Wrapped and strapped, p.16
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.16

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  and held his hand over my mouth. But that time he pinched the skin along my sides hard enough to leave a line of bruises. As he . . . hurt me, he rubbed his cock on me and ejaculated on the marks.” She’d been so ashamed she couldn’t look at him when he tossed her baby wipes to clean herself up. The blood mixed with his sticky leavings and the powdery scent of the cloth had kicked in her gag reflex.

  Hugh whispered, “It’s okay. You’re here with me.”

  “After he saw me sobbing, he felt so bad he cried. He claimed he felt my injuries as keenly as I did because we were connected in body and soul. He acted so contrite. He even offered to take me to Erika, who only knew basic first aid, so she could make sure the scratches didn’t get infected. I convinced myself if he had no issues telling Erika that he’d inflicted the injuries on me, then he must’ve been telling the truth about passion being the cause.”

  Hugh didn’t say anything.

  “I don’t even remember at what point I realized I was in an abusive relationship. I started agreeing with him during meetings, hoping that would end his physical demonstrations of his disappointment in me. But he changed the parameters and punished me whenever he felt like it. But even when he hurt me, he assured me that pain was part of his love for me.

  “I’m a college graduate. A smart woman who’s been around. I knew better than to fall for that bullshit, right? I’ve taken domestic-abuse awareness classes. I know the signs. I’ve seen what the cycle of abuse does to women and children. But I didn’t believe it could be happening to me.”

  “What about the other volunteers?” he demanded tersely. “They had to see the marks. They had to suspect what he was doing to you.”

  “I hid the marks. And I went out of my way to present the ‘happy perfect couple’ image to everyone. Because if I acted like it was true, then maybe Fredrick would believe it was and he’d stop hurting me.”

  “But he didn’t.”

  “No. It just got worse.”

  “How long did this go on?”

  “Ten months. At that point I thought if I could just stick it out until the yearlong contract ended, then when we returned to the States, I’d be free of him. But Fredrick informed us he was in negotiations to extend our stay. Anyone could leave if they wanted. I knew that offer didn’t apply to me. Most of my coworkers were professional aid workers and seized the opportunity to stay on because an extension was a sign we were doing good work. That’s also when I knew I had to do something drastic to get out of the situation.”

  “Jesus, Harlow.”

  “You asked if anyone knew that Fredrick was . . .” She paused. “Evidently Erika thought it was odd I wore my hair down all the time. So when Nico and Fredrick hiked to the next village, she took me aside and grilled me. I’d never be a good spy because I cracked within five minutes. She examined me and saw the fading marks. She feared Fredrick would become increasingly more violent, and injure me more prominently to leave permanent marks. She asked if we had sex without him hurting me. I admitted it hadn’t been that way in the beginning. But she pointed out we’d been friends for six months before becoming lovers and he’d hurt me for the first time within weeks of us becoming intimate.”

  “Harlow. Baby. You don’t have to tell me—”

  “Yes, I do. So the only way to escape would be if I had a believable accident resulting in a life-threatening injury. Fredrick would have to allow me to travel to the village with medical facilities.”

  “Explain believable accident.”

  “Something self-inflicted that could get infected and still be passed off as an accident. If Fredrick pressed me to explain how I’d gotten hurt and why I hadn’t told him, I could confess I felt stupid about how it happened and didn’t show him out of embarrassment.”

  “Oh, sweetheart.”

  “I found a sharp piece of glass and after five shots of the local liquor I sliced myself open, eight inches long and a quarter of an inch deep.” She shuddered and Hugh held her tighter. “It was tempting to clean the wound, but I let it be. The next three days were a blur. When my body felt feverish and the skin around the puncture site oozed green, I knew I had a raging infection. That’s when I told Fredrick. I screamed when he touched me and then collapsed.” The unholy gleam in Fredrick’s eyes when he’d witnessed her pain still gave her nightmares.

  “He argued against taking me to the village until Erika said she’d carry me herself if she had to. After we made the trek there, the village healer scrubbed out the wound and put me on an IV of antibiotics. I refused morphine because I needed to keep my wits about me. After forty-eight hours the infection had subsided enough the doc could stitch me up. That’s when I called my dad.”

  “Did you talk to him without Fredrick in the room?”

  She shook her head. “I was never alone. At our site, he was always there, every time I turned around. I couldn’t even shower without him waiting for me. If I even smiled at another man, he accused me of flirting and punished me.”

  “What did your dad say when you got in touch with him?”

  “Since I started going on missions, there was always a chance I’d get kidnapped, so Dad and I had our own set of code words. If I told him to have Ira release the funds, that was code for a ransom situation. If I told him my allergies were back, that meant a hostage situation with nonhostile captors.”

  “I’d argue that fucker Fredrick had been very hostile to you.”

  “Yes, but with him it was different than being held by machine-gun- and machete-wielding militia.”

  He grunted as if he couldn’t see the difference.

