“Know what I never understood? Why Casper hated me so much in the first place.”


Joan drained her coffee and walked to the kitchen. Almost on automatic, she poured herself another cup, but it sat cooling untouched on the counter for several excruciating minutes while she stared out the front window.

Jessie followed her, a feeling of dread settling in her bones. “Joan? Is everything all right?”

“No. I can’t even begin to tell you how wrong it is. All of this.” She braced her hands on the counter in front of the sink. “Casper hated you because your bun-in-the-oven marriage to Luke reminded him of me. Of us.”

Okay. That was news. Luke had ever mentioned it. Or maybe Luke hadn’t known. “Yours was a shotgun wedding?”

“Yes. Are you shocked?”

Jessie had to tread lightly. This was the most Joan had ever opened up to her. “Yes. I am.”

“Because Casper ended up with someone like me?” Joan asked, not bothering to hide her petulance.

“No. The opposite. I can’t fathom how a woman like you ended up with a man like him.”

“You really are sweet,” Joan murmured. Then she sighed. “The truth is, at one time, Casper was considered quite a catch. He came from a good family. His future was set as part of the ranching McKays.

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He was good-looking, charming, fun, wild as hell, but that bad boy side is always so appealing, isn’t it?

Why do women have this overwhelming desire to tame a bad boy? Then we’re shocked when that taming doesn’t happen. Or worse, when it does stick we lament the man they used to be.”

Joan seemed lost in thought so Jessie stayed quiet. But she hadn’t seen Luke as the bad boy to tame.

Brandt was the polar opposite of a bad boy, so it wasn’t a female mindset she understood, but she’d seen friends drawn to that type of man again and again and it rarely ended well.

“Anyway, I wasn’t particularly pretty. I wasn’t particularly charming. I wasn’t particularly clever. I was actually pretty plain. I knew plain, shy and boring would never catch the eye of a dynamic man like him. And I wanted him more than anything on earth.”

As hard as she tried, Jessie couldn’t make the connection between that man Joan was describing and the Casper she knew.

“Casper had half a dozen girls on the string at any given time. So I became the type of girl he couldn’t resist.” She paused for effect. “Easy. He’d come to me after his pretty, clever, charming little girlfriends wouldn’t put out. He came to me often because I’d do anything in bed he wanted. Any time, any place.

“This went on for about six months. At first I believed I could get him to fall for me. That our bedroom romps would make him like me. Would make him willing to have me on his arm in public, instead of just his dirty little bedroom secret. I dreamed he’d take me dancing. Or out for dinner. But like most nineteen-year-old girls, I was naïve. I’d heard a rumor from my friends that Casper was getting serious with a woman from Spearfish. One night I snuck into his favorite bar and watched them. She was one of those beautiful blondes, curvy body, perfect face, life of the party. She was everything I wasn’t. I knew Casper was head over heels in love with her. I knew after the first time he took her to bed I’d never see him again.”

Jessie held her breath.

“So I lied. I told my father I was pregnant. Told him I’d been sneaking around with Casper McKay for months. My father went directly to Jed McKay and demanded his son do the right thing and marry me.”

“And he did.”

“Yes. I was happy. Obviously Casper was not. I’d hoped I’d get pregnant for real right away and ours wouldn’t be a relationship based on a lie. When four months passed and I wasn’t showing, I faked a miscarriage. It was a lot easier to do in those days. Ten years passed before I got pregnant and by year five Casper figured out I’d tricked him.”

She felt sick. Everything was clicking into place but it didn’t make it easier to accept or understand.

Joan reached for her coffee and drank before continuing. “He flew into a rage and said I’d ruined his life, which was probably true. It was the only time he ever hit me. He left and didn’t come back for a week.

And when he came back, he was a different man entirely.

“I was so…grateful he hadn’t thrown me out and so relieved he still wanted to bed me, that I lived solely for him to make up for the lie and the trouble I’d caused. Like any man, he got used to using me doing everything for him, never questioning him. By the time we started having the boys, he’d turned into bitter. He took out his frustration with how his life turned out on them—as a punishment to me, not to them, because he knew how much I loved our sons. He ostracized his brothers. And I was still too afraid that he’d leave me, proving every fear I’d ever had about my worth, so I did nothing. I kept my mouth shut.

