“So if you’re done inspecting me…”


She shrugged. “You had to expect that.”

“Yes, I did. Thanks for coming early. I worried Brandt wouldn’t pass along the message that I wanted to meet you.”

Jessie frowned. “Why wouldn’t Brandt—”

“Because he’s very protective of you.” Samantha leaned back into the booth seat and crossed her arms over her chest, almost defiantly.

The waitress took Jessie’s order and neither she nor Samantha said another word, nor did they look at each other until the waitress dropped off the soda and left.

“So why the summons, Samantha? I’ll admit I wasn’t sure this was the best idea.”

“First of all, I really wanted to thank you in person for all you’ve done for Landon. I…it’s so far above and beyond…”

Please don’t get weepy.

“Plus, I feel I owe you an explanation about a couple of things regarding Luke.”

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Jessie held up her hand. “Not necessary. I don’t need the down-and-dirty details about what went on between you two. Landon is proof enough for me. In fact, I’d rather not know.”

“Part of my A.A. program and rehab assignment is owning up to my past behavior.”

“Apologizing for it?” Jessie asked sharply.

“Would you accept an apology from me?”

I don’t know.

Samantha blurted, “The truth is I wasn’t in love with Luke and he wasn’t in love with me. We weren’t star-crossed lovers consumed with overpowering lust or any of that romantic movie bullshit.”

That caught her attention.

“For about a month after we met, we hooked up when he came into the bar where I waitressed. Since it was bar, he thought I was older than I was and I didn’t bother to tell him differently.” Samantha looked away. “And I honestly didn’t give a rat’s ass he was married. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it.”

Not a question. Jessie reached for her soda to try and wash away the sour taste in her mouth. So Luke hadn’t hidden his marital status. Was he hoping she’d get wind of this affair and leave him?

Would you have? If you’d known about this young woman, would you have left him?

No. Not then. Now? Yes. It hurt like a bitch to admit that to herself, but she was done lying to herself.

“Bottom line: I was convenient after closing time and so was he.” She blatantly studied Jessie. “You surprised?”

“To be honest, I don’t know what I am. Hurt and mad mostly. During that time I suspected Luke was seeing someone.” But I didn’t have the balls to confront him about it.

“We were only together a couple months. I was exclusive with him, even knowing he was going home to his wife after we…” She cleared her throat. “I never begged him to leave you, never wanted anything permanent with him. I broke it off with him a week before he died. No fuss, no muss. When I heard he died, I was sad, but not devastated. Probably not like you were.

“After I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t know what to do. Especially when some of Luke’s bar friends gossiped about how his family shut you out and cut you off completely. I figured they wouldn’t believe me about being pregnant, and I thought they’d do the same to me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.”

“Didn’t matter at the time because I wasn’t sure if I was gonna keep the baby. I’d contacted a couple of adoption places, but they didn’t want to talk to me until the baby was born and I had a better grasp on my plans. I couldn’t even work in the bar because I didn’t want anyone to know I was pregnant.”

“When did you decide to keep the baby?”

“The minute I pushed him out of my body. I never knew I could love like that. I’d never felt anything like it.” She paused to take another sip of her soda. “Anyway, my old boyfriend showed up when Landon was two months old and living with my judgmental aunt was making me crazy, so we moved in with him.

Mistake. Not only was his mother certifiable, within four months I’d gotten a DUI. When I got my second…Talk about a serious wake up call. I was just lucky Landon wasn’t in the car with me. As I sat in county lockup, I realized I was headed down the same stupid path my mom had taken, drinking too much, relying on random men, leaving my kid with strangers so I could…” Samantha paused, keeping her face pointed at the table, not meeting Jessie’s eyes.

It was difficult to watch her struggle because Jessie’s first impulse was to comfort and reassure her.

She squeezed her hands into fists beneath the table and kept her mouth firmly closed.

“I ain’t gonna play the ‘my childhood sucked’ card. It sucked getting dumped off whenever my mom got tired of me, but I know I’m not the only one who had a shitty go of it growing up. I know I shouldn’t use it as an excuse to be a shitty mother to my own kid. He deserves better.”

Was this where Samantha confessed she still wasn’t ready to take on that role? Jessie braced herself, but she couldn’t stop her heart from racing.

