Hang tough, p.4
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       Hang Tough, p.4

         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  Jade laughed. “I was going to say the same thing.”

  “What are your plans while you’re here?”

  “What’s with the twenty questions? Are you afraid I’ll be boxing up the crystal and the silver personally so I know that you don’t abscond with it?”

  He grinned, appreciating that her quick wit hadn’t masked her antagonism. It’d be interesting to see how hard he’d have to poke her buttons before that sharp tongue took over. “I’d be asking Miz G before you move stuff around here. She’s particular about her things. It probably looks like chaos. But trust me; she knows exactly where everything is in this house. But if you don’t believe me? Knock yourself out. See how lovey-dovey she is with you after she catches you messin’ in her china cabinet or her kitchen.”

  Jade sipped her tea. “Speaking of the kitchen. She made you lunch today, but do you cook for her?”

  “Nope. I buy the groceries.”

  “So you do the dishes and clean up after she cooks for you?”

  He shrugged. “I hang out with her in the kitchen while she’s cooking and cleaning up. She asks me to chop veggies, I’ll do it. She asks me to scrub a fry pan, I’ll do it. It’s not like I’ve got a defined list of chores.”

  She made a face but didn’t respond.

  Tobin rested his forearms on his knees and leaned forward. “What’s put that wrinkle in your brow, darlin’?”

  “Don’t darlin’ me,” she warned. “I’m not so easily swayed by sweet-talking cowboys.”

  “Been around a lot of gen-u-wine cowboys in New York City, have you?”

  “Sadly, no, but that’s beside the point. I’ve only been here a few hours and I’ve already seen you use those sweet-talking ways on GG. So what has she promised you in exchange for your protection?”

  Tobin knew his eyes had turned frosty, but he kept his tone even. “She did mention something about giving me forty acres and a mule.” When he realized Jade didn’t get the reference, he backtracked. “Why are you so damn suspicious of me?”

  “Seriously? You’re a good-looking, unmarried cowboy who has moved into my grandmother’s house and taken on the role of her protector. You can’t see why my dad would have a problem with that?”

  “Then your dad oughta nut up and confront me about it in person.”

  The screen door banged open. Garnet strolled onto the porch, yawning. “Guess I needed that nap. That’s where toddlers and old-timers are alike; we don’t want to nap, but if we don’t we’re cranky-pants the rest of the day.” She squinted and her gaze flitted between him and Jade. “What’s going on? Looks like you two were having words.”

  “We were talking,” Jade said.

  Tobin snorted. “Call it what it is, darlin’; we were arguing. Jade was trying to act all cute and charming, but I didn’t buy any of it.”

  “Jade? Charming?” Garnet slapped her leg with amusement. “Oh, sonny. That’s a good one. Jade is as cute as a bug in a rug, but she’s so shy she failed charm school twice, didn’t you, sweetie?”


  “You failed twice? Now that I’d believe,” Tobin drawled.

  Miz G poked his arm. “Your charm doesn’t work as well as you think, or else you’d already have hooked yourself a girlfriend or a wife, wouldn’t you?”


  He’d forgotten about Garnet’s equal-opportunity blunt streak.

  “That’s probably because he argues about everything,” Jade said.

  “The hell I do. I argue when it’s warranted.”

  “I don’t like arguing in any way, shape or form,” Garnet said.

  “Then we’ll stop,” Tobin said. “It’ll be easier for some of us than others.”

  “Yes, it’ll be very easy for him to stop,” Jade said sweetly, “since he wasn’t winning anyway.”

  “Hard to get my point across when I’m bein’ accused of everything from freeloading, to having undue influence, to expecting payment for my services.”

  “I never said any of that,” she said hotly.

  “But you sure were thinking it, weren’t you, darlin’?”

  “Oh, so you’re a mind reader now too?” Jade leaned forward. “Tell me what I’m thinking right now.”

  Tobin clucked his tongue. “Miz G doesn’t like to hear that kind of foul language, Jade. As her only granddaughter, you should already know that.”

  “Omigod. You are the most infuriating man I’ve ever met.”

  “And I’m considered a nice guy around these parts.”

  “Not exactly a badge of honor when the population around these parts is like . . . ten,” she retorted, “and half of them are animals.”

  “If there aren’t enough people around to suit your needs, why don’t you trot your little self on home to New York City?”

  “Because I like it here. Present company excluded. So suck it up, cowboy. I’m not going anywhere.”

  “Right.” He smirked. “Bet you don’t last half a day, cupcake, when I tell you the nearest Starbucks is in Laramie . . . eighty miles away.”


  They looked at Garnet and then each other. How had they forgotten she was here?

  Garnet said. “Zip it, both of you, and listen up. I’d hoped I was wrong but I can see that it’s worse than I imagined.” She pointed at Jade. “I don’t care what you said to Tobin in the kitchen earlier that had him scurrying off, but it was more than just a little tiff to get that man to forgo lunch.” She focused on Tobin. “And I’ve no doubt you were equally at fault by goading her into it.”

