Hang tough, p.2
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       Hang Tough, p.2
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         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  “That makes strategic sense. Having this place a transitional space. You’ll cut personal ties with livin’ at the Split Rock so it’ll just be about your working hours.” Pearl waited until Garnet turned away before saying in a conspiratorial tone, “If you need to come up with a battle plan, remember, I’m familiar with both sparkler bombs and trip wires.”

  He raised a brow because, frankly, what else could he say to that?

  “My head itches,” Garnet complained. “Let’s drink.”

  Tobin peeled the foil back and popped the cork, managing to pour the champagne without spilling.

  Garnet raised her glass for a toast. “To friends who come through no matter what.”

  They touched glasses and he knocked back a big gulp.

  Holy crap. Tobin gave his glass a double take. That didn’t taste like any champagne he’d ever had.

  Garnet bumped him with her bony hip. “Told ya that was the good stuff. I’m only using a little bit in each batch of preserves, because I’m drinking the rest.”

  “What is this?”

  “Cristal.”

  “Cristal?” he repeated. “The stuff that costs hundreds of bucks a bottle? The kind that rappers are always going on and on about?”

  She shrugged. “Now you know there’s a reason why they’re writing songs about it.”

  Pearl said, “True dat.”

  Chapter Two

  “Of course, you’ll have to drive to Wyoming.”

  Jade Evans stared at her father, convinced this was an auditory hallucination. She’d indulged in a superlong shower this morning . . . Maybe she had water trapped in her ear. Tilting her head to the side, she attempted to drain it, only to hear her dad say, “For Pete’s sake, Jade, are you even listening to me?”

  “Sorry. I must’ve misunderstood. I thought I heard you say you wanted me to drive to Wyoming.”

  “That is what I said.” He sighed. “I want you to stay with your grandmother Garnet to gauge her state of mind and her ability to live on her own.”

  “You’re serious.”

  “As the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.”

  “What about my life here? You just expect me to drop everything? Why can’t Mom do it?”

  Jade watched as her father calmly wiped his mouth with his napkin and laid the white cloth on the table. “Jade. Honey. Your mother is already dealing with your grandmother Celeste, so she can’t possibly travel across the country and figure out these decisions for my mother.”

  “That’s exactly right, Dad. She’s your mother. You should handle this.”

  “You are her only grandchild.”

  “So?”

  “So, she adores you. She dotes on you. She listens to you.”

  “Which means she won’t suspect me of being there to spy on her and tattle to you.”

  “Precisely.”

  “Then it’s really not fair. GG is the sweetest, most loving and generous person I’ve ever known. Showing up in Wyoming because—”

  “I’m worried about the two-bit hustler in Wranglers who moved in to ‘protect’ her and likely intends to swindle her out of everything. That is a fair reason to spy on her, don’t you agree?”

  That tidbit floored her and she fought to keep her temper in check. “Hang on. When did all of this happen? And why is this the first I’ve heard of it?” Granted, she did work a lot and wasn’t around much, but this seemed to be another case of her parents’ Don’t tell Jade, she can’t handle things like this attitude.

  Things like her mother’s breast cancer scare.

  Things like her father’s business partner making questionable financial decisions and nearly sending the firm into bankruptcy.

  Jade hadn’t known about either of those major life traumas until months after they happened. As an only child, she had a close relationship with both her mom and dad—even when they weren’t living under the same roof. It hurt that they hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her the truth or to let her be there for them like they’d always been there for her.

  “I first heard about it two days ago,” her father said. “One of her more level-headed friends is justifiably concerned about this situation and contacted me privately.”

  Jade imagined GG coughing “snitch” into her hand and bit back a smile. “That doesn’t explain why GG needs protection.”

  “She thinks she needs protection,” he corrected. “That’s why this slick operator moved in. According to my source, this guy doesn’t plan to be in Wyoming much longer. That leads me back to the concern that he’s got a timeline all set for ripping her off.”

  “It sounds like she needs protection from him.”

  “She does. And yet, she’s telling him and everyone else she needs protection from me.”

  Confused, she said, “Wait. Back up. Why would GG say that?” Oh no. Was he afraid GG had developed dementia?

  His frustrated gaze met hers. “Last year after the Taser incident, I warned her if she kept getting into trouble I’d have to enforce some changes in her life.”

  “Dad. You didn’t. You know how she reacts to that kind of stuff.”

  “I was mad, all right? It was a toss-away comment. But evidently your grandmother is convinced that this was the last straw and I’ll have her packed up and whisked away to an assisted living facility, never to be seen or heard from again.”

  “That’s not true, is it? You wouldn’t just do that without her consent, right?”

  “No—only if she needed medical help and didn’t have the capacity to make decisions for herself. Or if I believed she might be a danger to herself or others. So with this latest situation . . .” He rubbed the spot between his eyebrows. “I didn’t want to share this with you, sweetheart. But GG was arrested last month. She spent the night in jail on a drunk and disorderly charge.”

