Saddled and spurred, p.10
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.10

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  Was it her imagination, or was Bran . . . chuckling?

  The coffee supplies were still on the counter from yesterday—had it really been only one day?—so she didn’t have to dig through his cupboards. She sat at the dinette table, surprised that Bran hadn’t changed out of his jammies.

  Right. Like big, bad, tough cowboys called them jammies.

  Silence. Complete silence beyond the gurgling noises of the coffeemaker. She couldn’t think of a blasted thing to say.

  “Harper? Are you okay?”

  “No. I feel like such an idiot. Not remembering what happened last night, not only after we got back here, but before that. Everything is blank after we pulled that last calf. I’m sure you’re used to hired hands who are tougher, able to go days without sleep. I just hit a wall.”

  “Part of calving is bein’ completely exhausted, and that’s why I needed help. I can’t do it on my own. To be honest? I don’t remember a whole helluva lot from last week. It’s a blur. I’m fairly sure I didn’t do nothin’ stupid and endanger the cattle by falling asleep at the wheel and running them over.”

  Harper smiled. It was really sweet of him, trying to make her feel better.

  “We’re in the midst of the worst of it. About two and a half weeks from now, we’ll be back to regular ranch chores for the rest of the time you’re working here. It’ll seem kinda boring.”

  “I doubt that.” The coffeemaker beeped. Harper made him sit while she poured them each a cup and brought it back to the table.

  He leaned back in his seat and stared at her as he held the mug between his big hands. “Since you spent the night in my bed, should I be offering to make you breakfast?” he asked with a silky growl.

  Her face heated to the point she probably could’ve fried an egg on it. “Bran.”

  “Damn. Woman, I love to see you blush.”

  Really? He did? “It’s dorky. All splotchy-faced like a fourteenyear-old girl.”

  “It’s sexy,” he countered with another one of those rumbling growls. “Makes me want to find out firsthand if that pretty pink flush covers your whole body, not just your cheeks and your neck.”

  Harper managed to look Bran in the eye. “Do you tease Les like this? Or are you doing it to me because you think I won’t fight back?”

  “I give Les ten times more crap on a daily basis than I’ve given you.” Bran shrugged and sipped his coffee. “It’s just the way I am.”

  “Is this where you tell me you wouldn’t tease me if you didn’t like me?”

  “Yep.” He smirked. “But from what I’ve seen? You can hold your own. So don’t be afraid to call me on my shit if you think I’m full of it.”

  “Bet on it.” Harper grabbed her purse and fished out her cell phone to check the time. After nine. Hopefully Bailey had hauled herself out of bed and made it to the bus stop. There weren’t any missed calls or text messages, so she took that as a good sign.

  “Problem?” Bran asked.

  She met his gaze. “No. If it won’t upset your schedule too much, I’d like to be at home today when Bailey gets out of school and stay with her until after we’ve had supper.”

  “That’ll work. I doubt we’ll see too many births during the day, but I’d like to check the cattle before you take off. We need to ear-tag last night’s calves.”

  “Okay.”

  Both she and Bran were dragging as they split bales of hay. When ear-tagging the new calves, Harper distracted the mamas while Bran attached the tag to the baby. With some of the mamas she could walk right up to the calf and they wouldn’t fuss. But others, if she got too close, they’d paw the ground like a bull and charge. So far Bran had snuck in without getting knocked around. She felt safer being on an ATV, figuring she could outrun the protective cows on a machine faster than she could on foot.

  They didn’t finish until noon. Harper had to leave the driver’s side window open and allow frigid air to blow on her on the way home to keep from falling asleep.

  As she stumbled into the house, she realized that for the past three days her life had been a blur. Work, shower, sleep. Work, shower, sleep. She shed her clothes at the front door and made a beeline for the bathroom.

  She couldn’t muster enthusiasm to put on anything except her robe, which reminded her that all her casual clothes were filthy. She filled the washing machine and flopped on the couch, planning to rest her eyes until the load finished.

  The front door slamming brought Harper straight up off the couch. She blinked bleary eyes at her sister. Her angry sister.

  “Fuck. I hate school. I can’t wait to be outta there. I’m gonna flip off every goddamn teacher right after I get my diploma and burn my goddamn uniforms.” Bailey’s backpack hit the floor with a thud. She threw off her coat, kicked off her snow boots, and stomped to the bedroom—a feat in stocking feet—and slammed the door.

  This should be a fun afternoon.

  Yawning, Harper tossed her clothes in the dryer before she took stock of the food situation. She had all the supplies to make lasagna—Bailey’s favorite—and it might coax her out of her room sooner rather than later. Bailey was pretty even-keeled, but when she got mad, she stayed mad. Through trial and error, Harper had learned not to force her sister to talk it out. Some days, being a parental figure to Bailey was overwhelming, especially when Harper still felt like a lost kid herself.

  Cooking soothed her because it was one of the few things in her life she could control. Mixing the right ingredients, adding her twist to traditional dishes that allowed them to be unique yet familiar.

