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Tripped out, p.19
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       Tripped Out, p.19

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  darlin’. We love you.”

  After the applause ended, her dad added, “The buffet is ready to go and the bartenders are here so the bar is open. And stick around because there will be cake.”

  Then her mom and dad were hugging her. London came forward to hug her too.

  Lots of tears, lots of laughter, and lots of promises later, Stirling still couldn’t wrap her head around this over-the-top gesture of love from her family.

  London bumped Stirling with her shoulder. “Another party for me, huh? I can’t believe you fell for that!”

  “I can’t believe Macon pulled it off,” her mother said. “Actually, I can’t believe what a clusterfuck today has been. Two sick horses, then Bill cut himself fixing a piece of equipment and had to go to the ER, the caterer was running almost two hours late, and both guys who were supposed to tend bar had family emergencies. Your dad and I have been running around like fools.” Her mom squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sorry we weren’t home when you got here.”

  “That’s probably a good thing,” her dad added. “’Cause honey, you have a crap poker face. You would’ve blurted everything out the moment you saw her and blown a month of planning.”

  “Not true!” her mom argued.

  “Totally true, Mom,” London said. “And thank you for passing that trait on to me—not. Me ’n’ Sutton don’t play cards anymore because he always knows when I’m bluffing.”

  Stirling smirked at her dad. “Got my poker face from you, Pops. Thanks.” She held her hand up for a high-five.

  Her dad grinned. “Two outta three ain’t bad since you and Macon both got that.”

  “Macon didn’t tell me about this party until last week,” Stirling said. “And he gave me zero details. Which is probably why this surprise worked. I would’ve been suspicious if he’d laid out all the deets because he doesn’t waste brain power on that stuff.”

  “Speaking of brain power…” London waggled her eyebrows. “You’re with the hot doc?”

  Stirling turned and saw Liam had disappeared. “Where did he go? He was just here a minute ago.”

  “I’m sure he’s fine.” Stirling’s mom put her arm around her shoulders. “Lots of people want to wish you a happy birthday, sweetie. Let’s head over to the food line.”

  There was no arguing with Berlin Gradsky when she slipped into hostess mode. Stirling vowed to make the best of it and then she’d track down her wayward boyfriend.

  Chapter Fourteen

  No surprise that Stirling hadn’t noticed when Liam had snuck away.

  He’d been damn near panic attack level from the moment the crowd yelled “Surprise!”

  As happy as he was for Stirling getting an apology and an open declaration of love and pride from her parents, something about the entire situation…didn’t ring true.

  But what the hell did he know? He’d had exactly one birthday party in his life, the year he’d turned twenty-one. He’d downed enough booze that he swore it’d be twenty-one years before he’d celebrate another birthday.

  Liam forced himself to walk slowly as he skirted the crowd. He didn’t bother to make eye contact with anyone, although he sensed them staring at him.

  You’re my arm candy, baby, so you need to look the part of my hot rebel man.

  So much for that plan. Now he felt ridiculous and he hated that this T-shirt had no pockets. Where was he supposed to put his stuff?

  He headed to the bar. But when he noticed the long line and Justin and Calliope mixing drinks, he snagged a bottle of Sawtooth Ale from a metal bin filled with ice and turned the opposite direction to claim a small table in the back. No one would think anything of a man sitting by himself, glued to his cell phone.

  Forty minutes of solitude ended with a thump thump thump. He glanced up to see a little old lady—eighty if she was a day—leaning heavily on a cane covered in rhinestones and glitter.

  Then she plopped right down beside him and peered at him with rheumy eyes. “You’re Sweetpea’s new fella.”

  Sweetpea?

  “That’s what I call her. My little Sweetpea. Stirling is a stuffy name, better suited for a curmudgeon than a baby with her sweet disposition. My daughter went too far with the city name theme for her children. But I don’t know what I expected after I named her Berlin.” She paused. “I’m Nana. Sweetpea’s grandma.”

  “A pleasure to meet you. What should I call you besides Nana?”

  “I’ll tell you if you get me a beer.” She squinted at his craft brew. “Nothing fancy. Coors will do.”

  That reminded him of Macon’s analogy. I’m Coors; Stirling is craft beer. In Liam’s case it was more like…he was craft beer and Stirling was a top-shelf bottle of champagne.

  Petulant much? Don’t be a brooding asshole, Dr. Aloof.

  Stirling had taken over his brain so completely he heard her voice in his head admonishing him, not his own.

  Hard to be unhappy about that. She was far more entertaining, even in imaginary conversations, than he was in real life.

