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       Tripped Out, p.5

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  “For a while, when I had a source I trusted in Boulder. After I got the position with GenAgra and moved to Denver, I stopped smoking entirely. Not because of company drug-testing but I was the only woman at that management level and I had it in my head that I needed to set a good example.”

  After he asked, “How old were you?” he nonchalantly straightened the bottom of her legging and rested his hand on her ankle.

  Not a big deal that he’s touching you. Keep talking. “I finished my undergrad degree in three years so I was twenty-three when I graduated from UC with my masters. I considered myself lucky to get that job.”

  “I’ll bet you did, with the dreads and the piercings.”

  She blinked at him. “Oh, God no. Back then I looked like I’d walked straight out of the ‘how to dress for corporate success’ handbook. Sleek blond bob, business suits—not too tight—in neutral colors. My blouses were feminine—but not low-cut—because heaven forbid my cleavage would ever show.”

  His gaze slid down to her chest and lingered. “Good riddance to the Amish work wear.”

  Heat bloomed on her cheeks. “So for the next five years I worked a minimum of sixty-hours a week. I made myself indispensable—or so I believed.”

  “I’m familiar with that mindset.”

  “A few things pushed me into questioning my quality of life. My sister London had a baby. I had to cancel a vacation I’d booked a year in advance because of some crisis at work, which turned out to be nothing but the big boss passing the buck until it hit me. I was a frazzled, angry mess and I needed to find a way to de-stress. About that time medicinal cannabis dispensaries started popping up all over Denver. On a whim I ducked into one far away from my work and my apartment.”

  He chuckled. “I’m imagining you skulking around, wearing a trench coat and a fedora, trying to be inconspicuous.”

  “Ha ha. No. I dressed in a lab coat and bullied my way in like a know-it-all scientist.”

  He pinched her. “Not nice.”

  “I got my diagnosis and my prescription.”

  “Did your…prescription affect your job performance?”

  She shrugged. “No. Except maybe I had more clarity.”

  “About?”

  “My life. Myself. My role in the company. I couldn’t deny my disillusionment. I’d been unable to implement the ideas I’d brought as that gung-ho grad student. I’d started to wonder if they hired me to fill a quota. I began to see and hear the sexism, and once you’re aware of it, you can’t be unaware again. It’d spilled from my work life into my personal life and I hadn’t realized it.”

  His gaze turned sharp. “Details.”

  “At the time I had a boyfriend, Nick, who worked for the same company but in a different department. He was one of those good-looking, smooth-talking sales guys. The type of man who never looked twice at a woman like me. So when he lavished attention on me…”

  “You fell for it.”

  “Hook, line, and sinker. My higher position meant I earned more money than he did. He claimed it wasn’t an issue and I believed him, even when he expected me to pay for things since my paycheck eclipsed his. Outside of work, I took on the traditional role of cook and housekeeper. His role was appreciating all I did for him as he parked his ass in front of the TV.”

  “Sounds like a real prince.”

  “Did you say a real prick?” She sneered. “Why yes, he was.”

  “I’m sure Nick the Prick didn’t understand your need to de-stress.”

  “No. And he was very condescending about my juvenile excuse to be a pothead. But drinking bourbon three or four nights a week until you pass out is so much more mature.”

  “Same old argument we’re hearing even now, when cannabis is a legal, adult choice,” he grumbled. “But go on.”

  “For the last year Nick and I were a couple, my male bosses kept asking when ‘Nick was gonna make an honest woman of me.’ I laughed it off—good-old-boy, old-school attitude I’d learned to deal with, right? Then it all came crashing down at a company cocktail party. Booze was flowing, lips were loose. I spent the majority of the evening dealing with a supplier issue so the big bosses could get hammered on free top-shelf liquor and brag about the size of their bank accounts and their dicks. Somehow I ended up overhearing my direct supervisor and my boyfriend discussing my future. Nick practically guaranteed that after we were married and he knocked me up I’d become a stay-at-home mom. That betrayal was bad enough. But when my supervisor said he’d have me start training Nick to take over my position? I had a reality check.”

  Liam swept his thumb across her ankle bone, creating a tingle of awareness that zipped all the way up to the nape of her neck. “I hope you beat the fuck out of Nick the Prick right there, in front of all your big bosses, so they saw firsthand what a loser pussy he was.”

  “I hadn’t grown a pair of balls yet.” She paused to catch her breath. “You know…have you ever really thought about that phrase? How derogatory it is? Like women are inferior because we don’t have a hairy nut sac? Like that wrinkly, dangling thing between a man’s legs is a source of power? And we somehow need a pair of them to be strong?” Her indignation grew. “As of right now I’m banning that phrase. Women don’t need to grow balls to be tough. We grow human beings. Inside our bodies. So from this point on, when a dude pisses me off? I’m gonna tell him to woman up and grow a goddamn uterus. Balls are for pussies.”

