She looked so ethereal lying there, her face cut, her right eye blackened, her forehead stitched up. She was still gorgeous—it would take a lot more than a car accident to mar the inner and outer beauty that was such an intrinsic part of Elise McKinney—but the fragility that had always been such a big part of her, even ten years ago, was even more pronounced now.
Yes, she was bruised and battered, but again, it was more than her injuries, more than the accident. More even, he feared, then Ellington’s death. Because while the anguish and exhaustion of losing her manager could definitely be responsible for how breakable she looked, it didn’t account for the fact that she was at least fifteen pounds too thin. Any more than it accounted for the fact that she looked defeated—as if her life had been wearing on her for a long time.
Closing his eyes, he couldn’t help remembering the vibrant girl he’d once known. The one who had battled her way on stage despite crippling stage fright. The one who, when pushed, had given as good as she’d gotten. Who had taken every prank he’d ever dished out and exacted her revenge double-fold.
There was nothing of that feisty girl in the woman he saw before him. All of Elise’s soft curves had been rubbed away, until she was nothing but sharp bones, pale skin, and edgy nerves. The knowledge gutted him, made him want to grab Ellington by his chubby arms and shake him until he told Quinn what had happened to her.
But Ellington was dead and so was the kid Quinn used to be. Why was it so hard to accept, then, that the old Elise had disappeared as well?
Maybe because he couldn’t help thinking he’d changed for the better. His old man probably wouldn’t agree, but then again, the bastard hadn’t had a vote since the day Quinn walked away from him with nothing but the clothes on his back and two hundred dollars in cash. For a chance at freedom, he’d given up tens of thousands of dollars in competition winnings and a promising career.
He’d also given up Elise. And while he didn’t regret much about ditching his old life, leaving her the way he had was the one thing he did. He’d left her all those years ago because he’d had to—his sanity and his very survival had depended on getting away from his father. Once out, he’d never contacted her again, because he could see where their relationship was going. Could see that he was dragging her down into the dark and shattered abyss that had been his entire existence in those days. He’d refused to do that to her.
But that hadn’t made it easier. Especially looking at her now and realizing that while he’d spent the last decade growing into his skin, becoming the person he’d always wanted to be, he couldn’t say the same for her.
Not when she looked so damaged. So miserable. So damn breakable.
The knowledge that she had suffered haunted him as he settled down beside the bed and took out his phone. Pulling up the Internet, he Googled her, then spent the next hour poring through the scores of information that had been written about her through the years. Most of it he knew—he had loosely followed her career for a while, after all—but the recent stuff was all brand new.
That was his fault. He’d made a point of eschewing all publicity about Elise three years before, right around the time he’d discovered that she was engaged. Doing so meant he now realized he’d missed the article about the death of a legend (her father) that had run in the New Yorker nine months before, just like he’d missed all the gossip column discussions about the subsequent break-up of her engagement to some rich Manhattan financier.
All of which made him an even bigger as**ole than he’d thought he was. Quinn had never been particularly fond of her father, but Elise had been as close to him as she’d been to Ellington. Which meant she’d lost her father, her fiancé, and her best friend/manager all in less than a year.
No wonder she looked like hell. The only surprise was that she’d managed to smile at him at all, no matter how tremulously.
At one time, he might not have been able to empathize with her. But that was back when she’d been the only thing he had to lose. Now that he was in the band, now that he had Jared and Ryder and Wyatt, he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose all of them, let alone have it happen so close together.
Again Elise whimpered in her sleep, and again he reached out to soothe her. He hated to see her like this. A victim of so much pain, so much devastation. And it was only going to get worse. His gaze fell on her broken hand. At the time when she needed her music most, it too had been stolen from her.
He thought back on her words, about her hand injury not being too bad. He had a hard time believing that. The hand was a complex compilation of bones and tendons that worked together in perfect balance and symmetry. If something happened to any of those bones, everything was thrown off. If something happened to more than one of them…the result was nearly always some kind of permanent, limited range of motion. Which, for a normal person, might be nothing more consequential than the inconvenience of not being able to bend one of their fingers. For a classical pianist, however, it was the death knoll on his or her career.
Quinn walked to the computer beside her bed. He’d watched her nurse log in when she’d been here earlier, but then the woman had been so frazzled by the fact that she was in the room with a real-live rock star that she’d forgotten to log out. Which meant that everything he wanted to know about Elise’s condition was just a click away.
A quick glance at the clock told him he should have a few minutes before the nurse’s next visit, and a small shove of the door had it snicking shut.
Feeling guilty for invading her privacy, but determined to know what was wrong with Elise and what she needed, he scrolled through the chart. As he did, the sick churning in his stomach got worse with each word that he read.
There was nothing simple about Elise’s break, nothing that made it sound even feasible that she’d play piano again on a professional level. Not when three of the metacarpal bones had been so badly broken that they’d had to be pinned back together. And not when he took into account the amount of tendon and ligament damage detailed by the surgeon—only some of which he’d even attempted to repair in what was to be the first of numerous surgeries.
