Wrapped and Strapped by Lorelei James

  You were hurting and it wasn’t only about being dirty. It was about needing TLC and not knowing how to ask for it. And for me, it was about you finally letting me be the man who gives you what you need, without hesitation.

  “Hugh?” she prompted softly.

  He brushed his lips over hers. “I’ll get myself cleaned up so I don’t look like a bum next to my gorgeous woman.”

  After a quick shower, he ran his hands through his damp hair. He trimmed his beard, tempted to shave the damn thing off for the summer. What would Harlow think? She’d never seen him without facial hair. But she loved feeling his beard all over her hot little body and that was worth the occasional itch.

  As he exited the bathroom, towel wrapped around his waist, he called out, “Darlin’, did we—” He froze, seeing Riss standing in the kitchenette with her mouth hanging open. “Sorry. I’ll just—”

  “Don’t leave on my account,” Riss said, her gaze firmly on his chest. “Holy pectorals, Batman. I had no idea you”—she pointed from his damp head to his bare feet—“had all that going on under your baggy clothes, chute boss Pritchett.”

  Hugh blushed.

  Harlow stepped in front of him, squaring off against Riss. “Eyeballs off my man, or I’ll have to hurt you.”

  Riss looked amused until she realized Harlow wasn’t joking.

  His cock started to stir at witnessing Harlow marking her territory. “Something you needed, Riss?”

  “She was trying to skip out on the welcome banquet,” Harlow answered. “I was about to tell her it wouldn’t kill her to ditch her trucker’s overalls for one night.”

  Hugh covered his laugh by clearing his throat.

  “Besides, you’d rather hole up in your cab and do what? Eat beef jerky and watch Netflix? Come with us. Eat real food. Have a real conversation. Your bunk will be fine without you holding it down for a few hours.”

  Riss glared at her. Then she jammed her hands through her mass of wild red hair. “Fine. But I ain’t wearing a dress. And you’d better not ditch me with Ike.”

  “I fully expect these guys will ditch us, which is why I need a familiar face around so I’m not drinking alone.”

  She grinned. “Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

  Harlow reached over and opened the door. “Out. And keep your eyes on the floor and off my man.”

  “Later, PITA. See ya, hot-bodied Hugh.”

  He might’ve heard Harlow growl, which was sexy as fuck. Then he realized what Riss had said. “It doesn’t bother you that she’s calling you PETA?”

  “Not PETA the organization. PITA, short for ‘pain in the ass.’”

  “Doll, that ain’t much better.”

  “I’ve been called worse. Way worse.” She smacked his ass. “Now get moving.”


  Harlow slipped her arm through Hugh’s as they crossed the campground to the enormous tent. They wore lanyards that denoted their place in the rodeo world. “So will you be trying to round up business for Jackson Stock Contracting for next year’s rodeos?”

  “I wish.”

  She stopped. “Okay. That’s like the third or fourth time you’ve made that cryptic comment. What’s going on?”

  Hugh looked around as if he was afraid someone might overhear him. “We’ll talk later.”

  “Give me a hint.”

  “I get on the road and realize how much I miss it. Renner doesn’t. In the last two years I’ve had the feeling that if he could get rid of the stock contracting side, he would.”

  “He doesn’t like to venture far from home. Which I understand.”

  His eyes searched hers. “You, Miss Wandering Feet, understand the appeal of home?”

  Harlow had been so thankful he’d opened up she’d said the first thing that came to mind. But Hugh’s comment was justified. “No. You’re right. I don’t understand.” She tugged his hand. “Tell me about this welcome party.”

  “Two things you’ll want to be aware of before we walk in there. One, guys are gonna hit on you, so don’t be surprised if I make it crystal fuckin’ clear that you’re mine.”

  Mine didn’t have the same connotation when Hugh said it as when Fredrick had said it. She could hear the difference now.

  “Two, people will ask you about Jackson Stock Contracting curtailing the number of rodeos we’re working. Don’t explain about Renner and Tierney having a new baby. Don’t talk about the Split Rock. Don’t mention the cattle company. Just tell the truth—you go where you’re told.”

  She didn’t like that Hugh felt he had to spell out her response for her. But she also understood that Renner had entrusted him with the business and he was just doing his job. “No problem. Anything else?”

  “Nope. Stick close.”

  The instant the tent flap opened, they walked into a wall of sound. She sent Hugh a sideways glance and saw his jaw tighten.

  He directed her to the bar. “Budweiser and . . .” He tipped his hat at her expectantly.

  “Tanqueray and tonic.”

  The bartender laughed. “Honey, the best gin I’ve got is Gordon’s.”

  “In that case I’ll have a margarita on the rocks.” She looked at Hugh. “What?”

  “Won’t they take away one of your tie-dyed shirts, hippie-girl, if you admit you prefer top-shelf booze?”

