Saddled and spurred, p.11
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.11

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  Ask her if she and her sister had a fight.

  No. Bran promised himself he’d keep it friendly with Harper. Not flirty, just friendly. Treat her like he’d treat Les ... if Les had great big beautiful tits, the face of an angel, and an ass he’d like to take a bite out of.

  Great. They were only ten days into this hired-hand business. He’d sworn last night he would cool his libido. How was he supposed to keep it businesslike?

  Treat her like an employee.

  Bran pulled his gloves on. “When we get back, bring me your time sheet and I’ll get it ready to take to the accountant.”

  Harper never glanced up from zipping her coveralls. “My first paycheck or my final paycheck?”

  “First. You’ve done a good job so far.”

  “Thanks, boss.” She grabbed the bag with the empty food containers. “I’ll take this out to the truck and find my time sheet and give it to you now. That way I won’t have to come inside when we get back.”

  “But—” he said to the door slamming in his face.

  Even when Bran swore to himself that he’d done the right thing, reminding Harper of their employer/employee relationship, her clipped reaction stung a bit.

  And he suspected it’d get a whole lot colder in the weeks to come.

  Chapter Seven

  Three weeks later . . .

  The woman was driving him fucking nuts.

  Keeping their interaction businesslike hadn’t cooled his lust—no, just the opposite. It had increased that lust exponentially.

  Harper had morphed into the chilly blonde with an icy smile. She wasn’t rude, but she didn’t speak beyond answering his specific questions or asking questions. She showed up on time. She knocked on the door to let Bran know she was there, but she didn’t help herself to a cup of coffee. Nor did she come inside to get warmed up when they’d been working in the dead of night in the frigid cold. She climbed in the ranch truck and returned to town.

  Goddamn, Bran knew it made him a hypocrite for wanting things to revert to the way they used to be—their sexy banter, the sweetness and thoughtfulness she showed him—because he was the freakin’ idiot who’d initiated the reversion to a purely business relationship.

  And it amazed him how quickly Harper had caught on to everything in the daily, never-ending grind that constituted ranch work. She worked as hard as he did and rarely questioned his decisions—something Les hadn’t managed to do over the years.

  With only about twenty calves left to drop, Harper hadn’t been returning at night. She showed up at o’dark thirty, worked until three o’clock, when her sister returned from school, and then headed to her shift at Get Nailed.

  Instead of experiencing the usual wave of happiness that filled him at the end of calving season, Bran had spent the last two days in a foul mood. Really foul. He hadn’t snapped at Harper. Hell, he’d barely spoken to her. But he’d been watching her. Man, had he ever been watching her, consumed with jealousy.

  Seemed Miss Harper had transferred the care and concern she’d briefly lavished on him to the assorted critters around the ranch. Including a hutch of bunnies that’d taken up residence under his front deck. She left scraps of lettuce and vegetable peelings scattered outside the rabbit hole, trying to coax them out so she could pet them, for chrissake.

  So in his wisdom, or machismo, or whatever stick he’d had up his ass that day, he’d curtly told her to stop feeding them, tossing off the comment that the fuzzy targets were as good as dead anyway when he pulled out his twenty-gauge shotgun.

  That was the only time in the past twenty-one days that Bran had caught a glimpse of the old, sassy Harper. She’d gotten in his face and told him if she wanted to feed the mama rabbit and her bunch of babies, she damn well would. And he could deal with it or fire her.

  Yes, the clean-mouthed beauty queen who wouldn’t say shit if her life depended on it had sworn at him that day.

  Fucking pathetic how much it’d turned him on.

  So the wee wittle wabbits had become a point of contention between them. Harper continued to feed them; he continued to bitch about it.

  Not only had the pied piper of Muddy Gap befriended bunnies, she’d made amends with the goats—by sneaking them treats. Lots of treats. Bran hadn’t been happy to discover that she paid for those carrots and apples out of her own pocket. But when he’d attempted to put an end to the gourmet goat grub, once again the woman flat-out ignored him and followed her own agenda. It’d gotten to the point that the goats didn’t give a shit if he ambled into view with an entire bucket of premium oats. They only had eyes for Harper.

  A feeling he was beginning to understand way too well.

  But despite their prickly relationship, Harper busted ass on the ranch from the moment she arrived until the moment he dismissed her. She’d cleaned out the biggest stall in the barn without complaint when Bran had brought his favorite pregnant mare in to foal. Harper had stuck around to watch the birth and cried when the colt had taken its first wobbly steps. That birth created a bond between Harper and the little guy, plus she’d paid the proud mama proper attention, so the mare and her baby were smitten with her.

  Another feeling Bran understood only too well.

  So she hadn’t seemed happy when she’d shown up at the ranch today and discovered Bran had turned the pair out. But she hadn’t questioned him, or confronted him, she’d just gone back to work. Bottle-feeding the calves. Indulging the goats. Baiting the bunnies. Goading him by ignoring him.

