“Don’t leave me hangin’ now,” he half-snarled.
“What about your family? I think Dalton and Tell will be okay with us being together. But your dad?
He hates me. Can you—”
“What’s the worst he can do? Say no?” Brandt kissed her. “Nothin’ would be worse than not havin’
you in my life, Jess. Nothin’.”
“Then if you’re sure…Yes. I’ll marry you.”
He whooped and spun her around, not noticing the cold, or anything else except the look of happiness in Jessie’s beautiful eyes that he knew mirrored the happiness in his soul.
Brandt would rather have a root canal without anesthesia than talk to his father.
He knocked on the front door of the house he’d grown up in.
His mother answered, dishtowel in hand, as usual. “Brandt. Sweetie, it’s good to see you. You don’t need to knock. Come in. What’s up?”
“I have something I wanna talk to you guys about.”
She kept her expression neutral. “Go into the dining room. Your dad’s in there. I’ll be right in with coffee.”
Brandt rounded the corner and saw his dad sprawled in his padded captain’s chair at the end of the big oak table. He stopped out of habit to gauge his father’s mood.
If Casper McKay was happy he’d push back in his chair and tip his hat up to meet your gaze. If Casper was out of sorts, he wouldn’t acknowledge your presence at all.
Brandt studied him. In the last two years he’d aged ten. His black hair was mostly gray. The deep blue of his eyes had faded into the hue of old denim. His eyebrows were still black, still drawn together in a frown. The firm set to his mouth gave the appearance of a permanent scowl. His lean face and long neck flowed into a hard, tight frame, a body weathered on the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. A mindset that was as cold, hard and unforgiving as the land that’d forged him.
No smile. No “How are you?” just a calculating stare and a curt, “Brandt.”
Definitely in a piss poor mood.
Brandt left his hat on and he grabbed the back of the dining room chair in front of him. “Dad.”
“You here for a reason?”
“Well, spit it out.”
His mother brought Brandt cup of coffee and refilled Casper’s cup before attempting to hightail it out of the room. Brandt snagged her elbow. “Stay. I want you to hear this too.”
She nodded and slipped into the chair on her husband’s right side.
“Landon’s mother picked him up yesterday and they’re gonna be livin’ in Casper. After they get settled she wants to talk about visitation rights.”
“Oughta be the other way around. She oughta be here askin’ us for visitation. That boy belongs with his family. If you’d hired a decent lawyer that specializes in these cases—”
“You mean that ambulance chasin’ bozo from Cheyenne? Wrong. Besides, Landon belongs with his mother.” Brandt glanced at his mom, but she was busy studying the floral pattern on the placemat.
“So you here to gloat that you got what you wanted? My only grandson taken away from me?”
Like Casper had paid any attention to Landon while he was here. He didn’t want him, but he didn’t want anyone else to have him either. “No. I’m here to tell you that I’m marryin’ Jessie.”
His dad slowly stood. “Is this some kind of goddamn joke?”
“What the hell is wrong with you, Brandt? It ain’t enough that she made your brother miserable, and that misery got him killed?”
He retorted, “She had nothin’ to do with Luke’s car accident. And I ain’t gonna argue with you about who was more miserable in their marriage because neither you nor I lived with them. But that’s all in the past now.”
“Past? Sounds like you’re not putting her in the past where she belongs.”
“That’s because she belongs with me. Her future is with me.”
“That right? So she spread her legs for you. Big fuckin’ deal. Don’t mean you gotta tie yourself—and us—to her again. The only good thing to come outta Luke’s death was her leaving.”
This was a fucking nightmare, way worse than he’d anticipated. “She didn’t leave voluntarily. You forced her out. Which was the shittiest thing you’ve ever done.”
He shrugged. “So you say. And you ain’t exactly unbiased, are you?”
Count to ten.
“I’m marryin’ her and there’s nothin’ you can do about it.”
His dad moved closer, a sidewinder about to strike. “Oh, don’t be too sure about that, son. Don’t forget who owns this ranch and who pays your wages.”
Brandt’s fingers tightened on the back of the chair. “Is that a threat?”