  “Funny.” As soon as she held the mixed drink, she leaned over. “It’ll put a black mark on my feminist card if I let you pay for the drink and I’ve got no problem with that.”

  Hugh smiled at her and dug out his wallet.

  As they made their way through the room, several people snagged Hugh’s attention and he stopped to talk. After he’d introduced her as his lady, she tuned out the conversation. It was so much more interesting to people watch. Rodeo queens were easy to pick out. Gotta love women confident enough to wear tiaras.

  A mass exodus started when the buffet opened.

  Ike joined them at that point, looking snappy in a cream-colored button-down shirt, a black leather vest, gray jeans and beat-up black cowboy boots. In a sea of hats, he’d opted to keep his head bare. Harlow thought to herself it’d be a shame to cover up all that wavy blond hair with a hat anyway.

  She took the chance to study Ike while he conferred with Hugh. Although he had to be in his late thirties, he still sported the boy-next-door/captain-of-the-football-team clean-cut look. Tall and slender, he was built, but not bulked up. His face was always smooth-shaven. Dimples bracketed his smiling mouth. His eyes, the oddest shade of blue green, were way more somber than usual. It gave her a weird feeling when she noticed both Hugh and Ike scanning the room.

  When Hugh caught her watching him, she said, “What’s going on?”

  “Some folks here I’d rather not get cornered by.” He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Ike’s mapping out exit strategies.”

  She could read him well enough to know he’d just told a little white lie. Why? “Who are you avoiding?”

  “I’ll tell you later.”

  “Tell me now. I don’t want to get ambushed and end up face-to-face with your ex-wife.”

  His look of horror was almost comical. “Actually, my ex-wife’s father—my former boss—is here.”

  “Are you afraid she’s here someplace?”

  “Afraid? No.”

  “What does she look like, so I can keep an eye out for her?”

  “An evil sea hag.”

  Harlow laughed.

  “Laugh, but, darlin’, I’m not joking. She’s even got a wart. She claimed it was a mole, but I always knew the truth.” He put his hand in the small of her back. “Let’s get in line.”

  Ike and Hugh were roped into a conversation with the guys behind them. Harlow hated to be rude, but she checked her phone for messages from her sister. Their dad had gone to the doctor today and she was anxious to hear how the appointment had gone.

  Someone bumped into her as she was looking down at her phone. She looked to the side and saw the bum
per was none other than Riss.

  Riss, who looked nothing like the foul-tempered, overall- and ball-cap-wearing truck driver. She’d tamed her wild corkscrew curls into a sleek bun at the base of her neck. She’d donned a peasant blouse the color of emeralds, white skinny jeans and jeweled sandals. She’d even put on mascara. Thick black lashes made her green eyes stand out. Riss hadn’t bothered to try to cover up her freckles, but she’d slicked peach lipstick on her lips.

  Riss bumped her shoulder into Harlow’s again. “Close your mouth, PITA—you’re catching flies.”

  “Holy crap, Riss. You clean up good.”

  “Just because I don’t ever wear shit like this doesn’t mean I don’t know how to wear it.”

  “And you don’t smell like axle grease, which is the real bonus,” Ike said behind them.

  “Bite me, asshat,” Riss snapped.

  When Harlow tried to balance her drink while getting her small purse open, Riss said, “I’ll hold that,” and snatched the margarita from Harlow’s hand. Then she took a healthy swallow.

  “Do you know anybody here?” Harlow asked.

  Riss shook her head. “This venue is a longer haul for us. Most stock contractors tend to stick to their own circuits that are only ten-hour drives one way, tops.”

  “You think it’s unusual that Jackson is providing stock for an event so far away?”

  “Yeah. But Renner was based out of this area at one point, so in that context, it’s not that unusual. Although I heard people talking. Not trash-talking, but since this ain’t my first rodeo like some people”—Harlow snickered—“I’ve been paying attention. Jackson’s lack of contracted venues this year hasn’t gone unnoticed.” Riss grabbed a plastic plate from the stack and cut in front of Harlow.

  Harlow eyed the buffet table. She passed by the stack of barbecued pork sandwiches. The beans were dotted with chunks of bacon. She slid a baked potato onto her plate and passed by the cold cuts plate. The iceberg lettuce didn’t look too bad, so she piled that on, adding veggies from the relish tray. She snagged a couple of lemons from the beverage station and waited for Hugh.

  He frowned at her plate. “If you’re still hungry after this, I’ll unhitch the truck and take you to town.”

  After she’d voiced concern about his lack of groceries, he’d in turn voiced concern that it’d be slim pickins’ for her in beef country at meet and greets like this. “Thanks. I’ll be fine.” She smirked at the three sandwiches on his plate and the pile of beans. Ike’s plate looked the same. “I’m sure there will be plenty of lettuce left over.”

