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       Tripped Out, p.4

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  And it was very telling, how lost she was in her own head that she didn’t flinch or shrug him off.

  “Talk to me,” he said softly.

  “About what?”

  “About everything.”

  “I don’t even know where to start.”

  “How about at the beginning? Where we should’ve started months ago.”

  Stirling tensed up. “I can’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “I’m too goddamned mad to think straight right now.”

  He grinned. In the reflection of the window he saw her stick her tongue out at him. “Lucky for you, Miss Gradsky, I have the perfect outlet for that anger.”

  She started to argue, but he cut her off.

  “Before you assume that my suggestion is sexual in nature, I’ll add that my anger management solution involves boxing gloves and a heavy bag.”

  Stirling faced him. “Are you serious? Because I could totally beat the shit out of something right now.”

  “I have a full kick boxing setup at my place.”

  Her eyes searched his. “So you’re what…inviting me over?”

  “Yes.” His pulse kicked up a notch or thirty. “We need to talk. You need to punch the fuck out of my heavy bag. While you’re doing that and getting your head together, I’ll cook dinner for us.”

  “You cook?”

  Liam snagged one of her dreadlocks and tugged it. “Throwing pasta in a pan is much easier than gene splicing.”

  “True.”

  “Even if you don’t trust my culinary skills, Stirling, don’t deny that after that shitshow of a meeting with Macon, we’re long overdue for a serious discussion.”

  “I don’t deny it.”

  “Good. I’ll text you my address.” He took a couple of steps back. “Don’t overthink this and convince yourself not to show up.”

  No surprise that guilt flashed in her eyes.

  “Punching, pasta, and conversation.” Liam smiled at her. “That’s it.”

  “Okay. But attempt any funny business, Dr. Pushy, and I’m punching you with your own gloves.”

  Chapter Three

  Stirling’s mood didn’t change during the thirty minutes it took her to lock up and drive over to Liam’s house. She double checked the number on the front of the brick duplex against the text message and parked in the empty space on the street.

  Backpack in hand, she jogged up the sidewalk. She’d held her rage, disillusionment, and self-recriminations at bay until that moment when she could let her fists fly.

  A set of wide stone steps led to a small porch, surrounded on three sides by a wrought-iron railing. An enormous lilac bush separated the duplex’s entrances, offering additional privacy. In this older section of Denver, the well-established vines climbed the bricks and twisted around the fence. This house looked exactly like the kind of place that a stuffy professor—or a tight-ass scientist—would call home.

  None of that. A truce means no name calling, no matter how funny some of the names are.

  She poked the doorbell.

  Immediately the curved wooden door opened, almost as if he’d been standing there, anxious for her arrival.

  “Hey.”

  “Hey.” Her fingers tightened on the strap of her backpack as she followed him into the foyer.

  Liam pointed up the stairs. “The workout room is the first door on your left. There’s a variety of gloves and hand wraps. Feel free to hook your phone up to the stereo system and play music as loud as you want. My neighbor is hard of hearing and this old house is solidly soundproofed.”

  “Even against screams?” she blurted out.

  Those silver-hued eyes of his softened and he reached out as if to reassure her.

  She’d start bawling if he showed her kindness. Right now she needed to give her anger an outlet. Civility would have to wait. “Uh, thanks.”

  “Take as much time as you need. Come find me in the kitchen when you’re done.”

  * * * *

  Everything blurred together—the repetitive thud of her gloves, the speed metal blasting from her phone, the creak of the chain holding the heavy bag, and her harsh grunts breaking free with each hard punch. Uncertainty, and anger drove her until exhaustion had her clinging to the heavy bag. She inhaled. Exhaled. Letting her tears fall down her face to mix with the sweat dripping from her chin. She needed to get it all out of her system now, break down in solitude.

  Once she’d regained control, she collected herself as she mopped her face with a hand towel. What was that old adage? Never let them see you sweat?

  Wrong. Better to show them sweat and blood than tears.

  Stirling returned downstairs, confident in her ability to be rational and remain cool-headed and professional.

  Holy shit.

  She froze in the open doorway to the kitchen.

  How in the hell was she supposed to remain professional when she finally got to see Dr. Liam Argent without his trusty lab coat?

  Talk about giving “tight ass” a whole new meaning. Had his jeans been custom made to perfectly mold that bitable backside?

