“Because I did demand proof. Right away. I contacted Dr. Monroe and she put me in contact with a place that specializes in fast paternity tests. Long story short, Landon is Luke’s child. But really, all I had to do was look at the kid and I knew.”
Jessie’s tough shell cracked and her face crumpled. “Oh God. No. This is not happening.”
Brandt was beside her in an instant. He wanted so badly to pull her into his arms, offer her comfort, but he wasn’t entirely sure she wouldn’t slap and claw at him, taking her rage out on the messenger since she couldn’t take it out on the person who deserved it.
Goddamn you, Luke. What the fuck were you thinking?
He hadn’t been. As usual his brother thought of himself first.
Jessie hugged her knees to her chest, hiding her face beneath her tangle of hair. Her shoulders shook as she rocked on the couch.
Brandt was helpless to do anything but watch her fall apart.
Lexie came over, whining at her mistress’s distress, but even the dog seemed at a loss.
He drained his beer. Then he got up and grabbed another. Staring out the window, his thoughts as jumbled now, as when Samantha Johnston had contacted him six weeks ago.
Brandt hadn’t told anyone in his family about meeting Samantha and Landon. It’d been ripping him up inside to the point he was pretty sure he’d given himself an ulcer.
He lifted the bottle to his lips only to come up empty. He’d sucked down the whole damn thing without thinking about it, without tasting it—which was why he hadn’t been drinking the last month. It’d be too easy to wind up drunk every damn night, without intending to.
“Am I the last one to know about Luke’s secret love child?” Jessie asked.
Her tear-choked voice startled him. “No. Hell no. I wouldn’t do that to you.” He crossed the room and sat next to her. “You’re the first one I’ve told. You’re the only one I’ve told.”
“Why me first? Why not Tell or Dalton or your folks?”
How did he phrase this?
You’ve gone too far to worry about sparing her feelings now.
“Because this isn’t happy news for you, Jess.”
Her mouth trembled and he watched as she fought to stop it. She inhaled. Exhaled. “But it will be happy news for them.”
“Jesus. This is a nightmare. Just when I think it can’t get worse, it does. Just when I think Luke McKay can’t possibly hurt me any more than he already has, he does.”
He didn’t dispute it, which forced her to meet his gaze.
She paled further, if that were possible. “It gets worse, doesn’t it?”
“Afraid so. Look, Samantha has had a rough go of it. She’s young, a single parent with no one to turn to, so she’s made some mistakes.”
“What kind of mistakes?”
“She got a DUI when Landon was six months old. She managed mostly to stay on the straight and narrow…until two months ago.”
“What did she do?”
“Got a second DUI.”
Jessie’s mouth dropped open. “Are you joking?”
He shook his head.
“Is that why she contacted you? To bail her out of jail?”
“No. She contacted me after the arrest because she knew she’d be sent to jail. She moved away from the guy she’d shacked up with and moved back in with her aunt. But the aunt can’t take care of Landon. So she needs…”
“Oh no. Please tell me you didn’t volunteer to—”
“What choice do I have?” He stood and paced to the door and back. “If one of Landon’s blood relatives doesn’t take him, her aunt will turn the child over to Protective Services.”
“It sounds like the kid will be a helluva lot better off with a child protection agency than with her,”
Brandt froze. “You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do. She’s a perfect example of why there are these types of agencies, Brandt. Let them deal with her and with the kid. They’re more qualified to make a rational decision about—”
“The only living link I’ll ever have to my dead brother? I’m just supposed to say, oh well, not my problem? Not care? He’s little more than a baby, Jess. None of this is his fault. Don’t you see that? I’m sorry, but I can’t walk away. I won’t.”
“Fine. You can’t. I get that. But I don’t understand what any of this has to do with me.”
Here was the moment of truth. He knelt in front of her. “Because I can’t do this by myself. I need your help.”
“Just hear me out.”
“No. God. No. Stop. Brandt. Please. Just stop.”
The look on her face was killing him, but somehow he soldiered on. “It’s a temporary situation. Just a few months.”
“You can’t be serious. You really aren’t asking me to help you take care of my dead husband’s illegitimate child.”
