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       Tripped Out, p.1

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  Prologue

  Liam Argent, age sixteen…

  Lurking in the shadows of buildings, wearing a black hoodie, jumping every time a siren sounded in the distance…yeah, he was some cool customer, all right.

  Ain’t like this is your first drug buy, Argent.

  As if his conscience needed to remind him of that fun factoid.

  Liam checked his calculator watch for the tenth time. Pointless, really. Dealers ran on their own schedule. When they said “Be there at ten,” it meant be there between nine and eleven o’clock. A few times, his source “Junior”—likely not even his real name—hadn’t shown up at all. His excuse was “family obligations.”

  He swung his arms a couple of times to keep warm, which caused his coat to ride up his forearms, exposing his skin to the frigid night air. He’d grown four inches since last winter and now his coat didn’t fit. He hadn’t mentioned it to Gramma because she’d feel guilty that a new coat wasn’t in the budget for this month. He’d have to make do. Like he always did.

  A Gran Torino pulled up to the curb. Liam waited, not sure if it was Junior since he never drove the same car twice.

  The passenger window rolled down. Junior motioned for Liam to get in—all while the car kept inching along.

  Liam didn’t hesitate, not even when his common sense screamed at him not to get into a drug dealer’s vehicle.

  Ain’t my first drug buy, remember? he said snarkily to his conscience to shut it up.

  The interior of the car reeked of clove cigarettes and bleach. Liam held his hands in front of the vents blasting out hot air, grateful for the warmth as he waited for Junior to speak first.

  “Kid,” Junior said as he picked up speed and turned onto Hawthorne, “where are your gloves?”

  “I…ah…left them at school.”

  Junior harrumphed as if he didn’t believe him.

  They kept driving until Junior found a spot he saw as safe to make the exchange. He threw the car in PARK and left the motor running.

  Liam dug in the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out a crumpled wad of cash. Even the damp paper smelled of stale grease, courtesy of the restaurant where he worked. He cleared his throat. “Look, I’m ten bucks short. So, can I owe you ten next time? I promise I’m good for it. Or do you want to cut ten bucks’ worth out of the bag?”

  Junior took the money and smoothed each bill out before shuffling them from the highest denomination to the lowest. Without looking up from his ritual, he said, “I ain’t the bank, letting you run a line of credit, kid.”

  Liam said nothing.

  “Nor am I in the bidness of dividing bags I already parceled out.” Then Junior looked him in the eye. “What’s your deal, boy? I get a message from you every two weeks. Always the same amount of product. No more, no less.” He gave Liam a head-to-toe once-over and frowned. “You ain’t got the desperate look of a full-time user, although that coat has seen better days.”

  Liam remained mum.

  “The dope ain’t for you, is it?”

  “You warned me from the start that you didn’t want to know details about my life and shit,” Liam reminded him.

  Junior shrugged. “Humor me.”

  He said humor like yumor—not bothering to mask his Jersey accent.

  “My gramma suffers from chronic arthritic pain. She can’t afford the pain pills or any other type of treatment. This stuff works.”

  “Has she asked for that synthetic kind, what’s it called—Marinol?—that’s legal?”

  He shook his head. “It’s still too much money. Your product is way cheaper.” Wait. Had he just insulted a drug dealer? “And way better,” he added.

  “She gives you money for this?” Junior demanded.

  “Some. I kick in the rest from my restaurant job. That’s why I’m short on funds this time because my hours got cut.”

  “But Granny knows you’re buying her meds on the street?”

  “It’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ with us.” He glanced away, hoping Junior wouldn’t see the lie. “She’s taken care of me since I was five. So when I do this, I feel like I’m taking care of her.”

  “Jesus. You really are the wholesome kid you appear to be. Honesty is a rarity in my bidness. You wouldn’t believe the lies people will tell to get their next fix.”

  Liam bristled. “I’m not scamming you. This is for my gramma. I don’t—”

  “Inhale?” Junior said on a laugh. “Just jokin’ with ya.” He lit a cigarette and studied Liam through the smoke. “Your hours got cut, huh? So you’re lookin’ for more work?”

  “Yeah.”

  “How old are you?”

  “Sixteen.”

  “I could use a kid like you to make a couple of deliveries for me a week.”

  Don’t even consider going to work for a drug dealer!

  Again, Liam told his conscience to shut up and boldly said, “I’m listening.”

  “Smart of you not to say no right off the bat and hear me out.”

  Liam swallowed hard. What if Junior wouldn’t give him a choice?

