“Mama mama mama!”


She held him and cried buckets. Through her gasping cries, Samantha babbled, making Landon incoherent promises. Kissing his cheeks. Rubbing his back. Touching him as if his presence might be a dream. Just holding him like she’d never let him get away from her again.


That softened the knife’s edge of pain a little.


Samantha’s eyes drank in every nuance of his face. “Lookit you. You’re such a big boy now.”


“Yef.”


She laughed, even though she was still crying. “And you’re talking too. I’m in for it now, huh?”


“Yef.”


Jessie slipped from the booth, desperate to escape because this was goodbye she’d been dreading since the day she’d first set eyes on him. With her feelings in such turmoil, she was as afraid she’d break down as she was afraid she wouldn’t break down.


Landon finally looked at her and those big blue eyes lit up.


“Hey, lil’ buckaroo,” she said softly.


He said, “Down,” and wiggled until his mother released him. He ran to Jessie hell bent for leather. His contact with her was more of a body check than a hug, which made her laugh. She squeezed him with one arm and placed a kiss on top of his head. “I’m gonna miss you, sweet boy.”


Jessie expected him to squirm away, because even at nineteen months the kid had a time limit on hugs, especially when his uncles were around. God forbid if a McKay—of any age—appeared too girly.


But Landon didn’t race away. He heaved a contented sigh against her neck. Then he moved back and placed a sticky hand on each of her cheeks. He locked his serious gaze to hers and gave her a kiss, square on the mouth. He emitted a noise deep in his throat, then he raced back to his mother.


It took about ten seconds to sink in.


Landon had acted exactly like Brandt. Holding her face. Kissing her. Making that possessive growl.


Her heart absolutely turned over. Landon had just told her, in his little boy way, that he loved her.


Good thing she’d crouched down because she didn’t think her knees would hold her.


But Brandt was already helping her up, giving her his full support.


Tell said to Samantha, “We loaded all the stuff in your car so you’re good to go.”


So Brandt had known Samantha planned to take Landon with her. He had to’ve known packing up Landon’s things would cause her pain and anxiety, so he simply hadn’t mentioned it to spare her. Would she ever get used to the way he put her needs first?


“Thanks.” Samantha buttoned her coat. Then she picked Landon up and held him very close. “I can’t thank you guys enough for what you’ve done for us. I’ll never be able to repay you.”


“Takin’ good care of him from here on out will be payment enough,” Brandt said.


“That I can promise. I’ll keep in touch about visitation and stuff.” She fastened the Velcro under Landon’s chin, securing his hood. “We’d better hit the road, huh, buddy?”


“Yef.”


Brandt said, “Drive safe.”


“I will.”


And with that, Samantha and Landon walked away.


Jessie couldn’t move. She was frozen in mind. In body. In spirit.


Brandt turned her around, trapping her face in his hands, wiping her tears, kissing her lips, her cheeks, the corners of her eyes.


How long they stood there, Jessie didn’t know. At least until the server asked if there was a problem.


Brandt grabbed Jessie’s hand and led her outside to take her home.


Jessie stared out the window and Brandt didn’t push her to talk. However, he wouldn’t let go of her hand. He needed that constant connection to her.


She mumbled something about chores as soon as he shut the truck off. Her distraction could be dangerous so he followed her into the barn. When she slipped on a pair of coveralls, he did too. They worked side by side in silence, spreading hay to feed the horses and the llamas. She checked the stock tank to make sure it hadn’t frozen since this morning. She did everything on autopilot. Brandt wondered how long before she’d crash.


Inside her trailer, neither she nor Brandt remarked how bare the living room was without Landon’s toys strewn all over the rug. Without his bottles clogging the fridge. Without his trucks, cars, trains and books scattered across the coffee table. Even Lexie seemed out of sorts. She’d wander to the door, to Landon’s room, then make a pitiful whine before she curled up in the kitchen in the spot where his high chair stood.


Brandt finally forced her to look at him. “Are you okay?”


“I don’t know. Seeing her…Samantha. She’s not what I expected. I sort of felt sorry for her. Then I realized I shouldn’t feel sorry for her. She might not have much but she’s got what I always wanted from Luke.”


“A child.”


“Yes. But that’s not all I’ve been thinking about…I’m having such a hard time getting the words to make sense. And you need to know, Brandt. You deserve to know.” Tears shimmered in her eyes and she looked so…lost.


