- Drive Me Crazy
Author: Tracy Wolff
There were goldfish in her bathtub. Goldfish. In her bathtub. Goldfish. IN. HER. BATHTUB.
For long seconds, Elise McKinney could do nothing but look around the small hotel bathroom she was standing in, as if the pale green walls held a clue as to why—and how—someone had turned her bathtub into a fishpond—two hours before she was supposed to take the stage for the biggest competition of her life.
Not that she really needed any clues to figure out who had done this. No, she thought, as she watched almost two dozen goldfish glide around her bathtub, I know exactly who snuck into my hotel room and pulled this latest prank.
Quinn frickin’ Bradford.
And if she didn’t need desperately to take a shower before she went on stage in front of ten thousand people, she’d probably be impressed with his ingenuity. After all, it wasn’t like she hadn’t known a prank was coming. Not after she’d snuck into his hotel room in Brussels and sown shut the flies of every single pair of his boxer briefs.
With a muttered curse and a promise to herself to get back at Quinn if it was the last thing she did, Elise bent over and stuck her head under the sink faucet. He was so going down for this.
Ninety minutes later, she was repeating that vow to herself as she walked into the greenroom at the performance venue and saw Quinn lounging negligently on the couch, his long, lean body sprawled out like he owned the thing. His hair looked perfect, she noted resentfully, as did his custom-made tuxedo. While she felt like the punch line of a bad joke.
The sink thing hadn’t worked—it was way too shallow to actually wash her hair in it—and she’d been forced to scrape her hair back into a tight bun that made her look like a schoolmarm…or a dominatrix. She was about to go take the most famous stage in Paris to perform the second movement of Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” one of the sexiest pieces ever written for the piano, and she looked like she should be carrying a paddle and a whip. The long, clingy black dress she was wearing only added to the look.
It so wasn’t fair. He should know better than to mess with a sixteen-year-old girl’s appearance before she went on stage. Seriously, everyone knew that, didn’t they?
Of course they did.
Narrowing her eyes into the most threatening look she could manage, she stalked toward Quinn with every intention of going for his eyes. She’d just had her nails done and was sure she could do some damage before they pulled her off of him. But he turned his head just as she reached him and she noticed for the first time that someone had beat her to it. Quinn had a dark bruise on his jaw and a cut on his cheekbone, right under his eye.
“What happened to you?” she asked, concern for him cutting through her fury. They might be enemies of a sort, but they were also friends of a different sort. Hard not to be when they’d been on the performance circuit together for nine years, ever since they were seven years old—two piano prodigies growing up together. This wasn’t the first time she’d seen marks like that on him and though he always had an excuse, in her mind they were starting to wear thin. Especially since Quinn usually blamed the bruises on clumsiness, and he was the least clumsy guy she’d ever met.
“Ran into the wrong end of a fist,” he said with a wink and a grin that didn’t quite meet his eyes.
Her stomach clenched. “I can see that. Whose fist was it?”
“Some random guy’s. He wasn’t all that impressed with me trying to pick up his girlfriend.”
Her concern disappeared in a flood of disgust and something else she wasn’t comfortable analyzing. “You got in a fight over a girl?”
“Can you think of anything better to fight about?”
“You could have hurt your hands!”
“But I didn’t,” he answered with a shrug. “Besides, it’s not like I started the fight.”
She rolled her eyes. “I swear, I don’t know how you have the time to find all the trouble you do.”
“Just lucky, I guess.” He looked her over then, his eyes lingering in places that had her hands trembling and her breath catching in her chest. “I have to say, I like the new look. It’s very—”
“Don’t even say it!”
“Say what?” His midnight eyes were a little heavy lidded and a lot wicked as they met hers. “That I have a sudden urge to buy you a pair of bitch boots and a set of handcuffs? If you ask nicely, I might even let you use them on me.”
“Don’t even.” She was trying to sound annoyed, but her voice was shaking so much that it came out soft and breathy instead. “This look is all your fault.”
“And I am totally okay with that. You look hot.”
“I look like a dominatrix!”
“Like I said, hot.” Quinn reached onto the floor next to the couch and pulled out a small white bag. Holding it toward her with a completely straight face, he asked, “Goldfish? They’re the spicy ones you like.”
“You asshole!” He was taunting her, flaunting his victory in her face.
“What?” he asked, his eyes wide with fake puzzlement. “I thought you liked goldfish…crackers.”
Fury pounded through her. No one could get a reaction out of her the way Quinn could—no one—and it irritated her to no end. And though she knew the smartest thing she could do was to not give him a reaction, Elise couldn’t help herself. She ripped the bag of goldfish out of his hands and dumped them all over his gleaming, perfectly styled hair.
As he gaped at her, mouth opening and closing much like a goldfish’s would, she promised herself that the next time she was in his hotel room, she was going to cut to shreds every single pair of pants he owned.
Quinn Bradford was going down and she was just the girl to do it.
Ten years later…
Elise woke alone, in a strange bed in a strange room. A little groggy and a lot disoriented, it took her a few seconds to figure out where she was.
