Wrapped and strapped, p.17
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.17
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         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  “My gossiping always leads to valuable information for PFG.” Karen started toward the bed when she noticed Harlow. She smiled. “Come in—don’t just lurk in the doorway.”

  “I didn’t want to interrupt.”

  “Harlow. I’m glad you’re here to save me from this overbearing woman who thinks she runs my life,” her father said.

  “Who thinks she runs your life? Mr. Pratt, I know I run your life.”

  “You haven’t met Karen yet, Harlow, have you?”

  “Not in person.” She offered Karen her hand. “I’m thrilled to meet the woman Tierney waxes poetic about for her mad organizational skills.”

  Karen ignored her hand and pulled her into a hug. “I’d trade all of it for her head for numbers. Every single pool we had going at the office? That girl won it.”

  “I’d take the math brain too.”

  “From listening to your father talk about your mother, seems you take after her with your generosity and helpful nature.”

  There was a total shocker. Gene Pratt discussing his dead wife with his executive assistant? When he barely spoke of her to his daughters? “I’m not certain of that, but I’ll take the compliment.”

  Karen looked at her boss. “I’ll be back in fifteen. Do whatever grooming you need to in that time, because when I return, we’re getting to work.” Then she smiled at Harlow. “Will you show me how to get to the employee trailers from here?”

  “Sure. Did you drive a rental car?”

  “No, PFG bought me a car and I drove it up from Denver. The bellhop parked in front of where I’m staying and he should’ve unloaded my luggage.”

  “It’s a quick walk. I’ll even show you the shortcut.” After they’d exited the lodge and started down the rocky path, she noticed Karen wore three-inch heels. Would she dress like that every day? Of course she would. After five years of living in Wyoming, Tierney still dressed in suits and heels for work.

  Karen scrutinized the employee quarters as they approached.

  Harlow had to wonder what her dad had been thinking, expecting this elegant woman used to working in a high-rise in the middle of Chicago to have no issues living in a trailer in rural Wyoming.

  Probably her dad had tripled her salary for the duration.

  “Well, this is better than I expected, actually,” Karen said.

  “It is?”

  Karen walked around the square decking in front of her trailer, stopping to brush dust off the pair of lawn chairs. She took in the scenery and tipped her head back to gaze at the sky.

  “It’s probably not what you’re used to.” Harlow wasn’t sure what’d possessed her to say that, so she amended, “But I’ve had much worse.”

  “So have I,” Karen said softly.

  “Okay, I’m ditching decorum and asking you a bunch of questions, Karen, so get ready.”

  She laughed. “Let’s sit and enjoy the sunshine. It really is quite lovely here.”

  Harlow sat next to her.

  “All right, you want the basic rundown on how I ended up working for your father?”

  “I remember it was right about the time I started college.”

  “Yes. Initially your father hired me out of pity. See, my husband, one of his longtime clients, had a midlife crisis. He found a younger, thinner woman to replace me. I’d spent my life as a corporate executive’s wife. I organized and planned and did everything to make my husband’s rise to the top his sole focus. I raised our two children without much help from him besides financially. And when he filed for divorce, with no warning, I was out of a job.”

  Harlow made a sympathetic noise because Karen’s husband sounded suspiciously like . . . Gene Pratt.

  “Anyway, I met with Gene to discuss my financial situation. My ex-husband had been generous with the settlement. At some point I realized I didn’t miss my ex-husband as much as I missed the support I’d provided him in his career. Gene was really the first person who’d told me I had valuable skills because I’d essentially been my husband’s executive assistant for years. Gene hired me on the spot.”

  Harlow’s jaw dropped.

  Karen smiled. “I see that shocks you. There are many things about your father that would shock you. Anyway, I’ve worked for Gene ever since that first meeting. We’ve had a few bumps along the way, primarily regarding his treatment of you and your sister.” She sighed. “I saw so much of my ex-husband in him when it came to his dealings with you girls, so it’s been a struggle to compartmentalize that for me.”

  “He tends to”—marginalize—“compartmentalize us too. It’s always struck me as odd that Tierney couldn’t emulate that behavior with him.”

  “Because you could.”

  She shrugged. “He didn’t have the same expectations for the hippie do-gooder daughter as he did for the brainiac daughter with the multiple finance degrees.”

  “I know I’m not stepping out of line when I tell you he is proud of you, Harlow. So proud that he’s donated to some of the organizations you’re so passionate about.”

  Another jaw-dropping moment. “Really?”

  “Yes. But his pride is tinged with sadness because you remind him so much of the woman he loved and lost.”

  “Dad never talks about my mom.”

  “It makes you mad that he’s spoken to me about her?”

  “No.” Harlow looked at Karen. “It makes me curious more than anything. About your relationship with him.”

