Saddled and spurred, p.18
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.18

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “Hello?” echoed to Bran at the back of the barn. “Is anyone here?”

  “In the last stall,” he shouted. He didn’t recognize the voice.

  A guy close to his age and his build meandered into view. Bran couldn’t tell the color of his hair beneath the custom-made beige felt cowboy hat covering his head. He wore standard rancher clothes: a tan duster, jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a modest silver belt buckle, and battered, shit-covered boots. The guy looked familiar, but Bran couldn’t place him. “Can I help ya?”

  “Probably. I’m not sure if you remember me.” Soon as the man was close enough, he took off a stained leather glove and thrust out his hand. “Renner Jackson.”

  Ah. The guy who’d bought the Kleins’ place and the land surrounding it. Since Hank and Abe had talked about him and seemed to think he was a decent sort, Bran relaxed. He smiled and said, “Bran Turner. Good to finally meet you, Renner.”

  “You too, Bran.”

  His visitor relaxed and hung over the wooden stall partition, allowing Bran a closer look at him. Renner’s dark blond hair and pale blue eyes brought back a fuzzy memory. “Hey, now I remember you. Mrs. Tata’s class, right? Hank reminded me you’d lived here for a year when we were kids.”

  Renner grinned. “Yep. Did he tell you I was the projectile vomit kid? What a thing to be known for, eh?”

  “Better that than the nickname we gave Lewis Vargas. Poor sucker is still stuck with it.”

  “What was it?”

  “Skid. And no, we didn’t give him that nickname because he was really great at sliding into bases.”

  A low chuckle. “I suppose that is worse.”

  “So, Renner, why are you stopping by my place?”

  “Well, technically, we’re neighbors. I’m hopin’ that still means something around here.”

  “Why wouldn’t it?”

  “Seems I started out on the wrong boot since I set foot in Muddy Gap. I’ve pulled a helluva lot of imaginary knives out of my back in the last couple of months,” Renner admitted.

  Bran pushed his hat up higher on his forehead with the tip of his gloved thumb. “We’re a skeptical lot. Especially since no one who’s ever bought that chunk of land has stayed here more than a few years. Don’t pay to get to know them—know what I mean?”

  “Yeah, I guess I can understand that.”

  “You livin’ here full-time now?”

  “Not yet. Still traveling between here and Kansas, bein’s I’m handling stock contracts for the CRA Midwest circuit. I don’t gotta hit all the rodeos anymore—luckily I’ve got a great crew to take care of most of it. But I believe in prevention instead of intervention. I wanna make sure nothin’ becomes a problem, so I keep my eye on things, which means hands-on work.”

  “I hear ya there.”

  “Since I don’t have enough shit to do in my life, I got it in my head to buy up my grandparents’ place when I saw it went back on the market. Plus I added some of the other surrounding land . . .” Renner spit a stream of tobacco juice on the ground. “Don’t know why in the hell I’m telling you all this. You probably already know it.”

  Bran shrugged. “Some. I’ll admit bein’ a little confused by the other parcels of land you bought up. It ain’t good for nothin’ in cattle country. You know that, right?”

  “True. I had my accountant do a cost analysis and give me a breakdown on how long it’d take for me to earn back the initial investment.” Renner offered a rueful smile. “Made me wonder if the twelfth of never was an actual legal time frame.”

  Bran smiled. Mostly because it sounded like something his accountant would say.

  “Anyway, no matter what advice she warned me off with, I went with my gut and bought it anyway.”

  “No offense, but that still don’t tell me what your plans are.”

  “No offense, but I ain’t sharin’ that info with anyone yet,” Renner shot back with a quick grin, “including the gloom-anddoom accountant. Or your buddy Hank, who’s nagged me every goddamn time I’ve seen him.”

  “Can you blame us for our curiosity? Rumor is you’re putting in some kind of big building.”

  A beat passed and Renner sighed. “There’s some truth to that one. I’ll tell you this much, there’s gonna be more than one building.”

  Interesting. Bran decided to drop the subject for now. “Can I offer you a beer?”

  “I never turn down a beer.”

  Bran ducked into the tack room, which held an ancient refrigerator they’d used for storing milk, vaccines, and beer. He took out two bottles of Bud Light and returned to the main part of the barn. He passed a bottle to Renner.

  “Thanks.” Renner looked up at the roof joists. “They just don’t build stuff like this anymore, do they?”

  “Nope. While I’ll admit I liked the price of the metal barn and the fact that it went up start to finish in two weeks, there ain’t anything like this structure left around these parts. Most’ve fallen into ruins.”

  “Why hasn’t this one?”

  “Solid foundation. I follow my granddad’s advice and have it thoroughly checked by a qualified carpenter every couple of years.” Bran pointed with his beer bottle to the far back corner. “We were startin’ to get some natural settling, which put extra pressure on the joists, so he shored it up.”

  “Whoever he was, he did a damn fine job.”

  “His name is Holt Andrews.”

  “Is he from around here?”

