Talk about being a total chickenshit. Here she was, twenty-seven years old, doing her best wallflower imitation again.
Story of your life, Jessie McKay.
At least she'd had the foresight to bring along a couple of beers for company. Or solace. Or courage.
Jessie swigged from the bottle of Corona as she watched the newlyweds swaying to an old George Strait tune. Keely and Jack fit the love song they'd chosen for their first dance as husband and wife. The happy couple only had eyes for each other, despite repeated attempts from Keely's assorted male family members to cut in. Although Jack used a charming smile to dissuade interruption, a possessive male lurked beneath his polished demeanor.
Keely deserved a man so perfectly suited for her. A man who worshipped her as a strong-willed cowgirl, but clearly was fierce enough to stand up to her--and her family. Because when you married one McKay, somehow you ended up with them all.
So it wasn't a surprise that Jessie was still considered part of the McKay family. Well, most of the McKays. They'd been supportive after Luke's death, especially during the first month of shock and grief. She'd been forced from her home. Forced to find a job. Forced to stand on her own. If it hadn't been for Luke's brother Brandt, she might've taken the easy way out and driven her truck off a cliff.
But Brandt became her pillar of support. He helped her, no matter if her problem was big or small. He was there for her like a brother would be. Except one night, a year into her widowhood, Brandt had confessed his feelings for her weren't merely brotherly.
At the time, she'd been shocked. She'd never looked at Brandt in that light. In her heart, in her mind, she would always be Luke's wife. She hadn't known how to explain it without sounding delusional.
After that night, everything changed between them. Brandt stopped coming over. He'd quit answering her calls. In a moment of clarity a month or so later, she realized it was time to let go.
In those soul-searching moments, she'd faced a lot of truths, half-truths and untruths. About herself. About Luke. About their marriage. Then she'd taken three steps that helped her move on for good.
One: she'd stopped wearing her wedding ring.
Two: she'd had the McKay "brand" tattoo above her ankle reworked into a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.
Three: she'd decided to have a one-night stand with a complete stranger.
The last step had been a biggie. Not only had Luke McKay been her first and only lover, Luke also hadn't been faithful during their marriage. So she'd needed to prove--if only to herself--that she could attract a lover.
Which was how she'd ended up at the lake last summer when she'd run into Brandt. She hadn't recognized him at first. She'd never seen Brandt McKay without all his cowboy regalia--boots, jeans, hat. She'd definitely never seen him shirtless, barefoot, wearing funky board shorts, looking tanned, fit and unbelievably sexy.
Upon closer inspection, the baby fat Luke had always teased Brandt about was gone, replaced with muscle. Lots of muscle. He'd hacked off his dark, wavy hair in a military buzz cut style. Goatee? Gone. Soul patch? Gone. Despite the leaner appearance, Brandt's angular face was still too rugged looking to be considered handsome in the classical sense, like Luke's had been.
What hadn't changed about Brandt? His captivating smile that managed to be both cocky and shy. The stunning blueness of his eyes. His overprotective instinct. The first thing he'd done after seeing her for the first time in months was lecture her on hooking up with a douchebag like Mike.
At that point, Jessie had told Brandt she was predestined to wind up with douchebags like Mike and Luke, and if he were smart, he'd continue to stay away from her.
He'd started to argue and she'd glimpsed something dangerous in Brandt's eyes she'd never noticed. But true to form, he'd walked away.
Or so she'd thought.
She'd been so eager to convince Mike and his friends she was good-time Jessie the party girl, not a mousy widow with a pathetic past, that she ended up drinking way more than was healthy or smart.
The details were hazy through the veil of alcohol. Except for the humiliation of not holding Mike's sexual interest even when she was naked and willing. Chivalrous Brandt had taken her home. She hadn't seen or heard from him until today.
Jessie slumped against the wall. So far she'd been able to avoid talking to him.
Or maybe he's avoiding talking to you.
She heard, "Miss Jessie!" and saw her boss's twin daughters racing toward her.
Peyton exclaimed, "There you are," and attached herself to Jessie's hip. "We've been looking everywhere for you."
Not to be outdone, Shannie hugged the other leg and added, "Yeah, everywhere."
"I've been here the whole time." Jessie whistled. "You look like princesses in those dresses."
Both girls beamed and twirled in a flurry of ribbons, ruffles and frills that adorned their pink and lavender dresses. Not matching dresses. Peyton and Shannie were fraternal twins, but they'd exerted their individuality early on. Since Jessie ran the daycare at Sky Blue, she'd watched these girls over the last two years, always amazed by how different they were from each other, and from their older sister, Eliza.
Eliza, who was trying to keep up with her dozen or so boy cousins.
"Will you dance with us?" Shannie asked.
"Please?" Peyton begged.
"Where are your mom and dad?"
Shannie rattled off, "Mama is right over there, see? She's helpin' Aunt Ginger with her little babies since Daddy and Uncle Buck hadta take Hayden's grandpa home."
Jessie wasn't surprised Kane and Ginger McKay had brought their twins, Madelyn and Paulson, to Keely's wedding. Babies abounded at McKay gatherings because there were plenty of hands to help out harried mothers and fathers.
"Miss Jessie, can we ask you something?"
"How come we don't call you Aunt Jessie? You're a McKay, just like us, right?"
Boy howdy. How long had these precocious three-year-olds been waiting for a chance to ask her? She snagged a chair and sat. The girls scrambled onto her lap. "I became a McKay after I married your dad's cousin Luke."
"But he's in heaven, huh?" Shannie said.
"Yep. Right after he...went to heaven, I started working for your mom at Sky Blue. We decided it'd be too confusing for the other kids in daycare if you two and Eliza called me Aunt Jessie, so we thought it'd be best if everyone called me Miss Jessie."
Shannie exchanged a sly look with Peyton before she said, "So if you don't got a husband hogging all your time, then you can dance with us."
She smiled at their logic. "I suppose so."
"Yay!" The girls hopped down, each grabbed a hand and tugged her onto the dance floor.
Jessie spun the girls through two songs. When a slow number started, she started to herd them off the dance floor, but Calvin McKay intercepted, scooping both his giggling granddaughters into his arms for a dance.
Before she reached her table, a firm grip circled her waist and she was towed back to the dance floor. Brandt slipped his arms around her--at a proper distance naturally--and said, "Thanks for dancin' with me."
"Like you gave me a choice."
"You would've said no if I asked, so I didn't ask."
She couldn't help it; she smiled.
Brandt's gaze wandered over her face. "You look beautiful tonight, Jess."
She blushed. "Thank you. You clean up pretty good yourself." No lie. Brandt wore a black suit with a silver vest. The same silver vest all Keely's male McKay relatives wore, but he somehow wore it better...which was really saying something.
"How have you been?"
Lonely. "Busy. How about you?"
The song shifted tempo and he slowed them to a gentle sway.
"It was a beautiful wedding. I've never seen Keely so happy," Jessie murmured.
They stayed quiet in the moment, just dancing. The song ended and another one began. "I should go," she said, trying to slip from his embrace.
But Brandt's grip tightened. "Stay. We need to talk."
The last thing she wanted was to talk about the fiasco at the lake. "If in my drunken idiocy I forgot to say thank you for...what you did for me that night--"
"You said thank you," he replied tersely, "repeatedly, and that's not why I wanna talk to you."
"Well, thank heaven for that. Because God knows I haven't relived the most embarrassing night of my life in my nightmares enough times in the last four months."