“True. But I’ll climb on a back of a bull as long as I can.” He took another drink of beer. “And the injury is healin’ fine, if my nosy-assed brothers asked you to grill me about it.”


“They didn’t.”


“Good.” Chase shivered. “I forget how goddamn cold it is here.”


“You’re spoiled competing in all those warm climes.”


“That’s a fact, which is probably why I’ll end up livin’ someplace down south. Speakin’ of… Did your dad talk to you guys about them starting to legally restructure the ranch?”


“No. Should he’ve been?”


“According to my dad, Uncle Carson and Uncle Cal, yes.”


“Does this have to do with Keely getting a chunk of McKay land as a wedding gift?”


“Partially. But a couple of us are opting out of bein’ part of the McKay land trust permanently.”


Brandt froze. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”


Chase kicked back and rested his shoulders on the porch support post. “You really had no clue?”


“Nope. So who’s opting out?”


“Me, for one.”


Brandt looked at him curiously. “Why?”


“Because I’ve got my own life outside of the ranch. Even if I quit ridin’ next year, chances are slim I’d move back here and be part of the McKay cattle business. Quinn and Ben always were more involved than me, they wanted this life more than I ever did, so it makes sense that my portion goes to them.”


“Quinn and Ben agreed?”


Chase shrugged. “Oh, they tried to protest, but in truth, it was a relief. I have other income. They don’t.”


“Who else is opting out?”


“Cam. Like Keely, he’s trading his stake for a chunk of land, in his case, for the fifty acres around his house, which borders the neighbor’s acreage, so it’ll be an easy deed transfer. Carter is still debating, but I think he’ll opt out too. With his art career takin’ off, not to mention he’s helpin’ Cash Big Crow with his ranching operation in River Bend, he’s spreading himself thin driving back and forth when he doesn’t have to. There are plenty of McKays to keep the cattle business goin’.”


Brandt fought the surge of anger. This was the type of ranch business his father should’ve been telling him.


Would he have told Luke?


Yes, goddammit.


“I’m gonna kick my old man’s sorry ass.”


“Lemme know ahead of time. I’ll sell tickets.”


One thing Brandt admired about Chase; he just said what was on his mind, straight up.


Chase’s cell phone rang. He dug it out of his front pocket and scowled. “It’s my publicist. Excuse me.” He snapped, “Sugar tits, you’d better have a goddamn good reason for calling me on Thanksgiving.”


Whoa. Chase called his publicist… sugar tits? That didn’t sound very professional.


Brandt finished his beer and returned inside. He tried to sneak past the living room where the mamas and babies were holding court, but he heard, “Brandt! Come here.”


Two million pairs of eyes bored into him. Okay, it was only India, Skylar, Libby, Ginger and Macie, but it seemed like more. “What?” he said to India, who’d tucked her new baby boy Ellison so closely to her breast he only saw a blanket covered lump.


“We were just talking about you.”


“Should I be worried?”


Silence.


Shit.


“Actually, we were talking about Jessie,” Ginger said, shifting the baby in her lap.


Great. So now he and Jessie were permanently linked in his family’s eyes? He was good with that, but he doubted Jessie would be. “What about her?”


“Have you talked to her since she left for Riverton?”


If “talked” is a euphemism for having scorching hot phone sex with her two nights running, then yes.


“Hello? Earth to Brandt.”


He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’ve talked to her. She’s havin’ a good time.”


“I’m glad. She deserved a break.”


Was it his imagination, or did the room turn a little hostile? Were they blaming him for Jessie needing a break?


Of course they are, dumbass.


“Jessie is great with all the kids at Sky Blue.” Skylar tucked the pink blanket around Ginger and Kane’s baby girl Maddie, nestled in her arms. “We’d be lost without her.”


“No argument from me.” Dammit. That wasn’t what he’d meant.


Or was it?


Again, those two million eyes pinned him in place.


Quick. Change the subject and get out before they pounce. “Look, have you seen—”


“Your mom and Landon?” Macie supplied. “Yes, she’s changing him. Said she’ll be right back so you might as well stick around and chat with us.”


Chat. Right. They planned to hold his boots to the fire.


The baby pressed to Macie’s shoulder let out a huge burp. Macie rubbed her back. “Good girl, Poppy.”


“So what’s Jessie been doing while she’s staying at her mom’s?”


