Wrapped and strapped, p.36
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.36
 

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  “And with that decision, I’ll be staying with your sister and her family for a few days before I return home to Chicago.”

  “That will be great for both of you. But the last thing I wanted to mention is I’m leaving today.”

  “What? Why? You just got back!”

  “I know. I need to get my spinster schoolmarm vibe on before I meet with my students.” Harlow loved how that sounded.

  “Will you come over and say good-bye to the kids?”

  Harlow shook her head. “Isabelle is dealing with enough. Rhett is oblivious. So let’s say our good-byes now.”

  This time there were surprisingly few tears.

  Until Tierney whispered, “What about Hugh?”

  “Can we talk about that another time? It’s too hard right now.”

  “Of course.”

  As she walked through the main part of the lodge and prepared to leave, for the second time in her life she wasn’t sure if she’d ever return.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  ‡

  Harlow wasn’t answering her cell phone.

  Normally that wouldn’t bother him because she wasn’t tied to the damn thing like so many people. But given how it’d been between them the last day they’d spent together and the awkward way they’d parted this morning, he worried she was dodging him.

  When Hugh realized she was probably visiting with her dad after being gone for two weeks, he decided to head up to the lodge. He pushed back from his desk and stood.

  “Where you goin’?” Tobin asked.

  “Up to the lodge. See if I can’t track down my missing woman.”

  Tobin pushed back his chair and stood. “I’ll tag along. I could use to stretch my legs.”

  Company wasn’t what he’d been angling for, but there wasn’t much he could say to dissuade him.

  Halfway up the hill, Tobin said, “I need to talk to you. And I wanted to do it away from the barn.”

  Didn’t sound good. “What’s up?”

  “I gave Renner my notice this morning.”

  Hugh stopped in the middle of the path and looked at Tobin. “Why? What is goin’ on? Something with your family?”

  “No.” He propped his hands on his hips. “Look, I don’t know how to say this without coming off as a total whiny fuckin’ pussy, so I’ll just say it straight out. I’m lonely. And this will sound weird as fuck, but since you’ve been seeing Harlow, and then when you were on the road, it hit me. This loneliness ain’t gonna get any better for me if I continue to live here. In fact, it’ll just get worse, so I gotta get out.”

  “Jesus, Tobin. I don’t know what to say.”

  “I didn’t tell you this to make you feel guilty. We’re friends and colleagues. I’ve spent more time with you in the last four years than with anyone. So I thought if anyone would understand, it’s you.”

  “I do. But have you told anyone else besides Renner?”

  Tobin blushed. “Garnet. Last week she jammed up her garbage disposal and called me over to her place to fix it. We got to talkin’ about ‘honey-do’ lists and marriage, which shifted into her usual off-the-wall topics, and I mentioned I was thinking about moving.”

  “Think that was wise?”

  “I don’t know if it registered with her. She said it was time. Then she patted me on the cheek and said she’d thank me by fixing it. But I’m sure she meant to thank me for fixing her garbage disposal.”

  “You never know with her.” Hugh clapped him on the back. “It’s never easy making a change. But sometimes you just gotta do it.”

  “I won’t leave Renner shorthanded, but I won’t put conditions on it either. He may kick my ass out tonight.”

  “Unlikely. But if he does?”

  “I’ll be fine for a while.”

  “Let me know if you need anything.”

  “Thanks.”

  They continued up the hill.

  Hugh half expected Tobin to ask him about his future with Harlow, but he didn’t. Which was a good thing, because he wouldn’t know how to respond.

  Instead of entering through the side door, they rounded the building for the main entrance.

  The first thing he heard inside the foyer was a smack of wood against wood and then a warning. “Stay back. This is between me and her.”

  “Maybelle, this is ridiculous!”

  Hugh and Tobin looked at each other and crossed into the main great room of the lodge only to stop in the doorway with their mouths hanging open.

  Vivien and Miz Maybelle were facing off, each brandishing a wooden sword. More accurately, Maybelle waved hers at Vivien as Vivien retreated.

  The other Mud Lilies were gathered around—Tilda and Pearl seemed to be in charge of crowd control. In case a crowd happened by—the only other people in the room were employees Lela, Yvette, Dodie and Flint.

  When Hugh and Tobin stepped forward, Tilda blocked them with her arms out. “Sorry, boys. There’ll be no interference. This has been a long time coming and we need to let it play out.”

  “Let what play out, Tilda?”

