Hang tough, p.5
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       Hang Tough, p.5

         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  His first response—If you think you’re so smart, why don’t you fix it?—remained trapped in his throat. He couldn’t leave it half-assed and let it crash down and hurt someone. “Fine. I’ll get the ladder, which is a pretty handy tool for climbing up to retrieve things out of your reach. Have you heard of one?”

  “Ooh, cowboy charm has a bite. Yes, I’ve heard of a ladder. I actually searched for one. But since GG isn’t here—”

  “Where is she?”

  “Lunch at the Lions Club with her Mud Lilies friends. I guess they planned to teach some cougars a lesson about . . . poaching?” Confusion clouded her eyes. “Do you have any idea what that means?”

  “It means the Mud Lilies are stirring up shit in Rawlins.” He stacked the books on the table. “What were you doin’ with all the cookbooks anyway?”

  “Moving them.” She gestured to a two-tiered shelving unit filled with knickknacks. “GG has better access to them there.”

  That actually made sense. But . . . “Did Miz G ask you to do this?”

  “No. I was bored so I thought I’d surprise her.” Jade jumped down. “I’ll get out of your way.”

  And she’d stayed out of his way.

  Until Miz G came home and Jade threw him under the bus.

  Tobin just happened to be putting away his tools in the mudroom when Garnet strolled into the kitchen. She gasped. “What’s this? Why are all of my cookbooks down here?”

  “You don’t . . . like them there?” Jade asked warily.

  Yeah, sweetheart, you probably should’ve cleared this “surprise” with her first, Tobin thought smugly.

  “I’m not one for change, Jade,” Garnet said mulishly. “I like things the way I like them.”

  “But it’s not entirely my fault! I was up on the counter, getting some cookbooks, when Tobin barreled into the kitchen, scaring the life out of me. I lost my balance, fell forward and grabbed on to the shelf. All of the cookbooks crashed down—”

  “On top of you? Oh, sweetheart, that’s awful! Were you hurt? Are you okay?”

  Tobin rubbed the bump behind his right temple, annoyed she hadn’t clarified that he’d borne the brunt of the falling books.

  “I’m fine. But your shelf? Not so much. Tobin tried to fix it, but he claims the shelf wasn’t meant to hold heavy cookbooks. That’s why I swapped out your knickknacks.”

  Oh, you little liar.

  But she hadn’t really . . . lied. She’d merely twisted things around to save her own cute butt.

  Tactical error, darlin’. One that’s gonna cost you. Because now? It was on.

  Tobin opened and closed the back door as if he’d just waltzed in. “Hey, Miz G. How was your lunch?”

  “Boring. No Jell-O fights. No hair pulling. Pearl didn’t even get to whack anyone with her cane.” Her eyes turned shrewd. “Next time you think about messing around with any of my stuff without asking first? Don’t.”

  Jade looked guilty as hell.

  “Understood.”

  She patted his arm, as if all was forgiven. “Now be a dear and grab the bags of top soil out of my trunk.”

  “You didn’t have to buy dirt. I would’ve dug up soil out of the garden for you.”

  “I appreciate that. But my potted petunias are looking puny and my buddy Tony the Stoner said my soil might be worn out and I need to repot them.”

  Jade choked on her glass of water.

  Miz G whacked her hard on the back. “Lordy, I’d hate to imagine how badly you’d fare after a prairie fire shot if you choke on water, Jade.”

  Tobin hid his smirk, waiting to see how she’d respond to that.

  “I choked after hearing you mention Tony the Stoner! How on earth do you know someone like that? Did these Mud Lilies friends of yours introduce you to him?” she demanded. “Because I think they’re a bad influence on you.”

  She’d done it now.

  But Miz G just blinked. “What in heaven’s name are you talkin’ about? The Mud Lilies have nothin’ to do with this. I’ve known Tony for years. I’ve been buying pot—”

  “Omigod, GG! I do not want to hear this. You know I have to tell my dad about the stuff you’re doing that might be wrong or illegal!”

  “Take it down a notch, Jade, and listen up,” Tobin interjected. Then he addressed Garnet. “Where does Tony work and what does he do there?”

  “He works at the building center in Rawlins. He usually runs the masonry department. In the summer months he’s in charge of the home and garden section.” Miz G looked baffled. “Sonny, have you been drinking? You know all of this. Tony the Stoner did the stonework up at the Split Rock.”

  “And you call him Tony the Stoner . . . because he installs stone.”

  “What else would I call him?” She huffed out a breath. “Although, now that you mention it, when he changed departments to the garden center he did ask me to stop calling him Tony the Pot Pusher.”

  Tobin busted out laughing because Jade looked totally poleaxed.

  Welcome to daily life with Garnet Evans.

  Miz G flapped her hand at him. “I don’t see why that’s so funny.”

  “I’ll let Jade explain it to you while I unload some more dirt.”

