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What you need, p.9
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       What You Need, p.9

         Part #1 of Need You series by Lorelei James
 

  breath drifted over the ball of my shoulder. “Ready.”

  I wasn’t ready. His nearness was doing crazy things to me. My hands shook when I angled my neck, giving him a close-up of the birds that started between my shoulder blades. The tiny birds followed the arc of my spine, up my neck and ended at my hairline.

  More of his hot breath drifted over my bare skin and gooseflesh rippled down my back.

  “The detail is incredible,” he said, way too close to my skin. “Do you mind if I touch it?”

  Please touch it first with your mouth, then with your tongue, and then sink your teeth into the curve where my shoulder meets my neck. And then start all over again.

  I managed, “Uh, no.”

  I wasn’t expecting the tender sweep of his thumb over each individual bird and I bit back a moan. It’d been so long since I’d been touched in any manner, let alone touched with this sort of . . . awe.

  When he kept lightly caressing my skin, I must’ve held my breath, because he whispered, “Breathe.”

  I forced in a lungful of smoky air. “You’re very thorough.”

  “You shouldn’t be surprised,” he said offhandedly as he continued to stroke and torment me. “Do you mind that I’m so fascinated by your ink?”

  “No. Half the time I forget the tats are even there.”

  “I’d remind you every day,” he said softly.

  “What?” I had to have misheard him.

  “This bird at the top. It doesn’t look like a blackbird.”

  “It’s a starling.”

  Brady swept his thumb across it. “There’s symbolism here that I’m not getting, isn’t there?”

  “Yes.”

  “Will you tell me about it?”

  “Maybe someday.”

  He was so close his soft chuckle vibrated against my skin. “Fair enough.”

  I had to have imagined a whisper-light brush of his full lips across the base of my neck. But my body reacted anyway.

  “Thank you for showing me.”

  “You’re welcome.” I let my hair fall down across my back and faced forward. Brady was right there, inches away. “What?”

  “You are so goddamned gorgeous, Lennox.”

  Goddamned gorgeous. Two words I never imagined would be directed at me. From Brady Lund. I swallowed, trying to do something about the sudden dryness in my mouth.

  “Would you let me take you out?”

  “Out? Like on a date?”

  “No, take you out and shoot you.” He laughed when my eyes widened. “Yes, I meant take you out on a date.”

  “Why me?”

  He touched my cheek. “I’d planned to ask you out before Jenna interrupted us.”

  “You did?”

  “Yes.” He frowned. “You couldn’t tell that’s what I was working up to?”

  “No! I told you that you make me nervous, remember? I showed you how bad my hands were shaking”

  “That floors me,” he murmured. “Especially now, seeing that you’re rocking awesome tats beneath the prim-and-proper clothing you wear from nine to five.”

  “So it’s my wild side that fascinates you?”

  “Everything about you fascinates me—and it has since the first time I saw you ten months ago.”

  I struggled with how to respond. I’d worked hard to leave the girl who danced on the bar behind, but that girl was the one who’d prompted this gorgeous, sexy man to approach me and admit he’d known I worked for LI for months.

  “But seeing you dancing on the bar clinched it.”

  “Clinched what?”

  “My determination to get you to go out on a date with me. I suspect you would’ve shot me down if I’d asked you out during office hours. Wouldn’t you have?”

  I nodded.

  “So seeing you here? I’m taking it as a sign that we’re supposed to try at least one date.”

  “What the hell happened to you?” a male voice demanded.

  A male voice I recognized. Crap. That was Ash Lund, another one of the big bosses. I turned, ducking my head as if looking for something in my purse—not that I even had my purse with me.

  “I’m rescuing damsels in distress,” Brady said coolly. “Why?”

  “Time to go. Nolan and Walker are out front waiting.”

  Nolan Lund was here too? Perfect. What were the odds he saw my bar-top antics?

  “Give me a few minutes and I’ll be right there.” He didn’t offer to introduce us—another point in his favor.

  “All right.”

  A beat passed and Brady said, “Stop hiding. He’s gone.”

  That was a little terse. I looked up. “Of course you’re here with the COO of Lund Industries as well as the son of the CEO of Lund Industries.”

  Annoyance flashed in his eyes. “No, I’m here with my cousins and my brother. I never asked who you were here with?”

