Wrapped and strapped, p.35
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.35
 

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  Her counselor’s voice reminded her he had no power over her anymore.

  No power. Right.

  Prove it. Open the e-mail.

  When she placed her hands back on the keyboard, her palms were sweaty. She double-clicked and briefly closed her eyes to prepare herself for what she might find.

  Harlow,

  It’s been a while since I’ve been in contact. I had no idea the trip had taken such an emotional toll on you and I haven’t contacted you in hopes that you’ve started to heal from the trauma of being so isolated.

  “Being isolated wasn’t my trauma, you piece of shit,” she said out loud. “You traumatized me.” Then she read on:

  Our time in Laos had the positive effect and produced the outcome we’d hoped. The learning curve has been steep, but I am so happy to report they’ve embraced the methods we taught them. The funding has ended and I’m writing this before I board a plane home.

  Being on the same continent with Fredrick was too close for comfort.

  Harlow forced her focus back to the screen.

  I hate that I don’t know where you are, or if this e-mail will even reach you. Just in case, I’ve sent a hard copy to your post office box. I also left a message with your father’s secretary, but I’ve heard no response, which leads me to believe you didn’t go home to the Windy City.

  I know you’re not the type to hold a grudge, but I ask for your understanding anyway. It’s taken me some time to come to grips with being oblivious to your need for self-mutilation—

  Harlow slapped the computer lid shut. She shot to her feet and paced in the small space as her thoughts pinged all over the place.

  Self-mutilation? I did that one fucking time to get away from you!

  She couldn’t wrap her head around what she was reading, even though she should have expected as much. Fredrick was placing the blame on her. He didn’t ask for forgiveness. Fuck, he may as well have asked why she made him so mad that he had to smack her around.

  Breathe in. Let it out. You are in control. The power is yours.

  But did she have the control to delete the rest of his message without reading it?

  No.

  Harlow poured herself a glass of Fireball, threw a few ice cubes in and sat down. She lifted her laptop lid and found where she’d left off.

  . . . was a cry for help and I didn’t have the proper mind-set to help you. I knew nothing about that addiction, but I’ve managed to read quite a bit on it and feel I’d be in a better position to help you now.

  “Help me?” God. She could just imagine it. He’d know exactly how to cut her and then he could blame it on her addiction. Her denials would be just that—difficult to believe.

  I’ve missed you, H-bomb. The weeks leading up to your departure were a blur for me due to concerns about funding, and I’m sorry I didn’t give you the attention you deserved. I worried you blamed me for your need to cut yourself to get my attention. So after you left, I was ready to pack up and race to your side to support you. And then you, my angel, proved your dedication to the cause, your generous heart and your forgiving nature.

  “What?” The next sentence turned her stomach.

  By asking your father to provide the funds we required to stay on-site for another year and a half to continue the good work we started.

  No way. Her father had not given Fredrick money! Why would he do that? Moreover, why wouldn’t he tell her?

  Goddammit. She picked up her phone to call him.

  She set it down.

  She picked up her drink.

  Then walked over and dumped it in the sink.

  She needed to have the conversation with her father face-to-face. And she’d have plenty of time to figure out what to say to him on the long drive back to Wyoming.

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  ‡

  Later that night after the rodeo, Riss said, “What’s goin’ on with you and Hugh?”

  “Difference of opinion,” Harlow said to her, watching Hugh lead animals into the semi.

  “You had a fight.”

  “Actually, no. I don’t know what we had, which is why it’s not easy to slap a label on. And no, I don’t want to talk about it.”

  “Oughta be a fun ride home.”

  “He’ll sleep.” Or feign sleep, which was fine by her.

  “I probably won’t get a chance to say this later, but I had a great time getting to know you.”

  Harlow rested her head on Riss’s shoulder. “Same here. I hate the thought this is a work thing and we won’t see each other again.”

  “Me too.”

  But Harlow had been through this many times, saying good-bye to coworkers. It didn’t seem to matter how close they’d gotten; when they weren’t in the same work environment, they lost that common thread.

  “How long you stayin’ in Muddy Gap?”

  “It depends.”

  “On if you and Hugh patch things up?”

  She watched him moving among the livestock, absolutely in his element. “No.”

  “Does he know?”

  She shook her head. “It’s become obvious to me the last couple days that our fundamental differences will always be an issue. It’s best to chalk it up to a summer fling and move on.” It made her stomach twist to even say that.

  “That makes me sad.”

  “Why?”

  “You clearly care for each other beyond just hot sexy times. If that doesn’t factor in, then I’ve lost all hope that I’ll ever find a guy who looks at me the way Hugh looks at you.” Riss shrugged her shoulder and Harlow lifted her head. “Looks like I’m up next for loading.”

