Hang tough, p.13
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       Hang Tough, p.13
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         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  The scenery whizzed past without him really seeing it, and time dragged as it always did. Almost two hours had passed when he pulled up to the front of the house. Four dogs raced from beneath the shade of the porch to greet him.

  The screen door squeaked and his dad and oldest brother Driscoll wandered out.

  “Well, well, look what the dogs got treed,” his brother joked.

  “Yeah, treed all right. They might do some serious damage to me with all these wagging tails,” Tobin said dryly.

  “Surprised to see you,” his dad said.

  Tobin shrugged. “I had the afternoon off so I thought I’d see what’s up around here. Plus I wanted to get my twenty gauge.”

  “Whatcha gonna do with the twenty?”

  “Just take it to skeet shoot.”

  “I heard they had a new range in Rawlins,” Driscoll said. “Open, so’s anyone can come in and shoot.”

  “Better that than payin’ club fees, I reckon,” his dad said.

  Tobin scaled the steps. “Where’s Streeter?”

  “Baby is sick again. I swear that kid gets the sniffles and he runs her to the doctor.”

  “Gotta be hard, not knowing what’s serious and what’s not. I expect the older she gets the better handle he’ll have on it.”

  “Meantime, I’m doin’ his work as well as my own,” Driscoll complained.

  Tobin stared at his oldest brother. They looked nothing alike. Driscoll had been an early adopter of the mountain man look—he’d had a full beard for as long as Tobin could remember. He’d gotten decidedly more barrel shaped over the years too.

  “I gotta git. See ya, Dad.” Driscoll nodded at him. “Tobin.”

  “Later.”

  Driscoll whistled and two of the dogs jumped in the cab of the pickup. The other two dogs chased the pickup down the driveway.

  “C’mon in. I’ll grab that shotgun and you can tell me why you’re really here.”

  Tobin followed his dad inside and waited while he retrieved the gun.

  “Here it is.” His dad lowered into a chair and set a bulky item in an old blanket on the kitchen table. “What’s goin’ on?”

  “It’ll sound pretty random, I’m sure. This buddy of mine . . . his family isn’t bein’ up front about why they’ve suddenly decided to move his grandma into an assisted living place. She seems okay to take care of herself; there’s been no forgetful-type stuff. That reminded me of Grandma Alma. One day she seemed fine, the next you were saying she needed to be looked after. As I kid I didn’t understand. Now I wondered if you hadn’t told me the whole story. Maybe she had cancer or something.”

  “Is that what this buddy of yours thinks? His grandma has a disease that his family ain’t telling him about?”

  “Yeah. Like I said, it got me to thinking.”

  “That was a long time ago with your grandma. It was one of the few times your mother and I fought, god rest her soul.”

  That surprised him. “You fought about that?”

  “Yep. The guy who ended up buying her place gave her a damn fine offer. She said she wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture. But she didn’t realize an offer like that wouldn’t come along again. So I went ahead and accepted it on her behalf.”

  “When she told you she didn’t want to move?” he said sharply.

  His dad squirmed in his seat. “Ma was a great wife and homemaker but she didn’t have a head for business. She couldn’t see beyond next week’s ladies’ aid meeting or the spring seed catalogs. I paid all her bills, so she wasn’t aware of the spike in propane costs, insurance, taxes and the increases in the cost of living.”

  So it was easier to lock her away and let her fucking die than explain that to her?

  “I made the decision for her, like I’d been making most of them for her after my dad passed on. Your mom said my duty to her wasn’t an inconvenience. She even went behind my back and asked your grandma if she wanted to live with us. Course, my mom refused. Said she preferred bein’ a burden to strangers who were getting paid a pretty penny to care for her than to the family who didn’t see her worth. It was ugly. I still say she willed herself to die to spite me.”

  It had played out exactly as he’d seen it as a kid; his dad had sold her home and shoved her someplace where he wouldn’t have to deal with her. “That’s not something I’ll tell my buddy because that’s his nightmare scenario.”

  “It wasn’t the easiest decision to make,” his dad retorted.

  As much as Tobin wanted to ask what his dad had done with the money from the sale of Grandma’s place, he already knew. Most of it went to pay for her nursing home care. And the next year he got a brand-new tractor.

  Tobin stood and grabbed the gun. “Yeah, well, I’m sure it won’t be an easy decision for us to make either, when the time comes.”

  That startled his dad, as if it just occurred to him that he’d be beholden to his sons’ decisions the way his mother had been beholden to his.

  After Tobin left the Hale ranch, he’d driven over to Streeter’s. His dad and brother’s attitude toward Streeter concerned him as much as their barbs that Olivia was constantly sick. Streeter’s truck wasn’t there and no one came to the door. Tobin made a mental note to call him before he left for New Mexico next week.

