Saddled and spurred, p.27
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.27

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  but that doesn’t mean I do it well.”

  “Oh, I’m sure your voice is as sweet as a songbird’s,” Bran said silkily. “What was your signature song?”

  Harper speared lettuce with her fork and stuffed it in her mouth.

  “Come on. Tell me.”

  She shook her head and chewed.

  “Or maybe you want to show me?”

  She swallowed. “Huh-uh. I retired.”

  “From singing?”

  She nodded.

  “But I’ve heard you humming all the damn time while you’re workin’.”

  Harper pointed her fork at him, a little angrily. “Not the same as getting up on a stage and belting out a tune, Bran—not even close.”

  Distortion from the microphone filled the room again. “Folks, I’ve been prompted by management to ask you to fill out your forms for the contest at the back hostess stand and not to bother your servers.”

  Someone yelled, “What contest?”

  Bob fussed with the microphone stand. “Anyone who gets up here and sings tonight is eligible for the hundred-dollar prize.”

  Bran pointed his fork right back at Harper. “Now you’ve gotta enter.”

  “No. Way.”

  A woman passed by their table close enough that the ends of her shirt nearly dragged through Harper’s salad. The woman stopped. Walked backward. Keeping her back to Bran, she said, “Harper?”

  “Becca? Hey. How are you?”

  “Good. I’m surprised to see you in Rawlins. Didja have enough of that shithole Muddy Gap?”

  Bran studied the way Harper’s smile froze and her facial muscles tightened. He’d never seen her react to anyone that way.

  “No. I’m in town having dinner.”

  “Alone? Darlin’, that’s just plain pathetic, with the way men used to fall at your feet.”

  “She’s not alone.”

  Becca whirled, nearly whapping Harper in the face with the jagged beaded ends of her silk shirt. Her eyes narrowed as she took Bran’s measure. Evidently she didn’t find him lacking because she smiled coyly. “Well, aren’t you a handsome one? I never knew Harper had such good taste.”

  He saw Harper stab her fork into her greens. Repeatedly.

  The woman held out her hand. “Becca Vincente.”

  “Bran Turner. How do you know my . . . Harper?”

  The stout woman actually flipped her hair over her shoulder. “We used to compete in beauty pageants together. I was first runner-up in the Miss Sweet Grass contest.” She shot Harper a haughty look. “And I did win the talent competition in that one, didn’t I, Harper?”

  Harper blinked slowly. A cute wrinkle appeared between her eyebrows as if she was deep in thought. “Honestly, I’ve been in so many beauty pageants and contests, Becca, I’m afraid I don’t remember them all.”

  First time he’d ever seen Harper acting cocky.

  Becca’s lips flattened. “I remember, and so will everyone else when they hear me sing. I thought that’s why you’d shown up here.”

  “To hear you sing? No. I came for the steak.”

  “I meant, you came to enter the contest. Tonight’s winner not only gets the cash but advances to the next round.” Becca flashed her teeth at Bran, then at Harper. “It doesn’t appear as if you need the money like you used to.”

  Hell, the woman could’ve just called him a sugar daddy to his face and Harper a whore. “You’ve got it all wrong, lady.”

  Harper grabbed his hand and squeezed. “Now, Bran, honey, there’s no use trying to pull one over on Becca. She just knows me too well.”

  Her eyes begged him to play along, so he did. “How’s that, sugar pie?”

  Becca crossed her arms over her chest and waited.

  “Like I know that winning a contest without any real competition isn’t much of a challenge.”

  Goddamn. He liked seeing this nasty side of his nice beauty queen.

  “So, yes, I’m here to win some cash.” Harper smiled so prettily, so earnestly, that if Bran hadn’t known better, he would’ve believed her smile was completely genuine, instead of totally bogus. “You don’t mind, do you, Becca?”

  “Why would I mind? It’s a free country. I welcome the competition.”

  Harper’s smile widened. “Oh, good. Then you won’t mind showing me where the hostess stand is so I can fill out my request sheet?”

  “I’d be happy to do it for you, if you’d rather.”

  “That’s so sweet of you to offer, but I’d probably better make sure they’ve even got the song.” Harper slid out of the booth and cooed, “Be right back, dumplin’.”

  “Nice meeting you, Brad,” Becca said.

  Brad. Right. His night wouldn’t have been complete without a backhanded compliment from this chubby bitch. He smiled. “Nice meetin’ you too, Bertha.”

  Becca scowled at him and said, “Come on,” to Harper before she stomped off.

  Harper followed, her eyes searing holes in the back of Becca’s head.

  By the time she returned, the steaks were on the table. Harper didn’t sit on her side of the booth, she slid in right next to him and snagged her plate. “This looks delicious.”

