Evidently Brandt had no response for that.
“So you goin’ to Gillette?”
“Yes. How freakin’ pathetic is that?”
“Not pathetic. Just hopeful things might change between you and your father, and darlin’, that’s a feeling I’ve been familiar with my whole life.” Brandt kissed the top of her head. “I can’t fault you for that hope, but I’m worried how it’ll affect you if this trip ends up bein’ another dose of the same old, same old.
So, if you’re goin’, I’m goin’ with you.”
Jessie cranked her head around to look at him. “Really? You’d give up your one free weekend day to drive to Gillette and sit in an arena that smells like the barn?”
“I’m not givin’ up anything. I’ll be with you. That’s all that matters to me.” Brandt kissed her again, soundly.
Any mention of his feelings for her made her wary, but Brandt did it every chance he had. That’s just the way he was.
Hands roamed, breathing became hot and heavy as the kiss heated. But she didn’t break the connection, Brandt did. He muttered, “We’d better stop playin’ grab ass if we’re hitting the road.”
She nipped his bottom lip. “We’ve got time for a quickie.”
“No way.” He slapped her butt and stepped back. “I want more than a quickie.”
“We could stay here and spend the entire day in bed.”
“Another time. You need to see your dad, even if it’s only for a little while. Call him and tell him we’re on our way.” Brandt pointed at her clothes. “You gonna change?”
She glanced down at the dirt and manure stained coveralls. “You don’t think I oughta meet Billy in my work clothes?”
“I don’t give a damn what you wear, Jess, you know that. Just curious how soon you’ll be ready. I hafta call Tell and Dalton and update them on our plans before we go.”
“Give me five minutes.”
In Brandt’s room, she dug in her duffel bag for the extra pair of jeans. She switched out her ratty long sleeved T-shirt for a newer one, wishing she’d packed something nicer. Her gaze strayed to the closet.
Maybe she’d just wear one of Brandt’s shirts.
Her fingers trailed over the slim selection until she reached a shirt the color of burgundy roses, shoved in the very back of his closet. Not exactly Brandt’s shade. Curious, she pulled it out and realized it was a woman’s shirt.
Huh. Brandt wasn’t the player his brothers were, but she doubted he’d been a monk. She heard about the on-again, off-again girlfriend. He probably wasn’t aware his last squeeze had left it here.
Too bad, so sad. Finder’s keepers.
She buttoned it. Nice fit. Really nice fit. This expensive brand had always been out of her price range.
She stopped in the bathroom and brushed her hair before returning to the living room where Brandt waited.
“Ready? You look…” His smile dried as he noticed the rose-colored shirt.
“I hope you don’t mind. I’m out of clean clothes so I borrowed it from your closet, because truthfully, this one really doesn’t match your color palette.”
His slow aw shucks grin brought out his dimples. “I forgot Lydia left it here or I’da turned it into a grease rag. Keep it if you want. It looks better on you than it ever did on her.”
Lexie barked happily at the word go.
“Sorry, not today.” Jessie ruffled her dog’s ears. “Is it okay if she stays inside the house while we’re gone?”
“Yep. I already let her out. Amazing how quick she is about her goggie business when it’s ten below outside.”
Bundling up, she followed Brandt to his truck. She loved how he held the driver’s side door for her.
She scooted across the bench seat, stopping in the middle. As soon as they were on the road, he set his forearm on her thigh and curled his hand around her knee. She laid her head on his shoulder, perfectly content.
Silences between them weren’t unusual. So it surprised her when Brandt said, “Seems quiet without Landon babbling in the background.”
“Almost makes you wish he wasn’t trying so hard to talk, huh?”
He chuckled. “When I talked to Tell, he said Landon wrassled a bear last night. Granted, it was a teddy bear, but I’ll bet my brothers don’t make that small distinction to Landon as he’s growing up.
Already tryin’ to make the kid tough.”
“Why is it such a point of pride that the McKays are known for their toughness?”
“I don’t know if it’s a point of pride as much as it is proof that if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. So we’ve all gotta stand our ground because none of us wanna be considered the weakest link.”
“Were your dad and your uncles like that too?”
His posture stiffened. Was Brandt aware how his body changed whenever his dad was mentioned?
