Hang tough, p.30
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       Hang Tough, p.30

         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  “Can you say hi, honey?” Streeter urged Olivia.

  She shook her head and burrowed back into him.

  Streeter tried to set Olivia down and she shrieked. “This ain’t gonna work. She’s a little monkey today.”

  “Under normal circumstances I’d say we could deal with it another time, but sorry, bro, that ain’t the case.” He squeezed Jade’s shoulder and pulled her a little closer. “Jade’s my life now. We have to make decisions about our future. So you can trust that whatever you say won’t leave this room.”

  After a bit, Streeter sighed. He said, “Understood.” Then he perched on the edge of the recliner.

  Olivia let her father maneuver her around—as long as there wasn’t more than a foot’s distance between their heads.

  Tobin directed Jade to the couch and sat beside her. “So Renner offered you my job.”

  “A version of it anyway. I wouldn’t be full-time. He doesn’t want to hold you back from doin’ what you need to do, but he doesn’t feel comfortable just cutting you loose.”

  “Sounds like him. I’ll be blunt, Street. How can you support yourself and a kid on part-time wages?”

  “I always did my part on the ranch. Not bragging to say I worked harder than either Dad or Driscoll because it’s the truth. They turned nasty after Danica . . .” He stopped and cleared his throat. “When I had other responsibilities and wasn’t there all the time doin’ their work. They started giving me reminders that I’d be expected to make up for the hours I missed. Which they never did if they missed time. It was getting to be unbearable. The week before Danica’s life insurance policy cleared, my paycheck was a quarter of the amount it should have been. When I asked why, they said it was an actual accounting of the hours I’d worked and that’s how I’d be paid from there on out.”

  Tobin’s entire body went rigid. “Those bastards.”

  “I quit on the spot.” A smile ghosted the corners of his mouth. “Of course, that was before I knew how hard jobs were to come by. It’s worse when you’re a single parent, sole provider and sole caretaker.”

  “I don’t even know what the hell to say to you,” Tobin said quietly.

  “No one does.” Streeter folded and refolded the hem on Olivia’s dress. “My life ain’t the same as it was a year ago. Most days I don’t remember that guy I used to be. Dad and Driscoll—their way of dealing is to tell you to suck it up ’cause we’ve all got problems. They’re gruff and self-centered. They don’t understand I’m not ‘babysitting’ and I’m all Olivia has. Every bit of her care falls to me for the long term. Olivia acts out. Some of it is her age. Some of it isn’t. I don’t know which is which, but it’s up to me to figure it out.

  “And I sure as heck can’t do that where everyone in town knows the ugliness my wife left us with. People I barely know whisper when we walk into a room. Olivia isn’t Olivia Hale. Now she’s referred to as ‘that poor little girl.’ Makes me freakin’ nuts. People I’ve known my whole life act as if they have a right to ask whatever inappropriate question that pops into their fool head. I can’t live like that.” He briefly closed his eyes. “I need to get out of the area and start over where what happened isn’t common knowledge and openly speculated about in the local diner. Isolating Olivia isn’t the answer. There’s a child therapist in Casper who we’ve met with several times and I have high hopes we’re on the right track.” He kissed the top of Olivia’s head. “The insurance money is payin’ for all of that. Which is ridiculous and sad and just plain pisses me off because the only reason Olivia has to go into therapy is because of what her mother done.”

  Jade ducked her head, to hide her tears. This poor family.

  This is your family now too.

  Streeter sighed. “I’ve always been a ranch hand; I don’t know how to be anything else. It seemed like a sign when I found the therapist in Casper and then I heard you were leaving your job. Muddy Gap is a helluva lot closer to Casper than Saratoga is. Still . . . I debated before I applied. Renner said hirin’ me was all dependent on you.”

  “No pressure,” Tobin muttered.

  “You heard the negative. Now here’s the upside. Job sharing would let us both do what we love. I agree with Renner that you wouldn’t have stuck around this long if you hated it. Splitting the workload would let you explore other options and let me get my sh—stuff together as far as Olivia. You could get to know your niece. Hell, Tobin, we could get to know each other again.”

  “I’d like that.” He cleared his throat. “Where would you live? The foreman’s cabin?”

  Streeter shook his head. “A trailer would work better. Olivia needs her own room.”

  “Will that give you enough room for all your stuff?”

