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Just what i needed, p.1
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       Just What I Needed, p.1

         Part #2 of Need You series by Lorelei James
 



  One

  TRINITY

  “Happy Hour” always perked me up.

  I loved the two-for-the-price-of-one drink specials.

  I loved the camaraderie in celebrating the end of the workday with other working stiffs.

  I even loved hearing the cheesy, but hopeful pickup lines.

  Except none of it was making me happy today.

  I sat alone in a booth at the back of the bar, nursing my second crappy margarita. Even my friend Genevieve had abandoned me—not that I blamed her. If the hot rugby player from Ireland would’ve hit on me instead of her, I wouldn’t be here still wallowing in my shitshow of a day.

  As much as I wanted to forget today, my brain insisted on recapping the events that had led to an unhappy Happy Hour.

  First, I lost an art commission: a lucrative deal that would’ve kept me busy for months and kept me from subsisting on ramen noodles. At the prospective client’s insistence, I’d completed detailed sketches of the piece—a rarity for me since my muse preferred to carve her own path rather than follow someone else’s map. Consequently, for that extra effort, I’d expected to collect a check this morning; losing the project hadn’t been on my radar since the couple were proven patrons of the arts. But evidently the wife had decided my art design was too edgy.

  I scowled at my half-empty glass. Too edgy, my ass. The proposed mixed-media wall hanging fit perfectly within the realm of contemporary art. Not that it mattered now; I didn’t have the luxury of finishing the piece on principle. I had to swallow my pride and find a paying gig immediately. I’d applied for a set painting job for the production of Into the Woods at a local community theater. And unless Eugene Lee—Broadway set designing legend—had applied for the same job, I was pretty much a shoo-in.

  If that hadn’t been bad enough, I’d been dealt a second blow when my stepmonster, Laura, called to inform me that my younger half sister, Kathryn, had gotten engaged. The knocked-low feeling hadn’t come from not being invited to the surprise engagement party, but from the fact that my father had given Grandma Minnie’s pearls to Kathryn to wear on her wedding day. As the oldest daughter, those pearls—and the right to wear them first—belonged to me. When I mentioned it, Laura coldly informed me that it wasn’t fair to deny Kathryn when it was unlikely I’d ever make the trek down the aisle. After ending the call, I wondered if everyone saw the “unlovable” mark on my soul. Today I felt as if it’d been stamped across my forehead.

  Morose much, Trinity?

  Hey. I was entitled to a pity party once in a while. Especially when I figured nothing else could make the day any bleaker.

  Of course, that’s when karma laughed in my face.

  I glanced up just as my ex-boyfriend Milo walked into the back room with his new girlfriend clinging to his side like a barnacle.

  This chick sported at least a D cup and was polished from her trendy asymmetrical haircut to the tips of her silver stilettos.

  My gaze caught on the hemline—if it had more material it might actually qualify as a cocktail dress. But the scant coverage showcased the bombshell’s killer body. She could probably crack open walnuts with those muscled quads. But that meant she’d have to close her legs and I doubted that happened very often.

  Not nice, Trin.

  But I snickered anyway. Since the toothpick and my ex had been caught going at it on a weight bench at the gym where she worked as a personal trainer—while we’d still been dating—she’d brought the snarky comments on herself.

  When I’d relayed the breakup story to my friend Ramon, he hadn’t offered the sympathy I’d been looking for. Instead, he’d chastised me. “Chica, why do you punish yourself by dating loser men like Milo? You’re past due for an upgrade.”

  I’d gone through phases in my dating life. I’d started out with the all-American types—jocks and smart nerds. Then I moved on to bad boys—until I realized unpredictable macho dudes made better boyfriends on paper than in real life. In college I decided only other artists would understand me, so I chose intellectual men who were proud to admit they’d embraced their softer sides. That phase had lasted until I recognized the similarities between myself and a doormat. How hadn’t I noticed the supposed sensitive types were often bigger assholes than the self-centered, self-destructive bad boys?

  After learning that lesson, I’d opted to date suits—white-collar nine-to-fivers. Polite guys who picked up the dinner check and drove cars that didn’t break down. Men who were invested in their careers and their futures.

  That’s when my subconscious piped in with . . . You mean, men like your father?

  With that disconcerting thought planted in my head, I’d done the mature thing and moved on to blue-collar guys—men nothing like good old Dad. Men who worked hard and played harder. Men more interested in literally climbing the ladder rather than just metaphorically. Solid men who didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves or their causes on their T-shirts. They just humped along, year after year, working for the man, living paycheck to paycheck.

