Wrapped and strapped, p.20
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.20
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         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  say this, but I’d be willing to back out of our contract if I thought me staying here would keep you around longer.”

  Her heart just about melted.

  Hugh rested his forehead to hers. “I know you don’t wanna hear this. You wanna keep everything casual. I get that. But I’m so fuckin’ crazy about you, Harlow. Crazy and afraid that I’m alone in feeling this way.”

  She curled her hands around his face and tipped his head back to look into his eyes. “You’re not alone. I’m pretty crazy about you too. But I don’t want to define this; I don’t want any pressure for long-term plans for either of us. And yet, I want to be with you twenty-four/seven.”

  A smile bloomed on his face and she swore the heavens opened up.

  She shrieked in surprise when he stood, scrambling to get her legs around his waist as he strode toward the bedroom. “Hugh! What are you doing?”

  “Takin’ you to bed to cement our mutual craziness.” As soon as they entered the bedroom, he stripped her completely. Touched her. Teased to heighten her awareness that he knew exactly how to get her hot and bothered. How to make her wet and writhing for him.

  Then he pinned her arms above her head and fit himself inside her. He paused to let his full weight rest on her body, pushing it deeper into the mattress, as his big hands traveled from her wrists, down her arms and the sides of her body.

  The power he possessed didn’t scare her. He was a completely different kind of guy from Fredrick. The rightness of how they were together this time around scared her far more.

  Hugh nuzzled her neck. After he kissed her lips once, he whispered, “Crazy about you,” and spent the next hour proving it.

  Chapter Fourteen

  ‡

  Ike’s invitation to meet at Buckeye Joe’s for a drink caused Hugh some concern. He and Ike were friends, but they never hung out just the two of them. He hoped Ike didn’t have some kind of personal problem, because he’d never been comfortable handing out advice.

  Since happy hour had ended, the Buckeye wasn’t jam-packed. Hugh paused at the end of the dance floor, looking for Ike, since he’d seen his rig parked out front.

  Ike waved at him from the far back table.

  Hugh nodded at the folks he knew as he made his way to the back of the bar. He pulled out the chair opposite Ike, sat down and said, “Hey.”

  “Hey. I woulda ordered you a beer, but I figured you’d rather wait for service than drink a warm one.”

  “Got that right.”

  Ike lifted his can toward the bar, signaling to a waitress.

  Hugh stretched his arm across the chair beside his. “It’s no secret I ain’t good at making small talk, so what’s on your mind?”

  “Remember when you were talking about that rodeo in Kansas and you mentioned you might need hired hands to help you out?”

  “I do.” He paused to thank Susan for dropping off his Budweiser. He sipped and set the bottle down. “Why? You lookin’ for work?”

  Ike glanced down at his own beer before he met Hugh’s gaze. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

  Hugh waited while Ike gathered his thoughts.

  “I’ve been a cattle broker for a dozen years. Started out doin’ it because I liked the challenge. I liked connecting buyers and sellers. I liked bein’ part of the ag community.”

  “But?”

  “But, with the way technology has changed things in the past five years, so much of my job, at least the parts of it that got me into this business in the first place, have changed. I’ve always spent my working hours surgically attached to my cell phone. That never bothered me.”

  “What does bother you?”

  “That I’ve gone from a salesman to a videographer. I don’t even have to meet with folks face-to-face anymore. Buyers or sellers. The sellers upload videos of the stock they’re selling. Then the buyers either go to a specific site to view the videos or it’s sent as an e-mail attachment.”

  “They’re cutting out the middleman,” Hugh stated.

  “Basically. Not in all cases. I’ve dealt with many of these ranchers for years and they’re loyal. But they’re the older generation. The next generation that’s taking over, well, I ain’t gotta tell you that they grew up with technology, so it’s easier for them to handle their stock sales virtually.”

  Hugh took another sip of beer. “Without getting into specifics, your income has dropped?”

  Ike nodded. “Cattle prices have been at an all-time high, and the volume of the deals I was making offset the losses. But as I’m lookin’ to the fall, when I do a huge bulk of my business, my calls are down damn near seventy percent.”

  “Holy shit.”

  “Yeah.” Ike leaned back in his chair, mimicking Hugh’s posture. “I’ve never been a big spender. No wife, kids, the biggest chunk of my income goes to traveling expenses and my mortgage. So it ain’t like I’m hurting. I can tighten my belt, drink cheaper beer”—he tipped his chin at the Pabst Blue Ribbon can in front of him—“and I’ll be fine for a few years.”

  “So you’re not lookin’ for work?” Hugh asked with confusion.

  “I’m lookin’ to find a way to keep doin’ what I’m doin’, working within the Western way of life. That’s what I’m missing. The people. The travel.”

  That’s when Hugh realized he had found someone he could talk to about his frustrations with the changes in his own life and professional responsibilities. “I hear ya.”

