She wasn’t ready for this. Wasn’t ready to step out into a world that didn’t have Ellington in it any more than she was ready to pick up the mismatched pieces of her own life. Unfortunately, what she was ready for didn’t seem to matter. This was it. The start of the rest of her life. It was hard to pretend otherwise when she could see the yellow cab the nurse had called for her sitting right outside the hospital’s sliding glass front doors.
Her record label had offered to send a limo for her, but she’d turned them down. She’d been riding in the long black cars for years, a big fan of the privacy and luxury they provided. But after what had happened to Ellington, she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to look at one again, let alone ride in it. Then again, if her music career really was over, it wasn’t like she’d have much opportunity to do so anyway…
Staring at the cab that was going to take her away from the hospital and into the beginnings of her new life—whatever that was—she felt a brief pang. It was stupid, she was stupid, but she’d kind of expected Quinn to show up today. He hadn’t said anything about it, hadn’t promised her anything, but he’d stopped by each of the three days she’d spent in the hospital, each time with a gift that made her smile. That he didn’t come by today, on the day she was leaving, hurt more than it had any right to.
Then again, she should have known better than to get used to him being around. Much as she might wish otherwise, he wasn’t exactly the trustworthy sort. Quinn did what he wanted, when he wanted to do it, and to hell with the consequences—or anyone who got trapped in the crossfire.
From the moment he’d shown up in her hospital room, she’d known she couldn’t count on him. Known that if he came back it would be because he wanted to, not because of anything she might say or do. And still she’d looked for him today. Still she’d jumped at every shadow that passed her doorway and every knock she’d heard at her door.
Except it hadn’t been him. Not once. And she was stupid enough to be disappointed. Disappointed that he wasn’t there, and disappointed that she would probably never see him again. Pretending otherwise would only make the sting she felt now blossom into something much, much worse.
Which was ridiculous, because she didn’t need his help. Would never allow herself to need him in any way ever again.
Swallowing back the sudden lump in her throat, she pushed herself shakily to her feet. “Take it slowly,” the nurse told her, resting a supportive hand on Elise’s arm.
Not sure if she’d be able to force any sound out of her tight throat, Elise simply nodded. Then took a few unsteady steps toward the waiting cab. Maybe the hospital knew what it was talking about with the whole wheelchair thing, after all.
The cab driver came around, opened the door for her. But before she could get in, a familiar voice called her name. She looked up to see Quinn sprinting across the parking lot.
“Hey! They told me you weren’t being released for at least another hour.” The look he shot the nurse was definitely accusatory.
She was an older woman and not nearly as prone to falling at his feet as Elise’s other nurses had been the last couple of days, but still she blushed as she answered, “The doctor did his rounds earlier than usual today. There was no reason to keep her after he’d discharged her.”
“Except for the fact that no one was here to get her.” Quinn glanced at Elise in exasperation. “You didn’t really think I was going to let you do this alone, did you?”
Obviously, she’d thought exactly that. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d left her to fend for herself. Not that she needed him—and not that he owed her anything.
Yet, here he was now, looking more than a little indignant that the hospital hadn’t thought to call him. That she hadn’t thought to call him.
“It’s fine,” she told him. “I’m just going a few miles away. The cab’s already here.”
“So am I. And I promise, my ride is more comfortable than the backseat of a cab.” He pulled a couple of bills out of his wallet and pressed them into the cab driver’s hand. “Thanks, buddy. But I’ve got it from here.”
The driver took the money, then looked at her inquisitively. “Are you sure, ma’am?”
“She’s sure,” Quinn answered brusquely.
No, she wasn’t. Not really. Part of her wanted nothing more than to cling to him. To let him pick her up and take her back to the hotel and tell her everything was going to be okay. Just like he used to. But she was smart enough to know that everything wasn’t going to be okay, that he couldn’t make it that way even if he wanted to.
Besides, clinging to him now would only make an untenable situation worse. Oh, Quinn was fun and funny and he had good intentions, obviously, but that didn’t mean she could afford to let him back into her life—even as a friend. She couldn’t grow attached to him. Not when she still wanted him more than she should. And not when he was the master of bailing.
She’d been there, done that, once in her life. No way in hell was she going to do it again.
But that didn’t mean she had to turn down all help from him, did it? It wasn’t like she had anyone else right now. No friends, no family. She was completely alone. And Quinn was here, ready to help. Willing, even. Why shouldn’t she take him up on his offer of a ride to the hotel?
“I’m sure,” she finally said, echoing his words.
The cab driver nodded, then got back in his car without any further protest. Probably the easiest money he’d make all day.
“Thanks,” she told Quinn as the cab pulled away. “I appreciate it.”
“Don’t thank me. Not for something like this.” He glanced up at the nurse. “I’m parked just over there. Will you wait with her while I go get my car?”
