Wrapped and strapped, p.10
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.10
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         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  allowing them to gaze into each other’s eyes. Then the greed rose again and they were lost in the wet heat of hungry mouths, shared breaths of explosive passion.

  Her brain urged her to stop before she couldn’t. She ripped her mouth free from his and took a step back.

  His eyes were dark. His hands were clenched in fists at his sides. “What?”

  “This time I kissed you first.”

  “I got that.”

  “Then get this.” Harlow sidestepped him. “This time I’m the one who’s running away first.” She snagged her uniform off the door and walked out. . .

  “Are you all right?”

  Harlow’s head snapped up and the memory vaporized.

  Lela, from housekeeping, paused twenty feet down the sidewalk. “I’m fine,” she lied, and forced a smile.

  “It’s really hot right here.”

  Harlow noticed both of Lela’s hands gripped her purse straps in one place so she could use it as a weapon if she had to. Not a stranger to violence. “All the better to stew in my own juices.”

  Lela looked like she didn’t know what that meant. “If you’re sure you’re all right, I’d probably better get.”

  “See you, Lela.”

  That surprised her. “You know my name?”

  “Why wouldn’t I?”

  “Oh. I just thought . . .”

  “Do you have me mixed up with Harley?”

  “No.” She blushed. “Sorry. Never mind.”

  “Did you assume I was a rich bitch who takes for granted the work you do?”

  Her face turned even redder. “It—I—was wrong to assume. I mean, you’ve never been anything but nice to me, Harlow. I’m so sorry.”

  “No worries. I’m just trying to figure out what I’ve been labeled around here. See you tomorrow.”

  With a wave, Lela lumbered off.

  Harlow figured if Tierney or Renner needed her, they would’ve called or texted. She cut down the hill and around the wall that kept the employees’ quarters from view of the Split Rock’s paying guests.

  She walked the plank toward her trailer and stopped when she saw Tobin on his deck surrounded by a bunch of plastic boxes. “Hey.”

  He glanced up and smiled that knockout smile. “Hey, yourself.”

  “What’re you doing?”

  “Tomorrow is my day off and I’m goin’ fishing.”

  “So this is all fishing stuff?”

  “Yep. Rods. Reels. Hooks. Lures. A net. Knives. Pliers. I haven’t picked up the bait yet.”

  “Do you fish from a boat? Or are you into fly-fishing?”

  “I’m using a friend’s boat. Too far to drive to get any fly-fishing in, but Bran Turner is takin’ me the next time I have two days off in a row.” He held something between his fingers that looked like a piece of fuzz. “This is a Turner fly. The craftsmanship is amazing.”

  Harlow made a noncommittal noise.

  Tobin looked at her. “What’re you up to?”

  “Nothing much. Checked in with Wild West Clothiers. Chatted with Harley.”

  It was Tobin’s turn to make a noncommittal noise.

  “What?”

  “Harley ain’t my favorite person. She gives me a bad vibe.” He shrugged. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”

  “I don’t know her, so it bugs me that apparently some people think we’re interchangeable, since our names are similar as well as our appearances.”

  “You’re not even close to interchangeable,” Tobin muttered.

  “So I’m not being overly sensitive about her comment that I’m loaded and don’t need to work?”

  “Nope. Dick comment and presumptuous on her part, which is typical for her.”

  She rested her shoulder on the side of the trailer. “I have to ask you something, Tobin, and I want you to be honest with me. Do I come off as spoiled and entitled?”

  He appeared to weigh his answer. “Honestly? You did have ‘rich girl’ complaints—”

  “Define ‘rich girl’ complaints.”

  Tobin scratched his jaw. “You talked about all the places you’d been and where you wanted to go next.”

  True, but they didn’t know that when she was traveling, it was to spend time in the slums in India, Haiti and Rio.

  “And you were pretty obsessed with Tierney’s pregnancy, almost like you were jealous and wanted what she had.” Tobin’s green-eyed gaze hooked hers. “But I figured it was a sibling rivalry thing, since she was your sister.”

  “Nice save.”

  He laughed. “But in all seriousness, something has changed with you. You haven’t started passing out pamphlets, so you haven’t gotten religion or sober.”

  Harlow smirked. “Be a sad thing if I hadn’t changed in the last three years.”

