Saddled and spurred, p.2
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.2

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  Her friend Celia Lawson seemed to have a sixth sense, knowing when Harper needed to talk. “Texas, huh? Isn’t that out of your circuit?”

  “Yep. I’m heading to Tanna Barker’s for a few days. Her vet is gonna look at Mickey’s leg before we hit the next event.”

  After sneaking around for a few years on the local rodeo circuit, Celia finally had her brothers’ blessing to chase her dream of becoming a world champion barrel racer. The new rodeo season commenced in January, and Celia was determined that this year she’d make it to the American Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. “It’s still giving him problems?”

  “Some. It hasn’t affected my performance yet, but I wanna make sure it’s nothin’ serious. And it’ll be a while before I get back up there so Eli can take a look at it.”

  “How long is a while?”

  “At least a month. Why? Do ya miss me?”

  “No.”

  Celia laughed. “Liar. So what’s up with you?”

  That’s when Harper completely broke down. Her words were an incoherent jumble as she sobbed. Through a bout of hiccups, she mumbled, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to unload.”

  “Now you’ve really got me worried because you never cry.”

  “It’s different this time, Cele. I’ve used up every bit of grant money I had left over. I wasn’t making much at the tanning salon, but some was better than none. And we both know why no one in town will hire me.”

  Celia was quiet on the other end of the line—a rarity for her.

  “So because our rent is so cheap here and we’re close to Bailey’s school, I’ll have to find a job in Rawlins. Probably in a bar or supper club so the nighttime hours won’t interfere with Bailey’s schedule.”

  Again Celia didn’t respond.

  Maybe she was put off by your babbling.

  “Celia? You still there?”

  “Yeah. Just thinkin’. Tossing a couple of things around.” Another pause. “You ain’t opposed to workin’ outside, are you?”

  Harper bit her lip to keep from bawling. Good-hearted Celia would call her brothers and line up work on their ranch. While that was above and beyond, Harper had enough problems holding her head up in this town. “Look, Celia—”

  “Can that tone, Harper. Jeez. I’m not gonna ask Abe and Hank to hire you, but there might be another option. So do you have a problem with ranch work?”

  Should she admit she had no idea what “ranch work” entailed? No. She’d hear Celia’s proposal first. “No problem with it. Why?”

  “Sit tight. I’ve got a call to make and then I’ll call you right back.”

  The line went dead, and Harper wondered what Celia was up to. It wasn’t like she had anything else to do but wait and find out.

  Bran Turner ignored his cell phone the first time it rang. And the second. At the third attempt, he just picked the fucking thing up and snarled, “What?”

  “Jesus, Bran. You always this grumpy first thing in the morning?”

  “I am when I just fell into bed two hours ago.”

  “Up late partyin’, were you?”

  “Fuck off. I was up late calving.”

  She laughed. “Oh, I see. That’s why you’re in such a pissy mood. You fell into bed all by your lonesome.”

  “Like that’s news. Is there a point to this call, little girl? Or you just bored and needin’ someone to harass?”

  “‘Little girl,’ ” Celia snorted. “For the record, I’m twenty-three. And the raunchy things I’ve seen against the pickups, in the horse trailers, and behind the chutes, traveling the circuit? Dude. They’d even make you blush.”

  “Doubtful.” Bran rolled flat on his back. His buddy Hank’s little sister, Celia, suffered from loneliness on the road to rodeo glory and phoned him from time to time just to shoot the shit. But this didn’t feel like one of those calls. “Is this your way of asking me for advice on how to spice up your sex life? Or do you want a personal demonstration?” He grinned. That oughta get the hellcat’s back up.

  “No. Like I’d ask you for advice, you fuckin’ pervert,” she retorted. “Hank’d castrate you if you laid a hand on me.”

  “True. It’d feel incestuous, bein’s I’ve known you since you were toddling around in diapers.”