“Just stating the facts. Everything you’ve got, except that pitiful chunk of land you and your brothers bought, comes from me. And I can take it back any goddamn time I want. Your name ain’t on the papers, boy, mine is.”
Before Brandt could say a word, his mother stood. “Casper. Don’t do this.”
The mean glint intensified. “I’ll do anything I damn well please, and it’s time this boy really understood that. So if you insist on tyin’ yourself to that woman in any way, you won’t inherit a single inch of McKay land. And you know I don’t bluff.”
At that moment his dislike for his father bloomed into full-blown hatred. The next thing Brandt knew, he’d pushed the smarmy son of a bitch into the wall and pressed his arm across his father’s windpipe, holding him in place.
He vaguely heard his mother say, “Brandt, stop,” but the rage had overtaken him.
“Let me tell you something, you mean goddamn bastard, I’m done. I’m done puttin’ up with your bullshit excuses for why you haven’t turned the ranch over to your sons. I’m done with you lording it over us. We’ve been runnin’ this ranch since before Luke died, not you.”
Casper choked on his own spit as he tried to say something.
But Brandt wasn’t about to let him speak before he said his piece. “So if you think you’ve got it in you, old man, to do everything yourself, then by God, I’d like to see you try. But we both know that won’t happen, will it?”
When his father didn’t respond, Brandt eased up on his chokehold. “Answer me, goddammit.”
“You think you’re so fuckin’ smart.”
“I know it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you’ve got no one in your life to help you if I walk away from the ranch. Tell and Dalton won’t stick around. And you’d rather let this place fall into ruin and let the cattle starve before you’ll ask your brothers for help, wouldn’t you? So yeah, chase me off. You go on out there in the bitter fuckin’ cold and deal with feeding twice a goddamn day. Good luck with calving season and everything else that it takes to run this ranch, since you haven’t done a goddamned thing for close to ten years. Ain’t that right?”
“You think I owe you something? I don’t. I owe you nothin’.”
Brandt got right in his dad’s face. “I’ve busted my ass for years even when nothin’ I ever did pleased you. I’ve put up with your bullshit. I’ve watched you prefer the company of a twelve pack to the company of your wife. I’ve watched you destroy any chance of a relationship with me, Tell and Dalton, because you’re pissed off at God and the universe that we’re here and Luke isn’t.”
“He shouldn’t have died.”
“But he did. And it’s no one’s fault, least of all Jessie’s.”
“If she woulda made him happy, he wouldn’t’ve been lookin’ for it all over the goddamn county. That little bitch made him miserable from the day he married her. And she’ll make you miserable too. Mark my words.”
Brandt shoved him again, hard. “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of you running off at the mouth about her. You don’t know a thing about Jessie. You never have.”
“And I never will.”
“Brandt. Let him go.”
He felt rather than saw Tell and Dalton move in behind him. But he couldn’t make his hand release his father’s shirt. He couldn’t move his arm.
“Come on, bro. This isn’t helping.”
A beat passed and Brandt finally let go and stepped back.
A smirk twisted his father’s face. “Felt good, didn’t it? To give in to that anger? I saw it in your eyes.
No matter what you say, no matter how hard you try, you know the truth. You’re just like me.”
Infuriated, Brandt lunged for him again, but he got there too late.
Tell had pinned their father against the wall. “Shut it, old man. Brandt may’ve gotten the hair trigger temper from you, but my anger has been smoldering for years and I guarantee you don’t want me to give in to it. Ever.” Tell shoved him once and stepped back.
Their dad’s eyes slid to Dalton. “What? You ain’t gonna tell me how long you’ve been gunning for me? Waitin’ for the day to beat the crap out of your old man?”
Dalton said nothing.
He laughed cruelly. “Still actin’ like a boy, letting our brothers do all the talking, taking all the punishments to save your precious hide. How long before they realize you ain’t worth it?”
“Stop it. All of you,” his mother said, sobbing. “Stop it right now.”
Brandt glared at his father, his rage a living thing.
“You can have her or a stake in the ranch, Brandt, but not both. You choose.”
He didn’t look at his brothers or his mother as he picked up his hat and left.
Jessie had just gotten back from feeding the animals when she noticed Brandt’s truck was parked in front of her trailer. No sign of him. He’d probably gone inside.