  Bran knew a fight was imminent.

  They’d gone about daily chores as usual. She cut the strings on the bales of hay after he’d scooped them up with the tractor. She dutifully jotted down notes when he spied sections of fence that needed fixing. She opened and closed gates, while humming that annoying “9 to 5” song.

  The instant they pulled into the yard, she bailed out of the truck as if she couldn’t stand to be in the cab with him another second.

  Bran stormed after her into the barn and snapped, “What do you think you’re doin’?”

  She whirled around. “My job.”

  “Huh-uh. You jumped outta the truck before I had the chance to tell you what job I wanted you to do next.”

  “So sorry, boss, that I jumped the gun and took some initiative. But I’ll remind you I need to finish up what I didn’t get done after I got here this morning because you had to chew me out first thing for feeding the bunnies.”

  “I told you to stop feedin’ them, Harper.”

  “I don’t get why it’s such a big deal.”

  He loomed over her, crowding her against the outer stall. “Ever heard the phrase ‘reproducing like rabbits’? That’s what happens when they have an unlimited food supply. You feed them, and suddenly I’ve got a bumper crop of bunnies, which I sure as hell don’t want to deal with after you’re gone.”

  “Oh, yeah? Well, I’m surprised you haven’t scared them off, with the way you’ve been stomping around for the last couple of days, grumpy as an old bear.”

  “It’s your fault. If you hadn’t—”

  Harper drilled him in the chest with her index finger. “No, sir. You are not pinning your crap attitude on me, Bran Turner. I’ve been doing everything I’m supposed to do and then some. So I don’t know what else you want from me.”

  In a split second, Bran made his decision. He said, “I’ll show you what I want.” Then he lowered his mouth and kissed her.

  It wasn’t a hard kiss; though God knew he could’ve inhaled her lush lips and sweet mouth from the get-go. He forced himself to take it slow, giving her every chance to push him away.

  Harper didn’t even try.

  But neither did she move. She just let him brush his mouth across hers, over and over. Tasting her top lip, and bottom lip. Kissing the corners of her mouth, coaxing her to kiss him back. To open her mouth and invite him inside. When Bran licked the seam of her lips, her breath caught on a soft gasp.

  He swallowed that gasp, taking her invitation
for an openmouthed kiss. His tongue sought hers, teasing and stroking, cranking the intensity until they were sharing the same breath. Even as they changed the angle of their heads, attempting to swallow each other whole, their lips were only apart for a fraction of a second as undeniable hunger consumed them both.

  When Harper’s arms slid up his chest to circle his neck, he growled a warning, pushing her hands against the wooden slats above her head. Letting her know that he was in charge.

  She moaned, arching her back, forcing their bodies to touch. Despite the fact that they were dressed in thick winter clothes, that movement affected him as strongly as if they were skin to skin.

  Bran kissed her harder, bumping his hips into hers. Wanting her beneath him in his bed. Wanting her bent over the edge of the couch as he took her from behind. Wanting her straddling him as they rocked in the easy chair. Wanting her on her knees with his hands gripping her hair as his cock plunged in and out of her pliant mouth.

  Would you be paying her for these services? Since she works for you?

  He froze immediately and pushed back from her, staring at her kiss-swollen lips. Lust, fear, need, anticipation, and regret swam in his head, leaving him so confused he wasn’t sure which emotion was the right one in this situation.

  If he felt that way, what was Harper thinking?

  At this point, he was too much of a chickenshit to stick around and find out.

  His voice was barely a whisper when he said, “Fuck. I . . . we can’t . . . I shouldn’t do this.” He spun on his boot heel and walked off without looking back.

  Put that amazing kiss out of your mind.

  Confused and hurt, Harper unloaded the last of the stuff from the pickup and shut the barn door.

  On the way home she cranked up the country music and sang along with the radio, tunes about lying, cheating, and drinking. She showered and changed into her favorite outfit for her shift at Get Nailed, but even that didn’t improve her mood.

  Bailey came home and chattered away, appearing not to notice Harper’s distraction. As the middle sister, Harper had always been incredibly attuned to her family’s moods. Might be petty, but it sucked that Bailey didn’t care about her frame of mind. Chewing her sister out for being a teen wouldn’t be fair, so Harper left for the shop early.

  Friday afternoons were busy with a younger female crowd looking to get prettied up for a wild weekend. Talk turned to bar hopping, one-night stands, and normal partying stuff that people her age did. Harper didn’t begrudge anyone fun, but even if she hadn’t been responsible for raising Bailey, it wasn’t her style to go out every weekend, trying to get drunk and laid. She’d witnessed the aftermath of that attitude and lifestyle with her mother, and she had no desire to repeat it.

  “That purply pink would look kick-ass with what I’m wearing this weekend.”

  Roused out of her melancholy, Harper plucked the color from the row of pinks and held it out to her former classmate, Tiffany DeMeter. “This one?”

  “Perfect.”