  “Story of my life. I’m trying to make up for lost booty time, since all the hot, hunky cowboys I grew up around refuse to see me as a woman. But I’m changin’ that. Just you watch.”

  Bran frowned. Sounded like Celia had a specific cowboy in mind.

  Before he could demand names or remind her to be careful, she said, “Look, here’s the deal. I know you’re busting ass, doin’ everything yourself since Les’s accident.”

  “And?”

  “And I know from talking to Hank that no one’s applied for the job as your temporary hired hand.”

  A freak accident with an ornery bull had left Bran’s hired man, Les, with a busted hip and out of commission during the busiest part of the year in the cattle business. It sucked on a number of levels. Not only did he feel guilty about Les’s injury, but he couldn’t permanently replace the guy while he was healing up. Which meant whoever Bran hired would have the job only until Les was back on his feet.

  Muddy Gap wasn’t exactly a hotbed of job prospects—even when the job paid well. Word of mouth among his friends and other ranchers hadn’t yielded any applicants. Putting an ad in the Muddy Gap Gazette, which reached four other communities? That was pointless too. Not a single man had applied. Bran had resigned himself to doing everything alone and just dealing with the exhaustion.

  “Bran? Did you fall asleep?” Celia demanded.

  “No. Just trying to figure out what you’re up to.”

  “Why are you so suspicious when I’m just bein’ a good neighbor?”

  He snorted. “Because I know you, Celia. You lie.”

  “I do not! Name one time.”

  “How about all those times you kept the fact you were competitively barrel racing a secret from your brothers? For over three years?”

  “Which only means I’m good at keeping secrets from people I love for their own good,” she replied sweetly.

  “You are very manipulative, especially if you get something out of it.”

  “I am not! Name one time I’ve manipulated you.”

  “How about right now?”

  She sighed dramatically. “Fine. I totally understand that you don’t trust me. I’m a little hurt that you think I’d take advantage of you to somehow benefit myself.”

  “Oh, I’ve no doubt you’ll get over that sting of hurt,” he drawled. “I’ve no doubt whatever scheme you’re up to will have some added benefit for you. So why don’t you quit playing the part of the insulted maiden and tell me what’s what.”

  “You know . . . I don’t think I will tell you that I found you a hired hand, Mr. Smart-ass.”

  That made him sit up and take notice. “No joke?”

  “No joke. I swear. That’s why I called you.”

  “Where’d you find him?”

  “Don’t you worry about that. Drop your cock and grab your socks, Bran. Your new hired hand will be on your front stoop within the hour.” The phone went dead.

  Bran glared at his cell phone. “Son of a bitch. When I get my hands on that girl, I’ll . . .”

  You ain’t gonna do jack shit, hoss. You’re gonna get your ass in the shower, brew a pot of coffee, and wake the hell up.

  Still cursing, Bran threw back the covers and stumbled down the hallway to his bathroom.

  Harper pounced on the phone the second it rang. “Celia?”

  “Good news! I found you a job, right outside of Muddy Gap. It might have funky hours the first few weeks, but after that it should level off. It pays well.”

  “Okay,” she said slowly. “What’s the catch?”

  “No catch. You’ll be workin’ on a ranch.”

  “What will I be doing?”

  “Whatever Bran tells you to do.”

  Harper froze.
Her mouth went bone-dry. “Bran. As in Bran Turner?”

  “Yep. He’s a longtime family friend, his hired hand got injured, and he’s needing temporary help.”

  Skeptically, Harper asked, “How’d the guy get injured?”

  “I dunno. Between us, Les is not that bright. I think he tripped over his own two feet. Anyway, he’s out of commission until the end of May, which fits into your time frame perfectly.”

  “Too perfectly. You sure this isn’t some kind of romantic fix-up?”

  Celia laughed. “You and Bran? Please. You are so not his type. And vice versa. This is just me helping out two friends who need something from each other.”

