Flower child, vegetarian and humanitarian Harlow Pratt and gruff and strapping cattle ranch foreman Hugh Pritchett have been taunting each other for years. Hugh thinks she’s nothing but a spoiled rich girl, and he’s had enough of that life with his ex-wife. Harlow thinks Hugh is an ill-mannered trouble-maker who wouldn't know fun if it bit him on his tight denim-clad butt.
When they’re forced together at the Split Rock Ranch and Resort, everything changes. They might be polar opposites, but working out their differences skin to skin, in the dark, seems to help their incompatibility a lot. But when trouble from both their pasts comes calling, Harlow and Hugh have no one else to lean on. Can they trust one another enough to make it through the hard times together… or will their tentative truce fall apart?
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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 . . .
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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 decline 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 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.”
She ignored his comment and looked at Renner. “And who is this charming redneck-cum-hairstylist?”
“Hugh Pritchett. He’s the livestock manager and my right-hand man.” Renner lifted his chin to Hugh. “This is my sister-in-law, Harlow Pratt. She’ll be workin’ at the Split Rock this summer.”
Just then another guy exited the barn. He stopped, grinned at her and hustled up the hill. When he reached her, he thrust out his hand. “You must be Harlow. Tierney’s told me all about you. I’m Tobin Hale. I do all the crap jobs around here that no one else wants to do.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Tobin.”
He squinted at her and smiled. “The Mud Lilies are gonna love you with that wild-ass hair.”
“What are the Mud Lilies?”
“It’s a group of the best ladies you’ll ever meet.” Tobin dropped his voice to a whisper. “They’re all retired and widowed, but that don’t stop them from bein’ the biggest troublemakers in the county.”
“I can’t wait to meet them.”
“Unless you’re meeting up with them tonight, they ain’t gonna see your pink hair. No offense, Harlow, but that’s gotta go if you’re working here,” Renner said.
Good thing she’d planned for that. “I assume you want the piercings out too?”
“I’d have her leave in the nose ring, Ren,” Hugh drawled. “That way if she gets outta line, you can attach a chain to it and use it as a come-along.”
Harlow’s mouth dropped open. “Was that supposed to be funny?”
He shrugged those broad shoulders.
Tobin stepped between them. “Ignore Hugh. His ex-wife got his sense of humor in the divorce settlement.” He looked over at Renner. “I know the boss will want his wife to put her feet up, so I’ll show you around the rest of the place.”
Flirting was second nature to her; she thought nothing of smiling up at Tobin as she threaded her arm through his. Such a cutie with that glorious grin, not to mention the devilish twinkle in his eyes. “Lead on.”
She glanced over her shoulder at her sister—the only one of the trio who showed any amusement. “See you later.”
“We’ve got a nine a.m. meeting to go over job expectations,” Renner said.
“I’ll be there with bells on.”
Of course she’d overslept. Twenty-some hours in the car without a break, and add in the cocktails she’d knocked back last night in an effort to get to know her new coworker Tanna, and she’d crashed in her clothes. Luckily her backup alarm was loud enough to wake the dead.
Her brother-in-law chewed her ass for the lateness, warning she’d get no special treatment because of her family ties. The work at the resort wouldn’t be hard—nothing like the time she’d spent digging latrines in Haiti. The hardest part for her would be peddling accessories and other junk to people who likely had a closet already crammed with clothing, jewelry and scarves. But her views on excessive consumerism wouldn’t be welcome around here. And she wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize this job and her true purpose for being in Wyoming.
Keeping an eye on her sister.
Since she and her father were worried about Tierney’s first pregnancy—due to a family history of childbirth complications, which had killed Tierney and Harlow’s mother and their maternal grandmother—when Tierney mentioned the Split Rock needed temporary summer help, Harlow had begged Tierney to give her the job. With her father’s blessing, she claimed Daddy had cut her off again. Given their past history, Tierney had no problem casting their father in the villain’s role. She offered Harlow the job without hesitation . . .
When the flight attendant announced they’d begun the descent into Denver, Harlow shut down the memory and prepared herself to see her father at the hospital.
After Harlow deplaned at DIA, she headed straight for the taxi stand. Inside the cab she turned on her phone, hoping she didn’t have a single message.
No texts. No voice mail.
She quickly texted Tierney and received an equally fast response.