  “And feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but you were on the road a lot for a number of years with Renner as he built up Jackson Stock Contracting.”

  “Yep. We spent almost seven months outta every year on the road.”

  “Do you miss it?”

  Hugh met Ike’s curious stare. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

  Ike just nodded.

  “Look, I know you’re affiliated with Jackson Cattle Company—”

  “What we’re talking about here won’t go any farther than us,” Ike said. “I just told you I was pretty damn disillusioned with my job. I’d like to think now that we’ve opened a dialogue, you can be honest with me too. In ways you can’t be with your boss or your coworker.”

  At that, Hugh upended his beer, turned and caught Susan’s eye for two more.

  “That bad, huh?” Ike said with a laugh.

  Hugh shrugged. “Figured our throats might get dry if we’re talkin’ about all this.”

  Neither spoke until the next round had been delivered.

  “What’s your story?”

  “I started out as a hand at a stockyard. Didn’t love it, it was just work. A couple years into it, I married the boss’s daughter. And even with that dumb mistake, I knew the man wouldn’t ever give me a piece of the business. I’d always just be a shit shoveler. So I went lookin’ for something else—not any kind of personal fulfillment bullshit, but a job that paid more, because my wife had expensive tastes. Renner hired me. That’s when I realized what I wanted to do. And up until he bought the land in Wyoming, that’s what I thought Renner’s long-term plans were too.”

  Ike fiddled with the pop-top on his beer can. “Ain’t it funny how things change?”

  “Don’t get me wrong. I like it here. I thought if we were lookin’ to provide stock for the Mountain Circuit, we’d probably be better off based out of Wyoming. But instead of growing the stock contracting business like I’d assumed, Renner has expended way more effort and money building a cattle company. I never wanted to be in the cattle business like we are. That ain’t what I signed on for.”

  “I figured that might be the case. And don’t go thinking that it’s obvious to anyone else. It’s plain to me because I recognize the restlessness.” He paused. “How long’s this been eating at you?”

  “For the first year, I was dealing with the divorce and learning to be single again. The second year, Renner was focused on the resort and the cattle company. All the while he’s learning to be a married man. Then a father. That’s when he decided to scale back o
n the travel. And I would’ve been fine without him bein’ on-site for every rodeo event. But he somehow got it in his head that if he couldn’t be there, then it wasn’t worth doin’.”

  “Which you took as he didn’t trust you to do the job you’d been doin’ all along,” Ike said.

  “Yep. I coulda understood if the stock contracting end of things was losing him money, but it wasn’t. I dealt with the payouts for the day hires. I know what the feed costs were. Fuel costs. Maintenance costs.”

  “And?”

  “And two years ago, with cutting out twelve events, the profit had increased by about five percent.” Hugh swallowed a mouthful of beer. “Bear in mind the price of fuel two summers ago was the highest it’d ever been. The venues he dropped from the schedule were small, granted, but those smaller venues are the moneymakers, because you gotta supply less stock, gotta hire less behind-the-chutes help. We can stay on the grounds. There ain’t never been a time that staying on the fairground camping areas hasn’t led to picking up another rodeo event.”

  Ike studied him.

  Which got his back up. “What?”

  “You haven’t pointed out any of this to Renner, have you?”

  “That’s what’s bugging the piss outta me. I shouldn’t have to point it out. This is stuff that Renner used to live and breathe. Now he’s much more focused on the room fill/rate ratio at the Split Rock and the calf weight ratio of the hardier herd he’s building. I don’t care about either of those things. That genetic junk is Tobin’s area of expertise. He’s happier than a pig in shit jawing on about that with Ren. Christ. It’s about the only damn time I wanna wear earplugs.”

  Ike grinned. “I’ll admit I’d be listening in on those conversations.” His smile faded. “Well, I woulda used to listen in, hoping I could find something that’d give me an advantage when brokering sales. But now . . .”

  “Now what?”

  “Now I’m more interested in finding out what rodeo events are coming up and if you’ve already lined up local stock for the timed events.”

  Hugh pushed his hat back a fraction and rested his arms on the table. “I’m afraid Renner is so focused on his family and his baby son he hasn’t set any of that up.”

  “Jesus. Ain’t that like a week out?”

  “Yep.”

  “See, this is where I come in. I’ve got contacts all over the place. You say the word, tell me how many calves and steers you need for a two-day event and I’ll line it up.”

  “That’d be a huge load off my mind. Renner’s too.”

  “And,” Ike continued, “I’m a damn good hand. So I’d help out behind the scenes and the arena if need be.”

  “What’re your salary requirements?”

  Ike considered it. “Travel expenses for sure. But I’d be willing to keep the same pay rate as the day-labor hands you hire.”

  Hugh barely kept his mouth from dropping open. “No kidding?”

