Jessie’s voice dropped to a soothing timbre Tell hadn’t heard from her. “What’s this really about, Keels? Being scared of labor isn’t really what’s holding you back from having a baby. Is Jack pressuring you?”
Keely wiped beneath her eyes. “A little. I love Jack like crazy. I love our life together. I never thought I’d be this happy. What if having a baby screws that up? What if everything in our life becomes about being parents? What if I lose myself in motherhood? We both know we won’t stop at one kid. Plus, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom. And I’m afraid that’s what Jack wants, because that’s what we both had growing up.”
“Have you talked to Jack about any of this?”
“No. He’s my best friend—hell, he’s my everything—but I don’t think he’ll understand. I can’t talk to AJ because she’s glowing with pregnancy. My mom had five kids by the time she was my age. My single friends remind me I’m only thirty and there’s no rush to motherhood. My sisters-in-law and my cousins’ wives nag me to get on the ball so mine and Jack’s kids will be raised around cousins like I was. I just feel that no one understands my fears, even when they sound stupid when I say them out loud.”
Tell sat up a little straighter. Could that be the issue with Brandt? Some unnamed fear and he felt he had no one to talk to about it?
“It’ll cause problems if you don’t talk to Jack about what’s holding you back as far as planning a nursery and picking baby names. Trust me on this. Brandt is holding something back from me and it’s frustrating. So I imagine Jack might feel the same way.”
Keely snickered. “GQ practically shoved me out the door to meet the newest McKay. I think he’s hoping new-baby pheromones give my biological clock a good swift kick.” She glanced down at the bundle in her arms and her nose wrinkled. “He just filled his diaper.”
“Hand him over. Will you get the diapers and stuff over by the window?”
Brandt walked in, his gaze firmly on Jessie’s face. “What’s goin’ on?”
Tell watched his brother standing there, just watching Keely help out, not offering to do anything.
He grabbed the bottle and clapped Brandt on the back. “Come on. I could use some fresh air.”
“Keely’s gonna stick around for a bit, so I’ll be fine,” Jessie said.
Tell sent Jessie a reassuring glance before following Brandt out the door. He headed to his pickup and dropped the tailgate. He took a seat and watched Brandt pace. “Let’s make a toast to your son.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why? You figure we’re gonna get arrested? If Cam’s on duty, we won’t even get a warning for open container.”
“Fine. Gimme the damn thing.”
“Huh-uh. I get the honors.” Tell twisted the cap off. “Welcome to the world, Tucker McKay.” Then he handed Brandt the bottle.
Brandt took a long swallow and passed it back to Tell.
After Tell drank, he said, “Your turn to make a toast.”
“To Jessie. The best woman in the whole damn world.”
By about the fifth toast, they’d knocked back a third of the bottle. Finally, Brandt stopped pacing and hopped up on the tailgate.
“Sharing a bottle takes me back. Remember that time Luke dragged all of us to the lake to go fishin’?”
Tell nodded. “We never even dropped a line on the water, bein’s he stole a bottle of Dad’s cheap whiskey.”
“First time Dalton ever got drunk.”
“First time I ever got drunk,” Tell reminded him.
“Man. Dad whupped Luke but good. Gave him the punishment for all of us because as the oldest, Luke shoulda known better.”
The liquid in the bottle sloshed as Tell helped himself to another swig.
“I miss him.”
“I do too.”
“I still expect him to show up where we’re workin’. Skidding to a stop in his truck, the tires spraying us with dust, and then him saying, ‘If ya ain’t dirty, you ain’t workin’ hard enough’.”
“I can’t really talk to Jess about it,” Brandt said softly. “Not like I used to.”
“I don’t imagine you can. But you can talk to me, Brandt. Both me and Dalton. Neither of us wants to forget Luke like he never was.”
Brandt didn’t respond.
“Are you talkin’ to Jess about anything? And before you deny it, it’s obvious something ain’t right. You wanna tell me what’s goin’ on?”
He sighed. “It’s been goin’ on a while. Since Jess miscarried. She just fell apart, convinced she’d never take a baby to term. We were shocked to find out she was pregnant so soon after. When she got past the six-month mark, that’s when she began to breathe a little easier. But me? I couldn’t breathe at all.”
