Hang tough, p.9
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       Hang Tough, p.9

         Part #8 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
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  “It is now. It was a worthless piece of land because the topography is different from the surrounding area. But once bulldozers tiered the slope, it became usable. The lodge is open year-round except for two weeks at Christmas. I oughta be able to tell you the occupancy rate, since Renner and Janie, the Split Rock’s GM, talk about it all the damn time, but I tend to tune them out.”

  “If a conversation doesn’t revolve around cows, it’s not interesting to you?” she teased.

  He grinned. “Something like that. But Janie, who is married to a rancher, returns the favor when Renner and I talk about cattle.”

  How could anyone ever tune out Tobin’s sexy voice? Not too deep or too raspy, as if he smoked a pack of Camels every day, but smooth like warm honey.

  “You want to walk down to the pool?”

  “Not really. I’d rather see the scenery.” When Jade saw the steep incline, she said, “Can we make it down? Or should I get ready to pedal like The Flintstones?”

  “Funny. But rolling this cart would be a shitty way to end the tour.”

  “The tour is over already?”

  He looked at her. “You sound disappointed.”

  “I am.”

  “Then we’ll go the long way around.” His slightly devious smile made her blush.

  “So you don’t come in the main entrance when you come to work?”

  He shook his head. “My day begins and ends at the barn. There are three sections I check first thing. Cows and bulls are kept in different pastures. We have trail horses that are separate, but Ted usually does that check now.”

  Tobin mentioning horses sent her thoughts back to how she’d lusted after him, seeing him in his element. Had he known he’d affected her that way? Is that why he’d been acting friendlier?

  Friendlier? Mr. Sexy Voice had his hand on your butt as he whispered in your ear. From the moment you showed up here, you know you skipped straight from adversaries to . . .

  “Am I boring you?” Tobin asked, startling her out of her thoughts.

  “No! Why would you ask that?”

  “Just paranoid, I guess. Some people say I talk too much.”

  “I could listen to you talk all night.”

  His heated gaze rolled over her with such intensity her palms—and other places—started to sweat. “You know I’m gonna make you prove that sooner rather than later.”

  Holy moly. When Tobin turned it on, he turned it on. She had to look away. That’s when she noticed they were headed for a tree. She yelled, “Look out!”

  He reset their course, but she swore they’d gotten close enough the golf cart would have scratches from the bark. “Relax, sweetheart, I’ve got it under control.”

  She muttered, “I’m glad someone does.”

  Tobin kept his focus on the road until he parked next to a white metal fence. “Hop out and I’ll show you the rodeo grounds.”

  They walked slowly, side by side up a walkway made out of crushed rock. He stopped and rested his forearms on the top of the fence.

  “Not that I know anything about rodeo, but isn’t it unusual that this place has rodeo grounds?”

  “The Split Rock caters to those looking for a ‘real’ western experience. We provide guests with an opportunity to ride a bull or a bronc.”

  Jade frowned. “Why would anyone choose to do those things?”

  “Some guys want to try it and there’s criteria to meet besides bein’ macho. The local guys who help us out used to rodeo. I can’t think of another place like this that has a bullfighter and a bull rider at their disposal.”

  The pride in his voice was unmistakable. “Are you a former rodeo cowboy?”

  “Nope. Too risky for my blood.”

  “I’m not a huge risk taker either.”

  “I’m not surprised. It’s your type A personality.”

  Jade shook her head. “I’d be more successful if I was type A. I’m more type . . . C plus.”

  He laughed. “You? With three part-time jobs? Doubtful. How many degrees do you have?”

  “Uh, one.”

  “One bachelor’s of science and one bachelor’s of art kind of thing?”

  “No. One bachelor’s of arts, but I did double concentrations, not that it counts as two majors. Heck, it barely counts as one degree.”

  He studied her. “What’s your degree in?”

  “History with concentrations in medieval and Renaissance studies and music.”

  Tobin blinked at her.

  Jade poked him in the chest. “Yes, Mr. Hale, it is exactly what you’re thinking. That is not an employable degree, as I’ve discovered.”

  “Your parents were fine letting you pick that major? Of all the—”

  “Useful, employable majors I could’ve chosen? Why yes, they thought it was admirable I turned my love of obscure history into . . . well, it should’ve been a career. Hence the need for three part-time jobs.” Jade wondered why her parents hadn’t pulled her up short and demanded she pick a normal major. “What about you?” Right after she’d said it, she wanted to take it back. Chances were that Tobin hadn’t gone to college; he’d probably gone straight to work.

  He dropped his hands and adjusted his cowboy hat.

  Of course the question put him on edge. Before she could tell him to forget it, he sighed.

  “I graduated from the University of Wyoming. I have a bachelor’s of science in animal sciences with a minor in reproductive biology. I have a master’s degree in animal sciences.”

  Stunned, Jade kept her jaw from hitting the dirt.

  That seemed to amuse Tobin. “Shocked, Miz Columbia?”

