Dead to the Max
Book 1 in the Max Starr Series
RTR Reviewers Choice Award October 2003
“keeps you guessing until the very end.”
The Romance Studio
"This book will put you through the wringer."
Sensual Romance Reviews
The fast-paced adventure of the irrepressible Max Starr, a thirty-something, down-on-her-luck accountant with the unfortunate gift of being psychic. Desperate to get to the bottom of why she’s suddenly become the Bay Area’s newest Sylvia Brown, she embarks upon a roller-coaster ride of adventure geared toward solving a murder, only to realize too late that solving that murder just might be the death of her. And she’s fast coming to the conclusion that not only is she psychic, she’s also possessed by the spirit of the murdered woman. But Max has more than murder plaguing her, she’s got a matchmaking ghost, that of her dead husband Cameron, who wants her to find romance with hunky Homicide Detective Witt Long. Witt’s got such big hands and a big body. Poor Max is dying to know if other parts are equally as big. And dying just might be the operative word here.
[Previously published in 2003 as Dead to the Max by JB Skully from LiquidSilverBooks]
Warning, sexually explicit content
She’d dressed in a long, black skirt and white blouse, flawlessly pressed. She was perfect. The perfect daughter, perfect wife, and perfect employee.
Tonight she longed to be the perfect lover. They’d stolen quick, furtive moments together, but this was the first time she would have all night with her lover. Her body hummed, with anticipation, with guilt, with fear.
She’d parked her silver Maxima in the farthest corner of the San Francisco International Airport long-term lot, then caught the shuttle bus to the terminal building. She’d done everything he asked. Except wait outside the terminal. She wasn’t supposed to pace in front of the arrivals monitor, trying to decide if she liked the anxiety, the foreboding.
She slipped her wedding band and sapphire engagement ring into the inside pocket of her leather purse. His plane was five minutes late. Checking the arrival time for his flight one last time, she crumpled the bit of green paper with the flight information he’d given her, threw it on top of an already full trash can, then walked to the lounge area to take a seat.
His gaze swept her as he stepped off the escalator outside security, and her heart sank to the toes of her sensible pumps. The glare he shot made her tremble. Was he pissed? Had she ruined everything?
Two confused, blank-eyed children clung to his big hands.
His estranged wife met them, ready to take his kids from him.
He neither kissed nor touched the pretty, plump blonde. Her sole purpose was to pick up the children after they’d returned from a visit with his parents.
His hands now empty and his bag slung over his shoulder, he walked several steps behind them. His wife chattered at the children and ignored him. Clusters of travelers engulfed them until they disappeared in the throng surrounding the baggage carousel.
She lingered in the waiting area another ten minutes, then rose, dragging her leather purse up her arm to her shoulder, and headed for the front doors, a lump in her throat. Once outside, she stood at the curb for the next long-term bus. He was at the other end of the island, the way they’d arranged. His wife had unknowingly played into the scheme, telling him she’d pick up the kids but he’d have to take a taxi.
She wondered why he and his wife still played this silly game.
The night had cooled. Her silk blouse was thin, but the heat from rumbling buses swept beneath her skirt and set her on fire. She could feel the hot lick of his gaze as if twenty feet didn’t separate them, his anger and desire a potent combination.
Need, hunger, dread, and excitement formed a squirming package in her stomach. Butterflies. Spontaneous combustion.
He sat in the back of the bus, she in the front. They neither spoke nor looked at each other. The ride to long-term was the longest ten minutes she’d ever known. Finally they turned down her aisle. She couldn’t believe she was doing this, couldn’t imagine stopping it now. Wouldn’t stop it even if her life depended on it.
She exited from the front of the shuttle, he from the rear, the overnight bag now in his hand. Pulling out her keys, she pressed the remote alarm.
The bus pulled away. Her heart hammered.
His bag was on the ground beside them and his hands were up her skirt before she had the car door open.
