Authors: Brenda Minton
She swiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks. He pulled a tissue from the box on the counter and pushed it into her hand. She thanked him and wiped her eyes.
“I'm sorry I waited so long to tell you. I planned it out, knew what had to be said, and then didn't know how to do it. I just...didn't want her to go through what I did as a kid.”
“Don't worry. I'm not walking out on her. And I hope you're not leaving town with her.”
“I'm not going anywhere.”
“Now maybe we could discuss that horse out there she's petting.”
That distracted her from the thoughts that were putting those tears in her eyes. She glared at him. “What have you done?”
“I bought my kid her first pony. Well, not really a pony.”
“Duke, you know how I feel about this.”
He shrugged it off. “Yeah, I know you want her to earn the money. Don't worry. She'll have to continue to earn the horse by doing chores.”
“And you get to be the hero.”
“No, we'll both be the hero. Let's do this together, Oregon. Let's give our kid a horse. We'll make the rules together. That's how we'll parent her. Together. If that's acceptable to you. If not, we'll do something else.”
It took a minute but she finally nodded, agreeing to his plan. “Okay, we'll let her work for the horse you've bought. But next time, we talk before you make the decision to buy.”
“Next time I talk to you before, not after.”
Her smile returned, lighting up her gray eyes and doing something to his heart. “You're going to be a good dad, Duke.”
He couldn't have agreed more. Oregon wasn't thinking about worst case scenarios for the first time in probably a long time. And Lilly would have the best quarter horse around.
Not too shabby for his first week as a dad.
usiness on Monday morning was brisk at the diner. Duke had sent out more plates of biscuits and gravy than he could count, and someone had just ordered pie. He slid the slice of chocolate pie onto a plate and rang the bell. Ned gave him a grin and a shake of her head as she picked up the order and headed back out the door. Duke wiped the sweat from his face with a towel and took a moment to breathe. No orders waiting for him. The rush was over. At least for the time being.
He wiped down the stainless-steel counter, put eggs in the cooler and poured himself a cup of coffee as he glanced at the clock.
A moment later Ned walked through the kitchen door. She sighed big and then mumbled something about how people ought to tip once in a while. Duke glanced her way. She had poured herself a cup of coffee and she took a long drink, obviously not caring how hot it might be.
“Boss, are you doing okay?” she asked as she settled on a stool by the sink.
“Not bad, Ned. Are the customers stiffing you again?”
She shrugged and took another sip. “Not too bad. I know times are tough.”
“Yeah, but I'm not going to let you work for free.”
“I'm not working for free. And you have a daughter to think about now.”
“Yeah, a daughter.” He leaned against the counter. “Life changes so fast.”
“Yeah, not a month ago she was that cute kid of Oregon's. Now she's your daughter. That changes everything.”
“Don't I know it, Ned.”
It changed his outlook, his feelings, his future.
“I'm going to take a lap through the dining room and talk to customers. Why don't you eat?” he offered.
“I think I'll do that.” She hopped down from the stool, spry for her age and size.
He admired Ned. She could wrangle cattle, break a horse and take care of his entire dining room alone if she had to. He refilled his coffee cup and headed out of the kitchen.
As he walked into the dining room, Boone Wilder waved from the far corner booth. Next to him, Daron McKay nodded. The young woman sitting with them looked familiar, but he couldn't place her. He grabbed a chair from another table and sat at the end of the booth.
“What brings you all to town?” he asked, leaning his chair back on two legs.
“Business,” Boone answered.
Duke nodded. Boone had mentioned a business idea to him recently, something about bodyguards. Duke guessed it was really just three friends who'd done a tour in Afghanistan together trying to figure out how to stay in each other's lives and stay sane. He understood. Cooking had been his sanity.
Daron pushed his plate back. Daron McKay's dad had a law firm in Austin. They had a hobby farm outside Martin's Crossing. A few nice horses, some cattle and a lot of society friends who liked to come down for weekends. It wasn't Duke's crowd.
“I need to head out. Boone, we'll talk later in the week,” the young woman said as she tossed a few dollars on the table. “That should cover my coffee.”
“Sounds good.” Boone, raised old-fashioned, stood as she slid out of the booth.
She smiled at Duke, the kind of smile that definitely didn't settle in her dark eyes. “Mr. Martin, good to see you.”
He put a finger to his brow in a salute.
Boone sat back down, reaching for his coffee as he did.
