by Debbie K. Lum
Quinn Corbin’s got nothing to lose – except her life.
She’s finally got the attention of the man she’s always loved, Nick Allen. But Nick has a reputation for trouble. And after a car explosion killed his last girlfriend, many people in San Antonio, Texas think Nick got away with murder.
But Quinn, a 24-year-old elementary school teacher and bubbly optimist, believes Nick is innocent. So does her best friend Tory, a law student and sarcastic realist. Soon Quinn and Nick find their relationship growing when suddenly their world upends. Now Nick is in major trouble again and Quinn may have made the biggest mistake of her life.
With incriminating evidence mounting against Nick, Tory works to prove his innocence. But Nick finds himself in a bigger battle when he must fight to protect, and win, his true love.
Happiness shines in his eyes and spreads to his smile. “I’ve been looking for a friendly face. Looks like I hit the jackpot.”
She opens her arms and hugs him; he warmly returns her squeeze. They pull back and she can barely contain her flutters. Oh, he’s delicious. Chestnut hair, parted to the side and perfectly messed up. His tan face sports a barely there mustache and beard. A white, button-down shirt is generously unbuttoned, lying flat under his crisp, linen blazer. His shoulders are wide but his waist seems small and she stops herself before she looks lower. If she stares at everything below his belt, he might think she’s being rude. Plus, she might go dizzy and faint.
She does it anyway.
Slim, dark jeans. Tan, classic suede bucks. Oh my God, he’s perfection.
She looks up into his interested eyes. “I’ve been looking for you! It seems everywhere I go tonight everyone has something to say about…”
He timidly nods as if he knows what she’s about to say next. “A lot has happened since I saw you last. There’s a lot to say.”
“Are you all right? I heard about the accident but I haven’t seen you post anything since then.”
“Social media is not a good place for me to be right now.”
“That explains why you haven’t messaged me back. I’ve been worried about you.”
He runs a hand across his forehead, gently sweeping back a stray lock of his hair. His hand is discolored with light spots. She looks down to his other hand, also blotchy with spots. From the accident maybe?
She leans closer. “I mean, not that I expected you to respond to my messages. I don’t want you to feel badly or anything. I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you.”
“I would have noticed your message for sure. But I stopped reading all of them because most were not supportive.”
Her heart aches and she wants to hug him again. “I just…can’t imagine. I feel helpless. And awkward.”
“It’s a long story,” he mumbles.
She doesn’t have time! Forget it: make time. “You have my full attention if you want to talk about it.”
His eyes look as hurt as his heart must be. “I don’t know what you heard, but it was an accident. We were leaving Greene; we had just eaten dinner at the Blue Talon on the river. Sienna had been working in Greene all day, so I met her there. She asked if she could drive my car.”
“I remember your car,” Quinn says. “The convertible?”
He nods. “Yeah, the ’66 Mustang I bought a few years ago from Reed’s. Sienna remembered it from the showroom. When she was in high school, she used to sit behind the wheel and pretend it was hers. Of all the cars at all the Reed dealerships, she said that Mustang was her favorite because of the blue color.”
“So that’s why she was driving?” Quinn asks.
“She wanted to drive it on the back roads. I mean, this was only our second date but I let her drive it because it was so familiar and special to her.”
Quinn’s shoulder gets bumped from someone walking past her, reminding her that they’re in the middle of a crowded and obnoxiously loud room. Somehow, listening to Nick and his story has made everyone around her disappear. She only has ears for him. And his eyes are only on her.
“So, she drove my car and I drove hers, following her. We took the back way, down the 46, because she wanted to drive with the top down. There was a big curve and the car suddenly…all I saw was flames.” He swallows hard and looks away.
God, this is worse than she had heard. And the burn spots on his hands? He must have tried to save her. She gently rests her hand on his shoulder and leans closer to be heard above the conversations around them. “Nick, I am so sorry.”
“I didn’t want to come tonight, especially because of Reed. But I don’t know when I’d ever see Al again and I wanted to wish him well, even though I know he’s not happy with me either.”
