Before You Break

Before You Break

by Christina Lee

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A sexy, emotional New Adult romance about a bad boy on the edge and a good girl about to lose control…

A college baseball star isn’t supposed to have skeletons in his closet. But Daniel Quinn is hiding a guilty past so dark he refuses to let anyone get close. Except there’s something about gorgeous, studious Ella Abrams that goes beyond the electric attraction between them—something that makes him want to open up.

Ella has suffered enough heartache and guilt to fill one of her psychology textbooks, but she keeps that part of herself hidden behind a bubbly exterior. Until she receives an anonymous call while working a suicide helpline and the voice on the other end touches something inside of her that she can’t ignore.

Soon Ella and Quinn’s physical connection heats up, even as their deep and revealing hotline talks intensify. But by the time Ella realizes that her seductive jock and her sensitive caller are the same guy, it might be too late to save him—or to stop herself from falling too far…

Raves for Christina Lee’s All of You:

"Hot, sweet, emotional, page-turner, awesome." —New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Monica Murphy

“This is one New Adult you don’t want to miss.” —New York Times and USA Today bestselling author A. L. Jackson

"Steamy, honest, and full of heart.” —Roni Loren, national bestselling author

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698141261
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/18/2014
Series: Between Breaths Series , #2
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 225
Sales rank: 268,470
File size: 925 KB

About the Author

Christina Lee lives outside of Cleveland with her husband and son--her two favorite guys. She's addicted to lip gloss and salted caramel everything. Reading has always been her favorite pastime, so creating imaginary worlds has become a dream job. She also owns her own jewelry business, called Tags-n-Stones, where she hand-stamps meaningful words or letters onto silver for her customers. She loves to hear from her readers. You can find her on:

Read an Excerpt




“Daddy, please. I . . . I need to see Christopher,” I sobbed. “I need to be with him.”

My father gripped the door handle and stood firm and resolute, despite the stream of tears tumbling down his cheeks.

“Nie, C . . . Corka.” His voice cracked, so his Polish sounded jumbled. Strained. Mangled. Just like my heart. “You don’t want to see him like this. Please . . . go back downstairs.”

I fell to my knees on the carpet and buried my face in my hands. I could hear my mother’s guttural wailing from the kitchen below, and it was a noise I wouldn’t soon forget.

The sound of the siren sliced though my family’s sorrow and then imprinted its glaring lights on our once peaceful home.

And that’s when the realization struck me so hard that the air was forced straight from my lungs. I gripped my stomach and wept so mercilessly that no sound fell from my lips.

My brother was truly gone.


I lined everything up perfectly on the small brown desktop. My coffee cup, my notes, and the psychology textbook I’d been studying from this semester. My fingers straightened the black picture frame behind my laptop before they traced over Christopher’s soulful eyes, his quiet smile.

I’d been working at this hotline the past few weeks as part of my field hours at the university. So far it’d been a good experience, if not a bit sad and overwhelming. But if I wanted to become a psychologist, I needed to experience this side of it. My supervisor called it the underbelly. Those broken members of society reaching out for help.

I’d been told that I was a natural. Insightful beyond my years. That I had a knack for getting people to open up to me. Still, the notebook on my desk reminded me what I needed to focus on during my conversations. Like providing available community resources and figuring out if the caller had an actual plan to kill themselves.

Desperate people called the hotline, sure. But there were the regulars, too, who just needed someone to listen. Maybe they were attention seekers. Or maybe they needed a stranger to unload on.

One man’s pebble in the road of life was another man’s boulder, my grief counselor said after Christopher died. You just never knew.

It was my job to figure out whether the caller felt the weight of that boulder and then decide how to proceed from there. Did they need medical attention or a willing ear? The simple act of listening was a powerful thing.

I checked the clock on the wall. No sooner had I placed the headphones over my ears than the red button lit up like a road hazard. I inhaled sharply, never sure what would be thrown at me.

“Suicide prevention line. This is Gabriella.”

I used my full name at work for formality’s sake, but my family and friends called me Ella.

