There was Jessie’s horror-filled look. “But Casper—”
“Is the worst possible choice, yeah, trust me, I know. My mother would be fine takin’ care of Landon, but she won’t stand up to my father, which means I’d have to leave Landon at their house. Every goddamn day. And I don’t trust my dad not to go around me.”
“Go around you how?”
“Given Samantha’s circumstances, he’ll try for full custody of Landon, and the court would award them guardianship, even temporarily, over me. I don’t want it to come to that. Ever.”
“When did you plan on telling them about him?”
“Tomorrow. I’d hoped to have a firm plan in place first, but if I don’t, I’ll wing it. Tell and Dalton will back me up, no matter what happens.”
In the unbearably long, brutal silence, Brandt felt his hope drying up. Felt her pulling away.
Shivering, Jessie wrapped her arms around herself. “It’s late. And I’m…”
In shock. Heartbroken. Angry.
Every emotion was written on her face. “Do you want me to go?”
She said, “Yes,” then amended, “unless you’re too tired to drive home. You can crash on the couch.
But you won’t get much sleep. It’s the last thing on my mind right about now.”
When Jessie was upset, she cleaned house like a maniac. He’d rather sleep in his damn truck than surround himself with her strange compulsion and the smell of bleach. He snagged his suit coat off the back of the chair. “I’ll go. Think about it, okay?”
She looked him dead in the eye and said, “I doubt I’ll think of anything else.”
Jessie didn’t sleep. She paced to the point it annoyed her dog. She drank two shots of whiskey and the booze stopped the shaking in her hands, but didn’t blot out the surrealness of the situation.
Luke had a child.
With someone else.
That alone would’ve been bad enough, if not for the fact she’d lost a baby. Every problem they’d ever had stemmed from that unintended pregnancy, which had forced them to get married. She’d miscarried at four months, after getting thrown off her horse. Luke hadn’t been devastated at the loss of the child as much as she had.
No, his devastation came from being trapped in a shotgun marriage.
The doctor’s suggestion that she remain at home to heal gave Luke an excuse to go out. While he’d been carousing in honkytonks in four counties, she’d been the dutiful wife.
He’d been so sweet and loving to her at times she wondered if she’d exaggerated his surliness when he wasn’t around. She’d wanted to try for another baby right away, but the doctor suggested she wait a year and put her on birth control pills. Which had re-ignited their sex life for a while. But she hadn’t been enough for him. He’d gone elsewhere to satisfy his sexual needs.
She’d stumbled upon evidence of the first affair by accident. She hadn’t confronted him about it. She just tried harder to satisfy him—in bed and out—hoping it’d keep him home.
It hadn’t. As the months wore on, it was almost as if Luke wanted to get caught. He wanted Jessie to know he’d been with other women. He hadn’t tried to hide it from anyone, including his family. Casper McKay had been snide about it. Joan looked at her with pity. Dalton and Tell skirted the subject. But Brandt had seethed.
One afternoon Brandt had yelled at Luke for screwing around on her. Luke told Brandt to mind his own goddamn business and he could screw whoever he wanted. When Brandt insisted Jessie deserved better, Luke had laughed, warning Brandt that he wasn’t the better man, and if Brandt ever touched Jessie, Luke would kill him. Neither man knew Jessie watched in misery from the shadows of the barn.
She’d never understood why Brandt had stood up for her. It wasn’t like they’d known each other before she’d married Luke. She’d never understood why Luke had threatened Brandt over her, because she wasn’t the type to turn heads or inspire fierce loyalty. Or fidelity.
So the question on her mind now: Would he have left her for this Samantha girl once he’d found out she carried his child?
No. Luke would’ve bucked up to his responsibility for the kid, but he wouldn’t put himself in a repeat situation of being stuck in a relationship because of a child.
What a mess.
Imagining her husband in bed with another woman was bad enough. But seeing the proof of his passion? Of seeing the physical embodiment of what he’d denied her but he’d given to someone else?
She felt hollow. Totally eviscerated.
How could she look at the child with anything but loathing?
Brandt’s words, He’s little more than a baby, Jess, none of this is his fault, rang in her head and slashed at her heartstrings.
She would not feel guilty. She owed this Samantha girl nothing. She owed Luke nothing.
But she owed Brandt McKay everything.
