Check out below for an exclusive peak at HOLLYWOOD ON TAP! Read Chapter 1 and 2
Five Months Ago
There was a difference between making love and fucking. Both were fun and—hopefully—got you to the same place, but they were as different as sweet and sour. Natalie Sweet had done a lot of the first, but only a little of the second and as she silently slid one leg from between the sheets, she realized she wanted more.
The wood floor’s early morning cold burned her toes as she eased her weight off the king–sized bed, wincing when the man sprawled across it grumbled in his sleep.
Natalie held her position and her breath until Max rolled over, revealing the Lincoln State University bulldog mascot tattooed on his left shoulder. Even as she was in the process of sneaking out like a naked thief in the night, she couldn’t help but sigh at the head football coach’s muscular back. Lincoln may be an NCAA Division Two school, but Max had a Division One body and the hunky brain to go with it.
And if she wasn’t a half–nuts Sweet from Salvation, Virginia, she would have taken him up on his post–coital offer. But she hadn’t…couldn’t. Max was a good guy, but he wasn’t ever going to be her guy. The sex was amazing, but that’s all it was for her—sex.
She swept her neatly folded pink cardigan, cream skirt, and taupe underwear up off the chair, scooped her black Mary Janes from the floor, and clutched them to her chest as she tiptoed to the bedroom door.
“Not even a goodbye kiss on the cheek?” Max tsk–tsked. “And you’re usually so particular about protocol.”
Natalie halted mid–step, her nose scrunched up and shoulders hunched. “I didn’t want to wake you,” she managed to squeak out.
He sighed. “I didn’t mean to freak you out last night.”
Yep. They were going to have this conversation. Goodie, goodie gumdrops. “You didn’t.” She turned around and the you–are–totally–full–of–shit expression on his face made her laugh out loud. “Okay. You did. But it’s not you. Really. It’s me.”
“Wow.” Max rubbed the scruff on his chin. “Normally I’m the one saying that line.”
She couldn’t do this naked. It just wasn’t proper. Natalie dressed in thirty–four seconds; she knew because she’d time it repeatedly in high school until she’d eliminated every unnecessary move and shaved every extra second from the action.
Once clothed, she put on her dark–rimmed glasses and ran her fingers across her pearl necklace. Dealing with anxiety had been a daily battle that she’d waged for most of her life. Thanks to Dr. Kenning, a shitload of yoga, and her devotion to creating order from chaos, she hadn’t had a panic attack in years.
Comforted—as always—by her personal talisman, Natalie faced Max. “You are an amazing guy—”
“Ouch.” He slapped his palm over his heart as if he’d been shot. “Friend zoned.”
“You’re such a goof.” Which was one of the things she really liked about Max. He always made her laugh and he was completely direct, which was what led to this conversation in the first place. No one ever said the truth was comfortable. “We’ve been friends with benefits for…what…three months?”
He nodded. “Sounds about right.”
She squared her shoulders. Now to lay it all out in a straightforward manner, just like during a client presentation about an efficiency strategy. She could do this. She had a black belt in compartmentalizing. “And we both came into it with our eyes open. I was totally honest and upfront about my disinterest in a relationship, as were you.”
“Yes. The efficiency expert explained it all very methodically, although I was disappointed in the lack of a PowerPoint.” Max said it with a smile, but there was an underlying hurt in his tone.
Guilt pricked her conscience because she really did care about Max. This was why she had always separated sex from any feeling beyond companionship. It got messy, and messy things were, by definition, illogical and disorderly. Two things that had always given Natalie cold sweats and psychological tremors.
“I didn’t realize something had changed for you,” she said.
“But not for you.”
Her shoulders drooped. “Not for me.” God, she wished she had a different answer.
Max scrubbed at his buzz–cut black hair as if he were washing out the past few months. “Is it not for you just with me or not for you with anyone?”
“I don’t know, but I need to find out.” It was past time, really.
He wrapped the soft blue sheet around his lean hips and strutted over to her, every inch of him looking as though he’d just stepped off the professional gridiron a month ago instead of five years. Damn. He was a walking orgasm and she had just turned down his proposal to date exclusively. Maybe there was something to the idea that all the Sweets were born with a self–destructive crazy gene.
“Change is a bitch.” Max tucked a finger under her chin and tilted her face up so she had no choice but to look into his kind brown eyes. “Don’t ever let her see you sweat.”
