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       Hang Tough, p.11

         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  deserved a pat on the back for keeping her response from sounding bitchy.

  “I won’t put you in a difficult position with her.” He touched his mouth to hers. “And we’ve been sneaking around since the moment you arrived.”

  “So this changes nothing.”

  He pulled back. The intent look in those mesmerizing eyes brought a flush to her entire body. “Wrong. This has changed everything.”

  The bottom stair creaked.

  They didn’t break apart guiltily. He let her slide down his body slowly, letting her feel the hard ridge of his cock.

  “What are you two doing up there?” GG yelled from halfway up the stairs. “It’s too gol-durn quiet.”

  Tobin leaned over the railing. “We were havin’ a staring contest. I’m pretty sure I won.”

  “You wish,” Jade retorted, hoping her voice didn’t sound shaky. Or breathy.

  GG squinted at Jade. “I thought you were coming down for some champagne?”

  “I am. I needed to remind your minion to take out the trash sooner, rather than later.”

  “Hey, I’m not invited to the cocktail party?”

  Garnet gave Tobin an arch look. “Were you cleaning out this room and boxing things up all afternoon? Nope. So you’re not invited to our celebration. Come on, Jade.”

  As Jade passed by Tobin, he murmured, “We’ll have a private celebration later.”

  But it turned out that “later” hadn’t meant later that night.

  Tobin received a phone call during dinner, asking for his help rounding up some cattle that’d gotten loose, and he hadn’t returned by the time Jade had gone to bed.

  The next afternoon, after Jade and GG finished cleaning out the last of the small room, GG insisted on celebrating with champagne. She immediately conked out on the love seat in the sitting room when she made her way downstairs to get a bottle.

  At loose ends, Jade started dinner.

  Right after she’d slipped the pan in the oven, she turned around only to discover that Tobin was right behind her. “Oh. Hello. You’re home early.”

  “Whatever you’re making sure smells good.”

  “A tomato and asparagus quiche. And a rustic savory tart—a modified version since I didn’t find many fresh herbs.”

  “You been out to Miz G’s herb garden and looked around?”

  “No. Why didn’t she tell me she had one? Where is it?”

  “Come on, I’ll show you.”

  She snagged a pair of scissors and a basket from the pantry before she followed Tobin out the back door.

  The day had cooled. Late-afternoon sun shimmered across the tops of the trees, sending shards of golden light dancing across the red dirt. Birds chattered and swooped, catching bugs for their evening meal. She’d spent the morning watching puffy clouds building into a thunderhead only to see the tops sheared off by gusts of wind. She’d become so enthralled by the rapidly shifting power of nature that the bedding she’d brought outside to hang on the line had nearly been dry.

  Her restlessness had been better today. But she didn’t kid herself that was due in part to the hours she’d spent cleaning, packing and hauling garbage.

  They’d cleared the backside of the barn when she noticed three separate areas, evenly spread apart and enclosed in barbed wire. Jade was slightly dumbfounded. How had she missed this place? “This is some garden.”

  “Miz G claims she’s doin’ half as much planting as she used to.”

  “Still. It’s huge. Which one is the herb garden?”

  “The new one in the far back.” Tobin pointed to the left. “That one has vegetables—some weird ones, mind you. That one over there”—he pointed to the right—“is flowers.”

  “I wonder why she hadn’t mentioned this. This is like . . . heaven.”

  “She probably thought you could use a break, bein’s you’re a cook in the city.”

  “I am—I was—a prep cook. I chopped and measured and mixed. Not a lot of real cooking.”

  Tobin shrugged. “Maybe that’s why. She doesn’t think you can cook.”

  Jade paused at the gate to the herb garden. “Just because one of her houseguests doesn’t cook doesn’t mean the other one can’t or isn’t interested.”

  “Ouch. But true.”

  The earthy scents of wet soil and the humidity of growing things enveloped her. Jade picked her way around the plants—nothing had been planted in rows; there wasn’t any rhyme or reason to the groupings. She found the tarragon and snipped a few stems. Next she cut a few pieces of orange mint. Luckily GG had left the markers with some of the plants. She mentally catalogued rosemary, thyme, sage, two kinds of basil and parsley, dill, a bay leaf plant, cilantro and . . . what were those growing on the other side, almost hidden beneath the juniper tree?

  Holy crap. She jumped back.

  The heat from the front of Tobin’s body met her backside and he wrapped a beefy arm across her belly as if to protect her. “Did you see a snake? Probably just a garter snake. They’re harmless. But up on the ridge you’ll find rattlers. Some big ol’ boys, so steer clear of that area especially during the hottest part of the day.”

  “No, I didn’t see a snake. I saw . . . those.”

