“Such a loving family,” Jessie muttered as Tell took her hands.
“Miss us, doncha?”
She smiled. “Not touching that one.”
He laughed. “So what’s new?”
“You’d know if you ever bothered to call me.” At his guilty look, she whapped him on the shoulder.
“Tell. I’m kidding. Since my life is incredibly boring, why don’t you tell me what you’ve been up to?”
“I’ve been hittin’ as many local rodeos as possible, tryin’ to complete my PRCA judges course.”
Tell had been talking about doing that since the first time they’d met. “You actually followed through with it?”
“Yep. I got tired of waiting for the right time to get certified and they accepted me as a candidate because of my past rodeo experience. I’ve been studying DVDs and scoring the rides. Then they match how I scored them to the real scores to see how I did.”
“It hasn’t interfered with your ranch work?”
Tell scowled. “To hear Dad talk, I’ve all but abandoned the ranch. Hell. I’m gone one day, two at the most in a month. Brandt and Dalton ain’t complaining. And since Brandt’s pretty much in charge, he’s the one I’m the most concerned with. The season’s almost over. Dad’s just pissy because I’m headin’ to the NFR in December for a week’s worth of hands-on classes.”
Casper had always condemned any activity that took his sons away from the ranch. She remembered Luke saying that Tell could’ve gone pro in saddle bronc or bareback riding, but Casper wouldn’t allow it.
Of all Casper’s sons, Tell was the peacemaker. So this new direction in his life, against his father’s wishes, surprised her and she said as much.
“After Luke died, I realized that Dad wouldn’t ever be happy again about anything any of us did. I decided to do what I want and he can deal with it.”
Jessie studied him. Tell resembled Luke more than either Brandt or Dalton, but he had the same world-weary look she’d seen on Brandt. “Are things any better between you guys and your dad?”
He shook his head. “Worse, actually.”
“I know you are.” Tell smiled. “So let’s look like we’re havin’ a blast out here on the dance floor, eh?
That oughta really piss Casper off good.”
As soon as the dance ended, she booked it to the women’s bathroom. Halfway down the hall, she felt a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t have to turn around to know it was Brandt.
Why wouldn’t he just leave her alone?
She spun to face him, shrugging out of his hold. “What do you want now?”
“We need to talk.”
“I’m talked out.” She wheeled back around…and found herself pushed against the wall with Brandt in her face.
“Goddammit, this is really important.”
“So is the fact I was on my way to the bathroom.”
His eyes darkened and his grip on her biceps increased. “I’m serious.”
“Fine. Spit out what is so important that I’m not even allowed to pee first.”
He stared at her with that wordless threat.
She’d had enough of his tough guy attitude. “Let me go…or I’ll punch you in the stomach.”
His shock gave way to a smarmy grin. “Punch me? You? Sweet Jessie? I’ll bet you’ve never hit another person in your life.”
Jessie released a fast, hard uppercut to his solar plexus that immediately had him falling back to clutch his gut. She leaned closer and hissed, “I might not’ve hit a person, but I own a punching bag now, so back off.”
A gasp echoed and she looked up to see Keely and AJ McKay staring at them in openmouthed horror.
Shit. “Sorry, Keely. I didn’t mean…”
“To punch Brandt in the stomach? That was an accident?”
“Umm. No. I meant to do that. I didn’t mean to cause a scene and I…really have to wash my hands.”
Keely’s gaze darted between them. “Okay. Don’t be too long. I’m about to throw the bouquet.”
Like that was an incentive not to run out of here screaming. Jessie watched Keely and AJ disappear into a dressing room and hightailed it to the ladies room, not sparing Brandt a second glance.
She hid out as long as she could—or at least until all the wedding guests were occupied with the tossing of the bouquet.
As soon as the coast was clear, she snuck out the back door and drove straight home.
Take that, Brandt McKay. I won’t talk to you if I don’t want to and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
Brandt couldn’t believe Jessie had snuck out.
He really couldn’t believe she’d sucker punched him.
Not a sucker punch if she warned you.