  Karen didn’t look away. Or fidget. She maintained a cool composure.

  “Is this where you tell me it’s none of my business?”

  She laughed. “Oh honey, of course it’s your business. Your father suffered a major trauma to his health and you’ve been dealing with it. Now I’m here, away from everything that’s familiar to me, supposedly to help him get ready to leave a business he’s spent his entire life building. And if I’m successful in my job, creating a smooth transition for him, then my reward is I’m out of a job. Bit of a catch-twenty-two, isn’t it?”

  “Yeah. Wow. I never thought of it that way.”

  “I’m paid to consider everything from every angle. And between us, I do have a selfish reason for agreeing to make Wyoming my temporary work environment.”

  “Which is?”

  Karen leaned forward and her eyes danced with excitement. “I’ve never been out west. I’ve always wanted to visit Yellowstone, the Tetons, Devils Tower, the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument, the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This place is more centrally located to those sites. So I agreed to work four days if I had three days off in a row to get in my car and explore.”

  Harlow grinned; she’d never doubted Karen’s tenacity, because she’d need to have it in massive doses to sustain working with Gene Pratt every day. “I’m so happy to hear that my father won’t be working you to the bone the whole time. And if you want a local day-trip, Tobin is the man to see.”

  “Thanks for the tip. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find a sexy, weathered cowboy to entertain me.” She patted Harlow’s knee and stood. “I’ll take a quick peek at my new place, but the unpacking will have to wait until Gene is visiting with his new lady friends.”

  “Does that bother you?”

  “No, it doesn’t bother me. In fact I’m relieved. It gives me more free time.” She winked and disappeared into her trailer.

  There wasn’t anything weird about that conversation. Nope.

  What would her dad do if she just started grilling him about her mother? In the past, he’d always closed down.

  Harlow wandered back to her trailer and settled in the chaise on the deck, tilting her head to bask in the sun.

  Throughout her childhood, there’d been no mention of her mother, Jean. There’d been no pictures. No books or knickknacks. No jewelry or clothes or perfume bottles. It wasn’t even until their stepmother had first arrived on the scene that Harlow realized the oddity of it. Barbara had been ready to purge all traces of Jean Pratt, but it’d been done long bef
ore she’d moved in.

  One afternoon when Harlow had been left to her own devices, she’d found herself in her father’s study. The room was off-limits and usually locked. But that day . . . well, an open door had been an open invitation. Most everything in the space was boring old-man stuff. Military and sports memorabilia. A variety of globes and crystal decanters. Leather-bound books. She’d about given up when she saw a box in the closet on the top shelf. She’d pulled it down and it’d weighed more than she’d anticipated, so the box had hit the floor and the contents spilled everywhere.

  It was a box of pictures, letters and the pieces of paper that were tangible proof of memorable events in her mother’s life. A concert ticket. A service award. A funeral program. She remembered her excitement in finally getting a glimpse into her mother. She’d known she wouldn’t have enough time to look at it all, and she wasn’t sure when she’d ever have the chance to see it again. So she’d dumped the contents in a garbage bag and replaced the box on the shelf.

  Then congratulating herself for her cleverness, she’d spent hours poring over every scrap of paper, every photo, every item, no matter how inconsequential.

  She’d learned her mother had lost her mother at a young age.

  She’d learned her mother had had an abiding love for animals.

  She’d learned her mother had adored her husband and sworn her life had started when she’d met him.

  She’d learned her mother smoked.

  But she hadn’t learned if her mother’s life had been fulfilling. Or if she’d had friends. Nothing could tell her what her mother smelled like. Or what it felt like to be hugged by her. Or if her mother had adored her children as much as her husband.

  The box contained more than she’d imagined, but less than she’d expected.

  So Harlow had put the bag in her closet and had forgotten about it.

  A few weeks later when she’d remembered the bag, she’d looked for it, but it wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere. Panicked, she’d asked the maid if she’d been in her closet and she learned the truth. The garbage bag containing every personal thing about her mother . . . had been thrown away.

  She’d cried herself sick over it for almost a week.

  A few months later, her father asked if she’d been in his study. Before she blurted out the truth, Barbara jumped in and berated him about his lousy organizational skills. She said she was surprised he didn’t lose track of more papers.

  In her father’s eyes, she’d seen that he blamed Barbara for the empty box.

  Harlow let him believe that. Sometimes she wondered if that guilt kept her from pestering her dad for stories about her mother. She’d destroyed any chance of a Hallmark moment, where her dad tearfully handed her the box.

  But that’d also been another defining moment. She’d make memories and share them with those she loved, not hoard them like her father did, or have her life reduced to a small box of meaningless memorabilia like her mother.

  Shaking off the memory, she headed down to the barns to retrieve Isabelle from Renner.

  “Aunt Harlow!” Isabelle came at her in a full run.

