Wrapped and strapped, p.8
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.8

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  In the last two years Renner’s first business, Jackson Stock Contracting, had pared down the number of rodeo events it supplied stock to. Since Renner had gotten married and become a father, he hated being away from home. When Renner decided not to bid any new rodeo events last summer, Hugh had kept his mouth shut, figuring it was a temporary situation. But they’d contracted for even fewer rodeos this year. The longer this lull went on, the harder it was to pin Renner down on his future plans for the stock contracting company that Hugh had a stake in.

  “Yeah. The county fair and rodeo in Phillipsburg, Kansas, runs almost a week. Renner will have to miss it this year because of the new baby, but I’ll arrange help.”

  “Your folks still live around them parts?” Tobin asked.

  “Part of the time. The year after I moved to Wyoming, Dad sold the feed store to his nephew, and Mom sold the house to my sister and her husband. Now Mom and Dad live in an RV and are spending their retirement seeing the country.”

  “You have a sister?” Ike said. “Huh. Never hear you talk about her.”

  “That’s because her and me ain’t speakin’.” Hugh swallowed a drink of beer—hard to do through his clenched jaw. He had that reaction every time he thought of Mary.

  “You know I’m gonna ask why.”

  “She sided with my ex-wife and said she didn’t blame her for refusing to move to Wyoming.” A partial truth anyway.

  Tobin whistled. “Harsh, man. So your ex must live around there too.”

  “Yep. I tend to stick close to the stock at the fairgrounds. Their shit is a lot easier to handle than Cleo’s.”

  “I don’t doubt that,” Ike drawled. “Lemme know if you have any hands back out. I could tag along and help.”

  “Thanks. Speaking of helping out . . .” He looked at Tobin. “How’s Flint workin’ out?”

  Ike frowned. “Who’s Flint?”

  “Jaxson Flint. Dodie the cook’s grandson,” Tobin explained. “He’s helping out over the summer doin’ whatever needs done at the lodge and ranch. Since his first name sounds the same as Renner’s last name, we call him Flint.”

  Hugh smirked. “Kid didn’t think ‘Jaxson of all trades’ was funny.”

  “That’s because you scared the piss out of him, Huge.”

  “Fuck off, Toby.”

  Tobin scowled—he hated that nickname.

  “How old is this kid?”

  “Twenty. Why?”

  “Since the Mud Lilies will be around the Split Rock regularly, you might wanna warn him about them. They look harmless and grandmotherly—”

  “But in their cases looks are deceiving.”

  “Right.” Ike lowered his voice. “I’d be afraid they’d wanna test him out as their new flavor.”

  Tobin choked on his beer.

  Which of course drew the Mud Lilies’ attention.

  “What’re you boys whispering about us?” Miz Maybelle demanded.

  “Just wondering if you ladies are staying here to whoop it up. Or if you’re done and we can mosey on home,” Tobin lied with a smile on his face.

  “Well, if there’s no dirty dancin’, I’m ready to leave.” Garnet stood. “Who’s with me?”

  “I am.” Miz Maybelle stood. “It’s early. Let’s head into Rawlins. Gotta be something going on at the Blue Lantern.”

  “Hot damn!” Garnet clapped her hands. “I was afraid I’d wasted this great outfit tonight.”

  Tobin shook his head at Hugh, warning him to say nothing.

  “I suppose if you’re headed into town, I’ll tag along,” Tillie said.

  Pearl pushed to her feet. “Might as well count me in.”

  “You all know very well that I’m the only one with a vehicle big enough to haul all of us, so I’ll drive,” Vivien said.

  That eased Hugh’s mind. Vivien was the youngest in the group and usually the voice of reason. Unless she had a firearm in her hand. Then she became Dirty Harry.

  “You ladies have fun.”

  Garnet got in Tobin’s face. “Remember our deal, Mr. T.”

  “Always on my mind, Miz G. But be smart and safe tonight, just in case, okay?”

  She patted his cheek. “I will.” Then she let out an ear-piercing whistle. “Get a move on, Lilies.”

  After they left, Hugh asked Tobin, “What deal you got cooking with Garnet?”

  “Between us? If she gets arrested, I bail her out.”

  “What’re the odds of that?”

  “All bets are off when it comes to her,” Tobin said. “But I owe her, and that sweet crazy woman won’t let me forget it.”

  Hugh didn’t ask for specifics—he’d be better off not knowing. “You ridin’ back with me?”

  “If Ike’s up for a game of pool, I’ll stick around.”

  “I’m game,” Ike said. “I can run you back out to the Split Rock after.”

  He looked between them. “You two never hang out. You guys havin’ a bromance I didn’t know about?”

  “Call it what you like, but Ike and I are the last two single guys in the group.”

  “I’m single,” Hugh reminded them.

  Tobin shook his head. “Not for long. Once Harlow comes around to your way of thinkin’, you’ll be a couple. The way you refused to be last time.”