Quinn leans closer with a smile. “So, maybe there are people here who aren’t your friends, but you have at least two who are.”
“And where’s your other half?” he says, looking around.
“Ah, well, I lost Tory a few minutes ago when Reed walked up. See? You aren’t the only person in this room trying to avoid him.”
“I was hoping you both would be here. You two were my brightest memories of this place.”
“Then let’s focus on those memories and not the present. Like, remember that costume party?”
He grins. “How we Googled ‘two girls and one guy costume ideas’ and ended up as the cast of Three’s Company?”
“That was the best! Remember hanging out at my parents’ house while we binge-watched Three’s Company because we had never seen the show?”
His eyes crinkle with amusement. “You were perfect as Chrissy, Tory was an amazing Janet and I was an outstanding Jack Tripper.”
“Daniel was so mad he didn’t get to be Jack until he realized Jack’s character really wasn’t gay.”
“Daniel! I forgot about him. Is he still Tory’s other BFF?”
“Lord, yes. Sometimes I have to fight him to get any time with Tory. Between her splitting her time with me, Daniel and her new boyfriend, I’m lucky to ever see her.”
“Tory…she has a boyfriend?”
“I know, right? She hadn’t dated anyone serious since we all worked together and then this guy comes along.”
“Wow. How about you?”
Quinn breaks eye contact for a quick second and shrugs. “Not seeing anyone. Although if Al had his way, he’d have Blaine and I married by now.”
“Al’s been trying to set you up with Blaine for ages.”
“I love Al, but not enough to date his son.”
Nick’s eyes glass over.
Oh boy; slow down. Probably shouldn’t talk about people dating and boyfriend/girlfriend stuff so soon after his loss. “Hey, I was heading over to the bar to find Tory. Want to join me?”
His glassy look disappears. “Absolutely.”
She turns and begins winding her way through the crowd again, Nick a breath behind her. People notice Nick, launching lingering stares and questioning glances. Quinn reaches behind her and grabs Nick’s hand to lead him through the crowd.
The bar is set against the back of the room with a few bar stools in front. All of the stools are taken. Perched on one in the middle is Tory.
Quinn stops, leaning toward Nick’s ear. “She’s been there long enough to have finished a drink and you know, only one drink can cause her to surprise-slur.”
“Her surprise-slurs are epic! Remember that time at the club when a cop came up behind her and she yelled, “I’m gonna be an astronaut like you!”
Quinn playfully slaps his shoulder. “That was epic.” She wraps her arm around his; so close; so comfy; so perfect. They plow forward together and approach Tory from behind. One empty highball glass sits in front of her and there’s another half-empty one in her hand.
“Hey, look who I found!” Quinn says, elbowing Tory’s shoulder. “An astronaut!”
Tory turns so fast she almost falls off of the stool. “Holy shit, you are flippin’ hotter than I remember! Nick!”
He leans over to give her a hug but as he’s hugging her, her face screws up. “You’re an astronaut now?”
Suddenly what sounds like a spoon clinking against a glass quiets the crowd.
Nick wraps his arms around Tory in a hug. “I’m just me and I have missed you, Tory.” He looks at Quinn. “I’ve missed you both.” Quinn slips her arm around his waist and he drapes his arm over her shoulders, his other arm over Tory’s.
“Okay, everyone,” Blaine says, standing on a side of the room where people have cleared an open space. Al stands next to him, beside a cake that looks as big as half of a car. “Glasses up to toast to a legend, someone we all have learned from, someone we all want to be. I love you Dad, and I’m happy to pick up where you left off while you enjoy the next adventure in your life. To your retirement! Hear, hear!” He raises his glass.
Glasses of all shapes and sizes rise up in the air and the crowd echoes Blaine, “Hear, hear!”
Quinn and Nick have no glass in hand so they smile and squeeze each other. “Hear, hear,” Quinn says.
Tory lowers her glass to take a sip but Nick leans toward her ear. “If you’re driving, you should try the coffee.” Quinn nods.
