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

  “I don’t have a lifestyle because I don’t have much of a life. I’m too busy working to take advantage of all the city has to offer. My friends have moved on—either out of the area or they’ve scored jobs that have given them a lot more disposable income than I have. The few friends I’ve kept in contact with . . . their invites to hang out have tapered off because I always say no. I can’t even remember the last time I went on a date.” She let the afghan slip down her shoulders. This personal confession caused her to overheat from her forehead to her chest. “It’s not a ‘poor me’ tale to gain your sympathy. I truly don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not on the clock fourteen to sixteen hours a day.”

  “Jesus, Jade. Now I feel like a fuckin’ slacker.”

  “That wasn’t my intent, Tobin.”

  “So what have you done the last couple days?”

  Jade rattled off as much as she could remember. She’d probably forgotten a few things.

  He whistled. “Did you do any of that at Miz G’s request?”

  “No. She takes off early in the morning and doesn’t come back until right before you stroll in after work.”

  Tobin opened his mouth. Then closed it. When he started to speak, she braced herself, assuming she wouldn’t like his observation. “You’ve been here what . . . five days?”

  “Something like that. Why?”

  “Have you left Miz G’s place at all?”

  “No.”

  “You need to get out,” Tobin said gently. “Maybe you’re just suffering from cabin fever. I know there are a million options of things to do in the big city, and the offerings in Wyoming probably look lame in comparison—”

  “Don’t say that,” she said, meeting his gaze. “How would I know what my options are here if I haven’t checked them out? Being in Wyoming isn’t the issue, Tobin. I’m the issue. I’d feel this way if I was in New York and had four days to fill. The last time I had free time? Was when I had the flu and couldn’t get out of bed for a week.”

  Are you still calling it the flu? You know what it really was. You know that’s part of the reason you’re here.

  “Darlin’, no offense, but you know bein’ sick doesn’t count as free time.”

  “Which, again, proves that I am lame, not the location.” As soon as she admitted that to this hot hunk of man, mortification sunk in. If yanking the afghan over her head and sprinting toward the house wouldn’t have made her look even more pathetic, she’d be halfway down the driveway by now. Instead, she stepped back. “Sorry. It’s late, I’m babbling. I’ll see you later.” She turned and started to walk away.

  But Tobin was bigger and quicker. He grabbed a hold of the afghan and spun her around. “Whoa. Why are you running off?”

  “I’m tired.”

  His eyes roamed over her, from her eyes to her mouth to the pulse jumping in her throat and then back up. His lips quirked. “You can’t lie for shit; you know that, right?”

  Jade didn’t bother to deny it. “I hate that it’s so obvious.”

  “I like it.”

  “Why?”

  He leaned closer. “Because I’m a terrible liar too.”

  She laughed softly.

  “And I’m great for comic relief.”

  Her smile stayed in place as she watched emotions play across his handsome face.

  “Seriously, sweetheart . . .” Tobin stroked the underside of her jaw with the back of his knuckles. “Thanks for talking to me. And without overstepping my bounds or jeopardizing this truce between us, you need to remind Miz G that at least part of the reason you’re here is to spend time with her. But even if she blows you off for her friends? Take a break. Get out of the house. It’d be good for you, Miss Workaholic, to get in your car and drive around aimlessly.”

  “You’re right.”

  “Just make sure your GPS works. City slicker like you . . .” He smirked. “I’d hate for you to get lost. I’m sure all gravel roads must look the same.”

  “Thank you for the reminder.”

  Tobin lowered his hand from her cheek. “My pleasure.”

  “Thank you for listening. I never talk about this stuff.”

  He grasped the edges of the afghan and pulled it up to cover her shoulders. Then he smiled again. “Same goes.”

  This sweetness . . . threw her off. No, Tobin threw her off. He wasn’t turning out to be the kind of man she—and her dad—thought he was.

  “You ready to go back in?”

  She nodded.

  They walked back to the house side by side, in silence. Once they were in the entryway, Tobin said, “You go on upstairs. I’ll lock up down here.”

  “Thanks.”

  Jade had made it halfway up the dark staircase when she heard him say, “Sweet dreams, sweetheart.”

  Chapter Seven

  Jade didn’t see Tobin at all the next day, and GG pulled her disappearing act again.

  So the following morning Jade left GG a note—in case she arrived home before Jade returned—letting her know she’d gone out. Being vague suited her purposes; she had no idea where she was going.

  After reaching the main road, she turned right. The blacktop dipped low and rose up like a long black ribbon. The cool morning temps tempted her to roll down the window. She passed fields dotted with cattle. The black hides stood out among the red dirt, cream-hued rocks and gray-green sagebrush.

