Saddled and spurred, p.5
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.5

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  Bailey had hit it dead-on. Bran was the real deal. That was partially why he made her so nervous. She felt like an absolute idiot around him—even more stupid than she usually did.

  “I wish you’d stop saying shit like that, Harper. You’re not stupid,” Bailey said.

  She was unaware that she’d spoken out loud. “I’ll be working for him during the day. But he mentioned there’d be some late nights too.”

  Bailey waggled her eyebrows. “Can I just say how jealous I am of those late nights? You and studly cattleman Bran. All alone. Cold. Sweaty. Dirty. Tired. Who knows what might happen.”

  “I’m sure Bran will be a perfect gentleman while I’m his employee.”

  “For your sake, I sure as hell hope not.”

  Before Harper could rebuke her sister, Bailey’s cell phone buzzed. Immediately after digging it out of her backpack, Bailey glued the phone to her ear, walked to her bedroom, and closed the door.

  Although Harper was used to Bailey’s tendency to drop everything when her cell rang, she wished for more time to talk. Yawning, Harper stretched out on the couch. Maybe she’d just close her eyes for a bit and relax before starting supper.

  Harper arrived at the Turner ranch at six the next morning and parked the truck where she’d seen it the day before. But there was no sign of Bran’s vehicle. Huh. Where could he be? Out in the field?

  Maybe he’s not home yet from his late-night sexcapades.

  With his rugged features and the sexy, laid-back way Bran carried himself, no doubt the cowboy had his pick of women to share his bed. Would she face that situation in the coming months—a woman rolling out of Bran’s bed before they started morning chores?

  That thought didn’t sit well with her. Neither did sitting around in the truck in the cold and waiting for him.

  Maybe she should explore, get the lay of the land, so to speak. She’d dressed warmly enough to be outside. No reason she had to stay in the pickup with her hands primly folded.

  Harper checked out the farthest barn first, wondering if Bran had parked to load up supplies for the still mysterious “ranch work.” No sign of him. The next metal building, filled with unrecognizable machine parts, had that same eerie emptiness. She wandered back via the driveway, deciding to check the old-fashioned wooden barn. As soon as she cleared the far side, something moved.

  What the heck?

  She waited. Sure enough, she saw that blur of white again and chanced a peek at an enclosed pen. Looked like she’d found the goats. Amused by their antics, she watched them, staying out of sight. A big one climbed on the highest point of the metal shed, which was enclosed inside the pen. Another one, smaller than the first, scrambled up on top too, as they played a game of king of the mountain.

  Goats perched on the edge of the shed, peering over the side? Priceless. What a killer photo op. Harper slid her cell phone from her pocket and clicked the camera option. Keeping the lens trained on the curious animals, she stepped into their line of sight and said, “Say goat cheese.”

  Almost in slow motion, the goats tumbled off the edge of the shed. They hit the ground with a muffled thud and then stayed still.

  Horrified, Harper opened the gate and raced into the pen. She froze in front of the motionless white forms. Had they broken their necks? No blood spilled on the ground, but it looked like total carnage.

  Carnage she’d caused by taking a Kodak moment.

  Omigod. She’d killed Bran’s goats. On her second day on the job. Not only would he fire her for sure, but how could she live with the ugly truth that she’d accidentally led two innocent animals to their deaths?

  Maybe if she gave them CPR ... She leaned over the closest one and poked it in the ribs. No movement.

  That’s because they’re dead. Don’t bother putting your mouth on goat lips. Nothing’s gonna happen but getting a firsthand taste of dead goat breath.

  So what should she do?

  Hide the evidence. Throw the bodies in the shed and shut the door.

  No! That would be wrong.

  You need this job. Maybe Bran will think the goats died of natural causes.

  Huh-uh. Bran knew everything about his livestock.

  Shove them in the shed for now. Take them out later, pitch them in the back of the truck, and cover them with a tarp. Before you take off for the day, leave the pen gate open. Then tomorrow morning Bran will think his goats ran away.

  Due to her total panic, that was the option Harper chose, even when she was aware it was the worst option.

  She dragged the goats by the back legs and laid them in the metal shed. She shut the shed door and latched it. When she heard the rumble of Bran’s rig in the drive, she sprinted out of the pen and headed straight for the truck.

  Inside the cab, she rested her forehead on the steering wheel, attempting to level her breathing, trying to act normal. Trying not to act like she’d just entombed Bran’s goat family.

  When Bran rapped on the window, she screamed.

  Naturally Bran jumped back. His eyes narrowed on her and he opened the truck door in a panic. “Harper? What happened? You all right?”

  No! I’m a goat-murdering cover-up artist!

  She blinked at him. Opened her mouth, but she could not force the confession out. Could not.

  Chicken.

  Good thing Bran didn’t have chickens or else she might’ve killed them too.

  He aimed that squinty-eyed Eastwood gaze at her and she almost cracked.

  Almost.

  “You been sitting in the truck long enough that the exhaust fumes have turned you loopy?”

