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       Tripped Out, p.3

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  “Of course.”

  While she pored over the pages, Liam snagged a sparkling water from the mini fridge.

  Stirling squinted at the corner of one page, lifting the binder up and tilting it to achieve a better angle. Then a sneaky smile curled her lips and she looked absolutely adorable.

  Of all the adjectives you could assign to her, you choose…adorable? Not hot-as-fuck?

  “Dude. Did you really draw an effigy of me?”

  “Yes.”

  “When?”

  He refused to be embarrassed. “During the full staff meeting where you forced everyone to participate in ‘trust building’ exercises.”

  Amused, she said, “Not fond of corporate bonding techniques?”

  “I’ve never understood the purpose of them. It’s a waste of time.”

  “It’s a waste of my time if you’re doodling during the meeting,” she pointed out.

  That’s when he felt slightly guilty. “I apologize. But it is a pretty good likeness, isn’t it?”

  “Your rendering of my dreads is quite good. Yet I’m surprised you didn’t fashion them into snakes to cement my similarity to Medusa.”

  “You sound disappointed.”

  “I’m not. It’s just…” She tilted her head, sending those white-blond dreads tumbling over her shoulder like bleached-out ropes. “I would’ve drawn devil horns on you. Maybe blackened out a couple of teeth. Given you a beaver’s tail and a peg leg.”

  He reached into his pocket protector, withdrew a mechanical pencil, and rolled it across the table to her. “Prove it.”

  “You’re joking.”

  “You know you want to even the score.”

  “What makes you think I can draw?”

  Liam lifted an eyebrow. “I’m supposed to believe that someone else at High Society drew a sack and four penises on the back window of my car with the phrase ‘Eat a bag of dicks, asshat’?”

  She opened her mouth to deny it when Macon hustled into the room.

  He wore a Western-cut suit, cowboy boots, and a black hat. The suit wasn’t stylish; it veered close to cheap looking and tacky. Macon knew he came across as a hick ambulance-chasing lawyer, but that served him well. This persona was just that—a skin he slipped on when it suited him and slithered out of when he accomplished his goal. His adversaries in court wouldn’t recognize him outside the courtroom—which was exactly why he dressed as he did.

  “There’s no blood on the walls, floor, or conference table, so I’m assuming one of you just got here?” Macon said to Stirling.

  “Actually, Dr. Argent and I are taking a stab at civility.”

  Liam fought a smile. “Apt choice of phrasing, Miss Gradsky. But I concur.”

  Macon rolled his eyes. “Jesus. This is the one place I come to get away from lawyer speak, so knock that formal vocab shit off right now. And move down to this end of the table. This isn’t Game of Thrones.”

  When Liam said, “The iron throne is mine,” Stirling said the same thing.

  Their eyes caught and they both laughed.

  “I feel like I’ve stepped into an alternate dimension.”

  Liam muttered, “You’re not the only one,” as he walked over to claim the seat next to Stirling.

  Macon popped the locks on his beat-up briefcase. “Speaking of…” He pulled out a top of the line vaporizer pen and clicked it five times to ignite it.

  “Bad day?” Stirling asked.

  “You have no idea. TGIF.” He brought the pen to his mouth and inhaled.

  “Umm… It’s Thursday, not Friday, bro.”

  Liam gave Stirling a sideways glance. She seemed nonplussed about her brother’s behavior.

  “So? Why’d you call a meeting when it appears you’re ready to get your buzz on?”

  He exhaled. “Not a buzz, little sis. This is a boost because my workday won’t end until midnight.”

  Stirling said, “Your boss is a hardass,” fully aware that Macon ran his own law firm.

  “And I’ve heard he’s a smartass too,” Liam added.

  Ignoring their jabs, Macon rested his elbows on the conference table and addressed Stirling. “The recreational store had a dip in revenue last month. What happened?”

  Stirling jutted out that stubborn jaw, and Liam found it hard to concentrate on her words and not how perfectly plush her lips were. “We were out of stock on just about every edible we carry. We sold the fresh cookies and bars from Wake and Bake the same day they delivered them. And they can’t keep up with demand on their end, so increasing our order isn’t an option. The gummies, suckers, mints—all the prepackaged edibles—the suppliers ran out, again due to higher than expected demand across the city. Nothing we can do about that. Oh right, except buy that industrial-size supercritical CO2 extraction machine, so even if we opt not to create and sell our own edibles, we can resell the refined products—whether it’s oil, wax, or resin, since evidently there’s a shortage.”

  Liam nodded.

  “You’re the one who keeps telling me we don’t need to expand,” Macon said.

  “We don’t. This machine would be added value, not expansion.”

  “Revenue is down. And that machine and the vacuum ovens are astronomically expensive.”