  Maybelle swished her sword in the air, looking like she’d been watching a marathon of Pirates of the Caribbean again. “Fight back, damn you.”

  “Maybelle. Be reasonable.”

  “Reasonable? We’ll settle this the old-fashioned way.”

  “Right. You’ve gone beyond reasonable to ridiculous.” Vivien shook her sword. “These are wooden practice swords. We can’t even hurt each other with them.”

  “Wanna bet?” Lightning fast, Miz Maybelle moved in and whacked Vivien on the upper arm.

  Vivien gasped, “I cannot believe you just did that!”

  “Believe me now?” Maybelle raised her sword straight out in front of her, her left leg behind, as if preparing to attack. She appeared to know what she was doing, even if she didn’t look the part of a swashbuckler, wearing a floral-printed housedress and orthopedic shoes.

  “That’s it.” Vivien tossed off her fire-engine red suit jacket and assumed a similar attack position. “I’ll warn you, Maybelle. My kids studied martial arts, so I’m familiar with swordplay.”

  “I heard that you’re getting a lot of play in with his meat sword,” Maybelle said with a sneer.

  “Meat sword? That’s crude, even for you.”

  Maybelle sliced her sword through the air à la Errol Flynn. “Vivien, I’ve been taking fencing classes. So en garde.”

  “Jesus. Seriously?” Hugh hissed.

  “Don’t.” Tobin set his hand on Hugh’s arm. “This I gotta see.”

  Wood cracked audibly as they started smacking swords and circled each other.

  “I’m so mad at you, Viv!” Maybelle shouted. “How could you?”

  “I didn’t know! I thought you two were just friends.”

  Whack. Crack. “Did he tell you we were just friends?” Maybelle demanded with another whack and crack as Vivien parried. “Or did you just assume that because you’re younger and thinner, he wouldn’t be attracted to a more substantial old broad like me?”

  Attracted? What the hell . . . ? Shit. Now Hugh understood what this was about.

  “I never assumed anything, Maybelle.” Vivien dropped her sword to ward off a strike at her knee. Her eyes narrowed. “Low blow, lady. You know I had knee surgery last year.”

  “Didn’t seem to stop you from getting on your knees for him, did it?” Maybelle swung hard and Vivien ducked.

  “At least I can still get on my knees!”

  This was seriously going downhill fast.

  “I really liked him!” Maybelle huffed.

  “So did I!”

  “And you stole him!” Maybelle was swinging with less finesse and more angry enthusiasm.

  But Vivien had gotten angrier. “I did not! I can’t steal what you never had.”

  Then time seemed to slow as Garnet—where the hell had she come from?—raced in between Vivien and Maybelle. She raised her arm toward the ceiling and fired the pistol in her hand. A sharp cr
ack echoed.

  Lela, Yvette and Dodie screamed before they hit the floor.

  Smoke eddied around Garnet as she glared at Vivien and Maybelle. “What is wrong with you two? Our motto has always been ‘Lilies Before Willies’! And you’re fighting over a dadgum man?”

  Bernice tore in, red faced and wheezing. She snatched the pistol out of Garnet’s hand. “Next time I’m cuffing you to the dashboard.”

  Janie and Harper ran in to see what all the commotion was about. A few guests peered out of their rooms on the second floor.

  Flint squinted at the ceiling, looking for a bullet hole. Tobin and Hugh stood there in shock and total disbelief.

  Vivien looked at Maybelle and said, “Garnet is right. Lilies Before Willies.” Then she threw her sword on the ground.

  Maybelle looked as if she might take one last shot at Vivien before she laid down her weapon, but she tossed the sword aside and said, “Lilies Before Willies.”

  Then Tilda and Pearl joined their crew.

  They probably would’ve chanted “Lilies Before Willies” as a group, but Janie Lawson barreled across the floor. “Garnet Evans, how dare you come in here and fire a gun! I oughta call the sheriff on you.”

  Immediately the Mud Lilies locked arms, facing outward, keeping Garnet protected in the middle. “Gonna have to go through us first, Janie,” Bernice warned.

  “All of us,” Tilda added.

  Janie was pissed as hell. “Then I will have all of you arrested! Goddammit. Someone could’ve gotten hurt!”

  “Ah, Janie—”

  “Shut up!” She glared at Bernice.

  “But she’s only trying to tell you—”

  “You can shut the hell up too, Tilda!” Janie snapped. “We have guests here.” She shook her finger at Garnet. “You put them in serious danger with this stunt!”

