Saddled and spurred, p.12
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.12

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “Nope. First runner-up. Three times.” She leaned back in her chair. “Tell me, Renner Jackson. What brings you to Muddy Gap?”

  “I lived with my grandparents here for a year growing up, so when their old place came up for sale again, I bought it. Plus another acreage that bordered it.”

  “Which place was that?”

  “The last people who owned it were the Kleins.”

  Harper shook her finger at him. “Now I know who you are. You’re the outsider who’s bringing ruin to Carbon County by buying up all available land when you’re not local. You’ll probably only let your big-city buddies hunt. Or worse, you’ll turn it into a hippie compound.”

  His gaze narrowed.

  The man had a serious death glare. Harper leaned forward. “I was kidding. But I’ll warn you, from one non-native Wyomingite to another? That’s the attitude you’ll run into around here.”

  “Tell me about it. And it doesn’t help when I’m keeping my evil plans close to the vest.”

  “So are you going to live around here?”

  “Eventually. Once I get the building under way and I—” Renner snapped his mouth shut. Then a slow, cocky grin spread across his handsome face. “You’re a wily one. Sweet and curious. I like that. Maybe I oughta offer you a job.”

  “Aw, lookit you. Already planning to steal the help away from the local businesses—that’ll go over well.”

  “Divide, conquer, and charm. That’s my motto.”

  “But it won’t work with me because I’m leaving this town for good in another two months.”

  Renner asked questions and seemed genuinely interested in listening to her answers. It was a nice change from being ignored, talked over, or conversing with the cattle. And Renner was a really nice guy. Smart. Funny. After she got his hands fixed up, he gave her a big tip.

  “This is too much,” she demurred, trying to hand the twentydollar bill back.

  “Consider it a bribe.”

  She frowned at him. “A bribe for what?”

  “When local folks ask if that outsider sissy-boy Renner Jackson really got his nails done? You’ve gotta lie and say you were pulling pieces of barbed wire out, or something equally manly.”

  Harper laughed. “Deal.”

  “You do have a great laugh, Harper. I’ll see you around.”

  Bernice lounged behind the front desk. “So. Doing a man’s hands. That’s kinda freaky, even when he’s that good-looking. Did you put . . . polish on his nails?”

  Harper shook her head. “Actually, I’m not supposed to say anything. But I was pulling metal shards out of his fingers.”

  Bernice blew out a cloud of smoke. “Really?”

  “Yes. He was welding and thought soaking them in hot water would bring the metal pieces closer to the surface. It worked.” She smiled brightly. “I got most of them, so he was happy.”

  “We’re all about happy customers here.”

  The door flew open.

  They both turned as Celia Lawson barreled in. “Surprise!”

  Harper threw her arms around her friend. “Celia! When did you sneak into town?”

  “Just now. I wanted to swing by before I got stuck at the house tonight with the brothers Grimm.”

  She held Celia at arm’s length and gave her a once-over. Celia was a cowgirl to the core. On her feet were her favorite pair of beatup Justin boots. Her dark blue jeans were tighter than the type she normally favored. The gold and silver circuit championship belt buckle, attached to a fuchsia rhinestone belt, matched the pinkand-purple-striped Western shirt. Her heavy black duster nearly grazed her ankles. She wore her cowgirl hat, a black Stetson that accentuated her fair coloring. Celia’s once-boyish figure had filled out in the past couple of years. She wasn’t curvy like Harper was, so they’d never swapped clothes in high school, another rite of passage that had passed them by.

  “You look great,” Harper said. “Life on the road agrees with you.”

  “Flattery will get you everywhere with me,” she cooed. “So, I’m spending the day tomorrow with Eli. He’s going over Mickey with a fine-tooth comb. But tomorrow night? You and me? We’re hittin’ the bar.”

  “Good. Harper needs to get out more,” Bernice said. “I’m all for you revvin’ her up, Celia.”

  “Corrupting the former Miss Sweet Grass is a job I take very seriously.” Celia rested an elbow on the counter. “Can I steal her away, Bernice?”

  “Yep. We’re all done.” Bernice captured Celia’s swinging braid, which hung like a thick golden rope and brushed Celia’s butt. “Girl, I know I’ve said it a hundred times, but you’ve got such gorgeous hair.”

  Celia lifted the braid and threw it back over her shoulder. “One of these days I’ll surprise you and we’ll cut it all off so I can donate it to Locks of Love.”

  Harper snagged her coat off the rack and grabbed her purse from beneath the counter. “See you next week, Bernice.”

  With the size of Celia’s F-350 truck and her horse trailer, she’d practically parked up the entire block. Harper hoisted herself in the passenger side and had a hard time finding a place to sit.

  Celia scooped up an armload of stuff—CDs, a pillow, empty food wrappers, a curling iron, and a pushup bra—and tossed it in the back of the club cab. “Sorry. I’m used to spreading out since I travel alone.”

  “Does that bug you?”

