Saddled and spurred, p.3
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.3

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  He scowled, biting back, “Ain’t gonna be a job interview.” Instead, he stepped away from the doorframe and said, “Might as well come in instead of standing out there freezin’.”

  “Thank you.” Harper wiped the soles of her dominatrix boots and peeled off her pink leopard-print gloves. When she pushed the cowl of her wool coat back, her golden hair stuck up in a million directions, making her seem approachable, not like a goddamn beauty queen.

  A beauty queen. As his hired hand.

  She smoothed her hands over her head, taming the wild strands. Then she jammed them in the front pockets of her fancy velvet suit jacket, with its gold embroidery, and ignored his pointed stare.

  Jesus, she was stunning. A wide face composed of such sharp angles and strong lines shouldn’t look so startlingly feminine, but it worked perfectly on her. Add in a generous mouth with a tiny beauty mark above the curve of her full lips and those brandy-colored eyes, and Bran was nearly struck stupid by her magnificence.

  Get a grip, man.

  He gestured to the couch. “Have a seat. Coffee?”

  “Yes. Please. Black.”

  Bran poured two cups, handed one to her, and parked himself in the easy chair across from her. They both took a sip. He waited for her to speak. When she didn’t, he said, “Why would you even be interested in this job? Don’t seem like your kind of thing.”

  She wouldn’t meet his eyes, instead focusing on the dark liquid in her mug.


  Finally she glanced up. “With all due respect, Mr. Turner, you don’t know anything about me. So how would you know if this was my kind of thing?”

  Damn. She did have a little fire. “I’ll give you that. And that answers the last part of my question, but not the first. Why do you wanna work as a hired hand?”

  “Honestly? Because I’m out of options.” Harper set her mug on the table and rubbed her hands across her skirt. Her tight skirt that’d inched halfway up her thighs the instant she’d primly perched on the edge of his lumpy sofa.

  Good Lord. The woman had worn a miniskirt, a silky shirt, and hooker boots to apply for a job . . . as a ranch hand. Didn’t she realize that most days she’d be covered in cow shit, mud, and hay?

  Probably not. This would be the shortest “interview” in history. Pity, really. He’d almost like to see what outfit she’d wear to the branding. Images of her rockin’ a red thong, topped with metallic chaps and a teeny bra with strategically placed silver stars and blue fringe popped into his head.

  “I went to work this morning at Tan Your Hide and Alice informed me she’s shutting it down.”

  “Is that your only job?”

  “No, I also work part-time at Get Nailed, which is part of Bernice’s Beauty Barn, but that hardly pays the grocery bill. So when Celia called me and heard my tale of woe, she lined this up.” She locked her troubled gaze on his. “Believe me, I had no clue she hadn’t told you that I was the one applying for the job.”

  “Have you ever worked on a ranch?”

  She shook her head. “That’s why I was suspicious when Celia suggested it. She knows I’m not a ranch kid.”


  They both said, “Look,” at the same time.

  Bran smiled. “Ladies first.”

  “I may not have cleaned barns or spread hay, but I have been working since I was twelve years old. I’ve babysat, served fast food, cleaned motel rooms, waitressed, sold clothes in a retail store. I have a great work ethic. I’m not afraid to try new things, nor am I set in my ways on how ranch work should be done, as I suspect other hired hands with experience might be. So if you’re wanting a reliable worker you can train to do things the way you want them done, that would be me.”

  “Nice pitch,” he murmured.

  Harper blushed.

  Oh, hell, no. Not a blusher. The pretty pink tinge on her cheekbones made him wonder if her whole body flushed that color.

  “I don’t want permanent employment,” she said, forcing his thoughts away from the image of her rosy naked body rolling around in his flannel sheets.

  “Why’s that?”

  Harper gave him a sardonic look. “No offense, but I can’t wait to get out of Muddy Gap.”

  “Remind me again how you ended up in our part of Wyoming?”

  “My mother hooked up with some trucker from here when we lived in Montana, so she followed him, once again believing it was true love, which once again lasted, oh, about four months before she kicked him to the curb.”

  Bran was tempted to chuckle, but he didn’t think Harper saw the humor in the retelling even now, so he kept quiet.

  “Moving again was the dead last thing I needed, since I’d just started my final year of high school. But Mom never cared what any of us wanted. However, she couldn’t force the issue because I’d won a couple of pageant titles that required me to live in the area for the duration of the reigning year.”

  “How many titles did you win?”

  “Six. Sounds like a lot, but Wyoming can’t boast a big pool of candidates to choose from, so some I won by default.”

  That was . . . humble. And unexpected. He’d figured with the knockout way she looked, she’d be cocky as hell.

  Hasn’t she already pointed out once that you’ve prejudged or maybe misjudged her?

  “How long have you lived here?” he asked, as if the rumor mill hadn’t churned the instant the “hot jailbait blonde” rolled into this sleepy Wyoming town.