  “Well, technically I didn’t, because—”

  “Omigod! Stop talking! There isn’t an excuse in the world—”

  Pearl had broken rank long enough to let out an ear-piercing whistle, which was actually louder than the gunshot. “As I can see your firearm knowledge is sadly lacking, I’ll inform you that Garnet fired a starter pistol. There are no bullets and no danger. The noise you heard was from a cap.”

  Janie stood her ground “That doesn’t change the fact—”

  Harper grabbed ahold of Janie’s arm and whispered in her ear.

  A mulish expression settled on Janie’s face, but she nodded.

  Then Harper plastered on a big smile and waved at the guests up on the balcony, and turned to offer the same encouraging wave to the guests lurking in the entryway. “Thank you, everyone, for being our surprise test audience for the melodrama Pistols and Petticoats, which we’ll be debuting as weekend entertainment next year at the Split Rock! So we definitely hope you make your reservations now.”

  Tobin masked his laugh with a hacking cough and Hugh lowered his hat to hide the grin on his face. Harper was fast on her feet; he’d give her that.

  “It needs a little work,” a female guest up on the balcony suggested. “The resolution of the conflict wasn’t really clear.”

  “Yeah,” a man on the other side chimed in, “and the issues should be explained in more detail at the beginning.”

  Several guests nodded.

  “Everyone got an opinion on everything, don’t they?” Tobin muttered.

  Pearl clapped her hands. “Okay, everyone. Show is over.”

  “But wait,” a boy of about ten shouted down. “Who was the villain?”

  Silence.

  Hugh expected one of the ladies to say Gene Pratt’s name, or at least claim the villainy happened offstage. So his stomach dropped when the Mud Lilies all focused on him.

  Shit. Would it make him a pussy if he made a break for it?

  Tobin laughed. “I knew this was gonna come back and bite you in the ass.”

  Fuck.

  The women started toward him, spread out in a line.

  Maybelle spoke first. “This is your fault, Hugh.”

  “What?”

  “You begged us to do the favor for you,” Vivien pointed out.

  “And I told you it was a bad idea from the start,” Bernice tossed out.

  “Now wait just a damn minute.” Why the fuck were his balls sweating? “I didn’t—”

  “Think it through?” Garnet demanded. “Now this ‘discharging a firearm in public’ incident, coupled with me spending a night in the clink last week, means my family is gonna make good on their promise to put me in assisted living so someone can keep an eye on me.” Garnet burst into tears.

  And Hugh was forgotten.

  The Mud Lilies gathered around her, and Tobin stood outside the circle.

  He knew Tobin would fill him in later, so he backed up—slowly as to not draw their attention—and practically tiptoed away to look for Gene Pratt.

  But he didn’t have to go far.

  Gene, and his sidekick Karen, lurked in the hallway.

  “Enjoy the show?” Hugh demanded. “I see you stayed in the chickenshit seats.”

  “In the interest of full disclosure,” Karen said, “I kept Gene from going out there. He survived a quadruple bypass. I wasn’t sure he’d survive them.”

  Hugh looked at Gene. “But you are gonna fix this, right?”

  Gene sighed. “If you mean by skipping town? The answer is yes. I’ll be spending the last three days in Wyoming staying with Tierney so she can keep an eye on me while Karen has her adventure.”

  “I didn’t get to do all the touristy stuff while I was here, so I’ll be back,” Karen said.

  “Wait. Why can’t Harlow keep an eye on you?”

  “Because she’s leaving.”

  All the breath left his body. He managed a hoarse, “What?”

  “Harlow has a teaching job in California. Guess she’s had it since before my heart attack. Classes start in two weeks.”

  “Did you know about it?”

  Gene shook his head. “She didn’t tell anyone.”

  “What else happened?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Harlow is running. So did Tierney say something that had Harlow doubting her self-worth? Or maybe you did. Tell me,” he ordered.

  “I will.” Gene pushed away from the wall and rested both hands on his cane. “But not here.”

  Hugh followed Gene into his room, hating that things had gone to hell so fast. He was impatient to hear whatever Gene had to confess so he could go to Harlow.

  Karen got Gene settled in his chair and left them alone.

  “Sit,” Gene said to Hugh as he loomed over him.

  “No thanks. Tell me what happened.”

  “Evidently Harlow received an e-mail from that Fredrick fellow she had the . . . problems with in Laos. He told her that I’d funded his organization the past year and a half.”

  “Did you?”

  “Yes.”

 
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