He nodded. “Is there anyone you need to contact? I can make some calls for you if you’d like. Or did the hospital already take care of it?”
The police had notified Ellington’s wife and family, but she still needed to call Patricia. Still needed to tell her how sorry she was that this had happened.
If she’d been stronger, less needy, more able to conquer her fears, things could have been so different. Ellington would be at home with Patricia and their children and grandchildren. He would be hanging out in his study in his ratty sweater and rattier slippers instead of being in the cold, silent morgue.
Guilt closed in from every side, and she shuddered under the weight of it. Would her life always be like this? Would she always bring death and destruction to the people she loved most? Her mother had died giving birth to her, her father had wasted his life trying to turn her into someone she couldn’t be, and Quinn—Quinn had nearly died protecting her from his father’s wrath all those years ago.
The little bit of water she’d managed to sip earlier roiled in her stomach. She clenched her fists, forced back down the bile burning in her throat. And tried to pretend that everything was okay. That she was okay.
That she was normal.
“The hospital and police took care of it,” she told him. She didn’t know why it mattered to her, but she didn’t want Quinn—glorious, perfect Quinn—to realize how insular her world had become in the last few years. Ellington had been her only friend, her only family, and now that he was gone and she was completely alone…
“I brought you some stuff,” Quinn said after a minute. For the first time, it registered that he was holding a backpack. “I figured lying here, staring at the TV all day, has to suck.”
“You brought me something?”
“You know, books, magazines. A couple volumes of crossword puzzles.”
“Crossword puzzles?” She was beginning to sound like a parrot, but she couldn’t help it. This man, this badass rocker with a dark past and darker reputation, had brought her breakfast and books and crossword puzzles. It didn’t compute.
“You used to do them all the time. In the green room. I don’t know if you still like them, but I took a shot.”
“I do.” She cleared her throat. “Thank you.”
He shrugged. “No biggie.”
But it kind of was. Especially from this guy who had climbed out of her bed after taking her virginity and disappeared without so much as a “thank you, ma’am.”
Unsure of what else she should do, Elise accepted the backpack, then opened it and pulled out a handful of stuff. None of which resembled a book or magazine in the slightest.
“Ryder’s fiancée, Jamison, picked up some stuff for you, too. I asked her what kind of toiletries you might need and she went shopping this morning. If there’s anything else you want, just let me know and I’ll get it for you.”
“No. This is great.” Certainly better than anything she could have been expecting. There were two long nightshirts—one light blue and one mint green—a couple pairs of underwear only one size too big, a hairbrush, a popular facial cleanser and moisturizer, strawberry scented body spray, and some beeswax lip gloss. “Really. She thought of everything.”
“Yeah. She’s cool like that.” His voice held unmistakable affection.
A flash of wholly inappropriate jealousy moved through her. She sublimated it, asked instead, “Who’s Ryder?” She told herself it was perfectly normal to be curious about these people Quinn obviously had strong feelings for.
“The lead singer of Shaken Dirty. He and Jamison got engaged a couple of weeks ago. She’s the sister of our lead guitarist, so it was a little strange when they got together. But in a good way, you know?”
She didn’t know. She didn’t have a clue. How could she when there was no one in her own life that she could speak about with such naked affection?
But she couldn’t tell him that, not this man she’d once loved. This man she’d never allow herself to trust again—no matter how kind he was to her now. Not when loving him had nearly destroyed her the first time.
Determined to think about anything but their past history, she reached into the backpack and pulled out the last item. Then nearly cracked up when she saw what it was—a bag of spicy goldfish crackers.
“Seriously?” she demanded. “You’re still on this?”
He looked at her blankly. “I’m sorry. I thought I remembered that you liked those. I’ll bring you something else to snack on later.”
She studied him, trying to see if he was serious. When he stared back at her guilelessly, she almost thought that he’d forgotten about what had happened ten years before. But then he blinked and for a second, just a second, she could see the glee in his eyes.
But before she could call him on it, he asked, “Do you need help? Changing into one of the nightshirts?”
With her mind still on the past, she was certain she must have heard him wrong. Because seriously, he had not just offered to help her out of her clothes, had he?
Her incredulity must have shown on her face because it didn’t take long for Quinn to hasten to ensure her of his honorable intentions. “I mean, I can help you to the bathroom if you’re not steady. Or I can step out while you change. Or you can wait to change. I mean—”
She wished she had a video camera. Or a tape recorder. Something, anything. It had been ten years since she’d last seen him, but somehow she knew that it was as rare now to see him trip over his own tongue as it had been all those years ago. Maybe more so.
“I know what you meant,” she finally told him, putting him out of his misery. “I’ll just change in the restroom.”
She grabbed one of the nightshirts—the pretty blue one—and made her way to the bathroom. She forced herself to move slowly, but steadily, refusing to let her legs buckle or her hands shake. No way was she going to show that kind of weakness in front of Quinn.