  “Six years. Longest we’ve stayed any where.” She frowned. “Although Mom didn’t make it that long. Anyway, as soon as Bailey graduates from high school, we’re gone. Celia made it sound like your hired man would be back on his feet by then?”

  Bran nodded.

  “How did he get hurt?”

  “A freak accident. A bull stomped on Les’s foot and when he fell, he twisted his body, breaking his hip when he hit the dirt. Never had that happen before.”

  “Ouch.” Harper sipped her coffee.

  He sent her a challenging look. “But be aware. Accidents happen with the livestock and the equipment all the time. I’ve been kicked damn near every place on my body. I’ve practically ripped my hand off fixin’ fence. Almost lost my arm getting tangled up in a rope with a runaway horse. I’ve nearly been struck by lightning. I’ve been tossed on my ass by a horse. Knocked on my ass by cows and by bulls. Flipped over my ATV. Got my rig stuck in the mud. And in the snow. I’ve been chased by bulls. Chased by cows. Been stung by bees, wasps, and hornets. Almost burned up in a wildfire a time or twenty.”

  “You trying to scare me off?”

  “No, I’m sharin’ the cold hard facts so you know what you’re up against.”

  “So you’re considering me for the job?”

  Say no. “Possibly. Can you work seven days a week?”

  Harper paled a little. “Ah. Sure.”

  “It’s only until we’re through the worst of calving. Then it’ll be more normal.”

  “Normal being . . . what?”

  “Six in the morning until four in the afternoon.”

  “What’s the pay?”

  Bran shrugged. “Negotiable.”

  “That isn’t a dollar amount. I need a solid number.”

  He tossed out a number, but he honestly wasn’t sure what Les made. “One hundred dollars a day.”

  Her eyes widened. “For how many hours a day?”

  Harper wasn’t the pushover he’d imagined. Not that he would take advantage of her, but it was encouraging that she paid attention to details. Maybe she’d be detail-oriented on the job too. “A ten-hour day. Obviously any hours you logged over forty in a seven-day period you’d get paid time and a half. Paychecks are cut every other week by my accountant.” He drained his coffee. “Is that more or less money than you expected?”


  Well, well. Miss Half A Dozen Beauty Titles didn’t hedge either. “I ain’t gonna lie. It’s damn hard work.”

  “I know.” H
arper’s forehead crinkled and he was as fascinated by her coy demeanor as the long, sooty eyelashes that brushed her cheek. Those had to be fake, didn’t they?

  Bran’s cell phone rang, breaking his contemplation of other parts of Harper that might be fake. “Hello.”

  “Thought I’d catch ya nappin’.”

  He snorted. “I’m nappin’ just about as much as you are these days, Hank. What’s up?”

  “Same old, same old. Lainie wants to know if you’re free for supper tonight.”

  “Sure. I’ve always got time for supper with a pretty woman.”

  He felt Harper’s curious gaze.

  “You are aware I’ll be there too,” Hank said dryly.

  “A man can hope against that.” When Hank made a snarling noise, Bran laughed. “What time?”


  “I’ll be there. Tell her thanks.” He hung up and looked at Harper.

  She set her empty coffee cup on the table and met his gaze. “So, where do we stand on this? Are you gonna give me a shot?”

  Bran gave her a head-to-toe inspection, frowning at her attire. “Be here tomorrow. Six a.m. And for God’s sake, leave the pearls, beauty sash, silk shirt, fuck-me stiletto boots, and tiaras at home. Come dressed ready to get down and dirty with me.”

  Six hours later Bran shifted from boot to boot as he waited on the Lawsons’ front porch. He knocked again.

  The door swung open and Hank grinned at him. “Ah. Sorry we didn’t hear you knock. But you are early.”

  The top two buttons on Hank’s shirt were undone and his shirttail was untucked. Guilt kicked Bran in the ass at seeing his friend’s state of undress. Since Hank and Lainie lived with Hank’s brother, Abe, alone time was rare for them. Hank had been busting ass building a house a quarter mile away from this, the Lawson homeplace. Weather, work, and finances kept the sprawling ranch house from getting finished as fast as Hank and Lainie would’ve liked. But they weren’t willing to sacrifice any amenities, and that meant waiting.

  Hank said, “Wanna beer?”

  “Sure.” Bran followed Hank into the kitchen. The delicious scents of roasted meat and a chocolaty dessert filled his nostrils. His mouth watered—Lainie was a helluva cook. Hank handed over a bottle of Moose Drool.

  “You broke out the good beer. We celebrating something?”

  “It’s a step up from Bud Light, but it ain’t exactly high end.” Hank twisted the cap off his bottle. “The only thing we’re celebrating is bein’ at the ass end of calving season.”

  “How many you got left?”

  “Forty. As soon as we’re done, I’m hitting house construction hard. I’ve lined up a couple of guys to help out.”