Quinn read the chart through a second time before logging out of the computer. Then sank into the closest chair and ran his hands over his face.
Shit, shit, shit. Fuck, goddamn son of a bitch. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck.
The litany of curse words ran through his head as the reality of Elise’s situation sunk in. She was injured, alone, and without the career that had always been the compass that guided her life. Plus, she had months of surgery and physical therapy ahead of her—all with no support structure whatsoever.
No wonder she looked shattered.
Quinn sat by the bed for long minutes wondering why life had to be so f**king unfair. It was a ridiculous question coming from a guy who’d learned at a young age just how capricious, and uncaring, the universe could be. But he didn’t want that for Elise, had never wanted it for her. It was the number one reason he’d ripped his own heart out and walked away from her at seventeen. So that she could have the kind of life she deserved, one that wouldn’t constantly be tainted and f**ked up just by dint of proximity to his.
Only her life had been f**ked up anyway. By this damn car accident, and by a lot of stuff before it, if he was reading the signs right. Which meant, what? That he’d walked away from her for nothing? Or just that nobody, no matter how sweet and perfect and lucky they appeared, got out of life unscathed?
He didn’t know the answer, but the one thing he was certain of was that there was no way he was going to let Elise go through the next couple of days alone. No way was he going to let her spend countless hours staring at the walls of this damn hospital room, waiting and wondering what was going to happen next.
He’d already been there, already done that, and he wouldn’t wish it on anyone—wouldn’t, even, wish it on his father—let alone the fragile woman in front of him.
No, when tomorrow came and she started to face the truth about her hand, her future, her music, he would be there. And he would continue to be there until she figured out she’d be better off without him and kicked him the f**k out of her life. For good this time.
A few hours later, after making sure Elise ate a few bites of the soup he’d gone out and gotten her for lunch, Quinn bullied her into taking a pain pill. She fell asleep soon afterwards and he snuck out, doing his best not to disturb her. Or to alert the nursing staff that he was on the loose.
While he was successful with his first goal, the second was a total loss. As such, it ended up taking him nearly twenty minutes to get out the front door of the hospital, since it didn’t take long for the word that he was around to spread to other visitors. And since Austin was nothing if not a music town, he had a lot of autographs to sign.
Which normally wasn’t something he would ever complain about. How could he when he was incredibly grateful for the support of Shaken Dirty’s fans—especially after the latest mess they’d gotten themselves into.
But he’d stayed too long with Elise as it was. He had other responsibilities, ones that he couldn’t shirk even if he wanted to. Which he didn’t.
And yet, even knowing he had somewhere else to be, he hadn’t wanted to leave her. Not because he didn’t want to leave her alone—although that was true, too—but because something about being near her, listening to her voice, soothed him.
Considering how tightly wound—and how wary of him—she was, it made no sense. But it was true, nonetheless. No matter how hard it was to sit in that room with her when all he wanted to do was pull her onto his lap and hold her, kiss her, make love to her, it still made him feel good just to talk to her. Just to see her beautiful green eyes light up or her skin flush with pleasure or embarrassment.
But indulging himself had made him really late, so once he finally managed to break free of the fans, he hightailed it across the parking lot to his motorcycle. Minutes later he was on the highway, headed north, and thirty minutes after that, he was pulling into the parking lot of his destination.
After securing his helmet, he bounded up the stairs to the private facility and checked in at the front desk. By the time he’d presented his ID and made it to the rec room where small groups of people had taken up nearly every available spot, he felt like a total ass. The festivities had started two hours before—he should have been here then, like he’d originally planned.
Pissed off—at himself and the world in general—he was pretty much lost in his own little world until Wyatt’s laconic voice broke through the fog. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Quinn turned from looking out the window at what he thought was a putting green to find his band’s drummer—and his best friend—regarding him with narrowed eyes. Despite the fact that he thought he’d prepared himself for this moment, his stomach clenched a little as he took in Wyatt’s appearance.
The guy looked like hell.
His normally tanned skin was a sick, pasty white that made his tattoos—not to mention the purple circles under his green eyes—stand out in stark definition. His hands were shaking so badly that even shoving them in his pockets couldn’t disguise the involuntary movements. And he’d lost more weight, weight he had no business losing.
It had only been three weeks since Quinn and Ryder had dropped him off at this place, but it felt—and Wyatt looked—like it had been three months. Three excruciatingly long and torturous months that had done nothing for him but make him look more like the heroin addict he was instead of less.
Worry crawled through him, made Quinn’s own hands shake a little. He didn’t know what would happen—to Wyatt or to the band—if this trip to rehab didn’t take. But he couldn’t let his friend see his concern or his doubts. He didn’t want to sabotage any progress, however small, that the guy had made. So instead of asking how Wyatt was doing, Quinn did what he did best, what he’d been doing for more years than he could count. He shoved that shit down deep inside himself and forced a smile onto his face that he was far from feeling.