Fifteen minutes after she’d socked him a good one, he’d noticed she hadn’t returned to the reception.
He checked the parking lot and saw her pickup was gone.
Brandt had left immediately.
The drive to her place had been little more than a blur. He knew when he’d cut the truck’s headlights and pulled into her driveway that she hadn’t gone to bed yet. Even if her trailer had been completely dark he’d still be standing on her porch, ready to rip the damn door off the hinges if she didn’t answer his knock.
A knock, which she’d ignored for the fifth time.
Screw it. Jessie already thought he was heavy handed, so he used that heavy hand to beat on the aluminum siding. “I ain’t leavin’ Jessie, so open up.”
Lexie barked inside and Jessie shushed her as the door swung inward.
His braced himself, half-expecting she’d be aiming a shotgun at him.
Why that thought heated his blood just proved how twisted he was when it came to his conflicted feelings about his former sister-in-law.
But Jessie wasn’t packing heat. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him through the screen door. “Did you bring the ropes to hogtie me with?”
“Funny. I’m comin’ in.”
She muttered, “Typical McKay macho bullshit ,” and unlocked the screen door.
Any relief that she’d relented to listen to him vanished when he remembered what he had to tell her.
Inside, he absentmindedly patted Lexie’s head and watched Jessie grab two beers out of the fridge.
She passed him a bottle on her way to sit on the couch.
She’d changed out of the slinky gray cocktail dress and into baggy red sweatpants and a black sports bra that molded to her upper torso, emphasizing the slenderness of her shoulders, the gentle curve of her breasts and the flatness of her belly. Damn woman looked good no matter what she wore.
Or didn’t wear. The image of her naked in his arms had been permanently burned into his memory banks, but oddly, that wasn’t the first thing that popped into his head whenever he saw her. Usually the word mine flashed behind his eyes in big red letters, and that was just all kinds of fucked up.
By the time she faced him, he’d managed a bland expression.
Jessie’s gaze dropped to his stomach. “Sorry for punching you.”
“No, you’re not.”
Her smile was there and gone. “Why are you here?”
“Because I need to tell you something.” At her uncomfortable look, he held up his hand. “I promise it doesn’t have nothin’ to do with the embarrassing way I threw myself at your feet last year.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Of course I remember. I just…didn’t see it that way.”
“Thank God for that,” he muttered, swigging his beer.
“What’s up, that you had to chase me down at eleven o’clock on a Saturday night?”
Blurt it out.
No, break it to her gently.
“It’s…” Fuck. This was gonna suck ass.
“What? You’re scaring me.”
“I came across some information… Well, that ain’t exactly true. I wasn’t the one who made initial contact… Ah hell. I’m doin’ this all wrong.” He chugged another drink of beer. “Last month a woman called me. She said she knew Luke.”
Jessie didn’t speak. She just blinked those amazing baby blues at him.
“She said she knew Luke intimately, so intimately in fact, that he’d knocked her up.”
“This woman claimed she’d been sleepin’ with Luke and didn’t know she was pregnant until after he died.”
Every bit of color drained from Jessie’s face.
“She said she broke it off with him a week before his accident. When she discovered she was pregnant…somehow she’d heard you got kicked off the ranch. She figured she’d get the same treatment from Luke’s family, and get nothin’ but grief from you, so she didn’t tell anyone Luke was the father.”
“Bullshit,” Jessie spat. “She knew carrying the baby of a dead man was worth something.”
Brandt shook his head. “I honestly don’t think she did.”
“But she knew Luke was a married man when she slept with him?”
“Yes. There’s no excuse for that. But I will tell you, she’s young, Jessie.”
“She just turned twenty-one.”
Her mouth tightened. “That bastard Luke was fucking a nineteen-year-old girl?”
Hearing such crude words from Jessie caused Brandt to flinch. “Apparently.”
“How old is the kid now?”
“It’s pretty damn convenient, if you ask me. Luke’s been dead for two years. There’s no way to prove…” Jessie’s sharp gaze pierced right through him. “You have a guilty look on your face, Brandt McKay.”