“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.
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.
“What do you mean?” she sounded so sleepy. Good thing, because that was the extent of the talking I was willing to do about any of that.
“How about I tell you another time and you try to close your eyes for a bit?”
She mumbled something else and then all I heard were her soft breaths.
Before I knew it, my eyes drifted closed as well.
I jerked awake a while later. My neck was stiff from falling asleep against the wall and my legs felt tight and tense.
Ella had somehow managed to prop her head against my leg. And shit if my hand wasn’t tangled in the back of her hair. It was soft and shiny, even though it looked like a long knotted mess in some spots.
What the fuck? Anyone could have walked in here and seen us. And I hoped to hell no one had. Or used their phone to take a photo or some other shit.
I carefully moved her head off my leg and then sprang to my knees. I should have done this an hour ago and been asleep in my own bed by now. I lifted Ella into my arms and then carried her to Joel’s room. My forearm was beneath her ass, but I ignored the feel of her skin against mine.
The house was so quiet I doubted anyone had been up. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Ella shifted in her sleep and draped her arm around my neck. Her head was against my lips and hell if I didn’t take a quick whiff of her hair. And damn if she didn’t smell like almond shampoo.
Joel didn’t stir when we inched inside the room. I slid her down next to him and got the hell out of Dodge.
Joel’s loud snores woke me out of a deep sleep. How did I get back in his bed? I vaguely remembered being in Quinn’s arms and fitting snugly against his hard chest. He smelled spicy and woodsy mixed together. Different from Joel, who, lately, smelled like beer and weed.
Heat crept up my cheeks when I remembered that Quinn saw me practically naked. I shot straight up in bed and then squeezed closed my eyes as the room tilted at a severe angle.
Quinn also said some things about Joel. Stuff I already knew but was afraid to admit.
I stood on shaky legs to gather my clothes. My stomach growled in protest to last night’s events. I needed to eat something. And soon.
“Joel,” I whispered in his ear while nudging him. “Want to get some breakfast?”
“Just wanna sleep.” He smashed his pillow over his head. “You go. And bring me back something.”
Anger flared in my gut. “I’ll just go home to eat. I’ll call you later.”
I quickly changed and sprinted out the back door, thankful I didn’t run into anybody on my way out.
When I walked through the apartment door, Avery was sitting in her blue scrubs on the couch, a cup of coffee in her hand. The distinct smell of nail polish remover was in the air, making my stomach curdle.
Avery refused to let me pay rent. She’d convinced me to move in, telling me I’d be helping her out, since she was always at Bennett’s place and her lease wasn’t up for another few months. So I paid for the groceries and utilities.
She’d admitted she wasn’t comfortable alone in her apartment anymore since her mother’s ex-boyfriend had tried breaking in last fall. Even though he was now serving time on an attempted rape and assault charge, she’d said living here would never be the same.
“Thank God you made coffee.” I sagged against the door frame.
“Good morning to you, too, bitch,” she said, a mischievous grin on her face.
“Yeah whatever, dill weed, just tell me there’s milk for cereal.”
“Of course. You know I rarely drink it,” she said, propping her brightly painted toes on the table in front of her. “You look like shit. What the hell happened last night?”
I stalked to the kitchen like a girl determined to eat after a week in the desert. “I drank one too many on an empty stomach and then got sick.” I pulled down a mug and a bowl from the cupboard.
“What’d you do, puke on Joel?” she asked, admiring her paint job by wiggling her toes. “I would’ve liked to have seen that.”
“Actually, Joel was passed out,” I said, reaching for the milk. “But I did almost puke on Quinn.”
“Quinn?” she asked twisting to look at me. “Star catcher for TSU, Quinn?”
“Yep.” My cheeks flushed remembering our night spent in the bathroom. The floor was gross, the lights dim, but Quinn’s voice was warm, sweet, and all kinds of sexy.
She snapped her fingers and motioned to the cushion beside her. “Details now, asshead.”
I moseyed toward the couch with a full bowl and propped my knee on the arm of the chair.
“I was struggling to make it to the bathroom,” I said around a mouthful of cereal. Raisin Bran never tasted so damn good. “He kind of helped me. Even wet a washcloth for me.”
“Seriously?” she asked, one eyebrow arched. “I can tell you’re holding something back. Spill.”
“It’s just . . .” I huffed out a breath. “It was a strange night. He stayed in the bathroom with me and we kind of . . . talked.”
She twisted her bottom lip, calling bullshit. My trademark tell. “That’s all that happened?”
“Of course,” I said, after gulping some milk from my bowl. “Do you think I’d actually cheat on Joel? Besides, it wasn’t like that. It was sweet.”
“Oh, I trust you. It’s the other guy I’m not sure about,” she said folding her arms. “It’s just that you sound kinda breathy talking about Quinn. Did we develop a crush on him while puking in the bathroom?”
“Yeah, like that’d be possible.” It actually might have been possible, but I wasn’t going to tell Avery that. “It was embarrassing.”