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What you need, p.20
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       What You Need, p.20

         Part #1 of Need You series by Lorelei James
 

  As the oldest kid in the family, my parents expected a lot from me. With no nanny, if my mother was busy, I was put in charge of keeping an eye on my siblings. I had to lead by example. I didn’t mind, likely because it’d been such an innate part of me from such a young age that I didn’t think about it and also because I always got to be in charge.

  We lived in a gated community—both my uncles and their families had houses and guest quarters on the property—that we jokingly referred to as the Lund Compound in our later years. The year I’d turned ten, I started to notice things that I wasn’t allowed to do, like ride my bike to a friend’s house, or hang out at the community pool, or meet my school buddies at the baseball fields. We lived right on Lake Minnetonka, but I wasn’t allowed to go down to the lake without adult supervision. The only place I could ride my bike was down our long driveway. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t walk to the local convenience story for candy. Why I couldn’t have any of my friends over to my house without an itinerary decided weeks in advance.

  I’d started to get resentful. So I tested the boundaries. I’d jump the fence and sneak to the lake. I’d walk around unsupervised. None of these excursions lasted long, but it was a rush, having freedom and secrets.

  So I’d bragged to my friends that I could do whatever I wanted. They dared me to prove it. One day we made plans to meet and ride our bikes to the new BMX track. I’d set out while my mom was busy directing the gardener, the housekeepers and the kitchen staff. I rode my bike along the road, avoiding the freeway and commercial areas with traffic and people. I felt vindicated when I reached the meeting place on my own.

  But after an hour I knew my friends were no-shows. Instead of returning home, I decided to ride to the BMX track by myself. After two hours of riding through the suburbs, I knew I was lost. Really lost.

  Life was much harder in the days before cell phones. I’d seen pay phones, but I’d never needed to use one and I hadn’t thought to bring money with me anyway. I knew better than to talk to strangers; what if I knocked on their door and asked to use the phone and they locked me in the basement? I was better off out in the open, where I might see something familiar that would lead me back home.

  Although I pedaled like mad, it seemed I was going in circles. Lost, alone, hungry and scared, with no idea what to do next, I took a break at a school playground. While I sat on the swings and cried, some kids stole my bike.

  After walking for hours, I was sunburned. I had blisters on my feet. I was covered in bug bites. Night was falling and I feared being murdered in my sleep, so I vowed to myself I wouldn’t sleep.

  Then I saw a police car. I ran to it, beating on the windows for the cop to open the door, and I was so relieved that I fainted.

  When I came to, in an ambulance, my parents were there, both frantic and relieved. I’d never seen my dad cry, but right then he grabbed me and sobbed.

  After I was discovered missing, my parents thought I’d been kidnapped. The cops had been looking for me all over town. Although I later learned they were sure I’d snuck off to go swimming and had drowned, and search and rescue had been notified they might have to dredge the lake.

  The next morning my father took me into his office, so I knew I’d surpassed trouble and gone straight into big trouble.

  He’d told me I’d never be an ordinary boy. That I had a bright future and I’d play an important part in the company that bore the family name, but I had to understand that responsibility came with a price. There were people who’d want to hurt me. There were people who’d try to persuade me to make bad decisions. There were people who’d use me. I had to assume that most people wanted something from me. So my search for freedom had resulted only in my seeing the entire cage—not just a small corner of it—far sooner than I would’ve liked.

  “What are you thinking about so hard?” Lennox asked.

  I lifted my head and saw her leaning in the doorway. “Just some childhood memories.”

  She sauntered over and perched on the edge of the bed. “Did those memories include a hyper but loveable dog named Sparky?”

  “No. Why?”

  “I always wanted a dog. Like Nana in Peter Pan or Shadow in Homeward Bound or even a Chihuahua like the Taco Bell dog.” She plucked fuzz off the flannel sheet. “But my mom said no to pets. I couldn’t even have a goldfish. So I love hearing about pets people had growing up.”

  “We had an Irish wolfhound for a couple of years. After Cuddles got cancer and died, Mom said no more pets because we were all so upset.” I reached for her restless hand. “Did I snore too loud and chase you away last night?”

  She looked at me. “Not at all. I went looking for a coffeemaker.”

  “Did you find one?”

  “No—and, buddy, you promised.”

