Hang tough, p.32
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       Hang Tough, p.32

         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  “We are. We’ll make this life work, no matter where we end up.”

  “Oh. That’s so . . .” GG sniffled. Then she frowned. “What do you mean ‘no matter where you end up’? You’re where you belong. That’s why I cleared out.”

  Their heads swiveled toward her.

  “Run that by us again,” Tobin said.

  “This house and the land? Are yours. Well, as soon as you get married and both your names can be transferred to the deed. I’m old-fashioned that way.”

  “What? GG. That’s so”—crazy pants—“insanely generous, but you don’t have to move out and give us your house. We’d be happy if you lived with us. Heck, we’d just be happy to have a place to live because everything is so up in the air right now.”

  “What Jade said, Miz G. I wouldn’t feel right booting you out of your house.”

  “I’m thankful you’d even offer, honey. Both of you. You’re not booting me out. I’m bailing out. It is a lot of work for an old broad like me to take care of this place. It needs new memories. A family that make it more than just a house. It’ll become a home. Your home. Your place to set down roots.”

  “But GG . . . it’s so much . . .” She could hardly speak.

  “Jade doll, you’re my only grandchild. I can be generous to you if I want and you just have to suck it up and take it.”

  She laughed, even through her tears. “What about you?”

  “Me’n Pearl and Tilda and Maybelle bought that piece of land across from Bernice’s that’s been for sale forever. We’ve all got these family homes out in the country and it’s time for us to have a swingin’ bachelorette pad in the city.”

  “If one can even call Muddy Gap a city,” Tobin said wryly.

  “Oh hush, you. Anyway Holt is building us a fourplex, ranch-style spread out all on one level. We’ll each have our own space. In the middle it’ll have one of them shared courtyard thingies like in New Orleans. There are two spots to add on for when Vivien is ready to make a change and for Bernice if she ever divorces Bob. Holt has promised we’ll be roasting chestnuts and drinking eggnog on Christmas Eve in our new digs.”

  “I’m excited for you. But are you sure?”

  “Yep. That’s why all my stuff is gone. I wanted this to be a new start for both of you, from buying dishes and pots and pans together, to furniture.” She waggled her eyebrows. “I’m assuming Tobin’s king-sized bed is all the furniture you have.”

  “Hell, in my opinion, it’s the only furniture we need,” Tobin said with a grin.

  GG snickered.

  Jade whispered, “You are such a guy.”

  “Don’t hear you complaining about that,” he whispered back.

  “That said, I am giving you the kitchen table and chairs,” GG said. “They were my mother’s so they’re gen-u-wine antiques.”

  “I’d—we’d—love that. Thank you.”

  GG stood. “I’m staying with Pearl until the Mud Lilies Pad is done.”

  “The sheriff is gonna lose his mind when he finds out you’re all living in the same place.”

  “We’re saving that announcement for Election Day, so don’t spoil our fun, sonny.”

  Jade stood and hugged GG for a long time. “This is better than winning the lottery. I’ve got the man of my dreams who loves me and wants to build a life with me. I have a chance to do what I love and get paid for it. Now we have this awesome house. And for the first time in my life I get to live close to you, GG. I’m excited about that.”

  “Me too, girlie. But I’ll make a suggestion; that you always call first before you come over and I’ll do the same.”

  “Deal.”

  Tobin picked GG up off the ground and spun her one time. “I’m happy to see the wacky outfits are back in rotation.”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” GG adjusted her tunic that resembled a painter’s drop cloth and slipped on a pink-and-gold-striped beret.

  Tobin kissed her cheek. “Thank you for Jade, Miz G. Everything else is just icing.”

  “Love like that feels good, doesn’t it?” She patted his chest. “And no more of this Miz G business. From now on you can call me Grandma.”

  Keep reading for a preview of Lorelei James’s

  Just What I Needed,

  available now!

  Trinity Carlson might be having the worst day ever. And that was before she started drinking in a dive bar, right across from her ex and his new girlfriend. So when she finally decides enough is enough, she grabs hold of a hot, blond stranger and gives him the kiss of his life.

  Walker Lund never expected that a chance at love would hit him right on the mouth. Since the moment his brother decided to settle down, Walker has been dodging his family’s hopes that he’ll do the same. He’s never been interested in following in anyone’s footsteps. But when he discovers his sexy assailant has given him a fake name and number he suddenly finds himself in the mood for a little hot pursuit . . .

