Wrapped and strapped, p.38
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.38

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  entire life.

  Renner was in the office, but not at his desk. He leaned in the doorframe leading into the arena. A bottle of Jack Daniel’s dangled in his right hand.

  No doubt it’d been a shitty day for Renner with Tobin giving notice. Hugh hated he was about to add more to it.

  “I imagine Tobin told you,” Renner said, taking a swig from the bottle, but not turning around. “Or maybe you’ve known for a while.”

  “No. He just told me today.”

  “Were you surprised?”

  “Yes.” He paused. “And no.”

  “Well, I didn’t have a fuckin’ clue he was so miserable.”

  “It’s not the work or working for you, Ren. You know that. Tobin deserves a chance at finding the same kinda life that you have with Tierney.” The same kind of life I want with Harlow.

  “And he ain’t gonna find that here. The woman or the place to call his own.”

  “Not likely.”

  “Fuck.”

  “How much you been drinking?”

  He shrugged. “Some.” Then he turned. “While you’re here, let’s go over some of the immediate changes in the daily schedule. You’ll have to pick up Tobin’s morning feed and cattle check so you’re completely up to speed when he goes.”

  “No, thanks.”

  “What?”

  “I said no thanks.”

  “Please tell me this is some kinda sick joke, Hugh.”

  “It’s not. I’m not takin’ on more of the chores associated with the Jackson Cattle Company.”

  Renner’s laugh held a bitter edge. “You hitting me up for a raise? Now?”

  “Nope. But we need to talk.”

  “About?”

  “Have a seat and I’ll get started.”

  Renner kicked out the chair across from Hugh’s desk and plopped down. He set the whiskey on the desk between them.

  Hugh slid a copy of the spreadsheet across the desk.

  “What’s this?”

  “Itemized breakdown of expenses and income for the two-week road trip.”

  “I don’t need to see this right fuckin’ now, Hugh.”

  “Yes, you do.”

  “Bullshit. I’m the boss. If I don’t wanna look at it, I don’t have to.” He pointed at Hugh. “And if I tell you to pick up the goddamn slack while I’m tryin’ to find a replacement for Tobin, you’ll do that too.”

  Hugh ignored his outburst. “On that spreadsheet you’ll see that our profit is right around ten percent.”

  “And your point?”

  “My question. What is your profit margin for cattle?”

  “Slightly higher. And what does that have to do with—”

  “Everything. Just pointing out that the profit from the stock contracting business allowed you to invest in the cattle business. When was the last year you sunk the profits from the stock contracting back into that business and didn’t funnel it into something else?”

  A dark glint entered Renner’s eyes. “Last time I looked, Jackson was the name listed on both the stock contracting business and the cattle company, not Pritchett.”

  “Exactly. You hired me to oversee Jackson Stock Contracting, not Jackson Cattle Company. And over the last two years you seem to have forgotten that. I end up doing daily ranch-type chores same as Abe and Kyle do. That is not what I signed on for, Ren. Being a rancher is not why I moved to Wyoming. That is your dream, not mine. And again, you’ve forgotten that.”

  “What the fuck, Hugh? Are you telling me I need to give you clearly defined job requirements?”

  Hugh stared at him. “Be a wise choice for whoever you hire to replace Tobin, so he knows exactly what’s expected of him.”

  “I’ll take that under advisement,” he said coolly. “Anything else?”

  His gut tightened. “Yeah. Are you phasing out the stock contracting side?”

  Renner stared at him. “Where’s this comin’ from?”

  “Answer the fucking question. It’s simple enough. Yes. Or no.”

  “Yes.”

  “Why? I’ve shown you the profit. You’ve got top-notch livestock. You spent years building the business. It was your obsession when I met you. And when you finally made it to the top tier of contractors in the country, you’re throwing in the towel? That doesn’t make sense. On any level.”

  “I suppose it doesn’t.” Renner grabbed the Jack and took a big swig.

  “Can you tell me where your head is at?”

  “Good fuckin’ question.” He sighed and tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. “I used to be the planning and scheming guy. I envisioned big things. Took over a stock contracting business and tripled it in size within five years. Invested in good stock, lived my life making contacts in all areas of the ag world. I knew at that point my life was about work. When I thought of happiness, besides making big piles of money, I remembered when I visited my grandparents here. So I became obsessed with buying land, building a resort and trying to re-create that happiness.”

  “And it worked. You met Tierney.”