  “Code words didn’t matter, because the second I heard my dad’s voice, I broke down. I told him I needed emergency medical help and I had to get out.”

  “Your dad has those kinds of contacts?”

  “He’s funded a lot of private security corps over the years. After I hung up and looked at Fredrick, I thought he might kill me. He was so infuriated; he smacked me across the face twice and split open my lip before anyone could stop him. The hospital manager removed Fredrick by force and kept me under guard. Within twenty-four hours Erika and I were en route to the U.S.”

  “Thank god.” Hugh kissed the back of her head. “So your dad knows everything that happened?”

  “No. He’s aware I ended up in an abusive situation with my boyfriend, who was also my boss. I didn’t want to talk about it with him; I just wanted the nightmare to be over and to get far away from Fredrick.”

  “He fucking abused you, Harlow. You should’ve pressed charges.”

  “I considered it, but if by some miracle it would’ve gone to trial, I knew I couldn’t face Fredrick in the courtroom. The incidents happened in a foreign country. The burden of proof for the abuse was entirely on me. I had one person who knew about it. He had seven people who lived with us for an entire year and saw nothing but the happy-couple facade I’d manufactured. So I was fucked.”

  “What’d you do?”

  “Went to Florida with Erika. I rented a small apartment and sat on the beach as I contemplated my future. I saw a counselor and she helped me come to terms with what happened.” Harlow wrinkled her nose. Aida also advised her to transition into the real world of paid permanent—or semipermanent—jobs, versus flying all over the globe to help others. They’d also had in-depth conversations about her relationship with Tierney and her father. She’d questioned if Harlow’s need to give everything of herself to others was to show their father she was the direct opposite of him in every way.

  “You fall asleep?” Hugh murmured in her hair.

  “No.”

  “Tierney doesn’t know what you went through?”

  She bristled at his tone. “What purpose would it serve? It’s over and done with. She’s used to me being off the grid. Plus she had a kid and I know her focus didn’t extend beyond the bubble she lived in, in Muddy Gap, Wyoming. It is what it is.”

  Hugh stayed quiet for so long she wondered if he’d fallen asleep. But
his hand on her belly tightened. “Do you blame me?”

  She’d thought about it and talked about it with Aida. “Maybe at first. If it’d been the start of something between us instead of the end? Yeah, I did wonder if we could’ve made it work. But the answer I keep coming back to is no. My time here was temporary. I might’ve stuck around a few more months, but I wasn’t permanent partner material for you any more than you were for me—then or now. You’re rooted here; I’m rootless. I probably would’ve ended up in Portland anyway, just not as soon as I did.”

  He sighed. “I blame me. If I wouldn’t have been such a dick to you, maybe you would’ve stayed.” He gently rolled her onto her back and loomed over her.

  The softness in his face and the regret in his eyes quickened her pulse. “What?”

  “I’m so sorry. Even though that won’t ever be enough to heal the scars you have that I can’t see.”

  She reached up and stroked the scruff lining his cheek.

  He angled his head into her touch.

  “I don’t want what he did to change how you want to be with me,” she said.

  “You need to put it in plain terms, Harlow, so there’s no misunderstandings between us.”

  “You’re the first man I’ve been with since Fredrick.”

  Hugh remained quiet a beat too long. “I don’t know what to say to that.”

  “Don’t say anything. I’m just letting you know there weren’t any others. It was you, then him . . . now you again. So don’t treat me like a victim. Don’t mistakenly believe I can only handle sweet, sweet lovin’.” She petted his beard. “You’re a hard man. You keep your passion buried so deep that when you let it out, it explodes like a geyser. I don’t need you to put a lid on it. I need you to be who you are, not who you think I need you to be.”

  “So no need to touch you with kid gloves. You know I’m rough around the edges. Any problem with me bein’ rough with you?”

  Her pulse jumped, from excitement, not fear. And it was tempting to answer him with a solid no, but if he accidentally crossed a line he wasn’t aware of, it’d be her fault, but he’d still blame himself. “No scratching. And, uh, no pinching.”

  “Not even your nipples?”

  She shook her head.

  “I’ve got no desire to hurt you, darlin’. Ever. But you’re feisty enough you might need a swat on the ass. Where does that fall?”

  “You can use your hand on my butt, but no swats anywhere else. And only your hand. No belts or paddles or hangers.” She looked away. “Or cords.”

  Hugh turned her face back toward his. “You’re doin’ good. I need to know this. Anything else?”

  “I don’t like it doggie-style. That’s the only way he’d do it after the first time he hurt me. And no choking. Ever,” came out on a whisper.

  He went still. Then he murmured, “I’d much rather use my hands like this”—he cupped her breast and swept his thumb over her nipple—“while I put my mouth here.” He dragged an openmouthed kiss up and down her neck. She shivered and her skin broke out in gooseflesh. “Especially when I can get you to respond like this.” He nuzzled her throat.

