Saddled and spurred, p.4
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.4

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  who could blame her? Not me.”

  Hank wore a look of shock, as if he’d never considered that Janie needed alone time with her husband. A feeling Bran knew Lainie understood, and now Hank did too—hence they were building their own house.

  Lainie ran her hand up Hank’s arm. “There was no way you could’ve known. And it wasn’t your problem to solve. It was Abe’s.”

  “How is it that you know so much about my brother’s ex-wife?” Hank asked suspiciously.

  “She adored my grandma and she missed her after she passed on, so she kept coming around since I was the closest neighbor. Besides, wasn’t like she had anyone else to talk to after you and Celia shut her out.”

  “Why didn’t Abe know any of this?”

  “Because he didn’t ask her. It wasn’t my place to tell him—you know how he gets.”

  Lainie nodded in total understanding.

  “But I’m really goddamned happy you two ain’t makin’ the same mistake. No one said because you run the ranch together that you had to live together forever like the fuckin’ Waltons. And why would you want to?”

  Silence.

  Then Lainie laughed.

  Hank clapped Bran on the shoulder. “Remind me again why you’re still single?”

  “Fuck off.”

  During the meal, they caught up on their friends’ lives. Gauging Kyle Gilchrist’s chances of winning the CRA world championship bull riding title. Talking about Devin McClain’s newest CD and world tour. Speculating if Eli Whirling Cloud’s plans to rehabilitate injured horses—racing and rodeo—with the help of their pal, veterinarian August Fletcher, would be a successful venture. Discussing Celia’s minuscule chances of beating out Lainie’s buddy, world championship barrel racer Tanna Barker, for the title this year.

  As Hank cleared the plates, Lainie brooded into her half-empty wineglass.

  “Something goin’ on in that pretty head of yours, Missus Lawson?”

  She smiled. “Flatterer. Talking about life on the road and such . . . I’m just worried about Celia.”

  “That makes two of us,” Hank said. “How often does my little sister call you, Bran?”

  “Occasionally.”

  “And how was she? I mean, did she act different?”

  “No. She seemed fine when I talked to her. Why?”

  “Probably nothin’. We’re pretty sure Celia is seein’ a guy on the circuit, but she won’t fess up to who it is. Makes us wonder if she’s embarrassed or something.”

  Bran drained his beer. “You want me to point out the obvious? She’s an adult, entitled to a life that don’t got nothin’ to do with you guys.”

  Hank glowered at him.

  So Bran decided to poke him, just for fun. “You know, I wish I could see Celia as the gorgeous, sexy woman she is and not as the pesky little tomboy sister that she was. It’d make all our lives easier if we got hitched. She’s aware of what it takes to run a ranch, we could have tons of babies and horses, and she’d live close enough to annoy the hell out of you and Abe forever.”

  Instead of snarling, Hank shot Bran a sly look. “Tell you what. If you propose to her and she accepts? As a dowry I’ll give you those fifty acres down by the creek that you love.”

  “Hank! That is not even funny,” Lainie said, swatting at him.

  Bran grinned. “If I thought I had a snowball’s chance in hell that Celia would go for it, I’d suggest it. But I’ve seen that girl castrate calves. I shudder to think what she’d do to me if I offered to marry her on her brother’s behalf.”

  The front door opened. Voices echoed from the entryway and Hank threaded his fingers through Lainie’s when she tensed.

  Abe and Nancy came into the kitchen. Abe clapped Bran on the back. “Hey. How’s calving been so far?”

  “Slow. Not quite to where you guys are, as I’ve barely started.”

  “There’s a lesson for you,” Nancy said. “Maybe you should get Abe’s advice before you turn the bulls out with the herd so your calving doesn’t lag so far behind everyone else’s.”

  Bran froze. Had this woman actually just told him how to better manage his cattle operation? What the hell did she know? She worked as a secretary in an auto repair shop.

  Abe looked embarrassed. “Nancy, Bran runs one of the most successful cattle businesses in the county. Me’n Hank should be takin’ his advice, not the other way around.”

  But Nancy had tuned Abe out. She frowned at the dishes piled by the sink and the food scattered across the countertop. “Why in the world didn’t you clean up after you finished eating? I hate coming home to a dirty kitchen.” With a dramatic sigh, she headed to the sink.

  Lainie said, “Leave them. I planned to do them after our company left.”

  Nancy ignored Lainie. How the woman could be oblivious to the tension in the room—tension she’d caused—boggled Bran’s mind.

  Water ran. Dishes clanked. Hank glared at Abe. Abe merely shrugged.

  Lainie pushed to her feet. “I said I’d do them, Nancy.”

  “It’s fine.”

  “No, it’s not fine.” Lainie reached over and shut off the water. “I don’t do things on your timetable. And I’m not going to let you run roughshod over me in my own damn kitchen and continue to embarrass me in front of our friend. Now please leave.”

