I had just gotten off the phone with the colonel when I heard a loud, piercing scream. There was no doubt in my mind it came from E.
My heart thundered in my chest as I raced up the basement steps toward the source of the sound. A million scenarios ran through my head. Was someone in the house? How did that person get in? What did I miss?
I had just reached the second flight of stairs when E screamed again. I managed to scale each flight in two bounds, ran down the hallway, and burst through her bedroom door. The room was empty, but the shower was running in the adjoining bathroom. Adrenaline pumped purposefully through my blood as I stormed into the bathroom, nearly tripping over that damn dog.
I looked to the floor and reeled back at the macabre sight. A large and mangled bird was clamped in the mutt’s jaws. Then my eyes landed on E. She was standing alone in the tub, soaking wet and completely naked. Her eyes were wild as she looked down at Bellatrix. Her gaze flew toward me, and I felt my eyes widen in shock.
I looked away immediately, unsuccessfully trying to blink away the image of all that golden skin. The sound of shower-curtain rings sweeping over the bar rang out in the small room as she gasped.
“Are you OK?” I bit out, my pulse hammering. My eyes stayed glued to the ceiling.
“I’m fine,” she squeaked. “Bellatrix just scared the crap out of me! Can you get that thing out of here?”
I was already moving to do just that. Grabbing a spare towel, I knelt down beside Bellatrix and gripped the bird’s body, tugging on it slightly.
“Bellatrix, drop that right now! That’s not food! Bad girl!” E shouted. She was now peering out from behind the curtain.
The dog jumped at the sound of her voice and dropped the bird on the rug. I carefully picked it up with the towel and left without another word. A little dazed, I headed to the stairs. A few of the security crew who patrolled the grounds were just heading up. I assured them everything was OK, ordered them not to go upstairs, and headed outside to the trash can.
The fresh air was welcome against my heated skin. I quickly threw out the bird and the towel before taking a few deep breaths, trying to get my bearings. From one minute thinking E was in danger, to bursting in on her in the shower, the episode had me more than a little rattled.
An image of her standing there flashed through my mind again, and for just a split second, out there in the dark, I allowed myself to picture it fully. Long, wet hair plastered to her body. Big, watery green eyes. Sun-kissed skin and a few freckles sprinkled over flawless curves—goddamn it, I’d seen everything. I shook myself out of the musing and headed back inside. I could not allow myself to linger over such thoughts.
I wondered if I should check on her, but I decided to give her a few more minutes. She was probably embarrassed. Grabbing a bottle of water, I headed toward the basement.
My phone dinged as I was making my way down the stairs.
E: I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to worry anyone. If it helps, know that I am mortified.
Scratching the stubble on my jaw, I typed out a reply.
My phone dinged again.
E: I can’t believe Bellatrix brought that thing into the house! She’s never done that before. I’m so surprised.
Talk about being surprised. My head was still reeling.
X: No harm done.
E: Easy for you to say! You didn’t just flash an unsuspecting employee!
I don’t know where the notion came from, but I decided to tease her a little bit.
There was silence for a bit before she sent me a yellow face that looked to be rolling its eyes.
E: Very funny. You want a nightcap?
X: Not going to drink on the job.
No need to mention I didn’t drink at all.
E: Well, can you at least meet me in the kitchen? I need to face you again so the awkwardness doesn’t get any bigger in my head.
I didn’t know what she meant by that, but I typed an affirmative and headed back upstairs. A few moments later, I heard her feet overhead. She walked in the kitchen a few seconds later, and I nearly smiled when I saw her cheeks were bright red. Bellatrix was cuddled in her arms.
However, she bravely met my gaze and stood before me. “Bellatrix would like to apologize for the trouble she’s caused.”
The dog panted happily between us, not looking the least bit sorry, in my opinion. Before she could say anything else, the mutt jumped from her arms and into mine. I barely caught her before she hit the ground.
E looked shocked. “I don’t know what’s gotten into her! I’ve never seen her do that before. She must like you.”
“The feeling is mutual,” I mumbled sarcastically. The damn dog snuggled into the crook of my elbow. I wanted to hand her back, but E was already fixing herself a glass of wine. “Probably because I gave her food the other day.”
“Probably,” she said after she took a big sip. Her eyes suddenly went wide. “Wait, I hope you don’t think I planned that!”
“The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.” Which was true.
She looked relieved. “OK, good. I’ll try not to overreact like that again over something so stupid. Let’s just forget it happened.”
