Hang tough, p.18
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       Hang Tough, p.18
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         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  “This is some kind of a joke, right?”

  Chapter Fifteen

  Tonight’s the night . . .

  Tobin had that Rod Stewart song on the brain all damn day.

  No. You’ve had naked, sexy time with Jade on the brain all day.

  Finally they’d have uninterrupted alone time.

  He’d planned everything for a perfect romantic night.

  A candlelight dinner at the Chez Majestique in Casper.

  A stroll through City Park.

  Then spending the rest of the night fucking like animals in the suite he’d booked at the Radisson in downtown Casper.

  He’d even slipped Teddy a hundred bucks to do the first cattle check, so he and Jade could have a leisurely morning together, hopefully with room service and shower sex.

  But the very first thing on his agenda was scrubbing off the day’s grime. Then he’d pack a bag and try to sneak out of the house without it becoming the Inquisition.

  It threw him to see Miz G sitting dejectedly on the front steps.

  He slid out of his truck, his arms and legs aching. An eight-mile run coupled with his day of heavy lifting hay bales had him moving more slowly than usual.

  “Why so glum, chum?” he said to Miz G.

  “Do you ever wonder if your friends are laughing at you behind your back? If they tell you one thing to your face and then turn around and act a completely different way?”

  “Friends . . . meaning your friends? The Mud Lilies?”

  “Yep.”

  “What have they done now?”

  “I’m not sure. It started when they all stopped by today to meet Jade.”

  The back of his neck prickled.

  “I went into the kitchen to get refreshments. When I returned to the living room, everyone except Tilda had disappeared. I asked where they’d all gone and Tilda gave some vague response. Then she whipped out the new Pyramid catalog and my brain sort of went offline. I love that dadgum catalog.”

  “What kind of catalog is it?”

  “They specialize in fantasy knickknacks, them fancy historical clothes, signs with inspirational sayings, jewelry up the wazoo, Celtic stuff. So I started flipping through it. By the time I got to the last page, an hour had passed. An hour in which I shirked my hostess duties. The ice cubes had melted in my lemonade, and the cherry crisp I’d warmed up in the oven had become hard as a brick.”

  Tobin made what he hoped passed for a sympathetic noise.

  “So I’m looking around and wondering why my friends needed time alone with Jade.”

  That got his attention. “What were they doin’?”

  “Talking, they said. But Tilda had let it slip they’d been in the barn. What in the blue blazes were they doin’ in there?”

  “Did you ask them?”

  “Of course I asked. But those women are masters at deflecting. They asked me if I’d seen anything in the catalog worth buying and it was like a trained dog response.” She slapped her knee. “I tell you, from here on out I’m goin’ cold turkey. No more catalogs.”

  “Did Jade tell you what they talked about?”

  “Nope. She was pretty quiet afterward. She’s shy and she gets overwhelmed. They didn’t take that into account when they were talking to her.”

  “How long ago did this happen?”

  “They left . . . maybe two hours ago.”

  “Where’s Jade now?”

  “Out in the garden. She’s been out there forever.”

  No wonder he couldn’t get a hold of her. “Why don’t you go inside and salvage some of that cherry crisp. I’ll try and talk to Jade about it.”

  “Be nice,” Garnet warned and rolled to her feet.

  “I’m always nice, Miz G.”

  As soon as she shuffled into the house, Tobin removed his hat and ran his hands through his hair. After he brushed the worst of the hay dust off his clothes, he cut around the edge of the porch and headed toward the gardens.

  He found her sitting on the stone bench in the corner, her forehead on her knees, her arms wrapped around her shins.

  “Jade?”

  She jerked at the sound of his voice and jumped up.

  Tobin froze.

  What the hell had happened to her today?

  Bits of dried grass were dangling from her hair.

  Her face was filthy, save for the tear tracks that zigzagged down from the corners of her eyes to her jawline.

  Her T-shirt was streaked with dirt. As were her jeans.

  He tried for a light approach. “Did you forget to tell me you’re trying out for Ladies’ Mud Wrestling Night at the Prickly Cactus?”

  That’s when she burst into tears. “Don’t you ever say the word ‘mud’ around me again, Tobin Hale, or so help me, I will—”

  He had her wrapped in his arms before she finished.

  Her entire body shook. That scared the fuck out of him. He squeezed her tighter and pressed his lips to the top of her head, breathing in the sun-warmed scent of her hair.

  When Tobin tried to discreetly wipe away the dried leaf that had gotten stuck to his lip, Jade wiggled until he let go of her.

  That’s when he realized she wasn’t crying from distress but from fury.

  He noticed the shovel lying next to a pile of dirt. His gaze moved across the ground, zeroing in the other new holes. She’d taken a different approach to her frustration instead of beating rugs into submission.