  “That I did.” I threw the covers back. “Coffee first. Then we’ll decide what we’re doing today after we hit the skiing trails.”

  *

  It was strange to be in the kitchen at the cabin in my pajamas with a woman I barely knew.

  “It’s awkward, in the light of day, isn’t it?”

  I looked up at her, wondering if I’d voiced that thought out loud. “What?”

  “This.” She gestured between us. “We hiked in the dark last night. You came into my room after I was freaked out about the dark. Now, today, I’m wishing for gloom and snow.” She sipped her coffee. “Or maybe it’s awkward because I’m not who you wanted me to be.”

  My eyes narrowed on her. “Explain that.”

  “My wild days are in the past, Brady. After telling you about my crappy upbringing, it just reminded me that I don’t want to go back to that girl who fucked and fought and got high and danced on the bar and had nothing going for her. I’m sad and embarrassed for the girl who believed ink and piercings would say to the world, ‘Screw you, this is who I am, I’m unique, I don’t conform,’ when in reality I was just like everyone else having an identity crisis.” She closed her eyes. “That was an eye-opener, the day I realized that in running away from my mother, I was just like her. That’s when I stopped running and worked to have something different.”

  Her openness floored me. In my limited experience, people who’d remade themselves were reluctant to talk about their past, about who they’d been before.

  Lennox is not this open with everyone, dumbass. She covers her tats and leaves out her piercings at the office because she wants to conform as much now as she did when she tried so hard to be nonconformist.

  I crossed the room and framed her face in my hands. “Lennox. Look at me.”

  She lifted her long lashes.

  “Thank you for talking to me.”

  At that, she offered me a smile.

  That smile loosened the tight feeling inside me I’d been carrying around for years.

  She sidestepped me. “Let’s strap on the gear and get the skiing thing out of the way.”

  Lennox lasted longer than I’d predicted on the skiing trails.

  I didn’t make a single crack about bears. Nor did I point out all the different animal tracks. But then again, her fear last night had led to our sharing a bed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent the entire night with a woman and I knew it’d never been so easy as it was with her.

  And torturous.

  “Hey, dreamy mountain man,” she shouted at me.

  “What?”

  “I’ve had enough of this nature shit. Let’s get dressed and take the sled dogs into the village for supplies. We can practice yodeling on the way back.”

  “Yodeling. Seriously?”

  “What? Your mom is from Sweden. They yodel there, right?”

  I honestly had no idea.

  “Besides, I want to test you on that ‘stepping out of your comfort zone’ promise.”

  “I already fulfilled that one this week.” I tapped my forearm. “I got a tat, remember?”

  “Lucky for you, then. This is gonna be a twofer.”

  *

 
; I stared up at the sign on the building. “You’re kidding, right?”

  “Nope. Come on, Mr. Lund—this will be fun. Let that creative side out.”

  “At Pottery to Paint? Lennox, look in the window. The average age in there is like . . . eight.”

  “Yay! I’ll be above average for once.”

  “Let’s go back to the bowling alley.”

  She rolled her eyes. “You only want to go back there so you can keep making cracks about the size of your blue balls.”

  I laughed.

  “Maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll have a paint-by-numbers option, since you claim that numbers make sense and you’re scared of plain old creativity.”

  “I’m not scared.” I brushed my lips over hers. “And, baby, I’m plenty creative when it counts.”

  “Prove it.” She shoved me toward the door.

  An hour later, we were still painting our coffee mugs. Evidently, that wasn’t a big seller with the grade-school crowd.

  “Pop quiz time,” Lennox said.

  I groaned.

  “Oh, stop. You suck at small talk, so I’m throwing you a bone in the ‘getting to know each other’ portion of our endless date.”

  “Feel free to throw me a bone whenever you want.”

  She flicked paint at me.

  “Fine. Small talk questionnaire. Go.”

  “Favorite movie.”

  “Avatar. Yours?”

  “Bridesmaids.” Without looking up from painting, she said, “Monopoly or Scrabble?”

  “Neither.” I’d finished my mug and watched her concentration as she painted. Her tongue would dart out. Then she’d sink her teeth into her bottom lip. Sometimes she’d scrunch up her nose. Or she’d narrow her gaze until she was almost cross-eyed. She was so damn cute. Everything she did, she gave her all, which fascinated me. Because I was exactly the same way?