  “You’d be…shall we call it…a courier,” Junior continued, “taking package A to location B. Maybe eight hours a week total. Maybe a few more.”

  “Why me?” he blurted out.

  “For one thing, you ain’t a user so I don’t gotta worry you’re gonna fuck me over because you’re jonesing for a fix and start stealing dope from me.” Junior puffed on his cigarette. “The other thing…a geeky, glasses-wearing kid who looks like a damn Boy Scout ain’t gonna raise suspicions. People will smile at you and believe you’re just out doing more good deeds.”

  For the first time ever being a nerdy brainiac might pay off. “How much does it pay?”

  “Depends on how far you gotta take the package across town. I’d guess it’d be around two hundred a week to start. And to sweeten the deal, I’ll discount Granny’s biweekly weed order by twenty percent.”

  Holy shit. A reduced price for Gramma’s medicine and double the money he earned bussing tables? Fewer hours meant he could thoroughly research his options for college scholarships and get his applications in early.

  “One time offer, kid. What’s it gonna be?”

  “I’m in as long as I can be out as soon as I turn eighteen.”

  Junior flashed his teeth. “Good to see you ain’t such a pushover. But bear in mind, there’s risk. If you get caught while couriering said packages, I expect you to play that innocent Boy Scout card.”

  Liam offered his hand. “You got yourself a deal.”

  * * * *

  Stirling Gradsky, age sixteen…

  “Jesus, Stirling. Pull the stick out of your ass, stop being such a damn goody-goody, and take a hit. It’s not that big of a deal.”

  Stirling Gradsky glared at her older sister London, then at the joint London brought to her mouth and inhaled from.

  Again.

  London held the smoke in for several moments and blew it out. Then she smiled and cocked her head, sending her long auburn hair cascading over her shoulder.

  Resentment surfaced. Her older sister had the charisma that made boys and men want to gather around her. London was carefree, rebellious, sometimes reckless, but it all came naturally to her. After a full day of trail riding in the dust and muck, London looked beautiful. The glow from the campfire had her hair shining like spun copper. Even with that old, holey, smelly horse blanket draped around her shoulders, she managed to look both elegant and wild.

  Stirling pulled her own blanket tighter, hoping London would forget about her and return to flirting with the cowboys surrounding the campfire.

  But London wouldn’t let it go. “Come on. Drop the holier-than-thou attitud
e, baby sis, and try some.” London shoved the joint in Stirling’s face.

  She managed to bite out, “No, thank you.”

  London’s eyes narrowed. “What is your problem?”

  “Besides the fact that what you’re doing is illegal?” she snapped. “I prefer to have all of my brain cells intact. Apparently that doesn’t matter to any of you.”

  Laughter rippled around them.

  “Or are you afraid you’ll get the joint stuck in your braces?” London said with a snicker.

  That mean comment just made Stirling angrier. “Maybe I’m concerned about germs. I don’t want to put my lips on that thing when I don’t know where any of their lips”—her derisive gaze encompassed the group of four guys and one other girl—“have been.”

  “God. You are such a pain,” London complained. “Why are you even here if you don’t want to have a little fun?” She took another drag, locking her eyes to Stirling’s. “Oh, right, Mom made me take you.”

  A wave of heat washed over her. She hated how much her sister had changed in the last year since she’d graduated from high school and started running wild with the rodeo crowd. London had no time for her anymore. So Stirling had begged their mom to make London take her on this trip, hoping they’d have some time together to talk, even if it was at night in their shared tent. But London had brought her own pup tent, leaving Stirling to bunk alone. And Stirling wasn’t stupid; she’d heard her sister’s giggles and groans coming from one of the guys’ tents the very first night.

  So this trip sucked, even before everyone started getting high.

  “Stop naggin’ her.” The guy next to London snagged the joint, took a big drag, held it in, and blew it out. “That just means there’s more for us.”

  Dale, the good-looking cowboy on London’s other side, had his turn with the joint. “Man. That is some good shit,” he said on a long exhale.

  Everyone murmured their agreement.

  Then they were all laughing about something dumb that one of their friends had done—a guy Stirling didn’t know—so she literally sat there like a bump on a log.

  An invisible bump on a log.

  Story of her sixteen-year existence. She knew she was awkward. She also knew it wasn’t a “stage,” as her mother had assured her. No. This was the real her—the socially inept, brainy geek with goals beyond getting baked every weekend.

  “Hey, I’m at the end of this joint,” Lizzie said. “What do I do?”

