New York Times Bestselling Author
Freak. Witch. Ugly. Abomination.
Having grown up with a port-wine birthmark on her face and neck, Quinn Dixon’s heard them all. Her own mother couldn’t bear to touch her, let alone strangers. Years of stares and insults from everyone from classmates to foster families have made her understandably reluctant to trust. So when John comes along, of course he couldn’t be interested in more than a brief affair. He’ll get sick of all the gawking and whispers soon enough and leave her…just like everyone else.
John “Driftwood” Trettle was captivated by Quinn the moment they met. After months of skirting around their attraction, one pivotal evening finds John seizing the reins and refusing to be denied a chance to prove he’s worthy of Quinn’s time, her trust, and her love. To show her he’ll have her back, always, and defend her against anyone cruel or stupid enough to hurt his woman.
But he can’t protect against an unknown threat. Even if it wears a familiar face…
Quinn woke up and knew immediately she wasn’t at her own house. The sheets she was sleeping on were way nicer than her own. But it was the smell permeating her senses that clinched it. Turning her head into the pillow under her, she inhaled deeply, sighing in ecstasy at the woodsy, masculine scent that filled her nostrils.
Almost scared to look around, she turned her head and opened her eyes, expecting to see John at her side.
The other side of the bed was empty. Which was weird, because now that she was waking up, she definitely heard slight snoring.
Moving her legs, she could feel she was still in the jeans she’d worn the night before. Not only that, but she still had on her blouse as well. She sat up in bed, holding the sheet and blanket to her chest and looking around in confusion. Then she saw him.
John “Driftwood” Trettle was sound asleep on the floor next to the bed. If she wasn’t seeing it with her own eyes, she wouldn’t believe it.
Details of the night before came rushing back. The drinks with the girls, finding out Hope and Blythe were pregnant, the guys coming to pick them up, the men at a table nearby making fun of her face…and John losing his shit on them.
But it was his deep, determined words, “We’re dating,” that were foremost in her thoughts.
The massive crush Quinn had on the man was embarrassing. She knew he liked her back, but she was too gun-shy to do anything about it. Who wouldn’t be after living twenty-eight years with a port-wine birthmark on their face and neck?
But apparently John was done tiptoeing around their attraction.
And she’d spent the night in his bed.
And he was asleep on the floor.
Not knowing whether or not she should soak in the moment, or try to get up and sneak around him and get the hell out of there before he woke up, Quinn bit her lip in indecision.
John hadn’t taken advantage of her drunken state. She was still fully dressed. He’d simply put her to bed and presumably watched over her as she slept to make sure she was all right. A lot of men would’ve put her on the couch, or at least slept in their own bed next to her, but not John.
Snippets of conversations she’d had with her girlfriends over the last couple months came back. How she’d declared if she ever found a man who treated her like her friends’ men treated them, she’d latch on to him and never let go. But she’d been so scared of giving John a chance, of opening herself up to more than friendship.
Watching him immediately go after the men who were making fun of her last night, and watching him sleep now—on the floor by her side—made something inside Quinn snap into place.
Maybe she’d been an idiot. John wasn’t the kind of man to lead her on. He wasn’t out for a one-night stand.
Settling back down on her side, Quinn propped her head on her hand and kept her eyes on John. She didn’t look around. Didn’t check out his bedroom. She could only stare at the man below her.
It was probably ten minutes or so later when he began to stir. Quinn didn’t move, curious as to what he’d do when he woke up. He sighed, then inhaled deeply through his nose. He stretched, and she saw his forehead wrinkle in what she could only guess was confusion at the hard floor beneath him.
His eyes opened, and the first thing he did was look up at the bed.
Quinn didn’t flinch when he met her gaze.
The thing was, when John looked at her, he looked at her. His gaze didn’t drop to the red birthmark on her face and neck. He didn’t look away nervously. He stared into her eyes and held her gaze.
“Morning, Emmy,” he said with a deep rumble.
That was another thing. He’d started calling her Emmy because he’d said her eyes twinkled like emeralds. How could she not like that? “Morning,” she replied.
“Sleep well?” he asked as he sat up slowly.
“Better than you, probably,” she said honestly. “The floor couldn’t have been comfortable.”
“I’ve slept in worse places,” was his nonchalant reply.
“Why didn’t you put me on the couch?” she asked. “I would’ve been perfectly comfortable there.”
He stood then. Unfolding from the floor and moving like a sleek panther, he sat on the mattress next to her hip.
Quinn rolled over onto her back to prevent herself from falling into him.