  “Is it less expensive than the equipment you purchased for Dr. Argent’s secret lab? Has that paid off?”

  Macon glanced at Liam. “Last time we spoke you’d successfully spliced two heirloom strains. Where are you on that?”

  “Splicing only produced me four live plants to work with, and two of those were culled for pollination in case I do get positive results. They’re in second stage grow right now.”

  “Any indication whether the new strain will have a higher yield?”

  Liam bristled. “I’ll remind you that I didn’t sign on to increase the size of your recreational cash crop.”

  Silence.

  Then Macon said, “I’d hoped that higher yield would be a positive side effect of your experimentation.”

  “Hoped?” Stirling repeated.

  Liam deflected the conversation. “You have Artie managing the grow. He’s rotating twenty-four cannabis varieties. Most commercial growers with a retail store aren’t offering their clientele half that many premium options. It’s not like we’re cannibalizing the recreational side to support my work on the medical side.”

  “So what exactly is it that you do around here if Artie is managing the grow?” she asked.

  But Macon talked over her and the question was lost. “You developed a medical strain that met with great success, which is why I hired you.”

  No, you hired me because you want to win the 420 Cup.

  “Whoa.” Stirling made a time-out sign. “You both lost me. Back up. Explain Dr. Argent’s success with developing a new medical strain.”

  That was humbling. Stirling didn’t know anything about his prior accomplishment. But then again, few people did since he’d signed nondisclosures. Still, it made no sense that Macon hadn’t told his business partner about his qualifications.

  This was not good. So much for their truce.

  “If you two weren’t so goddamned busy fighting maybe you would’ve had a normal conversation between colleagues. So I’ll spell it out for you, sis.” Macon pointed at Liam. “Ever heard of the Livin’ Large variety?”

  “Of course I have,” she snapped. “It’s the premier CBN strain owned by a Dutch pharmaceutical company. It’s had excellent results alleviating several common ailments cancer patients suffer from during and after chemotherapy. What does that have to do with this?”

  “Everything. Dr. Liam Argent bred that hybrid strain. Think about it. The varietal name is pretty fucking clever.”

  A beat passed. “L from his first name and arge from his last name,” she muttered and blew out a breath. “Fine. So you’re some kind of ganja rockstar god for your cannabis creation. But that just makes me even more suspicious of why’d you’d come to work for us. We’re nobody. We’re not la
rge scale. Hell, we’re not even medium scale.”

  “I came to work here because I grew up in Denver and I was tired of California.”

  “That’s it?” she demanded.

  “No. My previous employer fucked me over. The Dutch company paid GreenTech, the research facility I worked in, millions for the right to register the name with the international plant registry. I was allowed to name the strain but not tell anyone I’d created it. That right belonged to GreenTech.” He felt like an idiot admitting that he’d signed away his ownership rights in his employment contract. “I wanted to continue the work I’d been doing and Macon promised me minimal oversight.” And a one-year contract. Somehow he didn’t think Stirling knew about that, either.

  “That’s why you refused to show me what you were working on. Afraid I was going to steal it?”

  Liam felt her glare—as hot as a Bunsen burner—and met it head on. “Like I mentioned earlier, had you just asked me nicely, Miss Gradsky, I would’ve been happy to accommodate you. But it doesn’t change the truth that anyone with a handful of cannabis seeds, a place to grow, and access to the Internet can cultivate and clone cannabis. And yes, I’m completely aware that the goal in a commercial facility is growing bigger buds, which equals higher yields and more money. But it’d be a waste of the top of the line scientific instruments in my lab, and a waste of my doctorate in microbiology, to be quite frank, to focus my expertise solely on increasing quantity.”

  Throw Macon under the bus? Or let the bus plow over him?

  No brainer.

  Brace yourself, Macon.

  “Besides, Macon was aware I’d be focused on continuing my work isolating CBD and CBN characteristics to build phytocannabinoid profiles and further break down each pharmacological effect.”

  Macon opened his mouth to comment, but Stirling shut him down. “You hired him to do research that we don’t need? And doesn’t add any value to our business?”

  Ouch. Seemed the bus had hit him as well.

  “Yes, Liam is a scientist with loftier and nobler goals than peddling premium pot.” Macon shot him a look. “Giving him autonomy and not filling you in on his role here was an error in judgment on my part.”

  “You’re damn right it was. We’re supposed to be partners. You know that I sank every cent I had into this venture. I trusted your judgment across the board. I didn’t even question your initial projected numbers for ROI.” She paused and glared at Macon. “How inflated were they?”

  “Only by two percent. And stretched out over forty-eight months instead of twenty-four months.”

  Stirling stood and slapped her hands on the table in front of her brother. “And you have the balls to bring up one month’s lower than expected revenue with me? When it appears I’ll have to wait four fucking years to earn back what I put in?”