  Without letting go of her, he leaned sideways. He laughed. “Miz G is growing herself a little ganja.”

  “Now I know why she didn’t mention her herb garden.” She took a breath. “I cannot believe my grandmother is growing pot! It’s against the law!”

  “Maybe she doesn’t know what it is and thought it looked like a pretty plant?”

  Jade glared at him over her shoulder.

  He snickered. “Hell, I couldn’t even say that with a straight face.”

  “This is not funny.”

  “Yeah, darlin’, it is.”

  Was this typical of Tobin not to take things like this seriously? “Would it be funny if she went to jail? Is it funny that she might be gullible enough to grow an illegal controlled substance for her friends? Can you imagine GG in prison like on Orange Is the New Black? Those hardened criminals would decimate her sweet nature. She’d probably get shanked.”

  Tobin turned her around, keeping their bodies so close his thighs brushed hers. “Whoa. You’re goin’ full steam ahead and getting pretty far off the track.”

  She inhaled. Since her nose was practically pressed against Tobin’s chest, the clean cotton scent of his shirt filled her lungs. Why did he have to smell so good? “Sorry. I get a little wound up sometimes.”

  “A little?” he repeated. His gaze zoomed in on her neck. “Your pulse is pounding like a snared rabbit’s, sweetheart.”

  She swallowed hard. “I’m a rule follower, remember? This is breaking a major rule and it makes me nervous.”

  “Or I’m making you nervous.” Tobin dipped his head and placed an openmouthed kiss on the base of her throat. “Goddamn, you smell so freakin’ good.” He rubbed his cheek across her skin. “I wanna sink my teeth into you . . . right here.”

  As soon as his teeth connected with the slope of her shoulder, her knees gave out.

  “That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” he growled. “Reminding you how it is between us.”

  “Like I could forget,” she said breathlessly. “Were you worried I would?”

  “I hoped not. But I planned on giving you a hands-on reminder if you had.”

  Then she said, “Show me. Kiss me again, Tobin.” She slid her hands up his chest and twined her arms around his neck. “Kiss me like you were dying to drag me into your bed.”

  Jade expected that would drive him to ravish her in a consuming kiss.

  Instead, he glided his lips back and forth across hers. Teasing. Tracing the seam of her mouth. Tasting her breath when she opened for him. But he didn’t dive in. “Such sweetness,” he whispered, “but I know that tongue is tart.”

  “Yes.”

  “You want me to suck on it?” He slicked the very tip of his tongue across the bow of her upper lip.

&
nbsp; “Please.”

  “But I want a bite of this first.” After a gentle scrape on the inside of her plump bottom lip, he sank his teeth in.

  Jade dug her fingers into the back of his neck and moaned.

  “Jade? Where are you?” GG called out.

  They broke apart with as much guilt as if they’d been caught going at it in the dirt.

  Uh, you were going at it in the dirt.

  “Hide under that bush,” she hissed at him

  “What? No fuckin’ way.”

  “You will hide. And don’t even think about trying to escape from here until we’re back in the house.”

  Smart-aleck man saluted.

  Shamelessly, Jade watched his jean-clad behind after he dropped to all fours and crawled behind the juniper bush—which did not hide his big body at all. Slamming the gate shut behind her, she practically skipped out of the herb garden. “What an awesome herb selection! Not that I got to see more than just the front part.”

  Was it her imagination or was GG scrutinizing her more than usual?

  Poker face, poker face, come on, poker face.

  Finally GG offered that sweet smile. “You oughta see my veggies. It’s a great year for okra. Come on, I’ll show you.”

  By the time they finished the tour and returned to the house, the aroma of the rustic savory tart wafted out from the kitchen.

  “You didn’t have to make supper tonight, girlie-girl, but I’m sure glad you did. It’s quite a treat to have someone cook for me.”

  “Tobin doesn’t cook at all?”

  GG snorted. “That man can burn canned green beans. Canned green beans,” she repeated. “That stunk to high heaven. After that, I told him I’d feed him. I gotta say, it’s been nice cooking for a man again. I forget about such ravenous appetites.”

  Just then, Tobin stepped past the swinging doors.

  His turquoise gaze roved over her slowly and thoroughly, from her mouth to her bare toes.

  His molten look when their gazes clashed indicated his ravenous appetite wasn’t just for food.

  Chapter Ten

  “Tobin!” Garnet said with a smile that quickly turned into a frown. “Didn’t you check the schedule? Tonight isn’t your night to eat with me.”

  “I know. I just came in to see what’s cookin’.”

  Tobin watched Jade’s hands as she guided the knife through the perfectly toasted crust, slicing the tart into four equal pieces.

  “What are your after-dinner plans, Tobin?” Garnet asked.

