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

  Hugh stayed quiet.

  “Bored with me already? I know you think I’m a hippie, who’s all, peace, love and pass the bong. So I’ll go and get started on those hash brownies.”

  “Stay.” He clamped his hand on her knee. “Talk to me. I did miss you.”

  The heat of his hand left a hot imprint on her skin. His words caused a hot flutter of hope. “What do you want to talk about?”

  “Tell me about your causes.”

  “Huh. That didn’t sound sarcastic.”

  He laughed. “Smart-ass. It wasn’t.”

  “Okay. What do you want to know about them?”

  “I want to know about you. Why do you do it?”

  Harlow tamped down her annoyance, reminding herself this was a teaching opportunity for her and a chance to open his mind. “I do it because I believe one person helping another person can make a difference.”

  He nodded.

  “I give my time to humanitarian agencies that are not affiliated with a specific religion or political persuasion. While missionaries have done some incredible things, others have done serious damage to indigenous people’s beliefs. I don’t think a starving child needs to profess fealty to a certain god to get a damn sandwich.”

  He choked on his beer.

  “But I also think Third World countries that rely on secular organizations with values that aren’t in line with their beliefs are creating larger problems.”

  “Such as?”

  “Wars, for one thing. Then it’s a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.” She slipped her ponytail holder free and shook out her hair. “Even attempting to pick up the pieces after war is tricky—so I avoid the groups that specialize in rebuilding. I choose shorter assignments.”

  “Why?”

  “Keeps attachment at a manageable level. I’ve seen friends get sucked into that ‘the earth is a village’ mentality. They become too attached and can’t be objective—they believe in their indispensability. That’s the whole purpose of why I volunteer. Many of the places I go . . . things have been done a certain way for generations. If we can show them little changes that will increase their standard of living as well as their longevity, then our work is done and it’s time to move on.” She felt him staring at her, practically with his mouth hanging open. “What? Is my bleeding heart showing?”

  He shook his head.

  “Then what?”

  “Just surprised.”

  “That I use my head for more than a place to put my hat?”

  “Ouch. Nice shot at the guy actually wearin’ a hat,” he drawled.

  Harlow smirked. “If the Stetson fits . . .”

  Hugh laughed.

  “So why were you looking at me like you’d never seen me before?”

  “Maybe because it’s the first time I’ve seen you beyond the antagonistic, opportunistic brat you present yourself as.”

  “Is there a compliment in there?”

  “Why, darlin’? Do you need one?”

  “Yes, especially since you saw me naked at the pool two weeks ago and didn’t offer me one then.”

  “My damn tongue was hanging out so far I couldn’t speak.”

  Delicious warmth spread through her. So what if he’d been drinking? She’d bask in his compliment. See if she couldn’t prompt him to offer more. “Maybe you oughta open your mouth so I can see if the silver side of your tongue is still up.”

  “You’re flirtin’ with me, hippie-girl?”

  Harlow cocked her head. “Be honest, cattleman. Isn’t that what we’ve both been doing since the moment we met?”

  Hugh seemed to consider that. Then he grinned. A grin that managed to be sexy, naughty and shy. Sexy and naughty fit, but the gruff demeanor and the squinty-eyed Eastwood stare had never hinted at shy.

  Nevertheless, the potency of Hugh’s smile turned her mouth as dry as Wyoming dirt. She swallowed hard. And that appeared to amuse him. It also encouraged him, because he leaned close enough the brim of his hat cast a shadow over her.

  “Why?”

  “Why what?”

  “Why me? Tobin wants a piece of you—and I don’t mean that in a crude way.”

  “How do you mean it?”

  “He’s a good guy. He’d treat you like gold.”

  “Is this your way of warning me that you’d treat me like crap?”

  “What if I said yes?”

  Harlow laughed. Then she swiped his bottle of beer and took a long pull. “I’d say I never pegged you for a liar.”

  “You tryin’ to goad me into proving you right? Or wrong?”

  “Neither.” She passed the beer back to him and watched as he drained the remainder. Why did it seem so intimate that his lips were on the same spot hers had just been?

  When he continued to stare at her, Harlow stood. She wanted to leave things on a good note. “Thanks for the conversation and the beer. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  She’d made it about three steps before a strong arm banded across her middle, yanking her back against the solid wall of his chest. She might’ve heard the clink of the beer bottle hitting the ground, but any coherent train of thought vanished when Hugh’s mouth brushed her ear.

  “Why are you running?”

  “I’m not running.”

  His soft chuckle reverberated in her ear, shooting a hot tingle straight down her spine. “You think I haven’t imagined havin’ that hot fuckin’ mouth of yours on mine? You think I haven’t wanted every inch of this soft, curvy body pressed against me?”

