Saddled and spurred, p.29
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.29

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  A surreal stillness surrounded Harper. Maybe it was the sound of her world crashing around her. “You’re serious.”

  “Completely. I, ah, have the official paperwork in my room if you want to see it.”

  Coffee forgotten, Harper folded her arms over her chest. “When did you do this?”

  “The day after I turned eighteen I drove to the army recruiter’s office in Cheyenne.”

  “So it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing?”

  Bailey shook her head.

  “Why didn’t you talk to me about it?”

  “Because I knew you’d try to talk me out of it.”

  No kidding. This was a nightmare. Another sister going off to God-knew-where, risking life and limb. Bailey was a baby. Too young to go to war. Didn’t she realize that?

  “Look, Harper, I didn’t—”

  “Think it through? That is obvious. When did you plan on telling me?”

  Bailey threw up her arms. “I tried!”

  “When?” she demanded. “Because I definitely would’ve remembered that conversation.”

  “When I told you to do what you wanted with your life and not to plan your future around mine.”

  Harper’s eyebrows rose, as did her temper. “That’s what I was supposed to glean from that discussion, Bailey? That you wanted to blow off all the college scholarship opportunities you’ve worked so hard for . . . to become a soldier? Wrong. You could’ve told me and you didn’t.”

  “I’m an adult now. I don’t answer to you,” Bailey shot back with typical teenage snark. “And besides, is this really about me going to college? Or are you living through me because you didn’t finish school?”

  Anger and shame bubbled inside her from Bailey’s low blow.

  “Shit, Harper. I’m sorry. That came out wrong. I didn’t mean—”

  “You never mean it, but it never stops you from saying mean things, does it?”

  Bailey broke eye contact.

  “Did Liberty put you up to this? Tell you what an adventure it’d be to live in the barracks, shoot stuff, and see the world from the inside of a Humvee while you’re wearing full body armor?”

  “No! And it pisses me off that you think I can’t make up my own mind about what I want to do with my life.”

  The girl couldn’t make up her mind what shoes to wear most days. And she’d decided to wear combat boots in perpetuity? “Okay. What inspired this adult decision?”

  Bailey paced. “The army is paying to put me through school. And while I’m in school learning a trade, I’ll earn a paycheck. How is that not a good deal all around? I’ll have a place to live, training, health care, and education. This is the perfect solution. One that I hadn’t considered until the recruiter came to school and talked to us.”

  “Does Liberty know you joined the army?” When Bailey looked away, Harper knew. A sick sensation invaded her stomach. She lived with Bailey, took care of her, worried about her, and none of that mattered? Her sister didn’t think enough of her to share with her how drastically her future plans had changed?

  Or have you been so wrapped up in Bran that you hadn’t noticed?

  No. Even if Harper hadn’t spent a large chunk of her time working like a dog, working to ensure that Bailey had the bright future she deserved, Bailey should’ve made the time to talk to her, no matter if they’d had to hold the conversation in Bran’s barn.

  “I know you don’t understand, Harper.”

  “You’re right. I don’t.” She managed a short laugh. “And to think I’ve listened to you bitch for the last two years about how you hated wearing a school uniform. Now you’ll be wearing a uniform every day for . . .” She met Bailey’s eyes. “How long did you sign up for?”

  “Six years.”

  Don’t cry. Don’t accuse and say something you can’t take back. Don’t be like your mother.

  Harper bit the inside of her cheek so hard, she tasted the tang of blood in her mouth. She kept her composure as she retreated to the kitchen. She reached in the back of the cupboard for the metal cylinder with “Sweet Dreams Tea” emblazoned across the front and dumped out the tea bags—and a roll of bills. She’d skimmed a hundred bucks out of her paychecks from the Turner Ranch as an emergency stash. Maybe this didn’t qualify as an emergency, but Harper knew sticking around in her frame of mind wasn’t an option.

  As she passed through the living room, Bailey called out, “Can we please talk about this?”

  “No.”

  “Please, Harper, I’m begging you.”

  “I said no.” Then Harper shut her bedroom door in her sister’s face. Grabbing the small overnight bag from the closet, she shoved in a few changes of clothes. Then she took the bag into the bathroom and loaded up toiletries. Now she was good to go.

  But where?

  It didn’t matter. She just had to get out of here.

  Bailey leaped up from the couch when Harper returned to the living room. “Look, I know you’re upset and I don’t blame you—”

  “I’m glad that you don’t blame me for being upset, Bailey, because God knows, I couldn’t go on if I didn’t take the goddamn blame for every shitty thing that happens in this family.”

  Her sister gasped. “You’re really pissed. You actually swore.”

  Harper slipped on her trench coat. She shouldered her overnight bag and plucked her purse off the coffee table.

  “Where are you going?” Bailey asked in a very small voice.

  Don’t fall for the distressed-sister act. She’s not the wounded party here, you are. “I don’t know.”