  Renner grinned at the ceiling. “Lucky bastard that I am, even after I got the girl, I had grander ideas. A genetics program for the stock contracting business and experimenting with different breeds for the cattle company. Buying enough cattle so I didn’t look like a fuckin’ hobby rancher around here, among my friends who are the real deal.”

  That wasn’t an angle Hugh had considered. Renner’s need to keep up with his ranching buddies Abe and Hank Lawson, Bran Turner and Kyle Gilchrist.

  “Meantime, the resort was doin’ well, mostly booked year-round, and Janie’s done such a bang-up job as GM that she don’t really need me around. Tierney’s financial consulting business took off and the woman made us a shit ton of money. So for the first time in my life I didn’t have to hustle, plan and scheme. For the first time in my life I didn’t have to work twelve or fourteen hours a day. I wanted to be home with my beautiful wife and I could be.

  “That pull just got stronger after Isabelle came. Now with Rhett, there are some days when I don’t wanna leave the house. I’ll never get this time back. I don’t want to live with the same goddamn regrets that I see in Gene Pratt. So that’s what I’ve been stewing about after Tobin gave notice. He probably thinks I don’t give a damn about any of this anymore. I’ve always passed the shit jobs off on him and he’s gladly done them with a smile on his face. I haven’t used him to his full potential. Figured he’d always be around. I see that’s a damn fool attitude.” Renner quit staring at the ceiling and met Hugh’s eyes. “And then there’s you.”

  Hugh waited.

  “Give it to me straight.”

  “What?”

  “All of it.”

  He exhaled. “You know I quit working at the Ashland Stockyards as soon as you offered me full-time employment. I never aspired to bein’ a landowner or running my own herd. I love everything about stock contracting. The travel, the people, the discovery of new rank stock. I’ve missed it. After I moved here, I figured I could deal with five months’ worth of ranching stuff if the other seven months was contracting. Last two years it’s not even been a two-months-to-ten-months ratio.”

  “I know you ain’t been happy with the cutbacks. And it makes me a total prick for saying this, but it’s an all-or-nothin’ thing. If I can’t run the contracting business the way I’ve done in the past, then I don’t wanna do it at all. Let it die and I’ll always have the memory of what it—and what I—used to be.” Renner snorted. “And that sounds stupid as fuckin’ shit when I say it out loud.”

  Hugh laughed. “Maybe a little.”

  “So go on, tell me what I oughta do.”

  “Do what your dad’s friend did. Sell it to someone you trust. Keep a small portion, like he did, and walk away. Be an adviser. Be proud of what you built and go on to do something else, because I have a feelin’ that’s why you’re so damn restless lately.”

  Renner didn’t say anything.

  So did
he wait for Renner to come to the conclusion on his own? Or did he offer his own plan?

  “I see them wheels churning, so share with the class,” Renner drawled.

  Hugh leaned forward. “Sell Jackson Stock Contracting to me. The stock, the trailers, all the past and present contracts.”

  “You alone?”

  “No. Me’n Ike. He’s getting out of the cattle brokering business. He knows his stuff, he’s great on the road and we get along well.”

  “Ike? Not who I was expecting you to say.”

  Hugh frowned. “Who were you expecting? Tobin?”

  “No. Harlow.”

  Just hearing her name gave him a pang of sadness. “Really?”

  Renner shrugged. “Stranger things have happened. What’s the deal with you and her anyway?”

  “I love her. She loves me. I’m figuring out how to make it work for us long term.”

  Renner’s eyebrow winged up. “Don’t you mean long-distance?”

  “No. I’ll be moving to LA.”

  Silence.

  Then Renner chuckled. “Good one.”

  “Renner. I’m serious. We haven’t worked out the particulars, but I’m sure we can.”

  “Why are you . . . ?” He shook his head. “LA. Really?”

  “It’s where she is.”

  “Just like that?”

  “Yep. I love her,” he emphasized. “I go where she is.”

  “Man. Do you know what—”

  “Renner,” Tierney said from the doorway, “stop.”

  He turned around in his chair. “How long you been standing there listening in?”

  Tierney sauntered forward. “Long enough. I’ve been looking for you.” She looked at Hugh. “Harlow deserves a man who will follow her to the ends of the earth.” She smiled. “Literally.”

  “That’s me. Now and wherever she decides to roam. I hope she’ll wanna roam with me during rodeo season.”

  “She will. It’s about compromise. Making it work on your terms. Both you and Harlow are good at that in your jobs.” Tierney moved in behind her husband, setting her hands on his shoulders. “We were lucky in that we both wanted to stay here. But we would’ve made sacrifices to be together if we had to. We’ll still do that.”

