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Authors: Brenda Minton

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BOOK: The Rancher Takes a Bride
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“You know I'm here if you need anything?”

“Yes, I know. I appreciate that. But I really don't need anything.”

“Tea? Crackers?”

“I have ginger tea, and I'm not really hungry.”

He leaned toward her, his elbows resting on his knees as he studied her. She glanced away, because she didn't want him to look too closely. She didn't want him to see her fear. She didn't want him to see the emotions she barely understood or recognized. Because she needed him in ways she hadn't expected.

Being here, so close to him, she realized that he made her feel safe. He made her feel protected. She tried to think of any other man who had ever done that for her.

There hadn't been any. Not one.

It wasn't fair. It shouldn't be this man. Not now. A tear slid down her cheek. She brushed it away, turning from him so that he wouldn't see.

But he did see. His hand traced the damp path of the tear. He mumbled something and suddenly she was in his arms, held against him. She wanted to fight the embrace, but she couldn't. His arms felt too good, too strong and comforting to fight.

“Just tell me what I can do.”

“There's nothing you can do. I'm...” She prayed she wasn't lying. “I'm fine.”

“Of course you are.” He held her tight, and she curled into him until she realized what she was doing.

She pulled herself together and moved out of his arms. “I am.”

He grinned, and her heart unfortunately somersaulted. “Let me take you to the doctor.”

“No, thank you. If I need to go to the doctor, I'll go. But I don't.”

“Okay, no doctor. Go home for the day. Lilly is fine with me. You can sleep, rest up for your mom's visit, and I'll bring dinner later.”

She wanted to tell him she could take care of herself. After all, she'd been doing just that for years. She'd taken care of herself and Lilly. She'd made it through the best and worst of times alone.

Alone. She squeezed her eyes shut and remembered the day Lilly was born. Oregon had been alone with just a nurse to hold her hand, offering to call someone for her, anyone.

She could have called her mom, but Eugenia had been in California, and Oregon had been in Oklahoma. Duke had been long gone.

But he was here now.

“I'll drive you home.”

“I'm fine. Really.” But a sudden pain in her abdomen took her breath away.

“That's it. We're going home. Now.” He pulled keys from his pocket. “Let's go. Lilly can stay with Ned while we're gone.”

“But...”

He placed a finger on her lips to stop her from speaking.

“Do
not
argue with me.”

He scooped her into his arms, holding her as easily as he would hold a child. He carried her out the back door to the parking lot. People stared. Of course they did. She shut her eyes so that she wouldn't have to see who all witnessed her humiliation.

She didn't want anyone to watch her fall. She couldn't fall. Not in love. She couldn't imagine trusting someone with her heart, trusting that he wouldn't leave. She couldn't imagine anyone loving her enough to want to stay in her life.

“Here we are.” His words vibrated against her, and he reached to open the truck door. With careful ease he sat her in the truck. “Stay. I'll be right back.”

“Bossy man.”

“You'd better believe it.”

Oregon watched him cross the road to the restaurant. He spoke to Lilly, who glanced toward the truck, and even from a distance Oregon saw the worried frown on her daughter's face. That was the last thing she wanted. A daughter shouldn't have to worry about her mother. She should be carefree, playing with friends, talking about boys. All of the things girls did at that age. The last thing Oregon wanted for her daughter was to have her become the adult in their relationship. Oregon had lived that childhood. She wouldn't let that happen to Lilly. Ever.

Duke returned, opened the driver's-side door and got behind the wheel. “You okay?”

“I'm good.”

“Do you need anything before we leave town?” He started the truck and pulled onto the road.

“I can't think of anything.”

Duke drove her home in silence. When they pulled up to the little house she'd managed to turn into a home in the past week, she knew that Duke would try to carry her again. She couldn't let him. She was strong enough to walk. But her heart wasn't strong enough to endure his chivalrous, cowboy nature. Before he could reach her, she was out and on her own two feet, proving that she was just fine.

She drew in a deep breath and headed for the house, telling herself she really was fine. The virus would pass in a day or two, and she would be back to normal.

“Let me settle you on the sofa, maybe get you a cup of mint tea.” Duke opened the front door for her.

Oregon chuckled.

“What's so funny?” He grabbed pillows and plumped them on the sofa.

