Wrapped and Strapped by Lorelei James

  “That’s the only reason? You’re not here to dance?”

  “Why? Are you offering?”

  At that moment Emil Pharris marched up to the table, bold as brass, and tapped Harlow on the shoulder.

  Harlow turned. “Yes?”

  “You wanna dance?”

  When Harlow opened her mouth to deny him, Emil said, “Come on, prove me right. I got a drink ridin’ on you not bein’ too stuck-up to dance with me.”

  “I’ll pass.”

  “So you are stuck-up.”

  “Maybe she won’t dance with you because she’s with me.”

  Emil’s eyes snapped to Hugh. Then back to Harlow. “You and this starched shirt are together?”

  “For this dance we are.” Hugh stood and offered Harlow his hand. “Come on, darlin’.”

  Tobin returned with two beers and Harlow’s water. “Whoa. Where you goin’?”

  “Emil was sniffing around, so I nipped that shit in the bud. We’ll be back.” Hugh kept his hand on the small of Harlow’s back as he directed her to the dance floor. When he pulled her in, clasping her right hand in his left, the scent of her perfume teased his nose. Damn. She smelled good. He glanced down at her; her eyes were blazing at him.

  “Don’t do that again.”


  “Speak for me. Act like you’re rescuing me.”

  What the hell? “You’d rather be dancing with Emil? He’s a fuckin’ letch.”

  “No, I didn’t want to dance with him, but I didn’t want to dance with you either.”

  “Aw. Now I’m hurt.” He paused and locked eyes with her. “Why don’t you wanna dance with me?”

  “Because Emil was right about one thing. You are a starched shirt. And I doubt you can dance like I do.”

  “And how’s that?”


  “You don’t say.”

  She did a shimmy twist move with her hips. Her thighs brushed his, her belly rubbed over his belt buckle, her boobs pressed into his chest and a section of her hair teased the side of his face. “Very, very dirty,” she whispered.

  Fuck. Me.

  Then she did it again.

  When she peered up at him, her eyes held a smug look. She’d known exactly how she’d affected him.

  Hugh wasn’t sure what possessed him to clamp his hands on her ass, and dip his mouth toward her ear. “That was a nice tease. So, darlin’, I am gonna make you prove you can be dirtier than that.”

  She bobbled a step and then recovered.

  So she wasn’t totally unaffected by him. Good to know.

  “Dirty dancing isn’t like a lap dance. One person doesn’t stay still while the other person does all the work. You want me to prove it, cowboy, you’ll mirror my moves.”

  “Bring it, dancin’ queen.”

  Harlow laughed in a low, throaty, sexy way he’d never heard from her, which was as potent as the sway of her body. “Hands on my hips.”

  He took his time moving his hands over her curves, closely watching her face as he did so. She leaned in closer, which he took as a positive.

  She slid her hands under his armpits and gripped his shoulders. “Lesson one. Listen to the beat of the music. Slow and sultry? Hard and driving? Happy and bouncy? Dance to it like you’d fuck to it.” She swung her hips side to side in small motions. “Follow me. That’s it.”

  He slid his leg between hers.

  That startled her. “Why am I not surprised you’re a natural at being dirty?”

  Hugh just smiled.

  “Now watch me roll my belly.”

  Harlow put a deep arch in her lower back and let it move up through her spine until their chests touched.

  “Now you do it.”

  Flexibility wasn’t his strong suit, but no fucking way was he missing out on this. He had to snap his hips harder at the start. The motion of their bodies was like fucking. Fully clothed. In front of a roomful of people.

  He didn’t give two shits who watched. While he had this hot honey showing him all her moves, he’d damn well enjoy every second.

  “You’re good at belly rolls.”

  He pressed his thumbs into her hip bones and she released a surprised gasp. “Like that?”


  “What else you got to show me?”

  Harlow spun around and rubbed her ass into his groin. She met his gaze over her shoulder. “Pretend you’re doing the limbo, just working your lower half.”

  “Never done the limbo in my life.”

  “It’s not that fun actually. This is way more fun.”

  They swayed a few more times and the song ended.

  Harlow slowly straightened up and faced him. Her cheeks were flushed. Her hair had gone a little wild. She’d dug her teeth into her lower lip as if trying to stop herself from saying something.

