Saddled and spurred, p.33
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.33

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “Because you’re probably bringing Harper back here and you won’t need me no more.”

  “Les, if I can convince Harper to give me another chance, she sure as hell ain’t gonna be around as my hired hand.” If he had his way, Harper would be his wife.

  Bran burned rubber getting to the Split Rock Ranch and Resort. Two gigantic stone pillars had been erected beside the access road since the last time he’d been by. And between those stone pillars? A heavy chain with signs every foot warning NO TRESPASSING. He snorted. Like that’d stop him.

  He hopped out and unhooked the chain. He crested the rise of the big hill that hid the building from view. Once he hit the top of the hill, his mouth dropped open.

  Holy shit. It was like some kind of cult compound. Close to thirty vehicles were parked in front of four buildings in various stages of construction. Half a dozen trailers were lined up off to the left. A backhoe, a grader, and a paving machine were sitting idle by a gigantic pile of steel fence posts and rolls of chain-link fencing. Two flatbed trucks stacked with lumber and Sheetrock were backed up to two structures. Even through the closed window Bran heard the loud construction noises—hammering, sawing, and the mechanical whine of generators.

  He proceeded down the steep angle of the hill, surprised that Renner had chosen to build this fancy resort in a bowl-shaped canyon. Passage in the winter would be damn difficult, given the amount of snow this area received. His wheels left pavement and his truck skidded across red dirt that resembled a mud bog rather than a road.

  As soon as his vehicle stopped and he’d climbed out of his rig, two burly guys approached him. They weren’t local and they didn’t look friendly. “Is there a reason you’re trespassing when the sign on the road clearly said keep out?”

  Bran shrugged. “I thought it was a suggestion. I’m here to talk to Harper Masterson.”

  The guys exchanged a look, which made Bran bristle. “What?”

  “How do we know you ain’t some freaky stalker dude?”

  “For chrissake, I’m not a freaky stalker dude. I’m her . . .” He realized he didn’t know who the hell he was to her. Boss? Lover?

  Try the idiot who let her get away.

  “She’s here, isn’t she?”

  One guy glanced at the bank of trailers.

  Bingo.

  “How about if you give us your name and we’ll see if she wants to talk to you?”

  Like hell.

  Bran walked toward the trailers he assumed were living quarters. Either the guards were slow or their authority hadn’t been challenged before now, because neither guy tried to stop him.

  Heart racing, he stopped in front of the third trailer in and yelled, “Harper. I want to talk to you.”

  No answer.

  “I know you’re here and I’m not leavin’ until you come out.”

  No answer.

  “If you want me to start banging on doors until I find you, I will.”

  The metal click of a screen door opening echoed back to him. Three seconds later Harper came around the front end of the fourth trailer.

  His heart soared. Sweet Jesus. It was as if his world brightened. He took a step forward and stopped when he noticed Renner Jackson behind Harper. Directly behind her. His eyes narrowed. Had Les been right? Was Harper living with him?

  “I’ll, ah . . . just go check on some things,” Renner said.

  “You do that,” Bran snapped.

  Renner gave him a wide berth.

  “Why are you here, Bran?” Harper asked.

  “Because I heard a rumor you were still in Muddy Gap.”

  “It wasn’t a rumor, as you can plainly see.”

  He crossed his arms over his chest. “There’s a second part to that rumor.”

  “Which is?”

  “That you’re livin’ with Renner Jackson. Is that true?”

  She tossed her hair—a clear sign that she was nervous. But she didn’t respond.

  “I’ll wait all goddamn day for your answer if I have to.”

  “Fine. I am living here.”

  “Why?”

  “Renner offered me something you didn’t.”

  In less than a heartbeat Bran stood over her, fuming, his whole being raw from fear that he was too late. “What is it that he can offer you? Money?”

  Her jaw dropped.

  “Let me tell you something, sweetheart. I’ve got more money than he does. A shit ton more. I can buy and sell him twice over. I just don’t advertise it.”

  Harper continued to gape at him as if he’d lost his mind. Maybe he had—he couldn’t seem to stop his damn mouth from running unchecked.

  “Jesus, Harper. If you’re lookin’ for a man to take care of you, why ain’t you lookin’ at me?”

  Goaded beyond her control, Harper placed her palms on Bran’s chest and shoved him as hard as she could. “You pompous ... ass! I’m not looking for a man to take care of me. I’m looking for someone to believe in me. I’m looking for someone to give me a chance and see me beyond Harper Masterson, beauty queen. Or Harper the college dropout. Or Harper the nail technician. Or Harper the hired hand.”

