Saddled and spurred, p.7
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       Saddled and Spurred, p.7

         Part #2 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  She stared at him. A look of comprehension entered her eyes. “The ATV got stuck in a lower gear. I glanced down at the RPMs and tried to shift, but it wouldn’t budge. When I looked back up . . . I . . . umm . . .”

  “What?”

  “A bunny jumped in front of me and I swerved to miss it. Then I went sailing through the air. Guess I must’ve smacked into the ground pretty hard, huh?”

  Bran rested on his haunches. “A bunny. You took a chance with your own life and your own safety to save . . . a fucking bunny?”

  “Yes. You don’t have to be such a jerk about it.”

  “I had visions of you . . .” Hurt and it being my fault for pushing you. He got to his feet angrily. “Never mind.” He offered a hand to help her up and she batted it away.

  “Where are my sunglasses?”

  This woman was an absolute piece of work. She almost killed herself for a goddamn rabbit and now the only thing she gave a shit about was her sunglasses?

  He spun around away from her, knowing if he stayed there another second, he’d chew her ass.

  Crunch.

  Looked like he’d found her stupid sunglasses. He closed his eyes and counted to twenty.

  As he bent over to pick up the crushed plastic, he heard her gasp behind him. He whirled around and saw Harper crawling to her ATV.

  Crawling. She’d rather crawl than accept help from him?

  Can you blame her? You’re being an ass and she probably is injured. She just has too much pride to admit it to you.

  Screw that.

  “What in the hell do you think you’re doin’?” Real compassionate, Bran.

  “I’m basting a turkey,” she snapped. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

  Jesus. Sweet Harper was snapping at him? Maybe she had smacked her head on a rock. Bran stepped in front of her, wrapped his fingers around her biceps, and hauled her to her feet.

  Shit. Her eyes held that vacant look. “Harper? Sweetheart?”

  “I’m not your sweetheart, but I am dizzy. Really dizzy.” Her head fell forward into his chest. “I’m tired. Just let me sleep, you big meanie.”

  She called him a big meanie?

  He could deal with being called an asshole, a douche bag, or a dumb fuck. But her calling him a big meanie . . . that made him feel ten times worse. No way in hell was she driving back to the ranch.

  Resigning himself to having her tempting curves pressed against him, Bran lifted her into his arms. She was solid, but he managed to deposit her on the jump seat of his ATV with little trouble. He scooted in front of her, shoving her hands in his jacket pockets. He knew she was somewhat aware of what was going on when her arms tightened around him and she nestled her head into the middle of his back.

  After what’d happened with Les, Bran didn’t relish carting Harper to town to get her checked out, but he didn’t want to take chances with an undiagnosed injury becoming serious either. It’d be better if he could get a medical opinion out here. Quickly.

  An idea occurred to him. He dug out his cell phone and dialed Fletch, giving Fletch a vague rundown of her injuries and his location. Luckily Fletch was in his truck not far away and promised to swing by the ranch immediately.

  Bran dug a thermal blanket out of the rear compartment, tucking it around Harper as best as he could, and waited.

  Finally Fletch’s big rig bumped into the pasture. Then Fletch hopped out, carrying a plastic-coated sheet and a duffel bag. The man was still built like the linebacker he’d been in college, so his gentle nature shocked most people.

  But Fletch wasn’t wearing his usual easy grin. He stopped in front of Bran’s ATV and scowled. “Where is she?”

  “Now, don’t be getting mad, Fletch, but I didn’t know who else to call.”

  Fletch nudged his cowboy hat up, training his gaze on Harper’s form slumped behind Bran. “Jesus Christ, Turner, please tell me she isn’t the injured heifer you were referring to when you called?”

  Naturally, Harper chose that exact moment to become coherent. “What injured heifer? Where?”

  Don’t say it.

  “He was referring to you, sugar,” Fletch pointed out.

  Shit. Bran felt her entire body stiffen behind him.

  “Bran called me a . . . heifer?”

  “Yes.” Fletch snapped at Bran. “She’s clearly not in need of my medical expertise.”

  Then Bran did something rare—he babbled. “She got pitched off the ATV. I thought she was fine. I did the basic checks for head and body injuries and then, wham! It was as if she clocked out. Vacant eyes. Listlessness. She couldn’t even stand. She just ... crashed.”

  “You didn’t drive her to town . . . why?”

  He didn’t answer because really, what could he say?

  “Because you knew I’d come running out here and save you the trouble, that’s why,” Fletch finished for him.

  Harper peered around Bran’s shoulder. “Excuse me. Who are you and why are you here?”