  “Me?” Tobin said innocently.

  Jade whispered, “Why don’t you just nut up and admit it?”

  Miz G said nothing to her about her snarky comment. How was that fair?

  Jesus. How old are you? Nine?

  “I won’t listen to this kind of grade-school bickering. I’m too damn old. I’ll state the obvious. You two are oil and water. You have nothing in common. You’ll be at each other’s throats at every opportunity, so I simply won’t allow them kind of opportunities.” She paused, her steely-eyed stare moving back and forth between them. “Do you understand what I’m saying? You two will steer clear of each other at all times for the duration of your stay with me—however long that’ll be.”

  “How are we supposed to ‘steer clear’ of each other, GG?” Jade demanded.

  “Yeah. We’re sharing a house, a bathroom and . . . time with you, Miz G.”

  Jade muttered, “Suck-up.”

  “I’ll divide up the mealtimes with a schedule so you both get equal time with me. I’m giving you ten minutes to figure the rest of it out. Then I don’t want to see you two anywhere near each other after that, understood?” She shook her finger at Jade, then at him. “Don’t test me on this. You both know how stubborn I can be.” Miz G paused again. Her eyes filled with tears. “I won’t watch two people I care about deeply, ripping each other down either in front of me or behind my back in my own home. Got it?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Jade said, “Of course, GG. Whatever you want.”

  As soon as Garnet was out of earshot, Tobin leaned in. “This was your doin’? Whining to GG how mean I was to you at lunch and seein’ how fast she’d freeze me out?”

  “News flash, cowboy. I didn’t bring up your name at all. Maybe she finally sees what you’re up to and is taking precautionary measures.”

  “That right there? Is why us steering clear of each other won’t be a problem.”

  Jade stood and said, “Ditto.” She gave him a wide berth and hustled down the steps, her hands in her pockets as she wandered up the driveway.

  Tobin watched her until she disappeared over the hill, wondering why the hell he didn’t just get in his truck and leave. He didn’t need this crap.

  Chapter Four

  Tobin hauled himself out of bed earlier than usual the next morning.

  But he still hadn’t gotten up before Garnet.

  He thought about their conversation as
he completed his usual daily chores, feeding the herd, checking the outlying areas for cows that might’ve strayed. He did a quick run-through of the Split Rock grounds, but he didn’t see anything the groundskeeper had to worry about.

  Out of habit he checked the stock in the pasture across the road. Hugh, the former foreman, and Ike, the former cattle broker, now leased that section to house their rodeo stock that once had belonged to Renner. Now that Jackson Stock Contracting was a separate entity from Jackson Cattle Company—both of which were separate businesses from the Split Rock Ranch and Resort—the daily care of those animals was no longer Tobin’s responsibility.

  Hard to believe six years had passed since Tobin had finished grad school. He’d started at the Split Rock as a hunting guide and within a year he was second in command of the livestock operation. The money wasn’t bad, and he did have his own place. The longer he worked there, the more responsibilities were passed off to him, but none of those responsibilities utilized his degrees. Tired of being a glorified ranch hand, tired of watching all his friends—except him—find a life partner, Tobin knew he needed a drastic change.

  He’d expected things to be awkward between him and his boss, but the truth was Renner understood loneliness and the need for a change better than anyone else. He’d uprooted his own life in Kansas to build the Split Rock and expand his cattle company. In doing so, he’d met Tierney, the woman who’d become his wife, his business partner and the mother of his children.

  Two hours later, Tobin’s thoughts were pulled in a dozen different directions when he wandered into the office section of the barn.

  Renner was pouring a cup of coffee in the break room. “Hey. Please tell me you didn’t stick around because you have bad news.”

  “Nah. Everything checked out fine this morning. But number 224 ran off again and I tracked her to the bottom of the ravine. Third time this month.”

  “Damn jumpy heifers are the bane of my existence,” Renner said dryly. “What else is goin’ on?”

  “Let’s go into your office. It takes that ancient computer of yours fifteen minutes to start up, so you can get that goin’ while I bend your ear.”

  “Hilarious.” Renner started down the long hallway.

  Tobin grabbed a soda out of the fridge and followed. In the office, he dropped into the chair opposite Renner’s desk and sighed heavily.

  Renner said, “So?”

  “I know I’ve filled you in on the Garnet situation but it just got a whole lot more interesting.”

  “Moving vans haven’t shown up already, have they?” Renner said sharply.

  “No. Garnet’s granddaughter Jade showed up yesterday instead.”

  “Jade?” Renner frowned. “I don’t recall ever hearing that name.”


  “What do you know about her?”

