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Wrangled and tangled, p.1
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       Wrangled and Tangled, p.1

         Part #3 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 



  Chapter One

  Janie Fitzhugh had a new rule: Never make drunken promises at a bachelorette party.

  When she’d hit the local honky-tonk for Harper Masterson’s big blowout, Harper’s former nail clients—all women over the age of seventy—insisted on buying multiple X-rated shots, including a tasty little one called a cowboy cocksucker. She’d lost track of the number she’d consumed and vaguely remembered dancing on the bar with a firecracker of a woman named Garnet. Evidently Janie had a rip-roaring time; too bad she had zero recollection of her actions after the karaoke started. Evidently she’d also promised her ex-husband, Abe Lawson, she’d owe him a favor—any favor—if he took her drunken ass home.

  A favor Abe had waited a whole week to collect on.

  So that’s how Janie found herself driving to the Lawson ranch on a beautiful fall morning, half in disbelief she was returning to the one place she swore she’d never go again.

  As she started up the long, winding driveway, past the haystacks, the refueling station, the hopper that released the livestock supplement known as “cake,” she expected to see the same old, same old. Most ranchers were averse to any kind of change, which was one of the main issues she’d had with Abe. He maintained the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude in all aspects of his life.

  At first, she’d really loved Abe’s steadfastness. But eventually that trait had driven them apart.

  Not that you’re completely blameless. When Abe swept you off your feet, giving you everything you told him that you wanted, how could you fault him for being the man you’d fallen in love with?

  So the improvements shocked her. The dull gray house had been repainted a vibrant shade of terra-cotta. The front deck had been revamped with the addition of a sheltered arbor and a wooden porch swing. A new split rail fence separated the yard from the pasture and disappeared around the back of the house.

  The outlying areas between the house and outbuildings no longer had piles of busted farm machinery, abandoned vehicles, and stacks of warped lumber. How much of the cleanup had been Hank’s wife’s doing? The cluttered state never bothered any of the Lawson siblings when Janie lived here.

  The enormous wooden barn had retained the charming, weathered look. It was sandwiched between the machine shed and a new metal structure twice the size of the old one.

  She parked behind a 350 Cummins diesel truck caked with mud. Made no sense why she experienced a bout of nerves.

  How many times had she come home from a long day of classes to see Abe leaning against the porch rail, waiting for her with a smile on his face? No one had been as happy to see her since. Maybe she was disappointed he wasn’t waiting for her like he used to. Shoving aside her melancholy, she climbed out of her car.

  Janie admired the new concrete walkway crafted to resemble a cobblestone path. She resisted smoothing her hair or adjusting her clothes after she knocked on the door.

  The door swung inward. Abe smiled at her. “Hey. Come on in.”

  Wasn’t it grossly unfair he looked better now than he had when she’d married him almost eleven years ago?

  Maybe it’s poetic justice since you left him.

  His gaze moved over her, head to toe, as sensual as a full-body caress. “You look great even when you’re fixin’ to clean the basement. I always admired that about you.”

  “You’re kidding, right?”

  “Nope. I say what I mean, Janie. You know that about me.”

  Maybe it’s time you stop kidding yourself you’re immune to his attempts to lure you into his lair for a little mattress dancing.

  Hah. Janie wasn’t immune to him. Not even freakin’ close.

  And the hell of it was, his damn cowboy charm was weakening her resolve not to get mixed up with him again. They’d been divorced eight years. She was over him. She’d been over him a long time.

  Hadn’t she?

  “Janie?”

  Meeting his gaze, she swallowed a purely feminine moan. Abe Lawson had the most beautiful eyes—silvery-gray offset by long, thick black eyelashes. Yet he hadn’t mastered the art of masking his feelings. They’d always been right there, bold and unapologetic. Like now.

  Intent. Fortitude. Amusement. Lust.

  Then he violated her personal space, moving close enough she caught a whiff of his cologne. Not the Chaps scent she remembered but a woodsy, skin-warmed aroma that encouraged her traitorous brain to purr, what are you waiting for? Hot man, hot skin, hot damn.

  “Cat got your tongue, cupcake?” he drawled.

  “No. Seems a little weird to be here.” Janie stepped around him and into the entryway. Boxes of ceramic tile were piled next to the wall and new mortarboard spread to the edge of the carpet.

  “Watch your step. It’s a mess. I hope to get back to it this week.”

  “I didn’t know you could tile, Abe.”

  “I didn’t either. Not until we started putting the finishing touches on Hank and Lainie’s house. Found out it ain’t as hard as I thought.”

  “I’m sure it’ll look great when you’re done. Can I see the tile?”

  Abe pulled out a square from the top box. “Nothin’ fancy.”

  The tile was swirled with brown and rust in a random pattern, but wasn’t plain. “I like it.”

  “Thanks.” Abe set the tile back and gestured for her to precede him past the wall separating the entryway from the living room.

  Now this room had sustained major improvements. The frayed orange and brown sofa patterned with horses? Gone. As were the matching tangerine-colored corduroy side chairs. Abe’s late mother’s knickknacks no longer adorned all available shelf space. The room was typical bachelor, puffy tan couches with built-in recliners. A ginormous TV. A sturdy wooden coffee table piled with remotes. The only reminder of his parents was the family picture on the wall and the crocheted afghan draped over the back of the couch.

