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Tripped out, p.18
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       Tripped Out, p.18

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  Chapter Thirteen

  Two minutes after Stirling and Liam stepped onto the porch, a four-person ATV pulled up.

  A cowboy Stirling hadn’t seen before exited the driver’s side. He offered his hand first to Liam. “Hey. I’m Justin. I work at the Gradsky Ranch. You must be Stirling.”

  Calliope stomped down the stairs. “Are you kidding me right now? That is Stirling. She is Chuck and Berlin’s daughter.”

  Silence.

  Justin faced Stirling, his handsome face tomato red. “I am sorry, Miss Gradsky. No offense. I’ve only worked here a few months. I’m still figuring things out.”

  “No worries. This is my partner, Liam Argent.”

  “Pleasure to meet you, sir.”

  “You as well, Justin.”

  “We probably better get goin’.”

  Liam patted his chest where his pocket protector would be. He seemed lost without it.

  So adorably dorky. Would she still find that cute in fifty years?

  Her brain started to flood her body with panic, tension, and fear. She wasn’t sure they’d be together fifty days, to say nothing of fifty years.

  Just then the magic gummy bear threw a blanket on those thoughts, smothering them completely.

  Liam adjusted his glasses. “I left my cell phone upstairs. Be right back.”

  Yeah, she blatantly watched his ass as he walked away; it looked damn fine in those jeans. His jeans, coupled with the sleeveless gray T-shirt that put those fascinating tattoos on display? And the sexy way his hair fell over his glasses? Hotness. She really felt like she’d be walking into the party with man candy on her arm.

  Her body sated, her mind at rest, Stirling walked a few steps and leaned against the wooden post, breathing in the mountain air and basking in this rare serenity.

  Which of course was immediately shattered.

  “God. Do you have to be so embarrassing?” Calliope hissed. “You thought Stirling was a guy? That is not a guy’s name.”

  “What about Sterling Sharpe, who played for the Packers? Or Sterling Archer?”

  Calliope had no response for that except a loud huff.

  “Wow. So you don’t know everything. Next time you spout off, little girl, remind yourself you could learn a thing or two from your elders.”

  Liam exited the house. “Sorry. I’m ready.”

  Stirling and Liam sat in the back. They’d just started down the paved path that led to the Gradsky complex when Calliope turned around to address Liam. “So what kind of doctor are you? Because I have this rash—”

  “I’m not a medical doctor. I have a doctorate in microbiology.”

  Calliope’s lips formed an O of surprise. “To be honest, I’m not even sure what that means. Sounds like a class I probably would’ve skipped.”

  “Or failed,” Justin added with a snicker.

  “Shut it and drive. I wasn’t talking to you.”

  “I could be so fuckin’ lucky,” he shot back.

  Liam muttered, “Harsh.”

  “What sort of work do you do for my parents?” Stirling asked Calliope.

  “Whatever they want me to do.” She grinned.

  Stirling couldn’t help but grin back. The girl was a doll. A chattering doll, as it turned out.

  “This week I’ve mostly been cleaning. Last week I filled in as a ranch hand with grumpy over there.” She gestured with her head to Justin and he took his eyes off the road to scowl at her. “Next week I might be takin’ care of the animals.”

  They hit a bump. Calliope yelped as she went airborne.

  Justin grabbed the back of her jacket. She scrambled for a hold on the roll bar as Justin hit the brakes—both of which kept her from bouncing out on her head.

  “Would you please park your ass in the seat?” Justin snapped. “You about gave me a goddamned heart attack.”

  “I’m fine. Keep movin’, Daddy-o. We’re on Berlin time and if we’re late, I’m rolling on you.”

  Stirling covered a laugh with a cough.

  Calliope half turned to study her.

  “Do I have something on my face?” Or maybe a hickey or two on my neck where Dr. Hoover set his mouth on me?

  Not that she’d complain about that.

  Ever.

  “No. And this will sound weird, but your mom has been telling me about all the awesome things you’ve done and how you were driven to succeed even when you were a kid.” She paused. “That sounds just like my little sister Chelsea. Not the dreads or the kickin’ clothes, but she has that same drive.”

  Her mother had been talking about her to the employees? “Really?”

  “Yeah. Chels is a soccer player, not a business whiz like you. She’s dying to play pro soccer now, but our mom is like… You are going to college first.”

  “You shoulda listened to your mom too,” Justin said.