  “Heading over to Abe’s. He’s got a two-year-old bull he wants me to look at. He’s become as obsessed with diversity in their breeding stock as Ike and Hugh have. What are you ladies up to?”

  “I tried to convince Pearl to let Jade come to the range with us tonight.”

  “Range?” Jade repeated. “As in golf range?”

  Garnet snorted. “Do I look like I golf? No, it’s our gun range night. We only get a limited amount of time. But then again, the sheriff insists we have the range to ourselves after the last scuffle we had with the Gun Club. They challenged us to a shootout and got really ticked off when Vivien beat their best shooter. She won fair and square.” Garnet lowered her voice. “Vivien took her smallest-caliber pistol and created a penis at the bottom of the silhouette target. But it was a teeny-tiny penis. And it had no balls.” She sighed. “So we won’t be invited to their turkey-feed fundraiser this year.”

  Tobin laughed. He glanced over at Jade.

  She stared openmouthed at her grandmother.

  “Pretty accurate depiction of one if I remember right.” She frowned. “You know, I think I might have a picture on my phone—”

  “No, that’s okay. I believe you. And I don’t know about going to the gun range. I don’t want to insert myself where I don’t belong.”

  Jade handed him a plate.

  Garnet actually gave him a little push out of the kitchen.

  When Tobin parked in his usual spot in the driveway, he had a moment of doubt. Maybe Jade wanted time to herself. Maybe she’d think it was weird that he’d come back so soon after his meeting.

  Tobin exited his truck and breathed in the scents of a summer night. The day had cooled off quickly after the sunset. Out here, air-conditioning wasn’t necessary. Just open the windows and let the cross breezes cool everything down.

  That’s why he’d heard the unfamiliar sound when his boot had hit the top porch stair. He paused. Listened. And he’d heard it again. A drawn-out, mournful wail.

  Entering the house quietly, he saw the kitchen lights were off. Two lamps burned in the living room. Light from the sitting room spilled across the wood floor. He moved along the hallway to the small space tucked behind the staircase. You wouldn’t even know a room was back there if the door was closed, but it was open and that’s where the sounds he’d heard were coming from.

  Just then a violent eruption of musical notes exploded into the air. Angry tones, dissonant chords that evoked that gut-twisting feeling of betrayal.

  Tobin leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, letting the music wash over him.

  The anger and betrayal in the piece gave way to melancholy, long sweet notes rather than fast and furious rapid-fire runs. Gradually the sense of melancholy began to melt away; the tones became brighter, happy little teases, followed by high- and low-pitched short sections that he swore sounded like flirty dialogue between a man and a woman.

  Then once again the tone morphed into one of sensuality. A slow tango of rich and steady glides before gradually the strains shortened, creating an urgency that rose and rose until it reached that long, clear high-pitched note. That piercing swell held, and held and held, then in the next moment it spiraled down, becoming a whisper of sweet nothings and ebbs and flows of soft notes.

  But the song wasn’t done; it had one more deep emotion to pull from those strings—sorrow. Not an angry sorrow, but despair. An almost steady drone of it, with little variation in volume, the kind of despair and grief that comes from loss of love.

  That’s how the song ended. Abruptly.

  Tobin’s heart raced. Somehow through the emotions still zinging through his body, he had the presence of mind to speak so she didn’t freak out. “Jade?”

  First he heard a hollow thud. Then, “Tobin?”

  “Yeah.”

  He heard her footsteps approach and stop.

  “I can’t apologize for listening in because that has got to be the single greatest piece of music I’ve ever heard.” He took a chance and opened his eyes.

  Jade stood across from him, a violin tucked under her arm, a bow dangling by her leg. She looked the same as she had before supper, T-shirt, hip-hugger jeans, bare feet. The only difference was she had pulled back her hair and secured it at the base of her neck.

  Yes, she looked the same, but Tobin knew he’d be seeing her completely differently now. This little whip of a thing who could create such intense magic.

  She shifted her stance. “Tobin? Are you okay?”

  “Nope. I’m completely and utterly blown away by you after listening to you play.”

  She blushed.

  “I don’t know anything about music, just what I do and don’t like. But that piece? I think I held my damn breath through half of it. And when you finished, I thought about patting my face to see if my cheeks were wet. It was just . . . wow.” Tobin shook his head. “How do you do that? Take those notes on a page and churn the emotion and the passion together.”

  “Practice. Lots and lots of practice.” She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed deeply before she looked at him again. “That wasn’t meant to sound flip. I’ve been working on the subtle and blatant variations of that piece for half of my life.”

  “Is it offensive to say it shows?”

  “No.” She smiled softly. “It’s my go-to piece. The one I play
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