Her Irish coffee threatened to come back up.

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“Then Brandt threw Dad against the wall and that’s when me’n Dalton came in. After that, Brandt left.”

“So you don’t know if he’s decided—”

“Don’t say it, Jessie, don’t even fucking think it. Brandt loves you. He always has.”

She tipped her head back and closed her eyes. “But he loves that ranch too. That’s all he’s known.

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That’s all he’s ever wanted was to take over running it.”

“And you think our Dad don’t know that?”

“I know that once Casper has drawn the line in the sand, he won’t erase it, he won’t move it, and he sure as hell won’t back down from it. Brandt will have to choose.”

A muttered curse, followed by, “Yeah, it sucks, but he will.”

Poor Brandt hadn’t wanted to choose between her and Landon. He’d dodged that bullet only to have the gun waved in his face again. As much as she wanted to be the one he’d pick, as much as she wanted to plead her case and offer him assurances that their life together would be worth giving up his heritage, she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She had to give him the time to decide, even if it damn near killed her, so he wouldn’t have regrets about his choice.

Even if she did.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Brandt couldn’t go to his trailer, couldn’t go to Tell’s place or Dalton’s place, couldn’t go to Ben’s.

Definitely couldn’t go back to Jessie’s.

His entire body burned with shame. After he’d left his folk’s house, he’d driven to Jessie’s on autopilot. But once there, he realized he didn’t want her to see him in such an extreme state of anger. So he thought he’d take the edge off by using her heavy bag.

Everything was a blur after that. Until he saw Jessie watching him. Every ounce of shame surfaced.

It defied logic when she’d wrapped herself around him, offering him comfort when he should’ve been reassuring her that he wasn’t an animal.

An animal that’d hurt her.

His beautiful, sweet, kind, loving Jessie had blood on her face. Blood he’d brought forth in anger. It’d made him absolutely sick.

He’d had to get out of there.

He needed a place to think things through.

He’d ended up at the bunkhouse. It sat empty for most of the year, only used during calving and haying season. Or when one of his cousins and their wives needed alone time, hence the nickname the nookie shack.

It wasn’t easy to get to, especially not in a snowstorm. Equipped with food, water and a bunkbed, Brandt figured he could crash a couple days before anyone thought to look here.

He fired up the wood stove and set a pan of snow on the top to melt. He’d need to clean himself up since his wounds were starting to sting. But his adrenaline rush was history and he crashed. He hit the bed with his boots on, his clothes on, his gloves on, in too much pain to do anything but groan before he passed out cold.

Brandt dreamed of Luke.

The old Luke. The brother he’d laughed with and worked with and worshipped his whole life. The brother he’d mourned more than anyone other than Jessie had ever known.

They sat around a campfire, drinking icy cold Fat Tire, staring at the black sky overloaded with stars.

The silence between them wasn’t awkward, as it’d been the last few years.

Brandt sipped his beer, taking in the wide-open space. It wasn’t anywhere he and Luke had ever been.

Everything about it seemed…too perfect. He looked at his brother. “So, is this heaven? Or hell?”

Luke shrugged. “Neither, really. I guess you’d call it neutral ground.”

“Why are we here?”

“You tell me. It’s your dream, bro. I’m dead.”

Brandt winced. He wondered how much this dream brother knew about what’d happened in the past few months.

“I know about you and Jessie,” he said softly.

“Then you know I love her.”

“You’ve always loved her.”

“Did you really hate me for that, Luke?”

“No. I felt guilty. I should’ve let you have her that first night. I shouldn’t have tried so damn hard to prove that I was the better man. When it’s always been obvious that you are the better man. In all respects.

It kinda pisses me off.” Luke smirked, and flicked the cap of his beer bottle at Brandt, like he always used to.

“Hey! What was that for?”

“Old times’ sake.” Luke’s intense gaze didn’t waver. “None of that past stuff matters anymore. You are doin’ the right thing by her?”

Brandt kept his cool since he’d already lost his temper once today. Granted, he doubted this dream embodiment of Luke could swing back. “Do you really think I’d pick a chunk of dirt over Jessie? Do you really think I’d walk away from her now when I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted?”

Luke shrugged again. “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

“I know what’s important. I won’t be like you, Luke.”

“Good.”

“What? No excuses?”

“There wasn’t any excuse for what I did. I just wanted to—”

“Give me your blessing?” Brandt poked in the fire with a long stick, close enough he felt the heat burning his knuckles.

