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What you need, p.7
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       What You Need, p.7

         Part #1 of Need You series by Lorelei James
 

  Pronto.” She dropped her voice. “I already told everyone you were gonna be here tonight, so don’t you make a liar outta me, girlie, after all I’ve done for you.”

  Unlike my mother, she knew exactly what buttons to push. “Fine. Gimme two hours and I’ll be there.”

  “Two hours?” She hooted. “You’d better look like hot shit and a side of taco chips when you stroll in and not like you just got outta court.”

  That got my back up. The last time I’d seen the crew at Maxie’s, I’d been wearing an interview suit. Long sleeves, tight skirt, high heels. They’d razzed me endlessly about it. When they’d gone a little too far, accusing me of not being one of them, I’d felt a little cocky. I wasn’t one of them anymore. I’d changed from being Lenni, the smart-mouthed cocktail server, to Lennox, the newest office temp at Lund Industries.

  “Lenni?” she prompted. “Did you hang up on me?”

  “You wish. See you in a few, Maxie.”

  Since I had to drive, I skipped making myself a strong cocktail and headed straight for the back of my closet, where I kept clothing that wasn’t office attire.

  As I tossed out miniskirts and leather pants, I took a moment to remind myself that I’d always hated the nickname Lenni—and I wasn’t Lenni anymore. I’d been giddy when everyone at work called me by my real name, Lennox. I’d once asked my mother where she’d gotten the name, and she claimed she’d seen it in a magazine ad for dishes, thinking it’d be cool to name me after fine china. But she wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box, even when she was sober, so she misspelled my name on the birth certificate.

  Although Kiley knew about my past—some of it anyway—I was happy my counselor roomie wasn’t home to assess my transformation. She’d probably have some choice words about why I felt the need to keep the two sides of myself separate since they were both part of what made me who I am.

  I stripped, got in the shower and afterward slathered lotion on my legs to make it easier to get my leather pants on. I piled my hair on top of my head in a messy bun. I always wore my hair down at work because of the tattoo on the back of my neck. That’s also why I always wore long-sleeved shirts. Although sporting ink was more acceptable and tattoos didn’t necessarily carry the stigma that they once did, Lund Industries was a conservative company with a dress code. And I’d spent enough years being prejudged because of my tattoos that I’d welcomed the chance to cover them up and start fresh. I knew Maxie and the others wouldn’t understand, so just for one night I’d let my ink show. I’d be the wild child I’d left behind.

  It confused me why I looked forward to it so much.

  Maxie’s Hideaway—regulars referred to it as Maxie’s Pad—was an old-school dive: dark and smoky. A huge mirrored bar spanned the length of the room. The other half of the space was tables and a performance area. Sometimes bands played there. Sometimes comedians showed up and tested out a new set. Maxie’s had the occasional burlesque show. She broke out the karaoke machine once in a while. We’d even had line dancing and hip-hop classes. Maxie’s defined “anything goes.”

  Because Maxie had a three-pack-a-day habit, when the government banned smoking, she’d basically flipped them the bird and said she’d rather pay the fines than lose her core customers. That’d worked for a while. Until the city hired some pencil-pushing, by-the-book doorknob that’d bypassed the fines, closed the place down, and tossed Maxie in jail.

  The desk jockey with an overinflated ego didn’t understand about how the real world worked. Less than twenty-four hours later, Maxie was out of jail, with an apology from her councilman. Then Maxie’s Hideaway had been legally declared a cigar bar, so smoking wasn’t regulated.

  This had all happened before I worked there, but the story was the stuff of legends. That was another thing I loved about the people who hung out there. They had stories to tell. They’d lived hard lives, but they’d taken such joy in being able to brag that they’d come out all right.

  On the drive over I pumped myself up by listening to classic seventies rock, because that was what I’d hear tonight. No matter where I was or how old I got, CCR, Zeppelin, the Stones and the Eagles would always take me back to Maxie’s.

  It was early when I parked my ancient Corolla in the lot. That was one thing I hadn’t changed: I still drove the same car. It ran like a champ, so I saw no need to sink money into a car payment when I didn’t have to. Anticipation hummed through me. Friday night at Maxie’s. The regulars would be sitting at the bar swapping “My boss was a dick this week” stories as they poured their hard-earned money down their throats.

  When I walked in, I made an entrance. I slammed the door until it hit the wall behind it. Everyone turned around and looked, just as I’d wanted.

  “What’s a girl gotta do to get a drink around here?”

  No less than five guys rushed me. Boz, a burly biker from the Wastrels motorcycle club. DJ, who used to host a morning show on KXRX. Fatso, a rail-thin guy who worked as a mechanic. Dickie, who was almost short enough to be considered a midget and worked at the same body shop as Fatso. Pistol, who managed a gun range.