I heard a clearing of the throat, and then a distinctly male breath filled my eardrums through the phone line.

This might have been his first time calling. I could have only guessed how scary this experience was. My job was to assess his needs, so hopefully I could get him talking.

“I can hear you breathing. And it’s okay.” I tapped my pen on the desktop. “Talk whenever you’re ready.”

Another intake of breath.

“Must be tough for you to speak to a stranger.” I adjusted myself in my seat. “But there’s a reason you called, and I’m here to listen.”

Finally he spoke, in a low and defenseless voice that sent a chill straight through me. Maybe it was because he sounded young and vulnerable. Like my brother who died when I was in high school. “I . . . I don’t know why I called. It was a mistake. I’m not . . .”

“It’s never a mistake,” I said, my voice strong and confident. “Even if you just called to hear someone’s voice other than your own.”

Would Christopher have stood a chance if he had called a hotline?

“I . . . um . . . okay.” I could almost picture him exhaling and squeezing his eyes shut, like he was uncomfortable.

“Can you tell me your first name and what prompted you to call?”

“Okay.” His voice was a quiet rumble. “It’s . . . it’s . . . Daniel.”

“Hi, Daniel,” I said almost breathlessly. Relieved he’d relaxed enough to give me his name.

I could practically hear how difficult it had been for him to call. “Hi, um . . . Gab . . . Was your name Gabriella?”

I tried to find my confident voice again. “Yes.”

“I have an aunt named Gabriella,” he said, his voice sounding a little lighter at the memory. “Everyone calls her Gabby.”

“I’m cool with Gabby, too.” He could call me whatever the hell he wanted to. I didn’t want to screw up this phone call. My stomach was in full-on clench mode.

Only one other person had called me Gabby. My brother Christopher. It was our little joke. He’d call me Gabby and I’d call him Chrissy. But then once, my twin brothers heard me and started calling him Chrissy the Sissy. He was pissed at me for days.

I shook the memory away and cleared my throat. “So, Daniel, why’d you call?”

“I . . . I can’t stop feeling guilty about something terrible I’ve done.” I heard him take a swig of something. Maybe a beer. Liquid courage. “I don’t know if I can live with myself anymore.”

Crap! What could he have done that was so terrible?

Normally, phone calls came from people suffering from symptoms of depression. They felt empty and helpless and useless. They were usually teary or could barely drag themselves out of bed to face life. But this guy didn’t sound typical. He sounded tortured about something he’d done.

I took a breath and made sure I had my professional hat back on. “Let’s talk it through.”

“I . . . I can’t.” His breath was harsh. “This is stupid.”

“No it’s not, Daniel.” I could feel it—he was going to hang up. “Please talk to me, tell me something. Anything.”

“I . . . I’m sorry.” And then the line went dead.

I sat there paralyzed, playing the conversation over in my head. What could I have said differently to keep him on the phone? What was he doing now? Hopefully not drinking himself into oblivion. Or worse . . .

The call line lit up again and my heart was in my throat. Maybe he’d decided to call back. “Suicide prevention line. Gabriella speaking.”

“H . . . hi. Um, my name is Susan.” Disappointment and regret waged a war in my chest. I looked through the open doorway to the two offices across the hall. There were three of us on tonight in separate rooms. We were to keep doors open in case we had questions or needed support. I now wondered if he’d called back and was on the line with either of the other two.

“Hi, Susan. How are you feeling tonight?”

“Lonely . . .”

Three hours later, I grabbed my purse out of the bottom drawer and trudged out to my car. I’d spoken to a cutter, a jumper, and a crier, but never again to Daniel, if that was in fact his real name.

I wasn’t sure why I was even still thinking about him. It was something about the tone of his voice, I decided. Something desperate, broken, hollow. Maybe that was how Christopher would have sounded the night he’d taken his own life. If anyone had been home to listen.

Daniel had wanted to tell someone what he’d done. Someone who might’ve helped. I didn’t think he wanted to die. Not yet. And I hoped he found someone to talk to soon.