“Lucy isn't charming, but she's tough,” Daron said. “Good breakfast this morning, Duke.”
Duke moved his chair back to the table it'd come from and sat in the booth opposite Boone and Daron. “Lucy looks familiar.”
“Her dad was Paulo Palermo,” Daron answered.
“Died on a bull a few years ago, didn't he?” Duke asked. The two men nodded. “So you're serious about this business.”
“Serious as we can be,” Daron answered. “How's your little girl doing? Recovering from the accident?”
Duke nearly spilled his coffee. His little girl. It still unsettled him when people mentioned it. He tried to pretend interest in whatever he saw outside the window. Instead, he relived the accident in his mind. The moment the car touched her body and she went down. He'd been standing outside waiting for her, because he'd felt protective of her from the day she first walked through the doors of the diner.
It all felt different now somehow, because it hadn't happened to a stranger. It had been his daughter, his little girl, on the pavement in front of that car.
“Duke, you okay?” Boone asked.
Duke shook free from his thoughts. “Yeah, I'm good. Thanks for asking. She's much better. I gave her a horse yesterday.”
Boone chuckled at that. “Nice.”
“How are your folks doing?” Duke said, changing the conversation to something a little easier to handle. For him. Boone shrugged and shook his head at the question.
“Broke. They're buying back some cattle, but it hasn't been easy. Dad is better, though, so that makes all the difference.”
Boone's dad had suffered a major heart attack, and they'd nearly lost everything. Duke guessed that's why the younger man wanted to start a business.
“Glad to hear that.” Duke looked out the window again. Oregon had wandered out of her shop to hang something on the outside of the building. Lilly stood next to her, swinging back and forth on the crutches.
A moment later Joe came down the sidewalk, stopping to talk to them. Duke had always heard fatherhood changed a man. He guessed that had to be right, because for the first time he cared about who Joe Anderson might be, and why he'd stayed in Martin's Crossing.
“Problem?” Daron asked.
“No, just...” What did he say? He suddenly had suspicions for no good reason? “It's just... Do you guys ever wonder who Joe is, where he came from?”
“Hasn't everyone?” Boone answered with casual indifference. “They ran Joe Anderson through the computer and came up with nothing.”
“Maybe that isn't his name.”
“Wow, suspicious all of a sudden?” Boone said. “I don't think he'd hurt that little girl, if that's what you're thinking.”
“I guess it is.”
A daughter changed a man, made him more careful, less trusting. Besides, Joe had taken to leaving town for a couple of days at a time. He didn't say much about where he was going or when he'd be back.
“We should be going,” Boone said. “We have an appointment in Austin.”
Boone slid out of the booth and Daron followed.
“I'll walk you out,” Duke offered, his thoughts still distracted. A little fresh air might help.
As they walked out the door of the diner, warm air welcomed them. Duke took off his hat and brushed a hand through his hair. Daron and Boone didn't make a move to leave.
Across the street Oregon stood on a step stool, and Lilly handed her a pretty glass globe. His gaze settled on Oregon. She wore a pretty sundress, bright colors all swirled together. Her hair was pulled back from her face. She reached up to adjust the string that held the globe. He should go over and offer to help. Not that she'd want it.
But he wouldn't mind standing close to her, holding the ladder so she didn't fall. He shook his head. She'd lived across the street from his diner for the past year, and suddenly he'd gone from casual observer of his pretty neighbor to a man who wouldn't mind walking across the street and taking her in his arms.
A year, or even six months ago, he hadn't known she could bring a sense of peace to his heart. He hadn't known how holding her would shift things inside him.
Just then, Boone Wilder cleared his throat. Duke glared at him. “Need anything else, Boone?”
Boone pushed the cowboy hat down on his head and raised a brow. “Yeah, actually. You know, we could do a little digging and find out who Joe is. Something tells me you'd rest a little easier knowing the truth.”
“And how are we going to do that digging?”
Boone's gaze shifted across the street, and Duke followed that casual glance. Lilly had rounded the side of a building, and Joe pointed at something in the eaves. Probably a bird's nest.
“I have a friend. He used to be a state trooper, and now he's a PI. He might dig something up,” Daron offered.
It only took Duke a minute of watching his daughter with Joe to make a decision. “Yeah, tell him to dig.”
Boone nodded, and Daron tipped his hat. The two said their goodbyes and headed down the steps. At the same time Lilly crossed the street, beaming from ear to ear. When she got to the diner steps, she shifted the crutches out from under her arms and hopped, using the rail to make her way up.