  Hugo, the bartender who’d been tending bar here even before it was Maxie’s, waited behind the bar for his hug. “Lenni, girl, how you doin’?”

  Before I could answer, Pistol said, “We thought you forgot about us.”

  Dickie chimed in with, “You still drinkin’ beer, or you switch to champagne now that you’re workin’ bankers’ hours?”

  Hugo shushed them all. “Let her catch her breath, assholes.”

  “Thanks, Hugo.”

  “You got it, doll—Maxie’s missed you. She’s gonna act like a tough old bitch, but the truth is—”

  “She’s got a heart as soft as a Moon Pie.”

  “What’s an old broad gotta do to get a hug around here?” Maxie said behind me.

  I didn’t hold back when I saw her. I squealed and nearly knocked her over.

  She must’ve been prepared, because she didn’t have a lit cigarette between her fingers the way she usually did. “Lord, girl, I thought I wouldn’t recognize you.” She eased back and checked me out, a smile kicking up one corner of her mouth. “But you’re still my same Lenni.” She hollered at Hugo. “Where’s her beer? Make it two, one for each hand.”

  And just like that, it was as if I’d never left.

  Chapter Six

  Brady

  ‡

  “Damn, Walker. Are you sure we won’t get stabbed in there?”

  My brother looked at me and shrugged. “When was the last time you used your medical insurance?”

  Hardly reassuring.

  “Quit being a pussy,” Nolan said to me. “See the rougher edges of our city.”

  The insult combined with a dare should’ve sent me through the door first. But I let Walker and Nolan lead the way; I’m nothing if not cautious. I looked over my shoulder at Ash just to make sure he wasn’t about to bail and cool his loafers in the car.

  “Get going. The sooner I don’t have my back to the door, the better.”

  “We should’ve brought Jensen with us,” I grumbled. “He’s a bigger target and he can run faster.”

  “Hell, they’d all want his autograph and they’d ignore us completely.”

  “Exactly. It’d give us a chance to get away.”

  Ash laughed.

  We were finally in this “great dive bar” Walker loved. I watched as he got a chin dip of acknowledgment from the heavily bearded bartender. No one else paid attention to us, or at least if they were sizing us up they did it discreetly as we headed to a table in the back. I didn’t look around until we all had seats.

  The bar back was enormous. Bottles lined the wall from the counter level to the crown molding around the tin ceiling. Bar signs—some vintage, some new, all neon—were hung on the walls above the tables and in some places were attached to the pillars covered in more elaborately carved molding. The tables and chairs were relics, backless chrome barstools with Naugahyde seats
and heavy wooden tables, the tops scarred from years of use.

  A dark-haired cocktail waitress paused at the edge of our table. “What’ll it be, boys? And remember—we don’t take American Express.”

  Sure, we didn’t look out of place in here.

  “A pitcher of—what kind of Leinie are you pouring this week?” Walker asked.

  The cocktail waitress took an interest in Walker. “Honey Weiss.”

  “What the hell happened to the Red you served last week?”

  “Uh, the customers drank it all.”

  Walker stared at her and smoothed a hand over his beard. “We’ll take a pitcher of MGD.”

  “Four glasses?” she asked.

  “Yeah.”

  “Coming right up.”

  Nolan leaned in. “MGD? Dude. That tastes like horse piss.”

  “I’ll refrain from asking when you’ve sipped horse piss,” Ash said with a smirk.

  “Ha-fucking-ha.”

  “This is the kind of place where you drink the cheap American stuff,” Walker said. He looked at Nolan and mimicked, “Dude. You order wine and I’m throwing the first punch.”

  “Bring it. I’ve been training at an MMA gym. I’ll knock you on your ass.”

  Typical. Walker and Nolan fought more than I ever did with Walker—you’d think they were brothers instead of cousins.

  The jukebox kicked on. Classic rock drifted to us. Not loud enough to be annoying—the benefit of sitting in the back of the bar.

  “So, how’d you find this place?” Nolan asked Walker.

  “A buddy who works for me brought me here.”

  “See any action?” Ash asked.

  “Not really. It’s not that kind of a place. It’s an old-school neighborhood bar.” He grinned. “Before the neighborhood went to hell.”

  I saw movement up by the bar. A couple of women dancing together. Nothing too dirty, but the night was still young. I set my elbows on the table and caught my brother looking at me. “What?”

  “What happened that’s brought about this radical need for human companionship?” Walker asked.

  “He needs the ritual,” Nolan said.

  Before I could ask what the hell that meant, the waitress was back, setting the beer and the mugs in the center of the table. “Anything else?”

