Hang tough, p.12
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       Hang Tough, p.12
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         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  beginning to end, without stopping, even if I screw up a section because even as many times as I’ve played it, and cried over it and rejoiced in it, and ripped the sheet music up and turned it into confetti . . . every new performance I hear or feel something different.”

  “Well, I’d say in the aftermath of that I feel like I oughta smoke a cigarette.”

  She snickered.

  “But since I don’t smoke, I definitely need a drink.” He paused. “Care to join me? If you’re done playing.”

  “Oh, I’m most definitely done. And a drink would be great just as long as it’s not beer.” She wrinkled her nose and he was completely charmed. “I never developed a taste for it. Especially not in college with warm kegs.”

  “No problem. Miz G has a decent liquor selection. She’s gotta be ready to make the Mud Lilies’ signature drinks whenever they ask.”

  “I’ll put this away and be right there.”

  Tobin stopped in the entryway and used the bootjack to take his boots off. He shoved his socks inside and crossed the dining room to the liquor cabinet. He grabbed the bottle of Jameson and the Chambord. What the hell. He’d try his hand at a fancy cocktail. He poured a shot of Jameson in each champagne flute, a shot of Chambord and topped both glasses off with cold champagne.

  “That looks great,” Jade said behind him.

  “No guarantees ’cause I kinda winged it.” He handed her a glass, picked his up and paused to make a toast. “Thank you for sharing your music with me tonight.”

  Jade touched her glass to his. “You’re welcome.”

  They both drank and looked at each other and laughed.

  “You’re not spitting it out.”

  “It’s actually pretty good. The raspberry liqueur mellows the whiskey.”

  “Can I ask you something? Why weren’t you a music performance major? Instead of just minoring in it?”

  “I’m a great player, but I’m not a fantastic player. I know I don’t have that something extra that is obvious in every piece that Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman play.” She pointed her glass at him. “I know the life of a musician is ten percent performance, twenty percent practice and sixty percent politics, then the other ten percent . . . that’s the fun part. I love music, I love to play, but I realized being a professional paid musician in a city symphony or orchestra could suck the love and the joy out of it. So I play for fun. I was in a wedding quartet at one time. While playing Pachelbel’s Canon makes me want to barf—seriously—a wedding is the happiest occasion in the couple’s life up to that point and it rocks to be part of it.” She took a drink. “Now can I ask you something?”

  He hoped he pulled off a nonchalant shrug.

  “What part of that piece affected you the most?”

  “The section where the loss occurs. There’s that steady drone, where I imagined that grief just drowns out everything else.”

  Jade blinked at him. “That’s a very subtle nuance to pick up on, Mr. I Don’t Know Anything About Music.”

  Tobin blushed.

  “So did you pick up on it because you’ve suffered a loss like that?”

  “My mom died about ten years ago and that was hard. Her death affected my dad like that. But recently . . .” He paused and swallowed a large mouthful of liquid courage. This wasn’t something he talked about. Or rather, this wasn’t something anyone in the community spoke of.

  “I have two older brothers. I’m not close to either of them. They work with our dad running the ranch and there never was a place for me there. Which . . . doesn’t matter. My brother Streeter, he’s the closest in age to me. Married his high school sweetheart. They were one of those couples that everyone wanted to be because they were so freakin’ perfect? Well, they tried for years to get pregnant. Finally Danica got pregnant. The pregnancy went well. No complications. She gave birth to Olivia, this perfectly healthy darlin’ baby girl.” Even thinking about this now just tied him up in knots. He knocked back another drink. “Danica always wanted to be a mom so she quit her job to stay home with Olivia. About . . . six months ago, Streeter went home for lunch. He walked into their house, straight into the nursery since that’s where Danica always was, and he . . . found her. Danica had killed herself.”

  “Omigod.”

  “Olivia was sleeping in her crib. She was six months old. Streeter . . . he just . . . when I heard that sorrowful tone to the music? I wondered if that’s what life sounds like to Streeter now. Like I said, we’re not close. I check on him every couple of weeks. He says he’s fine. Fuck. How can he be fine? He’s not fine. But he’d never . . .”

  Jade wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed the side of her face against his chest. “Tobin. I’m so sorry. What an awful, awful thing.”

  “Yeah.” It was weird to think this was the first time he’d talked about his sister-in-law’s death. In that respect, he was exactly like his father and his brothers. He just shut it down. Didn’t allow his thoughts to wander to why Danica had ended her life when she had the life she’d wanted. Why she’d done it in her baby’s room? Because she hadn’t wanted to die alone? And yeah, it made him a dick, but the fact that her decision forced the man who’d loved her for years . . . to find her that way? No note. No hint she might be depressed, at least as far as Tobin knew. And this was totally morose, but he wondered if in that moment after the shock and loss had passed, if dealing with her death and becoming a single, widowed parent, had turned that love into hate.