  Renner closed his eyes, as if bracing himself.

  Tierney said, “Renner will be happy to sell the stock contracting business to you and Ike. I’ll come up with a fair market price and we can negotiate from there.”

  Hugh didn’t bother to hide his shock. “Sounds good.” He paused. “But . . .”

  “But it’s Renner’s business and shouldn’t he make the decision?” Tierney squeezed her husband’s shoulders. “Someone has been keeping secrets from his wife, so I had no idea that he struggled with being pulled so many different directions.”

  “Darlin’, you were dealin’ with enough of your own stuff without havin’ to worry about mine,” Renner said softly.

  “And that is where you’re wrong, Mr. Jackson. We’re in this together, for the long haul, remember? So for the good of our family and my husband’s sanity, I’m doing what he couldn’t: making a decision.”

  Renner kissed the hand on his shoulder.

  “Thank you. Neither of you will regret this,” Hugh said.

  Tierney took off Renner’s hat and set it on the desk. “Now I need to have a private conversation with my husband, so you might wanna leave.”

  “Baby, where are the kids?”

  “Home. Dad and Karen are there. I thought I’d take advantage of our rare alone time.” Then Tierney threw a leg over and parked herself on Renner’s lap. “Close and lock the door behind you on your way out.”

  No need to tell him twice. He pushed back and stood. “I’ll just . . . uh, yeah.”

  They didn’t notice him leave.

  But Hugh easily put them out of his mind and he started a mental checklist of all the things he needed to do.

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  ‡

  One week later . . .

  Harlow hadn’t heard from Hugh in five days.

  She’d texted him at every stop on her way to California.

  After she’d crawled into her bed at her apartment, she let him know she’d made it back.

  He’d texted: Good. Get some rest.

  That’d been it.

  When she’d tried grilling Tierney for Hugh’s whereabouts, her sister had been incredibly vague and demanded Harlow tell her everything that’d happened in Laos.

  So she had.

  Tierney’s tears weren’t surprising, but not once had Harlow felt her sister’s pity, just her support. And her sister was making good on her promise to be a better listener. She hadn’t known how much she’d needed that.

  Today Harlow had finalized the paperwork for her teaching position. She marveled at her office—tiny as it was. She paced the length of her small classroom, imagining herself lecturing in the space, even testing out the acoustics. She never would’ve imagined this would be one of the most exciting adventures she’d undertaken.

  She just wished she could share it with Hugh. She missed him in a way she’d never missed anyone. She longed to hear his deep laughter. To feel his arms around her. To fall asleep to the steady beat of his heart as they cuddled beneath the covers. She wanted to tell him everything that had happened to her since they’d parted ways in Wyoming. She wanted to hear every detail of how he’d spent his days at the Split Rock. She wanted to know if he’d meant what he’d said.

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

  Harlow had told him yes. So she told herself repeatedly to be patient. She reminded herself that Hugh defined methodical. He wouldn’t share his plans until they were rock solid. That was just the kind of man he was.

  She exited the freeway and zipped down the palm-tree-lined streets, her mind running in a million different directions as she pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex.

  After she exited her car and locked it, out of the corner of her eye she saw a flash of white. She turned to see Hugh striding toward her. Her Hugh. His booted feet ate up the blacktop as he headed toward her with a big grin on his face—an obvious beacon of happiness even beneath the shadowed brim of his hat.

  Harlow shrieked and ran toward him, throwing herself at him.

  Then she was in his arms, his mouth on hers, and nothing else existed but this moment, this man, who was now here with her.

  Hugh kissed her with his usual hunger, but also with such a sense of relief. Then he tore his mouth free from hers much quicker than she liked. He laughed softly against her cheek when she tried to reconnect their lips.

  “Hold on, hippie-girl. Let’s take this someplace more private.” He placed a possessive kiss on the side of her neck and squeezed her ass before he stepped back and took her hand.

  Harlow was still too stunned to move as she looked into his handsome face. “I can’t believe you’re here.”

  “Why? I told you I’d do whatever it takes to make this work between us. Didn’t you believe me?”

  “I did. And I didn’t.”

  His expression softened. He curled his hand around the side of her face. “Harlow. I love you. That ain’t something that’s ever gonna go away. Not when we’ve been apart for one week or one year. What do I have to do to prove it to you?”

  “You being here is all the proof I need.”

  “Good. Give me a sec and I’ll grab my bags.”

 
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