Wrapped and Strapped by Lorelei James

  perfectly safe in the dorms.”

  Erika was quiet. “You really did it. Took that intensive seminar. I’m proud of you.”

  “Thanks. I needed to be with people who’d been in similar situations. Although hearing some of their stories really drove home the point it could’ve been much worse for me.”

  “So are you ready to get back into the thick of helping the less fortunate across the world?”

  “Bleeker offered me a full-time teaching position,” she blurted.

  “What? Get out. That’s amazing.”

  “Shocking is more like it. But they said I’ve had more experience with various organizations than all their other staff combined. Which freaked me out, because when did I get that old?”

  Erika huffed, “Puh-lease. You’ve been serving the greater good in some capacity since you were what? Fourteen? Do you have any idea of how many places you’ve been in all those years?”

  “No,” she answered honestly. “I’d have to look at my passport.”

  “The point I’m trying to make is you are perfect for this, Harlow.”

  “Even if I don’t have a teaching degree? I mean, my two-year degree in international relations from a community college no one’s ever heard of is less than impressive.” The only reason she’d gone to school there was that travel and volunteerism had been requirements in the curriculum.

  “Listen to me, as I’m an expert with a newly minted master’s degree and no job. You have life experience teaching. That’s what’s important. The students will flock to your classes to learn from your experiences instead of a listening to a tenured professor who did one three-month summer stint on an Indian reservation in the U.S. over twenty years ago.”

  “You have a point. I did end up leading two of the seminars after I mentioned my experiences in Cambodia. Seemed more people showed up for class those days.”

  “And it helps that you’re a super hottie. Gonna have a lot of hipsters hot for teacher, babe.”

  Harlow groaned. “Erika.”

  She laughed. “When do you start?”

  “Not sure. My dad had emergency heart bypass surgery and my sister had her second baby, so that’s been hectic.”

  “You’re in Wyoming?”

  “I was. Right now I’m in Nebraska, helping out my brother-in-law.” Which wasn’t a total lie—since she worked for Hugh and he managed Jackson Stock Contracting.

  “Of course you are. Anyway, as glad as I am to talk to you and hear your good news, I did call for a reason.” She paused. “Rialta called me.”

  Crap. If she’d heard from her, that meant . . .

  “They’re back in the States. All of them.”

  Panic set in. He’s nowhere near you, because he doesn’t know where you are. “Erika, you can’t—”

  “Tell Rialta or anyone else from our group where you are. I’d never do that. I’m the only one who saw what he was capable of. I just wanted you to be prepared because we both know he’ll try and contact you.”

  She closed her eyes. She’d dreaded this. She’d especially dreaded it after talking about it in the seminar because the consensus there had been the same: She’d done the right thing in escaping and moving on.

  “Lemme ask you this, Harlow. In the seminar, how many victims pressed charges against their abusers?”

  “In all the classes I’ve taken the last six months? Three. All three cases were dismissed. You can imagine those women were messed up by it. Abused and then ignored by the system that was supposed to hand out justice. At least I don’t have that extra baggage.”

  “Amen, sister. It sounded to me like everything went to hell after we left. Only four of our original ten finished the contract.”

  “I’m not surprised. Look, I’d love to talk to you about this”—such a total fucking lie—“but I need to get to this potluck thing.”

  “Oh, sure, I understand. It was good catching up, Harlow. Take care. Keep in touch.”

  She mumbled, “I will,” and ended the call.

  Then she opened the cupboard and pulled out Hugh’s bottle of Maker’s Mark. She removed the cap and drank two big gulps straight from the bottle. Warmth spread like magic. The tension in her shoulders lessened. Normally she preferred yoga to relax, but it helped to know whiskey would do in a pinch.

  Fredrick. What could he ever say to her that would excuse what he’d done? Nothing. Not, Sorry. Not, I was addicted to power—it’s like crack. Not, God has forgiven me—why can’t you?

  But her biggest fear? Would be that he’d downplay what he’d done. Claim she’d overreacted. Or worse, claim she’d embellished what he’d done to her.

  One more slug and she shut down that train of thought.

  Why had she told Erika about the teaching offer from Bleeker? She hadn’t mentioned it to anyone else. Although surely it was something her sister and her father would be happy about. Harlow in an academic environment instead of a hostile one? But part of her feared they’d point out that she didn’t have the credentials to take on that kind of a job—not in a cruel way, at least not on Tierney’s part. Her dad was still a wild card when it came to career directions.

