Wrapped and strapped, p.9
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.9

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  kinds of knots. But at least this time he’d managed to be proactive instead of reactive.

  He just wished he could be there to see the look on her face when the Mud Lilies started to show up as Gene Pratt’s entertainment.

  Chapter Seven

  ‡

  The next afternoon Harlow had been in the office with Janie Lawson, the general manager, when Miz Maybelle appeared, looking younger with her gray hair colored a soft mink brown and styled in an artfully messy array. She wore a flowing summer dress, not her usual muumuu.

  “Well, Miz Maybelle. Don’t you look lovely today,” Janie gushed.

  Miz Maybelle blushed.

  “Have I forgotten about a shareholders’ meeting?” Janie prompted.

  “No. I’m here to spend a few hours with Gene Pratt. So if you could tell me what room I might find him in, I’d appreciate it.”

  After Harlow picked her jaw up off the floor, she managed to say, “Why are you here to see my father?”

  “Hugh mentioned Gene could use some female company and we have agreed to visit him every day.”

  “Who’s we?”

  “The Mud Lilies, of course. We set up a schedule and we’re all taking a turn at entertaining Gene. Today’s my day.”

  “But that’s—”

  “Very sweet of you,” Janie inserted. “And how fun for Gene to get some of the local history. He’s a history buff, isn’t he, Harlow?”

  She just blinked at Miz Maybelle in complete confusion.

  “It’s all right, dear. We’ll take care of your father in the afternoons so you’re off the hook.”

  “Are you sure? He can be a little”—assholish—“prickly.”

  “I’ve dealt with my share of prickly men.”

  “You don’t need me to run interference?”

  “No, honey. I have years of experience in handling a man who’s cooped up and cranky.” Miz Maybelle smiled coyly. “I’m long past needing a chaperone when I entertain a gentleman. So there’s no need to check on us. We’ll be fine.”

  “I’m sure you will be,” Janie said. “Gene is in room four.”

  “Thank you.” Miz Maybelle turned on her kitten heel and left the office.

  Harlow stared after her, dumbfounded.

  “Harlow? Are you all right?” Janie asked.

  “I have no idea.” She looked at Janie. “What just happened?”

  Janie cocked her head and eyed her. “The Mud Lilies know your father is a handsome man, so it isn’t a chore to spend a few hours a week with Mr. Debonair. But I want to know why Hugh approached them on your behalf.”

  “Are you sure Renner didn’t ask Hugh to do this for Tierney?”

  Janie laughed. “Tierney isn’t the one who’s stuck with Gene Pratt. You are. So I have to wonder why Hugh would stick his neck out and ask the Mud Lilies for assistance—god knows that’ll cost him big down the line—when the two of you were constantly at each other’s throats when you worked here before.”

  Heat bloomed on her cheeks. “You were on maternity leave for most of that time, so how would you know that?”

  “Because I get my hair done at Bernice’s Beauty Barn.”

  Like that was any kind of answer.

  “Your point is?” Harlow asked coolly.

  “I don’t care if you and Hugh get involved. You’re both adults. But I would caution you not to play with him.”

  When had she become some sort of femme fatale? How would Janie and everyone else react if she told them Hugh had been the love-’em-and-leave-’em jerk in this scenario?

  Harlow stood. “Thanks for the advice. Later.” She hustled out and didn’t pause when she heard Janie call after her.

  She took a minute to gather her thoughts before she walked into Wild West Clothiers. She’d stopped in a couple of times since she’d landed at the Split Rock again. The place still held that funky, cool Western vibe.

  Harper waved at her from the front counter while she talked on the phone.

  During her summer stint working here, Harlow had preferred bartending in the private bar far more than selling clothing. Tanna Barker, the woman she’d worked with, had the knack for retail sales that Harlow hadn’t.

  Harley, the other employee at Wild West, wandered out from the back room and grinned when she saw Harlow. “Hey, if it isn’t my near twin.”

  With both of them being blond-haired, blue-eyed, both from Chicago and with similar names, they were easily mixed up. A fact that Harley complained about all the time. Evidently in a moment of pregnancy-related amnesia last summer, Harper had introduced Harley as Harlow to Harper’s sister Liberty—and the former soldier still called her by the wrong name.

  “Girl. Haven’t seen you in a couple of days. Is your dad driving you to drink or something?”

  Harlow laughed. “Not yet. But close. Tierney’s been super tired, so I’ve been watching Isabelle.”

  “Tired will be her life,” Harper said, skirting the edge of the counter. “Going from one to two kids is more of a shock than going from two to three kids.”

  “How is it having a houseful of boys?”