She’d just gotten her life back on track on her own terms. She owed it to herself not to suffer through the heartbreak of wishing the little boy was hers. Of getting pissed off because he should’ve been hers. Of resenting Luke because he should’ve left her pregnant, not some strange teenager.
So when Brandt called tomorrow, she’d tell him no.
She’d scream no if she had to.
But she would say no.
When Brandt pulled up to Jessie’s place late the next morning, she didn’t immediately exit the house.
He waited in his truck, listening to Landon’s soft snuffles drifting from the rear cab. The boy had screamed from the time he’d left his aunt’s house until ten minutes ago when he’d conked out.
He hoped the kid would be on his best behavior, all cute smiles and big blue eyes, because Brandt didn’t want to give Jessie a reason to say no.
She couldn’t say no. She was the key to everything.
Brandt unbuckled Landon and lifted him out of the car seat. He adjusted the hood covering Landon’s head and cuddled him against his body to block the wind. At the last second he remembered the diaper bag.
Kids came with a lot of stuff.
Fine flakes of snow pelted him in the face as he climbed the stairs. He stood in front of the door, figuring he’d use his foot to knock on the bottom aluminum panel if need be.
But the door opened and Jessie stared at him through the screen. Her eyes never left his, never strayed to the sleeping child on Brandt’s shoulder. “So much for not forcing me, huh Brandt? You just show up on my doorstep?”
This did not bode well.
After glaring at him, she held the door open and shushed Lexie’s excited barks.
He put Landon onto the couch, wedging him against the middle couch cushion facing out. He unzipped the tiny winter coat and tried to rearrange the hood, but the kid didn’t seem to mind it, so he left it as is rather than risk waking him. Turning around, he expected to see Jessie behind him, but she’d shooed Lexie outside and retreated to the kitchen.
Brandt ditched his coat and followed her.
“Coffee?” she asked softly.
“That’d be great.”
After she poured his cup, she leaned against the counter, keeping her back to the living room. Keeping her back to Landon.
He searched her face. Dark circles hung beneath her eyes, the only color on her too pale skin. Her lips were drawn in a tight line, as were her eyebrows. She looked like one wrong word would shatter her. “Did you sleep at all?”
Jessie shrugged. “I think I dozed off around dawn, but then I had to get up and feed the animals.” She blew across her coffee. “What about you?”
“About the same.” He’d lain in his bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to make plans for the next few months—a pointless endeavor, when everything was up in the air.
“What time are you meeting your parents?”
“I don’t know.”
She frowned. “You’re just gonna spring this on them too?”
He felt his face heat. “Not an ideal situation, but I’m in limbo until you…”
“This decision shouldn’t be on my shoulders,” she snapped.
“It’s not. But your answer does have an affect on what I do next.”
Her chin dropped to her chest and she gazed into her coffee mug. “I’m sorry.”
Disappointment lodged in his gut like a stone. “Jessie—”
“I’m sorry, Brandt. I can’t do it. I can’t help you—”
The remainder of her sentence was lost in Landon’s cry.
He set aside his mug and crossed to the couch. Landon had already pushed himself upright and was looking around with confusion. Brandt dropped to his haunches, keeping the kid from scrambling down.
“Hey, buddy. Didja have a nice nap?”
Those somber blue eyes studied him as Brandt removed the little guy’s coat.
“I brought some of your toys.”
But Landon held up his arms.
“Okay. I guess you’d rather be picked up.” Brandt settled the boy on his hip and turned around.
Jessie had her back to him as she faced out the front window.
Disappointment warred with panic. If she wouldn’t even look at the kid, there was no way she’d help him. No way.
Lexie scratched at the door and Brandt automatically let her in, like he’d done a hundred times when he used to visit Jessie. The dog jumped and yipped at seeing Landon.
Landon clapped his hands and laughed—a pure, innocent burst of joy that made Brandt grin. “A boy who likes dogs, imagine that.” Brandt sat in the easy chair with Landon on his lap. He patted his leg.
“Come on over and say hello, Lexie.”
The dog slunk over to sniff Landon’s toes. He giggled again and reached for Lexie’s ears.
“Whoa there, partner. Gotta be gentle. Play nice. Touch her like this, see?” Brandt kept one arm wrapped around Landon’s middle as he petted Lexie’s back. He took Landon’s hand and slowly moved it across Lexie’s fur. “She likes that.”