“You, hovering like a nursemaid and offering mint tea. I'm picturing you in a nurse's cap, or with an apron.”

He covered her with an afghan and for a moment she held her breath, thinking he would kiss her. She wanted that kiss. Then she didn't. Not today, when her heart might make more of a kiss than it actually meant. Fortunately, he backed away, and the moment evaporated like mist in the morning sun.

“I'm very secure in my manhood. Secure enough to make mint tea.”

She touched his hand, letting her fingers briefly curl in his. “Your secret is safe with me.”

He winked and walked away, leaving her to dangerous thoughts about him. She closed her eyes and prayed, because God had gotten her this far. He wouldn't leave her now.

Chapter Nine

T
he next day, Oregon felt better. She convinced herself it really had been a virus, nothing more. Nothing to fear. As she walked through the doors of her shop, she said a silent prayer of thanks. Because for a day or two she had started to doubt everything God had done for her. And He had done so much. She had this shop, a business that was beginning to prosper. She had Lilly.

She wasn't going to take any of it, not one thing, not one person, not one day, for granted. She shoved her purse under a table in the back room and dragged out the new shelves she planned on hanging. Lilly came in through the front door, a grin on her face.

“Guess who's here?” Lilly asked, holding the door open with the tip of a crutch.

“I have no idea.” But her heart sank, thinking it might be her mother early.

“Brody.” Lilly moved forward, and Brody stepped in behind her.

“I saw you carrying in something that looked like a project,” he said with a casual shrug.

Carefree, that's what everyone thought of Brody Martin. Oregon didn't agree. He wanted them all to think that nothing bothered him. But she saw the shadows in his blue eyes. Brody had a lot on his mind.

“I'm putting up new shelves,” she admitted. “I have a few new items that I need space for.”

“I can help,” he offered. “I've obviously just been sitting around for months, so I should probably find something to do.”

Oregon touched his arm briefly. Brody didn't look like a man needing to be comforted. He looked like a man trying to find his place in the world. “Is there anything...”

He cut her off. “Oh, don't worry about me, Oregon. I'm just going through growing pains, trying to convince my brothers to stop treating me like a kid.”

“I know it isn't easy. They're...”

“Overbearing?” he suggested.

“Sometimes. But they mean well.” She poured a cup of coffee and offered him one. He shook his head.

“No coffee for me. But if you show me where you want these shelves, I'd be happy to help out.”

Lilly had wandered outside when the conversation had turned serious. She returned to watch as they dragged the lumber and the brackets to the front of the store. Oregon had painted the wood white, giving it a country look that she hoped would work with the rest of the store.

As they were measuring where the shelves would be placed, the front door of the shop opened, the bell tinkling softly. Joe stepped in, and his face lit up when he spotted Lilly.

“There's our girl,” he said. “How are you doing, sweet pea?”

Oregon glanced from Joe to her daughter, who beamed at the nickname he'd bestowed on her almost from the beginning of their relationship. When he'd first arrived in town, Oregon had been cautious of Joe. But he'd been in town since late last fall, and he'd become a big part of the church and their community.

“I'm good. A little bored.” Lilly scooted around a display case to meet Joe in the center of the store. “I can't swim. Or even ride a horse. I wanted to learn to ride this summer.”

“Oh, it'll get easier. And time will fly by. I think it won't be long before you'll be doing all of that fun stuff.”

“Yeah, probably.” Her agreement wasn't wholehearted.

Joe only smiled. “How is that horse fund going?”

At that she perked up. “Duke gave me a horse. I still have to work for it, and I can't ride him until my cast is off, but his name is Chief, and he's beautiful.”

“I'd like to see him sometime.”

“Yeah, maybe you can come out some night this week. My grandma is coming in. Well, she doesn't like to be called Grandma. I call her JeanJean.”

“Oh, I see.” Joe went a little pale. Mention of her mother could do that to people. “Well, I'd love to do that. But I might be gone for a week or so. Maybe your grandmother will still be here when I get back?”

Lilly shook her head. “No, she won't stay long.”

“Well, maybe next time.” Joe touched Lilly's head, smoothing her dark hair. Oregon noticed the light going out of his eyes. “I'll see you soon.”