As one, they watched him jog back into the parking lot, his long, shredded denim-clad legs eating up the distance in a few long strides. Seriously? What grown man still wore jeans that left half his thighs hanging out? And why was drool pooling in her mouth as she looked at him?
Elise sighed despite herself. How could Quinn get better looking every day? It just wasn’t fair—not when whatever peace of mind she had left was disintegrating a little more with each second she spent with him.
The nurse interrupted her reverie by tapping the back of the wheelchair. “Have a seat, honey. You don’t want to fall down before your guy gets back here.”
“He’s not my guy,” Elise protested even as she sank gratefully back into the wheelchair. “He’s just someone I used to know.”
The nurse snorted. “Yeah, well, tall, dark and broody has been burning up our phone lines every couple of hours checking on you. For the past seventy-two hours, most of the nurses have been racing for the phone just in case it’s him on the other end. And that doesn’t even count the fight that’s been going on to get you on their rotation during visiting hours.”
Elise flushed as the woman’s words sunk in. It wasn’t like she blamed the nurses for wanting a glimpse of Quinn—she too had spent entirely too many minutes over the last couple of days just staring at the door of her hospital room, waiting for him to get there.
Quinn chose that moment to pull up to the curb in a shiny black Land Rover. She went to push to her feet, but before she could so much as shift in the wheelchair, he was there in front of her. One of his arms slid around her waist, while he used the other to grasp her uninjured hand and ease her gently out of the chair. Then he was helping her to the car—like she’d injured her foot instead of her hand—and lifting her carefully into the passenger seat.
She studiously ignored the heat that worked its way through her from wherever their bodies touched. Just like she ignored the shivers working their way down her spine.
“You doing okay?” he asked, as he pulled out her seat belt and leaned across her to buckle it.
“Fine,” she answered, then immediately regretted drawing in the air to speak. Because along with the necessary oxygen, she had also drawn in a huge whiff of Quinn’s scent. To be more specific, Quinn’s delicious scent.
Most of the men she knew smelled crisp and sharp and professional, and while that was a pleasant enough scent, it was nothing compared to the dark wickedness that suddenly surrounded her. Warm musk. Pungent sandalwood. Sweet, ripe summer blackberries. All mixed with a seductive underpinning of rock and roll. It was all she could do not to bury her face in his neck and just breathe him in. Or worse, take a bite.
“Good.” The seatbelt clicked into place and he pulled back slowly, as if he was worried about jostling her. Or maybe he just wanted to torture her with his closeness. Either way, it was working. Her ni**les were hard and her sex ached for the feel of him against her. Inside her.
He turned away then, and with a wave to the nurse, walked around the car and slid into the driver’s seat. She shifted uncomfortably, crossed her uninjured arm over her breasts. And prayed Quinn didn’t notice just how obviously he affected her.
“How’s the temperature?” he asked, playing with the air vents in front of her. “Too cold? Too hot?”
“Are you sure? Because—”
“Quinn.” This time she was the one to reach out to him, gently covering his hand with her injured one. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”
That wasn’t precisely the truth, but it wasn’t quite a lie either. Besides, what was wrong with her couldn’t be fixed by anything as easy as a temperature control. The nurse had all but forced a Vicodin—less powerful than Percocet but still pretty potent—down her throat a few hours before, so she wasn’t feeling any pain in her wrist. But at the same time, she wasn’t groggy enough to forget the last time she’d been in a vehicle. Just like she couldn’t forget that today was Ellington’s funeral and she wouldn’t be there to honor him. To say good-bye.
“Good.” He pulled away from the curb and headed for the exit. “I want you to tell me if that changes or if you need anything.”
“I doubt anything’s going to happen between here and my hotel. I was told the W was only about ten miles away.”
Quinn nodded, but didn’t say anything else—which probably should have been her first clue. He was a terrible liar, or at least he always had been in the past. He was good at keeping quiet, at not saying anything one way or the other, but if you pushed him for an answer it was almost impossible for him to do anything but tell the truth.
But she was exhausted, despite the fact that the only strenuous thing she’d done all day was to climb into his car, so she missed it completely. Instead, she rested her head against the back of her seat and closed her eyes.
The well-mannered part of her was urging her to make small talk, but the truth was she just didn’t have it in her. Not when the relationship she and Quinn used to share had never involved social niceties. Veiled barbs, dirty tricks, hot kisses, and hotter arguments—absolutely. But small talk? They’d always been too busy trying to get the best of one another to engage in something so incredibly useless.
And while she understood that their relationship had changed—that they had changed—Elise couldn’t bring herself to break that taboo that had once existed between them. Couldn’t bring herself to heap fakeness on top of the reality they’d once shared.
She opened her eyes occasionally, glanced at the clock on the dash. Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. Twenty. Twenty-five. They were on the highway, driving fast, and she kept expecting him to exit. Kept expecting to see her hotel looming at any second. But the longer he drove, the further away from the city they seemed to get, until thirty minutes had passed and she couldn’t keep her mouth shut any longer.