  “Some days. I’ve picked up riders here and there. For a month at the end of last year I had a saddle bronc rider tagging along with me.”

  “Was he cute?”

  She smirked, glancing in her side mirror before she pulled out. “Very. He had the nicest ass I’ve ever seen. Tight. Muscular.”

  “You never mentioned him.”

  “I’ve learned to live the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls creed—if you don’t talk about what happens on the road, then it didn’t happen.”

  Harper smiled. “That fits you.”

  Celia parked in front of the rental. “Short ride.”

  “That’s why I walk.”

  “Is that Bran’s ranch truck?”

  “Yeah. He insisted I drive it since it’s four-wheel drive. It’s been handy to have two vehicles.”

  “How are things going with Bran?”

  He kissed me today and blew my mind. “Good. It’s slowed down. I’m not out there in the dead of night, thank God.”

  “There’s nothin’ else goin’ on ... ?”

  “Besides our business relationship? No. I can’t thank you enough for getting the ball rolling. Although, Bran was surprised to see me. Why didn’t you tell him I was interested in the job before I showed up?”

  Celia squinted at her. “Because he would’ve said no. I didn’t give him a chance, and see how well it’s worked out? For both of you.” She smiled cockily. “I’ll call you tomorrow, but let’s plan on meeting at Buckeye Joe’s around seven.”

  Harper slid out of the cab and stopped in front of the empty, dark house. Bernice was right. She did need to get out and have a life.

  Abe Lawson had whipped up a batch of his famous Wyoming jambalaya and invited their pals to the Lawson place. In addition to his girlfriend, Nancy, Hank and Lainie, Max Godfrey and his date, Nikki—who looked all of fourteen—Abe had included Eli Whirling Cloud, Kyle Gilchrist, and Ike Palmer in the bachelor contingent.

  Just as they sat down to eat, Celia showed up, surprising her family. Evidently she hadn’t let anyone know she’d planned on coming home.

  Bran hugged her, noticing her stiff posture and her “don’t fuck with me” expression—which was mainly aimed at her family. After Nancy cleared the plates and brought out more beer, talk turned to rodeo, as it so often did when Kyle was around.

  “You’ve really gone up in the standings since the ninety-onepoint ride in Tulsa,” Max said to Kyle.

  Kyle shrugged and sipped his brew. “Thanks. But this early in the season only a few points separate the top twenty riders.”

  “But if you can get an early lead and
stay on top of it, you’re way better off than the person sitting fiftieth,” Celia pointed out.

  “Where are you in the standings right now?” Kyle asked Celia coolly.

  “As of last weekend she’s ninth in this circuit and twenty-second overall,” Lainie said.

  Bran saw Celia send her sister-in-law a soft smile before she returned to picking the label off her beer bottle.

  “Do you guys ever run into each other on the road?” Max asked.

  Kyle and Celia didn’t even look at each other.

  Lainie jumped in. “When I first started in the CRA, I wondered how they decided which geographic areas needed their own circuits and how some circuits have, like, fifteen states. Despite that, I seemed to always run into the same people.”

  “I’d say who you see is about money, since that and points are what everything boils down to.” Kyle shrugged. “But I’m probably wrong.”

  “Like that’d be a first,” Celia grumbled.

  “You know, come to think of it, I did see Celia a few weeks back,” Kyle offered.

  “Where?” she demanded.

  “Pueblo. But I doubt you saw me, since you were otherwise . . . occupied.”

  “What were you doin’, Celia?” Abe asked.

  She smiled at Kyle—all teeth. “Just blowing off some steam.”

  Kyle choked on his beer.

  What the hell? Bran looked at Eli, who shrugged. Everyone waited for the fireworks to ignite. Kyle had teased Celia mercilessly from the time they were kids, and it’d only gotten worse in the last five years.

  “Play nice, you two,” Abe warned, “or take it outside.”

  “Which is where you might be sleeping, since we had no idea you were coming home,” Nancy joked lamely. “I’m afraid your old room is piled with stuff for the rescue mission in Rawlins. I’m sure your bed is under the mess someplace—it’ll take some doing to clean up, but I’ll help.”

  “Not necessary. I’ll sleep in my horse trailer.”

  Hank got in Celia’s face, forcing her to look at him. “You aren’t sleepin’ in the goddamn horse trailer. You’ll freeze to death. You can sleep on the couch.”

  She wrinkled her nose. “I’ll stay with Eli, since I’ll be over there all day tomorrow anyway.”

  Eli shook his head. “Sorry. No room. Kyle is crashing at my place.”

  “Fucking awesome.” Celia drained her beer and stood. “Supper was great, Abe. Thanks. See you guys later.”

  “Where are you goin’?” Hank demanded.

  “Harper’s.” Her duster flapped and she was out the door before anyone could say a word.

  Bran knew Celia wasn’t going to Harper’s. Stubborn girl would sleep in her horse trailer just to spite her brothers.

  Girl? Celia’s the same age as Harper, and you’d never call Harper a girl.