  “When are you coming back?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Why are you doing this? As some sort of punishment for me?”

  Harper looked at her sister with absolute incredulity. “You know, I’m just now starting to understand how wrong it’s been for me to do everything for you. And you’re right, maybe I should’ve worried more about myself, because God knows you don’t waste any energy worrying about me.”

  Bailey’s face flushed with guilt.

  Good. Harper snatched the car keys from the hook and opened the door.

  “Wait. Are you taking the car?”

  “Yep.”

  “But why can’t you take the truck?”

  “Because it’s not mine.”

  “But . . . what am I supposed to do?” Pure panic filled Bailey’s voice. “How am I supposed to get anywhere?”

  “You’re an adult, remember? You’ll figure it out.” She didn’t turn around as she slammed the door, climbed in the car, and drove off.

  Harper made it four miles outside of Muddy Gap before she pulled over. Tears poured out as she finally let loose the grief, frustration, and disappointment that moved through her body like a slow-acting poison.

  What would she do now? She’d saved enough money for cheap living expenses for about two months. She’d counted on Bailey taking the full-ride scholarship to the University of Wyoming. Harper figured she had a better chance of getting a job in Laramie in the summer months when the college students were gone. By the time school started in August, she’d be established in a new job and Bailey would be ready to move into the dorms.

  She’d had it all planned out, except for one thing: That wasn’t what Bailey wanted.

  Had it ever been something that Bailey had wanted?

  Yes. They’d talked for hours over the last year and a half about what they’d do once they finally got out of Muddy Gap. Harper hadn’t imagined those conversations. She’d happily given up any semblance of free time to help Bailey fill out college applications. Watching Bailey’s excitement as she realized that the opportunities available to her had been worth the effort of concentrating solely on her academics.

  Now it felt like wasted effort.

  No. It just hurts.

  Harper leaned her neck into the headrest. Spring wind blew through the open car window, cooling her burning cheeks. The morning rays were a fiery gold spread across the empty fields, s
hining on patches of green grass sprouting in a ring around the mud puddles. Clusters of purple barnyard lilacs dotted the hillside along with the tan stalks of last year’s grass. Yellow clover lined the ditch. If she listened closely, she could hear birdsong trilling on the breeze and the buzz of insects. With nature’s splendor surrounding her, why did she notice that the sky was the same gray as Bran’s eyes?

  Bran. Just another situation she had no idea how to handle. She loved him. But she suspected he’d thrown himself into their affair because she was leaving. Although he hadn’t admitted it, she suspected he’d never gotten up the courage to show his raunchy side to past lovers. To make the kind of sexual demands of them that he’d made of her. She’d loved every minute, especially when Bran had no issue showing her his sweet side . . . Good Lord, the man could be so incredibly sweet it made her heart ache.

  So how could she spring it on him that she had nowhere to go? The last thing she wanted was Bran’s pity. Neither did she want him to feel obligated to help her out. The job she’d signed on for was temporary. So was their relationship.

  But they’d become friends as well as lovers. And if Harper just happened to show up at his place . . . and if he just happened to ask her what was wrong . . . there’d be no harm in telling him, would there?

  No.

  Mind made up, she pulled back onto the highway. Her cell phone vibrated and she ignored it. The turnoff to the Lawson ranch loomed ahead. Harper missed Celia. But her friend was dealing with her own issues, which strengthened Harper’s determination not to unburden herself. Janie Fitzhugh’s voice popped into her head: “Anytime you need anything, call me.” Harper doubted Janie had been serious.

  The fish-shaped mailbox signifying the turnoff to Bran’s place didn’t bring the sense of relief it usually did. She putted down the rutted muddy tracks, wishing she’d driven the truck. This time of year reminded her why this part of the county had been christened “Muddy Gap.”

  When she reached the house, she noticed Bran’s truck wasn’t around. Les meandered over from the big barn. Brusquely, he said, “I was hoping you’d be bringing my pickup back.”

  She offered him a fake smile. “I can’t very well drive both vehicles at once, now, can I? Where is Bran? I need to talk to him.”

  Les’s eyes gleamed. “You don’t wanna mess with him today, Harper. Maybe you oughta run on home.”

  Whatever territorial instinct she had about Bran pushed front and center. “Where is he?”

  “How about if you tell me what you want to talk to him about and I’ll pass along the message?”

  Miserable little man. Yeah, why don’t you go ahead and break the news to Bran that I love him. And even if my sister wouldn’t have joined the army without telling me, and we were moving according to my plan, I’d still feel like I was leaving a piece of myself—a big piece—with him.

  When she didn’t answer right away, Les snapped his fingers. “Sorry. I’ll bet you’re here to ask about your paycheck.”

  Paycheck? Wow. Les really thought she was a money-grubbing bitch, didn’t he?

  Her contemplation of Les’s motives for putting her in her place vanished when she heard the familiar sound of Bran’s truck barreling up the drive.