As if her words conjured it, the image of her standing there in the shower flashed like a fantasy I couldn’t escape. I cleared my throat and shifted, settling Bellatrix on the other side of my arm. “Already forgotten.”
The silence stretched between us before E snapped her fingers. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. Rob scheduled a last-minute sound check for Sunday. I know you take some time off, so just wanted to give you a heads-up.”
“We have to be in Hartford by two p.m.”
I nodded. “I’ll be back before noon.”
I could tell she wanted to ask where I was going, but I also knew she wouldn’t. And even though she’d tried to avoid it, there was a tension between us now. It was subtle, but it was there, bubbling under the surface. It made me distinctly uncomfortable. I looked down at Bellatrix. Rascal.
E finished her wine and came toward me, reaching for the dog. “Thanks again.”
Our eyes met briefly before we turned and went our separate ways.
I didn’t see E much on Saturday. She was locked away in her room working on her music, so I took the opportunity to check on all my security upgrades.
Harold waved at me when I came outside. I gave him a small nod. He was nice enough, but he wasn’t the type of man I needed guarding that gate. I wanted someone…well, frankly, someone younger. Faster. Less trusting. At least there were cameras and reinforced locks now, but something about having him there just rubbed me the wrong way.
After doubling security, I left E’s house at around 7:00 a.m. that Sunday to head for my father’s. He lived pretty close by, and the convenience was a huge weight off my shoulders. I hadn’t been able to see him nearly as much being in DC for as long as I was. I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could before—
I shook myself out of the dark thoughts and pulled into the driveway of my childhood home. I didn’t have good memories of the place—that was certain—but my dad refused to move. So every time, I had to push past the terrible, sinking anxiety I got from being there.
With my salary, he was able to have around-the-clock care if needed and the best treatment money could buy. He still had to go to the hospital for his chemo, but I made sure he was as comfortable as possible. I owed him that much.
The front door swung open, and my old man came out with his arms wide open.
“Xavier! You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“Hey, Pops.” I came up the steps and pulled him into my arms, trying to ignore how weak he seemed. “You look great.”
He pushed his chest out. “Of course I do. Now get inside. I have that buffalo chicken dip from Stew Leonard’s that you like.”
We headed inside, and I waved to Georgette, his Sunday nurse.
“Ask him about his hot date,” she teased, heading upstairs with a laundry basket.
I turned to my father, who was rummaging through the fridge. “How was the date?”
“It was marvelous!” I grabbed a couple of plates while he put the dip and chips on the table. “Rose is a good ol’ gal. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
I raised a brow. “Oh, yeah? What did you guys do?”
He took a large bite of a chip. “We wanted to go dancing, but there wasn’t anywhere to go that time of day. So we settled for feeding the birds down at the beach.”
I took in his hunched shoulders, balding head, and skin that had so many more wrinkles than I ever remembered. He was smiling at me, and seeing his grin eased the pain and anxiety in my chest slightly. That was still the same. He had a genuine smile that just made you feel good.
“Sounds like fun.”
He was still smiling at me. “I’m so glad you’re close to me again, son. I know I’m not as important as the president, but I’ve missed you so much.”
My dad was always so free with his emotions. Another way he was opposite from me.
I decided to try to let my guard down for him. “I’ve missed you, too. The only reason I took this job is so I could be close to you.”
He took a sip of water and gave me a sardonic look. “That can’t be the only reason.”
“What do you mean?”
“The beautiful Eloisa Rae Morgan didn’t have anything to do with it?”
“You know it didn’t.”
I stuffed my mouth full of dip. If he only knew what had happened the day before. It would probably give the old man a heart attack.
“Did you apologize for those comments you made about her music?”
I shrugged. “We worked it out.”
“Good. So now you can invite her over here. I would love to meet her.”
Sighing heavily, I gave him a look. “Maybe.”
“I’ll take it,” he said, munching. “How’s the dip?”
“Best in the world.”
“Second to your mother’s,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “Do you remember that salsa she used to make? I would do anything to have a bite of that again!”
And just like that, the heavy weight descended back onto my chest. The anxiety came rushing in, and it felt like the walls were closing in on me. He knew I didn’t like to talk about Mom. Knew it was hard enough for me to live with the guilt of what had happened to her.
After a few moments, he took pity on me and changed the subject. But the sadness in his eyes only made me feel worse.