Authors: Brenda Minton
he living room was washed in the gray light of early morning when Oregon woke up. She blinked a few times, stretched and sat up.
She definitely hadn't expected to sleep on the couch. A noise invaded early-morning stillness. A soft snoring from her favorite overstuffed chair. She smiled at the sight of Duke sprawled in the chair, his feet propped on the coffee table. He shouldn't have stayed. She would tell him that later. But she was glad he had. Even though Lilly was there and probably Sissy, it did her heart good to see that giant of a man, and to know he had kept watch through the night.
With quiet steps she got up and went to the kitchen. The least she could do was have coffee ready when he woke up. She started the coffeemaker, then she walked out the back door. The sun was just coming up, but it was already warm. In the distance she heard cattle. And faintly, from far away, the sound of a train blasting its horn through a crossing.
“You're up early.”
She turned, smiling at Duke as he stepped out the door, brushing a hand through his hair. He looked sleepy but sweet. She wanted to lean into him and enjoy the sunrise. Instead, she focused away from him, on the field, the sun coming up, the cattle grazing.
“I can't believe I slept so long,” she said over her shoulder. “And you probably didn't get enough sleep.”
“I'm good on a few hours a night.”
“I'm sure you are.” She walked back to him and hugged him. “You are always there for us. When do we get to be there for you?”
His arms tightened around her. “This feels good. This is how you're here for me.”
She wanted to agree, but she was suddenly afraid. It did feel good. Too good. Too right. Her heart felt bruised, vulnerable, fearful.
“Duke, what are we doing?”
“Right now?” He grinned as he said it. “We're holding each other.”
“Oh yeah, that.” He pulled away from her. “I should go.”
“Duke, we have to talk.”
“Yeah, I know we do. But I can tell by the tone you're using that you're not really ready to talk. You want to find a way to make this seem like the wrong thing to do. You want to tell me that I might walk out, or you can't have more children, all of the reasons we shouldn't be together.”
“We do have to talk,” she insisted.
He groaned, shaking his head. “Don't look at me like that. When you look at me that way, talking is the last thing I want to do. That look, all sweet and sleepy, makes me want to do this.”
She started to ask what he meant, but her words were cut off as he claimed her lips in a softly insistent kiss. He held her close, brushing his lips against hers, kissing her slow and sweet. His hand held her close and as he raised his mouth from hers, he smiled a lazy smile that lingered in his blue eyes.
“That's why I need to go. Because we can't talk, and we can't do that. But that's what I want to do. I want to kiss you like that every single day for the rest of our lives.”
She shook her head, unsure of what to say.
“I'm going to marry you, Oregon Jeffries. Not because we have a daughter, not that she isn't a good reason for us to get married, but because we belong together.”
“Duke, I can't...”
“I knew you'd say that. I already told you all the excuses you'd make and I don't need to hear them again.”
She shook her head. “You're not thinking logically.”
“Sweetheart, I am always logical. I can promise you, if I'm proposing to a woman, then I mean it.”
“But I'm not going to accept.” She managed a light tone. “Go to the diner. I've kept you from your business, from your life, and it's time for you to get back to those things.”
“You haven't kept me from anything. As a matter of fact, this Saturday, we're heading to a small rodeo. I promised Lilly I would ask if she could go.”
“She can go.”
“Thanks. And this discussion isn't over.” His smile grew. “I'm going to keep asking until you say yes.”
“Please, Duke, don't do that.”
“Sorry, honey, I have to. I'm going to be the man I'm supposed to be. That man prays, he trusts God and he's a husband and a dad.”
“Go.” Her voice unfortunately broke. Duke kissed her again, his hand gentle on her neck as his lips covered hers.
“Call if you need anything.”
She nodded and watched him leave. When she walked through the back door, Sissy was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. They were sisters but they were still basically strangers. And yet Sissy smiled as if they had always shared secrets over their morning coffee.
