Wrapped and strapped, p.5
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.5

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  “But you’re a helluva dancer.”

  Hugh smiled, but didn’t look at her. “You been to the Buckeye lately?”

  “No. It’s not really my scene.” She pulled out the house gin—she preferred Tanqueray, but drinking top-shelf booze for her one allotted employee drink per night struck her as taking advantage—and poured two shots in a glass, then squirted in tonic before adding four squeezed limes. “Mind if I sit next to you?”

  “Sit wherever you’d like, since you’re letting me stay.”

  Harlow took the corner seat to his left. She took a sip of her drink and exhaled.

  They drank in silence. Her mind had drifted off to her last phone call to her dad regarding Tierney and the baby’s health. As always she’d had nothing new to tell him. As always that made both of them very happy.

  She’d glanced up from her drink and caught Hugh watching her intently. Her belly flipped. His brown eyes were just so . . . soulful.

  He said, “You’re quiet.”

  “Sounds like you think that’s unusual for me.”

  “It is. Usually you’re so . . .” He paused and drank. “Animated.”

  “You seem to be more brooding than usual yourself.”

  He grunted.

  “Got a problem you wanna share with your bartender?”

  “Yeah. There’s this woman I work with. She’s such a pain in the ass. Always reminding me I’m not a little ray of sunshine. I’m at a loss for what to do.”

  “She’s obviously trying to get into your pants. I’d coldcock her.” She sipped her drink. “Or hot cock her. That’s probably what she wants.”

  Hugh laughed softly. “Why do you say shit like that? To shock me?”

  “ ’Cause I gotcha to smile, cowboy.”

  His smile stayed intact. “That you did.”

  “Why are you so melancholy? Is it your birthday and no one baked you a cake?”

  He shook his head.

  “Your favorite cow became a steak?”

  “Jesus. No.”

  “Come on,” she cajoled him. “You know you want to tell me.”

  Hugh looked at her. “Eight years ago today I got married.”

  Not what she’d been expecting. “You here celebrating? Or mourning?”

  “Is it weird to admit a little of both?”

  You sweet, sad man. “No. It’s not weird.”

  He picked at the label on his beer bottle.

  Harlow watched him, wishing she knew what thoughts were churning behind those serious brown eyes.

  So she decided to ask him.

  “All right, since you were tripped up by the ties of holy matrimony, but you managed to cut and run, tell me why your wife is now your ex.”

  “Why do you care?”

  “Because I have a secret desire to be wife number two,” she whispered, “and I’m looking for hints.”

  Hugh smiled. “You’d have to get me to the altar first and that ain’t ever happening again.”

  “What was so bad about her besides that she got your sense of humor in the divorce?”

  His eyes bored into her. “You really want the whole ugly truth, Harlow, or are you just sittin’ here, killin’ time, feelin’ sorry for me?”

  Harlow dismissed his defense mechanisms. Hugh was closed off, but he’d extended a hand toward her in friendship more than one time—only to yank it back. And today, she wanted to hold on. “I’ll remind you that you’re killing time on my time. But since I don’t want to sit here and drink alone, I’ll change the question. How’d you get into the livestock business?”

  “Oddly enough, my marriage and my career are tied together.”

  “Really? Now you have to spill the whole story.”

  “If I tell you, you gonna explain why your hands are callused and your nails aren’t perfectly manicured? And why you have about six outfits total instead of a vast wardrobe? Those things don’t jibe with the entitled princess you pretend to be. Because, sweetheart, I know princess behavior firsthand.”

  He’d picked up on that? “You show me yours first. Life story. Sordid details welcome.”

  “I’m from Kansas, same as Renner. Summer after I graduated from high school, Ramses Ashland hired me to work in his stockyards. The job paid well, but the downside was bein’ on call twenty-four/seven, since I lived in the bunkhouse on the ranch. I worked like a dog and was grateful for the job, but it drove home the point I didn’t see myself in the cattle business long term.”

  Harlow choked on her drink. “So, uh, how’s that working out for you?”

  “Hush. You wanna hear this story or not?”

  “It depends. Will you let me provide completely made-up color commentary?”

  “No. Although it might make it a more palatable tale. To me anyway.”

  “Fine, I’ll make the witty comments in my head only. Go on.”

  “Ramses’ only daughter, Cleo, hadn’t set her stilettos on the Ashland Ranch and Stockyards the first two years I worked there. After the golden child graduated from college, she sowed her oats all over the globe, before reluctantly returning home to Kansas.” He shot her a warning look. “Not a single Wizard of Oz reference.”

  Harlow mimed zipping her lips.

  “Although Wicked Witch does fit her.”

  “Hilarious. I was hoping you’d compare her to the Cowardly Lion. Or the flying monkeys.”

