Saddled and spurred, p.22
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.22

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  And on.

  All of a sudden Abe’s body stiffened.

  Shit.

  Nancy nattered on, oblivious to the change in Abe’s demeanor.

  However, Ike noticed and exchanged a concerned look with Bran because he also had seen Janie on the dance floor.

  Now everyone witnessed Janie and Renner Jackson doing a country version of dirty dancing, with zero discretion.

  The next thing he knew, Abe was out of his chair and stomping toward the grinding couple.

  Dammit. Not good. Bran chased after him.

  Abe latched on to Janie’s upper arm and wrenched her away from Renner. “What in the hell are you doin’ here, Janie?”

  “Darning socks. What the hell does it look like I’m doing, Abe?”

  Her response took Abe aback. He wasn’t used to the woman he used to call “sweet plain Jane” snapping at him. He loomed over her, since she didn’t even reach his shoulder. “You’re actin’ like you want him to fuck you right here on the dance floor.”

  Janie drilled him in the sternum with her index finger. “Maybe I do. What business is it of yours?”

  “Don’t you fuckin’ push me, cupcake. You ain’t gonna like the results.”

  She did just that. She placed her hands flat on his chest and pushed him.

  Abe wasn’t expecting it and he stumbled back a step.

  “Cupcake?” she repeated. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

  The other dancers had stopped moving and a crowd gathered.

  Including Nancy. Her petulant “What is going on?” was largely ignored.

  “And it looks like you have changed, cupcake.” Abe flashed his teeth. “And not necessarily for the better.”

  “Why don’t we all just take this down a notch?” Renner suggested, stepping between the warring couple, using his body to block Janie from Abe.

  Abe got right in Renner’s face. “What the fuck do you think you’re doin’ with my wife?”

  The air went absolutely still.

  Janie sidestepped Renner and poked Abe in the chest again. “Wife? I haven’t been your wife for a long damn time, Abe Lawson, so you can just back off.”

  Bran caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Harper—his Harper—whispering in Renner’s ear.

  Renner smiled at whatever Harper had said and turned his head, so their mouths were a kiss apart. They stared at each other for a beat or two, as if sharing some secret, and then grinned.

  First of all, what was Harper doing here? Second of all, when the hell had she gotten so freakin’ chummy with that smoothtalking bastard? Bran had an overwhelming urge to punch Renner right in the kisser.

  Then Renner wrapped his arms around Janie’s middle, picked her up, and carted her off the dance floor. Harper followed, laughing, ducking Janie’s legs and arms.

  Abe emitted a primitive growl that Bran had never heard before, which matched the possessive yowl in Bran’s head. When Abe started after Renner, both Bran and Ike held him back.

  “Let me fuckin’ go, right now. He has no right—”

  “No, you have no right. You need to chill out,” Ike said.

  “I agree,” Bran said. “I think it’s time to call it a night.”

  “Fuck that,” Abe snapped. “We just got here.”

  Bran stood nose to nose with Abe. “Sit your ass down and forget about her.”

  Abe moved his head and stared over Bran’s shoulder with such a look of longing that Bran felt it as surely as a punch in the gut. No need for Abe to say, “I can’t,” because Bran knew. He’d always known that Abe had never gotten over Janie.

  Christ. What a fucking mess.

  Ike clapped Abe on the back. “Come on. Let’s sit down and get another drink, if we’re stayin’.”

  Finally Abe nodded and sauntered off the dance floor, his death glare focused on the table where Janie and Harper were cozied up to Renner.

  Before they sat, Nancy grabbed Abe’s arm. “I said I’m ready to go home, Abe.”

  “So go,” Abe shot back.

  “What is wrong with you?” Nancy demanded. “You’re acting like a complete idiot. In public, no less. And what’s that garbage about you calling that woman your wife?”

  “She’s my ex-wife.”

  That seemed to further incense Nancy. “I want to leave right now.”

  “So leave. I ain’t stoppin’ you.”

  Yeah, Hank was gonna be damn sorry he missed this. Too bad the bar didn’t serve popcorn.

  Nancy’s mouth tightened. “I rode here with you, remember?”

  “Then I guess you’re stayin’ if you’re waiting on me for a ride home, aren’t you?”

  “No. I will not stand here and watch you make a fool of yourself and make a fool of me.”

  “Your choice. But I am sitting down. And I am staying.” Abe sat, which he never did when Nancy was still standing.

  “I mean it, Abe. This is not a joke to me. If you don’t take me home right now, we’re done. For good.”