“You honestly told that man you won't marry him?”
Oregon poured herself a cup of coffee and grabbed a muffin left from the previous day. “He wants to take care of me, and he wants us to be a happy family.”
“Eww, horrible,” Sissy joked.
“Have you ever met a happy family?” Oregon asked.
“Yes, mine. And you've met happy families, too. You're just focused on your own unhappy experiences and refuse to believe that you might actually find a man and make a life that isn't dysfunctional.”
“Pretty much.” Oregon sat down across from her sister. “I can't have children, and I might have cancer. Those are pretty big red flags.”
“So when does life come with guarantees?” Sissy teased as she dunked cookies in her coffee.
“I wish it did.” Oregon sighed and pushed the half-eaten muffin away. “Why does everything have to be so complicated?”
“Because in real life, things are complicated.” Sissy grabbed both of their cups. “More coffee?”
Oregon nodded. “Please.”
“Dad is going to ask you again to come to Dallas. Like your handsome prince, our father doesn't give up.”
“I'm not getting married, and I'm not moving to Dallas.” Oregon took the cup her sister handed her. “I need space.”
“Maybe a vacation?”
“I wish I could. But I have a shop to run. I have a daughter.”
“We have a condo in Florida.”
At that, Oregon looked up. “We?”
“Our family, of which you are now a part. We have a condo in Florida. Beachfront. Why don't you take Lilly and go down there? I would come with you if you want.”
She considered it. She really did. And then she shook her head. “I can't go.”
“Of course not. You have a business. And a daughter. And a lot of excuses.” Sissy pulled her chair close. “You have excuses why you can't let that gorgeous man into your life. You have excuses for why you can't go on vacation to the beach.”
“I have responsibilities.” Oregon chuckled because Sissy said the words with her. “You're very funny.”
“I do my best. But if you change your mind about the condo, let me know. I can check the schedule and make sure no one is using it.”
“Thank you. And now, I think I'll get ready and head for the shop. Would you like to go with us?”
“No, I have to make phone calls for Andrews Limited. Do you need me to do anything for you?” Sissy offered.
“Nothing that I can think of.”
Oregon left a short time later. Lilly had chosen to stay home with the woman she was already calling Aunt Sissy. That meant Oregon was going to the shop alone. It meant realizing that as life changed, so did her relationship with her daughter. Lilly was gaining a family. A father. A grandfather. Aunts, uncles and cousins. She had those people to enjoy, to talk to, to spend time with.
Oregon had a man who wanted to marry her. But he hadn't mentioned love. And shouldn't love be a part of a marriage proposal?
* * *
Duke flipped burgers on the grill and called for Farris, his cook, to get fries and chicken strips going. Ned hurried through the door and grabbed the order he'd just finished.
“How's it going out there?” Duke asked as he flipped burgers onto plates where buns were waiting.
“Oh, it's a friendly mob, but nothing I can't handle. Aster is here. She's helping bus tables and fill drinks.”
The teen girl who lived in town sometimes came in during lunch and dinner shifts to help keep things running smoothly. Ned said eventually she'd make a good waitress. Duke hoped so.
“How are you doing, boss?” Ned asked.
“Great. Thanks for asking. Do you have another order?”
“Nope, just wondering why you're cranky and look like something the dog dragged up to the porch.”
Long night, but he didn't go into it with her. “I'm not cranky. Order up.”
He rang the bell and pushed the plate down the counter.
“Not cranky at all.” She cackled as she grabbed the plate and hurried out. “Oh, Boone Wilder is here.”
“Send him back.”
Boone walked through the kitchen door a minute later. He pushed his hat down tight on his head and leaned against the counter as Duke finished the latest order.
“You're a pretty good cook,” Boone offered with a casual tilt of his lips.
“I'm glad you approve. Do you have another reason for being here?” Duke rang the bell again. Ned rushed through the door, grumbling that she was done for the day. He shook his head and pointed to the last plate of the daily lunch special. Open-faced roast beef.
