Saddled and spurred, p.31
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.31

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  “I’ll admit that sounds like a great idea, but I don’t see where I come in. You need someone to clean rooms or something?”

  Janie scowled. “No.”

  “I guarantee you don’t want to hire me as a ranch hand, as Bran Turner can attest to the fact that I suck.” Oh, crap. That hadn’t come out right at all.

  Before Harper could clarify that statement, Janie said, “For chrissake, I’m not looking to hire you to do nails either.”


  Renner set his hand over Janie’s, which immediately calmed her. “What Janie means is, in addition to the main ranch house, which will contain eight large bedroom suites, a great room, a game room, and a bar, there will be two other structures. One for the spa. The other will house a dining room, an art gallery, and a retail area.”

  Now, that piqued Harper’s interest.

  Janie sensed it right away and jumped back in. “Up until this morning, we’d planned to have a high-end women’s Western clothing store.”

  “Because the woman who can afford to fly into nowhere Wyoming for a week can afford to spend eight hundred bucks on a pair of cowboy boots?” Harper asked.

  “Exactly. But our conversation at the beauty shop this afternoon struck a chord with me. We’ve spent all day rehashing our original direction. And we’d really like your help in the initial planning stages to implement the changes.”

  “Okay . . . but I don’t have any idea what that means.”

  “Stand up.”

  Harper blinked. “Excuse me?”

  “Stand up and show Renner your outfit.”

  Of all the strange requests. Harper slid out of the booth and felt absurd as Renner Jackson eyed her from head to toe.

  “See what I mean?” Janie prompted.

  “Yep. She’s got it. No one else has thought of doin’ this, Janie. I’m damn impressed.”

  “That’s why you pay me the big bucks, Ren.”

  He snorted.

  “Can I sit now?” Or maybe she should run.

  Janie gestured distractedly and ordered another round when the cocktail waitress swung by. Then she leaned across the table and gave Harper an impish grin. “So? What do you think about coming to work for us?”

  “Doing what?”

  “You’d be in charge of merchandising for the retail store, specifically finding, ordering, and setting up merchandise. New and vintage.”

  Harper’s jaw nearly dropped to the table. “Is this some sort of joke?”

  “Not hardly,” Renner drawled. “We’re dead-ass serious.”

  “Why me?”

  “Because like Renner said, you’ve got it.”

  “What’s it?”

  “That elusive fashionability and sense of style that makes you look totally put together whether you’re dressed to the nines or wearing flannel. And you’re approachable.”

  She lifted her eyebrows. “Approachable? As opposed to what?”

  “Darlin’, you’re a stunning woman. But I’ll be honest. Most women who look like you?” Renner shook his head. “They tend to be first-class bitches instead of first-class ladies.”

  Another blush arose. They were really slathering on the flattery. But they seemed sincere. She fought her excitement because chances like this never came her way. Never.

  “Today when you showed me your outfit and told me how much you paid for it? It occurred to me that mixing vintage clothes, shoes, and accessories, with new clothes, shoes, and accessories would be a unique angle for our retail store.”

  “And I concurred,” Renner said.

  “You’ve got my vote. But again . . . why me? I don’t have a degree in marketing or business management. I’m not qualified.”

  Renner tipped his head, studying her from beneath the brim of his black Stetson. “There’s more to runnin’ a business than havin’ a piece of paper framed on your wall that says you passed some classes. I ain’t sayin’ this because I’m some freaky kind of stalker, but I’ve watched you. When I came into the nail salon, you went out of your way to make me feel comfortable. Here in the bar, you know everyone. Everyone likes you. I’ve heard there was some nasty family business you’ve had to overcome in this small town, and it appears to me you have. It ain’t easy dealin’ with people from all walks of life, and from what I’ve seen, you excel at it. When Janie told me you’ve got mad sales skills and experience working in Western retail? In my mind you’re more than qualified. You’re perfect. I’d love to have you part of my team.”

  Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.

  “Plus, I know you’re a hard worker. You’d be surprised how many people with fancy degrees aren’t willin’ to get their hands dirty. You are. I admire that.”

  “Ah. Thank you.”

  “Renner has final approval over every aspect of the resort,” Janie pointed out, “but you’d be working directly with me for the retail division.”

  She couldn’t have been more shocked than if she’d won the lottery. “If you’re serious . . . what’s the catch?”

  Janie and Renner exchanged another look. Which meant there was a catch. “Tell me.”

  “First, what we’ve talked about here tonight is top secret. I don’t want anyone to hear what we’ve planned until I’m sure we can pull it off.”

