Wrapped and strapped, p.18
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.18
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         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  “It’s the lingering scent of cookies.”

  “Huh-uh, darlin’. It’s all you.” He forced himself to step away. “You want a glass of wine?”

  “No thanks, I’m good.”

  “Tierney and Rhett both back home?”

  “Yes. And can I say my sister should’ve stayed in the hospital another day? She’s exhausted.”

  “They kick new moms out quick, don’t they?”

  “I don’t get that. Anyway, Rhett was screaming; Isabelle was crying; Renner tried to calm Isabelle down, but she only wanted her mommy. So as I waved good-bye, Renner had the screaming baby, Tierney had the screaming child and they both looked ready to scream themselves.” She shuddered. “It was enough to put me off ever having kids.” She sauntered in front of him. “But not off having sex.”

  Hugh took her hands and kissed her knuckles. “That won’t be an issue for us, since we’re not havin’ sex tonight.”

  Her eyes narrowed.

  “Before you remind me that you have a say in when we get down and dirty, I’ll rephrase that.” He kissed her knuckles again. “I don’t want it to only be about sex between us. So let’s spend time together with our clothes on tonight.”

  “What did you have in mind?”

  “A movie in Rawlins. If you don’t load up on popcorn and candy, there’s a place that has a decent vegetarian menu.”

  “You’ve eaten there?”

  “No, but I looked it up online.”

  She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. “You sweet, sweet man.”

  “So that’s a yes? ’Cause the movie starts in an hour.”

  “Let’s go.”

  They held hands on the drive into Rawlins. And they talked of the events of their days easily, as if they’d been doing it for years. Harlow told him about Karen and how she suspected she’d been displaced in her duties to her father.

  Now Hugh had to worry that she’d pack up and go to some far-flung corner of the world.

  Fuck if that was happening. He’d just gotten her back. Since she hated being idle, he’d just have to find something for her to do that made her feel useful.

  At the movie theater in Rawlins, they were in the long line for popcorn when Harlow hissed, “Shit,” and turned away.

  “What?”

  “Don’t be obvious, but that’s my dad and Miz Maybelle at the cash register.”

  “No way.”

  “I’m not kidding.”

  Hugh scooted to the side for a better view. Sure enough, Gene and Miz Maybelle were acting awful chummy. “What do you wanna do about it, doll?”

  “He’s not supposed to be out of bed and on a damn date! God. If he’s been faking his recovery time, I’m going to be so pissed.”

  “I don’t think that’s it. He told me that his recovery was going faster than he’d expected.”

  “Then he should be visiting his daughter and his new grandson, not out at the movies.”

  “He’s not supposed to drive, right? Miz Maybelle picked him up, so he’s not really breaking any rules, Harlow. He’s probably suffering from cabin fever, so I can’t blame him for needing a break. The movies are about the safest place he can be. At least he’ll be sitting down.”

  She scowled at him. “I hope they sit in the middle of the theater so they don’t see us.”

  “We can go and do something else tonight.”

  “No way. Now I have to stay and keep an eye on them. But so much for your hand job in the back row.”

  “Playing with fire, darlin’, taunting me like that.”

  She eyed his hat. “You should’ve left that in the truck so they don’t recognize you.”

  “ ’Cause no other guys in Wyoming wear cowboy hats except for me,” he said dryly.

  “Few of them are as sexy as you,” she cooed.

  He dropped a smacking kiss on her mouth.

  “I’m going to follow them to see where they sit.”

  “You want Junior Mints or Raisinets with the popcorn?”

  “Neither. None of that fake yellow grease they try and pass off as butter either.”

  “No hand job, no candy and now no butter on my popcorn?” He leaned in. “This ain’t turning out to be the greatest date, Harlow.”

  She laughed. “Now who’s sorry he put the kibosh on sex tonight?”

  *

  Late the next afternoon Hugh headed up to the lodge. He hoped to run into Harlow, although it’d be hard to act like they were just friends.

  Like he hadn’t been inside her with his mouth, his fingers, his cock. Like she hadn’t turned him inside out with the way she’d given him her trust.

  The man who for all intents and purposes had broken her heart and sent her running. Straight into the path of that fucker Fredrick.

  He’d kept it together while Harlow relayed what she’d gone through. He’d done well for the most part. Asking if she had any sexual triggers hadn’t been as difficult as hearing what they were and why.

  Hugh had to stop, lean against the side of the building and unclench his fists. And his jaw. And force even breaths into his lungs, which had seized up in rage.