  She hung a right at the WELCOME TO MUDDY GAP sign. Once inside the city limits—calling it a “city” was a stretch—she cruised up and down every street. Were residents peering from behind curtains, wondering why a car with NY state license plates was puttering around their neighborhood?

  Main Street had more businesses than she expected. The various denominations of Christianity were represented. There was one bar. One small grocery store. One hair salon. One insurance agency. No medical facility. No school.

  Back at the crossroads, she checked the clock. Now what? That detour had only killed twenty minutes. She started back the way she came, when she noticed a sign for the Split Rock Ranch and Resort.

  On a whim she followed the signs until she came upon a huge rock with a split down the middle. Her GPS cut out but she could see a large angled roofline, so she had to be close.

  She hung a left, bumping along a gravel road. Just when she thought she’d reached the resort, the road curved and she found herself on a steep incline with no place to whip a U-turn.

  Jade’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. At the end of the road was an enormous barn. As she put her car in park to try to figure out where she was, she looked around nervously, thinking it’d be her luck if gun-toting rednecks showed up to chase her off private property.

  That’s when she noticed the field across from the barn, teeming with cows going every which way. Three guys on horseback were in the fenced-in area among the chaos.

  At first glance all the men looked the same, wearing light-colored long-sleeved shirts, cream-colored cowboy hats, jeans and boots. Then the guy closest to her reined his horse to the left abruptly, giving her a view of his broad back and shoulders.

  She knew that was Tobin.

  Holy crap, did he make a stunning visual all cowboyed up.

  And that didn’t take into account how fluidly he moved. Shifting his entire body weight nearly off his horse to block a cow’s escape. Spinning back around and calling out to the guy on the other side, then dodging and weaving through the herd.

  After Tobin reached the other side, he conferred with his pen partner. Their heads were up as they kept a constant visual on the animals, but their faces were shadowed beneath their hats. Tobin had one gloved hand holding the reins. His other hand rested on his thigh. So he was ready at a moment’s notice to snatch up the coiled rope hanging off the side of the saddle?

  That’s what she wanted to see, Tobin tearing across the field on his horse at full speed, twirling a rope above his head, all power and grace. His back muscles straining, his legs gripping the horse’s bell
y, those ropy forearms flexing, his biceps rippling, his concentration absolute as he closed in on his prize.

  Whew yeah. Tobin Hale on horseback? The epitome of sexy. A prime example of rugged beauty. A powerhouse of raw masculinity. A glorious vision of virility.

  The man made her thighs quiver and her mouth water. Or, more accurately, he made the insides of her thighs wet and her mouth ache to know the feel of his lips on hers.

  And she might actually burst into spontaneous orgasm if she saw him wearing a pair of those fringed leather pant-things and heard the ching ching ching of his spurs as he ambled toward her with that intense look in his eyes and that wicked smile.

  Jade watched him working the cattle for about thirty minutes until the corral was mostly empty. When she saw him dismount, providing her with a very nice view of his buns, she knew it was time to go before he caught her gawking at him.

  After Tobin handed the horse’s reins to a smaller guy, he crossed the road and headed straight toward her.

  No, he’s heading to the barn. He doesn’t know you’re here creeping on him . . . fantasizing about climbing on and riding him.

  And yet, Tobin did mosey over, dust kicking up with his every boot fall. His head tipped down, his hat putting his face in shadow so she couldn’t see his eyes.

  But Jade wasn’t looking at his eyes; she was still drinking in everything about him. The closer he got, the more she noticed the marks of his hard work: fine dust covering his hat, brown and green smears on his shirt, hay stuck to the clumps of mud on the frayed hem of his jeans. She’d never seen a man embody a stereotype and yet, transcend it.

  So that’s probably why she’d frozen completely when Tobin crouched beside her car and signaled for her to roll down her window.

  Please don’t let me be totally tongue-tied.

  But she was so flustered she hit the wrong window control buttons.

  Twice.

  She finally got the right one. As soon as the window opened, the barnyard scent floated past Tobin on a hot breeze, along with the clean cotton scent that lingered in the bathroom after he showered.

  Those aquamarine eyes connected with hers and she sort of melted.

  “You lost?” he asked in that deep, shiver-evoking voice.

  Jade had to clear her throat before answering. “Yes, actually, I am.”

  “I figured. No one ever parks on this side of the barn.”

  “Am I breaking some kind of rule? Because I didn’t mean to park here; I was looking for a place to turn around. Then I saw you in the middle of all those cows and I got sucked in to watching you do your cowboy thing.”

