“Lissy, baby, wake up,” he murmured, when she continued to cry out. He was stroking his hand over her forehead, burying his fingers in her hair. He didn’t want to startle her, didn’t want to shake her awake, but if she didn’t wake up soon he was going to lose his mind. The sounds she was making were painful, heart-wrenching. Disturbing in the extreme.
“Lissy, come on.” He made his voice a little firmer, more commanding. Did the same with the hand on her hip. He didn’t want to jar her, but she needed to snap out of whatever nightmarish world she was currently in. “Look at me, baby. Look at me.”
Her eyes snapped open, stared directly into his. And then she screamed, loud and piercing and so terrifying that it nearly stopped his heart.
“Lissy, it’s me.” He pulled his hands off her, held them up in the universal gesture of surrender. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to hurt you,” he repeated as the tortured look slowly faded from her eyes.
“Yeah, baby, it’s me.”
She nodded, closed her eyes again, and he sank gratefully onto his ass. She might not be shaken from what had just happened, but it had scared the hell out of him. He needed a minute to recover.
He didn’t get a minute, though, because Elise gingerly pushed herself into a sitting position, making sure to keep her injured hand cradled against her chest. “Hey, take it easy,” he told her, getting back to his feet.
“I’m okay,” she said, but her voice was hoarse. Whether from the nightmare or her scream, he wasn’t sure. Either way, she certainly didn’t sound fine. Not that he was going to tell her that.
“Of course you are.” He sat down next to her on the couch, rubbed her back in soothing circles. “Can I get you some water? Or one of your pain pills?”
“Elise.” He cut her off, then put a finger under her chin and tilted her face up to his. She looked exhausted, with dark circles under her eyes and deep pain grooves carved around her mouth. “You don’t have to front for me. It’s okay if you’re hurting.”
She pressed her lips together, nodded. But then she looked away. “Some water would be good.”
“And a pain pill?”
She sighed. “And a pain pill. They’re in my backpack.”
“Okay.” He retrieved the bag from the guest bedroom where he’d put it, then went into the kitchen to get her some water. He ended up cutting some fruit for her as well, since a lot of pain medication needed to be taken with food and she hadn’t eaten that much at dinner—no matter how much he’d badgered her.
Then figuring, what the hell, he started the kettle going on the stove. When they’d been younger, she’d always had a cup of tea around somewhere. Maybe she could use one now, too.
But when he brought the tray of fruit and water out to her, she was pretty out of it, her body slack and her eyelids getting a little heavier with each second that passed. Her painkillers were nowhere in sight, though, so he decided to take matters into his own hands and dug through the backpack for them. When he felt a little creepy for invading her privacy, he reminded himself it was his backpack and he’d put just about everything in it there himself.
He found the pills all the way at the bottom—of course. His little control freak really hadn’t intended to take them. But he’d be damned if he let her suffer when she didn’t have to. Popping the lid open, he pulled out one of the white pills. Then he grabbed the glass of water and did his best to get her attention.
“Elise.” No answer.
“Elise.” Still no response.
“Come on, Lissy. Take the pill and then I’ll let you go back to sleep.”
She groaned at him, but eventually she came around enough to do as he asked. Then she fell back into the couch cushions and just sat there, looking dazed.
Deciding to hell with it, he went into the kitchen and turned off the teakettle. Then returned to the couch, where he reached for Elise’s hand. “All right, then. Let’s get you up to bed.”
She nearly moaned in defeat. Why couldn’t Quinn just let her stay here? She didn’t want to go up to bed, didn’t want to lie in some empty guest room with nothing better to do than to count the stars outside her window. Again and again and again. It was the story of her life, and she was sick of it. Didn’t want to do it anymore. Sure as hell didn’t want to do it tonight when that damn dream was still dragging at her.
It had been years since she’d had a nightmare as bad as this one, even longer since she’d had this specific one, which was why it had caught her completely unaware tonight. It had been no less terrifying for its unexpectedness. Especially since it wasn’t about the car crash or her injury, as the doctors had warned her to expect. No, this had been about tumbling into an abyss and falling, falling, falling. Not until she fell, but until she became nothing. Until everything, and everyone, she cared for disappeared.
She supposed there was no real surprise that she’d had it tonight, when everything in her life was in such disarray. After all, she’d first had the dream after Quinn had left. She’d been terrified, devastated, frantic—and a whole bunch of other emotions she didn’t care to name. But when she thought back on those awful months, all she remembered was being unable to sleep, unable to breathe, without thinking about Quinn. Without worrying about him.
Though he’d left behind a pack of Twinkies—his favorite junk food and one he used to annoy her with all the time—in her concert bag in what she’d assumed was some screwed up attempt at letting her know he was okay, she hadn’t been able to trust it. Hadn’t been able to believe that he was really all right, that something hadn’t happened to him. That he was just going along living his life. Without her.