  After lunch, which I ate alone in my car, I started on the first set, a forest scene. It wasn’t a happy bright blue sky, but an ominous gray. The pine trees were dark, angry slashes of green. I began to add layers, smaller trees, bushes and a rock-strewn path. These layers were softer, with feathery-looking pine needles, and a faint hint of light glowed beneath the lowest boughs.

  I stepped back to gauge the image as a whole. It needed more distinct branches in the trees in the middle. Add a few dabs of yellow-green to balance the gray shadows and then this one was done. I snatched my bottle of water off the table and drained it.

  “I hate to admit it, but you are one amazingly talented artist.”

  Startled by the deep voice, I dropped the bottle on the floor and whirled around. “God. Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

  Walker had his hands in the pockets of his well-worn jeans. “Sneak up on you? I’ve been right here watching you for the last half hour.” He paused. “You didn’t know I was here?”

  I shook my head. “People have said bombs could go off around me when I’m working and I wouldn’t notice.”

  “I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that level of concentration—to say nothing of harnessing it repeatedly on cue to create something like that.”

  Usually I let compliments—and criticisms—roll off me. Yet his praise struck a chord since it wasn’t about the finished product, but his appreciation of the process. “Thank you.” Feeling self-conscious, I grabbed a smaller round brush and returned to painting.

  I twisted the brush as I moved down the image. After the third pass, when I still felt him watching me, I said, “I’m sorry.”

  “For?” he said behind me, closer than he’d been a few minutes ago.

  “For not correcting your assumption my name was Amelia.”

  During his silence, I fought the urge to fill the conversational void.

  Finally he sighed. “I’ve spent the last four days pissed off, directing my anger outward because I knew exactly where the blame belonged.”

  On you.

  “Evidently my ego couldn’t handle the fact I might’ve screwed up, so it conveniently blocked that part out.”

  I snickered.

  “What’s funny?”

  “That typical male response. You admit you have an ego but act like it’s a separate appendage you have no control over. Kind of like when guys claim the little head is always at war with the big head for who’s in control.”

  He laughed.

  God. He had such an awesome laugh.

  “Can you stop painting happy little trees for a moment and look at me?”

  I whirled around. “Did you seriously just make a Bob Ross reference?”

  “Why? Do you hate him or something?”

  “No! I love him. In fact, he’s a large part of why I became an artist. He was so positive and encouraging, which was so not the norm in my childhood. And it’s not the norm in the art world either. He took such joy in creating. I loved how he made it look so effortless, even when I
kind of resented him for that too, because it’s not easy. Some of the happiest times in my childhood were spent in front of an easel, just me and Bob Ross on the TV in the background, painting happy little trees.”

  Walker was studying me.

  “What? Do I have paint on my face or something?”

  He shook his head. I swear his mouth twitched as if he was trying not to laugh.

  Then I realized I’d gone off on a tangent again. Annoyed with myself, I said, “Stop staring at me.”

  “But I really like your face. And I thought I wouldn’t see it again, sweetheart, so I’m gonna look my fill.”

  I had no idea how to respond to that.

  “Can I ask you something?” He paused in speaking but kept inching forward. “Did you consider getting in touch with me?”

  “I considered it.”

  “And?”

  “And I concluded chances were slim you’d lay a big wet kiss on me if you saw me again after you discovered you had the wrong name and number for me from me, so I let it go.”

  “You didn’t think about me at all?”

  I hedged, pointing the paintbrush at him to stop his advancement. “I have to finish this. So if you want to continue talking, you’ll be talking to my back.”

  As soon as I turned around, I heard, “Then you can’t complain if I’m staring at your ass.”

  Shivers danced down my spine from the sexy, growly way he’d said that.

  I switched brushes and colors.

  “You were wrong to assume that I wouldn’t want contact with you,” he continued. “My brother offered to track you down with the little information I had. But I told him I just wanted to forget the whole thing.” He laughed softly. “Of course, you’re here—the last place I expected to run into you.”

  Using the wooden end of the paintbrush, I dragged lines through the paint, adding another facet to the branches. “So what now?”

  “You tell me.”

  “Tell you what?”

  “That Tuesday night was a fluke.”

  His denial surprised me. Or was he baiting me? “I should admit I’d had too many drinks and that was the only reason I kissed you?”

  “Was it?”

