She just didn’t know what…or how much.
He carried her through the entryway and down a winding hallway to a huge, sunny room dominated by two overstuffed sofas and a giant TV. After laying her gently on one of the sofas, he said, “I’m going to go change. I’ll be back in a minute. Try not to get into trouble.”
“I never get into trouble.”
He glanced down at his bare chest, than back at her. “Obviously.” He didn’t even try to hide his smirk as he turned away. “By the way, don’t even think about wandering off. There are coyotes and bobcats all over this area.”
“No, there aren’t.” She refused to fall for his childish games.
“I wouldn’t recommend trying to find out.”
With that cryptic comment, he headed up the stairs, leaving her to stare after him. Which she did. Long after he disappeared from sight.
It didn’t speak well of her, but the truth was, the thought of escaping while he was upstairs hadn’t even entered her mind. And now—thanks to Quinn’s smartass comments—she sure as hell wasn’t going to attempt anything. She wasn’t certain she believed him about the killer wildlife, but she wasn’t brave enough to try her luck either. God knew, it had been in short supply as of late.
Oh, she knew she was being crazy, knew she shouldn’t want to be here with the only man who’d ever broken her heart. Knew she sure as hell shouldn’t be enjoying being here with him. And yet she was.
Just like when he’d come to visit her in the hospital. Being around Quinn like this, letting him mess with her and messing with him in return… She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this normal. This relaxed.
Maybe she should be concerned that she was already suffering from some bizarre version of Stockholm Syndrome, but to be honest, she didn’t care. There was something freeing in Quinn taking control, in him not giving her a choice about staying here. Oh, she would have been fine at the hotel on her own—of that she had no doubt. But being here, with him, was better.
Much better. Especially since she knew the truth—that if she told him flat out that she wanted to go back to the W, he would take her. No questions asked. Oh, he might have tricked her into coming here, but Quinn wasn’t the type of man to ever force a woman to do something she didn’t want to do.
Which meant that as long as she remembered that this was just temporary, as long as she remembered that in a week she’d be on an airplane bound for Chicago and Quinn would once again be nothing but a memory, she would be fine. Better than fine. Because this time when he disappeared from her life, he wouldn’t be taking her heart with him. She’d make sure of it.
Quinn changed quickly, not sure his exaggerated warning about the local wildlife would actually be enough to keep Elise from trying to escape. And he really didn’t want her to leave.
But she was headstrong when she wanted something, completely unwilling to be dissuaded from whatever course it was she’d chosen. It was why he’d taken Wyatt’s advice and just driven right past her hotel like it didn’t exist. Why he’d brought her here. He knew her well enough to know that even if she needed help, she’d never ask for it. Her father had worked that kind of crazy self-sufficiency into her at an early age and she’d never been able to get away from it.
He knew, because he’d tried to do things for her when they were younger. Had tried to take on some of the burden that was hers, but she had never allowed it. Hence the reason he’d gone out of his way to drive her crazy. If she was pissed at him or freaking out about some prank he’d done, she wasn’t worrying about failing. Wasn’t stressing over going on stage. Wasn’t losing her mind over the fact that no matter what she did or how well she did it, it would never be enough for her father.
The old bastard. Richard McKinney hadn’t been as bad as Quinn’s old man—at least not when it came to using his fists when he was displeased—but in his own way, he’d done just as much damage.
Just the thought of Elise’s father, and his own, had rage building up in his chest. Two old coots who hadn’t been able to do anything in their own lives, so they’d poured all their ambition into their kids. And then pushed and pushed and pushed until Elise was near cracking and he—
Quinn cut the thought off before it could go any farther. He hadn’t thought about the bad old days in years, and yet Elise hadn’t been in his life more than a couple days and here he was, right back there in the mindset. It wasn’t okay.
With one ear tuned to downstairs, he grabbed a shirt from his closet then made a fast trip by the bathroom to wash the pond water off his face and out of his hair. A quick glance in the mirror told him he was grinning, hugely. Not just because it sounded like Elise was staying put—which made him happy in its own right—but because she’d played with him. The prim-and-proper Elise McKinney had dropped her barriers enough to yell at him. And to toss him head first into a fountain.
He was probably crazy for being so excited about that, but he couldn’t help it. After three days of polite reserve between them, it felt good to have her back. Which was why he’d pushed things down in the courtyard. He hadn’t meant to, but the way she’d been looking at him—her eyes all hazy and full of need—had done something to him. She’d twisted him all up inside until all he’d been able to think about was what it used to feel like to touch her, to hold her, to tease her, to kiss her. He’d wanted that feeling again. Wanted her again.
It was a dangerous thought, one he knew was going to end up getting him into trouble. Because Elise had never been his, not really, and she never would be. Not when he could still remember what she looked like pulling herself up from behind that piano, blood on her head and her hands. Fear on her face.