  As she brushed the polish on, she sensed Tiffany staring and braced herself. “What?”

  “Why don’t you come out with us tonight? We’re whooping it up at Cactus Jack’s. It’ll be a blast. We can crash at Lita’s place so we don’t have to drive back from Rawlins.”

  “Thanks for the offer, Tiff, but I have to work bright and early tomorrow morning. So make me jealous and tell me what you’re wearing that’ll wow all the cowboys.”

  The instant Tiffany had the chance to talk about herself, she ran with it. Harper barely got two words in edgewise, which was just the way she liked it.

  “Well, hello, handsome,” Tiffany said with a throaty purr.

  Harper’s back was to the front door, away from the temptation of looking up whenever a new customer strolled in. This time, however, she did turn around. Tiffany had hit the nail right on the head—the long, lean cowboy was striking, and that was saying something. Good-looking cowboys were a dime a dozen in this neck of the woods.

  This guy doesn’t have anything on Bran Turner in the looks department.

  She ground her teeth. She’d done such a great job of putting the man out of her mind. Facing Tiffany again, she switched her hands. “Do you know him?”

  “No, but I’d like to.”

  “Maybe you should invite him to Cactus Jack’s tonight.”

  “That’s a damn good idea. Ooh, and look. Bernice is cutting his hair, so he won’t be able to get away when I talk to him.”

  The thought of the poor man being unaware that he’d become Tiffany’s captive audience caused Harper to grin.

  With no other customers scheduled, Harper cleaned up her station. For the first time in weeks she didn’t have to hustle to race to her other job.

  “Excuse me.”

  Harper whirled around. The object of Tiffany’s affection stood on the other side of her table. “Yes?”

  “Do you have time for another manicure?”

  “Sure.” Harper expected he’d bring in his wife or a girlfriend, or even his mother. Never in a million years had she expected him to sit down. Her mouth dropped open. “A manicure for . . . you?”

  “You sound shocked.”

  “I am. I’ve never given a man a manicure before.”

  He grinned. The tiny gap in his front teeth added a certain roguish charm to his almost too perfect golden good looks. “Manicures ain’t all the rage for real Wyoming men?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Maybe I’ll start a trend.”

  Harper laughed.

  “Such a melodic laugh you have,” he murmured.

  Blushing, she scooted her chair up to the table. She gestured for him to set his hands on the towel. Instead, he thrust his right hand at her.

  “I’m Renner Jackson.”

  “Harper Masterson.”

  “Pretty name for a pretty lady.”

  Harper rolled her eyes. “Be careful with the compliments and pickup lines, Mr. Jackson. I might think you’re overcompensating for something.”

  He threw back his head and laughed. Harper knew everyone in the salon was watching.

  “Harper, darlin’, I assure you I’m all man. And I’ll admit to liking the ladies a little too much—that’s probably why I’ve got two ex-wives.” He finally set his hands on the towels.

  She winced. His fingers were a real mess. The skin was red, chapped, cracked, and peeling. Two of his fingernails were completely black. He’d be losing those two nails before long. The lines under his fingernails were pure black. Too black to merely be dirt.

  “Nasty, huh?” he said.

  “Are you a mechanic?”

  “As a hobby. My main business is a stock contractor, which means I’m outside a good chunk of the time. I wear gloves”—he turned his hands over, palms up—“but sometimes that makes it worse because the gloves get wet. Then my hands chap and freeze. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

  “So what have your other manicurists done? I’ll admit this is out of my league.” She met his gaze. Wow. Up close, Renner had startling eyes. A periwinkle blue.

  “Honesty. I appreciate that, Harper. Usually, they soak ’em, clean the nails, and push back the cuticles. I reckon the same treatment you give other clients.”

  “That’s all?”

  “Then they give me a wax dip, or rub heavy-duty cuticle oil into them and then put on a pair of cotton gloves and let the oil soak in.”

  “We don’t have wax, but I’ve got a really good oil that penetrates fast. It’ll help.”

  “Anything would be better than this. Tomorrow I gotta look like a businessman, not a grease monkey.”

  Harper found the deepest tub and he winced when she placed his hands in it.

  After he relaxed, Renner focused on Harper’s hands. “You don’t have fancy fake nails like other nail technicians I’ve seen.”

  Was her lack of acrylic nails with designs that could be changed on a whim considered bad advertising? Heck, she never painted her nails th
ese days. Keeping them trimmed was the extent of her nail maintenance routine.

  “Is it because you’re the only nail tech in town and you can’t do your own nails?” Renner prompted.

  “No. I swore when I finished my last official obligation as Miss Sweet Grass, I wouldn’t ever wear fake nails again.”

  “You were Miss Sweet Grass?”

  “And Miss Rawlins. And Miss Carbon County. And Miss Sweetheart of the Rodeo Stampede. And Miss Sage and Spurs. And Miss Wyoming Beef Council.”

  “And Miss Wyoming?” he asked.

 
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