Hang tough, p.7
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       Hang Tough, p.7
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         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James

  She opened her bedroom door slowly, unsure if it creaked. Not that she thought it’d wake GG, tucked away in her bedroom on the main floor.

  The hallway light had been turned off. Two plug-in night-lights sent a bluish glow across the wood floor. She closed the door behind her, noticing Tobin’s door was shut.

  As she passed the sitting room, she debated on playing a few hands of solitaire to wind down. She’d had that itchy need-to-do-something feeling from the moment she’d woken up. It hadn’t helped that GG left her to her own devices again, all day, so she’d cleaned the house, scrubbing bathrooms, vacuuming everything, dusting and mopping floors. After lunch she’d talked to her parents and that had been a fruitless endeavor, attempting to explain her continued restlessness. Their advice? To relax.

  Relax. Right. She’d never mastered that particular skill. And people telling her to chill out when she knew she couldn’t only increased her feeling of inadequacy. What was wrong with her that she couldn’t even take a nap in the afternoon? Instead she’d practiced her violin for two hours. Then she’d watered the flowers, cleaned off the porch and by that time GG had returned home. Even a heavy meal and several glasses of champagne didn’t flip the switch to shut off her brain when she crawled between the sheets.

  So here she was . . . wandering around at midnight.

  Jade stopped in front of the liquor cabinet. Whiskey might lull her to sleep, but she didn’t see herself swiping the bottle of Jameson and sneaking it back to her room. There was something pathetic and dangerous about drinking alone in this kind of mood; it could easily become a habit.

  Get some fresh air. Clear your head.

  On her way outside, she snagged an afghan off the back of the couch.

  The front door wasn’t locked—a fun thing to bring up with her grandmother tomorrow since she’d promised they’d spend the afternoon together.

  Jade quietly closed the screen door after she stepped onto the porch.

  The night air did smell sweeter here. She leaned against the porch pillar and tried to check out the stars, but the overhang blocked the sky. To get the full view, she’d have to stand at the bottom of the steps, and that seemed like too much effort.

  Great. Now she was restless and lazy.

  “Couldn’t sleep?” A voice came from the corner of the porch.

  Jade whirled around.

  Tobin sat on the chaise, kicked back and holding a beer.

  She pressed her hand to her heart. “You scared me. Good thing I’m not a screamer.”

  His immediate flash of teeth in the darkness told her the dirty direction of his thoughts.

  Or maybe she was projecting. Tobin’s grin was far more wicked than innocent. “What are you doing out here?”

  “Waiting for my fence to pick up this pillowcase full of silver frames, candlesticks and silverware I’ve secretly stashed under my chair,” he said without his usual humor.

  “Now that you mentioned it . . . I thought it looked like a few forks were missing earlier.”

  “I wouldn’t know since I wasn’t allowed to dine with y’all.”

  She called him on his crappy attitude. “Bad day on the range, cowboy?”

  “Shitty day all around, thanks for askin’.” He paused. “Sorry. I’m still in a lousy mood.”

  “That makes two of us. My day wasn’t rainbows and butterflies either.”

  “Speaking of . . . thanks for fixing my cupcakes, cupcake. That was the last bright spot in my week.”

  Jade smiled. “You’re welcome. GG said they were a big hit. So what made your day lousy?”

  “Besides getting kicked, stomped on, yelled at, equipment breaking down and running out of supplies?”

  “Yes, besides that.”

  “There is nothin’ besides that.”

  “You win. Your day was worse than mine.”

  Tobin grunted. “Why’re you out here?”

  She tugged the afghan around her shoulders. “It’s too quiet. I couldn’t sleep. I’m used to constant noise.”

  “Now that would drive me bat-shit crazy.”

  “You get used to it. Or in my case, I grew up with it.”

  “Did Miz G visit you often in the big city?”

  “Never as often as I wanted, but at least four times a year.”

  “So you didn’t spend time hanging out with her here during summer vacation?”

  “She’d come to us. Then we’d go to the Jersey Shore or the Catskills or some other place.”

  “I find that odd. Wouldn’t you think your dad would want to come back home once in a while?”

  Jade frowned at him. “My dad didn’t grow up in this part of Wyoming.”

  His beer bottle stopped in front of his mouth. “Really? I thought Garnet was local.”

  “Maybe in her childhood, but not during the years she was married to my grandfather and raising my dad. They lived outside of Jackson Hole—I never visited there either. GG sold the house my dad grew up in after my grandpa died. Then she bought this place.”

  “Huh. That’s news to me.”

  So he didn’t know everything about her grandma. “My dad said this wasn’t his home. His home didn’t exist anymore and he had no reason to ever waste time here.”

  Tobin sipped his beer. “Well, except for the tiny fact his mother lives here.”

  Given his mood, she’d ignore his digs. “What about you? Are you local?”

