The second the question came out of my mouth, I wanted to take it back. I knew how it sounded. I was sure she didn’t have a boyfriend, or I would have known about him by now.
She didn’t look perturbed by the question as she skimmed the water with her fingertips. “No. There’s no one.”
Her eyes danced with laughter as they met mine. “Oh, yeah? Good for who?”
“Me. One less person to worry about.”
She didn’t reply to that comment, seemingly lost in her thoughts as she looked out into the ocean. The stars weren’t out, but the moon was full and cast a glittering reflection on the water. I watched her hands for a while before resuming monitoring the perimeter.
“How old are you?” she asked.
I paused for a moment but didn’t see any harm in telling her. “I just turned thirty-two.”
She looked surprised. “You’re younger than I thought.”
“Gee, thanks,” I teased, surprising myself.
She laughed, the husky sound fading into the night before she took a step toward me. “I didn’t mean you look old. It’s more about the way you carry yourself. You seem so…secure.”
I shrugged. “I’m an old soul, I guess.”
She stared at me for a moment, smiling, and I felt the air change between us. For some reason, it put me on alert. “How old are you?” Wait, I already knew the answer to that question. What was wrong with me?
“Twenty-five,” she replied. “As of a few days ago.”
I remembered her saying she didn’t celebrate her birthday. I almost asked her why before I forced myself to stop asking irrelevant questions.
“It sounds so old, but I know it’s not.”
“You’re right. It’s not.”
“I just thought I’d feel different at this age, I guess.”
She shrugged and waded farther into the water. “I don’t know. I just thought I would feel like an adult, ya know?”
“Are you saying you feel like a kid?”
She ran her hands through her hair and put it over her shoulder. “No. I haven’t felt like a kid for a long time.”
I actually knew what she meant, but I didn’t say so. I was starting to get a little unnerved. It was hard to match the girl in the ocean with the one I’d seen the past two days. Had I been looking at her all wrong?
“So are we friends now?” she asked. “Are we starting over?”
I honestly had no idea what to say to that. We weren’t friends. I was head of her security team, and it was inappropriate for us to have anything more than a professional relationship. I made sure to keep my eyes averted as she slowly got out of the water. It was harder than I thought it would be.
She smiled as she grabbed her cover-up from the sand. I guess she stopped waiting for an answer, because she gave me a pat on the shoulder and started heading back toward the house. “Baby steps.”
I was making a protein shake in the kitchen the next morning when I felt a small nip on my leg. I looked down to see Bella looking up at me with her beady little eyes.
“What do you want?”
She looked back at me, panting. I remembered Eloisa’s words from a few days before about her eating habits and frowned. “Scavenging for food, no doubt?”
I decided to ignore her and went back to making my protein shake, but the damn thing got my attention again with a bark.
“Go away!” I told her.
I sighed, making my way over to the pantry. I found the dog food quickly, but when I pulled it out, I heard a growl.
“What? Not good enough for you?”
Wondering what had come over me, I made my way to the fridge. Inside I saw a box of doggy treats with a bow and a few hearts on it. When I pulled it out, the little rascal went nuts until I threw a treat to her. “Damn dog.”
Just then a call came through from one of the men I’d hired to patrol the area. “Eloisa’s got a visitor.”
“Who is it?”
“Some guy named Joel. He’s in a limo outside the gate right now talking to Harold.”
“I’ll be right out.”
I took in the long black limo as I strode toward the gate. The man standing outside it had dark hair that went to his shoulders, dark sunglasses, and a ripped denim jacket over a flannel shirt. He looked homeless, but I could tell right away that wasn’t case. I would have bet money that he dressed that way on purpose.
I typed in the code and exited the gate, my eyes still on the stranger. He was taller than I thought, and as I approached, he took off his sunglasses. His eyes were a clear blue, wary as they took me in.
“Joel Stanton,” he said, reaching out his hand for me to shake. Not wanting to start a scene so early in the morning, I shook his hand and visibly sized him up.
“X. Head of security. Can I help you with something?”
He gave me a smile, but it seemed condescending. “I’m here to see Eloisa. Can you tell her I’m here?”
His tone grated, and I turned to the old man. “Did you ask for an ID, Harold?”
Harold smiled fondly in Joel’s direction. “No need. Joel and Eloisa here go way back. He’s been here plenty of times before.”
I looked back into the smug eyes of the man before me. “You weren’t on the visitors list E gave me.”
He blinked at that and rubbed the back of his neck. “That doesn’t surprise me. But trust me, she’ll want to see me.”
