Trip Me Up Chapter 1
Not everyone would sneak her dog into a fundraising luncheon. Her adorable, hardly-ever-barks, absolutely—well, mostly—nonshedding dog.
But, to my mother’s never-ending disappointment, I’m not everyone.
Everyone wishes they had your advantages.
Everyone should marry someone who fits into their social circle. By that, she meant wealthy.
Everyone wants to be a Jones.
But at some point over the past twenty-five years, she should’ve realized that I’m a little…different.
“Bilbo Baggins,” I hissed, lifting the white tablecloth of a large round table.
Grimacing, I dropped the tablecloth and whirled toward my younger sister. She looked down at me from her sky-high heels, one hand on her hip and the other holding a pink cocktail that matched the baby pink of her silk dress. She always looked so effortless at these things. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Um, looking for an earring?”
Natalie squinted at me. “You’re not wearing earrings.”
“Oh. Then I guess I’m looking for two of them.”
“Pearls. You should be wearing pearls.” She scanned me from head to toe, and I nudged my huge black tote bag behind my back. “That suit is so two seasons ago. Didn’t Mother send you a new one?”
I stared at the round toe of my low-heeled shoes, remembering how I’d dropped the lurid pink monstrosity at the donation box. This suit wasn’t so bad. I’d bought it back when I still had new-clothes money, and it was my favorite color, black.
Natalie’s voice was gentler than I’d heard it in a while. “Next time, tell her what you want.”
“What I want is not to be here,” I muttered.
“Oh, really? How would Dad have felt about that?” Her eyes went uncharacteristically shiny before she spun on her sparkly sandal and stalked off.
Dad? I made the mistake of glancing at his picture on the banner at the museum’s entrance. He’d have been too busy working to come to an event like this, even though it was named after him. I rubbed the spot on my chest that ached, still, after fourteen years.
I wasn’t there for him. Although I’d have rather been doing research or cuddling with Bilbo Baggins on my couch or having my appendix removed again, I was there for my mother. She demanded that her family show up picture-perfect at the foundation’s events.
And that reminded me I needed to find Bilbo Baggins before she did. Where could he have gone? He wasn’t usually shy. He wouldn’t hide under a table. Unlike me, he’d be out in the center of the action, making friends. I turned in a circle, scanning the room.
A long buffet table took up one side of the high-ceilinged museum space. Mother usually hated the idea of people holding food, but dining tables wouldn’t have fit with the large sculptures. The other side of the room was scattered with smaller tables serving hors d’oeuvres. Maybe he’d gone to beg for a chicken wing. Not that Mother would ever serve messy chicken wings, but Bilbo Baggins didn’t know that.
I’d taken one step in that direction when a silky-soft but steely hand clamped around my wrist. “Samantha, what is that?”
Frantic, I surveyed the area nearby. Had she seen him?
Pale, French-tipped fingers plucked at the strap of my tote bag. “Why didn’t you leave your school bag at the coat check?”
I turned slowly to face her. “Mother, that’s where I’ve got my wallet and keys.” And my dog, too, before he’d made his grand escape.
Her red lips turned down. “What happened to the bag I gave you for your birthday?”
“It didn’t match my suit.” I waved my hand at my black pantsuit and white shirt. I didn’t mention that when I’d sold the flowered fuchsia purse on eBay, it’d covered Bilbo Baggins’ annual vet visit plus his heartworm preventative and allergy medications.
“Don’t get me started on that suit,” she muttered, brushing a speck off my shoulder. “Now, where is your date?”
“Yes, remember, I told you William Winford wanted to meet you.”
“You didn’t mention it was a date.”
Her blue eyes, paler than mine, shifted to my collar, which she straightened. “He’s very well respected. And brilliant. From what I hear, he’s tripled his trust fund.”
Don’t let her get started on trust funds. “What’s his line of business, drug kingpin? Weapons runner?”
Her mouth formed a shocked, red O. “Samantha Renée Jones, you know we don’t associate with people like that.”
“Mother, it was just a jo—”
“You can trust your family not to let you fall victim to people like that.”
My lips parted. She wouldn’t actually bring up my horrifying mistake here, would she? My heart raced.
“Samantha.” She laid a hand on my sleeve. “You need to trust the people who love you. We’ll help you find a partner who can support you.”