  “Give it here.” London pulled a bobby pin from her hair and skillfully turned it into a roach clip, which just proved this wasn’t her first go-round with weed.

  When the laughter gave way to singing, Stirling had had enough. She slowly stood, wincing at the muscles screaming in her back, legs, and arms from spending hours on horseback. Just another reminder that she had ambitions beyond working in the family horse breeding and cattle business. She dreamed of a job where she could wear silk blouses and sky-high heels, not boots and jeans.

  No one noticed her leave.

  In her tent, she buried her head in her sleeping bag, trying to block out the animal howling contest the stoners started when the coyotes began their nightly yowling. She felt a little smug when a collective paranoia set in that maybe the coyotes would bring the wolves in closer and they all scattered to their tents.

  Or maybe they all had a bad case of the munchies.

  Stirling snorted. No wonder they used to call it reefer madness.

  Then she promised herself to steer clear of marijuana forever, no matter what.

  Chapter One

  The first rule of being a prankster?

  A killer poker face.

  And Stirling Gradsky had that down pat.

  The second rule of being a prankster?

  Learn your opponent’s weak spots.

  Maybe Stirling didn’t have that rule down entirely. Her pranking prey, Dr. Liam Argent, remained as much a mystery now as he’d been when he’d waltzed into High Society ten months ago and declared himself emperor.

  Okay, maybe not emperor, but he definitely acted like the laboratory was his private kingdom.

  His appearance hadn’t been a surprise. Stirling’s brother Macon, her business partner in High Society—a cannabis operation that included a retail store, a medical dispensary, and an onsite grow house—had informed her that he’d hired a guy from California, a cannabis expert, to work in the lab.

  After dealing in euphemisms regarding all things cannabis related, Stirling believed “the lab” was Macon’s shorthand for the grow house. She imagined the California dude to be an older version of the iconic stoner character Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

  Turned out she had been wrong on both accounts.

  Macon had indeed meant he’d created a full-blown, state of the art laboratory, complete with a beefed up security system for their resident cannabis expert. And the “dude from California” turned out to be Dr. Liam Argent, stuffed shirt extraordinaire, with advanced degrees up the wazoo.

  The man drove her crazy.

  Crazy.

  From day one he’d refused to tell her what he was working on in his fancy-ass lab. When she’d complained to Macon about Dr. Argent’s secretive manner, he’d instructed her to leave Dr. Argent alone.

  Her brother may as well have waved a red flag in front of her.

  She’d tried being friendly…to no avail.

  She’d tried being bossy…to no avail.

  She’d tried every “employee relations improvement” tactic she’d learned in her years in the corporate world…to no avail.

  Hence her oh-so-mature decision to prank him until he cracked. She’d worked with men like him before. At least if you got them angry enough, they’d yell at you, which nine times out of ten led to an actual conversation.

  Except Dr. Argent hadn’t shown the slightest chink in his armor. In fact, he’d joined in on her prankfest and one-upped her on occasion.

  Which was why today’s prank ranked as one of the better ones he’d pulled on her.

  It was also why Stirling was massively annoyed.

  Her assistant Shanna said, “Stop huffing around. You brought this on yourself because of the feud you and Dr. Argent are currently engaged in.”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  Shanna rolled her eyes. “Right. This is his retaliation for you leaving him a message to call Mike Hunt last week.”

  Stirling snickered. “Come on. Having him call a gynecologist’s office asking for Mike Hunt was classic. The only person who didn’t see the humor in it was Dr. Tight Ass.”

  “I recognize that demonic look, boss,” Shanna accused. “You’re already planning payback.”

  “Or maybe I’ll do nothing. Him waiting and worrying when I’ll strike next will freak him the fuck out.”

  “You wish. The man is an enigma. A hot enigma.”

  “Did I hear you say he needs an enema?” Stirling retorted.

  “Omigod, you are impossible. I’m probably wasting my breath, but I’ll ask you to please consider ending this feud.”

  Shanna was probably right. Stirling should take the high road.

  But where was the fun in that? And although she’d never, ever, ever admit it to anyone, this back and forth she had with Argent was the most fun she’d had at work in years.

  “Anyway, now that you’ve done your duty giving the Weed Worshipers the tour of Mecca, what’s next for them? They’re waiting.”

  “I’ve got a special surprise lined up.”

  Shanna shook her head. “Oh no. Please tell me you’re not planning—”

  Stirling whirled around and forced a smile on her group. “For the divine intervention that brought you to the tour today, you’ll receive twenty-five percent off purchases in the retail store.”

 
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