He dragged her into the back seat. She spread her legs over him, straddling his thighs. The roof of the car scuffed her hair. Tugging on his zipper, she took him in her hand. He sucked in a breath; in the past, he’d always initiated. There wasn’t time to fish the condoms out of her purse. When she slid down onto him, he groaned, but he didn’t take his eyes off her face.
She’d never been so wet, so vocal, or come so willingly in her life.
Three power-thrusts later, he came.
She screamed out her orgasm. Tears gummed her lashes and rolled down her cheeks. Hands circled her throat. From the floor of the car, the rumpled bit of green notepaper, the one she’d thrown away, taunted her, and the empty condom wrapper shouted her shame. How had it come to this?
In that moment, before fear gripped her, before instinct took over, when her guilt was strongest, she welcomed Death. Welcomed it as the life was choked from her, welcomed it until her eyeballs ached and colors exploded behind her lids. Until blood from her bitten tongue leaked down her raw, bruised throat. And then her body fought for survival.
She tore at the fingers, shrieked, twisted, kicked, scratched, and punched. And still she couldn’t drag in a breath. Terror fisted around her heart and squeezed. Fear of death. Fear of life. Fear like she’d never known. Not even the night someone put a bullet in Cameron’s head.
Max Starr woke clawing at her throat, Cameron’s name breaking the thrall of the dream. Blood drummed in her ears. Her heart pounded against the wall of her chest.
But she could breathe. Oh God, she could breathe, sweet, clean air smelling of early morning, green leaves, and hope. She was here, in her bedroom, where she belonged. Safe.
“Are you all right?” Cameron’s voice, not spoken but inside her head, comforting, familiar, the way a dead husband’s voice should be, the only way a crazy, grieving widow should hear her husband’s ghost. But she’d have given anything to feel his arms around her right now. For real, not just in the erotic dreams he brought her.
Sometimes fantasies weren’t enough.
Like now, when her throat still ached. She lightly caressed the flesh, her fingers cool, her skin tender with residual effects of the nightmare.
“It was a dream,” she murmured for both their benefits. Maybe her worst nightmare--except for that night two years ago when Cameron was killed--but still just a dream. After a deep inhale, then a long sigh, the tension dribbled out her fingertips and the soles of her feet.
Physical, reality-based sensation returned--sheets tangled around her legs, her back stuck to the cotton. She pushed the bedclothes aside to let cool air from the open window blow across her naked body. In the elm outside her window, the stray black cat gave a pathetic mewl. She shouldn’t have fed it yesterday, but knew she’d do the same thing today. Her racing heart eased into a steady, normal beat.
“That was a vision, Max, not a dream.” Cameron’s voice again, always with her, inside her.
It had been his name that woke her. It wasn’t part of the dream, vision, whatever it was; his name was something she’d interjected into a reality that didn’t belong to her. Even now she sensed remnants of another’s strong emotions inextricably linked with her own.
In the dark corner across the room, dear departed Cameron’s eyes flashed. Despite the two years since his death, those glittering points of light, all she ever really saw of him, still gave her a little jolt, part excitement, part fright. The red tip of his spectral cigarette glowed. He’d loved them when he was alive. They’d been the death of him in the end, not by cancer, but by gunshot at the corner 7-Eleven where he’d gone to buy his last pack.
That was all Cameron was now, sparks of light the same color as his eyes, that damnable glow of his cigarette, and his voice inside her head. Nothing more.
“Please don’t start with the psychic stuff. It’s way too early.” Max rolled over to squint at the digital clock. Five a.m. She had another hour before the alarm went off, but she knew she wouldn’t sleep again. Sitting up too quickly, she wrapped her fingers around the edge of the twin-size mattress as a wave of dizziness blurred her vision. She swept the feeling aside and stood, her legs weak beneath her.
“Sit,” Cameron urged. “Give yourself a minute to recover.”
“What’s there to recover from?” Her shrug belied the lingering effects of terror, shame, and resignation. “I’ve had worse nightmares.”
