“Yeah, I do. But it still stings. It pisses me off that he can cut me so deeply so quickly.”


“He’s always had that uncanny ability to know just where to put that knife. I’m sorry.”

Jessie looked up at him. “Please don’t confront him about this. It’ll just make it worse.”

“I won’t. In fact, let’s just forget all about it.” He kissed her cold cheeks. “Because I believe you’n me have a date with the couch, a bowl of popcorn and a whole pile of westerns.”

The shadows cleared from her eyes. “Sounds good. I need to change into something more comfortable first.” She started toward the house.

“Comfortable? Like what?”

“Well, I was thinking my pajamas because I’m freezing my ass off, but I might be convinced to wear something else.”

“Like what?”

She sent him a come and get it smile over her shoulder. “Like…just my skin.”

Immediate erection.

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He chased her inside, down the hallway and tackled her to the bed. “Great idea. Let’s have intermission first.”

“Just make sure you and Landon are bundled up really good. I’ll be right back.”

Jessie glanced at the clock. Granted it was only ten on New Year’s Eve, but it was two and a half hours past Landon’s bedtime. He was holding up pretty well, showing no signs of an impending meltdown, which was in itself a miracle given the rough week they’d had.

Since Sky Blue closed over the holidays, Jessie had been home with Landon every day, much to Landon’s disappointment. Because ranch work needed done regardless of the holiday season, Brandt’s schedule hadn’t changed and he hadn’t been around. Plus, Joan McKay had caught a terrible cold and didn’t want to expose Landon to it, so Jessie didn’t get a break until Brandt came home.

One thing the week had taught her? She wasn’t cut out to be a fulltime stay at home mom if she was blessed with children of her own. During her short pregnancy she’d imagined her days filled with holding and admiring her cherubic babe. Oddly enough, she’d never seen past that idyllic image to the sacrifices that parenting demanded.

Now that she’d worked in daycare, she appreciated not only the structure and activity it provided, but the chance for the kids to interact with other kids of different ages. Her charges had become enthralled when Ginger and Kane’s babies became part of the daycare. The fact Skylar helped out on the days the twins came really proved to Jessie how much she’d come to consider the people she worked with at Sky Blue her family. Yet, she admired the satisfaction Skylar, Ginger, and India received from having a career outside of parenthood. Not that Jessie faulted those women who chose to stay at home with their children, but it’d moved something inside her, interacting with the women she worked with after she’d started taking care of Landon. Most of them had been in less than ideal situations at some point. It amazed her how they’d been able to turn their lives around.

Which always led her to thinking about Landon’s mother. Had she reached that tipping point in her life yet? Or would she need a few more years to pull herself together? Brandt never mentioned his conversations with Samantha, but Jessie sensed when he’d had contact with her, because his mood was subdued. Or more likely, his mood reflected that he’d attempted to contact Samantha and she hadn’t been available or responded. Jessie overheard a conversation between Brandt and Tell, where Brandt expressed his frustration with Samantha’s lack of communication since landing in the halfway house.

Even Skylar had asked what would happen if Samantha wanted to waive Landon’s responsibilities after her release. Jessie didn’t answer, mostly because she wasn’t sure how to answer.

Fortunately, she had six weeks left to figure it out.

A rumbling noise sounded and Jessie realized she’d been so lost in thought she hadn’t gotten ready for Brandt’s mystery outdoor excursion. New Year’s Eve hadn’t ever ranked in her top five favorite holidays; actually it was at the very bottom of the list. She was glad Brandt declined the party invite from his cousin Colby. Evidently Keely decided to host a massive slumber party for all of her nephews and nieces and her cousin’s kids, so her brothers, cousins and their wives could have an adult night. She wondered how Jack was faring after his wife volunteered him to help with twenty-some kids under the age of ten.

By the time Brandt came inside and stomped the snow from his boots, both Jessie and Landon were bundled up. He grinned. “Grab some extra blankets and let’s go.”

The side-by-side Yamaha ATV idled by the steps. Lexie jumped in the back. Landon clapped his mitten-clad hands, shouting, “Yef! Yef!” The kid loved riding in the four-wheeler, and having Lexie along was like Christmas for him all over again.

Jessie asked, “Where are we going?”

“To my favorite spot on the ranch. It’s a full moon tonight and it’s so cold the sky is completely clear of clouds. I thought it’d be fun to take a moonlight ride.”

