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Drive Me Crazy
A Shaken Dirty Novel
By Tracy Wolff, Stacy Abrams Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Tracy Wolff
All rights reserved.
Ten years later ...
Elise woke alone, in a strange bed in a strange room. A little groggy and a lot disoriented, it took her a few seconds to figure out where she was.
As it turned out, those were the best moments of her day. Because they were blank, empty, and for a little while — a very little while — she was just Elise McKinney, concert pianist. She was in just another hotel room in just another city, getting ready to give just another concert.
But then the occasional beeping from the pulse oximeter next to the bed worked its way into her consciousness. Followed by the throbbing in her left hand. The aches and pains all over her body. And the emptiness deep inside herself that screamed something was very, very wrong.
Because it was. Ellington was dead. And so was her career. She didn't know how she could have forgotten, even in those first blurry moments.
Using her good hand, she pushed herself into a sitting position, then shoved the hair out of her eyes and surveyed the hospital room around her. Despite the numerous bouquets of flowers that lined most of the available surfaces, it felt empty. Impersonal. Lonely.
Kind of like her life.
Panic assailed her at the thought, had her grabbing onto the side rails of the bed as she fought to calm her racing heart. It worked, but her injured hand protested the movement and she ended up curled on her side in the fetal position, trying to keep her breathing under control.
What was she going to do?
What was she going to do?
A knock at the door distracted her and as she looked up, her first thought was that she'd obviously hit her head harder than the doctors thought. A lot harder. Because she could swear that Quinn Bradford was standing casually in her doorway, smiling like it had been ten minutes and not ten years since she'd last seen him. Like he hadn't taken her virginity in Brussels and then disappeared — from her life and his own — without so much as a hint of what he was planning or where he was hoping to end up.
Oh, the man watching her with dark, concern-filled eyes wasn't the same Quinn Bradford she'd spent so much of her adolescence competing against — no tuxedo, no perfectly trimmed hair, no fake smile, no bruises — but it was definitely him. He might look more like the rock and roll star he'd become than the classically trained pianist she used to know, but that didn't mean anything. She'd recognize him anywhere. As would her heart, which had already started beating fast and frantic in her chest.
Embarrassed by her reaction to him — even after all this time — she glanced at the monitor beside her bed. Hoped he wouldn't notice the sudden spike in her pulse rate that was detailed there.
"I don't know if you remember —" he started.
"Of course I remember you, Quinn," she interrupted. His name was an urgency on her tongue, a brand on her soul, this man who had always hid more than he showed, always listened more than he shared. "But what are you doing here?"
He smiled then, a quick turning up of his lips that had a dimple flashing in his right cheek. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about how many times she'd kissed and licked that dimple when she was seventeen.
"I live in Austin now. I heard about the accident on the news." His grin disappeared. "I'm sorry about Ellington."
"Yeah, me too." Tears bloomed in her eyes — the same troublesome tears that had been hitting her without warning ever since they'd pulled her from the tangled wreck of the limousine — but she blinked them back. Again. Ellington James had never approved of excess emotion, had never put up with the passionate displays other prima donna musicians indulged in on a regular basis. To cry now, here, would just make the death of her manager — and best friend — all the more real. Besides, she'd spent most of her life keeping her emotions under wraps. Now didn't seem like the best time to change that.
Quinn crossed the room slowly, hesitantly, as if he was afraid she would go hysterical at any moment. That, more than anything else, convinced her she wasn't having aural and visual hallucinations. Because the Quinn Bradford she remembered had been just as uncomfortable around vulnerability as Ellington had been. As her father had been. The one time she'd cried all over him, he'd looked so freaked out and terrified that she'd forced herself to pull away. To bury the tears, and her sorrow, deep inside herself.
She did the same thing now, but it wasn't nearly as hard this time around. After all, she'd been doing it for years with such success that most days she managed to forget she had emotions at all.
Her father would have been so proud.
"Did they say how badly you were hurt?" Quinn asked after a moment, breaking the awkwardness that stretched between them like a particularly discordant note. He eyed the scrapes on her face, the bandages that covered the stitches on her right arm. The cast on her left hand.
Terror welled up inside her as she thought of that cast — and the broken, mangled hand below it.
The broken, mangled future that stretched out in front of her.
"I'm fine. Bumps and bruises. A mild concussion." As she had with the tears, Elise swallowed back the fear until she didn't feel anything but numb. Just the way she'd learned to like it. Then she said the words that had shattered her world as completely as Ellington's death had. "A broken hand."