  Abe shrugged, almost absentmindedly. “I understand. To be honest, I’m tired of fighting with everybody in my life that matters about . . .” You went unsaid. “It’s probably best we call it quits anyway.”

  The pinched look left her face and her mouth dropped open in shock. “What? You’re serious. After all I did—”

  “To try to destroy his family relationships?” Bran supplied. “Yeah, he’s serious.”

  “I wasn’t speaking to you,” Nancy snapped.

  Ike grabbed his coat. “Enough. I’ll take you home, Nancy, but we’re leaving right now.”

  “Fine.” She took her time buttoning her coat, glaring at Abe, who was too busy glaring at Janie’s table to notice.

  When Nancy realized Abe really didn’t give a shit if she left or not, she whirled around and stomped away.

  Ike drained his beer before he followed her.

  The waitress brought a fresh round. Abe contemplated his bottle for a long time.

  “What’s up?” Bran asked.

  “Besides havin’ my head up my ass?” He snorted. “Was Nancy always such a manipulative bitch?”

  “Yes. And I can safely speak for all of us when I say I’m glad you finally saw the light. I ain’t gonna claim she’s not your type, but we never understood what you saw in her.”

  Abe sighed. “Eight years I’ve been divorced from Janie. Eight years I’ve been fucked up by it. I was happy to find a willing woman and get laid a couple of times a year, until Hank and Lainie . . .” He sighed again. “I don’t begrudge Hank his happiness and I love Lainie like a sister. Seein’ them happy reminded me that I want that happiness for myself. A wife and kids. A woman wasn’t gonna fall in my lap, so I started looking for one.”

  “And you found Nancy.”

  “She really is different when it’s just the two of us. Anyway, I was gonna ask Nancy to move in with me. Then I see Janie for the first time in two years . . . and it’s like . . . what are the fucking odds? The night I decide to carve out a new life for myself, my ex-wife shows up. Talk about a cosmic clusterfuck.”

  Bran frowned. “I figured it’d been a lot longer than two years since you’d seen Janie.”

  “At first. I didn’t talk to her for years after the divorce was final. She called me outta the blue about two years ago, wanting to meet, and like an idiot I agreed to . . . Never mind.”

  Before Bran could ask Abe what the meeting had been about, he saw Harper flit past, laughing, holding hands with that son of a bitch Renner Jackson as he led them onto the dance floor.

  Did that smarmy fucker have every single goddamn woman in the county falling all over themselves?

  Abe saw the opportunity to corner Janie and was across the room before Bran could stop him. Which left Bran in a shitty situation. Either stay here and watch Renner plaster himself against Harper, or cut in so he could plaster himself against Harper, and let Abe twist in the wind.

  Grinding his teeth, Bran watched another man
putting his paws all over his woman. They laughed . . . after whispering to each other. Renner spun them into the middle of the crowd, so Bran lost track of their grinding bodies. When they danced back into view, Renner had slipped his leg between Harper’s, so it appeared she was riding his thigh.

  Enough. As soon as this song ended he was getting Harper the hell out of here and away from Renner Jackson.

  “Bran?”

  He spun toward the voice and saw Janie crouching down by the table. “Janie, what the hell are you—”

  “I’m avoiding Abe. Here are Harper’s coat and purse. Can you make sure she gets home okay? She’s had a few drinks and I have to get out of here right now.”

  “Not a problem.”

  Janie patted his leg. “Good to see you, Bran. Thanks for keeping Abe somewhat calm. We’ll talk more later.” And she scooted out, ducking into a crowd.

  Bran was on his feet when the last chord twanged. He didn’t even look at Renner. He just held out Harper’s coat.

  “What do you want?” she demanded.

  “I’m taking you home.”

  She swayed as she invaded his personal space. “You’re not my boss right now, so I don’t gotta go anywhere with you.”

  “You’re drunk.”

  “Says who?” Almost on cue, she hiccuped.

  Bran grinned. “Says me. Now be a good girl and get your coat on.”

  Her eyes narrowed at his choice of the word girl.

  Renner put his hand on Bran’s back and spoke to Harper. “That’s my cue to leave, now that I see you’re in good hands.”

  “You’re abandoning me?” she complained to Renner.

  “Yep. Thanks for the dance, doll.” He walked off.

  Smart man.

  Harper snatched her coat from Bran’s hands and wouldn’t let him help her put it on. She spun around, whapping him in the face with her hair as she sauntered off.

  He followed her outside, ignoring the pointed stares of the other bar customers.

