“God no.” Then Jessie didn’t say anything else.


Brandt didn’t relish spending the next four months waiting for Jessie to converse with him. He snagged the remote and turned the TV on, keeping the sound low, happy that Jessie still had satellite.

After catching up on the latest football games, he hunkered down to watch a western.

As soon as Jessie finished whatever she’d been doing at the table, she joined him on the couch. Might make him selfish, but Brandt wouldn’t mind if this was how the nights for the next four months played out.

Once the movie ended, Jessie stood. “You need anything before I turn in?”

“Nah.” He pointed at the baby monitor. “I’ve got it handled if Landon wakes up.”

“How early are you heading to the ranch tomorrow?”

“I figured I’d leave around six.”

“I get up at five thirty to feed the animals, so that oughta work out. Since it only takes fifteen minutes to get to Sky Blue, I don’t leave until six forty-five.”

“If it’d be easier, havin’ me stay until then—”

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Jessie got a strange look on her face. “Don’t trust me alone with him?”

“For Christsake, Jess, what the hell is that supposed to mean? Of course I trust you with him or I wouldn’t’ve asked for your help.”

“That’s good to know.”

Say something.

“Goodnight, Brandt.”

“Night, Jessie.”

He stretched out on the couch and flipped through channels. Fighting a wave of sleepiness, he pulled his ball cap down over his forehead. He’d just rest his eyes for a minute.

Soft cries roused him. Groggy, he pushed up from the couch and fiddled with the volume on the baby monitor and heard the noise again.

Not Landon. Jessie.

Brandt tiptoed down the hallway to Jessie’s bedroom. Her door was open and he listened just outside the jamb. Sure enough, another soft sob echoed. Without thinking, Brandt entered her room.

She’d curled into a ball in the middle of her bed, resting her forehead to her knees. Her shoulders shook with each sob.

His heart fell straight to his toes. “Jessie.”

“Go away.”

“No. Let me help you.”

“Help me do what? Fall apart even more?”

He stared at the snarled hair shadowing her face.

Jessie slowly raised her head, burning him with a look of pure venom. “I hate you for doing this to me.”

His breath stalled.

“And when Landon is back with his mother? I never want to see your face again. Now get the hell out of my room.”

Suffocation and dizziness set in. Jessie’s image wavered and everything went black.

Brandt sat straight up, gasping for air. It took him a second to get his bearings. He was at Jessie’s house. Not slumped in her doorway but sprawled on the couch, TV droning in the background. Squinting at the clock, he realized only a half hour had passed since he’d closed his eyes.

Except it hadn’t felt like a bad dream; it felt more like a premonition.

Chapter Five

Jessie wished she’d taken Brandt up on his offer to come to Sky Blue and help with Landon on his first day because the kid was a holy terror.

The other kids scared him, so he cried and screamed, “No!”

The other adults scared him, so he cried and screamed, “No!”

At first Landon didn’t want anything to do with Jessie. Then he refused to let go of her leg. He clung to her, crying like his heart was breaking.

I know how you feel, kid.

Lunchtime was a disaster. She’d buckled Landon in the high chair while she readied the other kids’

lunches. He beat his hands on the tray, arched his back, and tried to throw himself out of the chair, all while screaming.

Spitting mad, his face was bright red and covered in a mix of tears, drool and snot. She wiped him up and let him out of the chair. The poor little boy didn’t know whether to run off or stick by her. When she walked to the refrigerator, he followed. She took a bottle from the top shelf and held it out to him. Landon snatched it out of her hands, like a wild animal afraid his meal would be stolen, and scampered off.

She glanced at the clock. Only five hours to go. Yay.

He calmed down for about ten minutes while he cowered in the corner, watching with those big blue McKay eyes. When Jessie approached him and tried to take away his empty bottle, he returned to shrieking. And he added hitting, just to make things interesting.

For about three seconds Jessie considered setting him in a playpen and leaving him in one of the empty offices upstairs until he screamed himself to sleep.

Buck up and deal with it.

She crouched down in front of him. “No hitting, Landon. Ever. Do you understand me?”

He swatted at her and she grabbed his wrist. “No hitting.”

He wailed.

Since none of the other kids could nap through his screaming, Jessie let them take their blankets and pillows and watch a movie in the separate play room.

