Wrapped and strapped, p.2
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.2
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         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  She ignored his comment and looked at Renner. “And who is this charming redneck-cum-hairstylist?”

  “Hugh Pritchett. He’s the livestock manager and my right-hand man.” Renner lifted his chin to Hugh. “This is my sister-in-law, Harlow Pratt. She’ll be workin’ at the Split Rock this summer.”

  Just then another guy exited the barn. He stopped, grinned at her and hustled up the hill. When he reached her, he thrust out his hand. “You must be Harlow. Tierney’s told me all about you. I’m Tobin Hale. I do all the crap jobs around here that no one else wants to do.”

  “It’s nice to meet you, Tobin.”

  He squinted at her and smiled. “The Mud Lilies are gonna love you with that wild-ass hair.”

  “What are the Mud Lilies?”

  “It’s a group of the best ladies you’ll ever meet.” Tobin dropped his voice to a whisper. “They’re all retired and widowed, but that don’t stop them from bein’ the biggest troublemakers in the county.”

  “I can’t wait to meet them.”

  “Unless you’re meeting up with them tonight, they ain’t gonna see your pink hair. No offense, Harlow, but that’s gotta go if you’re working here,” Renner said.

  Good thing she’d planned for that. “I assume you want the piercings out too?”

  “I’d have her leave in the nose ring, Ren,” Hugh drawled. “That way if she gets outta line, you can attach a chain to it and use it as a come-along.”

  Harlow’s mouth dropped open. “Was that supposed to be funny?”

  He shrugged those broad shoulders.

  Tobin stepped between them. “Ignore Hugh. His ex-wife got his sense of humor in the divorce settlement.” He looked over at Renner. “I know the boss will want his wife to put her feet up, so I’ll show you around the rest of the place.”

  Flirting was second nature to her; she thought nothing of smiling up at Tobin as she threaded her arm through his. Such a cutie with that glorious grin, not to mention the devilish twinkle in his eyes. “Lead on.”

  “My pleasure.”

  She glanced over her shoulder at her sister—the only one of the trio who showed any amusement. “See you later.”

  “We’ve got a nine a.m. meeting to go over job expectations,” Renner said.

  “I’ll be there with bells on.”

  *

  Of course she’d overslept. Twenty-some hours in the car without a break, and add in the cocktails she’d knocked back last night in an effort to get to know her new coworker Tanna, and she’d crashed in her clothes. Luckily her backup alarm was loud enough to wake the dead.

  Her brother-in-law chewed her ass for the lateness, warning she’d get no special treatment because of her family ties. The work at the resort wouldn’t be hard—nothing like the time she’d spent digging latrines in Haiti. The hardest part for her would be peddling accessories and other junk to people who likely had a closet already crammed with clothing, jewelry and scarves. But her views on excessive consumerism wouldn’t be welcomed around here. And she wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize this job and her true purpose for being in Wyoming.

  Keeping an eye on her sister.

  Since she and her father were worried about Tierney’s first pregnancy—due to a family history of childbirth complications, which had killed Tierney and Harlow’s mother and their maternal grandmother—when Tierney mentioned the Split Rock needed temporary summer help, Harlow had begged Tierney to give her the job. With her father’s blessing, she claimed Daddy had cut her off again. Given their past history, Tierney had no problem casting their father in the villain’s role. She offered Harlow the job without hesitation . . .

  When the flight attendant announced they’d begun the descent into Denver, Harlow shut down the memory and prepared herself to see her father at the hospital.

  After Harlow deplaned at DIA, she headed straight for the taxi stand. Inside the cab she turned on her phone, hoping she didn’t have a single message.

  No texts. No voice mail.

  Good.

  She quickly texted Tierney and received an equally fast response.

  Dad made it thru surgery. He’s in ICU recovery. Call me right after you see him, okay?

  Harlow responded with K.

  She palmed her phone and looked out the window. Darkness had fallen, so all she saw was the blur of lights as the taxi sped down the freeway. She’d been in such a hurry to leave that she hadn’t had time to check on the possible aftereffects of a heart attack resulting in emergency bypass surgery.

  She opened the Internet search app and typed in WebMD. It’d become her secret addiction during her stint in Africa when she’d sworn she’d contracted malaria—despite being vaccinated. She’d run through the checklist of symptoms on the medical site, but hers didn’t match up, so she accepted the truth she’d gotten the flu.

  That’s when she’d become a WebMD junkie.

  Harlow knew exactly what terms to plug in to get the most focused results. As she scoured the text, she became increasingly more frustrated because she didn’t know the level of heart attack her dad had suffered. So the recovery time could be anywhere from a couple of days to an entire year.

  A year.

