Wrapped and strapped, p.22
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.22
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         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  picture of relaxation. “Look, we both know his focus ain’t been where it needs to be if he’s gonna continue with the stock contracting side. Has he given you reasons on why that is?”

  “Not really. What he tells me sounds more like excuses.”

  “In the meantime, he’s doubled the size of his herd. And I think . . .” Tobin shook his head. “Never mind.”

  “No, go on and tell me. You’re here with me every damn day, T. While I ain’t complaining, I know that what you’re doin’ on a day-to-day basis ain’t what you signed on for either.”

  “That’s a fact. But Fletch helped Renner see his dream of a dedicated genetics lab and semen-collection facility was just that—a dream. Havin’ a place for expansion and actually expanding into those specialized areas of the cattle business were two different things.”

  “But nothing’s changed in the three years since Fletch took Renner to task on that, except that Tanna’s got a really nice place to train,” Hugh pointed out.

  Tobin grinned. “Sometimes I wonder if that wasn’t Fletch’s intent all along.”

  “Could be. And maybe it makes me a dick for saying this¸ but I’ve seen how bein’ in a relationship changes these guys. Their priorities change.” He had to wonder how he’d change if he and Harlow made their relationship permanent.

  “As they should,” Tobin declared. “If I ever am lucky enough to find a good woman, I’ll treat her like gold. Because in my sad love life, a good woman has been as rare as gold.”

  In recent months Tobin had mentioned his loneliness and his disappointment that he wasn’t in a relationship at his age. Hugh didn’t like spilling his guts, and it made him uncomfortable when other guys did it. But it bothered him that Tobin, who was honestly one of the greatest guys Hugh had ever met, was unhappy. And he suspected Tobin’s disillusionment would lead him out of Wyoming. Hugh wasn’t the type of guy to offer advice—his fucked-up past with Cleo and his uncertain future with Harlow made him the last person who should talk. But he needed to let Tobin know he did care, and to some extent he did understand.

  But Tobin beat him to the punch. “That said, I’ve been lucky that Renner lets me experiment on my own time.”

  “And on your own dime. I wish you could be around in Kansas when we put CC in the arena to see what he’ll do.”

  “Oh, I know what that sonuvabitch will do. He’ll throw the bull riders into the next fuckin’ county.”

  CC, son of legendary bull BB, was Tobin’s first foray into genetics. He’d bred the ornery bull with a cow known for her crappy disposition and large calves. The two-year-old bull was making his debut in the rodeo arena this summer. BB’s other progeny—DD, Triple E and Double F, all of different dams—were yearlings and their bucking ability hadn’t been tested yet. “I’ll make sure someone videos at least one of the rides.”

  “Cool. Anyway, I’m happy to see that,” Tobin said, pointing at Hugh.

  “See what?”

  “You excited about something, Grumpy.”

  Hugh narrowed his eyes.

  Tobin laughed and pushed to his feet. “My pep talk is over. Good luck.”

  Renner passed Tobin in the doorway. He said, “Got something I wanna run by you, so make time for me later.”

  “Will do.”

  When Renner walked by Hugh’s desk, Hugh started to gather up his paperwork. He should’ve expected Renner would want to have this conversation at his desk.

  But Renner said, “No need to move. I was just gonna grab a soda. You want one?”

  “Unless it’s too early for us to have a beer?”

  “That’s what I was hoping you’d say.” Renner returned with two cans of Budweiser and parked himself in the chair. “I miss them late nights, planning and scheming down here while we finished a twelve-pack. Seemed my best ideas always came after a beer or three.”

  “You’ve always been the idea man.” Except this time. He popped the top on his beer and drank.

  “I’m hopin’ you didn’t set this meeting up because you’ve run into problems?”

  Hugh shook his head. “Exactly the opposite. While I was making final arrangements with Phyllis at Phillipsburg, she mentioned two smaller venues, one in Kansas and another in Nebraska, that were without stock contractors for their county rodeos. I did some checking because they sounded familiar, and we provided stock for them, seven years ago.” He took another drink. “The venues are within our travel parameters. Since they won’t conflict with our current itinerary, I went ahead and added them to the schedule.”

  Renner stared at him without speaking. For as long as he’d known the man, Hugh had no idea whether he was pissed off.

  “When you did your checking on these past events, did you find anything in the notes on why we’d stopped providing stock?”

  “Yeah. We got the contract for River Run in Missouri for that same week. Since it’s three times the size, you booked that one the next year and dropped those two. Since we stopped goin’ to River Run two years ago, I didn’t see a conflict.”

  “Did you book the events before or after you read the notes?”

  “After. Why?”

  “You shoulda cleared it with me first.”

  And here it was. Hugh pulled the contract out of the file folder and slid it across the desk. “Take a look.”