  “Depends on how you define local. My family’s ranch is near Saratoga. South of here about an hour and a half.”

  “How often do you go home?”

  “Almost never.” He pointed his bottle at her. “Wipe that smirk off your face. It’s not the same thing. I’ve never been close to my family.”

  “I’d hate that,” she said softly. “I’m close to both of my parents.”

  “I was always closer to my mom than my dad.” He swigged his beer. “That makes me wonder . . . are your dad and Miz G close?”

  “Like do they talk on the phone every day? I don’t believe so.”

  “They send each other jokes via e-mail because they have similar tastes in humor?”

  “I’m not sure. Why?”

  “Tryin’ to get a handle on the Evans family dynamic. Does Miz G tell him about all the things she does with the Mud Lilies? Does he brag to her about the cases he wins?”

  Jade suspected she wouldn’t like whatever he was building up to. “Why are you grilling me on this out of the blue?”

  He snorted. “It’s not out of the blue. We’ve been goin’ round and round with this since the second you stepped out of your car.”

  “I didn’t bring it up tonight; you did. But since you’re in a lousy mood—by your own admission—by all means, please take it out on me and let’s just keep arguing the same points over and over.”

  Evidently Tobin missed the sarcasm because he lit into her anyway. “You’re here, acting on your dad’s behalf because he thinks he knows what’s best for his mother. And I’d argue the point that he doesn’t know her at all.”

  “But you do?” she retorted.

  “I’ve got a helluva lot better perspective on Garnet than her own son does—I guarantee that.”

  “This superior perspective happened before you moved in with her? Or after?” He’d pushed her; now she’d push back. “Tell me, Tobin. Will you continue this fantastically close friendship with her after you bail out of Muddy Gap?”

  His look of surprise indicated he hadn’t known that she knew about his future plans.

  “Will you talk to her on the phone every day? Will you be her e-mail buddy? Or once you’ve gotten whatever it is you want from her, then it’s buh-bye? Out of sight, out of mind?”

  “You’re still assuming I want something from her. That I’m a taker and that’s all I care about—making sure Miz G can do something for me. Not everyone is like that.” He shook his head. “Christ. Why am I even bothering tryin’ to reason with you?”

  “You started this, so don’t act l
ike I’m being unreasonable by asking you the same questions that you’re demanding answers for from me.”

  Tobin considered her. Then he pushed to his feet.

  She expected him to storm off.

  Instead, he moved to lean against the porch pillar opposite her. “I’m sorry. I’m bein’ a dick.”

  “Yeah, maybe you are a little bit.”

  He brooded at the darkness.

  She let him. But she kept sneaking looks at him.

  Finally, he said, “You’ve asked me why I’m here. I’m tired of the bullshit between us, Jade, so I’ll level with you.”

  Her stomach knotted but she forced herself to take the four steps separating them so she could look into his eyes.

  “But I don’t expect you to believe me.”

  “What makes you say that?”

  “It’ll sound staged. A little too coincidental.”

  “Try me.”

  Eventually Tobin gathered his thoughts enough to speak. “My grandma Hale lived close by when I was growing up. My brothers never gave her much thought—behavior they learned from our dad. Bein’ a ranch kid meant after-school chores. Since my brothers had it under control at our place, I went to Grandma’s twice a week to help her out.”

  “How old were you?”

  “Eight? Ten maybe? Somewhere in that age range. I split logs and filled her wood boxes. Shoveled snow. Dragged in any supplies she needed.” He smiled. “She always fed me. Man, that woman could cook. Course, I never let my brothers know.”

  She laughed softly. “Didn’t want to share?”

  “Nope. She taught me how to play cribbage. She let me poke around in my granddad’s tackle boxes. She told me stories of her growing-up years as a kid and then as a newlywed. She gave me advice on everything from buying the right fishing bait to showing me how to sew on a button.”

  A funny tickle started in Jade’s belly. “I take it this story doesn’t have a happy ending?”

  Tobin blinked and shook himself out of the memory. “No. When I was thirteen, Dad decided she couldn’t take care of herself anymore and sent her to an old-folks’ home.”

  That tickle in her belly twisted into a knot.

  “When I found out, I asked my dad how he thought he knew so much about Grandma’s ability to live on her own when he never spent any time around her.”

  Now it made sense why Tobin had asked her about GG’s relationship with her son.

  “Dad said he didn’t answer to a snot-nosed kid who could be bribed to look past the truth with a couple dozen cookies.” Tobin scratched his cheek with the beer bottle. “Maybe he had a point. But when I asked why Grandma didn’t just live with us, Dad said he wouldn’t put that burden on Mom.”

  Jade had wondered the same thing, even knowing her mom struggled with her own elderly mother’s care. “What did your grandma do? Did she fight it?”

