Page 30

Author: Tracy Wolff

And yet, he itched to call her. Probably would have, except—courtesy of his idiocy—she didn’t have a phone. It was just one more thing he’d taken from her.

He didn’t know how long he stayed out there, staring blankly into the sunset. But eventually, Ryder joined him, clapping a hand on his shoulder and handing him a drink before settling into one of the chairs, legs sprawled out in front of him.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Quinn told him without turning around.

“Talk about what?” Ryder said.

“Don’t patronize me.” Quinn took a hefty sip of his drink, grimaced as really good tequila burned its way down his throat. He should have known Ryder wouldn’t have handed him a civilized drink like whiskey.

“Why would I do that? Especially considering you’re doing a damn fine job of it yourself.”

Quinn rolled his eyes. “I don’t think it’s possible to patronize oneself.”

“Oooh, sorry, college boy. I guess we can’t all be as smart as you.”

“What the f**k is your problem?”

He could practically hear the shrug in his voice when Ryder said, “You’re the one spoiling for a fight. I just figured I’d give it to you. Maybe speed along the whole process of you pulling your head out of your ass and going after Elise.”

“My head is not up my ass.” He lifted the glass of tequila to his lips, drained the thing. And barely resisted the urge to hurl it at Ryder’s head.

“You sure about that? ’Cause I’m the one looking at you and I’ve got to tell you, I think it is.”

“She’s better off without me.”

“Don’t play the f**king martyr. It’s tiresome.”

He did turn on him then, kicking Ryder’s chair hard enough to have it scraping across the balcony. “What the f**k do you know?”

It only took seconds for Ryder to be up and in his face. “If there’s anybody who knows what you’re going through right now, it’s me. I’ve been there. I’ve lived through a lot of the same shit you have. Yeah, maybe you had it worse with your old man than I did, but believe me, I know what’s going on in your head. I know you don’t want to hurt her. But you’re forgetting something.”

He didn’t want to ask, he really didn’t. But in the end, he couldn’t help himself. “What?”

“That you’re hurting her right now. That woman loves you.”

Quinn shook his head, started to tell Ryder that he was full of shit, but the lead singer wasn’t done yet.

He put a hand on Quinn’s shoulder, then waited patiently until Quinn turned his head to look into his eyes. “I saw her with you. I saw the way she looked at you, the way she smiled at you when you weren’t looking. She. Loves. You. Fuck, if she didn’t, she wouldn’t take nearly as much joy in tormenting you. Mayonnaise in your Twinkies, man. That’s serious commitment right there.”

Quinn chuckled at the memory, just like he knew Ryder had intended him to. But he grew serious, fast, when he thought about everything that had happened after. “Micah could have killed her, man. The doctor told me if she’d hit her head any harder we would have been dealing with a whole different ball game. You think I can forget that? You think I can just put that out of my head? She nearly died because of me. Because of decisions I made. That’s not okay with me.”

“She nearly died in that car accident a week ago, too, and that had nothing to do with you. Shit happens, Quinn. Shit. Happens. That’s life. Yeah, we were stupid not to think that Micah would lash out, but we won’t make that mistake again. You can’t live your life worrying about what might happen or you’ll never do anything. You know that. I know you know that.”

Ryder was making sense, he was. But that didn’t seem to matter, not when all he could see was Elise’s expression as she started to fall. Her head when it cracked against the table. Her face, pale and tired, when she lay unconscious in that hospital bed.

“She’s better off without me,” he told Ryder, the words coming out a lot huskier than he’d planned.

“You don’t believe that.”

“I do. I end up hurting her every time I’m with her. That’s not okay.” He shook his head, tried to beat down all the voices in his head that told him he was just like his father, that he would always hurt the ones he was supposed to protect. “I need her to be safe. I need to let her go.”

He believed the words as he said them.

Believed them as he and Ryder finished their business in L.A.—which included getting the record label to drop their contract with Micah in light of current circumstances. Going to rehab like Wyatt did was one thing. But getting arrested for assaulting a woman…that was something else entirely, and not something the record label wanted themselves, or Shaken Dirty, associated with. Nice, wasn’t it, that all that had to happen for him to get what he wanted was for the woman he loved to be assaulted by his f**king band mate.

He believed the words when he got on the plane, when he landed in Austin and drove by the W, when he pulled up to his big empty house that had never felt empty when Elise was there. And he kept right on believing them, right up until the moment he walked into his garage and saw his Harley.

His Harley.

She’d painted it hot pink, sprinkled it with silver glitter and bedazzled the entire thing with rhinestones. Fucking rhinestones. It was the most horrific thing he’d ever seen. And yet …

He should have been mad. Should have been furious. That was his bike, his pride and f**king joy. It was the first thing he’d bought when Shaken Dirty started making money and it would be the last thing he got rid of if he ever went broke. And yet, as he stood there staring at his bike—which now looked like it belonged to Princess Barbie instead of a rock star—all he could think about was the fact that Elise would never again pull a prank on him. That she would never again look at him with those wide eyes and pursed lips as she scolded him for pulling a prank on her.