  “I got rid of most of it in the move after the funeral. But if I get the job I’d insist on Dad and Driscoll handing over the livestock that belongs to me. So I’d need to lease a parcel or two for that.”

  Tobin studied him. “You wouldn’t have an issue with taking orders from your younger brother? I recall that’s been a problem in the past.”

  “I disagree. We ain’t really ever worked together. Dad and Driscoll didn’t want your input before or after you graduated college. I had no opinion one way or the other since I had my own shit to shovel. As far as the work and how things get done . . . I learned Dad’s way, T. I never thought that was the only way.”

  Olivia had started to get restless. Streeter stood. “We’d better git before the total meltdown hits. Thanks for talkin’ to me, Tobin. I hope this works out for us some way.”

  Jade wasn’t surprised when Tobin acted noncommittal. “Renner will be in touch. Drive safe.”

  “Nice meeting you, Jade.”

  “Likewise. Take care. And if you need anything . . . I don’t know how I can help you, I just know that I want to.”

  When Streeter said, “You’re the first person who’s said that to me that I actually believe means it,” Jade’s heart broke all over again.

  Jade left Tobin alone to think.

  She walked out to the garden. Twilight was her favorite time of day, when the soil still held the heat of the sun’s rays, perfuming the air with that loamy scent. When the plants were bouncing back from hours in the sun and soaking up water from the irrigation system. Although she hadn’t started these plants from seedlings, she had a sense of accomplishment they were thriving under her care.

  What would it be like to plan out a growing season? Would the connection to this chunk of earth get stronger with each passing year? Or would the rose-colored glasses come off and it’d become another chore?

  Being born and raised a city girl, Jade wondered whether a life rooted so deeply in the country would lose the charm. If she’d miss the conveniences and choices of living in a metro area. She knew she’d miss her parents, but she also knew they wanted her to spread her wings.

  Maybe they just hadn’t expected her to fly so far away.

  Jade heard Tobin’s boots shuffling across the yard. She loved being so attuned to him. She turned to watch him walk toward her, and. immediately that overwhelming sense of elation filled her. This wonderful man was hers. She was his. There was no question they’d both do everything within their power to keep this level of connection to each other. And if she had to work three part-time jobs to build a life with him, she’d do it. She knew he’d do it too.

  She took off at a dead run wanting to reach him as fast as possible.

  Laughing, he caught her in those big strong arms of his and crushed her against his chest. “Hey. What a great welcome.”

  “I’ll do that every night if you want.”

  “Oh, I want.” Without setting her down, he angled his head to gaze into her eyes. “I don’t even have to ask, Jade. I know how you feel about me. It’s right there every time you look at me.”

  “Was there ever any question?”

  “Only why you’d hitch your wagon to a guy who’s maybe got one horse here, and one horse there,” he joked.

&n
bsp; “As long as you let me sit beside you in the wagon, I’m good with it.”

  He rested his forehead to hers.

  “What did you decide to do about Streeter and the job-sharing situation?”

  “I’ll try it for a while and see how working part-time at both places works out. As much as Renner doesn’t want to just cut me loose, I don’t want to just walk away either. The position LME offered is a great opportunity, but the company and the work is a huge unknown. Maybe easing into it is the best way to see if it’s what I even want.”

  Jade grinned and kissed him. “I’m so relieved to hear that.”

  “You are?”

  “You were torn and it ripped me up. Now you can have both worlds, because there’s no doubt in my mind you need both of them to make you happy.”

  “You make me happy.”

  “So finding a place to live in Muddy Gap would be ideal, but we’ll likely need to check out the listings in Casper too.” He set her down and smoothed his hand over her head. “This all seems surreal.”

  “It does. But it also feels right.” She stepped back. “Tell you what, if you can catch me before we get back to the house? I’ll remind you on my knees how real this is.”

  And when he caught her within the first twenty feet, she didn’t mind losing.

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Tobin had spent the morning online looking for places to rent.

  Jade said she’d be fine staying at his old trailer at the Split Rock since they both worked there, but he wanted them to start someplace new.

  They were both a little on edge, not knowing when Miz G would return. Not knowing how she’d react to the news they were a couple in love, the head-over-heels-crazy-forever kind of love. Not knowing if she’d let them stay together in this house for one night, even if Tobin promised he’d ask Jade to be his wife.

  He’d poured his third cup of coffee and was sorting through various screens on his laptop when he heard a rumble outside. Then he heard it again.