  “Awesome. I have the best of all worlds. The boys are either with Bran or at day care for part of the day and then I’m home with them the rest of the time.” Harper hip-checked Harley. “I thought I’d have to close the store when Zinnia quit. Little did I know her sister, Harley was an amazing replacement. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

  Harley offered her boss a tight smile. “At least in the last year you’ve gotten my name right.”

  “Oh, pooh. That was one time.”

  “Wrong. Half the Mud Lilies still call me Harlow.”

  Harley seemed to have way more resentment about the name mix-up than warranted. Harlow muttered, “Guess that’s my answer.”

  “What was the question?” Harper asked.

  She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “I planned to ask if Wild West Clothiers needed part-time help. Not out front,” she clarified. “In the back unpacking boxes or getting shipments ready. But that’d just confuse the Harley and Harlow issue even more.”

  “Add in Harper, and all we need is to hire a Hannah and a Harmony and it’d be chaos.”

  “Don’t forget a Haven,” Harley added.

  “Or a Haley.”

  Harper raised her hand. “All these H names are giving me a headache with a capital H.”

  Harlow snickered.

  “Why would you be looking for work? Aren’t you here just to take care of your dad?” Harley asked.

  Harlow shrugged. “Mostly. And I’m here for whatever Tierney needs. Now that Dad has entertainment in the afternoons, I have free time. Might as well put it to good use.”

  “Man, I’d totally be napping by the pool every afternoon if I had free time,” Harley said. “I thought your family was loaded and you didn’t have to work.”

  “My dad is loaded. That doesn’t mean I am.”

  Harper looked at her strangely but didn’t say anything.

  “We should meet at Buckeye Joe’s one of these nights,” Harley said. “We could pretend to be twins. Nothin’ more fun than getting the local cowboys riled up.”

  “I thought you were engaged?” Harlow said.

  “I am. Gets my man all riled up too.” Harley winked. “Gotta love a man who’ll come after you with everything he has.”

  Those words sent ice into Harlow’s soul.

  She backtracked to the door. “I’ll think about it. Nice seeing both of you.”

  “Later, Harley,” Harper teased.

  Harlow walked down the deserted hallway. Only after she’d hit the sunshine and fresh air did she feel like she could breathe again. She slid down the metal door and sat on the concrete. Wrapping her arms around her shins, she pressed her forehead to her knees and inhaled several long breaths.

  Why did everyone treat her like she was some kind of man-eater? Or a cocktease? Why did everyone look at her and assume she was a heartbreaker? That she
’d somehow emasculate the guys she dated?

  Her counselor’s words echoed in her head: You were a victim, Harlow. He preyed on you. Repeat after me: This is not my fault.

  As much as she didn’t want to remember when Hugh had accused her of being a cocktease, she’d gladly revisit that memory if it knocked the other, uglier ones back down into the dark hole where they belonged. Her thoughts drifted to that scorching summer day when she’d finally stood up for herself . . .

  Sweat trickled down her spine. She closed her eyes, trying to think cool thoughts as she fanned herself with a magazine. Why was her cabin so freakin’ hot? She’d opened all the doors and windows, hoping to catch a breeze, because the wind always blew in Wyoming.

  Except today.

  “Harlow?” The voice that echoed through the screen door was guaranteed to heat her up.

  “Come in, it’s open, but I’ll warn you it’s hot as sin in here.”

  Hugh wandered in and stopped in the middle of the room. The big, bad cowboy looked wary. Like she might shed her clothes and attack him.

  His sexy scowl and prim attitude annoyed her. She’d had enough of his hot and cold behavior. For the last two weeks after the Dumpster incident, she’d treated him politely but coolly whenever they’d crossed paths. She was tempted to ask, “What’s brought you into the lair of the seductress? Aren’t you worried about compromising your virtue?” Right. She defined seductress in her running shorts and a camisole. Instead, she cut to the chase. “Why are you here, Hugh?”

  “I was sent to remind you there’s a Split Rock shareholders’ meeting in an hour.”

  “So? I’m not a shareholder.”

  “But you are a bartender. Renner wants you there.”

  So much for her day off. But at least the lounge was air-conditioned. “I’ll be there.”

  Hugh looked around. “Why’s it so damn hot in here?”

  “Because I was practicing Bikram yoga.”

  He blinked at her.

  “Sorry, I guess that’s not a joke that a non-yogi would get. It’s hot in here because the air conditioner crapped out.”

  “Did you call Dave?”

  “Yes. Evidently it’s supposed to be his day off too and he’s in Rawlins with Yvette.”

  “He’d come back if you told him it’s an emergency.”

  Harlow frowned at him. “But it’s not an emergency. It’s just hot.”

  “The hell it’s not. You could roast marshmallows in here.”

  “It’ll cool down when it gets dark.”