  “I know it ain’t up to the decorating standards of the Split Rock.”

  Ooh. Snap. Janie bristled. “I wasn’t comparing, if that’s what you’re getting at. I was trying to remember what it used to look like.”

  The tense lines around his mouth relaxed. “I’d think you’d remember in detail, since I pretty much forbid you from making any changes after we got married, didn’t I?”

  “Probably. But I was moving into your home with your family, so I didn’t push it.”

  “I shoulda tried harder to make it our home.” Abe rubbed the back of his neck. “I did some dumb things, Janie. You can’t know how sorry I am.”

  As thoughtful as his apology was, she waved him off. Playing the blame game now was pointless. “You said those boxes were downstairs?” She cut through the kitchen to the door that led into the basement.

  “Careful you don’t trip,” he said as he followed her.

  The lights were already on. This room hadn’t changed a bit. Wood-paneled walls. Floral curtains covering the small windows. Beanbag chairs held together with duct tape. Olive green shag carpeting. Reader’s Digest condensed books filled shelves. Along with board games she’d remembered: Life, Battleship, Mouse Trap, Chinese checkers. She and Celia had spent hours challenging each other, since Abe and Hank had been too busy or they believed it too juvenile to play board games with their little sister. Somehow in the bitterness of her marriage ending, she’d forgotten those happy times spent with Celia, munching popcorn, listening to the country tunes on the boom box.

  Janie focused on the stacks of boxes rather than the memories. “Remind me again where you got all of this stuff?”

  “My ex-girlfriend Nancy. She had so many boxes in her garage she had no place to park her car. I swear the whole reason she was dating me was to get rid of all this crap.”

  “Oh, I’m
sure there were other reasons.” One nine-inch reason in particular popped into her head.

  Not productive. Think of something else.

  How about his muscled chest spattered with just the right amount of dark hair? Or those perfect buns, tight and muscular from years in the saddle? Or those wonderfully callused hands? Or that heated look Abe got in his eye when he—

  “Janie?”

  She jumped. What was wrong with her? She wasn’t supposed to be imagining her ex-husband naked. “Sorry. I’m just trying to figure out a starting point.” She ducked her head to hide the blush and opened the closest box. “First we should determine what to do with the clothing I don’t want.”

  “I’m tempted to throw it all in the garbage. But that seems wasteful, don’t it?”

  “Yes. Especially after keeping it all this time.” Janie peered up at Abe. “How long has this stuff been down here?”

  “Since last Christmas.” He winced. “I have to pass by it when I use the laundry room. Every time I think I’ll take care of it next week. And then I never do.”

  “Because you don’t want to let go of Nancy?”

  He snorted. “Not even close.”

  Outdated, matronly styles filled the first box and wouldn’t fit the hip, retro theme of the resort’s Western store, Wild West Clothiers. If all the boxes contained these types of clothes, they’d be done lickety-split. “Let’s put the stuff I’m not taking in garbage bags.”

  “I’ll grab some.” Abe disappeared up the stairs.

  The next box had two funky vintage Western shirts and a denim skirt that went into the keep pile.

  By the time Abe returned with a roll of garbage bags, she’d cleared another box. “Look at you go.”

  “I’m a woman on a mission.” She scrutinized a paisley scarf. If Harper couldn’t sell it she’d probably craft a headband out of it. The woman had a knack for recycling old pieces into new and had an eye for style, which was why she and Renner had hired her to run the store.

  A heavy male sigh echoed. “I’m standing here doin’ nothin’.”

  “That’s because I want you to rest up all those big muscles. I’ll use you later.” Janie glanced over at him. “You okay with that?”

  “Ah. Sure.” He tugged on the collar of his shirt. “Is it getting hot in here, or is it just me?”

  “Must just be you.” She shook out a floral sweater and caught a glimpse of Abe as he unbuttoned his cuffs.

  Oh no. He wasn’t stripping—yep—off went his gray shirt, leaving him in a white wife beater. Ow wow. Had his chest always been that broad? Had his biceps always been that big? Had his forearms always bulged with ropy muscle? Had his stomach always been that flat?

  “Lemme bring these to you.” Abe dragged the boxes closer, which seemed to strain his back muscles until those strong, tight cords of flesh rippled beautifully beneath his skin. He stood fewer than two feet away from her, breathing hard.

  Wowza. He wasn’t the only one breathing hard. Something about seeing the man in heavy work mode had always tripped her trigger.

  You’ll get eyestrain if you keep gawking at him like that.

  They worked in silence. Although Janie feigned the utmost concentration on unpacking, she was hyperaware of Abe’s every move. Of his every toiling muscle. Of his every labored breath. “Were you serious about wanting to redo the basement?”

  “Nah. I just wanted to lure you down here so we could relive the washing machine episode.” He paused and peeped at her from beneath those absurdly long eyelashes. “Do you remember?”