  “I hear ya. I’m getting stagnant after five years at the Split Rock. The cattle business is making money and Renner is real good about spreading that around. But I’m still livin’ in the same dumpy trailer. Still hitting the bar with the few of us guys that’re single.”

  “You’re still at the Mud Lilies’ beck and call.”

  “Yep. What’s it say about me that I’d rather hang out with them gals than women in my generation?”

  It says you’re a sweet, thoughtful guy and I could’ve saved myself a world of hurt if I’d done the smart thing and fallen for you. “I don’t imagine there are many women your age around here.”

  “The downside to livin’ in the least populated state in the country,” he said dryly. “But what do I have to offer a woman anyway? I don’t have a house, or even land to promise to build a house on.”

  “That stuff—or maybe I should say the lack of that stuff—shouldn’t matter to a woman who wants to be with you. You should be enough.”

  “It matters to me, though.” Tobin refocused on the fly tie. “So the short answer to your question is no. I don’t think you act entitled. Anyone who says that is making snap judgments.” He paused. “Especially women like Harley who say shit outta pure jealousy.”

  Seriously no love lost for her.

  “Did Miz Maybelle show up today to visit with your dad?”

  Her eyes narrowed. “How did you know about that?”

  Tobin looked up and grinned. “Hugh dragged me along to the Buckeye for moral support when he asked for their help.”

  “He asked all of the Mud Lilies?”

  “Yep. And they all agreed. Yet, you don’t look as happy about that as I thought you’d be.”

  “I was thinkin’ the same thing,” Hugh drawled behind her.

  Her heart jumped into her throat and she whirled around. How had the big man with the loud boots snuck up on them? “I’m not unhappy. Just surprised.”

  His eyes cut to Tobin. “Mind if I steal her for a bit?”

  Tobin looked at Harlow in silent question. Then whatever he saw in her eyes had him say, “Fine by me. I need to get on the road anyway if I wanna make camp before dark.”

  “You’re leaving tonight?”

  “Gonna take full advantage of my day off.”

  “Have fun. And thanks for . . .”

  He smiled. “Anytime, Harlow.”

  She started toward her trailer, two doors down from Tobin’s. She dug her key out of her pocket and unlocked the door.

  Hugh followed her in. He gave a quick look around. “Hasn’t changed since I lived here.”

  “I’m not exactly the ‘add homey touches’ type, since I don’t plan on staying long.”

  “You’ll be here long enough to fulfill your end of the deal. Which was anything I want.”

  “Anything within reason,” Harlow amended.

  “Meaning what?”

  “Meaning I won’t drop to my knees right now and give you a blow job.”

  His neck flushed red. “I wouldn’t squander my anything option on that.”

  “I was such a bad lay last time, you assume I don’t give very good head either?”

  Hugh stalked closer. “What ma
kes you think you were a bad lay?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe by the way you couldn’t get your pants on fast enough after you finished fucking me? Or maybe it was the look of disgust you leveled on every naked inch of me as you slipped on your boots.” She paused, hating how her stomach roiled. “Oh right, it was when you said nailing me was a big mistake that wasn’t ever happening again.”

  He dropped his gaze to the floor. “I was an ass.”

  “No, Hugh, you were a soul crusher,” she said softly.

  His head snapped up.

  “And don’t look at me like you aren’t fully aware that those harsh words were what sent me packing.”

  “I’m aware of the nasty shit I spewed, Harlow. Fully aware. I wish I could take back every word. I’ve wished that for three goddamned years. I swear I thought you’d come back or I never would’ve left things the way they were.”

  “When and why would I have come back here?”

  “For Isabelle’s first Christmas.”

  “Our family has never been big on holidays.” Why was she explaining all this to him? “It doesn’t matter now.”

  “It does matter,” he insisted.

  “Why? To alleviate your guilt?”

  “Nothin’ will ever alleviate the guilt.” His eyes searched hers. “I left you a voice mail.”

  “Four months after I left.”

  “That’s when I learned you wouldn’t be coming here for the holidays. But it don’t change the fact that I reached out to you.”

  “And what an earth-shattering voice mail it was. Shit, Harlow, I’m sorry. I fucked up. Come back.”

  Two dots of color bloomed on his cheeks. “I said what I needed to. And it must’ve stayed with you, because you can still recite it, word for word, years later.”