  “She’s beautiful,” popped out of his mouth first thing. “Got an attitude too, that’s for sure. She was in my face from the get-go, which was a challenge for her since she’s like five foot nothin’. She accused me of manipulating her grandma. I questioned why Garnet’s family took an interest in her only when they wanted to imprison her.”


  “Yeah. Not a productive conversation. Long story short, Jade has moved in and is bein’ vague about how long she intends to stick around. I can’t just abandon Garnet, especially after . . .” Tobin scratched his jaw. “You know how Miz G always wears them funky clothes? The more outlandish the better? This morning she was wearing khakis. Khakis! And a plain, long-sleeved tan shirt. She even put on those preppy loafers. Not in vivid orange or bright pink but in basic brown. No jaunty scarf tied around her neck or worn as a headband. No jewelry. No rhinestones or sparkles anywhere. She looked like a Sears appliance saleswoman.” Tobin swigged his soda. “So I asked her, ‘Is it laundry day, Miz G, and that’s all you have left to wear?’”

  “How’d that go over?”

  “Dammit, Ren, she got teary-eyed. She said the time had come for her to toe the line and act her age.” He tamped down his anger. “Then she asked if I’d drop off the eight garbage bags of clothes she’d removed from her closet and bring them to the Salvation Army donation center. I told her I would, but only if she was sure.”

  “Was she?”

  “Up until her gold lamé disco pants fell out of the bag I was carrying to my truck. When she picked them up and hugged them, I had to turn away. I hoped when I turned around I’d see that she’d run those garish pants up the flagpole as a sign of rebellion. But she just handed them over and said, ‘You dropped these, sonny.’”

  “Christ.” Renner’s gaze flicked to his monitor and then back to Tobin. “All those bags are in your truck now?”

  He nodded.

  “Take ’em to Harper at the clothing store and explain what’s goin’ on. There’s plenty of storage in the back room. She’ll keep an eye on them for a while in case Garnet changes her mind.”

  “Thanks. So in light of this . . . I’ll be sticking around longer than I planned.”

  “How much longer?”

  Tobin blew out a breath. “I’m hopin’ just a week.”

  Renner sipped his coffee. “What about Albuquerque?”

  “I told them I had a family emergency.” He’d hated calling to postpone, but he’d tossed and turned half the damn night and hadn’t seen an alternative.

  “While I believe what you’re doin’ for Garnet is admirable, don’t let it interfere with your plans any more than it already has.”

  “Any applicants for my job?”

  “Not a single one.”

  “That sucks.”

  “Tell me about it. Anyone worth their salt knows bein’ a ranch foreman is a lot of work. Anyone with a map can see we’re highly isolated here. Those two things together . . .” He shook his head. “Anyway, my personnel issues ain’t your problem.”

  Tobin stayed silent. It’d been so ingrained in him to be a team player that for the hundredth time he had to bite his tongue to stop himself from telling his boss he’d stay until a replacement had been found.

  “Before I forget . . . the guest from Schenectady wants the full rodeo experience. Since you’ll be working cattle with Teddy tomorrow, I asked Kyle and Hank to come by.”


  “Was there anything else?”

  “Nope. Thanks, boss. I appreciate it.”

  Tobin returned to Garnet’s house to find Jade teetering on the kitchen counter, pulling down Garnet’s cookbooks from the shelf that stretched above the sink.

  He paused outside the swinging doors, watching her in a desirous daze. She’d donned a tiny pair of jean shorts that did fantastic things for her ass. Plus he got the bonus of seeing her beautifully toned legs, which shouldn’t look that long since the woman wasn’t bigger than a minute.

  Despite being mesmerized by the glossy fall of her hair swaying enticingly across the middle of her back, he realized when she reached for the cookbooks on the back of the shelf that she hadn’t compensated for the weight of the books already piled in her left arm. She bobbled the books, and her body listed to the side.

  Rather than trying to catch her, he opted to stabilize her; his hands landed on her ass just as she started to fall backward.

  Jade screamed and lurched forward, scrambling for a handhold on the shelf. The shelf separated from the wall, sending the rest of the books crashing around them like bombs.

  Bombs that landed on Tobin’s head. “Ow. Ow. Fuck.”

  Jade whirled around and glared at him. “What is wrong with you? You see a woman standing on the counter and decide to cop a feel?”

  Tobin stared at her, dumbfounded. “The only reason I grabbed your ass was to keep you from falling on it!”

  “I had it under control.”

  “Like hell you did.” Now he was pissed. “So excuse the fuck out of me for trying to keep you from getting hurt. None of the cookbooks beaned you in the noggin, did they?”

  She blinked tho
se golden-brown eyes at him. “No.”

  “Lucky you. Three bounced off my head. I’m still seeing stars.”

  Then she smirked. “More’s the pity none of them hit you hard enough to knock you out.”


  “But since you’re here and your contribution to GG’s household is using your muscles, can you reattach the shelf so it won’t crash down again?”

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