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. “You’re here already.”
A hand slid around her waist and she peeled her eyelids open as Maxwell Turner Junior 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, 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. Max 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, 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 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 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. His sister Maxine? “But you’re twins.”
“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?
Another cup of 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 a few girls, including her friend Maxilila—cousin to her current tormentor, Max Junior. Lila was another victim of the Turner family curse. The one started when a rich ancestor, Maxwell Turner the First, added a line to his will stating all Turner offspring must be named Max to inherit cash upon reaching their twenty-fifth birthday.
It was fairly incredible that an entire family as prolific as the Turners had managed to come up with names that mostly fit the criteria. Lila would cut anyone who dared called her by her full name, though.
Tasha pushed aside her random musings and tried again to remember the previous night. Her birthday had been 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.
Tasha had leaned back in the oversized chair, head resting against the side wing. In contrast to her dark hair, her skin was pale, and she probably 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.”
She narrowed her eyes, the dark brown irises locking on him. “That’s the second time you mentioned that, about me giving up coffee. How do you know what I’ve got planned?”
“You told me.” He gave her a serious nod, keeping all traces of amusement hidden. “Last night, when I helped you up to your apartment.”
“You helped me…” Her eyes clouded for a moment. She shook her head, then cringed. She sucked back more of her coffee and he let his smile escape.
“There were a number of interesting revelations last night. How you weren’t embarrassed about having a good time with your friends because it was your last time drinking for as long as it takes. And then there’s the coffee you’re giving up—as well as any kind of tea but herbal.”
Two red circles appeared on her cheeks and she stuttered. One deep breath later, Max watched in amazement as she turned calm and cool before him, the embarrassed, hungover woman vanishing beneath a perfectly in-control persona.
“Well, it appears you’ve found out about my new health régime. Part of getting older. Time to take care of the body a little better.”
Damn, she was good. If he didn’t know her so well, he would have fallen for the cool, collected and put-together routine she displayed.
She leaned forward and stared at him intently. “Was there something specific you wanted? The message on my answering machine mentioned a business proposal.”
He tipped back a hit of his coffee, trying to waste a few minutes. Fortunately, last night the calm woman before him had been far more hot-blooded and emotional. He wouldn’t hold it over her head, but he would capitalize on what she’d let slip.
As he waited for her breathing to fall back into a steady pattern, he pulled out the file folder he’d prepared after tucking her into bed last night—and he wasn’t about to tell her that part either. Not yet. Even though the memory of her soft skin made him instantly aching and hard, he had forced himself to not take advantage of the opportunity.
It had nearly killed him to slip her under her quilt and not crawl in with her. Especially after listening to her confess what she wanted, what he was more than willing to provide. If he hadn’t been raised to be a gentleman, it would have made life so much easier. Giving in and fucking her while she was drunk was no way to start a lasting relationship.
He handed over the portfolio.
Tasha accepted it with reluctance, pulling it toward her. “What’s this? I’m not up for any games today, okay?”
He shook his head. “No games. Take your time, read it through.”
She rubbed her eyes for a moment then opened the file with a deep sigh. Humoring him no doubt. Her gaze darted over the page and slowly her brow furrowed.
“Maxwell, I think you gave me the wrong papers. These are your health records.”
He smiled. “That’s right. I had a full physical last month and all the paper work is up to date. I thought you’d appreciate that.”
She snorted. “Oh yeah. Thank you. Exactly what I need to see the night after I drink myself shit-faced. Good for you.” She scrolled down the page with a finger. “Gee, nice blood pressure. And your BMI is amazing. You should be proud.”
Max chuckled. “Ahh, I love your sense of humor.”
Tasha leaned back and sighed. “Look, I don’t feel well. Get to the point. I know you’re smarter than anyone else, so use small words and I’ll try to understand.”
“Turn the page. I think you’ll get the picture.”
She rolled her eyes then winced in pain, and he wiped his mouth to hide his grin. While he felt for her, he was grateful the liquor last night had been enough to loosen her lips. At least enough to make her spill the beans in regards to her plan to get pregnant.
Which fit his agenda just fine.
She turned the page and froze, her mouth hanging open as she stared at the open file before her. The twin spots of color on her cheeks spread to flush her entire face, and she slammed her lips together.
He waited. He was good at waiting.
“Maxwell Dale Turner, what the hell is this?”
Tasha flipped the portfolio around to display the ring he’d taped to the page below the note written in all capital letters.
WILL YOU MARRY ME?Return to Turn It Up