  Surely her proud father wouldn’t insist one of his daughters become his caretaker during his recovery? Because with Tierney’s responsibilities to her financial consulting business, as well as to her daughter—Isabelle—the new baby and Renner, the “take care of Dad” responsibility would fall squarely on Harlow’s shoulders.

  Except the man had more money than god. He could afford to hire professional help.

  The cab pulled to a stop beneath the hospital awning. Harlow paid the cabbie and hauled her suitcase out of the trunk, her phone in her hand.

  The receptionist at the visitors’ desk smiled at her. “How may I help you?”

  “My father, Gene Pratt, was brought here via helicopter from Wyoming. He’s been in surgery in the cardiac unit. I just flew in and don’t know what floor he’s on.”

  “Hang on a second and I’ll pull up that information for you.”

  As Harlow waited, she drummed her fingers on the countertop. Then she just happened to glance across the room and she saw him.

  Every inch of his six-foot-three-inch frame vibrated with tension. His big hands were propped on his jean-clad hips. His wide shoulders nearly cast his shitkickers in shadow. As always, he’d pulled his cowboy hat down low enough that only the bottom half of his face was visible.

  His lips were compressed into a thin, disapproving line.

  “Ah, yes, here it is,” the receptionist said, garnering Harlow’s attention. “He’s on the second floor in the cardiac wing. Are you familiar with how to get there?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “Follow the corridor to the second set of elevators. They’ll take you to the cardiac unit. I’ll let the charge nurse know that you’re on your way.”

  “Thank you so much.” If she’d had the energy to sprint to avoid Hugh, she would have attempted it. But his long-legged strides allowed him to cut her off before she’d made it past the first set of elevators.

  “Why are you dodging me?” he demanded.

  His deep voice still had the power to send a shiver of want down her spine. “I’m here to see my father, not you. You did your good deed, so now you can go.”

  “Harlow. I need to talk to you.”

  Harlow gave herself a quick reminder not to fall prey to this man’s visceral pull before she glanced up to meet his eyes.

  Pointless advice as it turned out. The one-two punch of lust whomped her in the gut. Why couldn’t the man look like hell? Why did he have to look like he’d stepped out of a Western film with his perfectly groomed beard and piercing brown eyes shadowed beneath the brim of his well-worn hat? He even wore a crisp white shirt and dark blue Wranglers—both of which looked as starched as his attitude.

  “Christ almighty, woman, how is it possible you’re even prettier than I remembered?”

&n
bsp; Don’t fall for it.

  But she wasn’t immune to his compliments, especially since they were so rare. The heat in his eyes indicated he was happy to see her. However, the hard set to his jaw indicated he knew the feeling wasn’t mutual.

  “Hugh. I appreciate you sticking around. But since you’re not family”—she pointed to the sign on the wall regarding visitation limitations—“you can’t accompany me to the waiting area upstairs.” She turned to go.

  “Hold on.” He set his big hand on her arm. “I’ll be right here if you need anything.”

  “I won’t need anything from you.”

  “And don’t even think about tryin’ to sneak past me,” he warned. “I’ve always had a strange kind of radar when it comes to you.”

  “Then that radar should be telling you to get as far away from me as fast as possible.”

  Hugh’s lips twitched. “I’ll take that under advisement.”

  She shook off his touch and dragged her suitcase to the elevators, refusing to look his way again. But she felt his presence, felt his eyes roving over every inch of her body like a caress, just like they used to.

  Used to. Remember that.

  Once the doors opened on the second floor, Harlow straightened her spine, preparing herself for whatever shape she’d find her father in.

  Chapter Three

  ‡

  Well, you fucked that up.

  No shit. And no goddamned surprise.

  Hugh shuffled back to the reception area, unable to keep defeat from weighing on him as he lowered his sorry ass into the closest chair.

  Three years had passed since he’d last clapped eyes on her and the first thing he did was snarl at her. Jesus. Talk about a class act.

  At least you didn’t insult her hair like you did the first time you met her.

  That thought brought a quick smile. Remembering the fire flashing in her big blue eyes. Remembering how she’d gone sandal to boot with him, arguing with him.

  Remembering . . . everything about Harlow Pratt.

  In an effort to get his mind off the past, he rifled through the stack of magazines on the table beside him and scowled. He’d never be bored enough to waste his life reading about celebrities’ love affairs and their dietary preferences.

  Dietary preferences. Bunch of weird fucking diets where they’d eat twigs and clay but not meat.

  That brought his mind back to Harlow. He hadn’t been surprised to learn the girl was a vegetarian. But he had been surprised by his immediate pull toward her when they first met. Beneath the punk Barbie look, she had a pretty face, and bee-stung lips that begged for a kiss. Add in her breathy voice, the curvy body, and he’d wanted her with an ache he couldn’t understand.