  “No. But I think you know that.”

  He exhaled loudly. “I do. I mean I did and then I didn’t, and now I’m really freakin’ glad I didn’t imagine this.”

  My hand stopped midair. “But you said you wanted to forget the whole thing.”

  “That was then.” Walker had moved in close enough that his breath drifted across the nape of my neck. “This is now. As far as I’m concerned, we haven’t even started.”

  “You are confusing me.”

  “Welcome to the club, sweetheart.”

  “Do I get to choose a welcome gift for becoming a new member of this club?”

  He laughed. “You have a bizarre sense of humor.”

  “So I’ve heard. Sorry.”

  “Don’t be. I like it.”

  “Really? Most people don’t get it. Most people don’t get me.”

  “Their loss. Because I get you.”

  I almost demanded he prove it because I didn’t want to get my hopes up about this guy.

  The soft bristles of his beard grazed my cheek. “Trinity.”

  Gooseflesh rippled down my arm from his mouth being so close to my skin. “What?”

  “Can you look at me?”

  I turned around. This man was just so . . . manly. Big athletic body, toned muscles, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the hair on his chest was as thick as his beard.

  Warm, rough-skinned fingers rested beneath my chin when he angled my head up to peer into my face. And those eyes of his. Sigh. Cerulean blue on the outer ring, a smoky gray by his pupil. Beautifully expressive and laser focused with intensity on me right now.

  “There are millions of people in the Twin Cities. There are hundreds of bars, theaters and volunteer organizations. The chances of us randomly running into each other twice in one week are miniscule. But we did.” His thumb brushed over the divot in my chin. “I’m considering it a sign.”

  Chills danced down my spine. I was glad he’d said it first. Part of me wanted to point out this connection could be a bad sign just as easily as a good one, but the hope—and, yes, forgiveness—on his face had the rebuttal drying on my tongue.

  “Let’s start over.”

  “You want to pretend that kiss never happened?”

  “No. I want to pretend you gave me your real phone number and real name so I can spend time with the real you.”

  “That was the real me in the bar, Walker.”

  He smiled. “Good. Because I liked you.”

  “Past tense?”

  “So literal for an artist,” he murmured. “The past is past. But I want the future tense to belong to me.”

  Okay. His confidence? Completely sexy.

  “Come out with me tonight. You owe me that much since you did agree to a date.”

  His insistence didn’t surprise me. But I’d had an exhausting week. All I wanted was to slip between my sheets, try to shut down for a solid eight hours. “Thank you for the offer. But I’ll be worthless company tonight.”

  “I doubt that.” He touched my cheek. “Just dinner, then. You have to eat.”

  “Do I look like I miss many meals?”

  Walker’s eyes turned stormy. “Don’t.”

  “Don’t what?”

  “Say shit like that about yourself. I like what I see when I look at you, Trinity.”

  “Oh.” That was really sweet. “I like what I see when I look at you too.”

  “But that’s not a point in my favor right now, is it? You’re still turning me down for dinner.”

  I set my hand on his chest. As hard and muscular as I remembered. “Yes. Just for tonight, though.”

  “How about lunch tomorrow? A long lunch.”

  He smiled—oh, hello, sexy dimples. I wanted to press my lips to the deep divots and feel his beard tickling my lips. Next time I kissed him, I’d take it slow and explore.

  “So is that a yes?” he pressed.

  My focus snapped back to his eyes. “It depends on where you’re taking me. I’m not a fan of bar food—chicken wings, nachos, all that fried crap.”

  “Got it. Any other things to avoid?”

  “I spend so much time inside that I’d like to enjoy the fresh air—as long as it’s not a hundred degrees in the shade.” I could see the ideas churning in his head and then one clicked.

  “You’re all right with it just being us tomorrow? Not in a restaurant or a bar or surrounded by people?”

  I appreciated that he’d asked and hadn’t assumed. “Sounds good. Where are we meeting?” I knew he probably expected to pick me up, but I needed the option of being able to leave whenever I wanted.

  “I’ll text you around ten and let you know. I have to check on a couple of things before I decide exactly where we’re going.” His eyes roamed my face. “Bring a hat and sunscreen.”

  “Anything else I should bring?”

  “Just your beautiful self.”

  “You are smooth.” I slid my hand up and curled it around his neck, intending to pull his mouth down to mine. But something stopped me.

 
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