  Renner didn’t skim the page. He read the entire document before he passed it back. “The terms are generous because they were desperate to fulfill their CRA requirements?”

  Hugh shrugged. “Partially. But to be honest, I think since we’ve mostly been out of the loop that you’ve forgotten how lucrative stock contracting can be.” There. He’d said it.

  “I haven’t forgotten how goddamned expensive travel costs are. Gas was at an all-time high the last two years. That would’ve eaten every penny of profit.”

  “I disagree. But that’s not an issue right now, since fuel costs have dropped considerably.”

  “That don’t mean I want you signing on for a dozen more rodeos this season,” he warned.

  “You know I’m gonna get questions on whether Jackson Stock Contracting is out of the business entirely. I’ll get approached about bidding next year’s events. What I don’t know is how you want me to answer any of those questions, Ren.”

  Renner picked up his beer and drank. He stared at Hugh, but it was more like he stared through him.

  Hugh waited. A line of sweat ran down his spine.

  “Who all are you takin’?”

  “I’ll have the final list to you tomorrow. Waiting to hear back, so it’s not completely finalized.” Half-truth there. “Harlow is comin’ along.”

  “Why? It’s not like she’s got stock-handling experience.”

  “Harlow wants the experience, so she’ll be a fast learner. Part of the reason she’s coming is because we’re in a relationship. The other part is she volunteered, which saves on labor costs.”

  “I’m surprised Gene ain’t throwing a fit about her leaving. He’s gotten mighty used to her bein’ around.”

  “Well, according to Harlow, he’s ahead of the expected recovery time. He’s not lacking for entertainment,” Hugh pointed out.

  “True.”

  “So if Harlow wasn’t coming with me, I imagine she’d be on her way to her next thing.”

  Renner frowned. “She didn’t mention to her sister that she might be leaving soon. Then again, she didn’t mention she’d gotten involved with you either.”

  Like you’ve got room to talk.

  “Is there anything else?”

  “I take your nonanswer to mean I’m supposed to hedge when folks ask me about next year’s schedule?”

  “Yeah.” Renner closed his eyes. “I’m so damn tired most days I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do next week, say nothin’ of next year.”

  Hugh saw that Renner had hit the limits of what one man could do. Rather than put more stress on him, he tabled the rest of his suggestions.

  Renner sto
od. “Whining ain’t gonna get nothin’ done. Thanks for handling all this for me. We’ll talk more later.”

  Hugh nodded. He knew an empty promise when he heard one.

  *

  “Why aren’t we just meeting at your place?” Harlow asked him the next night.

  “Because Riss is bringing the cattle truck by to make sure it meets our requirements for transporting our bulls.”

  “How many bulls are we taking?”

  Hugh smiled at her use of “we” and shifted into second gear to take the corner. “Depends on the size of her double-decker trailer. Legally, we can’t haul horses and bulls together. And we’ll have to leave room to load the calves and steers for the timed events. Some of the bigger contracting companies haul twice what we do, but they don’t drive nearly as far. It’s a day-trip for them. And competitors are always anxious to try our stock, since it’s pretty rank.”

  “Have you tried any of the stock?”

  “Not ours. But I have ridden a bull, and participated in saddle bronc and bareback events.”

  Harlow leaned across the seat and cooed, “Ooh, did you get a shiny belt buckle to draw attention to that big cock in your Wranglers?”

  “Jesus, Harlow. Would you please stop sayin’ I have a big cock?”

  “Well, you do.” She smirked. “I’m proud of it. You should be too.”

  The woman confused the fuck outta him sometimes. “Let’s go.” Hugh skirted the front end of the truck and by the time he’d reached the passenger side, she’d already climbed out. “Rule number one, darlin’. You wait for me to help you out.”

  Harlow got in his face. “Amendment to rule number one, darlin’: Women who are capable of opening a door handle are exempt from waiting for their man to rescue them from the confines of a big ol’ pickup truck.”

  “Got a mouth on you tonight.”

  “I just have low tolerance for sitting pretty and staying put when I know once we’re on the road, and I’m Harlow the hired hand, the rules will change.”

  She had a point. “Fine. But when you are with me, that means my hands will be on my hand. At all times.”

  “Got it.”

  He draped his arm over her shoulder and kissed her temple. “By the way, you look fine as fuck tonight.”

  She looked up at him. “That’s a better compliment than fine as frog’s hair.”

  The door to the Buckeye opened and disgorged a couple of drunken guys and their angry wives, who’d apparently been called to haul their sorry asses home.

  Harlow stopped to watch the spectacle.

  “Ain’t polite to stare, doll.”

  “If they didn’t want people to watch their scene, they shouldn’t have caused one.” She winced when one guy fell down and his pissed-off wife kicked him in the ass. Then the other couple started laughing so hard they had to hold each other up.

  “Come on.” He opened the door.

