Saddled and spurred, p.21
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.21

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  A look of horror crossed Bailey’s face. “No fucking way.”

  Was Bailey’s vehement denial due to the fact that most of her classmates attending the small private high school outside Rawlins had money? Was she embarrassed about living in a dumpy rental?

  “Look, Sis, that’s sweet of you to offer. But most the kids I’m graduating with are total douche bags. I’d rather celebrate the fact I’ll never have to see any of their stupid faces again ... without them.”

  No party. Not that she was surprised. Check that off the to-do list. “Fine.”

  “So that’s what was so damn important that you had to hide in the dark and scare the shit out of me? To talk about a freakin’ graduation party?”

  “No. I want to know where you are on the college decision process. I recall a couple of the colleges have housing application deadlines soon, so you’re going to need to make a decision on where—”

  “I said I’d handle it. Stop nagging me. Jeez, I’m under enough pressure with finals and all the other stuff. I don’t need you adding to it.”

  “Tough. I’ll remind you that your decision affects me too. I’ll need to look for a job. And a place to live nearby.”

  Bailey scowled. “Why don’t you just forget about me and figure out where you want to move?”

  That jarred her. “What?”

  “I’m eighteen. You don’t have to babysit me. You’re off the hook, Harper. You can do whatever you want with your life. Go anywhere. Don’t base your decision on where you want to live on mine.”

  Annoyed by Bailey’s blasé attitude, Harper snapped. “What’s really going on, Bailey? You afraid your older sister will cramp your style at college? That I’ll be tagging along all the time, wearing my toga, screaming, ‘Where’s the frat party?’ ”

  She rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should enroll in drama classes. You’ve got a knack for comedic timing.”

  “Don’t be flip. This is serious.”

  “I know. But as you’ve pointed out, this is my decision. You’ve got to let me make it.” Even if you don’t like it was implied.

  An impasse. Big surprise.

  After the day she’d had, she wasn’t in the mood to let her baby sister run roughshod over her. Harper stood. “Just when I think we’ve both escaped Mom’s influence . . . you’re acting exactly like her.” She walked briskly to her bedroom and slammed the door.

  Mature, Harper.

  She fell back on the bed and gazed at the ceiling. Trying to stay one step ahead to keep her stress level down was a losing battle. She couldn’t give their landlord notice until she knew they wouldn’t be living in their car.

  Oh, really? Or is there another reason why you’ve been dragging your feet about finalizing your intent to move?

  No. Being in limbo had nothing to do with Bran and everything to do with her sister.

  Maybe the crack about Bailey acting like their mother had been unfair. But Harper had watched Dawn, the master manipulator, at work for years, and she recognized the signs. Putting Harper on the defensive was the first indication that Bailey was hiding something. But what?

  The outer door slammed. Since her eighteenth birthday, Bailey had stopped telling Harper where she was going or who she was going with. Harper didn’t want to spend another night alone, dissecting the deteriorating situation with her sister. Nor did she want to brood about Bran Turner and that intense interlude in the trailer at the auction today.

  Not that she had a clue what had caused his uncharacteristic behavior.

  Wasn’t like she had anyone to talk to about relationship stuff, especially since what was going on between her and Bran wasn’t really a relationship, just sex. Liberty had a ton of experience with sex, but access to her was limited—plus her older, wiser sister wasn’t known for her warm fuzziness. Celia was on the road and winning. Like many athletes on a winning streak, Celia held on to certain superstitions. She started and ended each day the same way. Ate the same food. Listened to the same music. Talked to the same people. She even wore the same clothes until the streak ended. Since Harper hadn’t been on Celia’s daily call list when the streak started, even if Harper left a message, Celia wouldn’t return her call, in case that one change would jinx her winning streak.

  So, yeah, maybe she was just a tad annoyed with everyone—friends, family, her lover. It was Friday night. Maybe it was time to make new friends. Drinking friends. Because all of a sudden, Harper was in the mood to drink.

  She rifled through her closet. She chose a stretchy button-up Western shirt, swirled with patterns of gold, brown, and rust. She paired the dress shirt with a gold lace camisole and pulled on her slim-fitting Levi’s, threading a brown rhinestone belt through the belt loops, centering the modest rhinestone buckle between her hips. Needing further proof that she could still look like a girl, not a ranch hand, Harper fixed her hair to fall in loose curls around her shoulders. She applied enough makeup that it didn’t appear she was wearing any makeup at all. The final touch was slipping on her dancing boots just before she scooted out the door.

  Buckeye Joe’s wasn’t swamped. She wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not.

  Susan glared at her, as usual, when Harper ordered a whiskey Coke. But also as usual, Susan had no problem taking Harper’s money.

  She almost headed to her usual table hidden in the back, but she realized that sitting alone, avoiding people, defeated her purpose tonight, so she grabbed the first barstool at the closest empty table.