  Think of her softness and sweetness. Think of her resilience. Be humbled that she’s chosen you to reclaim the sexual part of herself. Be proud that you can be the man and the lover she needs. That you’re able to give her new memories of how making love should be—sometimes raunchy, sometimes sweet, sometimes urgent, sometimes leisurely—but never scary or purposely painful.

  But he also needed to show her it was—and always had been—more than sex between them. They’d started building something three years ago before he’d knocked everything back down to the foundation in one manic burst of fear. But from the first time she’d come back into his life when he’d seen her in the hospital, and she’d admitted to being lost, he’d known if she gave him the chance, they could dig through the rubble together and find a new footing.

  So he couldn’t make a misstep with her.

  He scrubbed his hands over his beard and sighed. For all his blustering about not hiding that they were together, he wanted another week of just the two of them reconnecting.

  A woman’s laughter drifted down the hallway. Laughter he recognized. Hugh followed the sound to Gene Pratt’s room.

  The door was ajar. He peered inside and saw Vivien and Gene sitting side by side on the small love seat, heads bent close as they watched something on a cell phone. Gene had stretched his arm across the back of the couch and his fingers idly stroked Vivien’s shoulder.

  Fuck. Seriously? He’d seen Gene make the same move on Miz Maybelle last night at the movies. Down to the gentle kiss he placed on Vivien’s temple. Down to the way he murmured into Vivien’s ear that had her snuggling into him the exact same way Maybelle had.

  Gene Pratt was a fucking player. And it pissed Hugh off that the rich bastard looked to be playing Hugh’s friends and playing his daughter about how much his health had improved. Before he could storm in there, a manicured hand landed on the door handle and pulled the door shut.

  He stepped back and looked at the stout woman with an authoritative manner. Had to be Karen, Gene’s assistant.

  “Can I help you with something, Hugh? It is Hugh, right?”

  How had she known his name? “Yes, ma’am. You can tell me what kind of game your boss is playing with my friends. We saw him last night. Cozied up to Maybelle like he’s cozied up to Vivien right now.”

  Karen cocked her head. “Your friends are adult women capable of making their own decisions and mistakes.”

  “So it is a mistake for any of them to get involved with Gene?”

  “Some mistakes are fun and you know while you’re making them that they are mistakes. Neither Gene nor your friends are looking for marriage, just for entertainment. So as much as I appreciate your concern, to be frank, it’s none of your concern. They all know the score.”

  “So Miz Maybelle and Vivien know he’s taken things farther with them than, say, Pearl, Sherry,
Garnet and Tilda? The other ladies who also regularly entertain Gene?” Hugh paused. “Or is it the same with every damn one of them? Because I’m not okay with that and I seriously doubt any of the Mud Lilies would be either.”

  Karen sighed. “He spends more time with Vivien and Maybelle than any of the others.”

  “And?”

  “And believe it or not, he really likes them both. I’d rather not say anything more than that. Gene is my boss and I strive to stay out of his personal affairs.”

  Right. “You’d have no issue with me mentioning to Vivien after she leaves that I saw Gene at the movies with Maybelle last night?”

  Her eyes turned shrewd. “Cut to the chase. What do you want?”

  “Jesus. That’s not what I—” He snapped his mouth shut. Let’s not be too hasty. Karen has the power to help you get the one thing you want. “Fine. There is something.”

  “There always is. Name it.”

  “Harlow is feeling displaced since your arrival. Gene is telling everyone he’s a quick healer. For at least the next week can you make sure Harlow gets time with her dad every day? Make sure she feels she’s contributing to his recovery.”

  “That’s it?”

  “Yep.”

  “Done.” But Karen wasn’t done. She studied him. “I wasn’t expecting that. This favor isn’t entirely selfless, is it?”

  “No. But bein’s that you ‘strive to stay out of your boss’s personal affairs,’ let’s leave this under the radar where Gene and Harlow are both concerned.”

  “Of course.”

  “Thanks.” Hugh started to walk away toward the office.

  Karen said, “Wait.”

  He turned.

  “You wouldn’t happen to have a single uncle or other older family member around here that you could introduce me to?”

  Hugh laughed. “Nope. But if you’re looking, try the Buckeye.”

  Chapter Thirteen

  ‡

  “I’m not ready for this.”

  Hugh brushed his mouth over the top of her ear. “Get ready, because we’re almost there. And sweetheart, we have been together for over a week now.”