He said his goodbyes and walked down the sidewalk.

“Odd old man,” Brody muttered as he went back to work on the brackets for the shelves.

“But kind.” Oregon watched out the window as Joe reached the end of the block. He turned east, and she wondered where he was headed.

Lilly moved over to the window, watching as kids raced down the road on bikes, probably heading to the park. The girl let out a forlorn sigh. Oregon patted her back as she walked past her to rejoin Brody at the shelving. She knew that nothing she could say would change how Lilly felt.

“I want something to do.” Lilly joined Oregon and Brody, leaning forward on the crutches and swinging a little.

“Don't fall. That's something you can do for me.” Oregon handed the shortest board to Brody, and he lifted it to put it on the top brackets.

“But I'm bored,” Lilly continued.

“You could read a book or watch television,” Oregon said.

“Go see what your dad is up to. Maybe he has something you can do,” Brody offered.

Oregon's heart stopped at the word
dad
. She glanced at Lilly and saw her stricken, wide-eyed look. That three-letter word had changed all of their lives but it wasn't the word Lilly used for Duke. Not yet.

Brody turned to look at them, his eyes narrowing a little. “What?”

Lilly just looked at him.

“He is your dad, right?” Brody said.

“Yeah, he is.” Lilly bit down on her bottom lip. Oregon waited. “Sometimes it doesn't seem real. He's still just Duke to me.”

“I get that. I'm sure if I ever find my mom, it won't seem real, either. And I've always known she existed.”

They were quite a trio, Oregon decided. Brody, always wondering where his mother was. Lilly just learning she had a father. And Oregon never knowing who her father was.

“So I guess I could go see if he has something for me to do, since I can't ride bikes or anything,” Lilly said, looking totally unsure. Was she waiting for Oregon to object?

“Sure you can,” Oregon said. “If you decide to stay over there, call and let me know.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Lilly hugged her, then she was gone.

After she'd left, Brody patted Oregon awkwardly on the arm. “You aren't losing her, you know.”

“I know.” She pinched the bridge of her nose until the sting left her eyes. “Okay, let's get back to work.”

When she opened her eyes, Brody was watching her.

“He's going to be a good dad.” Brody reached for the second board. “He used to be pretty wild, but he's settled down and knows how to be there for a person.”

“I know you're right, but it isn't easy.”

“No, I guess it wouldn't be.” He situated the shelf in place. “Do you think I'm crazy, trying to find Sylvia?”

His mother. She shook her head. “No, I think you have questions, and only she can supply the answers.”

They were placing the last shelf on the wall when the door opened. Duke ducked his head to enter the shop.

“I have to run errands, then do some work out at the ranch. Lilly wants to go with me, if you don't mind.”

For a brief moment she hesitated. She knew they were going to do things together. Without her. But this was different than Lilly running across the street to Duke's. Every day they were taking steps further into each other's lives. Oregon had even agreed that Lilly could sometimes stay at Duke's house.

She nodded, letting go of the need to hold Lilly close. “Yes, of course. I'll be home later.”

“I'll cook dinner,” Duke said as he walked out the door.

“Thank you.”

Oregon watched as he got in his truck. From the passenger-side window, Lilly waved a happy goodbye. This was one thing in her life she didn't have to worry about. She only had to let go and trust.

* * *

Duke paused in the center of the corral to adjust the stirrup that held his daughter's foot, and then walked to the other side to the makeshift stirrup he'd created for her cast. Yeah, it probably wasn't the best idea. But Lilly had been waiting a long time for this horse.

He didn't realize he'd been waiting a long time for her. He patted her knee and looked up at her. She beamed, like the happiest kid in the world. She didn't know it, but she was making him about the happiest man. This kid and her mom were putting back the pieces of him that he'd thought were missing for good.

Each day he felt a little more hopeful. He'd had fewer nightmares of late, too. He was able to face God without the anger of the past few years. Yeah, life was pretty good.

In the distance he heard a car coming up the road. He knew it was Oregon. Lilly groaned, “Oh, no.”

“We're in trouble now,” Duke said as he led the gelding around the corral. But it wasn't just Lilly in the saddle that was going to cause Oregon some stress. The woman sitting on the patio would probably be Oregon's worst nightmare. Her mother had been there an hour.
Pleasant
hadn't been the right word to describe her.