  “That’s cheating.”

  “No, I’m just not conforming. My favorite game is chess.”

  She lifted her eyes to mine. “I saw a chessboard at the cabin. I challenge you to a match tonight.”

  “Challenge accepted.” Maybe I’d challenge her to a game of strip chess. “My turn. Favorite music.”

  “Rock. With some thrash metal thrown in. You?”

  “Guess.”

  “Classical. With a preference for piano arrangements.”

  I leaned forward. “Classical? I’m not that much older than you.”

  “Ah, but you’re that much classier than me, moneybags.” She smirked. “Besides, I saw the piano at the cabin, so I’m assuming that, in addition to dance lessons, Mama Lund made you take piano lessons and you had to practice even on vacation.”

  “Only Annika lasted longer than a year with the lessons. Walker actually took wire cutters and snipped all the piano strings so he wouldn’t have to play. Now guess again.”

  “Jazz fusion.”

  “Wrong.”

  “Blues.”

  “Wrong again.”

  “Show tunes.”

  “Piss. Off.”

  She laughed. “Okay. Obscure hipster coffeehouse emo crap only played on a recorder that was handcrafted in Peru?”

  I shook my head.

  “I give.”

  “Rock.”

  “Prove it.” Lennox set down her paintbrush. “Best rock song ever recorded.”

  “Easy. AC/DC ‘Back in Black.’”

  She snorted. “Wrong. Guns N’ Roses ‘Welcome to the Jungle.’”

  “I’d agree that’s the third best song . . . after ‘Back in Black’ and ‘Kashmir.’”

  “‘Kashmir’ is overrated. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is way better.”

  “Whatever. Where’d you learn to love rock music?”

  “My mom. She mostly listened to eighties hair metal bands and seventies arena rock. What about you?”

  “My parents. The first night they met my dad actually told my mom ABBA sucked and then forced her to listen to ‘real’ music.”

  “Do you ever listen to ABBA?”

  “Not that I’ll ever admit to.”

  “Hmm. We’ll have to swap iPods. Our musical tastes are in tune.”

  Impulsively I curled my hand around the back of her neck and pulled her in for a kiss. “I’m ‘Crazy on You.’”

  “Back atcha, ‘Magic Man.’”

  I kissed her again.

  The table of eight-year-olds next to us broke out in a chorus of “Eww! Gross!”

  “That’s our cue.”

  “I’m done anyway. It’ll look better once it’s been fired, but—ta-da! This is for you.” Lennox turned the mug around. The lettering read, WHO’S THE BOSS?

  What a sweet thing. “Thanks.”

  “You’re welcome. Let me see yours.”

  “Not here, baby. Think of the children.”

  “Omigod, you are such a perv!” She clapped her paint-spattered hands on my cheeks and kissed me hard. “I like that about you so, so much.”

  *

  We played chess. In front of a roaring fire. Sipping wine. With classical piano music playing in the background, because Lennox was a smart-ass that way.

  She thought the whole thing was an attempt at seduction and warned me that our “first foray into fucking” wasn’t going to be clichéd.

  I don’t think I’d ever laughed so much as I had with her.

  But then sometimes I’d look at her and let her see in my eyes all the dirty, kinky things I planned to do to her when the time was right.

  She went into the kitchen and rinsed the wineglasses.

  I followed her, moving in behind her at the sink. I pulled her shirt down so I could kiss the back of her neck. I loved the sound she made when I put my mouth on her there. I loved to feel the gooseflesh beneath my lips. I loved to absorb her shudder of pleasure when I sank my teeth into the curve where her shoulder became the nape of her neck. “Lennox. I want you in my bed tonight.”

  “Is that a command?”

  “No. It’s a request. I liked sleeping with you last night. And that’s all that’ll happen tonight.”

  “You sure?”

  “Yes. If I gave up the perfect opportunity to make love to you in front of a roaring fire on a snowy night in a cabin in the woods with wine and soft music . . . then I won’t settle for a quick tumble.”

  “All right. But I do plan on sleeping naked to test your resolve.”

  “Naked? But what if there’s a fire?”

  Lennox sidestepped me and pointedly looked at my crotch. “There’s already a hot spot in your pants, Brady. Maybe you’d better put it out before you come to bed.”

  Chapter Fifteen

 
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