Just like I’d wished all those nights that Christopher had talked to someone. We were so close. Why couldn’t he have confided in me? Asked me to come home? And why hadn’t I read the signs?

As I was pulling up to my apartment building, I got a text from my boyfriend, Joel.

Playing cards tonight. Can’t get away. Come here instead.

My stomach tightened immediately. Can’t get away, my ass.

Joel used to always want to be alone with me. He’d complain about being at the frat house so much. But lately, he didn’t seem to mind at all. He was partying harder, getting more involved in campus life, and I definitely felt our relationship fraying at the edges. Hell, we barely even made out anymore.

I looked up at the brick building. The first floor lights were off, which meant my roommate, Avery, wasn’t home. She was probably already up at her boyfriend’s place on the fifth floor. She and Bennett had gotten together in the fall and had been inseparable ever since. Which didn’t bug me—until I realized that what they had was so much deeper than what I had with Joel.

So why the hell was I hanging in there with him?

Joel was my first adult relationship. The first guy to notice me—really notice me—next to my beauty-queen friends, Avery and Rachel. I liked having a boyfriend and a steady relationship. I’d dated the same guy on and off in high school for two years. But we’d drifted apart after Christopher died. I was a wreck and he didn’t know how to handle it.

By that time Avery was always sleeping over, trying to get away from her own crazy life, and I took comfort in that. There was something to be said for loyalty.

But I was probably loyal to Joel to a fault. Plus, my parents liked him. Joel was from the next town over and his family belonged to the same church. My father coached him in community soccer.

But there was also another connection.

Joel had known Christopher. Had mentored him in soccer as a junior coach. He knew a different side to Christopher—the competitive side. How much he loved the game and the travel team. And he didn’t mind talking about him. Whenever I wanted to. Just knowing he’d been linked to Christopher in some small way brought me relief. Reminded me of happier times.

I scrolled down to Avery’s name in my phone.

Me: Hey bitch, you up on 5? Heading to Joel’s. See you in the morning.

Avery: Yep, I’m here. Heading there again, huh? You know what I’m gonna say, right? You & I are gonna have a real conversation. About what you’re doing. And what you need. Without mentioning that asshead & what he’s doing. Got it?

Here we go again. Avery was so protective of me when it came to guys. The funny thing was, she’d been one big player herself before she met Bennett. She didn’t think guys were a necessity. Unless you fell madly in love with one of them, like she did. She’d had quite the adjustment.

Me: *eye roll* Later, bitch.

I pulled away from the curb in the direction of the frat house.


I took a long pull of my beer and plopped down on my sheets. Why the hell had I called that hotline? And why the fuck had I given my real name? Sure, nobody called me by my first name anyway, but still, I could have lied. Yet there was something about hearing her say Daniel. It sounded solid falling from her lips. Like maybe she could actually help me or something.

Geez, enough already. If I’d wanted to kill myself I should’ve just driven off a goddamn bridge already. Maybe I wasn’t totally serious—maybe I was a chicken shit—but some days I sure felt like I needed to disappear. The guilt I carried was like a goddamn heavy coat—prickly hot, itchy, and smothering.

“Quinn, get your ass down here!” I heard Joel’s loud mouth through my door. If I didn’t make an appearance with my frat brothers, I’d get harassed. One time they jumped me and pulled my ass out of bed. I sat up and reached for my shoes under my bed. The sneakers I changed into after baseball practice were still caked with mud from the field, so I slipped into my blue Cons.

The boys played poker most nights and got trashed just the same. I couldn’t always bow out after an afternoon game or practice. But at least I had an excuse during baseball season not to hang out too much. We played three ball games a week, and spent a lot of time on the road. But it didn’t help that my teammate Jimmy lived at the house and upstaged me with his partying.

As I headed down the stairs I heard distinctly familiar female voices. Same girls, different night. The guys referred to them as frat brats behind their backs. They were here every weekend night and always willing to do any number of favors for the guys, especially sexual ones.