  He shook his finger at her. “I never put those labels on you and you damn well know that. You did it all by yourself. So tell me, what can Jackson give you that I can’t?”

  “A permanent job.”

  Guilt punched his already aching gut. “What?”

  “I’m living here with Janie Fitzhugh. Renner hired me to work at the resort. But he and Janie are giving me more than just a job. They’re giving me a chance to have my dream.”

  “Which is what, exactly?”

  Oh shit. Harper got that look in her eye that indicated he’d said exactly the wrong thing.

  Before he could backtrack, she said, “You don’t have a clue what this opportunity means to me.”

  “Don’t put words in my mouth, Harper,” he warned.

  “Then tell me in your own words.”

  “Fine. You’re excited about a new job.”

  “This is not just any job!”

  “Don’t you think I know that?”

  “No.” She backed away from him. “I think you don’t know me at all, do you, Bran?”

  “I do too know you,” he replied, trying damn hard not to explode.

  “Name one thing that’s important to me.”

  “Having a job is important to you.”

  “Name one thing you like about me that doesn’t have to do with my job working for you or sex.”

  Bran’s mouth opened. Closed.

  Her eyes clouded with hurt.

  Dammit. This was killing him.

  Go on the offensive.

  “Same question back atcha. Name one thing you like about me that doesn’t have to do with your job working for me or sex.”

  “I can name a hundred. I like the way you laugh. I like the way you smile at me when you don’t know I can see you. I like how in tune you are with everything that goes on around your ranch. I like the care and concern you show your animals. I liked the care and concern you showed for me, when I was just your employee and then when we became so much more. I think it’s cool that you like to tie flies and you love to fish. I’m glad you’re not addicted to sports twenty-four/seven.”

  Damn. He wasn’t expecting that.

  “Here’s a news flash: I absolutely do not care, one way or another, if you have money. But I do care that you didn’t tell me. And it really makes me mad that you think throwing that fact out there now would somehow make a difference in how I feel about you.”

  Instead of demanding to know exactly how she felt about him, he said, “Why do you think I didn’t tell you?”

  She tapped her chin. “Hmm. Let me think. Because I might have designs on your money?”

  “Wrong again, sweetheart. I don’t believe you’re some kind of damn gold digger. I haven’t told anyone about my inheritance from my grandparents. None of my friends have a freakin’ clue.”

  “That is even sa
dder yet, Bran.”

  “And why is that?”

  “They’ve been your best buddies for how long? Your whole life, right? And if you can’t trust them ... how did I ever hope that you could trust me?”

  “It’s not the same thing, Harper.”

  She shook her head in disagreement. “Yes, it is. Although I could understand why you didn’t tell Les. You have serious trust issues, cowboy.”

  “So do you,” he fired back.

  Indignant, she retorted, “I do not. I gave you every bit of my trust. And I’m not just talking about in the bedroom.”

  “But you didn’t trust me enough to tell me about Bailey joining the army and breakin’ your heart?”

  “Why do you think I drove out there that morning? To talk to you. But Les . . .”

  Now they were getting somewhere. “Les said some things he shouldn’t have. And I didn’t say the things I should have. But I want to know why you didn’t tell me the one thing that mattered. That you’d decided to stay in Muddy Gap.”

  “Because I didn’t know it at the time.”

  “And when you figured it out? Why didn’t you share that information with me?”

  “Because I hadn’t heard one word from you, Bran. No phone call. Nothing. The job was over. I didn’t think you cared.”

  Bran loomed over her. “Bullshit. You know I care. My damn cell phone met the business end of a shovel. I told Bailey about it when I ...” His eyes searched hers. “She didn’t tell you I stopped by, did she?”

  “No. But it doesn’t matter now.”

  “Yes, it does. You are more to me than a damn employee. You knew that as soon as I found out you were hiding up here, I’d come for you. I’d chase you down, like you were always hoping I’d do, and then I’d bring you back where you belong.”

  “Which is where?”

  “With me. And here’s a news flash for you. I didn’t get a chance to talk to you about this stuff the morning after your karaoke win because Les showed up. Then you were gone for damn near three days. When you finally came out to the ranch, you let me believe you only cared about your paycheck.”

