Tripped Out, p.7Part #8.5 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
“Weird night,” she responded and ducked into her office. She tossed her sunglasses on the desk and her heavy satchel on the visitor’s chair.
After draining her coffee, she felt prepared to face the day and summoned Shanna.
Her assistant broke the information into bite-sized pieces so the list wouldn’t overwhelm. Stirling jotted notes, asked questions, and thanked the stars she wasn’t suffering from a massive hangover because today would be busy.
Shanna paused by the door. “Oh, Dr. Argent stopped by. He said to tell you to come to his lab as soon as you got here.”
“When was that?”
“An hour and a half ago.”
Hadn’t taken him long to get ready this morning. “I’ll see him if I have time.” If not… Well, she’d never jumped when he summoned her before and she wasn’t about to start now.
Around three o’clock, Stirling couldn’t ignore her gnawing hunger any longer and headed to the break room. The vending machines were well stocked with a mix of healthy snacks and junk food. She poked the button for baked Cheetos. As soon as she’d retrieved the bag and popped it open, she heard, “The crunchy Cheetos are better.”
She jumped, nearly dropping the bag before she whirled around.
Dr. Argent leaned against the wall behind her in the small alcove.
“I see you still prefer to sneak up and scare the crap out of me.”
“I see that you still prefer to ignore my meeting requests.”
Stirling pointed at him with a Cheeto. “Requests I’ll consider. Demands…not so much.”
“Regardless. We need to talk before our meeting with Macon.”
“What meeting?” She shoved a couple of Cheetos in her mouth and crunched. God. She could eat like four bags of these.
His eyes narrowed. “Do you remember anything we talked about last night?”
“Yes. I remember everything until I fell asleep.”
“That’s funny, because we discussed a specific strategy for the meeting today. And you clearly weren’t asleep because you hadn’t started snoring yet.”
“Hah!” She pointed another Cheeto at him. “Now I know you’re lying because I don’t snore.”
Half a heartbeat later, Dr. Speedy was in her face. “You snore like a freakin’ asthmatic bulldog. I’d intended to crash on the couch in case you woke up disoriented, but the cacophony kept me awake.”
“So you retired to your nice, comfy bed and left me to sleep on the hard wood floor?” she retorted.
Guilt momentarily flashed in his eyes, then he banked it. “Didn’t seem to affect you because you slept like—”
“Someone had given me a hit of super-indica sleep aid?” she shot back.
“You could’ve said no to that last hit. As a matter of fact, maybe you should have.”
The challenge she read in his eyes? She was a weed lightweight. As. If. “And miss the chance to burn through your private stash of premium ganja? That is the height of rudeness in the smoking culture.”
“Yes, it is.” Liam leaned forward and bit the tip of the Cheeto she’d been brandishing at him.
“Hey!” He’d moved in close enough she could distinguish each one of his long, dark eyelashes. He was a remarkable looking man. With killer lips.
“But the very pinnacle of rudeness is when you’re spilling your life story to the pain-in-the-ass coworker who demanded the ‘juicy’ details and then she falls into a drooling, snoring coma.”
Stirling’s gaze zoomed back to his. “I really did that?”
“Within the first five minutes.”
“Dammit, Liam, I am so sorry.”
“Was I boring you?”
“I don’t think so. But I honestly don’t remember when I dozed off. I just remember being in that floaty place with the perfect cadence of your voice pulling me under.”
He blinked at her. “You like the sound of my voice?”
“When you don’t sound like a douchebag know-it-all.”
“I suppose I could say the same to you.”
“You did last night, remember?”
Liam frowned. “I did?”
“Yes. You said my husky voice sounded like raw sex.”
“I said that to you?”
I think so. She nodded.
They stared at each other. But it was a more curious stare-down than aggressive.
Stirling glanced away first. “I am sorry. Do I get another chance to hear all about Dr. Liam’s Livin’ Large life?”
“Nope.” He sucked the last half of the Cheeto—and her fingers—into his mouth.
It shouldn’t have been sexy, but goddamn it was. Her fingers, her hand—her whole damn arm tingled.
“Finish your snack, Miss Gradsky, and be in my office in fifteen minutes.”
She smiled up at him. In an inspired moment of contrariness, she wiped her cheese-coated lips right below his name embroidered on the front of his pristine white lab coat.
His look of shock?
She ducked under his arm, tossing off a breezy “I’ll consider it,” and sailed out of the break room.
