Wrapped and strapped, p.34
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.34
 

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  they seemed happy to see him.

  How fast that would change.

  “Pritchett!” Piker clapped him on the back. “You here to buy a round?”

  “Looks like you don’t need another.”

  “I don’t stop drinkin’ until I pass out,” Piker bragged.

  Hugh’s focus stayed on Alton. At this point he didn’t care if the motherfucker was one drink away from blackout drunk; it’d take less effort to lay him out cold.

  Weasel-dick Alton had an air of smugness about him. “Didn’t think after-parties were your thing.”

  “They’re not.” Hugh leaned forward, using his extra six inches in height and fifty pounds in mass to loom over Alton. “I’m here for you. And you knew I’d be comin’.”

  Alton didn’t even blink. “I got nothin’ to say.”

  “Don’t care, ’cause I’m gonna be talkin’ with my fists anyway. Get your scrawny ass outside.”

  Alton’s friends started to rally around him.

  “You fuckers wanna take me on? Fine. But not until I’m done with this fuckin’ prick.” Hugh sneered at Alton. “You either go outside on your own steam or I drag you out kickin’ and screamin’. Choose.”

  Alton surprised him by walking out the side door without additional argument.

  Hugh followed him to the gravel parking lot, on the other side of the tent. He faced off against him.

  “So your girlfriend tattled on me. So fucking what? It’s really worth a fight to you? Jesus. Get over it. It was a goddamn joke.”

  “Not a joke to her. Or to me. Since she’s been puking her guts out for hours because you fucking poisoned her.”

  “Poisoned? From eating a little meat?” He laughed. “Then maybe she oughta eat like a normal person and not a fucking rabbit.”

  Hugh put his hands on Alton’s chest and pushed him. “Maybe you oughta mind your own fucking business and not worry about what she eats. It’s her choice to be vegetarian. It’s not up to you to change her choice without her knowledge or consent.” He pushed Alton again, his anger escalating. “I don’t give a shit if you agree with her choice or not.”

  “You’re just pissy because I doubt your vegetarian bimbo princess eats your meat.”

  Hugh’s fist connected with Alton’s jaw with a loud crack.

  Alton stumbled back, momentarily dazed. Then he charged. He hit Hugh in the stomach and it knocked both of them to the ground. Alton started out on top and pounded Hugh in the eye first and then the mouth.

  Hugh roared. He bucked Alton off like he was a pesky fly. Then he aimed a kick for the middle of Alton’s back and missed.

  But he was back on his feet.

  Another charge. But this time Hugh didn’t go down. He brought his elbow into the middle of Alton’s back and Alton dropped to his knees. Hugh brought his foot up and kicked Alton in the ribs. “I hope you puke your guts out, motherfucker. And then I hope you piss blood.”

  Alton fell facedown in the dirt.

  Before he could level another kick, an arm banded around Hugh’s neck.

  Enraged, Hugh twisted his body to face his new attacker.

  Piker, that drunken fucker, managed to bring his knee up into Hugh’s gut and land another solid jab on Hugh’s eye before Hugh knocked him out cold.

  Breathing hard, he whirled around to see if any more of Alton’s buddies were waiting for their chance to jump in.

  But they had all run away.

  No one came near him.

  Riss and Ike moved in. Riss holding Hugh’s hat—she must’ve picked it up after Alton had knocked it off his head—and Ike holding a wet towel. “What’s that for?”

  “To clean up the blood, Rocky.”

  He was bleeding? He hadn’t even noticed. “Thanks.”

  They walked back to the campsite in silence. He hadn’t needed an escort, but Ike insisted in case someone tried to jump him.

  Turned out two guys were waiting in the shadows. But their bootheels nearly caught fire—they ran so fast—when Hugh started for them.

  “Man, give it a rest. You done what you had to. Now go clean up and check on your woman.”

  Hugh did the minimum amount of disturbing his broken flesh. His lip hurt like a bitch. His ribs were sore. He’d definitely feel worse tomorrow. But he popped some Motrin and gritted his teeth as he lifted Harlow enough so he could slide into the easy chair.

  She snuggled into him with a sigh and every wild thing inside him settled.