  “You’re such a romantic, insisting we arrive on horseback.”

  Romantic. He snorted. That’d be the day. “Jimbo needed exercise and we have to come clean with my boss and your sister—sooner rather than later—so we’re killing two birds with one horseback ride, darlin’.”

  “I don’t want to hear about killing, Hugh, even in jest.”

  “My mistake.” He placed a soft kiss on the side of her neck. “I really like ridin’ tandem with you.”

  “I can tell.”

  “Shoot. I wanted it to be a surprise. What gave it away?”

  “You mean your hard cock digging into my back wasn’t a hint?”

  He chuckled. “That’s it?”

  “That’s the biggest indication.” She leaned back and sighed. “You’re good at this ridin’ stuff, cowboy.”

  “Glad you approve. I’m sorry we never did anything like this before.”

  “If I would’ve asked you to take me horseback riding three years ago, smarmy you would’ve put me on a bucking bronc.”

  “Maybe.” He directed Jimbo to the left. The top of Renner and Tierney’s house came into view. “But we’re goin’ forward now, not back.”

  Harlow was quiet. Too quiet. It meant she was worried about something.

  “What?”

  “What are we going to say to them?”

  That wasn’t what was really on her mind, but he let it go. “Tierney doesn’t know why you left before?”

  “No. She suspects something happened, but she’s never prodded me too much about it and I’ve never confirmed it. I don’t see what difference the past makes now.”

  He pressed his lips to the back of her head.

  “But I don’t want to lie, either.”

  “We can both admit we were attracted to each other before, but this time we acted on it. That’s not a lie.”

  “And it’s not the past I’m worried about, Hugh. It’s when they ask our future plans. Whether we see this as something long-term. If I plan to stay in Wyoming, for how long, and what would I do to support myself?”

  Hugh stilled. “Those are very specific questions, doll.”

  “Because I’ve already had the third degree from my dad.”

  “How’d you answer him?”

  “I didn’t. His line of questioning came up late in the day and Tilda showed up. He couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”

  “You don’t think your dad . . .” He shook his head. “Nah. Forget it.”

  “My dad is . . . what?”

  “Is doin’ all the Mud Lilies?”

  Harlow elbowed him. “No way! And that mental image might put me off sex forever, buddy, so watch it.”

  “Forget I said anything,” he breathed in her ear, “because I’m gonna have you in every possible way I can come up with and then some.”

  He felt her smile against his cheek. “So you’re inventive?”

  “What I’m lacking in sexual creativity I make up for in tenacity.”

  She groaned. “Can’t you turn this horse around and take me back to bed?”

  “Gotta face the music first. And after that, darlin’, I’m gonna make you sing.” Hugh kicked the horse into a gallop and cut to the corral. By the time they’d dismounted and he’d unsaddled Jimbo and turned him loose, the entire Jackson family waited on the porch. And Hugh didn’t miss their exchanged looks when he took Harlow’s hand.

  “Glad we got a warning call about this,” Renner drawled.

  Tierney had Rhett cradled in her arms, while Isabelle hung on Renner’s leg. She didn’t rush toward Aunt Harlow like she usually did.

  Harlow was having none of it. “Hey, bug, where’s my hug?”

  “Mommy’s mad at you. So am I.”

  “Solidarity in all family things, huh? I can respect that.” Harlow stopped in front of Tierney, who stood three steps higher on the porch. “You want little pitchers to hear this?”

  “You gonna be swearing and sharing raunchy stories?”

  “One never knows with me.”

  Tierney stared at Harlow.

  Harlow didn’t back down.

  Renner patted Isabelle’s head. “Isa, sweetheart, you wanna work on that sticker book we started yesterday? You missed a couple of coloring pages.”

  “Can I color them in marker?” she asked her mother.

  “Have Daddy set you up at the breakfast bar.” Silent communication passed between husband and wife. Then Renner and his daughter scooted inside the house.

  Hugh’s anxiety kicked in. Neither Renner nor Tierney had spoken to him directly.

  “So you’re mad at me,” Harlow said to her sister.

  “Yes, I’m mad.”

  “Why? Because I kept something that happens between two consenting adults . . . private? Wow. Totally see where that would cause your concern and justifiable anger.”

  “You should’ve been a lawyer,” Tierney said.

  “Now, there’s an insult.”

  Tierney scrutinized the two of them. She shoved her glasses up higher and absentmindedly patted the baby’s bottom. “Fine. Show me.”

 
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