As she waited for the next play, she realized it’d been ages since she’d goofed around outside with no real purpose. Likewise, Brandt, Tell and Dalton worked in the great outdoors every day, no matter what the weather did, so they tended to stay indoors when they finished for the day.
Maybe the sunshine and crisp air had brought out her melancholy. But it bolstered her spirits to see these three banding together outside of the hours they spent working on the ranch. It hadn’t always been that way, due to Casper’s tendency to pit his sons against each other, so at least one good thing had come out of Luke’s death.
“Stop chasin’ butterflies, Jess, and pay attention,” Tell shouted right before he threw her the ball.
She yelled, “Crap!” but somehow managed to catch the football. Then she took off.
Behind her came a loud oof as her teammate tackled one of his brothers, but she didn’t stop to see which one, because guaranteed, the other one was chasing her.
She’d almost reached the goal line—a stick jammed in a dirt pile—when she was brought down.
Hard. Hitting the ground on her side with a bone-jarring thud knocked the wind right out of her.
She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe.
“Jess? God, I’m sorry.” Brandt rolled her on her back. “Are you okay?”
No air had entered her lungs yet. Her eyelids seemed glued shut.
“Fuck.” Gentle hands swept the hair from her face. “Come on, sweetheart. Wake up.”
Footsteps stopped by her head.
“Jesus, Brandt. How fucking hard did you hit her?”
“I—I didn’t think it was that hard.”
“Did you knock her unconscious?” Dalton asked.
“I don’t know. She hasn’t moved.”
Tell said, “Maybe you oughta give her mouth-to-mouth or something.”
Jessie gasped and her eyes flew open.
Brandt was in her face, blocking her view of anything but him. Panic darkened his eyes. Distress lined his forehead. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“You just knocked the wind out of me.”
“Just?” he repeated. “Where else are you hurt?”
He didn’t believe her. He unzipped her coat and curled his hands around her ribs beneath her breasts.
“What about here? Does this hurt?”
She shook her head. She really wasn’t hurt, but having Brandt so concerned about her and putting those rough hands of his all over her? Well, there was the upside to getting tackled.
His palms slowly slid down her belly. “Here?”
Again, she shook her head.
His big hands slid further down to circle her hips. “Feel like anything is bruised or out of joint?”
“Hey, bro, why don’t you just cut the shit and volunteer to kiss her all over and make it better,”
Dalton taunted, adding kissing noises.
Tell smacked him in the arm. “Shut it, asshole.”
Her gaze winged between Dalton and Tell, kneeling beside Brandt. “You saw me pass the goal line, right? That counted as a touchdown.”
“You didn’t pass the goal line,” Dalton scoffed. “See? You dropped the football well short of the goal.”
They all turned and looked at where Dalton was pointing, which was why they didn’t see Landon barreling toward them until he landed on Brandt’s back with a happy shriek.
Luckily Tell and Dalton pulled the boy free, but not before Brandt fell forward, blocking Jessie’s body with his.
Tell laughed. “Seems like someone wants to play football. Maybe you are good at tackling after all.
Come on, squirt.” He stood, tucking Landon under his arm like a football and Dalton gave chase—much to Landon’s delight.
“I’m glad to see you’re smilin’. You scared me.”
“I scared you? You’re the one who hit me like this was the last four seconds in the Superbowl.”
Brandt pushed to his feet and held out his hands. “Come on. Up you go.”
As soon as she was upright, she grabbed his biceps to steady herself, which brought them close. Very close.
When Jessie looked into Brandt’s eyes, he wore the oddest expression. So when he touched her cheek, almost reverently, with a hoarse, “Christ, you’re so pretty,” she wondered if maybe he hadn’t hit his head at some point.
“You guys playin’ or what?” Dalton yelled.
She stepped back. “I think I’ll sit this one out.”
“I’ll just go inside and cut the cake.”
“And take some aspirin.”
But her feet wouldn’t budge. Neither would Brandt’s. They stared at one another and something just…clicked.
“Come on guys,” Tell shouted.
Brandt smiled before he turned and jogged to his brothers.