  He’d never had this before, the sense he’d found what he needed. The question now was, how could he convince this beautiful woman with the wandering feet and the generous heart to stay with him? That even in just eight short weeks he had learned to be what she needed?

  Even if that means letting her flit off to dangerous places without you?

  Hugh squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden spike of pain in his head. Thinking about this shit did no good, because it wasn’t a problem that could be solved in one night.

  At some point his brain fell quiet and he drifted off to sleep.

  Soft fingers petting his beard roused him. Waking to Harlow’s sweet touch first thing always put him in a good mood. He smiled and immediately winced because it hurt.

  “Hugh. What happened to your face?”

  “Got into a fight. Don’t worry about it. I’m fine.”

  “Yeah? Try and open your eyes.”

  He did, but he could see out of only the right one. Just a small sliver of light was visible on the left side. “I probably shoulda iced it last night.”

  She placed her hands on either side of his head. “What happened?”

  “I tracked down Alton and beat the hell outta him for the bullshit stunt he pulled. Piker took offense and got in a few blows. But I can guarantee you they look a lot worse than I do.”

  Harlow wore a look of shock he’d never seen before.

  “What they did went beyond a prank to a violation of your beliefs and your body. I’m not the kind of man to ever let that slide. It killed me to see you so sick. And I knew the sickness was from more than just ingesting meat.”

  “Did it help?”

  “What? Callin’ him out on it and beating the fuck outta him? Yeah. It did.”

  Her fingers traced the swollen bumps on his top and bottom lip.

  Hugh watched her process it.

  The recliner dipped slightly when she shifted to straddle him and move her hands beside his head. “Were you arrested or anything?”

  “No. Hell, we didn’t even draw much of a crowd. It’s strange to you, but, darlin’, that’s the best way to handle things sometimes.”

  “With fists?”

  “Yep.”

  “So am I supposed to thank you for defending my honor?”

  Was that sarcastic? He studied her eyes and the wariness he saw turned his stomach. “I’m not like that Fredrick prick, Harlow.”

  “But that’s the thing. I never imagined he’d be like that either. And yet, he was. And now I see that you’re capable of something like this.”

  Fuck. What was he supposed to say to that?

  Nothing. Because it’s her issue. Not yours.

  Hugh had an unexpected sense of loss. The worst part was he feared she’d have this same reaction if this type of thing happened six months down the road.

  But it wouldn’t be an issue in six months, because she’d be long gone by then.

  Talk about a machete to the heart.

  “Hugh?”

  He forced himself to look at her, hoping she’d attribute the anguish in his good eye to his physical pain and not the emotional gutting she’d just leveled on him. Now would she think back on the swats he’d given her after the steer-riding incident as another example that he was capable of violent behavior?

  Heartsick, he managed a gruff, “I gotta move.”

  Harlow paused beside the chair as Hugh stood.

  He opened the closet and took down his second-to-last clean shirt. Good thing they’d be headed ba
ck to Muddy Gap after the rodeo tomorrow night because he was out of clean clothes with no time to do laundry.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothin’. Why?”

  “Our conversation ended abruptly.”

  “Huh. I thought we were done talkin’.” He grabbed his boots and jeans. They’d go another day, since they weren’t sporting any bloodstains. “Besides, I gotta get. We’ll be shorthanded today and tonight.”

  “You’re shorthanded because—”

  “Alton and his buddies won’t be workin’ the chutes with us.”

  Her posture sagged. “I never meant for any of this to happen.”

  “I know. It ain’t your fault Alton was a fuckin’ menace.”

  “But you’re the one who’s paying the price.”

  Hugh shrugged. “Goes with the territory of bein’ in charge. I’ll be fine.”

  “Do you want me to fix you breakfast?”

  “Nah. I’ll grab something on my way to the arena. And so you know, I won’t be back until late tonight.” He didn’t look at her as he’d said that last thing. He just closed the door behind him.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  ‡

  She had fucked this up.

  Big-time.

  And she didn’t have any idea how to fix it.

  Maybe that’s a sign you shouldn’t. Just let this go and move on. You have a life—and a job—waiting for you in California.