  Once they were in the thick of the boisterous crowd, Hugh wished they could’ve met up with Ike and Riss some other place.

  Didn’t look like Ike was here yet, so he towed Harlow to a booth by the side door. “I’ll grab drinks. What you want?”

  “Gin and tonic.” She opened her mouth and then shut it.

  “What?”

  “I doubt they stock Tanqueray, so well gin is fine.”

  At least she’d been in enough times to know not to order wine.

  Hugh headed for the bar. A harried Sherry shouted drink orders while an equally harried new bartender attempted to fill the orders.

  When Sherry saw him, she hustled right over. “Hey, Hugh. What’ll it be tonight?”

  “A pitcher of Bud, three glasses and a gin and tonic.”

  Sherry stood on tiptoe and peered over his shoulder. “The gin and tonic for Harlow?”

  “Yep.”

  “I assume it’s a family thing that she prefers Tanqueray. Give me an extra minute to track down the bottle and I’ll bring it out.”

  As Hugh returned to the table, it bugged him that Gene Pratt might be charming Sherry Gilchrist into sneaking booze in for him.

  “You’re frowning,” Harlow said, leaning across the table. “What’s wrong?”

  “Is Gene under alcohol limitations during his recovery?”

  “One alcoholic drink a week, according to his doctor. Why?”

  “It’s odd that Sherry knows Gene prefers Tanqueray gin.”

  “Honey, anyone who drinks gin prefers Tanqueray. Besides, it’s not the booze the Mud Lilies sneak in that’s the problem. It’s the cookies, bars, pies and bread.” She shook her head and several wisps of hair escaped from her ponytail. “Yesterday, both Pearl and Tilda visited. Pearl tried to act like it was an oversight, but she showed up half an hour early. She and Tilda had words. Dad faked a headache and locked himself in his room, the chickenshit.”

  Now Gene was messing with Pearl and Tilda too? Maybe he’d done the wrong thing in agreeing to keep Gene’s liaisons quiet. But part of him did agree with Karen. The Mud Lilies were grown women. They’d be just as pissed if he meddled, so he was screwed either way.

  “Hugh?”

  “What?”

  “You’ve got a weird look on your face.”

  “Just trying to wrap my head around Gene Pratt, who oversees a multitude of multimillion-dollar corporations with PFG, being afraid of Pearl and Tilda.”

  “When they’re pissed off and probably carrying? I would be. Aren’t you?”

  “When you put it that way . . . yep.” He reached out and smoothed back her hair. “You haven’t colored your hair like an Easter egg recently.”

  “Dye your hair pink one time and you’re branded for life.”

  “Garnet followed your lead. Looked like she had pink insulation on her head for a couple of months.”

  She kissed him. “You can be more creative than the standard ‘cotton candy’ comparison.”

  “I try.”

  Sherry swung by with her tray and dropped off the glasses, pitcher and drink, but didn’t stay to talk.

  Ike slid into the opposite booth seat. “Man. What is goin’ on here tonight? This place ain’t usually this busy on a Tuesday.”

  “Heard ’em say softball leagues.”

  “Ah.” He poured a beer for Hugh and himself. “Who else is coming?”

  “Stock transporter.”

  “You using Al?”

  Hugh shook his head. “How’s your drink?” he asked Harlow.

  “Good. But I know she’s been mixing these for Dad, because he’s the one who taught me to drink them so limey.”

  When Hugh reached for his beer, Ike moved it out of reach.

  “What the hell, Ike?”

  “Why won’t you tell me who’s driving transport?” Ike demanded.

  Hugh said nothing. But Ike knew exactly what it meant.

  “Are serious? Riss? You hired fuckin’ Riss?”

  “Best driver and stock handler around and you know it. So I’m gonna ask you to try not to be a fuckin’ douche bag.”

  “That’s an impossible request, Hugh. Ike wrote the book on douche bag behavior.”

  Hugh looked up at the freckle-faced redhead who’d reached their table. “Nice to see you, Riss.” He squeezed Harlow’s shoulder. “Larissa ‘Riss’ Thorpe, meet my girlfriend, Harlow Pratt.”

  Harlow offered her hand. “Great to meet you.”

  “Same here.” Riss shook Harlow’s hand. “Pritchett neglected to mention a girlfriend coming along on this trip.”

  “Harlow will also be working as a hand, learning the ropes.”

  She made a noncommittal noise. Then she grinned. “Pritchett and Pratt. Sounds like a comedy duo. Or a pharmaceutical company.”

  Ike snorted. “Still as awkward as ever, I see, La-Riss-a.”

  “Still as much of an asshole as ever,” she shot back.

  Awkward silence.

  “So, did you two used to date and it ended badly?” Harlow asked.

  Riss said “Not fucking ever
the same time Ike said “Zero fucking chance.”

 
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