  But what about Hugh? He’d asked her several times what her future plans were and she’d been vague because she’d loved this time away. She wanted to bask in the moments they had together now. Them getting to know each other on a different level. But it didn’t change the fact it was still on Hugh’s level. His comfort zone. She had to wonder how he’d fit on her turf instead. Where she had the expertise and experience and people looked up to her for leadership.

  The timer dinged on the stove. She had ten minutes to get to the hospitality tent.

  She added a dollop of sour cream and stirred the chili one last time. Then she placed the pot in the cardboard box she’d rigged up with a towel in the bottom. In the bathroom she smoothed out her hair and freshened her makeup.

  It was a challenge carrying the hot pot while closing and locking the door. Harlow hoped she didn’t trip on the way. Scorching hot beans on her white dress wouldn’t be cool.

  Inside the tent, a dozen people waited in line. Men and women, which surprised her. From what she’d seen, traditional male and female roles in agriculture were alive and well in the Midwest. When she’d mentioned that observation to Hugh, he pointed out that if tradition worked for people, he saw no reason to tell them they were living their lives wrong.

  That’d been the first time he’d gotten snippy with her since the Buckaroos snafu. She’d retreated, even knowing it was dumb to worry he’d belittle her or punish her for her opinion.

  Hugh had sensed her fear. He’d held her, soothed her, teased her and ultimately made love to her to calm those fears.


  Jostled out of the memory, Harlow set her box on the table.


  “Harlow Pratt.”

  The woman passed over a plastic bowl. “Your entry number is on the bottom of the bowl. Fill the bowl with six cups of your chili and leave the bowl on the table. You can put your pot with the extra against the far tent wall. Good luck.”

  “Thank you.” Harlow followed instructions and found out the winners wouldn’t be announced for an hour. So she went looking for Hugh.

  She saw him directing a bunch of hands and she waited to approach until he’d dismissed everyone.

  His lips stretched into a big smile when he noticed her.

  Harlow jogged the last few steps between them.

  “Hey, darlin’.” He dipped his head and then those smiling lips were on hers.

  Someone yelled, “Take it behind the barn, Pritchett,” which only made him grin wider.

  “What have you been up to today?”

  “Moping, mostly. I’m feeling displaced as your number one stock hand.”

  “Like I told you, I’ve gotta use these guys since it’s a paying job for them.”

  “I understand. Will it sound sappy if I tell you I miss being behind the scenes with

  “It makes you sweet, my hippie-girl. And I can’t wait to eat you up.” He nipped her lower lip. “Later.”

  She brushed dust off his shoulders. “I don’t want to hang out in the horse trailer tonight, so should I go to the rodeo?”

  “I suppose you could, but I wouldn’t want you sitting by yourself.”

  “Because you don’t think I can handle myself?”

  “I believe you’d handle yourself just fine, Harlow. But you’re a pretty woman, doll, and you’ll attract attention. I’ve got a full day tomorrow, so I can’t be beating the fuck outta the guys hitting on you tonight.”


  Hugh stared at her.

  Right. He wasn’t joking. “Then I’ll take a page out of the Hugh Pritchett handbook and wear a hat pulled low over my face, a baggy flannel shirt, jeans and scuffed-up boots. I’ll scowl at anyone who looks at me.”


  Ike strolled up. “You guys eat yet?”

  “Nope. Where you headed?” Hugh asked.

  Ike said, “Tofu Shack,” with a straight face.

  Harlow pushed him. “Jerk.”

  Ike laughed. “Thought maybe that’d get you to eat with us.”

  “I ate while I was cooking, so you guys go ahead.”

  Hugh looked at her curiously. “What did you cook?”



  “Yeah. My chili is awesome.”

  Ike said, “Tell me you didn’t do what I think you did.”

  “Well, that’s a pretty broad statement, Ike.”

  “You know what I’m talkin’ about. Riss said you disappeared just after noon.”

  “What do you think she did?” Hugh asked Ike.

  “Did you enter the chili cook-off?” Ike asked.

  Why was Ike acting so pissed? “Yes, I did.”

  Hugh’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of chili did you make?”

  “My delicious three-bean chili.”

  “Meat in it?”

  She shook her head. “It’s so good it doesn’t need meat.”

  “You entered vegetarian chili at a county event in beef country,” Hugh stated.

