Hang tough, p.28
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       Hang Tough, p.28

         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  Tobin shut off the water and grabbed paper towels from the dispenser. “Let me see it.”

  “Tobin, it’s—”

  “Don’t say fine or I’ll start to lose my fuckin’ cool, sweetheart. Now let me see it.”

  Jade put her hand behind her back.

  “Real mature, Jade.”

  She wrapped her fingers beneath his jaw and forced him to look at her. “For future reference? My right hand? Bow hand. My left hand? On the strings.”

  His eyes widened. “So you really are—”

  “Fine. But I loved that you went all macho-cowboy he-man and carried me in here.” She traced the side of his face. Then the shape of his lips. “I really love that I’m the first woman you’ve brought here and introduced to your friends. That makes me feel special.”

  “You are special. You know that.”

  “That’s why I’m in love with you. Because not only do you make me feel special, you’ve shown me that this thing between us has been special since day one. I don’t know what will happen when GG comes back, but I want to be with you.”

  His happiness meter? Off the charts right now. “Thank fuck for that.”

  “Come here, crazy man, and kiss me.”

  After the surprisingly sweet soul kiss, Tobin helped her down and they walked hand in hand out of the kitchen.

  Someone had cleaned up the glass.

  “Children of the Corn” were nowhere to be found.

  Tierney, Janie and Harper quit gabbing the instant he and Jade strolled into view.

  Janie spoke first. “Jade, are you okay? My sister-in-law Lainie is a nurse. I’ve already called her and she can be here in ten minutes.”

  “Fletch is still hanging around out front,” Harper said. “I know he’s a veterinarian, but if you need him to check out the cuts . . .”

  “Thank you. Really. I’m sorry to be a nuisance. Tobin overreacted. I have two tiny cuts on the thumb of my bow hand. So it’s all good. It won’t keep me from coming to work here this week.” She smiled.

  Tierney smiled back. “Quick thinking on your part, Tobin.”

  “Yes. Totally romantic, swoon-worthy moment when you picked her up and carried her off to take care of her,” Harper said with a sigh.

  “You get props for that from me too,” Janie added with a wink.

  He wondered if his cheeks could actually burst into flame from embarrassment.

  If he had to walk past the gauntlet of Abe, Fletch and Renner, that was a distinct possibility.

  “I promised Jade I’d show her around a little before we leave, so we’ll just head out the back.”

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Tobin’s head was in the clouds the next week after his interview with LME went well. Turned out, he’d gone to school with one of the owners’ brother. They hadn’t offered him the job on the spot, but the second half of the interview where they’d toured the facility indicated he pretty much had it in the bag. Since the position was part-time, they were more than willing to work around his schedule, which was just another bonus. With his mind elsewhere, he hadn’t considered Renner’s summons might be serious. But the instant he walked in and saw Renner staring out the back window, his hands in his back pockets, his shoulders scrunched up, he thought, Oh shit.

  Still, Tobin attempted to keep the mood light. “You bellowed, boss?”

  Renner turned around. “Yeah. Have a seat. A couple of things we need to talk about.”

  “It’s late enough in the day, should I grab beer? Or is this a whiskey conversation?”

  He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not sure. Let’s get the first part outta the way.”

  A two parter. That was a little unsettling. Especially when Renner didn’t sit down behind his desk.

  “I have an applicant for your job. A qualified applicant.”

  The elation and sense of freedom Tobin expected to feel didn’t come.

  “Okay.” He felt Renner studying him and he looked up. “What? Is there a catch or something?”

  “Maybe. You tell me. I don’t want to get in the middle of this. The truth is he came to me. He also said if you have a problem with him applying for the job, he’ll withdraw the application.”

  Confused, Tobin said, “Who?”

  “Your brother Streeter.”

  He must’ve looked like a train had hit him because Renner groaned.

  “A complete shock to you, I take it?”

  “Uh, yeah.” Tobin rested his forearms on his knees and tried to wrap his head around the fact his brother had applied for his job. Did that mean he’d quit working at the Hale ranch? “Can I ask when Streeter applied?”

  “Last week.”

  Tobin’s gaze connected with Renner’s. “Did he interview here last week?”

  “No. The application came in the mail. It had a Post-it requesting I clear the interview process with you first. Which was really fucking weird, to be honest.”

  “I’ll bet.”

  “So I have to ask . . . has anything changed for you? Are you still looking to get out of the area altogether?”

  “You’re asking because I’m involved with Jade.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Jade and I . . . we’ve been in this bubble, for lack of a better term. I can split our relationship right down the middle. The two and a half weeks before Jade and I became lovers that we were living with Miz G, and the past two and a half weeks we’ve been lovers and Miz G ain’t been around at all.”