Tell tipped the bottle and drank.
“I worried about every damn thing. Her health. Money. The baby’s health. Each month her belly got bigger, so did my fears.”
“Is there one fear that’s bigger than all the rest?”
Brandt looked away.
“Come on. It’s me. This is eatin’ you alive, bro. And that ain’t good.”
He scrubbed his hands over his face. “What if I turn out to be the same kind of father as Dad?”
Tell’s stomach dropped.
“Don’t tell me that it won’t happen. To hear Dad’s brothers talk, he wasn’t always a total dick either.”
“Did the uncles say when Dad changed?”
“Yep. After he and mom started havin’ kids.”
Jesus. No wonder Brandt was freaked out. Especially when their dad had always claimed Brandt was more like him than any of his sons.
But his brother wasn’t an idiot. Couldn’t he see that by closing himself off from his wife and his brothers that he was falling prey to that mindset and becoming like their father? That maybe he’d already slipped into that cycle?
This was totally fucked up. Tell mentally flipped his dad the bird. But he wouldn’t stand by and watch that bullshit destroy any more lives, especially not the great life Brandt finally had with the woman he loved more than anything.
Brandt closed his eyes. “So now that I have a kid of my own, I need you to do something for me.”
“Keep me from turning into Dad. I understand it ain’t your responsibility, but you know the signs, Tell. I can’t rely on Jessie in this. You will see when I’ve stepped too far over that line and you will need to jerk me back to the right place.”
“Since you brought it up, you have stepped over the line in the last few months.”
Tell waggled the bottle at Brandt but he shook his head. “You need to talk to Jessie. Yeah, some stuff can be between us. But the big stuff? She needs to know. She ain’t gonna judge you. And without stepping in it too deep, Jess is afraid you regret havin’ Tucker.”
Brandt’s mouth fell open in shock. “Why would she think that?”
“No idea. But you’d better figure it out fast. Tonight, before you’re overwhelmed with visitors tomorrow.”
“Jesus. Fine.” Brandt sighed. “Uh, thanks for saving my ass with the flowers.”
“I’ve gotta stop walking around in a fog, so damn…scared I’m gonna break Tucker if I hold him. He’s so freakin’ little.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “God. How can Jess think I don’t want him?”
“No clue, but I expect you’ll fix that issue right away or I will kick your ass until you’re a broken heap on the floor. Then I’ll turn Dalton loose on you. You ain’t Dad. None of us are. None of us ever hafta be.”
“What if I don’t know how to do this?”
“Cut yourself some slack. The kid is a few hours old! And you know more than you think you do. You’ve watched our cousins become fathers. They all seem to be doin’ pretty well. I’m bettin’ every single one of them felt the way you do at first.”
“Nah. He’s perfect. He’s never fucked up anything in his life.”
Brandt laughed. “Asshole.”
Dalton’s pickup zipped into the parking lot, music blaring. He trotted over like an eager pup and jerked Brandt into a big hug. “Congrats, bro! How’s it feel to be a daddy?”
“Scary as shit.”
“No doubt. Luckily you’ve got me and Tell to keep you on the straight and narrow in not turning into Dad. ’Cause I gotta be honest, B. The way you’ve acted a couple times in the last few months really reminded me of him.”
Leave it to Dalton to cut to the chase.
Dalton spied the bottle. “Really? You guys started celebrating Tucker’s arrival before I got here? For shame. I’m just gonna hafta catch up.” He raised the bottle and drank.
“I’m done,” Brandt said. “I wonder if Jess will let me hold our son with booze on my breath.”
“You ain’t had nearly as much as me.” The shots seemed to hit Tell all at once.
“I’ll hold off on any more then,” Dalton said to Tell. “So I can get you home.”
“Thanks. But I probably won’t be goin’ straight home. I’ll probably just walk over there.”
“Over where?” Brandt asked.
“To Hot Lips’ place.” Dalton took another drink.
Brandt looked confused. “Who’s Hot Lips?”
“Jesus, Brandt. Get with the program. Georgia Hotchkiss. The chick Tell has been hangin’ out with all week. Everyone in the whole damn McKay family knows about her.”