But none so tangible as this, right down to the coppery taste of blood at the back of her throat. Max slipped back down on the bed, her head spinning. Such a strange sensation. She didn’t feel quite...alone in her own body.
“That was a vision, Max.”
No. “I’m not psychic. I prefer to be called crazy.” It was easy to say. Even flippant.
“What about that little girl? You led the police right to her body. I think that would be construed as psychic, not crazy.”
Damn. She’d been calming down. Sort of. Cameron’s words in her head started the anxiety all over again. “I walked by. I saw her feet in the bushes.”
“You climbed a barbed wire fence because you thought you heard a child crying. Then you saw her feet.”
“Climbing the fence was a short cut.” But to what? She hadn’t known then, didn’t know now. She’d simply felt a compelling urge to do it.
“And how’d you know who killed her? You led the police right to him.”
A trail of goose bumps raised the hair on her arms. She didn’t know how. And she didn’t want to talk about it. That was a year ago. She’d put the whole thing behind her.
“Ever considered this has something to do with my death?” The room cooled around her, the perspiration on her skin chilling. Cameron went on. “You never had visions before I died. Now you hear me, even though no one else can." His voice gentled. "You opened a door when you couldn’t let me go, Max. It’s too late to shut it now. You heard a dead child’s cries. Now you’re seeing that woman’s last moments on earth. You know she’s dead.”
She had two choices, make a joke or pick a fight. She chose the former. “By jove, I think you’ve got it, Watson.” She shook her finger at him, and the next joke died on her tongue. What came out was stark reality. “Watching your husband get shot by thugs, planting him in the ground, and throwing a few clods of dirt on his coffin does something to a person.”
In fact, it drove a person crazy. That’s just what Max wanted to be. She didn’t want psychic. Crazy was better. Crazy meant that she could keep on talking to Cameron as if he were alive, that she could swear he was there in her bed every night, making love to her, filling her body full to its last empty corner. In sane moments, she craved real hands on her, but she’d never give Cameron up. Being crazy meant he was hers forever.
She didn’t have to say any of those things aloud. He knew her thoughts, lived in her mind, her soul. He knew her.
“What a pair we are, Max. You’re slowly dying. And I’m already dead.” He shed his tears for her in his voice, in his words, in the pitiful cry of the cat outside.
His voice in her head was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because even in death he’d never left her, a curse because her life had stopped that night in the 7-Eleven market. She’d been there. She would never block out that memory. She would always live with it.
She knew she had to let him go one day, yet every night she prayed he’d still be there in the morning. She couldn’t imagine what life without him would be like, didn’t want to imagine it.
Max tested her legs, almost surprised to find that enough feeling had returned to support her.
Grabbing her short robe from the straight-back chair beneath the window, she pulled it on, skirted the bed, and headed to the bathroom. Her studio apartment was small. With five steps, she was there.
The interior of the bathroom was dark except for Cameron’s phosphorescence. After two years, she should have been used to the way he moved faster than her eye could follow.
Max flipped on the light, and his glow vanished.
Like a bad omen, a crack, running the length of the medicine cabinet mirror, bisected her face. Dark pouches clung beneath her eyes, fine red veins traced through the pale skin of her cheeks. Her dilated pupils almost obliterated the brown irises. Her dark hair stood on end. Party hair. Or fright.
“You’ve lost more weight, Max.”
He was right. She looked worse than if she’d pulled an all-nighter on a tricky audit. She rubbed beneath her bloodshot eye, then moved to one side of the mirror’s fissure.
Holy hell. Long reddened furrows, just short of bleeding, stood out on the flesh of her neck. She started to shake from the inside out.
“Yes, my love?”
She ran a hand down her throat, the phantom roar of jet engines in her ears. “If that dream was real”--staring at her injured throat, she realized that wasn’t such a big if--“then the woman’s body is somewhere in the long-term parking lot at San Francisco Airport.”