Wrapped and strapped, p.37
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.37
 

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  “Why the hell would you do that?”

  “You have to look at this from my perspective. My youngest daughter got herself into a bad situation. I pulled her out of it. I also knew, since Harlow wasn’t pressing charges, that Fredrick would believe he’d done nothing wrong and maybe contact Harlow or even come after her when he returned to the States.”

  “How did you know that?” Hugh demanded. “Because Harlow didn’t mention that you’d gone to Laos personally to rescue her.”

  “While Harlow was in the hospital in Laos, I talked to her friend Erika.” He paused. “At length.”

  Hugh saw the anguish in Gene’s eyes and realized the father knew more of what his daughter had gone through than Harlow had told him.

  “I wanted to see that pompous prick burn, but I couldn’t risk having anything traced back to me, so I decided to fund his work for eighteen months and keep him away from Harlow while she healed.”

  “You should’ve had him killed,” Hugh said.

  “Yes, well. Hindsight and all that. But I truly worried that if my daughter found out, I’d be dead to her too.”

  “Yeah. She does take issue with violence.” When Hugh felt Gene glaring at him, he backtracked. “I’d never raise a hand to her. But some dumb fuckers pulled a dirty trick on her and I called them on it.”

  “More like you called them out?”

  “Yep. I got knocked around some. She and I ain’t been talkin’ much since.”

  “I suggest you talk to her now while you still have the chance.”

  Two knocks sounded on the door. Hugh opened it, expecting Karen, not all six of the Mud Lilies to file in and spread out in front of Gene Pratt like a defensive line.

  “To what do I owe the pleasure of all you ladies’ lovely company today?” Gene said smoothly.

  “Cut the crap, Casanova,” Pearl said. “We’re here on official business.”

  “By all means . . . continue.”

  Tilda spoke next. “As shareholders in the Split Rock, it is within our purview to overrule management decisions. We are not a rehab facility and we were not consulted on granting you an extended stay.”

  “So we are invoking our right to refuse service.”

  Gene looked at Pearl. “Meaning what?”

  “Meaning that you are outta here, you two-timing Romeo,” Miz Maybelle snapped.

  “Pack your bags and leave this facility. Immediately,” Vivien said.

  “You’re kicking me out?”

  “You bet your bad toupee we’re kicking you out, you lying lothario,” Garnet said hotly.

  “I don’t wear a toupee,” Gene said evenly. “This is my real hair.”

  “Whatever, Slick. You are done here.”

  Somehow Hugh managed to keep a straight face, but, damn, did he like to see these gals all fired up and indignant. He’d never tell them that Gene had decided to leave before they’d given him an ultimatum. They needed this moment of power. This incident would fuel the gossip mill—no doubt the facts would get wildly embellished in the retelling—and reinforce the local hype that the Mud Lilies were not to be messed with.

  “There’s no room for negotiation?” Gene asked.

  “None,” Bernice practically spit. “Pack your crap and get out. You have two hours.”

  “And we’ll be back to make sure you follow through,” Pearl promised him.

  “I understand,” Gene said somberly. “At the risk of having weapons pointed at me, can I just say meeting you ladies has been . . . there really aren’t words to describe it.”

  “You’re darn tootin’,” Garnet said, which made no sense.

  “We’ll be gone within the hour,” Karen said from the doorway, pointedly holding the door open.

  The ladies filed past Gene. Although he didn’t flinch when Bernice cracked her knuckles and Pearl flashed her piece, it gave Hugh a feeling of satisfaction to see the back of the Gene’s shirt soaked from nervous sweat.

  The man had gotten off easier than he deserved, but he’d allowed the ladies to save face too. Now Hugh had other concerns to set right. He booked it to Harlow’s trailer.

  The SUV was still parked in front. His anxiety level went from ten to eight.

  He knocked on the door twice before he opened it and said, “Harlow?”

  “In here.”

  All the lights were off in the living room. She sat in the middle of the couch, her white dress drawing him to her like a beacon.

  Hugh dropped to his knees in front of her. She looked as lost as the night he’d seen her in Denver. “You okay?”

  She shook her head. “I’m leaving.”

  “I heard. From your dad.” He forced himself to stay calm. “Why didn’t I hear it from you?”

  “Because I was afraid.”

  “Afraid of what? Darlin’, you’re the bravest woman I’ve ever met.”

