Without saying anything to her? That was strange. Brandt always searched her out when she did chores. Always.


Maybe he was tired. Yesterday was long and emotionally trying for both of them. Not to mention he’d kept her up half the night, making love to her until they fell asleep still joined—which had been a first for her, and more romantic than she’d imagined. Draped across Brandt’s warm body, her head nestled under his chin, her knees curled by his hips with his cock still embedded inside her, his hands cupping her ass.

She’d woken up a couple hours later when he hardened inside her. He rolled her over and made love to her again, whispering words of devotion. Declaring his undying, never-ending love for her. Making promises she actually believed.

It’d been the greatest night of her life.

Smiling, she dropped the bucket and the pitchfork next to the gate and raced to the house. She burst inside. “Brandt?”

No answer.

Lexie lifted her head and gave her a crabby look for disturbing her nap.

Huh. That was weird. Brandt’s boots weren’t on the rug. His clothes weren’t hung up on the coat tree.

She kicked off her overshoes and walked down the hallway. “Brandt? You okay?”

No answer.

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He wasn’t in the bathroom.

He wasn’t in the bedroom.

Maybe she’d just missed him and he was in the barn.

As Jessie was slipping her boots back on, she heard her cell phone beep, indicating she had a voice mail. She snatched the phone off the coffee table and checked the missed calls. Tell had called. Four times in the last hour.

Her stomach sank to her toes. She dialed her voice mail and listened to the first of two messages.

“Jessie. Brandt is on his way there. Or I assume he’s on his way. He’s not answering any phone calls from me or Dalton and…Jesus. We’re freaked out. It didn’t go well with Dad today and…Just call me, okay?”

Didn’t go well? What the hell did that mean? The next message started to play.

“Jess, I know I already left you a message, but it’s really important you get back to me right away and let me know you’re okay. I’ve never seen Brandt like this.”

Never seem him like this. Like what? Why would Tell be worried that Brandt would hurt her? Brandt would never ever hurt her.

Maybe he’s worried that Brandt will hurt himself.

Oh God. No.

Fear spiked her pulse. Jessie tore down the steps and sprinted to the barn. But when she reached the side barn door, which had been left ajar, she skidded to a stop. Busting in on him was a bad idea.

She slipped inside as quietly as possible. The familiar scents of hay, manure, dirt, grain and grease didn’t offer the usual comfort, especially when she heard harsh grunts and the hard and fast thud thud thud of one object striking another.

The sound of a chain rattling echoed from the tack room. A sound she recognized. The heavy bag.

She crept to the back of the barn and froze.

Any relief that Brandt was taking out his aggressions on the punching bag fled when she saw all the blood. Spattered on his face. On his bare chest and arms. Bloody streaks smeared on the canvas cover of the bag. His knuckles were raw. His forearms were scraped from elbow to wrist. Bloody scrapes spread across both his shoulders.

He’d taken off his shirt to inflict the most possible damage to his body. His neck and chest and abs were coated with a mixture of sweat and blood. When Jessie found the guts to look at his face, she couldn’t withhold a gasp. His hair was plastered to his head. His face was bright red, the muscles in his jaw flexed with every punch he threw. The veins in his neck bulged to the point she could see his pulse pounding. His forehead and cheeks and chin were wet, but she couldn’t tell if it was from sweat or tears. But it was his eyes that stopped her. She recognized the rage and grief. She didn’t recognize the feral light that made him look like a wild animal, incapable of rational thought.

He’s hurting himself. Stop him.

But Jessie was frozen in that place between logic and fear. What if she stepped in and he was so far gone he somehow hurt her? Without knowing what he was doing? Brandt would never forgive himself.

Can you forgive yourself if he has an aneurysm and you stood by and let it happen?

No. That snapped her out of her trance, watching Brandt beat the heavy bag and himself to a pulp.


No response.

She said it louder. “Brandt.”

Still no response.

Jessie moved closer. “Brandt. Stop. You’re hurting yourself.”

Without missing a punch, he said, “Go away. You don’t want to be around me right now.”

Left punch, right punch, left jab, right jab. She stood there long enough to memorize the pattern. Her gut tightened into a knot when she noticed the skin peeling back from his knuckles. “I’m not going anywhere. Talk to me.”

He grunted and nailed the heavy bag harder. “Get the fuck out of here, Jessie. Now.”

“Why should I leave?”

“Because I’m pissed off.”