  Her gaze moved up, skimming across his wide shoulders. The dark gray T-shirt was contoured in all the right places, showcasing his impressive biceps. His tattoo started at the knuckles of his right hand, continuing up the front and back of his forearm until the colorful ink disappeared beneath the sleeve of his T-shirt.

  Just how much of his surprisingly buff body was inked?

  Liam chose that moment to turn around. Unlike her, his gaze didn’t leave her face. “Better?”

  “Much. Thank you. I’ll warn ya… I probably reek since I don’t have a change of clothes.”

  He shrugged. “After dealing with terpenes all day, nothing bothers me.”

  “I had no clue what terpenes were until a guy in my freshman year took me to his place and turned me loose in his grow house. I’ll never forget how surprising it was to pick out those individual aromas—terpenes—when I rubbed on different plants’ leaves. I always thought pot was pot and all marijuana plants smelled the same. Even now that I’m educated on the scent of different terpenes, I don’t understand how smokers seek out weed with that cheesy funk smell. My gag reflex kicks in. I prefer varieties with a floral, fuel, fruit, or pine aroma.”

  “Hence why terpenes are so important and why we need to educate consumers on the impact their cannabis choice will have on them. What smells good to you will taste good when you smoke. Scientifically speaking, all the cannabis compounds interact synergistically to create an ‘entourage effect’ that magnifies the therapeutic benefits of the plant’s individual components—so we can see that the medicinal impact of the whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts. That is what fascinates me.”

  Stirling blinked at him.

  He groaned. “I apologize in advance for slipping into lecture mode. I drift into that when I’m passionate about something and I tend to go into excessive detail…or so I’ve been told.” He blushed. “Not that you need me to explain things to you, since you have a scientific background.”

  The man was so damn cute when he was flustered.

  “Put me out of my misery, please, and let’s eat.” He pointed to an alcove which held a round table and four chairs. “Dinner is done.”

  He’d laid out two place settings. She sat near the counter and checked out his living room. A gray, black, and red plaid couch, a black leather recliner, a metal coffee table, and a gray wingback chair were arranged on a vivid scarlet rug. Art decorated the walls. Impressive and not at all what she’d expected.

  Liam slid a plate in front of her. “Linguine with pesto and parmesan.”

  “Looks and smells delicious.”

  “Thanks. It’s my go-to dish when I want a fast meal.”

  They ate in relative silence.

  Stirling snuck looks at Liam, wondering what caused his brow to furrow behind his glasses. She probably should’ve been organizing her thoughts for their impending conversation
, but she couldn’t stop her eyes from tracking over his ropy forearms, his broad shoulders, and the muscular definition in his chest. Seeing him in street clothes reiterated the fact that Dr. Liam Argent was hot as fire.

  “Stirling? You okay? You look flushed.”

  Busted. “Lingering effect from my heavy bag session.”

  “I’ll get you a glass of water.” He picked up both of their empty plates and retreated to the kitchen.

  Who was this solicitous hunk? What happened to Dr. Condescending, Calculating, and Contrary?

  He froze next to the table when he caught her eyeballing him. “What?”

  “It’s really strange that we’re basically strangers and we’ve worked together for ten months.”

  He relaxed. “I agree.”

  “I’m not being sarcastic when I ask… How do we do this? Drop the shields and the preconceived ideas we’ve had about each other and really get to know each other?”

  “We talk about our life’s triumphs and failures.” Liam’s grin was nothing short of dazzling. “But I say we get high first.”

  “Omigod, I knew it! You invited me to your place to get me stoned out of my mind so I’d have sex with you.”

  His smile died and his cheeks flushed.

  The man was adorable and delectable. She was totally fucked.

  “Umm, actually—”

  “I was just giving you shit, Dr. Strangelove. That’s what friends do.”

  “Just for that, Miss Gradsky, I’m making you go first.” He set down her glass of water. “And I’m not talking about who gets the first hit.”

  Smiling, she followed him into the living room.

  He perched on the edge of the couch and pulled out a plain wooden box from the lower shelf of the coffee table. As soon as he opened the lid, the sweet, pungent scent of cannabis drifted out.

  “So what variety is our dessert?”

  “Guess.” He popped the top of the small glass container right under her nose.

  She sniffed. “Definitely fuel based. Slight hint of lemon on the back end. I’m guessing…Sour D?”

