He ground his teeth. In all the times she’d called him in the last year, nothing had been earth-shatteringly important.
Every time he and Jessie had connected in the last two weeks, he’d managed to keep the phone call short. He wondered if she’d noticed. Then in the last week he’d stopped answering her calls altogether.
Goddammit, cutting Jessie out of his life hurt like a son of a bitch. He’d realized the night he’d raced to her rescue that she’d never see him as anything but the helpful brother of her dead husband. Hell, she’d even told him she considered him like a brother.
Brandt grunted. His feelings for her were so goddamn far from sisterly it wasn’t fucking funny.
“Brandt. Buddy, you’re up.”
He took the cell phone out of his pocket and set it on the table. He grabbed his cue and lined up his shot, trash talking with Tell, Dalton and Ben as they finished up their weekly pool game. After he scratched on the eight ball, he grudgingly gave both his little brothers ten bucks, and listened to Ben grumble about his shitty pool playing as they returned to the booth.
The waitress swung by just as his cell phone vibrated on the tabletop again. Brandt looked up at her and smiled. She was sort of cute.
That’s because she reminds you of Jessie.
He’d been tempted for about two seconds to ask for her number. Scratch that idea. “I’ll have another Coors.”
Dalton plopped down across from him. “Make it three. Nope, better make it four, Tell’s gonna stick around for one more.”
The phone continued to buzz.
His youngest brother frowned at him. “Ain’t you gonna get that?”
“Yep. It’s nothin’ important.”
“Your phone’s been ringing a lot tonight.”
“You’re right. This’ll fix it.” Brandt reached over and shut the phone off.
Jessie McKay paced in the kitchen in her tiny rented trailer. “Come on, pick up,” she muttered as she switched the position of her cell phone to her other ear. Voice mail clicked on for the fifth time and she snapped the phone shut.
“Dammit, Brandt. Where are you?” She’d had a lousy day and needed someone to vent to. Brandt never minded listening to her complain, but he’d been pretty scarce since the night he’d invited her home with him. She’d chalked up his uncharacteristic moon-eyed behavior to the fact he’d been drinking before he showed up. The poor man was probably embarrassed for making a pass at her.
She took the pot pie out of the microwave and dropped it on the lace placemat on the table. One placemat. On days like today, when it seemed like everything in the world had gone wrong, seeing that lone placemat, when there used to be two, could bring on a fit of tears like nobody’s business.
Don’t be a crybaby, Jessie.
How many times had she heard that? From her father? From Luke?
Too many to count. But really, who’d know if she sobbed at her dinette table like a lost little girl? She felt like one most days. It wasn’t as if she had friends to confide in since moving to Moorcroft. She’d started to make friends with the women she worked with at Sky Blue, but that wasn’t a good way to cement a friendship, by whining about how sucky her life was.
Jessie didn’t have family to count on either, unless she counted Brandt, but he was Luke’s kin, not hers, and then she was back to wondering why he’d started ignoring her calls.
Maybe because you call him all the time.
So? Her surly side countered. He’s my friend. Friends call each other.
Yeah? How many times has your “friend” called you?
Jessie frowned. Brandt had called her…hadn’t he? Curious, she flipped open her phone and checked received calls. Two calls from her boss at Sky Blue. Twenty-seven from Brandt in the last month.
See? He calls me.
All the calls were in response to you calling him first. How many times have you called him?
She scrolled down to the Dialed option. One hundred fifty-two outgoing calls. In the last two months… Holy crap. Only ten of those calls had been to someone other than Brandt McKay.
She’d called him one hundred and forty-two times in the last two months.
Hot mortification rolled through her like acid. My God. Why had she called Brandt that many times?
Because you’re lonely. Because you know that Brandt is missing Luke too.
So why was it Luke didn’t come up in their conversations very often?
He does. It’s one-sided on your part. You insist on extolling Luke’s virtues, you talk about how much you miss him and Brandt just lets you ramble.
A little dismayed by that thought, she recalled the last few times she’d seen Brandt.
He’d helped her unload hay.
He’d helped her deal with the dead battery in her truck.
He’d helped her fix the broken door on the barn.
He’d helped her unload more hay.
He’d shown up when she’d had plumbing issues.
Except he’d refused to do anything. And yeah, maybe she’d been a little upset about it at the time, his reluctance to fix the problem for her lickety split. But when she’d thought it through the next day, she understood Brandt wasn’t a miracle worker with everything.