* * * *
In hindsight, maybe she shouldn’t have taunted him.
Ten minutes after she returned to her office, he called Shanna to remind her that Miss Gradsky had an immediate meeting with Dr. Argent.
A call Shanna didn’t bother to put through…the first five times.
When all four office lines were ringing at once, as well as Stirling’s cell phone exploding with text messages every ten seconds from Dr. Determined, she gave in.
Maybe she stomped her cowgirl boots down every tile hallway so he could hear her coming.
She didn’t bother using her keycard to gain access to his lab; she just pressed on the call button. As she sang the tune of Mary Had a Little Lamb in her head, her finger kept time poking the buzzer.
Dr. Annoying came personally to let her in. “Ah, Miss Gradsky. How fortuitous that you’re attending this meeting.”
“Yes, it’s gonna be super-fun. Thanks for having me.”
He directed her into his private office, a space she hadn’t been allowed in before.
Weird. He didn’t have a normal desk; the man had a treadmill desk. Of course Dr. Efficient wouldn’t want to waste precious time by actually, oh…sitting down like a normal human.
Behind the work-exercise torture device was an oversized loveseat in bland brown. A compact conference table, littered with papers, catalogues, and Post-it notes had been moved in front of it.
He gestured to the couch. “Have a seat.”
“I’m thinking I’d rather run on the treadmill. That way I’ll be sure to get my cardio in today.”
His laughter rang out and Stirling found herself grinning.
When he said, “Stirling, can you please not fight me on every goddamned thing?” she wasn’t even provoked by it.
“Fine. But you better have laid in a supply of refreshments for this convergence.”
“I have Diet Mountain Dew or Red Bull.” He adjusted his glasses. “I didn’t have time to create an appetizer plate of edibles, but your recent bag of Cheetos should hold you over.”
She squinted at his lab coat. No orange smear. “Seriously? You had to change lab coats this late in the day because of a small stain? Dr. OCD much?”
“It’s the same lab coat. The stain is gone because I used a Tide bleach pen on it.” His gaze lingered on the orange spot above her left breast. “You should try one sometime.”
“Pass. I ditched my laundry pens the same time I ditched the business suits. I’ll have a Diet Dew.”
He tossed her a can, grabbed a Red Bull for himself, and sat next to her. “Before we get into the upcoming meeting with Macon, I need to know why you stormed out yesterday. It seemed an over-the-top reaction considering what we were discussing.”
Stirling leaned back into the cushion. “I told you part of it last night. Macon sued GenAgra and got me a high seven-figure settleme
Liam’s eyebrow rose. “That’s…unusual, isn’t it?”
“Very. Macon uncovered a couple of other situations with GenAgra where female executives were ‘unjustly released’ and their severance packages didn’t reflect that they were basically blackballed in the industry. Macon couldn’t prevent me from being blackballed, so he forced their hand for maximum payout. GenAgra didn’t want to be crucified in the court of public opinion.”
“So they settled with you rather than taking their chances in court with Macon.”
“Yes. Taxes ate up a good chunk of the settlement. Most lawyers would’ve taken forty percent off the top. But I pitched Macon the idea of investing the fees I owed him in an organic farm.” She popped the top on her can. “He countered my idea with his; invest my settlement money into the cannabis business. Since Macon owned a medical dispensary—through default after one of his clients went bankrupt—he’d had a foot in the cannabis industry and a guaranteed slot for recreational sales. During the two years that the legalities of recreational cannabis sales were worked out, we bought a building complex. Macon handled the contractors that retrofitted the back building into a grow house with state-of-the-art watering and fertilization equipment as well as ventilation and various lighting systems.”
“What were you doing during that time?” he said tightly.
Stirling met his angry gaze head-on. “What is your problem?”
“Did your brother railroad you into going into this business by holding the capital you’d been awarded hostage?”
“No. As happy as I was to end my association with GenAgra, I didn’t know what to do with myself or the money. For my entire adult life I’d either been studying or working. And we had time until we could get the recreational business rolling—intentional pun—so we could do it right from the start.” She grinned when he laughed. “Careful, I might believe you secretly like my sense of humor.”
“It’s refreshing that you have one. Go on.”
Refreshing? What an odd word choice. “So for one thing, he sent me to Cannabis U in Amsterdam.” She gave him a curious look. “Have you ever been?”
“I’ve taught a few seminars there.”