  Understanding dawned in her eyes. “But—”

  “Goddammit, Harper, I wanted to tell you how I felt about you, but you deserved to hear it in private—not in front of Les.”

  Harper mumbled something about excuses.

  Bran curled one hand over her hip, one hand around the side of her beautiful face, and took the biggest chance of his life. “No more excuses. I love you, Harper Masterson. I love everything about you.”

  Did she throw herself into his arms and sob that she loved him too? Did she kiss him with the fire and sweetness he craved?

  No.

  The damn woman stepped back and said, “Prove it.”

  His body stiffened. “What? I just told you I love you and now you want me to prove it?”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?”

  Those golden brown eyes spit fire. “Is that it, Bran? You’ve decided you love me because I’m conveniently nearby? What would you’ve done if I’d moved to Laramie? Would you’ve tracked me down and dragged me back where I belong?”

  “How the devil am I supposed to answer that?”

  “Let me know when you figure it out.” She flounced off.

  Flounced. Like a damn beauty queen in a snit.

  Which she was.

  Dammit.

  He’d done this all wrong.

  Big surprise.

  He shouted, “I’ll be back, Harper. Mark my words. I. Will. Be. Back.”

  Bran seethed even as he was half giddy from the knowledge he hadn’t lost her.

  Didn’t know her, my ass.

  He knew her. Backward, forward, inside out, upside down and sideways.

  He loved her.

  And yes, he had every intention of tracking her down.

  He’d prove it to her. Might take him a day or two to sort the wheat from the chaff, but he couldn’t wait to make that woman eat crow.

  And then he wasn’t ever going to let her go.

  “How much longer are you going to make the poor man suffer, Harper?” Janie asked.

  Bran wasn’t the only one suffering.

  She’d wondered how Bran would react when he learned she hadn’t moved out of state, just up the road. Happy? Indifferent? Angry?

  Yeah, he’d been angry.

  She missed him. Three months didn’t seem like enough time to figure out if you liked someone, let alone if you loved them. But she loved Bran. She knew him, heart and soul, straight down to the bone. And like Janie had reminded her, she deserved to know if that depth of feeling, of commitment, was reciprocated.

  When she’d told him to prove it, she’d half expected that he would scoop her into his arms and drag her off, keeping her captive until she admitted she loved him too. It was the sort of Neanderthal tactics she’d expected.

  So why was she disappointed that he hadn’t reacted that way?

  Two days after he’d left Split Rock in a huff, she’d feared he’d given up. She wondered if she’d been too hasty, too haughty.

  On the dawn of day three, when Harper convinced herself she’d ruined everything by pushing Bran into a corner, a van arrived in front of her trailer—a van filled with lilacs. Every color of lilac imaginable; deep amethyst, vivid purple, lavender, pale pink, and creamy white. And every bouquet was in a different-colored jewel-toned vase.

  Bran remembering her favorite flower earned serious brownie points.

  Yesterday morning, the same van delivered a dozen doughnuts—crème-filled Bavarian, croissants covered in chocolate glaze, cake doughnuts with pink icing, long johns with rainbow-colored sprinkles—and a pot of strong coffee. At noon the van dropped off lunch—crab salad, fruit, sweet tea, and key lime cheesecake. She hadn’t known what to expect when the van returned at suppertime. Steak? Lobster? Veal? Pasta?

  Lifting the silver-domed plate warmer revealed . . . pepperoni pizza. And in the champagne bucket? Wine coolers. The afternoon they’d stayed naked in bed just talking, laughing, feeding each other pizza and drinking “bitch beer” ranked as one of the best times she’d had with him.

  His insight brought tears to her eyes. He’d turned the tables and used food as a way to her heart in such a thoughtful gesture, especially poignant because he’d sworn the food trick would never work with him.

  At that point Harper was willing to admit he was taking her challenge seriously.

  But Bran wasn’t done offering her proof.

  This morning a gigantic package wrapped in gold foil had appeared on her doorstep. Inside the box was a glass bottle, in a beautiful shade of blue, topped with a silver filigree. As touched as she was that he remembered her fondness for antique perfume bottles, the item at the bottom of the box sealed the deal and her fate.

  And then she’d understood. Bran did know her. Better than anyone ever had. Better than anyone ever would. If he hadn’t come to her tonight, she would’ve gone to him.

  But Bran had shown up. With a karaoke machine, of all things. He’d unloaded the speakers and had been serenading her for the last twenty minutes.

  If you could call the sounds coming out of his mouth . . . music.
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