  Liam set the bottle in front of Nana.

  “Thank you.” She knocked back a drink. “That’s what I needed. Now, fill me in. You’re her new fella?”

  He paused a beat too long and she cackled.

  “Little bit of tension, I take it? Beings you’re sitting in the corner and she’s not.”

  “It’s her night. I don’t know anyone except for her, so I’m letting her do her thing.”

  “What’s your name?”

  Liam pointed to her beer. “We had a deal. You tell me your name first.”

  “Cheeky, aren’t you? I like that.” She swigged from the bottle. “My given name is Petunia. Pretty awful, isn’t it?”

  “It’s better than Chrysanthemum.”

  “Ha! You’re a funny one. Tell me another name I oughta be happy that my sainted mother Rose didn’t saddle me with.”

  No pressure. He racked his brain and said, “Aubergine.”

  She squinted at him. “What the heck is that?”

  “Aubergine, derived from the French Catalan word alberginia, also commonly known as…eggplant.”

  “Eggplant, huh. Say it again.”

  “Aubergine.”

  She laughed. “You’re smart enough for my Sweetpea too. I’ll bet she loves having intellectual conversations with you.”

  Liam thought back to their philosophical discussion of Pop-Tarts. He grinned. “Some of our conversations truly boggle the mind.”

  “Hey, now I know you. You’re that smart doctor guy from California that my grandson Mac hired.”

  “Mac…oh, Macon. You don’t approve of his given name either?”

  “My daughter could’ve named him Cody. Perfectly good name and it’s a city…well, a town anyway.” She leaned in. “Between us? I believe Berlin and Charleston were hitting the bong too hard when they came up with that name.”

  Jesus. Do. Not. Laugh.

  “Now what’s your name?”

  “Liam Argent.”

  “Liam. Good Irish name. Argent. That’s French?’

  “No idea. My father was unknown. My mother was unknown after she dumped me with my gramma.”

  Those eyes turned sharp. “She raised you?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “Bet you didn’t give her any trouble, did you?”

  He shook his head.

  “Good. So, Dr. Liam Argent… What’s your job at the pot place?”

  Pot place. “I’m a scientist.”

  “Why?”

  “Why am I a scientist? Because science makes sense.”

  “To some people. Not to me. Was your grandmother science-y too?”

  Now he knew where Stirling had picked up the word. “No, but she is the reason I do what I do.”

  “Explain that.”

  So he did. It was cathartic to talk about his gramma, to remember their connection when he’d felt detached from everything tonight.

  Nana sighed. “I don’t get the pot thing. I’d rat
her knock back whiskey if I’m feeling puny. But I’m thankful that people like you do all that research-y stuff to help old timers deal with serious aches and pains.”

  “I love my job. I intend for what I do to make a difference.”

  “You will.” She patted his arm. “You’re a remarkable young man. Handsome too. You and my Sweetpea will have beautiful, smart babies. But for godsake, don’t name them something stupid.”

  He caught Stirling’s scent before her dreads fell over his shoulder.

  She kissed his cheek. “You trying to steal my man, Nana?” Then she kissed her grandmother’s cheek.

  “Nope. He’s too smart for me.” She smiled. “But he’s perfect for you, Sweetpea.” She used her cane to push to her feet. “Getting on past my bedtime.”

  “Who’s taking you back to the retirement center?”

  “Bill? Bob? I don’t remember. I wish my daughter would just let me take an Uber like everyone else.”

  Liam seriously adored this woman. He stood and said, “Nice meeting you…Aubergine.”

  She cackled and said, “Cheeky.”

  As they watched her shuffle away, Stirling said, “Aubergine?”

  “Inside joke.”

  She stepped in front of him and twined her arms around his neck. “Can I just say I love that you and Nana already have an inside joke?”

  “I like her. Now I know one more person here. Which means, I’m up to…five people. Careful, Sweetpea, I might become more popular than you.”

  “I’m sorry it seems like I ditched you. I swear my mother would’ve kept dragging me around all damn night if I hadn’t told her I was done so I could find you.” She gave him a quick peck on the mouth. “Besides, after a while all the names blurred together anyway.”

  “Names blurred together?” He frowned. “Don’t you know everyone here since it’s a party for you?”

  “I know like…maybe twenty people here.”

  “I don’t get it. To be honest, Stirling, I don’t get this family stuff.” That confession hadn’t been as difficult as he’d feared. Plus, she wasn’t scowling at him like he was a freak.

  “Okay. Try and follow along, Dr. Who.”

  He slapped her ass.