  Harper had been cooking, or at least scrounging up meals, since the year she’d turned twelve and Liberty had left the family to join the army. Their mother had spiraled into a drunken rage, spending months in deep depression, forcing Harper to become the responsible one in the household. Since Mom tended to blow all her tips on booze, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, Harper had learned to keep cheap staples on hand so she and Bailey wouldn’t starve during the weeks when there wasn’t money for groceries. Over the years, Harper had gotten very good at budgeting food and money and trying to make whatever crappy rental they landed in feel like a real home.

  How many times had she imagined growing up a normal kid? Where home was a two-story Colonial house in the suburbs with a manicured lawn, a tire swing hung from an old oak tree in the backyard next to a playhouse, or better yet, a tree house. She’d dreamt of birthday parties with layer cake and homemade ice cream and beautifully wrapped presents. Surrounded by friends. She’d wished for a bike for herself and a baby doll for Bailey to appear under the tree on Christmas morning. She’d imagined hot summers selling lemonade on the sidewalk and swimming at the lake. Winters sledding and ice-skating and coming home to a steaming cup of hot chocolate with mini marshmallows.

  Around age thirteen she’d given up on hopes for a normal life, pushing girlish dreams aside. She just wanted to survive until she turned eighteen and could take off like Liberty had.

  Except that hadn’t happened. With the way things always went in Harper’s life, it probably never would. Some people were born lucky, or at least with a sprinkling of cosmic goodness, and things went their way once in a while. Not her. Not ever. She’d gotten so used to picking herself up, dusting herself off, she wouldn’t know what to do if the universe ever smiled on her.

  After sprinkling Mozzarella cheese on the top layer of sauce, Harper popped the lasagna in the oven. She washed the last of the veggies, which were looking a bit wilted, and chopped a salad, adding a sweet-and-sour dressing. She set the bread machine on the counter, dumping flour, oil, yeast, and a pinch of sugar and salt into the inner pan. Nothing in the world smelled as delicious as fresh-baked bread filling the house with a homey scent. Plus, it was a lot cheaper to bake her own.

  She poured a glass of water and scowled at the postage stamp- size backyard covered in a layer of dirty snow. The hedge separating their house from the one behind it offered minimal privacy. In the summertime Harper hesit
ated to hang their clothes on the line, suspecting that snoopy Mrs. Johnston was peering through her blinds to see if Harper or Bailey wore stripper clothes or indecent lingerie.

  And speaking of lingerie . . . could she just say a prayer to the underwear gods for being down to her last clean pair of underwear and bra yesterday? Forcing her to put on the nicest ones she owned? Thank God she hadn’t worn tattered granny panties and the underwire bra that actually had a wire poking out of it.

  But maybe Bran thought she wore matching lingerie all the time. That’d fit the beauty queen persona he attributed to her. So, how long had he checked her out before he’d covered her?

  Her cell phone buzzed in her robe pocket. “Hello?”

  “Little sister. How is the hellhole known as Muddy Gap, Wyoming?”

  “Cold and snowy. How is the hellhole known as Afghanistan?”

  “Cold. And shitty. So, speaking of shitty . . . Bailey tells me you’ve got a shitty new job—literally shoveling shit as a hired hand on some dude’s ranch. What’s up with that?”

  Harper filled a mug with water and put it in the microwave. “I lost one of my jobs and had to find another ASAP, oh, you know, so we can eat and pay rent and trivial stuff like that.”

  “But a ranch hand? Harper? You? Really?”

  “With the mess Mom left us in this time no one in town wants to hire me. Beggars can’t be choosers.”

  “So why is Bailey in a piss-poor mood and hiding in her room?”

  “Who knows?” She heard Liberty exhaling. Smoking like a chimney—another great habit their mother had passed on to her oldest daughter.

  “Tell me about this rancher dude. Is he old? Fat? Mean? Ugly?”

  “No. No. No. And definitely no.”

  “Spill. I’ve been without sex for . . . God, I don’t even remember what it’s like to have someone else’s fingers touching me or what an orgasm is like without a vibrator.”

  Liberty had always been blunt to the point of rudeness. Serving in the army, surrounded by mostly men, only increased her bluntness and crudeness.

  “You doing the nasty with him?” Liberty asked.

  Harper dunked a mint tea bag in the cup of hot water. “No, I’m not sleeping with him. I’m working for him. And ew, I didn’t need to know why you’re always asking us to send you extra batteries in the care packages.”

  Liberty laughed. And coughed. And went right on smoking. “So this rancher dude is young, built, nice, and good-looking?”

  “Yes. Yes. Yes. And definitely yes. Before you ask, yes, he’s straight.”

  “Damn. I was having a Brokeback moment.”

  “You are hard up.”

  “You have no idea.”

  “How’s that possible, Lib? You’re surrounded by men.”

  “The guys in my unit are off-limits. The guys in the other units stationed here are all married, or they look twelve years old and act like it. So I ain’t getting any until I finish this deployment.”

  Another thing Harper added to her list of worries: the danger to Liberty in her service to Uncle Sam. “When is this deployment over?”

  “Who the fuck knows? Rumor is they’re extending us for another three months, until the replacement units are up to speed. That’s all I can say or this call will mysteriously end.”

