Saddled and spurred, p.32
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.32

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  her. So I have no idea if she tried to get in touch with me or not.” His heart nearly stopped. What if Harper couldn’t answer her phone? What if, right now, she was lying in a ditch somewhere? Alone and hurt? Or worse? He exploded, as much from anger as from fear. “I swear to God, if anything has happened to her because you can’t be bothered to pick up the goddamn phone to check—”

  “I’m not an idiot,” she snapped back. “I’ve called around, and no woman fitting her description has been admitted to the hospital or any clinic in Rawlins or Laramie or Cheyenne or Casper.”

  “Well, that’s a fuckin’ relief.” Bran paced to the sidewalk and back. “What does she normally do when she gets upset like this?”

  “I don’t know!” Bailey practically wailed. “It’s so surreal. I’ve never seen her act like that. She never just leaves like our mom did.”

  Hopefully Bailey hadn’t voiced that maternal comparison to Harper, because that definitely would’ve set her off. “So what did Harper do after you talked to her?”

  “She packed a bag and took off with the car.”

  “That’s it? She didn’t say anything else?”

  “Well, she swore at me and slammed the door.”

  Come to think of it, she’d sworn at him too. He muttered, “I should’ve seen this coming. I should’ve known. . . .”

  “Why? What did she say to you when you last saw her?”

  Nothing. I stood by and let Les run roughshod over her. Then I watched her drive away and thought biding my time was the mature thing to do.

  Jesus. He was a fucking moron.

  “What did you do to her?” Bailey stomped over, invading his personal space.

  Bran clenched his hands into fists and kept his mouth closed—sadly, that was something he was very good at.

  “Omigod. Harper’s disappearing act is as much your fault as it is mine. She probably drove out to talk to you about me being such an ungrateful brat and joining the army and then you . . . what? Told her to turn in her time sheet and her truck keys because her time with you was done?”

  He winced.

  “Or did you just blow her off since your precious Les was back?”

  Phrased that way . . . Fuck. This was a nightmare.

  But Bailey kept going, her voice cracking. “How could you do that to her?”

  “Do what?”

  “I’m not blind, Bran. I know it’s been more than just a working relationship between you two. Harper . . . she’s always so careful with guys. She never falls like this. . . . Never. I saw how you looked at her at the branding and it sure as hell wasn’t the way an employer would.”

  That smart comment put Bran on the defensive. “Just exactly how would you know anything about employer/employee relations? Bein’s I ain’t heard about you ever holdin’ down a job, just your sister. And she usually holds down two or three to support you, don’t she?”

  Silence.

  Dammit. “Sorry. Sniping at each other ain’t gonna help.”

  Bailey ran a hand through her dark hair and sighed. “Look, I’m sorry too. I’m just worried.”

  “That makes two of us.”

  “We both fucked up. Big-time.”

  “Yep.”

  “So what do we do now?”

  “We wait.” And hope. And pray. And learn to grovel.

  With nothing left to say, Bailey trudged to the house.

  Bran climbed in the ranch truck. He jammed the gearshift into first and smoked the tires getting away. But not even the smell of burning rubber could mask the scent of Harper’s perfume still lingering in the truck cab.

  Waiting would drive him crazy, but it was his only option.

  Harper’s overnight stay at the Split Rock compound had stretched into two nights. Her phone had stopped ringing the second day and she wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not.

  Her stomach tightened at seeing the ranch truck gone from the driveway. So Bran had been here. Had he spoken to Bailey? Or had he just driven off without a word?

  The lights were on in the living room, which meant Bailey had returned home. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door.

  Instead of Bailey remaining aloof, or acting surly, she launched herself at Harper and sobbed, “I’m sorry. So, so sorry. I’ve been so worried and I know you’re mad at me and if I had it to do all over again . . .”

  She squeezed her little sister once before she disentangled from her death grip. “It’s all right.”

  “You’ve never taken off like that before. Like Mom.”

  Harper ignored the barb. “I needed to work some things out.” She tossed her purse on the chair, kicked off her boots, and walked to the kitchen.

  Bailey followed. “Where have you been?”

  “Honestly? That’s none of your business.” Harper busied herself fixing a cup of tea. Going through the motions calmed her, even if she didn’t drink the results.

  “That’s not fair,” Bailey complained.

  “No, it’s not. But you’ll quickly learn that life isn’t fair.” She pressed her backside to the edge of the counter. “We have to talk about packing your stuff for storage.”

  “Storage? Why can’t you keep it?”

  “Because I won’t be in a position to take care of it for you. I’ll be contacting Liberty about what she wants done with her boxes. Since neither of you owns much, you should be able to find a small storage facility in Rawlins and split the cost. I’ll front the first month’s rent from what I saved for your college expenses, but after that, you and Liberty will have to figure out how to make payments.”