  “Yep. And if you’re looking to build, Holt’s the one you want. Especially if you’re wanting some of the old-school touches like this in your multiple buildings.”

  Renner ignored Bran’s multiple buildings remark. “If you’re serious, I’d sure appreciate his number. I’ve got a crew coming next week, but I’d like to get locals involved too.”

  Smart plan. Bran was dead certain this guy didn’t miss a trick.

  They wandered outside. The temperature gauge read thirtyone degrees, which was damn near balmy for this time of year. Renner seemed interested in all aspects of the operation, including the family history of the ranch, and Bran wasn’t shy to talk about what worked and what didn’t. Renner got a huge chuckle out of the fainting goats, and it brought Harper back into Bran’s mind, front and center. Right. Like he needed goats to remind him of Harper. Everything reminded him of her.

  Muddy Gap was a small town. Had Harper been subjected to Renner Jackson’s charms?

  Nah. She was either out here working for him, or filing and painting fingernails, or home with her sister.

  Still, Bran was damn glad he’d sent his beauty queen home early today. After he’d had his way with her. Twice. Once on the couch because the bed was too far away. And once on the living room floor because the bed was still too far away.

  After chatting about calving, Bran extended an offer for Renner to come over and help out during branding. Not only could he use the help, but with most of his other neighbors there lending a hand, maybe Renner would be more forthcoming about his plans for the property.

  “Anyone else you specifically remember from our school days?” he asked.

  Renner sipped his beer. “Besides you, Hank, and Abe? Well, you and Hank were always hanging out with an Indian kid. He had a biblical name?” He looked at Bran expectantly.

  “That’d be Eli Whirling Cloud. You won’t find another person who knows more about horses than Eli.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind.” He squinted across the horizon. “Also a scrawny kid who charmed his way out of detention at least once a week.”

  “That was Devin. Bastard still has that smooth-talkin’ way about him.” Bran didn’t share the info that the country crooner used his silver tongue to talk groupies and buckle bunnies into the back of his tour bus and out of their skimpy clothes.

  “Another kid had a side business selling candy on the playground to poor suckers who lived out of town.”

  “Ike Palmer. These days he’s a cattle broker.”

  Renner shook
his head. “Figures he’d be in the sales game. I do remember Ike palled around with a big kid. Quiet.”

  “Reese Davidson. He joined the army right outta high school. His folks still live on the other side of Rawlins. But none of us hear from him very often.”

  “He still in the army?”

  “Far as I know. Last I heard he was in Afghanistan.” Bran took a drink. “Do you remember Braxton Meckling? He was a real daredevil. He’d do damn near anything we dared him to.”

  “Vaguely. What’s he up to?”

  “Became a bronc rider, but got busted up when he was nineteen and almost died. He quit rodeo cold turkey. Went back to Vo-Tech and learned to weld. Spent some time traveling the world doing high-risk jobs on oil platforms and cell towers. Made a shit ton of cash in a short amount of time, enough that now he’s doin’ metal sculpting full-time.”

  “He’s an artist?”

  “Yeah. Normally I don’t like much of what’s called ‘art,’ but Braxton finds stuff in junkyards and turns it into Western sculptures. It’s actually really cool stuff and really popular.”

  Renner said, “Does he do commissions?”

  “No idea.”

  “I’d love to talk to him.”

  “I’ll give you his number.”

  “Thanks. One person from Muddy Gap I have crossed paths with a couple of times in the last month is Kyle Gilchrist. Hank mentioned he’s a good buddy of yours.”

  Bran wasn’t sure if wariness was what weighted Renner’s tone, so he kept it impersonal because Kyle was notorious for pissing people off. “Kyle didn’t mention tangling with your stock last time we spoke.”

  “Bastard is the only guy who’s ever ridden my bull, Satan’s Spawn, which was a contender for CRA Bull of the Year last year,” Renner complained good-naturedly.

  “Kyle’s done well for himself since switching from the Extreme Bull Showcase to the CRA. He’s here whenever he gets a break from the circuit.” Maybe by the time branding rolled around, Kyle would be over his snit about Renner’s buying up the land he’d been eyeballing.

  “I find it amazing that you’re still friends with the same guys you met in grade school. Seems no one forges those kind of lifelong connections anymore. Mostly because no one stays in one place for very long.”

  “I suppose we might’ve all gone our own ways—and some of us have. But it was the damnedest thing, all this ... tragedy hit a bunch of us at once. Hank and Abe’s folks died in a freak accident. My grandparents died of old age. Braxton’s folks split up and moved away. Eli’s dad went to jail. Ike’s mom got breast cancer and was dead within two months. The only ones left with both their parents alive are Devin and Reese. Kyle’s mom was always single, as was our buddy Fletch’s dad. After all that bad shit happened, it was like we became our own family—including our friends’ brothers and sisters. Folks in town called us ‘the orphans’ for a while. We still look out for each other. Probably out of habit.”