  “No one.”

  “Really? You just show up at a bar like this by yourself?”

  Now I was annoyed by his skepticism. “A bar like this? I’m sure it’s vastly different from the upscale places you’re used to patronizing, Mr. Lund. But don’t worry—I’ve had enough experiences in ‘a bar like this’ to know exactly how to take care of myself.”

  “Don’t patronize me. You know nothing about me or the places I frequent. For all you know, I could be a regular here.”

  It took about five seconds before I laughed. “You? Right. You couldn’t convince me of that even if I didn’t have insider’s knowledge that you are most certainly not a regular.”

  He quirked a brow that managed to be sexy, imperious and irritating. “You know that . . . how?”

  “I worked here as a cocktail waitress for years, and trust me, I would’ve remembered servicing a man like you.” Wait. That wasn’t what I’d meant to say.

  Brady gifted me with a grin so hot I was surprised my hair hadn’t caught fire. “Fair warning, dancing queen. I’ll expect you to explain that statement in full detail on our date.”

  He’d gone beyond asking, apparently. And apparently I’d lost control of my vocal cords.

  Then he stood.

  As he turned to walk away, I said, “Mr. Lund.”

  He faced me. “Brady.”

  “Brady. Thanks for saving me from an ass-buster off the bar.”

  “My pleasure, Lennox. I’ll be in touch. Soon.”

  I watched him cut a path through the bar until the door opened and he disappeared outside.

  What were the odds? And what the hell had just happened?

  Maybe he was drunk and he won’t remember this conversation come Monday.

  Unlikely. He couldn’t have caught my tumble off the bar if he’d been too impaired.

  Maxie wandered over, cigarette dangling from her lip as she carried two mugs of beer. She sat across from me and slid one of the mugs over.

  “You’re bringing me a beer?” I joked. “It’s not my birthday.”

  She rolled her eyes. Then she set her cigarette in the ashtray. “So you’re rusty on your bar-dancin’ skills.”

  “Too much tequila and excitement is always dangerous for me.”

  “Never used to be.”

  I wouldn’t give her the argument she wanted.

  “The dude who caught you.” She sipped her beer. “You know him?”

  “No,” I lied. “But he wanted to get to know me.”

  “You looked pretty cozy over here.”

  “I figured it’d be rude to tell him to take a hike after he’d saved me from a trip to the emergency room.” I took a drink. “Why?”

  “No reason.” Maxie picked up her cigarette and drew in deeply. Then she slowly exhaled. “Used to be you wouldn’t give a man like that a second glance.”

  “I used to wear blue eye shadow too, Maxie. People change.”

  “It’s not your blue eye shadow that I take issue with, Lenni. It’s the fact you’re forgetting your blue-collar roots.”

  I’d known this would come to a head; I j
ust didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Although she was my mother’s friend, she’d looked out for me—especially when my mother hadn’t. “You cannot have it both ways. None of the regulars who hang around were ever good enough for me. And if other guys come into the bar and I notice them, then you say I’m acting like I’m too good for the regulars?”

  She grinned. “Exactly.”

  “No wonder I’m still single.”

  “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ single. Been happily single my whole life.”

  “Wrong. You’ve been married to this bar.”

  “Always been too damn smart for your own good.”

  I smiled and used that as a chance to change the subject.

  And a reason to forget about my run-in with Brady Lund.

  Chapter Eight

  Lennox

  ‡

  The next morning I knocked on Kiley’s door at eight a.m.

  I usually slept in on Saturdays, so I’d used my alarm for the first time on a weekend in well over a year. I hadn’t stayed at Maxie’s very long after she alternately grilled me and guilted me. I stuck around long enough to switch to Coke and make sure I was totally sober before I climbed behind the wheel of my car.

  “What?” Kiley said from inside her room.

  “Coffee’s on.”

  “Be right there.”

  Five minutes later Kiley strolled into the kitchen. “You’re an angel.” She filled a mug, dumped powdered creamer in it and looked at me over the rim. “You were out late last night.”

  “The woman who runs the bar I used to work at called and nagged me for forgetting my old friends. So I drove down there and hung out for a while.” Although I’d never taken Kiley to Maxie’s place, she knew about the years I’d worked there. “What did you do last night?”

