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Authors: Brenda Minton

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BOOK: The Rancher Takes a Bride
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“Are you going to church with us tomorrow?” Lilly asked as she bit into the ham sandwich.

Oregon shot her a warning look. He didn't know if she was warning her not to talk with her mouth full or if it was about church. Yeah, everyone in town knew that he hadn't gone to church much since he got back from Afghanistan. He was sure there were a few prayer chains with his name on them.

“I'm not sure about that, but I'll cook burgers on the grill when you get home,” he offered, hoping it would get him off the hook.

Lilly just shrugged and looked a little down. He drew in a breath and tried to find another reasonable excuse. Oregon ate her sandwich silently, ignoring his predicament. Of course she did.

“You put her up to this?” When they both erupted in big grins, he finally caught on.

Oregon looked up, all innocent and beautiful in the moonlight that cast a silvery beam across the lawn. “Never.”

He shook his head and finished a second sandwich. “Right.”

“We could all go together,” Lilly suggested, as if that made it easier.

Oregon shook her head. “Lilly, enough.”

His daughter shot him a look, then she stood, adjusting crutches under her arms. “Okay, then. I'm going to bed. It's been a long day.”

He watched her go, thinking she was probably giving them time alone. She was a smart kid.

“I'm sorry for letting her back you into a corner.”

“Don't worry about it.” He leaned back in the chair. “But I can't do it, Oregon. Not yet. There are a lot of reasons why.”

“Care to talk about it?” Her tone was soft, and yeah, he would like to talk about it. Someday.

“Not tonight. I think I should go.”

She walked him to his truck, and for a long time they stood there, the moon almost full above them. He had a lot to say. From the way she was studying everything but him, he guessed she felt the same.

Sometimes words just got in the way of what a person really wanted. And at that moment the one thing Duke wanted was Oregon Jeffries in his arms. Even if she said no, even if he would regret it tomorrow, he was willing to take the chance.

He took a step toward her. As he placed a hand on her back and pulled her a little closer, she looked up at him as if she didn't have a clue what he was about to do. He leaned in, and her eyes widened. Yeah, she wasn't clueless any longer.

The first brush of his lips against hers settled it in his mind. He wanted Oregon. He wanted her in his arms, in his life. She started to pull away, but as his mouth claimed hers, she slowly kissed him back, her hands touching his arms, resting lightly on his skin. When his lips left hers and settled near her temple, he heard her soft sigh.

He didn't know if he could ever pull away from this woman. Physically maybe, but emotionally, he wasn't sure. Because in his arms, she felt right. In his arms, everything felt right. It had been a long time since he could say that about his life.

Eventually she stepped out of his arms. The last thing he wanted to see in her expression, in her eyes, was regret. But there it was, and it sliced right through him. Of course she would regret this. Of course she would think he was the same man who had used her and walked away thirteen years ago.

He drew her back and held her for a minute. “You feel good in my arms, Oregon. This feels right.”

She gave a quick shake of her head. “No. This will just be a complication. Please, just be here for Lilly.”

The last words didn't make sense. “Of course I'm going to be here for Lilly.”

Did she doubt him?

“Promise me, Duke. That's what I need from you.”

“Promises can be broken, Oregon. But I'm telling you that I'll always be in my daughter's life.”

“Thank you.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek.

Then she walked away. He stood there, watching as she went up the walk to the front door. She paused, framed in the porch light, to wave goodbye before going inside.

As he drove home he tried to make sense of what she'd said. He understood that she'd doubt him. Sometimes he doubted himself. But what Oregon had said sounded as if it was more about her and less about him.

Whatever it was, he would figure it out.

Chapter Six

T
he sun hadn't topped the eastern horizon when Oregon heard a loud banging from the direction of the barn the next morning. She started a pot of coffee and headed out the back door. The sky was still gray and the grass damp with dew that soaked through her canvas shoes. In the fog-shrouded field, the horses grazed, obviously not caring about the noise.

The steady banging sound started again. She walked through the front door of the old barn, inhaling the scent of livestock and hay. The racket continued, reverberating in the stillness of early morning. She made her way to the double doors on the opposite end of the building, pushing them open slowly. Daylight seeped in, chasing away the shadows.

She walked through the back doors and into a mess. Duke was hammering on an old tractor, his shirt already drenched in sweat, his biceps bulging as he pounded. After another strike or two on the rusted metal, he tossed the mallet or whatever he'd been using. Oregon jumped back, and it landed just a few feet from where she'd been standing.

“You okay?” She took tentative steps in his direction.

He swiped his arm across his brow. He didn't smile. No customary Duke grin or even a wink to show that he wasn't worked up about something.

“I'm fine.”

“Is this about learning you have a daughter?”

He walked past her to pick up the mallet. “No, of course not.”

“Any way I can help?”

“No, there's no way you can help.” And then he swiped a hand across his face. “I didn't mean to wake you up. I'm used to being alone out here.”

Friendship would make things easier between them. Or would that lead to complications she didn't want? “Being alone is good sometimes, but there are times when it helps to talk with a friend.”

“I appreciate it, Oregon. But I'm good. I'm just chasing away some memories.”