That was the first time that’d happened since Luke died; Brandt McKay encountered a problem that he couldn’t fix for her.
Or maybe it was one he wouldn’t fix?
Jessie grabbed a beer from the fridge and started to pace again. Angry at Luke for dying. Angry with herself for doing exactly what she’d sworn she wouldn’t the day Casper McKay had kicked her off their land: rely on a man. And worst of all, the man she’d come to rely on was another McKay.
Would she never learn? She slumped against the wall and swallowed a big gulp of beer. The aftertaste made her shiver with disgust and she looked at the bottle. Why the hell was she still drinking Coors? She didn’t even like Coors—it’d been Luke’s favorite beer, not hers.
Poor, pathetic doormat Jessie. She hadn’t even mustered the guts during her marriage to buy the kind of beer she liked. She’d gone along with whatever Luke wanted because…
Why? She thought he’d love her more if she never rocked the boat? She was afraid he’d leave her, like her father had left her mother? Her “Yes, dear” attitude hadn’t mattered one whit. Luke had left her anyway—maybe not bodily, but the last six months of their marriage had been sheer hell because he’d never been around. Too busy shacking up with some bimbo. Probably she’d stocked Luke’s favorite beer, too, in hopes of keeping him around.
Hah. That hadn’t worked for her either. Luke was dead to both of them.
A burst of anger surfaced and she threw that half-empty bottle across the room and it shattered against the wall.
Her dog whimpered and hid behind the easy chair.
You are the clingiest girl I ever met. Jesus, Jessie, can you just let me do some things on my own? We ain’t joined at the hip. We don’t gotta do everything together just because we’re married.
Yeah, that mindset had worked out well for him, especially since he’d encouraged her to dump her
“lowlife” friends after their wedding, promising they’d make new friends. Couple friends.
That’d never happened. Why? Because Luke never allowed it to happen. Luke had called all the shots from day one. And she’d been so freakin’ happy to have Luke McKay’s attention that she would’ve danced naked around the Sundance flagpole if he’d asked her.
More fury raced through her.
Let it go, Jessie. No man wants a wife who’s a shrew. No man wants a wife who nags, yells, cries and whines all the damn time. No wonder I’m not here as much as you like. You’re drivin’ me away.
Funny, how whenever she’d stuck up for herself Luke considered her a shrew, but if he put his boot down and ended the discussion, he was just being the man of the house, not a controlling asshole.
Something inside her shifted and shattered.
“You fucking self-centered prick. You set this all up from the beginning, didn’t you? Having the perfect little doormat wife at home, cooking your meals, washing your clothes, making nice with your asshole father, doing your ranch chores, trying to get pregnant to birth your babies. While you were out fucking any woman that looked your way.”
Jessie slid to the floor and started to cry. Not tears of grief for a change. Granted, it wasn’t the first time she’d shed tears over Luke—not even the first time today, but goddammit, it’d be the last. As she cried, the rage built to the point she tipped her head to the ceiling and screamed, “I’m done with you, you cheating bastard! You hear me? Done. You and your whole rotten goddamn family can go straight to hell.”
She sobbed. Lexie slunk next to her and licked her hand. That made her cry harder. Bringing Lexie home as a surprise gift was the one nice thing Luke had ever done for her.
Eventually her cries quieted. Her eyes dried because she literally had no more tears. She’d cried herself out. Jessie dragged herself up from where she’d curled into a ball on the floor. She ate, showered and decided to wear her nicest jeans and her favorite shirt, rather than lounging around in ratty sweats. She styled her hair, put on makeup, feeling foolish because really? Who would see her tonight besides her dog?
Don’t make yourself look good for a man. Make yourself look good for yourself for a change. You can change.
Whoa. That was a new voice inside her head offering advice. Good advice.
She’d just sat and turned on the TV when her cell phone rang on the kitchen counter.
Her first thought: Finally! Brandt called me back.
Her second thought: He can suck it. I’m done with him.
Jessie sighed and stood, promising herself she wouldn’t answer if it was Brandt. But it wasn’t. The caller ID read: Keely McKay.
She smiled. She adored Keely. The woman was fun, funny, smart, sweet, sassy and she didn’t take shit from any man, especially none with the last name McKay. Although Jessie knew Keely had been beyond busy in the last year, Keely always made a point to check in with her to see how she was holding up.