Since Simone had started at Sky Blue six months ago, she wasn’t aware of Jessie’s history with the McKays, Brandt in particular. Which hadn’t been all bad, because Simone saw her as Jessie, her work pal, her sometime barhopping buddy. Not as that-poor-young-widow-Jessie-and-isn’t-it-a-shame-her-husband-ran-around-on-her-all-the-time phrase the locals used to describe her. She shuddered to think what other description had been added since Landon’s appearance.


“That’s it? No shirt?”


“No shirt. And if you think he’s drool-worthy in Wranglers? You oughta see that perfect butt and those muscled legs in the flesh. Not to mention how awesomely buff his chest is. Totally lickable. I’ve known him for four years and I had no idea the man had pipes like that.” This was the fun part hanging with Simone; she could say whatever popped into her head and Simone didn’t judge her for it. Simone didn’t consider Jessie too sweet or too innocent looking to have such lewd thoughts or call bullshit on Jessie’s opinion.


Not that what she’d just said about Brandt McKay’s slamming body was bullshit. It was all too real and all too close.


“I oughta slap some sense into you, Jessie girl.”


“Why?”


“Because to hear you talk about cowboy hottie, you’ve been paying very close attention to him a lot longer than you’ll admit to. Which means you want him.”


Duh. But she couldn’t have him.


Why not?


Because I fear he’s a package deal and he wants more than I’m willing to give him.


Two raps sounded on the door. She and Simone whirled around to see…Brandt McKay lounging in the doorway.


Holy freakin’ crap. Had he heard their raunchy girl talk, with him starring front and center?


“Hey, cowboy hottie. We were just talking about—ow! Jessie, what the hell?”


She’d pelted Simone with a marker to shut her up. “Sorry. It must’ve slipped.” She ignored the wash of humiliation and focused on cowboy hottie. Dammit. Now Simone even had her calling him that.


“Brandt. I thought you left?”


“So I gathered,” he said dryly.


So he had heard them. “What’s wrong?”


“Nothin’. I realized I forgot Landon’s snow boots.”


“Oh. They’re in his cubby. I’ll grab them.”


“I know where his cubby is.” He crouched and pulled the boots from the bottom shelf. “I figured he might get a little muddy this weekend.”


“With all that rodeoin’ and wild McKay man time.”


He stared at her quizzically, which made her curious about which part of the conversation he’d overheard.


“What?” she asked, a little testily.


“Just wondering where you ladies were headed to tonight?”


Simone shrugged. “Wherever, whenever and whatever.”


“Which is Simone’s way of telling you she doesn’t have a freakin’ clue what we’re doing.”


“Well, wherever you end up, if you have a little too much liquid fun and need a ride, just call. I’d be happy to pick you up and take you home.”


She knew Brandt meant both of them, but he didn’t look at Simone even once. “Thanks, but—”


“We’ll keep it in mind,” Simone inserted smoothly. “It’s always good to have a man on standby.”


Brandt’s intense gaze never strayed from hers. “That’s something I’m very familiar with, isn’t it, Jessie? Bein’ on standby.”


Her mouth became desert dry and her tongue useless.


“Later, ladies.” And he was gone.


She sagged against the wall. Another reminder that everything had changed last night. Not only when he’d held her tightly and told her to scream her frustration into the wind and darkness. After returning to her house and tucking Landon in bed, they’d sat on the couch, heckling some stupid horror movie. At some point, she’d curled into him and had fallen asleep. Then she was in Brandt’s arms. He hadn’t done more than tenderly brush her hair from her face after depositing her on the bed fully clothed, but it’d felt intimate. It’d left her unsettled. Mostly because it’d left her wanting more of him.


“Earth to Jessie.”


Her gaze zoomed to Simone’s. “Sorry. What did you say?”


“I said we’re hitting the pizza and beer joint. And you’re gonna tell me everything about your past with the cowboy hottie.”


“Simone—”


“No arguing. And if you’re lucky, I won’t rail on you too hard for being a complete idiot.”


“Why am I an idiot?”


“For not snapping that man up. I swear I’ve never seen any man look so ready to lick a woman up one side and down the other as he was when he was eating you up with his eyes.”


“Or given his family history, he might chew me up and spit me out,” she shot back.


“Don’t be a fool. Pride and fear are best left in the past when it’s obvious he wants to be part of your future.”