  Liam started laughing. His laughter was sexy. And contagious.

  Stirling joined in and it was several moments before they regained control.

  She was wiping her eyes when Liam said, “You kill me, bulldog. You have since that first day.”

  “You have an odd way of showing it.” She cocked her head. “Bulldog? Is that a nickname?”

  “Yes, because you are tenacious.”

  “But…bulldogs are ugly, mean, and slobbery.”

  He studied her until she became self-conscious.

  “What?”

  Then he blushed. “Once again I utterly fail at the nickname game. My last girlfriend always made a kissy face in selfies. So in my need to come up with a term of endearment for her, I called her duck lips.”

  She gasped. “You did not.”

  “I did. Just that one time. I never bothered to try out any others.” He shook his head. “Stoner segue. Back to you. Finish your story. What happened next after Nick the Prick made his declaration to your boss?”

  “I did the typical girly thing and ran home to my mother.”

  “And?”

  “And she listened. She asked the questions I’d been too afraid to ask myself. When I returned to Denver, I broke it off with Nick. I did my job but I didn’t put in nearly the hours I had before. So we got behind schedule. When management tried to blame it on me, I pointed out the obvious: I’d been overworked and underpaid for years. I knew they were looking for an excuse to can me. And they found one when we had a random drug test.”

  He squinted at her. “Is that even legal?”

  “Turns out it wasn’t. I tested positive for marijuana. When I met with my supervisor, he claimed he’d ‘heard’ I’d become addicted to pot and my recent poor performance proved it.”

  “I presume Nick the Prick brought his concerns about you to his new buddy, your boss?”

  She nodded. Thinking about that now, even a few years later, still brought a lump to her throat. Nick, that rat bastard, a man she thought she’d loved…had betrayed her. “I suffered through my supervisor’s lecture on GenAgra’s ‘family values’ philosophy, which he followed up with airing his personal disappointment in my ‘illegal’ activities. Then the bullshit got deeper as he expressed his concern that I’d show up high for client meetings and that would reflect badly on the company. So I was being terminated, effective immediately.” She took a breath. “I let him blather, then I let him stew as I sat across from him and said nothing. If the smug look on his face was an indication… he thought he’d cowed me. But he’d forgotte
n I hadn’t reached that level of success by being nice. I pointed out that the department I worked in had issues before I took over, and I’d done the workload of my predecessors—which was two men—by myself.”

  “Did that wipe the smugness away?”

  “Yes, especially after I informed him there was nothing illegal about my positive drug test because I did have a doctor’s prescription for medicinal use of cannabis, so firing me would result in my attorney filing a lawsuit for wrongful termination.”

  “I’ll bet Macon had a field day with that.”

  “He did. It took a solid year before GenAgra agreed to the settlement, which was substantial.” That reminded her of the blowup with Macon earlier. Sometimes she thought going into business with her brother was the worst decision she’d ever made.

  “You and Macon fight, but that’s how issues get addressed and resolved. That process works for you.” Liam squeezed her foot and moved to sit up. “We both need another hit. Something different this time.”

  “Any more and I won’t be driving home.”

  He prepped the pipe. “So crash here on the couch. The extra time together will result in us brainstorming a brilliant solution to present to Macon tomorrow.”

  Stirling spun around and set her feet on the floor. “Us?”

  “Why do you think I asked you to come over?”

  Talk about a dash of cold water. Had she misread Liam’s signals entirely? This…dinner, sharing a smoke, and exchanging life histories was only about improving their working relationship? Why did that bother her so much?

  Because you want this to be something different than it’s been with him. You’ve spilled your guts and he’s shared nothing.

  She said, “What’s in it for you?” a little more sharply than she’d intended.

  “Less tension in the workplace. It’s time I became a team player.” He sucked in a huge hit and passed the pipe to her.

  For a moment she just held the pipe, wondering if she should set it down, make her excuses, and leave.

  After he exhaled, he rested his hand on her thigh. “Stay. Please. This is the best night I’ve had since I moved to Denver. I like talking to you.”

  Her heart raced. “Okay. But only if I’m not doing all the talking.”

  “But I’d much rather listen to you.”

  “Why?”

  Liam handed her the lighter and watched her mouth intently as she lit up and filled her lungs. “It’s that husky timbre of your voice. It sounds like…”

  She exhaled. “Like I just smoked some premium weed?”

  “No. It sounds like sex.”

  Her vision went hazy and pleasure suffused her entire body.

  From the weed? Or from his words?

  Through the rush she swore she heard Liam say, “Hot, dirty, sweaty sex. Makes me think that’s how you’d sound when your throat was raw from coming so hard, so many times.”