  “The rules did not specify it had to be a meat dish. And besides, what kind of backwards place doesn’t have a vegetarian category?” she demanded.

  “The kind of backwards place that relies on livestock as their livelihood.” Hugh pushed his hat up and sighed—a sure sign of his agitation. “What if everyone stopped putting hamburger in their chili?”

  “We’d be a healthier nation with more cows?”

  Ike scowled at her. “Really fuckin’ funny, Harlow.” He looked at Hugh. “She’s your girlfriend. You can deal with this. But without meat I’m sure her chili won’t make it to the final round, so it won’t be an issue. Let’s hope anyway.” He walked off.

  Harlow looked at Hugh in total surprise. “What is his problem?”

  “It’s my problem too, Harlow. You entering that cook-off was basically a big ‘fuck you’ to this event.”

  “No, it wasn’t!”

  “You don’t have an agenda?”

  “Not besides wanting to fill my free time. A girl invited me to enter the cook-off. So I did. That’s it. And it’s stupid that my entry would upset anyone.”

  He stepped back. “I’m goin’ to get some food.”

  “You’re mad at me and ditching me?”

  “I’m headed for the Barbecue Hut. Didn’t think you probably wanted to come along.”

  “I’ll pass.” She returned to the tent and spent the next forty-five minutes watching people. And when the head judge took the mike to remind everyone the winners would be announced in five minutes, a weird feeling took root.

  Third place went to Loretta Palmer.

  Second place went to Art Derby.

  Harlow sat among strangers when they called off number sixteen—and her name—as the first-place winner. She saw everyone asking one another, “Who’s that?”

  When she reached the stage, she saw the box piled high with canned goods for the food drive and felt guilty she’d forgotten.

  “Harlow Pratt, you are the grand-prize winner. You get a year’s subscription to the Shelbyville Gazette—the proud sponsor for this event for a quarter of a century—and a hundred-dollar gift card.”

  “Thank you so much.” Harlow moved to return to her seat.

  “Oh no, sugar, you ain’t local, so you probably don’t know how this goes. First question, tell us what about your chili made it so special.”

  Lie like a motherfucking rug. “Ah. It’s an old family recipe.”

  People nodded.

  The judge said, “Where are you from?”


  “The town known for putting their own spins on pizza and hot dogs. So what did you do to put your own spin on that old standby chili?”

  “Well, it isn’t what I put in as much as what I left out . . . the meat.”


  “It’s . . . vegetarian chili?” the judge said in the type of whisper used to relay bad news.


  Grumbling sounded from the audience.

  “Disqualify her,” came a shout from the back of the room.

  From where Harlow stood, it looked like everyone in the audience agreed.

  “She bought off the judges,” someone else yelled. “I knew Myrtle Petersen was going soft when she allowed chili made with chicken to win last year!”

  Mumbles of assent.

  “Enough,” the judge said. “This recipe won on the basis of taste. So let’s congratulate Harlow. Anything you’d like to add?”

  “I’m donating the gift card to the food drive.”

  That didn’t even earn her a single thumbs-up from the audience.


  One of the hired hands helping Hugh out with the stock, named Alton—who’d also entered the cook-off—saw her struggling with the box and offered to carry it for her. Having a local guy help her warded off a few of the evil looks she’d gotten.

  When she found Hugh in the audience, he didn’t say a single word positive or negative about her win.

  Nor did he even want to try her chili.


  Yeah, you haven’t tried any of his dishes either, so what did you expect?

  And rather than annoy him further by going to the rodeo by herself, she stayed in the horse trailer and watched TV.

  Hugh woke her up in her favorite way. His mouth between her thighs.

  Was it his version of an apology? Did they need to talk about what’d happened earlier?

  No, this showed that he was ready to move on. Theirs were differing philosophies and talking wouldn’t change either of their minds.

  So she relaxed and gave herself over to him.

  Once Hugh knew she was sentient, he came at her full force. Pushing her legs over the arms of the easy chair, opening her up to his ravenous mouth. She was used to his passion, but this was something else. He drove her to that knife’s edge. Where one more sweep of his tongue over her clit would send her soaring. But each time she got close, he backed off. He’d drag his beard over the insides of her thighs until they trembled. Until that rasp of hair across her sensitized flesh was pleasure with a prickle of pain.

  The third time he’d teased her to the point of frustration, she said, “If you don’t make me come, I’ll take matters into my own hands.”

  “Won’t feel as good as my mouth sucking your clit.”

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