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       Tripped Out, p.2

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  That started an excited buzz.

  Please don’t start genuflecting again. The minute the Weed Worshipers had seen the thousands of plants in full flower, buds heavily coated in sticky crystals, two weeks from harvest, they’d fallen to their knees like true believers.

  “And no tour would be complete without visiting our state-of-the-art lab, run by our very own mad scientist. A man who works behind the scenes to build better buds for the whole world.”

  The Weed Worshipers whispered among themselves.

  “I have a favor to ask of all of you. Today is our scientist’s first day back to work after successfully kicking his sexual addiction. He hasn’t made whoopee with his blow-up doll for a full week. So could we sing him a chorus of ‘He’s a Jolly High Fellow’ to show support for his struggle?”

  Jeff, the Minister of Marijuana, the head…head of spreading the good word about weed, stepped forward. “For he who fills our coffers, it’d be our honor, ma’am.”

  “Great! Follow me.”

  Normally the back section of the facility was restricted. She escorted her group down a narrow hallway, pausing with her keycard in hand at the laboratory’s glass door. She flashed back to the time Dr. Asshat had restricted her access to his lab—by installing an electric shock device on the door handle. The longer she touched it, the stronger the current. The man taunted her by holding up a sign that said BUZZ OFF from behind the window beside the main door.

  He could get her riled up like no one else she’d ever met.

  She swiped the card and the green light flashed.

  Stirling led her charges into the mad scientist’s domain. Mad being the operative word.

  The instant her nemesis appeared she felt that roiling drop in her stomach.

  No denying that Dr. Liam Argent had the rockstar look down. His hair—the color a mix of dark brown and sun-kissed gold—fell across his forehead in artful disarray. Her gaze moved to his square jaw, coated in dark stubble, and back up to his high cheekbones that were gaining color by the second. His glasses were heavy black frames that’d look ridiculous on anyone else, but on him they only magnified the intensity of his eyes, the color somewhere between liquid silver and matte gray, depending on his mood.

  He’d worn his customary white lab coat, khaki pants, and boots. Ordinary dorky-scientist garb. But the colorful tattoos visible beneath the collar of his lab coat, tattoos that started on his right hand and traveled up his wrist, were anything but ordinary. She’d never gotten more than a glimpse of his tats, since they were sworn enemies and all.

  He loomed over her, his lips pulled into a flat line. “What is this about, Miss Gradsky?”

  Stirling smiled at him and reached out to straighten his pocket protector. How nerdy that he always wore this ugly plastic thing jammed with stuff. “The Weed Worshipers wanted to personally thank you for your scientific contributions to building a better bud.”

  Was it her imagination or did his lips just twitch?

  Nah.

  “Everyone, this is Dr. Liam Argent. Careful now, he goes Dr. Jekyll when people assume all his job entails is castrating male cannabis plants, deflowering female cannabis plants, and watching them get it on under a microscope.”

  A few people in the group chuckled.

  “As you can see, Miss Gradsky’s sense of humor is on par with that of a thirteen-year-old boy.”

  More laughter.

  “Okay, let’s show the ball snipper and cherry popper our appreciation. On the count of three. One…two…three…”

  “For he’s a jolly high fellow, for he’s a jolly high fellow, for he’s a jolly high fellow… that nobody can deny.”

  His eyes shot lasers at her. “Thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.”

  Jeff said, “Good luck with your…you know. We’ll form a smoke circle in your honor tonight. Keep it up.”

  The woman next to Jeff elbowed him and hissed, “You don’t say ‘keep it up’ to a sex addict.”

  “Former sex addict,” Stirling pointed out with sweet malice.

  “The exit is to your left,” Dr. Argent said tersely.

  After the group filed out, Dr. Mad Scientist got in her face. “What part of ‘no visitors in the lab’ is unclear to you?”

  “Oh, that lame-ass rule was totally negated when you dug up the Weed Worshipers and awarded them ‘an exclusive, all-access tour of cannabis Mecca’ given by me—the one true believer in becoming an ‘elevationist’ in the cannabis church movement.”

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

  “Like you had no idea how the air horn got duct taped to the bottom of my office chair?” she demanded.

  He cocked his head. “I’ve told you to discuss it with the cleaning service. Didn’t you recommend that I talk to them after I discovered Kentucky blue grass growing in my spare keyboard?”

  She tsk-tsked. “So few people have job pride anymore.” She poked him in the chest. “You should consider yourself lucky that I didn’t demand you do something ‘science-y’ for the Weed Worshipers.”

  “Science-y isn’t even a word, Miss Gradsky. At any rate, I’m not subject to your whims.”

  “You couldn’t satisfy my whims even if I deigned to let you try.”