  “Let’s sit back there.” He led them to a long banquet-style table.

  Riss set her plate across from Harlow. “I’m getting a margarita. You want another one?”


  “I’ll take a Coors Light if you’re offering,” Ike drawled.

  “I’ll never offer you anything, dickhead.” She wheeled around and headed to the bar.

  “Pretty clothes and a pretty face still don’t mask her ugly attitude,” Ike said. “Christ, Hugh. You have shit taste in friends.”

  He set down his sandwich and offered Harlow a grin. “Just think, darlin’. We get twelve more days of this.”

  Chapter Eighteen


  Harlow had survived the first rodeo event and they were off to the next.

  They’d pulled in early enough to unload the livestock and eat someplace besides the fairgrounds. Music drifted from the tent behind them where the welcome-to-the-rodeo dance was in full swing. For the past couple of hours she and Riss had bonded over margaritas and their shared love of old movies. So far they hadn’t made it inside the tent. They stood outside as Ike and Hugh talked with several rodeo competitors and she and Riss drank.

  Over the last few days Hugh had kept his promise by keeping a hand on her at all times. He may as well have tattooed TAKEN across her forehead. She snickered. Maybe a better placement for it would be across her ass.

  Hugh’s warm breath teased her ear. “What’s so funny, doll?”


  “You havin’ fun?”

  “Yes. Are you?”

  “Be havin’ more fun if we were naked.”

  She buried her face in his neck and murmured, “You are insatiable.” Not an exaggeration. Hugh needed that physical connection every night. Sometimes in the morning. Sometimes at noon.

  “You’ll tell me if you get tired of the same old, same old, right?”

  “You mean sex in missionary?”

  “Yeah.” He kissed and nuzzled her cheek. “I’m not the most inventive guy between the sheets.”

  “You don’t need to demonstrate you’ve studied the Kama Sutra.” She trapped his face in her hands and forced his head up. “You are an amazing lover, Hugh. You’ve never left me wanting. You always make me feel wanted and that’s sexier than you doing me on one leg while I swing on a trapeze.”

  “You kill me, darlin’.” He pressed his forehead to hers. “Thanks. And I do want you. Every second of every day. I don’t wanna overwhelm you. But that’s what this is for me. Overwhelming.”

  “For me too.” She opened her mouth. Closed it.

  “Spit it out.”

  “You mean the lust between us is overwhelming.” Please don’t ruin this and say your feelings for me are overwhelming. She’d caught him looking at her sometimes with the oddest expression on his face, and she’d been too chicken to ask what he’d been thinking about.

  Hugh retreated. He placed a kiss on her ear. “Yeah. What else would I have meant?”

  Wow. That almost sounded . . . sarcastic. And maybe a little sad.

  “Maybe you two could quit whispering and playin’ grab ass and contribute to the conversation,” Ike suggested.

  “Sure.” She shifted away from Hugh slightly only to have him haul her back against his side. “What are we discussing?”

  “Scheduling. You’ll be all right managing the calves and steers tomorrow?”

  “Managing. Like scheduling their massages?”

  Ike rolled his eyes. “Like getting them from the pens to the chutes. Usually there are riders assigned to each area so if one takes off, they run it down.”

  “So I won’t be hoofing it after them if they make a break for it?”

  Hugh snorted beside her. “No, because you’d let the animals go, imagining them livin’ free in the wild and not eventually headed for market.”

  “That is a beautiful image. You know me so well.”

  His eyes were dark with what resembled regret. “Yeah, doll, I do.”

  “Then after the timed events,” Ike interrupted the odd moment, “you’ll check their food, water, all that.”

  “Sounds completely doable for a stock novice.”

  “You’re getting better. There’s hope for you yet.”

  Hugh and Ike moved on in their conversation and Harlow tuned them out.

  Riss refilled their margaritas. “I feel like causing trouble. After we’re done here, let’s go pick a fight with the townies.”

  “Townies,” Harlow repeated. “And they’d be?”

  “The teased-hair, tight-clothes, caked-on-makeup local girls who live in town and slip on pseudo-Western wear once a year during the rodeo to pretend they’re country.” Riss slurped her drink. “I wanna pound some faces in.”

  “Which is exactly why you won’t be out of my sight tonight, La-Riss-a,” Ike warned.

  “Oh, bite me, dipfuck. You ain’t my daddy or my keeper. I do what I want.”

  The cowboys next to Ike snickered.

  A woman stopped in front of their group. Her eyes scrolled down Hugh’s body from hat to boots. “I heard you were here.”

  Hugh’s body stiffened. His jaw tightened so fast and hard Harlow swore she almost heard a bone crack.

  Harlow looked at the woman. Brittle best described her posture as well as her attitude. Her long brown hair was curled at the bottom and
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