  This shit was potent if she had hallucinations that Dr. Detached was murmuring in her ear about sex noises.

  “What did we just smoke?”

  “Something new I’ve been working on.”

  “Jesus. We need to sell this. It’s fucking amazing.”

  They sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch, not speaking, but Liam hadn’t removed his hand from her leg either.

  Don’t read anything into it. And for fuck’s sake, don’t bring it up.

  But her brain and her mouth weren’t in synch. She found herself saying, “You have big hands.”

  Grabbing her wrist, he pressed their palms together, holding them up and studying them. “Mine is big.”

  She laughed. “That’s what all men say.”

  His warm lips brushed her ear and he murmured, “Filthy-minded girl.”

  The left side of her body broke out in goose bumps.

  “Just another thing to like about you.”

  Her mouth had gone bone dry. “I need some water.” She shot to her feet, lost her balance, and in trying to right herself, she tweaked her lower back.

  “Ow. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”

  Liam scrambled off the couch. “What’s wrong?”

  Stirling remained bent over at the waist. “I pulled something in my lower back.”

  “Do you need help straightening up?”

  “No!” Oh, wowza. Hanging upside down after the head buzz from that last hit… Not good. Everything was spinning. She slowly dropped her hands to the carpet and then lowered to her knees.

  “Is that better?”

  She arched her back, trying to pop the muscle into place. The sharp, stabbing pain snapped her resolve to act tough, “Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

  “I’ll take that as a no.” Liam sank to his knees and peered into her eyes. “What can I do?”

  “Rub the spot until whatever is caught snaps back into place.” She stretched out, facedown on the floor, and groaned. “But you’ll have to take my pants off first.”

  Chapter Four

  Liam’s brain got stuck on her husky demand, Take my pants off.

  Yes, of course. And I prefer to use my teeth.

  No.

  Not happening. He’d help her work the kinks out—would he ever love to help her with that in a completely different context—but if he removed her pants his brain would cease to be of any use to him at all.

  She moaned.

  “Point to where it hurts,” he said.

  She reached around and pressed her thumb next to the bone of her right hip. “Here.”

  Thankfully he only had to slide her pants down to the upper curve of her butt. The lemony scent of her laundry detergent, or her lotion, or maybe that was her skin, teased his nose. As he leaned in closer, he was mad to find the origin of that intoxicating fragrance. Rub his face in it so every time he breathed in he’d be surrounded by her scent.

  Take it down a notch, perv.

  “Hold still.” Replacing her thumb with his fingers, he began to rub the area.

  Her body tensed.

  He’d never been a “give a woman a massage” type of guy, not even as a precursor to sex. “Tell me if I’m too rough.”

  “I like it rough. The harder you push into me, the better.”

  Liam bit back a groan. Christ. She likely hadn’t meant it the way he’d taken it, but his brain decided to supply him with images of her naked beneath him anyway, their hands clasped above her head as he drove his cock into her with enough force to rattle the windows.

  “Yes. Right there. God, that’s the exact spot. More.”

  Her low whimper started a soundtrack in his head of all the sexy noises he’d wring from her as he meticulously mapped every millimeter of her body with just his mouth.

  Don’t go there. You’re high and horny because this is the first time you’ve touched a woman since you left California.

  He cleared his throat, “Talk to me. Last thing you said was Macon got your settlement a year after he filed suit. What were you doing during that time?”

  “Letting out my inner bohemian. Went with the dreads and nose ring.” She propped her chin on her forearm and looked over her shoulder at him. “What’s the story with your tattoos?”

  He muttered, “That’s random.”

  “No, it’s your turn to fill in the blanks. Tell me about your tats.”

  “Is this helping?” He dug his thumb into the flesh between her hip joint and her spine.

  “Yes. Keep rubbing. Keep talking. Tats. Stat.”

  “Why are you so certain there’s significance behind them?”

  “Because I doubt you do anything without methodically weighing the pros and cons, especially when it comes to something you’ll have to live with the rest of your life. And not only do you have a sleeve, the design begins at your knuckles and ends at your neck. That’s hardcore ink.”

  “And I don’t seem like a hardcore guy.”

  “Exactly. Nor do you act like the kind of guy who’d give a damn what anyone thought, one way or the other. Perhaps that’
s why you did it.”

  He smiled. “Very astute, Miss Gradsky.”

  “Thank you, professor. So you might as well tell me because I’m a bulldog when it comes to this stuff.”

  “Fine. You win.” He stopped kneading her back. “Like you mentioned, I’m fully aware of the first impression I make. And you were correct in that I didn’t give a damn how others—strangers or colleagues—saw me. I’d started the doctoral program at MIT with the same physical appearance I’d
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