I’d made the mistake of getting it on with a frat brat once before realizing what a mistake it was to hook up with these girls—they were always in your business. But I’d been pretty hard up by that time. Normally, if I was desperate, I’d head away from the frat house and up to the local bar where the townies hung out. I always came away satiated. It helped get my head back in the game. Literally.

I was at TSU to study, play ball, and live the frat life that my best friend always wanted. Sebastian had promised his dad that he’d pledge to the same house from his alma mater. And if he couldn’t be here to do it himself—because of what I’d done—I’d honor him by doing it for him.

I was here for Sebastian, for his parents, and maybe a little for myself. As long as I kept going—living his life—the guilt was pushed to the side for awhile. Until it bubbled up and consumed me. Like it had tonight.

I nodded to the guys at the table, scraped the metal chair across the floor, and sat my ass down. “Deal me in.”

The girl sitting on Joel’s lap had also been there the previous night. His hands were hidden beneath the table doing God knows what to her. Joel’s gaze kept darting out the window, which meant his girlfriend, Ella, was on her way over.

Ella was pretty and had a smoking body, but was obviously too naïve to realize what a huge player her boyfriend was. I’d never seen Joel do more than cop a feel since he’d started hanging with Ella, but it wasn’t like I had been watching him twenty-four-seven. These frat brats kept their mouths shut, just like the baseball groupies did after ball games. I didn’t get the whole chicks-stabbing-chicks-in-the-back thing. I just knew I definitely wanted no part of it.

Hell, Sebastian had been doing the same thing to his girlfriend, Amber. But she hadn’t been all that innocent, either. Then again, I’m not one to talk. I’d been playing games, too. I just hadn’t realized it. Until it was too late.

I didn’t know Ella all that well, but lately she’d been on the quiet side. Too quiet. She used to joke around more, had one hell of a truck driver’s mouth, and could hold her own in a Call of Duty game with the guys.

Maybe her silence spoke volumes. I could feel the tension hanging in the air lately between her and Joel.

A lot of the guys accused Joel of keeping Ella around for free pussy. Joel always pretended to be into the chicks hard to get them to spread their legs. Sure, he’d kept Ella around longer than most. So maybe she was good in bed. I shook my thoughts away from Ella’s nice rack and how her dark hair might look fanned around my pillow. I didn’t need a boner tonight.

As soon as Joel spied Ella through the window, he pushed the girl off his lap and she plopped down on mine, pouty bottom lip jutted out. And there went my potential hard-on. But if she wiggled her hips a little more she’d be sure to bring it back.

She turned and whispered against my ear, “Want to head upstairs, Quinn?” I looked down at her sheer white T-shirt, her lacy bra peeking beneath, hiding her small but perky breasts.

The trouble with these frat brats was that they were always around. If you just wanted to chill with the boys, it could get awkward. And if you brought home a date, it could even get ugly. So I stayed far away. Not that I brought home any dates.

“Hey, baby.” Joel hadn’t even bothered to stand up and greet his girl when she walked through the door. I glanced at Ella. Flushed cheeks, a hint of irritation in her eyes. Maybe she was getting tired of his bullshit, too. She had on a fluffy skirt that went to her knees with a fitted blue T-shirt. Her long brown hair was draped over her shoulders. She looked like she’d just come from work, because she wasn’t in her usual attire.

“Hey, Ella,” both Jimmy and Todd said, waving over their beer bottles. She glanced at me and then my visitor, who was now rocking her hips in my lap. For some reason, Ella’s scrutiny made me want to push this chick off. I wouldn’t be taking her upstairs anyway. She knew that and so did all of the guys.

Did Ella?

I shook my head. Why in the hell did it matter?

Ella rolled her eyes right before they became blank. It was as if she’d literally flipped a switch and become numb. I knew that feeling all too well, but what did this girl know about feeling dead inside? I’d heard Joel talk about her large and boisterous Polish family and how her mom made the best dumplings from scratch. How could a girl with all that have any problems?

My mother served takeout from the local pricey restaurant and we ate it around an awkwardly silent table. And that was just on the two nights our maid, Louise, was off. On the other nights, I used to eat alone. I’d trade places with Ella in a heartbeat.