  All Fletch’s surliness vanished. He dropped his duffel and the sheet and smiled that cocky grin that made women swoon.

  Maybe this hadn’t been the best idea. Bran sure as hell didn’t want Harper swooning over his buddy.

  “I’m August Fletcher and I’m here because my lamebrain friend called me to check out your injury.”

  “Are you a doctor?”

  “Of sorts.”

  Harper waited.

  “I’m a veterinarian.”

  Silence.

  Shit. Shit. Shit. This wasn’t good.

  Harper bailed off the back of the ATV like it was about to explode. Or maybe she was about to explode.

  “A veterinarian, Bran Turner? Really? You called a veterinarian to look me over?”

  Before Bran could formulate a reasonable argument, Fletch stood in front of Harper, probably to block the blows she intended to inflict upon Bran’s neck and head.

  “Now, look, sugar, I know you’re mad at him. With good reason. But I am here. There are a couple of basic checks I can do to see if there’s need for Bran to drive you to the hospital.”

  Another round of silence. Then, “Do we have to do this out here? Because, to be honest, I’m freezing.”

  “I’m sure. It’d be more comfortable to do it at Bran’s place. Especially since I’ll need to get you out of these clothes.”

  What the fuck? Fletch planned to take her clothes off? Bran glared at his friend.

  Fletch placed his hand in the small of Harper’s back, almost on her ass. “It’s warm in my truck. You can tell me what happened and how you feel.” Fletch shot Bran an arch look over Harper’s shoulder. “See you at your house.”

  “How am I supposed to get both these ATVs back?”

  “Not my concern. I have a patient to look after.” Fletch stopped at the front end of his rig. “Take your time. I plan on doing a thorough examination on Harper. Just to make sure I don’t miss anything.”

  Bran wondered how Fletch’s smarmy smile would look with a few teeth missing.

  Her boss had called a veterinarian to check her out.

  The jerk.

  Her head hurt. Her butt hurt. But the sting to her pride? That hurt the worst.

  Did Bran really think she was a heifer?

  “I really think he meant well, Harper,” Fletch said gently as they bumped through the pasture.

  She folded her arms across her chest and snorted.

  “How long have you been working for him?”

  “A week. A very long week.”

  Fletch chuckled. “And how long did you sign on for?”

  “Too long.” Harper stared out the window, watching the snow blanket everything in white. It wasn’t fair to take her anger out on Fletch. Not his fault that Bran was a jerk. “So you’re a veterinarian who makes house calls?”

  “Yep. I don’t handle cats or dogs in my practice. I’m strictly a large-animal vet, so I make lots of ranch calls.”

  “Terrific. Now I really feel like a he
ifer.”

  Another chuckle. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

  After she finished, she studied his face as he processed the information. The guy was . . . big. He had to be at least six foot four. And broad. It appeared his shoulders took up half the seat back. His face was classically handsome, hazel eyes, and longish hair the color of strong coffee. A dark complexion, which hinted at Native American ancestry. And when he smiled? Lord. That dazzling grin glowed brighter than the snow surrounding them.

  How was it that she’d never met him? Muddy Gap was a small community. She and Celia had frequently hung out with Hank and Abe’s buddies. She definitely would’ve remembered August Fletcher. “You live around here?”

  Fletch nodded. “In Rawlins. I also work in Cheyenne, Laramie, and all spots in between. I’m gone a lot.”

  He parked sideways, blocking the front steps to Bran’s trailer. Harper wondered if he’d done it on purpose. Seemed like Fletch wanted to poke at Bran, to pay him back for calling him all the way out here to treat a human. A human female, no less. She was all for it.

  Inside, Harper started a pot of coffee and returned to the living room.

  “Why don’t you take off the coveralls, boots, and all that outerwear and sit on the couch?” He tossed a fleece blanket at her. “Cover up in this to stay warm.”

  Fletch wasn’t particularly chatty, nor was he in any hurry to start the exam. Or had he planned to have Bran present for it? When the whining ATV motor sounded close to the house, Fletch’s entire demeanor changed.

  “Stand.” Then Fletch did the oddest thing; he dropped to his knees in front of her. He poked her lower abdomen through her shirt.

  He’d moved up a couple of inches to test her ribs when Bran barreled in. Lordy, lordy. Bran was mad enough he didn’t take off his boots. He clomped across the carpet, leaving muddy footprints and chunks of snow. “What the fuck do you think you’re doin’ with your goddamn hand up her shirt?”

  Fletch didn’t acknowledge Bran at all. “Does this hurt?”

