When Ethel gobbled the carrot chunk from Landon’s hand, he shrieked with happiness.

Both he and Jessie winced. “We’ve gotta find a better way for him to communicate.”

“Agreed. I’m almost finished.”

“With all the animals?”

“No, just the llamas. See? Here come the horses.”

The six horses trotted in from the pasture, tossing their manes, as if eating the hay Jessie had spread out was of no consequence. That if they truly wanted something better, they could’ve gotten it themselves.

Temperamental damn things. He preferred cows. They ate. They bred. They calved. They either went through the cycle again or went away. Simple.

You used to like horses. You used to want to implement a breeding program.

But it’d become just another thing Casper McKay had ridiculed and Brandt let that idea go.

Landon squirmed to be let down. Brandt crouched beside him next to the fence and gave him a play by play of what Jessie was doing. The kid actually seemed to be listening.

Maybe that’s because someone is taking the time to talk to him.

Samantha hadn’t been forthcoming about her parenting skills, probably because they were lacking.

As Brandt was about to hoist Landon onto his hip, the gate opened and Lexie tore out. Landon gave chase before Brandt could grab onto his hood and stop him. Damn. The kid was fast.

“Hey, wait a second. Come back here.”

“Let him run.”

He’d known the instant Jessie came up behind him, even before she spoke. It might’ve been the scent of her cherry Chapstick carried on the wind. Or it might’ve been the sound her coveralls made as she walked closer. A sound he’d heard a lot in the year they spent together doing chores. He faced her. “Need me to do anything?”

“No. Unless you wanna stay out here and watch Landon run his legs off while I shower.”

“You thinking what I’m thinking?”

She smiled. “I can wash my own back, but thanks for offering.”

Holy hell. That wasn’t what he’d been thinking at all. But now that she’d brought it up, Brandt couldn’t get the image of her wet, nekkid body out of his mind. Watching the water sluice over her curves through a cloud of steam surrounding her. Steam that hung heavy and damp with the sweet scent of her soap. Or with the musky aroma from her…


Dammit. He looked toward Landon to hide his blush. “The offer stands. Any time. However, I was thinkin’ along the lines of the longer I keep him out here, the earlier he’ll hit the hay tonight.”

“Good plan. Come in whenever you guys are ready.”

Brandt commended his willpower in not turning around and watching her hips sway as she headed to the house.

Snap out of it, man. This is the first day. If she catches you eyeballing her ass, she’ll kick yours right out the door.

True. But that pesky feeling of hope arose, that feeling he’d all but stomped out when she’d shot him down last year. Given months to reflect, he understood how lousy his timing had been.

Landon started to fall asleep during supper. While Brandt bathed him, Jessie washed the dishes. She’d changed into sweat pants after her shower, and when he returned to the living room after putting Landon down for the night, he had to stop and grip the back of the reclining chair.

How many nights had they spent just like this? Jessie sitting cross-legged on the couch, engrossed in her knitting. Him watching TV, or pretending to watch TV when it was far more interesting to covertly watch her.

They’d spent dozens of nights together. Revisiting those nights gave him the same sharp ache of want he’d felt back then.

Jessie looked up. Her gaze flicked over him and she smiled. “Nice jammies.”

Brandt glanced down at the camo fleece pants and camo tank top. Okay, maybe they didn’t match, but they didn’t look that bad. “Hey, at least I’m wearin’ jammies. Normally I sleep commando.”

“Must be a family thing. Luke did too.”

A perfectly natural comment, but for some reason it rubbed him wrong. He plopped right beside her.

He leaned over and peered at the twisted ball of yarn on her lap. “Whatcha makin’?”

She held up a brown blob. “A mess. It’s supposed to be a hat for my mom’s husband for Christmas. It sort of looks like a cowpie right now, huh?”

“Maybe. But it don’t smell like one.”

“You’re so sweet.”

Brandt held his breath, expecting her to say something about Luke being sweet, too, but she just sighed.

“You wanna watch X-Files reruns? This is pointless tonight.” She set aside her knitting. “I’m too wound up.”

“I’m sorry you had a rough morning. Think tomorrow will be easier?”

“I hope so. I don’t know if I can stand being the kid’s last choice for the next four months.” She expelled a soft, bitter laugh. “Although I should be used to it. Like father like son, right?”

