Turn It Up
Turner Twins - 2
Turn It Up is book number ten for me with Samhain Publishing. Not sure if this is considered a dedication, or just a heartfelt thank you.
Hurrah to Laurie, for giving me a chance in the first place. Cheers to Crissy, who runs a damn fine show. Lindsey, Amanda, Marty, Tina, Jacob and Jimmy, who keep the behind-the-scenes action flowing smoothly, you are all gold.
But most of all, to Anne Scott, who doesn’t let me take it easy and puts up with more missing commas than any editor should have to. I’m so glad I get to work with you. Here’s looking forward to the next ten…or more.
(Note the casual way I slipped a set of ellipses into that last sentence, for remembrance.)
The doors of the Sugar Shack swung shut behind her and Natasha Bellingham drew a sigh of relief, thankful to get out of the blinding morning sunshine. Her body hurt all over and she could have sworn she had a slight headache, but her brain was too numb to be sure.
A deep chuckle rose from her right, and she twisted slowly to stare into Maxwell Turner’s grinning face. She closed her eyes and struggled to stay on her feet. “Oh damn, you’re here already.”
A hand slid around her waist and she peeled her eyes open as he guided her to an overstuffed chair in the farthest corner of the café. It happened to be the darkest corner as well, shaded from the bright light pouring in the floor-to-ceiling windows. He seated her and held out a glass of water. She gulped it gratefully.
Now if he’d wipe that silly grin off his face, she might consider thanking him, even if it was an ungodly hour. It took way too much effort to check her watch. The numbers blurred before her, but it had to be well before her intended wake-up time of two in the afternoon. This was far too early to be up the morning after her final big bender.
“I’ll grab us coffee. I assume you don’t want anything to go with it.”
Flashing her middle finger was tempting, but that would have required more energy than she currently possessed. He laughed again and strode away, his ass flexing nicely under his worn jeans. Not that she noticed. She’d sworn years ago not to notice anything sexual about him.
She sighed. Even with her head the size of a football, there was no escaping the truth. He’d grown into a good-looking man. She still wasn’t interested.
Tasha leaned back on the comfortable high-winged chair and breathed slowly. Maybe if she didn’t move for a week her head would return to normal. The café was peaceful, people chatting quietly, wonderful smells of dark roast drifting on the air.
“Coffee, double double, on the table at six o’clock. Drink up, we’ll talk once you’ve found peace with the universe.”
“Oh, you’re funny.” Her head might split in two if she laughed, or she would have been more amused.
He sat opposite her, face in profile. She picked up her coffee and sucked down the liquid with a vengeance, attempting to kill the aftereffects of a few too many drinks.
Few? Last night had been all about taking it to the limit. She never drank that much, ever. Her head hurt. Even her eyelashes were way too heavy.
The steaming fluid slid down her throat, and she relaxed deeper into her chair, letting it cradle her. Movement caught her eye as Maxwell stretched out his legs and leaned back, and she casually took stock. Faded jeans, slightly scuffed at the knees, white button-down shirt. The edge of a pale-blue T-shirt peeked from the open neckline. He’d cut his dark hair shorter than usual sometime in the past week. The style suited him. Made him look older than the baby of twenty-four she knew him to be.
At the table to their right, a couple of young women openly admired Max, and Tasha forced herself to relax. When the girls glanced in her direction then tucked their heads together to whisper, she recited a few calming mantras. This was definitely not a good morning. She was tired, cranky, and there wasn’t enough caffeine in all of Thompson to deal with the headache she would have when the rest of the alcohol faded from her system.
She returned her cup to the table and rested her chin in her palm, leaning heavily on an elbow. The smooth surface was cool under her elbow and she covered a yawn. Oh yeah, the coffee needed to kick in fast. Max turned to face her squarely, one hand wrapped around his mug.
