Her expression shifted. She whirled to face Lydia. “You get your kicks out of kissing an unwilling man?”
“Oh, sugar, don’t kid yourself for a second he was unwilling.”
Lydia smiled cagily. “What are you gonna believe? What you saw with your own eyes? Or what he tells you? ’Cause, you’re awful damn naïve if you don’t think he’ll lie about what just happened to spare your feelings.”
Direct hit. Brandt needed to get Jessie out of here now. “Jessie—”
Jessie’s laughter cut him off. “You want proof?” She pointed to Brandt’s groin. “He doesn’t have a hard-on. If anything you did even turned him on a little, he’d be sporting wood. Trust me, I know. So, sugar, take your desperation to some other man because Brandt is not interested in you.”
But Lydia wouldn’t let it go. “So you’re Jessie. The poor little widow whose husband couldn’t keep it in his pants.” She gave Jessie a derisive head-to-toe inspection. “No wonder he wandered. Looks like you’re trying—and failing—to prove you can keep the interest of another McKay man.”
“Shut your stupid mouth. You don’t know a goddamned thing about Brandt.”
“Hit a nerve, did I?”
“I’ll show you hitting a nerve.” Jessie leapt at Lydia.
Lydia screamed as they hit the floor, Jessie’s fists flailed as she tried to connect with every part of Lydia’s body she could reach. Then Lydia bucked and sent Jessie sprawling. But that didn’t stop Jessie from crawling back and pouncing on her.
Brandt had never seen Jessie enraged. She’d wind up in jail for assault if any of her punches actually landed. He crouched down, wrapped both arms around her middle and lifted her off Lydia.
“Let me go! I’m gonna beat her ass.”
“I think you made your point.”
“No, I’m not done. She doesn’t understand that she doesn’t get to say shit like that about you. I’m gonna make her understand if it takes all goddamn night!”
He held her, hugging her back to his chest, attempting to contain her. “Jess. Baby. Calm down.”
“That fucking bitch attacked me,” Lydia said as she picked herself up off the floor. “You all saw it.”
Everyone who’d gotten closer to watch the catfight walked away. Not a single person stuck around to back up Lydia’s claims.
Brandt figured they’d best leave too. He loosened his hold on his surprising hellcat.
Jessie broke free and loomed over Lydia, who finally had the good sense to cower like a whipped pup.
“Stay away from him, do you hear me? I will fuck you up if I ever see you looking at him again. And if you ever touch him, I swear to God I will—”
“And…we’re done.” Brandt picked Jessie up, snagged their coats off the chairs and carried her out of the bar.
As soon as they were outside, she thrashed and said, “Let me down.”
“Only if you promise me you ain’t gonna make a break for it and go back inside.”
“Bitch would deserve it,” she muttered.
Brandt didn’t release her until they reached his truck. He tossed her the long duster and slipped on his jacket. “Get in.”
“No. I’m too fucking mad.”
“If you wanna try scream therapy again, we need to get out of town first.”
“I just wanna punch something. Or someone. But since you won’t let me do that…” She kicked a clump of dirt. Tracked down another and kicked it too.
Brandt watched her, unruffled by this violent side of his sweet Jessie, mostly because he understood it. “Why did you go after her like that?”
“Because she had her hands on you. Because she was kissing you. God. She had no right. Are all women so desperate? Didn’t she know better than to throw herself at another woman’s man? In public, no less.”
He froze. His brain backtracked. Wait a second. Jessie hadn’t gotten pissed off because of what Lydia had said about her or Luke, she’d gotten pissed off over Lydia lumping him in with all other cheating men in the world. Hope like he’d never experienced filled his chest. Somehow he managed to keep his tone even when he asked, “So do you make a habit of this?”
Jessie snorted. “Fighting? Not hardly. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone with my bare hands as much as I did the second I saw her plastered to you.”
“Because I’ve never had a woman fight over me.”
“Well, I’ve never had a man worth fighting for.”
Brandt erased the five feet between them, forcing her to look at him. “Run that by me one more time.”