That crack about Luke didn’t sit any better with Brandt than the first one did.

Jessie sighed again. “Sorry. I should probably haul my cranky self to bed.”

He reached for her hand. “Stay. Drink a beer with me. We’ll heckle the bizarre plot line and wonder why in the hell Mulder and Scully don’t just get it on already. Jesus. How long can they drag out the sexual tension when it’s obvious the two of them belong together?”

She faced him and frowned. “It takes them a while, but they do end up together. We watched the last season, last year, remember?”

Not really. As usual, he’d been more interested in gawking at Jessie. “I must’ve forgot.”

“You forgot that Mulder and Scully drove off toward a happy future?”

“Yeah. It’s easier to believe in monsters because happily ever after doesn’t happen in real life.”

Jessie gave him a curious look before she tossed him the remote. “One episode. Then I’m going to bed.”

Landon’s behavior Tuesday at daycare was marginally better than Monday.

Landon’s behavior Wednesday at daycare was markedly better than Tuesday.

Landon’s behavior Thursday at daycare was good enough he stayed the entire day.

Brandt and Jessie had fallen into an easy evening routine—too easy. The three of them fed the animals together. They ate supper together. Brandt bathed Landon and tucked him in bed. Then he and Jessie watched TV together until one of them or both of them fell asleep. If she conked out first, he’d watch her like a fucking perv, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Something about seeing her so unguarded in sleep reinforced the idea she was vulnerable and strengthened his resolve to protect her at all costs.

Even if he was the one most dangerous to her.

So when they were offered a break in the routine, Brandt grabbed it, telling Jessie his mother wanted to have Landon for an hour or so after supper. But first on their to-do list was outfitting Landon for winter weather.

As far as shopping went, Brandt didn’t mind the farm supply store. Tisdale’s carried everything essential to ranching and he usually ran into someone he knew. It hadn’t occurred to him that might not be a good thing until it happened.

He and Jessie were in the boot section of Tisdale’s, trying to figure out if rubber boots worn over shoes were a better choice than simple snow boots. Since neither he nor Jessie had shoe shopped for a toddler, getting Landon to sit still proved a major obstacle.

“No. Put those back. We don’t want anything with laces.”

Brandt held up the camouflage boots. “But they have drawstrings on the top. They’ll stay tied.”

Landon reached for them with a possessive grunt.

“See? He loves them. They’re hip. And manly.”

Jessie grumbled and let go of Landon for two seconds. The kid was off like an antelope.

“Dammit, Landon, get back here.” Shit. He wasn’t supposed to swear. He snagged the boy by the waist and hung him upside down on the trip back to the boot department. Landon shrieked, the good kind of shrieks, but still, he was awful damn loud.

“Now sit on Jessie’s lap and be a good boy so we can get this over with, okay?”

Landon nodded and Brandt grinned. The kid was already getting better at communicating and it’d only been a few days.


He whirled around and looked into the beady eyes of Margene Hieb. Margene and her husband Larry lived up the road from his folks. They’d been friendly neighbors for years until their oldest daughter, Pandora, became the walking wounded due to Luke’s heartbreaking ways. Consequently, Margene took every opportunity to run her mouth off about anything less than flattering about the McKay family—and there always seemed to be plenty to talk about.

“Margene.” Brandt peered over Margene’s shoulder. “Where’s Larry?”

“At home.” She sidestepped Brandt and stood in front of Jessie. “Oh my. It is true. I wasn’t sure, you know how rumors are, never know how they get started.”

Usually by people like you.

“He really looks like his father, doesn’t he?”

Jessie said not a word.

Margene sighed. “Such a shame that Luke won’t be around to watch him grow up. It’s an even bigger shame…” She shook her head at Jessie. “I don’t know how on earth you’re just sitting there, holding him, like he was your own. Granted, he is a cute little boy, and you were married to his father, but I don’t see

how you can overlook the fact he was born on the wrong side of the sheets.”

“She can overlook that fact, Mom, because Jessie was used to Luke cheating on her, like he cheated on everyone before her.” Pandora, mean, nasty Pandora, tossed her fat head and Brandt thought he might’ve seen a snake or two trying to slither out of her hair. “Honestly, the only thing that surprises me?

That more of his secret spawn haven’t shown up. The man couldn’t keep his pants zipped to save his life.”