  He sliced off a piece of meat and studied it. “So you wouldn’t get up onstage if I asked you, but you’ll get up onstage and sing to spite a woman you hate?”

  “Yep. She shouldn’t have taunted me. I would’ve been perfectly fine, sitting here having a lovely dinner with you, but she had to go and ruin it. So I’m gonna return the favor and snatch that hundred bucks right out of her sausage fingers.”

  Bran brushed his lips across her ear and filled his lungs with her addicting floral scent. “Your mean streak is a serious fuckin’ turn-on, Miss Sweet Ass.”

  She angled her head, allowing their mouths to connect, and she delicately swiped her tongue across his bottom lip. “Does that mean you’ll let me spank you again later tonight?”

  “Hell, no.”

  Harper smooched his mouth before focusing her attention on her steak.

  After the waitress cleared their plates, they each ordered another drink. Harper drained half hers in one swallow.

  Bran stretched his arm along the back of the booth and toyed with her hair. “Nervous?”

  “Very.”

  The fact that she’d admitted her nerves brought out his protective instincts, and he wanted to reassure her. “You’ll do great. What song are you singing?”

  “It’s a surprise.”

  “Does Becca know what song you’re performing?”

  Harper’s lips curled into a secretive smile. “She thinks she does, but she’ll be surprised when I literally change my tune.”

  “Are you on before her?”

  “After. I’m second to last. They capped it at twenty-five contestants.”

  She snuggled into him as they watched the karaoke performances. Having Harper acting so publicly affectionate thrilled him. A couple of the singers were good, but most were awful. When Becca took the stage, Harper immediately stiffened up. Becca had chosen Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” as her song.

  Applause echoed, but Bran wasn’t impressed with her performance. He said as much.

  Harper didn’t respond.

  He sensed her mentally pulling away. He continued to run his fingers over the ball of her shoulder in what he hoped was a calming manner.

  When the host called Harper’s name, she turned toward him for a quick kiss and slipped out of the booth. She spoke to the guy manning the sound system and he frowned.

  Bob, the host, said, “Give us just a second, we’ve had a last-minute change in song selection.”

  The guy nodded to Harper and she took center stage. She closed her eyes and curled her hands around the microphone as the background music started.

  The instant she opened her mouth, Bran fell under her spell. Her voice was sultry, but it held a hint of sweetness as she hit the higher notes of “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” The crowd, fairly sedate up to thi
s point, went sort of crazy when she held the last note. Wild applause broke out.

  She seemed ready to leap off the stage and hide in the shadows, which made no sense to him, given the fact that she’d just knocked it out of the park.

  As soon as he’d cleared the booth, Harper launched herself at him and he caught her in a deep hug. This woman felt so right, so perfect, in his arms that he wanted to burst out in song himself.

  “You were amazing, Harper. Flat-out amazing.”

  “Really?”

  “A winner for sure. And you can tell Becca to bite you, but darlin’, that’s my job.”

  “I like the way you bite me. Makes me all tingly.”

  “I live to make you tingly.”

  Harper won the karaoke contest.

  Bran wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t surprised either that she didn’t want to stick around after she grabbed the cash. She insisted on paying for dinner, which was a new experience for him, and then she practically dragged him out to his truck.

  Back at his place, the constant physical need for each other consumed them both once again. He stripped her where she stood and took her to bed. This wasn’t a frenzied mating—he made love to her with deliberate leisure, eking out every ounce of pleasure he could muster. Caressing her everywhere. Feasting on her everywhere. Allowing her the same luxury. They rolled across his mattress, giving and taking. Lost in passion tinged with sweetness.

  As he floated into contentment with Harper draped across his chest sleeping peacefully, he knew he wanted this—her—for the rest of his life.

  How could he convince her to stay in Muddy Gap with him instead of leaving with her sister?

  Especially when he didn’t understand why Harper felt she had to go where Bailey went. Bailey wasn’t a child. Granted, Bran didn’t have siblings, but wasn’t this the ideal time for Harper to let Bailey go? Make her sister stand on her own, just like Harper had been forced to do for years?

  Somehow he knew pointing that out would have the opposite reaction than he intended, no matter how tactfully he phrased it. So he was back to square one: how to convince Harper to stay with him in Muddy Gap.

  Tell her you love her.

  Right.

  Tell her you have a boatload of money and you can take care of her so she won’t need to worry about finding another job.

  Somehow he didn’t think that would matter to her either. She was stubborn and independent and determined to do things her own way.

  Well, he could be stubborn too. They would have a serious talk about their future. Tomorrow. Whether she liked it or not.

  Chapter Twenty

  Harper kissed Bran’s sternum. Then his nipples. She rubbed her cheek against the hair on his chest, loving the musky, warm, sexy way he smelled in the morning.