  Nolan said, “Do you have an extra napkin I can write on?”

  “Ooh, lemme guess . . . you’re writing down your phone number for me?”

  “Sorry, sweetheart, but we’re working on dry-rub barbecue recipes,” Nolan lied smoothly. “Our other buddy is going to Kansas City to compete in the annual men’s barbecue challenge. He’s kind of a dick, so secretive about his special recipe, that we’re trying to figure out the ingredients.”

  I choked on my beer.

  “Sure thing. But if he wants to win in Kansas City, he’d be better off with a thick, sweet sauce rather than a dry rub. They like it wet down there.”

  The sexy way she’d said that and the knowing curve of her lips indicated she hadn’t been fooled by Nolan’s on-the-fly lie. At all.

  Nolan grinned at her. “But we do have to make a list, so if you’ve got any kind of paper around, we’d be grateful for it.”

  “I’ll see what I can do, slick.”

  Ash held his fist up for a bump, which I met. Perfect nickname for our cousin. Ash had already started pouring. He slid the first glass to me. “You need the ritual, man. At first it pissed me off that my friends and family butted into my life.” Ash slid a mug to Walker. “But it turns out they were right. I needed to change.”

  “Hence the ritual was born,” Nolan said.

  “Jensen was here for it, when you were in Ireland,” Walker said.

  Ireland reminded me of Siobhan and why these guys thought I needed this. “I was thinking we’d get hammered and find me a random hookup, not that I’d have to do some dumb ritual,” I said, downing half my beer in one gulp.

  “I’ve been there, Brady. I didn’t want to do this dumbass ritual either. I didn’t believe it’d amount to anything.” Ash pointed a cigar at me. “But something will come out of this night that will make your life better. Trust me.”

  “How will I know what it is?”

  He grinned. “That’s the thing. You won’t know. So you’ve gotta be open to everything.”

  I mumbled, “That sounds like a recipe for a night in the drunk tank with a maxed-out credit card.”

  The waitress dropped off two sheets of paper and a pen.

  “Thanks, doll.”

  “Now, as Ash is refilling our mugs, let’s get down to it.” Nolan looked at me and held out a cigar.

  I tried to decline the stogie, but Nolan shook his head and said, “Take it.”

  Evidently lung cancer was part of my new persona.

  I ripped off the cellophane. A rich, earthy scent drifted out and I lifted the cigar to my nose and inhaled.

  “Attaboy,” Nolan said. He held out the cigar clipper and snipped off the end. Then he snapped open a Zippo lighter and sparked the tip. I drew in several puffs. It’d been so many years since I’d smoked, I’d forgotten how calming that first hit of sweet smoke was.

  Nolan lit cigars all around—Walker was the only one who didn’t light up.

  For a few moments we enjoyed our cigars and the icy cold beer as we soaked in our surroundings. I would’ve been content to stay like that for a while longer, but Nolan apparently had a schedule to keep.

  “It’s time.”

  I groaned.

  “You have a choice,” Nolan said. “You can either write the list yourself or read it out loud to all of us.”

  “So either way you’ll all . . . know,” I said with a tinge of horror.

  Walker clapped me on the back. “Only way to do this. Rip off the fucking Band-Aid, rub some dirt in it and get back in the game.”

  “Jesus, Walker. It’s almost like you’re channeling Jensen,” Ash complained.

  My youngest brother did love his sports analogies.

  I pointed at Ash. “You’ve done this before. You get to play secretary.” Secretary made me think of Lennox Greene.

  Yeah, I’d be up for anything and everything anywhere with her.

  Pervert. She works for you.

  Technically, she didn’t work for me specifically.

  That’s the beer talking, man. She’s exactly the type of woman you don’t need to get involved with. A beautiful, by-the-book, buttoned-up blonde.

  Nolan snapped his fingers in my face. “Focus.”

  “Christ. All right.”

  Ash tapped his pen on the paper. “Here’s the deal. You have to list two things to change in your life immediately. One thing to stop doing, one thing to start doing.”

  That wasn’t as bad as I’d thought.

  Nolan ordered two rounds of shots.

  I didn’t pay much attention to what he’d ordered—I was too busy mentally compiling my list, because god forbid I failed at this.

  Nolan slid a shot toward me. “We drink this first.”

  “What is it?”

  “Vanilla vodka.”

  I made a face. “Why?”

  “As a reminder that you’re done living a vanilla life,” Ash said.

  Of all the stupid—Okay, maybe it wasn’t stupid. Maybe it made sense. I raised my glass. “Bring on the rainbow of flavors.” I knocked back the booze. Shuddered. That was some nasty stuff.

 
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