  “Talk to me, sweetheart. What happened today?”

  “I don’t think I can talk about it when I just want to yell about it!”

  Tobin propped his hands on his hips. “Go ahead. Ain’t the first time you’ve yelled at me and it won’t be the last.”

  Jade glared at him for several long moments, as if she didn’t believe him. Then she let fly.

  “I’m so, so, so, so mad!” She’d picked up the shovel and punctuated each so by stabbing the metal tip into the ground. “How dare they? Seriously? I don’t care if they are worried about GG’s health—that was not the way to go about finding out if their concerns are justified! Did they really think if GG had confided in me that I’d break that confidence just because they’re her friends? No, no, no, no.” More ground stabbing.

  He stayed mum and let her rant.

  “Not to mention they brought my dad into it and asked a bunch of questions that are none of their business. And if they’re such good friends of hers, then they should know that my grandmother has a habit of exaggerating. With her, it’s always worst-case scenario and then she has a hard time remembering what’s fact and what she’s embellished.”

  No argument there, but Jade’s diatribe still didn’t make sense.

  “Plus, they also have to know that if Garnet Evans is backed into a corner she comes out swinging every time.”

  Like grandmother, like granddaughter.

  “And look out if you wrong her because there’s no way you can ever make it right again.”

  Jade took a minute to breathe.

  Tobin watched her, completely . . . turned the fuck on at seeing this side of her. Yeah, he knew she was pissed off, but goddamn. This fierceness was hot as hell. Not that he’d share that with her right now—he valued his balls, thank you very much. But he’d much rather see her all het up, screaming mad, than watch her weeping and wringing her hands.

  This was how she ought to deal with her anxiety issues. Get a fucking shovel and beat it into submission. Not that he’d tell her that right now either—he’d mention it later. When she wasn’t wielding a weapon.

  “And you know what else?”

  She wasn’t talking to him, as much as at him, but he answered anyway. “What?”

  “Those results are skewed. They’re inconclusive ninety-nine percent of the time. And I don’t think they even knew what they were doing anyway. So the whole thing was an exercise in futility. Unless their motivation was to test me. Not only to see how mad I’d get, but if I’d tell GG about their scheming ways, knowing full well that it
would hurt her.”

  “Jade. You’re talking in riddles, darlin’. Tell me exactly what Miz G’s friends did today.”

  She aimed that stubborn chin at him. “They hooked me up to a lie detector machine.”

  Tobin’s jaw nearly hit the dirt. “What?”

  “Oh yes, that’s right. First thing today, GG’s beloved friends squired me away to the barn and practically strapped me into a chair so I could privately address their . . . concerns. By taking a lie detector test.”

  “How the fuck did that even happen?”

  “They claimed they had something to show me. And I went along with it.” She frowned. “At first, when we were walking outside and they started asking me how much time I’d been spending in GG’s gardens, I worried they were trying to get me to admit I knew about the pot plants and intended to warn me off. But they didn’t care about that at all. They demanded to know when Dad and I planned to lock Garnet away, where we were stashing her, if we were selling off her assets. Not only that, they accused me of encouraging GG to hide her health issues from them—which isn’t true because she’s healthy as a horse. But really, that isn’t their business! If GG wanted them to know something so personal, she’d tell them. Then they asked me a bunch of other stuff, but by that time I was so angry I blanked it out.

  “The last thing I remember before I grabbed the shovel and came out here was their suggestion that I didn’t mention our ‘conversation’ to GG. Ever.” She blew out a long breath. “Which I actually agree with because GG would be so hurt if she knew what they’d done today. She was so excited for me to meet them and these women are such a huge part of her life . . . I mean, they didn’t cause me physical harm. And I get that they were probably acting out of love for her, but they should’ve used a different approach.” Jade looked away, but not before he saw her firm her trembling chin. “I am not the enemy. That’s how they treated me. So that’s how I ended up out here, channeling my frustrations. But the longer I’ve been out here digging holes, the angrier I’ve gotten.”

  “Baby, I don’t blame you for being upset.”

  The Mud Lilies had done some crazy shit over the years . . . but this crossed the line.

  “Let’s go back to the house and figure out—”

  “No. I can’t be around GG right now. She’ll know something is wrong.” Her eyes narrowed. “Promise me that you won’t tell her any of this.”

  “Jade—”

  “Promise me that you won’t bring any of this up with her at all.”

  “Fine. I promise.” This was so fucked. He scrubbed his hands over his face. “So now what? You’ll just stay out here and dig holes until dark?”

  “Probably.” Jade made a growling sound. “And I’m really mad that this—no, that they—ruined our plans for a whole night of hot sexy times.”