It was like losing her all over again.

He reached out for the bike, ran a trembling hand over one of the hearts she’d shaped out of rhinestones. Then fell to his knees beside it, head in his hands, tears leaking down his face.

For the first time, he thought that maybe Ryder had been right. Yes, he’d hurt Elise. Yes, Micah had f**king hurt Elise. But so had her father, so had that car accident. So had life. And somehow, somehow, she’d managed to get back up. To move past the shit and try to build a life for herself.

He tried to imagine how he’d feel if he could never play piano again, never play keyboards in Shaken Dirty. He’d be a total basket case, a mess of epic proportions that no one could fix.

Elise had lost everything, and yet she’d somehow managed to forgive him for what he’d done to her in the past. And she hadn’t blamed him for Micah , no matter how much he blamed himself. She’d loved him and he’d walked away, too lost in his own fear—in his own self-pity—to understand what he was doing to her.

To understand that he was hurting her more than her father or Micah ever had, or ever could.

The thought cut like a knife, and it made him reexamine everything he’d done since that night in the recording studio. And everything he hadn’t done.

As he did, as he realized just how badly he’d let Elise down, guilt tore through him.

Shit. He’d made a hell of a mess. Too bad he didn’t have a clue how to fix it.

Elise ignored her brand new iPhone when it dinged with a text message. It was ten o’clock and she was still in her pajamas, still in bed if the truth was known. Not because she was tired, but because she was wallowing.

It had been ten days since she’d gotten out of the hospital. Ten days since she’d gotten on a plane bound for Vermont because she couldn’t stand the idea of going back to the empty mausoleum of a house she’d grown up in. in Chicago. Ten days since she’d walked away from Quinn for good. Or, more accurately, since he’d sent her away. But this was her wallow. She figured she could remember events whatever way she wanted to.

She reached for her notebook, the one she’d been writing music in since she got here. If anything good had come from the last couple of weeks, it was that she’d discovered a new talent. She might have lost the ability to play piano on a professional level, but she’d gained so much more—like the knowledge that she could write a song.

She’d written six songs since she’d been here, all on her own. And they were good. Really good. She could tell. Which meant that while her concert pianist days were over, her life in the music industry could really just be beginning. There was so much she could still do, more than she’d ever imagined when she was on the road. And writing songs, composing music, put her behind the scenes. No more performing in front of crowds that made her nervous, no more stage fright at all. The thought brought her more peace—if not joy—than she’d ever thought she’d find again.

It wasn’t a life with Quinn, with the man she loved. But as a consolation prize, it wasn’t half bad.

The phone dinged again, this time three times in a row, and finally she reached for it with a roll of her eyes. She knew who it was—of course she did—because who else texted her besides Jamison?

She wasn’t in the mood to chat via text right now, and planned on telling Jamison just that. The last thing she wanted to interrupt her wallow with was news of Quinn and how well he was doing.

But when she swiped her phone open, Jamison’s messages weren’t trying to cheer her up. Instead, they said only, read this, xoxo, followed by a link.

She’d sent the same message four times in a row. It wasn’t the first time Jamison had sent her a link—the woman had been bombarding Elise with messages and links and phone calls and funny stories pretty much from the moment she’d gotten off the plane in Vermont. Funny, all it had taken for her to gain a friend was for her to lose the only man she’d ever loved.

Clicking on the link—because she knew from experience that Jamison would just keep spamming her until she did what she was told—Elise nearly gasped when a full color picture of Quinn posing for Rolling Stone came up.

She started to close it—maybe one day she’d be able to see a picture of him without feeling like her insides were being ripped out, but today was not that day. In the end though, she couldn’t help staring at his face—all scruffy and scowly and hot, so hot. It should be illegal for any man to look that good, especially when she was a total and complete mess.

Again, she started to close it, but that’s when she noticed the headline on the side of the picture of the first time. “Shaken Dirty’s Quinn Bradford on love, music, and the proper way to grovel…(you won’t believe your eyes).”

She couldn’t not look. Even as she told herself to put the phone down, to close her eyes, to do something—anything—she had to scroll through. There was no article attached, as the pictures were from a photo shoot that was only a couple of days old, but according to the cover pic, these were supposed to run in the November issue.

The second picture had Quinn standing on the back porch at his house—she recognized the architecture and the view—looking out over his land. The third picture was him in his music room, sitting at the piano in nothing but a pair of those ripped jeans that looked so hot.

She might have whimpered a little—how could she not—when he was right there in front of her. Right there. His eyes looked a little sadder than usual, his hipbones a little more defined. But he still looked incredible. Sexy. Gorgeous. And it was killing her because she missed him and she loved him and she wanted nothing more than to snuggle up next to him and lick her way down those gorgeous abs of his. To take him on that piano bench the way he had taken her just two weeks before.