  And what is your reason for being here?

  To have fun. To win friends and influence people. For some reason that cheesy rah-rah Dale Carnegie phrase made her laugh out loud.

  “I’ll have what you’re having, since it appears to have the effect I’m looking for.”

  Harper spun on her barstool.

  A petite woman, no bigger than a minute, leaned against the wall. She had short black hair, cut pixie style, which reinforced her elfin image. In this light, her enormous eyes looked purple. Her smile nearly spanned the distance from her left cheek to her right cheek, and that darling smile was offset on both sides with deep dimples. Good Lord, she was cute as a button. Everything about her was delicate, feminine, and tiny, making Harper feel like an overblown, bubble-headed, busty blonde in comparison.

  Harper realized that not only was she staring but she hadn’t answered the question. “Umm. It’s a whiskey Coke. And the only reason I laughed is because I don’t normally drink alone. So you’re welcome to join me.”

  The invite seemed to shock the pixie chick, but she grinned. “I’d love to join you.” She hoisted herself onto the barstool and thrust out her hand. “Janie Fitzhugh.”

  “Harper Masterson. I take it you’re not from around here?”

  “Used to be. A long time ago. A lifetime ago, actually.” Her eyes clouded briefly and then she offered another deeply dimpled grin. “Anyway. Everything comes full circle, doesn’t it? I’m back here to do a job.”

  Harper knew firsthand that jobs were few and far between. “Is this a temporary job?”

  Janie shrugged. “We’ll see how it plays out.”

  The waitress stopped by their table and Harper ordered two drinks for herself. Janie followed suit.

  “So, Harper, please don’t take this the wrong way, but why is a beautiful woman such as yourself sitting alone in this dive?”

  “Take a guess.”

  “Man trouble?”

  “Partially.” She slurped her drink. “Don’t think I’m some kind of unload-my-problems-on-a-stranger freak, but everyone in my life disappointed me today. I thought I’d see if Jack Daniel’s would improve my attitude.”

  “Me’n Jack go way back.”

  After the waitress dropped off their drinks, Janie held up her lowball glass. “To Jack Daniel’s. The only man you can count on.”

  “Amen to that, sister.” They clinked their glasses.

  “What’re you doing out alone?” Harper asked.

  “Probably tempti
ng fate,” Janie muttered.

  Weird answer.

  “Seriously, I don’t know. I just wanted to see if anything had changed in Muddy Gap.”

  “Has it?”

  “Not really. Except . . .” Janie pointed to the bar. “Mac used to bartend instead of Susan. I wonder what happened to him.”

  Harper snickered.

  “What? You know the gossip, don’t you?”

  “I sure do.”

  “Come on, we’re drinking buddies now. You have to tell me.”

  “Mac ran off with my mother, who used to be a cocktail waitress here.”

  Janie choked on her drink. “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”

  “I wish.” Harper related the sordid tale, including coming back to Muddy Gap to take over as Bailey’s legal guardian and their recent issues.

  “You are one selfless woman, Harper, to get saddled with that responsibility and not complain.”

  “I’m not selfless. I thought I was keeping our family together and keeping us from becoming another statistic, but now I wonder if I haven’t forced the sister bond.” Harper drained her drink and started on the next one. “Do you have siblings?”

  Janie scowled. “Two half sisters and one half brother that are young enough to be my kids.”

  “Do you have children?”

  “No. Thank God I dodged that bullet. Though, at the time, that’s all I wanted. I believed a baby would fix everything in our marriage.”

  “I take it you’re divorced.”

  “For eight years.”

  Harper’s eyes widened. “Wow. You were a child bride or something?”

  “Sort of. I’m thirty-three. How old did you think I was?”

  “My age. Twenty-four.”

  “I appreciate the compliment.” Janie sipped her drink. “So tell me about this man problem.”

  From an early age Harper had learned to keep her private business private, mostly because Social Services was always sniffing around. But it wasn’t like she was eight years old anymore. And hadn’t she just been lamenting the fact she didn’t have anyone to talk to?

  “Sorry. I’m nosy,” Janie said.

  “No, it’s not that. Just trying to decide if by telling you that I’m sleeping with my boss, you’ll automatically assume I’m like my mother.”

  “I’m the last person to pass judgment on anyone.”

  So over the next half hour, Harper told Janie about Bran, the work she’d been doing on his ranch, and their intense sexual relationship, all without divulging his name. Because if Janie had lived here, even years ago, chances were good she knew Bran.

  Immediately after she finished sharing her story, Janie demanded, “Are you in love with him?”

  Yes. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m leaving.”

  “You sure about that?”

  Harper shrugged.

  The band started tuning. More people wandered through the doors, shaking off the cold. Both she and Janie kept an eye on the arriving patrons. “See anyone you know?”

  “I recognize a few. It’s probably a good thing the lighting in here is bad and no one will recognize me.”

