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       Tripped Out, p.6

         Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 
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  maintained since grad school. Malachi, my assigned partner, was an atypical doctoral candidate. A jai alai player who partied as much as he studied. A leather-jacket-wearing, motorcycle-driving, long-haired gym rat. The utter opposite of me. I suspected I’d be doing ninety percent of our lab work, which suited me fine because I’d be in complete control.”

  Stirling wiggled her backside. “You stopped rubbing that spot just when it’d started to feel better. Keep going.”

  “Sorry.”

  “Keep going with the story, too.”

  He absentmindedly swept his thumbs over the dimples of her ass as he struggled to multitask. “Malachi changed my life. He challenged me intellectually, socially, physically, emotionally, sexually.” He paused. “Not sexually between us, but he refused to let me continue to be a frightened boy when I had the capacity to be a man confident in more than just my intellect.”

  “I like this Malachi dude already.”

  Liam smiled. “He would’ve loved you.” And the sly fucker would’ve tried to seduce Stirling right out from underneath him.

  Was he trying to seduce Stirling?

  Fuck yeah.

  “What happened?”

  “I embraced a total life change. I became physically active. I paid attention to my outer appearance. I went to bars and parties. I even talked to girls.”

  “Uh-oh. Look out, ladies. Liam the Lothario is on the loose, lookin’ for lovin’.”

  He resisted the urge to smack her butt. “Let’s just say I had a lot of time to make up for and I enjoyed the hell out of every minute of it.”

  Surprisingly, she had no smart comment for that.

  “I didn’t feel transformed as much as I discovered the man I’d always wanted to be.” Did that sound hopelessly lame?

  “No, it doesn’t sound hopelessly lame.”

  “I hadn’t meant to say that out loud.” Goddammit. He hadn’t meant to admit that either.

  “I’m glad you did. Those cathartic moments are what drive us. So the bad-boy scientist remade you in his image?” she teased.

  Sadness executed a one-two punch in his chest. “No. He showed me there’s more courage in trying and failing than there is in easy and expected success.”

  Stirling rolled to her side.

  Liam didn’t flinch at her intense scrutiny.

  “Your tone changed. Something happened to him.”

  “A freak accident during a jai alai game. The ball hit him in the chest and stopped his heart.”

  She sat up. “Liam. I’m so sorry.”

  “I miss that crazy fucker.” He offered a sad smile. “He’d be happy that I didn’t ease into getting my first tat.”

  “Wait. You started out with an entire sleeve?”

  “Two days after I got my doctorate. With the money left over from my grant I booked a group of three tattoo artists and over the course of a week they inked my entire arm.”

  “So you had the whole design drawn up ahead of time?”

  He shook his head. “I told them my interests, influences, and gave them free rein. It was a collaborative effort with no preconceived expectations from me.”

  “That might be the most daring—and stupid—decision I’ve ever heard.” She accorded him a contemplative look. “Why go so extreme? What was the rush?”

  Liam’s neck heated. “I was about to start a new job. I didn’t want my new coworkers to look at me and assume typical dorky doctor. The tats…felt rebellious, but at the same time, it seemed as if I’d taken another step closer to becoming the best version of myself.”

  “I get that. So long, Mr. Boring and Buttoned Up. Meet the newly-minted Dr. Tattooed and Tantalizing.”

  “That’s stretching it quite a bit.”

  “We’re running on truth serum, remember? Have you looked at yourself lately?”

  When she gestured to him, his gaze zeroed in on the ease of her movement and he changed the subject. “Did the massage help?”

  A throaty sigh drifted between them. “You have magic hands. You worked out the kinks and then some.”

  I’ve got a laundry list of kinks I’d love to explore with you. Twice.

  Stirling looked at him oddly.

  Christ, he hadn’t said that out loud too, had he?

  “It strains my neck to look up at you.” She patted the floor beside her. “Come here. Take a load off.”

  Did everything she say have sexual undertones? Or was he just that fucking perverted?

  A voice in the far back of his head warned him this was a bad idea, but the next thing he knew, he was stretched out beside her, staring at the ceiling.

  After several long moments, Liam said, “This is weird.”

  “No it’s not. Everything seems weird when you’re high.”

  “Then you’re smoking the wrong shit.”

  “Then so are you because it’s your shit.”

