Saddled and spurred, p.28
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.28

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  Les before sitting across from the man.

  Les gave off negative vibes, so Harper opted not to join them at the table.

  “The doc cleared me yesterday,” Les said. “Besides, I’m sick of sitting on my ass at home. Another day and I’d like ta gag that sister of mine.”

  “I’m sure she’s thinking the same thing. In fact, I’ll bet it was Betty who encouraged you to get back in the saddle, wasn’t it?”

  Les scowled and slurped his coffee. “So where’s the ranch truck?”

  “At Harper’s.”

  “Why?”

  “It’s been havin’ some issues,” Bran lied.

  Smooth, Bran.

  “She’s out here awful damn early.” Les squinted at her with blatant accusation.

  Harper fought the urge to bristle, but she couldn’t offer the crabby man a fake smile either. “I’m an early riser.”

  Les didn’t acknowledge her. “So what’re we doin’ today?”

  “Moving the bulls into the north pasture. We’ve gotta doublecheck that the fences and gates are secure.”

  “Why?” Harper asked Bran.

  But Les jumped in to answer before Bran could. “Because we don’t want our bulls getting out and impregnating Henderson’s cows. Don’t make the Hendersons none too happy neither, since half the herd in their south pasture, which borders ours, is full of purebreds. They lose a whole shit pile of money if the calves ain’t purebred, but were sired by one of our mongrel bulls.”

  “My bulls ain’t all mongrels, but they ain’t the caliber that the Hendersons are known for.”

  “But they are your neighbors, right? Wouldn’t they know better than to put such valuable purebred stock in a pasture where their cows might be sullied by your horny low-class bulls?”

  Bran laughed. He gazed at her with the pure warmth that caused a funny tickle under her breastbone. “You have such a unique way of seeing things, Harper.”

  She smiled behind her cup.

  “That said, if the bulls do get out? The financial responsibility falls on Bran’s shoulders. Some neighbors wouldn’t push it, but the Hendersons do.”

  “Meaning what?” she asked Bran, but naturally Les answered.

  “Meaning the Hendersons require us to buy the contaminated purebred stock. To the tune of a grand a calf.”

  Harper looked at Bran. “Seriously?”

  Bran shrugged. “Ain’t nothin’ I can do except try to keep the bulls penned up and hope the Hendersons have already bred their cows.” He grinned. “Or hope they’ve put the heifers in that section. Nothin’ more skittish than a heifer goin’ through her first mating cycle. Some of the bulls just give up.”

  The dream she’d had about Bran standing behind her while they watched the bovine mating dance floated into her mind and she fought a blush.

  “’Cept it cost you fifteen thousand last summer. And you sure didn’t get that back when we sent them to market.”

  Fifteen thousand dollars? For what was basically an honest mistake? Just when Harper thought she’d gotten a handle on some of this ranch stuff, she realized she’d only seen the tip of the iceberg. She said as much.

  “Well, there ain’t no sense in you stickin’ around and learnin’ the rest of it now that I’m back. I imagine you’d like to go home and get back to your real life.”

  Any humor fled Bran’s face. “I oughta send you home, since you’re here a week early. Harper is workin’ this week. Period. If you’ve got a problem with that, Les, best say so now.”

  Les drained his coffee. “I don’t. But we don’t normally sit around shootin’ the shit when there’s work to be done. Let’s get to it.”

  Did Bran always let Les boss him around? Given Bran’s bossy nature, and the fact that Bran was, oh, Les’s boss, she was surprised he put up with it.

  The trio separated outside the big barn. Harper fed the goats while Les and Bran discussed whatever Les figured she didn’t need to know. By the time she returned, Les was waiting impatiently by the ATVs and chewed her out for lollygagging, which she hadn’t been. Apparently Bran had already gone to start moving the bulls. Les raced off, not waiting while Harper readied her ATV. And by the time she’d gotten through the first gate and closed it, she could barely see him. Since she’d been left with the oldest ATV, the one that frequently crapped out, she knew if she didn’t keep up, he’d lose her. That was probably Les’s intent anyway.

  Since this was her virgin voyage on bull relocation duty, she wasn’t certain where Bran planned to move them. The morning air hung damp and sticky from last night’s rain, turning the fields into a mud bog.

  It took all morning to drive the bulls to the far corner of the selected pasture. None of the bulls charged, which Bran warned her could happen. She hung back, yelling, “Yaw!” at the stragglers, getting them to mosey along. Another thing she learned? Bulls were never in a hurry.

  Les ordered her to check along the upper fence line for breaks. She automatically looked to Bran to verify Les’s directive, but Bran was on the phone, gesturing wildly, while trying to round up the last bull.

  With no alternative, she headed north, scrutinizing the barbed wire fence for any compromised sections. She kept up as quick a pace as she dared in an effort to prevent the ATV from getting mired in the muck, but she didn’t want to drive too fast lest she miss a broken segment of fence line.

