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Wrapped and strapped, p.1
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       Wrapped and Strapped, p.1

         Part #7 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James  



  Prologue

  ‡

  She resisted the urge to leave at the crack of dawn the morning after.

  Not because she wanted to give him a chance to explain the harsh words he’d spit at her as he’d hastily thrown on his clothes after leaving her bed. No, she’d stuck around, refusing to allow him the satisfaction of believing he’d chased her off.

  Even when he had.

  She always traveled light. So it hadn’t taken long to pack her belongings. She hugged her sister and said good-bye to the friends she’d made these past four months.

  Gravel crunched beneath her tires as she headed for the main road to leave the Split Rock Ranch and Resort. She hit the brakes when she saw him sitting alone on the top of the corral outside the barn.

  She exited the car and rested her forearms on the roof, watching him. Only a few hundred feet separated them, but it may as well have been a few hundred miles.

  She waited for some kind of acknowledgment. A tip of his cowboy hat perhaps. Or a two-fingered salute from the brim of his hat. A dip of his chin.

  But she got nothing.

  At all.

  He remained so still he could’ve been a bronze statue. Hard. Weathered. Immovable. In the beginning she’d attributed all those characteristics and nothing more to him. But then she’d unearthed the real man beneath the stoic demeanor. She’d experienced his heat and passion. Especially last night.

  And then she’d experienced his coldness and disdain.

  The beginning she’d envisioned for them turned out to be the end.

  So she drove away, ready to put him—and Wyoming—in her rearview mirror.

  Chapter One

  ‡

  Three years later . . .

  Harlow Pratt panicked when she saw her sister Tierney’s name on her caller ID. She answered with, “Please tell me you didn’t go into labor a month early.”

  “No, that’s not why I’m calling.” Tierney paused. “You know Dad is here visiting. He had a heart attack.”

  “What? When?”

  “This morning. We got him to the hospital in Rawlins right away and they opted to have him flown to the cardiac unit at Denver General.”

  “Is he all right?”

  “He’s having emergency heart bypass surgery now.”

  In shock, Harlow lowered herself into the closest chair. “How do you know what’s going on?”

  “There’s a nurse who’s keeping me updated because I can’t travel this late in my pregnancy—”

  “Don’t feel guilty, T.” Harlow grabbed a pen and a notepad from the nightstand. “Give me the nurse’s name and extension number.”

  Tierney rattled off more info than necessary, but that was her way.

  “Got it. Now stop pacing and put your feet up. I imagine Renner is fit to be tied.” Tierney’s husband’s behavior defined tyrannical since Tierney had been prescribed bed rest for the last month of her pregnancy. Sometimes she needed a reminder that she had to limit her activity.

  “You have no idea,” Tierney whispered. “He made Hugh drive Dad and meet the ambulance halfway to town because he refused to leave me alone with Isabelle. He worried the stress would put me into labor the second he wasn’t around.”

  “It’s a valid concern.” Harlow ignored the way her stomach jumped at the mere mention of the man’s name.

  “Where are you?”

  “Still in LA.” By the heavy pause, she knew what her sister was about to ask.

  “Someone needs to be with Dad, Harlow. I hate to ask you to drop everything and fly to Denver—”

  “But it can’t be helped.” Her snarky side pointed out that her father wouldn’t think she was doing “real” work anyway. “I’ll book a flight as soon as possible.”

  “Thank you. After the helicopter left Rawlins, Hugh took it upon himself to drive to Denver, which is above and beyond.”

  No, that was total brownnose behavior—a typical Hugh response because he’d do anything for Renner, his boss.

  “And he’s agreed to stay at the hospital until you get there.”

  Oh, hell no. “As soon as I have my flight info, you can call Renner’s foreman and let him know I’m on my way, so there’s no need for him to stick around.” Did that sound harsh? Harlow didn’t care. She could not deal with her father and Hugh Pritchett both on the same damn day.

  “I know we’ve both had issues with Dad, but he was really scared,” Tierney said. “I’ve never seen him like that. It actually scared me.”

  Harlow closed her eyes. “He’s less of an ass to you since you’re the vessel bringing forth the long-awaited grandson.”

  “That’s not it. But Dad and I have reached a place where he can live with my life choices.”

  “I’m not holding my breath that’ll ever happen with me.”

  “Your passion for what you do, Harlow—he doesn’t discount it, even when he doesn’t understand it,” Tierney assured her.