  Harper stopped pacing. “Bran’s okay with this?” She couldn’t bring herself to ask the real question: Does Bran know I have zero experience with livestock and anything else related to ranching?

  “I just got off the phone with him. He’s expecting you in about forty-five minutes.” Pause. “You know where he lives?”

  “No clue.”

  “Three miles past the turnoff to my house, there’s a fish-shaped mailbox. Turn right at the cattle guard and go a quarter mile until you see his trailer. He keeps the road plowed. That’s how you’ll know you’re in the right place.”

  “Got it.” Harper closed her eyes. “Thanks, Celia. Even if this doesn’t work out, you have no idea how much it means that you’ve gone out of your way to try to help me. Everyone else . . .” Has made me pay for my mother’s mistakes.

  “That’s what friends do, dumb ass. And you’re welcome. Now get crackin’ out to Bran’s place. Let me know next week how it goes.”

  “Next week? Why can’t I call you later tonight?”

  “Because Tanna’s folks’ ranch is out in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. I don’t know when I’ll have cell service, so it’ll be best if I call you. Later. Good luck.”

  “What does luck . . .” And Harper was speaking to the dial tone.

  No matter. It’d take a solid thirty minutes to drive out to the Turner place, so she’d better get a move on. She changed into her “lucky” interview outfit—a pin-striped pencil miniskirt, a white silk blouse, a Western-cut bolero jacket embroidered with tiny gold guns, and her black patent stiletto boots, which came up just over her knees.

  The Dodge Neon didn’t warm up until ten minutes into the drive. January in Wyoming was always cold, but this year seemed colder than years past.

  She shivered. She’d never had a job working outdoors. She’d worked in food service, either as a waitress or as a cocktail waitress, and during her last semester of college she’d scored a part-time job in a Western retail store.

  Harper’s thoughts drifted to the summer before her senior year in high school, right after she moved to Wyoming from Montana. She’d befriended Celia Lawson and they’d clicked immediately, which was odd because Harper was a girly girl, Celia a self-professed tomboy. They spent most of their time at Harper’s cramped rental house in town rather than at the Lawson ranch because Harper’s mother didn’t care if they were out all night at the local “field” parties, whereas Celia’s brothers, who had been raising her after their parents had died, had been very strict.

  But once in a while they’d crash at Celia’s house. Harper loved that Celia’s older brother, Abe, got up and cooked a big breakfast. She loved time spent outdoors in the sun, staring at the big sky and the endless horizon. She loved the normalcy of their family. Of their life.

  Over the course of the summer, when Hank and Abe learned that Harper had never been fishing, they organized a fishing party with all their buddies at the closest lake. It’d been an ideal day. Frolicking in the sun. Splashing in the water. Floating on inner tubes. Surrounded by hot, shirtless cowboys. Good tunes on the radio.

  One by one, all the guys—Hank, Abe, Kyle, Eli, Devin, Ike, and Max—tried to show her how to cast a line. Harper was hopeless, constantly snagging the hook in the tree above her, or the grass behind her, or, once, in Devin’s skin. They ribbed her endlessly about how a Montana girl didn’t know how to fly-fish.

  Before the journey to the lake, Harper had braced herself for lewd comments and sexual innuendos, because in her past experience, that was what guys did when faced with a woman wearing a bikini. But these men’s actions never veered from gentlemanly conduct, although she’d been aware of the appreciative glances sent her way from time to time. Any teasing had been done in good humor, until Kyle suggested that Bran, the fishing “expert,” take a crack at showing her how to fish.

  Harper still remembered Bran’s leisurely perusal as she’d stood before him. Those dark eyes were shadowed beneath his cowboy hat as his gaze started at her toenails. It inched up her bare legs, taking in every curve of her thighs and hips. Flickering across her belly and the long line of her torso, resting briefly on her ample chest, stopping at her mouth. Bran never looked into her eyes. He scowled and chugged half his beer and said, “She surely don’t need to know how to fish. That body of hers is already quite the hook.”