  He parked in his usual spot and hopped out, skirting the front end.

  Harper’s heart turned over. The man looked good. He always looked good. But he didn’t grant his usual I’m-imagining-you-naked grin. Nor did his eyes soften. In fact, his eyes went hard and cold. He glanced at her car, then at her.

  “Where’s the truck?”

  “At my house. I was . . .” Desperate to talk to you. “Bran? What’s wrong?”

  “I’ll tell you what’s wrong.” Les barged right between them. “You didn’t do your job checking fences. The bulls got out. All of them. Me’n Bran spent all yesterday trying to get our bulls outta the Hendersons’ pasture. And we’ve gotta head back there today to finish up.”

  All the blood drained from her face.

  “I can’t believe you were so stupid—”

  “Les, that’s enough,” Bran snapped.

  Bran was boiling mad. Livid like she’d never seen him. And the truth of it was, she couldn’t blame him. She hadn’t paid attention. A whole section of fencing could’ve been down when she was trying to find her way in the fog. It’d been an honest mistake. Didn’t he see that?

  No. She doubted he could see anything through the red haze surrounding him.

  Harper studied Bran’s face. Upon closer examination, he didn’t look like a million bucks. Dark circles discolored the skin beneath his eyes. His mouth and jaw were set in a grim line. His posture was one hundred percent closed off.

  Closed off from her. Probably for good.

  She’d screwed up big-time. He’d given her a job when she needed it and how had she repaid him? By making a stupid mistake and costing him tens of thousands of dollars.

  No way could Harper tell him how the world she’d known had crumbled. With Les around to remind Bran what an idiot she was, she doubted he would ever forgive her. She whispered, “I’m sorry.”

  “You should be,” Les sneered.

  Bran didn’t defend her this time.

  Les said, “She was askin’ about her last check.”

  Again, Bran just gave her that inscrutable cowboy stare.

  Don’t cry.

  Would it salvage her pride if she kept this businesslike? No. But it was all she had. “If you could just tell me when I can pick it up? At the accountant’s—”

  “I’ll drop the damn check off at your house, Harper.”

  “And what the hell are you gonna do with it when I’m not there?” Stay calm. “Just send the damn thing to my address. The post office will forward it to me.”

  “Fine.” He rubbed his temple. “When are you leavin’?”

  “I’m not sure. So you’ll be wanting these. Here”—she tossed him the keys and he caught them with one hand—“your truck is parked in front of the house.”

  He gave her a cool appraisal before he pushed off from where he’d been leaning against his pickup. He spoke to Les. “Come on. We’ve gotta get a move on and fix this mess with the Hendersons.”

  No good-bye. No anything. On wooden legs, Harper climbed in her car and drove off, without any idea where she was going.

  Had she really come just for her check?

  Jesus, that pissed him off.

  He waited until her piece-of-shit car was on the highway before he stomped to the barn.

  “Where you goin’?” Les demanded.

  Away from you so I can think.

  Bran didn’t respond. Livid, and more flustered than he cared to admit, he spun around and headed back the way he’d just come—straight to his truck. Ignoring Les’s shouts, he tore out of there, spewing gravel and curse words.

  Goddammit. Contrary to Les’s opinion, Bran hadn’t blamed her for the bulls’ getting out. It’d been an ongoing problem and he hadn’t dealt with it because for too long he’d played the part of the laid-back rancher. No more would he let his clueless, less-than-neighborly neighbors dictate a stupid policy that no one else in their right mind would’ve agreed to.

  No more. He would pin Stan Henderson’s ass to the wall, but not when he was in such a piss-poor mood.

  He parked and got back to work digging post holes for a new fence. Hard physical labor that exhausted his body and drained his brain had always helped him deal with difficult situations in the past.

  That’s all Harper is to you? Another difficult situation to handle?

  No. Harper was everything to him. Everything. He was absolutely sick about what had just happened. The minute he’d seen her car go by as he’d been working in the pasture closest to the house, he’d hauled ass back to the ranch. He’d intended to wrap her in his arms, then drop to his knees, right in the mud, and tell her he loved her. Beg her not to go. Ask her to marry him and stay with him forever.

  But that confession wasn’t something he w
anted to do in front of Les. Not because he was embarrassed to admit how he felt about her, but because Harper deserved better.

  Yeah? Then how is it that you ended up on your worst behavior?

  Infuriated with himself, he jammed the shovel into the ground with force, leaning into the work until he was almost horizontal, spraying soil everywhere as the metal tip clanged into a solid object. Dammit. He must’ve hit a rock. He dropped to his knees and reached in the hole. Definitely a rock, but what the hell . . . ?

  His fingers plucked the object out of the hole and the metal glinted in the sun.

  For chrissake. He’d been so focused on moving that rock he hadn’t noticed his cell phone had fallen into the hole. And he’d pulverized the damn thing.

 
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