  “I believe you’re equating the term ‘whim’ with the word ‘fantasy.’ But I’ll admit I have imagined you wearing a ball gag during meetings.”

  “Aha! Then you also admit clipping that ‘Why Men Prefer Submissive Women’ article to my monitor with a dog leash and collar.” She’d actually had to close her door, she’d started laughing so hard when she’d seen that one.

  He blinked at her. “I would never violate the sanctity of your sacred space. Not that you adhere to the same respect for privacy. Was it really necessary to include a case of ‘Self-love Lube’ with my lab supplies?”

  “Since I have no clue what you’re doing in your secret lab, Dexter—”

  “I can assure you that I’m not jacking off all goddamn day.”

  They stared at each other, neither one backing down.

  “And what was the nonsense about me being a sex addict?” he demanded.

  “Ask the blow-up doll in your office.” Stirling opened the door and said, “Peace out, yo,” tacking on “Dr. Dickhead,” under her breath as she escaped.

  Chapter Two

  Dr. Dickhead.

  Liam watched that round butt of hers sway as she walked off.

  He’d tried—God, how he’d tried—to ignore her taunts, but Stirling Gradsky challenged him at every turn. The woman was a menace. A smart menace, a sexy menace, but still a nuisance and a distraction nonetheless.

  When he’d signed on to be the director of research at High Society, he’d anticipated a fresh start. No workplace drama like he’d dealt with at his former position in California. But he’d had a run-in with Stirling on the very first day.

  She’d informed him that he was required to turn in his research notes at the end of every week so she could go over them.

  Liam balked at that. Not only were his notes in shorthand only he could decipher, but he doubted Miss Dreadlocks and Multiple Piercings had the educational background to understand complex biology—and then Liam said as much to her.

  Wrong thing to say.

  Evidently Stirling had a master’s degree in biology.

  And how did he respond to that? Tell her that he was excited to work with someone he wouldn’t have to explain things to fifteen times?

  No. He’d said, “Well, it’s not quite on par with my doctorate in microbiology from MIT, is it?”

  Stirling wasn’t the only one shocked by his reply. Liam cringed even now when he remembered what a condescending dick he’d been.

  So their working relationship had started out antagonistically.

  Every time he opened his mouth to speak to her, some alien took control of his brain.

  He’d earned the Dr. Dickhead name. As well as Arrogant Asshole. One time he’
d overheard her call him Liam the Lab Loser… That one stung. He’d lived with that attitude from his sophomore year in high school until he’d graduated from college. So what if he preferred to be in the lab, studying micro-organisms and deciphering covalent bonds. That was a more productive use of his time than bonding with juvenile frat boys. He’d gone to college to learn, not to party, not to hook up with a different girl every weekend—not that that had ever been an issue. Hot co-eds didn’t hang around in the lab, and even if they had, a geek like him wasn’t on their radar.

  By the time he’d earned his doctorate, he’d gained confidence, not only in his work but in himself. He’d achieved every goal he’d set for himself in that tiny two-bedroom apartment he’d shared with Gramma. She’d lived to see him graduate from college, but she’d passed on the next year. Liam still missed her. When things went to hell in California, his first thought was: I want to go home.

  And here he was. Back in Denver. With a great job, a killer apartment, money in the bank…and the high point of every workday the last ten months was when he and Stirling crossed paths. The zany woman had executed some killer pranks. He’d had a hard time staying aloof—but that was part of their game.

  Last week she’d double-pranked him. The fake message with the crude name had been funny on its own. But she’d padlocked his lunch box. When he’d finally picked the lock, he’d discovered she’d replaced his lunch with vagina-shaped suckers.

  Classic.

  He removed his glasses and set them on the countertop. His vision had gone blurry from staring through a microscope all day. He rubbed his eyes—as if that would help—and scrubbed his palms on his face. In the last few days his stubble had grown to that itchy stage. No matter how late he left tonight, he had to stop at the store and buy some razors.

  As he contemplated packing it in early for once, his cell phone buzzed. He fished it out of the front pocket of his lab coat and squinted at the caller ID: MACON GRADSKY. He poked the answer call icon. “Hello, Macon. What’s up?”

  “Not my stocks, that’s for damn sure.”

  Liam chuckled. “I doubt that. You’re too savvy to be on the downward slide for long. And I’m too savvy to know you didn’t call me to shoot the shit.”

  “One of these days I’ll shock the hell out of you and do just that. I may even give you one of those bro hugs.”

  “Dude. Anything but that. So what’s going on?”

  He paused. “It occurred to me we haven’t had an official meeting this month. I’ve been putting out other fires and need to catch up as to where we are. So clear the conference room of objects that could be used as weapons, because Stirling will be at the meeting.”

  “Great. Looking forward to it.”

  Macon snorted. “You can’t lie for shit, Argent.”