  “Here’s where it gets confusing.” He actually squirmed. “Cleo took one look at me and claimed it was love at first sight.”

  “Why is that hard to believe? You are a hulking hottie with that unattainable aura. That’s very appealing to some women.” It’s appealing to me. Her attraction to him had thrown her into flux. Hugh wasn’t a movie-star-handsome cowboy. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist except about ranch and cattle matters. But something about him fascinated her in a way she couldn’t explain. So she did understand why a woman would believe that nameless something was love at first sight.

  “As a naive twenty-year-old kid, I didn’t stand a chance against her tenacity and sexual wiles. Cleo chased me. She seduced me. She decided it was time to get married. And I was the lucky one she’d chosen to be her groom.”

  No sarcasm there.

  “Ramses gave his baby girl whatever she wanted. And she wanted me. Before I knew what hit me, we were married and livin’ in the house her daddy bought us as a wedding present.”

  “The marriage sucked from day one?” Harlow asked.

  “Nah. The first year was decent. But then when she still wasn’t pregnant by our second anniversary, she reverted to her partying ways. She’d stumble home at three a.m.—not giving a damn that I had to get up at five to check cattle. That’s when she shed her skin and became mean as a fuckin’ snake.”

  She didn’t have to prompt him to continue. Which had her wondering how long this had festered inside him.

  “She threw it in my face that she went out because I was boring as hell. She complained to her daddy that I ignored her, which made my working hours as miserable as the hours I spent at home with her. She also complained I didn’t make enough money. Ramses gave me a raise once a year, but it wasn’t enough to keep Cleo in the style she was used to.” He snorted and sipped his beer. “I couldn’t fuckin’ believe when she admitted Ramses gave her an allowance. A twenty-seven-year-old married woman still expecting Daddy to foot the bills.”

  Her coworkers at the Split Rock assumed that Harlow was a trust fund baby because her father, Gene Pratt, was originally involved in financing the ranch and resort. Now that she’d perpetuated the lie that Daddy had cut her off and she’d had to get a real job, it wasn’t like she could say, “Just kidding. I have less than a thousand bucks in my checking account. I’m here to keep an eye on my sister.” But if Hugh saw any correlation between his ex-wife and her, he didn’t mention it.

  “I know I should’ve walked away, because it was pretty goddamned obvious I couldn’t afford her. But by then I was twenty-two years old and determined
to be the kind of provider Cleo needed. I figured more money would fix our marital problems. So I found a second job. Given my work experience with stock, Renner hired me on the spot. Within a month I was the stock manager for Jackson Stock Contracting. Since rodeos were weekend events, I didn’t miss work at the stockyards. But I was gone every weekend from the middle of May until the end of September.”

  “Did Cleo miss you at all?”

  He glanced up sharply as if he’d forgotten Harlow was there. “Oh, she complained that I was never around. It makes me a dick, but I took great pleasure in tellin’ her that I was working to give her every silly thing she desired.”

  “And how’d she take that?”

  “ ’Bout like you’d expect. It made me such a fuckin’ tool to hope she’d come to her senses and admit she didn’t need material things; she’d rather have me.”

  That broke her heart right in half. “Didn’t happen?”

  “Nope. Happened that I had to choose between working at the stockyards and working for Renner. By then I knew she was sleeping around and I just wanted to get the fuck away from her. So I did. But bein’ on the road . . .” He blushed and fiddled with his beer bottle. “I wasn’t taking care of myself. Cleo pushed nasty and cutting to a whole new level when she saw that I was getting fat. When Renner offered me the chance to relocate to Wyoming, I took it.”

  “Did she even consider coming with you? It could’ve been a chance for you two to start over.”

  “A tiny part of me hoped for that. We’d been married four years. We had a history—most of it shitty to be sure. So when I asked her to come with me? She laughed and swore she’d never move to the land of tobacco-chewing sheep fuckers. And she immediately filed for divorce. So yeah. By the time I walked away from her, I didn’t have a sense of humor or a sense of self beyond bein’ Renner’s foreman. Might make me a pussy to admit this, but she fucked me up in so many ways, I only started to come out of it in the last couple of years.”

  Harlow knew that any sign of sympathy would piss him off. It shocked her how much he’d opened up to her and she didn’t want him to close down. Because she knew he wasn’t the type of guy who told that story to just anyone who’d asked.

  “Well? Say something,” he demanded.

  “I’d have to work really hard at being a worse wife than that. And even given the antagonistic tendencies between you and me, I don’t think I’m up for the challenge of outdoing her awfulness.”

  His posture relaxed. “Throwing in the towel so soon?”

  “What can I say?” She shrugged. “I’m a quitter.”

  “Yeah? Me too.”

  Before he made good on his promise to ask about her conflicting personas, she said, “You and Tobin were deep in conversation after the meeting. Is everything all right?”