“Because I wanted you here,” John said without a trace of guile. “I don’t know if you remember what I said last night, but you agreed to be my girlfriend.”
Quinn knew he hadn’t exactly asked, but went with it anyway. “I remember.”
He smiled. “And my girlfriend does not sleep on the couch,” he said firmly.
“Why didn’t you sleep next to me?” she asked.
“I may be an overbearing ass sometimes, and push you to do things you might not be comfortable with, but I’d never do something that intimate without making sure you were okay with it first.”
It was a good answer. “I would’ve been okay with it,” she told him.
“Noted.” He brushed a lock of her chestnut hair off her forehead. “Hungry?”
Quinn thought about it and, despite all that she’d drank the night before, found that she was. Nodding, she said, “I could eat.”
“Great. Feel free to take a shower, although I don’t have any fancy shampoo or conditioner that you’re probably used to. You can borrow one of my T-shirts, but you’ll have to wear your jeans again. Nothing I have here will fit you. Is that okay?”
Sitting up, Quinn tilted her head at him. “And if it’s not?”
John shrugged. “Then I’ll go over to your apartment and grab something for you. Or I can take you home right now and we can eat breakfast at your apartment, or we can go out. Or you could decide to go back to bed when you get home. It’s Saturday and you’re not working today, so you might have plans.”
It was Saturday, but she didn’t have plans. Quinn spent most weekends holed up in her apartment. She didn’t like going out in public if she didn’t have to. Thanks to the stares and comments she’d heard over the years, it was simpler to not put herself in the kinds of situations that would be uncomfortable for everyone around her. “I don’t have plans,” she told him. “And I’d love to shower here.”
John smiled. “Perfect.” Then he simply sat there and stared at her for the longest time.
“You’re the only one who calls me that, you know.”
“I know.” And she did. Everyone else called him Driftwood. But Quinn had never really liked the nickname. Besides, it felt nice to be different. “Where’d that nickname come from, anyway?”
“It’s stupid, really, but it’s not like we actually get to pick our own nicknames. I was down in Houston assisting after a huge storm, and I jumped into some water to assist a woman into our boat. I saw what I thought was an alligator. I pretty much freaked out and practically threw her into the boat and scrambled in after her, yelling at my buddies to get their asses in the boat as well. Turns out it wasn’t an alligator, merely a huge piece of driftwood that looked a hell of a lot like a damn alligator.”
Quinn did her best to hide her smile. “Wow, yeah, I guess that sort of thing would stick,” she said.
“Unfortunately, yeah.” Then, without giving her time to comment further, he got up and went over to a large wooden dresser against a wall. He rummaged through one of the drawers and when he turned back around, had a navy-blue T-shirt in his hand. “Again, it’ll be big, but since it’s just the two of us here, I don’t think it’ll matter.”
Without getting out of bed, Quinn said, “Thanks.”
John walked to the en suite bathroom and disappeared briefly before coming back out and heading for the door. He turned to look at her when he was in the doorway. “I like your hair,” he said with a smirk, then closed the door behind him as he left.
Closing her eyes and knowing she didn’t want to see what he was talking about, Quinn took a deep breath before slipping out of bed and heading for the bathroom.
Though, it wasn’t really her hair—which looked like she’d been on a weeklong bender and hadn’t seen a brush in at least that long—that caught her attention. It was the fact that he’d commented on her hair at all, and not her face.
Not that she’d expected him to, but as she stared at herself in his bathroom mirror, she couldn’t remember a time when she was teased about something other than her birthmark.
Her hair really was impressive right about now, meaning it was completely out of control. She’d put in more gel than normal the night before, since she was going out, and as usual, after sleeping on it, it was all over the place. There was a snarl on the back of her head and it was sticking out in all directions.
A small smile formed on her face as she stared at herself. A glimmer of hope materialized deep in her heart. It was small, just a microscopic little ball at the moment, but she allowed herself to enjoy the feeling.
Still smiling, she stripped out of her clothes and turned on the shower.
Twenty minutes later, after showering, using a spare toothbrush she’d found in a drawer, and putting on the way-too-big shirt, her jeans, and shoes, Quinn made her way down the hall toward where she heard John puttering around the kitchen.
She hadn’t seen any of his house the night before because she’d been passed out, but she was fascinated by what she saw now. There were two bedrooms besides the master, one of which was set up as an office. That surprised her, probably because she assumed he’d have a workout room or something. She peeked in on her way to the kitchen and saw a big wooden desk with a laptop. A stack of papers was threatening to fall over and there were sticky notes all over the desktop. There were a ton of books on the shelves along one wall and a big comfy couch against the other wall.