  “I don’t know,” Jade said softly. “Maybe your brother doesn’t even know at this point.”

  It hit him then; he’d said all that out loud.

  His confusion and heartbreak seemed to be holding on tighter.

  And he wasn’t fool enough to let go. She smelled good. And she felt good. Soft and yet solid.

  Tobin curled his hand around the side of Jade’s neck, pressing his thumb on her jawbone, slightly tipping her head back.

  Every feature that formed her beautiful face deserved careful consideration. Her dark eyebrows perfectly arched over those expressive almond-shaped eyes. The edges of her cheekbones nestled high in the rounded curves of her face. The wide nose that managed to be both haughty and cute. And then there were those lips. Full and soft, the color somewhere between copper and peach.

  She exhaled.

  Was it only yesterday that he’d kissed her for the first time? Now he craved how warm and smooth the inside flesh of her bottom lip felt against the tip of his tongue. Now he knew how hot and fast her exhalations were against his mouth.

  Tempting to start out with sugar bites, sweet kisses, slowly savoring her until that moment when need and hunger asserted control.

  “Tobin?” she said softly. “What are you doing?”

  “Memorizing you.”

  “Why?”

  Tobin forced his gaze back to hers. “Because when I close my eyes at night, I want to recall with perfect clarity every nuance of this face.”

  The interest that flared in her eyes was all the permission he needed.

  He brushed his lips across hers. Once. Twice. On the third pass he lingered. The soft flesh tasted like champagne and raspberries. But that was just on the surface. He needed more.

  As soon as he slipped his tongue in, Jade opened her mouth to him fully.

  Somehow Tobin kept the kiss easy, not devouring her. Allowing her to explore, even as he did the same.

  Their bodies migrated closer.

  Jade’s hand clutched the back of his shirt.

  He kept his hand on her face, continuing to sweep his thumb across her jawbone, while he mimicked the motion with his left hand on her hip.

  Just when he felt the heat between them expand, Jade broke the kiss.

  She rested her forehead on his chest and took long, deep breaths.

  Tobin pressed his lips to her temple. Then he nudged her head back and planted kisses down her cheek and over to her ear. Every time he exhaled, she shuddered. He homed in on her ea
rlobe, flicking the tender skin in a carnal preview of his tongue tasting the sweet spot between her thighs. Closing his eyes, he followed the arc of her throat with his nose, breathing in the scent of her heated skin.

  That spicy floral scent shot straight to his cock.

  “Tobin.”

  “Shh. Let me.”

  “Let you . . . what?”

  “Learn what you like.”

  He learned using his teeth made her break out in gooseflesh.

  He learned she purred when he pressed soft-lipped kisses below her ear.

  He learned sucking the spot above her collarbone sent her body arching hard against his.

  The front door slammed.

  He learned there was no way they were ever truly alone.

  “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

  Jade stepped back. Her eyes were glazed. Her lips were swollen. She didn’t look well kissed; she was halfway to looking well fucked.

  “One day soon I’ll get to kiss you and touch you without your grandma interrupting us.”

  “Sorry. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

  Chapter Eleven

  “Jade?” her grandmother called out.

  Jade hustled out of the sitting room and into the living room before GG busted them. “I didn’t expect you back so soon. How was your night?”

  “Crappy.” GG plopped on the sofa. “I’m too pooped to even pour myself some bubbly.”

  Good thing. All the drink stuff was still out in the kitchen, along with two champagne glasses.

  Both she and Tobin had been a little reckless tonight.

  “Sometimes it’s better not to listen to your friends,” her grandma announced.

  “Is that why you had a crappy night?”

  “Yes. Don’t ever go in halvsies with anyone on anything either.”

  “Who are we talking about?”

  “Pearl. She hogged the AR-15. I didn’t get to shoot it one gol-durn time, which just makes me think I need my own.”

  Jade nodded like that made perfect sense.

  “I need to apologize to you.”

  “Why would you need to apologize to me?”

  “I got to thinking . . . I’ve been a terrible hostess. Here you are visiting me and I’ve left you to entertain yourself. We haven’t even gone out for a drink or supper.”

  “That’s all right. I know you have a life here, GG. I’m used to entertaining myself.” The times she’d spent with Tobin had been beyond entertaining.

  “My life of late . . . ain’t really been all that fun, to be honest. So I’ve decided that you and me are gonna make our own fun by taking a road trip to see the sights!”

  “Really? When are we going?”

  “First thing tomorrow morning. And we aren’t planning nothin’. We’ll just go where the blacktop takes us.”