“You don’t need that from me. Just havin’ her in your life will be blessing enough.”

When Brandt looked up from the fiery red embers, Luke was gone.

He woke up gasping, coughing from the campfire smoke, his knuckles smarting from being too close to the fire.

But as he pushed himself upright, he remembered where he was. In the bunkhouse, which accounted for the smell of smoke. He glanced down at his hands, hot because they were still encased in gloves.

That explained it.

But still…What a weird fucking dream.

Brandt tossed another log on the fire, downed four aspirin and returned to the bunk. His clothes were stuck to his body with a mixture of blood and sweat, but he couldn’t muster the energy to clean himself up.

He managed to toe off his boots. As he took off his coat, something pinged on the wooden floor. Despite the shooting pain in his arms, he reached down and caught the circular object on the tip of his finger.

A metal cap from a bottle of Fat Tire beer.

No. It couldn’t be.

He spun around the room, half-expecting to still be in that alternate reality, praying everything today had been some kind of twisted dream. His father gleefully cutting him out of his heritage. Losing his mind in a fit of rage in front of Jessie and hurting her. Hoping the walls of the bunkhouse would disappear and he’d see his brother, sitting by the campfire, drinking beer and grinning at him. Just like old times.

But nothing changed.

Took Brandt really long time to fall asleep after that.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Day 1

Brandt hadn’t stopped by. He hadn’t called. Jessie went about her Sunday routine as usual. Cleaning.

Washing clothes. Paying bills. Feeding the animals. Cooking a pot roast with all the trimmings—enough food for two.

Day 2

Brandt hadn’t stopped by. He hadn’t called. Jessie took advantage of the Monday holiday to work with her horses. Then she fed the animals. She drove to the store for ice cream. She watched TV. She called her mother. She fell into bed alone.

Day 3

Brandt hadn’t stopped by. He hadn’t called. Jessie couldn’t face going into work at Sky Blue so she called in sick. And she was heartsick. She curled up on the couch with Lexie. She drank tea and ate toast.

Between the bouts of sniffles, she checked her phone to make sure the damn thing was working. She fed the animals. She heated up a can of soup and shuffled off to bed alone.

Day 4

Brandt hadn’t stopped by. He hadn’t called. Just how much time did the man need? But Jessie couldn’t face Skylar or India or Kade or Kane or Ginger or Simone without breaking down completely. She needed another day. Despite the guilt, she called in sick.

Jessie assumed the person rapping on her door at ten a.m. would be Skylar. Jessie considered ignoring it, but it’d be easier to ’fess up here, rather than in an official capacity at Skylar’s office. She shushed Lexie and opened the door.

Joan McKay stood on her porch. She looked different but Jessie couldn’t put her finger on what it was about her that was off.

It hit her. Jessie grabbed Joan’s arm. “Has something happened to Brandt?”

Joan shook her head. “As far as I know Brandt is fine.”

She sagged against the doorframe. “Thank God.”

“Haven’t you heard from him?”

“Not at all.”

Sorrow flickered in Joan’s eyes. “Can I come in?”

“Ah sure.” Jessie poured two cups of coffee while Joan took off her coat and settled on the couch. She handed her a cup. Did she sit next to her former mother-in-law? Or keep her distance, like she always had?

“I imagine you’re wondering why I’m here.”

Jessie sat beside Joan on the couch. “You never were one just to stop by to chat.”

“How sad is that? Anyway, I wanted to clear a couple of things up before I…” She set her cup down on the coffee table with a resounding thud. “Actually, I want to apologize.”

“For what?”

“For not standing up to Casper after Luke died. I’ve convinced myself I was so lost in grief I wasn’t thinking straight. But the truth is, making waves wouldn’t have changed anything, Casper does what he wants and to hell with everybody else. That was how I justified my ‘head in the sand’ behavior when it came to you and everything else in that situation. I’m sorry.”

Jessie didn’t know what to say. She watched Joan struggle, this woman she’d always seen as torn between her duty as a wife and as a mother.

“And I should’ve tried harder to have some kind of relationship with you, Jessie, after you and Luke got married. Casper didn’t like you, and I figured after you lost the baby early on, he’d do everything to break you and Luke up.” She distractedly rubbed the center of her forehead. “I felt bad for you, but us being friends would’ve just pissed Casper off even more and he would’ve taken it out on both of us. And Luke. Trust me.”

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