  The borrowed sweatpants stuck to her skin. Her fingers were curled so tightly around the ATV’s black rubber handle grips that her knuckles were pasty white. The whine of the engine and the concentration needed to perform three tasks at once took its toll on her. A screaming headache stabbed the inside of her brain about the same time the visibility dropped to nothing. Banks of fog played peekaboo between the fence posts. Harper stopped and squinted at the sky, wondering when the sun would appear and burn off the billows of mist.

  It took a while.

  By the time she could see more than six inches in front of her face, she realized she didn’t know where she was. She couldn’t hear the low hum of ATVs in the distance, nor the huffs she associated with livestock. Rather than panic, she whipped a U-turn and started back down the rolling hill, keeping to the fence line.

  Nothing looked remotely familiar. But she kept plugging along, unsure how much time had passed, cursing herself for forgetting her cell phone.

  Cursing Les for sending her off on a wild-fence chase.

  The sun glinted off metal in the distance and she recognized a stock tank. As she sped toward it, she heard distinctive mechanical whines. Bran and Les crested the rise below the stock tank and waited until she reached them.

  “Are you all right?” Bran demanded. “What happened?”

  Harper inhaled, ready to spew ire at Les, but she snapped her mouth shut at the last second. The fog wasn’t Les’s fault. He’d probably only told her to do what Bran had passed down. Plus, how could she admit she hadn’t been paying the closest attention to the fence line when she’d been looking for the route back to the ranch? She couldn’t. She would come across as incompetent, and the last thing she needed was to furnish Les with more ammunition. She straightened her shoulders. “I was checking the fence and the fog rolled in. I couldn’t see anything, so I waited it out. Somehow I got turned around.”

  Bran gazed at her skeptically. But he didn’t grill her further. They drove back to the ranch.

  Quiet didn’t last long with Les around. Lord, the man loved to hear the sound of his own voice. He jabbered while they cleaned the mud off the ATVs. He kept up a running dialogue regardless if she or Bran answered him.

  No wonder people questioned whether Bran ever talked. Why would he have to? Les said everything. Les knew everything. And Les acted as if Bran wouldn’t have his successful ranching operation if not for Les’s insight and expertise. It made her mad. If ranching was so easy, why didn’t Les take his expertise and start his own operation? But again, she said nothing.

  By three o’clock, Bran had had his fill of his c
hatty ranch hand and sent him home. In fact, Bran insisted on calling Betty personally to come and fetch her brother.

  Les fumed. As soon as he’d shuffled out to his sister’s Mercury Grand Marquis, Bran’s truck keys were in his hand and they were out the door and on the road to town.

  Harper didn’t slide next to him. Neither did Bran reach for her hand or stretch his arm across the back of the seat to toy with her hair. Was he pulling away? Now that Les was back in the picture and the end was in sight?

  Bran pulled up to the curb in front of her house and let his pickup idle, which meant he didn’t intend to come in. Bailey wasn’t home, and the notion of being alone in that crappy rental made her sadder yet. But she wouldn’t show it. She managed a smile. “Thanks for . . . last night.”

  “I’d hoped to hear a thank-you for this mornin’ too. It sucks that Les popped in.”

  “He was just anxious to get back at it after being laid up for so long. Lucky thing he believed I’d shown up early, not that I’d spent the night with you.”

  Bran frowned. “I don’t care—”

  “Oh, so you don’t care if I take tomorrow off so I can squeeze in a couple of nail clients?”

  He stared at her with a strange, almost regretful look, but said, “Sure.”

  “Thanks.”

  “No problem. Have a good night, sweetheart.”

  Sweetheart. He only called her that when he was frustrated with her.

  She said, “You have a good night too, boss,” and bailed out of the truck.

  In the last three months Bran had gotten used to the rhythm of working with Harper. He preferred her sporadic humming to Les’s tendency to fill the day up with busy work and nonstop yammering.

  Dammit. He missed her like his right hand. Which made him smile, knowing she’d get a chuckle out of his rare play on words.

  “Got everything?” Les asked for the tenth time.

  “I guess. Let’s go.”

  The ride to Hank’s new place was silent, and to be honest, that unnerved Bran more than Les’s tendency to chatter like a magpie. It meant the man was thinking, and Les had no problem whatsoever sharing his thoughts.

  They’d started down the driveway when Les finally spoke. “She’s trouble, you know.”

  Bran didn’t have to ask who was trouble.

  “How long you been fucking her?”

  His head snapped toward his hired man. “What the hell business is it of yours?”

  “It’s my business if you’re thinking of keeping her on to replace me. I know you, Branford. You’re wondering if you can have your cake and eat it too. Pay her to work for you, pay her to be in your bed. And as much as I need this job? I ain’t gonna suck your dick to keep it like she will.”

  Bran slammed on the brakes just short of parking. “You watch your goddamn mouth. You’re talkin’ out your ass, like usual. You don’t know a thing about Harper. Not a fuckin’ thing.”

  “Yeah? I think you don’t know a fucking thing about her. She’s just like her mama, though I’ll admit she a helluva lot prettier. Which means that pretty face will allow her to fuck her way to the top of the pile—the top of the money pile, and we both know around Muddy Gap, that’s probably you.”