I’d bet she never lay awake at night wondering if her parents would ever forgive her. All because a huge-ass mistake almost ruined her father’s chances of running for political office.

Joel tugged Ella down on his lap, where the chick in mine had been sitting just moments before, and a couple of the guys exchanged smirks. Had it been Brian’s girlfriend, Tracey, in Ella’s place, none of that would have gone down. Brian was in love with Tracey, fiercely loyal to her, and I admired him for that. He got razzed about it all the time, but he didn’t put up with that frat-brat bullshit when she was around. Or even when she wasn’t. Joel needed to take lessons from him or just let Ella go.

Sebastian should have done the same with Amber. They should have been honest with each other. Damn, we all should have been. My stomach started sloshing and rolling. Guess that was the end of my thinking about stupid-ass Joel and his naïve girlfriend. Who the fuck cared about what the hell they did? I had bigger things to think about, like spring break and whether or not I’d be going home over it.

I realized the girl in my lap was still waiting on my answer. I was hoping she’d just forgotten she’d asked me to go upstairs. She tried nibbling on my ear and I pushed her away. “Not tonight, Beth.”

“Never any night with you,” she huffed and stood up.

“Yeah, big Q man, what’s up with that?” Todd asked.

Even Ella passed me a strange look before her eyes cleared.

What the hell was that for?

“What’s up with what?” I said. I knew exactly what they were getting at, but it wasn’t any of their fucking business.

“You and chicks, man. You bat for the other team or something?”

Here they go, giving me the business.

“I think Quinn’s girlfriend might be his beloved car,” Brain said, grinning. I wouldn’t dispute that. I’d put a lot of hours into restoring my classic beauty and got pissed whenever I caught anyone leaning against her. Hell, sometimes I even covered her at night.

Before I could come up with some lame-ass excuse, Joel put his damn foot in his mouth and saved me the trouble.

“Have you guys seen the chicks who hang around after ball games?” Joel said and Ella stiffened. “They are smoking hot. He could probably get his fill every night.”

The table went completely silent as everyone stared at the floor or wall and avoided eye contact with Ella, who looked like she wanted to crawl inside a hole. Her normally bright-blue eyes looked cloudy and worn. Talk about disrespectful. At least Sebastian had never done something as asinine as that in front of Amber. No, it was me who’d done something horribly wrong, while he had been only a few feet away.

I felt like punching Joel in the face and telling Ella to find a guy that respected her, but then the awkward moment passed, and Jimmy had to pipe in about the damn baseball groupies. “You hit some of that action, Quinn?”

I shrugged. Let them think whatever the hell they wanted to.

“What about you?” Todd asked Jimmy. The girl on his lap looked back at him, too.

“Of course,” he said, and then resumed gnawing on her neck.

After a few more rounds of poker, I was down twenty bucks and ready to call it quits. By that point, Joel was practically falling off his chair. Even Ella had stepped up her drinking. About an hour ago, she had wandered into the living room, picked up a controller, and started playing Skyrim. She had a tall glass of beer sitting next to her, and now the contents of her cup were drained. She was probably still pissed off and hurt by Joel’s lame-ass comment.

I paused behind the couch and watched her play for a few minutes before saying good night and heading up to my room. I plugged in my headphones and lay down on my bed, hoping to fall into a less fitful sleep than the previous night.

About twenty minutes later, a loud clunk against my wall woke me from my reverie. I pulled a bud away from my ear and heard Joel and Ella’s hushed voices. It sounded like she was struggling getting him to bed.

Typical fucking Joel. I threw my headphones aside and strode out my door to help her out. Joel probably weighed twice as much she did.

“Whoa, there.” I grabbed hold of Joel’s other arm. “I got this.”

“Thanks,” Ella said, her cheeks pink and puffy from the effort.

I plopped him down on his bed a little too roughly and headed toward the door. “All yours. Lucky you.”

When I got back to my room I changed the CD to something slow and soothing, hoping I could fall asleep for real this time.

