Soul patch? Gone. Despite the leaner appearance, Brandt’s angular face was still too rugged looking to be considered handsome in the classical sense, like Luke’s had been.
What hadn’t changed about Brandt? His captivating smile that managed to be both cocky and shy.
The stunning blueness of his eyes. His overprotective instinct. The first thing he’d done after seeing her for the first time in months was lecture her on hooking up with a douchebag like Mike.
At that point, Jessie had told Brandt she was predestined to wind up with douchebags like Mike and Luke, and if he were smart, he’d continue to stay away from her.
He’d started to argue and she’d glimpsed something dangerous in Brandt’s eyes she’d never noticed.
But true to form, he’d walked away.
Or so she’d thought.
She’d been so eager to convince Mike and his friends she was good-time Jessie the party girl, not a mousy widow with a pathetic past, that she ended up drinking way more than was healthy or smart.
The details were hazy through the veil of alcohol. Except for the humiliation of not holding Mike’s sexual interest even when she was naked and willing. Chivalrous Brandt had taken her home. She hadn’t seen or heard from him until today.
Jessie slumped against the wall. So far she’d been able to avoid talking to him.
Or maybe he’s avoiding talking to you.
She heard, “Miss Jessie!” and saw her boss’s twin daughters racing toward her.
Peyton exclaimed, “There you are,” and attached herself to Jessie’s hip. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Not to be outdone, Shannie hugged the other leg and added, “Yeah, everywhere.”
“I’ve been here the whole time.” Jessie whistled. “You look like princesses in those dresses.”
Both girls beamed and twirled in a flurry of ribbons, ruffles and frills that adorned their pink and lavender dresses. Not matching dresses. Peyton and Shannie were fraternal twins, but they’d exerted their individuality early on. Since Jessie ran the daycare at Sky Blue, she’d watched these girls over the last two years, always amazed by how different they were from each other, and from their older sister, Eliza.
Eliza, who was trying to keep up with her dozen or so boy cousins.
“Will you dance with us?” Shannie asked.
“Please?” Peyton begged.
“Where are your mom and dad?”
Shannie rattled off, “Mama is right over there, see? She’s helpin’ Aunt Ginger with her little babies since Daddy and Uncle Buck hadta take Hayden’s grandpa home.”
Jessie wasn’t surprised Kane and Ginger McKay had brought their twins, Madelyn and Paulson, to Keely’s wedding. Babies abounded at McKay gatherings because there were plenty of hands to help out harried mothers and fathers.
“Miss Jessie, can we ask you something?”
“How come we don’t call you Aunt Jessie? You’re a McKay, just like us, right?”
Boy howdy. How long had these precocious three-year-olds been waiting for a chance to ask her? She snagged a chair and sat. The girls scrambled onto her lap. “I became a McKay after I married your dad’s cousin Luke.”
“But he’s in heaven, huh?” Shannie said.
“Yep. Right after he…went to heaven, I started working for your mom at Sky Blue. We decided it’d be too confusing for the other kids in daycare if you two and Eliza called me Aunt Jessie, so we thought it’d be best if everyone called me Miss Jessie.”
Shannie exchanged a sly look with Peyton before she said, “So if you don’t got a husband hogging all your time, then you can dance with us.”
She smiled at their logic. “I suppose so.”
“Yay!” The girls hopped down, each grabbed a hand and tugged her onto the dance floor.
Jessie spun the girls through two songs. When a slow number started, she started to herd them off the dance floor, but Calvin McKay intercepted, scooping both his giggling granddaughters into his arms for a dance.
Before she reached her table, a firm grip circled her waist and she was towed back to the dance floor.
Brandt slipped his arms around her—at a proper distance naturally—and said, “Thanks for dancin’ with me.”
“Like you gave me a choice.”
“You would’ve said no if I asked, so I didn’t ask.”
She couldn’t help it; she smiled.
Brandt’s gaze wandered over her face. “You look beautiful tonight, Jess.”
She blushed. “Thank you. You clean up pretty good yourself.” No lie. Brandt wore a black suit with a silver vest. The same silver vest all Keely’s male McKay relatives wore, but he somehow wore it better…which was really saying something.
“How have you been?”
Lonely. “Busy. How about you?”
The song shifted tempo and he slowed them to a gentle sway.
