Wrapped and strapped, p.26
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.26

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  wire. Such a pain in the ass, how it dragged across the dirt almost sideways and closed with another loop of wire over the top of the fence post. Hugh had gotten spoiled. Every fence around the Split Rock and the Jackson Cattle Company was new.

  The horses were anxious to get out. The hard part would be getting them back in the trailers tomorrow.

  Then Riss parked the semi. Bulls were always more stubborn to move and even the prospect of lying down in sweet Nebraska grass didn’t entice them to move it along.

  Hugh fought a grin, seeing how wide Harlow’s eyes got when Riss brandished the cattle prod. All she had to do was stick it through the slats and without it touching a single hide, the bulls scampered out.

  Ike and Hugh pulled up the loading ramp and closed the rear doors, sliding the locking bars in place.

  Riss wandered over to Harlow. “You got your rope ready for tomorrow to help us catch some bulls?”

  “No, but I did bring a red cape.”

  Hugh laughed and slung his arm over Harlow’s shoulder. “Night.”

  “What do you mean, night?” Ike demanded. “Bulls ain’t getting taken care of?”

  “I’ll let you and Riss sort it out.”

  “Renner never left this kinda stuff for us to handle,” Riss said snottily, as if that’d get him to turn around and grab a pitchfork.

  “Ren never had a hot blonde to share his horse trailer. I do.”

  He ignored the muttering from both Riss and Ike.

  It was good to be the boss.

  Chapter Seventeen

  ‡

  Harlow wiped her forehead with the inside of her wrist. Being in the dusty pens since the crack of dawn had been exhausting and now she was about to melt from the sweltering heat.

  She and Hugh were headed back to the horse trailer after spending the morning wrangling livestock. Although it was two in the afternoon, and her stomach growled, she couldn’t think about food until she cleaned up.

  Hugh washed up in the sink in the kitchen, so she slipped into the dark bathroom. She flipped on the lights, took one look at herself in the bathroom mirror and screamed.

  Hugh hauled ass into the bathroom. “What’s wrong?”

  “Look. At. Me.”

  He seemed puzzled. “I am.” He moved in behind her and stared at the top of her head. “Did you find a tick or something?”

  “Ticks? I have to worry about ticks too?”

  “Ticks. Fleas. Mites. Flies. Mosquitoes. The not-fun part of working with livestock.”

  “So is there a fun part?”

  His gaze met hers in the mirror. “Darlin’, what is goin’ on with you? You look like you’re about to cry.”

  Harlow had never been a crier. She hadn’t considered herself vain. She wasn’t a stranger to working in the muck. She’d sweated in the jungle. She’d trudged through the desert. And she’d never cared about her hair—besides that it stayed out of her face. Heck, she’d even used mud as a protective sunscreen. But looking at herself in that moment? With her hair plastered to her scalp in places with mud—she refused to even consider it could be any other substance—and sections of her hair not coated with hay dust stuck straight up as if she’d shoved her finger in a light socket, she was near tears.

  Her face was so filthy, her eyes and teeth were neon white. She looked like one of those vaudeville performers wearing blackface.

  “Harlow. Baby. You’re scarin’ me.”

  She let her chin drop to her chest, wishing her hair would cover her face. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m fine.”

  Hugh wasn’t buying it. He didn’t gently turn her around. He wrapped her tightly in his arms; then he set his chin on top of her head, making it impossible to escape.

  After several long moments, she squirmed. “Thanks for the hug. But you can let go of me.”

  “Nope.”

  She bristled. “I need to get in the shower.”

  “Well, I wasn’t gonna say anything, but since you brought it up, you are smelling a little rank.”

  Harlow burst into tears at that point.

  “I didn’t mean it. I was kiddin’.” He released her and spun her around before picking her up and plopping her on the vanity. Then he was right in her face. “Please stop cryin’. I’m sorry. That was a bad joke. You don’t smell.”

  She tried to keep her head down to avoid his eyes. “You’re right. I reek.”

  Hugh trapped her face in his hands, forcing her attention. “Talk to me. No bullshit. What is goin’ on with you?”

  “Look at me. No, wait, don’t. Because I’m a mess.” She wasn’t even a hot mess. She was just a plain old dirty mess.

  “You’ve spent hours in the pens. When you get done with that, you ain’t gonna look like you stepped outta the spa.”

  “I know that. I just didn’t expect I’d look like I’d been wrestling in mud and pig shit.”

  A silent moment passed. Then Hugh’s soft, warm lips were on hers. He held her face in place so she couldn’t twist away. Kissing her with the utmost tenderness, despite her ragged appearance.