  Les didn’t know Bran’s financial situation and it pissed him off whenever Les acted as if he did. “She ain’t like that.”

  “No? Weren’t you the one who told me she’d been sniffing around your grandparents’ house during the branding? Telling you what a shame it is that it’s sitting there abandoned? I’ll bet she’s got it all decorated in her mind.” Les’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll bet you let her cook supper for you, too.”

  Several times. And it’d been more than Harper feeding his belly. It was as if she’d fed his soul. “So?” He hit the gas and pulled up next to an electrician’s van.

  “So she’s been setting you up from the start. Working for you, cooking for you, sleeping with you.”

  “Did it ever occur to you that maybe I like havin’ a woman wanting to do those things for me? Or with me? Maybe I’m tired of bein’ alone?”

  “Ask yourself why she picked you. She’s a damn beauty queen. She could have any man in Wyoming or anywhere else that she wanted. We both know you ain’t exactly Brad Pitt.”

  Jesus. Les could undermine his confidence in a heartbeat. How had he forgotten that?

  Bran exited his truck, angry about the conversation. Over the years, Les had overstepped his bounds plenty of times, and not always when it came to ranch work. He’d chalked it up to a generation gap, since Les was old enough to be his father. Now he wondered if the bouts of hostility weren’t something else.

  Footsteps sounded behind him.

  Les wasn’t going to let it go. “Mark my words, boy. She’ll get herself knocked up and you’ll marry her outta a sense of duty. She’ll drop a couple more kids, ensuring she has plenty of guilt and blood money for years to come. Then she’ll take you for everything you’re worth and divorce your ass. You’ll end up alone anyway.”

  With that comment, Les went too far.

  Bran whirled on him and pushed him back, snarling, “Shut your fucking mouth or I will.”

  Les caught himself on the grille of Bran’s truck and winced.

  Shit. In his fury, Bran had forgotten the man was recovering from an injury. “Goddammit, Les, I didn’t mean—”

  “See? She’s already tied you up in knots and you ain’t thinkin’ straight. I’ll bet she’s questioned why you even need me around. When I’ve been a constant in your life since your grandparents died. Me. I’ve been the only one who’s cared about you for a long damn time. You remember that.”

  “What the hell is goin’ on?” Hank demanded.

  “Ask him,” Les huffed and stomped away.

  “Bran?”

  He refocused on Hank and not on Les’s stiff gait as he disappeared around the side of the house. “Les was a serious dick to Harper when he came back to work yesterday. Talkin’ trash about her to me just now. Damn fool don’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”

  Hank crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s obvious you have something goin’ on with her.”

  “Obvious to who?”

  “Don’t know if it’s obvious only to me since I’ve known you forever, but I saw you two at the branding, tryin’ so damn hard not to notice each other’s every move.”

  The branding. When Harper and Lainie had hung out. “She didn’t blab to Lainie or nothin’ about us bein’ involved?”

  Hank shrugged. “She might have, but if so, my wife didn’t talk to me about it, so maybe you oughta talk to me about it.”

  “Ain’t much to say. Harper’s leaving next week after Bailey graduates from high school. I knew that when I hired her.” Bran could claim he hadn’t intended to fall for sweet, sexy Harper, but from the moment she opened up to him, he’d been a goner.

  Regardless what Les thought, Harper hadn’t insinuated herself into Bran’s life because she was trying to hook a husband. She needed the job. Neither of them had anticipated that things would grow and change between them so quickly. As much as he’d enjoyed getting naked with her, he’d enjoyed just being with her every day a helluva lot more.

  “You’re just gonna let her leave?”

  “It’s what she wants.”

  “What about what you want?”

  “That’s the thing, Hank. I don’t know what I want.” He clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Thankfully, I do know what you want. Me to get my ass busy so you and the lovely Lainie can move into your own place as soon as possible.”

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Harper was up with the sunrise. Because of the situation with Bran and Bailey’s continual avoidance of her, she hadn’t slept worth beans the last two nights anyway. She showered and scribbled a packing list as well as a to-do list as she waited for the brew cycle on the coffeemaker to end.

  “Hey.”

  She jumped, startled by Bailey’s appearance in the dining room. “
Whoa. You’re up early. Or are you still up from pulling an all-nighter for finals?”

  Bailey shook her head. “I got up at the butt crack of dawn to talk to you about some stuff.”

  Finally. It’d been hard, waiting for Bailey to come to her, but Harper needed to ease up control now that Bailey was of legal age. The coffeemaker in the kitchen beeped. She stood, but Bailey grabbed her arm, stopping her. “Wait.”

  “What’s up?”

  But Bailey didn’t rattle off the litany of problems that plagued her teenage life for a change. She said, “I joined the army.”

  Harper squinted, turning her head to hear better. “You’re joining Amy to do what?”

  “I said I joined the army. I leave for basic training in Mississippi a few days after I graduate.”

 
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