It worked, too. She made it to the bathroom, even managed to brush her teeth—not that she was concerned about having fresh breath or anything—and change clothes without stumbling more than a couple times. She put it down to the breakfast tacos and the medication slowly leeching out of her bloodstream. Not to mention her out-and-out determination not to look vulnerable.
But she grew cocky with her success, hurried out of the bathroom and back toward her bed.
She didn’t make it. Instead, she lost her balance a few steps from the bed. Careened into the sliding table that still held the tray of uneaten food. And would have fallen to the ground if Quinn hadn’t jumped up and caught her.
But he did—his reflexes were rock-solid and lightning fast—and before she could do much more than yelp, she found herself in his arms. His very strong, very muscular, very tattooed arms. Pressed up against his chest. His very strong, very muscular, very warm chest (she didn’t know, yet, if it was also tattooed, but she was curious, very curious).
Either way, it wasn’t a bad place to be, especially when Quinn leaned down to check on her, his face so close to her own that his hair brushed against her forehead, her cheek. She had a moment to be grateful she’d brushed her teeth before she was overwhelmed by how cool and silky—how good—his hair felt sliding against her skin.
“You okay, Lissy?” On his lips, her old nickname sounded familiar. So familiar.
“Yeah.” She wedged her good hand between them, pushed against Quinn’s chest. He didn’t budge except to realign himself a little, so that her injured hand was resting on his shoulder—taking the pressure off of it. Then he spread one of his big hands across her lower back, pinning her so that their bodies were flush against each other from shoulder to hip.
As he cradled her, his heat seeped into her, chased away the chill that had been a part of her for so long that she barely recognized it anymore. The warmth felt better than it had any right to.
Quinn wasn’t sure how they’d ended up in this position, with Elise wrapped up in his arms and her sweet body pressed against his. All he knew was that he ached, his c**k rock hard at the feel of her soft br**sts against his ribcage, her flat stomach against his upper thighs.
But sporting wood was a wholly inappropriate reaction considering where they were and the shape Elise was in. His brain knew it, but convincing his body of it was something else entirely.
Shifting slightly, he nearly groaned when her hard ni**les scraped against him, even through the double layers of his shirt and her nightie. The feel of her own arousal sent him spiraling out of control, until all he could feel and smell and hear was her.
In those moments, he wanted nothing more than to grab her. To pull her tight against him and never let her go. To take her every way that he could and to hell with the consequences.
But real life didn’t work like that. He hadn’t been good enough for her ten years ago and he wasn’t good enough for her now. Not with the blood he had on his hands, the violence he carried in his soul.
An image of her crumpled on the ground, head bleeding from where she’d slammed it on the corner of a piano bench, flashed through his head. It cooled the need raging through him like nothing else could, froze his blood and deflated his c**k faster than a dip in icy water ever had.
And still it physically hurt him to lower her to the bed before stepping away from her. He took a few steps back, shoved his hands in his pockets. Tried not to look like he’d been moments away from falling to his knees in front of her and burying his face in her gorgeous pussy.
For long seconds, Elise didn’t say anything. And neither did he. Instead they just stared at each other, the weight of what could have happened sparking in the air between them.
Elise broke first. Lowering her face, she stared at the ugly yellow hospital blanket, started to play with some loose threads hanging from it.
“Do you want me to go?” he said. He hated having to ask it, hated more that he’d made her uncomfortable. He’d come here because he hadn’t wanted her to be alone, but surely being alone was better than being groped by an ex-boyfriend with a raging hard-on.
The thought made him cringe. Shit, he really was beginning to feel like a stalker.
“No!” The word seemed to burst from her. “I mean, you’re welcome to stay, if you’d like to.”
He would. It wasn’t the wisest course of action, but he’d never claimed to be wise. Not when it came to Elise McKinney. So even though her rich strawberry and honey scent hung ripe in the room, even though her lush little ni**les kept poking against the soft fabric of her nightshirt, even though it was probably the very worst thing he could do for his sanity, he sat down in the chair closest to her bed and challenged her to a tic-tac-toe match.
Needless to say, he wasn’t the least bit surprised when she won every game.
Quinn didn’t know how long he sat by Elise’s bed watching her sleep.
Long enough for a very excited nurse to come in to check on her three times—with a couple other nurses and orderlies in tow.
Long enough for the hazy morning to burn into bright, hot day.
More than long enough for him to figure out that something was very wrong with this whole situation. Something that had nothing to do with the accident Elise had just suffered.
Where was Elise’s fiancé? And where was her father?
When Quinn had known her, the man had rarely been more than three steps from his only child’s side. It had made dating her—and making out with her—extremely difficult. Which, in retrospect, was probably exactly what the old man had had in mind. He’d given over-protective a whole new definition, especially when it came to anything having to do with her career. And since, in his mind, everything had to do with her career…
Elise shifted then, whimpering in her sleep. He didn’t know if it was because she was in pain or because she was having a nightmare, and he didn’t care. The sound ripped through him and though he knew he had absolutely no right to touch her, he couldn’t resist stroking a hand over her forehead and down the long, silken length of her dark hair.