  “No.”

  Two more soft pokes under her bottom rib on the opposite side. “This?”

  “No.”

  “I can’t see . . . Maybe it would be better if you unbuttoned your shirt, Harper.”

  “You gonna start humming the melody from The Stripper?” she asked lightly.

  He chuckled.

  Bran wasn’t laughing at all.

  She bit the inside of her cheek. Bran almost seemed ... jealous.

  Ha. Wrong. She had to be misreading him. Bran Turner didn’t even like her. He thought she was a bunny-saving fat cow, for crying out loud.

  As Fletch watched, Harper tried to keep from blushing, tried not to notice the avid stares at her chest, tried to keep her hands from shaking as she slipped the top button free from the buttonhole.

  “Enough,” Bran said hoarsely. “Goddammit. Enough. If she needs to be examined that closely, I’ll take her to the damn doctor.”

  Fletch rolled to his feet. “Fine. I’ll remind you that you called me, Bran. I have one more reaction to test.”

  “Do it quick.”

  He unclipped a pen from his pocket and clicked it. A tiny beam of bluish light streamed out the end. He held her jaw firmly in his big hands, with his thumb pressed into the left side of her jaw. “Just a quick concussion check.” He centered the silver pen in front of her nose. “Follow the movement of the pen with just your eyes. Not your head.”

  Harper did.

  “Good. So, how did a beautiful woman like you end up as this guy’s hired hand?”

  “Fashion merchandising and marketing jobs are a little hard to come by in Muddy Gap. So I had to improvise.”

  “Is that what your degree is in?” He switched the pen to the other side and slowly moved the beam of light.

  “I’d have to finish school to have a degree.”

  “Do you plan to go back to college?”

  “Maybe. Probably. I hope so, but not for a few years until Bailey and I are settled someplace.” She gave him a brief rundown of why she was stuck in Muddy Gap.

  “If you change your mind and want to stick around, I can always use a veterinary assistant in Rawlins. But fair warning, we’d be on the road together. A lot.”

  Was that a snarl coming from Bran? No, it was a sarcastic bark of laughter. He said, “Yeah, Harper is a real natural with goats.”

  “I am a bit of a greenhorn with livestock.”

  “We all are at some point.” Fletch winked. “Bran must have really pissed off his last girlfriend, Charlie, to have gotten those fainting goats from her as a breakup gift.”

  Charlie was a woman? Seemed Bran had left out that factoid. No wonder the goats’ names were Pox and Hex.

  “Now stare straight ahead. I’m gonna shine this in both your eyes, but I don’t want you to look at the light.”

  The instant that light hit, her eyes watered.

  “Doin’ okay, Harper?”

  “I guess. For you searing my retinas into ash with that light.”

  “You can swear at me if you want.”

  “Thanks, but I don’t swear.”

  “Ever?”

  “Almost never.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because my mom and my sisters have taken cursing to a whole new level and I couldn’t possibly compete with some of their more . . . clever uses of the f-word.”

  Fletch chuckled.

  “Plus, swearing like a cowboy is frowned on in the pageant system. Even in Wyoming.”

  “I hear ya. Just one more. There. We’re done.” Fletch clicked the penlight off and ran his hand down the side of her face. “You did great. I don’t see any signs of a concussion, but I imagine you’ve got a helluva headache.”

  She nodded.

  “I have to head back to town. Can I drop you someplace?”

  “If it’s not too much trouble.”

  “No problem.”

  “I have a problem with it,” Bran said tightly. “She is my responsibility. She can crash here until her head feels better. I’ll get her some aspirin and make sure she’s able to drive before I send her home.”

  “She is capable of answering for herself, boss,” Harper reminded Bran with false sweetness.

  “And . . . that’s my cue to leave.” Fletch reached inside his coat, pulled out a business card, and pressed it into her hand. “You need anything, call me. My personal cell number is on there too.” He stopped in front of Bran, who was rather pointedly holding the door wide-open. “Don’t even think about bitching at me when you get the bill.” Then he was gone.

  Harper sagged to the couch.

  And Bran, the always confident, always gruff Bran, actually looked . . . nervous, remorseful, and a little scared.

  Served him right. But he also looked so ... lost she just wanted to wrap herself around him.

  He jammed his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and restlessly shifted his feet. “Ah, hell, Harper. I’m sorry. It was a stupid idea, havin’ Fletch show up.”

  “Yes, it was.”

  If Bran was shocked that she hadn’t gone all soft and let him off the hook, he didn’t show it.

 
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