  Calliope rolled her eyes. “There wasn’t money for me to go. Besides, nothin’ wrong with bein’ a bartender.”

  “You’re tendin’ bar tonight too?” Justin demanded.

  “Yep. See if you can keep up, old man.”

  When Stirling saw the peak of the barn, she waited for that panicked feeling to pop up, but the magical gummy bears just tucked in the corners of the blanket more tightly.

  Calliope’s cell phone buzzed. After she read the message, she elbowed Justin. “Change of plans.”

  He nodded.

  “Take the shortcut.”

  “What shortcut?”

  “That one.” Calliope pointed.

  “That is not a shortcut.”

  “Yes, it is! Turn now or we’ll miss it.”

  Justin hit the brakes. He patted the steering wheel. “See this? This means I decide which way we’re going, shortstuff, not you. And we ain’t takin’ what you call the shortcut.”

  “You are so stubborn!”

  “Like that’s news,” Justin scoffed.

  They started moving again…at a crawl.

  “You are doing this on purpose.”

  “Safety first, little girl.”

  “Omigod, I am not a little girl! You make me want to scream!”

  Justin didn’t acknowledge Calliope’s frustration. He just kept putzing along.

  Calliope leaned over and screamed almost directly in Justin’s ear.

  He didn’t jump but Stirling and Liam did.

  Holy shit. She hadn’t been expecting an actual scream.

  Stirling and Liam exchanged a look.

  Justin and Calliope continued to argue with gusto, ignoring them completely.

  Liam put his mouth on her ear. “Were we as annoying as the bicker twins?”

  “Afraid so. But I only screamed once, when you put that rubber rat in the box of straws in the break room. And you weren’t even there to hear it.”

  “Wrong. I heard that scream all the way in the lab. You would’ve deafened me had it been in my ear.”

  “No one helped me pick up the straws, lest you prank them.”

  “I was only interested in pranking you, beautiful.” He twined one of her dreads around his palm. “The octagonal dome you engineered from those straws was perfect, even if you did hang a LEGO man in a lab coat from the center of the structure.”

  She snickered. “At the time it was cathartic to X-out the eyes and wrap a string around its little bitty neck. But now? I’d put a LEGO woman with dreads next to it.” On impulse, she kissed him. Twice. “I’m crazy about you. Have I mentioned that?”

  “I don’t believe so. Maybe you’d better say it again.”

  “Crazy, crazy, crazy about you.” She punctuated each crazy with a kiss.

  “That isn’t the gummy bear speaking?”

  “Do gummy bears speak? Do they sound like that bear in Ted? What was his name?”

  “Ah…Ted? I love that movie.”

  “So how long have you two been together?” Calliope interrupted.

  Liam said, “And she’s baaaaack,” under his breath.

  Stirling released
a tiny snort. “Gosh, what’s it been…seven days?”

  “Eight fantastic days,” Liam corrected with a growl.

  Calliope’s gaze moved back and forth between them. “Does London know you’ve got a boyfriend? Because I thought she planned to fix you up with someone.”

  “Calliope, shut up,” Justin snarled. “You don’t say shit like that to people. Your mama raised you better than that.”

  “What? I’m just making conversation.”

  The recreation center came into view as they rounded the corner.

  “Here’s where we exit this crazy train,” Stirling said to Calliope. “Let us out here. We’ll walk.”

  “No can do. My orders are front door delivery.”

  When Justin muttered something, Calliope lit into him again.

  Stirling had had enough. She released an ear-piercing whistle.

  Justin slammed on the brakes. He and Calliope gaped at her.

  “Here’s a piece of advice. Working with family is the hardest thing you’ll do. I work with my brother every day. Sometimes I want to scream at him. But I don’t lit-er-al-ly scream at him, Calliope. Our disagreements happen behind closed doors. Never in front of employees or customers.” She addressed Calliope. “I can see that your dad embarrasses you and it probably sucks working together so closely because he treats you like a child—”

  “Whoa, whoa, whoa, there.” Calliope made a timeout sign. “Justin is not my dad.”

  Justin pointed at Calliope. “I told you that’s what people would think. I told you. That’s why—”

  “You’re a chickenshit, Justin Donohue.” Calliope tossed her hair. “And like I told you, I don’t care what people think.”

  He hit the gas.

  Liam muttered, “Not enough gummy bears in the world to deal with this.”

  “No kidding.”

  Stirling saw her mother pacing outside the doors to the recreation center.