  That much was true. When her passion for service trapped her in a nightmare situation last year, he’d done everything in his power to get her out of it. She did owe him for that.

  “Leaving at a moment’s notice won’t be an issue?” Tierney prompted.

  “Not since I’m here on sabbatical.”

  “Do you think you’ll get to Denver tonight?”

  When her admission didn’t register with her sister, Harlow decided to keep any explanations about recent career developments in her life to herself. “Flights leave LAX every couple of hours. You’ll need to let the hospital staff know I’m on my way.”

  “No problem.”

  “Look, I’ll probably be in the air when he gets out of surgery, so promise me that if the worst happens”—she knocked on the wooden window frame to ward off bad luck—“you won’t tell me over text or through voice mail.”

  “I’d never do that.”

  Harlow breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.”

  “Love you, sis.”

  “Love you too.”

  Two hours later, Harlow had scored the last standby seat on a flight to Denver.

  After boarding the plane and taking her seat—next to the bathroom in the last row—she slipped on her noise-canceling headphones and closed her eyes, hoping Michael Bublé’s smooth vocals would soothe her ragged thoughts. Or better yet, lull her to sleep.

  But her mind had other ideas. Like reminding her of the first time she’d seen one gruff cowboy named Hugh Pritchett.

  Dammit. She did not want to think about him or that summer. But her brain had already rewound the clock and the memories rushed back . . .

  Chapter Two

  ‡

  Three years earlier . . .

  WELCOME TO MUDDY GAP, WYOMING. POPULATION . . .

  Harlow squinted at the sign. Looked like someone had shot out the number of residents. That didn’t bode well.

  But with her arrival the population was one more than yesterday. Maybe they’d get a new sign.

  She drove through the impressive entrance to the Split Rock Ranch and Resort and parked her Prius in the nearly empty lot. She climbed out, stunned by the pocket of beauty surrounding the Western resort. After traveling through miles of prairie and farmland en route from Chicago, she’d hit the High Plains desert and the near desolate Wyoming landscape. This wasn’t what she’d expected.

  The massive building ahead of her was gorgeous and yet didn’t detract from the view. Her sister tore out the front door and down the stairs, practically throwing herself at Harlow.

  “I’m so happy you’re here,” Tierney said on a choked sob. “I’ve missed you so much.”

  “Samesies. And stop crying or I’ll start calling you Teary Tierney instead of Tenacious Tierney.”

  Tierney stepped back and wiped her eyes. “Sorry. A year is too long for us not to see each other. Promise me that won’t happen again.”

  “I promise,” Harlow said offhandedly as she was busy staring at her big sister’s big belly. “How’s baby Tenor?”

  “We’re fine.” She grinned and smoothed her palms over her baby bump. “I love your nickname for the womb dweller.”

  “I seriously hope you’re considering my suggestions for baby names.”

  “Jackie Jackson or Jack Jackson? Not happening.”

  Harlow stuck her tongue out. “Spoilsport. Tierney, this place is amazing.” She rubbed her hands together. “I’m betting my digs are equally awesome. I can’t wait to see them.”

  “Now?”

  “Yeah. Why not?”

  “Don’t you want to see where you’ll be working first?”

  “No. I drove straight through, so I’m seriously close to going comatose.”

  Tierney’s gaze sharpened. “You didn’t stop at all?”

  “Just for gas and more energy drinks.” Harlow squeezed Tierney’s hand and felt her anxiety lessening a little.

  “Good thing I didn’t plan a big ‘Welcome to Wyoming’ meal for you later tonight.”

  “Very lucky for me, since you’re a horrible cook.”

  “I’m better than I used to be.”

  Harlow raised both eyebrows.

  “Okay, fine, Renner does most of the cooking.”

  “Where is my handsome brother-in-law?”

  “With the foreman down at the barn.” Tierney pointed to Harlow’s car. “Got room for me to ride along so I can show you the fastest way to get to the cabin?”

  “Yep. I travel light, as you know.”

  They climbed in the car and Tierney had her drive by the row of trailers that made up the employee quarters. After dwelling in a tent for six months, Harlow would’ve been fine living there. But Tierney had insisted her baby sister move into the small cabin that she and Renner had recently vacated, since they’d moved into their new family-sized house.

