“Oh, Jess.”

“So I’m in a different situation. It’s complicated enough between me and Brandt without adding him—” she pointed at Landon, “—into the mix.”

“Maybe Landon’s the glue that will allow you and Brandt to be together.”

Or maybe he’s the wedge that will drive us apart.

“Look, it’s no secret that you and Brandt spent a lot of time together after Luke died. Everyone thought—”

“That I’d just slip from one McKay bed to another without any problem whatsoever? God. Has everyone been listening to Casper talk about me?”

Keely’s boots hit the carpet. “See? That’s your problem. You automatically assume everyone thinks the worst of you. Casper is the exception, not the rule. What I started to say was we all hoped you’d both find happiness in what’d been a bad situation.”

Landon said, “Goggie,” and Lexie rose from her spot by the door and headed toward him, tail wagging.

Jessie kissed the top of Landon’s head. “See? She’ll come to you if you ask nice.”

He reached for the dog with the hand holding the cup and almost clunked Lexie on the head with it.

Lexie slunk away.

“And…that lasted thirty seconds.”

The door opened and Brandt stepped in. Landon squirmed off her lap and ran to him. “Up!”

“Hey. Whoa. Watch the cup, buddy.” He lifted Landon and his gaze traveled between Jessie and Keely.

Jessie knew Brandt wanted to march over and lay a big wet kiss on her like he always did after a day on the ranch. But he refrained. “Keely. You’re lookin’ tan. Glad to be home?”

“No. We could’ve used another two weeks. I told Jack next time we get married, we’re taking an entire month for our honeymoon.”

“Funny.” Brandt stayed on the rug in his work clothes. “Jess, have you fed the animals yet?”

“No. Landon was sleeping and Keely stopped by so I haven’t had a chance.”

“Looks like you’n me got chores to finish, boy. Come on let’s getcha suited up.”

Keely didn’t say anything until after Brandt and Landon were out the door. “This feels bigger than you guys just playing house. It sure as hell feels bigger than temporary.”

It does to me sometimes too. “We’ll see.”

“Be careful.”

“You afraid Brandt will break my heart?”

“No. I’m afraid you’ll break his.”

Jessie froze. She wasn’t expecting that.

“I probably better get back.” Keely leapt out of the chair and wrapped her scarf around her neck.

“Anytime you need to talk, Jess, just call. I mean it. There are things…” She smiled. “Never mind. Ignore me.”

“Oh, hell no. You can’t just drop that into conversation and leave. What kind of things?”

“Casper… People want to believe he’s just a grumpy old man, but we both know he’s not. People want to believe it’s not as bad as it looks in his household, but I’m telling you, it is. He wields a heavy hand with his wife and his sons, full and total control. I know Luke shielded you from a lot of what went on.”

“You think Brandt will too?”

“No. But I’m telling you it won’t be pretty if he ever decides to let go of the anger and resentment he’s been carrying around for years. Back to that annoyingly perfect comment, you are just the type of woman he needs. You’re the only woman I know who can handle anything that’s thrown at you and keep standing. But that means if Brandt actually opens up to you, and you leave him, you’ll do more than just break his heart. You might just break him.”

Jessie stared after Keely, shocked, but not really. Brandt had a hard edge he tried very hard to hide, not only from her but from everyone. Part of her wanted him to open up that side of himself, while part of her feared it if he did.

She wondered how long before he trusted her enough to even admit it was there.

Chapter Twelve

Mark my words; Jessie is using you as much as you’re using her. You’ll always be a pale imitation of Luke in her eyes and everyone else’s.

His father was such a jackass Brandt threw his truck in reverse and his tires spit gravel as he sped away from the machine shed.

The day had started out perfect. It was one of those times when all was right with his world. When Brandt knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be doing exactly what he’d been meant to do: be a steward of this Wyoming land he loved. Some of his cousins weren’t keen on being part of the McKay cattle company, they’d moved on, but Brandt couldn’t understand that mindset. He loved the ranch. He loved the day to day back breaking work. The cycle of seasons. The unpredictability of the cattle market and the weather. Working with his brothers day in and day out. The humility of being a part of something that was so much bigger than him. From the time he was a little boy, all he wanted was to look across this gorgeous hunk of earth and know it belonged to him. As he’d gotten older, he realized that he belonged to the land—it owned him, heart and soul. He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Naturally his father noticed his good mood and felt entitled to destroy it.