“I can support myself.” Maybe I made shitty decisions about men, but I didn’t need her to match me up with a partner. I had a plan for my life. I crossed my arms. “The last thing I need is a partner.”
“You need security. I’ve seen that hovel you live in. That’s not—”
“Mother.” My oldest brother’s big hand settled on the shoulder of her jacket.
“Ah. Jackson.” Her voice went all soft at my brother’s name, the way it never did when she said mine.
He bent to kiss her cheek, but his crooked smile was all for me. “I need Sam for a minute.”
“But I was going to introduce her to William Winford. You know, the investment banker.” She pursed her lips at me.
“She can meet your guy later. I have someone else in mind.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. My brother didn’t pimp me out or try to use me like some pawn in his business game. But he betrayed nothing under Mother’s gaze.
“All right. I’ll find you later, Samantha. With William.” She stalked off, her heels clacking on the wood floor.
“What the hell, Jacks—”
“You didn’t happen to bring that oversized rat you call a dog here, did you?” He flicked my tote bag.
I sucked in a breath. “Did you see him?”
“Over by the charcuterie table.”
“Oh, no.” With Jackson right behind, I scurried toward the table filled with platters of meats and cheeses. I squatted and pulled up the cloth draping it, but the space under the table was empty. “He’s not here.”
“Sam, why would you bring your dog to Mother’s party?”
I stood and patted my tote like Bilbo Baggins could’ve magically reappeared where he belonged. With my dog against my side, my hands had stopped trembling, and my heart rate had eased from hummingbird speed down to frightened rabbit. “I don’t know.” But I couldn’t help glancing at the giant banner of my larger-than-life dad’s face.
His smile drooped. “I hate it, too, Samwise. But people pay big bucks to come here and eat fancy cheese, and the money goes to a good cause.”
Dad’s favorite cause, he didn’t have to say.
“I know, but—” The Jones Foundation events were the worst. People wanted to talk about books, which I didn’t read anymore, or Dad, which made my heart ache like he’d been gone only a year and not more than half my life. “Why can’t they just write checks and leave me out of it?”
He shrugged. “Like it or not, you’re a Jones.”
I couldn’t escape my name, not here in San Francisco. But someday—a year from now, if I could turn around my dissertation project—I’d be able to break out. I’d find a research professorship somewhere far away in the middle of the country where Mother wouldn’t go. South Dakota or Iowa or even Arkansas. It didn’t matter to me where, as long as it didn’t have any designer boutiques or donors. All I needed was a computer lab and an apartment big enough for me and—
“Bilbo Baggins,” I hissed again, low. With his giant ears, he should’ve been able to hear me even under the noisy luncheoneers.
“Look, we’ll divide up and search. You cover this half of the room, and I’ll check over by the buffet table.”
“What if he ran outside?” There were foxes and hawks, maybe even coyotes, in the surrounding park.
“That dog would never leave you, Samwise. He just went looking for a snack. We’ll find him.”
The inside of my nose burned a little as I reached out and squeezed Jackson’s arm. “Thanks.”
“Don’t worry about it. This is much more entertaining than talking to stuffy literary types. Hey, remember how we used to hunt for gnomes in that game we made together?”
“Gnome Dome? That was years ago.” Ancient history. “And Bilbo Baggins is a lot trickier than the gnomes we programmed.”
“He’s pretty predictable around snacks.” He winked before heading across to the buffet.
I turned back toward the hors d’oeuvres tables. He had to be over there, begging for a treat. I scanned the floor. No sign of his black fur.
A laugh, rich and deep, caught my attention. It wasn’t the polite chuckle people used to signal their usually-false amusement at these things. It was pure and unrestrained. And loud. I glanced over to see who’d violated the social contract.
He was big and…and glowing, like he was on fire on the inside. His hair was the same color the sky had been during the wildfires last summer, a deep russet. Golden freckles coated his skin. He had the physique of someone who played one of those sports where you carry a ball on a field, broad across the shoulders and tapered below. Someone who’d look more natural in a fur-lined cloak and gripping an ax than wearing a charcoal-gray suit and holding a—
“Bilbo Baggins!” I skidded to a stop in front of the Viking.
