Saddled and spurred, p.14
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.14

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  As soon as Lainie was gone, Celia upended her beer. “Dammit. I do not want to deal with this right now. I’d much rather stay here and get rip-roarin’ drunk with you.”

  “Much as I want that too, Cele, you’ve gotta get a handle on this situation. It’s been eating at you. I’m sorry I didn’t push harder to get you to open up to me.”

  “I’m stubborn that way. I ain’t gonna talk until I’m ready. So maybe it was a cosmic sign that Lainie just happened to be standing right there. She’s pushy as hell, which I actually really love about her.” Celia smiled and stood. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Try to have some fun tonight.”

  Famous last words. Harper nursed her drink while listening to the band. She turned down four invitations to dance—two from Ralph, owner of the C-Mart. Creepy jerk made her skin crawl. But she’d managed to stay polite. When the band segued into slow songs, she grabbed her coat and headed to the door.

  The covered entry way to the bar protected customers from the harsh Wyoming winter elements. She stopped in the empty hallway to slip her gloves on. The tap on her shoulder caught her off guard and she whirled around.

  Creepy, leering Ralph stood there—way too close for her liking. “Where you goin’? You promised me a dance.”

  Harper ignored him and kept walking until she was outside.

  But Ralph was relentless. He followed her. “Hey, I was talking to you.”

  She didn’t respond, figuring he’d give up.

  Wrong.

  Ralph grabbed her and pushed her face-first against the building. “I tried to be nice to you, but you’re a stuck-up bitch, ain’t ya? So you must think you’re better than me?”

  “No. I didn’t feel like dancing. I didn’t dance with anyone else either.” Why had she thrown that in? She owed this drunken jerk nothing.

  He pressed closer. “Maybe I want a private dance from you anyway.” His boozy breath burst across the side of her face like a sour dishrag. “Maybe I’ll settle for a kiss instead of a dance.”

  “Maybe I’ll give you a bloody lip if you don’t let me go right now.”

  “Ooh. Feisty thing. Makes it more challenging.”

  When Ralph bumped his hips into her backside, Harper lost it. She threw her head back, connecting with his nose.

  He made a sound somewhere between a shriek and a groan, immediately releasing her.

  She spun and kicked him in the crotch while he was still trying to figure out if his nose was broken.

  Ralph grunted and fell on the ground, curling into a ball.

  Harper was in a red rage. She kicked him in the back, aiming for a kidney. She would’ve kept kicking him if not for the two steel bands that immobilized her flailing arms and lifted her feet off the ground.

  “Let go of me right now or I swear to God I’ll—”

  “Harper, sweetheart, it’s okay. He ain’t gonna hurt you now.”

  She stopped fighting. “Bran? What’re you—”

  “I watched him follow you. I didn’t like the way he was lookin’ at you, so I came out to see what was goin’ on.”

  “What’s goin’ on?” Ralph spit out a mouthful of blood. “This fucking psycho bitch attacked me!”

  “You liar!” she shouted. “You pushed me up against the building—”

  “I’m calling the sheriff,” Ralph said. “Havin’ you arrested for assault.”

  No. She couldn’t go to jail. She would not end up like her mother. A sob caught in her throat and she thrashed against Bran, yelling, “You bastard,” at Ralph.

  But Bran didn’t release her. If anything, his hold on her tightened. His mouth moved closer to her ear. “Harper. Calm down and listen to me.”

  For some reason Bran’s voice soothed her and she stilled.

  “Let me handle this.”

  Ralph struggled to his feet. He patted his pockets as if searching for his cell phone.

  “I wouldn’t call the sheriff if I were you, Ralph.”

  “It’s a fuckin’ good thing you ain’t me, Turner, because I can’t wait to see her handcuffed as she’s getting her ass hauled off to jail where she belongs.”

  “Yeah? They’ll be arresting you too, dumb shit.”

  “For what?”

  “For attempted sexual assault.”

  “I’m the one bleeding,” Ralph practically whined. “It’d be her word against mine.”

  “And mine. I saw you grab her. I saw you throw her up against the building. I saw her defending herself against a man who attacked her,” Bran said tersely.

  “So? She’s a two-bit bar whore just like her mama. I’m a taxpaying business owner in this county. Who do you think they’re gonna believe?”

  Bran released her and stalked Ralph, who cringed on the ground. “I oughta bust your teeth out for sayin’ that, you worthless piece of shit. Now you listen up because I’ve had enough of your senseless blathering. You’re gonna get the fuck outta here and you ain’t calling the sheriff.”

  “Don’t threaten me.”

