the past crashing into the future, and he didn't know what it meant. It was a flashback of laughing with a dark-haired girl who had just won her first cash prize on a barrel horse she'd trained herself. With a shake of his head he cleared the memory.

Sitting in his truck, Oregon visibly pulled herself together before she stepped out. The wind whipped her hair and wrapped her prairie skirt around her legs. Joe waited for them on the other side. The three of them walked toward the emergency room entrance. As they got closer, Oregon's steps slowed, faltering. Duke took her hand and looked down at her. Her eyes met his and it seemed familiar.

He shook it off. The memory wasn't real.

But the pain in her eyes was. He squeezed her hand. “She'll be okay.”

“I'm taking your word for that.” Her voice trembled on the words.

Duke led her through the automatic doors to a desk, where a receptionist smiled up at them. Joe stood on her other side, his hand on her back.

“We're here with Lilly Jeffries, brought in by ambulance from Martin's Crossing,” Duke told the woman who had already started searching her computer.

“Are you parents or legal guardians?” the receptionist asked, barely looking up at them.

“I'm her mother,” Oregon replied.

“She's being examined right now.” The woman behind the desk pushed paperwork on a clipboard across the counter. “If you could fill this out.”

“I want to see my daughter.” Oregon's voice didn't shake. She looked at the woman, her eyes fierce, the way a mother's eyes should be.

Not that Duke had any real experience with mothers. His own had skipped out on them right before his tenth birthday. They hadn't seen her since the day she hopped in her car and took off.

Oregon wasn't that kind of mom.

The receptionist nodded, and her features softened. “Green ward, room C. Take the paperwork with you.”

“Thank you.”

Duke reached for her hand, a strangely familiar gesture. He'd ignored this woman for the past year. He'd been busy with his diner. She'd been busy getting her own business off the ground. She hadn't seemed to want more from him than an occasional take-out meal. Come to think of it, she'd rarely stepped foot in the diner. She'd always sent Lilly to get their food.

Why was he thinking about this now, as she walked next to him, her hand tightly gripping his? Joe walked on her other side, quiet, staid. The older man had settled in a few months back and seemed content to stay awhile in Martin's Crossing.

They reached the room with the open glass door. Inside, a doctor stood next to Lilly, his smile easy, his gestures not those of a man in the middle of an emergency. He waved them inside.

“You must be Mom. We've been asking for you. After we settled on the fact that it isn't Saturday, and she wasn't on her way to school when the bus hit her.” The doctor smiled down at his patient. “We're going to do a CT scan of that head, and then we'll do some X-rays.”

BOOK: The Rancher Takes a Bride
12.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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