Jessie wanted that same happiness for herself. Dammit. She deserved it.

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And the only way to get it was to take it.

After she changed into work clothes, she hitched the empty horse trailer to her truck and headed out.

Butterflies danced in her belly as she drove down the long driveway leading to Brandt’s house. By the time she reached the banks of snow piled by the deck, Brandt stood on the steps, waiting for her.

“Jess? What are you doin’ here with a horse trailer?”

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She scaled the stairs in one step and got right in his face. “Did you mean what you said? When you told me you loved me and wanted to marry me?”

“Yes. But—”

“Did you tell your dad to take a flyin’ leap as far as the ranch is concerned?”

“Yes. But—”

“In the past four days when you haven’t contacted me at all,” she lightly cuffed him in the arm, “have you had any regrets about anything that’s been going on between us in the last few months?”

“No. But—”

“Good. Then what are you waiting for? Let’s get your stuff packed up and loaded in the trailer so we can take it back to my place.”

Brandt circled her biceps, stopping her. “Whoa. Wait a second. Do you know what’s happened? I’ve lost my identity, my job, and I’ve got a limited skill set in the world outside ranching, I’m damn close to destitute and you’re…” His eyes narrowed. “Chipper as a damn squirrel about that.”

Jessie laughed. “Of course I am.”

“Why?”

“Because—”

“Why would you want me?”

“Because—”

“I can’t offer you anything.”

She knocked free of his hold and grabbed him by the lapels to get nose to nose with him. “Now you listen to me, Brandt McKay. I love you. You. Not your ranch, not your station in life as part of the McKay ranching dynasty. You’ve already offered me everything I want.”

“Which is?”

“A lifetime with you.”

His eyes softened. “Jess.”

“Don’t you dare back out on me now. So we’ve hit yet another rough spot. So? Ain’t the first time and I doubt it’ll be the last. But I have every faith we’ll overcome it. Together.”

“But—”

“You’re the best man I’ve ever known. You are worth fighting for. We are worth fighting for. I love you. I love you so freakin’ much. Don’t give up. Please.” She moved even closer, completely invading his space. “Say something, dammit.”

“I would if you’d left me get a word in edgewise.” He brushed his lips across hers. “I missed you.” He kissed her. “I love you.” He kissed her again. “God, do I ever love you.” One last smooch to her mouth.

“But you’re too late.”

Her heart damn near stopped. “Too late for what?”

“To help me pack. Everything is already loaded in the back of my truck.”

Then she kissed him. Jessie wanted to kiss him with all he hunger and passion he always gave her, but it was hard to keep their lips attached when all she could do was smile.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” he murmured against her mouth, much later, as they were twined together in his bed. “What prompted you to come after me?”

“The fear that you changed your mind and decided I wasn’t worth all the hassle.”

“What hassle?”

She gave him a light head butt. “Oh, a little thing like your dad making you choose between the ranch and me.” Her eyes searched his. “Why didn’t you tell me that the day you showed up and killed my poor heavy bag?”

That flash of shame appeared, heating his cheeks. “I get in these…rages, Jess. They’re ugly and I’m mean. I come out swinging and don’t stop until everything and everybody in front of me is leveled. Or until someone hands me my ass or I pass out. Fun stuff.” He sighed. “I’m so goddamn sorry that I hurt you—”

“You didn’t mean to. And it hurt me a helluva lot worse when you walked out.”

“There was some stuff I needed to work out.” Maybe someday he’d tell Jessie about the bizarre dream he’d had about Luke.

“So you really picked me? Over the ranch?”

“No contest.”

Brandt and Jessie had started loading tack into the horse trailer when a pickup pulled up. Jessie tensed. The pickup looked exactly like Casper’s but Brandt knew the pickup belonged to his Uncle Carson.

He watched as all three of his McKay uncles climbed out of Carson’s truck. Carson and Cal were twins, not identical, but that wasn’t obvious at first glance. Charlie had the same look about him as his brothers did, but he was shorter, stockier. As far as McKay family dynamics, Charlie should’ve been last on the pecking order as the youngest son. But it’d always been Casper, the oldest of Jed McKay’s sons, at the bottom of the heap.