  “My shit is premium shit. You said so.” He was elated she’d loved the strain he’d entered in the 420 Cup—not that he could tell her that.

  “How often do you smoke?” she asked.

  “A couple times a week. Mostly at night, to shut off my brain so I can sleep.” He wondered if drinkers carried on conversations about their level of booze consumption. “What about you?”

  “The same. Unless Jumanji, our excellent budtender, has something new for me to try.”

  “I still think Jumanji is the worst name to saddle a kid with.”

  She laughed. “Dude. That is not his real name. Jumanji is his nickname. Anyway, when Jumanji gets excited about a product, then I drop whatever I’m doing and sample the merchandise. It pays to be the boss.”

  “It pays to have friends in high places.”

  Stirling groaned. “Bad pun.”

  “Is there such a thing as a good pun?”

  “Of course. But don’t ask me for specific examples because I’m pretty baked right now.”

  He chuckled. “But you’re feeling good?”

  “Feeling super great. Hungry. I mean, my brain is telling me to eat, not my stomach.” She sighed. “You know what I could totally go for right now?”

  A huge helping of doc cock?

  She said, “A Pop-Tart.” A pause. “Do you have any?”

  “No. Fresh out. Sorry.”

  “But you do eat them, right?”

  “When I was a kid we couldn’t afford them. But now I buy them.” Not that he could recall the last time he’d done that.

  “Good. Because I don’t trust anyone who claims they don’t like them.”

  “And the reason behind using Pop-Tarts as a barometer of trustworthiness?”

  Stirling snickered. “You want my Pop-psychology?”

  “That was an excellent pun, you tarty little thing.”

  She started giggling, which cracked him up, and they laughed until they couldn’t catch their breath.

  “Enough high-jinks,” he said. She pinched him. “Ow. Finish your explanation about Pop-Tarts used as the gauge to measure sincerity.”

  “Because there’s a flavor to suit everyone’s taste buds. Don’t like fruity ones? Bam! Buy the ones with chocolate. Don’t like the chocolate ones? Bam! Buy the brown sugar ones. Don’t like the frosting? Bam! Buy the unfrosted ones. Don’t like the sweet ones? Bam! Buy the sour fruit ones. There’s no excuse, well, beyond having diabetes, for not trying them to find the kind you like best.”

  Another bizarre stoner conversation that somehow made perfect sense.

  Liam felt her looking at him.

  “What’s your favorite kind of Pop-Tart?”

  He kept his gaze trained on the ceiling, racking his brain to find a suitable answer.

  “Don’t be afraid to tell the truth. No judgment.”

  “Very favorite? Blue raspberry. Second favorite…frosted cinnamon. Third favorite…the orange creamsicle that was a limited edition one summer.”

  “Toasted or untoasted?”

  “Toasted, of course.”

  “I think I
might love you.”

  He snorted.

  “Guess my favorite kind.”

  Fuck. He sucked at guessing games; give him facts.

  Why are you freaked out? It’s a fucking breakfast food question.

  But even in his hazy state, he understood this meant something important to her. The grocery store shelves appeared in his mind’s eye. “I’d guess the corporate woman side of you preferred the brown sugar kind because it seems less juvenile. The dreadlocked woman goes for the s’mores variety first. If the store is out of that, you go with wildberry.” He met her eyes. “How did I do?”

  “Did you cut the ganja with LSD? Because, dude, it’s like you read my mind.” Stirling closed her eyes. “What am I thinking about now?”

  “That we need to discuss the Macon situation since we’re obviously on the same wavelength.”

  “Nope. I’m thinking your last girlfriend probably didn’t eat Pop-Tarts.”

  “You are correct. No sugar, no gluten, no dairy—”

  “No fun,” Stirling inserted with a snicker.

  “You don’t know the half of it.”

  “So tell me.”

  Liam faced the ceiling again.

  “Come on, I told you about Nick the Prick.” When he didn’t immediately pour his heart out, Stirling said, “Please? Please, please, please, please, please? With a frosted cherry Pop-Tart on top?”

  Jesus. He laughed. “Okay, bulldog. What would you like to know about duck lips?”

  “Did she have big tits?”

  And…why wasn’t he surprised she asked that first? “Yes. Big fake tits. I believe that’s a requirement for women in California.”