“They all had a reputation for brawlin’ with each other and with any unlucky sucker who crossed them. Course, if I hadn’t talked to my cousins, I never would’ve known any of that. If it hadn’t been for Aunt Kimi, none of us—Casper’s sons—would’ve known our grandpop. He lived with Uncle Cal and Aunt Kimi, which pissed my dad off.”
“Why?” She knew little of the McKay family history because Luke never wanted to talk about it.
“Grandpop made it clear he’d rather live with the daughter of the man he hated than with his own son.
I suspect that was the start of the issues between my dad and his brothers, but no one has ever confirmed that’s what sparked the problems.”
“Family drama. Ain’t it fun?”
“Don’t worry, Jess. I won’t pick a fight with a random stranger or do anything to embarrass you in front of your dad.”
“That’s not it. I’m more worried he’ll do something to embarrass me.”
Brandt lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles.
Jessie appreciated he didn’t make false promises that everything between her and Billy would be hunky-dory, sparkly rainbows and lollipops.
The roads to Gillette were icy and Brandt concentrated on driving. She must’ve dozed off because the next thing she knew, Brandt was shaking her awake.
“We’re at the Camplex.”
She stretched. “What time is it?”
“Twelve. What time does the rodeo start?”
“I’m guessing one o’clock.”
“Where are you meeting him?”
“In the contestant area. Not that I have a clue where that is. I’ve never been to the Camplex.”
Brandt frowned. “Didn’t you travel around with your dad for a while?”
“You mean the summer I met you at the Devil’s Tower Rodeo?”
“That was the third and final event I attended with him. I cramped his style.” She smiled. “Which was why I ended up in the bar that night.”
“Do you remember running into us—me’n Luke at the rodeo earlier that day?”
“Uh-huh. That’s how I found out about the dance. Luke asked me to come.”
Brandt parked. Then he turned, cupping her face to give her a tender kiss. “Any time you’re ready to leave, give me a signal.”
“Maybe we should have a code word,” she suggested.
“Hot, kinky sex?”
Brandt grinned. “I don’t even wanna know how you’d work that into casual conversation with your dad sittin’ right there, so maybe we oughta come up something else.”
“How about slow dancing, in honor of our first meeting?”
“Deal. But I feel obligated to mention that you slow danced with my brother, not me.”
She frowned. “But I know we two-stepped.”
He shook his head. “Sorry. You only had eyes for Luke.”
No point in arguing that one.
They paid the entrance fee to the arena and tracked down the contestant’s area. No one was admitted behind the chutes, but the gatekeeper sent someone to locate Billy Reynolds.
Jessie’s old fears surfaced. What if Billy had changed his mind at the last minute and had bypassed the Gillette rodeo? Wouldn’t be the first time. In truth, Billy had left her hanging more times than he’d followed through with any plans they’d made. She could claim she’d outgrown that fear, but it was embarrassing that Billy Reynolds still had the ability to hurt and disappoint her.
Brandt’s warm, rough, strong hand slipped into hers.
Somehow he knew. Ever since the day she hadn’t walked away when he’d been hurting, things had changed between them. No declarations of love. Just a deeper level of acceptance. Even for things they didn’t speak of. Like what’d happened to Brandt that day to turn him inside out. Like now, when she reverted to the young girl hanging on the corrals, hoping for attention from an absent father before he took off again.
One thing they didn’t speak of? What would happen when Landon’s mother got out of jail. As far as Jessie was concerned, nothing had changed on that front and Brandt knew it.
“Jessie?” came from behind her.
She turned and came face to face with Billy. Her father. Technically, her stepfather. Whenever she hadn’t seen him for a while, it surprised her how short he was, especially since he’d always seemed larger than life in her younger years. He wore a different hat—black, instead of the stained gray one she remembered. His plaid shirt was pressed. His faded jeans were covered in arena dust. A championship buckle was centered between his hips and above the cinch strap on his dark brown chaps. His boots were scuffed, scarred and faded. When he tipped his hat up, revealing his face, the lines bracketing his lips and stretching across his forehead startled her. Billy had always looked at least a decade younger than his actual age, but it seemed that’d caught up with him—he hadn’t aged well in the last three years. Not nice, but true.