  True. Harper was all woman.

  “If you’ll excuse me.” Nancy stormed off and Abe followed.

  Hank and Lainie exchanged a look. No doubt they were counting down the days until they had their own place and could steer clear of the drama.

  Kyle passed out another round. “Okay, Hank, give it to me straight. Did Renner Jackson really buy the three hundred acres of shit land bordering the Kleins’ old property on the north?”

  “Yep. It’s a done deal.”

  “When did this go down?”

  “Before Christmas.”

  “Fuck.” Kyle drained the beer and reached for the bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the buffet. “Who’s in the mood for a throwdown with Jack tonight?”

  “Count me in.” Lainie opened the china hutch and grabbed eight shot glasses.

  Eli and Nikki passed. Kyle poured the whiskey and lifted his shot glass. “To never getting what you want, no matter how goddamn hard you try.”

  Lainie put her hand on Kyle’s arm. “That, my friend, is a shitty toast, and I’m not drinking to it. How about this one instead: to friends who stick by you no matter how goddamn hard you try to push them away.”

  Kyle laughed and smooched Lainie on the forehead. “Such a little optimist. Fine. Let’s drink to the optimistic bullshit Lainie said.”

  Glasses clinked. Bran knocked his whiskey back, shuddering at the taste, chasing the burn with a swallow of beer. Before they veered onto another topic, he focused on Kyle. “Why’re you so pissed about Renner Jackson buying that land?”

  “Because I wanted it.” Kyle poured and consumed another shot. “But like everything in my life, I’m a day late and a million dollars short.”

  “Kyle. You don’t want that land, trust me. It’s bad luck land.”

  “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Kyle snapped.

  Hank relayed the bad luck stories that’d befallen the landowners. Including the Lawsons’ parents, who’d died of carbon monoxide poisoning a few years after purchasing the tract of land. “I wasn’t surprised Renner bought it, bein’s his grandparents lived there, but I don’t get why in the hell he considers himself lucky to have it.”

  “And how do you know so much about him, anyway?”

  “He’s been around off and on for the last year or so. To be honest, I think he’s a great guy and he’ll be an asset as a neighbor.”

  “I agree. Although I would’ve preferred you as our neighbor,” Lainie said.

  Kyle rolled his eyes. “What’s he gonna do with it? Ain’t raising cattle. It’s shit land for growing grass.”

  “He’s a stock contractor,” Ike said. “Maybe he’ll have pens. Or use it as a feedlot.”

  “Do you know him?” Kyle asked.

  “I’ve dealt with him. Helluva head for business. And like Hank said, he appears to be a nice guy.” Ike’s eyes narrowed. “Have you tangled with his stock?”

  “Not recently that I can recall. I’m sure Renner is a nice guy. It just sucks. By the time I have the money to buy land around here, there ain’t gonna be land to buy. I might check into land prices in South Dakota.”

  Silence.

  “Is that Breck Christianson’s idea?” Hank asked.

  Kyle nodded. “He’s been suggesting it for the last year. I’ve been too ... set on livin’ in Wyoming to take him seriously. Maybe it’s time I did.” He poured another shot. “So, Bran. What’s this rumor that Harper Masterson is your hired hand?”

  “Not a rumor. She’s filling in until Les is back on his feet.”

  “I’ll bet you’re filling her too.” Kyle winked. “Well done, my friend. She’s hot as fire.”

  “You’re a fuckin’ pervert. Harper works for me. That’s it.”

  “Seriously? You ain’t tapping that?” Ike said with complete skepticism.

  “Nope. And for havin’ little ranch experience, she’s turned out to be a damn good worker.”

  Nikki fluttered her fingers. “Harper is my manicurist. I’ll be sad when she moves.”

  Hank broke out the cards. “Who’s feelin’ lucky tonight?”

  For the next hour they played low-stakes blackjack and poker. Bran missed hanging out with his friends, trash talking, losing his ass to Ike the cardsharp. He hated to think their group would scatter even more if Kyle moved to South Dakota permanently.

  Abe came around the corner and leaned against the doorjamb. “Hey, can you guys keep it down? Nancy has a headache.”

  “So send her home,” Hank suggested.

  “It’s eleven o’clock and time for the party to be over anyway,” Abe said.

  “We’re in the middle of a poker game, Abe.”

  “I don’t care. Wrap it up.”

  “Come on, man,” Max said. “Why you actin’ so old and grumpy? Sit down and play a few hands. Relax. Have a beer.”

  Bran caught Eli’s eye and knew they were on the same page. This situation could get real ugly, real fast. Abe and Hank and Lainie needed to work this out without an audience, regardless if it happened tonight.

  Eli threw his cards in the center of the table. “Actually, I’m out. I’m heading home anyway. Gotta be up early.”
He lightly punched Kyle in the shoulder. “Come on, kola, you’re with me.”

  “Yeah, yeah.” Kyle swayed to his feet.

  “I’ll be taking off too,” Bran said.

 
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