  He did smile at that.

  “I have an idea. Bring some product samples to the meeting. You and my sister both need to mellow out.”

  Liam slipped his phone back in his pocket and shoved his glasses on his face. So much for his plan to skip out early.

  * * * *

  Stirling was already in the conference room when Liam strolled in.

  Naturallly she’d selected the seat at the head of the table.

  She glanced up at him. For just a moment, she looked at him without pretense.

  He liked seeing her without her defenses up. So he smiled at her. “Hey.”

  Her pale blue eyes narrowed.

  And…they were back to being adversaries—not even friendly adversaries—where they’d been stuck for the entirety of the time they’d known each other.

  The time had come to change that.

  Stirling’s gaze zoomed to the binder tucked under his arm. “Is that Dr. Argent’s precious notebook that no one has been allowed to access because we don’t possess the intellectual ability to crack your super-secret code?”

  Liam set the binder on his end of the table and pushed it so it slid across the table to her end. “Have at it.”

  “Knock off the fake I’m-a-team-player attitude. My brother won’t believe it any more than I do.”

  He slammed his hands down on the table and she jumped. “Enough. We’re not enemies, Miss Gradsky. We are coworkers. It’s exhausting to constantly look over my shoulder to see what form of torture you’ll inflict on me next. So, please. Can we call a truce?”

  “For real?”

  He raised his left eyebrow. “You prefer a blood oath? Fine. You first.”

  She laughed. A real laugh—not that evil chuckle he was used to hearing from her.

  And the smile that accompanied her laugh? Beautiful.

  “I deserved that.” She smiled again. “Truce.”

  “Thank God.” Liam dropped into the chair opposite her end of the table.

  Stirling drummed her fingernails on the top of the binder. She studied him with curiosity, not hostility. “Are these really your notes?”

  “Some of them. The rest are in my office.”

  “For the past ten months you’ve led me on a merry chase regarding your research.”

  He shrugged. “I didn’t trust you after you subjected me to the stripper ‘lab assistant’”—he made air quotes—“who had her breasts in my face so I couldn’t even look in my microscope without getting an eyeful of her cleavage. Then I caught her pawing through my desk right after she’d tried to stick her hand down my pants.”

  “Misty wasn’t a stripper.”

  He leaned forward. “Seriously, Stirling? You’re trying to convince me that Misty Rain wasn’t a stripper?”

  “Fine. She was a stripper. And a high-priced one.” She sighed. “I can’t believe that didn’t work.”

  “So that’s why you considered sending a half-naked gay cowboy into my lab? To see if I preferred…man meat over a taco?”

  Stirling choked on her water. Then she started laughing so hard that it took several long moments for her to stop. “Man meat? Taco?”

  “I wasn’t sure if using the words cock and pussy would offend your delicate sensibilities.”

  “Jesus, Liam, you’re funny.”

  That was the first time she’d used his name without attaching some snarky insult to it. He folded his arms over his chest. “Did you ever consider if you just asked me nicely, and acted as if you sincerely cared about what I’d been working on, that I would’ve given you access to my research notes?”

  That startled her. Then she groaned. “All I would’ve had to do was say please?”

  “Or bribed me with an ounce of premium weed—specifically the Girl Scout Cookies strain. That’s my go-to smoke when I’ve had a shit day.”

  Stirling’s blue eyes lit up. “Really? Mine too.” A pause. “Wait. Now I remember. The late meeting. Like three months ago. You were in a bad mood.”

  “I’m surprised you remember, given you probably believe I’m always in a bad mood.”

  “Truce much, asswipe?” she retorted.

  He sighed. “Sorry. That day in particular I ended up in a bad headspace.” His ex had called, trying to grill him about what he was working on. Making promises about all the perks he’d get—including her—if he came back to work at GreenTech. When he’d laughed, she showed him her nasty, cutthroat side and a reminder of why he’d left.

  “You perked right up when I whipped out the new vaporizer pen and loaded it with the chocolaty, minty goodness of the Girl Scout Cookies variety of cannabis buds.”

  He remembered the first hit of that sweet smoke. “So those buds were from your personal stash?”

  “Yeah. And I don’t share my weed with just anyone. But you really needed something to level you out. I’d never seen you that unhappy. So I was glad to help you, even if it was just in a small way.” She seemed surprised she’d admitted that.

  Liam realized that was Stirling offering an olive branch. “It was not a small thing and I’m grateful for your generosity. Maybe I can return the favor and we can smoke together again, this time from my personal stash.”
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  “I’d like that.”

  They stared at one another, a different sort of awareness stretching between them.

  Stirling patted the book. “You don’t mind if I flip through this as we’re waiting for Macon?”

  “Knock yourself out.” He smirked. “Figuratively speaking, of course.”

 
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