  “Anything I can do to speed stuff up?”

  “I’ll let you know.”

  Lainie waltzed into the kitchen, and Bran couldn’t help but notice how Hank’s face lit up. She wrapped her arms around him and stood on tiptoe to whisper in his ear. Hank chuckled and whispered back before planting a kiss square on her smirking mouth. She turned around. “Bran. I’m glad you could make it.”

  “Thanks for the invite.”

  “No, thank you. I’m afraid Hank’s gotten tired of my company.”

  “Never.” Hank kissed the top of her head. “You want a beer?”

  “No. I’d rather have a glass of wine.”

  Bran wondered if Harper drank wine. She didn’t seem like the beer-drinking type. Actually, she didn’t seem like the type who drank at all.

  What does it matter? Ain’t like you’re gonna be swilling beers with her after the workday ends.

  “Tell us what’s new in your world,” Hank said.

  “Well, I’m not as far along calving as you guys are. I’ve got another solid month before it’ll taper off. Oh, and I hired a new hand today.”

  Hank’s eyebrows lifted. “Really? Where’d you find one?” “Actually Celia’s the one who hooked me up.”

  Lainie and Hank exchanged a look.

  Oh, hell, no. They hadn’t been in on it too? “Did you know who Celia sent to my front door?”

  “No. It’s just . . . we haven’t heard from Celia since the new rodeo season started,” Lainie said.

  “Why’s that?”

  Hank shrugged. “Who knows with that girl? But me’n Lainie suspect it has something to do with Nancy, Abe’s girlfriend. They didn’t exactly hit it off over Christmas. She mention anything about it to you?”

  Even if Celia had complained, Bran wouldn’t have broken her confidence. Plus, he didn’t like Abe’s new girlfriend either. “Nope.”

  “So who’s your new hired hand?”

  Bran took a long swallow of his beer. “Harper Masterson.”

  Both Lainie’s and Bran’s mouths fell open in shock. “Harper? You’ve gotta be kiddin’.”

  “’Fraid not. Of course, Celia didn’t tell me Harper was the ‘perfect’ hired hand when she called. Nor did she tell Harper that I had no clue Celia had sent her my way.”

  “But Harper is so . . .”

  Beautiful? Built? Sexy?

  Annoyed at the direction of his thoughts, Bran said, “She’s so what?”

  “‘Inexperienced’ comes to mind,” Hank said cautiously.

  Lainie shook her head. “She’s probably that too, but the truth is Harper keeps to herself after that nasty business with her mother. She’s kind of shy—that’s probably why Celia stepped in. Why was Harper looking for work?”

  Bran didn’t feel comfortable blabbing Harper’s problems to his friends. “All I know is Harper showed up on Celia’s recommendation.” He knocked back another swig of beer. “I’ve decided to give her a chance.”

  Lainie and Hank exchanged another look.

  “Jesus. Would you guys stop doin’ that married couple silent communication crap? It’s fuckin’ annoying. Just come right out and ask me the goddamn question.”

  Hank flashed his teeth. “Fine. Did you hire Harper because of the way she looks?”

  Bran grinned back at his nosy friend. “No. Although I’ll admit that’s a plus. A big plus. But the real reason is Harper’s only gonna be around Muddy Gap about as long as Les is laid up, so it seemed like a sign.”

  “Then where’s she goin’?”

  “No clue. She told me as soon as her little sister graduates from high school they’re both outta here.”

  “Did you tell her that staying overnight at your place was part of the job?”

  Hank had known Bran long enough to understand that Harper was exactly the type of woman Bran was attracted to. But women that hot and gorgeous never reciprocated the attraction, so he’d always shied away from them.

  “Let it go, Hank,” Lainie warned.

  Surprisingly, Hank did. He passed out another round of beers.

  “Where’s Abe tonight?” Bran asked.

  “At Nancy’s.”

  “Thank God she ain’t here again,” Hank muttered. “I never thought my brother would find a woman I liked less than Janie, but I’ll be goddamned if he didn’t.”

  “I never understood your beef with Janie. If I’d had to put up with Abe’s ‘master of the house’ bullshit, I’da left him too.”

  Hank scowled at Bran.

  “Master of the house?” Lainie repeated, swirling the wine in her glass. “Do tell. All I’ve ever heard about the ex-wife is how she left poor Abe high and dry.”

  Bran shrugged. “In my opinion, Abe married Janie wanting her to be just like his mom. A happy homemaker whose only purpose was to service this ranch and the Lawson family’s needs. When Janie turned out not to be that type . . . Abe tried to force her into becoming that type. Janie’s biggest issue was the living situation. She didn’t want to live with Hank and Celia indefinitely. She wanted them to have their own place. Instead of keeping his wife’s confidence, Abe told you and Celia and you both hated her. Abe chose his family over his wife. That’s why Janie left. And
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