  Hugh blushed. “How the fuck did you know about that?”

  “See what I mean, Ike? No one up at the Split Rock gives me a second thought unless they want something from me. But I ain’t invisible or blind.” Tobin paused. “I saw you two making out a bunch of times. I also saw you sneaking into Harlow’s cabin one of the last nights she was here.”

  Panic arose. Who besides Tobin knew that? Renner? Tierney?

  Relax. Tobin keeps shit to himself. Case in point: You didn’t know he’d seen you and Harlow together until tonight. Damn near three years later.

  “Once you pull off this favor for Harlow, you’ll be back in her good graces. Before long she’ll be in your bed. Sooner than later.” He clapped Ike on the back. “So get used to seeing me’n Ike hanging out.”

  In his truck, on the way home, Hugh thought of the phrase good graces and snorted. After their first explosive kiss, he’d run—a stupid response, since he’d been the one to initiate the kiss—and he’d gotten on her bad side. He remembered when his perception about Harlow began to change three years ago, except it hadn’t mattered because he’d let fear rule his actions . . .

  No doubt about it, he never should’ve stopped to sit on that log to enjoy the sunset. Then he wouldn’t have heard Harlow speak with such passion about her life choices. He wouldn’t have seen her in a different light. He wouldn’t have pushed her up against the wall and kissed her like she was light, air and water. He wouldn’t have run from her and kick-started the doubts he thought he’d buried since his divorce.

  He’d been manipulated by a woman like Harlow before, enjoying their banter because it seemed natural. But then he remembered that’s exactly how things had started out with his ex. Funny, sexy teasing that had led them straight to the bedroom. The nastiness hadn’t come until later—but it had come. Her vile words had sliced him to the bone and left his confidence shredded at her feet.

  No. He’d been there, done that, and he wouldn’t ever put himself in that position again.

  But all his mental resilience vanished two weeks after the kissing incident when he witnessed Harlow’s genuinely sweet and thoughtful side. Proof positive she was nothing like his ex-wife.

  He’d been sent up to the Split Rock early in the morning to grab office supplies. The door to the employee break room was open and he heard crying, which had given him pause.

  “Don’t worry, Yvette. I’ll take care of it,” Harlow said.

  More sniffles. “You can’t. It’s not your problem, Harlow. I appreciate that you filled in for me the day I got sick, but this time is different. Dave will understand. We’ll just do it another time.”

  “Bull. You two deserve time away. It’s my day off. It wasn’t
like I had anything special planned.”

  Yvette said something he couldn’t hear.

  Then Harlow’s throaty laughter rang out. “Trust me; it’s much easier to wash sheets and towels in an industrial-sized washing machine than beating the bedding against a rock, which I know from personal experience.”

  Hugh couldn’t figure out what was going on.

  None of your business, man. Move on.

  So he’d done that. Hustled past the room without stopping. He’d loaded up the supplies he needed and returned to the barn office.

  But he’d returned to the lodge four hours later, shocked to see Harlow, wearing a housekeeping uniform, mopping the floor in the great room.

  What the hell?

  Then a guest had stormed up to her, right across the freshly mopped floor. “Excuse me, but it’s after one o’clock and we still haven’t had housekeeping services today.”

  Harlow looked up. “What room are you in?”

  “Eleven.”

  “I apologize for the delay. I’ll be right up to do that.”

  “See that you are.” The woman continued to berate her. “I’m less than impressed with the staff in this place, considering what we’re paying for a night’s stay.”

  Harlow said nothing.

  Hugh had a burst of anger. This was exactly why he’d stayed away from the guests, bunch of entitled-acting assholes.

  The woman stormed off.

  Harlow dragged her bucket back to housekeeping.

  He followed her. But he ducked into the doorway when he saw her pushing the housekeeping cart down the hallway toward the elevator.

  This shit made no sense. Harlow worked in the clothing store and in the bar—not in housekeeping. He wandered into Janie Lawson’s office. A harried-looking Janie nursed a baby while she talked on the phone.

  Yikes. He didn’t need to see that. He backed out before she noticed him.

  Then he reminded himself he had plenty of his own shit to do, without worrying about what weird things were going on up at the lodge. He reminded himself what Harlow did or didn’t do wasn’t his concern.

  Since it’d been hotter than hell in his trailer that night, he’d worked late in the barn office, finalizing the details on travel arrangements for upcoming rodeos. When he’d made the trek back to the employee quarters around eleven thirty, he saw a flash of white blond hair out by the Dumpster. By the time he got there, Harlow was tossing in the last bag of garbage.

  “You’re not supposed to be out here alone.”

  She jumped and whirled around. “Because people can sneak up on me like you just did?”

  “Yep.” He frowned. “What’re you doin’ out this late?” And why was she wearing the bartender uniform? Hadn’t he heard her tell Yvette it was her day off?