Broken didn't exactly cover the mess the accident had made of three bones and several tendons in her hand. Nor did it encompass the horror of the surgery she'd had that morning and the three others they'd explained she still had to get through. But she didn't want to think about those, let alone talk about them with Quinn. Beautiful, perfect, obscenely talented Quinn.
Besides, if she outlined the damage, he would know exactly how disastrous things were — and what those injuries would mean to her career.
Like Ellington's death, her new reality wasn't something she was yet ready to face. Not with an old friend, and definitely not with the stranger who stood before her. Because if she wasn't a classical pianist, she wasn't anybody. It was the first of many lessons she'd learned before she was even old enough to reach the piano keys.
And still, he seemed to know, his eyes — those dark, glorious eyes — filled with a sympathy she couldn't bear to see. "I'm so sorry, Lissy." The old nickname combined with his obvious sincerity only made everything more real.
Shaking her head breezily, she flashed a smile she was far from feeling. "I'm not complaining. It could be a lot worse, after all."
Again Ellington's blank face and unseeing eyes flashed into her mind, and again, she blinked the image back. Focused instead on keeping up her end of the conversation. As long as she acted normally on the outside, it didn't matter how messed up she was on the inside. Another lesson she'd learned in childhood.
"Thank you for the flowers." For the first time, she looked at the bouquet in Quinn's hands. It was a glorious riot of different shades of orange and purple — her favorite colors — and the fact that he'd remembered, after all these years, shook her more than she wanted to admit.
He, too, glanced at the blooms he carried, looking surprised to see them there, in his hands. Almost as if he'd already forgotten he'd bought them. But as he lay them down on the ledge by the window, he said, "They reminded me of you."
She opened her mouth to thank him a second time, but what popped out instead was, "Wow. I didn't think anything was capable of doing that."
Shit! The second the words were out of her mouth, she longed to take them back. Yes, she'd been sitting on them for ten long years, but she'd had no intention of ever saying them. Not to him. Not when they made her sound bitter and angry and tied to a past that was long gone. But how was she supposed to keep her indignation under wraps after all these years? The words had festered in her soul like a wound and it was better that she got them, and her anger, out. And that was all she was feeling, Elise assured herself. Anger. Annoyance. Confusion. But not pain. Never again pain. Not after all the years and miles that had passed between them. And definitely not desire. The rock god in front of her was so not her type.
Except ... he looked good. She hated to admit it, but how could she not? Even when they were younger — and all her focus had been on beating him in piano competitions instead of dating him — he'd been the hottest guy she'd ever seen. Back then, he'd dressed in expensively tailored tuxedoes or khakis with dress shirts. His hair had been perfectly cut, his shoes shined until you could actually see your reflection in them. And the one small tattoo he'd had on the inside of his wrist — the kanji symbol for freedom — was the only outward sign of his defiance regarding his father's military-style rule.
That sweetly polished boy was long gone and in his place was a man who exuded sex — raw, primitive, raunchy sex — with every move, every word, every breath. Just being in the same room with him had adrenaline pumping through her, a strange combination of wariness and excitement so intense she could barely sit still.
Shivers slipped up and down her spine with every breath she took, while every nerve ending she had seemed to be standing at attention. Like her careless words, she wanted to blame her response on the drugs, too. On the circumstances, on the pain, on anything but the always present chemistry between them — chemistry that had flared to life the moment she realized who was standing at the door of her hospital room.
Desperate to distract herself from the erotic pull he exuded so effortlessly, Elise focused on all the changes the last decade had wrought in him. And the harder she looked, the more differences she found.
He was taller, more filled out — had the wide shoulders and broad chest of a man instead of the long, lean build of the gangly boy she remembered. He'd never been soft — growing up with his father, he'd never had that chance — but looking at him now, she couldn't help thinking he was harder than he'd ever been. Even his face was different. Leaner, more closed-off, with the sharp, high cheekbones and cut-glass jaw that spoke of his Native American heritage on his mother's side.
This new Quinn also had a small silver ring pierced through the left corner of his bottom lip and thick black hoops in both of his pierced ears. He wore threadbare jeans that were ripped in some very interesting places — not that she was looking — and a tight, black V-neck T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the top of his heavily muscled biceps.
His arms were covered in full tattoo sleeves — one in beautifully blended shades of gray, the other in stark black and red. The work was gorgeous, stunning, but so intricate and complicated that it would take her hours, if not days, to distinguish all the different images bleeding so seamlessly into one another. Part of her wanted to start right then, but there was more to see. More to savor, though she'd deny she was doing that to anyone who dared accuse her of such a thing.