  Do you really see yourself getting in your truck and driving away from everything familiar just to prove a point that you can?

  His doubts had been getting stronger the past two weeks. Everything from questioning his cognitive ability in an industrial setting to whether he’d saved enough money to live on if he didn’t nail the interview and had to go to plan B.

  So maybe that was a sign to postpone the interview another week or two. It’d give him two more weeks’ worth of wages as a financial cushion. Or a better option was to suggest a Skype interview. That made the most sense, especially if they knew he was still dealing with a family crisis. Besides, what type of company in this day and age expected a potential employee to travel for a job interview?

  A family-owned company like HTL expects it. It was spelled out in the pre-interview process that a face-to-face meeting is mandatory. You signed the paperwork agreeing to their interview parameters.

  His cell phone chirped and he picked it up to look at the caller ID. Not a number he recognized but he answered anyway. “This is Tobin Hale.”

  “Hello, Mr. Hale. This is Richard Leckband. I’m the employment relations coordinator at HTL in Albuquerque.”

  Speak of the devil.

  Tobin exchanged banal pleasantries about making his acquaintance. The tightness in his shoulders after dealing with his father and now this, multiplied by a factor of ten. Technically he was supposed to be in the HTL offices in less than a week. Chances were good this guy called to confirm appointments and didn’t have the authority to authorize an extension.

  But it wouldn’t hurt to ask . . . would it?

  Before Tobin could jump in, the guy said, “The reason for my call, Mr. Hale, is regarding your interview next week. I’m letting you know that interview has been cancelled.”

  Not what he’d been expecting. “Cancelled? Why?”

  “The position you were interviewing for has been filled.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “The position you were interviewing for has been filled,” the guy repeated in a monotone. “We hope this schedule change hasn’t inconvenienced you.”

  Inconvenienced you. That’s how this ended? After a two-and-a-half-month interview process? What would’ve happened if he’d turned his life even more upside down for a chance at this job?

  How was that even possible?

  He’d given notice to his current employer, for Christsake.

  He’d turned down two other job prospects in Omaha and Kansas City.

  Maybe it wasn’t too late to reapply to those places.

  But his heart wasn’t in it.

  Because that’s not where your heart is these days.

  “Mr. Hale?” the voice on the l
ine prompted.

  “Sorry. Just mentally rearranging my schedule since I’ll no longer be driving twelve hours to New Mexico.”

  “We appreciate your interest in HTL. As always employment opportunities are listed on the website. Have a pleasant day.”

  It was one thing to turn down a job offer; it was another thing to get passed over.

  He swung into the Hardee’s drive-thru lane in Rawlins and ate in his truck, feeling more adrift than he had in a while. He should head to the Split Rock and talk to Renner about this latest development, but he really just wanted to take off his boots and chill for a bit.

  When he pulled into Garnet’s driveway, he didn’t see her car, but Jade’s vehicle was parked up front.

  No beautiful strains of the violin greeted him when he entered the house. In the entryway he ditched his boots and socks. Then he peeled off his long-sleeved shirt.

  He was so focused on grabbing a beer out of the fridge that he didn’t notice Jade sitting at the kitchen table until he’d popped the top off and turned around. “Whoa. Sorry. I didn’t see you there.”

  “That’s because I’m hiding.”

  He swallowed a mouthful of beer. “Why?”

  “I’m debating on whether champagne or a big slice of carrot cake would improve my mood.”

  “Have both.” He shrugged. “I won’t tell.”

  “And here’s where I confess . . . I already had both. Now I have guilt on top of my crappy mood.”

  When Jade stood and erased the distance between them, Tobin almost swallowed his tongue. She wore boy shorts and a New York Yankees baseball jersey. She looked fucking adorable.

  “What made your day so shitty that you’re drinking alone?”

  “I talked to my dad.” She pulled the elastic band from her ponytail and shook out her hair, completely oblivious to him eyeing her with lust. Or maybe she was doing it on purpose. “Why are you drinking in the afternoon?”

  “I got a call from the place in Albuquerque.”

  “What’s in Albuquerque?”

  Tobin realized they hadn’t discussed his leaving—except Jade had briefly mentioned it the night he’d told her the reason he’d agreed to move in with Garnet. But that had been two weeks ago.

  Be honest; it hasn’t been on your mind since before you kissed Jade when you figured out the attraction was mutual.

  “A job. I was supposed to interview there next week.”

  “Why is this the first I’ve heard of it?” she demanded.

  “It’s not. You questioned me about me leaving more than once the first few days you were here.” He sipped his beer. “Did you forget?” He braced himself when he saw the flash of anger in her eyes because she had forgotten.

