Saddled and spurred, p.6
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.6

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  “How did you guys hear about me going to work for Bran?” Harper demanded. “It’s only my second day.”

  Tilda’s eyes flicked to Harper’s in the mirror. “Honey, do you really need us to remind you how small this town is?”

  “Plus,” Bernice added, “Bran’s hired hand’s truck has been parked at your place since yesterday. Given the state of Les Daaugard’s hip, we know you weren’t makin’ time with him.”

  A chorus of female titters erupted.

  “Now, don’t get sore at us, Harper. We were just funnin’ with you,” Garnet said.

  “I know.” She rubbed her hands together. “So who’s my first victim—I mean client—today?”

  Maybelle Linberg pushed to her feet. “That would be me.”

  “Come on back. It’ll take me a second to get ready.”

  “No rush. It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to be or anyone waiting on me.”

  Harper’s heart ached for Miz Maybelle, who’d lost her husband of fifty years six months back. None of her children or grandchildren lived close by, and Harper thought it’d only be a matter of time before Maybelle moved on if she didn’t find something to occupy herself.

  She slipped an apron on and set up the nail station, draping towels across the hand board. She filled a pan with disinfecting solution and added hot water. “Have a seat.” After Maybelle was situated, she removed the old nail polish on Maybelle’s short fingernails. The majority of Harper’s clients were older women who didn’t want the fuss of acrylic nails and preferred an old-fashioned manicure with their gossip.

  “You know, I heard a rumor that Bootsie Mitchell is looking for a new society reporter for the Muddy Gap Gazette,” Harper said.

  “Now, you know I’m not one for rumors and such, but where on earth did you hear that?”

  Harper fought a smile. Maybelle always pooh-poohed the evil rumor mill, but immediately perked up with interest at the word gossip. “Evidently Bootsie mentioned it to Bernice last week during her perm. Seems Lila Aldean is hanging up her reporter’s pen for the society column.”

  “As well she should.” Maybelle tsk-tsked. “Lord, Lila is almost ninety-five years old.”

  “I think you’d be the perfect person to fill the position, Miz Maybelle. You’ve lived here your whole life and you’re about the only person I know who doesn’t consistently use the word ain’t, so your language skills are better than most.”

  A thoughtful pause followed. Then Maybelle said, “Why didn’t you apply, dear? I know you’re looking for work.”

  “Because it’s a volunteer position. And I won’t be around much longer.”

  Maybelle dunked her slightly gnarled hands into the solution and sighed. “Why is it that with all the years I spent up to my elbows in soapy water washing dishes, it never once felt like this? I feel so guilty.”

  “Don’t feel guilty about pampering yourself. After all the years you cooked and cleaned for your husband and your family? You deserve it.”

  “I suppose that’s true.” Maybelle squinted at the rows of polish. “I’m thinking I’d like a bright color this time. Something daring.”

  “How about scarlet?” Harper plucked the color from the rainbow-hued lineup. “This one even has tiny specks of glitter.”

  “That’d give ’em something to talk about after bridge club, wouldn’t it?”

  “Yes, ma’am. They’ll be so busy gawking at your nails they won’t pay attention to the cards and you’ll whip ’em good.”

  “Scarlet it is.”

  Harper dried Maybelle’s hands and rubbed oil on her cuticles, giving her a hand massage.

  “So is there any more news on Bailey’s college applications?” Maybelle prompted.

  “She’s been accepted to Montana State, Colorado State, University of Nebraska, Idaho State, University of Northern Colorado/ Boulder, and University of Wyoming. The only scholarship offer she’s gotten is from UW and it’s a full ride, for four years, including room and board.”

  “And she hasn’t taken it because she thinks there’s something better out there?”

  Harper frowned. She didn’t know why Bailey hadn’t jumped at the chance for free college. Whenever Harper brought it up, all Bailey would say was she was considering it. “Isn’t that human nature? Always thinking there’s something better out there?”

  “What about you, Harper?”

  “I’ll go wherever Bailey goes. She’ll need my support.” Even when she thinks she doesn’t need it.

  Maybelle turned her hand and squeezed Harper’s fingers. “That’s not what I meant.”

  Confused, she looked up.

  “Sometimes what we need is right in front of our faces and we can’t see it.”

  Okay. That was vague. Harper smiled. “Let’s get those nails buffed up and ready for that hoochie mama polish.”

  Maybelle tittered like a schoolgirl.

  After she finished with Maybelle, Chrissy Baker raced in for a repair job because she’d broken two nails changing a flat tire on her pickup and she had a late date. Then Garnet requested a quick color change, which morphed into a full manicure and another round of whether a man was sexier wearing boxers or briefs.

  Knowing she’d need the caffeine for later, Harper poured a cup of coffee and sipped, waiting for her next client.

  “So you ended up working for Bran Turner, huh?” Bernice said.