Damn. He’d gone the extra mile to set aside time just for them after she’d spent all day taking care of Landon. His thoughtfulness—without expecting anything in return—was just one of the many reasons she loved him.

Yes, she’d finally come to terms with the fact she’d fallen for him. It felt right. She loved him. She’d said it out loud a few times, practicing how it sounded. Natural? Fake? Desperate? It’d been years since she’d used those particular words and never to any man except Luke. She’d loved Luke and it hadn’t been enough. So she couldn’t help fear history was about to repeat itself. She loved Brandt, but once again, she wasn’t sure if love was enough.

The wind blown snow crust was solid enough the ATV rolled over the top of the snowdrifts without problem. Brandt tried to follow the tire tracks made from feeding cattle, but the four-wheeler bogged down, so he forged a new path. He was mindful of speed and angle of the dips and rises since Landon sat on her lap. Even so, the somewhat bumpy ride had lulled Landon to sleep.

The night, though cold, was magical. Due to the brilliance of the moon, the sky wasn’t a solid black backdrop, but a dark gray swath punctuated with silvery stars. Moonbeams bounced off the snow, making the icy crystals dangling from sage plants look like rhinestones. The snow itself sparkled as if the wind had swirled glitter across the land. In all the years she’d lived in Wyoming she’d never seen the harsh beauty appear so enchanted. Dreamlike. With no other sounds or noises or lights, it was as if they were the only ones in the world.

The ATV scaled a steep rise and they were on top of a plateau. Brandt cut the engine. With the cloudless night, visibility in all directions was unobstructed and they could see for miles.

“Breathtaking, ain’t it?”

“Yes. I…I don’t even know what to say.”

“I’ve been comin’ here my whole life and I’m still not used to how this view just knocks me flat.”

Brandt put his arm behind her on the seat. “It’s humbling.”

“It is.” She’d always known the ranch meant a lot to Brandt. But in that moment, she knew that he was as much a part of this Wyoming land as the soil and the sage.

“Thanks for sharing this with me, Brandt.”

“No one else in the world that I’d rather be with or share it with, Jessie, you know that, right?”

She nodded.

“I brought something to help us celebrate the New Year in style.” He reached back in the storage compartment and pulled out a bottle of champagne.

Jessie laughed. “You’re crazy. That’ll be all kinds of shook up after our trek across the frozen tundra.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be nice and cold.” He took off his glove and twisted the wire cage holding the cork.

Then he slowly eased the cork out and not a single drop foamed out the top.

She said, “I’m impressed with your pop topping technique. In more ways than one.”

“But in true redneck style, I didn’t bring glasses. We’re drinkin’ it straight outta the bottle.”

“Works for me.”

Brandt held the bottle to her lips and she drank carefully, enjoying the cold tang of the champagne bubbles bursting on her tongue.

Then Brandt drank. They watched the moon move across the sky as they finished the bottle. When she shivered, Brandt pressed his warm lips to hers and murmured, “Happy New Year, Jess.”

“Happy New Year, Brandt.”

She snuggled close to him on the drive home, still taking it all in. The moonlit ride. The majesty of the place he called home. That simple kiss that held more emotion than any words he could’ve said. A feeling of peace, of rightness drifted over her.

But life was never that easy and she should’ve known her sense of peace wouldn’t last.

Chapter Twenty-One

When Brandt excused himself after answering his cell phone, Jessie knew something was up.

He’d been outside for almost a half hour and she began to worry something bad had happened. Phone sex with her not withstanding, Brandt hated to talk on the phone. His conversations where short and to the point.

Landon smacked his mini dump truck on the coffee table, culling her attention. “Careful, lil’

buckaroo, you might smash your fingers.”

He pushed the dump truck to her; she pushed it back. It’d become one of his favorite games, seeing how hard he could push a wheeled vehicle before it sailed off the table. And any time it went flying, he giggled.

She told Brandt that meant Landon was testing his boundaries.

Brandt told her that meant Landon was being a boy.

The truck made the trek over the flat surface eight times before Landon sent it careening over the edge on top of a sleeping Lexie.

The dog slunk away and now that she was awake, Landon decided it was time to play. He patted her head. Her belly. Lexie put up with Landon hugging her neck, but when Landon tried ride her like a bull, she balked and darted away.

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