“I know.” Her heart ached for him, for what he was hiding so deep down that it woke him before dawn each morning.

“I'm going to church with you today. I should go. Lilly wants me to go.”

“She'll understand if you don't want—”

He raised a hand to cut her off. “Don't. I know she'll understand. But I'm not going to be that guy, the one who isn't there for his kid. She wants me to go to church, and I'm not so selfish that I'm going to ignore that just to nurse my own anger.”

“Are you angry?”

“Oregon, are you ready to tell me why you suddenly decided to make an entrance in my life with my daughter?”

“There isn't anything to tell.”

“I don't buy that.”

She looked away, toward the sun that touched the morning with golden light that would soon dissipate the fog, the dew, the coolness in the air. “I have coffee on.”

“Now that's an offer I'll take.”

“And if you ever want to talk...” Did she really want to talk with him, to share their stories? It felt safer to place him in neat little boxes. Lilly's dad. Owner of Duke's. Brother of Jake. Anything else and she was adding layers. Layers that would show his humanity.

She kept telling herself that the only thing she wanted from Duke was a man who wouldn't walk out on her daughter. It was easier that way. It kept her heart safe. No one walked out on her if she didn't let them into her life in the first place.

“I hope it's plain coffee,” Duke said.

“Plain?”

“I'm not a fan of flavored beans. Give me good old-fashioned coffee, and I'm happy.”

“No whipped cream, no ice, no mocha?” she teased, and her mood lightened, like the sky. Blue was chasing the gray away, leaving a clear sky, a beautiful morning.

“Just good, black coffee.”

She opened her back door and motioned him inside. “You're in luck. I'm a fan of plain old coffee, too.”

They were sitting on the patio when Lilly hopped out the back door, spotted them, made a face and then joined them at the table. “What's for breakfast?”

“Cereal.” Oregon stood, and then she looked at Duke. “Do you want a bowl or just coffee?”

“Just coffee,” he answered. As Oregon walked away she heard their conversation turn to horses. Lilly was still upset that her summer would be spent on crutches and not in the saddle the way she'd planned. Duke told her there were things she could do. And then he was telling her about a nice gelding he'd recently bought.

Oregon felt control slipping away.

Her phone rang as she poured milk on cereal. She reached for it as she emptied the coffeepot into a thermos. “Hi, Mom.”

“Honey, how is my granddaughter doing?” Eugenia Barker sounded sweet and homey over the phone, like any grandmother might. She sounded like a woman who baked cookies and made casseroles. But she wasn't that woman, had never been that woman.

She randomly jumped from one fad diet to the next. The latest was the “only fruits and vegetables that had dropped from the plant” diet. In Oregon's opinion, it seemed extreme. Not that she had anything against vegans or vegetarians, she just didn't like her mother's extravagances. Including her newest get-rich-quick scheme, some antiaging product she was selling out of her trunk as she traveled across the country. Eugenia knew how to reinvent herself.

“Lilly is fine. She's in less pain and getting used to the crutches,” Oregon answered as she continued to peer out the window.

“I'm so glad. I thought I'd stop in next week and see the two of you.”

“Oh.” What else could she say? It would be rude to tell her not to visit. But it was tempting. After all, her last visit to town had included attempting to halt an Easter concert in the park. Oregon wasn't sure if her mother really opposed a Christian concert or if she just got a kick from causing problems.

“You don't want me to visit? I thought you were all about forgiveness. The concert debacle was a year ago.”

“I know it was, Mom. And I do forgive.” It was the lifetime of instability that she had a hard time letting go of. It was the half-dozen stepfathers, all of whom she was required to call Daddy. It was the blank her mother had left on her birth certificate and Eugenia's refusal to reveal her father's identity.

“Of course you do. And I know Lilly will love what I'm bringing her.”

“Mom, what are you bringing?”

“Oh, don't get all upset. It's small and won't cause you any trouble.”

“Don't.”

“I'm your mother. I get to decide what I will and won't do.”

Right, of course. That's the way Oregon had lived her life—at her mother's whim. The moves, the new husbands, the new religions and diets, it had all been up to her mother. Oregon had been dragged along like a puppy on a leash.

“I'll be there in a few days,” Eugenia said. “Gotta go, sweetie. I've got an appointment.”

“Sure. Have a wonderful Sunday, Mom.”

“You know I will. I have vitamins to deliver.”

Oregon groaned as she ended the call. The last thing she wanted or needed was her mother invading. The back door opened. Duke ducked his head as he stepped inside. He gave her a cautious look.

“I thought I should see if the cereal is still crunchy and the coffee still hot. And Lilly said, from the bits of conversation that we heard, that it must be her grandmother calling to brighten your day.”

“Yes, Eugenia Barker will be here sometime next week.”

“Well, good. Martin's Crossing has gotten a little boring.” He grinned as he said it, picking up the thermos and two cups.

“I like boring,” she said. “Boring is calm. It doesn't take a person by surprise. Boring doesn't include my mother, which makes it more attractive.”

“Boring isn't a challenge,” he teased. “You bring the cereal bowls.”

“I'm going to pour them out and start over.”

“Starting over isn't always such a bad idea,” Duke said as he walked away.