  Harlow sighed into his mouth.

  “Do you trust me?” he murmured against her lips.

  “You know I do.”

  “Sit right there. Don’t move. Don’t open your eyes.”

  She heard the cabinet door open. She felt him reach around her ass and cop a feel before he turned on the water.

  He stepped back and she immediately missed the heat and the comfort of his body against hers. “Still with me?” he asked softly.

  She nodded.

  “Good. Keep them pretty eyes closed.” His hand moved beneath her jaw. He pressed a warm, wet washcloth against her forehead and gently dabbed at her skin.

  “Hugh? What are you doing?”

  “Ssh. No talkin’. Just let me take care of you.”

  After that, she couldn’t hold her tears in any longer. This sweet, gruff man had so many more important things to do besides administer to his freaked-out girlfriend. But here he was. Cleaning her up with such tenderness it made her ache.

  Harlow had to bite the inside of her cheek to stop her lips from trembling.

  He’d swipe the warm cloth down her face. Rinse the washcloth and then repeat. Wipe and rinse. Wipe and rinse. After he finished with her face, he started on her neck. And after he finished with that, he moved on to her arms, wiping her off with a long, wet sweep of the cloth, up and down the length of her arm. From the inside of her wrist to the tip of her elbow. Rubbing the webbing between each finger, followed by a gentle rub across her knuckles. Each fingernail. When he finished with her hands, he kissed the tips of her fingers, one at a time as if he were trying to imprint the shape of each one on his lips.

  She was glad he’d demanded that she keep her eyes shut. It allowed her to concentrate on the loving care with which he tended to her. He didn’t tell her she was beautiful. He showed her. By cleaning her with a deft and delicate touch. As if she were a precious piece of art. As if she belonged to him and it was his duty and privilege to take care of her.

  The water had cooled by the time he’d finished.

  Then she experienced the same tight feeling in her chest when Hugh very carefully, very thoroughly kissed every inch of her face. His lips followed the edge of her hairline from her forehead to the curve of her cheek. Soft-lipped kisses from the middle of her eyebrows to the corners of her eyes. Soon he parted his lips to more fully taste her. After a through kiss, he bestowed a quick peck on the end of her nose, before giving her one longer press of his mouth against her lips. It was a mere tease of breath and warmth at the corners of her smile. Because by the time he finished, she was definitely smiling. Her head buzzed. Her heart was full.

  Hugh tugged off her boots and lifted her into his arms. She buried her face in his neck, breathing him in. The scent of his skin was soothing aromatherapy, as well as a potent aphrodisiac. And she wanted—needed—to imprint his scent on her. So she would get a whiff of him no matter where she
was, no matter what she was doing, and know that she belonged to him.

  Irrevocably.

  He hefted her up the stairs to the bed without missing a beat and laid her on her belly. The sheets were cool against her fevered skin. He tucked a pillow beneath her cheek. He kissed her temple and whispered, “Sleep. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

  She wanted to protest, and invite him to join her, but as soon as she closed her eyes, everything faded away.

  *

  Hugh’s phone rang. He cursed and fumbled with turning off the ringer so as to not disturb Harlow. He quickly and quietly stepped outside. “Pritchett.”

  “Do you always answer your phone that way?” his mother demanded.

  “Pretty much. Especially when I’m on the road or in the sun and can’t read the caller ID.”

  “So you would’ve ignored my call?”

  “Ignored is a harsh word, Mom. I’d let the call go until I could properly focus on speaking with you.”

  She snorted. “Who you been taking sweet-talkin’ lessons from? Because you sure didn’t inherit the ability from your father.”

  Hugh slumped against the trailer. “How is Dad?”

  “He hates being retired. He gets up in the morning and finds something to putter around with. Then depending on which campground we’re in, he has coffee with his cronies, or he plays horseshoes.”

  “How about you? How’re you doin’?”

  “Not much changes with me, son. You know that.” She paused. “And you’ve gotta know that I didn’t call to bore you with my aches and pains from old age.”

  “I figured.”

  “I looked at the calendar and realized you’re probably in Kansas.”

  “Yep.”

  “Doesn’t seem possible it’s rodeo time again.”

  “I take it you and Dad won’t be here this year?”

  “We’d consider making the trip if we could spend time with you, but your boss is a slave driver.”

  “Renner is a good guy. But he’s not here. He put me in charge. So I’ve been busier than normal.”

  “Too busy to see your sister, Mary, I imagine.”

  Hugh counted to ten. “I’d be fine seeing her, just as long as I don’t gotta talk to her.”