Dad made it thru surgery. He’s in ICU recovery. Call me right after you see him, okay?
Harlow responded with K.
She palmed her phone and looked out the window. Darkness had fallen, so all she saw was the blur of lights as the taxi sped down the freeway. She’d been in such a hurry to leave that she hadn’t had time to check on the possible aftereffects of a heart attack resulting in emergency bypass surgery.
She opened the Internet search app and typed in WebMD. It’d become her secret addiction during her stint in Africa when she’d sworn she’d contracted malaria—despite being vaccinated. She’d run through the checklist of symptoms on the medical site, but hers didn’t match up, so she accepted the truth: She’d gotten the flu.
That’s when she’d become a WebMD junkie.
Harlow knew exactly what terms to plug in to get the most focused results. As she scoured the text, she became increasingly more frustrated because she didn’t know the level of heart attack her dad had suffered. So the recovery time could be anywhere from a couple of days to an entire year.
Surely her proud father wouldn’t insist one of his daughters become his caretaker during his recovery? Because with Tierney’s responsibilities to her financial consulting business, as well as to her daughter—Isabelle—the new baby and Renner, the “take care of Dad” responsibility would fall squarely on Harlow’s shoulders.
Except the man had more money than god. He could afford to hire professional help.
The cab pulled to a stop beneath the hospital awning. Harlow paid the cabbie and hauled her suitcase out of the trunk, her phone in her hand.
The receptionist at the visitors’ desk smiled at her. “How may I help you?”
“My father, Gene Pratt, was brought here via helicopter from Wyoming. He’s been in surgery in the cardiac unit. I just flew in and don’t know what floor he’s on.”
“Hang on a second and I’ll pull up that information for you.”
As Harlow waited, she drummed her fingers on the countertop. Then she just happened to glance across the room and she saw him.
Every inch of his six-foot-three-inch frame vibrated with tension. His big hands were propped on his jean-clad hips. His wide shoulders nearly cast his shitkickers in shadow. As always, he’d pulled his cowboy hat down low enough that only the bottom half of his face was visible.
His lips were compressed into a thin, disapproving line.
“Ah, yes, here it is,” the receptionist said, garnering Harlow’s attention. “He’s on the second floor in the cardiac wing. Are you familiar with how to get there?”
“Follow the corridor to the second set of elevators. They’ll take you to the cardiac unit. I’ll let the charge nurse know that you’re on your way.”
“Thank you so much.” If she’d had the energy to sprint to avoid Hugh, she would have attempted it. But his long-legged strides allowed him to cut her off before she’d made it past the first set of elevators.
“Why are you dodging me?” he demanded.
His deep voice still had the power to send a shiver of want down her spine. “I’m here to see my father, not you. You did your good deed, so now you can go.”
“Harlow. I need to talk to you.”
Harlow gave herself a quick reminder not to fall prey to this man’s visceral pull before she glanced up to meet his eyes.
Pointless advice as it turned out. The one-two punch of lust whomped her in the gut. Why couldn’t the man look like hell? Why did he have to look like he’d stepped out of a Western film with his perfectly groomed beard and piercing brown eyes shadowed beneath the brim of his well-worn hat? He even wore a crisp white shirt and dark blue Wranglers—both of which looked as starched as his attitude.
“Christ almighty, woman, how is it possible you’re even prettier than I remembered?”
Don’t fall for it.
But she wasn’t immune to his compliments, especially since they were so rare. The heat in his eyes indicated he was happy to see her. However, the hard set to his jaw indicated he knew the feeling wasn’t mutual.
“Hugh. I appreciate you sticking around. But since you’re not family”—she pointed to the sign on the wall regarding visitation limitations—“you can’t accompany me to the waiting area upstairs.” She turned to go.
“Hold on.” He set his big hand on her arm. “I’ll be right here if you need anything.”
“I won’t need anything from you.”
“And don’t even think about tryin’ to sneak past me,” he warned. “I’ve always had a strange kind of radar when it comes to you.”
“Then that radar should be telling you to get far away from me as fast as possible.”
Hugh’s lips twitched. “I’ll take that under advisement.”
She shook off his touch and dragged her suitcase to the elevators, refusing to look his way again. But she felt his presence, felt his eyes roving over every inch of her body like a caress, just like they used to.
Used to. Remember that.