“I dunno. We haven’t talked about it.”


Skylar and India exchanged a look.


A look Brandt didn’t like at all. “Why? What’s goin’ on?”


“Nothing, probably,” Skylar said.


“Sky,” India said gently, “it won’t hurt to ask him.”


“Ask me what?”


“If Jessie mentioned anything to you about looking for a job while she was in Riverton?”


Surprised, Brandt said, “No.”


“See? I told you, sis. You’re worried for nothing.”


“Why would she look for a job there?” Brandt asked.


“She misses her mom, among other things.”


Sky gave India a sharp look, which indicated there was something else going on, but India clammed up.


Brandt half listened as the women chatted about daycare, but his brain had gotten stuck on one thing: the possibility of Jessie leaving.


The logical portion of his brain pointed out that she loved her job. The nasty part of his brain pointed out that if Landon became a fixture in the McKay family, she’d put distance between them in a helluva hurry. And to be honest, how could he blame her?


His gut twisted. He considered the women in this room, all happily married to his cousins, wondering if they had any advice on how to keep Jessie here, in his life, forever.


But they weren’t paying attention to him.


When Amelia fussed, Libby lifted her shirt.


When Paulson fussed, Ginger lifted her shirt.


When Ellison fussed, India lifted her shirt.


Skylar laughed when Maddie started bumping her head into her chest. “Huh-uh, girlie, I’ve got nothing in there for you. Let’s get you back to mama.”


Ginger sighed and lifted up the other side of her shirt.


Dear God. Were all these women just whipping out their breasts like it was no big deal?


Don’t look. Your cousins will beat your ass for gawking at their wives’ bared breasts.


This was so freakin’ weird. Yeah, he knew that breastfeeding was natural and all that jazz, but he had brothers for Christsake, not sisters, and he’d never actually seen a live pair of breasts until he was sixteen.


He’d never seen woman nurse a baby. Ever. And it sure as hell didn’t look as clinical and messy as a cow standing around chewing her cud while a calf noisily sucked on her teats.


“Brandt? You okay?” India asked.


“Um, I gotta go.” He raced out so fast he nearly tripped over his own feet.


Feminine laughter chased him out of the room.


Brandt slipped into the den and heaved a sigh of relief. All men in here, burping, farting, scratching themselves, arguing, being guys. Guys, he understood. Women, not so much.


And maybe that was his biggest problem.


Before he left Cord and AJ’s, Skylar took him aside. “I’ll be honest, Brandt. This is a confusing time for you and Jessie both. But you need to remember one thing.”


“What’s that?”


“If you give her a reason to stay here, she will.”


“And how do I do that, Skylar?”


Her gaze flicked to Landon, sleeping on his shoulder, and then back to him. “By not giving her an excuse to leave.”


Well, that cleared things up a whole helluva lot.


Not.


He smiled tightly. “Thanks for the advice.”


Later that night he lay in bed and waited for Jessie to call. But she didn’t.


Nor did she call the next night.


Would he seem too fucking needy if he called her?


Or would it seem like he didn’t give a shit if he didn’t call?


Man, he sucked at this relationship stuff.


Finally he called and left a message on her voice mail.


But she didn’t call him back.


Chapter Eighteen


Good. He was home.


Jessie left Lexie outside to run off her extra energy after being cooped up inside the truck for the last five hours. She tried to be quiet as she snuck up the steps, wanting to maintain the surprise.


It worked. After she opened the door and slipped inside Brandt’s trailer, she glanced at the man who sat on the couch, remote in hand, completely goggle-eyed.


Then his sly, sexy smile appeared. “Damn girl. It’s great to see you, but you had me worried since I haven’t heard from you the last two days.”


Jessie kicked off her boots. Unwrapped the scarf. Peeled off her gloves and unbuttoned her long wool coat. “Sorry about that. I lost my cell phone Friday afternoon in the Tetons when we were snowshoeing. By the time I realized it and activated a new phone, and charged it up, it was time to head home. So here I am.”


“I’m glad you’re here.” He set the remote on the coffee table, next to a full bottle of Corona. “Did you have a good time at your mom’s?”


Brandt? Making idle chitchat? Which would be sweet if his hungry eyes weren’t already stripping her bare. Not a sweet thing about those midnight blue eyes right now.

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