Brandt looked back and forth between mother and daughter, mentally trying to slap a lid on his temper before his mouth opened and he said something he’d regret. But it didn’t work. “Did that crack about Luke’s character make you feel better, Pandora? You’re still bitter that Luke dumped you…what?


Ten years ago?”

“There is no time limit on the effects of infidelity, Brandt, as Jessie well knows,” Pandora sneered.

“But there is a time limit on my patience and you’ve reached it. Now get out of here before I tell Pastor Jones you both need a personal sermon on learning and practicing forgiveness.” Brandt looked over his shoulder. “I saw him around here someplace.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I would happily relay everything you just said and then some.”

Huffing and whispering, they took off.

Brandt looked at Jessie. He started to say I’m sorry, but she shook her head.

“That’s the first, Brandt, but it won’t be the last.” She pointed to the boots, the pair of snow pants and the University of Wyoming tasseled hat. “We’re done.”

After they’d paid and loaded Landon in his carseat, Jessie said, “I should’ve driven into town because after that fun time, I’m ready to go home. And no offense, but I can’t stomach the thought of riding out to your folks’ house with you.”

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“Okay. But my mom is expecting him—”

“Just take me to Dewey’s. I’ll grab something to eat while I’m waiting.”

He started to reach for her hand, but stopped himself. “I’ll keep it a short visit. But it’ll be at least an hour.”

“I can entertain myself, Brandt. I’ve gotten used to it in the last two years.”

He pulled up in front of the Sandstone Building and she bailed out with a mumbled, “Later.”

Landon was fairly good at his parents’ place, considering his mother insisted on holding him all the time. And from what Brandt had seen of Landon, he wasn’t the snuggliest kid. Brandt cut the visit short when his dad started in on him about prepping for calving season, which was still several months away.

Plus, he was anxious to get back to Jessie.

He texted her: You ready 2 go?

Her response was fast: Already gone. Walking home.

What the fuck?

Panicked, Brandt called her. “Jess? What do you mean you’re walkin’ home?”

“I couldn’t stay in there another second. So I left. I figured you’d catch up with me.”

Do not yell at her. “Where are you?”

“By the Shell station.”

“Stay put. I mean it. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

It took him eight minutes to reach her.

Jessie climbed in his truck without a word. She didn’t turn around to check on Landon, who was asleep. She stared straight ahead. He was so freaked out about her fucking walking when it was fifteen degrees out, that he didn’t say anything for fear of saying the wrong thing.

They’d gone about three miles in brutal silence, when she said, “Stop. I feel sick.”

He eased the truck to the shoulder and she practically jumped out. He gave her a minute before he cut the headlights and checked on her.

With no moon, city lights or sodium glow from the interstate, everything was pure black—the sky, the ground, the hillside on the left, the sweeping valley on the right. The cold bit into him with sharp teeth.

No, the chill in his bones was from something else entirely. Fear.

Jessie teetered on the edge of the road, arms wrapped herself, nearly lost in that dark void.

Brandt moved in behind her. Close enough if she needed him, far enough away to offer the illusion of space.

“Get back in the truck and leave me alone, Brandt.”

“Like hell. What happened?”

“The same thing that happened in Tisdale’s. Not once, but ten times. I had ten different people, people I barely know, come up to me and tell me how fucking sorry they were for me. Sorry! For me. Like I’m some pathetic excuse of a woman that can’t keep a man or birth a child. They’re sorry that my husband ran around on me. They’re sorry that Landon exists. It was horrible.”

“Jess.” He set his hands on her shoulders.

She flinched and shook off his show of sympathy. “Don’t touch me. I’m so mad right now I just want to scream!”

Brandt could take it if she lashed out at him—physically or verbally. Instead of heeding her warning, he enfolded her in his arms, hugging her against his chest. Just as he suspected, she didn’t fight him at all.

A minute or so passed and he whispered, “Still wanna do it?”

“What? Scream?”

“There’s no one here but us. No one would hear but me and maybe a few mule deer.”

Her body tensed.

“Come on. Let it out.”

And she did. She screamed and screamed and it absolutely ripped his heart from his chest. Brandt closed his eyes and listened while she let that anger go. Let the frustration go. The hurt, she’d hang onto.