  “Tonight’s guests were a bunch of drinkers. I’d still be serving if there weren’t complaints about noise and disgruntled guests asking why the bar hadn’t closed at ten o’clock like it’s supposed to.”

  “Does that happen a lot?”

  She shrugged. “The customer is king. If guests want to stay and drink past closing time and no one complains, the bartender stays.”

  “Is Renner aware this is happening?”

  “I doubt it.”

  “What about Janie?” he demanded. “She’s the GM.”

  “Janie is only back part-time and she’s crazy busy with Harper and Tierney both being gone. Being sleep deprived with a newborn, she’s missed a few things, so bringing up the issue about a few guests wanting to drink late in the bar isn’t a priority.” Harlow yawned. “Look, as much fun as it is to have you chew my ass about doing my freakin’ job, it’s been a long day and I have to be back at it bright and early tomorrow morning.”

  “Why? Are you covering for Yvette tomorrow too?”

  She stilled. “What are you talking about?”

  “I saw you today, Harlow. Mopping floors and then hustling to room eleven to provide housekeeping services. And before that, I overheard you talkin’ to Yvette. So tell me what’s goin’ on.”

  Harlow squared her shoulders and narrowed her eyes. “If I tell you, you have to promise to keep it to yourself.”

  He’d make no such promises if she was doing something stupid, but he nodded anyway.

  “Today is Dave and Yvette’s anniversary. She rented a cabin as a surprise for Dave, so he could do some fly-fishing. But when Janie posted the schedule, she’d forgotten to give Yvette the time off. There’s a no-refund policy for the place Yvette rented and they’ve both worked hard this summer and they deserve a special night away. So I said I’d fill in for her today and tomorrow. No big deal.”

  But it was a big deal. Janie needed to know she’d screwed up. Renner needed to know Janie had screwed up. And they both needed to be aware Harlow had stepped up.

  Then Harlow was in his face. “I know what you’re thinking, Hugh Pritchett, and I promise I’ll be an even bigger pain in your ass if you go running to Renner with this.”

  “It’s his business, Harlow. He deserves to know.”

  “No. He deserves to enjoy time with his wife and his new baby daughter. You aren’t going to pop that bubble of happiness for him. The one little mix-up in staff scheduling has been handled.”

  “So you’ll work yourself to exhaustion?” he demanded. “Let the guests berate you for whatever they want? And the management that caused the screwups is none the wiser?”

  She lifted her chin defiantly.

  “You’ve covered for Yvette before. Anyone else? Tanna?”

  “Why do you care?”

  “I don’t fuckin’ know, okay? It just pissed me off to see that woman chew you out today because her room hadn’t been cleaned on time. And now I find out it’s because you—”

  “Because I’m what? Incompetent? Or do you think I’m afraid to get my hands dirty?” She poked him in the chest. “Let me tell you something: I’m perfectly capable of cleaning a few hotel rooms and mopping floors. I’ve lived in places where I’ve built sleeping areas from nothing but scrap wood and palm leaves, and I had to scrub bedding and mosquito netting every day to ward off poisonous insects, spiders, snakes and frogs.”

  Hugh wrapped his hand around her poking finger. “Don’t assume I intended to insult you.”

  “Why wouldn’t I assume that? You’re always insulting me.”

  “Back atcha, babe. But people in charge should know that you’re doin’ more than your fair share to help out.”

  “Because most of them assume I’m doing less? That I’m just coasting along collecting a paycheck because I’m Tierney’s little sister? I’m some kind of too-good-for-real-work trust fund baby? Wrong. I know what I do to help out. I don’t care what others think. Yvette needed my help and I offered. No big deal.”

  “No big deal, she says. I’m betting it was a big deal to Yvette and Dave.”

  “So what are you gonna do?”

  “I can think of a couple of things I’d like to do to you,” he murmured. Then he curled his hand around the back of her neck and brought their faces within kissing distance.

  This is wrong. Let her go. You know better than to get mixed up with her.

  “Are you waiting for me to make suggestions about what I’d like you to do to me?”

  “Smart-mouth.” He sank his teeth into her bottom lip and she moaned. That moan did him in.

  But Harlow was the one who fused her mouth to his. Who kissed him like she’d been starving for him. And he responded in kind, clamping his other hand on her ass, needing to feel her body pressed against his.

  He wasn’t sure who broke the kiss first. He did remember their mutual shock for making out like fucking teenagers by the goddamned Dumpster. But even then they were reluctant to move apart.

  “I wondered if you’d do that again,” she said softly.

  I hadn’t intended to. “Harlow—”

  “I get it, okay? This isn’t a convenient attraction for you.” She disentangled from his arms.

/>   And he let her.

  “Thanks for your concern about me being overworked, but I can handle it.” She laughed softly. “I can handle that much better than I can handle you.”

  Hugh stood there like a dumb ass and watched her walk away because he didn’t know what to say . . .

  As he parked in front of his cabin and the memory faded, he realized that uncertainty still held true with Harlow. She tied him up in all
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