  His hand absentmindedly stroked her bare back. “Is it mornin’ already?”

  “Uh-huh. And we need to get started on chores.”

  He groaned.

  “You should be used to getting up at the crack of nothin’, cattleman.”

  “I could get used to havin’ you in my bed,” he said silkily. “Let’s blow off chores for a bit. In fact, speaking of blowing . . .”

  Did he really mean he could get used to having her around on a permanent basis?

  No. The thought of her mouth on his cock always brought out his sweet side. She kept it light. “I need to borrow clothes, since the only ones I’ve got aren’t appropriate for working cattle.”

  “Mmm. Or you could go nekkid.” His palm connected with her ass. “I like you nekkid. A lot.”

  She pushed away from him. “I noticed.”

  “Is that a complaint?”

  “Not hardly. Where might I find clothes?”

  “There’s sweatpants on the dresser. T-shirts and socks in the top drawer. They’ll be big on you, so you sure you don’t wanna go nekkid?”

  “Positive.” Harper gave him a smacking kiss on the mouth. “Thanks. I need to track down my bra and underwear.”

  “Follow the trail of clothes.”

  She didn’t bother wrapping the sheet around her before exiting the bedroom with the sweat clothes. After all they’d done, not only last night, but for the last two months, modesty seemed . . . ridiculous.

  “Such a sweet ass, sweet Harper. Why don’t you come back here after you find your unmentionables and I’ll help you put them on?”

  “Nice try,” she yelled down the hallway.

  He laughed. The bed squeaked.

  Aha. She found her bra by the couch. Her underwear was on the coffee table. Lord. She had no recollection of how they got there beyond his frantic stripping of her the instant they’d cleared the threshold. She folded her skirt and blouse. Before she shoved them in her big bag, she dug for a hair clip and secured her hair away from her face. She picked up Bran’s shirt and held it to her nose, inhaling deeply. She loved the way he smelled. She loved everything about him—inside the bedroom and out. But confessing the whole “I love you” thing after a night of spectacularly rocking sex was something her mother would do, so that’s precisely why Harper wouldn’t do it.

  Yawning, she started coffee. She heard the shower kick on. She needed to brush her teeth, but if she went into the bathroom while Bran was standing there naked and wet . . . chances were slim she’d be able to keep her hands off him.

  She tidied up the kitchen. This was her last week of work as Bran’s ranch hand. Next week she’d be packing up and getting ready for Bailey’s graduation. Since Bailey hadn’t said a word about her post-high school plans, Harper assumed they’d be moving to Laramie. She’d already located a cheap motel to rent by the week until they found permanent residence. Neither of them had much in the way of material goods, so packing shouldn’t take more than a day.

  Yippee.

  Her enthusiasm for moving away from Muddy Gap had waned considerably.

  The door banged open and a little man with a cane shuffled inside. The balding redhead wore a plaid flannel shirt in a hideous shade of kelly green, black pants, and black work boots. Holy crap. His resemblance to a leprechaun was uncanny. Harper blinked, but he didn’t disappear, nor did she see a pot of gold anywhere near him. Dang.

  He didn’t smile. In fact, he scowled. “You must be Harper.”

  “Who are you and why did you just barge into Bran’s house? You’re lucky I didn’t attack you.”

  The man harrumphed. “I’m Les. Bran’s full-time ranch hand.” His gaze zipped over her, almost with contempt. “You don’t look like you could hurt a fly, although you don’t look much like a beauty queen neither.”

  Was she supposed to be flattered or insulted by that comment?

  He didn’t wait for a retort. He glanced at the coffeemaker. “Havin’ coffee made is one of the benefits of hiring a woman, I guess. Bran never could get me to make coffee.”

  It would be wrong to kick his cane out from under him since he was recovering from a broken hip.

  Play nice, Harper.

  “Another benefit of hiring Harper? She ain’t nearly as crotchety in the mornin’ as you are, Les.”

  Les plopped in the closest kitchen chair with a grunt. “She also ain’t had her hip replaced after getting stomped by one of your pissed-off bulls.”

  Bran ambled by her, smelling of soap and toothpaste. She wanted to jam her fingers into his damp hair and breathe in his clean scent and taste his minty mouth.

  “Didn’t know you’d planned on coming back to work this week,” Bran said. “A phone call would’ve been nice. Especially since you felt the need to call me a couple of times a day, every day, during your recovery.”

  She’d watched Bran’s face as he’d listened to Les’s complaints whenever he called. The conversations were very one-sided as far as she knew. Then again, Bran and Les had been friends for years, so maybe Bran had confided in him about all aspects of his life when she wasn’t around. That thought made her nervous.

  Bran set three cups on the counter and poured. He nudged one
cup in her direction and carried two cups to the table, sliding one in front of
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