Despite all the things she knew about John—he was loyal, in shape, dedicated, strong, bossy, and stubborn—there was obviously a lot more she needed to learn. She hadn’t pegged him for a reader, and that made her feel bad…and excited. She couldn’t wait to find out more about him.
Quinn had had a crush on him for months, and now she was going to get to know the man behind the one he let the world see. And she couldn’t wait.
Wanting to go in and look at the books on his shelves, she forced herself to keep walking down the hall instead. He had a picture of an older couple on the wall, and Quinn assumed they were his parents. She could easily see the family resemblance. There were more pictures in the hall, as well. John when he graduated from the fire academy, posing with his friends from Station 7, and even one of him holding a hose with a huge fire in the background, obviously taken by a photographer on the scene of a house fire.
Quinn quietly stepped into the large great room—and looked around in awe. There was a high ceiling and huge windows letting in the morning light. Dark purple pillows were strategically placed on the couch and the two armchairs nearby. There was a neat stack of magazines on the coffee table and a huge television mounted on the wall.
She again mentally kicked herself for having an image of John living in a place that looked more like a frat house than the neat, uncluttered home she was standing in.
A sound from the kitchen turned her attention from his furniture and lack of clutter to John himself. He was wearing a pair of jeans that molded to his ass, and a T-shirt with the fire station’s logo on the back. He was currently bending over, searching for something in the fridge, and Quinn couldn’t believe she was truly here.
She stood watching him quietly, enjoying being able to ogle him for a moment without him seeing her. John was a bit older than her at thirty-one, and at six-two, he was almost half a foot taller. His blond hair was in disarray on his head, as if he hadn’t bothered to run a brush or comb through it since he’d gotten up. Quinn knew from experience that when he looked at her, his blue eyes would sparkle and he’d give her his entire attention. It had made her uncomfortable at first, but now she liked it. She never had to wonder if he was actually listening to what she was saying.
He had large biceps and a chest that made her want to cuddle up into him and never let go. She hadn’t seen him with his shirt off, but the few times he’d worn a polo, she’d seen a smattering of chest hair peeking through the buttons.
Simply put, there wasn’t anything about John that she didn’t find attractive.
And that scared the shit out of her.
“Hey,” he said, obviously seeing her for the first time. “Are you going to stand there staring at me or are you going to come over and eat?”
Wandering over to the kitchen, Quinn stood by one of the barstools next to the counter. “Can I help with anything?”
John shook his head. “Nope. I got it. Sit.”
Quinn immediately sized up the seating choices and took the one on the far left side.
“Don’t,” John said softly.
Looking up at him in confusion, she frowned and asked, “Don’t what?”
“Don’t hide from me.”
Damn. He’d noticed.
Quinn tried to play it off. “I’m not.”
He approached her slowly, not taking his eyes from hers. He walked right up to her and into her personal space. He took her elbow and pulled her gently from the nearest barstool and gestured to the other one. “You think I don’t notice that you do whatever you can to always have people sit on your right side? That you wear your hair down all the time, and that you never tuck it behind your ear? I do. You don’t have to hide from me.” John reached up and curled his fingers behind her ear, taking her hair with them.
She shivered from his gentle touch, but couldn’t look him in the eye.
“Look at me, Emmy.”
“You don’t have to hide your birthmark from me. I’ve seen it. And now I’ve touched it.” He ran the backs of his fingers from her cheek to her neck, where she knew the pink birthmark ended. “Don’t be self-conscious with me. Not about this.”
“It’s not that easy,” she protested, feeling the urge to shake her hair forward and over the mark. “And don’t say something stupid, like you don’t even see it or something.”
“Of course I see it,” he answered. “Just as you see the scar over my eyebrow. Just as you see the freckles on my nose.”
“It’s not the same,” she grumbled, hating this argument.
“I know. All I’m saying is that it’s a part of you, and I like you. When you’re with me, I want you relaxed. I want you to be yourself. To not worry about what I’m thinking when it comes to this, or if it’s too visible. I’m a safe zone for you, Quinn. Period. No hiding, no camouflage. Just you and me, two people getting to know each other better. That’s it.”
“I’ll try,” Quinn told him. And she would. It wouldn’t be easy, but she understood where he was coming from. Honestly, most of the time when she was around him, she didn’t think about her disfigurement. How could she when everything about John was larger than life?
“Good.” He stepped away after a second’s hesitation. Quinn didn’t miss the way his eyes darted to her lips before coming back up to meet her gaze. “The big question is…do you like bacon?”
“Um…doesn’t everyone?” she asked.