“That’s exactly what I’m asking.”
“Oh God, I’m gonna be sick.” She shoved him aside so hard he fell on his ass and she raced to the kitchen sink.
Her retching sounds, mixed with her heartbreaking sobs, made his eyes burn and his throat tighten.
He was asking the impossible of her. He knew that. But he also knew that Jessie had the kindest soul and the purest heart of anyone he’d ever known. That’s why he hated how his brother had treated her. And it pissed him off that Luke still had the power to hurt her—to hurt both of them—from beyond the grave.
Brandt wasn’t a religious man, but maybe there was a reason this child had happened and a reason why Samantha had come to him for help. He had to believe this shitty situation would mean something good in the end. Because if he thought too hard about the cruelty of it, he’d go stark raving mad. Hell. He was almost there.
He picked himself up off the floor and went to her. Jessie didn’t shrink away when he wrapped his arms around her. She turned and burrowed into his chest, sobbing.
Brandt held her and let his tears fall along right with hers.
Finally, she whispered, “I can’t do it.”
“You don’t know that,” he soothed. “I’m only askin’ you to try.”
“How? By forcing me?”
He tipped her chin up. “I’d never force you. You know me better than that.”
Again, she looked away. Again, Brandt lifted her chin and studied her eyes. The misery was still there, but something else was too. Something that resembled anger. “What?”
“Why me, Brandt? Why am I the first person you thought of?”
Because you’re the most caring person I know.
“Is this some sort of punishment?”
Confused, he frowned. “Punishment? Why would you ask that?”
“Because I hurt you. Then you cut me out of your life completely. And you can deny it all you want-”
“I’m not denyin’ that you hurt me, Jessie. But I was the one outta line, not you. I was mad at myself, not at you.”
Jessie’s entire face held an expression of disbelief.
“So you think I’m usin’ this as an opportunity to get back at you? To hurt you?”
“That’s what I’m asking,” she said softly.
“Christ, just bringing the goddamn thing to your attention is hurting you. I can see that. You think I like the way you’re lookin’ at me right now? No. But I remember you looked at me the same way right after Luke died. I remember how we helped each other through it. One day at a time. How bein’ together somehow made it…bearable at times.” He closed his eyes against the pain in hers. “Do you remember the night you told me you wouldn’t have survived that first year if it hadn’t been for me? How you owed me and if I ever needed anything from you, all I had to do was ask? Well, Jess, right now, I’m askin’ you. I’m begging you. Please. I need you to help me do this.”
After a minute or so of hellish silence, she burrowed into him again. Her tears soaked his shirt. “I don’t know if I can do it. I need some time, Brandt.”
“I hate to say it, but that’s the one thing I can’t give you. I’m picking Landon up tomorrow.”
“And you’re just telling me now? This is going way too fast.”
“I hadn’t intended to spring this on you. But Samantha’s sentencing was moved up last week. She went to the women’s correctional facility in Lusk on Wednesday. Her aunt agreed to keep Landon only for a few days. If I don’t go get him tomorrow…”
Jessie jerked back. “Why is her aunt being so difficult?”
His hand shook as he brushed baby-fine strands of hair from her tear-stained face. “She’s actually her great aunt, who’s nearly eighty and is almost legally blind. It was easier takin’ care of baby contained in a crib. But now that Landon is walking, she literally cannot keep an eye on him.” That wasn’t all, but Brandt wasn’t about to put the cart before the horse.
So he shouldn’t have been surprised Jessie connected the dots.
“The aunt is afraid this isn’t a temporary arrangement. She’s worried she’ll get stuck with the kid permanently.”
Brandt didn’t bother to lie. “I’m assuming so. Like I said, Samantha has made some mistakes, but I’m not writing her off completely.”
“You should. God. Why couldn’t she have given him up for adoption?”
He couldn’t say he felt the same, because he didn’t. Even as much as it hurt Jessie, Brandt was glad Samantha had contacted him. He dropped his hands and stepped back. “Look. I know this is a lot to process. But it doesn’t change the fact I need your help.”
“And if I refuse? What then?”
“Then I’ll…” He blew out an exasperated breath. “Have no choice except to ask my parents to pitch in.”