  “That’s hours away.” He sighed. “Fine. I’ll take a look at it. Where’s the mechanical room?”

  She showed him to the tiny closet beside the back door.

  With no time to wash her bartending uniform, she sprayed it with Febreze. She hung it by the front door. Too hot to change here; she’d get dressed at the lodge.

  Feeling sluggish, she walked to the sink for a glass of water. All she’d managed to accomplish today was grocery shopping, since she’d gotten tired of living on peanut butter and celery the past two days. She wasn’t thrilled working six days a week. After her former coworker Tanna had gone off to stage a comeback in her barrel-racing career, Harlow worried everyone had forgotten hawking clothing and slinging drinks at the Split Rock wasn’t her chosen career. Just a pit stop.

  Since Tierney had had no issues delivering Isabelle, and her mental well-being and physical health were excellent, Harlow wondered why she was still in Wyoming. She could pinpoint exactly when her restlessness had started: when Tanna finally wised up and let Fletch know how she felt about him. It’d driven home the point that Harlow wouldn’t be so lucky to meet her soul mate here.

  Heavy footsteps sounded behind her.

  She spun away from the sink and faced Hugh. “Did you fix it?”

  “It’s beyond my repair skills. I did manage to shut off the hot air blasting from your fan, which was why it’s so damn hot in here.”

  He’d ditched his long-sleeved shirt and wore a ribbed tank top that revealed an impressive amount of chest hair as well as his muscular arms. His skin glistened with sweat, which made the shirt stick to his spectacular pecs.

  Hugh said “blah blah Freon” and “blah blah iced-over copper tubing,” but Harlow had zeroed in on a smudge of grease on his belly that looked like an arrow pointing straight to the Promised Land.

  The man was so yummy. She’d like to follow the rivulets of sweat down the front side of his body with her tongue. And then with her teeth.

  When the silence registered, she looked up.

  Hugh had propped his hands on his hips.

  “Umm, sorry. What did you say?”

  “I asked if you wanted me to drop my pants so you could get an eyeful of my junk, since you’re standin’ there licking your damn lips while lookin’ at my crotch.”

  “I am?”

  “Don’t pretend you haven’t been eye-fucking me since I walked in here.” Then he loomed over her, his hands gripping her upper arms. “You get off bein’ a cocktease, don’t you?”

  Cocktease? Harlow wrenched herself from him. “If anyone is a cocktease, it’s you.”

  That startled him. “How do you figure that?”

  “You kissed me first.”

  “You were dirty dancing with me before that.”

  “Yeah? What about when you kissed me again?”

  “That was a few weeks after you dropped your towel and bared your naked body to me, Harlow.”

  “And then you kissed me again.”

  Silence.

  “That one was all on you. I did nothing to provoke you into kissing me with my evil temptress ways.”

  His jaw tightened. “Fuck.”

  “I liked it better when you were insulting me. At least I knew where I stood.”

  “I haven’t done that since you first got here.”

  “Exactly. Now whenever we try to have a conversation, it ends up with you kissing me and running away. You’ve done that what? Three times now? I didn’t ask you to come to my house. But you’re here, with fewer clothes on than I’ve ever seen on you, so, yeah. You’re built and I happen to like chest hair a lot. Big surprise I’m gonna look at you.”

  He said nothing.

  “So here’s what’s gonna happen.” She slid her hands up his muscled chest, stopping to sweep her thumbs over his chest before she curled her fingers around the back of his neck. “This time, I’m kissing you first.”

  She pulled his mouth down to hers. But she didn’t devour him; she acted every bit the cocktease he accused her of being. She wet her lips and glided them across his. She placed a kiss on each corner of his mouth. Then when his mouth fell open slightly, she paused and let his breath mix with hers. Building up to the moment when her tongue darted in to lick the inside of his lower lip. Back and forth, deeper and deeper until she felt the scrape of his teeth on the bottom of her tongue. She did the same teasing maneuver on his upper lip, licking and teasing until he whispered, “That tickles.”

  “What about this?” She flicked her tongue in until it met his.

  His answer was a deep groan.

  That’s when she gave in and kissed him with all she had. Dueling tongues, moans exchanged every time she changed the angle of her head to keep him guessing. To keep him chasing her mouth.

  Hugh’s hands were everywhere. One twined in her hair. The other squeezing her ass, then slipping around to grip her hip. Sweeping up the sides of her body before cupping her breast. Tweaking her nipple. Moving up to trace her collarbone, his fingertips lightly dusted over her bare shoulder. He switched hands, maintaining a firm grip on her hair, reversing his path down the other side.

  Harlow imagined him dragging his lips down her body. His beard scraping against every inch of her skin.

  The kiss slowed, almost to the point where it stopped completely,
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