  “I can remember it because the entire message, Hugh, was under ten words.” She covered her face with her hands and remained that way for several breaths before she looked up at him. “What did you think would happen with that single voice mail?”

  “That we could start talkin’ again. Like we did before that night went to hell.”

  “So you called me because you wanted us to be friends?”

  He shook his head. The heat in his eyes . . . Dammit. She shouldn’t recognize it, to say nothing of feeling the flutter in her belly at seeing it.

  “What about now? You want to be friends now?”

  “No. It seems you expect me to leave you be. I’m not doin’ that. No way, no how.”

  In all of his explaining, she had yet to hear an apology from him. Then he said, “I’m sorry. Really sorry. It was embarrassing to realize I’d picked up that kind of nastiness from my ex. I was so ashamed of how I acted and what I said. I still am.” He paused. “Is there any chance you’ll forgive me?”

  They stared at each other until Harlow looked away. She didn’t answer because once again Hugh had confused the hell out of her. So she did the mature thing and changed the subject. “It might’ve been a little misleading when I said I’d do anything if you could find female visitors for my dad.”

  “You only said that because you doubted I could deliver.”

  “Yes, but you did deliver and I’m grateful. So I’ll uphold my end of the deal, but within much narrower parameters than you might be expecting.”

  “More narrow than I just want to cook you supper and hear everything you’ve been up to in the last three years?”

  “That’s it?” she asked skeptically.

  Those dark brown eyes read For now, but he said, “Yeah. That’s it.”

  Say no.

  “Fine.” Dammit. Why was her mouth doing the opposite of what her head told her to do?

  “Good. Then dinner at my place tomorrow night. Around seven?”

  “Don’t forget I’m vegetarian.”

  “I remember. And I’ve been watching you for two weeks just to make sure.”

  “Sounds creepy.”

  He smiled. “Maybe it is. It’ll be creepier yet when I admit I’ve been planning this for three years.” He stepped forward and kissed her forehead. “So I’m really lookin’ forward to dinner.”

  He walked out.

  Harlow wondered when she’d lost the upper hand. But the biggest part of her feared she’d never had it in the first place.

  Chapter Eight

  ‡

  Three raps sounded on his door.

  Hugh wiped his hands on the dish towel and exhaled a long breath. He ran his hand over his hair. No hat to hide under tonight.

  Nerves will get the best of you if you let ’em. Take the bull by the horns and do what needs done.

  He opened the door.

  The early evening sun backlit Harlow, dressed in a long white skirt that hugged every curve. A gold and white top left her shoulders bare.

  “Hugh? Can I come in?”

  “Sure. Just stunned by how angelic you look.”

  “That almost sounded like a cowboy sweet-talkin’.”

  “You sound skeptical, sweetheart.”

  Harlow patted his cheek. “That’s because I am.” She brushed past him close enough that he caught a lungful of her perfume.

  He followed her, enjoying how her ass swayed in that clingy material.

  She spun around abruptly and caught him staring. But she didn’t rip into him with her usual feminist indignation and he swore she could practically read his thoughts.

  Yeah, I know you’re more than sexy curves and soft womanly parts. But I’d be doin’ you a disservice if I didn’t show my male admiration for those attributes that make you so beautifully female.

  Hugh smiled. “Like I said. You’re lookin’ good. Can I getcha something to drink?”

  “Do you have white wine?”

  He didn’t know fuck all about wine, except that Harlow used to drink it, so he’d asked the cashier in the liquor department for a decent bottle of red and one of white. “There’s a bottle of each in the fridge, so go ahead and open the one you want.”

  “Are you having some?”

  “Nah. I’ll stick to beer.” He pointed to the lone wineglass on the counter. “I think that glass is yours anyway. It was in the cupboard when I moved in.”

  “It’d be Tierney’s. I’ve never owned any wineglasses. If there were kitchen things left, they were hers too, not mine. I’ve never seen the need to haul all that kinda crap along with me, since I move so often.”

  “You don’t have a place in Chicago that serves as your base to return to, since that’s your hometown?”

  “No. After I went to college, Dad moved out of the apartment I grew up in. When I came back to town, which wasn’t often, I stayed with Tierney. Then she left, so I was pretty much homeless.” She sipped her
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