Once the doors opened on the second floor, Harlow straightened her spine, preparing herself for whatever shape she’d find her father in.
Well, you fucked that up.
No shit. And no goddamned surprise.
Hugh shuffled back to the reception area, unable to keep defeat from weighing on him as he lowered his sorry ass into the closest chair.
Three years had passed since he’d last clapped eyes on her and the first thing he did was snarl at her. Jesus. Talk about a class act.
At least you didn’t insult her hair like you did the first time you met her.
That thought brought a quick smile. Remembering the fire flashing in her big blue eyes. Remembering how she’d gone sandal to boot with him, arguing with him.
Remembering . . . everything about Harlow Pratt.
In an effort to get his mind off the past, he rifled through the stack of magazines on the table beside him and scowled. He’d never be bored enough to waste his life reading about celebrities’ love affairs and their dietary preferences.
Dietary preferences. Bunch of weird fucking diets where they’d eat twigs and clay but not meat.
That brought his mind back to Harlow. He hadn’t been surprised to learn the girl was a vegetarian. But he had been surprised by his immediate pull toward her when they first met. Beneath the punk Barbie look, she had a pretty face, and bee-stung lips that begged for a kiss. Add in her breathy voice, the curvy body, and he’d wanted her with an ache he couldn’t understand.
Harlow Pratt was miles away from the usual type of woman that attracted him—a million fucking miles away.
So he’d tried to stay away from her while she was working at the resort. If their paths crossed, he’d become tight-lipped. Not speaking to her, not looking at her physical fineness, generally ignoring her.
But Harlow didn’t like being ignored. She’d nicknamed him Grumpy—which secretly amused him—so he’d started calling her Harlot, which hadn’t amused her at all, but the attention had given her a reason to tease him at every turn.
And goddammit-all-to-hell if it didn’t work.
Back then he’d been going through the motions for so long he’d forgotten the simple joys of give-and-take between a man and a woman. He’d never had much use for flirting. But Harlow changed that. She’d changed everything.
A wave of sleepiness rolled over him. He tossed the magazine aside and pulled his hat a little lower. Maybe he could sneak in a catnap.
But he couldn’t get Harlow off his mind. He’d been thinking about her all day. How she’d wormed her way into his life three years ago whether he’d liked it or not. He drifted back to that time and the place where they’d left antagonism at the door for the first time . . .
That summer had been rife with changes—few of them good. As Hugh sat in Buckeye Joe’s again, annoyed by everything again, he wondered at what point a young man became a crabby old man.
When the current music and entertainment trends baffled him? When he’d rather stay at home than go out and deal with crowds? When spicy foods gave him indigestion?
No. He was a healthy twenty-eight-year-old man who wasn’t getting laid regularly and that made him really fucking crabby.
“What’s your deal?” Tobin asked him. “You look ready to punch something.”
“I just wish we would’ve gone someplace else.” He tipped up his beer and drank, letting his gaze take in the Buckeye. “Same people here every time. Same lack of women every time.”
“Then let’s head into Rawlins next week.”
“Cool. And then on the ‘Welcome to Wyoming’ road sign, let’s spray-paint ‘Horny and Desperate’ as the state’s new slogan.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Tobin said. “It bugs the fuck outta me to imagine I might live the rest of my life without a woman in my bed every night.”
“After havin’ my ex bouncing in all the beds in the county except for ours, I’m fine sleeping alone. Doesn’t mean I don’t need a warm body next to me once in a while to give my hand a break.”
Tobin nearly spit out his beer. “Jesus, warn a guy. You never say shit like that.” He leaned closer and scrutinized Hugh’s face. “You weren’t doin’ the Mud Lilies’ stargazer shots and you’re totally hammered right now?”
“Nah. I’m just restless. I’m used to bein’ on the road. I know Ren is all het up about Tierney’s pregnancy, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be out there running the events.” Hugh nudged him. “Pointless to talk about. Let’s play pool.”
They took their time playing, since no one else was hot for the table.
“Women,” Tobin stated out of the blue. “Is that why you miss bein’ on the road so much?”
“Partly. I mean there are always women at the events lookin’ for a hookup. There isn’t a single woman in this bar I’d consider hooking up with.”
Just then Harlow Pratt made a total liar of him by walking in right as those words left his mouth.
