Hang tough, p.10
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       Hang Tough, p.10
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         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  Tobin rolled his eyes.

  “I assume the Mud Lilies have met her?”

  “No, they haven’t. I think that Garnet is hoarding her granddaughter, for lack of a better term.”

  “Seems odd, though.”

  “Odd is the very definition of them old gals.”

  “True. So back to business. I’ve always understood doubling your salary wouldn’t be an incentive for you to stick around.” Renner locked his gaze to Tobin’s. “That said, if you suddenly find a reason for staying in Muddy Gap? The job is still yours. The job as is,” he clarified. “No promise that I’ll get my shit together anytime soon and utilize all this office space as I’d intended.”

  “Thanks, Ren. I appreciate it.”

  Renner tapped his pen on his desk. He wore that I’m about to level the boom expression.

  “What else?”

  “I know you’ve been friend-zoned a lot. I ain’t big on handing out advice, especially not advice on women, but there is one thing I wanted to mention.”

  Tobin tried not to fidget. Or blush.

  “You want Jade to see you as more than a friend? Don’t act like one. Don’t set yourself up to fail. That’s not to say be an asshole. Make it clear you’re interested in her. And the split second you know she feels the same interest for you? Fucking own it. Take control like it’s your due. You ain’t the kind of guy who’ll push her past a point she’s not ready for, but show her that you are ready for the next step. Make her believe that once she’s in your bed? She won’t ever want to get out. Be confident, man. Women dig that.”

  “So you’re saying to pretend to be someone else?”

  Renner shook his head. “I’m sayin’ you present yourself to be an easygoing, helpful, nice guy. That’s who you are. But that’s not all you are, T. Show her your intense side. She’ll know that’s part of you that only she gets to see. That is heady stuff for your woman, my friend. Be that polite, helpful, easygoing guy in public, but when you’re alone with her, rip that fucking mask off and be the man she wants ownership of.”

  He laughed softly. Not out of nervousness, out of relief. His boss had hit it right on the fucking head—that elusive What am I doing wrong? that had kept him second-guessing himself.

  No. More. “That is the single best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, Renner.”

  “Thank fuck you said that. I’da felt like an ass if you would’ve stood, tapped the desk and said ‘good talk.’”

  “I’m gonna do that anyway. But only because I’m done spinning my wheels when it comes to this.”

  Tobin reached the door, when Renner said his name.

  “I owed you. Early on you made me question why I accepted that Tierney wasn’t meeting me halfway in our relationship. Demanding she put in equal effort because I deserved it changed everything for us. You deserve a chance to find what’s been missing for you.”

  “Thanks.”

  Chapter Nine

  “GG. Why don’t you have any pictures of me around your house? I know Mom and Dad have sent them to you over the years.”

  “What do you mean? I have every picture from the time you were a baby up until the ones we took last summer on Cape Cod.”

  “So where are they?”

  “I keep them in albums, so when I get lonely for you, I can flip back through them and remember all of our fun times.” GG frowned. “When your dad was a boy, I had pictures of him everywhere. Your grandpa called it the ‘shrine to Garwood Evans’ and I know it embarrassed Gar whenever his buddies came over.” Sadness clouded her eyes. “After I sold the house, I put all those pictures and school things in albums. I continued that tradition with you. Why?”

  “When I first got here, Tobin mentioned not knowing what I looked like and that he didn’t remember hearing you talk about me . . .”

  “Well, girlie-girl, I don’t talk about you.”

  That explained it. Jade had to look away. “Oh.”

  “That doesn’t mean I’m not bust-my-buttons proud of you. Some of my happiest memories are from the times we’ve spent together. But those memories are mine. They’re precious to me. I’m selfish. I don’t want to share them with anyone else.”

  She glanced up at her grandmother. “Really? I thought . . .”

  GG took Jade’s hand in both of hers. “You thought I was ashamed of you or something? Lord, child, no. Exactly the opposite. But see, this is about me. When women get to be of a certain age . . . all they ever talk about is their dadgum grandkids. They brag on them. Or worse, they blather on about the kids’ drug problems, or baby-mama dramas, or complain that their grandbaby-daddy ain’t nothin’ but a sperm donor. Makes my head hurt. The only reason these women share all of that baloney is to get ‘there, there, dear’ pats on the hand and assurances from their friends they weren’t to blame. Bunch of poppycock if you ask me, because usually they are to blame.” She shrugged. “Not only that, these same women don’t talk about anything interesting because they stopped doing interesting things. They just keep reliving their glory days when they raised their own kids and now they’re reliving that time through their grandkids.”

  “I never thought of it that way.”

  “These types of women wanna moan and groan about their aches and pains. Or they wanna gossip about other women. They’re jealous if a widow has a social life—that mean girl stuff still happens with really old mean girls.”

  Jade snickered.