Tasha cleared her throat. “I’m confused. My alarm, that I swear I didn’t set, went off this morning. Very early this morning. Then the phone rang—you—leaving a message reminding me to show up on time.” She paused. Admitting she had no idea what was going on was embarrassing. “I don’t remember arranging to meet today. Did we really plan to get together?”
He nodded. “I assume you took a cab?”
As if she would drive. She was probably still over the legal limit. “Of course. Look, I’m sure there’s a fabulous reason why we need to chat, but I’d appreciate if we could switch to tomorrow. I was out kind of late last night.”
She growled at him but stopped when the sound made her brain ache. “Then you should understand I don’t want to be vertical.”
The flash in his eyes as he looked her up and down did silly things to her system. “You don’t have to be. If you’d like me to get you horizontal, I’m all for it.”
An instant shot of lust raced through her and she mentally beat it into submission. “Stop that.”
He shrugged innocently and sipped his coffee again, ignoring her orders to stop flirting, just like always. When in hell had she lost control of him? “I’m not changing my mind. I will not date you, so if you’re hoping to catch me in a moment of weakness…”
“Weakness, like when you’re completely hungover from tying one on? Happy birthday, by the way. I have a present for you, but I’m not giving it over until you’re sober.”
He tsked softly. “Now now, that’s not true. My mom and dad were married when I was conceived. Although I’m not sure about my sister.”
Her head spun. For as long as she’d known him, he’d spoken in riddles. Usually she found it hilarious, watching others sputter and try to figure out what he meant, but at the moment, when she wasn’t at her best, she understood why people found him annoying.
“Right. Good to know you’re a little more with it than you were last night.”
She stared at him in confusion. “Last night? You weren’t there.”
“Sure I was. I was the DD for the evening. Or don’t you remember Lila calling me? By the time you’d all done a round or four of tequila shooters, you’d talked her into drinking as well, and there was no one left sober enough to get behind the wheel.”
“You drove us home?”
“Every last one of you.”
Natasha drained her mug and stared at the bottom, wondering if she dared have another. She needed to be alert to keep up with Max. She had no recollection of him driving her anywhere. There had been lots of singing, that she remembered, but him?
The tease of another cup of the Sugar Shack’s high-test java tempted her. If she stuck to her schedule, this was her last day for coffee as well.
Max held out his hand. “A dying man’s final requests are always honored. You’re going to feel like hell for a few days anyway, you may as well enjoy the buzz while you can.”
She handed over her cup reluctantly. He seemed to know way too much about what she had planned.
He strolled back to the counter and got her a refill while she racked her brains for an inkling of what had happened last night. She remembered hitting the bar with her friend Maxilila and a few other girls. Her birthday was as good a time as any for one last hurrah before cleaning up her act and going dry for as long as it took.
Operation Baby—before that magic number of thirty-five hit and she turned into a pumpkin or something.
She’d always hated the cliché of the damn clock ticking, but over the past couple of years that was exactly what she’d heard. Every month as the dream of starting a family seemed to grow more distant, the timer counting down got louder and louder.
Sunlight flashed off the tabletop and she groaned in pain as her temples throbbed in response. Of course, right now the thought of being responsible for anyone other than herself scared her silly. She should crawl back into bed and sleep until Monday.
It was a brilliant plan, and one she was going to put into action as soon as possible. But first, she had to ditch Maxwell.
Max added extra cream and sugar to Tasha’s coffee cup. It was unlikely she would be eating anything soon, and at least this way she’d consume a few calories. He nodded at the barista and picked up their cups, balancing them easily as he returned to the table.
She’d leaned back in the oversized chair, head resting against the side wing. In contrast to her dark hair, her skin was pale, and she must have had a headache the size of California. But he wasn’t about to let this chance slip away. For the past four years he’d been biding his time. He recognized an opportunity when he saw one, and this was it—Natasha Bellingham was going to be his. Enough of her running, and if he had to take advantage of the moment, so be it.
Her nose twitched when he placed the cup in front of her and he laughed. “I don’t understand how you think you’re going to survive without coffee. You’re pretty near addicted to the stuff.”