  Tobin had dropped two bags around the side of the house, when he saw Jade lumbering toward him with a bag of soil clutched to her chest.

  “Dammit, Jade, let me do that.” He snatched the bag out of her arms and tossed it on the pile. “I do the heavy lifting around here.”

  “I wanted to help.”

  “I don’t need it.” He leaned against the side of the shed. “But I will take an apology for you blaming the broken shelf and cookbook rearranging on me.”

  She shoved her hands in her pockets. “I’m sorry. I panicked, okay? My brain got stuck on the fact I’d screwed up and I’d disappointed GG on my second day here.”

  Disappointed was an interesting word choice. “So it was better to have her mad at me?”

  “I said I was sorry. I didn’t know GG would be so adverse to one small change.”

  “Wrong answer, darlin’.” Tobin pointed at her. “I warned you—several times—that she hates change of any kind. Ain’t my fault you chose not to believe me.”

  He saw that moment when the lightbulb clicked for her.

  “This is your way of proving that if she freaked out about her cookbook collection being relocated, she’ll be near hysteria if she’s moved out of her house.”

  “Bingo.” Tobin stared at her hard. “But maybe if you keep rearranging her personal belongings when she’s not at home, that’ll ease her into seeing them boxed up? That is your plan?”

  “I don’t have a plan.”

  “That’s right. You’re here following Daddy’s plan, aren’t you, tiger?”

  “You calling me tiger isn’t some shot at my Chinese heritage, is it?”

  His gaze locked onto hers. “Not a shot at your ethnicity. I call you tiger because your eyes remind me of a tiger’s eyes. Especially when you’re pissed off and backed into a corner.”

  “Oh.” She blushed and that seemed to annoy her. “At least mine are real.”

  Do not check out her chest. “What’s real?”

  “My eye color. Obviously you wear contacts.”

  “What?”

  “You wear contacts because no one has eyes that color.”

  His nostrils flared. “Poke your damn finger in my eye if you need proof, darlin’, but this eye color? All mine. And what the hell does it matter anyway?”

  “I was trying to pay you a compliment.” She jammed her hands in the back pockets of her shorts. “The color of your eyes . . . it’s . . . extraordinary.”

  Tobin didn’t buy it. Why would she be nice now?

  Because she wants something.

  “Stick with insults. You’re much better at them.” He walked away.

  Chapter Five

  The following day at GG’s house, Jade had reorganized her closet, rearranged her room and had gone for a r
un—all before noon. She had that itchy feeling between her shoulder blades that she should be doing something.

  But after yesterday’s cookbook fiasco, she wouldn’t actually move or change anything.

  So after lunch, she’d familiarized herself with the kitchen, she’d checked out the barn and the machine shed—that place needed to be organized in the worst way. Then she’d cleaned out the inside of her car and scrubbed the windows in the garage door.

  And she still had a couple of hours to kill until GG returned from her meetings.

  Restless, with itchy feet and idle hands . . . what was she supposed to do with herself?

  Tobin wasn’t even around to argue with.

  GG had informed Tobin that he had to stay away until late afternoon. Not that Jade had heard any of this firsthand—she had, however, received a terse note from Tobin that he’d oh-so-thoughtfully stuck to the bathroom mirror:

  I can’t be here until later, but there will be hell to pay if I see so much as a single packing box anywhere in this house. Don’t test me on this, darlin’. You will lose. T~

  Jade had fumed for a while at his audacity. Then she created and discarded witty comebacks designed to get under his skin. And what fine, fine skin it was. Even when he annoyed the crap out of her, it’d been hard not to notice how the muscle in his cheek flexed in that broodingly sexy way few men pulled off. Or how the intense way he argued heated his magnetic eyes into a deeper shade of blue.

  Stop. So the big, rugged cowboy is hot. And commanding. And imposing. And insistent. He’s clever; he figured out how to push your buttons and that’s why you should do as GG says and steer clear of him.

  For now . . . she needed something familiar to calm herself, and the best way to accomplish that was through music.

  Jade set up her music stand on the front porch. Playing outside for her own enjoyment was a rare treat. The wind blew harder than she expected, requiring clothespins to keep her sheet music from blowing away. But she’d played this piece so many times she had it memorized.

  Perched on the edge of the chaise, she held her bow above the strings and inhaled a deep breath before she launched into “Summer” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and everything became right with her world again.

  GG returned home around six o’clock, completely frazzled. “Sometimes I want to strangle Maybelle and her insistence on our community involvement. We don’t even have a school here in Muddy Gap, say nothin’ of any of us havin’ grandkids or great-grandkids that attend school in Rawlins.”

  “What’s going on?”

  “A ‘meet the teacher’ carnival thingy tomorrow night. We sure didn’t have one of them when I was a kid. We considered ourselves lucky we had extra chalk to draw on the pavement with at recess.”

  Jade folded her arms over her chest and watched GG pace as she went off on a tear.