  “It sucks that you all went through that shit at an early age, but I envy you the friendships. Since my dad was in the air force, we constantly moved. That’s probably why I have such great memories of this place. Wyoming always seemed like home to me.” Renner finished his beer. “Didn’t mean to blather on and get sentimental.”

  “It’s okay. Come on up to the house and I’ll get you those numbers.”

  After they traded contact info, Renner left.

  Rather than sitting around and brood about missing Harper, Bran retreated to his trailer and tied flies until he couldn’t see straight.

  Chapter Thirteen

  They’d been lovers a couple of weeks.

  A couple of very incredible weeks that’d flowed from day to night and back to day. Every moment with Harper was filled with passion that threatened to rob him of sanity.

  This lust should’ve cooled.

  But it hadn’t. Not even fucking close.

  Today seemed particularly bad. Every time Bran thought he had a handle on the urge to bend her over the tailgate and fuck her senseless, she’d make a sexy noise or look at him from beneath those incredibly long eyelashes, blowing his good intentions.

  It’d gotten to the point he didn’t dare look at her, because if she licked her lips one more time he wouldn’t be responsible for his actions. In the last hour, his overpowering need for her had shattered his focus and he hadn’t heard a single word tumbling out of her mouth. He couldn’t see beyond his mental image of her wrapping those lush, wet, pink lips around the base of his aching cock and sucking him dry.

  And it was barely noon. The workday wasn’t over. Which meant hands off until the proverbial whistle blew.

  He backed the truck up to the big barn door and practically threw himself out. He blew into the barn, bypassing the stalls and the tack room until he hit the back section with its stockpile of miscellaneous machine parts. He had to do something to make himself look busy. A complicated, manly, mechanical something. He unzipped his Carhartt coat and tossed it to the ground. Since when had it gotten so goddamn hot in here?

  “Bran?” Her melodic voice echoed from the doorway.

  Screw it. Literally. He had coffee cans of screws to sort. A mindless activity with no purpose—but Harper wouldn’t know that. He dumped the screws on the wooden bench. For the first time ever, he thanked his grandfather for hoarding useless shit.

  When he got a whiff of her perfume, or whatever the hell that damnably appealing scented part of her was, he withheld a snarl. And his directive for her to go away or get on her knees.

  Either way would relieve him. But he certainly preferred one way over the other.

  “Why are you mad at me?” she asked.

  He glowered. “I’m not mad.”

  “Okay. Then what did I do wrong?”

  “Nothin’.”

  “Then why are you being—”

  “I’m not bein’ anything. Go home, Harper. We’re done.”

  “Since when? You told me we had a pile to do today and you’re sending me home?”

  “Yep.”

  “I don’t want to go home.”

  “Tough shit. You’re off the clock.”

  Yeah. Be an asshole to her. That’ll get her to leave.

  Harper shifted her stance. Her feet scuffled against the dirt floor. The sounds should’ve indicated she’d left. But Bran knew she was still there. Waiting. Why in the hell was he attuned to her every breath? He squeezed his eyes shut, gritted his teeth, and counted to twenty as he sorted screws.

  He was so busy counting and ignoring his goddamn erection that he didn’t feel her tugging on his sleeve until she was right in front of him.

  Sweet Jesus. She was fucking breathtaking. Those brandy-colored eyes set in an angelic face. Her blond hair looked like hell, though, and that only increased her appeal.

  Any continued resistance fled.

  Bran grabbed the lapels of her coat and hauled her to her toes for a ravenous kiss. A wet, hot, tongue-thrusting explosion of passion as he inhaled her. Losing his mind in her softness, her sweetness, her fire. He kept changing the slant of his mouth over hers, taking the kiss deeper, giving her every ounce of himself as he took every bit of her he could get.

  Harper slid her damp lips down and lightly sank her teeth into his chin. Bran peered at her with his heavy-lidded gaze. “What?”

  “Am I really off the clock, boss?”

  He hated it when she called him boss. She knew that. He growled, “I said you were, didn’t I?”

  “Good. Then I know you’re not paying me to do this.” Harper grabbed the coat he’d whipped onto the ground and fell to her knees on it. “Unbuckle your belt and drop your pants, Bran.”

  Didn’t have to ask him twice.

  He kept his eyes trained on her face as she watched his movements. Avidly. When she licked her full lips as he lowered the zipper, he couldn’t withhold a ripple of anticipation.

  Harper helped him tug his jeans and boxers down to his knees.

  “What—”
/>
  She smacked him on the thigh. Hard. “No talking.”

  Fuck. That little bit of bossiness and tiny spark of pain was a turn-on.

  She connected her gaze to his and placed her hands on his bared thighs, slowly sliding the leather gloves up. The closer her mouth got to his cock, the more it jerked for her attention. She released a throaty chuckle and let her hot breath drift over the cock head. She rubbed the side of her face on his shaft, and he hissed in a breath at the coolness of her cheek on the hottest, most swollen part of him. Her hands circled his hips and she licked straight up the bulging vein from the root to the tip.

  Bran’s mouth went desert dry. The woman intended to torture him.

 
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