  “My mom was mired in guilt about the missing my birthday thing. She also realized—or maybe Macon reminded her—that she hasn’t been to Denver since we opened the store. So, in Berlin Gradsky’s world, that means host a belated-slash-early birthday party for me, where she and my dad can publicly assure me that they love me and they’re proud of me, and they’re sorry. So at the end of the night, everything is fine, guilt is alleviated, we’re back to being a normal family and then there’s cake!”

  Liam said nothing.

  “Except, I didn’t grow up around here. My friends from school live around the south ranch. My college and grad school friends… My family doesn’t know them. My coworkers from GenAgra? I sued the company so I’m confident they weren’t on the guest list. The people we work with at High Society? Again, my mom doesn’t know them. I’m guessing that when she realized there’d be like twenty people I knew at a party in my honor, she just filled up the space with warm bodies from the community.”

  “Does that bother you?”

  Stirling slid her hands down his chest and fiddled with the collar on his shirt. “I could let it bother me. For all of the reasons I just gave you. Or I could let it go and be happy that I have such love and support from my family. Not everyone has that. You don’t have that. When I remember what I said I wanted to change within my family dynamic… This surprise party dealt with all of that. Maybe a little superficially, but it is a starting point. It’d be a dick move on my part to kick cake in their faces, wouldn’t it?”

  Liam framed her face in his hands. “You are an extraordinary woman, Stirling.”

  “Liam.”

  “Being around you… I see things in a different way. I learn from you. I want to keep learning things, about you, about myself.”

  “Okay. I’m down with that.”

  Here’s your chance to come clean.

  He locked his gaze to hers.

  “What? That’s an ‘I’m on the run from the Feds’ look in your eyes.”

  And…he laughed. “This is supposed to be a serious moment. Where I tell you that I only signed a one-year contract with High Society.”

  Stirling fisted her hands in his shirt and got right in his face. “If you tell me that you’re leaving, Dr. Asshat, I will call Shanna right now and have her break into your office. One word from me and she’ll set all your research notes on fire, take a sledgehammer to your computer, and smash your precious ‘old school’ microscopes to smithereens. And that is just the first hour, motherfucker.”

  “Good to know that you have a solid exit strategy in place for me.” Really good to hear that she wanted him in her life as fiercely as he wanted her in his.

  When she growled, he kissed her.

  He’d never been one for PDA, but the instant her lips parted and the taste of her filled his mouth, and the scent of her filled his lungs, everything else in the world fell away.

  When he finally pulled up for air, he murmured, “Happy Birthday, Sweetpea.”

  “Omigod, you are not calling me that. Ever.”

  “I will find a nickname for you, even if it takes me years.”

  She smiled. A bit evilly.

  “What’s that look for, crazy pants?”

  “With your new contract with High Society, I demand in writing that I’m your boss.”

  “No way.” He shuddered. “Since I didn’t bring any gummies, I need a drink.”

  “Me too.”

  When they approached the bar, the bartenders didn’t notice them. Not because they were too busy arguing. Justin had buried his face in Calliope’s neck and both of her hands were on his chest.

  Stirling blurted out, “What the hell?” before Liam could steer them away.

  Immediately Justin and Calliope jumped apart.

  Calliope brushed her hair out of her face. “Oh, hey guys. What can I get you?”

  “An explanation?” Liam said.

  “Yeah. We suffered through your Hatfield and McCoy routine and now you’re cozied up like it never happened?”

  “It happened. It always happens.” Calliope looked over at Justin and he scowled. “We used our complicated…whatever this is”—she waved distractedly between herself and Justin—“to our advantage when Berlin told us to stall getting you to the party. So Justin and I acted like one of those annoying couples that fight all the time. You’ve been around couples like that, who don’t care where they are or who’s around, they just say whatever is on their mind.”

  Liam whispered, “That sounds familiar.”

  Stirling elbowed him in the gut. “So your constant chattering was part of the fake out too?” she asked Calliope.

  “Oh, no. That Chatty Cathy thing she does is all her, trust me,” Justin said.

  Calliope whipped around. “I don’t have any idea who Chatty Cathy is. Is that a TV show from the olden days?”

  Both Liam and Stirling laughed.

  “You guys are near pro level with that annoying couple thing.”

  “We’ve had lots of practice. But I do want to apologize about us being so over the top. Halfway to the recreation center Berlin texted me when she couldn’t find your dad and asked us to stall for an extra five minutes. We just got caught up in the moment.”

  “I’m half-deaf from you screaming in my ear like that,” Justin complained.

 
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