  Harlow caught her. “Hey, bug. Whatcha been doing this morning?”

  “Me’n Daddy made waffles with lots’n lots of sprinkles. And then we did baby stuff.” Her nose wrinkled.

  “Baby stuff?”

  “Putting the bassinet in our bedroom. Stocking the nursery with newborn diapers. Finding the baby tub. I got the rest of the list Tierney gave me if you wanna look at it,” Renner drawled behind her.

  “I’ll pass.” She turned and looked at her brother-in-law. “Did you get some rest last night?”

  “Yep. But I’ll be damn glad when my wife is sleepin’ beside me tonight.”

  “I’ll bet. Any idea what time you’ll be home?”

  “Six or so. The doc is doin’ rounds late and he’s gotta sign off on Tierney before she’s released.”

  Harlow shifted Isabelle on her hip. “I’ll take her and hopefully she’ll get a long n-a-p in.”

  “I don’t wanna nap! I wanna watch Hugh ride the bull.”

  Her heart almost stopped. Her gaze moved to Renner. “Hugh is bull riding today?”

  “No. We’ve got a couple of guests who are tryin’ it out. Since I won’t be here, Hugh is in charge of moving the bulls,” he clarified for his daughter, “not ridin’ them.”

  “But I wanna watch, Daddy.”

  Harlow kinda wanted to watch too.

  Renner kissed his daughter’s pouty mouth. “Aunt Harlow’s in charge, baby girl. And if she lets you watch, you will be way on the other side of the chute.”

  She knew that was more a warning for her than Isabelle.

  “Please, Aunt Harlow?”

  Twist my arm, kid. “We’ll see. Say good-bye to Daddy.”

  “Bye.”

  “Next time you see me, I’ll be bringing your brother and your mama home.”

  She scowled. “Don’t want the stupid baby in my house.”

  Renner opened his mouth, but wisely shut it. He kissed Isabelle on the cheek and left without another word.

  Harlow opted to let her outburst slide. She set Isabelle down and took her hand. “You stay right by me at all times, understand?”

  Isabelle nodded.

  They followed the path down to the outdoor arena. Five-foot-high metal corrals surrounded the arena. The walkway around the outside was made up of old planks. There was no place to sit back here, since there was a seating area up by the chutes. She hoisted Isabelle onto the third rung and stood directly behind her.

  “Daddy used to ride bulls,” Isabelle announced.

  “Uh-huh.” Harlow squinted across the dirt for a glimpse of Hugh.

  “Mama won’t even let me have a pony.”

  Ah. There he was, standing on the upper ledge. Looked like Tobin manned the gate. So who was the guy offering the guest rider advice? Another cowboy hottie to be sure.

  Then Tobin pulled the gate open and the bull and rider flew out of the chute.

  The guy managed to hold on for about three seconds before he hit the dirt. Tobin raced over to help the guy up, which left Hugh to deal with the bull.

  Desire shot straight to her core as she watched Hugh square off against the animal. Waving his arms, yelling, “He-yaw!” in the deep tone that echoed across the arena. She gasped when the bull charged. But Hugh weaved and ran backward toward the gate. The bull trotted past him and he closed the gate.

  When he turned around, he noticed Harlow. He hollered something to Tobin and jogged across the arena.

  Hugh was smiling when he reached the fence. “Hey. What’re you doin’ here?”

  “Picking up bug. She mentioned you were bull riding, so I had to make sure you . . . weren’t.”

  He laughed. “Nope. I’ll leave that to the paying guests.” He leaned in and whispered, “And to the young fools who don’t have a beautiful woman lookin’ at them the way you’re lookin’ at me.”

  “Not nice to tell secrets,” Isabelle chastised them.

  Tingles raced down that side of Harlow’s body from Hugh’s nearness.

  “What are you ladies up to?”

  “We’re goin’ to my house and we’re gonna play games and read books and make ice cream!”

  “And take a nap,” Harlow mouthed.

  “That sounds like fun. Can I come?” Hugh asked.

  “No! No boys.”

  A little aggression there.

  “Shoot. I’ll just have to go back to work, then.” He paused. “Let me know when you’re done tonight. I want to see you.”

  “Okay.”

  He shot Isabelle a quick glance. The girl must’ve been distracted, because Hugh stole a kiss. Then he moseyed away.

  She shamelessly watched every boot step.

  “Aunt Harlow. Can we go now?”

  Only when Hugh disappeared behind the gate did she say, “Yep. Let’s go.”

  *

  Hugh sucked at playing it cool.
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  He hauled Harlow into his arms almost before she’d finished the first knock, lifting her off her feet for a hot, wet, hungry kiss. He lowered her back to the floor and planted kisses down the arch of her neck. “Damn, you smell good.”

 
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