  But . . . Hugh was rooted in Wyoming.

  If she wanted to be with him, she’d have to set down roots there. She had no doubts that she loved him. She knew he loved her—even when neither of them had found the balls to say it out loud.

  But would love be enough?

  When they had fundamentally different life philosophies?

  Would he consider uprooting his life to be with her?

  No.

  But have you asked him?

  Harlow didn’t need to ask. She knew.

  Could she give up a great opportunity for him? For love?

  No clue.

  And the only person she desperately wanted to talk to about it . . . was him. He’d become her everything in a short amount of time.

  She’d be a fool if she didn’t make the comparison, at least on the surface, to how she’d had these same feelings and doubts about her relationship with Fredrick before it’d gone to hell.

  Although Hugh hadn’t asked her to wash his clothes or clean up the horse trailer, she spent the entire day doing that. And when she’d finished, twelve hours later, every surface sparkled. The clothes were pressed and put away. She felt cleansed.

  There was irony in that too.

  Harlow climbed in bed earlier than normal, but it’d been an exhausting day.

  The bed dipped sometime later, waking her. She could smell that Hugh had been drinking.

  Ask him where he’s been.

  Not your business.

  Would he pretend everything was fine and pull her into his arms?

  Some of their most revealing talks had taken place in the dark confines of a bed, when they didn’t have to look each other in the eye.

  Hugh sighed heavily. Then he shifted and his big hand smoothed her hair back from her face.

  See? He’s reaching out. Talk to him.

  But his hand was gone and he’d turned away.

  *

  The next morning Hugh was up before her. She decided she’d stay in bed until he left.

  “Harlow?”

  Guess faking sleep wasn’t in the cards. She sat up and yawned. “Yeah?”

  Hugh stood at the end of the bed wearing one of the four white shirts she’d washed and ironed yesterday. “Thank you for doin’ laundry yesterday and cleaning the place up. It looks great.”

  “You’re welcome.”

  “You didn’t have to.”

  “I know. But I’m just following the cowboy way of doin’ what needs done.”

  He stared at her. “We’re leaving after the rodeo tonight.”

  “Driving straight through?”

  “Yeah. And since I’ll be in the pens and chutes all day, I’m thinkin’ it’d be best if you drove the first leg back to the Split Rock.”

  “Not a problem. I’ll hang around in here and get some rest.”

  “I wasn’t suggesting you lock yourself away, Harlow.”

  “It’s probably best that I stay out of the way.”

  “Best for who?”

  “For everyone. Even when you can use my help now, you don’t want it.”

  Hugh didn’t bother to hide his frustration. “You didn’t offer.”

  “You didn’t ask,” she shot back. “And you’re paying for that now, aren’t you? Doing everything yourself, no local hired hands to help out—because of me.” She exhaled. “I came along because I wanted to help you out. I haven’t done squat the last three days except clean and do laundry. But I can’t even cook for you, so again one thing I should be able to do as a partner, I can’t.”

  “That’s all you see yourself as to me now? As a housekeeping service? Or are you usin’ that as an excuse to back off because I got into a fight? You think at some point I’m gonna put the hurt on you like he did?”

  “That’s a crappy thing to say to me.”

  “But you’re not denying it, are you?”

  Three knocks sounded and then Ike opened the door and stepped inside. “Hey, we gotta get a move on.” He froze at seeing Hugh’s angry posture. “Sorry if I interrupted.”

  “It’s a good goddamned thing you did.” Hugh plucked his hat off the table and settled it on his head. “I’ll see you later. Keep your phone on you. We’re getting the hell outta this place as soon as that last bull is done tonight.”

  “Fine.”

  “Fine.”

  The door slammed behind him.

  The pillow she threw at the door didn’t make the same satisfying crack as a dinner plate would have.

  *

  With time to kill, Harlow flipped on her laptop for the first time in days. She had twenty-seven unread e-mails, including one from . . . Her blood ran cold at the sender’s name.

  Fredrick.

  Her heart raced and when her vision wavered, she realized she’d been holding her breath.

  The cursor blinked on that e-mail. Should she open it?

  Her friend Erika’s voice snapped for her to just delete it.

 
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