Tory shrugs. “Actually, a hot chocolate sounds pretty damn good but only if Quinn makes it. Plus one to go.”
Hilarious. “Speaking of “to go”, my mom texted. The sofa’s on the way. We’ve gotta go.” Quinn pats Tory’s shoulder, then faces Nick.
“You guys are leaving already?” he asks.
“I’ve got a new, old sofa on the way,” Quinn says. “I wish I could stay and talk with you longer.”
“Hey, in case you didn’t know, I opened a new coffee bar and bookstore a few blocks away.”
“Oh, I heard.”
“Why don’t you guys come by on Saturday night. We’ve got a book signing by Wally B., the soul poet. His poetry book is a best seller and he’s going to do one of his famous spoken word poetry performances.”
“I’d love to,” Quinn says.
Nick leans down to Tory. “Bring your boyfriend too.”
Tory winces. “Won’t happen unless he’s got a coupon.”
Quinn squeezes his arm. “Yeah. There’s a super long story there.”
Nick nods. “Can I walk you guys to your car?”
Tory stands. “Seriously, you are sweet, but I’ll have my drink shaken off by the time I fall down the stairs. Good to see you, Nick.” She hugs him, steps back and points a finger in his face. “By the way, Blaine and Reed are shitheads and we don’t listen to what they say.”
“Good,” he says, pleased.
She lowers her finger and looks to Quinn. “I really have a super bad case of the munchies so I’m gonna grab me a slab of cake and I’ll meet you by the door.” She walks away in a perfectly straight line.
Nick watches her leave, his expression worried. “Will she be okay?”
“Please. She can handle more than one drink. It’s her loose lips and cursing that I worry more about in times like this. Thanks for asking though.”
They stand, toe to toe, under the antique chandeliers glittering in the soft light. A waiter pauses beside them, offering a tray of dainty party food that neither of them looks down to. The waiter moves on, leaving them surrounded by the gentle hum of conversations and the booming rhythm of the DJ’s pop music.
“I’m glad I could get you to smile,” Quinn says.
A new smile stretches across Nick’s face. “It felt good to smile again.”
Tory falls into line with a few people who are hovering around the cake table. Screw healthy eating. She burned off enough calories in her morning TRX class to earn this slice. Besides, with Reed in this room breathing the same air as her, getting a forkful of comfort from some buttercream icing sounds real good. With any luck, she’ll have her slice of cake polished off well before Quinn finishes up with Nick. And with super good luck, this cake will be chocolate.
Tory nods a few polite hellos to others in line before the waiter hands her a serving. Girl, play the lottery tonight because you are winning: it’s chocolate! She’s got a bite of cake heading for her mouth as she turns to look back at Quinn.
Quinn. Seeing her face-to-face with Nick brings a smile to Tory’s face. And Quinn’s doing her cute, nervous-energy, rocking back-and-forth on her toes thing. So adorable. She always does that when she’s with a good-looking guy and Nick surely fits that bill. Quinn’s nervous energy started the minute they received the invitation to come tonight because she knew Nick might be here. Quinn is genuinely worried about him, and Tory is too. Then again, Quinn’s been known to obsessively worry, even over complete strangers. Back when they were undergrads at UT Austin, they saw one of the campus tour guides trip on an uneven sidewalk. Quinn worried about that girl for weeks. Tory was concerned too, but was more curious to know if the girl’s fall was a tort.
Tory takes another bite of cake, still watching Quinn and Nick. Even from across the room, she can see his relaxed smile. Good. She can’t imagine what he’s been through. And she’s mad at herself for not reaching out to him sooner. But she’s back in town now. And her legal mind-in-training is spinning with questions.
Why on earth would Al say that Nick caused Sienna’s accident? How could Nick make a car explode? Why would he even want to kill Sienna? It’s ridiculous to think he would have done anything intentionally malicious. That’s not the Nick who Tory knows. At least, not the Nick she used to know.
And she used to know him…very well.