  Milo, the electrician and my recent ex-boyfriend, had checked all the right boxes. He’d never dated a woman who “made real good money drawing pictures and shit.” I guess I’d been lonely enough to find his interest in me refreshing. He’d had some odd ideas about what constituted fun, and physically he was as reserved when we were naked as when we were clothed. So I’d truly been shocked to find out he’d gotten down and dirty in a public area equipped with a security camera. Heck, he’d never even left the lights on the few times we’d had sex.

  That thought gave me a complex. Well, another one at any rate.

  Although, watching him exhibit over-the-top PDA with the toothpick, I wondered if I’d mistakenly placed my expectations—he’s stable so he’ll stabilize me—on him when that hadn’t ever been any part of who he was. Heaven knew I wasn’t the uninhibited artist living a bohemian lifestyle that he’d envisioned. Had he gleaned that impression of me . . . from me? Sometimes in social situations my nervousness overtook my common sense and I’d blurt out ridiculous random things . . . and then have zero recollection of what I’d said.

  So yeah, men got to deal with “social anxiety blackouts” as a benefit of dating me.

  Milo must’ve sensed me staring at him. I didn’t duck fast enough before he saw me.

  Please ignore me swilling cheap tequila as I lament the sad state of my life.

  He seductively caressed the toothpick’s arm and murmured in her ear.

  Her blond hair swung in a perfect arc as she turned her head to look at me.

  I offered a smile and tiny wave—dismissive enough that I hoped it would keep them away from my little corner of doom.

  No such luck. They started toward me.

  Dammit. I should’ve worn Spanx. And combat boots. And boxing gloves.

  I kept my smile in place as a string of lies formed in my head about why I was sitting alone in a dark corner.

  Milo stopped a solid two feet away from me. “I thought it was you back here.”

  “You caught me trying to have a quiet moment before my date arrives.” And there was a perfect example of random words spewing from my mouth.

  “I wouldn’t think this was your kind of place,” Milo said.

  Ooh, snap. In retrospect, it was shocking how little we knew each other.

  The toothpick chirped out, “Hi. I’m Penelope,” as if I didn’t know exactly who she was.

  Milo looked uncomfortable. “Well, I just wanted to come by and say—”

  “Good-bye as you two crazy kids head out the door?” I supplied.

  “Oh, we’re not leaving yet,” Penelope said. “This is our Tuesday tradition. Right, My-love?”

  My-love inste
ad of Milo? Eww. Didn’t this dim bulb realize it took a while before something became a tradition? But I played along. “Have you had this tradition long?”

  When she said, “A little over three months,” I felt steam curling from my ears.

  It’d been only two months since I’d told Milo’s cheating ass we were done.

  Before I could ask Milo if his anal rash had cleared up, he was dragging Penelope away.

  I scooted out of the booth and snagged my watered-down drink. As I maneuvered through the crowd, it didn’t escape my notice that several admiring looks were aimed my way, which buoyed my spirits. I spied an empty table close to the front door. Keeping my back to the room meant I got first dibs on any attractive single guys who walked in.

  The bouncy waitress from the back section had followed me up front. “I was hoping you hadn’t disappeared since I let you run a tab.”

  “I’m not wired to drink and dash.” I removed a credit card from my wallet and handed it over. “I’ll take another margarita.”

  “You’ve got it.”

  When you give off the vibe that you’re waiting for someone? Men always pick that time to hit on you.

  Two guys, at least five years younger than me, approached. The one with the military buzz cut spoke first. “Hey. Weren’t you in the back room earlier with a redhead?”

  “Yeah. Good memory.”

  “Is she coming back?”

  Ah. I saw where this was headed. Two of us; two of them. “No. She had a date.”

  “That’s a shame she left you alone. But her loss is our gain, huh, Tommy?”

  Tommy nodded.

  “I’m Vance,” Buzz Cut said. “What’s your name?”

  “Amelia.” It just slipped out. In college I’d given an altered name (and fake phone number) to guys I met in a bar that I had no interest in. Seemed that reflex still worked.

  “Well, Amelia, do you mind if we join you?”

  I gave them a regretful smile. “I’m sorry. My boyfriend is coming when he gets off work. He wouldn’t be happy seeing me making new male friends.”

  “I wouldn’t like it either if you were my girl,” Vance said. “Seems it’s our night to strike out.”

  “Did you see the ladies playing pool in the back room? A blonde and a brunette?”

  “No. Don’t know how we missed them.” Vance grinned and saluted. “Thanks for the tip, Amelia.”