  “Actually, I’m embarrassed for assuming . . .”

  Tobin shrugged. “No worries. We agreed to no more assumptions. Besides, most people see the cowboy first and never a scholar.”

  “Is that what you consider yourself first?”

  His gaze shuttered. “To be honest, Jade, I don’t know anymore.”

  The allusion of defeat in his tone, the lack of guile in his eyes and his body language . . . confused her. She waited for him to say something else, but he remained mum. “Tobin? You okay?”

  He shook himself out of the moment of melancholy, smirked and gave her a light punch in the arm. “Peachy keen, jelly bean.”

  “Dude. Did you punch me in the arm like we were in third grade?”

  He blushed a deep red. Opened his mouth. Closed it. Rubbed the back of his neck and released a soft laugh that resembled a groan. “Yeah.”

  Omigod. He was adorable.

  Then Tobin was in her face, cocky grin in place, oozing the offbeat charm that had her heart racing and her hope rising. “And if you’re really lucky, tiger, next time I’ll yank on your pigtails to show that I like you.”

  Oh, cowboy, you can pull my hair anytime.

  His eyes darkened as if she said that out loud. Then he murmured, “Damn, woman. You are—”

  “Hey, Tobin. I wondered where you’d disappeared to.”

  Tobin muttered, “Never fucking fails.” Then he stepped to the side and dropped his hand to her lower back, nudging her forward. “I’ve been giving Jade a tour. Jade, this is Renner Jackson, the mastermind behind the Split Rock Ranch and Resort, owner of Jackson Cattle Company and . . . my boss.”

  His boss? Crap.

  Renner offered his hand. “Nice to meet you, Jade. You’re Garnet’s granddaughter?”

  “Yes.” Tobin’s boss was really good-looking. And like every time she met an attractive male, she reverted to her shy state.

  “Tobin mentioned it’s your first trip out west?”

  “Uh-huh. Everything is so big.” Brilliant, Jade. She glanced up at Tobin. Some of her tension eased when he smiled at her. “Speaking of GG . . . I’d better get back.”

  “What are the two of you doin’ today?”

  “She hasn’t said.”

  “Well, you already cleaned the house the other day.” His eyes narrowed. “You never told me what you accomplished yesterda
y.”

  “Maybe I heeded your advice and took the day off.”

  “Liar.” He reached out to tug on her hair. “You did laundry, didn’t you?”

  Jade put her hand on his chest and playfully pushed him. “I didn’t do yours.”

  “I’ll leave it in the hallway for you tonight. I’d hate for you to run out of stuff to do.”

  “So, I’ll see you back at the office,” Renner said to Tobin.

  Her face flamed. She’d forgotten Tobin’s boss was right behind her. She shoved her hands in the back pockets of her jeans and backed up. “I won’t keep you. Thanks for the tour.”

  “I’ll walk you to your car and point you in the right direction so you don’t get lost.”

  She started to tell him it wasn’t necessary, but something in his demeanor had changed and she wanted another minute alone with him. They wouldn’t get that at GG’s house.

  “Drive safe and tell Garnet hello,” Renner said.

  “I will.”

  Once again, as they crossed the parking lot, Tobin had his hand on her. More possessive than friendly. She liked it. She really liked it when he curled his hands around her biceps and pressed a kiss to her forehead. A simple kiss that should’ve felt chaste, but the glide of his lips near her hairline and his ragged breathing kicked it up a notch.

  She trembled.

  He murmured, “We’ll talk later, tiger,” and retreated into the barn.

  Jade didn’t realize he hadn’t given her directions until she was halfway home.

  Chapter Eight

  Tobin’s head was filled with images from the past hour with Jade when he strolled into Renner’s office. “What’s up?”

  Renner sighed. “You sure you want to play it this way?”

  He spun the chair in front of Renner’s desk around and straddled it. “Play what?”

  “The fact that a week ago you were convinced that Garnet’s granddaughter was the Antichrist. And today, she just happens to show up at the Split Rock and you gave her the grand tour?”

  “She took a drive and ended up here. What was I supposed to do?”

  “Maybe not look so damn happy to see her for one thing.” Renner tapped a pen on the desk and gave him a considering look. “Not that I blame you because Jade is a very attractive woman.”

  That was an understatement.

  “And if you tell me you really hadn’t noticed, then there’s way more goin’ on between you two than what I saw.”

  Tobin removed his hat and ran his hand over his hair. “Oh, I’ve noticed how beautiful Jade is, trust me. But I’m not lyin’ when I say we seem to annoy the hell out of each other. Lately . . . there’s the added complication that we’re drawn to each other.”

  “You sure it’s not some kind of ploy on her part to get you to come around to her way of thinkin’?”

  “Because no woman could actually be attracted to me, right?” Tobin said sharply. “She’d have to want something from me to even give me the goddamned time of day?”

  Renner held up his hands. “Whoa. You took that completely wrong, Tobin.”