  When it appeared that she intended to stumble the two blocks home on her own, Bran stepped in front of her and hoisted her over his shoulder. He’d come back for his truck later.

  They were going to have this out right now.

  Chapter Sixteen

  “You cannot hang me upside down like I’m a slab of meat, Bran Turner!” Her head bounced with Bran’s every confident footstep.

  “Sweetheart, your indignity would mean a helluva lot more if I could understand what you’re sayin’, but bein’s your words are muffled against my ass, I can’t.”

  Irritated, Harper smacked the backs of his thighs like she was playing the bongos. “Let me down, you big mean jerk!”

  “Sure thing. Right after I dump you in your house so I know you ain’t gonna fall on your butt and lay out here and freeze to death.”

  “I am not that drunk.” And so what if she was? She was an adult. Making new friends meant buying a few rounds. And maybe she had had a celebratory shot after she’d found out that Bran hadn’t been married to Janie. In all the years that she’d listened to Celia complain about Abe’s whiny ex-wife it’d surprised Harper that Janie didn’t fit that description at all. Maybe Janie had changed, grown up, whatever. Harper really liked Janie, another reason she was glad the woman hadn’t worn Bran’s ring and slept in his bed.

  “Didja pass out back there, Harper?”

  She smacked his buttocks in response.

  Bran laughed. “Careful. I kinda like that.”

  “So you’ll let me turn you over my knee like you did to me?”

  That answer earned her a sharp crack on the ass and she yelped. “Don’t be telling tales outta school where anyone can hear you.”

  “You’re not making any sense. Maybe you’re drunk.”

  “Not hardly. You had a head start on me.” He shifted her slightly.

  She tried not to worry that she weighed too much. But she’d seen him haul a hundred-and-fifty-pound calf on his back, and if he got a crick in his neck, well, good. She hadn’t asked to be lugged around in the cold like a helpless heifer anyway.

  “Is your sister home?” he asked.

  “No. She’s mad at me and she’s probably not coming home.” Shoot. Maybe she shouldn’t have admitted that.

  “Good. Because you and I need to get some things straight.”

  “I wouldn’t think you’d care about setting things straight, being’s you think I’m so drunk and all—which, FYI, I’m not.”

  His amused “I know” was followed by another male chuckle. A cocky one, in her opinion.

  Bran whistled while he crossed the next block. Whistled. Like he was having a jolly old time.

  She whacked his butt just for that.

  He laughed again.

  “Almost there.” He turned up the sidewalk and didn’t set her down until he’d reached the top step. “Keys.”

  Harper shouldered him aside, giving him her back. “I didn’t lock it.”

  He sighed.

  “What? You don’t lock your door either, hypocrite. So just go. I’m home in one piece. Mission accomplished. Good night.”

  She opened the door only far enough to let herself in and attempted to shut it in Bran’s face.

  His laugh wasn’t amused this time. He pushed the door open and followed her inside.

  Harper tossed her purse and her coat on the chair. She didn’t bother to kick off her boots but just headed for her bedroom. She didn’t get far.

  Bran spun her to face him, trapping her face in his hands as he fastened his mouth to hers.

  She wanted to kiss him back. She craved these sweet, needy kisses from him because they were so rare. But she also knew why Bran was kissing her like this. He felt guilty. And he should.

  So she turned her head away, breaking her lips free from his, keeping her eyes closed, waiting for him to let her go.

  He did.

  Without looking at him, she started toward her room.

  But Bran was determined. He wrapped his arms around her middle, holding her lightly but firmly, nestling his chin into the curve where her neck met her shoulder. “Talk to me. Please. I know you’re upset.”

  Harper allowed herself to lean against him, wanting his closeness, but he needed to apologize without her having to ask for it. She disentangled from his embrace and faced him, keeping her arms folded across her midsection. “Do you know why I’m upset, Bran?”

  “Yes.”

  “Tell me.”

  “Why? We both know why you were upset. You were there.”

  “Not good enough. Tell me with words.”

  He took a step back and dry-washed his face. Then ran his palm along the top of his head and down to his neck. “I was outta line today.”

  “Meaning what?”

  “Too demanding.”

  “Wrong. The word you’re looking for is demeaning.”

  His face turned red, and the muscle at the base of his jaw jumped as he clenched his teeth hard.

  “I can handle your demanding side. I’ve never felt ashamed of liking that part of you. You’ve never made me feel like I’m some kind of whore whose job is to service your sexual needs at your whim.” Harper stared at Bran until he met her gaze. “Until today. You made me feel that way at
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