But then I heard a gagging noise coming from the hallway. Regular Grand fucking Central around here. Coughing and then gagging again. I peeked out the door and saw Ella, hunched over and trying to make her way to the bathroom across the hall.

She was wearing an oversize white Sigma T-shirt. And nothing else. I didn’t know what propelled me out the door again except that maybe I wanted to help her. What the fuck for, I had no clue.

But if I was being honest, maybe I wanted to stare at Ella’s long-ass legs that were barely hidden beneath the bottom of her T-shirt.

“Hey. You okay?” I stood on the threshold of the bathroom door, wondering again what in the hell I was doing. “Need some help?”

Before I could get the words out, she dry heaved into the toilet.

That shit wasn’t sexy at all, except her white T-shirt had traveled up her ass and she was wearing barely there pink panties.

Ella wasn’t a tiny girl. She had a large rack and nice, shapely hips. Seeing her practically bare ass in full glory stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn’t move my limbs or my lips.

What the hell was wrong with me? It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen a girl’s ass before.

I adjusted myself in my shorts. Shit.


This was so embarrassing. I was sick to my stomach but thankful that I hadn’t actually puked my brains out. Nothing like blowing chunks in front of one of Joel’s frat buddies.

“I’m okay,” I said, the words like cotton in my mouth. My head was pounding like a steel drum band. “Th . . . thanks for asking.”

Then I felt the heat of Quinn’s body and his soft voice near my ear. “Ella, you need to cover up in case some drunk ass busts in here and sees you.”

Like him? Except he didn’t seem at all drunk. He sounded . . . concerned.

I tried shrugging my shoulders but I wasn’t even sure if they’d moved. Before I had time to register my next thought, I felt his rough hands tug down my T-shirt. And then he took a quick step back, like he was afraid I’d think he was fondling me or something.

I laid my cheek against the toilet seat, praying nothing gross was stuck to it, while the room spun around me. Somehow I didn’t even care. I just needed my stomach to stop sloshing around and for my brain to stop feeling like sludge.

Why the hell had I downed that last shot and then chased it back with a beer?

Oh yeah, because my boyfriend was an asshole and had made me feel like I wasn’t even in the room. Maybe it was time I started being more truthful with myself and with Joel. Tell him how he made me feel and how he needed to cut that crap out. I didn’t know why I’d let things that bothered me go for so long.

“I’ll wet a washcloth,” Quinn said. I heard the faucet turn on and a vanity drawer slide open. “Might make you feel better.”

Before I could protest, Quinn clunked down on the tile behind me, and passed me the wet towel. My hand reached back but I had trouble grasping it; I was that squeamish. Instead, a low groan came out of my mouth.

“I’m gonna help you.” His voice was low and raspy, and right then and there I wished this strange meeting were under different circumstances. That I could actually lift my head and look at him. Figure out what he might be thinking. Discover the true color of his eyes. Were they green or copper or a mix of both? Had he thrown on his university ball cap again or was his russet hair a mess of tangles?

I was pretty sure I didn’t need anyone babying me, especially not mysterious Quinn. But I supposed it could have been worse. Jimmy, who always partied hard, might have tried to cop a feel alone in here with me. I didn’t get that impression from Quinn. He was handsome and broody. It always seemed like he had a lot on his mind. Like he was pretty serious about baseball and school. And not about girls or partying.

“Okay?” he whispered. He was waiting on permission to touch me again. And, God, I appreciated that about him.

“Yeah,” I said, another wave of nausea rolling over me. I swallowed the warm bile in the back of my throat and squeezed my eyes shut.

I felt Quinn’s hot fingers lift up my hair and then smooth it from my shoulders. I attempted to hold in a shiver. His heat mixed with my clammy skin made my stomach do weird flips. Next, I felt the cool cloth against the nape of my neck and I let out a deep sigh. It soothed and cooled my skin.

“If you raise your head, I can wipe your forehead, too.”

“N . . . not sure if I can yet.” I swallowed back my nausea.

I felt his breath against my cheek. “Let me do it.”

