“Sounds like I have abandonment issues, huh? My ‘real’ dad bailed on me. Billy bailed on me. But with Luke…he mentally checked out of our relationship before he physically left. So I’ll argue it was different with him. He abandoned me before he died.”


“Not every man is like that.”

“All of them in my experience have been. So that’s all I know.”

Another line of logic Brandt couldn’t dispute.


Jessie held up her hand. “Please. No more. I have a splitting headache and the glare off the snow is making it worse. I need to close my eyes for a bit.”

Brandt didn’t look too happy, but he said, “All right.”

And she must’ve been more drained than she’d thought because she slept all the way to Brandt’s house.

Chapter Fourteen

Brandt waited in the visitation room of the women’s correctional facility in Lusk, wondering if he looked calmer than he felt. It seemed a bad sign, Samantha requesting this meeting, especially when she’d indicated that she didn’t want him to bring Landon.

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The door opened and Samantha shuffled in. She wasn’t handcuffed or shackled, but the neon orange jumpsuit dwarfed her. No doubt Samantha Johnston was a beautiful girl—Brandt still had a hard time thinking of her as a woman. She had milk pale skin and dark brown, almost black hair. But her eyes were the palest shade of blue he’d ever seen. Her eastern European heritage was evident in her facial bone structure. With her slight frame, she looked like a good, stiff wind would knock her over. Striking as she was, she just looked so damn…young.

Samantha slid into the chair, clasping her hands in front of her on the table. “Brandt. Thanks for coming.”

“No problem. Is it stupid to ask how you’re doin’?”

She shrugged. “I’m doing…all right. Except I hate the food. I hate the mandatory therapy sessions. I hate we’re locked down so early at night because I’m a night owl. But I don’t mind working in the laundry.

At least it smells clean in there. And they’ve got a computer in the classroom so I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with my life when I get outta here.”

“Anything in particular jumping out at you?”

“Not yet. Since I’ve got my GED I’m allowed to check out the courses at the community colleges.

Being’s they’re real big on rehabilitating us here.”

A guard poked her head in. She nodded to Brandt and the door shut with an ominous thud and a series of clicking locks.

They only had so much time, and Brandt wasn’t the type to make idle chitchat, especially with someone he didn’t know very well. “So why didn’t you want me to bring Landon along for this visitation?”

Samantha bit her lip, focusing on her ragged fingernails. “I can’t believe it’s been more than a month since I’ve seen him. Time is totally different in here.”

“I imagine.”

“I—I miss him. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see him. I’m sure he’s grown bigger and he’s changed already. But I don’t think if he came to visit that I could stand to give him back at the end of the hour.” A tear fell on the table. “As much as he’s a part of my life and being apart from him is the hardest thing I’ve Cowgirls Don’t Cry

done…it’s surreal. It might sound strange, but I try not to think about him because without having him here, it’s almost like he doesn’t exist. And that’s way easier.”

Brandt had no idea how he was supposed to respond. On one hand, it sounded like she’d already started to phase Landon out of her life. On the other hand, it sounded like the only way she could deal with the separation was with the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy.

When he stayed quiet too long, she said, “You think I’m horrible, don’t you?”

“I honestly don’t know what to think, Samantha, beyond the fact you’re in a bad situation that won’t improve for at least another three months.”

“A bad situation of my own making,” she said with a sneer.

Not touching that one.

“Sorry. That’s one thing about being locked up in here. I’ve got all this time to think.” Her smile wasn’t convincing. “So tell me about what Landon’s been doing.”

Brandt relaxed. “He had a rough time at first, but we got a pretty good handle on it. He goes to daycare on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and my mom takes him the other two days of the week. My brothers Tell and Dalton have helped out. Landon is crazy about dogs.”

“Who has a dog?”


Samantha looked at him, eyes narrowed. “Jessie? As in Luke’s wife, Jessie?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“You didn’t tell me that Luke’s wife was gonna be one of the people taking care of my child, Brandt.”

He racked his brain, trying to remember if he’d mentioned Jessie to Samantha. No, he hadn’t, because the idea hadn’t occurred to him until after Samantha had gone to jail. “Last time we spoke, I didn’t exactly have a firm plan in place, besides keeping Landon out of foster care. And since Landon is bein’ well cared for while you’re in jail, I don’t see how Jessie helping out is a problem.”