  Tobin smiled. A wide, happy smile that she hadn’t seen before. “‘Cowboy thing.’ Rancher thing is more like it.”

  “I’m not well versed in the differences.”

  “Well versed.” He laughed softly. “No, bein’ from New York City I don’t suppose you are. But, tiger, I aim to change that.” He pointed to where several pickups were parked in a line. “Park down there and I’ll give you a tour.”

  “Really? Because I don’t want to be a bother and interrupt you.”

  “It’s a quiet morning. Just me, Ted and Renner. And I don’t gotta worry about introducing you to either of them, bein’s one is married and the other is jailbait.”

  Weird comment. “Okay. I’m moving.” She chugged over the deep ruts in the road, but it still jostled her around. As soon as she parked and killed the engine, Tobin opened the driver’s-side door, offering to help her out. “Thanks.”

  He didn’t let go of her hand. “I’m happy to see you out and about.”

  “I thought I’d take your advice and see the countryside.”

  “And you like what you see?”

  When she locked her gaze to his and said, “Very much,” they both were aware she wasn’t referring to the scenery.

  Tobin squeezed her hand. “Glad to hear that. We’ll start in the small barn.”

  “You won’t have me milk a cow or something?”

  “Nope. We’re not a dairy, so no milking machines.”

  She followed him to the door. Before they walked inside, Jade stepped in front of him. “I’ll probably have a million questions, so please be patient with me.”

  “I’m a patient man.” Tobin’s gaze zeroed in on her mouth. “Until I’m not.”

  Do not bite your lip.

  Then those hypnotic eyes were on hers again, as if he knew exactly what she’d been thinking. He said, “This way,” and rested his hand on her lower back to guide her inside.

  The barn had a musty smell. “What’s in here?”

  “This time of year? Livestock we’re doctoring. It’s out of season for births. Although if we do end up with a cow or two that calve in the fall instead of the spring, we’ll keep her in here until she delivers.”

  She blinked at him. “Calve? Rancher speak for giving birth?”

  “See, darlin’, you’re catching on.”

  They walked to the end of the center section, which on either side had been divided into stalls.

  “Is Miz G out with her Mud Lilies pals again?”

  “Yes. I drove through Muddy Gap. Then I saw the signs for this place and here I am.”

  Tobin shifted closer. “Would you like to tour the whole resort? Or just the ranch portion?”

  Jade hip-checked him. “I want the whole enchilada.”

  “Cool. Walk? Or ride up to the lodge?”

  “Ride,” she said slowly. “As in ride a horse?”

  “Ride in a golf cart.”

  “There’s a golf course here?”

  “Nope. That’d be a waste of grazing space and natural resources. We use golf carts to get around the resort. They don’t make as much noise as the four-wheelers. And here at the Split Rock, we’re all about providing guests with the relaxing atmosphere we promise.”

  Jade raised an eyebrow. “Is writing ad copy for the resort brochures one of your special talents too?”

  He laughed. “Sounded a little rote, didn’t it?”

  “But sincere.”

  He put his mouth next to her ear as he ushered her outside. “We’re headed up a slippery slope, sweetheart. You get scared or jumpy, you hold on tight to me.”

  The rumble of his voice and the heat of his breath on her skin distracted her from dwelling on a deeper meaning to his words. Tobin kept his hand on her as they walked to the golf cart. Every time his touch shifted to a different spot on her back, that swooping sensation in her belly overtook her.

  After they were situated, Tobin whipped the cart around and headed up the road she’d driven down.

  “So this road . . . isn’t a road, is it?”

  “It’s mainly for cart traffic, but once in a while we use the shortcut to drag supplies back and forth between the lodge and the stuff stored in the barn office.”

  Once they reached the top, Jade was able to see where she’d missed the turn to the lodge. But how had she missed the big red sign warning NO ADMITTANCE or the arrows pointing the opposite direction? She groaned.

  Tobin shot her a sharp look. “What?”

  “I’m a terrible driver.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “I just got my driver’s license two years ago.”

  “There’s not much need for you to drive in New York City, is there?”

  “No. And New York drivers are so aggressive. I ended up taking my driver’s test out of the city after I failed it.” She paused. “Because I rear-ended a cab.”

  Tobin cringed. “Damn.”

  “At least we knew the air bags worked.”

  “That’s looking on the bright side.”

  “I prefer to focus on the good rather than the bad.” She sent him a sideways glance. “I’m sure our conversation the other night would make you question that statement.”

  “Wrong. That was the first honest conversation between us, so I’m done making assumptions about you.” Tobin drove around the edge of the parking lot, stopping in front
of the main entrance, so she could see the entire layout.

  “This is a gorgeous place.”

 
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