Wrapped and strapped, p.28
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.28
 

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  teased at the top, beauty-queen-style. She’d slathered on too much makeup and her eyes were an aquamarine hue not found in nature. She was all curves in her tight, low-cut Western shirt and gaudy jewelry—although Harlow suspected she wasn’t the kind who’d wear cubic zirconia.

  “I’ve walked past here a couple of times because I didn’t recognize you, Hugh, without your beer gut and double chin.”

  Hugh said nothing.

  Why was he letting this woman speak to him this way?

  “How do you know Hugh?” Harlow asked.

  The woman gave her a derisive once-over and laughed. “Baby girl, did your mama give you permission to stay out past ten o’clock tonight?”

  “Excuse me?”

  “Aw, ain’t you polite? But keep your trap shut while the grown-ups are talking,” the woman said with a sneer.

  And . . . it was on. “You’re absolutely right, ma’am. I was raised to respect my elders. Would you like to sit down while you’re insulting us? I’m sure walking around on this hard ground is painful on your aging joints.”

  Riss made a hissing you-got-burned sound.

  “Still surround yourself with losers, I see,” the woman said to Hugh.

  “Nah. I took an upgrade after I left you, Cleo. Not surprised you don’t recognize class.”

  Cleo. Now the woman’s nastiness made sense. Harlow squinted at Hugh’s ex-wife. She wore every one of the six years she had on Hugh. She looked like a tool. A nasty tool.

  “The man can say more than ‘yes, dear’ and ask for fries with his Extra Value Meal,” Cleo retorted.

  “What do you want?” Hugh asked.

  “Like I said, I’d heard you were here. I mostly wanted to see you so I could point and laugh.” She cocked her head, sending her hair over her shoulder. “It’s a good thing Hugh lost all that weight or else he’d crush this bony, boyish body of yours.”

  Harlow gasped, “You’re Hugh’s ex-wife?” with total sarcasm.

  “Took you that long to put it together? You ain’t the smartest cookie in the package, are you?”

  No, but I’m the toughest cookie, bitch, and I’m about to take a serious fucking bite outta you and see how fast you crumble.

  “You know, I do see her resemblance to an old sea hag,” Harlow said in an aside to Hugh. “But I was expecting her hair to be stringier. And it looks like she got the wart removed.”

  Cleo slapped her thigh. “Gotcha one that likes sarcasm and thinks she’s funny. Sugar, did you learn them nasty barbs from watching MTV?”

  “I’ll take the compliment that you think I’m jailbait, but, sugar, I’m older than I look. Then again, just about anyone has aged better than you, I imagine.”

  “Did you and Hugh meet at fat camp? You seem like one of them former fat girls who got skinny like you got Jesus.”

  Harlow laughed. “What’s next? You insult my bra cup size? But I guess if I paid for my tits”—she pointed to Cleo’s chest—“I’d feel obligated to make sure that’s what people were looking at too. And I’ll admit, it does take attention away from your crow’s-feet.”

  Cleo stepped forward. “Can you back up that big mouth?”

  “With what? My fists? Why would I fight you?” She leaned back against Hugh and sipped her drink. “I’ve already got him. And honestly, I should be thanking you.”

  “For what?” she snapped.

  “For being so shallow. If you hadn’t made marriage to you intolerable, he never would’ve moved away. He never would’ve seen beyond the veil of misery his life had become with you in it. He never would’ve started over. And he and I wouldn’t have met.”

  Hugh bent his head and kissed the side of Harlow’s neck. That simple act spoke more of their intimacy than a full-blown make-out session.

  Not that that wouldn’t have been loads of in-your-face fun too.

  Cleo was so mad she couldn’t speak.

  Good.

  Hugh clasped Harlow’s hand and started to lead her away.

  Ike draped his arm over Riss’s shoulder, neatly blocking Cleo, allowing them to escape.

  Hugh was wound so tight she thought if she touched him just right, he’d vibrate like a tuning fork.

  They passed the event tent—guess dancing wasn’t happening—and didn’t stop until they reached the back of the empty grandstand.

  Hugh pushed her up against the cement wall. He whispered hoarsely, “You fucking undo me.”

  Then he took her mouth in a kiss so hot and possessive she figured she’d see body-shaped scorch marks on the cinder blocks behind her.

  He kissed her. And kissed her. And just when she thought they’d break free for air, he kissed her some more.

  Harlow let him build her up and turn her inside out with just the power of his mouth. The potency of this connection between them grew stronger every hour of every day they spent together.

  He slowed the kiss to gentle smooches and the gliding whisper of his wet lips against hers. Then he buried his face in her neck, his hands flexing on her hips.

  Goose bumps skittered across her damp skin with his every exhalation. She had one hand resting against his heart, the other hand gripping his hair.

  Finally he spoke. “I need you.”

  “You have me.” She nuzzled his ear. “Any way you want me.”

