“Yeah, if I thought we could get part of our land parceled out to us and away from Dad’s control…”
Brandt snorted. “It’ll never happen. Dad’s gotta have something to lord over us.”
Dalton looked at both his brothers. “Think he’ll see Landon as something you’re tryin’ to lord over him?”
Brandt hadn’t considered that. God. He wasn’t like his father. Not everything he did was some sort of power play.
“We’d better get goin’, if we’re takin’ Landon over to Mom and Dad’s,” Tell said.
“The carseat is in my truck.” Brandt pushed to his feet. “Look, you guys can call me names, think I’m the biggest asshole on the planet, question my end game, but I’m askin’ that we at least pretend we’re on the same page in front of Dad.”
“Yeah, Dad will definitely home in on any weakness.”
“Do we let him know about Jessie helping out?”
“We have to. There’ll be hell to pay if he hears about it from someone else.”
Brandt swung Landon into his arms. “Let’s get this over with.”
The meeting with his parents went about like Brandt expected. Rage on his father’s part, mostly directed at the woman who’d dared to keep Luke’s child a secret from his family. His mother cried a lot while she carted Landon around, enticing him to eat, then chasing him through the house. She looked happier than he’d seen her in years.
When Brandt relayed Landon’s childcare arrangements during the months he’d have guardianship, his father accused Jessie of trying to keep the boy from his real family out of spite. That was the last straw for the visit. Brandt pried Landon out of his mother’s arms amidst his father’s threats for legal action.
Dalton and Tell were quiet on the way back to Brandt’s place. They kept the boy entertained while Brandt loaded up Landon’s things and double-checked everything since he’d be gone for five days. After they agreed to meet at Dalton’s house to figure out the week’s work, Brandt made the forty-five minute drive to Jessie’s.
Something stirred in him when he saw Jessie sitting on the front steps with Lexie by her side. The afternoon had warmed up from the bouts of snow flurries earlier in the day and the wind blew random strands of her reddish blonde hair across her appled cheeks. She looked young, fresh and wholesome.
Which made him feel guilty as sin for the direction of his impure thoughts.
Landon kicked his feet to be let out of his seat. Brandt set him on the ground and the kid took off toward Lexie with a squeal of delight. When the dog cowered beneath the deck, Brandt plucked a plastic ball from one of the bins of toys in the back of his truck and tossed it into the yard. Landon held the ball, dropped it, threw it, moving as fast as his legs could carry him.
“Looks like he’s got some pent-up energy,” Jessie remarked.
“I figure it’ll be good for him to run around, get some fresh air, maybe he’ll sleep better tonight, bein’s he’s in a strange place.”
She scooted over, making room for him to sit beside her.
“How did it go with Skylar?”
“She’s one hundred percent on board with it. Probably more so than I am.”
Brandt said nothing.
“Sorry. It’s just… God, it’s really freakin’ weird, okay? I’m sitting here watching Luke’s kid run around, and I had such a close connection to Luke, but I also feel like I didn’t know him at all. I look at the kid and I don’t know what I feel. It didn’t help Skylar started saying all these things about how I should be nominated for sainthood for opening my heart and home to Landon, and I couldn’t take it. I had to leave.
And then, your mom called about a half hour ago.”
“What’d she say?”
“That she was sorry about how everything played out after Luke died, but she had no say in the matter since she had nothing to do with the McKay Ranch.” Jessie turned her head to look at him; Brandt had no choice but to meet her gaze. “Joan cried, Brandt. She broke down and basically said she can’t imagine how hard this is for me, but at the same time she feels like she’s been given a miracle.”
Dammit. “If she said—”
“No. That’s it. She said she wouldn’t fight her husband when it came to ranch matters, but when it came to matters involving her sons, she’d fight that mean bastard tooth and nail.”
Brandt knew neither he nor his brothers would’ve grown up to be half the men they were if not for their mother. She gave them the love and affection their father wouldn’t, even if she had to hide that affection from her husband. “Mom said that?”
“Yeah. Said she’d do anything to help out, including taking Landon another day of the week to save you boys the hassle. She volunteered to drive here. Told me she’d lie to Casper if she had to, but she doubted he’d notice she was gone unless it was mealtime.”
“What did you say?”
