I was tending to my plants when I saw X’s black SUV make its way around the circular driveway. Back from his mysterious three-hour Sunday sabbatical, I noted.
I stood up as he got closer and noticed he had something tucked under his arm. “What’s that?” I asked.
He didn’t answer right away, shifting the bag to his other arm. He kept looking between me and the plants. What was that about? But it was then I noticed that he had a bag from Stew’s.
I gasped. “Oh my God. Next time you go to Stew’s, let me know! I love that place.”
“I have some buffalo chicken dip. Have you ever tried it?”
“No, but it sounds amazing.”
“It is. Follow me.”
I followed him into the kitchen and watched as he pulled out a bag of Tostitos and opened the top of the dip. Stomach rumbling, I dug in right away, the wonderful taste of buffalo sauce and cheese exploding in my mouth. “Oh my God. This is incredible!”
X grabbed a chip himself. “It’s my favorite. I could probably eat a whole tub of this if I let myself.”
He seemed more at ease than I had ever seen him. Maybe all the man needed to let off some steam was a good snack. It was also possible whatever he had spent the last three hours doing was responsible for the change. I was more curious than I had a right to be.
“I may do just that,” I answered.
I noticed something else sticking out of the bag. It looked like three dog toys. “What do you have there?”
“They’re for Bella.”
I paused, a chip halfway to my mouth. “My Bella?”
His eyebrows knit together as if he was embarrassed. “Well, I figured she could use something…non-bird-like…to chew on.”
My cheeks warmed, but surprise and gleefulness warred for space in my brain. He bought toys for my dog? “Oh…yes. She’s going to love those. Thank you.”
I couldn’t keep the wide grin off my face.
“What?” he asked.
“I’m just surprised. That’s all.”
“That you’d think of Bella. It doesn’t really seem like an X thing to do,” I teased.
He frowned. “I was nearby. I got the toys. Case closed.” He turned toward the door. “Be ready to leave for rehearsal in an hour.”
He left the room in short order after that, but it took a while for me to stop smiling.
We arrived at the Hartford Civic Center twenty minutes early thanks to X and his efficiency hurrying us along.
Rob looked positively tickled, as I was usually several minutes late to most things. “You guys made it on time!” He rubbed his hands together, a big grin on his face. “How are you feeling, Eloisa?”
“Nervous and excited,” I told him truthfully. “Are we doing a full dress rehearsal?”
“Not for a couple of days. There are still a few kinks in the costume lineup. Just checking sound today.”
We made our way into the arena, meeting up with a few crew members along the way. Everyone was working so hard to put this together, and I couldn’t have been more grateful. Never in a million years did I think I’d be in this incredible position. All the nights alone, just me and my music. Now I got to share it with the world.
I noted a few security guards I hadn’t previously seen stationed around the arena. Each gave X a nod when he passed. This man didn’t miss a beat.
After the mic check and a few preliminaries, I walked to the center of the stage, where my guitar sat propped up against a stool. My pulse felt erratic, and my stomach squeezed and knotted. There was not a single person in the audience, but I suddenly felt very nervous.
Sandy and X stood together offstage, and an idea struck me.
“Can you two go sit in the audience? I’m getting a case of the butterflies here.”
After a moment, they both nodded. They reappeared moments later on the arena floor and took two seats right in the middle.
Sandy gave me a thumbs-up while X seemed to be watching me carefully. Could he tell I was nervous? I felt bad asking this of him, but I already felt loads better just looking at a few familiar faces.
“You all set, girl?” Joe called out from somewhere.
I nodded, and just like that, the chords of the song “Dream of Me” began to play.
This was one of my favorite lullabies, and I’d wanted it on my first album. If I had gone with someone like Martha Mathers, or another major studio, this type of track would have never been allowed on. It was simple and haunting, and it held a lot of meaning for me.
Let me sleep,
For when I sleep, I dream that you are here,
And all my fears are left behind,
I float, on air…
The nightingale sings gentle lullabies,
So let me close my eyes…
And just like that, I got lost in the music. Song after song, I lost sight of everything else; the feelings took over inside me. Music touches me like nothing else can. It’s the only thing that gives me a true and genuine sense of joy.
The sound guys call a halt after about seven songs, and I go for some water. Sandy, like the lovely assistant she is, gets on her feet and claps for me. X, to my astonishment, remains seated but claps, too.
I give him a big smile, and he gives me a small one back. Two steps back, one step forward.
After a few tech adjustments, I get started on the second set. This time, I can’t seem to keep my gaze off X. Partially because I can feel his intense stare. It’s intimidating to be caught in his sights to begin with, but I’m definitely not used to this pointed regard. I take a chance and meet his eyes, still singing, and for a few moments, we just look at each other. The tension that’s been building still lingers between us, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel awkward anymore.