  “Hugh . . .”

  “Anything else we need to talk about right now?”

  “Ah. No.”

  “Then we’re done talkin’.” He circled his fingers around her wrists and pulled her hands above her head, pressing her knuckles into the mattress. “Leave them there.”

  “Why?”

  He placed a kiss on the edge of her jaw. “I don’t want interference. So you just relax and let me do a little exploring.” His mouth returned to hers. He kissed her leisurely and ran his hand down the center of her torso, over her breast, then detoured to her side.

  The side with the scar.

  Harlow squirmed and broke the kiss. “Stop. That tickles.”

  “No, it doesn’t. You just don’t want me touchin’ it.”

  Dammit.

  “Close your eyes.” He scooted down and pressed a kiss on her sternum. Then he brushed his mouth over her rib cage, back and forth, but increasing his range with every thorough pass.

  Harlow tried to close her eyes. Tried to relax, but he kept surprising her with little flicks of his tongue.

  Then his breath connected with the top of the scar and was quickly followed by the warm touch of his mouth. At first he just nuzzled the ridge.

  “You don’t have to—”

  “I don’t do anything I don’t want to. And I wanna do this, so hush and let me.” He glanced up, a sexy challenge dancing in his eyes. “You’d rather I started searching out all of your ticklish spots?”

  “No.”

  “Good. Now let me keep working my way down. ’Cause a smart woman like you can figure out where my mouth is gonna end up.”

  She moaned. It seemed a lifetime since a man had taken his time with her. Teased and pleased her. She hated that slow and steady glide of his lips and tongue as much as she loved how it increased her anticipation.

  “Yeah, darlin’. Let go. Trust me to take care of you.”

  Had she ever imagined she’d be granting Hugh Pritchett her trust again?

  No.

  But this time he’d earned it.

  His tongue followed the full length of her scar. Then he paused and pressed soft kisses over every inch. Twice. Three times. “Any other scars I need to see?”

  “The rest are internal,” slipped out before she could stop it.

  When Hugh scooted up and stared into her eyes, the ferocity she witnessed there stole her breath. He lowered his head and kissed the left side of her chest with such care she knew he was trying to show her if she trusted him, he could heal her heart.

  She touched his face. “Don’t stop.”

  “What?”

  “Any of it. Make me come with your mouth. Watch me come. Then crawl back up here and let’s do it all over again. You show me what you need.”

  He didn’t respond with words. He let his hands and mouth and body answer for him.

  No teasing. No drawn-out foreplay. He kissed her sex with long curls of his tongue. Then he pulled the fleshy ridges aside, exposing her folds, her clit, her pussy lips. He fastened his mouth over the whole of her and relentlessly pursued her orgasm until he got what he wanted.

  Harlow fisted her hands in the sheets as he sent her over the edge twice.

  Then Hugh came over her. Body to body. No sweetness, just pure sexual greed.

  But even as his body mastered hers, he kept their gazes locked so she could see every flash of pleasure in his eyes and he could see if any fear entered hers. He gripped her ass, pumping harder with each stroke.

  She met every stroke, in tandem. In opposition.

  When he came, the whole bed shook. He held nothing back.

  She felt like he’d given her everything.

  Chapter Twelve

  ‡

  Since Renner had Isabelle duty until noon, Harlow slept in after Hugh had left her bed to take care of some cow crap.

  Her use of the term cow crap cracked him up.

  It’d made her smile too, particularly when she felt Hugh’s laughter vibrating against the nape of her neck. He’d kissed her thoroughly and then he was gone.

  When she did awaken, sore in places she hadn’t been sore in for a while, she couldn’t help but relive the night’s events. She decided not to shower; she liked wearing Hugh’s scent on her skin.

  Harlow purposely tried to keep an extra bounce out of her step when she showed up at the lodge. She wasn’t ready to deal with the “You’re in such a good mood, you must’ve gotten lucky last night” comments. But she did snicker when she wondered how Hugh would handle that, because he’d definitely been in a great mood this morning.

  The door to her dad’s room was open. She paused in the threshold and noticed another desk had been hauled in as well as a printer and a chair. Then her gaze moved to the hospital bed.

  A disembodied voice boomed from the closet in the back of the room. “You
re recovering, Gene. You don’t need to button up into a three-piece suit every day.”

  “I know I will recover faster when I don’t look like or feel like a bum, Karen.”

  A butterball of a woman with hair the color of burnished steel emerged from the closet. “I can call Greg, your tailor at Bergdorf, and tell him you’re in dire straits. He’ll have clothing ready within a week, if you can hold off that long.”

  “Hold off from what?”

  “Your garden of admirers.”

  “How’d you know about them?”

  Karen propped her hand on her ample hip. “Janie Lawson filled me in when you were napping.”

  “I’ll just bet she did,” he grumbled. “Because you, woman, cannot help but gossip.”

 
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