“That wouldn’t be very productive.” Her voice wobbled with regret. Max’s only sin was wanting more than her firmly boxed–up heart could give him.
“And everyone knows you won’t put up with that.” He brushed his lips across her forehead in a petal–soft kiss before smacking her ass like a football player about to storm the field. “Now get out of here before I drag you back into bed for goodbye sex.”
Natalie held it together for the two minutes and fourteen seconds it took her to exit Max’s apartment, cross the parking lot, and barricade herself behind her Honda Civic’s locked doors. Only then did she give in to the tremble shaking her bottom lip and rest her forehead against the cold steering wheel.
For once, she didn’t count the seconds as her shoulders shook and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Eventually the wetness dried, exhaustion replaced the shaking, and her composure returned.
“Whining and whimpering never solved anything.” She pulled a tissue from the box kept in the glove compartment and patted it under her eye. She took a steadying breath before hooking her fingers in her pearl necklace and repeating her mantra. “See a problem. Fix a problem. There’s a process for everything.”
But what was the solution when the problem was her?
She glanced down at her phone to reread the text her older sister, Miranda, had sent yesterday. Well, older by all of three minutes. The same amount of time she was older than her little sister, Olivia. She brought up the message.
MIRANDA: THIS PLACE IS A TWENTY–FIVE ON A TEN POINT NIGHTMARE SCALE. I NEED AN EFFICIENCY EXPERT TO HELP GET THE BREWERY ONLINE. ANY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FOLKS IN THE AREA WHO WON’T KILL MY BUDGET?
Her Uncle Julian, who’d left her and her sisters a worn–down craft brewery when he died, had sworn all the threes in the triplets’ lives were good luck. If they were, she’d yet to experience it.
Her fingers stilled on her pearl necklace.
Maybe it wasn’t what the solution to her problem was, but where.
If she were researching the source of her aversion to relationships, starting at the beginning made sense. For added value, she’d get to see her older sister and could help put the brewery back on the path to profitability. It was a win–win.
Turning the key in the ignition, Natalie started organizing her schedule in her head. None of the clients at her fledgling consulting firm needed her on location. She could as easily streamline their systems from Salvation, Virginia, as she could from Kellwood, Missouri.
She pulled out onto the street, invigorated by the prospect of a shiny new problem to fix and finally finding a solution to an old one.
At times like this, Sean O’Dell—movie star in hiding—almost wished he’d never left Hollywood and the millions sitting untouched in the bank.
If he could make it across the Sweet Salvation Brewery to the walk–in cooler in time, he could hide behind the crates of hops until Natalie Sweet left. Worst case scenario, he’d ditch the stubborn woman in the stacks of burlap bags filled with malt.
He’d purposefully ordered the staff to arrange them out of alphabetical order just to annoy the efficiency expert always nipping at his heels. The micromanaging menace could never go near them without stopping a staff member to help her put the bags to rights. He laughed, but didn’t slow his breakneck pace through the brewery.
Hooking a left turn at the brew kettle, he pulled his Southeast Brewers Invitational baseball hat lower and hustled toward the cooler.
“Yo, brewmaster, hold up, man,” the brewery’s delivery driver hollered from the open bay door.
Sean didn’t check his speed. “Nope.”
“But your shadow—” The words faded into background noise when Sean made a left at the bottling station.
Punctual to the hundredths of a second, the bane of his existence marched out the door at 5:05 every day without fail. If he could make it undiscovered for the next ten minutes, he’d have until six tomorrow morning blissfully free of her clipboard, her flowcharts, her spreadsheets, and her plans to change everything about the brewery that he loved. Not to mention Natalie’s big blue eyes, the stubborn tilt of her chin, and the curves she tried—and failed—to hide underneath cardigans the color of carnival cotton candy.
The question of exactly how fast, or slow, he could unfasten all those little pearly buttons haunted him as he lay in bed at night and in his morning shower—exactly the kind of thoughts he should not be having about the woman who signed his paychecks.
The walk–in cooler stood twenty feet away.
So frickin’ close he could practically smell the flowery green hops and feel them crumble in his palms.
The weight on his chest eased with each step. He was going to close out the day without having yet another conversation with Natalie about lean manufacturing or whatever the hell system the people at Toyota invented.