I wonder what he’s thinking about. He’s rubbing a hand over his jaw, his eyes still not leaving mine. I close my own for a moment, getting lost in a high-pitched note when I hear a phone ring. A few seconds later, X is striding out of the arena. Even from here, I can tell he’s upset.
Another song goes by, and he doesn’t return. I figure he has something important to handle and don’t think much of it until Rob comes onto the stage, looking distressed.
“We have to cut things short.”
The panicked look in his eyes gets my heart racing. “Cut things short? Why?”
“There’s been an incident.”
Sandy comes up onstage and puts her hand on my shoulder. Her voice comes out low and soft. “Incident?”
I can’t take the hedging. “Rob. What is it?”
“There’s another note.”
His words take a second or two to register. Sandy gasps from beside me, and the sound brings me back to the present.
Swallowing my nerves, I meet Rob’s eyes. “Where?”
“At the house.”
X’s response has me looking his way. I hadn’t even heard him return. Without warning, he grabs my hand and starts dragging me offstage.
“Wait!” I cry out but allow myself to be dragged all the same. “I want to know what’s going on. What do you mean, at the house?”
He doesn’t answer, but his grip on my hand seems to tighten more and more as we wind our way backstage. My thoughts are scattered, and I barely notice the crew staring at us as we race by. It seems they take one look at X’s face and know to get out of the way.
The late-afternoon sun is blinding as we quickly exit out a side door and make our way toward the waiting SUV. Sandy runs up behind us and barely gets in as X slams the door and bellows at the driver to take off.
I rip my hand out of his and turn to face him on the large seat. There’s hardly an inch between us, and I can feel the boiling anger emanating from his body. “X. Tell me what happened.”
After signaling to the driver, his eyes meet mine for a moment before looking away. Outwardly he appears calm, but I see as well as sense the fury sizzling underneath the surface. My pulse picks up, and my hands start to tremble. What could have happened?
He turns to me again. “A note. Taped on the front door of your home. It was found fifteen minutes ago.”
I put a hand against my heart to try to calm the erratic pounding. “But…with all your security measures? How?”
His jaw locks. “I don’t know. But I intend to find out.”
Sandy leans in closer, her eyes wary and full of tears. “What did the note say?”
X shifts in his seat. “It’s from the same person.”
The same person who tried to kill me. Somehow that person was able to get to my house and tape a note on my door. The seriousness of the situation sinks into my stomach like a brick. “What did it say, X?”
“Do you want to know?”
“Of course I want to know!”
“You didn’t before, did you?”
His accusation stings like a lash. No. I didn’t before. But having this person come onto my property, a place that has always been sacred, levels me like nothing else has. “No, I didn’t. Don’t make me feel guilty about that.”
“This is something that can’t be ignored. I need you to face that fact and understand that there’s someone out there who is literally stalking you. Cleary this person has been watching the house,” he says.
His words burn through me. Of course I understand that fact. He doesn’t understand my side, though. He has no idea what my fans mean to me. He has no idea how much it hurts. “What did the note say?” I manage to squeak out.
He lets out a huge breath and runs a hand over his jaw. “It was short, unlike the first one. It said, ‘Come find me, Eloisa. I’m waiting for you.’”
Sandy and I exchange loaded glances but stay silent.
“There was a butcher’s knife with it.”
I’m unable to control the hand that leaps up to cover my mouth. Unable to control the tear that drops down my cheek. X watches its watery path as he responds. “The cops are on the way and are going to dust it for prints. But my guess is they’ll have as much luck with this as they did with the rock.”
“What did the first note say?” I ask, hearing myself say the words as if through water. “On the rock?”
“You finally want to know?” X confirms.
“E, no,” Sandy whispers.
But I nod to X, feeling as if I have no other choice. I have to rip off this Band-Aid. It’s time for me to stop running scared. Every fiber of my being fights against it, but I dig deep in my gut for strength and ignore it.
X scrolls through his phone and pulls up a photo of the first note. I take a deep breath, and read.
Why don’t you see me?
I am nothing to you.
I love you, but I’m nothing to you.
That doesn’t stop me from watching you.
I want to kiss you.
I want to watch you undress.
I want to see what your insides are like…
Do you love me?
Say you love me.
You forgot me.
You’re just using me…
You don’t fucking deserve me!
I fucking hate you!
Your biggest fan.
My hand is trembling as X takes the phone gently from my fingers. I have no idea how much time has passed since he handed it to me. Fear, sorrow, and disgust lance through my heart like a deadly spear.
His phone rings, interrupting the silence. I reach out to Sandy, who is sniffling into her hands, as he picks it up.