“You think I haven’t dealt with a pissed off man before?”

“Not like me. Never when I’m like this.”

“So? I can handle—”

“I’m not Landon, throwing a little boy tantrum.”

“You sure?” she shot back.

“Don’t fuckin’ push me.”

“Don’t fuckin’ shut me out.”

Brandt made a roaring noise and started whacking his forearms into the bag. Left, right, left, right each blow harder than the last. His need to grit his teeth to deal with the new pain he was imposing upon himself was the last straw.

Jessie lost it. Angry tears, frustrated tears, scared tears all poured out at once and she screamed at him, pulling the canvas bag away from him. “Goddammit Brandt, stop! Stop it! You’re hurting yourself. You’re hurting yourself and it’s killing me. My God. Please. Just stop.”

The flying arms slowed, then stopped. Brandt leaned forward, chest heaving with every ragged breath, his body shaking as he rested his forehead to the heavy bag and wrapped his arms around it to keep himself upright.

She stumbled behind him, pressing her face into his sweaty back, molding her body to his. Holding him as he vibrated with rage, holding him as he bled, trying to hold them both together.

Brandt’s voice was a whisper of pain. “I hate him. I fucking hate him. I never…” His voice broke and once again they were locked in hellish silence. “I never wanted you to see me like this.”

Jessie understood him not wanting to show weakness to others, but she thought they’d gone beyond that. “So why did you come here, Brandt? To my house?”

Another long silence. Then his soft, “Because I had no place else to go.”

Angry tears formed and she released him. “So I’m a last resort now?”

He whirled around so fast he bumped into her, knocking her off balance and sideways. In super slow-mo she crashed into the wooden slats, hissing as a splinter sliced her cheek, gasping as she twisted her body to land on her hands and knees, sucking in a harsh breath as gravel and hay dug into her palms and her knees skidded out from underneath her.

Then Brandt was roughly hauling her upright. His grip on her biceps hurt, but she sucked up the pain.

The little sting was nothing compared to the damage he’d exacted on himself. She looked at him.

The agony in his eyes stole her breath. “Oh God, look at you. You’re bleeding. I did that. I hurt you.”

“I’m okay.”

Brandt recoiled in horror. “I have to go.”

“Go where? Brandt, you don’t even have a shirt on—”

He stumbled back, turned and walked out.

Don’t let him go. Not like this.

Jessie snatched up his clothes and chased him down, planting herself right in front of him. “At least put your goddamn clothes on if you’re leaving me.”

He ducked his head and grabbed the bundle. But he didn’t deny he was leaving her.

“Talk to me. I deserve that much.”

“You deserve much better than a man who lashes out in anger and hurts you.”

“You didn’t do it on purpose.”

“But it still happened. It can happen again.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it. Tell me what the hell happened with your dad today.”

Wincing, he yanked his shirt on, then his coat. He finally looked at her. “I need some time.”

Oh God. She went dizzy. Her legs, her world threatened to go out from under her. Gritting her teeth, she locked her knees to keep them from buckling. “Time for what?”

“Time to think.” He gently moved her aside from blocking the driver’s side door. “Go inside before you freeze to death.”

But she couldn’t seem to make her feet move. She watched him drive away.

She stood there until the wind picked up and snow swirled around her. Until Lexie’s barks roused her and she trudged inside, absolutely numb.

Her entire body shook. She stripped down and stayed under the shower spray until she drained the water heater of every drop of hot water. She dressed in her warmest flannel pajamas before she started a pot of coffee. But she couldn’t get warm. She put a healthy dollop of whiskey in it before she dialed.

He picked up on the second ring. “Jessie? What the hell is goin’ on? I’ve called you like a dozen times. Have you seen Brandt?”

“He left.”

A pause, then, “He left?”

“Yeah. After he beat the shit out of my heavy bag and himself—”

“Goddammit, did he hurt you?” Tell demanded.

“Intentionally? No. But he thinks he did.”

“What the fuck did he say to you?”

“Nothing. I have no idea what’s going on. He said he needed some time and he took off.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. So maybe you oughta tell me what happened today.”

Seemed a full hour passed before Tell spoke. “Some of this I heard from Mom, some of this I saw firsthand. Brandt told Dad you two were getting married. Dad, bein’ Dad, spewed bullshit. Told Brandt he’d have to choose between you and his portion of the McKay ranch, because he couldn’t have both.”

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