He held her until the screams tapered off into sobs. She ended up facing him, her face buried in his neck.

“Oh God, it hurts.”

“I know it does.”

“I loved him. I loved him like crazy, so how can I hate him so much now?”

“You hate the position he put you in, not him.”

She hiccupped. “This is so fucked up. Here I am telling you that I loved your brother, but I hate him, and you’re trying to make me feel better about having those conflicting feelings, even when you can’t possibly understand because you loved him.”

“Yes, I did. But that doesn’t mean I can’t hate some of the things Luke did, Jess.”

She tipped her head back and blinked away her tears. “Will this get easier?”

“The situation with Landon? I wish I could say yes, but I don’t know.”

“At least you didn’t bullshit me.”

“Honesty is always the best policy in my book.” Brandt smiled and pecked her on the forehead. “I’m here for you. Anything you need.”

Jessie shivered. “Thank you. We’d better get going.”

“Good. And after hearing those excellent screams, I’m suddenly in the mood for a horror flick.”

She actually laughed and shoved him. “Fine. But this time you’re making the popcorn.”

Chapter Six

Friday afternoon Brandt came into Sky Blue daycare to pick Landon up for the weekend. They’d already loaded Landon’s paltry amount of stuff in Brandt’s truck before they started their respective workdays, so the kid handoff was all that remained.

“Is there anything else?”

She snagged the last bottle out of the fridge and jammed it in the diaper bag. “No. That’s it.”

“We’ll get outta your hair then.” He hefted Landon onto his hip and slung the diaper bag over his shoulder.

“What are your plans?” she asked. How was it that Brandt looked masculine even carrying a quilted diaper bag printed with yellow duckies?

“Nothin’ big. Dalton suggested we test Landon’s rodeo skills on the back of a bull first thing in the morning. Tell thinks Landon is built more like a saddle bronc rider. While I’m leanin’ toward blowin’ off all them rough stock events and teachin’ him bulldoggin’. Naturally the afternoon will be devoted to getting Landon used to his very own dirt bike.”

Jessie laughed. “I’ll bet Landon would look cute in teeny tiny chaps and a little hat.” She reached down and snapped the bottom button on Landon’s coat. “Tell and Dalton are spending the night?”

“Yeah. Chores don’t stop because it’s the weekend. Thought we’d do the minimum tomorrow and take Landon with us.”

“Sounds like you guys will have fun.”

“What are your weekend plans?”

“Depends on the weather. Might work the horses. I’ll probably just stay home.” Like usual. She used to go out with Keely at least one Saturday night of the month, but after Keely and Jack got engaged, Cowgirls’ Night Out stopped.

“If you get bored or need anything, or just wanna hang out with us guys, call me, or just show up, okay?”

Brandt was so damn sweet. She couldn’t help reaching out and running her hand up his arm to let him know she appreciated his offer. “Okay.”

How did Brandt respond to her show of affection? By brushing his lips over her cheek. “See you Sunday night, Jess.”

About thirty seconds after Brandt exited the main door, Simone barreled into the empty daycare room.

“Omigod. How did I miss cowboy hottie again?”

“Gotta be quicker.”

All five feet eleven inches of Simone perched on a mini plastic chair. Long arms and longer legs akimbo, she resembled a praying mantis about to strike. “So, is cowboy hottie quick on the trigger too?”

Jessie rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t know.” But it wasn’t like she hadn’t been thinking about it.

Nonstop. In vivid detail.

“I hate it when you get all quiet and introspective. We need to go out and get you loud and rowdy. Get you riled up, dishing on the slim pickins on men around here.” Simone held up her hand when Jessie started to decline. “No arguing, no excuse. Because I saw cowboy hottie sneak out with the young’un.”

“The cowboy hottie has a name,” Jessie retorted. She faced the wall, wiping off the letters from the white board.

“Oh. So you’re not denying he’s hot?”

“Hell no. I’ve got eyes. Brandt is unbelievably hot. That body…” Jessie whistled and winked over her shoulder. “World class, my friend.”

“How do you know?” Simone asked with a lifted brow. “Has he been running around your place buck-assed naked?”

“No. But last summer? I saw him wearing a pair of board shorts and a really great tan.”

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