Fear that he had put there. Oh, he hadn’t hit her—would never hit her—but she’d gotten caught in the disaster that was his life. Become collateral damage in the war he’d spent too many years waging with his father.
For the second time in as many minutes, Quinn shut that thought down. He couldn’t think about that day, wouldn’t think about that day. Not now, when Elise was downstairs waiting for him. And not when he finally had a chance to—if not make it up to her, then at least make it better.
Determined to convince Elise to stay, he lined up his arguments in his head as he started down the stairs. But when he got to the family room, it was to find the couch empty and Elise nowhere in sight.
Shit. Had she left, after all? He hadn’t heard the alarm system beep that a door had opened, but maybe the running water had muffled it. Panic struck harder than he ever would have anticipated, and he glanced frantically around the room, looking for clues.
And nearly collapsed in relief when he realized her purse and shoes were resting on the floor, right next to the couch. She hadn’t left. She was still there.
Still, he was determined to set eyes on her before he relaxed completely. He checked the nearest two bathrooms, the patio, the music room, and was about to give up and start calling for her when he heard a noise from the kitchen. He hightailed it in there, and then stopped in surprise when he saw Elise standing next to the center aisle, calmly slicing a cucumber.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she told him. “I was hungry.”
“No. Not at all.” He crossed the kitchen, reached for the knife. “But why don’t you go sit down and rest while I make dinner?”
She hung on to the knife. “All I’ve been doing for the last three days is resting. I’m ready to do something else.”
He thought about how unsteady she’d been at the hospital, how even after she’d pushed him into the fountain, he’d seen her sway a little on her feet. There was no way he was going to let her stand here with the sharpest knife he owned when she could fall over at any moment.
Not that he was stupid enough to say that to her. Instead, he nodded toward the kitchen table. “It makes me nervous to have people around me while I cook. Can I move all the salad stuff over to the table and you can finish making it there?”
She glared at him. “I’m not three. You don’t have to make up stories to get me to do what you want.”
“I’m serious.” He put on his most innocent face. “I have a phobia of other people in my kitchen.”
“Yeah, just like you have a phobia of big, red rubber balls.”
At first he didn’t know what she was talking about, but then he remembered. They couldn’t have been more than thirteen or fourteen and he’d been trying to talk her out of her shell. They were at one of their first competitions, a two-day thing, and the rest of their competitors had been trying to blow off steam with a rousing game of dodge ball.
They’d needed one more player and had asked him to join them, but he hadn’t wanted to leave Elise alone, even back then. So he’d faked a phobia of dodge balls and told them to ask her instead. Then he’d teased and messed with her until she’d finally given up and played. She’d been surprisingly good, too, and had made it all the way to the final round.
He hadn’t known she’d caught on. Then again, she always had been good at keeping secrets.
“Hey, those things are scary,” he said, picking up the rest of the salad fixings and carrying them to the table. “They’re that weird pinkish red color, plus they smell funky and—”
“Okay, okay.” She grabbed the salad bowl with her good hand and followed him. “I get it.”
“Good.” As she sat, he absently ran a hand down her spine. He’d meant it as a thank you, a small gesture of affection, but the air crackled between them at even that light touch.
She froze, her face turned up to his, and for long seconds all he could think about was dropping to his knees in front of her and kissing her. Her lips were red and plump and a little wet, like she’d just licked them, and suddenly he was dying for a taste of her. Just a taste. Just to find out if she still tasted like wild strawberries.
He knew it was a bad idea, knew he had no business even thinking about touching her. But his brain was no longer in control, and when she leaned forward—as if she was just as anxious to feel his mouth as he was to feel hers—any chance he had of walking away disappeared.
Moving slowly so that she had plenty of time to stop him, he wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her gently toward him. Her eyes widened, her breath caught in her throat, but she didn’t protest. Didn’t pull away. So he kept tugging her closer, kept leaning forward himself until his face was only an inch or so from hers.
Then he paused, waited. Watched. Her broken breath was a warm caress on his face, her pulse a wild thing under the deliberately soft clasp of his fingers. He knew she was waiting for him to make the next move, for him to kiss her, but on this he wanted no misunderstanding. Not when her eyes were wide and her chest was rising and falling rapidly. Not when she looked terrified and confused and exhilarated all at once.
No, this kiss, their first kiss in a decade, would have to come from her.
So even though his body was on fire, even though he ached to pull her against him and take everything he wanted—everything she had to give—he waited. And waited. And waited. Until his every nerve was screaming, his every cell straining toward her with an intensity he couldn’t control.
He was about to say to hell with it and pull her to him, when Elise finally made the move he was waiting for. Leaning forward, she brushed her lips—her sweet, hot, gorgeous lips—softly against his. Once, twice, a third time. Then she started to pull away.
But he was having no part of that. He wanted more, needed more. From the moment he’d first set eyes on her again in that hospital bed, he’d craved her. Dreamed her. Now that she was here, in his kitchen and his arms, there was no way he was letting her go without a proper taste.