  “You have?” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

  “Yes. But I sure as fuck ain’t gonna act on it and take the kiss I want out here where anyone can see us.”

  His words—his intent, his problem—weren’t lost on her. He wanted her; but he didn’t want to want her. “Let me go. Wouldn’t want to ruin your reputation by being seen with me.”

  That startled him and his hand fell away.

  Harlow seized her chance to escape. She ran up the hill toward the lodge. She’d surround herself with people, knowing Hugh wouldn’t track her down. No matter how strong the attraction was between them, no way in hell would she be his—or any other man’s—dirty little secret.

  Before she’d cleared the side of the building, she was spun around and pushed up against the wall.

  The ferocity blazing in his eyes wasn’t from anger. But she had less than two seconds to contemplate Hugh’s look of lust before his hands were framing her face and his mouth was crashing down on hers.

  Passion poured from him. In the hungry and wild way his tongue invaded her mouth. In the authoritative manner in which his body imprisoned hers. In the utter control he took in kissing her.

  His way.

  Harlow blindly reached for some part of him—any part—that would hold her up. Because if seeing Hugh grin at her turned her knees weak? Kissing the man turned her entire body boneless.

  Her fingers connected with the waistband of his jeans and she gripped the denim tightly, inadvertently pulling him closer.

  He growled. The sound vibrated from his chest into her mouth and down to her core, spreading his nonverbal admission of need throughout her body.

  His mouth commanded hers, yet his big hands remained both firm and gentle. The fixed grip of his fingertips on her head and the tender stroking motion of his thumbs over her cheekbones were overwhelming.

  Neither of them wanted the kiss to end, so it went on and on, in greedy, wet glory that consumed them both.

  Eventually their need for air forced them to break apart. Harlow kept her eyes closed as she angled her head away from temptation.

  “Fuck,” he muttered against her cheek.

  “What?” she managed to wheeze.

  “That ain’t gonna be enough.”

  She knew that. She just didn’t know what she—they—could do about it.

  “Got nothin’ to say to that?” Hugh murmured, and the deep rumble of his voice vibrated in her ear.

  H
arlow looked up at him and the top of her head bumped into his cowboy hat. “I’m thinking we’re better together when we don’t talk.”

  “Can’t argue with that.” He slanted his mouth over hers for another very hot, very long, very thorough kiss.

  The night might’ve progressed differently if a passel of kids hadn’t burst out the door, setting off the emergency exit alarm.

  Hugh had released her so quickly she worried she might’ve caught on fire.

  And then she was staring at his back as he walked down the hill. Frustrated, she yelled, “Who’s running now?”

  That didn’t even put a stutter in his step.

  As she’d listened to the emergency alarm shrieking, she’d decided to take that as a warning sign herself and vowed to stay the hell away from Hugh Pritchett . . .

  You’d be wise to follow that same advice now.

  No kidding.

  She shook her head to clear it. Next time she’d have more fortitude when Hugh put his lips close to hers.

  Speaking of fortitude . . . she inhaled a deep breath and opened the door to her father’s room.

  Chapter Six

  ‡

  Early that evening Hugh, Tobin and Ike sat across from the Mud Lilies at Buckeye Joe’s.

  A disgruntled group of Mud Lilies. Not even a round of zombie killers had sweetened their sour moods.

  Garnet turned an accusing eye on Tobin. “I thought you invited us because you were bringing us a new flavor.” Her gaze moved over him, Hugh and Ike. “You three are the same damn flavors we’ve seen all year.”

  Tobin leaned forward. “Miz Garnet, with all due respect, I said we were asking you here because we needed a favor, not to offer you a flavor.”

  “I know what I heard, Mr. T.” She shook her finger at him. “And I ain’t seen none of that dirty dancin’ like you see on that TV show you promised me neither.”

  Hugh took in Garnet’s outfit. She looked ready for an episode of What Not to Wear, not Dancing with the Stars. She’d worn acid green and bright pink cowgirl boots, athletic socks that reached the base of her bony knees, a pleated white tennis skirt and a pink sequined headband that pushed her hair up like Don King’s. But the crowning touch was the black satin tank top with Disco Sucks written in rhinestones across the front.

  Miz Maybelle had opted to one-up her friend in outrageous clothing by donning a purple zebra print muumuu. She elbowed Garnet. “You’re supposed to wear your hearing aid when you talk on the phone, remember?”

  Before Garnet lit into her, Pearl slammed her camo-gloved hand on the table. “I’m missing a new episode of The Forensic Files because I thought we were here to meet some new young men.”

  Ike lowered his beer bottle. “New young men? Why would you need them when you’ve got us?”