  “Yep. Luckily I don’t have to drive to Rawlins every day and serve up fries or make beds to earn a living.”

  Bernice lit a cigarette. “That’s all you feel you’re qualified to do?”

  Harper nodded.

  “What were you studyin’ at that community college in Casper?”

  “Fashion merchandising and marketing.”

  “Really?” Bernice inhaled and blew out a stream of smoke. “That seems the perfect fit for you. Do you plan on finishing your degree once you leave Muddy Gap?”

  Harper was too embarrassed to admit that if she hadn’t come home to take care of Bailey, she might’ve ended up coming home anyway because she hadn’t been doing so hot with some of the college courses. “Depends on where Bailey and I end up.”

  Bernice studied her through the blue haze.

  “What?”

  “You gonna be okay when Bailey ain’t your responsibility anymore?”

  She’ll always be my responsibility.

  The doorbell clanged and all three hundred pounds of Mimi Julanski thundered in, saving Harper from having to answer Bernice’s question out loud.

  Chapter Four

  One week later . . .

  Due to a partial snowmelt Bran suggested they check cattle with the ATVs instead of the truck. It’d been a month since he’d double-checked a couple of problem areas that he couldn’t get to in his pickup. After he’d loaded up wire cutters and other supplies, he wondered how Harper would fare helping with the most monotonous aspect of ranching—fixing fence. But he didn’t doubt her ability. She’d done remarkably well with every mundane task he’d set in front of her the last week.

  So when Harper breezily assured him that she had experience driving an ATV, he’d sped off ahead of her, expecting that she would keep up.

  She hadn’t.

  Not even fucking close.

  Jesus. The woman drove like a ninety-year-old retirement home escapee. At the rate she was meandering along, it’d take them all damn day to reach the freakin’ fence, let alone have time to fix the damn thing once they actually got there.

  Bran waited impatiently by the gate—the gate he’d had to open because his gate opener was a quarter mile behind him.

  And when she’d finally puttered up alongside him, her cheeks pinkened by the wind, strands of blond hair sticking to her face and poking out of her hood, looking so goddamn cute and yet breathtakingly beautiful, he got instantly hard. And he got instantly mad about getting hard. He snarled, “Dammit, Harper. Is it too much to ask you to keep up with me?”

  She peered at him over the
top of her sunglasses. Dark, movie-star-type sunglasses bejeweled with pink and purple rhinestones in the corners above her eyes, for chrissake. “I didn’t know we were racing.”

  “We’re not. But—”

  “This is a dangerous job. I’m not about to pitch myself off this thing headfirst into a snowbank because you want to prove you can outmaneuver me. You can. You win.”

  “The only danger you’re in, sweetheart, is from falling asleep at the wheel because you’re goin’ too goddamn slow.”

  Harper smiled slyly. “Is that what you said to Les before his hip got broken? ‘Hurry up’?”

  He growled. “Just keep up.”

  “You go on ahead. I’ll close the gate, boss.”

  Boss. Bran growled again. He zipped through the gate and across the field. All the way across the flattest part he didn’t hear the rumble of her ATV close behind him, and since there wasn’t a side mirror, he couldn’t just glance in it to see where the hell she was.

  Don’t turn around and look for her.

  He resisted the temptation for, oh, about . . . forty-five seconds. He slowed and spun around.

  Fury bloomed when she raised her arm, from two hundred yards away, and waved at him like a goddamn ... beauty queen atop a parade float.

  She is a beauty queen, dumb ass.

  Like he needed that reminder—it was obvious every time he looked at her. Regardless if she wore filthy, ripped, oversized coveralls, she carried as herself as regally as royalty. Bran waited. And fumed. When she got within ten feet of his machine, he thought about spinning a cookie and coating her with snow, just to be ornery.

  But he didn’t. He clenched his teeth.

  “Is there a problem?” she shouted.

  Yes. You are my problem. You’ve gotten under my skin like a burr and I can’t stop thinking about you. All the damn time. Further incensed by his crush-like behavior, he snapped, “Do you have to work at the nail salon later this afternoon?”

  “Yes, why?”

  “You’d better get a move on, then, because a section of fence needs to be fixed. Today.”

  “You’re telling me I’m not leaving until it’s done?”

  “That’s exactly what I’m telling you.” He bumped along the trail to the broken fence line and noticed she’d managed to keep up after his pointed reminder.

  Probably made him an asshole, but he slowed down. Way down.

  Harper zoomed up, flanking him. “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothin’. Just makin’ sure we’re safe.” He flashed his teeth at her.

  She hit the gas, sped ahead, and sprayed him with snow.

  Damn woman did have a little sass. And that was more appealing than seeing her in a swimsuit.