She’d been hounding him all day to sit down with her and go over her crazy–ass plans to streamline the brewery process. As if the craft and creativity of making beer could be distilled down to numbers on a spreadsheet. The woman was as annoyingly persistent as she was hot—both were a distraction he didn’t need in his life right now, not with the Southeast Brewers Invitational coming up.
But for the next thirteen hours, he wouldn’t have to hear any of her harebrained recommendations. He reached for the cooler’s door handle and turned it, noticing as he did so that it wasn’t latched.
He yanked open the door before his brain processed the ants dancing up his spine.
The motion triggered the cooler’s sensor–activated overhead lights. His gut dipped and he clenched his jaw.
Natalie stood shivering on the other side of the cooler’s threshold, clutching her damn clipboard to her chest.
He stopped cold. “What in the hell are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you in your favorite hiding spot.” Her teeth chattered. “Do you really think I don’t know your secrets?”
God knew exactly how long she’d been lying in wait for him, but it was enough time for her button nose to turn red and her glasses to frost over. His gaze slid to the right. The temperature gage read twenty–six.
A smarter man would have shut the door and walked away, let her deal with the consequences of spending time in the cooler without a coat. But no one—from his asshole of a father to his always–hungry–for–more agent to his on–set teachers—had ever accused him of having an overabundance of brains.
Instead, he whipped off his thick hoodie and pulled it over her head. Not bothering to get her arms through the sleeves, he wrapped her up—clipboard and all—inside its fleece warmth. The hood drooped over her head, covering everything down to her nose. Before she could squeak out a noise over the chattering of her teeth, he wrapped an arm around her narrow waist and tossed her over one shoulder like a sack of grain. Her cold seeped into him, pouring over his body and making him shiver.
“P–p–put me down.” She made a halfhearted attempt to wriggle free.
“No.” He spun around and kicked the cooler door shut with his boot heel.
“This is unseemly.”
Her body may be half a degree away from being a snow cone, but holding her like this had him running a few degrees warmer. “Yep.”
“You can’t just carry me around like this,” Natalie huffed against his lower back. “I’m your boss.”
“I can and you are.” But he was bound to forget that last part if she kept squirming against him. Hell, he couldn’t seem to remember that fact while he was alone at night staring at his bedroom ceiling and imagining how those damn little buttons would open under his touch.
He thought he’d made good time on his first trip across the brewery when he was trying to escape her. He was wrong. Busting ass to make it to his office—the warmest place in the building—without half the staff seeing him carting around the brewery’s shivering co–owner over one shoulder had him hustling through his office door in half his earlier time.
“If you don’t put me down right now, I’m going to—” Her pert ass hitting the chair stopped whatever threat was about to come out.
Sean crossed over to his desk and circled behind it, figuring the oak and the stacks of papers and dirty coffee cups covering it would offer him some protection—but maybe not enough, judging by the fire snapping in her blue eyes behind her defrosted glasses.
“You monosyllabic Neanderthal, I am not some little helpless female who can’t walk across the brewery.”
He shrugged. “I did what was needed.”
“What the what?” She dropped the clipboard from beneath the hoodie and shoved her arms through the its sleeves before rubbing her hands up and down her arms to warm them. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
Sean doubted there were half–crazed mules more stubborn than Natalie Sweet. “If I hadn’t, you would have stayed in that cooler, freezing your ass off until you’d said everything you wanted to say—which, by the way, is usually more words that most people use in a year.”
Well, definitely more than he did, since that speech he’d just given had used up his allotted speaking time for the next week.
She blinked in surprise before immediately recovering her ire. “It was the most logical place to wait for you. You don’t think I realize you’ve been ditching me every chance you could get? Anyway, I would have stepped outside the cooler.” She paused. “Eventually.”
“Well, you can’t argue it didn’t work because we’re together now and I have the flowcharts that I need your input on. It would be wasteful not to take advantage of the situation.”
“Tomorrow.” He grabbed his keys from off his desk.
“Why are you so dead set against securing the brewery’s future?”
Sean dropped his keys and shuffled through the paper pile in the middle of the desk. It took a second—okay, a few minutes—but he finally found the printed brochure for the Southeast Brewers Invitational, which he shoved across the desk toward Natalie.
She leaned forward to read it. “Breweries go head to head with one crowned champion in each of ten beer styles.” Natalie looked up. “You think winning a competition would be better for the brewery than giving it a solid operational foundation?”