  What the hell?

  Jade came down the stairs at a good clip, muttering to herself.

  She didn’t even stop when he called her name; she just sailed out the door.

  Tobin followed her and froze on the top porch step when he saw what had made that rumble.

  A moving van.

  He stomped down the steps.

  Jade was already in the van driver’s face. “—back this rig up now or I will call the sheriff and have you arrested for trespassing.”

  “Lady, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re gonna do. I’m gonna do my job, which is to instruct my guys to pack up the rooms on this list.”

  “By whose order?”

  He spun the clipboard around. “Last name Evans. First name . . . starts with a G.”

  “No. This can’t be right!”

  Tobin said, “Excuse us.” He took Jade’s hand and towed her around the side of the house. “I thought you sent your dad an e-mail telling him that your grandma was fine to live on her own.”

  “I did! It was two pages long. It had bullet points. I e-mailed a copy to his personal address and to his office e-mail. I texted him and attached the PDF. I’ve been completely transparent about this situation with you, Tobin. Nothing has changed.”

  His eyes searched hers. “Then why is there a moving van in the goddamned driveway?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Why does that guy have a detailed fucking list of where to start boxing up?”

  He wanted to stop yelling at Jade but he couldn’t for some reason.

  Take a moment and fucking breathe.

  Tobin attempted to stay calm. “Your dad must have signed that document.”

  She looked away and wiped her tears.

  “When did you send the e-mails?”

  “Over a week ago.”

  “Is there even a slight chance he didn’t get them?”

  “No. I have a digital receipt from his secretary.”

  “Well somebody fucked up.”

  “And how nice that you assume it’s me.” She whirled away from him and headed back to the front of the house.

  Tobin closed his eyes and counted to ten. What had gone wrong here?

  When he found Jade, she was pacing with her cell phone to her ear. Pacing but not talking. She dialed another number and started pacing again.

  Then she stopped to watch the movers pull down the ramp at the back of the semi. Another couple of guys slid open the door on the side. Flat stacks of cardboard were unloaded and dragged into the house up another temporary ramp they’d assembled that stretched to the top of the porch steps.

  Neither of them moved until the first loaded box marked kitchen rolled down the ramp and up in to the van.

  “Who were you trying to call?” he asked her.

  “My dad. My mom. My dad’s office. GG.”

  Tobin took out his phone.

  He called Miz Maybelle.

  No answer.

  He called Tilda.

  No answer.

  He called Vivien.

  No answer.

  He called Bernice.

  No answer.

  No answer for either Miz G or Pearl’s phone.

  Just for shits and giggles he called Jade’s phone.

  It buzzed in her hand.

  She frowned at the caller ID and then at Tobin. “What?”

  “Since neither of us is able to get through to anyone, I wanted to rule out that we’ve fallen in some weird dead zone out here.”

  “But my phone worked and disproved that theory,” she said dully.

  “Yeah.”

  “God. This sucks.”

  “Short of chaining ourselves across the front and back doors, there’s nothing we can do.”

  “That first day I showed up here, you told me you’d do whatever it took to keep the movers out, including coming out swinging.”

  “I was a fuckin’ blowhard.” He exhaled. “I really don’t need assault charges on my record either.”

  “So we just sit here and watch them dismantle her life?”

  “Fuck if I know, Jade.”

  “I can’t believe my dad would do this.”

  I can’t believe you thought he wouldn’t.

  More time passed in a silent void.

  Eventually they both sat down in the shade.

  Tobin hated that it was so fucking peaceful.

  Jade cleared her throat. “Are we supposed to pack up our own stuff and get out?”

  “I don’t think so. I didn’t see our bedrooms on the master list.”

  She squinted at him. “You saw the master list?”

  “Yeah.”

  “How do you remember . . .” She briefly closed her eyes. “Right. That photographic memory. Did you see anything else?”

  “Nope.”

  She pulled her phone out and made another round of calls.

  Nothing.

  Tobin didn’t bother.

  Something fishy was going on here. Why couldn’t they get a hold of anyone?

  Needing to do something—anything—he stood.

  “Where are you going?”

  “To check on something. I’ll be back.” He walked over to the driver. “Hey. Can I see that authorization paper again?”

  “Sure. But it’s all legit.”

  “I believe you. It just sucks because this is not what we were expecting.”

 
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