Oregon closed her eyes and stood for a long moment, thinking about what he'd said. She could attach so many meanings to his one sentence. Starting over with him. Starting over on her relationship with her mother.

Starting over in Martin's Crossing.

* * *

Duke had avoided church for a long time. He'd avoided God and the thoughts of God that plagued him at night. He'd avoided prayer. Not because he didn't believe, but because he couldn't get past his anger. He had a long list of unanswered prayers. The list started with the ones he'd said years ago, for a mom who'd left and never came back. For a dad who had given up. Most recently, prayers for men who had died in Afghanistan even though he'd desperately tried to save them.

It didn't seem fair that on this Sunday in late May the sermon was about prayer. “The prayer of the righteous man availeth much,” Pastor Allen repeated twice. What did that mean? That he wasn't righteous? That his prayers didn't count?

He wanted to get up from the pew and walk out, but Lilly sat on one side of him, and Oregon on the other. Jason Allen looked at him, as if he knew all the turmoil this sermon caused him. And Oregon seemed to know, too. Her hand reached for his, and she gave it a quick, reassuring squeeze.

Not too many people got it. They wanted him to get past it, to let it go. But he couldn't close his eyes without seeing faces. So many faces. And he remembered all the letters from home, from wives, from moms and dads, from children. He remembered all the pictures that those guys had shared with him.

“Sometimes we feel like our prayers are going unanswered, as if we're hitting our heads against a wall.” Pastor Allen's words broke through the fog. Duke's gaze connected with his pastor's.

It was as if this sermon had been on hold, just waiting for his reappearance.

“Trust begins with accepting that God's got this, no matter what
this
is. God's got it. To be effective in prayer and to understand what we call ‘unanswered prayers,' we have to comprehend that we see in bits and pieces, but God sees everything.”

Duke got up and walked out. He didn't apologize. He didn't stop when Oregon tried to stop him. He left with all of his anger, all of his resentment, building like an inferno. Because words were easy when a person lived in Martin's Crossing, but men dying in battle, that was a whole other matter.

She caught up with him at his truck. He was shaking as he reached for the door, and her hand settled over his, stopping him. He started to tell her to go away, but he couldn't get the words out. He felt like he was about to cry, and he sure didn't want her to see that. A week ago she'd just been the pretty mom who lived and worked across the street from the diner. Today she was the mother of his daughter, and she was digging in deep where no one else dared to go.

Without saying a word she took his keys and told him to scoot to the passenger side. She climbed behind the wheel of his Ford King Ranch and started the thing, shifting into reverse, grinding the clutch enough to make him shudder. When the truck lurched forward a few times, it made him smile. He brushed at his eyes and leaned back in the seat, trying to let go of his anger, one sharp breath at a time.

“Lilly?” he finally asked as they were heading down the road.

“With Breezy.”

She kept driving. He kept breathing, pushing past the sound of helicopters in his memory, of men, some just kids, crying out in pain. He'd held bandages on gaping wounds that wouldn't stop bleeding and tried his best to hold their hands as they faced eternity.

He'd prayed. He hadn't thought of himself as a righteous man, just one who wanted to save a life. He'd prayed, yelling at God to help him help those men.

Oregon parked his truck at the edge of the lake. And still she didn't say anything. No one else knew, the way she seemed to know, that he needed silence to process his thoughts, his pain.

“Want to walk with me?” he asked as he got out of the truck.

“Of course.”

She met him at the water's edge, stepping carefully over the rocky ground. The water lapped the shore, and in the distance a boat motor broke the early-afternoon silence. Her hand reached for his, and he took it, holding tight as they walked.

“That was either the worst sermon to hear, or the best,” he said as they came to a fishing dock. He led her onto the floating deck that rocked gently with waves caused by a ski boat.

“Both?” she offered as they sat on a bench.

“Yeah, both.” He let out a sigh as his chest let go of the pressure that had been building over the past hour. “I can't forget their faces.”

“I'm sorry.” She didn't say more. He didn't want more. He didn't need to hear that someday he would forget, or that it would get easier. Maybe he didn't want either of those things to happen. Those soldiers who died didn't need to be forgotten. His life shouldn't get easier.

The woman sitting next to him gave a quiet, calm assurance with her very presence. He hadn't had a lot of calm in his life the past few years. He'd been happy. He'd kept busy. But calm? Not so much. He hadn't thought too much about it until lately, when she was at his side.

“I don't want to think about how God was okay with all those men dying,” he admitted.

“I know. I don't blame you.”

“Would you stop being so easy to get along with?” He lifted her hand to his lips and held it there as he closed his eyes, thinking about how guilty he felt when he slept through the night without nightmares.

“One of us has to be easy to get along with,” she said.

“Right.”

He pulled her close to his side and held her, just held her.

“I don't think God was okay with those guys dying,” she whispered against his shoulder. “I think He isn't okay with the pain it causes you. But I also think that those men were blessed to have you there with them.”

The words poured over him like a balm, simple truths that were exactly what he'd needed someone to say. He held her a little tighter and realized he could get used to having this woman in his life.

BOOK: The Rancher Takes a Bride
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