  “What about your stuff?”

  She shrugged. “What I need I’ll take with me. Anything else, I’ll throw away or give away.”

  “What has gotten into you, Harper?”

  “A reality check. You were right to point out that I need to start living for myself. I’m starting a new chapter of my life.”

  “Doing what?” Bailey demanded.

  “I can’t talk about it.”

  Bailey gaped at her. “I look at you and see my sister, but I feel like I don’t know you.”

  Harper cocked her head and studied her sister, trying to picture her in a helmet and combat fatigues. “I know the feeling. Now, I’m assuming the army reps gave you a list of all you need to accomplish before you head to basic training?”

  “I’ve got a lot of lists.”

  “Make sure I get the information on where you fly out of and when.”

  “But I thought . . .”

  She braced herself for Bailey’s guilt trip. “What?”

  “I thought you’d help me get ready.”

  “Sorry. I’ve got plenty to take care of. And I’m thinking if you’re old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to pack your own socks and underwear.”

  Bailey looked away. “Are you still coming to my graduation?”

  “Of course I am.” Harper set down the tea and hugged her little sister, trying to keep her tears in check. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m really proud of you.”

  “Then why are you doing this now? When I’m leaving in a few days?”

  “Because as proud as I am of you, I need to do something that makes me proud of myself.”

  The day after Bailey left for basic training, Harper was counting the hours until her shift at Get Nailed ended. There’d been zero traffic into Bernice’s Beauty Barn, and if Bernice hadn’t promised Maybelle that Harper would do her nails one last time, she would’ve been tempted to close up shop.

  While she was fretting about how Bailey was faring in Mississippi, the oddest thing happened; Susan Williams, Buckeye Joe’s owner, marched in. Susan was a no-frills kind of woman. Stoutbodied, shrewd-eyed, not exactly the type to indulge in a weekly French manicure. Susan’s mannish hairdo indicated that she cut her own hair—apparently with a pair a hedge clippers.

  Had Susan timed the confrontation so there weren’t customers around? Harper braced herself for a conversation that
’d been a long time in the making.

  “Hi, Susan. Something I can help you with?”

  Without preamble, Susan looked her square in the eye and said, “I didn’t like your mama, Harper. Wasn’t my idea to hire her. We all know how that played out. But I’ve heard talk about Bailey joining the army and leaving you holding the bag, just like your mama done. It ain’t fair. I just wanted to say if you intend to stick around Muddy Gap and you’re needin’ work, I’ll hire ya at Buckeye Joe’s.”

  “Really?” popped out before she could stop it. “But why?”

  “You’ve got grit, girl. Like a true Wyomingite.”

  Harper couldn’t have been more floored. “Thank you, Susan. That’s the best compliment an outsider like me could ever hope to receive.”

  She snorted. “Outsider? You’re part of this community whether you like it or not.”

  “The truth is . . . I like it.”

  “Good. So you’re joining the ranks of the rest of us who are too stubborn or too dumb to leave?”

  “Yep. And I appreciate the job offer, but I’ll be working for Renner Jackson up at the Split Rock Ranch and Resort.”

  “You don’t say? Well, good enough. Don’t be a stranger to the Buckeye.” Susan hustled out.

  Harper stared after her for the longest time. She hadn’t misread Susan’s hostility over the last couple of years, yet the job offer and peace offering gave Harper a sense of closure.

  The back door banged open and Bernice yelled, “Harper? I need your help for a sec.”

  Outside, Bernice was digging in the trunk of her car. “Bernice?”

  “Can you come here and check this out?”

  “Ah. Sure.” She skirted the back end of the Chrysler Imperial.

  “Do you think I need to get this spare tire pumped up? It’s lookin’ a little ratty.”

  She peered into the trunk. The black blob, which probably had been a tire at some point, was totally deflated. “Uh. Yeah. Maybe Bob oughta take a look at that.” She turned to go, but Bernice snagged her arm.

  “Between us? I think the man’s gone senile. The other day he made me a tuna fish sandwich and put Cool Whip in it instead of Miracle Whip. Cool Whip! Can you imagine?”

  “That does sound gross.”

  “And then he found these god-awful plaid parachute pants from the 1980s in his closet. He tried to put them on over his chubby butt and accused me of shrinking them in the wash when they didn’t fit! Of all the nerve. Never mind the man hasn’t weighed a hundred and thirty pounds since Ronald Reagan was president.”

  What was she supposed to say? She started toward the door. But once again, Bernice stopped her.