“Excuse me?” With one oversized, freckled hand, he cuddled Bilbo Baggins closer against his chest. He walloped me with a pair of blue eyes. No. They were green. Flecks of gold lit them like sparks. His lashes were red. Was there a Norse god of flame? Because this guy was a bonfire, toasty warm but also popping with danger.
I checked right and left before I edged closer. More softly, I said, “That’s my dog. Bilbo Baggins.”
“This guy, here?” He looked down into Bilbo Baggins’ bulging brown eyes. Bilbo Baggins flicked out his pink tongue to lick the man’s clean-shaven chin, then squirmed in his grip. “He looks more like Toto than a Hobbit.”
I couldn’t arch an eyebrow like Natalie could, but I raised both of mine. “And does that make you the Wicked Witch of the West, kidnapping my dog?” Movie references, I could do. This guy looked more like a linebacker than a librarian; if we stayed in the shallow water, I wouldn’t have to betray my literary ignorance.
A smile spread like honey across his face. “Kidnapping? More like safekeeping. It appears that Bilbo Baggins was ready for a quest. Bringing the excitement to his humdrum life.”
“Excitement is overrated.” My stomach hollowed. I couldn’t even meet Bilbo Baggins’ eyes. “I know I shouldn’t have brought him. It’s just that—” I pressed my lips together. I couldn’t tell this stranger I needed my tiny dog to fend off the emotions that threatened me here.
“Hey, hey.” He waited until I looked up again. “It’s okay. He’s safe now. See? I’ve got him.” Bilbo Baggins sighed and pressed into his chest.
I wished I could’ve snuggled up to him, too.
The man chuckled. “Sure, there’s plenty of room for you both.”
“Shit, I said that out loud, didn’t I?”
“‘No legacy is so rich as honesty.’” He glanced around the room. “Though you couldn’t tell that from this crowd.”
I tilted my head to the side. “That sounds like Benjamin Franklin.”
“Oh.” Despite his appearance, despite his assessment of the fundraiser attendees, he was one of the literary types. “I’ll take Bilbo Baggins back now.”
His red eyebrows crunched together, but he extended Bilbo Baggins toward me, and my dog swam his tiny, fluffy feet right into my arms. I snuggled him close against my chest. Too close, I discovered when he let out a belch.
“You didn’t happen to feed him cheese, did you?”
The Viking uncurled his other hand and showed me a crumpled napkin holding a single orange cube. “Just one or two pieces.”
I grimaced. “I’m going to get him out of here before he sh—before he has gastric distress, I mean.” I wrinkled my nose. “He doesn’t tolerate dairy.”
“Sorry about that. He seemed to like it.” His voice, like his laugh, was low and rich. I didn’t blame Bilbo Baggins for running to him. Hell, I’d snuggle up against this man while he fed me snacks.
A hint of stinky cheese smell wafted into my nose. I scooped Bilbo Baggins into my tote.
“He does like cheese, right up to the moment his little intestines let loose.” Was that too much information? Probably. When I was nervous, my mouth was more unrestrained than Bilbo Baggins’ bowels after eating Muenster.
He winced. “I really am sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’ll give me an excuse to leave early.” But my feet stayed right there in front of the friendly giant who’d rescued my dog.
“I’m Niall Flynn.” He stuck out his right hand.
“Samantha.” My hand disappeared into his much larger one, his fingers so long that they brushed the sensitive skin at my wrist. My heartbeat quickened, and I sucked in a breath.
He grimaced. “Sorry. Rough hands.”
It was true. Calluses roughened his palm and each of the fingers that covered the back of my hand. Most of the men at these things did nothing more strenuous than click a mouse, and their hands were smoother than mine. Niall had to be an athlete. The foundation partnered with a few pro sportsballers.
“It’s okay. I—I like it.” I eyed the way his suit coat sleeves stretched over his biceps. My friend Marlee would tell me to go for it. Flirt. Have a drink with him. But I was no Marlee. I must’ve been in the computer lab when they gave the lessons on hair-tossing and small talk. On the conversational scale of light banter to deadly serious, I generally came off as an eleven—intense.
Realizing he was still gripping my hand, I tugged it out of his grasp. “Well, thanks for saving Bilbo Baggins from being spiked by someone’s heel.”
