One week later . . .
Tobin Hale's cell phone rang for the hundredth time, tempting him to chuck it in the garbage disposal.
So far he'd ignored Tilda's call, Bernice's call, Vivien's call, and Miz Maybelle's call. When Pearl's name flashed on the screen, he knew better than to ignore it.
"Hey, Pearl-es-cent, what's the 411?"
"So your phone isn't broken, you're just screening our calls?" she demanded.
"Yes, ma'am. Shit has hit the fan over here and I ain't in the mood to talk to nobody."
"Well the same thing has happened over here at Garnet's house."
Tobin sipped his beer. "She's mad that I gave Renner notice last week, isn't she?" Now that he thought about it, it was sorta weird Garnet hadn't called to give him what for.
"Of course she's upset. But there's loads more going on than that." There was a shifting noise on the other end of the phone. "Her son is making good on his threat to lock her away where she can't get into trouble," Pearl whispered. "Don't you remember?"
"Pearl, she was blubbering so damn hard I could barely understand anything she said." Total chaos had erupted inside the lodge when all of the Mud Lilies ladies had shown up.
And he had had his own shit to deal with.
How fucking . . . coincidental that Hugh, the ranch foreman, had decided to lay it all out on the line for their boss, Renner Jackson-on the exact same day Tobin had given his notice. But Hugh had thought ahead and offered to buy the rodeo stock contracting business outright. Great for Hugh, it'd be great for Renner in the long run, but in the short term, that meant Tobin got stuck with doing all the day-to-day work. Again. He'd tried not to be bitter, but dammit. Nothing ever seemed to go his way.
Not true. You found out today you have a job interview in Albuquerque in three weeks.
Finally. Tobin felt as if he'd been in a holding pattern. No one knew that he'd updated his resume and started sending out job applications-two months ago. He considered it a sign he was on the right track the day after he'd given notice to Renner when he'd had an e-mail from one of the places he'd applied, requesting more information on his positions as "reproductive project manager at the Split Rock Ranch" and "genetic research development coordinator for Jackson Stock Contracting." Yeah, maybe he'd stretched his job titles a tad, but it wasn't like he didn't have the education and the hands-on experience to it back up. And it had scored him an in-person interview.
"Tobin? Are you listening?" Pearl demanded.
Feeling guilty for tuning her out, he said, "Sorry. You lost me there for a moment. Could you please repeat that?"
"Her son finally has enough 'just cause'-in his mind anyway-after the last couple of Garnet incidents to question her mental stability and her ability to take care of herself. He's sending a moving van to pack up her house and he's put a deposit down at one of those assisted living places"-she sniffled and wailed-"in Cheyenne!"
That garnered his full attention. "What? He can't do that."
"Yes, he can. He's a big-time New York City lawyer. He can do whatever he wants. And ever since Garnet found out, she's been completely nonsensical, which just plays perfectly into his evil and greedy hands."
"Where are all of you right now?"
"Me and Garnet are at her house. She's been making strawberry preserves like she's putting up food for a Russian winter. For an army. Why she'd think them tough military guys would even want fancy fruit spread on their toast rations doesn't make a lick of sense to me, but she keeps insisting that no man is too manly-"
"Pearl. Focus," Tobin said sharply.
"Oh. Sorry, Tobin. I don't have a contingency plan for this."
Things were messed up if organized drill sergeant Pearl was scatterbrained.
"Stay put." Tobin's boots hit the floor. "I'm on my way over."
GarnetÕs place was only fifteen minutes from the Split Rock Ranch and Resort. Sometimes when Tobin worked in the back forty of the ranch, it was closer to drive to GarnetÕs for lunch than head back to the office.
A tree-lined driveway led to the two-story house. The style wasn't Victorian, but a few years before he'd come to work at the Split Rock, Garnet had redone the exterior of the house in that "gingerbread style," which she'd taken literally. The house resembled something out of Hansel and Gretel's nightmares-each corner had a pastel theme with what looked like icing dripping down. But the dcor fit Garnet's unique and quirky personality.
She had kept the big yard natural grasses, rather than a manicured lawn. At one time there'd been cattle on the nearly one hundred acres, but not since she'd owned it.