  “So Garnet doesn’t know?”

  “She’s on a cruise ship. She’ll be back next week and we’ve asked the Mud Lilies to let Jade and me be the ones to tell her about our relationship. We have no idea how she’ll take it.”

  Renner opened his mouth and then closed it.

  “What? It’s not like you to hold back, Ren.”

  “I’m not. But I want to focus on this first. What are Jade’s plans?”

  “She’s working here. She’ll be playing in the symphony in Casper. She has a line on teaching a class at the community college next semester. We planned on finding a place together halfway between Casper and Muddy Gap.”

  “So you’re not leaving?”

  “If I do, Jade will go with me. She’s . . . everything, man. And yeah, I get the irony. After I made solid plans to get more outta my life than just bein’ a lonely hired hand, Jade shows up.”

  “Yeah, that’s some irony all right,” Renner said.

  Tobin’s focus snapped to Renner because his tone sounded off.

  “You know I don’t want to lose you. I’ve told you the job is still yours if you opt to stick around.”

  “But?”

  “But Streeter is the only applicant I’ve had for your job. And at the risk of pissing you off”—Renner flashed his teeth—“he has more ranching experience than you do. I’ll hazard a guess he has close to the same work ethic you do. So the work ain’t gonna be a shock to him any more than the weather is. From an employer’s perspective? If I can’t have you? He’s the next best thing. It was really fucking hard not just offering him the job over the goddamned phone, T.”

  “I can imagine. What held you back?”

  “You. I wouldn’t just cut you a check and hand you your hat. I know I’m your boss, but we’re friends too. I’ve hated the thought of you leavin’ since you told me you wanted to. And not just because that fucker Hugh bailed on me too.”

  Tobin laughed.

  “And without bein’ a total dick, your brother has been through some serious shit in the last year. Stuff I hope we never have to deal with. That may have affected his ability to work, so who am I supposed to ask . . . ?”

  It clicked. “I wouldn’t want to saddle you with him, just because he’s my brother, if he won’t be worth a damn, Ren. I know you won’t ask me to talk to my family, so I’ll just throw it out there that I’ll do it anyway. Might give us both some peace of mind.”

  “I appreciate that. And I’ll hold off on setting up an interview time until we both have
more information.”

  He paused. “What else?”

  Renner sighed. “It may be in order for you to have the life you want—stability and challenge—you’ll have to wear a bunch of different hats. If you’re workin’ cattle as a ranch hand, that’s not to say you can’t be doin’ stuff in the lab in Casper too. You’ve been an integral part of this operation. I couldn’t have built it into what it is now without you. This was supposed to be a temporary stop in your life while you waited for something better to come along. I understand you wanting to use them fancy degrees you worked so hard to earn. But if you really hated ranching? You wouldn’t have stayed here this long.”

  “Amen, brother,” Tobin said softly. He’d been thinking along those lines too.

  “Now that I’ve said my piece . . . damn my throat hurts.” He smirked. “I’m goin’ home. And bein’ a husband and a father? That’s who I am—who I’ve always wanted to be, and at the end of the day those are the only things that matter.” He walked out.

  Tobin didn’t move for the longest time. He just closed his eyes, leaned back, and let it sink in.

  Jade wasn’t waiting on the porch when he pulled up.

  Disappointment dogged him. He’d gotten used to that. He climbed the porch steps. No scent of supper cooking wafting out the windows either.

  But then he heard it.

  Music.

  He paused to take his boots off and heard her stop and start the same progression of notes. Her dedication amazed him. Moved him.

  Although he’d been hot and dusty all day and needed a shower, he’d wait. He’d rather listen. After he whipped off his shirt and ditched his jeans, he sank into the easy chair and closed his eyes.

  Something inside him shifted gears completely when he heard her play. It sounded sappy as hell but through her playing he had an entirely different connection to music. It seemed vibrant. Alive. Hauntingly heartbreaking. Playful. Majestic.

  Tobin didn’t mind when she played the same section over and over. He couldn’t tell if the notes or the tone or the rhythm was improving; he wasn’t sure if any of that had been her objective. He just waited for that moment when she played something that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. That made it difficult to breathe. That suspended moment . . . almost exactly like right before he came.

  Every piece had a climactic point. Some were slow buildups—just like sex. Some were fast and furious—just like sex. Some were there and gone so fleetingly you looked around wondering if you’d missed it somehow. He suspected Jade wouldn’t enjoy the orgasm and musical climax comparison so he’d kept that observation to himself.

  She’d drilled herself on the runs a dozen times before she moved on to chords.

  Dissonant chords.