“Wait.” He was studying me, a slow perusal of my face, like some people looked at art, not like the mental math most people did when they looked at a Jones.
I blinked. “Do I have something on my face?”
He shook his head. “Sorry, I—I guess I was just surprised to find someone like you here.”
“Someone like me?” I wrinkled my nose. “What’s that supposed to mean?” What had he figured out about me in our ten minutes together?
“Someone…real. And yet not. It’s like you’re going to turn into a woodland creature when the sun goes down.” His face went red, even the freckles.
“Like in Ladyhawke?”
“Niall! There you are.” A woman about my height, with curly dark hair and tawny skin, gripped Niall’s sleeve. A volley of clicks behind her told me she’d brought a photographer. I cringed and turned my back to the sound. “What are you doing hiding over here? We need to get you out and circulating.”
“I was talking to Samantha.” He held out his hand toward me. No way was I getting pulled into his photo op. Each click of the shutter added to the cold weight in my belly. How could I have been so wrong again? He was no gentle giant. He was some minor celebrity here to dump cash for publicity.
Or worse, he was like Stephen, luring me into his trap, waiting to spring it. Somehow, he’d connected me to the Jones family even though I hadn’t given him my last name. Blast that ridiculous family portrait they stuck on an easel for these events. I’d been ten with my straight dark hair in a zigzag part, a closed-mouth smile hiding my braces, and eyes too big for my face. Now my hair was back in a low ponytail and the braces were gone, but I still looked like that prepubescent kid too clueless to know she was about to lose her dad.
The woman’s gaze turned on me, even more penetrating than Niall’s had been. “What’s your last name, Samantha?”
“Gabi,” Niall said, “I need another minute with Samantha.” I didn’t usually like my full name, but the way it rolled out in his low voice made me shiver. Or maybe that was a warning tremor from Bilbo Baggins. What could Niall need another minute to do? Brush the dog hair off my suit for a photo? Once, I’d been willing to be a decoration on a man’s arm, smiling for pictures I didn’t want. Never again.
I raised my palms in front of my chest like I could push them both away. “It’s cool. We’re done. Nice meeting you, Niall.” I strode toward the exit, leaving Niall and his entourage in front of the charcuterie.
When we reached a grassy patch outside the museum, Bilbo Baggins leaped from my tote bag to rid himself of the evil cheese, staring at me like I’d betrayed him. “That was your new friend, Niall, who poisoned you,” I said as I cleaned up the mess. “And he totally wasn’t worth it. He’s just like Winford Whatsit. Wants to use me like an ID badge for getting into shitty parties like that.” I shook the plastic bag of dog shit. “I’m no one’s golden ticket. I’m getting my doctorate and getting out of here. Understand?”
Bilbo Baggins cocked his head.
“I know. You get it.” I tossed the bag into the trash and spread sanitizer gel over my hands.
As I clipped the leash to his collar, my phone buzzed from the outside pocket of my tote. Dr. Martell’s pattern. He usually respected my weekends. Maybe he’d forgotten about some tests he needed graded.
“Hi, Dr. Martell.”
“Samantha. I thought I’d get your voice mail. Didn’t you have some party this afternoon?”
“I—I’m all done.” I led Bilbo Baggins to a bench and sat down, easing off my heels.
“Good. Good.” I could practically hear his brain switching back to research mode. I’d always liked my adviser’s focus on what was important.
“We need to talk about your research. Monday morning at nine, my office.”
My stomach gurgled like I’d eaten the bad cheese, too. “I know it hasn’t been going that well, but—”
“Don’t worry, Samantha. It’s an opportunity.”
The last opportunity he’d given me had taken me down a rabbit hole, and I was still trying to steer the project back in the right direction. “An opportunity.”
“You’ll love it. See you Monday.”
There was no question in his voice. He oversaw not only my stipend but also my doctorate. Without his signature on my dissertation, I’d be the Ph.D.-free version of Samantha Jones, unable to get the research position I needed to escape. “Okay,” I said.
He’d already hung up.
I dropped the phone into my pocket. “Let’s go home, Bilbo Baggins.” I toed back into my shoes and stood. Passing the row of black Mercedes and Bentleys and Jackson’s garish yellow Lamborghini, I trudged toward the nearest bus stop.