  She closed her eyes, but her tears fell anyway. “Afraid you’d convince me to stay.”

  He framed her face in his hands and wiped her tears. “Of course I’d try and convince you to stay. I love you.”

  “I know. I love you too. Which is why this is so hard.”

  “Can you look at me, please?”

  She opened her eyes. “I didn’t plan on this. Falling for you.”

  “My sparking personality and cowboy charm finally won you over, huh?”

  “Absolutely.”

  “Tell me what’s goin’ on and why you look so damn sad after I told you I love you.”

  “Because I’ve always known I’d return to California.”

  He lowered his hands and reached for hers.

  “Bleeker College offered me a teaching position the week before my dad had his heart attack. The staff has gotten to know me since I’ve been involved in an intensive seminar there for the past six months.”

  Hugh said, “Harlow, that’s great,” even as his heart began to crack.

  “I thought so too. I’ve never had anything permanent like this. Never thought my education was enough, but the years I’ve spent in the field qualifies me to teach about modern-day humanitarian organizations. But being here with you . . .” She laughed softly. “Before we had sex again, I told myself I’d keep it only about sex between us. We’d have a hot fling, get each other out of our systems, move on from the past, and when it was time, I’d move on. Literally.

  “But from the moment I told you about Fredrick, I felt the link between us tighten. I tried to discount it and attribute it to lust, but I realized that was unfair. That’s why I asked for neither of us to label it. And spending two weeks with you on the road just cemented my feelings. I knew it was different than the friendships I made on a trip where we spent hours and days together. I seriously considered telling the Bleeker admin I had family issues to deal with and I’d return at the start of the second semester. I’d stay here, continue to take care of my dad, help Tierney out and figure out where this was going with us.”

  Another chunk of his heart splintered. “Did you get dizzy with all that back-and-forth?”

  “Yes. Then a couple of things happened.” Her hands tightened on his. “Fredrick sent me an e-mail the morning after you got into that fight.”

  Fuck. He hated that he’d misread her signals and had too much fucking pride to ask what was going on with her. “So you weren’t pissed off about me fighting?”

  Harlow’s eyes widened. “No, not at all.” She paused. “That’s why you were back to being such a broody guy? Because you thought I was mad about you fighting?”

  “Yep. And I was sulking because I wasn’t sorry for goin’ after them guys, so I wasn’t gonna offer up a bogus apology.”

  She smiled. “I didn’t expect one. Anyway, the e-mail was piece of fiction. At first it pissed me off. Then I got a little scared he might try and track me down—and that fear of him pissed me off too.”

  Right then, Hugh decided to get Fredrick’s full name and contact information from Gene Pratt. Even if he and Harlow couldn’t find a way to work
things out, he’d warn the guy off.

  “Like you said, highs and lows, going round and round. But I finally came to the decision I had to keep the teaching position. During the seminars, I learned I wasn’t the only volunteer who’s gotten into a situation with a leader like Fredrick. And it’s important I use my experience as a warning to others that it can happen to them. Especially in a closed-in environment.”

  “You said the e-mail was the first thing. What was the second?”

  “I wasn’t happy when I found out my dad had funded Fredrick’s organization, but I understand why he did it—to keep Fredrick out of the country and away from me. I also realized that my father wouldn’t give up a career opportunity to sit by my bedside for weeks on end. Don’t get me wrong—I love him. The fortunate result of his heart attack is we did spend time together and got to know each other in a different light. But my dad was hiding here. Now he’s going back to Chicago. Sitting in a room at the Split Rock, with his family close by, as well as his assistant, as well as entertaining ladies, has reminded him he’s not ready to retire.”

  Hugh kissed her knuckles. “I’ve never met anyone who is so tuned in and so dead-on with assessments of people and situations, doll. It’s humbling and scary as fuck.”

  She pulled on his hands. “Get off your knees and come up here and hold me.”

  One last time hung in the air between them.

  He settled her on his lap, wrapping his arms around her, kissing the top of her head. “What happens now? I love you. I wanna be with you.”

  “I want that too. But I don’t see it happening.”

  “Ever?” he said with gut-wrenching fear.

  “I don’t know. And it sucks that when I’ve finally found the real deal”—her voice broke—“I can’t have it.”

  “Wrong. You have me, Harlow. You have all of me.”