“Not a problem? I have a problem with it. A big problem. What if she—”

“What if she’s doin’ a damn good job?” Brandt supplied.

She fell back in her chair, arms folded over her chest. “Yeah. Maybe that’s what I’m worried about.

That she’ll be a better mother than me. And between her, your parents and your brothers, they’ll try to take Landon away.”

He counted to ten—any outburst would send the guards in—but he wanted to shake Samantha until her teeth rattled. “You left Landon’s care in my hands and my control. I promised you I’d do everything to keep that from happening.”

Samantha didn’t answer; she just went back to gnawing on her nails.

The need to get out of there was almost suffocating him.

Can you imagine how Samantha feels? Knowing she can’t just leave whenever she wants?

“Is there anything else?” Brandt prompted. “Because we’re about outta time.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a pack of cigarettes on you?”

“Can’t help you there.”

“I figured you’d be more the Copenhagen type anyhow.” Samantha sighed heavily. “Thank you. I’m sure it sounds like I don’t appreciate all you’ve done, and all you’re doing, but I do. I really do. I just can’t wait to get out of this place and get back to my life.”

He waited for her to add that she couldn’t wait to get back to her kid, but she didn’t.

“As far as the next visitation?” he asked.

She met his eyes. “I’m not being melodramatic when I say skip it. I know it’s a drive for you. And the holidays are coming up. I don’t think I could stand to see him, knowing…” Her eyes flooded with tears and she glanced away. “Maybe after Thanksgiving and Christmas I’ll be ready for him. I’ll let you know. I get phone privileges soon so I can call you.” Samantha stood and knocked on the glass partition. The guard let her out and she didn’t look back.

Brandt wasn’t sure how long he sat there, his gut churning with the thought that maybe this situation with Landon wasn’t as temporary as he’d been telling everyone.

He didn’t call Jessie until he was close to his house. As much as he appreciated she didn’t ask questions about how it’d gone with Samantha, he needed someone to talk to.

But who? He couldn’t have a rational discussion with his parents or his brothers. His married cousins with kids weren’t options either. If he talked to Kane’s wife, Ginger, she’d probably urge him to prepare for legal action to ensure Landon wasn’t in limbo—even if his mother was.

Brandt ended up driving to his cousin Ben’s place. In addition to knowing his stuff about ranching, Ben was a damn fine carpenter. It’d taken him six years, but he’d designed and built his log cabin home from the ground up. This house sparked Brandt’s envy like no other house in the vast McKay family. Not only was it spacious with three bedrooms and two baths, including a master bath with a hot tub and a walkin shower, and a kitchen that boasted every possible amenity, it was rugged, a real guy’s space. Animal trophy heads lined the walls. A gigantic game room dominated the layout, with a huge big-screen TV surrounded by comfy couches, and a regulation gaming table that’d comfortably host ten card players. A fully loaded, fifteen-foot hand-carved wooden bar, a pool table, and an electronic dartboard. Just outside the garage was a detached woodshop and a metal barn. No one blamed Ben for being such a homebody when he had a home like this.

There was the rumor that his playboy cousin had never brought the same woman back to his house twice. A rumor Ben wouldn’t confirm or deny, which is probably why it lived on in the annals of McKay legend.

Ben ambled out, his dogs Ace and Deuce at his heels, as always. “Brandt. Surprised to see you.

What’s up?”

“Nothin’ much. Just drivin’ by and thought I’d stop to see if you had time for a beer.”

“Sure. You wanna come in? Or you wanna head into town?”

Brandt grinned. “Cuz, your bar puts any bar within a hundred miles to shame.”

Ben grinned back. “That is true. I was just about to crack a cold one anyway.”

The dogs followed them back inside and stretched out in front of the wood stove. Brandt parked himself on a barstool and Ben grabbed two Fat Tire beers from the fridge behind the bar. He slid one to Brandt, leaning his elbows on the counter.

“So, you wanna exchange bullshit about our families, you ask me how Quinn’s new baby girl Amelia is doin’, or how Chase’s season is goin’ in the PBR. Then I ask you if Dalton and Tell are still banging the Beaumont twins. Or how fuckin’ bizarre it is that Luke fathered a kid with some teenage chick right before he died. Or do you wanna cut the crap and tell me the real reason you stopped by?”

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