Wrapped and strapped, p.4
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.4
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         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  *

  “Miss Pratt?”

  Harlow blinked and sat up, confused about where she was.

  “Dr. Mazur is here. He’ll speak to you about your father.”

  Right. She was in Denver. She untangled herself from the blanket. “Thank you.”

  “Follow me.”

  They went through the set of double doors and cut sharply to the right. The nurse stopped in front of a room, knocked twice and waited until a doddering man opened the door.

  “Come in.”

  Surely that wasn’t the doctor who’d performed the surgery? He was ancient.

  As soon as she entered the room, Harlow forgot about everyone and focused on her dad. He still looked horrible. Alive, according to the blips and beeps of the machines around him, but very much like he’d danced with the devil yesterday and barely bested him.

  “When will he be awake?” she asked.

  “Later today or tomorrow. So for now let’s go into the hallway and get the medical stuff out of the way.”

  “Can I record this? Or will you be able to explain it to my sister over the phone?”

  “Record it if you prefer; that way you can go back and listen to it too.”

  Dr. Mazur went into a long-winded explanation of the need for the emergency coronary bypass surgery, due to problems with Gene Pratt’s blocked arteries, which had caused the heart attack. The doctor detailed the six-hour surgery itself, the incision in the chest cavity, the removal of the healthy blood vessels in her father’s leg and how he’d implanted them to replace the four damaged arteries in his heart. Then he listed the medications, along with the side effects from the surgery as well as the drugs. He said he’d personally discuss “crucial and nonnegotiable lifestyle changes” with her father. Then he mentioned recovery time. Six to twelve weeks. Minimum.

  “Any questions?”

  “Not that I can think of now.”

  Dr. Mazur patted her shoulder. “Get some rest or fresh air. He’ll be out of it for a while yet. And you’ll be sick of this place soon enough because you’ll be stuck here for at least a week.”

  “Thanks, Doctor.”

  *

  When her dad woke up on day three, Dr. Mazur had cautioned her about the possible issues her father might be dealing with, such as temporary loss of memory, partial paralysis, confusion and pain that could lead to unreasonable anger. So when she walked into the room, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

  But it completely caught her by surprise that her dad smiled and said, “Angel baby,” on a short wheeze of breath.

  Tears filled her eyes, hearing the term of endearment he hadn’t used in years. She went to his bedside and clasped the hand he held out. “Daddy.”

  “I’m happy you’re here. Happy you think I’m human enough to warrant your attention as a humanitarian cause.”

  She smiled because for a change his teasing wasn’t mean in nature. “You sure know how to grab our attention.”

  Fear flashed in his eyes. “This incident didn’t send Tierney . . . ?”

  “No, she’s fine. The baby is fine. Isabelle is fine. We’re all fine except for you. Renner is making Tierney stay at home, which is why I’m here.”

  “Good man, putting his foot down. We both know that she needs to take it easy.”

  “So do you, Dad. You had a close call.”

  “Would you have missed me if I would’ve died?”

  Startled by the abrupt question, she stammered, “I d-don’t think—”

  “Answer me.” He paused. “Please.”

  “Why are you asking me this?”

  “Because I realized I want to be the kind of father you’ll miss and I know I’m not. I’ve always been more concerned with earning money than my daughters’ love and respect. I need to earn that right.”

  Shocked by the direction this conversation had taken, Harlow just stared at him.

  “I need to make amends to you and your sister. This scare has taught me something. I want to be the grandfather to my grandkids that my grandfather was to me.”

  Then he drifted off to sleep.

  None of the doctor’s warning had prepared her for her father having a complete personality change. Now Harlow wondered if she should really be worried.

  *

  Day four, a surly man had replaced her contrite father. But she understood fear was partially responsible for his attitude, since he’d suffered a bout of heart arrhythmia.

  She’d waited in the hallway while the medical team worked on him after the episode. Once the room emptied of all medical personnel except the doctor, she approached the bed. “Dad?”

  “Don’t look at me with pity, Harlow.”

  “Your eyes aren’t open, so you don’t have any idea how I’m looking at you.”

  “I can feel it.” He shifted in his bed and winced. “Fuck.”

  She froze. Her dad never dropped the f-bomb.

  “Sorry. I just feel so damn old and helpless.”

  “What can I do?”

  He opened his eyes. “Track down my cell. I’ll need to make some calls.”

  “You had it when you arrived here?”

  “No. I had it in the car in Wyoming. I gave it to Hugh. He was supposed to bring it and check it as a personal item for me.”