“God. Jess. You’re breakin’ my heart. What can I do?”


“Let’s do something. Anything. Go to a movie, or go out dancing, or go play pool, just get me out of this house and out of my head for a few hours.”


That’s when Brandt understood Jessie would be okay. For the first time all day the tight feeling in his chest loosened a little. “Great idea. We’ll hit Applebee’s in Spearfish for supper first and then we’ll slip on our dancin’ shoes at the Rockin’ R outside Beulah.”


“That sounds perfect.”


“It’s my lucky night, finding Brandt McKay at the bar first thing.”


“Hello, Lydia.”


“Howdy, stranger. I haven’t seen you in ages.”


He shrugged, keeping his eye on the door and not on Lydia’s display of cleavage. “I’ve been busy.”


“I’m glad you’re here,” she cooed. “I worried you might’ve found Jesus and were shunning honkytonks and temptations of the flesh or something noble.”


“Not hardly.” He’d given into the temptations of Jessie’s flesh more times than he could count. In more ways than he could count. That thought brought a smile to his face.


“Lord, that sexy grin of yours still makes me weak kneed.” Lydia leaned in, toying with the buttons on his shirt. “I remember putting a smile like that on your face a time or ten.”


“Old news, Lydia.”


“You know what they say…everything old can be new again.”


Brandt laughed. Hard to believe he used to find this type of hardcore desperation attractive. He finished his beer and set the empty on the bar. “Nice talkin’ to you. See you around.” He started to leave.


But Lydia wrapped her arms around his waist. “Don’t run off. Lemme buy you another beer for old times’ sake.”


“I don’t think—”


“Fine. Then dance with me. Please? None of these guys dance as good as you. You could go for hours without getting tired.”


Lydia could be very persuasive and sadly, Brandt wasn’t immune to her flattery. Besides, Jessie had just stepped outside to take a call from her mom about what’d happened with Landon today. “Okay, one dance. That’s it.”


They zigzagged through the crowd on the dance floor. Lydia spun into his arms, like she’d done dozens of times when they’d been dating, but the flirty move annoyed him. He clasped her hand and started two-stepping. At least the fast tune would keep them from talking.


Unfortunately, Lydia wasn’t deterred by the music’s pace. “So whatcha been up to?”


“Ranch work.” He twirled her, resetting the distance between their bodies.


“Aren’t you gonna ask me what I’ve been up to?”


“No good, probably,” he muttered and twirled her again.


“Bein’ bad feels so good, doesn’t it. You used to think so, too, cowboy.” She spun herself and brushed her ass against his groin. “Or do you need a little reminder?”


This had been a mistake. Lydia had gone from persuasive to conniving. He managed a curt, “Behave.”


Another laugh. “With the uptight way you’re acting, I believe you might’ve found religion after all.”


No. He’d found something better. Jessie.


Brandt tuned out Lydia’s suggestive comments, maintaining a bland expression as his eyes kept darting toward the exit. What could be taking Jessie so long?


Thank God the song ended. Brandt immediately dropped Lydia’s hands and attempted to retreat as the dance floor cleared.


But Lydia wasn’t having any of it. She herded him backward even as he tried to dodge her. When the creases of his thighs hit the stage, he caught the edge to keep from falling on his ass. Lydia took advantage, slithering between his legs. She wound her arms around his neck like twin anacondas, unhinged her jaw and swallowed his face.


Jesus. Brandt felt like he was choking she’d jammed her tongue so far down his throat. He stood abruptly, expecting that’d dislodge her, but she clung to him like a deranged monkey.


Goddammit. Enough. He put his hands on her hips, intending to shove her away as he tried to dislodge his mouth from her fangs.


They were roughly pulled apart. “What the hell is goin’ on here?”


His gaze flew to Jessie. Holy fuck was she pissed off. Brandt immediately got to his feet.


Lydia coyly wiped her mouth. When she sidled closer to Brandt, Jessie inserted herself between them and snapped, “Answer the question.”


“Me’n Brandt just got carried away, didn’t we, honey?”


“Shut your mouth, Lydia.”


“Sorry,” Lydia pouted, without an ounce of remorse. “I was just trying to explain.”


“Don’t,” he snapped.


Jessie’s fury-darkened eyes never looked away from his. “Is it true, Brandt? Did you and Lydia get carried away?”

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