  “Looks like. Drive safe.”

  “I will. You too.” Riss hugged her. And the hug lasted a beat too long when she whispered, “He looks at you like you’re everything, Harlow. Can’t that be a beginning instead of an ending?” Then she walked off.

  The horse trailer was the last to load. Ike left his semi idling while he waited for Hugh, which just made Harlow feel even more incompetent.

  She situated herself in the cab. Adjusting the seat. Making sure her water and snacks were within reach. She found a hard rock station on her phone that should keep her awake. She draped her earbuds around her neck and fiddled with the mirrors. When Hugh still hadn’t finished loading, she plugged the address for the Split Rock into the GPS and watched as it showed route options. There were two.

  Finally Hugh climbed into the cab.

  “We ready?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Which route?”

  He leaned closer to the dashboard to read the GPS. She had to curl her hand into a fist to keep from running it down his back and shoulders. He was close enough she got a whiff of his cologne and the musky scent of his sweat. She wanted to nestle her face in the curve where his neck met his shoulder and go back to the way things were two days ago.

  Hugh sat up and pulled his phone out. “Ike? Remind me which way you told Riss we’re goin’ back. Uh-huh. Yep. Later.” He poked the route guidance. “This one.”

  “Thanks.”

  “No problem.”

  She felt his eyes on her and she looked at him. “Anything else?”

  “Nope. Let’s hit it.”

  Hugh didn’t scrutinize her driving or watch her to see if she did something wrong. He just let her drive. After fifteen minutes or so, he settled the seat back and pulled his hat over his eyes. “You need anything, wake me.”

  “Will do.” Harlow popped in her earbuds and cranked up the music.

  *

  She woke him only when they needed to stop for gas.

  He filled the tanks and she used the restroom.

  Then they were back on the road with him in the driver’s seat. The silence between them was nearly suffocating.

  Harlow positioned the vents so cool air flowed over her and she faked sleep until real sleepiness took over.

  The bump bump of wheels leaving pavement jarred her awake. She immediately blocked the early mo
rning sun to see where they were, which turned out to be the gravel road that led to the back pastures at the Split Rock. She saw Riss had already backed up her semi to the bull pasture. Renner, Tobin and Flint were unloading bulls.

  She unbuckled and started gathering her things. Hugh’s hand on her arm caught her attention and she realized she still had her earbuds in. “What?”

  “What happened to us?”

  “You really want to talk about this now, after we’ve been in the truck for ten hours straight?”

  “We should’ve been talkin’ about it during that time,” he said coolly.

  “Well, we didn’t and I’m not in the mood now.”

  Renner jogged over. Hugh rolled down the window. They had a cryptic conversation and she’d reached her limit.

  She paused with her hand on the door handle. “I’ve got a key to the horse trailer that I’ll return later today. I need to get my stuff out before you drive to Renner and Tierney’s place.”

  Hugh unbuckled his seat belt. “I’ll help you.”

  “Don’t need it. Since I had so much free time the last three days, I’m all packed up.”

  “Harlow—”

  “See you around, Hugh.” She bailed out. After unlocking the horse trailer, she hauled out her cooler, which she’d have to return for later, since it was too heavy to drag uphill to her trailer. She hefted her duffel bag over her shoulder.

  Then she hoofed it up the hill and stopped to catch her breath, looking around. She waited for that “I’m home” rush of relief to fill her. But it didn’t, because this was just another temporary landing spot.

  *

  After pacing and packing and second-guessing her second guesses, Harlow headed to the lodge.

  She knocked on her father’s door and wasn’t surprised to see Karen answer it so early in the morning. But she was shocked to see Tierney there, sitting across the desk from their father.

  Tierney smiled. “Hey. I didn’t think we’d see you for hours yet.”

  “Because I’m a lazy-ass who sleeps her life away? Because the kind of volunteer work I do, there are no schedules and no responsibilities? We just stand around a fire, holding hands, singing ‘Kumbaya’?”

  Silence.

  “Um, no, I thought I wouldn’t see you because you just pulled in at seven a.m. after a ten-hour drive. Hugh said you drove most of the way and were exhausted.” Then Tierney leaned back in her chair, her expression cool. “What’s with the accusing attitude?”

  Harlow looked between her sister and her father. “Please don’t deny you’ve both been condescending about the path I chose to take with my life. It’s not constant, but it happens often enough that, yes, I’m sensitive to what you might think is an innocuous comment. Everything from your”—she pointed at Tierney—“smart remarks about me not having a head for numbers or business practices, to your”—she pointed at her father—“snide remarks about me getting a real job, attending a real college and being more like my sister. It’s gotten old over the years. I don’t have the energy to ignore it anymore.”