  When they finally arrived, her mom practically ran toward the ATV. “Stirling! Sweetheart, I’m so thrilled you’re here.”

  “Mom.” Stirling hugged her tightly. No matter what happened tonight, she had to carve out more time for her family.

  Her mother released her. “Sweetheart, are you crying?”

  “Yeah. I just realized how much I miss you.”

  “Oh, honey. I miss you too.”

  “And I want things to change. Weeks shouldn’t pass between phone calls, Mom. Months shouldn’t pass between visits.”

  “I’m in complete agreement. Let’s—”

  “I want you to be proud of me even if I don’t become an organic farmer.”

  Her mom’s eyes widened.

  Liam murmured, “Take a breath because I already gave you a chill pill.”

  God, she was babbling. Stirling inhaled deeply, relaxing into Liam’s touch as he rubbed circles on her back. “Sorry, Mom. It’s just…”

  Her mom reached for her hand. “We have lots to talk about. And we will. I promise. Just not right now, okay?”

  “Okay.”

  “What a darling dress. The navy blue suits you. And the daisies on it.” She smiled. “You’ve always loved daisies.”

  “Where’s Dad?”

  “He’s inside.” Her mother looked at Liam. Then at Stirling. “Dr. Argent. It’s lovely that you could join us.”

  “I’m happy to be here with Stirling, Mrs. Gradsky. Please call me Liam.”

  With Stirling. No way could her mom misinterpret that.

  “And you must call me Berlin.” Then she looped her arm through Stirling’s and they walked to the doors, Liam following close behind.

  It was weird that no one was out here smoking. In fact…where were all the people? This was supposed to be a party. Plus, it took a village to run the rodeo school so it never looked like a ghost town.

  “Liam, would you be a dear and open the door?”

  “Of course, Berlin.”

  Stirling kept her eyes on Liam’s bare arm, watching his biceps ripple beneath that kick-ass tat when he jerked hard on the door.

  A pitch-black entryway greeted them when they stepped inside. “Did the power go out?”

  “Not exactly.”

  The lights came on and a hundred people were spread out in front of her. They all yelled, “Surprise!”

  Stirling actually turned around and checked to see if there was someone behind her.

  Everyone laughed.

  “Yes, sweetheart, this party is for you.”

  Then her dad started singing, “Happy Birthday” and everyone joined in.

  Trying to hide her shock, she leaned into Liam and he held her up. After the group finished the last birthday verse and everyone was clapping and whistling, Liam murmured, “You couldn’t have mentioned in that two-hour compatibility quiz that your birthday was this weekend?”

  “That’s the thing, it’s not. My birthday is next month.”

  “I’m confused.”

  “Join the fucking club.”

  Someone handed her mom a microphone. “Welcome, everyone, to Stirling’s birthday party!”

  More applause.

  “Now you can see by the polite look of puzzlement on our daughter’s face that she thinks her father and I have screwed up since her birthday is next month. And the truth is… We did screw up. Last year when our baby turned the big three-oh, there wasn’t a Gradsky party to commemorate that occasion.” She paced to where Stirling’s father stood and took his hand. “We threw a party for Macon when he turned thirty. We threw a party for London when she hit that milestone. But when Stirling turned thirty… We said nothing. We did nothing. That day just passed by like any other. When her father and I realized this oversight, we decided to surprise Stirling with a thirtieth birthday party before she turns thirty-one. Clever, not having it on your birthday, huh?” She winked at Stirling. “You didn’t suspect a thing, did you?”

  Stirling found her voice after being handed a microphone. “No. I thought we were coming to another party for London.” More laughter. Her gaze scanned the crowd for her sister, but she didn’t have to look far. London was in the front row. She mouthed, “Love you, sis.”

  Immediately Stirling teared up.

  Her mom said, “I need to explain one thing. As the third child… There weren’t as many pictures of Stirling as there were of Macon and London. I can see other parents nodding their heads because they understand. Life gets busier with three kids than with one. Or even two. A few things get forgotten. Not intentionally, mind you. But it is hurtful…” Her voice broke. She pressed her face into her husband’s arm.

  Stirling was crying openly when her father took the microphone.

  “So to our beautiful daughter, Stirling Rose Gradsky, we are unbelievably proud of you. Not only for the professional achievements you’ve racked up at age thirty that most people don’t accomplish in a lifetime, but for the personal commitment you made to yourself to live your life the way you want. You are an inspiration. Happy birthday,
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