Since Jade hadn’t ever done a cross-country road trip, at first she’d buzzed with excitement about experiencing a rite of passage. But as the miles wore on, she realized it wasn’t fun to do alone. Plus, she wasn’t a great driver, so she’d white-knuckled it the first day to the point that her hands and forearms actually hurt after a day of driving.
The next day she’d made a conscious effort to try to relax. Her subconscious reminded her this trip was as much about the journey as the destination . . . until her father’s voice chimed in with this parting advice. “Don’t dawdle. Don’t take risks with the speed limit or your safety, but you need to reach Wyoming in a timely manner before GG does something we can’t undo.”
So she hadn’t stopped to see any of the sights that interested her. She spent fourteen hours a day behind the wheel, rested for ten hours and then got up to do it all over again. So it wasn’t unlike her normal working days. Time passed in a blur of hitting shuffle on her iPod, stopping for food, gas and bathroom breaks. She’d snapped out of her daze when the GPS instructed her that her destination was two miles ahead.
She’d made it. And for the first time since she’d left home, she allowed herself to be excited. If nothing else, she’d get to spend time with her grandma in her world. And looking around at the topography? Wyoming was a world unto itself.
For hundreds of miles there’d been nothing but flat land. Little in the way of trees, just sickly-looking bushes. She’d been tempted to pull the car over after a tumbleweed—an actual tumbleweed!—had blown across the road. But before she pulled out her phone to snap a picture, the wind bounced it over a fence and into a group of cows.
After cresting a hill, Jade noticed a long line of trees that didn’t fit in this rugged setting. The rest of the area was craggy, with rock outcroppings here and there. She slowed on the gravel road and turned onto a driveway—also gravel—that bisected the tree line.
When the house came into view, she couldn’t contain her laugh. GG’s place was a mishmash of styles, a cross between a Grimms’ fairy-tale cabin and something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The front door, curved on the top and painted a glossy purple, made it seem like you could walk through an eggplant.
But her amusement was short lived when that door opened and a big guy, wearing the kind of cowboy clothes she’d seen on TV, stepped out to block access to the house. With his arms crossed, his legs braced, his face hidden beneath his hat, his body language was perfectly clear: You will have to go through me to get inside.
That got Jade’s back up. Who did this macho yokel think he was? She was Garnet’s granddaughter. She had every right to be here. Him? Not so much.
Before Jade decided the best way to circumvent Mr. Large and In Charge, GG appeared beside him. She paused, grinned, clapped her hands and barreled down the steps.
Jade scrambled out of the car and met GG halfway.
GG had always been stronger than she looked, but still, GG shocked her when she picked Jade up and spun her around in a circle. Then she set her down and hugged her hard.
“You are as beautiful as ever.” GG trapped Jade’s face in her hands. “But I’m a little ticked off that your dad sent you to do his dirty work.”
Jade knew her best defense was an attempt at ignorance. “GG—”
“Don’t deny it, K, cutie pie? It’ll save us both a lot of round and round if we lay our cards on the table from the start.”
“I am happy to be here and very happy to see you.”
“I’m happy to see that you didn’t pull up in a dadgum U-Haul.” Her eyes narrowed. “Or are you the lead car and there’s a parade of moving vans behind you?”
So she was paranoid. “No, GG. It’s just me.”
GG looped her arm through Jade’s and started toward the steps. “You’re here in time for lunch.”
When they reached the porch, Jade noticed the cowboy sentinel now blocked access to the stairs.
“Tobin, you can lower them hackles. Come over here and meet my granddaughter.”
His boot heels struck the wooden planks in measured steps that seemed to echo the beat of Jade’s heart. She didn’t look up until the man cast a shadow over her.
And her heart stopped completely. Oh man. He was steal-your-breath-and-common-sense handsome. Tall and broad and just . . . big all over. The stubble on his jaw wasn’t affected like the city guys she knew who didn’t shave in an effort to appear more manly. This guy probably scared his razor away. He probably hadn’t shaved because he had important manly stuff to do and didn’t waste time with trivial stuff like running a blade over that beautifully chiseled face.