  More silence.

  Then Tierney stood and hugged her. Hard. “I’m sorry. So sorry, sis. I love you. Even if what I said wasn’t intentionally hurtful, it still was, and I’m sorry. If it happens again, don’t let it slide, okay? Call me out on it.”

  “Okay.”

  Then Tierney grabbed her by the face. “But if I hear you knocking yourself before you think I’ll do it first, I’ll call you on that too. And I’ve always been happy you chose your own path. I’m proud of all the good you’ve done. So don’t ever assume I discount it.”

  She nodded.

  “Now that I’m slowly getting over pregnancy brain, it’s time we had a real, adult conversation that’s not about my kids, or my husband, or my way of life here in Wyoming, or Dad’s health issues and subsequent personality change.”

  He yelled, “Hey, now.”

  Tierney and Harlow exchanged a quick grin. Then Tenacious Tierney returned. “You’re a great listener, Harlow, but that means I talk too damn much. So be prepared to spill your secrets to me, because I’ll be relentless in doing my part to be a better sister to you.” She hugged Harlow. “Because you’ve been a great one to me.”

  Overcome with emotion, Harlow bit her tongue against blurting out every ugly detail about her last assignment, and the unresolved issues with Hugh. Her tears fell. “Thank you.”

  Then Tierney stepped back and wiped her eyes. “So what’s going on? You arrived with a purpose.”

  “This won’t make much sense to you and I promise I’ll explain it later,” Harlow said to Tierney before she faced her father. “Fredrick sent me an e-mail. He’s back in the States. Please tell me he was delusional and full of shit when he told me you funded his organization for another year after I got out.”

  He tapped his fingers on his desk. He looked more robust, more like he was back to his old self, more like the shrewd businessman he was. “I didn’t fund his cause for a year.” He paused. “I funded it for a year and a half.”

  “Why?”

  “Simply because it would keep him away from you for that long. I would’ve paid triple that, Harlow, to protect you from him. To allow you to heal from the damage you sustained from him in Laos. It wasn’t a power play; it was a preventative measure.” He gave her a long look. “I’d do it again, because you’re standing in front of me and you look . . . whole. You broke, but, sweetheart, you put yourself back together stronger than ever. And like your sister said, don’t discount what that means to me. What you mean to me. I don’t understand why you do what you do. I’ve tried—and likely failed—to be supportive. But that is in the past.”

  But he had been supportive and proactive in the way he knew how: throw money at the problem. She had to admit this time he’d done the right thing. Who knew where she’d be emotionally if Fredrick had come back to the U.S. the month after she’d left him. Her father had prevented that from happening.

  He slowly stood. “Do I get a hug?”

  Harlow stepped into his arms. It was strange how the scent of his cologne could both soothe her and make her nervous. She hoped that nervous feeling would finally go away.

  Her dad patted her back and returned to his chair. “Now, you did seem to have a purposeful look when you stormed in.”

  “Before your heart attack I was offered a yearlong teaching position at Bleeker College, in LA. It’s a small school, but they have incredible outreach programs as well as offering in-depth seminars for people in all professions who need a sabbatical but have issues that keep them from taking one. I was lucky enough to end up in one of those seminars at the first of the year. It really opened my eyes to some of the problems that are shoved under the rug in service organizations. My experiences—good and bad—are extensive enough to qualify me to teach.”

  “Harlow! That is fantastic! I can’t believe you didn’t tell us before now.” Tierney winced. “Is that out of line?”

  She laughed. “No. Saying, ‘You don’t have a bachelor’s; are you sure this is an accredited college?’ would be out of line.”

  “Noted. But now that you mention it, I do remember you saying something about a sabbatical. I’m happy that it’s giving you a different focus.”

  “That will be a learning experience for you too, Harlow. Congratulations.”

  She smiled at her dad. “Thanks.”

  “Dad has news too,” Tierney prompted.

  “I’ve decided not to retire.”

  Not exactly news, Harlow thought.

  “Between Karen’s and Tierney’s observations about my rash decision a few weeks ago and being here pretty much going stir-crazy, I reconsidered. I can retire at age sixty-five, but that doesn’t mean I have to. With my ticker fixed”—he knocked on the desk—“and a few lifestyle changes, I have several good working years left ahead of me. Who knows? Maybe I’ll convince Tierney to return to Chicago and take over PFG.”

  Tierney rolled her eyes.


 
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