As it turned out, those were the best moments of her day. Because they were blank, empty, and for a little while—a very little while—she was just Elise McKinney, concert pianist. She was in just another hotel room in just another city, getting ready to give just another concert.
But then the occasional beeping from the pulse oximeter next to the bed worked its way into her consciousness. Followed by the throbbing in her left hand. The aches and pains all over her body. And the emptiness deep inside herself that screamed something was very, very wrong.
Because it was. Ellington was dead. And so was her career. She didn’t know how she could have forgotten, even in those first blurry moments.
Using her good hand, she pushed herself into a sitting position, then shoved the hair out of her eyes and surveyed the hospital room around her. Despite the numerous bouquets of flowers that lined most of the available surfaces, it felt empty. Impersonal. Lonely.
Kind of like her life.
Panic assailed her at the thought, had her grabbing onto the side rails of the bed as she fought to calm her racing heart. It worked, but her injured hand protested the movement and she ended up curled on her side in the fetal position, trying to keep her breathing under control.
What was she going to do?
What was she going to do?
A knock at the door distracted her and as she looked up, her first thought was that she’d obviously hit her head harder than the doctors thought. A lot harder. Because she could swear that Quinn Bradford was standing casually in her doorway, smiling like it had been ten minutes and not ten years since she’d last seen him. Like he hadn’t taken her virginity in Brussels and then disappeared—from her life and his own— without so much as a hint of what he was planning or where he was hoping to end up.
Oh, the man watching her with dark, concern-filled eyes wasn’t the same Quinn Bradford she’d spent so much of her adolescence competing against—no tuxedo, no perfectly trimmed hair, no fake smile, no bruises—but it was definitely him. He might look more like the rock and roll star he’d become than the classically trained pianist she used to know, but that didn’t mean anything. She’d recognize him anywhere. As would her heart, which had already started beating fast and frantic in her chest.
Embarrassed by her reaction to him—even after all this time—she glanced at the monitor beside her bed. Hoped he wouldn’t notice the sudden spike in her pulse rate that was detailed there.
“I don’t know if you remember—” he started.
“Of course I remember you, Quinn,” she interrupted. His name was an urgency on her tongue, a brand on her soul, this man who had always hid more than he showed, always listened more than he shared. “But what are you doing here?”
He smiled then, a quick turning up of his lips that had a dimple flashing in his right cheek. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about how many times she’d kissed and licked that dimple when she was seventeen.
“I live in Austin now. I heard about the accident on the news.” His grin disappeared. “I’m sorry about Ellington.”
“Yeah, me too.” Tears bloomed in her eyes—the same troublesome tears that had been hitting her without warning ever since they’d pulled her from the tangled wreck of the limousine—but she blinked them back. Again. Ellington James had never approved of excess emotion, had never put up with the passionate displays other prima donna musicians indulged in on a regular basis. To cry now, here, would just make the death of her manager—and best friend—all the more real. Besides, she’d spent most of her life keeping her emotions under wraps. Now didn’t seem like the best time to change that.
Quinn crossed the room slowly, hesitantly, as if he was afraid she would go hysterical at any moment. That, more than anything else, convinced her she wasn’t having aural and visual hallucinations. Because the Quinn Bradford she remembered had been just as uncomfortable around vulnerability as Ellington had been. As her father had been. The one time she’d cried all over him, he’d looked so freaked out and terrified that she’d forced herself to pull away. To bury the tears, and her sorrow, deep inside herself.
She did the same thing now, but it wasn’t nearly as hard this time around. After all, she’d been doing it for years with such success that most days she managed to forget she had emotions at all.
Her father would have been so proud.
“Did they say how badly you were hurt?” Quinn asked after a moment, breaking the awkwardness that stretched between them like a particularly discordant note. He eyed the scrapes on her face, the bandages that covered the stitches on her right arm. The cast on her left hand.
Terror welled up inside her as she thought of that cast—and the broken, mangled hand below it.
The broken, mangled future that stretched out in front of her.
“I’m fine. Bumps and bruises. A mild concussion.” As she had with the tears, Elise swallowed back the fear until she didn’t feel anything but numb. Just the way she’d learned to like it. Then she said the words that had shattered her world as completely as Ellington’s death had. “A broken hand.”
Broken didn’t exactly cover the mess the accident had made of three bones and several tendons in her hand. Nor did it encompass the horror of the surgery she’d had that morning and the three others they’d explained she still had to get through. But she didn’t want to think about those, let alone talk about them with Quinn. Beautiful, perfect, obscenely talented Quinn.
Besides, if she outlined the damage, he would know exactly how disastrous things were—and what those injuries would mean to her career.
Like Ellington’s death, her new reality wasn’t something she was yet ready to face. Not with an old friend, and definitely not with the stranger who stood before her. Because if she wasn’t a classical pianist, she wasn’t anybody. It was the first of many lessons she’d learned before she was even old enough to reach the piano keys.