  Harlow Pratt was miles away from the usual type of woman that attracted him—a million fucking miles away.

  So he’d tried to stay away from her while she was working at the resort. If their paths crossed, he’d become tight-lipped. Not speaking to her, not looking at her physical fineness, generally ignoring her.

  But Harlow didn’t like being ignored. She’d nicknamed him Grumpy—which secretly amused him—so he’d started calling her Harlot, which hadn’t amused her at all, but the attention had given her a reason to tease him at every turn.

  Every turn.

  Every day.

  And goddammit-all-to-hell if it didn’t work.

  Back then he’d been going through the motions for so long he’d forgotten the simple joys of give-and-take between a man and a woman. He’d never had much use for flirting. But Harlow changed that. She’d changed everything.

  A wave of sleepiness rolled over him. He tossed the magazine aside and pulled his hat a little lower. Maybe he could sneak in a catnap.

  But he couldn’t get Harlow off his mind. He’d been thinking about her all day. How she’d wormed her way into his life three years ago whether he’d liked it or not. He drifted back to that time and the place where they’d left antagonism at the door for the first time . . .

  That summer had been rife with changes—few of them good. As Hugh sat in Buckeye Joe’s again, annoyed by everything again, he wondered at what point a young man became a crabby old man.

  When the current music and entertainment trends baffled him? When he’d rather stay at home than go out and deal with crowds? When spicy foods gave him indigestion?

  No. He was a healthy twenty-eight-year-old man who wasn’t getting laid regularly and that made him really fucking crabby.

  “What’s your deal?” Tobin asked him. “You look ready to punch something.”

  “I just wish we would’ve gone someplace else.” He tipped up his beer and drank, letting his gaze take in the Buckeye. “Same people here every time. Same lack of women every time.”

  “Then let’s head into Rawlins next week.”

  “Cool. And then on the ‘Welcome to Wyoming’ road sign, let’s spray-paint ‘Horny and Desperate’ as the state’s new slogan.”

  “Ain’t that the truth,” Tobin said. “It bugs the fuck outta me to imagine I might live the rest of my life without a woman in my bed every night.”

  “After havin’ my ex bouncing in all the beds in the county except for ours, I’m fine sleeping alone. Doesn’t mean I don’t need a warm body next to me once in a while to give my hand a break.”

  Tobin nearly spit out his beer. “Jesus, warn a guy. You never say shit like that.” He leaned closer and scrutinized Hugh’s face. “You weren’t doin’ the Mud Lilies’ stargazer shots and you’re totally hammered right now?”

  “Nah. I’m just restless. I’m used to bein’ on the road. I know Ren is all het up about Tierney’s pregnancy, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be out there running the events.” Hugh nudged him. “Pointless to talk about. Let’s play pool.”

  They took their time playing, since no one else was hot for the table.

  “Women,” Tobin stated out of the blue. “Is that why you miss bein’ on the road so much?”

  “Partly. I mean there are always women at the events lookin’ for a hookup. There isn’t a single woman in this bar I’d consider hooking up with.”

  Just then Harlow Pratt made a total liar of him by walking in right as those words left his mouth.

  Tobin was taking a shot, allowing Hugh time to give Harlow a thorough head to toe. She’d worn a lacy blouse the soft pink color of her lips. Jeans. Flip-flops. She had her hands in her back pockets and she looked around.

  Looking for familiar faces.

  He frowned. She’d come to the bar alone? Why’d she think that was a good idea?

  As she walked away from the front door, four different guys approached her. Two, Hugh knew from spending so much time in here, were married. The other two were dirtbags.

  Tobin prompted him to take a turn, then looked to see what’d caught Hugh’s attention. Grinning, he set down his cue and headed right for Harlow.

  Her happiness in seeing a familiar face even made Hugh smile.

  Of course Tobin brought her to their table. “Look who I found.”

  Hugh grunted.

  Harlow rested her elbows on the table. “Heya, Grumpy.”

  “Harlot.”

  “Ugh. Don’t call me that.”

  “Like you callin’ me Grumpy is any better?”

  “Can we leave Grumpy and Harlot at the Split Rock tonight?”

  “Sure.”

  “You want me to get you something from the bar, Harlow?” Tobin asked.

  “Just water.”

  “The Split Rock bartender didn’t wander into the Buckeye to drink on her night off?” Hugh said skeptically.

  “That wouldn’t be smart, since I’m also driving. I just needed to get out and be among people I don’t have to wait on.” She eyed his beer. “Why are you here?”

  “Tobin dragged me.”

 
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