  Feeling less a grumpy old man than he had in a long time, he put his mouth on her ear. “So admit you were wrong, doll.”

  “Wrong about what?”

  “Wrong about me not bein’ dirty enough for you.”

  They’d locked gazes, the heat shimmering between them . . .

  A tap on his arm had him jerking upright so fast his hat tumbled to the floor and the past vanished.

  The young, wide-eyed receptionist stepped back. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I just . . .”

  Hugh reached for his hat and settled it back on his head. “Sorry, I was”—lost in a boner-inducing memory—“half-asleep. What did you say?”

  “I wanted you to know you don’t have to sit down here.” She dropped her voice. “Your friend made it sound like you couldn’t go to the upstairs waiting room, but it is a public space.”

  “Why’re you tellin’ me this?”

  “Because you remind me of my dad. He’s a rancher too.”

  Christ. He must really look like death warmed over if this young girl thought he was old enough to have a daughter her age. “I appreciate it”—he briefly glanced at her name tag—“Cherise.” He pushed to his feet. “I reckon your daddy is right proud of you.”

  She nodded. “He wants me to get an education and not marry the first cowboy that trips my trigger.”

  Hugh stiffened. He’d heard similar words—from his ex-wife’s father. “Thanks for the heads-up. I’ll get outta your hair now.” Energy renewed, he booked it down the hallway at a good clip. The elevator door opened, and medical personnel spilled out. Must be close to shift change, so no one paid him any attention.

  But when he saw the nearly empty waiting room in the cardiac unit, he knew he’d draw attention, so he strolled right up to the desk.

  An older African-American woman glanced up from a file folder. “Yes?”

  “I’m here with Gene Pratt’s daughter, Harlow. I’ll just be waiting over there for her.”

  “Fine.” She refocused on her paperwork.

  That was it?

  Huh. Guess they had other things to worry about besides who was taking up space in the waiting room.

  He’d barely settled in, elbows on his knees, reading yet another stupid magazine, when he heard the angry snap of flip-flops across the carpet come to a stop right in front of him.

  “If you don’t leave right now, I’m calling security to have your ass thrown out,” Harlow snapped.

  Hugh stood slowly, tossing the magazine aside, and intentionally looming over her. “You’re hanging on by a thread, doll.”

  She just looked at him.

  He recognized sheer will was all that kept her vertical. “I’ve got strong enough arms to hold you up. Would it be so bad to lean on me? You can tell yourself I’m the only one here and you didn’t have a choice.”

  “Never thought you’d be the type to take advantage. Oh, right, that’s what you do—take advantage and then you leave. Why don’t you mix it up this time and just leave first?”

  Her direct hit sliced him open, but he kept cool. “I never thought I’d see my fierce girl lookin’ so damn lost.”

p; Harlow blinked at him, confused that he hadn’t fired off a zinger. Then she shocked them both when her entire body sagged and she whispered, “I am.”

  “You are what, darlin’?”


  That did it. Wordlessly, he pulled her against his body and held tight until she settled.

  She gripped the back of his shirt with such force he heard a seam start to rip. He didn’t care. It took every ounce of restraint not to kiss the top of her head. Instead he allowed himself to breathe her in.

  Hugh had no idea how long they stayed like that, but he knew the second she intended to retreat.

  So he let her. But he continued to hold her hand, towing her to the two chairs facing each other in the corner.

  “Did you see your dad?”

  She nodded. “He wasn’t awake, but they let me sit with him.” She jammed her free hand through her long blond hair. “The doctor can give me some answers tomorrow.”

  “No one told you what’s goin’ on?” he said with surprise.

  Harlow’s tired blue eyes met his. “No. They’ve just said he’s stable, recovering after coronary bypass surgery, and the first few nights are crucial. They said if I wanted a face-to-face with the doctor, he’ll be here early to make his morning rounds.”

  “It’s a good thing I rented a room down the block. You’ll be able to get a couple of hours of shut-eye before meeting the doctor.”

  “I’m staying here.”

  “Harlow. You need—”

  “I said no.” She snatched her hand from his. “You don’t have the first clue about what I need.” Her angry eyes said, And you never did.