Goddamn him.

At times like this, when clouds of rage fogged rational thought, Brandt was half-tempted to keep driving until he ran out of gas. And then keep walking until he ran out of energy. What he hated most of all was the way his father could twist his love of the ranch into something ugly. Into Brandt berating himself for sticking around because he’d always be second banana to Luke. He’s always be a verbal punching bag for his father.

God knows he’d tried—and failed—to protect Tell and Dalton from suffering the same fate. He’d watched his mother become a shell of a woman. Thinking that all these sacrifices and drama would mean something in the end when his father trusted him enough to turn over all the ranch operations to his oldest son.

Yeah, the McKays were just one big happy fucking family and it’d just gotten worse in the two years since Luke had died.

If the urge to physically lash out wouldn’t go away, he’d head to a bar, drink until he was ten foot tall and bulletproof, and start a fight. It never made him feel better. In fact, he’d usually end up bloodied, bruised and broken. His compulsion to fight wasn’t something he was proud of—the primitive need to Lorelei James

prove himself with his fists was his deepest shame. His cousins Colt and Kane both had the same violent streak. When Colt’s punching bag wasn’t enough to keep his demons at bay, he and Kane mixed it up. At least they had each other to take the edge off. Brandt had no one. And Luke had taken perverse pleasure in denying Brandt a good fight.

He imagined one of those head shrinking docs would have a field day trying to analyze him, especially since the violence was never directed at anyone he knew.

Right now he wanted so badly to drive to some hole in the wall bar where no one knew who he was.

He’d drink, come out swinging and after having his ass handed to him, or ending up victorious, he’d sleep off the booze and the pain in his truck. Then he’d feel calmer.

Why not go to Jessie? She has a calming influence on you.


Now that they were sleeping together, he couldn’t get enough of her and she’d held nothing back from him in bed or out. She’d given everything of herself to him one hundred percent. He wanted her body under his the last thing before he went to sleep at night. He wanted her body beneath his first thing in the morning. He wanted her after he’d just had her. He thought about all the different ways he’d take her while he was taking her. If he thought he’d been obsessed with her before, it was nothing compared to the craving he had for her now.

Which was why he had to stay away from her right now.

He texted Jessie, letting her know he’d be late without going into detail. Then he called his mother, who was watching Landon at his house, telling her he had to finish a couple of things. She didn’t complain or ask questions, but then again, she never did.

Brandt gave his mother’s car a cursory glance and parked his truck behind his barn.

Too bad he didn’t have backbreaking tasks like splitting wood or digging new postholes that would exhaust him. He shucked off his coat and let his anger lead him into total destruction mode. Grabbing a sledgehammer and a crowbar, he began to rip apart the last stall with the loose and broken boards. He couldn’t afford to upgrade to metal and they were too damn dangerous as is.

The sledgehammer came down, the loud thwack followed by another thwack thwack thwack until he couldn’t hear anything besides the blood pounding in his ears. Sweat poured down his face. When he had the boards loosened, he used his hands to break them free. The muscles in his back screamed. Slivers penetrated his holey gloves, but he didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Not until it was done. Not until this consuming fury was gone.

He finally took a break when he was down to one long board on the backside. Placing the heels of his hands above his knees, he bent over, sucking in huge gasps of air, half-wondering when he’d started heating the barn because his skin was on fire.

The hinge on the barn door squeaked and he blinked the sweat from his eyes as he glanced up.

His mother stood in the doorway.

No one he cared about should ever see him like this. Embarrassment had him snarling, “What?”

“Jessie called about thirty minutes ago when she couldn’t reach you on your cell. She’s on her way here.”

What the fuck? “I told her I was gonna be late.”

“Something tipped her off to your mood.” Her gaze darted to the destroyed stall and back to him.

“Which is a little destructive.”

“This piece of shit needed to be torn down.”

“I’m not worried about the stall, son. I’m worried about you.”

“It’d be best if you went back on up to the house and let me finish this.”