Saddled and spurred, p.30
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.30

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  Fucking awesome.

  Now how was he supposed to get in touch with Harper? With her leaving, a phone call was the only way he could contact her.

  Get in your damn truck and go after her. Fix this. Right now.

  No. As much as he needed to cool off before he talked to the Hendersons, that went double for how he needed to present himself when he tracked Harper down. He had to get a handle on what he was going to say to her. For once in his life, he wasn’t running off half-cocked. This was too damn important.

  Bran swore and threw the mangled phone in the bed of his pickup. He pounded the shovel into the ground until he was coated with sweat and his back and arms ached, but the damn stubborn rock wouldn’t budge.

  Hopefully, that wasn’t a sign of things to come.

  Chapter Twenty-two

  The drive into Casper was a blur.

  Harper found cheap lodging at the Super 8. She picked up the classifieds and checked out the job situation. As long as she didn’t mind working in the food industry she’d have no problem finding employment. Rent for a single-bedroom apartment was fairly reasonable, even if higher than her house in Muddy Gap.

  But it didn’t make sense to drive back and forth just to save a hundred bucks on housing, especially if she ended up getting two jobs. She’d work, save as much money as possible, and figure out what she wanted to do with her life.

  Her cell phone buzzed. Bailey texted her. Again. And once again, Harper didn’t answer. She wasn’t being petty; she’d said everything she’d intended to say at this point.

  She flopped on the bed and turned on the TV. Cable was a luxury and watching mindless entertainment might take her mind off the feeling that her life had completely fallen apart.

  As she snacked on pizza she’d had delivered to her room, and the two packages of M&M’s from the vending machine, her phone buzzed. Fifteen calls. Ten calls were from Bailey. One call was from Bailey’s friend Amy’s cell phone. Two calls from an unlisted number she assumed were from Liberty. One call was from Celia. One call was from Janie.

  No calls from Bran.

  That made her incredibly weepy and she ripped into another bag of candy. Sadly, even the best chocolate in the world would never compare to the way Bran made her feel.

  She was considering turning her phone off completely when it buzzed a sixteenth time. The caller ID read: Bernice Watson. Harper had to answer, even if her wily sister had tricked her boss into calling on her behalf. “Hello?”

  “Hey, sugar.”

  “Hey, Bernice. What’s up?”

  “My curiosity, I suppose.” Bernice coughed. “Bailey’s called me, oh, four or five times, wondering if I’d heard from you. I don’t think she believed me when I said I didn’t know where you were. She seemed pretty upset.” A whoosh of air echoed as Bernice exhaled. “Look, it probably ain’t my business, but did you two have a fight or something?”

  “Or something,” Harper said dryly. “To be honest, I’m avoiding her until I get a better handle on the situation.”

  “I understand completely. Anything I can do?”

  “No. Real sweet of you to ask, Bernice. I appreciate it.”

  “Well, I ain’t made no secret of the fact I worry about you, Harper. Care about you as if you were my own kid.”

  Harper’s eyes watered and she managed a hoarse “Thanks.”

  “Anyway, I am callin’ for my own reasons. I’ve gotta take Bob to the doctor in Cheyenne tomorrow and I’m scheduled to have the Beauty Barn open. I’ve canceled my clients, but I’m expecting a big shipment from a beauty supply store in Colorado in the afternoon and someone’s gotta be here to sign for it or else they won’t deliver. Since I paid the damn rush shipping charges . . .”

  “Say no more. I’ll be back in town to open at noon.”

  A pause. “Back in town? Where are you?”

  “Casper.”

  “You’re not at Bran Turner’s place?”

  I wish. “No. Since Les is all healed up, I’m done working for Bran, so I’m looking for a full-time job.”

  “I’ll be back around five tomorrow, with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses so you can tell me just what the hell is goin’ on in your life that’s sent you running.”

  Tears surfaced again. “I’d like that.”

  “Good. Thanks, Harper.” Bernice hung up.

  Harper set aside the classified ads. So much for filling out job applications first thing in the morning. She clicked off the TV and the light. She stared at the patterns in the acoustic ceiling tiles, listening to the clacking of the heater register for the longest time before she finally drifted off.

  And she dreamt of him anyway. Foolish, girlish dreams that had no basis in reality—in her life or in the life of anyone she’d ever known. Sappy Disney dramas that always turned out perfectly in the end. The fact was, Bran wouldn’t barrel up to her crappy rental house in his dirty pickup, confess his undying love for her, and they’d drive off into the sunset together.

  Another thing her silly dreams got wrong—she wasn’t looking for a man to rescue her. Or to take care of her. She wanted a man to love her for her. For who she was on the inside, not the outside. She’d hoped Bran was that man. He still might be. But she was too emotionally raw right now to find out.

  So maybe it was childish the next day that she hid her car behind the Beauty Barn so neither Bailey nor Bran would see it.