  “Did I? Don’t you think I know what people around here call me? Boy Scout. Do-gooder. Mr. Straight and Narrow. And they’re the ones I consider friends.” He curbed the bitterness in his tone, but not his tongue. “Yeah, maybe I was overly enthusiastic and just plain damn happy to be working when I took this job. Part of the reason I agreed to bein’ a glorified ranch hand was I saw it as a stepping-stone to utilizing my degree in genetics.” He glanced up at Renner. “You told me that creating a better breeding program was your long-term plan.”

  “I’m aware of that. Things change.”

  “That first year the Split Rock opened . . . chaotic all around, tryin’ to decide exactly what type of place this was gonna be. A working cattle ranch with a rodeo stock contracting company on the side? Or just another dude ranch? I was pretty pumped at the prospect of having a voice in that decision, especially since my dad and my brothers made no bones about the fact my help wasn’t welcome in their ranching operation.

  “First year passed. Then the second. I retained hope some of the things we’d discussed would get implemented. In my off hours I hung out with a decent bunch of guys. Men I respected. But even when I was just a few years younger, I kept that reputation as the fresh-faced kid. Ike and Max were the only ones who didn’t treat me like one.” Tobin held up his hand when Renner started to speak. “It is what it is. Fletch and I both knew that summer Tanna lived here that you were spread too thin and your idea for a separate genetics and reproduction facility was more a dream than an actual plan. In addition to my ranching skills bein’ prized over my college degree, I had to watch my buddies pair up. What sucked for me, is that every new woman who entered the small world that is Muddy Gap, Wyoming . . . saw me the same as everyone else. A kid. A friend. No matter what I did, nothing changed that.”

  Tobin sighed and rubbed the stubble on this cheek. “It got mighty lonely. Maybe it makes me a pussy for admitting that, but I’d spent enough time by myself, not only working during the day, but now the guys I’d hung out with had wives and girlfriends to go home to. And every fucking night I went home to that shitty trailer and crawled in bed alone. I’d started to feel pretty damn miserable about everything in my life. But again, no one seemed to notice. Except Hugh and Ike, but it wasn’t like we talked about it beyond jokingly calling dibs on every new attractive woman who crossed our radar. When Harlow came back? I knew Hugh’s history with her and that he wanted another shot at her. That’s when I finally realized I would always be that bachelor ‘kid’ if I didn’t make a plan and stick with it to start over someplace else.”

  Renner didn’t say anything and Tobin kept his gaze aimed at his hands. This was more truth than he’d ever admitted to his boss. More personal than he’d ever intended to get. But Christ, it fucking stung to be perceived as the kid that he hadn’t been for a long damn time.

  After a bit, Renner sighed. “First off, I’m not makin’ this about me when I say I know exactly how you feel. I dealt with that loneliness for years. It sucks. It’s maybe one of the worst feelin’s in the world that you’re not . . . seen as you’d like to be. Then you wonder if you’re just kiddin’ yourself that you’ll ever find that woman who gets you and gives you a place where you belong.

  “Look. I’m not big on spilling my guts, either in a work situation or personally, so I appreciate you talkin’ to me about this. I’ll admit, with all that’s happened in my life the past six years I seem to have blinders on when it comes to people outside of Tierney and the kids.”

  “You know I didn’t tell you this to make you feel like a shitty boss, right?”

  “Maybe I oughta feel like one.” He picked up the pen again. “So much stuff just slipped out of my control, or I thought, ‘I’ll deal with that later,’ and later never came. It was a huge blow, not to my ego or to my pride, to hear Hugh mention he hadn’t hired on with me to be a ranch foreman. I knew that. But I got so wrapped up in what I wanted, I failed to remember in a business, it’s more about what’s best for the collective than what’s best for the individual.”

  Tobin smirked. “Sounds like something Tierney would point out.”

  Renner smirked back. “I have no problem admitting my wife is a helluva lot smarter than me. I’ve always maintained that I was the one more in tune with people. That we balanced each other out because I have the people skills that she lacks. Even that hasn’t turned out to be true. So that was a long damn answer to my question about what is goin’ on between you and Jade.”

  “There’s something. If she gives me even half a sign that she’s moving in that direction? I’ll take it.”

  “Don’t bite my head off when I ask this, okay? But it’s not just because she’s convenient?”

  He shook his head. “Besides the fact she’s hot as hell, and smart, she’s funny. She’s uptight, yet she’s shy. We both keep finding reasons to break the rules and talk to each other.”
<
br />   “What rules are you talking about?”

  “Garnet’s rules. Jade and I wound up in a couple of yelling matches the first day she showed up. Miz G said she wouldn’t have that kind of behavior under her roof so she forbade us from ‘engaging’ with each other.”

  Renner threw back his head and laughed.

  “I don’t find it funny that she might be pitting me and Jade against each other for her own amusement.”

  “Well, whatever Miz G is doin’ it ain’t workin’. It’s obvious Jade is into you.”

  “How’d you pick up on that? She said like five words to you.”

  “I spied on you, of course.”

 
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