  “Why? Did you leave town in the dead of night with the townsfolk’s money earmarked for the orphanage? And they sent a hanging posse after you?”

  Janie laughed. But her mirth vanished suddenly and she muttered, “Shit,” then ducked behind Harper.

  “See someone you know?”

  “My ex-husband. Dammit. I knew this was a bad idea.”

  “Where is he?” Harper asked, craning her neck, without it seeming like she was trying to get a gander at who might be Janie’s ex.

  “Ladies. May I join you?”

  Harper stopped trying to block Janie with her body and turned to face the male voice. “Renner? What’re you doing here?”

  “You know him?” Janie said.

  She wasn’t sure if Renner wanted it to be common knowledge that he’d come into Get Nailed for a manicure. She deflected the question and asked Janie, “How do you know him?”

  “He’s my boss.”

  “Boss?” Harper repeated.

  “I’m the interior designer and all-around slave for his hunting lodge and spa project.”

  Renner rolled his eyes. “I haven’t even started to slave you yet, Janie dear. Anyway, I’m glad to see you two have met.” He yanked an extra chair from the table next to theirs.

  The band launched into a peppy cover version of Faith Hill’s “This Kiss.”

  Janie grabbed Renner’s hand, held it between her hands prayerlike, and begged, “Please, please, please, you have to dance with me. Right now.”

  “Why?”

  “Because he’s here.”

  “No shit. Where?”

  “Right over there. To your left.”

  “Oh. Okay. I see him.” Renner appeared to regroup. “Lemme get my coat off.” As soon as he hung it on the back of the bar chair, Janie was dragging him away.

  Over his shoulder, Renner tossed out, “Order us another round of whatever you’re drinking, Harper, and make mine a double.”

  Harper nonchalantly looked over to see who had sent Janie scurrying to the dance floor. She recognized the hat right off.

  Bran.

  Holy crap. Her vision dimmed. Blood roared in her head so loud it drowned out the band. What if the ex-husband Janie had been talking about was . . . Bran? Stupidly, Harper had assumed Bran had never been married, but she’d never thought to ask.

  She saw Bran’s eyes scanning the dance floor and knew the instant he recognized Janie. His eyes narrowed to tiny slits. He cocked his head, as if he couldn’t quite believe who he was seeing. Then he herded his group—Abe, Nancy, and Ike—toward a table in the back. But Nancy wrinkled her nose and chose a table right up front. Close to the dance floor.

  Was that panic in Bran’s eyes? If he didn’t want to run into his ex, why didn’t he just leave?

  What if he still had feelings for her?

  Harper slammed her drink, knowing she had no right to be jealous. She had no claim on him. She fumed, deciding it was typical behavior for closemouthed Bran not to tell her something important, oh, like, he’d been married before, for crap sake.

  Fortunately, Bran hadn’t seen her. But Harper could see him. She signaled the cocktail waitress for another round, times three, and settled back to watch the show, hoping it wouldn’t be one of those tearjerkers where she cried at the end.

  This was not good. Not good at all.

  Bran should’ve stayed home instead of letting Abe badger him into coming to Buckeye Joe’s. The idiot was still trying to prove to his friends that Nancy wasn’t so bad—by forcing them to spend time with her. Wisely, Hank and Lainie had declined to participate in this farce. Hell, Bran had to bribe Ike to get him to show up. Even Abe’s best friend, Max, had refused to come. So far, no one in their group had given Nancy the stamp of approval, no matter how hard Abe tried to push it.

  He didn’t like Nancy any better than anyone else in their group did. But Abe had always stood up for Bran, same as he had for Hank, so Bran had slapped on a smile and said, “Sure,” to a night out with Nasty Nancy.

  Didn’t it just fucking figure that Janie had picked tonight, of all nights, to make an appearance in Muddy Gap? After eight years? Abe would blow a freakin’ gasket when he saw her.

  Jesus. He needed a goddamn drink. The cocktail waitress took their order: a glass of white wine for Nancy, after she’d demanded to look at a wine list—in Buckeye Joe’s, for chrissake—and three Bud Lights for him, Abe, and Ike. Bran was half tempted to order a couple of shots. As close as they were to the dance floor, he figured he’d need the whiskey sooner rather than later.

  Ike leaned forward and spoke to Abe. “Did you buy any of them extra calves from Olson’s?”

  “About a dozen.”

  “Can we please can the cow talk?” Nancy complained.

  Bran bit back his response that she’d better get used to
it if she was involved with a cattleman. “What would you like to talk about, Nancy?”

  “I’m so glad you asked. I saw this fascinating documentary on . . .”

  As soon as she uttered the word documentary, Bran tuned her out. As did Ike. And if he wasn’t mistaken, Abe’s eyes glazed over as he greedily gulped his beer.

  The band segued into a slow song and Bran expected Nancy would nag Abe to dance. But she kept yammering on.

 
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