Her gaze wandered up to his eyes, which were an arresting blue-green. Had to be contacts. No one’s eyes were that color without enhancement. Regardless. Those eyes were as cool as his standoffish demeanor. His lips were flattened into a thin line too.
She bristled when his gaze slowly took in every nuance of her face as if attempting to put the pieces together. That scrutiny prompted her to step forward until they were boot tips to flip-flops, their bodies almost touching. Mr. Rugged Sexy-Eyed Cowboy needed to know that he didn’t intimidate her.
“I’m GG’s only granddaughter, Jade Evans. I can see by your confusion that I wasn’t what you expected, so let me clear it up for you. Yes, I was adopted as a baby, but that doesn’t mean—”
“Whoa, there, tiger. I wasn’t questioning your parentage. And since I haven’t seen pictures of you or your parents—ever—anywhere in this house, let alone seen any of you bother to step foot in Wyoming, I had no preconceived ideas about you.”
Not the answer she’d been expecting. But he had managed to get in a dig about her family anyway.
“Now, now, no fighting. No need to get indigestion before we eat lunch, is there?”
Jade watched a sweet smile bloom across the man’s face as he looked at GG.
“If you’re truly making liverwurst sandwiches Miz G, I’ll guarantee indigestion.”
“Oh, you.” GG flapped her hand at him. “I know you hate it, so of course that’s not on the menu for today.”
The way he pandered to GG ticked Jade off. “Excuse me, but I didn’t catch your name.”
That aquamarine-colored gaze winged back to her. “Tobin Hale.”
“Tobin Hale,” she repeated. “Is that one name? Like Billy Bob?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re making a lot of assumptions about me, for us just meeting, Jade.”
She smiled at him. “Assumptions about you, Tobin Hale, are exactly why I’m in Wyoming.” She faced her grandma. “Since this is the first time I’ve been here, can you show me around after lunch?”
“I’d love that. Let’s go inside. This bickering between you two is eating into Tobin’s lunch hour. He needs to get back to work.”
Tobin pushed open the screen door and held it for them. “No need to rush now, Miz G. I believe I’ll take the rest of the afternoon off so I can help you show Jade around.”
More like show me over the edge of a cliff, she thought.
The interior of the house was as whimsical as Jade had imagined. The kitchen with its bloodred walls, crisp white cabinetry, dark gray countertops and wide-planked floor had a warm, welcoming country kitchen vibe. On the antique sideboard Jade noticed stacks of jelly jars. “GG, are those your strawberry champagne preserves?”
“You remembered! I put up a big batch.”
“I finished the last jar you gave me just this week.”
“This is the primo stuff. Better ingredients and all that. I’ll hook you up with a case.”
Jade felt Tobin studying her so she met his gaze head-on.
“I’ll even load it in your car before I send you on your merry way,” Tobin said helpfully.
Back where you belong, went unsaid.
“Tobin, dear, would you get out the plates?”
“Sure, Miz G.”
“Jade, be a doll and grab the milk out of the fridge.”
“GG, I haven’t had milk with lunch for years.”
“The milk is for Tobin.” GG squeezed his biceps. “How do you think he got so big and strong?”
“I assumed from lifting cows or whatever.”
Tobin laughed. “Well, darlin’, I’ll take that assumption as a compliment that you think I’m capable of lifting a twelve-hundred-pound cow by myself.”
GG snickered. “You’re gonna get quite the education, girlie, on life in the West. I guarantee it’s nothing you learned at Columbia.”
Blushing, Jade grabbed the milk out of the fridge and set it on the table.
Tobin carried two plates, one loaded with sandwiches, the other with fruit, and parked himself between Jade and her grandmother.
Not a subtle move at all.
GG set a glass in front of each plate and passed out Hello Kitty napkins. “No liverwurst on the sandwiches, just turkey, ham, roast beef and salami.” She patted Tobin’s muscled forearm. “I eat more meat when you’re around.”
“The food is just an extra bonus for living here with you,” Tobin said.
So . . . was this where she just jumped in and asked why Tobin was living here? Or did she let the conversation develop naturally? Jade had zero stealth skills. She’d never needed any. Thinking back to all the episodes of Veronica Mars she’d watched where the sleuth tricked suspects into spilling their guts without much effort . . . well, she was drawing a blank on that technique.