  “You really want people knowing that she kicked the crap outta you? How the fuck you think you’ll hold your head up in this town? Jesus. I’m embarrassed for you and I knew you had it comin’ to you. Imagine what other folks will think.”

  Ralph’s bleary eyes narrowed.

  “I ain’t bluffing.”

  “Fine. If I don’t call the sheriff, she keeps her stupid mouth shut too.”

  “Deal. But if you ever touch her again? You’ll deal with me, and we both know you ain’t got balls enough to cross me twice.”

  While Bran and Ralph exchanged dirty looks and more harsh, threat-laden words, the shame of how Ralph viewed her brought Harper’s every insecurity front and center. She backed away quietly and ran the two blocks to her house without stopping.

  Once she was inside, she threw the dead bolt and ditched her coat. Needing something to do with her shaking hands, she poured water in a mug and shoved it in the microwave. As she grabbed the tea, she heard banging on her front door.

  Startled, she dropped the spoon on the countertop.

  “Harper,” he yelled. “Let me in.” A pause. “It’s Bran.”

  Bran had followed her? Why?

  To see if you made it home safely.

  He had an inner core of a cowboy gentleman, even though he hadn’t shown it to her in recent weeks.

  She walked back through the living room, pausing beside the door but keeping the locks in place. “Thanks for checking on me, but I’m fine. Really.”

  “Open the goddamn door, Harper.”

  “Bran—”

  “Now.”

  Reluctantly, she flipped the lock and let him in. He threw off his coat and toed off his boots as if he planned to stay a while.

  “By all means. Make yourself comfy.” Harper spun on her heel, intending to return to the kitchen.

  Bran stopped her, turned her to face him, holding her upper arms. “Why in the hell did you run off like that?”

  “Wouldn’t you have?”

  “We ain’t talkin’ about me here, sweetheart.”

  “You sure felt entitled to speak for me when Ralph was already on the ground, didn’t you? Maybe I wanted him to call the sheriff. Maybe I’m sick and tired of his harassment.”

  “That’s not what . . .”

  His look of surprise fueled her frustration with him. “You know what, Bran? Just go. I cannot deal with you right now.”

  “Tough shit. I ain’t leaving until you talk to me.”

  Harper broke his hold on her. “I’m not on the clock at the Turner Ranch. I owe you nothing, including a conversation. So back off.” She sidestepped him, but he followed her to the kitchen anyway. She took the mug from the microwave and dunked the tea bag in it, not offering him a cup. Maybe he’d get the hint.

  She meandered back to the living room and curled up in the easy chair instead of the couch so Mr. Helpful couldn’t sit next to her. Wrapping her hands around the mug, she closed her eyes and willed this day to be over.
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  Cupboard doors opened in the kitchen. Footsteps came closer and stopped. When Harper heard the sound of glass clinking against the glass-topped coffee table she opened her eyes.

  Bran set two juice glasses and a half-empty bottle of Jameson whiskey between them. He poured the amber liquid in each glass, then held one out to her. “Trade ya.”

  Harper allowed the exchange—Bran would get his way no matter if she gave in now or ten minutes from now. And for some stupid reason, his high-handed behavior didn’t bother her.

  He lifted his glass. “To you knocking Ralph in the dirt where he belongs.”

  She raised her glass to his toast and tossed back the shot. A full-body shudder worked free as the alcohol seared her throat and hit her stomach.

  “Ah,” Bran said, after draining his whiskey. “You want another?”

  “I’m good.”

  “Yes, you certainly are.” Bran poured, drank, and studied her with a look akin to admiration. “Tell me ... where’d you learn to defend yourself like that?”

  “My sister Liberty. She’s had hand-to-hand combat training in the army and she’s drilled both Bailey and me on basic defense moves.”

  “Was tonight the first time you’d ever used it?”

  Harper shook her head.

  “Christ.” Bran consumed another shot. “It shouldn’t have happened. None of it. I should’ve . . .”

  “What could you’ve done to prevent it?”

  His gaze met hers and held. “If I hadn’t been such a chickenshit and had asked you to dance, you would’ve been sitting with me, not alone. I sure as hell wouldn’t have let you walk outside alone.”

  She permitted a small smile. “You’re so sure I would’ve danced with you?”

  A rare vulnerability flashed in his face. “I figured maybe I could guilt you into it, bein’s I’m your boss and all.”

  Silence.

  His gaze flitted around the living room. “This is a nice place.”

  Harper choked back a laugh. “Right. It’s a rental.”

  “You fixed it up nice. Looks a lot better in here than my trailer.” He pointed to the colorful display on the top of the bookshelf. “Are those antique perfume bottles?”