  “Paperwork. And then more paperwork. I’m half afraid that none of my kids will show up today, and half afraid they’ll all show up.”

  “Where are we going today?”

  “Southside, baby.” She swallowed another gulp of coffee. “There’s a playground that’s seen better days, but it has a basketball court, which is all the guys care about. There’s some nasty graffiti spray painted on the abandoned brick building. I’ve gotten permission from the owners to fix it.”

  “How’re you gonna do that?”

  Kiley smirked. “You mean, how are we gonna do that? I’ll give you the options the same time I tell the kids.” She gave my outfit a slow perusal. “You don’t care if you get paint on those clothes?”

  “Yes, I care if I get paint on these clothes. I’ll have to change.” I pointed at her. “And no yelling at me to hurry up, because I didn’t know this was a painting party.”

  “No yelling. But there is one thing I want to ask you.”

  “What?”

  “Can you let your tats show today? And put your piercings in?”

  Okay. That was a weird request. “Can I ask why?”

  “These kids are borderline cases. And since I’ve met with them, I know they feel . . . marginalized or ostracized. Sometimes by where they live, or their parents’ actions or inactions, a lot of them think there’s no life for them beyond what they can see. I want to show them they can retain their individuality, but still fit into a more mainstream life.”

  I didn’t know what to say. I had a regular job, but at that job I had to hide those things that made me stand out. So would it be more hypocritical to put the piercings in and show the tats, or to say no and then not tell these kids that I willingly cover up a part of myself five days a week in order to fit into a world I never thought I’d belong in? “Kiley. I don’t know. That seems—”

  “Dishonest? Maybe a little. But it’s not like you never wear them anymore.”

  “It’s rare. And I did let most of the holes close up.” Out of pure laziness—not that I’d tell her that. I found I slept better without the piercings in my nipples, my nose and my ears. I’d never gone for gauges, though at one time I’d been tempted to try it just because few women had them.

  Kiley shoved me. “One piercing. Crappy clothes. Get moving.”

  “And to think I woke up early for this.”

  She laughed and drank the last of my coffee.

  On the way to the meeting spot, I said, “So it’s just you and me today?”

  “There’s one other person coming. I don’t know him.”

  “You didn’t grill him? You’re just assuming this guy isn’t some kind of perv preying on kids?”

  “You’re more suspicious than I am, Lennox. This guy is from a charitable foundation run by a bunch of rich women who feel guilty for being rich, so they round up their other guilt-ridden pals a few times a year and force them to volunteer.” Kiley pulled off the freeway. “That wasn’t meant to come off snotty sounding. I’m grateful for these foundations because there’s no way we can do this without them. This foundation in particular sends qualified people that don’t come off as entitled. My kids would crucify them for that. And there is nothing nastier than a sixteen-year-old with a chip on his or her shoulder. Nothing.”

  I knew that.

  “You never said how long this lasts.”

  “Depends on how many kids show up. If it’s over fifteen, I usually take them to lunch after we finish the community service project.”

  “And if it’s less than ten kids?” I prompted her.

  “I packed lunch and we’ll be out of here by one.”

  She pulled into the deserted parking lot. I didn’t see any teenagers loitering. My gut clenched. I hoped for Kiley’s sake some of the kids made an appearance. She’d put so much thought, effort and money from her own pocket into this project that it would crush her if it didn’t succeed.

  Kiley opened the back of her SUV. “Grab a bin.”

  The plastic bins were heavy, but we each lugged one to the picnic table near the graffitied wall. We walked back to her car and saw a skinny black kid leaning against the car.

  “DeMarius—happy to see you here! Grab a box.”

  The kid, probably around fifteen, gave me a once-over. “This another rich do-gooder they saddled you with, Kiki?”

  It was interesting to me that the kids called her Kiki. Even more interesting was that this kid thought I could pass for rich.

  Kiley rolled her eyes. “Lennox is my roommate. I’d be ticked off if she was secretly rich, because the woman has been late on the rent more than one time.”

  Not true, but I saw how quickly the kid relaxed and how fast his grin popped up.

  “That’s cool.”

  “But there’s supposed to be a volunteer showing up today, so I’m gonna ask you don’t pull attitude, okay?”

 
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