“I reminded her the decision wasn’t up to me, that you’re Landon’s guardian, but we’d talk about it and you’d call her.”
“Is this a good idea, my mom takin’ care of Landon two days?”
Jessie sighed. “Yes, it’d be good for both of them. Besides, I’ve never had a problem with Joan. We weren’t best buddies, but I chalked it up to the fact she doesn’t have many female friends. Or your dad didn’t want us to be friends.”
Lexie had inched her way to the edge of the yard and seemed fascinated by Landon and his ball.
“I never understood why my dad was so mean to you, Jess. Well, besides the fact he’s an asshole and he pretty much acts like that toward everyone.”
She managed a wan smile. “Probably because Luke felt trapped and I’m the evil sorceress responsible for that entrapment. One time Luke told me Casper said…” Her mouth snapped shut. “Shit. Sorry. Never mind.”
“It serves no purpose, Brandt.”
“Wrong. Tell me.”
“Evidently Casper suggested I’d faked the pregnancy because I knew Luke would never marry someone like me without being forced into it.”
Brandt’s jaw tightened and he barely gritted out, “Luke just said this to you?”
“We’d had a fight and he’d been drinking and he said a buncha stuff that was just downright nasty.
The next morning he’d realized what he’d done, he hated himself for acting like his dad, and he apologized over and over. But it wasn’t like he could take any of it back. It wasn’t like he could pretend he’d just made it up, because we both knew it was true.”
He didn’t say a word. He couldn’t speak around the ball of rage clogging his throat.
Finally, Jessie put her hand on his arm. “Brandt? You okay?”
“No. It’s…I hate that I don’t realize what an assholish thing I’ve done until it’s too late.”
She frowned. “Like what?”
Like am I acting just like my dad? Forcing you into doing things my way and following my plan regarding Landon because I know your weak spots and know just how to exploit them?
Before he could give her a less honest, less painful answer, Landon face-planted and commenced to wailing. Brandt was off the steps in an instant, but he didn’t beat Jessie to Landon’s side.
She cocked the boy on her hip and murmured, “You’re okay,” and brushed the dried grass from his hair.
Landon stared at Jessie and then squirmed toward Brandt.
“Think he’s hungry?”
“Maybe. Come to think of it, I’m hungry.”
“Your Uncle Brandt is always hungry so I know you won’t starve when he’s taking care of you.”
Brandt grinned. “As long as the kid likes meat, potatoes and veggies, we’ll get along fine.”
“What? No super spicy chicken wings? No cheesy nachos with jalapenos?”
“Nope. I gave most of that kinda stuff up.”
“Well, whatever you’ve been eating, keep it up. If I haven’t mentioned it, you look great.” Jessie headed for her house, leaving Brandt staring after her, dumbfounded.
A compliment? From Jessie? Out of the freakin’ blue?
What did she want?
Not everything is a power play. Maybe she was just being nice.
While Brandt unloaded the truck and set up the crib in the spare bedroom, Jessie cooked hamburgers and macaroni and cheese. Landon ate a pile of food and almost fell asleep in his high chair. Brandt probably would’ve just put the kid in his jammies and tucked him in bed, but Jessie suggested a bath.
Turned out Landon was a kid who didn’t enjoy baths. It was like wrestling a wet worm—an angry, screaming wet worm. Once he had Landon cleaned up, dried off, freshly diapered and wearing pajamas, Brandt was ready to nod off. But he prepared Landon’s bedtime bottle and settled in the recliner.
Landon made short work of the bottle and was out. Brandt placed him on his back in his crib, tucking the covers around the sleeping boy.
Jessie glanced up from the kitchen table when he returned to the living room. “Is he down?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think it’d be that easy. Quinn is always complaining about how hard it is to get Adam to go to bed.”
“Adam’s a little older and it is harder when a kid is past the ‘bottle before bed’ age.”
He sank into the couch. “That’s the second time you’ve mentioned the bottle thing. Like Landon’s somehow…too old to have a bottle.”
She dropped the pen to the table and rubbed the skin between her eyes. “I was just sharing my experience—my limited experience. It’s up to his mother to decide when to wean him.”
“So you don’t think getting him off the bottle is something I oughta tackle while I’m takin’ care of him?”