  A wave of heat blasted her. They’d been out checking cattle on the ATV and it’d started to pour. By the time they returned home, their clothes were soaked. She’d insisted they strip in the entryway and she’d carried the sopping bundle down to the laundry room, expecting Abe would take his shower first. But he’d followed her. After the washer lid had slammed, he’d been on her. Dropping to his knees and making her come with his mouth, before stretching her across the washer and taking her from behind as the machine kicked into the spin cycle. It’d been a sizzling encounter because it was so out of character for Abe—and out of the norm for them. Living with two other people—his younger brother and sister—restricted their amorous activities to the bedroom.

  She lifted her gaze to his. Her heart sped up witnessing the fire in his eyes. “Of course I remember. It was one of the few times we were . . .”

  Abe inched closer. “We were what?”

  “Alone. Sexually spontaneous.”

  “Sad state of our marriage, doncha think?”

  “It was what it was.”

  “You can’t know how that eats at me.” He reached out to touch her, but dropped his hand at the last second. “I wasn’t aware of the mistakes I’d made with you until Hank and Lainie got married.”

  “Abe—”

  “I’m sorry. So goddamned sorry. If I could go back . . .”

  “You can’t. It wouldn’t change anything. We both made mistakes.”

  His gray eyes searched hers carefully. “Are you saying it was a mistake when you left me?”

  The last thing she needed was to justify why she’d left him. The mistakes hadn’t been all his, but she would’ve suffocated if she’d stayed here. There was no way she could tell Abe that without revisiting the pain they’d caused each other when she’d walked out. She smiled at him softly. “I’m saying we have a lot more boxes to get through. Let’s not dwell on stuff that doesn’t matter now.”

  Abe didn’t argue. After a bit, he said, “I did ask you here for your professional advice. I don’t want to spiff up the downstairs for Celia. I want to do it for me.”

  “That’s surprising.”

  “Why?”

  It’d dredge up the past they were tiptoeing around if she pointed out how rarely Abe had done things for himself. His efforts had been ranch or family focused. “You considered the basement Celia’s domain.”

  “I ain’t kiddin’ myself that Celia will ever live here again for any length of time.”

  Janie smoothed the wrinkles out of a sleeveless red and white checked blouse. “If she finds her dream guy will she inherit a chunk of Lawson land to build her own place so she can be close to family?”

  “I guess we’ll see. Something’s changed in her. She always was a little naïve and I blame me’n Hank for that. We overprotected her. Set down ultimatums—which is something I was good at, huh?”

  “You’ve had your moments.”

  “Like I said, I have changed. So has Celia. Now she’s quick to leave a situation if it riles her in some way.”

  “Meaning what?”

  “Meaning the Celia we raised never backed down from a confrontation with me or Hank or any of the guys she’s been around her whole life. Now she walks away.”

  “You don’t see that as a sign she’s grown up? Grown out of her mouthy ways?” After the words tumbled free, Janie wished she’d kept her trap shut. Abe had always leapt to Celia’s defense—no matter what. It’d been another sticking point in their marriage.

  Abe shook his head. “I’m guessing life on the road shocked her more than she’d imagined. Anytime I’ve tried to talk to her about it, she clams up. Anyway, I don’t need her approval for the changes I intend to make to my house. Especially after sharing it for so many years and taking what everyone else wanted into account.”

  “Whole basement remodel or just one room?” At his confused look, she clarified, “If you want to update the bathroom or the bedrooms, the time to do it is when the place is ripped to shreds. Not two or three years down the road.”

  Abe’s gaze encompassed the space. “Does it need that?”

  In lieu of answering, she lobbed a hideous mustard yellow sweater at the throw pile.

  “Come on, Janie,” he cajoled. “Tell me what you’d do to set up my man cave in style.”

  “I’d knock down the walls of Celia’s bedroom, adding space onto this room and turning that area into a bar. Then I’d take out
the tub/shower combo in the bathroom and install a walk-in glass-walled shower. Building a small half wall would hide the toilet and allow for a double sink vanity. I’d have the décor in the guest bedroom be something fun and funky and totally unexpected.” Janie glanced up when Abe stayed quiet. “What? Sound too extreme?”

  “No. It sounds exactly like what I want.”

  “Really?”

  “Yep. Any chance you could get goin’ on this soon? Granted, I’ll need time to dig up the coffee cans in the backyard to pay for it.”

  She balled up a polka-dotted turtleneck and threw it at him. “Smart-ass.”

  He grinned and threw the shirt right back at her. “I am serious. Holt’s crew is almost done with Bran and Harper’s remodel. I’d like to get him booked for this project before someone else snaps him up.”

  “He’s your friend. Why don’t you call him up and book him?”

  Abe shifted his stance. “Because I’m not sure he’d believe me since I’ve always done the construction around here myself. If you tell him I hired you to design the space and I want him to construct it, it’ll sound more official.”

  “And it won’t give you an opportunity to back out.”

  He nodded. “That’ll also let him know you think he’s a worthy contractor.”

  Janie stilled. “Why would it matter to him what I think?”

  “Not you personally. But with all the construction up at the Split Rock, it’s been sticking in his craw he wasn’t hired for any of it. Especially after Renner made such a big deal about wanting to hire locally.”

 
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