  She laughed, a bit hysterically. “Where were you? I thought maybe I was late and you’d started chores without me.”

  “Nope. I was out of coffee and made a store run. Lemme take this in the house, and then there’s a couple of things we need to talk about before we get started.”

  Harper’s heart dropped to her toes as Bran momentarily disappeared inside the trailer. What if he’d seen the whole goat episode and was waiting for her to confess to gauge her honesty?

  Mired in guilt, she didn’t hear him come up behind her. She must’ve jumped a foot in the air when he said, “We’ll do a livestock check first.”

  She froze. Livestock. Did that mean the horses and goats? Her stomach lurched. She wrestled with the right way to break it to him.

  His boots crunched across the driveway.

  No time to waste. She had to tell him. Now. She chased him down, because the man was scarily fast. “Look, Bran. There’s something I need—”

  He whirled around, putting his gloved finger to his lips. “Hear that?”

  Harper lifted the band of her wool cap off her ears and listened. Sure enough, she heard something solid hitting metal. Over and over.

  “What the hell?” Bran put his hands on his hips, cocking his head in the direction of the sound. After he heard it again, he hustled toward the old barn, which housed the great goat catastrophe.

  “Bran. Wait.”

  He ignored her and kept walking. Running, actually.

  Harper shuffled along behind him, dread dogging her every footstep as the noise got louder. Hey, maybe the sound was her guilty heartbeat, like in that Edgar Allan Poe tale. She rounded the corner of the barn beside the pen just as Bran unlatched the door to the metal shed.

  I can explain. Really. I didn’t mean to kill them.

  But as soon as the shed door opened, two shaggy white forms bounded out. Bounded out, doing a little happy goat jig.

  Harper gasped.

  Bran spun toward her. “Do you know why my goats were locked up in this shed? Jesus. They kicked the living shit out of it.” His gloved hand traced the bumps in the metal, dents that’d been made from the inside out. From something trying to get out.

  She gaped at the goats, flashing back to The X-Files Chupacabra episode that dealt with a Mexican bloodsucking goat. Were these goats somehow . . . possessed? Able to come back to life?

  “Harper?”<
br />
  “Omigod! I thought they were dead!”

  “Run that by me one more time?”

  She couldn’t tear her gaze away from the two frisky goats that were jumping—jumping!—on top of the metal shed, once again playing follow the leader.

  Hey. Was one of them smirking at her?

  Bran grabbed her sleeve, forcing her to look at him. “What in the hell is goin’ on with you?”

  “What is wrong with me? What is wrong with your goats? They’re evil! And they’re laughing at me! Look at their smug little goat faces! Go on. Look at them!”

  “Harper. Take a deep breath. You’re babbling.”

  “You’d be babbling too if you’d killed two goats this morning and they miraculously came back to life!”

  Those steely gray eyes narrowed. “What do you mean you killed them?”

  Harper briefly closed her eyes. “When I arrived here you weren’t around, so I went looking for you. I ended up by the goat pen and I saw them standing on the shed. I thought it’d make a cute picture. Before I could snap off a single shot, they fell off the roof onto the ground! I ran in, hoping I could save them, but they weren’t moving, so I dragged them into the shed and shut the door, thinking I’d come up with a way to explain to you how I killed your goats on my second day as a ranch hand.”

  Something unreadable flitted through his eyes.

  Oh, God. Did Bran think she was totally bonkers? “I swear—”

  “Lemme ask you something. Did the goats see you before you took their picture?”

  Harper frowned. “I don’t think so. I was watching them from the side of the barn.”

  “So you could’ve startled them?”

  “Well, I did jump out and yell, ‘Say goat cheese!’ So I suppose that might’ve startled them.”

  Bran started to laugh. He laughed so hard he had to bend over to catch his breath. Just when she thought he’d stop, he’d look up at her, tears swimming in his silvery eyes, and then look over at the goats and start laughing all over again.

  Although he was busting a serious gut, she didn’t find any humor in this situation at all.

  Finally, he said, “Goddamn. I’m sorry, Harper. It’s just . . .”

  “What? I’m not crazy. Those goats were dead to the world.”

  “I believe you.” He grinned like he had a huge secret. “But it’ll be easiest to show you.” He faced the pen and yelled, “Boo!” while leaping against the chicken wire covering the cage.

  Just like before, both the goats fell off the metal shed and lay on the ground, completely still.

  Harper moved beside Bran, hooking her gloved fingers through the holes in the chicken wire. “What are they, possessed?”

  “No. This kind of goat is called a Kentucky stiff leg. The odd thing is, they faint whenever they’re startled. And it starts a chain reaction among the other goats around them. They just faint dead away—pardon the pun.”

  “How long do they stay like that?”

  “Anywhere from one minute to five minutes. These two seem to stay out of it longer than others I’ve seen.”

  “What are their names?”

  “Pox and Hex. Pox is the smaller one. She’s pregnant.”

  That made Harper feel worse. Didn’t it hurt the kid when the mama goat plummeted to her fake death? “Wait. Pox and Hex? Strange names.”