  Nancy’s head whipped around and she gave Abe a hangdog look, as if she expected him to intervene on her behalf.

  Abe didn’t.

  She snagged a towel, dried her hands, and stomped away. Abe trailed behind her. Ten seconds later Abe’s bedroom door slammed shut with enough force that the dishes in the china hutch rattled.

  This Nancy woman was trouble. She’d already driven a wedge between Abe and his siblings. Sadly, Bran had seen it happen many times with families whose working lives were tied to the family ranch. Hatred and resentment ripped families clean apart simply because of a sibling’s unfortunate marital choice. It’d kill Bran to see the Lawsons so divided, but it would happen if Abe didn’t pull his head out of his ass and rid himself of Nasty Nancy.

  Bran donned his coat and hat and said his good-byes. For the first time ever, he was damn glad to be an only child.

  Chapter Three

  The following morning, Bran said, “Let’s take a ride in the truck and I’ll show you around the ranch. That’ll give you a better breakdown of what I need in a worker. Sound fair?”

  “I suppose so.”

  They dressed in winter gear—hers appropriate today except for the bright purple zebra-striped scarf and matching gloves. Bran led her to his Dodge Diesel quad cab. When Harper started to put her seat belt on, Bran shook his head. “Not that I ain’t about safety first, but you’re gonna be hopping in and out of the truck, opening gates. Top speed in this rig as we’re checkin’ stuff out is never more than twenty miles per hour.”

  “I remember the gate thing from helping Celia.”

  “So you ain’t completely green?”

  Harper smiled brazenly. “Oh, I’m completely green.”

  At the first barbed wire gate, he gave her the rundown. “This one is the old loop kind. Lift the loop off the fence post and pull the gate inward. I’ll drive through and you close it behind us.”

  She hopped out and followed his directions to the letter. For some perverted reason, that caused him to wonder whether she would follow directions in the bedroom that easily too.

  Her voice startled him out of his mental porn starring the former Miss Sweet Grass. “You work all by yourself? No other family members?”

  When phrased that way, it sounded awful damn lonely.

  It is, isn’t it?

  “I’ve been doin’ everything since my grandparents died. But truthfully, they were getting on in years as I was growing up, so I’ve been running this place by myself since I was seventeen. I’m an only child of an only child, so it ain’t like I’ve got a lot of choice.” Don’t give her your life story, dumb ass, especially when it’s so damn boring. He paused
at the next gate. “This one’s got a hook on the top.”

  She slid from the cab. It took two tries, but she managed to open the gate. After she climbed back inside, she said, “This gate opening and shutting thing takes twice as long when you’re by yourself?”

  “Yes, ma’am.” Bran focused on the cattle huddled by the windbreak. One was lying down, away from the herd. “You ever seen a live birth?”

  Harper faced him, her eyes wary. “Umm, no. Not human or dog or cat or cow.”

  “Well, that’s about to change.” He pointed to the prone cow. “Stick close and watch.” Bran threw the truck in park, facing away from the laboring animal. “Let’s go.”

  The snow crust was hard enough that he didn’t break through as he started downhill. Harper stayed plenty close; he practically felt her breath on the back of his neck. He kept himself in the mother cow’s direct line of vision so she wouldn’t bolt.

  “Looks like you’re almost there.” Bran ran a gloved hand down her heaving side. “Lemme check and see where we’re at.” He motioned for Harper to kneel next to him. “See the hooves coming out pointing down? That means it’s coming out the right way. The rest of the body slides out.”

  “Is it always like this? Calves just plop out?”

  “I wish. Sometimes the calf is breach and I gotta either stick my arms up there and turn it around or put the chains on it and pull it out.”

  Her eyes went comically wide.

  “There it comes.” The upper half of the calf’s body was showing, the membrane protecting it still intact.

  Harper leaned over to take a closer look.

  The mama made a huffing noise. Her belly muscles rippled and disgorged the calf. It slipped out in a wet gush as the sac broke. Immediately the mother stood, mooed, and sniffed the calf’s face. The baby twitched and the mother kept sniffing, right through the afterbirth.

  Bran glanced at Harper, half expecting to see disgust, but her face wore an expression of awe. Her eyes were shining. High color dotted her cheeks. And her mouth had curved into a soft smile. “Harper? You all right?”

  She met his gaze. “That was amazing. Now what happens?”

  “She’ll clean the baby up and then it’ll nurse. But it’ll have to get up on its feet awful damn fast because she’ll need to eat. Nursing mothers require a lot of feed. Calves gain up to ten pounds a day.”

  “And they say milk won’t make you fat,” she said dryly.

  He grinned. “I ain’t touching that one. Tomorrow we’ll come out here and ear-tag the little bugger. I’m guessing we’ll have quite a few others to do too.”

  “If you’re talking about tomorrow with me, does that mean I’m hired?”