“Yeah, I have a reason. Just waiting for a minute to share a few things with you.” Boone grabbed a step stool and sat down.
Duke flipped a burger and chanced a look at the other man. Boone's expression didn't give a thing away.
“How's your business going?” Duke asked.
Boone shrugged. “Going. We're training, advertising and hoping to open in the next six months. Why, you ready to give up cooking?”
“Not on your life.”
The kitchen was empty. Duke waited.
“My friend came up with that other information you asked for,” Boone finally said.
“Okay, so where's the info?”
Boone slid an envelope across the counter. “What are you going to do with that?”
“Not sure yet. Maybe just hold on to it.”
“That'll get you in trouble.”
“Probably, but what Brody doesn't know won't hurt him.”
Boone shrugged again. “How's it going for Oregon and her family?”
“Good. Unless they convince her to leave town with them.”
Boone pushed away from the counter. “If that happens, you can't blame me. You wanted them found.”
“Right, I did want them found.”
Boone left. Duke waited a few minutes and walked out to the dining room. Unfortunately Jake walked through the front door of the diner wearing a big grin that made Duke feel a little testy.
“Brother.” Jake walked past him to the coffeepot and poured himself a cup.
“Sure, help yourself.”
Jake lifted the cup. “Don't mind if I do. Brody told me about that fence the other day. I'm not sure what's going on but we had another section hit last night. Fortunately, I saw it and got it fixed before any cattle got out.”
“What do you think is going on?” Duke poured himself a cup and sat across from his brother.
“Either kids or maybe someone out to steal some cattle. I told Brody we oughta do a head count.”
Duke set his cup on the table. “Wouldn't be a bad idea.”
“Mind helping us this evening? If we split up, it'll go a lot faster.”
“Yeah, I can help. Let me go by and check on Oregon first.”
“Shouldn't be a problem. She's at her shop.”
“She should be at home, resting.” He got up and crossed to the front door to look out.
“Hard to tell a woman what to do. And I doubt she feels like she has to check with you before she goes to work.” Jake grinned as he said it and when Duke started to tell him what he thought of that, Jake lifted his cup and winked.
“Back off, Jake.”
“Oh, I think I've given you plenty of slack. And it looks to me like you're doing a pretty bad job of dealing with this situation.”
“There is no situation,” Duke said. He sat back down and stretched to show he was relaxed. “Not a situation at all.”
“None? That's hard for me to believe. How's Lilly? You should bring her out to the house again.”
“You going to marry Oregon?” Jake cut right to the chase.
“Get out.” Duke stood up. “Just go because I'm not sitting here listening to this.”
“I'm just worried about my little brother.”
Duke stood, knowing he towered over Jake by several inches. “You don't have to worry about your little brother.”
“Not at all?” Jake emptied his cup and stood. “Guess I'll go since you don't seem to want me around.”
Duke shook his head. “I don't know what you're trying to pull, but I don't need this, not today.”
“Let me guess.” Jake leaned in close. “She said no.”
“Yeah, she said no.”
“What did you do wrong?”
“I asked her to marry me. How could I have done something wrong?”
“That's it? You just asked her to marry you? No flowers? No romance?”
“I didn't think...”
Jake laughed loud and long. “Obviously you didn't.”
Duke walked away. Yeah, he'd had enough.
“If you need help, Mr. Ladies' Man...” Jake called out after him.
“I seem to recall that I helped you when you didn't know what to do with Breezy,” Duke responded as he walked through the door to the kitchen.
He knew what he was doing. He'd just obviously done something wrong. It only made sense that they should get married. They should be a family.
Ned was waiting for him in the kitchen. Unfortunately, she looked like a woman with advice ready to give.
“What?” he asked on his way to the cooler.
“I didn't say anything.”
“You want to,” he called back over his shoulder. “You want to give me your two cents' worth.”