  “My group of friends—you’ll meet the Mud Lilies crew sooner rather than later—and I made a pact that we’d keep our friendship and activities focused on us—on the us we are now, not the us from fifty, sixty years ago. I’m an interesting person in my own right, as are they. Sure, sometimes we talk about the grandkids, but mostly, uh . . . no. Sounds selfish, but I gotta say, it sure is fun.” She grinned. “It’s like we’re teenage girls again. The world is wide open to us and we can do anything we want.”

  Here was her chance to get some answers. “Well, I’m glad for you, but I do have to ask if these friends are . . . a bad influence?”

  “Oh pooh. You mean the gun and the jail time? Minor incidents. Besides, they’re pretty tame in comparison to some of the other things we’ve done and haven’t been caught for.”

  “You realize that last statement isn’t really putting my mind at ease?”

  GG blinked. “Shoot. Scratch that. Forget I mentioned it.”

  Not likely.

  But the real question was how much of it she would relay to her dad.

  “Come on.” GG stood and pulled Jade to her feet. “As long as you’re my captive audience today, we’ll sort through some stuff.”

  As Jade followed her down the upstairs hallway, the barest hint of Tobin’s cologne teased her as she passed the open door to his room. Her body heated as she flashed back to being so close to him earlier. She hadn’t mentioned her visit to the Split Rock to GG, but Jade had thought of little else.

  GG opened up a room that was packed with papers, fabric, art supplies, bags of clothing and stacks of bedding.

  “Now, I wasn’t gonna show you this, figuring it’d land me on an episode of Hoarders, but I’ve managed to contain my junk collection to this room.” She frowned and shot a look at the ceiling. “Well, mostly to this room. There is some stuff in the attic.”

  There wasn’t a single space like this in her parents’ brownstone. Clutter was dealt with immediately. So this was pretty cool. She’d get to see remnants of her grandma’s life. “What are your plans for all of this stuff? Is it valuable to you?”

  “Most of it is odds and ends that I couldn’t part with for some reason.” She jammed her fingers through her strawberry-colored hair, causing it to stick straight up. “With you listening to me tell you why I kept it and hearing the history behind it . . . maybe it’ll be easier for me to let it go.” GG wrapped Jade in a hug. “I’m so glad you’re here. Not to clean out my room, but to listen to an old broad ramble on. Makes it feel less like work and more a trip down memory l
ane.”

  Jade squeezed her grandma tight. The woman was skinny, but there wasn’t a frail thing about her. It didn’t seem as if she’d aged at all since Jade was a kid. She’d always been unconventional in her approach to life. Jade would give anything to be like that. “I’m happy I finally get to be in your home, GG. I should’ve come here way before now.”

  “Oh pooh. If I’m not allowed to have regrets at my age, you’re certainly not allowed to have them at yours.” She stepped back and smoothed her hands over Jade’s hair. “You are such a beautiful girl. Inside and out. So tell me why you ain’t got a million boys chasing after you?”

  She laughed self-consciously. “I haven’t gotten over that whole ‘shy’ thing, unfortunately. Guys my age want a fast hookup because they’re still partying with their bros on weekends, even if they have a respectable job Monday through Friday. Older guys . . . they want to hook up too, but more in a ‘let’s see if the sex is good enough that I’ll consider you long-term-relationship material’ and then they grill you on your career plans and if you’d set them aside to have a family.”

  “It’ll make me sound like a fuddy-duddy, but not having sex before marriage was a lot simpler. I got to know him in other ways and he got to know me beyond my killer gams and great bosom.”

  Bosom. What a great word. Why didn’t anyone use it anymore?

  “Maybe this is more than you wanted to know about my marriage to your grandfather . . . but we knew there was passion between us from the moment we met. We couldn’t wait to get to that wedding night.” She smirked. “That was only the beginning for us. We kept those fires burning because neither of us was shy in admitting what we wanted in the boudoir. That wasn’t the norm back then, I guess, but it’s how we were.”

  “GG, why didn’t you ever get remarried?”

  “He was the love of my life. No man I ever met compared to him or what we had together.” GG took her hands. “I know you’ve struggled to find your place in the world. I’m proud of you for the dedication to your schooling and your music.”

  “But?”

  “There’s no ‘but’ just an ‘and.’”

  “Okay. And . . . ?”

  “And what makes other people happy will be different than what makes you happy. You don’t have to follow the maddening crowd to find happiness. This whole idea of everyone goin’ to college and joining the race to get to the top of the ladder . . . I don’t believe the view up there is better than down here.”

  “You’re right. But it’s never been my goal to rise to the top.”

  Her eyes burned bright. “What is your goal, Jade?”

  “To live my life happily.”

  “Were you close to achieving that?”

  She shook her head. “Not on any level. Not in my professional or in my personal life.”

  Why was GG poking her on this?