Tobin was taking a shot, allowing Hugh time to give Harlow a thorough head to toe. She’d worn a lacy blouse the soft pink color of her lips. Jeans. Flip-flops. She had her hands in her back pockets and she looked around.
Looking for familiar faces.
He frowned. She’d come to the bar alone? Why’d she think that was a good idea?
As she walked away from the front door, four different guys approached her. Two, Hugh knew from spending so much time in here, were married. The other two were dirtbags.
Tobin prompted him to take a turn, then looked to see what’d caught Hugh’s attention. Grinning, he set down his cue and headed right for Harlow.
Her happiness in seeing a familiar face even made Hugh smile.
Of course Tobin brought her to their table. “Look who I found.”
Harlow rested her elbows on the table. “Heya, Grumpy.”
“Ugh. Don’t call me that.”
“Like you callin’ me Grumpy is any better?”
“Can we leave Grumpy and Harlot at the Split Rock tonight?”
“You want me to get you something from the bar, Harlow?” Tobin asked.
“The Split Rock bartender didn’t wander into the Buckeye to drink on her night off?” Hugh said skeptically.
“That wouldn’t be smart, since I’m also driving. I just needed to get out and be among people I don’t have to wait on.” She eyed his beer. “Why are you here?”
“Tobin dragged me.”
“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.”
“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.
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 from 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 like 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 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.”
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.
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.”
“We’ll deal with the rest of this later.”
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.”
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.
Harlow blinked and sat up, confused about where she was.
“Dr. Mazur is here. He’ll speak to you about your father.”
Right. She was in Denver. She untangled herself from the blanket. “Thank you.”
They went through the set of double doors and cut sharply to the right. The nurse stopped in front of a room, knocked twice and waited until a doddering man opened the door.
Surely that wasn’t the doctor who’d performed the surgery? He was ancient.
As soon as she entered the room, Harlow forgot about everyone and focused on her dad. He still looked horrible. Alive, according to the blips and beeps of the machines around him, but very much like he’d danced with the devil yesterday and barely bested him.
“When will he be awake?” she asked.
“Later today or tomorrow. So for now let’s go into the hallway and get the medical stuff out of the way.”
“Can I record this? Or will you be able to explain it to my sister over the phone?”
“Record it if you prefer; that way you can go back and listen to it too.”
Dr. Mazur went into a long-winded explanation of the need for the emergency coronary bypass surgery, due to problems with Gene Pratt’s blocked arteries, which had caused the heart attack. The doctor detailed the six-hour surgery itself, the incision in the chest cavity, the removal of the healthy blood vessels in her father’s leg and how he’d implanted them to replace the four damaged arteries in his heart. Then he listed the medications, along with the side effects from the surgery as well as the drugs. He said he’d personally discuss “crucial and nonnegotiable lifestyle changes” with her father. Then he mentioned recovery time. Six to twelve weeks. Minimum.
“Not that I can think of now.”
Dr. Mazur patted her shoulder. “Get some rest or fresh air. He’ll be out of it for a while yet. And you’ll be sick of this place soon enough because you’ll be stuck here for at least a week.”
When her dad woke up on day three, Dr. Mazur had cautioned her about the possible issues her father might be dealing with, such as temporary loss of memory, partial paralysis, confusion and pain that could lead to unreasonable anger. So when she walked into the room, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
But it completely caught her by surprise that her dad smiled and said, “Angel baby,” on a short wheeze of breath.
Tears filled her eyes when she heard the term of endearment he hadn’t used in years. She went to his bedside and clasped the hand he held out. “Daddy.”
“I’m happy you’re here. Happy you think I’m human enough to warrant your attention as a humanitarian cause.”
She smiled because for a change his teasing wasn’t mean in nature. “You sure know how to grab our attention.”
Fear flashed in his eyes. “This incident didn’t send Tierney . . . ?”
“No, she’s fine. The baby is fine. Isabelle is fine. We’re all fine except for you. Renner is making Tierney stay at home, which is why I’m here.”
“Good man, putting his foot down. We both know that she needs to take it easy.”
“So do you, Dad. You had a close call.”
“Would you have missed me if I would’ve died?”
Startled by the abrupt question, she stammered, “I d-don’t think—”
“Answer me.” He paused. “Please.”
“Why are you asking me this?”
“Because I realized I want to be the kind of father you’ll miss and I know I’m not. I’ve always been more concerned with earning money than my daughters’ love and respect. I need to earn that right.”