John chuckled. “You’d be surprised. How do you want your eggs?”
“Coming right up. How are you feeling? Headache or anything?”
Quinn shook her head and got comfortable on the stool. “No. I’m never hungover. I don’t know why. Guess I’m lucky.”
“Definitely. But make sure you drink an extra glass of water this morning anyway. Don’t want you getting dehydrated.”
And that was the beginning of the most surreal breakfast of Quinn’s life. John made sure to serve her first, continually asked her if she needed anything, and he went out of his way to make sure she had everything she wanted before he’d even taken one bite. Not once in her entire life had someone doted over Quinn like John did.
Not when she was a kid.
Not with any previous boyfriends.
Not with any of her friends, because they spread out the chores when they were together.
It was weird, and a bit awkward, and very eye opening.
Quinn supposed this was what Sophie was talking about when she said that Chief always made her feel like she was the center of his world.
She could get used to it.
The glimmer of hope in her belly sparked to life, and seemed to grow just a bit.
* * *
Forty minutes later, John was pulling up to Quinn’s apartment complex. He pulled into a space right in front of the lobby doors and turned to face her. “Any big plans for the day?”
Quinn shook her head. “You?”
“Nope. I have today and tomorrow off, then I’m working a forty-eight-hour shift.”
“Isn’t that hard?” she asked.
“Not really. It’s a lot of downtime between bursts of adrenaline-inducing action.”
“I think it would give me a heart attack,” Quinn told him. “Give me my nice and sedate nine-to-five job of sitting on my ass, any day.”
John laughed. “Can I call you later?”
Quinn’s heartbeat increased, but she tried to be all cool and calm. “Sure. I guess I need to give you my number.”
“I have it,” John told her.
She stared at him. “You do? How?”
“I asked Chief to get it from Sophie.”
Quinn wasn’t sure what to say about that. “How long have you had it?”
“About three months.”
“Yeah. Quinn, it can’t be a surprise that I’ve liked you for quite a while now.”
“Well, no, but I didn’t know you had my number.”
“Does it matter?”
Quinn thought about it. “Not really.”
“If it makes you feel better, you can call Sophie and tell her to ask Chief for my number,” John teased.
“You mean she doesn’t already have it?” Quinn asked.
“Of course she does. Chief wanted to make sure she always had someone to call in an emergency if she couldn’t get ahold of him. He made her put in the numbers of all of us from Station 7, plus our law enforcement friends too.”
Quinn knew that. Sophie had bitched about it, but later admitted that it made her feel cared for. Counting in her head, Quinn knew she had only three true friends’ numbers in her phone. Sophie, Tory, and Autumn, all from work. Sad but true.
“Or I could just text you right now,” John told her, pulling out his phone.
Before she could answer him, her phone vibrated in her purse.
“There. Now you have mine, and you can’t not answer it because you think it’s a telemarketer.” He grinned, then sobered when she didn’t return the smile.
“I’m moving too fast, aren’t I?” he asked.
Quinn shook her head. “No. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off.
“Just what?” he probed.
“I’ve liked you for so long, and I’m still having a hard time figuring out how we went from tiptoeing around each other to dating and me having slept at your place.”
He chuckled. “Stop thinking so hard and just go with it,” he advised. Then asked, “You’ve liked me for a long time?”
Quinn shyly nodded.
Then, as if it were scripted, John leaned subtly toward her, and Quinn mirrored the move. And suddenly they were kissing.
John’s hand wrapped around the side of her neck, the side with her birthmark, but she wasn’t thinking about the blemish right now. She couldn’t think about anything but the way his lips brushed against hers and how right the moment felt.
John didn’t take the kiss too far, didn’t shove his tongue down her throat, and didn’t move his hand from her neck. Eventually, he pulled back and licked his lips.
Neither said a word for the longest moment, but it wasn’t awkward at all.
“I’ll call you later,” John finally said.
“God, you taste so much better than I ever imagined you would,” John said under his breath. Then he kissed her once more, a mere brush of his lips over hers, before sitting back.
In a daze, Quinn opened her door and climbed out. She grabbed the bag he’d given her to put her dirty blouse in and backed away from the truck. Waving once, she smiled shyly at him, then turned and headed for the lobby of her apartment complex.
After she went in, she looked back and saw him still sitting in the same place, making sure she got inside safe and sound. He waved and gave her a chin lift, then backed out of the space and headed home.
The particle of hope deep inside grew a smidge more.
“Please don’t hurt me,” Quinn whispered, then turned and headed for the elevator.
Shelter for Quinn
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