“Should I get down?” Lilly asked.

“I don't see a reason to go running now. She's seen us. Now we just have to defend our position.”

“Good luck with that,” Lilly said in a loud whisper. “She's mad.”

He braved a look in Oregon's direction as she got out of her car. Yes, that was one unhappy woman.

He led the horse through the gate and toward Oregon. She now stood in front of her car, arms crossed over her chest. She looked from him to her daughter on the back of the gelding. A breeze kicked up, blowing strands of dark hair across her cheek. She brushed them back with an impatient gesture.

Something about her anger made him a little unsettled. Not in a bad way. No, sir. He wanted to kiss that frown off her face. He brightened at the thought and she probably noticed. Which was probably why her frown grew.


This
is what you call being responsible?” Oregon accused.

“No, this is what I call spending an afternoon teaching my daughter how to ride.”

Daughter. Dad.
Duke loved using those words. He hadn't expected to feel this way. He had never expected to want this. Man, he loved his daughter. He grinned a little more, but after looking at Oregon, the smile dissolved.

Her expression was a real mixture of anger and concern and fear.

“She's safe, Oregon. I wouldn't do anything to hurt her. I've had the lead rope the entire time. And Chief is as gentle as they come.”

“I'm sure he is.” Oregon's gaze shot past him to the car with Florida tags. “I guess this is the least of my worries.”

“Yeah, I thought about warning you.” He moved a little closer but stayed near the horse and near Lilly.

It felt a lot like shielding her. If he stood there, it would keep her from the woman who had a tendency to unsettle her world. It would make her feel safe.

“She shouldn't be on a horse, Duke.” Oregon's arms dropped to her sides, and she looked just about defeated. And there was something in her eyes that said more. He shouldn't be giving Lilly this moment, not without Oregon.

He considered telling Oregon she'd had a lot of firsts, too. He'd missed out on twelve years of firsts. Now wasn't the time to go there. Nothing would get him back those twelve years.

“She's safe. I'm right here if anything happened.”

“Yes, I know. I'm sorry.” She let out a ragged sigh. “If you can help her down, I'll go speak to my mother.”

“Wait a minute, and we'll all go together.” He extended the support like a peace offering, hoping it would soothe her.

“Yes, well...” Eugenia stood and started walking their way. “Never mind, she's coming to us.”

As if she didn't understand the turmoil she caused, Oregon's mom headed toward them. When she reached them, she embraced Oregon tightly. Duke got wrapped up in a cloud of perfume and nearly choked. Eugenia Jeffries was a combination of copper-colored hair, pale face and clothes meant for a woman decades younger.

“Oregon, honey, I'm so glad to see you. You look wonderful. So healthy. But a little pale. Are you feeling okay?”

“Mom, you just said I look healthy.” Oregon slipped from her mother's embrace.

“Well, yes, healthy but pale. I don't know, maybe it's just the stress of dealing with these Martins. They do tend to take over, and they will not listen when a person tries to reason with them.”

“Mom...”

“I'm just saying, I told him not to put my granddaughter on a horse. He insisted he knows what he's doing. But isn't that just how they are? They think they run this town.”

“Mom!” Oregon tried again. Duke was ready to send her mother packing.

“Oh, don't worry. I'm not here to cause problems. I get it. They don't want to hear my opinions about their church and their community events. I'm just saying, they should try to be more inclusive.”

“The way you are when you insist that everyone bend to your will? Change their beliefs to suit you?” Oregon rushed the words out, and Duke wanted to hug her. “Mom, just stop. Please. Come in, have dinner with us.”

Eugenia threw her hands up in the air, bracelets jangling. “Yes, of course. Whatever you want.”

“That's what I want. I want peace.”

“I'm just here to help you out. And I brought Lilly a gift. I brought it in the house while she was riding. I didn't want her to see it until you got home.”

“Oh, the surprise. I forgot.” Oregon looked less than thrilled. She looked up at her daughter, still sitting on her horse, then at Duke. “You should probably help her down while we go inside.”

“Her crutches are in the barn. We'll be up at the house in a few minutes.” Duke rested a hand on the horse's neck.

BOOK: The Rancher Takes a Bride
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