  “There’s a cakewalk at this carnival. Last month or sometime, I don’t remember, I said I’d donate, thinking because it’s a cakewalk . . . it oughta be a cake, right?” She shook her head. “Wrong. Because no little ankle-biter should ever feel left out, every cakewalk participant gets his or her own cupcake—in addition to the chance of winning a gol-durn cake!”

  “What does that mean?”

  GG flopped onto the couch. “That means instead of relaxing and havin’ a glass or two of bubbly with my beautiful granddaughter, I have to bake and decorate five dozen cupcakes tonight. Sixty stinkin’ cupcakes for rugrats who’ll be so hopped up from a mini-donut sugar rush or zoned out on fumes from the face-painting booth that they won’t appreciate my hard work.”

  Jade perched on the edge of the recliner. “Why don’t you just buy the cupcakes and save yourself the hassle?” A woman who dropped twenty k on champagne shouldn’t balk at spending fifty bucks on baked goods.

  GG patted her leg. “Oh, honey, I forget you’re not from around here. You don’t get it.”

  “Yes, I think I do. This is a competition where you have to go all Martha Stewart and craft your cupcakes from scratch, then decorate them with golden coins, silver swirls and crystal flakes, or else you’re afraid you’ll be a laughingstock at the town hall?”

  “Whoa. Take it down a notch, tiger.”

  Jade spun to see Tobin lurking in the doorway. “Back off, buttinsky. You were not invited into this conversation. We’re persona non grata to each other, remember?”

  GG ignored Jade’s outburst and peered over her shoulder at Tobin sauntering in. “Did you get the stuff?”

  “What was left. Ended up with two boxes of lemon cake mix, so you’ve only got four flavors instead of five.”

  Jade muttered, “No one ever listens to me.”

  “Speak up, Jade. Miz G can’t hear you mumble,” Tobin said in that sexy drawl.

  “Why didn’t you just buy the premade cupcakes when you were already at the store?”

  “Sweetheart, there is one grocery store in town and I doubt they keep more than a hundred cupcakes on hand at each location.” GG sighed. “Even if I’d wanted to buy them? Others have also been saddled with cupcake and cake duty. Everyone goes to this carnival. They’re projecting a thousand attendees.”

  “Supply and demand and limited resources. You have to bake your own.”

  “Isn’t that what she told you from the start?” Tobin inserted smarmily.

  “All of us Mud Lilies are doin’ our duty.” GG glanced at Tobin again. “Didja get sprinkles and red licorice?”

  “Yes ma’am. And gumdrops. And icing. And some fruit-shaped hard candies. No golden coins or silver swirls or crystal flakes, Miss New York City.”

  “Do not start, you two. I mean it,” GG warned. “I’m extra poopy-doopy today and I’m blaming it on wearing khakis. Boo for bland. I miss my rainbow spandex, feathers, glitter and neon Converse. Dressing upstanding makes me want to upchuck.”

  Tobin grinned. “Amen, sister.”

  Jade had no idea what they were talking about, but wow. Tobin had one really big dimple when he grinned like that. She stared at his mouth, hoping to see that divot again, and noticed he had nice lips when they weren’t forming a scowl.

  Tobin made a noise and her gaze zoomed to his.

  She didn’t see smugness or a cocky smirk, just genuine surprise that she’d been transfixed by his mouth.

  GG clapped her hands and Jade jumped.

  “We have a busy night on the cupcake express. So let’s discuss—not argue—who is doin’ what. I need one of you as a baker’s helper and the other as a decorator.”

  “I’ll help you bake them,” Jade jumped in before Tobin could.

  “What the hell? I bought the stuff, I should get to choose first,” Tobin complained.

  “That’s why you should decorate them. You went to all the trouble to choose the special finishing touches. I’d hate to deprive you of your chance to create magical fruit rainbows and gumdrop mountain masterpieces.”

  Tobin gifted her with that dimpled smile. “Ah, sugar, is that your way of hinting you want me to build a rainbow friendship bridge between us?”

  “How about you survive frosting and decorating sixty cupcakes before you add more work into your night?”

  GG slowly rose to her feet. “I’ll get out the mixer and the pans.”

  After GG was gone, Tobin walked over and parked himself in front of Jade. “In the spirit of cooperation, I will let you swap jobs with me.”

  “Not a chance. I’m sure a macho cowboy like you who doesn’t cook or bake at all, isn’t the least bit concerned that his decorating skills might be subpar and would embarrass Miz G in front of her pals.”

  He shrugged. “I’m not worried. I just wanted to give you a chance to shine for your grandmother.”

  “Oh really?”

  “Yep. But it’s your loss. I’m gonna decorate the hell out of those cupcakes. They will be a sight to behold.”

  “I can’t wait to see your creations. Maybe I should take notes.” She cocked her head. “Luckily I happen to have a piece
of paper right here.” She dug the note he’d left her out of the front pocket of her jeans,
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