And still, he seemed to know, his eyes—those dark, glorious eyes—filled with a sympathy she couldn’t bear to see. “I’m so sorry, Lissy.” The old nickname combined with his obvious sincerity only made everything more real.
Shaking her head breezily, she flashed a smile she was far from feeling. “I’m not complaining. It could be a lot worse, after all.”
Again Ellington’s blank face and unseeing eyes flashed into her mind, and again, she blinked the image back. Focused instead on keeping up her end of the conversation. As long as she acted normally on the outside, it didn’t matter how messed up she was on the inside. Another lesson she’d learned in childhood.
“Thank you for the flowers.” For the first time, she looked at the bouquet in Quinn’s hands. It was a glorious riot of different shades of orange and purple—her favorite colors—and the fact that he’d remembered, after all these years, shook her more than she wanted to admit.
He, too, glanced at the blooms he carried, looking surprised to see them there, in his hands. Almost as if he’d already forgotten he’d bought them. But as he lay them down on the ledge by the window, he said, “They reminded me of you.”
She opened her mouth to thank him a second time, but what popped out instead was, “Wow. I didn’t think anything was capable of doing that.”
Shit! The second the words were out of her mouth, she longed to take them back. Yes, she’d been sitting on them for ten long years, but she’d had no intention of ever saying them. Not to him. Not when they made her sound bitter and angry and tied to a past that was long gone. But how was she supposed to keep her indignation under wraps after all these years? The words had festered in her soul like a wound and it was better that she got them, and her anger, out. And that was all she was feeling, Elise assured herself. Anger. Annoyance. Confusion. But not pain. Never again pain. Not after all the years and miles that had passed between them. And definitely not desire. The rock god in front of her was so not her type.
Except…he looked good. She hated to admit it, but how could she not? Even when they were younger—and all her focus had been on beating him in piano competitions instead of dating him—he’d been the hottest guy she’d ever seen. Back then, he’d dressed in expensively tailored tuxedoes or khakis with dress shirts. His hair had been perfectly cut, his shoes shined until you could actually see your reflection in them. And the one small tattoo he’d had on the inside of his wrist—the kanji symbol for freedom— was the only outward sign of his defiance regarding his father’s military-style rule.
That sweetly polished boy was long gone and in his place was a man who exuded sex—raw, primitive, raunchy sex—with every move, every word, every breath. Just being in the same room with him had adrenaline pumping through her, a strange combination of wariness and excitement so intense she could barely sit still.
Shivers slipped up and down her spine with every breath she took, while every nerve ending she had seemed to be standing at attention. Like her careless words, she wanted to blame her response on the drugs, too. On the circumstances, on the pain, on anything but the always present chemistry between them—chemistry that had flared to life the moment she realized who was standing at the door of her hospital room.
Desperate to distract herself from the erotic pull he exuded so effortlessly, Elise focused on all the changes the last decade had wrought in him. And the harder she looked, the more differences she found.
He was taller, more filled out—had the wide shoulders and broad chest of a man instead of the long, lean build of the gangly boy she remembered. He’d never been soft—growing up with his father, he’d never had that chance—but looking at him now, she couldn’t help thinking he was harder than he’d ever been. Even his face was different. Leaner, more closed-off, with the sharp, high cheekbones and cut-glass jaw that spoke of his Native American heritage on his mother’s side.
This new Quinn also had a small silver ring pierced through the left corner of his bottom lip and thick black hoops in both of his pierced ears. He wore threadbare jeans that were ripped in some very interesting places—not that she was looking—and a tight, black V-neck T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the top of his heavily muscled biceps.
His arms were covered in full tattoo sleeves—one in beautifully blended shades of gray, the other in stark black and red. The work was gorgeous, stunning, but so intricate and complicated that it would take her hours, if not days, to distinguish all the different images bleeding so seamlessly into one another. Part of her wanted to start right then, but there was more to see. More to savor, though she’d deny she was doing that to anyone who dared accuse her of such a thing.
Deliberately shifting her focus, she took in his wild black hair. Before it had been well trimmed, conservatively styled. Now it was razor cut, sharp-edged, and sexy as hell. While he still wore it cut short in the back, the front was so long that his bangs flopped crazily over his forehead, down his cheeks, and into his eyes.
While she watched, he ran an annoyed hand through the glossy ebony strands, pushing them out of the way for the tenth time since he’d shown up in her room. As he did, it gave her a brief, unobstructed view of his eyes. The realization that they were the only things about him that hadn’t changed was a fist in the gut. Dark—so dark that his pupils blended into the blackness of his irises—they held the same wariness, the same weariness, she remembered from years before.
When they’d been young, she’d wondered what had caused the guardedness with which he viewed the world. Now that they were older, she recognized the fury that burned behind the reserve.