  After that I was left alone. As I sipped my drink, I wished I’d remembered to grab my new phone. Then I could kill time and send hate texts to Genevieve for ditching me in my hour of need. But since I hadn’t shared the details of my monumentally craptastic day with her, she’d be mad that I’d let her leave in the first place.

  Two men walked in. Neither was my type. A trio of guys showed up next and joined the people at a table somewhere behind me. Much back-slapping ensued. Then a couple, surrounded by half a dozen dudes, blocked the entryway as they argued whether to come in and have a drink or just go to another bar.

  When the crowd cleared, he stood alone off to the side, his right hand on his hip as he scanned the room.

  Good lord. There was no way to miss him with that massively tall body. And check out that gorgeous beard; as the light changed it seemed to range from golden blond to a creamy white. He angled his head, giving me a killer view of his strong jawline and high cheekbones. Then I caught a glimpse of his longish blond hair messily fastened at the base of his skull. Oh, hell yeah. That was some serious sexy right there—a guy confident enough to pull off a man bun.

  He raised his left hand to his jaw and scratched his cheek. No wedding ring. He wasn’t acting as if he was meeting someone; he acted like he was looking for a place to sit.

  How fortunate that I had a cozy table for two.

  I slid out of my chair and right into his line of vision.

  Immediately his focus homed in on me. Interest flared in his eyes.

  Then something stronger than awareness flowed through me. An electric charge that gave me a sense of urgency. A magnetic need that pulled me. I floated to him practically in slow motion, my heart racing as I erased the distance between us. I said, “You’re finally here.” Then I stood on tiptoe, slipped my arms around his neck and pressed my mouth to his.

  His warm, woodsy scent hit me like a drug. The softness of his lips and the brush of his beard against my chin had me parting my lips, letting my tongue trace the seam of his mouth.

  His hands had been idle at his sides. But the instant our breath mingled and our tongues touched, he moved one hand to the back of my head and curled the other one around my hip.

  The teasing thrust and retreat of our tongues seemed familiar, as if we’d been mouth-to-mouth a hundred times before. Yet this restrained passion was so damn hot I might combust on the spot. Every cell in my body screamed for more.

  When I pressed my body closer to his, he released the deepest, sexiest groan before he retreated.

  His eyes, an icy Nordic blue, locked to mine. He appeared to be as breathless and confused as I was. “Was that kiss part of a bachelorette party game?”

  “No.”

  “A dare?”

  “No.”

  “Then why did you kiss me like that?”

  “I saw you and I couldn’t resist.”

  “Or maybe because you thought you knew me?”

  “Why would I know you? Are you famous or something?” He definitely could be on the TV show Vikings.

  His gaze turned more skeptical. “Why are you dodging the question?”

  “It’s because—ah . . . I’m a little hazy on why the urge to kiss you overwhelmed me.”

  “Hazy from too many shots of tequila?” he said sharply.

  “No. I can’t even blame it on that since I’ve had two drinks over the past two hours.”

  He gave me a slow, sexy blink and then he smiled.

  Heaven help me. His dimples were deep enough his beard couldn’t mask them. His perfect teeth gleamed in a stunning smile. His lips retained that full, pouty look even with his wide grin.

  He brushed his mouth across mine and whispered, “Guess it’s my lucky day.”

  My lips parted to say, “Mine too,” but no sound came out.

  “How about we have a drink and you can tell me the real reason you used your tongue to introduce yourself instead of a handshake?”

  That broke the spell. I lowered my arms and stepped back. “I’m sitting over here.” I turned and headed to the table.

  Perky Waitress showed up immediately after we took our seats. “What can I get you?” she asked him.

  “Grain Belt, if you’ve got it on tap.”

  “Coming right up.”

  As soon as she was gone, he set his elbows on the table and invaded my space. “As much as I’d like to call you Hot Lips”—he grinned—“what’s your name?”

  Just then Vance and Tommy walked by—each with an arm draped over one of the women from the back room. Vance said, “See ya ’round, Amelia.”

  Crap. Of course karma, that vicious bitch, had ensured that I had to start this conversation with my new hot crush with the fact that I’d lied to those guys about my name. That’d go over well. Then he’d wonder what else I lied about and this would be over before it began.

  “So . . . Amelia,” he said, sounding pleased he’d overheard my name.

  Surely at some point I could explain and we’d have a great laugh about it, right? So I went with it. “Yes?”

  “What’s your last name?”

  “Carlson. And you are . . . ?”

  “Walker Lund.” His gaze roamed over my face. “Seems we’re both of Scandinavian descent.”

  “You seem surprised. Because I’m not a six-foot-tall, rail-thin blonde with cheekbones that could cut glass and piercing blue eyes?”

 
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