Well, hell. How was she supposed to respond to that? Especially when she suspected Simone would retract that statement after she heard the sordid truth about the situation?


Jessie’s house was way too quiet. Sad, how quickly she’d gotten used to Brandt and Landon’s presence in the last five days—which would make it ten times harder when they were both gone for good.


Rather than dwell on what she couldn’t change, or spend a perfectly beautiful Saturday moping, she took action. She whipped up a spice cake with rum frosting. Then she loaded Lexie and the cake in the truck and drove to Sky Blue for a box of stuff she’d intended to donate to the women’s shelter.


How would Brandt take her unexpected appearance at his place? More importantly, what did it mean that she was making the first move?


After talking to Simone last night, Jessie was beginning to see Brandt in a different light. But she wasn’t sure what to do about it, or if Brandt would ever agree to her new condition. Or if she had the guts to actually broach the subject with him.


As soon as she’d parked at Brandt’s place, McKay men surrounded her truck.


Maybe they’d smelled food.


She started to open the door when Brandt elbowed Dalton aside to get there first. “Jess! Hey, I’m glad to see you.”


Damn he looked good. Relaxed. And honestly happy she’d showed up.


Dalton sniffed. “Is that…cake?”


“What are you? Part bloodhound?” Tell shoved him and grinned at her. “But please tell me it’s cake.”


“Yes, it’s cake. Spice cake.”


“What’s the occasion?” Brandt asked.


“It’s Saturday?”


“Good enough for me. I’ll put it inside so these two don’t eat it all.” He grabbed the pan and said, “Be right back,” as Dalton followed him inside.


She said, “Where’s Landon?” to Tell.


“There.” He pointed to a dirt mound. Landon sat in the midst of a pile of small shovels and Tonka trucks of every size and shape.


“Are those new?”


“Yeah, me’n Dalton were at the feed store so we got some boy toys for Landon.”


That was so cute, and heartening, they were taking an interest in their nephew.


“Besides, we all loved playin’ in the dirt. He’s a McKay. Figured he would too.”


“Yes, the true test of a McKay male is seeing how dirty he can get his damn clothes on a daily basis.”


Funny how she’d forgotten how filthy Luke’s clothes were after he finished up on the ranch. Funny how she’d forgotten how much of her life had been devoted to putting Luke’s needs first. Still, she couldn’t help but smile at the dirt-covered urchin lost in muddy playtime. “Landon looks like he’s having a ball.”


“He is now. But he was damn cranky when he woke up. I think he was missin’ you, Jess.”


She gave Tell a droll look. “Such a suck up. I already said you could have some cake.”


He laughed. “You’re just in time because we were about to play football. And I’m draftin’ you to my team because I don’t think Landon is gonna be much help in the tackling department.”


“You’re playing tackle football?”


“Flag football is for pussies.” Tell bumped her with his hip. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”


“Fun. Right. It’s all fun and games until someone breaks an arm or gets a concussion.”


But Tell wasn’t listening to her. He waved to Dalton and Brandt as they ambled closer. “Guess who’s on my team, suckas?”


Dalton loomed over her. “If you think we’re goin’ easy on you since you’re a girl, Jessie—”


“You’d be exactly right,” Brandt said. “Because she is not playin’ football with us.”


What? Not that Jessie had a burning desire to chase around a pigskin, but who was Brandt to decide what she could and couldn’t do?


Tell said, “Oh shit. Now you did it, bro.”


Jessie got in Brandt’s face. “Don’t make decisions for me. Don’t made assumptions about me. And you sure as hell better never speak for me, Brandt McKay. Understood?”


Everyone froze.


Brandt said, “Understood.”


“Good.” Jessie placed her hands on Brandt’s chest and playfully shoved him. “You are goin’ down, buddy. Me’n Tell are gonna whup your sorry butts.”


He smiled. “Bring it. No cryin’ for mercy when I’ve got you pinned down.”


When Brandt grinned at her like that? Sexy and mischievous? Her heart went into free fall.


Tell tugged on her arm. “Come on, killer, let’s devise a strategy.”


Unfortunately Tell’s strategy consisted of handing Jessie the ball damn near every time, while he tried to tackle both his brothers at the same time. Which never worked. Which meant Jessie spent a lot of time hitting the ground. She did score one touchdown, but she suspected they’d let her score out of pity.

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