The main door to the daycare opened and Skylar walked in, cringing at Landon’s ear piercing shrieks.

She motioned Jessie aside.

Jessie blurted, “I’m sorry if he’s disturbing you, but I’ve tried everything and nothing is working.”

Skylar placed her hand on Jessie’s arm. “I’m not blaming you. It’ll probably take a couple of days for him to get used to this place and the other kids, so I’m going to suggest we ease him into it. A few hours at a time this week, okay?”

Jessie knew that was the smart thing to do, but she still felt like she’d failed with him. “Okay.”

“Also, I know you’d intended to take Landon over to Joan’s tomorrow, but it’d be better if he got used to coming here all week. Take him to Joan’s or whatever at night, but he needs to get acclimated here first.”

“Agreed. I’ll call Brandt and have him pick Landon up right away, but it’ll probably be at least an hour before he can get here from the ranch.”

“No offense, Jess, but you should take Landon back to your place now. Have Brandt meet you there.”

Sky shot the still screaming kid a quick glance. “With a six pack and a bottle of aspirin.”

Jessie managed a smile. “Thanks. Who’s filling in for me for the rest of today?”

Two raps sounded on the glass part of the door and Kade sauntered in, wearing his usual workday clothes; jeans, boots, hat and flannel shirt.

Immediately Landon stopped wailing.

Jessie and Sky exchanged a what the hell? look and then looked at Kade.

Kade shrugged. “It’s probably the hat.” He crouched down, facing Landon, far enough away not to scare him. “You sure got a set of lungs on ya. And I thought Miz Eliza was loud.”

Landon raced to Kade and threw himself at the cowboy with a sob.

Logically, Jessie knew Landon went to Kade because he reminded him of Brandt. But emotionally, it made her feel like she was lacking a maternal instinct.

You’re not the boy’s mother. You shouldn’t have that instinct.

The last thing she needed was more self-doubt. She backed away to get their belongings and to call Brandt.

Kade was such a good guy he put on Landon’s coat. Then he carried Landon to her truck and buckled him in his car seat. Jessie braced herself for the frustrated cries to start again, but Landon was silent. He’d fallen asleep.

Thank God.

So Jessie drove. Past her house and into Moorcroft. She killed almost an hour, reluctant to rouse Landon. While she drove, she compiled a list of reasons why this wouldn’t work.

Her stepfather’s mantra echoed in her mind— winners never quit and quitters never win.

But this was different. This was a losing situation all around.

She saw Brandt climbing out of his truck when she pulled into her driveway. She motioned him over and rolled down the window.

He said, “What’s up?”

“Get in. Fast. Landon’s asleep and I don’t wanna wake the little beast up.”

“That bad, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

Brandt climbed in the passenger side. “Look, Jess, I’m sorry—”

She held up her hand. “I just want to enjoy the silence for a little while longer.”

He nodded and relaxed in the seat.

But Jessie could feel him looking at her. And for the first time, maybe ever, she didn’t mind.

After about ten minutes, Brandt asked, “What happened today?”

“Landon melted down. Completely. Skylar has suggested I only take him to daycare in the morning until he gets used to it. She even suggested we skip taking him to your mom this week until he’s more settled.” Her hands tightened on the wheel. “I’m gonna let you handle that with Joan. And I want you to make sure she knows I’m not trying to keep Landon away from her.”

“Hey, Jess, I’d never do that to you.”

She expected him to say “I’m not like Luke” but he didn’t.

Brandt stretched his arm along the back of the seat. “So if Landon’s only gonna be there part time this week, where do I come in?”

“You’ll have to pick him up at noon, because I can’t afford to take every afternoon off.”

“Understood. It shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll let Tell and Dalton know it’ll be a short work week for me.”

“So Casper won’t chew your ass for not being around?”

“Probably. But nothin’ I ever do makes him happy anyway, so he’ll just pile on more shit work for when I am there. Threatening to…”

“Threatening to what?”

“Same old tune, him reminding’ me I gotta ‘prove’ to him that I’m dedicated enough to take over the ranch. He’s been hangin’ that over my head since Luke died.”

If that irked her, Jessie couldn’t imagine how Brandt felt. “Would Casper really do that?”

“What? Cut me out of ownership of our part of the ranch? If he decided he had a good enough reason, absolutely.”

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