Deliberately shifting her focus, she took in his wild black hair. Before it had been well trimmed, conservatively styled. Now it was razor cut, sharp-edged, and sexy as hell. While he still wore it cut short in the back, the front was so long that his bangs flopped crazily over his forehead, down his cheeks, and into his eyes.
While she watched, he ran an annoyed hand through the glossy ebony strands, pushing them out of the way for the tenth time since he'd shown up in her room. As he did, it gave her a brief, unobstructed view of his eyes. The realization that they were the only things about him that hadn't changed was a fist in the gut. Dark — so dark that his pupils blended into the blackness of his irises — they held the same wariness, the same weariness, she remembered from years before.
When they'd been young, she'd wondered what had caused the guardedness with which he viewed the world. Now that they were older, she recognized the fury that burned behind the reserve.
And still cared too much about him not to wonder and worry over its cause. Yes, it had been years since she'd seen him. Yes, they'd always been more competitors than confidantes. But even before they'd dated, she'd had a soft spot for him — despite the way he'd tormented her — and he must have felt the same way or he wouldn't be here now, his presence messing with her already messed up head.
How could it not when he was standing only a few feet away from her, a walking example of wicked, wild sex personified? At seventeen, he'd been hot. At twenty-seven, he was blistering.
He shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny, suddenly unable to look her in the eye as her bitter words hung in the room between them. "You're not an easy woman to forget."
That was the kicker. Once, she'd believed just that, at least in reference to him. She hadn't blamed him for leaving, but she did blame him for the way he'd done it. For the days and weeks and months that had passed while she'd waited for word from him. Nothing major, nothing earth shattering. Just one phone call, one email, one postcard. A fucking carrier pigeon even. She hadn't been picky.
But she had been desperate to know that he was safe, that he'd survived the aftermath of that last beating. Desperate to assure herself that he wasn't laying dead by the side of some highway somewhere.
As the weeks and months passed with no contact at all, she'd locked away her feelings for him as surely as she had her heartbreak. No one looking at her then had been able to tell that her heart had been ripped out of her chest. She'd kept up the pretense until it became her reality, until thoughts of him no longer made her ache with loss and regret.
Quinn had once been everything — the only thing — that mattered to her. But those times were long gone. No way in hell was she going to go back to those long, lonely days. And certainly not when the rest of her world was crumbling around her ears.
Breezily, she waved her uninjured hand, determined to make them both forget the emptiness of her previous words. "It doesn't matter anyway," she assured him. "It was a long time ago."
"Seriously, Quinn. I'm just glad to see you." She tried for an easy, impersonal smile. "What have you been up to all these years, anyway?" Like she didn't know. Like she hadn't seen his face staring out at her from the covers of various Rolling Stoness, Spins, Vibes.
She thought she'd done a good job of covering up the roiling mess of her emotions, but the look Quinn gave her said he could see right through her bravado. Which grated. She'd spent her entire life building walls that no one could see through or over or around. Had spent her entire life making sure she was about as transparent as the Egyptian Sphinx — or Prokofiev's Eighth Sonata.
And the fact that Quinn could march into her hospital room after more than a decade and still see more than anyone else ever had, made her crazy. Especially when he was as big a mystery as he'd always been. Maybe even more so.
Yanking her mind away from those long ago days — and feelings — she gestured to the chair by her bed. The chair Ellington would have been sitting in had he been alive. Swallowing the sadness the thought brought on, she asked, "Do you want to sit down?"
He sank into the chair gratefully, like the only thing holding him up this long had been sheer grit. She recognized the look, understood the feeling. It was how she'd gotten through every concert she'd ever performed from the time she was five years old. Unbending will and absolute determination.
Silence stretched awkwardly between them before he finally broke it by saying, "I play keyboards in Shaken Dirty. It's a rock band based here in Austin."
She knew that — of course she knew that. It wasn't like she lived under a rock. For the last couple of years, they'd been one of the big buzz bands at the Grammys, the VMAs, the American Music Awards. She hadn't been able to miss him. Not that there was any way in hell she was going to let him know that. Internet stalking was so unattractive in an ex.
Figuring it was safe, she asked the question she'd been wondering about for years. "How did that happen? Rock is a long way from classical piano."
"So you've heard of us? I didn't think we were exactly your scene."
"I don't live in a box." She looked at him pointedly. "I may not know much about the band, but I have heard the name. Besides, once upon a time, this wasn't exactly your scene, either."
"Don't I know it?" he answered with a laugh. "At first, I think that was what I loved about it the most. Now I can't imagine doing anything else."
Excerpted from Drive Me Crazy by Tracy Wolff, Stacy Abrams Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2014 Tracy Wolff. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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