“Winning will do a lot more for Sweet Salvation Brewery than your four–billion–point plan will.” Certainty as solid as a concrete block firmed his spine and filled him with confidence. “I’m going to make a beer that is going to blow those little buttons right off your sweater.”
Natalie’s sisters could tease her for the pearl necklace she always wore and she’d roll her eyes. People in Salvation could mock her for her family’s wild, lawless history and she wouldn’t even let it put a pause in her step. But to question her flowcharts? Mock her efficiency strategy?
Oh hell no, that shit did not stand.
“My plan has twenty–five points, thank you very much. Each of which is carefully thought out and considered utilizing the best manufacturing processes and customized to meet the needs of Sweet Salvation Brewery. All of which you would realize if you ever took five minutes to review my flowcharts.” Her cheeks pulsed with the heat of a thousand fires, fueled by frustration and indignation. “You may like to think of this brewery as your own personal playground, where things happen willy–nilly so the creative process can work itself out, but it’s not. There needs to be order. Direction. Documented processes.”
Her voice cracked on the last word and her throat tightened, preventing her from expressing the rest of her outrage.
Damn it, this would not happen now.
Clamping her jaw shut tight, she inhaled a deep breath through her nose and kept her gaze locked on the crack in the wall above Sean’s head. Her nose twitched and she swallowed hard as she blinked furiously to keep the tears at bay.
I will not give him the satisfaction.
“Are you okay?” Sean backed up slowly as if he had a roast chicken tied around his neck and was nose–to–nose with a rabid junkyard dog.
“I am…” The first hot tear slid down her cheek, followed by a thousand more. She could practically feel her nose enlarging and turning Rudolph red. She sniffled back snot. “Perfectly fine.”
“Don’t cry.” He yanked open his center desk drawer and rifled through the contents. “I didn’t mean to make you sad.”
“I am not sad, you numbskull.” She wiped the back of her hand across her cheek then pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “I am really fucking mad.”
“Then why are you crying?” He pulled a squashed mini–box of tissues from the drawer and held them out to her.
She swiped the box and yanked out a tissue. “It’s a common physical reaction to extreme annoyance.” Her voice wobbled like a deer in high heels and grew in volume with each word. “Especially when dealing with change–adverse jerks who think they’re artists of alcohol and won’t even consider for one damn second that all I’m trying to do is help.”
“Artist of alcohol?” The corner of his mouth curled and he shook his head. It should have made him look smug. Instead it just emphasized his scruffy hotness. “I like that.”
“Of course you do.” Natalie patted her cheeks dry and wiped her nose. She knew from past experience that she was not a pretty crier. Blotchy face. Puffy eyes. Sniffly nose. It was a little late to be delicate now. She laid the tissue box on his desk.
He swept it into the drawer, holding down part of the mess inside so he could shove it closed. “You’re still wrong.”
“About what?” Exasperation sent her leaping up with enough force to knock the flimsy plastic chair to the ground. Ignoring the clattering, she paced the length of his desk, whacking her clipboard against her opposite palm. “The fact that the ordering system is woefully out of date? That the records department is a frightening black hole of misfiled bills and past–due invoices? That the scheduling for the brew process is haphazard? Or, perhaps I’m wrong about the whole fly–by–the–seat–of–your–pants attitude you have about everything here. But instead of listening to my ideas, you’re submarining me at every opportunity.”
He crossed his arms, making his biceps bulge. “I don’t like change.”
“Too bad. Change happens.”
“Like you embrace it.” Sarcasm reverberated in his deep bass.
“Of course I do, what do you call this?” She raised her clipboard like a shield.
“Change you control, not the kind some crazy new boss forces on you.”
Natalie’s eyes almost bugged out of her head and her chest heaved. “That is the dumbest things I have ever heard.” Heat blazed in her cheeks.
Sean’s blue eyes darkened and his eyelids drooped. “You burn hot.”
Low and intense, his voice discombobulated her and had her clutching her clipboard to her chest.
“Hot?” She patted the sides of her French braid, tucking the loose strands behind her ears and straightened her glasses. “No. I am in firm control of my emotions.”