  Since Bernice had rescheduled her hair appointments, there wasn’t much for Harper to do, which drove her crazy. She’d never been the type to sit around. So she dusted. Vacuumed. Cleaned the smoky haze off the mirrors. Washed a load of towels. Cleaned the bathroom and the break room. When the inventory boxes arrived via the UPS man, she logged them in, but she didn’t unpack anything because Bernice preferred to do it.

  She’d settled behind the front counter with her pen and the classified ads, waiting for Bernice to return, when the door chimed. Harper glanced up as Janie Fitzhugh sailed into the beauty shop.

  “Please tell me Bernice is working,” Janie pleaded. She pointed at her own head of hair. “It’s awful, isn’t it? Looks like I brushed it with a currycomb.”

  “I’m sorry—Bernice is gone. She’ll be here tomorrow.”

  “But I can’t wait that long. I have business meetings, and I don’t know what to do with this stupid stuff besides shave it off.”

  “Ack. Don’t do that. Do what I do.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Disguise it.”

  “How?”

  “Wear a hat or a scarf or a headband. Then people will believe you’re chic and classy or whimsical, not that you’re overdue for a haircut.”

  Janie snapped her fingers. “That’s a great idea. Got any suggestions on how to help this mop of hair look chic?”

  Harper considered Janie. From the accessories counter she selected a wide leather and metal headband with funky copper stars threaded through the elastic straps. “Try this.” She slid the ends of the headband behind Janie’s elfin ears, pushing the thickest part up her forehead. The headband tamed hanks of hair hanging in Janie’s eyes. “See how you like that.”

  Janie angled the mirror to see Harper’s handiwork. Her mouth dropped open. “That looks fantastic. Wow. Totally fixed the problem. I could probably avoid a haircut for another month.”

  “Which is why that’s not a trick I usually share with Bernice’s customers,” Harper said dryly. “Then again, Bernice’s Beauty Barn clients aren’t always open to something new.”

  “Pity your talents are being wasted here, Harper.” Janie fussed with the hair behind the headband.

  “Wasted. Right.”

  “I’m serious. How much is this headband?”

  “Fifteen bucks.”

  “But I can only wear it with brown. So if I needed one to wear with a black outfit . . . ?”

  Harper plucked another headband from the rack, one that was crafted of twisted metal, but lacked embellishments. “This one is simple and you can
dress it up or down. For a casual look, twine a ribbon or a piece of fabric through the open metal if you want to match a specific outfit. For formal, you could clip earrings or other pieces of rhinestone jewelry across the top. Then it almost looks like a crown.”

  “Says the beauty queen used to wearing crowns.”

  “You’re hilarious.”

  “See? Now you’ve sold me two headbands, which is more than I would’ve spent on the haircut.” Janie turned and gave Harper’s clothes a critical once-over. “My God. Do you always look so amazingly put together? You have such a fantastic fashion sense. Is that something they teach you at pageants?”

  Harper laughed. Maybe a bit wildly.

  “What?” Janie asked suspiciously.

  “Without seeming like a sympathy seeker, I will just say that financial necessity has forced me to get creative with my clothes. Most are purchased at secondhand stores. Although it’s much hipper to call them vintage.” Harper pointed to her cream-colored button-up shirt. “I bought this dress shirt in the men’s section for, like, two bucks.”

  “And the rest of the outfit?”

  “I’ve picked up pieces here and there, but I didn’t pay more than ten bucks for anything I’ve got on, including my boots.” That morning she’d paired the fitted shirt with a dark brown tank top decorated with tan leather fringe. She’d tucked the tank top into the khaki-colored miniskirt and knotted the ends of the shirt through her front belt loops, creating her own belt. She’d slipped on her tan cowgirl boots with the suede fringe running down the back seam. In fleeing from home, she’d purposely chosen pieces that she could mix and match for several days because she hadn’t known how long she’d be gone.

  Janie fiddled with the button on her maroon suit jacket and tugged at the hem of her matching skirt. “I’m ashamed to tell you I paid over two hundred bucks for this outfit—and that doesn’t include the shoes.”

  “You shouldn’t be embarrassed. You look great.”

  “I sense a but,” Janie said.

  “But if it were me, and I was wearing such a severe business suit? I’d add a feminine touch, like a softer fabric shirt with a slight pattern or better yet, a high-cut lace camisole.” When Janie frowned, Harper felt ridiculous for offering her advice. Obviously a successful professional woman such as Janie knew how to dress herself.

  She stepped behind the register. “Is there anything else?”

  “Yes.”

  Harper looked up at the emphatic yes.

  Janie angled over the counter—how the tiny woman’s feet were still on the floor, quite frankly, completely mystified Harper—and said, “Are you still working for Bran Turner?”

  “No.”

  “Are you still taking off for parts unknown after your sister graduates?”

  “Umm. Not exactly.”