Jessie, his sweet fiery Jessie, didn’t stay passive. She slapped her hands on the sides of his face and locked her gaze to his. “You are the one man in the world I will fight for, Brandt McKay, because I love you.”
“Yes. Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m telling you this now when Landon isn’t in the picture, you’d be partially right. What I didn’t say earlier today before Landon left with his mother was that I’d never make you choose. But now that he’s gone I was afraid that you don’t need me anymore—”
“Since all I wanted you for was Landon’s childcare?” he demanded. “And all you wanted me for was sex?”
Her eyes searched his. “No. But did the high emotions and intensity of the situation and the hottest freakin’ sex on the planet heighten everything between us?”
The knot of fear in his belly tightened. Oh hell no. He was not losing her now. “Let me make this clear, Jessie. I love you. I’ve loved you for a long goddamn time, even when I shouldn’t have loved you. I know you love me—even when you were too stubborn or scared to admit it. I see it whenever you look at me. I feel it when you’re touchin’ me. So I cannot for the life of me understand why you’re questioning this now. Now when we have no obstacles and a lifetime ahead of us.”
“Because I want a clean slate about everything. That includes the big ‘what if’ scenario that’s been hanging between us for three months.”
“So what are you sayin’?”
“If Samantha had shown up today and asked you to continue as Landon’s guardian without specifying how long, I would’ve pulled up my big girl panties and stayed by your side where I belong. I would’ve found a way to deal with it.”
This woman…goddamn, she could knock him to his knees.
“I want you in my life, Brandt. So if part of your life is caring for your brother’s son, then that makes it part of my life too. Whatever black and white view I had of this situation with Landon in the beginning changed over the past few months. I care about him. I care what happens to him.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m happy we had him for as long as we did. But seeing how much Samantha loves him and how happy he was to see her…I know he belongs with his mother.”
“This is why I asked you to help me. Because you’ve got a big heart and you’re willing to put it out there, even if there’s a chance you might get it stomped on. Jessie—”
She placed her thumbs over his lips. “Us being together won’t be an easy road. There will be people like Lydia, like your father, who will want us to fail. So you should know I fell in love with you not because you’re Luke’s brother, but in spite of it.
“You’ve become everything to me in ways Luke never was. I never imagined I’d find a man like you, who’s sweet, sexy, funny, thoughtful, kind. A man who makes me feel like I’m enough for him. A man I can trust without question. A man I will fight anyone for.” Her eyes filled with tears and she whispered,
“God. I feel like such an idiot because you’ve been here the whole time.”
“Hey.” Brandt wiped her cheeks. “You weren’t ready to see me in any of those roles in your life.”
“Yet you waited until I was.”
“After you were so shocked when I told you I wanted more than a family type relationship, I realized too late you still needed more time. Come to find out time was good for me too.”
“The years you were married to Luke, it hurt me to see how he treated you. After Luke died, I made myself available, hopin’ you’d see me as the man who could heal you. And you took what I offered, but gave me nothin’ in return.”
Brandt kissed the inside of her wrist. “I know you are. I also know it wasn’t intentional. In the last few months, I’ve gotten to know you, the real Jessie, not the idealized version I’d built up as the woman I was determined to save. Not the woman who needed me only as her handyman and grief counselor. Not the woman I lusted after. I realized what I felt before wasn’t love. Because now? Now I understand what real love is. It’s this.” He lowered his mouth and kissed her, loving how she wrapped herself around him as if she’d never let him go. He broke the kiss with a laugh.
“Never thought I’d be confessing my love to you in the damn parking lot of a bar.”
“I never thought it’d take a hair pulling fight to prompt me to tell you how I felt about you.” Jessie rubbed her lips across his and whispered, “Promise you won’t stomp on my heart, Brandt McKay. I swear it would crush me in a way I’d never recover from.”
“I promise. I love you. So will you marry me?”
Her mouth opened. But something stopped her from answering.
“You do understand that I won’t be like Luke? I promise to be faithful to you forever. I don’t see fidelity as an option clause in marriage vows.”
Jessie bit her lip and stared at him with those wide eyes.