Strange, seeing his uncles here. They rarely ventured to this part of the ranch, and never to Brandt’s house. So they must’ve gotten wind of Casper’s ultimatum. Brandt’s pride appeared, reminding him he didn’t need his uncles’ charity.

He told pride to shut the fuck up.

“Brandt.” Carson removed his glove, thrust out his hand and Brandt shook it, then he shook Calvin and Charlie’s hands in kind.

“I don’t gotta ask why you guys are here,” Brandt said. “But I do wanna know who called you.”

Carson shoved his hands in the front pocket of his Carhartt coat. “Actually Casper contacted us.”

“That surprises me.”

“Surprised the hell out of me too,” Charlie said. “Jesus. The man showed up at my place out of his mind.”

Brandt frowned. “Your place?”

“Yeah, guess he considers me the weakest link in the McKay chain of command.” Charlie shot his brothers a sideways glance. “But that’s always been Casper’s problem. We’ve never had the ‘me’ versus

‘them’ mentality.”

“But he has.”

Charlie nodded. “As soon as he showed up Vi called Carson and Cal.”

“Did he…” How could he ask his uncles if his dad had told them he’d attacked his father?

Cal clapped Brandt on the shoulder. “Son, we know what he’s like. Which is why we all needed to be there. Been brewing for a long goddamn time. It’s time we dealt with it.” He looked at Jessie with that trademark charming McKay smile. “Darlin’, if you wouldn’t mind givin’ us some time with Brandt—”

“Sorry. Brandt and I are a package deal now. Whatever you intend to discuss with him can be said in front of me. Rest assured, I’ll never repeat what I hear, but Brandt and I have had too many family things between us, keeping us apart for too long.”

Brandt had such a fierce sense of pride, such an overpowering feeling of love for this woman. He reached for Jessie’s hand. Right then he knew he’d never have to worry where he stood with her, because she’d always stand beside him.

Jessie said, “It’s too damn cold out here. Let’s head inside.”

After outerwear was removed, Brandt passed around beer. He sat in the easy chair with Jessie perched on the arm beside him. “So I guess I’d like to hear what my dad said to you before I tell you what really happened.”

“It ain’t pretty, Brandt. Just figured I oughta be up front with you about that,” Cal warned.

“Understood.”

“Casper said things’d gone to hell in a hand basket since Luke died. He’d entrusted you with the ranch and you’d make some piss poor decisions and he no longer trusted your judgment.”

Jessie threaded her fingers through his.

“When we pressed him for solid facts, Casper sputtered something about you convincing your brothers to buy more land, when the three of you couldn’t take care of what you already had.” Charlie grunted. “Course, that’s when we pointed out for the last two years, since you’ve taken over, your calves had a higher weight ratio than ever. Then I told him you boys buying that grazing land, even when you had to put yourselves in hock for it, was one of the smarter decisions anyone’s made.”

“Casper didn’t wanna hear that,” Carson pointed out. “He also didn’t wanna hear us tellin’ him that he hadn’t been pullin’ his weight for damn near a decade. And that if it hadn’t been for his sons bustin’ ass, we would’ve redistributed his parcel amongst the three of us and our sons.”

A feeling of pride and dread surfaced simultaneously. Brandt and his brothers had done everything to make their part of the McKay ranch as successful as the others. But with their dad overruling them, they’d lost some of what they’d gained. “What was his response?”

“Typical Casper blustering. Told us if we thought we could do a better job, then we could go ahead and buy him out.”

Brandt went motionless. Not only would Casper McKay cut him out, he’d cut out Tell and Dalton from their heritage too. He took a long swallow of beer and met his Uncle Carson’s gaze, managing to keep his voice steady. “What did you say?”

“We took him up on it.”

Silence.

Brandt felt as if he’d been sliced in two.

“Now before you go getting that look on your face, son, hear us out. You know we’ve been restructuring several aspects of the ranch over the last few months.”

“Chase mentioned it, so did Kade, but I’ll admit Casper kept us in the dark. Whenever we asked, he refused to talk about it.”

Charlie nodded. “Chase said as much. Which let us know that anything we were doin’ had to be completely above board. It also forced us to look very closely at the past legal documentation for the ranch.

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