  “Hughley. Alphonse. Pritchett.”

  Fuck. He hated his fucking name. Why hadn’t his parents named him something simple like Jim? “What? If you called to chew my ass about Mary, you can save your breath and hang up now.”

  “I hate that you two are still at odds. How much longer is this gonna go on?”

  “Until she apologizes and admits she was wrong.”

  They both knew that wouldn’t happen anytime soon.

  “Will you be traveling a lot this summer?”

  “Nope. Renner didn’t sign on for hardly any events this year, since his wife was pregnant.”

  “Didn’t seem like you were on the road as much last year either. That had to make you happy.”

  Sometimes he wondered if his mother knew him at all. “Not really. I like the craziness of rodeo season. I’m too damn busy to get bored.”

  “You got good hands?”

  “We’ve only brought half of the stock we normally do. Ike, a cattle broker from Muddy Gap, is driving one of the transport trucks. Riss, a truck-driving ranch gal Renner’s used in the past, is handling the double-decker transport. And Renner’s sister-in-law, Harlow, is with me, learning the ropes.”

  “With me,” his mom repeated, “as in with you . . . how?”

  “As in her head is on the pillow next to mine in the horse trailer at night and during the day she’s in the pens with me.”

  “Well, this is news.”

  “Bet that changes your mind about coming to see me at the rodeo, doesn’t it?” he teased.

  Hugh’s phone beeped. “Got another call, Mom. Good talking to you.” He hung up and clicked to the other line. “Pritchett.”

  “Hey, it’s Renner. Just checking in to see how things are goin’.”

  “Good.” Hugh started to pace. “No problems so far. Ike knows a lot of people. He’d give you a run for your money in the schmoozing department.”

  Renner laughed.

  “But he ain’t afraid to get his hands dirty either.”

  “I’m still wondering why he signed on. Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful he did, but it don’t make much sense.”

  Ike’s issues with his path in life weren’t Hugh’s to share. “I’m with you, Ren. But I ain’t lookin’ a gift horse in the mouth.”

  “And Harlow? Tierney hasn’t heard from her except a couple of picture messages.”

  “You know Harlow. She’s doin’ what needs done, without complaint.”

  The odd pause on the line lingered.

  “You still there?”

  “Yeah. I just can’t quite wrap my head around you and Harlow together, let alone workin’ stock together. We’ve been friends a long time, Hugh. Happy as I was to see you rid your life of Cleo, the divorce knocked you low. In the past five years I’ve not seen you with another woman. When you decide to emerge from your shell and enter the dating world again, Harlow is the first woman on your radar? It’s just a fun, opposites-attract, she-was-convenient, temporary thing, right?”

  “No. I’m in crazy about her. And before you further insult what I feel for her, you should understand I fucked things up with her three years ago. I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

  “You two were together before?” Renner said with complete surprise.

  “Sort of. And no, she didn’t tell Tierney then and you can’t tell her now. How much she shares with her sister is entirely Harlow’s call. Me’n Harlow have some history between us. But for once in my life I’m not lookin’ back. I’m lookin’ forward.”

  “Fuck. You cannot spring this shit on me.” He lowered his voice. “And I’m not supposed to tell my wife? Dick move, asshole.”

  “You’ve made plenty of dick moves over the years, so suck it the fuck up, cupcake, and keep your mouth shut.”

  Renner laughed—but it wasn’t with amusement. “Sounds like we need to talk when you get back. Right after I punch you out for the cupcake comment, jackass.”

  Hugh was still grinning as he hung up.

  *

  After he checked to see to make sure Ike was attending the meet and greet with the rodeo committee, he returned to the horse trailer. The humid scent of shampoo, body wash and Harlow met him at the door. Her scent always made him hard.

  What were the odds she’d still be naked?

  Just then she emerged from the bathroom. Dressed.

  Damn.

  Hugh’s gaze took in the flowing floral halter-top dress that brushed her beringed toes and exposed her sexy back. She’d left her white blond hair in loose waves that fell just above her breasts.

  “You look good enough to eat, doll. Why don’t you scoot onto the table, pull up that dress and let me eat my fill?”

  “Because once you get your face between my thighs, you tend to stay there a while.” She smirked. “Not that I’m complaining. But you need to get ready. The banquet starts in fifteen minutes.”

  He started to stalk her. “We can be late.”

  Harlow stood her ground. “No, we cannot, because I hate being late.” She slid her hands up his chest, then cupped his face between her palms. “Thank you. For earlier.”

  “You’re welcome.”

  “I just . . .”

  He kissed her furrowed brow. “I know.”

  “How did you know?”

 
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