She bumped her shoulder into his. “Of course the god of ganja, the cannabis creator of ‘Livin’ Large’ probably has a dedicated suite and golden pot leaf on the Weed Wall of Fame.”
Liam blinked those gorgeous silvery eyes at her.
“So you’re this chatty and cute when you’re not high?”
What the fuck?
He said I was cute?
“Which, I might add, is far better than you being your usual belligerent and bratty self.”
Belligerent and bratty? That seemed less offensive than cute.
“But you only seem to be belligerent and bratty around me. Why is that?”
A pause stretched.
“Stirling?” he prompted.
“Oh, you’re allowing cute little ol’ me to speak now? Excuse me while I skip to my magical closet and don my fluffy pink tutu and sparkly unicorn crown before I give you my cutesy answer.”
He pointed at her with his Red Bull can. “And there’s Stirling number three, sarcastic and defensive.”
“The not-quite-insults are…insulting. You can do better.”
“Stop skirting the real question.” Liam leaned closer. “The truth. No bullshit.”
“What exactly do you want to know?”
“During your tirade yesterday with your brother, you said this wasn’t what you signed on for. Sounded to me like Macon used coercion to get you to invest. And I am not okay with that, Stirling. Not at all.”
“Let’s back up. What bait did my brother use to lure you here?”
“Just that I’d be working in Colorado in the legalized cannabis business.”
Something about that answer didn’t ring true. “And you just signed on?”
“I needed the change. You never finished telling me if you just gave up your intention to start an organic farm after Macon offered you a different option.”
“No, that’s still on the horizon. Part of the deal with Macon was I’d stay in business with him long enough to earn back my investment. He’d made it sound like this cannabis business would be in the black and turning a profit within two years. Yesterday was the first time he’s admitted he knew it’d be a longer time frame. So I wonder if it’s smart to leave the land fallow for four years.”
“Wait. You already own the land?”
“Yes. My parents cut me a deal on two hundred acres bordering their ranch. I bought it before we incorporated High Society, due to the federal restrictions on investing ‘illegally obtained capital’ and the land would be subject to seizure. A year ago I was about to start the process of getting the official organic certification and I hit a major snag.”
“What kind of snag?”
“Macon brought in some expert in biodiversity and he claimed that to bring the soil up to standards we’d need a three-part process. The first was to do nothing for a year. I’ll admit, I was so disappointed in that verdict that I tuned out the other two recommendations and focused on High Society.”
“Why was Macon involved in fielding experts for your future organic farm?”
Stirling looked at him strangely. Where had this sudden terseness come from?
Oh right. Hello, Dr. Jekyll.
“Why? Because he’s my brother and my business partner. He offered to help me since he was in the Denver area. I wasn’t. I’d been staying at home—our family homestead in southeastern Colorado—to deal with ranch matters while my parents were relocating and building the rodeo school.” She studied the hard set to his jaw. “Why are you so pissy about this? It doesn’t concern you.”
“Yes, it does.” He shot to his feet and began to pace, muttering to himself.
“Liam. What is going on?”
“I’m the biodiversity expert that Macon hired.”
“Macon brought me up here a year ago to assess two hundred acres where he planned to grow organic cannabis.”
“Is this another one of your pranks?” she demanded.
“No.” Liam flopped back on the couch with a heavy sigh. “I wouldn’t joke about that. And I sure as hell don’t want you to hate me more than you already do.”
“Tough shit. Start talking.”
By the time Liam finished his side of the story, Stirling’s head throbbed.
Liam let her organize her thoughts. “Why would your brother mislead me into believing he owned the land I inspected?”
“Because he could.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“But a couple of strange things happened around that time now make sense.” She turned sideways on the couch to face him. “Do you remember about a month after we first started working together we attended the open house for my parents’ rodeo school?”
“Ah, the night from hell. Macon informed me of my required attendance at the event, then he pawned me off on you. You drove as if you were auditioning for The Fast and the Furious through Denver traffic, intentionally ditching me.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault that your fuel efficient car can’t keep up with a V-10. Anyway, remember Cres Grant? The hot cowboy I asked to hit on you to check my gaydar?”
“Like I could forget that.” He cocked his head. “This story does have a point?”
“Yes. I’m putting the pieces together as I go. So, a couple of months later, Cres’s boyfriend Breck approached me at another one of my parents’ parties and remarked it was unfortunate the Ag land wasn’t ready for
Tripped Out by Lorelei James / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on45 votes