  Immediately Hugh grabbed handfuls of her skirt and tucked the material behind her lower back. No gentle easing aside of her thong. The man twisted the delicate fabric around his thick fingers and ripped it free.

  His face remained nestled in her neck as he unbuckled his belt and undid his jeans. The way his rough-skinned knuckles grazed the soft swell of her belly caused her stomach to pitch. His silent need stoked hers and her body responded.

  Hugh lifted her leg, opening her stance and bracing her against him all at once. He didn’t ask permission. He just did what he wanted.

  She loved that about him.

  His fingers slid down the crack of her ass. He adjusted the angle of his cock, aligning the head with the entrance to her body.

  Then he paused. His entire body shook.

  Harlow had figured out his silence at times like this was from being too clogged with emotion to know what to say.

  “Show me. Don’t hold back.”

  The growl that rumbled out as he impaled her hit the mark between necessity and carnality.

  Fisting her hand in his hair, she held on as he fucked her with everything he had. Each powerful thrust slid her shoulder blades against the wall. But the scrape of the cement behind her hardly registered. Her mind and body were focused on the raw passion and power he’d unleashed on her.

  His harsh pants and soft grunts burrowed into her ear like the sweetest music. The pulsing of her blood had synchronized to the fast and primal way he branded her, marked her body with his own.

  And while she’d known this hard fuck was for him, in the end, it was for her too. Her orgasm came directly on the heels of his.

  Then he stilled as his cock jerked violently inside her.

  His lips found hers. The kiss conveyed everything that words couldn’t. The intensity gave way to sweetness. To gratitude.

  Harlow had heard the phrase and in that moment everything changed, but it’d never resonated with her—until now.

  She loved him. Crazy to think that she’d ever hated him.

  He gently lowered her foot to the ground and righted his clothing before adjusting hers. He picked up her thong, but she couldn’t read his face.

  After another kiss on her neck, he clasped her hand in his and pulled her away from the wall.

  Framing his face in her palms, she forced him to look at her. “That definitely wasn’t same old, same old.”

  He smiled, but didn’t speak.

  The walk to the horse trailer took forever. But that was fine, since neither of them seemed to know what to say.

  *

  Hugh felt ill as soon as he caught sight of the scrape marks on Harlow’s shoulders the next morning
.

  Jesus. What had he been thinking? Practically goddamn rutting on her in a public place?

  You were thinking she was fierce and loyal and snarky and sexy as fuck as she jumped into the snake pit with the queen viper.

  You were thankful that Harlow was yours and you needed to prove it. To her. To yourself. To any motherfucker who happened by.

  But still, the fact her skin had been abraded, and she hadn’t mentioned it during or after, bothered him. He never wanted her to revert to the woman she’d been with her abusive ex—taking whatever he dished out without complaint so it’d just be over.

  When he confronted her about the scrapes, she’d played it off as if it wasn’t a big deal. He’d dug out the first aid kit and tended to her anyway.

  In gearing up for the afternoon rodeo, he’d gotten stuck waiting for paperwork outside the fairgrounds offices. To kill time, he watched the women running barrels in the arena.

  Hugh smelled the perfume that reeked of Cleo before he saw her. She sidled in next to him and propped her boot on the lowest metal railing.

  “Your fuck-toy is a bitch,” she said without preamble.

  The woman waiting in the alley for her turn to practice reminded Hugh of Celia Gilchrist. In recent months he’d seen more of Sherry, Kyle’s mom, than he had of either Celia or Kyle, because he spent more time at the Buckeye. Although Kyle had officially retired from bull riding, he had a great eye for rank stock. Hugh had found a couple of bulls he’d like Kyle to test, so he’d make that a priority when he got back to Wyoming.

  “Not talking to me?” Cleo demanded.

  “You offering an apology?”

  She snorted.

  “I don’t know what you want from me, Cleo. You show up last night and insult me. When my girlfriend defends me, you jump her. And now the first fucking thing you say to me is a nasty barb directed at her. So, yeah, I got nothin’ to say and I ain’t interested in playing your games.”

  “You’re not interested in seeing your daughter?”

  Hugh let out a sharp bark of laughter. “Jesus. Give it up already. Tallulah ain’t my kid.”

  “Then why have you refused to submit to a paternity test?”

  “Because I hadn’t fucked you in a goddamned year when you filed for divorce. A year in which you told anyone who’d listen that you couldn’t stand to look at your fat-assed husband, let alone allow me to touch you. And then three months after our divorce is final, you tell me you’re three months pregnant? Math ain’t ever been your strong suit, but thankfully it is mine.”

  “I think—”

  “I don’t care what you think. Maybe you oughta worry about bein’ a good mother to that girl, since it’s plain even you don’t know who the kid’s father is.” After the divorce Cleo had continued to fuck with him. Telling his sister, Mary, that he’d abandoned her when he’d found out Cleo was pregnant. That’d caused a huge rift with his sister. It infuriated his parents that Mary blindly believed Cleo’s lies, because they knew Hugh would never abandon his child, no matter how much he despised the child’s mother.