  “Was she smart?”

  Not as smart as me would come off cocky. Instead, he said, “She wasn’t as smart as you.”

  Silence.

  Liam glanced over at her. “What?”

  “That was very smooth.”

  “I have moves, Miss Gradsky, that might even impress you.”

  “I don’t doubt that. So how did you meet Ms. Duck Lips-Fake Tits?”

  “Her name is Sera. We worked together.” He turned toward Stirling to gauge her reaction.

  “Those coworker relationships are a bad idea,” she said softly.

  “The worst,” he agreed. Their faces were so close he could see the indigo-colored ring around her irises.

  “They never, ever work out.”

  “Never.” When her focus fell to his lips, for a split second he almost closed the distance between them and kissed her.

  Are you even listening to this conversation?

  “After the Nick fiasco,” she continued, oblivious to his turmoil, “I swore I’d never get intimately involved with a coworker ever again.”

  “I made the same promise after…” Liam was having a hard time concentrating as he stared into her eyes. God. Could they be any purer blue?

  “After…que Sera, Sera?”

  That broke the spell. He rolled to his back and laughed until he was nearly in tears. He sat up and wiped his glasses.

  “Who would’ve guessed we have the same sense of humor?”

  “No one we work with.” He shoved his glasses back on. “Speaking of work…”

  Stirling groaned. “Five more minutes of no work talk, Mom. Tell me something juicy about your life.” Then she rolled to her side, facing away from him.

  Instead of becoming annoyed by her avoidance, he launched into the plan of attack he believed to be the most effective in steering Macon into their way of thinking.

  Stirling mumbled something, but rather than asking her for clarification, Liam kept going.

  Once he drifted into lecture mode, he lost track of time.

  A noise permeated his consciousness. He blinked and looked around. Then he checked his watch.

  Had he really been lecturing Stirling the past half an hour and she hadn’t interrupted him even once? Not even to tell him to can his stuffy professor imitation because she was bored? That wasn’t like her at all.

  Or maybe you’ve been staring off into space for thirty minutes and the one-sided conversation only took place in your head.

  He heard a noise that sounded like a throaty snort followed by a wheezing whistle. He remained quiet, not entirely sure it wasn’t an auditory hallucination.

  There it was again. And it was coming from Stirling.

  He leaned over her and saw she’d fallen asleep. A post-smoking type of sound sleep. If he tried to rouse her, she’d just be foggy-headed and pissed off that he’d woken her up.

  Well, he had told her she could crash on his couch. He eyed the distance between the couch and where she looked…pretty damn comfortable on the floor.

  Should he sleep on the couch in case she needed something?

  Like that huge helping of doc cock?

  Yeah, no way could he sleep down here.

  Yawning, he pulled his gramma’s afghan off the chair and covered her. Then he snagged a small pillow and nestled it next to her head. A couple of her dreadlocks had fallen across her face and he pushed them over her shoulder. He studied her for a moment. The woman was strikingly beautiful. And even after her sweaty workout she had the most intoxicating scent.

  Then she snorted like a warthog.

  Liam sighed. “If you wake up first, I’m expecting you to make coffee.”

  He shut off the lights and went upstairs to bed.

  Chapter Five

  Stirling was late to work.

  She was never late.

  She hated being late, even when technically she was the boss.

  So to combat the guilt for causing her assistant to readjust her schedule, Stirling placed the blame for her tardiness on the broad shoulders of one Dr. Liam Argent.

  The last thing she remembered from last night was lying on the floor at Liam’s apartment, staring at the patterns in the tin ceiling as she listened to him speak in that deep, sexy voice. A tone so soothing that evidently it had put her right the fuck to sleep. She’d awoken this morning, still on the floor, covered with a crocheted afghan, and a small pillow tucked beneath her head.

  No sign of Liam.

  Then she heard the pipes rattle above her head. If he’d stepped into the shower, it was time for her to step out. Awkward morning-after chitchat… If she had a chance to avoid it, she would.

  She escaped conversation with him, but she didn’t escape a parking ticket, nor the morning traffic both going to her place and then to her office.

  Stirling kept her sunglasses on as she passed by Shanna’s desk, muttering, “Sorry, give me a few minutes.”

  “Rough night, boss?”

 
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