For years.”

“What changed?”

“Luke died. And Casper has become more bitter, if that’s possible. When we found out about Landon…” Joan turned around but she wouldn’t look Jessie in the eye. “It sliced me to the quick to discover that Brandt didn’t trust me with Luke’s child. Not because I’d be cruel to the boy, but because I wouldn’t stop Casper from being the same way to Landon that he’d been to his own sons.”

God. This was so ugly. So unnecessary.

“These are my mistakes, Jessie, and I’ve owned up to them. But the final straw? When Casper told Brandt to choose between the ranch and you. When he told me that our child would never be welcome in our home again. When he told me he never wanted to see Brandt again.” Joan lifted her head and met Jessie’s gaze. “I won’t lose another son. I won’t lose Tell or Dalton either. I can’t do this anymore.”

Was Joan looking for a place to stay? Or just moral support? Jessie wasn’t sure and didn’t want to make a misstep with Brandt’s mother after she’d reached out to her. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ve already done it. I’ve left my husband.”

Jessie’s mouth fell open in shock. “What?”

“I should’ve done it long ago. So when he raced over to talk to his brothers after cutting Brandt off, I packed up and lit out.”

“Where did you go?”

“I’ve been bouncing between Carolyn’s, Kimi’s and Vi’s. They’ve rallied around me, which has been nice. But…” She sighed. “It’s time I moved on. We’ve been miserable together for so long, maybe we have a chance to find happiness if we’re apart.”

“But where will you go now?”

“I’m going to Casper.” Joan expelled a nervous laugh. “Funny, huh? That I’m leaving Casper to go to Casper? After I found out about Samantha and Landon, I visited Samantha in jail a few times. Poor thing doesn’t have anyone in her life she can rely on. She needs help and she’s accepted my offer to be there for her and Landon. He’s such an unexpected joy. I haven’t had much joy in my life lately. At sixty-two years old I feel I’m due.”

“Will you be living with them?”

She shook her head. “Close by. I’ve got a cousin who’s agreed to let me stay with her temporarily. I don’t know how long I’ll be staying there. Luckily I won’t need to get a job, not that I’m qualified for more than cookin’ and cleanin’ anyway, because I’ve got the ‘mad’ money I’ve been saving.”

“Mad money?” Was that like…egg money or something?

“Every time Casper got mad about something, I put a dollar in the jar. You can imagine I’ve got a tidy pile after forty years.”

That did cause Jessie to smile. Until she realized she might be the first one Joan had confided in.

“Does Brandt know you’re leaving?”

“Yes. I talked to Dalton and Tell last night and I stopped at Brandt’s house right before I came over here.”

Her heart leapt at the mention of Brandt’s name. “Oh. So he’s home then? Not at the ranch?”

“Why would he be at the ranch?”

“Because…hasn’t Brandt…I mean—” spit it out, Jessie, “—he hasn’t…Fine. I haven’t seen or heard from him so I thought he’d already made his choice.”

Joan placed her hand on Jessie’s forearm in such an uncharacteristically loving gesture Jessie’s heart stalled. This couldn’t be good. “Jessie. Brandt loves you. There never was any question in anyone’s mind who he’d choose. Including his father’s.”

Before relief swept through her fully, she demanded, “Then why haven’t I seen him for four days?”

“Maybe you oughta be asking him that, instead of me.”

Jessie realized Joan was exactly right. No more of this giving him time, waiting around for him to come his senses bullshit. The old Jessie would stand around and wring her hands and wait for him to come to her. The new Jessie, the Jessie who’d found the man of her heart and soul, needed to go to him first. As soon as humanly possible. “Thank you.”

“No. Thank you for listening to me babble. It actually felt good to get that off my chest.” She frowned. “But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell Brandt or his brothers.”

“I won’t. It’ll be just between us girls.”

Joan did the oddest thing: she tugged Jessie against her for a fierce hug. She whispered, “I’m sorry. I hope you’ll give me another chance to be part of your lives. I like you, Jessie. I’d like to get to know you.

I’d like to put all that bullshit from the past aside and start fresh.”

Jessie said, “That sounds like a great plan, Joan,” and really meant it.

As Joan McKay drove off, Jessie finally realized what was different about the woman. She actually looked…happy for a change.

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