And still cared too much about him not to wonder and worry over its cause. Yes, it had been years since she’d seen him. Yes, they’d always been more competitors than confidantes. But even before they’d dated, she’d had a soft spot for him—despite the way he’d tormented her—and he must have felt the same way or he wouldn’t be here now, his presence messing with her already messed up head.
How could it not when he was standing only a few feet away from her, a walking example of wicked, wild sex personified? At seventeen, he’d been hot. At twenty-seven, he was blistering.
He shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny, suddenly unable to look her in the eye as her bitter words hung in the room between them. “You’re not an easy woman to forget.”
That was the kicker. Once, she’d believed just that, at least in reference to him. She hadn’t blamed him for leaving, but she did blame him for the way he’d done it. For the days and weeks and months that had passed while she’d waited for word from him. Nothing major, nothing earth shattering. Just one phone call, one email, one postcard. A f**king carrier pigeon even. She hadn’t been picky.
But she had been desperate to know that he was safe, that he’d survived the aftermath of that last beating. Desperate to assure herself that he wasn’t laying dead by the side of some highway somewhere.
As the weeks and months passed with no contact at all, she’d locked away her feelings for him as surely as she had her heartbreak. No one looking at her then had been able to tell that her heart had been ripped out of her chest. She’d kept up the pretense until it became her reality, until thoughts of him no longer made her ache with loss and regret.
Quinn had once been everything—the only thing—that mattered to her. But those times were long gone. No way in hell was she going to go back to those long, lonely days. And certainly not when the rest of her world was crumbling around her ears.
Breezily, she waved her uninjured hand, determined to make them both forget the emptiness of her previous words. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” she assured him. “It was a long time ago.”
“Seriously, Quinn. I’m just glad to see you.” She tried for an easy, impersonal smile. “What have you been up to all these years, anyway?” Like she didn’t know. Like she hadn’t seen his face staring out at her from the covers of various Rolling Stones, Spins, Vibes.
She thought she’d done a good job of covering up the roiling mess of her emotions, but the look Quinn gave her said he could see right through her bravado. Which grated. She’d spent her entire life building walls that no one could see through or over or around. Had spent her entire life making sure she was about as transparent as the Egyptian Sphinx—or Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata.
And the fact that Quinn could march into her hospital room after more than a decade and still see more than anyone else ever had, made her crazy. Especially when he was as big a mystery as he’d always been. Maybe even more so.
Yanking her mind away from those long ago days—and feelings—she gestured to the chair by her bed. The chair Ellington would have been sitting in had he been alive. Swallowing the sadness the thought brought on, she asked, “Do you want to sit down?”
He sank into the chair gratefully, like the only thing holding him up this long had been sheer grit. She recognized the look, understood the feeling. It was how she’d gotten through every concert she’d ever performed from the time she was five years old. Unbending will and absolute determination.
Silence stretched awkwardly between them before he finally broke it by saying, “I play keyboards in Shaken Dirty. It’s a rock band based here in Austin.”
She knew that—of course she knew that. It wasn’t like she lived under a rock. For the last couple of years, they’d been one of the big buzz bands at the Grammys, the VMAs, the American Music Awards. She hadn’t been able to miss him. Not that there was any way in hell she was going to let him know that. Internet stalking was so unattractive in an ex.
Figuring it was safe, she asked the question she’d been wondering about for years. “How did that happen? Rock is a long way from classical piano.”
“So you’ve heard of us? I didn’t think we were exactly your scene.”
“I don’t live in a box.” She looked at him pointedly. “I may not know much about the band, but I have heard the name. Besides, once upon a time, this wasn’t exactly your scene, either.”
“Don’t I know it?” he answered with a laugh. “At first, I think that was what I loved about it the most. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
She had a hard time believing that. Quinn had loved the piano with a passion reserved for the zealots. He’d loved everything about it—from the feel of the keys beneath his hands to the complicated pieces they’d had to practice until their fingers ached. He’d even loved performing those same pieces up on stage, just him and a piano and an audience of thousands.
Unlike her, he’d never worried what would happen when he messed up. Maybe because he already knew.
“You’re really good at it,” she told him after a minute. “I only know a couple of Shaken Dirty’s songs, but I recognized there was genius in them the first time I heard them. I just didn’t know it was your genius.” She felt no compunction lying. Not about this.
“Coming from you, I take that as the highest compliment.”
“Truth, not compliment.” She repeated one of Ellington’s favorite phrases without thinking.
Quinn—who had been Ellington’s client before her—must have recognized it, because he grinned, a real one this time. In that moment, for the first time, she saw the boy she used to know. The realization only made her heart ache more, until the abused organ throbbed in time to her wounded hand.
He cleared his throat and she realized she’d drifted a million miles away once more. Damn medicine. “When do they think you’ll be able to get out of here?”
“A couple of days, probably. Depending on how well my hand—” Her voice broke, so she started again. “Depending on how well my hand heals.”