  She followed Tierney up the river-rock-paved sidewalk and checked out the landscaping. Very minimalist—but not due to Tierney’s black thumb. She’d learned water was scarce around here. Since she had experience utilizing native flora and fauna on some of the projects she’d worked on, she approved the resort’s choice to incorporate native plants, grasses and rock. Not only was it better ecologically; it showcased the uniqueness of the vegetation rather than using sod to cover up the natural beauty.

  Harlow followed her sister into the cabin. The cozy space was all Tierney: elegant without being fussy. A compact kitchen. An open living area.

  Tierney pointed to a closed door. “The bedroom and bathroom are through there.”

  “This place is perfect, T.” She hugged her sister from behind. “Thank you for letting me stay here, but you didn’t have to leave the furniture. I would’ve been fine with a camp cot and a beanbag chair.”

  Tierney sniffed like she didn’t believe her. “We bought all new furnishings for the new house. Baby-friendly stuff. I doubt that glass coffee table could withstand a toddler smacking toys onto it.”

  “True.”

  “Lots of happy memories in this house,” Tierney said softly.

  “No wild parties to taint those memories, I promise.”

  “I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face when he walked in on you and ten of your friends from the homeless shelter doing karaoke.”

  “He’s never had much of a sense of humor, has he?” Harlow paused. “Things are better?”

  “Some.” Tierney sighed. “He’s been checking in on me a couple of times a week since I told him we were pregnant.”

  “Really?”

  “I know it’s hard to believe. Part of me wants to tell him it’s too late to take on a fatherly role in my life when he couldn’t be bothered when I needed a father.”

  Harlow said nothing. Her relationship with their father had been much different—although not better by any stretch. Gene Pratt hadn’t had the same expectations for Harlow that he had for his brainiac daughter, Tierney.

  “After all the shit Dad pulled when the resort was getting off the ground, Renner has every reason not to want to have anything to do with him. But he claims the biggest reason he won’t cut him out of our life is because of me. And surprisingly, Dad respects that Renner is a bigger man than he is.”

  “You’re so lucky. Not only does Renner worship you—he stands up for you.”

  “And my baby daddy is also one hot cowboy who fills out a pair of Wranglers to perfection.”

  “Also true. Too bad he doesn’t have any brothers.”

  “Come on. Let’s walk down to the barn so you can say hello to him before you sack out.”

  The steep incline had Harlow gripping Tierney’s arm in case her pregnant sister lost her footing.

  No surprise that Renner met them at the bottom of the hill, his assessing gaze on his wife. “Darlin’, maybe you oughten be comin’ down the hill in your condition.”

  “I’m fine. Harlow had a death grip on me.”

  “I’d never let anything happen to her,” Harlow assured him.

  Renner’s gaze finally moved from Tierney over to Harlow. His quick half smile didn’t reach his piercing blue eyes. “Good to see you, Harlow.”

  They’d met only four times and Harlow had gotten the impression that Renner didn’t care for her. “You too, Renner.” Harlow was about to say something else when her gaze was drawn to the big man exiting the barn.

  He ambled toward them, his cream-colored cowboy hat angled down, keeping his face in shadow. His arms hung by his sides as his booted feet kicked up dust. He stopped beside Renner and finally looked up.

  Her stomach cartwheeled. With his rawboned facial features and penetrating brown eyes, this guy epitomized a steely-eyed gunslinger from the Wild West.

  But his gaze didn’t remain on Harlow long. After a quick once-over his focus returned to Tierney. The hard line of his mouth softened. “You ain’t supposed to be hoofing it down here. That’s why Renner got you a damn golf cart.”

  Tierney scowled. “Stop treating me like I’m a delicate flower. Both of you. I would’ve had to walk all the way back up the hill to get the golf cart, since we drove down to the cabin.”

  Renner looked at Harlow. “Did you get settled in okay?”

  “Not yet. At least I know where I’m going now.” Her gaze returned to the man standing beside Renner. The lower half of his face was covered in dark blondish red scruff that stretched down his long neck. When she glanced back up at his eyes, the man was flat-out scowling at her. “Is there a reason you’re glaring at me?”

  “You’ve got pink goddamn hair.”

  “So?”

  “So you look like you stuck your head in a cotton candy machine.”

  “Ooh. Nice one. Not very original, though. Next time try to work in a Pepto-Bismol pink reference instead.”

  “If you didn’t want people lookin’ at you, then you oughten dye your hair that wacky color.”

 
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