  The guys had pelted Bran with empty beer cans for the comment, calling him an asshole, knocking his hat off his head. Celia even slapped his sunburn. But he hadn’t apologized.

  Yet Harper knew he’d watched her closely the rest of the night. While they’d roasted marshmallows and made s’mores. While she sprawled on a blanket next to Celia, laughing and studying the stars. While Devin McClain sang cowboy tunes by the bonfire. While Hank and Kyle talked about life in the rodeo arena. While Abe and Max yammered about local politics. But Bran never said a word.

  So maybe Celia’s comment about her not being Bran’s type was dead-on. Harper was fully aware that she embodied society’s idea of a dumb blonde. Fluffy hair, big chest, curves from her lips to her calves—plus she would never turn the academic world on its ear with her intellect. From the time she was ten years old, her mother called her “the pretty one.” Competing in local beauty contests reinforced the stereotype of her being attractive packaging and no substance, even when the only reason she entered the pageants was for the prize money.

  “Former beauty queen” on a résumé only got her first in line for a job at a T & A sports bar. The lower the cut of her bra, the higher her tips. Truthfully, Harper didn’t know how long she would’ve lasted at that gig. She’d hated dressing in the skimpy uniform the first night. By the end of her two-month mark of jiggling her butt and her boobs for cash, her mother had taken off, forcing Harper to quit both jobs—and community college—to return to Muddy Gap to become Bailey’s legal guardian.

  Over the years, after the fishing hole incident, she’d occasionally run into Bran. He’d never said a whole lot. He just studied her from beneath the brim of his Stetson, looking like the rugged, one hundred percent Wyoming cattleman that he was. They’d both danced at Buckeye Joe’s, but never together. They’d both gone out drinking at Cactus Jack’s in Rawlins, but never together.

  Harper passed the turnoff to the Lawson place and watched the odometer. As soon as the green and orange fish-shaped mailbox appeared, she turned. Although the road was plowed, it was still slick, so she slowed to a crawl.

  The buildings came into view over the next rise. A traditional wooden barn. Alongside it were four metal structures of varying sizes and an old farmhouse that appeared to be abandoned. Off to the left a trailer and two pickups were parked in front of an enormous detached garage.

  Her heart beat faster. This was a real working ranch. This was way out of the realm of her job experience. Out of her comfort zone. What if she couldn’t do it?

  You can do it. You have to. Just a few months and then you’re outta here.

  She parked behind the older pickup and gazed across the yard to the metal structures and the enclosed pens. Did Bran have chickens as well as cattle? Would taking care of those critters be part of her chores?

  Only one way to find out.

  Harper climbed out of the car and scaled the steps of the deck attached to the front of the trailer. Standing on the mud-cover
ed mat, she gathered her courage and knocked.

  The door didn’t immediately open. Just as she was about to knock louder, the handle turned and the door swung inward.

  The stunned expression on Bran Turner’s face might’ve been comical if it hadn’t filled Harper with dread.

  His mouth tightened. His dismissive gaze swept over her as if she’d coated herself in skunk oil. “You’ve got to be fuckin’ kiddin’ me. You’re my new hired hand?”

  Chapter Two

  Bran glared at Harper Masterson, wondering if he’d become the butt of some joke. He said as much to her, steeling himself against the tears he imagined would fill her eyes.

  But her golden brown eyes narrowed. A bit haughtily, in fact. “Celia didn’t tell you I was coming?”

  “Celia told me she’d found me a hired hand. She didn’t say a damn thing about it bein’ you.”

  Harper’s chin shot up. “You don’t have to sound so disappointed.”

  “I am.” Shit. Not the right thing to say. “Look, I don’t know what Celia told you about this job—”

  “She didn’t tell me anything except to drive out here and talk to you. So here I am.” She pierced him with another lofty look. “Are you conducting the job interview on the porch?”

 
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