  “I’m serious about wanting to stay in this lifestyle. It’d be a challenge for me, keeping up those charming sales tactics I’m known for”—he grinned like a loon—“balanced with the physical demands of taking care of livestock rather than just selling them.”

  “This sounds like a brilliant fuckin’ plan. But that’s the problem, because I don’t know what the boss will say.”

  “What’s your job description?”

  “Officially? Manager.”

  “For both the stock contracting and the cattle company?”

  He nodded. “On the cattle side it’s only because I was already in place before Tobin got hired. But I have no problem deferring to him. Why?”

  “Here’s what I propose you do. Then we’ll know where to go from there.”

  Ike detailed the proposal and Hugh admitted the man’s knowledge of stock contracting was top-notch. And if he was a betting man, he’d say Ike would give Renner a run for his money on contacts.

  “I don’t have to tell you most of this stuff. You know it. All’s you gotta do is double-check it, present it to Renner and see what he says.”

  That’s what he was worried about. Renner feeling threatened that Hugh was trying to tell him how to run the stock contracting business he’d spent years building.

  If he spent years building it, then why doesn’t he have the same level of pride in it that he used to?

  “I see them wheels churning, Pritchett.”

  He sighed. “My role has always been second-in-command.”

  “So? Show Renner you’ve taken the initiative. Maybe he hasn’t asked you to take on more responsibilities because you’ve never indicated you’re interested.”

  “Fuck. I hate that you could be right.” But for the first time in a long time, Hugh felt ready to take that next step.

  “You do research on your end and I’ll do some on my end. What’s the time frame we’re looking at?”

  “I’d say tomorrow.”

  “Shit.”

  “There won’t be anyone in the office tonight, so I’ll start pulling files and seeing what’s what. Then we can reconvene tomorrow afternoon and go from there. The better we have the facts lined up, the more likely Renner is to give us free rein.”

  Ike held up his beer can. “I’ll drink to that.”

  Hugh touched his bottle to the can. “Me too.”

  They parted ways soon after.

  On the short drive back to the Split Rock, his mind was running in ten different directions. He pulled up to the back of the barn and unlocked the door.

  Lights on, computer booted, sleeves rolled up, he got to work.

  *

  Harlow was restless.

  She’d played with Isabelle; she’d cuddled baby Rhett while Tierney showered. She’d stopped in to see her dad but he’d hung the DO NOT DISTURB sign on his door handle—and she swore she heard giggling inside the room.

  Probably the TV.

  The lodge was full, so she couldn’t venture to the bar, or take a dip in the pool.

  Tobin had volunteered as DD for the Mud Lilies’ hiking trip—and she’d been too afraid to ask why they needed a sober driver after a hike.

  Dave and Yvette were cuddled up in front of the TV—not that Harlow had been peeking in their windows, but it was remarkably easy to see inside their trailer.

  Note to self: Shut the curtains when Hugh comes over.

  And that seemed to be the crux of her problem.

  She missed Hugh.

  Tonight when she’d seen his truck drive past after six, she pretended it didn’t bother her that she hadn’t known where he was going.

  But it did bother her, because she liked him, dammit. The man was so easy to be with. His presence either soothed her or inflamed her. And she thought he liked hanging out with her too, even if they weren’t naked.

  Maybe taking a walk around the resort would take the edge off. And if her casual, no-destination-in-mind stroll passed by Hugh’s cabin, and if she saw the lights on, she might stop and say hello.

  You are so gone over him. And this is exactly what happened to you last time.

  So just to prove she had willpower where one Hugh Pritchett was concerned, Harlow purposely headed down the hill on the other side of his cabin.

  She parked herself on the sandstone bench and gazed up at the stars. The warm night air, nearly absent of bugs, flowed over her bare arms and legs as gently as a lover’s caress.

  Hugh hadn’t been gentle with her last night. Right after entering her trailer, he’d pushed her face-first against the wall, arms above her head. He’d yanked her athletic shorts to her ankles and ran those rough-skinned hands up the backs of her calves and the outsides of her thighs.

  He’d touched her, teased her, in absolute silence, save for their labored breaths. Hers bounced off the paneled wall. His drifted over her body.

  Once he’d electrified every inch of her skin, he’d twisted his hand in her hair, pulling her head down until the crown met the wall. While holding her in place, he’d attacked the nape of her neck
with hot sucking kisses, plus barely there flicks of his tongue. Then he used his teeth.

  Oh god, the scrape of his teeth drove her mad. And he’d come to know the reactions of her body so well that she’d had a tiny orgasm just from the relentless attention he gave the backs of her shoulders and the side of her throat.

  The only sound more erotic than the chink of a metal belt buckle hitting the floor was Hugh’s guttural grunt of male satisfaction as he impaled her.

  Even now, the remembrance of his big hands curled around her hips as he held her in place, methodically fucking her, made her panties wet, her nipples tight and her throat dry.

 
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