Finding out he was alive a few years ago, and the keyboardist in a successful rock band, had been an epic relief. So much so that the dreams had stopped—until tonight.
But as Quinn leaned over her, concern in his eyes, she couldn’t tell him what her nightmare was about. Couldn’t tell him that, too often, when she closed her eyes she was the lost and frightened girl who was afraid that without him to see her—really see her—she would just disappear. And she sure as hell couldn’t tell him that for months after he left, all she saw when she closed her eyes was his bruised and battered body. Or worse, him lying dead somewhere that she couldn’t reach him.
Unpleasant shivers worked their way down her spine and she responded by shoving the old nightmare down deep, back into her subconscious where it belonged. Then she pushed to her feet. Took a few steps toward the stairs. But before she could get very far, Quinn swept her up into his arms for the second time that day.
“I can walk, you know.” More, she wanted to walk. Because being close to him when she was lucid and at her fighting best was one thing. Having him hold her now, when she was shaky and vulnerable and just a little off, was something else entirely.
“Shut it, Lissy,” he told her firmly. “I know you’ve got some control issues, but sometimes it’s better to just let go of the reins. Let someone else take care of you for a while.”
“I don’t know how to do that.” The words slipped out before she could stop them—a perfect example of why she’d wanted to walk. When he was touching her, her guard went down and she said stuff she had no business saying.
The words hung in the air between them and somehow made her feel a million times more vulnerable than being carried by him did.
Quinn didn’t say anything for long seconds. Didn’t move. Hell, she wasn’t sure he even breathed. But eventually he let out a long sigh, rubbed his stubbly cheek against her smooth one. “You don’t have to know how,” her murmured as he headed toward the stairs. “Because I do. Just this once, let me take care of you, Elise. I promise, you can trust me.”
The words were absurd, the idea even more so. Trust him when he’d already proven himself to be completely untrustworthy?
Trust him when he’d already shredded her heart into so many pieces she’d never been able to get them to fit together properly again?
Trust him when she’d never before felt this vulnerable?
And yet, she didn’t protest as he carried her up the stairs.
Or as he laid her on the bed.
Or as he rifled through her suitcase for a pair of pajamas.
And she still didn’t protest when he slipped off the blouse and jeans Jamison had given her to replace her torn and bloodied clothing. She stopped breathing, but she didn’t protest.
Then she was dressed in her oldest, comfiest pair of pajamas and tucked beneath a soft red comforter.
“Sleep, baby,” he murmured, stroking a hand over her hair.
Except she couldn’t sleep, not with echoes of the nightmare still zipping along her nerves. Not when she was terrified of being thrust back into that world the moment she closed her eyes again.
Though she knew it was a bad idea—knew that she’d regret it in the morning—she turned her head into Quinn’s hand, nuzzled his palm with her cheek. “Stay.”
He stiffened beside her. “What did you say?”
At first, she didn’t answer him. How could she when to do so would show him just how vulnerable she was? She’d spent the last ten years of her life trying to shore up every weakness she had, so that the wall around her thoughts—and her heart—was impenetrable.
No matter how much of a fuss she’d originally put up about going back to her hotel, no matter what untruths she told herself during the light of day—that she would play Quinn’s game and beat him at it—in the dead of night, it was a lot harder to lie to herself. A lot harder to deny the truth, which was that she didn’t want to be alone. Not when she could be lying next to the only man she’d ever really wanted.
“Stay,” she rasped again. Her voice was rusty, the word almost inaudible this second time around. But it was the best she could do—she’d spent so much of her life begging for some small scrap of attention outside of her piano playing, all to no avail. So it went against everything inside of her to ask for Quinn’s now.
But the alternative was letting him walk out of this room, and she wasn’t prepared to do that. Not now, while her hand, and the rest of her, ached badly enough to bring tears to her eyes.
She looked down, not wanting Quinn to see just how badly she needed him to say yes. Asking him to stay was one thing. Guilting him into it was another thing altogether.
He wouldn’t let her get away with the evasion though.
“Elise.” He tilted her face up so that he could see her eyes even though she made it obvious she didn’t want to look at him. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, of course.” She swallowed back the tears, forced herself to ignore the lump in her throat that was growing exponentially bigger with each second that passed.
“Are you hurting that badly?”
More than she could ever tell him. “Of course not. The pain pill’s already kicked in.”
“Never mind. It was stupid.” She closed her eyes, turned her face away from him. “I’ll see you in the morning, Quinn.”
For long seconds, he didn’t say anything, though she could feel his eyes on her. Knew he was trying to figure her out. But she was a puzzle with mismatched pieces. There was no way he could ever fit all of them back together again, even if she was inclined to let him try. Which she wasn’t.
She heard him shift behind her, knew he was crouching down by the side of the bed. And still she refused to look at him. She couldn’t, not when the tears weren’t going away. Goddamn pain medication. It lowered every defense she had, made her hope for things she knew she couldn’t have.