  “A piece of paper given to you by an academic institution isn’t what defines you.” GG placed her hand over Jade’s heart. “This defines you. Some people will tell you to listen to your head. I say poppycock. I say listen to your heart.” She pulled Jade into a hug. “I love you. Anytime you need to talk about anything at all, I’m here for you. No judgment.”

  “Thanks, GG.”

  “Now you grab the garbage bags from the kitchen and we’ll get this place tidied up”

  Jade had finished sealing a box with packing tape, when she heard Tobin call out, “Where are you, Miz G?”

  GG walked to the staircase to yell down, “Up here.”

  The stairs creaked and then Tobin stood in the hallway, eyeing the wreckage. He whistled. “I didn’t know we had a tornado touch down today.”

  “It’s been a whirlwind, but a productive one. I can’t believe how much we accomplished in just a few hours.”

  “It looks like you’ve been productive.”

  Jade tied a knot in the garbage bag and dragged it to the pile. She put her hand on her belly to quell the fluttery feeling before she met Tobin’s gaze.

  The way he stared at her—hot and hungry—had her heart hammering.

  “Great timing. We could use a break.” GG dusted off her hands. To Tobin, she said, “Feel free to haul these bags out to the trash.”

  “Not a problem.”

  Good thing GG was oblivious to the fact that Tobin hadn’t taken his eyes off Jade since the moment their gazes had connected.

  “This cleansing calls for a drink. I’ll head down and pour us some champagne.” GG patted Tobin in the chest and ducked under his arm as she passed by him.

  Jade didn’t move.

  As soon as they were alone, Tobin stalked her.

  The glimmer in his eye sent her pulse tripping. “Two questions for you.”

  “Okay.”

  This close to him, Jade noticed a thin white scar, half an inch long above his upper lip. She wanted to taste it. Trace it with her tongue. Kiss it.

  “Did you think about me after you left the Split Rock today?”

  “I’ve thought of little else.”

  “Did you think”—he ran his nose up the side of her neck from the curve of her shoulder to the underside of her chin—“‘wasn’t it nice of my friend Tobin to show me around’?”

  That threw her. Despite the heady distraction of the heat of his breath washing over her skin, she managed, “Is that what we are? Friends?”

  “No.” Tobin braced both his hands above her head on the wall. “The last fucking thing I want to be is your goddamned friend, Jade.”

  When had all the oxygen left the room? Her gaze zoomed from the glint in his eyes, to the sensual curve of his mouth, to the pulse thumping in his throat.

  “Know what I want?” he said huskily. “To blatantly break the ‘no contact’ rule.”

  She licked her lips. His mouth was right there.

  “Say yes.” He brushed his lips across hers. Just once. “Admit you want to be a dirty little rule breaker too.”

  “I do,” she said breathlessly. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

  His teeth gleamed.

  Then she found her back against the wall and Tobin’s mouth fastened to hers in a scorching kiss.

  A blistering kiss.

  A dirty, wet, rule-breaking kiss that felt fantastic.

  Jade twined her arms around his neck, trying to get as close to him as possible.

  Tobin groaned in her mouth and effortlessly lifted her up higher to better align their upper bodies, never relinquishing the kiss.

  She loved his show of strength and the way he used it to get what he needed, which was more of her. Digging her fingers into the back of his neck, she held on.

  He hadn’t let up on the kiss from the first touch of their lips.

  Every stroke of his tongue, every stuttered breath, every groan that reverberated down her throat caused her body to become wet and pliant, readying herself for more of him.

  His taste, his touch, his scent . . . she was drowning in him.

  From just a kiss.

  An epic kiss given all the back and forth between them. The heated words. The molten looks. The knowledge that they couldn’t have stopped this combustion even if they’d wanted, even if it hadn’t been against the blasted rules—not that either one had tried.

  Then he dragged his damp lips across her jawline, sending goose bumps from her scalp to her toes.

  She sucked in a breath when he sank his teeth into the hollow beneath her jaw.

  “Fuck. I wanted you before,” he murmured, “but nothin’ like the way I want you now.” He brushed his lips across the shell of her ear. “Don’t retreat after this, Jade. Don’t tell me this was a mistake.”

  “It’s not. It’s . . .” She moaned when he blew in her ear and she arched into him hard.

  “Thank fuck.” Tobin made a growling noise and devoured her again in a messy kiss that was ten times hotter because he’d lost control of his lust for her.

  After hoisting her up, he’d kept his hands on her behind, kneading and squeezing,
never venturing beyond the small of her back.

  She wanted those rough-skinned hands all over her. Just when she reached down to bring one of his hands up, he eased back to rest his forehead to hers.

  “Why’d you stop kissing me?”

  “Because your grandma will be up here at any moment. I’d rather not get caught grinding on you with my tongue in your mouth.”

  Jade gave him a playful Eskimo kiss. “What are you saying?”

  “Now that we’ve started this, darlin’, there ain’t no stopping it. But we keep it between us.”

  “It’s better to sneak around and lie about what’s going on?” She
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