  Okay. That was a total fucking lie. He’d give his left nut to see her in a skimpy bikini again. The last time he’d laid eyes upon the glory of her nearly nude body? She’d practically been jailbait and he shouldn’t have been gawking at her, but he couldn’t help it—she’d looked damn fine. The years had been good to her. Very good to her.

  He was so lost in visions of Harper in a string bikini that he almost plowed over a fence post. He skidded sideways and killed the engine, acting as if he’d intended to get close enough to get splinters in his teeth and his tires.

  He tossed the roll of barbed wire on the ground and grabbed his pliers. “See that sixth fence post in?” He pointed. “Take this end”—he unwound a section of wire—“and walk down there with it. Keep it straight and keep a tight hold on it.”

  “How tight?”

  “Tight as you can. I like it tight and hard and I’m gonna be jerkin’ on it harder than you’d expect.”

  Harper’s mouth opened, then closed with a bashful smile.

  When Bran realized how he’d phrased it, he actually blushed. He almost snapped at her to get her mind out of the gutter, when she inquired sweetly, “Wouldn’t it be easier to put a metal clamp on it and then try to fix it?”

  He loomed over her. “Excuse me, Miss Sweet Ass, but how many miles of fence have you fixed?”

  “It’s Miss Sweet Grass, Mr. Rude Behavior, and I was just offering a suggestion.”

  Fuck. He couldn’t believe he’d called her Miss Sweet Ass. “I don’t need your suggestions, Harper. I need you to do what you’re told.”

  She gave him her back and sauntered away. And were his eyes deceiving him? Or had Harper saluted?

  Unreal.

  Sexy as hell, though, that little bit of sass.

  Luckily, she held on to the wire tight enough so by the time he reached her it was a quick tie-off and then he could go to the next post. She walked to the broken section of fence line without being told.

  Everything would’ve been fine and dandy if the woman hadn’t felt the need to hum all the damn time. If he’d wanted to listen to tunes, he would’ve worn his iPod. But Harper wasn’t whining, complaining, or, God forbid, chattering like a squirrel, so he let it go.

  By the time they finished repairing the fence, a cold front had moved in and fine snow drifted down like powdered sugar, cutting visibility.

  “Let’s head back before it gets worse out here.”

  Harper helped him pick up his tools without him asking her, which he appreciated. As she headed to her ATV, she lost her footing. Bran snagged the back of her coat, keeping her upright. “Be careful.”

  She skidded sideways and latched onto the straps of his overalls to retain her balance. “Sorry. I’m not especially graceful.”

  “Not a problem.” Her brown eyes were nearly gold in this light. Bran couldn’t look away. But he knew if he didn’t force himself to step back, he’d be tempted to brush the tiny flakes of snow from her pink cheeks. Or press his mouth to hers to see if he could warm up her cold-looking lips.

  Her gaze dropped to his throat and she released him first, backing up. Way up. “Ah. Yeah. I’d better get a head start since I’m so slow.”

  Bran signaled for her to follow him. They cut across the sloped field to the cattle shelter. She stayed on her ATV while he took a quick count of how many cows he had in labor. Four. It’d be an easy night. But an easy night was always followed by a hard night.

  The frigid air bit through his layers of clothes and he sped toward home. He was busy thinking about things he had yet to finish, when he heard a whining crunch behind him. He cranked his head and watched in shock as Harper was ejected off the ATV. She landed hard, her body crumpling, and the machine abruptly quit.

  He jerked the steering wheel and raced back to her, panic flooding his chest. He’d barely gotten his ATV stopped before he skidded on his knees beside her on the frozen ground.

  She was sprawled flat on her back. She wasn’t fucking moving. Mouth dry, heart racing, fear ripping at his insides, Bran tried to remember what to do.

  Check her pulse. Check her breathing. Check for injuries.

  After tearing off his gloves with his teeth, he unzipped her jacket to the middle of her chest. He placed his shaking fingers on the pulse point of her neck.

  Thump. Thump. Thump.

  Beating heart. Thank God.

  Harper’s neck wasn’t twisted at a weird, broken angle. But she’d been knocked out cold. Probably had the wind knocked out of her too. He lightly laid his head on her chest to hear her breathing.

  Her chest lifted beneath his ear. Her lungs appeared to be working fine. He mapped the planes of her cold face and loosened her hood, running his hands over her scalp to see if she’d sustained a head injury.

  No blood. No bumps.

  “Harper? Sweetheart, can you hear me?”

  Was it his imagination or did her nose wrinkle?

  When he leaned near enough to feel her exhalations on his upper lip, her eyes opened.

  Being a hairsbreadth away from Harper sent a shot of adrenaline straight to his groin. Holy hell, the woman was even more beautiful up close. He found his voice, although it didn’t sound like his voice. “You okay?”

  “I think so. What happened?”<
br />
  “I don’t know. I heard a noise and then saw you hit the ground. What’s the last thing you remember?”

 
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