“So I left Drex and crawled back to my aunt to prove to her I was gonna change. But she refused to believe it, refused to agree to take care of Landon when I went to jail. I panicked. I mean, what was I gonna do? My only option was to tell Luke’s family about his son and hope they could take him in for a while.”

“So you wouldn’t’ve told them about Landon if you’d had another option?”

“I don’t know. The risk of the McKays taking him away was better than Social Services getting a hold of him and making me prove for the next sixteen years that I’m a fit mother. So when I met Brandt…I trusted him. Immediately. I knew Landon would have family, no matter what happened to me.” Samantha glanced up and locked her teary-eyed gaze to Jessie’s. “Now that I’ve told you the ugly truth, can you be honest with me about something?”

Somehow she worked up enough spit to speak. “I’ll try.”

“Did you come here today because you were hoping you’d get to have Landon a little longer?”

Jessie was too stunned to answer.

But Samantha wouldn’t let it go. “Or were you scared you and Brandt might be stuck with Landon permanently?”

Inwardly Jessie squirmed. But she supposed the questions weren’t any harder to answer than they were for Samantha to ask. “I had no freakin’ clue. I suspected you’d need time to get your life back together after being in jail and I wasn’t sure how long it’d take. But I know Brandt never would use the word ‘stuck’ when it comes to taking care of his nephew. He loves Landon. Unconditionally. He would’ve done what needed done.”

“What about you?”

Brandt’s words, Don’t make me choose, Jessie, please, don’t make me choose, stuck with her.

Haunted her.

“Landon is a sweet boy and I liked taking care of him and being a part of his life.”


Being totally open with Samantha about her change of heart, when she hadn’t told Brandt about it yet felt like a breach of trust. Jessie looked at her. “But I’m glad you’re stepping up to your responsibilities.”

“I know it won’t be easy. I made some mistakes. And it might sound like I’ve been brainwashed or something, but being in jail was good for me. Being away from Landon was good for me too. Because now, I understand what’s important in my life, when before…” Her voice wavered. “I love him so much and I want him to know it every day. I want to be the mom who tucks him in every night and reads him bedtime stories. I want to teach him how to do stuff like ride a bike. I want to take him to the park. I want to sign him up for little league when he’s bigger. I want him to have friends. And family. I want to make sure he’s got more to eat for supper than a bag of Cheetos. I want be the kind of mother I never had. I can do it. I know I can do it. I want to do it. Learning to take care of myself and my son is all that matters to me now.”

That’s when Jessie knew. This woman, given another chance, would be a good mother. She’d be a good person. She’d paid for her mistakes and now she had a chance to make her life right, to move on and to put her past behind her. She deserved the chance to prove it to herself and to Landon. She needed Jessie’s support. Not her scorn. Not her skepticism.

Keep it light or you will lose it completely. “You’re in luck because in the last couple months Landon discovered he loves having stories read to him.”

Samantha wiped her eyes. “Really? I never had extra money to buy him books.”

“He’s got a box full of them now. And there’s always the library when he gets bored with them.”

Jessie smiled. “I had extras from the daycare, and Brandt…well, he and Tell and Dalton had such a great time buying Landon boy toys. I’m afraid you’ll have a whole bunch of stuff to pack.”

“Trust me. I don’t mind. I can’t wait.”

She noticed that Samantha’s focus kept drifting to the door. “What are your plans?”

“I’ll start my education rehab at the community college in Casper in a couple weeks. They’ve got housing and daycare and I can do work-study during the day, so I can be with Landon at night and on weekends. Since that’s where the halfway house was, I’ve gotten involved with a local A.A. program. My sponsor introduced me to a counselor and he’s really encouraging about making positive forward progress, which is a first in my life, to be honest.”

All of a sudden Samantha’s face lit up. She made a soft gasp and hopped out of the booth and then seemed frozen in place, as she waited. Was she afraid her son wouldn’t recognize her? Was she afraid Landon would come to Jessie first?

A dark head streaked past and Jessie heard a shrieked, “Mama mama mama!”

Samantha lifted Landon in her arms, hugging him tight, sobbing, “Omigod, baby, I missed you so so much. I swear I’m never gonna…”

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