  “Fine. Just making sure we’re on the same page on what needs done around here. I’ll be hitting the road the next couple days.”

  “You’re gone a lot.”

  “A lot more now that Renner ain’t comin’ along.”

  “Does that bother you?”

  He grinned. “Nope. I live for it. I love crisscrossing the country when rodeo and county fair season is in full swing.”

  “Renner mentioned he was tired of that on-the-road life.”

  “He’s got a beautiful wife waiting for him at home, missing him. I might feel the same way were I in his boots, but I’m not.” Hugh slid off his chair and threw his empty bottle in the trash. “Thanks for the beer and the ear, bartender.”

  “Anytime.”

  The phone in her hand buzzed, bringing her back to the present. She hadn’t thought about that summer for a long time. But it appeared her brain was determined to dredge up every memory she’d held on to.

  She poked the button on the phone for room service. Might as well enjoy the few extra perks while she had the chance, because the time in Wyoming with her father would test her.

  Chapter Five

  ‡

  “You’re living up to your Grumpy nickname today,” Tobin said.

  Hugh snorted. “Three damn years since anyone has called me that.”

  “To your face,” Tobin shot back with a quick grin.

  “Fuck off.”

  “You have to admit ‘Huge’ is a much better nickname.”

  “Only if we’re talking about my dick. And you and me ain’t ever havin’ that convo,” Hugh said with a shudder.

  “No shit.”

  Renner poked his head into the office. “Hugh? Got a sec?”

  “Sure.” He dropped his boots to the wooden floor and pushed out of his chair.

  His boss stood in front of the farm door that opened into the main part of the barn. He pointed at something as he spoke to three-year-old Isabelle¸ propped on his hip.

  “What’s up?”

  It struck Hugh that Isabelle looked very much like her aunt Harlow with her white blond hair and enormous blue eyes. He offered her a soft smile. “Hey, darlin’. You hanging with Daddy today?”

  She nodded somberly. “Baby is making Mommy sick.”

  Hugh’s gaze snapped to Renner. “Is Tierney all right?”

  “Tired. She does too much. So Mama is resting and me’n my girlie are goin’ swimming.”

  Isabelle looked up at him. “No sharks in the pool, Daddy?”

  Renner kissed the top of her head. “I promise there are no sharks in the pool, baby girl.”

  Hugh mouthed, “Sharks?”

  “It’s the last time we ask Tobin to babysit. He filled her head with all sorts of scary sh—stuff.”

  “I want Aunt Harlow to babysit me,” Isabelle declared.

  “Too bad Aunt Harlow has been babysitting Grandpa, huh?”

  Harlow had been back at the Split Rock for almost two weeks. In that time Hugh had had two conversations with her. Her avoidance of him had gone from cute to frustrating. He felt Isabelle staring at him. “Do I have something on my face?”

  She frowned. “You don’t look like him.”

  “Like who?”

  “Grumpy from Snow White. How come that’s what Aunt Harlow calls you?”

  Renner laughed. “That’s a question for another day. But speaking of Harlow . . . would you run up to the lodge and let her know Tierney is resting and I’m takin’ care of Isabelle?”

  “No problem.” Finally a boss-mandated reason to corner that wily woman. “I’ll head up there right now.”

  “Thanks.”

  Hugh returned to the office to tell Tobin he was leaving.

  Tobin had his boots propped up on his desk, his arms folded over his chest, and had tipped his hat over his eyes. He didn’t budge when Hugh’s boot steps sounded across the wooden flooring.

  Everything was low-key here. If Tobin needed a short nap, it was from him starting chores at dawn. Hugh quietly stacked the paperwork he’d been poring over in the file folder and dropped it on Renner’s desk.

  Of the four desks in this cavernous office space, Renner’s stayed the cleanest. Not because the man was a neat freak, but the majority of his work hours were spent at the lodge, where he shared space with his wife. This “barn office” was Hugh and Tobin’s domain. The extra desk gave frequent visitors like Fletch, the veterinarian, and Ike, the cattle broker, a place to work.

  At first he thought Renner had gone off the deep end when he’d sold his holdings in Kansas to purchase land in nowhere Wyoming. He’d worried about the man’s sanity when Renner admitted he planned to build a larger, hardier herd as well as run the Western resort.

  One thing Hugh had never questioned was Renner’s drive to be able to do it all and do it well. Renner had guaranteed he would double Hugh’s salary and dangled possible shares in the business as an added incentive to relocate.

  He’d started his life over in Wyoming without a single regret.

  Until Harlow.

  As Hugh walked past the swimming pool, devoid of Split Rock guests—likely the reason Renner was taking Isabelle swimming—his thought
s scrolled back to the time that summer night three years ago when he’d encountered Harlow at the pool . . .

 
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