  Hugh. She hadn’t thought about him in, oh, ten minutes. Why hadn’t he mentioned the location of her dad’s cell phone when he was here?

  Because you threw him out, remember?

  Right.

  “I’ll check on it. Anything else?”

  Dr. Mazur approached them. “It’s time to discuss rehab options. I’ll send Charlie in. He’s our coordinator—”

  “It might be a little much for my father to think about now. I’m sure he has plenty of options when he returns to Chicago.”

  “I’m not going back to Chicago.”

  Startled, she looked at her dad. “What?”

  “I had a near-death experience. Do you think I’m eager to lock myself in a business tower and deal with more work?”

  “Yes, because that’s who you are.”

  “Then it’s past time for me to change, isn’t it? This was the wake-up call I needed.”

  Change? What was he talking about?

  “There’s no reason I can’t do my rehab in Wyoming.”

  Harlow calmly faced the doctor. “Did he sustain brain damage? Because this man is acting nothing like my father.”

  Dr. Mazur shrugged. “If a man says he needs to change, he likely does. It’s not unusual for people who’ve had a taste of their own mortality to decide to take a different approach to their lives.”

  “Exactly,” her father said triumphantly. “I need a different approach. What better way to recover than to be around my family?”

  “I’ll let you sort out the details,” the doctor said. “We’ll forward your records to wherever you end up. We’ll keep you in ICU just to be on the safe side as far as surgical problems the next couple of days.”

  After the doctor left, Harlow demanded, “Have you lost your mind? You can’t go back to Wyoming.”

  “It’s perfectly rational to recover at the Split Rock, since I already have a room and my things are there.”

  “Dad. The Split Rock is a resort, not a rehab hospital.”

  “It’ll be cheaper than a rehab hospital. Two meals a day and daily housekeeping? If I hire a nurse to drive in every day from Rawlins or Casper, it’d still be cheaper than returning to Chicago for recovery.”

  “But . . .”

  “What?”

  “Chicago is your home. You have friends there. A life there. And the medical facilities are top-notch.”

  “I took all that into consideration, but I’m determined to recover among family.”

  Determined. Aka—in Gene Pratt–speak—I’m a stubborn bastard and the subject is closed.

  Harlow stood. “I’ll see if I can’t find your cell phone.”

  And the closest bar.

  *


  That night when she returned to her hotel room, she cracked open the minibar. She didn’t bother dumping the tiny bottle of tequila in a glass; she poured it directly into her mouth. Then she filled the ice bucket from the machine on her floor. She crafted cocktail number two: gin and ginger ale on the rocks. She sipped that one, since the only food she’d consumed all day had come from the hospital vending machine.

  She flopped in the chair and stared at the ice cubes in her glass. As soon as her dad had woken up, he’d begun dictating to her as if she were his secretary. Which should be the height of hilarity, since her father had refused to give her any position—even in the janitorial department—at his company, Pratt Financial Group—PFG. But what really had her questioning his soundness of mind? Hearing him say she needed to choose between a black, silver or white Lexus SUV to drive when they left for Wyoming. He’d placed a black one on hold, but if she preferred another color, it was fine with him. There’d been no need to ask why he chose a Lexus. Nothing but the best—and usually most expensive—for Gene Pratt.

  Her phone rang and she answered it, “Yo, sis, what up?”

  “My curiosity. Did Dad have a brain transplant?”

  Harlow snickered. “Ooh, that one’s much nicer than my original thought that they discovered his heart was dead and black when they opened him up and they retrofitted him with a real one.”

  “Omigod, that is not funny, because it’s entirely a possibility.”

  “So what weirdness did the emperor bestow on you today after he got his cell phone back?”

  “Let’s see, he called Janie and booked the room he was staying in at the Split Rock for the next twelve weeks—and sweetened the pot by adding a hundred dollars per night to the price, which of course Janie couldn’t pass up. Then because he couldn’t get a room for his personal assistant, he’s renting one of the employee trailers for her.”

  The drink stopped halfway to her mouth. “Wait. Karen agreed to come?”

  “Yes. Evidently he’s promised her that she won’t be his nursemaid, but she’ll continue in her capacity as his assistant, helping him getting his affairs in order so he can retire properly.”

  “Fuck. Me. He’s serious about retiring?”

  “Apparently so. Oh, and he’s graciously offered Karen to me to handle the accounting at Split Rock when I’m on maternity leave.” She snorted. “Like that’ll ever happen. I’d turn it over to you long before her.”