“Are you havin’ a sandwich? Or are you some kind of vegetarian?” Tobin asked.
Jade blinked, noticing he held the plate of sandwiches in front of her. “Now who’s making assumptions? No, I’m not vegetarian. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.”
“Agreed. It ain’t my business how folks choose to live their lives.” His eyes gleamed. “In fact, I find it disturbing when people who haven’t got the first clue about a person’s life presume to horn in and take over.”
And it looked like the gloves just came off.
Before Jade responded, GG pushed back from the table. “Shoot. I left my pills in my room. Gotta remember to take them with lunch.” She quickly vanished through the swinging doors.
Tobin leaned close enough she could see the golden hair mixed in with the darker scruff on his face. “You might as well get in your car and hightail it back to New York City and tell your daddy that he won’t succeed in throwing Garnet out of her house. I won’t let that happen.”
“Why are you here, Tobin? Exactly what kind of . . . relationship do you have with my grandmother?”
“You watch yourself,” he warned. “I have nothin’ but the utmost respect for Miz G, and that is why I will not let her family—a family that’s never been here to visit even one time in the years I’ve known Garnet—think they have the right to enforce any kind of decision on her. Your father does not know what’s best for her and neither do you.”
“And you do?” Jade asked him with a sneer that matched his.
“Damn straight. I’m here to ensure that a moving van doesn’t pull up and start dismantling Garnet’s life piece by piece as she stands by helplessly and watches them haul it away.” He shook his head. “Not happening to her on my watch.”
Jade started to correct his assumption about the sudden appearance of moving vans as paranoid speculation on GG’s part, but she decided to let his mistaken judgment ride and see where it led. “She’s out here in the middle of nowhere—”
“That is a lame argument. She’s been fine living on her own here for years.”
“Because she’s heavily armed?” she retorted. “Lately she’s been exhibiting the type of behavior that forces us to question her ability to make sound decisions.” She took a breath. “You think it’s fine for her to shoot off guns in a public venue? It’s fine for her to get arrested and spend the night in jail? It’s fine to spend twenty thousand dollars on champagne? Or on—”
“It’s her damn money,” he said irritably. “If she wants to drop that kinda cash on bubbly, it’s not your father’s concern or yours.”
“But it is my concern how much she’s paying you for ‘protection services.’ I highly doubt you’re doing it out of the kindness of your heart.”
“You don’t know a thing about me. But here’s a hint. I’m stubborn as fuck. And you just showing up here out of the blue proves my point about there bein’ way more at play than Garnet making a couple of bad decisions when she’s defending her best pals.” Tobin pointed to the door. “That woman is selfless and nobody is taking advantage of her for that. Especially not her family who think they can lay down the law for her from thirty-five hundred miles away.”
“Happily, I’m not that far away anymore. I’ll be living here for as long as it takes to get a feel for what she needs.”
Tobin eased back. “You know what Garnet needs? Honesty. Don’t play off your sudden appearance like you got a wild hair up your ass to leave your fancy city lifestyle so you could experience the modern-day West. You’ll hurt her if you allow her to believe you give a shit about her life in Wyoming.”
Jade felt her cheeks heat. “I would never hurt her.”
“You don’t think not knowing anything about her life or her community doesn’t hurt her? As you so annoyingly pointed out first fucking thing, you are her only grandchild. So how come I’ve never seen a picture of you?”
The blush spread from her face to heat her neck and her chest. “I don’t know.”
GG sailed back into the kitchen. “Aw. You two didn’t have to wait for me to eat. You should’ve just dug right in.”
He got plenty of digs in, all right.
Jade watched as Tobin turned and smiled at GG. “I’ll sort through those tools in the shed and see if I can’t find that missing bit. You enjoy lunch with your granddaughter. I’m sure you two have a lot to catch up on.”
“Aren’t you gonna eat? I know you’re starved, young man. You told me so yourself.”
He grabbed a sandwich off the table. “It’ll be a working lunch, same as always.” He locked his gaze to Jade’s. “But don’t you worry. I’m not going anywhere.”