  “You mean everything about the resort? Or just the retail end?”

  “Just the retail side.”

  “I can keep a secret.”

  “Good.” Renner made wet rings with the bottom of his beer bottle on the table and gestured for Janie to steer the conversation.

  “The other thing—and this is imperative, a nonnegotiable point of employment. I’ll need you to live on-site in the temporary housing and be available twenty-four hours a day while we’re under construction.”

  Harper looked at Janie. “Is that where you’re living?”

  “Yes. Renner set up six different trailers for the various crew members. I have my own trailer, but if you accept the job, we’d be roomies, since we’re the only women. For now.” She sent a quick look at Renner when he scowled. “Tierney will take over general oversight responsibilities once we’re up and running.”

  “Who’s Tierney?”

  “Tierney Pratt is my business partner’s daughter. She’s a little spy and problem child, who’ll report everything back to Daddy Dearest. Tierney also holds four or five of them worthless degrees I spoke of.”

  “Tierney isn’t our problem. Time is.” Janie sank back in the booth and drained her drink. “We are targeting our opening date for hunting season. October first.”

  “Opening what part?”

  “Everything. The lodge. The stores. The bunkhouses.”

  Her eyes widened. “That’s only five months away. Won’t it be impossible to build a luxury lodge, a spa, and retail space in such a short amount of time?”

  Renner met her gaze. “Yes. But that’s our deadline. If I don’t get it done, I forfeit the land, the buildings—everything—to my business partner. That was the devil’s bargain I signed.”

  Harper noticed the exhaustion etched on his face. She glanced at his hands. They were in the same raw shape as a few months back.

  “It’ll be damn tight to finish, even with crews workin’ around the clock. So it’s crucial that my staff is on hand for any major or minor issues, at all times of the day and night.”

  “Are they all sworn to a vow of silence too?”

  Janie nodded. “The construction guys are a traveling crew. They’re not real social, but we didn’t hire them for their people skills. Not like the reason we’re offering you a job.”

  Harper blinked in total disbelief. “I don’t know what to say. In the last day, my life, and whatever plans I had, have fallen apart. And now? To be offered a chance at a real career, not just a job?” Harper squinted at the empty lowball glass and muttered, “I’m afraid I’m passed out in my bed dreaming.”

  “You’re not.” Janie squeezed Harper’s arm. “Believe it or not, I’ve been in th
e same position you are right now. Surprised. Confused. Excited. Worried. Renner saw something in me ten minutes after we met that my ex-husband hadn’t seen after being married to me for years. And also like me, I suspect you’ve been doing everything for everyone else in your family at the expense of fulfilling goals in your life. Here’s your chance, Harper. We believe you’d be a big asset to our team. We want you to believe it too.”

  For the first time in her life, Harper thought things might be looking up. As much as she’d expected to be shaking the mud off her shoes and leaving this town for good, in the last month she’d begun to have mixed feelings. Seemed ironic that staying in Muddy Gap would allow her to forge her dream career. Janie had been right about something else too: It was past time she started living her own life.

  “So? What do you say?”

  “I say yes. I’d really love to be part of Split Rock Ranch and Resort.”

  Janie clapped.

  Renner’s phone rang. He pulled it out of his inside jacket pocket. A deep scowl knitted his dark eyebrows together. “Fuckin’ awesome.”

  “Who is it?” Janie asked.

  “The tyrant.” Absentmindedly, he said, “Excuse me. I have to take this,” and left the table.

  “Okay, now that he’s gone, and we’ve got you on tap for the job, what’s going on with you and Bran Turner?”

  “Nothing. Les is back at work. Les doesn’t like me, I don’t like him, and he’s willing to say nasty stuff in front of me, behind my back, and to Bran’s face to keep me out of the picture. And it seems like Bran believes Les over me, so it doesn’t matter that I’m . . .”

  “In love with him?” Janie supplied softly.

  “Yeah, but I don’t know if he feels the same.”

  “So find out.”

  Harper shook her head. “He thinks I’m leaving. I can’t just say, Surprise! I’m sticking around. Part of me thinks the relationship had the intensity because of the expiration date.”

  “You’re wrong. Sex can be intense, but it’s not half as intense as love. Here’s my advice. If he loves you, he’ll come after you. He’ll fight for you. He won’t let you go.”

  “That’s what happened between you and Abe? He let you go without a fight?”

  Janie rubbed the skin between her eyes. “He didn’t know me well enough to understand that’s what I wanted.”

  “You saying he didn’t love you?”

  “No. Abe loved me and that covered all his bases. He talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk, know what I mean?”