  Harlow had to admit that stung. Numbers weren’t her forte, but she had other skills—valuable skills—according to all the relief agencies and humanitarian organizations she’d worked for over the years. But, as usual, Harlow let the remark go without comment. “What else?”

  “You’re aware Dad rented a trailer for you?”

  Oh, hell no. “Why?”

  “Claims he wants you close by so you can help him during his recovery and help me with Isabelle after the baby arrives.”

  “He doesn’t get to decide that for me! And I can’t believe you agreed to it.”

  “Harlow, he kept mentioning the word ‘family’ and the phrase ‘wasted years.’ As pregnant and hormonal as I am, I’m easily susceptible to visions of family dinners gathered around a holiday meal as we look at each other with adoration, so give me a break.”

  Her sister had spent years trying to win their father’s approval. Now that he’d shown a glimmer of humanity, had Tierney immediately reverted into that daddy-pleasing girl? And if so, what could she do about it?

  Nothing. She just had to make the most of it.

  “Fine. I’ll go along with it for a few weeks just to keep his health on track, okay?”

  “Okay.” A pause. “You’ve been with him for five days. Do you really think he’s changed?”

  “I don’t know. He’s less . . . emperor-like, all these plans for his stay at the Split Rock notwithstanding.” But she didn’t trust him. Deep down she worried this “one big happy family” thing was another power play; the man was a master at them. “The true test will be if he’s an arrogant asshole when he’s recuperating.”

  “I hope they load him up on prescription drugs that’ll knock him out for most of it.”

  “Me too.”

  “How long before he’s discharged?”

  “Two days.”

  “I’ll let Karen know. She isn’t coming until Dad’s out of the hospital and settled here. She said he’ll remember twenty other things she needs to bring along, so she’ll wait.”

  “That’s why she gets paid the big bucks.” Harlow took another sip of her drink. “Is the ever-efficient Karen lining up home health care?”

  “I am. Or should I say I did. Remember Lainie? Hank’s wife? She’s a nurse and she’s agreed to take him on. For a week anyway to see how it goes.”

  “That’s lucky.”

  “Very. I have another place in Casper as a backup plan.”

  “I’m staying in the employee trailers for the short amount of time I’m there?”

  “Since Hugh bought my cabin, his old trailer has been empty, so I’ll have housekeeping get it ready for you.”

  She’d loved that small cabin. Hugh had probably turned it into a man cave. “All I need is a bed and a shower for the short time I’m there, so that’ll work.”

  “Harlow. Are you all right?”

  “I’m hungry and drinking. But other than that, I’m fine. Why?”

  “You’ve said ‘short amount of time I’m there’ numerous times. It sounds like you’re already planning to leave and you’re not even here yet. Makes me wonder what really happened three years ago that chased you away so fast.”

  She forced a laugh. “You’ve read too many mysteries, sis. An opportunity arose and I took it. That’s all. You always said I was flighty and would go whichever way the wind blew. I’d think you’d be more surprised that I stuck around as long as I did.”

  A long pause ensued. “Do I really make you feel that way?”

  The last thing Harlow wanted was to be at odds with her sister. So she rapped on the desktop. “Hey, room service is here, so I gotta run. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” After that, she hung up.

  Harlow dropped her head back and closed her eyes. Choosing to stay at the Split Rock and help Tierney out with the baby and spoiling her niece sounded like heaven—except that her father had orchestrated everything so that he hadn’t given her a choice.

  But she’d made her choice the second she got on that plane.

  You’d be facing either his recovery or his funeral. And there’s no way you’d leave your pregnant sister to deal with either of those scenarios alone.

  Brooding was pointless anyway.

  Which was why she never understood why Hugh did it. But he’d always done it so well. His thoughts masked by his hat. Or his silence.

  During the first month she worked at the Split Rock that summer three years ago, she’d learned that accusing him of brooding unlocked the part of him that wanted to prove her wrong. And she still remembered the first time he’d revealed any melancholy and vulnerability . . .

  After the weekly staff meeting, Harlow had remained behind the bar at the Split Rock to clean up. Why were employees always the messiest customers?

  Hugh and Tobin had stuck around afterward, speaking in low tones. She’d tried eavesdropping on their conversation, but they really didn’t want to be overheard, so she’d given up and finished her closing duties.

  Once Tobin left, Hugh had hung around, nursing his second beer of the night.

  He looked up when she leaned against the bar. “I suppose you’re throwin’ me out.”

  “Actually, I could use a drink.”

  “I noticed you weren’t knocking them back like everyone else.”

  “Neither were you.”

  He shrugged. “I’m not much of a drinker.”

 
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