  Macon said, “The bottom line is we need to expand.”

  “Bigger is not better. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that. You know that is not what I wanted.”

  “No, you didn’t want to deal with the plant side from the start, so I hired Dr. Argent to do that. You insisted on setting up the rec store. Dealing with vendors. Choosing the right budtenders. Hiring other knowledgeable employees, a website guru, a graphic designer for branding and ads. You put it all together so the space had a good vibe.”

  “I never intended for my contribution to this business to be managing employees and ordering stock. There’s far more to running the front end that I’m not getting to do because I’m stuck working fourteen plus hours every day.”

  “I guess we’re both wrong in our expectations, aren’t we?”

  Stirling made a growling noise that set the hair on the back of Liam’s neck on end.

  Macon sighed. “I admit I haven’t been focused on this business, with running my law practice—”

  “Save it. I’m done.” She stormed toward the exit, her dreadlocks swaying across her back.

  “Done? What do you mean done?” Macon demanded.

  Stirling didn’t even turn around as she flipped him off and slammed the door behind her.

  And things had been going so well.

  For about twenty minutes.

  Macon tossed his vape pen in his briefcase and snapped the locks. He pushed to his feet.

  “Where do you think you’re going?” Liam asked.

  “To smooth things over with my sister.”

  “Leave her be.”

  “Right. It’ll be ten times worse if—”

  “You track her down and come up with more bullshit excuses?” he said tightly.

  Macon hung his head.

  “Why not just tell her that you hired me to craft a new strain to enter into the 420 Cup while I was working on research?”

  “Because neither of those things matter to her. The 420 Cup was created to showcase new cannabis businesses, which is why we can only enter it one time. Wacky Tobaccky built their multimillion-dollar business on winning it. So did Green Machine—and they’re the two largest volume dispensaries in Colorado. The impact of winning the cup will wear off, but not in its third year. You knocked it out of the park with our entry, Liam. That is the smoothest indica-sativa hybrid I’ve ever smoked. Winning that award would be a game changer on so many levels for High Society, and we both know it.”

  “Again, not to sound like a broken record, but why not just tell Stirling that?”

  “Because she’s already overworked and she’ll just see more recognition as more work. My former Big Ag, corporate executive sister is a pot purist. She argues that we’ll continue to set ourselves apart by providing customers with a personalized boutique experience, and not becoming the Costco of cannabis.” He snorted. “Putting the business in beer terms—I’m Coors and she’s a craft brewery.”

  “Partners usually have a singular vision. You’ve been alternately micromanaging petty matters and ignoring major points of contention.” Liam narrowed his eyes. “Did you intentionally pit me against Stirling? Ensuring we each kept our own agendas instead of developing a common goal?”

  “Oh, hell no. I’ll shoulder the blame for my shortsightedness in the name of profit and following my gut instead of a preset financial strategy, but I had nothing to do with you and Stirling butting heads from day one.”

  “Fair enough.” But Macon couldn’t deny that he’d kept the grow and the retail side as separate entities. With limited staff, Liam and Stirling had been too busy in their respective departments to get to know each other, to say nothing of really working together. “Have you heard when they’re announcing the 420 Cup winner?”

  “I’m expecting the call—win or lose—any day.”

  If they didn’t win, would Macon let him go when the one-year contract was up? Liam had forced himself not to think about it.

  “Look, will you tell Stirling we’ll reconvene same time tomorrow? I’ll figure something out between now and then.”

  Liam pointed at him. “There’s your problem. You and Stirling need to figure it out.”

  “And we will. Tomorrow.” Macon’s cell phone rang and he answered it as he sailed out the door.

  After picking up his binder, Liam headed for Stirling’s office.

  He knocked and waited.

  No response.

  At least he hadn’t heard her cocking a pistol or racking a shotgun.

  Liam knocked again. “Stirling. It’s Liam. Macon left.”

  Silence.

  He turned the handle and found the door unlocked. As he slowly pushed it open, he thought, Please don’t let the door be booby-trapped.

  He’d pulled that prank on her after she’d put powdered Kool-Aid in his lab gloves, turning his hands vivid purple. A man could only stand so many “Did you jack off Barney?” jokes before he snapped. He added color to Stirling’s life by placing a plastic bucket filled with red Jell-O mix and powdery fine glitter above the door. The next morning he’d literally caught her red-faced and red-handed.

  Liam eased the door o
pen and said, “Stirling? I’m coming in.”

  She stood in front of the windows with her back to him.

  “Are you okay?”

  “No. Did my brother send you?”

  “No. I stopped him from storming in here and making things worse.”

  “I don’t know how they could get any worse.”

  His gut tightened at her clipped tone. Without thinking, he moved in behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders, just wanting to…soothe her.

 
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