  “Charlie gave them to me as a surprise.”

  “Does he hate you or something?”

  Bran snorted. “Or something. You must’ve moved pretty fast if you got ’em in the shed before they came to.”

  Harper hung her head and stared at her feet. “I’m such an idiot about this stuff. I’m sorry.”

  “Hey.” Soft leather brushed her chin and Bran lifted her face up to meet his eyes. “Not your fault. I should’ve warned you. Since I’ve been around ranch work my whole life, this stuff comes natural to me and I don’t even think about it.”

  “Bran. There is nothing natural about fainting goats.”

  He smiled, but his gaze seemed stuck on her mouth. “I may forget to teach you some things. But I’d never do it intentionally to make you feel stupid, Harper. I ain’t that kind of man.”

  A warm feeling flowed through her. “Thanks. And I promise if I make another mistake, I won’t try to hide the evidence.”

  “Workin’ with you ain’t gonna ever be boring, that’s for damn sure.” His smile faded and he stepped back. “Come on. Chores are waitin’.”

  Hours later Harper stumbled in the door and headed directly for the shower. She’d managed to act blasé around Bran, as if being covered in birth gunk and cow poop hadn’t bothered her in the least.

  But it had. Oh, man, had it ever.

  She flipped on the shower to warm it up while she stripped. Once the hot water hit her cold skin, she didn’t even mind the stinging sensation. She lathered up with her favorite peach soap and let the steaming water flow over her. Sometimes a hot shower was better than an orgasm.

  Probably not better than the orgasms Bran could give you.

  She shuddered, wondering what it’d feel like having Bran’s strong, rough-skinned hands all over her.

  Heavenly. Bran could probably do sexual things she’d only read about.

  Not that it would be difficult, since Harper had limited sexual experience. Due to her mother’s reputation of spreading her legs for any man, of any age, size, race, or creed, Harper had gone in the opposite direction and remained chaste. She’d lost her virginity simply out of curiosity, choosing a college guy with more brains than brawn. They’d dated a while. Sex between them hadn’t driven her to the pinnacle of ecstasy her girlfriends raved about. Then her mom had uprooted them from Montana, ending her brief stab at a romance.

  After she’d started winning pageants, the coordinators constantly warned her to be discreet in her dealings with the opposite sex. Apparently many men considered bagging a beauty queen a sign of masculine prowess, entitling them to bragging rights. So Harper decided to deal with that issue by staying abstinent, never expecting that it would last four years.

  Within a week of passing off her final crown and title, she accepted a date with a man older than the college guys who’d been sniffing around. She learned firsthand there was no substitute for a sexually experienced male who took pride in pleasing a woman in bed. A mere month into the relationship, Harper learned her mother had bailed on poor Bailey. Since she’d moved back to Muddy Gap, no man had captured her interest.

  Until Bran.

  Too bad you’re not his type.

  No, too bad he was her boss.

  Harper toweled off and applied minimal makeup—foundation, mascara, and pale pink lip gloss. After tossing her dirty clothes into the tiny laundry room, she pawed through her dresser. She couldn’t wait to wear something besides jeans and boots for her short shift at Get Nailed. Bran was paying her enough that she could give notice to Bernice, but spending time chatting with her customers allowed her to feel part of the community. None of the women who patronized Bernice’s Beauty Barn ever uttered snarky comments about Harper’s mother or her mother’s irresponsible actions. Those wonderful ladies accepted her. Period. Which was worth way more than the pittance she earned.

  Standing in front of her jam-packed closet, she chose a long tan moleskin skirt, a Western-cut shirt with black and tan checks mixed with strips of solid black and brown paisley, and black beaded moccasins. She adored clothes, jewelry, shoes—anything related to fashion. Chances were slim that she could carve out her dream career in fashion merchandising without a degree, but she still took time to look stylish. Even if the only people who saw her and appreciated her quirky style were the sixty-, seventy-, and eightysomething patrons of Get Nailed.

  The wind practically blew her inside the building. Get Nailed was located in the back of Bernice’s Beauty Barn. In a small community there wasn’t a need for a full-time, full-service hair salon, to say nothing of a full-time nail salon, so Bernice scheduled nail appointments at the en
d of the day on the days she was open.

  She hung up her coat on the coat tree, an oddly endearing monstrosity that Bernice’s husband, Bob, had fashioned out of elk antlers. When she turned around, all five women in the shop were gawking at her. “What?”

  “Oh, nothin’, dear. We’re just surprised to see you.”

  Harper’s eyes zipped to Bernice. “Why? You planning on firing me too?”

  Bernice clucked her tongue and resumed snipping a section of Tilda O’Toole’s snow-white hair. “No. I figured with you bein’ Bran Turner’s new hired hand and all, you might be giving me the boot.”

  “Heaven knows I wouldn’t kick Bran Turner out of bed,” Tilda piped up.

  “Unless he wanted to do it on the floor,” Garnet Evans added with a snicker.

  “Garnet!”

  She shrugged. “Just sayin’. I’m old. I ain’t dead.”

 
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