At least she used to be. Then she met the insufferable Sean O’Dell, quite possibly the most annoying man on the planet. She should have known he was trouble when they they were introduced and he’d acknowledged her with a caveman grunt. But she’d been too distracted by his warm, mahogany–colored eyes, broad shoulders, and ruggedly handsome face half hidden behind a beard. His stinginess when it came to talking drove her nuts, and not just because he wasn’t answering her questions, but because the gravel–edged timbre of his deep voice sent a delicious shiver down her spine every time he spoke. Knowing him, he probably spoke so infrequently to keep her off balance. He was as pleasant as ants at a picnic.
“Why don’t you talk about this…stuff—” he pointed to her clipboard “—with your sister?”
Natalie almost looked around for a hidden video camera, because this had to be a prank. Unfortunately, there was no camera. She clutched her clipboard to her midsection so she wouldn’t wring his neck. Sean wasn’t dumb, but his purposeful thickheadedness was about to make her snap.
“Two very good reasons,” she said, keeping her tone level, if laced with ire. “Number one, because Miranda got here nine days before I did and knows just as little about the history of this place as I do. Number two, because she’s tied up with wedding plans.”
He shrugged those broad shoulders, pulling his Sweet Salvation Brewery T–shirt tight across his muscular chest. “The changes will wait for her.”
“The changes have been waiting for months. I’m done waiting.” Her clipboard’s edges bit into her palms. God, what was it about this man that made her crazy enough to want to wing her favorite accessory at him?
“Looks like we’re at a standoff then, Sugar.” He picked up the brochure from his desk and circled around to her side. One callused finger tipped the clipboard away from her chest, never touching her skin but close enough that his heat licked her. The air hummed around them. Hunger. Want. Need. All three zapped between them, and as strong as an electrical current on steroids. “Of course, if you were to scratch my back, I’d guarantee your needs were satisfied too.”
Needs. Oh yes. She had them. Too damn many at the moment.
He slipped the brochure onto her clipboard. Fire ate its way up from her toes. The man had a death wish. It was the only thing she could come up with to explain why he kept purposefully pissing her off. “That’s blackmail.”
Sean chuckled, a sound that should never give her naked, naughty fun thoughts, but in his case did. “That’s harsh, Sugar. It’s negotiating, and if we do it right, we all walk away happy.”
She wasn’t falling for his brand of happy, no matter how tempting the messenger. “Forget it.”
Instead of pushing him away, her words only brought him closer. His scent wrapped around her, teasing her senses and melting her resistance until the only thing grounding her to the real world was the clipboard in her hands.
He leaned in, his lips so close to hers that his words brushed against her skin. “You’ll change your mind.”
One inch. That’s all it would take to close the distance between them. How very badly she wanted to eliminate the space was the only thing that kept her from doing it. So instead of jumping into the unknown abyss, she placed her palm over his fast–beating heart and stepped back. “What makes you so confident?”
He lifted her hand from his chest and kissed the center of her palm. Quick. Soft. Maddeningly effective. “Experience.”
A knock sounded and she whipped her tingling palm from his grasp.
“What?” she and Sean barked at the same time.
Natalie spun around to face the door.
Billy stood there, his eyes round with surprise and more than a dash of fear. “The bottle delivery? Uh…it’s not here.”
“Call them,” Sean said.
“I…uh…did.” Billy’s focus bounced from Natalie to Sean and back again. “They said the order had been canceled.”
“By who?” Natalie asked. This was just the type of sloppy mistake that happened when things weren’t organized.
Suddenly Billy became very interested in the toe of his tennis shoe. “Well…uh…you.”
“I most certainly did not.” And there was only one person at the brewery doing everything in his power to stall her every move.
Natalie spun on her heel and glowered at Sean.
For years, Sean O’Dell has hidden his past as a Hollywood heartthrob from everyone at the Sweet Salvation Brewery. However, the arrival of nosey efficiency expert Natalie Sweet threatens the status quo. It doesn’t help that with her glasses, buttoned-up sweaters and always pulled-back hair that she’s uncovered one secret already: His attraction for hot librarian types.
Natalie has had enough of the strong-and-silent Sean submarining her efforts to change the brewery for the better. She’s ready to do whatever it takes to make her vision a reality, even if that means taking down the pig-headed and too-hot-for-his-own-good brewmaster.
Sizzling attraction battles stubborn determination as Natalie and Sean go head to head in a battle that’s anything but business as usual.
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