He parked next to Pearl's Range Rover, taking the steps two at a time. He knocked briefly on the screen door before he stepped inside.
Immediately the sweet scent of strawberries hit him. "Garnet?" he called out.
But Pearl poked her head over the swinging "saloon" doors that separated the kitchen from the dining room. "In here."
Tobin pushed through the doors and stopped in his tracks. Chaos wasn't unusual around Garnet. But this? This was insanity.
Garnet had two pails of strawberries on the floor. Across the room on the counter were pint jars of preserves. Stacked three high. In rows of ten.
Four rows of ten.
She whirled around. "Tobin! No time to talk, sonny. As you can see I'm busy, busy." She pointed to the opposite counter. "But help yourself to some champagne. It's the good stuff."
"Why don't you take a load off for a few minutes and have a glass with me." Tobin glanced over at Pearl. "You too."
Garnet squinted at Tobin and sighed. "Try harder to convince me, boy. You didn't even whip out them dimples. Go on, give me that charming smile."
Tobin laughed. "You are such a bossy Bessie."
"Only in my own kitchen. Everywhere else I'm as docile as a baby lamb."
"We're breaking out my mother-in-law's hoity-toity crystal for this." Garnet sported a lemon yellow rhinestone-bedazzled do-rag. Her apron, pants and arms were coated in strawberry juice and pulp. She had sugar around her nose and across her upper lip as if she'd been sniffing cocaine.
"I'll get the glasses," Pearl said. "Tobin, you snag a bottle of the cold champagne from the fridge. We're not drinking the warm crap."
In a stage whisper after Pearl left the kitchen, Garnet said, "She's the bossy Bessie."
"I heard that."
The next moment Garnet was right in his face. "I'm really mad at you, Tobin Hale. I can't believe you didn't tell me you were giving Renner notice and leaving your job."
"But I did mention it last month. Don't you remember me saying I'd been considering it?"
"Oh pooh. I'm old. I can't remember everything. Anyway, I hope you've applied to places in Cheyenne. I guess that's where I'm moving. At least we'll still see each other sometimes."
He frowned. "Since when are you moving to Cheyenne?"
Garnet flopped down on a kitchen chair. "It's not a move out of choice."
"You always have a choice."
"Not according to my son. He's says I'm incapable of living on my own. He's hired professionals to pack my stuff up. I don't know when he plans to sell the house. But it won't matter because I'll be gone. Playing tiddlywinks in the assisted living place until I'm actually gone for good." She ducked her head to hide her face.
Where did Garnet's son get off meddling in his mother's life and making her cry? As far as he knew, neither the man nor anyone in his family had ever set foot in this house. "Miz G, can you listen to me for a moment?"
She nodded and dried her cheeks with the only clean corner of her apron.
"No one can drive you out without your consent. And if a moving van shows up, you call the sheriff and have him arrest anyone who puts a toe on your front porch. You hear me?"
"Easier said than done. I'm just a little old lady living out in the country by herself. The moving van guys could knock me out and get all my stuff loaded while I'm lying in the gravel drooling. It'd be their word against mine. They could claim I fell and hit my head and I don't remember what was said. Shoot, they could even say I invited them in. If I argued that I didn't, well, that'd give my son more reason to have me declared mentally unfit to care for myself." Garnet put her sticky hands on Tobin's arm. "I don't wanna leave here and move to a place where I don't know anyone. Am I really so bothersome just being in this house living my life?"
"Of course not."
"I tried to explain the special circumstances about how I landed in jail and how the gun was more of a prop, but my son refused to listen. He said he'd call me after he sends the movers."
"He's not coming here to personally handle this?"
"Nope. Too busy 'lawyering' in the big city." She snorted. "I wonder if he's throwing other old people out of their homes in the big city this week. I wish I could fight back. But even Pearl doesn't think warning off the moving guys with a loaded shotgun is the way to do it."
"I agree with Pearl. No guns." He squinted at her. "Promise me no guns, Garnet."
She waved her hands in the air. "Fine, fine, fine. No guns. I wish Tilda's dog hadn't died. I coulda sicced him on 'em. He was one hairy scary."
Tobin scrubbed his hand over his face.