“Your mom is watching,” he warned when she reached his side.
“Yeah, but she wouldn't want to try those steps with crutches, either. Besides, they're going to give me a walking cast soon.”
“Yeah, but she also doesn't want you to break your other leg.”
She rolled her eyes as she placed the crutches back under her arms. “I came to sweep the deck. It's probably going to be a busy lunch crowd and since it's not too hot, people might want to sit outside.”
“I can do it.”
“Of course you can.” They both walked inside.
“I have a horse to earn.” She grinned big. It was the same grin he'd seen yesterday when they told her the gelding was hers on the condition that she continue to do chores. She'd hugged Oregon first, then she'd hugged him. It had felt like the best day of his life.
“Mom said I could stay with you sometime. If you want.”
She rolled her eyes. “You're my dad, right? That's what kids do. They stay with their dads. Well, some kids live with their moms and dads. But I'm okay with having you down the road. That's better than not having you at all.”
He didn't know what to say.
“Are you going to pass out?” Lilly asked as she reached for the broom.
Standing in the kitchen, she watched him, concern in her big blue eyes. He looked from her to the broom. How was she going to sweep?
“No, I don't pass out. And I don't see how you can do this.”
She sighed, hopping past him on one crutch, the broom in her hand. “I'm getting pretty good on these.”
“Yes, you are. But be careful.” She shook her head at him as she went out the door.
He followed Lilly outside. If she insisted on doing this, he would keep an eye on her. He carried her other crutch and watched her as she started to sweep.
“What's your mom doing today?” He looked from his daughter to the shop across the street. Oregon had gone back inside.
Lilly kept sweeping. “She doesn't feel good. She said maybe it's a stomach virus. She's sitting in the back room sewing skirts and hoping no one comes in.”
“Does she need anything?”
“No, she just wants to be alone. But I'm worried. She was like this last year when she got sick.”
“She got sick last year?” He pushed himself off the rail and walked down the length of deck to where Lilly was sweeping. He rested the forgotten crutch against the rail so she could grab it if needed.
Lilly stopped sweeping to face him. “Yeah, before we moved here. It was just a virus, but it took her a long time to get over it.”
“Is that when you stayed with friends for a month?”
She nodded. “But it wasn't because she was sick. They had a ranch and horses. I think my grandma was married to Pamela's dad once, and she and my mom have stayed friends.”
“Gotcha. So you're okay here? I think I'll go check and see if your mom needs tea or maybe soup.”
“She won't, but go ahead.” She swept a few more strokes and stopped again. “It worries me when she's sick because she looks worried.”
He kissed the top of his daughter's head. “You don't have to worry. You're not alone. Your mom isn't alone.”
“Yeah, I know. But we've always kind of taken care of each other.”
“And now there are three of us to take care of each other.” He handed her the other crutch. “Take a break. Ned will make you a shake.”
Her smile returned, bright and sweet. “Thanks.”
He watched her go inside before he bounded down the steps and headed for
Oregon's All Things
, the shop she'd opened when she came to town. He walked through the front door, the bell ringing lightly. The room smelled of apple pie, courtesy of the candle on the counter. Oregon didn't greet him. He walked to the back of the shop and knocked on the door to her apartment.
A faint “One moment” was her only answer.
He didn't feel like waiting. Instead, he pushed the door open and invaded her space. Because if she was sick, she didn't need space. She needed help.
She needed him.
* * *
Oregon opened her eyes when the door opened. She should have known it would be him. She didn't know if she should be angry or thankful at his invasion.
“You're sick?” he asked as he hovered over her, a great hulk of a man with broad shoulders a woman could lean on, and concern shadowing his blue eyes like she meant something to him.
“It's just a virus. Did Lilly come over and make a bigger deal out of this than it is?”
“She's worried about you. She said the last time you were sick you sent her away for a month.”
“It wasn't like that. I had a virus, and it took me a while to get over it. But Pamela wanted her for a month that summer.”
He placed his large hand on her forehead. “No fever.”
She closed her eyes at the cool touch of his hand, shivering when he brushed fingers down her cheek. “Please sit down. You're looming. It makes me feel a little overwhelmed.”
“I want to know the truth.”
“The truth is, I think I ate something that disagreed with me, and you and Lilly are making a big deal out of nothing.” She smiled at him, hoping she looked convincing. She was fine. No need to worry.
If only she could believe that herself.