  Liam smiled at her. “Close. Sour Amnesia. The back end of this one is a skunky spice, not citrus. This one is more uplifting than brain fogging.” He bumped his shoulder into hers. “Good nose. Maybe you should keep running the retail store.”

  “Piss off.”

  He laughed.

  She tried not to react to that sexy, husky deep laugh.

  And she really tried not to notice how dexterous his long fingers were as he prepped the pipe. But every motion seemed overtly sexual. How lovingly he stroked the glass. How firmly his thumb pressed into the flint on the lighter as he adjusted the level of the flame. How reverently he broke up the bud and then lifted his fingers to his nose, closing his eyes as he inhaled that unique fragrance.

  Stirling imagined those long fingers of his sliding down between her legs. Teasing. Stroking. Fingering her with the same adept touch. Then bringing proof of her arousal between them. Holding his damp fingers coated in her essence, right there for her to see and for him to breathe in. For him to taste.

  God yes. Please. It has been so long…

  What was wrong with her? She hadn’t even taken a hit…and yet she felt that telltale buzz.

  “Liam? What kind of herb did you use in your pesto?”

  “Basil. Why?”

  “Cause I feel…a little fluffy.”

  “That would be from the cannabis-infused olive oil that I mixed in with the basil.”

  The man had the audacity to smile at her. Then he brought the pipe to her lips. “Ladies first.”

  She flicked the lighter, lit the load, and breathed deep into the bottom of her lungs. As she held in the smoke, she passed the pipe to Liam and sank back into the cushions.

  Immediately on her exhale a punch of happiness washed over her. She watched him take his turn and then he relaxed into the couch.

  After a stretch of silence, Liam said, “You want another hit?”

  “Not now. I’m good.” She sighed. “Much faster acting than the stuff you snuck into my food.”

  “Honestly, I grabbed the oil without thinking.”

  “It wasn’t a part of your nefarious plan to seduce me?”

  “No.”

  She heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Well, that’s a damn cryin’ shame.”

  “Right.” He snorted. “You’re definitely high.”

  “That’s the goal.”

  After a bit, she snickered.

  “I knew ganja would make you giggly, Gradsky.”

  “You rock at alliteration.”

  “I kill at Scrabble too.”

  “We’ll have to play sometime.” Stirling turned her head and looked at him. “Wanna hear something funny and ironic?”

  “Besides usage in the general populace of the phrase ‘soft abrasive’? What advertising genius coined that idiotic axiom? I can guarantee it wasn’t a chemist.”

  She laughed. “You’re toasted.”

  “Like a bagel on Sunday morning. Anyway, continue with funny and ironic.”

  “I didn’t touch weed until I was in grad school.”

  Liam kept his eyes closed but he quirked his brow. “Why?”

  “I had too much ambition and I feared marijuana would dampen that drive.”

  “A logical observation, but a wrong assumption.” He sat up and moved to the corner of the couch, stretching his legs across the cushions. “Do you mind?”

  She mimicked his pose on the other end, making room for his long legs. He wasn’t wearing socks, and she couldn’t help but notice he had sexy feet. Or maybe seeing him so obviously relaxed, barefoot and wearing casual clothes, was what made him so approachably sexy.

  “Ah. Thank you. So where were we now that the truth serum is kicking in?”

  “I was detailing my sordid past about how trying pot just one time led me to co-owning a marijuana marketplace.”

  There was that wicked grin of his again. Her stomach did a slow flip. “How did you wind up on the road to ruin, Miss Gradsky?”

  “I did my grad work at UC Boulder.”

  “Enough said.”

  “Hey now, not nice.” She bumped her knee into his. “Anyway, some of the smartest people I studied with were recreational smokers. I figured if it hadn’t hurt their brains then I’d try it. Because I was paranoid, I did some research and selected a guy who knew his weed to pop my pot cherry.”

  Liam frowned.

  “He gave me a crash course and I tried different varieties until I found a couple I liked.”

  “What did you like about it after purposely staying away from it for so long?”

  “That I could choose the level of high. It doesn’t work that way with booze. And I never felt like crap the next day, unlike doing tequila shots. With booze, I overshot that happy buzz more times than not. I like to be in control.”

  Those silvery eyes widened behind his glasses. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

  She knocked her knee into his again.

  “So you became a regular smoker?”

 
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