Before he spoke, Garnet said, "How long does it take them performance-enhancing drugs to kick in? I could be pretty intimidating if I had 'roid rage." She jumped to her feet and struck a Hulk-like pose, complete with gritted teeth and crazy eyes. "How's this?"
He kept his features schooled. "I don't know that taking steroids is a good option either."
She flopped back down into the chair, dejected. "Dadgummit. I need someone bigger, stronger and scarier than me living here to tell them moving guys to take a hike when they show up." Garnet blinked at him. "Would you consider moving in to help me fight off a coup?"
Don't do it. Do not get involved.
"It'd be temporary," she added hastily, "since I know you're moving on. You wouldn't have to worry I'm trying to trick you into staying here with me forever because I'll miss you so durn much."
Such a sweet soul. "We both know the forever thing wouldn't work out because you play your music too loud for my taste, rappin' granny."
Garnet's smile was there and gone.
"You're not worried what everyone will say? Even though it's short-term, rumors might get nasty."
"Would it ruin your reputation as a stud if you're babysitting an old fart like me?"
Tobin laughed. "I don't have a reputation to ruin, Miz G."
"Me neither." She snapped her fingers. "Hey! We could tell everyone you're my bodyguard!"
"You wouldn't prefer having your Mud Lilies pals holed up here with you? You ladies have most folks in the county running scared anyway."
She shot a look over Tobin's shoulder. "Between us? I think there's a mole in the Mud Lilies."
"Because how else would my son have known about all of this stuff?" she whispered. "I didn't tell him nothin'. So someone close to me had to have tattled to him. It's not like they let any of the stuff we do make the papers."
She had a good point. "You think you know who it is? Or why they're doin' it?"
"Not yet. But I've laid a few traps." She leaned forward. "So are you in?"
The earnestness on her face sucker-punched him. As far as he could tell-and he knew Garnet pretty well-she was just fine living on her own. In fact, it was when she was out and about that she stirred up trouble. "Three weeks is all I can give you, Miz G. Then I'm gone."
"Where are you going?"
"There's a job in New Mexico."
Her eyes narrowed. "You've really been holding out on me, sonny."
He didn't tell her it wasn't a done deal. Nor did he mention that even if he drove all the way down there and didn't get the job, he wasn't coming back to Muddy Gap.
"Where'd you go to get those champagne glasses, Pearl? Timbuktu?" Garnet yelled.
"Quit yelling!" Pearl stormed into the kitchen. "I got the glasses. Bernice texted me back about your hair mask."
"Lordy, lordy, the things I do to keep up my youthful appearance." She sighed and whipped off the do-rag. "I ain't sure whether it's even worth it."
Beneath the do-rag, Garnet wore a plastic cap, covering what appeared to be mashed strawberries smeared all over her head.
"Tobin, get the champagne. And be quick about it because Garnet's gotta rinse the goop outta her hair. The juice is acidic. Let's hope the strawberries haven't eaten into her brain or given her a bald spot."
"That's a cheery thought, Pearl. Especially when we're celebrating good news for a change."
Pearl's birdlike eyes sharpened. "What good news?"
"Tobin agreed to stay here as my bodyguard to keep the moving van people from packing me away."
"Just for three weeks," Tobin reminded her.
"That makes strategic sense. Having this place a transitional space. You'll cut personal ties with livin' at the Split Rock so it'll just be about your working hours." Pearl waited until Garnet turned away before saying in a conspiratorial tone, "If you need to come up with a battle plan, remember, I'm familiar with both sparkler bombs and trip wires."
He raised a brow because, frankly, what else could he say to that?
"My head itches," Garnet complained. "Let's drink."
Tobin peeled the foil back and popped the cork, managing to pour the champagne without spilling.
Garnet raised her glass for a toast. "To friends who come through no matter what."
They touched glasses and he knocked back a big gulp.
Holy crap. Tobin gave his glass a double take. That didn't taste like any champagne he'd ever had.
Garnet bumped him with her bony hip. "Told ya that was the good stuff. I'm only using a little bit in each batch of preserves, because I'm drinking the rest."
"What is this?"
"Cristal?" he repeated. "The stuff that costs hundreds of bucks a bottle? The kind that rappers are always going on and on about?"