  What? Fuck that. “Jade. We can’t let them—”

  “Too late, Tobin.” She held up her gloved hand. “I’m feeling a little ragey and a lot stabby, if you haven’t noticed. And even when I’m not mad at you, I will take it out on you.”

  “I’m a big guy, tiger. I can take whatever you dish out.” He had an image of her completely wild. Her silken hair a tangled mess as she rode him. Her teeth at his throat. Her fingers digging into his chest, his ass, his shoulders, the tops of his thighs . . .

  “Omigod. Seriously? Lose the hard-on, buddy.”

  His gaze reconnected with her face, but Jade was eying his groin. “You’re backing out of our plans for tonight?”

  “Yes. First of all, I don’t want to leave GG alone. You saw her. She knows something is up, doesn’t she?”

  He nodded reluctantly.

  “We’ve waited this long. I want the focus to be completely on us. No distractions. No interruptions.”

  “All right.”

  “Can you set it up for tomorrow night?”

  “No. I’m goin’ to a bull sale in Nebraska with Abe Lawson tomorrow at noon. It’s an overnight trip. I won’t be back until the next day.”

  “This sucks.”

  The anger he’d kept in check rushed through him. “We’ll talk more after I set some things straight.”

  “With GG? But you promised you wouldn’t say anything!”

  “To your grandma. But I made no such promise about the rest of them. And this shit? Not gonna fly with me, Jade.”

  “But—”

  “It’s wrong, they know it’s wrong and I have a personal stake in it because it affects you.”

  Tobin figured the ladies would reconvene at Tilda’s house since it was closest to Garnet’s. To retain the element of surprise, he parked his truck on the road and hoofed it up the driveway.

  He knocked loudly on the screen door and then stood off to the side. Polite behavior was too ingrained for Tilda not to answer, but he sure as hell wasn’t giving her a chance to slam the damn door in his face.

  When she said, “Who’s there?” and he stepped into view, she yelled, “Run, ladies, we’re busted!”

  But it was too late; Tobin barreled into the dining room. He said, “Nobody move.” Since Vivien and Bernice were already up and out of their chairs, he pointed at them and said, “Park it.”

  “Tobin. What a nice surprise,” Miz Maybelle said with wide-eyed innocence. “Could I get you something to—”

  “Nice try, Miz Maybelle, but you sit back down.” He motioned to Tilda. “You too. And that had better not be a damn Taser behind your back, Pearl,” he warned. “You do not want to piss me off any more than I am right now. All of you. Hands on the table.”

  Pearl sighed. Her Taser hit the wood table with a clunk.

  Bernice followed suit by dropping a pair of scissors that had been fashioned into a shiv.

  Vivien’s small-caliber Walther pistol gleamed as she set it down.

  Tilda’s pocketknife made a slow spin.

  Miz Maybelle was the last one to show her hand, which contained . . . another Taser.

  “Is that it? Or do I need to frisk the rest of you for firearms too?” Tobin demanded.

  “We all have permits to carry concealed,” Pearl sniffed, “so I don’t suggest you try it. You won’t like what you find.”

  Jesus.

  “Fine. I will cut to the chase. What in the hell were you thinking forcing Garnet’s granddaughter, who is a guest in her home, to take a lie detector test today? A test which you conducted without Garnet’s knowledge and for all intents and purposes without Jade’s consent?”

  They all exchanged looks, as if they were asking each other . . . How do we play this?

  “Huh-uh. You look at me. Not each other. Because you all knew what you were doin’ today was wrong, yet you did it anyway, so don’t give me any bullshit crocodile tears.” He slammed his hands on the table. “But Jade’s tears were very real.”

  “Jade was crying?” Tilda said with horror.

  “Of course she was crying. Her grandmother’s best friends, who she met for the first time today, subjected her to a freakin’ lie detector test. She took that to mean that you all think she’s capable of emotionally hurting her grandma, which couldn’t be further from the truth. And you grilled her on other personal things about Miz G that are very much not any of your business.” He got in Vivien’s face. “You have a granddaughter. How would you feel if all your friends descended on her, dragged her out to the damn barn, hooked her up to a machine and asked her a bunch of questions?”

  “Well, when you put it that way . . . no. I wouldn’t be okay with it.”

  “Vivien!” Pearl snapped. “We’re supposed to stick together.”

  “What Pearl said,” Miz Maybelle chimed in. “This was a group decision.”

  “But Jade was crying,” Tilda said. “Not to mention none of you were in the house with Garnet. She has no control when it comes to that magazine. And to make it worse . . .” Tilda’s chin wobbled. “She was picking out gifts for us!”

  “This is why she was not allowed in with us when we were asking Jade question
s,” Bernice scoffed. “She’s a soft touch.”

  “If you’d just been asking her questions, you’d’ve done it in the
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