  He loved these. He’d felt completely uneducated last week when he’d called these progressions chords. Jade, the wonder violinist, had gone into a long-winded explanation about partitas as techniques. The sassy woman had no idea how hard her musical instruction made him. So he’d had no choice but to show her. Twice.

  The music stopped abruptly and he heard her make a strangled groan and smack her bow on the strings a few times.

  Yeah. Her temper made him hard too.

  Pretty much everything about her made him hard.

  The door slammed open.

  Bare feet slapped down the hallway. Words were muttered. The footsteps stopped, as did the feet. “Tobin?”

  He opened his eyes and smiled at her. “Hey.”

  She squinted at the grandfather clock. “Omigod. It’s after five thirty! Why didn’t you knock on the door?”

  “I knew you’d have to come out sooner or later.”

  Jade’s gaze homed in on him—specifically that he wore a sleeveless T-shirt and boxer briefs. “How long have you been out there waiting for me?”

  He shrugged. “I wasn’t keeping track.”

  “But . . . you’re probably starved.”

  “I’m good.” Tobin held out his hand. “But I’d take a kiss or ten if you’re offering.”

  She crawled onto his lap and popped the footrest on the recliner so his body was almost horizontal. Then she fused her mouth to his. Feeding him kiss after kiss. Then backing off. Nipping on his lips. Gifting him with soft smooches. Gliding her tongue across the upper and lower bow of his lips, teasing the seam until he smiled.

  Jade smiled back. “Hey.”

  Tobin swept his hands down the middle of her back to cup her ass. Then he trailed his hand back up. “Did you have a good day?”

  “Yes, if a little bizarre.”

  “Bizarre . . . how?”

  “Vivien and Bernice came over. Which was fine. I mean they’ve both gone out of their way to be nice after the . . . misunderstanding.”

  “What did they want?”

  “That’s it. I don’t know. Bernice asked if GG had planted any black-eyed Susans in her flower garden this year and I told her I wasn’t sure. So she said she’d go take a look. I thought Vivien would tag along, but she plopped down and asked about the Casper Symphony audition. She said all the Mud Lilies had bought season tickets to this year’s performances since I’ll be concertmaster. She asked how it was with both of us working at the Split Rock. Then we talked about canning and I asked her to look at the okra because it still doesn’t look right. When we were in the kitchen, I just happened to glance across the yard and I swear I saw Bernice carrying something out of the herb garden and putting it in the backseat of her car.”

  “Miz G is very particular about not mixing flowers and herbs.”

  “I know, right?”

  “Did you get a chance to peek in her car?”

  “No. They asked a bunch of questions like if I knew when GG would be back. They tsk-tsked and said they’d be in touch. So should I be worried?”

  Tobin had his suspicions that the marijuana plants were gone. But that wasn’t something his little rule follower needed to worry about. “Nah.”

  Jade traced his eyebrows. Then his hairline. And the stubble on his cheeks and chin. “Anything exciting happen to my handsome cowboy today?”

  He snorted. Handsome. Right. He didn’t feel that way, but he liked that’s what she saw when she looked at him. “A weird thing happened at the end of the day. Renner called me into his office.” He relayed the basics about Streeter applying for the job, purposely not giving commentary on how he’d feel being out of a job and where he’d go from here.

  She blinked at him. “You didn’t have any idea?”

  “None.”

  “Dude.”

  “I know. I’m not sure if Streeter is even working there now or if he’s unemployed.”

  “How long does it take to get to your family’s ranch?”

  “An hour and a half.”

  She wore a thoughtful look. “Would they split the difference with you? Meet you in Rawlins or whatever town is halfway between here and there?”

  “Maybe if I offered to buy them a steak.”

  “Then call and ask if they’d meet you. That would answer your questions about Streeter sooner rather than later.”

  Tobin kept running his hand up and down her back. “Why are you pushing me on this?”

  “I’m not.” She kissed him quickly and then rubbed her cheek over his. “All right. Maybe I am. If Streeter always counted on his wife and she’s not there? And he always counted on your dad and your older brother and now they’re not in the picture either? I shudder to think how alone he must feel. Neither of us are strangers to that feeling of loneliness.”

  “You have that same big heart Miz G does, don’t you?”

  Those golden eyes got a little teary. “Thank you.”

  Tobin kissed her. “I’ll call my dad and brother on one condition. You come with so I can introduce you as my woman.”

  Jade shook her head. “Not for the entire meal. I’ll swing by for dessert and coffee. They won’t talk freely if I’m there, and you need to get to the bottom of what’s going on.”

/>   “You’re so damn smart.” He kissed her again. Longer. Slower. Against
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