  “You must have some idea of what sights you want to show me.”

  “I’d love to take you to Jackson, where I raised your dad and spent my married years. But shoot, this time of year it’s overrun with tourists, so we’ll save that for another time. Maybe in the fall when the aspen leaves are changing and the wildlife is out, getting wild during mating season.”

  “What are the other options?”

  “Yellowstone is at least a weeklong trip if you wanna see the good stuff, so that’s out too. I’m thinking we could head over to Devils Tower outside of Sundance. Then head up to Sheridan and take a short tour of the Bighorn Mountains. Beautiful country up there. We’d be gone two days. Of course, you’d have to drive. Them twisty mountain roads ain’t for the faint of heart.”

  Jade didn’t have the guts to admit they might be better off with GG behind the wheel.

  “What say you, girlie? Wanna have an adventure with your old granny while you still can?”

  “You’re not old. And yes, I’d love to have an adventure with you.” Getting out of the house and seeing the wide-open spaces of Wyoming would be good for her. Plus, she and GG always had a great time on vacation. “What should I pack? Evening gowns? High heels?”

  “Oh, you.” She flapped her hand. “You’ve never been the designer-label, live-for-shopping kind of girl.”

  “Much to my mother’s dismay,” Jade said wryly.

  “Gwen does love her clothes, purses and ankle-breaking shoes. I’m grateful she didn’t push that on you, sweetheart. She let you be your own person.”

  “Not that I know who that person is,” Jade said softly.

  Naturally GG heard it. “That’s what this trip is supposed to be about.” She frowned. “The part that’s not the spying-on-me-and-reporting-to-your-dad part. The time-off-from-your-regularly-scheduled-life part.”

  Jade bit her lip.

  “I know that anxious look. Spit it out.”

  “Will I ever be able to crumple up my to-do lists and my compulsion to accomplish something and just . . . learn to wing it?”

  GG patted her leg. “That’s what we’re goin’ to find out. So here’s the deal. I’ll bring my cell phone for an emergency, but besides that? No technology. No GPS. We’ll use a good-old-fashioned map. We won’t even listen to the radio. We’ll leave the windows down and listen to nature. And sweetheart, I won’t even allow you to bring a notebook and a pen along, so you can’t make a single list.”

  She laughed.

  “Sometimes you gotta force a change. Other times the change happens naturally.”

  “The forced change applies to me, doesn’t it?”

  “Nope. It’s a mix of both for you.” She stood and stretched. “My arms are sore from the shooting range. I’m gonna soak in the tub before I hit the hay. But first I probably better track Tobin down and tell him we’ll be gone a few days. Do you know where he is?”

  That’s when Jade remembered she’d left him hiding out in the sitting room after their hot and heavy make-out session he promised they’d finish.

  “His truck is parked out front,” GG said.

  “I think he went to bed after he came home.”

  “It’ll have to wait until morning then.” GG pulled her in for a hug. “Looking forward to sing-alongs with my road trip partner.”

  “Me too.”

  “See you bright and early in the morning.” She shuffled down the hallway.

  As soon as the door to GG’s bedroom closed, Tobin exited the sitting room.

  “I’m sorry—”

  “No worries. If I needed to escape, I could’ve crawled through the window.” He smirked. “Seems to be a theme with you.”

  Jade twisted her ponytail around. “You’ll have two days alone here to remind yourself that I’m not worth the trouble.”

  The next thing she knew, Tobin loomed over her and his mouth crashed down on hers.

  Sweet heaven could this man kiss.

  When he finally stopped tormenting her with his skilled lips and the steady pressure of his body against hers, she was light-headed. Her panties were soaked again.

  “You’re more than worth the trouble, Jade.” His callused fingertips skimmed her cheek. “I’ll miss you. But I know you and Miz G will have a great time. You both deserve a break. We’ll talk when you get back.”

  Jade’s absence for two days left Tobin in a sour mood.

  When she’d finally gotten back last night, he’d barely rated a kiss before she’d gone to bed.

  Tobin’s chores didn’t take all that long, so despite his crappy mood, he stuck with his plan to drive to the ranch he’d grown up on, outside of Saratoga.

  With part of their acreage made up of forested sections, they’d leased rights for guided hunting groups on their land. Strange to think that’s how he’d ended up at the Split Rock originally; his dad had broken his foot and had volunteered Tobin in his place as a guide. Since the hunting party had filled all their tags within the first five hours, he’d expected it to be a one-shot deal. Then Renner invited him back to the Split Rock to celebrate a successful venture. They’d started talking and before the end of the night Renner h
ad offered him a job, including a place to live.

  Tobin hadn’t asked why the Split Rock started using another location for their guided hunts, but his dad had bugged him about it plenty the first two years.

 
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