Grateful for the time to regroup, she sliced the cake and carried in the boxes from the daycare. By then the boys’d had enough football and were starving.
They demolished the cake in one sitting.
Brandt bathed a dirt-covered Landon, leaving her with Tell and Dalton, listening to their Saturday night plans.
“There’s a great band playin’ at Ziggy’s tonight,” Dalton suggested.
“Yeah, but it always gets so damn crowded on Saturday nights,” Tell said. “What else is goin’ on?”
“I heard Busby is havin’ a party at his place.”
Tell shook his head.
“Remember his last party? Hell, most of those ‘hot’ girls he promised us were jailbait.”
“True.” Dalton repeatedly tossed a tennis ball into the air. “I wish we could go to that strip club in Wheatland. That’s always a good time.”
“Also true,” Tell said. He looked at Jessie. “Brandt said you were goin’ out on the town last night.
What did you end up doin’?”
“Simone and I went to the Pizza Barn for pizza and beer.”
Tell rolled his eyes. “Brandt made it sound like you were goin’ out, getting wild and getting laid.”
“Brandt said that? About me?”
“Hell no, I didn’t say that,” Brandt retorted. “I said you had plans. That’s it.” He sat Landon on the couch next to Jessie.
“You are such a liar,” Dalton said. “I remember exactly—”
“Forget it. Let’s just go.” Tell grabbed his coat. “Thanks for the cake, Jess.”
“Yeah, it was good,” Dalton said.
Brandt frowned at his brothers. “You guys comin’ back here tonight?”
“No. Hopefully we’ll be getting wild and getting laid.” They sailed out the door.
Jessie watched Landon scramble off the couch and head to the boxes she’d brought in.
“What’re those?” Brandt asked.
“Some stuff we don’t use at Sky Blue I thought Landon might like.”
“Cool. Do you mind keepin’ an eye on him while I shower?”
Do you mind if I keep an eye on you while you shower?
“Umm. Sure. No problem.”
Her mom called and they chatted about Thanksgiving plans since Jessie had promised to spend the holiday in Riverton. She watched Landon while she talked. He’d thrown the toys from both boxes all over the floor, but he’d stopped tossing things when he reached the stack of books. He’d stayed in one place and flipped through them slowly, mesmerized, as if he’d never seen a book before.
The truth hit her and she felt like she’d had the wind knocked out of her again. She studied Landon so closely she was barely aware when Brandt sat beside her.
She pointed at Landon, who hadn’t noticed Brandt entering the room either, which was a first.
Brandt whispered, “What? You’re surprised he’s bein’ good?”
“No. Look at him. It’s like he’s never seen a book before. I can’t believe…” She closed her eyes and dropped her chin to her chest.
“Hey.” Brandt brought her face toward his. “Look at me.”
She opened her eyes, hating that once again Brandt would witness her tears. “What kind of mother doesn’t read to her child? Or at least give him books to look at himself? My God. Do you know how much my heart aches for him…” Her voice cracked. She tried to turn away, but Brandt pulled her into his arms.
“You’re changing that for him. See? Can you imagine how excited he’s gonna be when you sit down with him and read those books to him?”
Jessie’s pulse raced when she felt Brandt’s warm lips brush her forehead, above her eyebrow, her temple, her damp cheek.
“This is why I asked for your help. Because you’re cryin’ for a little boy who’s never had what another child would take for granted. And I know this heart of yours, Jessie. I suspect by next week Landon will have more books in his possession than any other kid in the state of Wyoming.”
She laughed against his neck.
Brandt kissed her temple. “It’s gonna be okay.”
But she wasn’t so sure. It was getting harder to stick to her original plan of thinking as Landon only as another long-term daycare assignment. With each day, he was becoming less an obligation, more a joy.
That scared her to death. Because guaranteed, even though he was small, he still was just another McKay male who would eventually break her heart.
She wiggled out of Brandt’s embrace and put some distance between them. “I’d better be getting home.”
“I wish you’d stay. Me’n Landon are gonna have a gourmet meal tonight and you’re welcome to share it with us.”