Why did this suddenly feel too damned intimate? I prayed that I smelled halfway decent and that my makeup was still intact and not beneath my eyes. I’d never been this up close and personal with Quinn and I felt like he could see all of my flaws. Hell, he’d already seen my ass. I wasn’t petite like my two best girls. I had curves. Curves that Joel used to appreciate.

The question was why did I care?

Quinn was only being nice and I was in no state to think it through more clearly. “Okay.”

His large and rough palm slipped beneath my cheek and gently lifted my head. He swiped the cool cloth over my forehead and then down the sides of my face.

“Hmmmm . . . so good.” I sounded ridiculous, but I couldn’t help it. It was nice being taken care of, even if was by a virtual stranger. A cute, mysterious stranger.

“Can you sit up yet?” he asked, sounding a little breathless. “I can help you back to Joel’s room if you want.”

I shook my head a little too forcefully, causing me to pitch forward and dry heave again. I was suddenly glad I hadn’t eaten any dinner. It might have ended up in Quinn’s lap.

“Shoot.” I lay down with my cheek against the cool tile floor. I could feel my T-shirt rising above my hips again, but I just didn’t care. Besides, he’d already seen it all. “I’m just going to stay here for a while.”

I listened to him inhale a lungful of air and then release it quickly. “Um, okay. I’m gonna bolt.”

I heard him stand and mutter, “Fucking Joel,” under his breath. “But I don’t like the idea of you being in here all night. I’m gonna check on you again in a little bit.”

“Wh . . . why wouldn’t you want me in here?” I asked. “What’s the big deal? I’ll be fine.”

“Ella, your shirt’s riding up again.” I heard him struggling for words. “You’re in a house full of horny drunk guys and you can’t stand up long enough to lock the door behind me.”

Crap. I didn’t think of it like that.

“But everyone knows me,” I said, with some effort. “I’m Joel’s girlfriend.”

“Sure.” He took a deep breath like he was contemplating saying something else. And then I heard him pace once, then twice. “No offense, Ella, but Joel doesn’t exactly give the guys the impression that you’re off-limits. Not like Brian does with Tracey. Not like I’d do . . .” Breathe in. Breathe out. “Never mind.”

His words stung. But I wanted him to tell me more. To say everything. “No, don’t stop. Finish what you were going to say.”

“No, I better not.” I heard his hollow steps on the tile floor. “I should go.”

“Wait, don’t go yet.” What was I even saying? “Can you . . . can you wet that washcloth again?”

Why would I want Quinn to stay if I hardly even knew him? And why did he make me feel so protected, more than Joel ever did?

“Sure,” Quinn said, and then swore under his breath. “But, Ella, you’ve got to pull your shirt down.”

My eyes flew open. He sounded like he was struggling to keep himself together. To not have naughty thoughts about me. A strange emotion jammed in my chest. I was affecting have-nothing-to-do-with-girls Quinn? I’d admit, I was curious about his answers when the guys were grilling him at the poker table. Why was he never with any girls?

My hands struggled with my T-shirt. “Is that better?”

I was asking him to look at my ass again? Brilliant.

He let out a shaky breath. “Yeah, better.”

I heard him run the faucet and then sit back down.


“Yes, please.”

He shifted my hair over my shoulder again and then I shivered against the coolness of the cloth. “Hmmm . . . feels nice.”

I felt Quinn’s fingers shaking and I wondered what the hell was wrong with him.

“Quinn . . .” I rasped out. He didn’t answer me, just remained silent but I could hear his harsh breaths, like it was taking some effort to contain them. Had I done something to upset him? Did he wish he hadn’t stayed?

“I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have asked you to stay. I just . . .” I struggled to get my thoughts out. “You can leave now. I’ll be okay. You sound . . .”

“No, I’m cool,” he said and his fingers relaxed against my neck. We stayed quiet for another couple of minutes; the only sound was our breaths. It was a comfortable silence and I was glad to not be alone. He dabbed at my forehead and cheeks and then put the cloth back on my neck.