Shocked by the direction this conversation had taken, Harlow just stared at him.
“I need to make amends to you and your sister. This scare has taught me something. I want to be the grandfather to my grandkids that my grandfather was to me.”
Then he drifted off to sleep.
None of the doctor’s warnings had prepared her for her father having a complete personality change. Now Harlow wondered if she should really be worried.
Day four, a surly man had replaced her contrite father. But she understood fear was partially responsible for his attitude, since he’d suffered a bout of heart arrhythmia.
She’d waited in the hallway while the medical team worked on him after the episode. Once the room emptied of all medical personnel except the doctor, she approached the bed. “Dad?”
“Don’t look at me with pity, Harlow.”
“Your eyes aren’t open, so you don’t have any idea how I’m looking at you.”
“I can feel it.” He shifted in his bed and winced. “Fuck.”
She froze. Her dad never dropped the f-bomb.
“Sorry. I just feel so damn old and helpless.”
“What can I do?”
He opened his eyes. “Track down my cell. I’ll need to make some calls.”
“You had it when you arrived here?”
“No. I had it in the car in Wyoming. I gave it to Hugh. He was supposed to bring it and check it as a personal item for me.”
Hugh. She hadn’t thought about him in, oh, ten minutes. Why hadn’t he mentioned the location of her dad’s cell phone when he was here?
Because you threw him out, remember?
“I’ll check on it. Anything else?”
Dr. Mazur approached them. “It’s time to discuss rehab options. I’ll send Charlie in. He’s our coordinator—”
“It might be a little much for my father to think about now. I’m sure he has plenty of options when he returns to Chicago.”
“I’m not going back to Chicago.”
Startled, she looked at her dad. “What?”
“I had a near-death experience. Do you think I’m eager to lock myself in a business tower and deal with more work?”
“Yes, because that’s who you are.”
“Then it’s past time for me to change, isn’t it? This was the wake-up call I needed.”
Change? What was he talking about?
“There’s no reason I can’t do my rehab in Wyoming.”
Harlow calmly faced the doctor. “Did he sustain brain damage? Because this man is acting nothing like my father.”
Dr. Mazur shrugged. “If a man says he needs to change, he likely does. It’s not unusual for people who’ve had a taste of their own mortality to decide to take a different approach to their lives.”
“Exactly,” her father said triumphantly. “I need a different approach. What better way to recover than to be around my family?”
“I’ll let you sort out the details,” the doctor said. “We’ll forward your records to wherever you end up. We’ll keep you in the ICU just to be on the safe side as far as surgical problems the next couple of days.”
After the doctor left, Harlow demanded, “Have you lost your mind? You can’t go back to Wyoming.”
“It’s perfectly rational to recover at the Split Rock, since I already have a room and my things are there.”
“Dad. The Split Rock is a resort, not a rehab hospital.”
“It’ll be cheaper than a rehab hospital. Two meals a day and daily housekeeping? If I hire a nurse to drive in every day from Rawlins or Casper, it’d still be cheaper than returning to Chicago for recovery.”
“But . . .”
“Chicago is your home. You have friends there. A life there. And the medical facilities are top-notch.”
“I took all that into consideration, but I’m determined to recover among family.”
Determined. Aka—in Gene Pratt–speak—I’m a stubborn bastard and the subject is closed.
Harlow stood. “I’ll see if I can’t find your cell phone.”
And the closest bar.
That night when she returned to her hotel room, she cracked open the minibar. She didn’t bother dumping the tiny bottle of tequila in a glass; she poured it directly into her mouth. Then she filled the ice bucket from the machine on her floor. She crafted cocktail number two: gin and ginger ale on the rocks. She sipped that one, since the only food she’d consumed all day had come from the hospital vending machine.
She flopped in the chair and stared at the ice cubes in her glass. As soon as her dad had woken up, he’d begun dictating to her as if she were his secretary. Which should be the height of hilarity, since her father had refused to give her any position—even in the janitorial department—at his company, Pratt Financial Group—PFG. But what really had her questioning his soundness of mind? Hearing him say she needed to choose between a black, silver or white Lexus SUV to drive when they left for Wyoming. He’d placed a black one on hold, but if she preferred another color, it was fine with him. There’d been no need to ask why he chose a Lexus. Nothing but the best—and usually most expensive—for Gene Pratt.