  Jade’s mouth fell open. Rather than rail on him for yet another thing he’d kept from her, she imagined her sweet GG wearing prison orange and playing cribbage for cigarettes. “She’s eighty-two years old and they threw her in the drunk tank like a common barfly?”

  “Apparently.”

  “Please tell me you’re suing them!”

  “No. This next incident should’ve landed her in jail, but it didn’t.”

  “There’s more?”

  “Yes. She decided to break up an argument between friends and discharged a firearm inside a local resort. Thankfully no one was hurt and the resort owners didn’t press charges. Evidently your grandmother owns several guns and she’s parading them around town like Calamity Jane in the Wild West.”

  Jade put her hand over her dad’s, trying to wrap her head around this new information. GG had always characterized herself as eccentric, which made her so much fun to be around, but she’d never exhibited erratic behavior.

  “Then to top it all off . . . she’s on a spending spree. She bought one hundred bottles of Cristal to the tune of twenty thousand dollars—for cooking, she claims. Her friend also let it slip that she purchased a thirty-thousand-dollar horse and she dropped a hundred grand on a bull—I’m still waiting for documentation on those purchases. Who spends that kind of money on livestock?” He answered his own question. “A generous, gullible woman who is under the spell of a fast-talking cowboy, that’s who.”

  A slow burn started in her chest. Jade didn’t know who this low-rent lothario thought he was, but she would not allow him to swindle her bighearted grandmother.

  “Now do you see why I need you there in person?” her dad pressed. “The only way to gauge if—or how— her mental state has changed is to live in the same house with her.”

  “And protect her from her ‘protector,’” Jade murmured. “Mom is on board with me going to Wyoming?”

  “She thinks it will be beneficial for you to spend some time reevaluating things in your life . . . especially after your break—”

  “I had the flu, Dad. A really bad case of the flu. That’s all it was.”

  He said nothing. He just l
ooked worried, frustrated and a little sad.

  Jade knew her parents were concerned about her. Six months ago her roommate had kicked Jade out so her boyfriend could move in, forcing Jade to move back home. It was humbling to be twenty-four years old and living with her parents. In the two years since she’d graduated from college, she hadn’t found a job in her field. So she’d had two choices: suck it up and work outside her field to support herself or return to school for a master’s degree. That option hadn’t made sense to her. Pay for even more education in an area of study where you currently couldn’t find employment? No, thank you. She’d rather work, even if her jobs kept her exhausted to the point she had no time to think.

  Maybe that’s why you fill every waking hour with productivity; then you don’t have to figure out what comes next.

  “How long would I have to be there?” she asked him.

  “At least a month,” her dad said.

  “A month? I can’t take that much time off.”

  “Jade. Sweetheart. While your mother and I are both proud of your work ethic—you’ve been slaving yourself with three part-time jobs.”

  Her chin came up. She knew it looked stubborn and didn’t care. “I told you when I moved back in that it wouldn’t be permanent. I’m saving as much money as I can.”

  “And we told you we’d be more than happy to help you out,” her father said gently.

  They’d had this discussion several times. Jade appreciated her parents’ generosity, but proving she could support herself was a point of pride. “Thank you. But as I’ve said before, you and Mom paid for my education and that’s more than enough. I’m grateful I’m not struggling with student loans too.”

  “We’re not . . . discounting the work you do. But it’d be a good break for you, even for just a few weeks, not to work sixteen hours a day.”

  She almost couldn’t fathom that. Not getting up at three thirty in the morning to take the subway to Midtown so she could clock in by four a.m. Then leaving the restaurant by nine thirty and walking to the office building where she answered phones from ten a.m. to six p.m. Monday through Wednesday. On Thursdays and Fridays she worked only until four p.m., allowing her to get to the quintet gig at the upscale restaurant that offered live classical music until the kitchen closed at eleven. Saturdays usually weren’t as hectic unless the quartet she played in had booked a daytime wedding and an evening cocktail party. The only day she took off was Sunday—unless their quartet scored a gig, which seemed to happen more frequently lately. Starving artists didn’t have the luxury of saying no.

  “I know this is a lot to take in,” her dad said. “But do you have any questions?”

  “What would I do all day in Wyoming?” she asked him.

  “Besides keeping an eye on your grandmother and figuring out the cowboy protector’s angle?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. You could play it by ear.”

  Jade laughed. “Hilarious. A musician’s reference that I can’t comprehend because you know I’m a planner and a list maker.”

  “I’m sure once you get in that drafty old house piled with years’ worth of stuff that GG will have plenty to keep you occupied,” her father said dryly.

  “When would I have to leave?”

  “Tomorrow.”

  She closed her eyes. Giving notice at her receptionist’s job wasn’t a big deal since she worked for a temp agency. The restaurant had two other prep cooks, so that wouldn’t burn an employment bridge. Both the quintet and quartets had backup players for emergency fill-ins. So once she made the calls, she could load up her car and just . . . go.