  “You sure this is what you want? I’ve only shown you one thing—there’s lots more.”

  Harper studied him. “Will you just cut me loose right away and have me checking the herd? Because I’m nowhere near ready for that.”

  “No. It’ll be both of us doin’ this stuff. It’s too much work for one person with a herd this size.”

  “How big is your herd?”

  “Around seven hundred cows, which means I’ll end up with roughly seven hundred calves. About fifty bulls. We keep them in separate pastures until it’s time to breed.”

  “So in addition to watching for calves, you’ve gotta feed the cows and the bulls every day?”

  “And a half dozen horses. Plus I’ve got goats.”

  “Goats? I must’ve missed those when I drove in.”

  “They’re caged because they eat damn near anything you set in front of them, and even stuff you don’t want them to eat. You should also know—”

  His cell phone rang. He said, “Just a sec.”

  Harper turned toward the window.

  After Bran listened to Les ramble on about nothing for a good two minutes, he ended the call. He stopped at the next gate, and Harper hopped right out without prompting.

  She didn’t say much as they made the trek back to the house.

  “Any questions?”

  “I’m sure I’ll have fifty million the second I start down the drive.”

  He pointed at her car. “Is that the only vehicle you own?”

  Color bloomed on her cheeks. “Yes. Why?”

  “Because, no offense, but that ain’t gonna cut it. The wind blows really hard out here and the entrance to the road can drift shut in a matter of hours. Since Les won’t be needing the ranch truck, you should drive it.”

  “Really?”

  “Yep. I’ll need you out here every day, no matter what the weather does in town. The only exception is if the highway patrol closes the road. That truck might look rough, but it runs great and gets around in the snow like a champ.”

  “Okay. But I can’t leave my car here. Bailey uses it after school most days.”

  “What do you do when she’s got your car?”

  “Walk.”

  The life he’d attributed to Harper the beauty queen seemed a far cry from her reality. “Tell you what. I’ll follow you into town. You can park your car and drive me back out here. That way I’ll be with you to see if you’ve got any problems driving it.”

  “Thanks.” Her sweet, unsure smile loosened something inside him and he found himself smiling back.

  He switched vehicles and followed her Dodge Neon into Muddy Gap. Harper parked in front of a small house set back from the street. He left the keys in the ignition and got out so she could drive.

  Once they were back on the highway, Harper said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve driven a truck. I forgot how much higher up you sit.”

  “I can’t remember the last time I drove a car.”

  Silence stretched between them.

  Bran wasn’t one to run off at the mouth, but in his experience most women were. They’d fill dead air with mindless chatter. Maybe it surprised him that Harper wasn’t like that. She hadn’t turned on the radio either.

  So it was really strange, his desire to linger after she pulled up to his trailer. To find out everything about her. To discover what else he’d gotten wrong.

  Jesus, you’re pathetic. She’s working for you. Would you have these same thoughts if you’d hired a male hand?

  No. Goddammit. He started to bail out of the truck, but she placed her hand on his arm, stopping him.

  “Thank you for giving me a chance. I appreciate it more than you’ll ever know, Bran. You won’t regret hiring me.”

  As Bran looked at her beautiful, earnest face, he couldn’t tell her he already had regrets. Because chances were very high that he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off his sexy new ranch hand.

  The front door slammed.

  “Whose truck is parked out front?”

  Harper stopped sorting through the pile of bills and glanced up at her younger sister.

  With her square glasses, glossy brown ponytail, checkered school uniform, and enormous backpack, Bailey looked like the brainiac she was.

  “It’s mine. For a while anyway.” Harper pointed to the plate of Rice Krispie treats on the coffee table. “There’s your snack.”

  “God. Let me get out of this stupid uniform. I hate uniforms.” She stripped as she headed to her room and returned thirty seconds later wearing baggy gray sweatpants and a Death Cab for Cutie T-shirt. Bailey threw herself on the couch and grabbed a treat. “So tell me about the redneck wheels.” She shoved the entire square bar in her mouth.

  “Alice fired me yesterday.”

  Bailey choked.

  Harper was right there, helping her sit up and handing her a glass of water. Bailey sputtered and swallowed.

  When she got control, she said, “Warn me next time. God, Harper. You got fired? Are you okay?”

  “It’s been bizarre. But hours after I lost the job, Celia told me that Bran Turner needed a temporary hired hand. Today he gave me the ranching lowdown, and I watched a calf being born—coolest thing ever, by the way—and he hired me. The truck comes with the job.”

  Ba
iley’s green eyes widened. “You’re working for Bran Turner?”

  “How do you know Bran?”

  “Jeez, Harper. Everyone knows Bran. He’s a real cowboy, not a wannabe like some of the losers around here who put on shitkickers, a cheap cowboy hat, and a fake rodeo buckle. Dude. He’s got that mean, squinty Clint Eastwood stare that’s scary as shit.”

 
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