Her phone rang and she answered it. “Yo, sis, what up?”
“My curiosity. Did Dad have a brain transplant?”
Harlow snickered. “Ooh, that one’s much nicer than my original thought that they discovered his heart was dead and black when they opened him up and they retrofitted him with a real one.”
“Omigod, that is not funny, because it’s entirely a possibility.”
“So what weirdness did the emperor bestow on you today after he got his cell phone back?”
“Let’s see, he called Janie and booked the room he was staying in at the Split Rock for the next twelve weeks—and sweetened the pot by adding a hundred dollars per night to the price, which of course Janie couldn’t pass up. Then because he couldn’t get a room for his personal assistant, he’s renting one of the employee trailers for her.”
The drink stopped halfway to her mouth. “Wait. Karen agreed to come?”
“Yes. Evidently he’s promised her that she won’t be his nursemaid, but she’ll continue in her capacity as his assistant, helping him get his affairs in order so he can retire properly.”
“Fuck. Me. He’s serious about retiring?”
“Apparently so. Oh, and he’s graciously offered Karen to me to handle the accounting at Split Rock when I’m on maternity leave.” She snorted. “Like that’ll ever happen. I’d turn it over to you long before her.”
Harlow had to admit that stung. Numbers weren’t her forte, but she had other skills—valuable skills—according to all the relief agencies and humanitarian organizations she’d worked for over the years. But, as usual, Harlow let the remark go without comment. “What else?”
“You’re aware Dad rented a trailer for you?”
Oh, hell no. “Why?”
“Claims he wants you close by so you can help him during his recovery and help me with Isabelle after the baby arrives.”
“He doesn’t get to decide that for me! And I can’t believe you agreed to it.”
“Harlow, he kept mentioning the word ‘family’ and the phrase ‘wasted years.’ As pregnant and hormonal as I am, I’m easily susceptible to visions of family dinners gathered around a holiday meal as we look at each other with adoration, so give me a break.”
Her sister had spent years trying to win their father’s approval. Now that he’d shown a glimmer of humanity, had Tierney immediately reverted into that daddy-pleasing girl? And if so, what could she do about it?
Nothing. She just had to make the most of it.
“Fine. I’ll go along with it for a few weeks just to keep his health on track, okay?”
“Okay.” A pause. “You’ve been with him for five days. Do you really think he’s changed?”
“I don’t know. He’s less . . . emperor-like, all these plans for his stay at the Split Rock notwithstanding.” But she didn’t trust him. Deep down she worried this “one big happy family” thing was another one of his power plays; the man was a master at them. “The true test will be if he’s an arrogant asshole when he’s recuperating.”
“I hope they load him up on prescription drugs that’ll knock him out for most of it.”
“How long before he’s discharged?”
“I’ll let Karen know. She isn’t coming until Dad’s out of the hospital and settled here. She said he’ll remember twenty other things she needs to bring along, so she’ll wait.”
“That’s why she gets paid the big bucks.” Harlow took another sip of her drink. “Is the ever-efficient Karen lining up home health care?”
“I am. Or I should say I did. Remember Lainie? Hank’s wife? She’s a nurse and she’s agreed to take him on. For a week anyway to see how it goes.”
“Very. I have another place in Casper as a backup plan.”
“I’m staying in the employee trailers for the short amount of time I’m there?”
“Since Hugh bought my cabin, his old trailer has been empty, so I’ll have housekeeping get it ready for you.”
She’d loved that small cabin. Hugh had probably turned it into a man cave. “All I need is a bed and a shower for the short time I’m there, so that’ll work.”
“Harlow. Are you all right?”
“I’m hungry and drinking. But other than that, I’m fine. Why?”
“You’ve said ‘short amount of time I’m there’ numerous times. It sounds like you’re already planning to leave and you’re not even here yet. Makes me wonder what really happened three years ago that chased you away so fast.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Lorelei James
“No one writes contemporary erotic romance better than Lorelei James.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Maya Banks
“Lorelei James knows how to write one hot, sexy cowboy.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Jaci Burton
“The down-and-dirty, rough-and-tumble Blacktop Cowboys kept me up long past my bedtime. Scorchingly hot, wickedly naughty.”—Lacey Alexander, author of Give In to Me