  “You’re rooted here. I’m rooted there for the next year. And, I have to be totally honest, even when it’s killing me”—her voice broke again—“but you deserve to know.”

  Hugh’s arms tightened and he kissed her temple. “Just say it.”

  “I like to visit here, but I couldn’t live here. Not permanently. Not the way you and Tierney do. I have gypsy feet. The need to be part of something larger in the world, to contribute even a small amount . . . that makes me happy. And it defines me. I can’t give that up without losing part of myself.”

  “Harlow. I love you just the way you are. I’d never ask you to change for me.”

  “And I’d never ask the same of you. I’m not telling you this to denigrate your life choice, Hugh. I’m just saying it is your choice. And it’ll never be mine.”

  She cried silently for a while.

  Finally when the hopelessness wasn’t sucking at his soul, he managed to ask, “When are you leavin’?”

  “Tomorrow morning,” she said.

  Hugh knew she was lying. He knew she believed it’d be easier if they didn’t say good-bye officially.

  Fuck that. Nothing would make this easy. But it wasn’t good-bye. He couldn’t—wouldn’t accept that.

  “Well, I’m hopin’ you spend your last night with me. And I promise it won’t be a repeat of three years ago.”

  She buried her face in his neck.

  He tipped her head back and kissed her. Not with grand sweeping passion or sadness, but like he was stoking the embers for the fire they’d lose themselves in later tonight.

  Her tears were a dead giveaway that she considered this a farewell lover’s kiss.

  He touched her hair, her face, her arm, and followed the curve of her hip down her thigh and then back up, stopping to lightly smack her ass. “It sucks, because I’d like to spend every moment with you, but I’ve gotta talk to Renner about some stuff.”

  “I understand.” Harlow placed one last lingering kiss on his lips before she stood.

  Hugh put his hat back on and let the backs of his knuckles graze her cheek. “I love you, Harlow.”

  “I love you too.”

  “I’ll see you later.”

  “Later.”

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  ‡

  Harlow wasn’t leaving at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning.

  She was leaving now.

  As much as she wanted to spend the night with him, it would kill her to hear Hugh repeat the sweet words of love he’d murmured as she’d cried in his arms. No, she just couldn’t bear it, knowing this was the end.

  She always traveled light. It hadn’t taken long to pack her belongings. No hugging her family this time or tearful good-byes to her friends.

  Gravel crunched beneath her tires as she headed for the main road. But she hit the brakes when she saw him sitting alone on the top of the fence next to the road.

  Harlow remained frozen in shock, watching him jump down off the fence and erase the distance between them with that long-legged stride. Fifty feet. Twenty feet. Ten feet. Then his hands were on the hood of her car and his body was a human barricade.

  He lifted his head, his face still shadowed beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. He dipped his chin toward her car door in a silent sign for her to get out.

  So she did.

  Hugh was anything but still, or quiet, or stoic. He hooked his arm around her waist and pulled her body flush against his. “I watched you leave last time and didn’t do a goddamned thing to stop you. Not this time.”

  “How did you know I was going today?”

  “Because you are a shitty liar.”

  She let out a nervous laugh.

  “Two things I need to know,” he said, his face intent. “Do you trust me?”

  “Yes.”

  “Really trust me to find a way to make this work for us? Whatever it takes?”

  The fierceness on his face and the love warming his eyes turned her knees into tofu and made her soul sing. “Yes. Whatever it takes.”

  “Good.” He kissed her. Once. Twice. Three times.

  “What’s the second thing?”

  “Text me whenever you stop, so I know you’re safe and awake. It’s a long haul to California.”

  “I will.”

  “You’ll hear from me soon.” He stepped back.

  Harlow stared at him, this man who loved her enough to let her go.

  Another soft kiss. Not with heat and passion, but as a solemn promise.

  She climbed back in her car.

  He closed the door only after seeing her buckle up.

  She drove away, watching him in her rearview mirror, standing in a cloud of orange dust in the middle of the road.

  He remained so still he could’ve been a bronze statue. Beautiful. Solid. Determined.

  Before she made the final turn, she checked her mirror again.

  Yep. Hugh was still there.

  Maybe the end she’d feared for them would turn out to be a whole new beginning.

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  ‡

  Hugh called Ike before he headed to the barn to talk to Renner.

  His nerves were oddly calm, considering he was about to upend his
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