  “It wasn’t like you’ve brought it up since we’ve been together doing”—she gestured distractedly—“whatever this is.”

  Tobin lifted an eyebrow. Before he had a chance to respond, she snapped off another retort.

  “So why are you telling me that they called you? Because you’re leaving?”

  “Nope. They called and cancelled the interview.”

  “Oh. Did they say why they cancelled?”

  “They already filled the position. I assume the fact I asked for an extension on my final interview dissuaded them from hiring me.”

  She frowned. “Why did you ask for that?”

  Tobin took a swig of his beer. “You know why.”

  “No, I don’t.”

  “Fine, we’ll play it that way. I asked for an extra week for a family emergency when Miz G asked me to move in. It’s been three weeks and I’ve yet to see a moving van.”

  “That’s because there aren’t any coming.”

  He froze. “What?”

  Jade went to jam her hands in her back pockets—something she did when she was nervous—and realized she didn’t have pockets, so she fiddled with her hair, which was another show of nerves. “Did I ever tell you that my dad planned to pack GG’s house up and ship her and her stuff off? No. That was all my grandma’s paranoia.”

  “But you . . .” He closed his eyes and scrolled through those first few days, when any discussion between them turned into an argument. When he tossed out accusations . . . that she never confirmed.

  But she hadn’t denied them either.

  Fuck. He drained his beer and turned around to set the empty bottle next to the sink, keeping his back to her, bracing his hands on the counter.

  How had this gotten so fucked?

  Because you’re a fucking idiot.

  “Tobin?”

  “What?”

  “Talk to me. Please.”

  “What do you want me to say? That I lost out on an opportunity that would’ve been great for me because I’m a sucker? That once again, when I thought I was doin’ the right thing . . . it turned around and bit me in the ass?” He allowed a bitter laugh to escape. “Don’t they always say nice guys finish last? When the fuck am I ever gonna learn that?”

  “I’m sorry.”

  He grunted.

  Her hand, soft and warm, glided up his back. “What can I do?”

  “Nothin’.” Tobin expected her to walk away. He didn’t expect her to wrap her arms around his waist and press her cheek into the middle of his back. He closed his eyes and gave himself a moment to remember why he was so crazy about this woman.

  This sweetness.

  This affection.

  This connection.

  “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I hate that you were caught up in this. I hate that I believed you had ulterior motives when it came to my grandma.” Her arms tightened around him. “I really hate that you’re feeling one of my very favorite things about you—the fact you are the real deal, a nice guy to the core—is somehow a flaw. It’s not.” She sniffled. “It’s so not.”

  “Jade—”

  “Let me finish. As badly as I feel that you missed a chance to put your advanced degree to better use than what you’re doing now, I’m not sorry you’re not leaving. Not at all.”

  His heart raced.

  “If anyone should go, it should be me. Whatever purpose I was supposed to serve by being here . . . is done. I told my dad earlier today that Grandma is fine living on her own. She has friends. She’s part of a community. She has everything she needs right here. You were right. GG doesn’t need me or my dad messing that up for her. She doesn’t need me for anything.”

  “I need you.” He surprised her as much as himself when he said that out loud.

  Jade didn’t retreat. “You don’t have to say that.”

  He tried to look over his shoulder at her. “Darlin’, why would I say something I didn’t mean?”

  “Because you’re a nice guy.”

  Tobin slowly turned around. He framed her beautiful face in his hands and bent down until they were eye to eye. “I’m not that fucking nice.” Then his mouth crashed down on hers.

  The kiss was hot and wet. Fierce. Full throttle from the first thrust of his tongue.

  But Jade wasn’t passive; she unleashed the tiger, proving her appetite for him was as voracious as his was for her, making the sexiest, neediest fucking moans he’d ever heard.

  What little restraint he had snapped.

  A kiss wasn’t going to be enough. Not now. Not when she plastered her hot, curvy body to his so completely a piece of sheet music wouldn’t have fit between them.

  He palmed her ass and picked her up, loving how perfectly she fit against him, how easily he maneuvered her petite form, how willingly she gave everything over to him. Even in moments such as this, when his passion held a rougher edge, she trusted him.

  Hunger, the likes of which he’d never known, clawed at him. His cock throbbed. His hips began to thrust and grind, searching for hers.

  Without breaking the kiss, he pinned her against the first wall they’d stumbled into.

  Jade arched into him hard, her arms entwined so tightly around his neck she practically choked him as she fisted her hands in his hair.


  Fuck yeah. He wanted her primal passion. This raw mating.

  His body bolstered hers, freeing his hands. No gentle caresses. No teasing touches. He shoved his hands under her shirt, searching for those
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