  “I understand. It’s just . . . I miss you.” God. She sounded whiny. “It’s probably stupid, but I was hoping you could be here for Bailey’s graduation.”

  “I would if I could, Harper. You know that.”

  “Yeah. I do.” In the background she heard a man shout, “Bert. Get your ass over here.”

  “Shit. I gotta go.”

  “Who’s Bert?”

  “That’s me. Being called Bert is a fuckload better than the sissy-ass name Liberty that Mom saddled me with. Jesus.”

  “At least you didn’t have kids calling you Harpy.”

  “True.”

  “Be safe.”

  “Always. Love you.”

  “Love you too.” The line went dead.

  Two hours later, not even the scent of tomato sauce, melted cheese, and oregano coaxed Bailey out of her room. Harper ate alone, and wrapped up a package of leftovers for Bran. She shoved the rest of the food in the fridge and headed out to the ranch, trying to shake the feelings of desolation and isolation.

  Ridiculous how happy Bran was to hear Harper pull up. He paced the short length of his living room, forcing himself to wait a solid minute before he opened the door.

  Then he felt like a total heel because her arms were loaded with stuff. “Hey. What’s all this?”

  Harper didn’t say anything until she’d set the plastic grocery bags on the table and started to unload containers. “I hope you don’t think I overstepped my bounds as your employee, but I had food left over from our supper, so I brought you some.”

  Bran tried not to stare at her with distrust, but he’d become wary of women who “had a little extra food.” They always had an ulterior motive, usually a night or two in his bed. But some made no bones about the fact they wouldn’t mind cooking for him every night. Nothing sent him into full retreat faster than a woman thinking she could set up housekeeping with him.

  Even a woman like Harper? Who is gorgeous, sweet, funny, and sexy as shit?

  Before he could figure out Harper’s motive, she began putting all the containers back in the bags.

  “Whoa. What are you doin’?”

  “Taking this back to the truck.”

  “Why?”

  She gazed at him coolly. “You don’t want it. I was stupid to assume you would. It won’t happen again.”

  Guilt kicked him in the ass. “Look, Harper, it’s nothin’ personal. I just get suspicious of women who want to feed me.”

  “No need to explain, boss.” She sidestepped him and reached the door before he stopped her.

  “Goddammit, wait just a second.”

  She blinked those hard, whiskey-colored eyes at him.

  “It’s a knee-jerk reaction, okay? I know you’re not one of the local women who see a bachelor and think the way to my heart is through my stomach and I’ll be so damn grateful for a homecooked meal that I’ll propose marriage. We both know that ain’t the case with you. You’re leavin’ at the beginning of the summer.”

  When her eyes didn’t soften at all, Bran swore. “Jesus, I’m doin’ this all wrong. You did something nice for me just to be nice, and I threw it back in your face. I’m sorry. Really goddamn sorry. Been a long damn time since anyone has done anything nice for me without wanting something in return. Obviously I don’t know how to act, and my grandma is probably spinning in her grave. So if it ain’t too late, I’m starved, the food smells great, and ... Thank you for thinking of me, Harper.”

  Her lips curled into a smile. “Apology accepted. But you lost any hope of me dishing it up for you.”

  “Hell, I’m such a boor I’ll probably just eat it right out of the damn container.”

  She handed over the plastic bag. “Have at.”

  Bran spread everything on the table and opened the fridge. “You want a beer?”

  “No.” She paused. “You know what? On second thought, yeah, I could use a beer.”

  “Me too.” He popped the tops on two bottles of Bud Light. “Ah. You want a glass or something?”

  She shook her head and took a long drink.

  He grabbed a fork and lifted the lids on the food. Lasagna. Some kind of veggie salad. And bread. Soft, fresh, homemade bread. He might’ve actually moaned a little. God knew, his mouth was watering like a busted sprinkler. He took a bite. Yep. It was as delicious as it smelled.

  Neither spoke as he shoveled in every morsel. He mopped up the last of the red sauce from the lasagna with the last hunk of bread. Then he pushed his chair back and sighed. “That was amazing. Can you cook like that every night?”

  “Yep.”

  “I’ve changed my mind. Will you marry me?”

  Harper laughed. “No. Way. I’m gett
ing out of Dodge, remember?” She swigged from the bottle and smirked. “And to think I didn’t even make dessert.”

  You could be my dessert.

  “You’d be putty in my hands if I whipped up a batch of my triple chocolate caramel brownies.”

  You’d be putty in my hands if you let me put my hands on you.

  “Bran?”

  He drained his beer. “Sorry. I got to thinking about something else. We’d better get a move on before I start to feel sleepy from that tasty supper. Thanks again.”

  “You’re welcome. I’m glad someone appreciated it.” She gathered up the containers and set the plastic bag by the front door.

  “Didn’t Bailey like it?”

  “I don’t know. She wouldn’t come out of her room.”

  They stood in the small entryway, donning the heavy winter clothes that were such a pain in the ass to take on and off multiple times during the day. He whistled. “Harsh.”

  She shrugged. “Her loss.”

 
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