Putting his sunglasses back on, he made to walk by me. I stopped him easily with a hand on his shoulder. “As I just said, you weren’t on her list. You need to leave.”
“Don’t you know who I am?”
I studied his face carefully, but his features didn’t ring any bells. Not that I cared. My instincts told me this man was a grade-A bastard. “Am I supposed to know who you are?”
“Jet Five.” He looked at me incredulously but took a step back.
When I didn’t respond, his jaw went a little slack. “We had three number-one hit singles last year.”
I schooled my face as comprehension set in. This guy thought he was somebody special. Too bad I didn’t know, or give two shits about knowing, his damned band. I remained silent. After a few seconds of awkward silence, he cursed and whipped out his phone.
“I’ll call her now. You’ll regret this.”
Harold and I watched as he dialed E’s number with no success. His annoyance was clearly morphing into anger, and it instantly put me on alert. Red flags rolled off this douche like a bad smell. He wasn’t getting anywhere near E until I figured out what was going on.
He ended the call, and I could tell he had more to say, but the look on my face must have quieted the urge. Pushing his shoulders back, he turned toward Harold. “It was nice to see you, Harold. If you could tell Eloisa I love her, and to call me, I’ll owe you one.”
Surprise had my eyebrows lifting as he turned back in my direction. “I’ll see you later,” he spit out. We watched as he got back into his limo and drove away.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Harold said as he shielded his eyes from the sun. “That man is a rock god. Most people—men included—fall at his feet.”
Before I could respond, loud chuckles sounded from the front yard. I turned to see Joe and Big in the throes of laughter. Joe had his massive hands on his stomach as he met my curious stare. “Thanks, X. That just made my morning.”
The normally quiet Big wiped at his eyes. “The look on his stupid face. Priceless.”
Harold grumbled something and walked off back toward his post while I went up to them, intending to get some answers. “Why would he think he could just walk in here?”
“That’s Ellie’s ex-boyfriend,” Joe replied. “They broke up about a year ago. Guy thinks he’s the shit.”
Ex-boyfriend. The phrase rankled. I didn’t know anything about any famous ex-boyfriend. I thought about what she had told me at the beach just last night. There’s no one. “Why would he be showing up here if they broke up?”
“It’s public knowledge he wants her back,” Joe explained. “He tells it to anyone who will listen. I don’t feel sorry for the rat, because it’s also common knowledge he cheated on her. God knows how many times.”
“And he never showed up to her album-release party or wanted anything to do with her career,” Big put in. “Too concerned with his own.” I gave the large, muscled man a once-over. He normally relied on Joe to do the talking, but it was clear he had a lot to say on this subject.
“She’s better off without him,” Joe continued. “I can’t stand to see her with any more heartache.”
That reminded me. I was more than interested in how Joe and Big seemed to know so much about her. It was clear they had a relationship beyond the professional scope. “How long have you known Eloisa?”
“About eight years. Big, Eloisa, and I are shining products of the foster care system.”
This time, I couldn’t hide the surprise on my face. I had wrongfully assumed she had come from money. I should have read her file a bit more closely. “How long was she in the foster care system?”
Joe shook his head sadly. “Since she was about twelve years old. She was shipped from house to house over the years, never finding anything permanent. When she was about seventeen, she was brought into our family. Kids were always rotating in and out there, but the three of us managed to become pretty tight.”
A million questions assailed me, and I felt my perspective of E shift in a totally different direction. “What happened to her parents?”
“Mother died at birth,” Joe told me. “Father…I’m not too sure exactly what happened. She doesn’t like to talk about it, so I just assume he’s a deadbeat. That’s another one that’s been sniffing around here lately. Couldn’t help himself once she got famous.”
The conversation I heard between Sandy and E the first day I arrived came to mind. It was clear she didn’t want to talk to him. A few more puzzle pieces fell together. It was humbling.
“She saved us,” Joe said, looking me in the eye. “She’s always been kind and selfless. Big and me here, we were…trouble. She motivated us to get into college, encouraged us to play sports, and then gave us jobs. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for her.”
I had a feeling if I dug any deeper into that, I wouldn’t like where it went. But my gut instinct told me I could trust the two men, especially when it came to Eloisa. I nodded, acknowledging their comments. “Where is she now?”
Joe pointed to the backyard. “By the water.” He frowned. “She won’t be happy to hear that Joel showed up.”
I couldn’t be too sure of that yet. She could just as easily be upset with me for interfering. Either way, I was prepared for a fight. I gave both men a nod before going to seek out E.