  “Did I ever tell you about the time my granny, who had Alzheimer’s, although we called it ‘old-timers’ back then, got up in the middle of a church service? She never did come back in and hear Reverend Billy Jack’s warning about the wages of sin. When we went outside, there was Granny, perched nekkid as a jaybird on the hood of my grandpa’s Impala. Grandpa tried to hustle her into the backseat and cover her with a horse blanket, but she insisted she didn’t know him. Told him to take his hands off her.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Come to find out, Granny believed she was Rita Hayworth and she was auditioning for a movie part. How bizarre is that?”

  Harper wondered if Bernice had been inhaling exhaust fumes because this conversation was beyond bizarre. “Thanks for telling me, Bernice, but I heard the door chimes.” She managed to duck Bernice’s grabbing hands and sprinted into the shop, skidding to a stop when she heard, “Surprise!”

  Ten of her regular ladies, who’d been pillars of support, a source of laughter, who’d given her a sense of belonging—even if she’d only recently realized it—stood by the windows grinning at her. They’d tied “good luck” balloons to her chair and set up a refreshment station at the counter, complete with a frosted cake—homemade, of course—and a pitcher of pink lemonade, plus they’d coordinated the fancy matching floral napkins with the paper plates and plastic cups. All the goodies Harper had never had at any birthday party. Or a party of any sort.

  If she’d been floored by Susan Williams’s visit, this absolutely knocked her to her knees.

  Cake was cut. Lemonade poured. She chatted and shed a tear when she opened Bernice’s parting gift—her very own elk antler coatrack.

  As the party wound down, Maybelle stepped forward. “We’ll miss you, Harper, even when you won’t be going far. We wanted to let you know how much we appreciated having you here. You could’ve found work in Rawlins, making more money, working with a younger clientele, so we’re pleased as punch you’re now a permanent part of our town.”

  “Thank you. Good Lord, you all are so sweet, I’m gonna bawl.”

  When she started to cry, eleven ladies patted her arms, her back, her shoulders. Murmuring reassurances, soothing her, so Harper felt she was being held in the arms of the entire community.

  How ironic that she’d been looking for a place to call home . . . when she’d already found it.

  Chapter Twenty-four

  One day later . . .

  They’d cleared the first gate when Les tossed out, “I hear Harper is livin’ up at Renner Jackson’s compound.”

  Bran hit the brakes so hard they both lurched into the dash. His head whipped toward Les. “What the hell did you just say?”

  “That your temporary ‘hired hand’ ”—Les made quotes in the air that matched his sarcastic intonation—“is livin’ with Renner Jackson.”

  Getting hooked with a bull’s horn couldn’t have ripped a bigger hole in his gut. “How the fuck do you know that?”

  Les shrugged. “Heard it from Betty. Guess it ain’t a big deal. Ain’t like Harper’s hiding it neither.”

  It was a big deal as far as Bran was concerned. He looked out the window and his hands tightened on the steering wheel in pure frustration.

  Hell, he’d had no freaking clue Harper was still living in Muddy Gap. He’d gone by her house and seen a For Rent sign in the yard. He’d quietly been going crazy for the week since he’d last seen her. Bernice’s Beauty Barn had been closed every time he’d driven by. He’d planned to ask Les today to cover for him so he could track her down as soon as he convinced Celia to tell him where she’d gone.

  And now to find out that Harper had been under his nose the entire time?

  Unfuckingbelievable.

  Why hadn’t she told him she planned to stick around?

  Because she probably thinks you don’t care.

  “Goddammit. I’m a fucking idiot.”

  “Told ya. She wanted one thing from you and when you didn’t offer it, she hooked up with the next rich guy she could find. You’re better off forgetting all about her.”

  “I’m better off?” Bran repeated. “What? So I can end up like you? Alone and bitter? Spending my life tying flies and fishing by myself? You’ve said some stupid things to me over the years, Les, but that one has got to take the cake.”

  “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

  “You know nothin’ about Harper and yet you’ve felt entitled to pass judgment on her at every opportunity. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were jealous of her.”

  Les’s face turned bright red. “Like hell.”

  “You know, Harper was a great hired hand. She took direction better than you ever thought of doing.” When a mean glint entered Les’s eyes, Bran warned, “You even think of spewing some smart-ass remark about how well she directed herself into my bedroom and I will pop you one in the mouth, old man.”

  His hired hand said not a word for a change.

  Bran hit the gas and spun a cookie. When he reached the last gate, he got out and opened it, ignoring the temptation just to run the damn thing over. He pulled up alongside Les’s ranch truck, looking at his hired man in a whole new way, mostly with gratitude for the wake-up call. “Go on and finish chores. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

  “You ain’t firing me?”

/>   Bran scowled at him. “Why would I fire you?”

 
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