  “He said the words because he thought you wanted to hear them.”

  “Precisely. Don’t let that happen, Harper. If you and Bran truly love each other, then you should know exactly why you feel that way, and he should be able to put it into words. He should know how to act on it.” Then Janie was all business again. “Now, here’s what we need to accomplish this week.”

  For the next hour, Harper’s head spun. So when Janie suggested they continue the discussion in her trailer at Split Rock, Harper was so amped up she doubted she’d get a wink of sleep tonight, no matter where she laid her head.

  Bran missed Harper.

  Missed working with her. Laughing with her. Talking to her. Teasing her. Just sitting in silence with her.

  Touching her. God. Did he ever miss touching the supreme softness of her skin. Feeling her arch and purr beneath his hands as he caressed her. Watching her eyes change from the soft sheen of impending pleasure to the fiery heat of immediate need.

  You’re acting like it’s been months. It’s only been two days.

  It felt one helluva lot longer than that.

  “You sure you’re all right?” Hank asked.

  “Yeah.” Except he wasn’t. Here he sat, in front of Harper’s house, pining for her like a heartbroken teenage boy, wishing he’d catch even the tiniest glimpse of her. Chances were good she wasn’t home, since her car wasn’t in the drive, but he couldn’t dim that tiny flare of hope.

  “Need me to stick around to see if the truck starts?” Hank prompted.

  “Nah. Thanks for the ride. Go spend the night with your wife in your new house.”

  Hank grinned like a fool. “I intend to.”

  After Hank drove off, Bran crossed the lawn to the ranch truck. A creak echoed—a recognizable creak—and his gaze flew to Harper’s front door as it opened.

  His heart raced in anticipation.

  But it wasn’t Harper bounding down the steps, just Bailey.

  Disappointment had him slumping against the passenger door. It’d be rude if he sped off now, so he studied Bailey as she approached him cautiously.

  “Hey, Bran.”

  “Bailey.” Bran never would’ve guessed Harper and Bailey were sisters—their physical appearances were almost polar opposites. Bailey was short but a bit gangly, and her face held a hint of youthful pudginess. Her dark hair, dark clothes, and dark expression fit her less-than-sunny personality. Whereas Harper was tall, but softly rounded in all the right places, except for the sharp angles of her face. Harper was light and grace, and her beautiful smile lit up the entire world.

  You’re a pathetic poet, Turner.

  “Came by to get the truck?”

  “Yep. Les needs it.”

  “Les? Oh. Right. Your hired hand. The guy Harper replaced.” She hunched her shoulders. “I’m surprised Harper didn’t give you a ride into town.”

  “Why? Harper doesn’t work for me anymore.”

  “Oh. She’s not staying with you out at the ranch?”

  What the hell? Why would she think that? “No.”

  Bailey had yet to meet his eyes as she picked at her cuticles. “Huh. So you haven’t seen her either?”


  “Not since the day before yesterday.” An uneasy feeling slithered up his spine. “When was the last time you saw her?”


  It took a second for that to settle in. “What’s goin’ on?”

  She shrugged and studied the toe of her sneaker.

  Bran fought the urge to shake her. “Tell me what you did.”

  Her gaze finally connected with his—as defiant as he expected. “Why do you assume it was something I did?”

  “Because Harper would do anything for you—hell, she has done everything for you, so if you two had a fight, I’m putting the blame squarely on you.”

  “You don’t even know me,” Bailey retorted.

  “Exactly. But I do know Harper. So why don’t you tell me what happened.”

  Bailey’s bravado fled and she deflated like a balloon. “Harper was really upset when I told her I joined the army.”


  “I leave for basic training in five days.”

  “No. When did you tell her?”

  “The last morning I saw her.”

  “I take it Harper didn’t want you to join the army?”

  “Umm . . . She didn’t know I joined.”

  Bran felt Bailey’s words like a hoof to the belly. If he had that reaction . . . how must Harper feel?

  Like everything she’d done for Bailey hadn’t mattered. Like she didn’t matter.

  Goddammit. He glared at the self-centered teen, wondering if she had any idea how deeply she’d cut her sister. “You didn’t think enough of her . . .”

  “I screwed up. I get that, okay? I can’t ... God. I have no freakin’ clue where she is.”

  Bran blew out an impatient breath. “You haven’t heard from her at all?”

  “No. I’ve called everyone—Bernice, Celia. I even had our sister, Liberty, try to get in touch with her, but Harper is not answering her phone.”

  “Can you blame her?”

  “No. Have you tried to call her?”

  “My phone ended up busted about two hours after the last time I saw
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