  Janie’s shrewd eyes zoomed to the Help Wanted section folded on the counter. “So you’re looking for work in Casper?”

  Nosy little thing. “Yes. Jobs are limited in Muddy Gap and a girl’s gotta make a living if she wants to get out of Wyoming.” Or even if she plans to stay in Wyoming.

  Where had that thought come from?

  “Can you do me a favor before you drop off your résumé with any of those places you’ve circled?”

  Harper nearly laughed. Résumé? Applebee’s didn’t need a résumé, just a completed job application. “What?”

  “Meet me at Buckeye Joe’s tonight. Around seven?”

  “I don’t think getting drunk is going to help my iffy job situation, Janie.”

  Janie grinned. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too sure about that. However, that’s not why I’m asking.” Her face became pure business. “Please. And wear what you’ve got on, okay?”

  It wasn’t like she had anything else to do besides fight with Bailey. She’d intended on driving back to Casper after she finished talking to Bernice, but she really didn’t want to shell out another sixty bucks for a motel room. “Fine. I’ll be there.”

  Chapter Twenty-three

  The scented steam wafted up as Harper poured herself a cup of tea. It’d be easy to knock back more whiskey to take the edge off, but her mother had always looked for answers in the bottom of a bottle and Harper knew firsthand it didn’t work.

  Given the state of the house, she assumed her sister had spent the night elsewhere. Maybe she wouldn’t drag herself back here tonight either.

  Not nice, Harper.

  She wasn’t feeling very nice.

  Her cell phone rang and she glanced at the number over the rim of her teacup. Celia. Her finger hovered on the answer button because she missed talking to her friend. Yet she didn’t feel like rehashing the past twenty-four hours. She let the call kick over to voice mail, knowing Celia wouldn’t leave a message.

  Story of her life. No one had left a message. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Liberty had. Surprisingly she hadn’t blustered with her usual piss-off-and-deal-with-it response. She’d very calmly and emphatically informed Harper that she’d had no hand in suggesting that Bailey opt for military service instead of college.

  Bran hadn’t attempted to call either. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that. But being just plain numb about everything had an upside. She drained the remainder of her tea and stood. Time to see why Janie had been so insistent on meeting her tonight.

  One good thing about living in Muddy Gap? She could walk everywhere.

  There’s more than one good thing, isn’t there?

  Shoot. The heart-to-heart she’d had with Bernice—as well as the slug of whiskey—had made her melancholy.

  The sun still shone, although the rays had dimmed to a muted gold, allowing shadows to play hopscotch on the sidewalk. Trees were finally leafing out. Spikes of grass were green. Dandelions popped up here and there in yards not meticulously manicured. Spring came late in the mountains.

  Buckeye Joe’s wasn’t packed to the rafters, but close. She said hi to several people, stopped to talk to several more, so by the time she spied Janie in the far back booth, ten minutes had passed since she’d entered the bar.

  “Sorry.” She slid across from Janie.

  “No problem. I’m glad I got here early. I’ve never seen this place so consistently busy. Maybe it’s a good thing that Mac took off.” She nudged a lowball glass at Harper. “Whiskey Coke, right?”

  “Right.”

  “Happy hour. Drink up.”

  “I’ll probably only have one, since I . . .” Refuse to end up like my mother. She smiled. “Thanks. I had a slug before I got here.”

  “Not for the liquid courage to talk to us, I hope?”

  “Us?” she repeated.

  “Yes, ma’am.” Renner Jackson pulled a chair to the end of the table, flipped it around, and straddled it. He set his forearms on the table and smiled at her. “Heya, Harper.” He focused on Janie and smirked. “Heya, indentured servant.”

  Janie whapped his arm. “Be serious. Do you want to go first?”

  “Nope. This is your show. Pretend I’m not here.”

  “Let’s get right to it.” Janie focused on Harper. “Why were you circling Help Wanted ads in Casper?”

  Harper sucked down a big gulp of her drink before she launched into the story. After she finished, Janie and Renner exchanged a look. “What?”

  “As much as I suspect you’re hurtin’ from what happened with your sister, and fretting about where you’ll end up, I hope you’ll hear us out before you take off outta Muddy Gap like your boots are on fire,” Renner said.

  “Hear you out? About what?”

  “About comin’ to work for me. For us. At the Split Rock Ranch and Resort.”

  Harper didn’t say a word. Her gaze moved from Janie’s face to Renner’s face and back to Janie’s face again. Were they drunk?

  “You know Renner is building a hunting-lodge type of dude ranch vacation getaway on the land he bought?” Janie asked.

  She nodded.

  “The property won’t be geared toward men. We
re aiming to attract couples. The guys can fish and hunt or ride a bull or spend the day as a ranch hand, while their wives or girlfriends enjoy the benefits of a relaxing spa. Or they can go horseback riding or hang out at the lodge. Or shop.”

 
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