  “Let me finish. I think—I know—I screwed up with you. I was frustrated that you were gone all the time. I know about all the buckle bunnies that hang around cowboys and their ‘what happens on the road’ excuse that gives them free rein to fuck whoever they want. I figured you’d become just like them.”

  “Bullshit. I never had a problem with fidelity. That was all on you. And I’m pretty sure it started before I took the job with Renner. Besides, this is all old news and I’ve no desire to rehash it. Ever.”

  “You don’t give an inch, do you?”

  “Nope. With you an inch turned into two hundred fucking miles.”

  “It’s different with her?”

  “Very. But she ain’t up for discussion.” He stepped back. “Do everyone a favor. Stop stirring shit. Makes you look petty and jealous.”

  “And how’s my behavior make you look?” she demanded haughtily.

  “Like the smartest man in the world for getting as far away from you as I could.”

  “Hugh?” the fairgrounds secretary shouted from the doorway. “Got your paperwork done.”

  He didn’t give Cleo a second look as he walked past her. And he knew he wouldn’t give her a second thought again.

  *

  Harlow rode herd on the animals better than Hugh had expected. They were in the same vicinity during the rodeo and it gave him a huge sense of satisfaction to look over and see her.

  Since she was better with technology, and wasn’t behind the chutes during the performance, she taped CC’s arena debut on his phone and sent it to Tobin. And judging from the bull riders’ reactions, the buzz was about to start.

  Once the evening rodeo ended, they loaded up and were back on the road. They’d drive to the midway point tonight, give the animals a day to rest and then hit the blacktop the following morning. Then they’d head to the five-day event in Phillipsburg. They weren’t the only stock contractors for a rodeo that size, but it’d be tricky making sure the animals weren’t overused. Because after that gig ended, there’d be only two rest days before the last three-day event.

  “What’re you thinking about so hard?” Harlow asked.

  Hugh sent her a sideways glance. “Getting you naked.”

  “Liar. You have a completely different look on your handsome face when you’re horny. It’s a look I’m very familiar with. So what’s got your brow furrowed?”

  “Just goin’ over scheduling in my head. We didn’t run into any problems, which usually means there’ll be some at the next event.”

  A beat passed before Harlow said, “You love this, don’t you? Being on the road in a different town every day, dealing with different challenges every day.”

  It’d be smarter to downplay it. Shrug and say it was just another job. But he liked having someone to talk to about this stuff. Because he had no one to talk to about some of it. “Yeah. I do. How could you tell?”

  “You just seem . . . happier. That’s not to say you’re a malcontent at the Split Rock—your nickname Grumpy notwithstanding—but you treat the cattle side of Renner’s business as just a job. Without sounding stupid or making you feel self-conscious, what you’re doing now is more a vocation.”

  Hugh grabbed his insulated mug and swallowed a slug of coffee. “I don’t know whether to be pleased that you see that or scared.”

  “Pleased, definitely. Because you know I’d never share those observations with anyone else, especially not my brother-in-law. But I have to ask, because I’ve always considered Renner an astute guy, do you think he sees that about you? Or at least senses that you miss it?”

  “That’s probably why he changes the subject every time I’ve brought it up.”

  “Ah. Well, you’ll have a lot to report on when we return from this time away.”

  Another small thing that bugged him. Renner hadn’t called every night to see how things had gone. In the past if Hugh was running an event, he demanded details almost as soon as they’d loaded the last bull.

  “And I disagree with your assessment about not running into any problems, cowboy. Running into your ex-wife was a problem.”

  “For her, maybe. Not for me. And definitely not for you, darlin’.”

  “Riss said she saw you talking to her today. She track you down to give you what-for?”

  Of course someone had seen them talking; he’d be wise to remember there were eyes everywhere at these events. “I probably should’ve mentioned I saw her. Trust me—it was an oversight, not me tryin’ to keep something from you.”

  Harlow reached for his hand. “That wasn’t an accusation.”

  “I didn’t take it as such.”

  She didn’t press him for details, which was likely why he laid out the whole dirty mess that’d happened right after their divorce. Again, it’d felt damn good to get some of that shit off his chest.

  Harlow didn’t jump right in and offer platitudes; she considered her
response before she voiced it. That was another way she’d changed in the last three years. So when she did finally speak, her question threw him.

  “Did you want to have kids with her? You were married young. And if she would’ve gotten pregnant that first year, you’d have a ten-year-old kid right now.”

  “This’ll probably sound weird, but I never saw us havin’ kids together. Even when she was obsessed about getting pregnant. I was never disappointed at a negative pregnancy test. And I can’t honestly say if we would’ve had a kid if I’d still be with her or not. It might’ve changed her for the good, but after the rumors I’ve heard that she’s hardly ever with the kid she does have, I’m so fuckin’ thankful I never had to make that decision.”

  “Me too.”

  Hugh lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the inside of her wrist.

 
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