  Tobin shot her an odd look. “How could she? First of all, stuff like that wasn’t done by ladies her age. Hiring a lawyer would’ve taken a bite out of her meager savings. When I told her I’d go to court and ask to be declared an adult so I could take care of her . . . that was the first time I’d ever seen her cry.” He knocked back another drink of beer.

  “Did that change anything?”

  “Nope. The next time I saw her she lived in Sunny Acres Rest Home. She had one room, which served as her bedroom and her sitting room. At the ranch, she’d used a walker to get around her house. Within four months of living there, she’d become wheelchair-bound.”

  His icy tone had her pulling the afghan more securely around herself.

  “I assumed she was easier to take care of if the workers could just plop her in a wheelchair and push her wherever they wanted her to go. Even within the first month, she wasn’t the same chatty woman who’d ask about my day at school, which would lead her into a story about her childhood. She’d pat my leg and say, ‘That’s nice, dear,’ and return to watching TV. It got so I couldn’t visit her anymore. It never occurred to me, until years later, that maybe I was the only one who visited her besides my mom. After I stopped . . .” He drained his beer. “She only lasted a year in that place before she died.”

  “I’m . . . sorry.”

  Tobin looked at Jade. “Is that really what you want for your grandma? To die alone? With only her TV for company? Because the thought of that rips my fucking guts out.” He set his bottle on the railing and bounded down the steps.

  The weight of this decision about her grandma’s future sat in the pit of her stomach like a stone.

  After a few minutes, Jade followed him.

  He stood next to the water pump, his hands propped on his hips, staring into the dark night.

  “We’re not on opposite sides, Tobin. We both want what’s best for GG. Your experience with your grandmother is heartbreaking, but it’s also skewed from the perspective of a young boy.”

  “Great. You gonna psychoanalyze me now?”

  “No. But you can’t deny that maybe you didn’t have the whole story. You have no way of knowing whether your grandma was diagnosed with anything serious. And before you argue with me, that exact scenario happened to a friend of mine. Her grandpa was fine for all appearances, then her family moved him into a nursing home. She also believed it was laziness on the part of the nursing home workers that within two weeks he was wheelchair-bound. Within three months he was completely bedridden. Within five months he was dead. Would things have been different if her mom had admitted that her grandpa was diagnosed with a fast-moving bone cancer that necessitated an immediate move into a nursing facility?”

  “Not the same thing, Jade.”

  “But you don’t know. Maybe your grandmother asked that her health diagnosis wasn’t shared with you. That even happened to me with my own mother just recently. When I found out, I was so angry with her and my dad for keeping the truth from me. They thought they were protecting me. Maybe your dad and mom thought they were protecting you.”

  Tobin didn’t say anything for the longest time. Then he looked at her. “I’ll concede that argument. You can bet your ass I’ll ask my dad about that the next time I see him.”

  Although their conversation appeared to be at an end, Jade had no desire to go back into the house. She meandered to the end of the driveway. Closing her eyes, she tipped her head back and welcomed the cool breeze blowing across her face.

  Shuffling footsteps stopped beside her. The clean cotton and earthy scent she’d started to associate with Tobin drifted over her.

  “Tryin’ to escape my charming company?” Tobin said.

  “Always. But it doesn’t seem to work, does it?”

  “Not for either of us.” He sighed. “Look. Believe it or not, I’m not usually a grumpy, self-centered jerk. You said your day sucked ass too. What happened?”

  “Nothing.”

  “You won’t confide in me even a little?” he cajoled her. “After I tried like hell to get you to believe that I’m just a good old boy who’s always had a soft spot in my heart for grandmotherly types and widows?”

  Jade laughed. “You weren’t telling me a tall tale to gain my trust.”

  “You’re sure?”

  “Yes. A true con artist would’ve cried at the end of the story to gain additional sympathy. You just got more pissed off. That’s an honest reaction.”

  “That anger wasn’t directed at you, Jade.”

  “I know.”

  Tobin bumped her with his shoulder. “Come on, darlin’. Your turn to let fly. What happened today?”

  “I already told you. Nothing.”

  “Bullshit.”

  “No, I’m serious. Nothing happened today and that’s why I ended up in a mood.”

  “Ah. I see.” He paused. “You’re missing the pace of your life in the big city?”

  Jade turned her head toward Tobin, but he wasn’t looking at her. He stared straight ahead, granting her a perfect view of his chiseled face in profile. Moonlight looked amazing on him. So maybe the fa
ct she didn’t have to gaze into those assessing eyes encouraged her to speak honestly. “I don’t know if that’s it. Yes, I’m used to going a hundred miles an hour, seven days a week, but not because I love it. I do it out of necessity.”

  “Can you explain?”

  She felt him looking at her quizzically, but she didn’t meet his gaze. “I work three part-time jobs to maintain my . . . what did you call it my first day here? My fancy, big-city lifestyle?”

  He groaned. “I’m an asshole sometimes.”

 
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