  “Yes.”

  “They look cool lined up like that.”

  “You aren’t here to praise my decorating skills, Bran.”

  “True.”

  “Why are you here?”

  “Because I needed to make sure you were okay.”

  “Thank you, but as you can see, I’m perfectly fine. You shouldn’t feel obligated to stay.”

  “Obligated.” Bran laughed, a little bitterly. “You have no fuckin’ clue what I feel.” He reached for the whiskey bottle, thought better of it, and dropped his hand.

  “So tell me what you feel.”

  “You sure you wanna do this, Harper?”

  “You brought it up.”

  Then those amazing silvery gray eyes locked on hers. “When I say this, understand that I ain’t speaking as your boss. I’m speaking as a man.”

  Gulp. “Okay.”

  “That kiss knocked me for a loop. Mostly because I’ve been fantasizing about kissing you since the day you showed up at my place.”

  Harper’s pulse spiked.

  “I probably ought not be telling you this because I’d never want you to compare me to that piece of shit Ralph.” Bran squinted at her. “He offered you a job at the C-Mart, didn’t he?”

  She nodded. “Last fall after the Tumbleweed Motel closed for the season. But there were . . . conditions.”

  “What kind of conditions?”

  “He said he’d give me the prime morning shift if I promised to be in his bed thirty minutes after my shift ended. I declined. He was honestly surprised I didn’t jump at the chance to jump him. And since I turned him down? He goes out of his way to say nasty things to me. Like tonight. Calling me stupid. A two-bit bar whore. Telling me I’m exactly like my mother. He makes me feel . . . dirty.”

  Bran’s hand tightened into a fist on his thigh. “Am I making you feel that way?”

  “No. God, no. I know if I said, ‘Bran, leave,’ you’d do it. Maybe not happily. But you’d respect my choice. Ralph makes me feel like he’s doing me a favor coming on to me. Like I’m somehow beneath him, but he’d love nothing better than to literally have me beneath him. It’s screwed up and I’m sorry you got dragged into it tonight.”

  Instantly Bran was out of his chair, looming over her. “The only thing I’m sorry about is that you had to deal with that slimy fucker at all and I didn’t get to beat him to a bloody pulp first.”

  Harper stared at him. Specifically at his mouth. God. Bran was just so . . . powerfully male. But even as close as he was and as angry as he was, he didn’t scare her.

  “The last time you looked at me like that I kissed you,” he warned, his voice a deep rasp.

  “I know.”

  “Dammit, Harper. Tell me to stop.”

  “I can’t.”

  He swore softly before he pressed his mouth to hers, gently at first, and then inhaled her in a raw, consuming kiss. He dragged her out of the chair so their bodies met—hardness to softness.

  She melted even as she burned. This time as they kissed, Bran didn’t restrict her hands, allowing her to touch him wherever she pleased. She traced the angles of his face, fanning her palms down the column of his throat. Over his wide shoulders and hard chest, then back up to wreathe her arms around his neck.

  His hands gripped her hips. When the kiss intensified, he squeezed her hipbones. When it slowed, his thumbs stroked the bared section of skin above her waistband. He changed the angle and the timbre of the kiss. Gentling it. Sweetening it. Making her want so much more than just kissing.

  Bran broke the seal of their mouths and nuzzled her cheek. “Sometimes I can’t think straight for wantin’ you. But neither of us is in the frame of mind to do anything about it tonight.”

  There was his gentlemanly side again.

  Pity.

  Harper wouldn’t have denied him anything. But the last thing she wanted to feel when they acted on this attraction was regret.

  “Do you want me to stay here tonight?” he murmured against her temple. “I could crash on the couch.”

  She laughed softly. “And just how long do you think that’ll last?”

  Bran nipped her earlobe. “It was worth a shot.”

  “Really, Bran. I’ll be fine. Ralph won’t come after me.”

  “You sure?”

  “Yep. He’s lazy. And the fun is gone for him now that you know he’s been harassing me.”

  Bran’s hands framed her face. He kissed her forehead. Her cheeks. Her chin. Her mouth. “Come over tomorrow.”

  A little dizzy from his tender ministrations, she blurted, “I thought I had tomorrow off.”

  “You do. This invite ain’t about work. There’s a lot between us that don’t have anything to do with you bein’ my ranch hand. And we need to talk about it, instead of ignoring it.” He kissed her with surety and seduction. Then he released her.

  Bran slipped on his boots, his coat. His gloves. His black cowboy hat. He gave her one last smoldering look that would keep her warm the whole night through. He said, “Lock the door after me,” and then he was gone.

  Chapter Nine

 
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