A minute goes by until X finally responds to whoever is on the line. “Fire him.”
I glance at his profile at the declaration, but his face gives nothing away.
“Fire the entire outdoor security crew and get them into questioning. I want a new team by nightfall.” At this he hangs up and stares out the window, seeming oblivious to stares from Sandy and me.
“Fire who?” I ask weakly.
Shock nearly closes my throat. “You can’t fire Harold!” And just like that, my fear from reading the note transforms itself into rage.
“Yes, I can.”
“He’s my employee, and he works for me. You have no right!” I swear I could reach out and punch the man in his arrogant face. How dare he? “Harold is a part of my family. He lives for his job because it’s all he has.”
“Harold shut down our entire security system.”
That gives me pause. “Why would he do that?”
“Because he wanted to learn how everything worked and be able to turn things on and off himself. The whole system was off for hours.”
I think of poor Harold, and my heart beats in empathy. “He probably figured it was OK if I wasn’t there. You can’t blame him for that. He didn’t know!”
“I can’t have someone on the team who doesn’t follow orders. Who knows how long your stalker has been waiting for this opportunity? You don’t understand how these things work. These fuckers are patient.”
The phrase your stalker bounces around my brain, but I ignore it. “Where was the rest of your team?”
“The five I had stationed outside were inside eating lunch. Harold’s the one that was supposed to guard the gate. It would be impossible to get in anywhere else on the property.”
His tone gets under my skin. “Sandy, where’s my phone?”
I put my hand out as X goes to respond, cutting him off. Sandy hands me my phone, and I read several apologetic texts from Harold. Rubbing my forehead in sadness, I hand it back to her. “I don’t know what I want to say yet. Can you please tell him he can have his job back once this is all over?”
X grunts beside me. “You think this is a joke.”
His words tumble me over the edge. “A joke? One of my fans wants to kill me. Stab me. Do other horrible things to me! And you think I’m laughing about it? This fucking hurts me, X! You have no idea, and you don’t know me!”
His eyes widen slightly at my outburst, but he doesn’t respond. I will the remaining tears away, blinking rapidly. But a sudden thought has me nearly jumping out of my seat. “Bellatrix! Is she OK? Has anyone seen her?” My heart gallops as I think of her little face and—
“Joe and Big are on their way to get her.”
His declaration puts a halt to my escalating panic. “They…are?”
“Yes. We’re going to meet them in an hour.”
Surprised that he thought of Bella, I take a moment to gather myself and sit back in my seat. I violently shove away any thoughts of the notes, of my fans, and of X as I concentrate on taking deep breaths. I have no idea how long we drive in silence until I feel the car roll to a stop and realize it’s dark outside.
“Where are we?”
In usual X fashion, he doesn’t respond. He’s out of the car and back within moments. In his hands are a small duffel bag and Bellatrix. She immediately leaps out of his grasp to lick my face.
“Sandy, you’ll say goodbye here.”
Sandy’s face pales as she looks back and forth between us. Timid by nature, she doesn’t argue.
“Where is she going?” I ask, trying to keep my temper in check.
“Wherever she wants to go.”
I put a hand on Bellatrix’s back and turn to look X in the face. “Sandy stays with me.”
“Not right now. Sandy is going back with Joe and Big. We’re giving her a couple days off until we get all this figured out.”
“But what if—”
“She’ll be safe. Members of your immediate circle are going to each get a small security team. Whether they choose to go back to your house is up to them, although the police are there now.”
Sandy’s shaking her head in disbelief and speaks for the first time in a while. “I’ll be OK, Ellie. We…we have to do whatever we can to catch this guy.”
Her words do little to calm me. And it makes me realize I have no idea where we’re going. “Where are you taking me?”
I grip Bellatrix tighter. “Who are we going with?”
“No one. It will be just you and me until I confirm a few things. I don’t trust anyone, E.”
Sandy bristles, and I want to stick up for my team, but I feel drained and exhausted from trying to push the negative thoughts out of my head. X gives Sandy a look, and she hurries to unbuckle her seat belt.
“I’ll text you later, Eloisa. You take care of yourself.”
I put a hand on her arm right before she climbs out of the car, trying to convey what I can’t with words. I manage a light smile. “I’ll be OK. You keep Joe and Big in line and make sure they don’t do anything stupid.”
She laughs tightly, and then she’s gone. The silence of just X and the darkness outside is stifling, broken up only by Bellatrix panting on my lap.
Neither of us speaks again as the car starts moving. For some reason, I’m furious with him. Firing Harold, taking away Sandy and my team. But another part of me, a part that I feel deep in my bones, instinctively knows that with X, I’m as safe as I can be. And after reading those notes, being safe is what’s most important.