“It was a beautiful wedding. I’ve never seen Keely so happy,” Jessie murmured.
They stayed quiet in the moment, just dancing. The song ended and another one began. “I should go,”
she said, trying to slip from his embrace.
But Brandt’s grip tightened. “Stay. We need to talk.”
The last thing she wanted was to talk about the fiasco at the lake. “If in my drunken idiocy I forgot to say thank you for…what you did for me that night—”
“You said thank you,” he replied tersely, “repeatedly, and that’s not why I wanna talk to you.”
“Well, thank heaven for that. Because God knows I haven’t relived the most embarrassing night of my life in my nightmares enough times in the last four months.”
“You’re not the one who oughta be embarrassed.”
“Can we please stop talking about this?”
She took a step back.
He jerked her forward again.
“Knock it off, Brandt.”
“No. We are gonna talk about this now that you brought it up. Did Mike call you the next day?”
She knew he wouldn’t let it go. “Yes. He didn’t remember anything, okay? Not a single thing.”
“That little fucking prick. Do you remember anything?”
Heat rose in her cheeks. “Some.”
“What did he say when he called?”
“He asked me out again.”
“Did you go?” Brandt demanded.
She glared at him. “What the hell do you think?”
He stared back, pulling that silent accusing crap he did so well. Once again she tried to get away from him, once again he didn’t let her.
“Let me go.”
Before Brandt answered, Dalton appeared. “Hey, guys. Mind if I cut in?”
“Get the fuck away, Dalton,” Brandt snarled.
“Look, people are watching. Dad especially. I ain’t gonna let either of you fuck up Keely’s wedding reception by givin’ Dad the chance to cause a scene. Which we all know he’d love to do. So back the fuck off, Brandt, and let me dance with Jessie.”
“Fine.” Brandt leaned in and kissed Jessie’s cheek. Then he whispered, “This ain’t over. Mark my words, Jessie. We will talk, even if I have to hogtie you to make it happen.” He gave them both a feral smile and ambled off the dance floor toward the bar.
Without missing a beat, Dalton brought her into his arms. “I ain’t gonna ask what the hell that was about.”
“Smart choice, Dalton.”
“I may be slow, but I ain’t dumb.”
She relaxed and let him lead. Her relationship with Dalton was more sibling-like than her relationship with Brandt. Dalton still called her every couple of weeks just to shoot the breeze. Last month he’d come over and helped her fix fence, regaling her with tales of his dating life, which always made her laugh.
“So, sister, you’re lookin’ good.”
“You’re looking dapper yourself, young McKay. Did you bring a date to the wedding?”
“Are you kiddin’? Bring a woman to a wedding and they immediately start hearin’ wedding bells.
And I ain’t close to ready to settle down.”
“The wild McKay boys are still goin’ strong?”
“You know it.” He danced them toward the stage. “Although, lately, Tell seems to be takin’ a page from Brandt’s book, actin’ like a freakin’ monk.”
Jessie’s pulse jumped. Dalton never talked about Brandt around her. “Oh really? A few months back someone mentioned Brandt seeing a woman from Hulett.”
“Lydia? She’s old news. They’ve been on-again, off-again for the last ten months.”
Her immediate burst of jealousy was ridiculous.
“Something is goin’ on with him. He’s been a real dickhead the last month. I thought maybe he was pissy because he wasn’t getting laid, but I ain’t sure that’s what’s been bugging him. I wondered if he’d said something to you, ’cause he sure as hell ain’t talkin’ to me or Tell.”
“I’m sorry, but Brandt hasn’t been around much the last year.”
A blush stole across Dalton’s cheeks.
“Nothin’. I just ain’t surprised.”
And then Jessie knew. Brandt must’ve told his brothers that she’d turned him down. No wonder Dalton never talked about Brandt around her. In fact, with their Three Musketeers mentality, she was surprised Dalton and Tell stayed in contact with her at all and they hadn’t taken Brandt’s side.
Tell approached, elbowing Dalton aside. “My turn. Your girlfriend is lookin’ for you anyway.”
He whispered something to Dalton that had him blushing beet red.
“Fuck off. I’d punch you in the mouth for even sayin’ that, but Dad would love to see us mixin’ it up, so I’m bein’ the bigger man and walkin’ away.” Dalton made it two steps before he tossed, “Asshole,” over his shoulder.