I wanted so badly to continue our conversation from before but I didn’t know him or his moods. Would he get mad if I pushed him about it?

“Quinn. Would you mind . . . if I asked you to finish what you were saying . . . um, before?”

“I shouldn’t have talked about Joel like that,” he said in a rush.

“Things haven’t been right between Joel and me for weeks. And I’m sure it shows,” I said, swallowing several times. “I guess I keep hoping we can work it out, make it what it once was.”

“Which was what?” he mumbled.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what made it special?” His voice was low, soft. “What did you guys have . . . that’s now lost?”

There was no sarcasm in his voice. Only Sincerity. Honesty. Curiosity.

It made me wonder how many relationships he’d been in. Made me want to lift my head and see whether there was any emotion in his eyes. But I didn’t want to risk puking on him.

All I had to go by was the sound of his voice.


“I don’t know,” she said, like she was thinking it through out loud. “Maybe it just felt like something more.”

And then she went still, so I waited for her to finish her thought. I wanted to tell her that maybe Joel was the kind of guy who only made girls feel like there was something more, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

It’s not like I knew anyway—I wasn’t inside Joel’s head. Maybe he’d kept her around as long as he had because they had something special together. Maybe he thought he’d try to take it to the next level. More serious than he’d ever been with other girls.

Except, he sure had a hell of a way of showing it.

What the fuck was I still doing in this bathroom with Joel’s girl? I was going to get my ass beaten. But, shit, someone needed to be in here, protecting her. Taking care of her. Having a middle-of-the-night conversation with her.

And more. So much more.

She was only wearing a T-shirt and pink skimpy underwear. No bra. And her damn sexy voice telling me how good the wet washcloth felt against her skin almost made me come unglued.

And those legs. Strong and shapely. They could wrap around my waist so easily. With that dragonfly tattoo on her ankle that I wanted to know more about.

For a brief moment I imagined Ella being stone-cold sober, begging me to kiss her, touch her, and be inside her.

She’d have to be sober for me to touch her. She’d also have to ditch Joel. No way would I get myself involved in something like that again. Keeping things on the down low wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It hurt people. Even killed them. And you paid for that shit.

You paid every single day for that shit.

Fuck. I couldn’t even believe I was entertaining thoughts like that about this girl.

Someone else’s girl.

And then Ella started talking again. Her voice was soft and breathy. Like fingernails raking through my hair and then down my back.

I needed to cut that crap out.

Damn, I should’ve been glad she couldn’t see my raging hard-on.

“You know that feeling at the beginning of a relationship with someone?” she asked. “When you’re excited to talk to them, see them, and spend time with them? And you absolutely know the feeling is mutual? At least, at first?”

“Yeah, I do,” I said, thinking about the couple of girls I’d dated over the years.

“Is that what you were hinting at before . . . before you stopped yourself?” She rolled her head to the other side and her hand came up to rub her temple. I reached over to do it for her before my fingers fell short. I needed to stop touching her before I started liking it too much.

“Maybe. I just think . . .” I rushed my fingers through my hair. “If you’re going to be with somebody, then really be with them, you know? And if you have doubts or change your mind, don’t string them along. Talk to them about it.”

“Is that what you think Joel is doing—stringing me along?” She sounded hurt, like a wounded animal. And I didn’t want to be the one to make her feel that way.

“Hell if I know,” I said. “That’s for you guys to figure out. I just know it should be him in here, not me. And maybe . . . maybe you should tell him that.”

“How would you do things differently? If you were with . . . a girl.” She seemed hesitant asking me. Shit. Did she wonder if I was gay, too?

Or maybe she just felt she was overstepping bounds.

If anyone had disregarded boundaries tonight, it was me. I hoped she’d stop asking me questions about Joel. Joel was not Sebastian. I just wished I’d had the courage to speak up to Sebastian sooner.

Before I ruined his life. His family’s life. My life.

“First, I’d make sure the girl was worth it,” I said trying to hide the bitterness in my voice. It wasn’t totally Amber’s fault. I was just a weak-ass fool.

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