  But could she do it? She’d never been impulsive, so this was asking a lot.

  This isn’t impulsive; this is a last-minute family emergency.

  “I’ll do it. Under one condition.”

  He raised an eyebrow.

  “That you won’t make any decisions about GG’s future until I give you my opinion.”

  “Done.”

  Jade stood and kissed the top of her dad’s balding head. “I’ll start packing.”

  Since Jade hadn’t ever done a cross-country road trip, at first she’d buzzed with excitement about experiencing a rite of passage. But as the miles wore on, she realized it wasn’t fun to do alone. Plus, she wasn’t a great driver, so she’d white-knuckled it the first day to the point that her hands and forearms actually hurt after a day of driving.

  The next day she’d made a conscious effort to try to relax. Her subconscious reminded her this trip was as much about the journey as the destination . . . until her father’s voice chimed in with this parting advice. “Don’t dawdle. Don’t take risks with the speed limit or your safety, but you need to reach Wyoming in a timely manner before GG does something we can’t undo.”

  So she hadn’t stopped to see any of the sights that interested her. She spent fourteen hours a day behind the wheel, rested for ten hours and then got up to do it all over again. So it wasn’t unlike her normal working days. Time passed in a blur of hitting shuffle on her iPod, stopping for food, gas and bathroom breaks. She’d snapped out of her daze when the GPS instructed her that her destination was two miles ahead.

  She’d made it. And for the first time since she’d left home, she allowed herself to be excited. If nothing else, she’d get to spend time with her grandma in her world. And looking around at the topography? Wyoming was a world unto itself.

  For hundreds of miles there’d been nothing but flat land. Little in the way of trees, just sickly-looking bushes. She’d been tempted to pull the car over after a tumbleweed—an actual tumbleweed!—had blown across the road. But before she pulled out her phone to snap a picture, the wind bounced it over a fence and into a group of cows.

  After cresting a hill, Jade noticed a long line of trees that didn’t fit in this rugged setting. The rest of the area was craggy, with rock outcroppings here and there. She slowed on the gravel road and turned onto a driveway—also gravel—that bisected the tree line.

  When the house came into view, she couldn’t contain her laugh. GG’s place was a mishmash of styles, a cross between a Grimms’ fairy-tale cabin and something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The front door, curved on the top and painted a glossy purple, made it seem like you could walk through an eggplant.

  But her amusement was short-lived when that door opened and a big guy, wearing the kind of cowboy clothes she’d seen on TV, stepped out to block access to the house. With his arms crossed, his legs braced, his face hidden beneath his hat, his body language was perfectly clear: You will have to go through me to get inside.

  That got Jade’s back up. Who did this macho yokel think he was? She was Garnet’s granddaughter. She had every right to be here. Him? Not so much.

  Before Jade decided the best way to circumvent Mr. Large and In Charge, GG appeared beside him. She paused, grinned, clapped her hands and barreled down the steps.

  Jade scrambled out of the car and met GG halfway.

  GG had always been stronger than she looked, but still, GG shocked her when she picked Jade up and spun her around in a circle. Then she set her down and hugged her hard.

  “You are as beautiful as ever.” GG trapped Jade’s face in her hands. “But I’m a little ticked off that your dad sent you to do his dirty work.”

  Jade knew her best defense was an attempt at ignorance. “GG—”

  “Don’t deny it, K, cutie pie? It’ll save us both a lot of round and round if we lay our cards on the table from the start.”

  “I am happy to be here and very happy to see you.”

  “I’m happy to see that you didn’t pull up in a dadgum U-Haul.” Her eyes narrowed. “Or are you the lead car and there’s a parade of moving vans behind you?”

  So she was paranoid. “No, GG. It’s just me.”

  GG looped her arm through Jade’s and started toward the steps. “You’re here in time for lunch.”

  When they reached the porch, Jade noticed the cowboy sentinel now blocked access to the stairs.


  “Tobin, you can lower them hackles. Come over here and meet my granddaughter.”

  His boot heels struck the wooden planks in measured steps that seemed to echo the beat of Jade’s heart. She didn’t look up until the man cast a shadow over her.

  And her heart stopped completely. Oh man. He was steal-your-breath-and-common-sense handsome. Tall and broad and just . . . big all over. The stubble on his jaw wasn’t affected like the city guys she knew who didn’t shave in an effort to appear more manly. This guy probably scared his razor away. He probably hadn’t shaved because he had important manly stuff to do and didn’t waste time with trivial stuff like running a blade over that beautifully chiseled face.

  Her gaze wandered up to his eyes, which were an arresting blue-green. Had to be contacts. No one’s eyes were that color without enhancement. Regardless. Those eyes were as cool as his standoffish demeanor. His lips were flattened into a thin line too.

  She bristled when his gaze slowly took in every nuance of her face as if attempting to put the pieces together. That scrutiny prompted her to step forward until they were boot tips to flip-flops, their bodies almost
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