  “Well, dumplin’, you can’t deny that there used to be twice as many of you,” Tilda said sweetly. “Bran was the first to fall after Hank. Then Abe, then Kyle. Doc Fletcher and Eli are tied down. Devin got hitched. Even Max finally made an honest woman outta Kylie last year. So there used to be ten or eleven of you young bucks hanging around us all the time. Now there are only you three.” She tilted her head and her beret nearly slid over her face. “And where’s Holt? I ain’t seen that boy in a coon’s age.”

  “That’s because he works too damn hard,” Bernice declared.

  “So we ain’t good enough for you anymore?” Ike demanded.

  Vivien mediated. “Of course you are. But there’s not nearly enough of you. We liked coming here and being outnumbered by strapping young men, pretending we had you wrapped around our fingers. Everywhere else we go we’re surrounded by women. Widows, mostly.”

  “Backstabbing bitties is what most of ’em are,” Garnet tossed out. “They wouldn’t know fun if it chomped them on their fat arses.”

  “All y’all except Bernice are widows,” Tobin pointed out.

  “But, sugar lump, we’re fun widows,” Tilda said.

  No argument there. “Which is why you lovely ladies were the first ones who came to mind when I needed to ask a favor,” Hugh said.

  “What kind of favor?” Pearl asked skeptically.

  “You all know that Tierney and Harlow’s father, Gene, has been recuperating at the Split Rock. He could use some pretty new faces to keep him company for an hour a day or so.”

  Silence.

  Harlow had been wrong; he sucked at this sweet-talkin’ bullshit.

  Sherry Gilchrist, Kyle’s mother and part owner of the Buckeye, sauntered over. “Why so glum, chums?”

  “Because our handsome friends have asked us to play nursemaid to that dickhead who almost destroyed the Split Rock,” Bernice said with a bitter edge. “I’m shocked that you would even ask us. I’m outta here.” Bernice stood, shouldered her suitcase-sized purse and stomped off.

  Hugh, Tobin and Ike exchanged a look.

  “Oh, she’s full of poo,” Miz Maybelle said. “She’s using your request as an excuse to leave because they’re running marathons of Tabatha’s Salon Takeover and Blow Out and her DVR is busted.”

  Tilda, Garnet, Pearl and Vivien all nodded in agreement.

  “Fill me in on what I missed,” Sherry said. After the ladies finished, Sherry shrugged. “I’ll do it. No problem. Because unlike some people”—she aimed a reproving look at the other women at the table—“I appreciate what you boys have done for me and I’m happy to repay you any way I can.”

  Boys. Hugh snorted. He’d hit the thirty-one mark last month. He hadn’t been a boy in years.

  But Sherry wasn’t finished. “And I expected better outta you Mud Lilies. These guys have helped you out whenever you’ve asked. They’re always just a phone call away.”

  It was the first time he’d seen the feisty group look remorseful.

  “If you don’t do it for them, do it for Tierney and Harlow. Remind yourselves that it could be you one of these days, stuck in a room due to an unexpected health issue, annoying your children and begging for visitors.” Then Sherry smirked. “Plus, due to Mr. Pratt’s ultimatums and shortsightedness, you all became part owners of a successful Western resort. Won’t it feel good to rub that in his face? In person?”

  The ladies didn’t speak. They exchanged looks and head nods. One at a time they put their hands in the middle of the table like an athletic team before a game. Pearl yelled “Break,” and then said, “We’re in. I’ll coordinate the scheduling of what times work best for each of us.”

  “None of the times can conflict with our reserved hours on the range,” Miz Maybelle reminded Pearl.

  “Jumping Jehoshaphat, I know that! The sheriff made it very clear we’re not allowed there without law enforcement supervision.”

  “Reenact William Tell with a cantaloupe and a forty-five, just one time, and everyone looks at you sideways. It’s not fair,” Vivien complained. “It wasn’t like I missed.”

  Then the ladies all started talking at once, tossing out their various activities—kickboxing and yoga classes, billiards practice, tatting lessons, daily devotionals and preservation society meetings—for consideration in scheduling.

  Hugh grinned. Harlow would be shocked that he’d upheld his end of the deal so fast. And Gene Pratt wouldn’t know what the hell had hit him when these ladies started showing up.

  “So what gives, Hugh?”

  He glanced up. “What do you mean?”

  “Why’re you calling in favors?” Tobin asked. “Is this something that Tierney asked Renner to do and he passed the buck on to you?”

  “No. This has nothin’ to do with either of them. Harlow is frazzled by her dad’s demands and I figured a few fresh faces visiting him would take some of the stress off her.”

  Tobin eyed him with suspicion.

  Hugh changed the subject and addressed Ike. “Where are you off to next?”

  “Colorado. A longtime customer is selling off his entire herd. His wife recently died and he’s done in. Poor guy.” He paused to take a drink. “What about
you? Isn’t it about time for that rodeo near your hometown?”

 
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