  “Swallow your damn pride and be reasonable. You’re exhausted and sleeping here in a chair ain’t gonna prove nothin’.”

  “I’ve slept in way worse conditions than a padded chair in a temperature-controlled building. And it’s not pride that’s keeping me from accepting the invite into your bed, nor is it me trying to avoid the temptation of wanting to fuck you in that bed after your oh-so generous offer of shared sleeping arrangements.”

  He waited. Kept his mouth shut.

  “I need to stay here so they don’t have to track me down if something goes wrong.”

  “Fine. I’ll ask the nurse to grab us some blankets.”

  “There is no ‘us,’ Hugh.”

  He leaned forward. “That’s something we need to talk about, but right now I’m here as a family friend.”

  “You’d do the same thing if Tobin’s dad was in there? Get him a blanket and a pillow and tuck him in?” she said skeptically.


  “Go get them, then, if it’ll make you feel better. I have to call Tierney anyway.” She sidestepped him and hightailed it to the corner farthest away from him.

  Her ass bounced nicely when she flounced off.

  Stop staring at her ass. And close the fucking hope chest that you’ll ever get the chance to put your hands on it again, bud. You screwed the pooch with her. Big-time.

  But that’s why he was here with her. For a chance to set things right between them.

  Hugh scrubbed his hands over his beard, which had gone past annoying to downright itchy. He’d feel a thousand times better if he could take a five-minute shower. But since Harlow wasn’t going back to the hotel, neither was he.

  He had to start somewhere in proving to her that he had changed.

  Chapter Four


  Harlow watched Hugh amble toward the desk as she called her sister. She wasn’t at all surprised Tierney answered on the first ring.

  “How is he?”

  “No changes since you spoke to the head nurse hours ago.”

  “How are you?” Tierney asked.

  “Tired. Worried. Annoyed that Hugh is still here.”

  A pause. “Wait. Hugh is still at the hospital?”

  “Right beside me in the cardiac waiting room.” So what if she’d given in and taken the hug she’d needed so badly? It was a momentary lapse. She didn’t want—didn’t need—anything else from him. Tierney knew nothing about Harlow’s past with the gruff foreman. She had to tread lightly not to raise her sister’s suspicions. “Look, Tierney, I hate to ask this, but Renner needs to call Hugh back to the Split Rock.”

  Another pause. “Renner and I both thought Hugh would be on the road back here as soon as you reached the hospital, since Renner is shorthanded this week with Tobin being gone.”

  “That was my thought too, but he booked a hotel room.”

  “I’ll talk to Renner about it. Do you have a hotel room?”

  “Not yet. I’m crashing here in case someone needs to get ahold of me.”

  “Good plan. Text me if anything changes?”

  “Will do. Love you.”

  “Love you too.”

  Within a couple of minutes she saw Hugh reach for his phone in his front shirt pocket. He stepped away from the desk to take the call. His back straightened and he turned to look at her.

  Harlow held her ground and his gaze. She had nothing to feel guilty about. She didn’t want him here.

  The conversation was short. Hugh slipped his phone into his pocket, pushed his hat back and scratched his forehead.

  It was too much to hope for that he’d become his pissy self and storm to the elevators. No, instead he headed straight for her, his gait measured, his eyes blazing. And he didn’t stop until the tips of his boots connected with the toes of her flip-flops.

  “Dirty pool, Harlow, havin’ my boss demand I get back to the ranch ASAP.”

  She rolled her eyes. “As if I have any control over Renner Jackson.”

  He snorted. “You don’t, but Tierney does. And you’re her beloved baby sister, so it ain’t all that hard to connect the dots.”

  Harlow took a page from his book and said nothing.

  “I’ll leave, if that’s what you want.”

  “I do.”

  “We’ll deal with the rest of this later.”

  Not likely.

  He stood way too close, watching her way too intently.

  She bristled. “What are you waiting for? A good-bye kiss?”

  “You didn’t give me one when you left three years ago; I doubt your offer is sincere now.”

  “You’re right.”

  After Hugh walked away—and she shamelessly watched that fine cowboy butt purely on principle because she’d felt him eyeballing her ass—she grabbed the bedding from the counter and settled in for the night.

  She slept fitfully and lightly, but thankfully she didn’t dream or get thrown into memories of the past.

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