My fists clench for the hundredth time as I stare out the window and try to conceal the immense rage that’s rushing through my system. I failed. How could this have happened? How could this have happened under my watch? The situation is clearly more serious than even I first anticipated. I’m not used to someone getting a leg up on me, and it’s almost more than I can bear.
Eloisa has finally fallen asleep beside me, her head resting on my shoulder. Normally I would’ve made an attempt to move her, but her weight has a calming effect that I didn’t expect. Nonetheless, I tell myself it’s because I don’t want her to wake up, hoping she’ll sleep off the myriad of emotions she no doubt went through this afternoon.
Familiar scenery whizzes by outside, and I become a bit nostalgic about our destination. I’m taking Eloisa to my father’s old fishing cabin. It’s secluded, far away from civilization, and the perfect place to regroup after what happened. I guess we could’ve stayed at a hotel, but…I don’t want her around anyone right now. I also don’t want to look too deeply into that, as I’m sure that notion is fear based.
E shifts a bit in her sleep. Bellatrix pops her head up at the movement from her place on E’s lap, her dark, shiny eyes meeting mine. Without preamble, she gets up, stretches, and walks her furry little behind onto my lap. Goddamn it. I scratch her ears just as a text comes through on my phone.
Rob: You can’t just disappear with her, X. Her tour is days away!
I ignore the text, having already explained myself to him. He’ll just have to deal. Doesn’t he realize there won’t be a tour if I don’t do everything in my power to keep her safe? E has a legit stalker. Someone who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt her if given the chance. The thought sends a small shiver through my body that I’m sure Bellatrix notices. I’ve dealt with some loony tunes before, working at the White House, but that was to be expected. E doesn’t deserve this. She hasn’t asked for it. But is that the price of fame? A week or two ago I would have said yes.
E stirs awake as we pull onto the dirt road that leads to my father’s cabin.
“Where are we?” Her voice is a little husky from sleep.
“My father’s cabin. We’re going to stay here for a little bit while I secure things at home base.”
She suddenly sits upright, as if just noticing her head was on my shoulder. Her throat clears, and Bellatrix jumps back into her lap. I sense the embarrassment coming off her in waves and have to resist the urge to tell her it’s fine.
“How long is a little bit?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Sighing, she leans back in her seat as the house comes into view.
The driver stops, and I immediately get out of the car to meet the man who’s currently walking out the front door.
“Colonel,” I say in way of greeting. “Thanks for coming out so quickly.”
He nods and eyes the SUV. “Place is secure. New locks are in place.”
I quickly give him a rundown of what happened this afternoon. His teeth grit, and he shakes his head. “I’ll call the unit and make sure they’re doing everything they can to nail this bastard down.”
“They’re swarming the place now. Police, too.”
Colonel Jackson eyes me carefully, no doubt able to see my fury bubbling underneath the surface. “You all right?”
Pride has my chest puffing out, but I tell the truth. “No. I’m livid. I knew Harold should have been let go the second I arrived, but…”
Just then, the SUV door opens, and Eloisa climbs out. She’s staring up at the house in what looks like awe. After a few steps, she notices the colonel and does her best to smile. It’s a smile she wears often—one that attempts to put on a show of bravery that she’s not feeling. I saw it onstage today before she began singing. I startle a little that I know that about her, but then I comfort myself with the fact that it’s part of my job to know these things.
She walks over slowly and looks at me expectantly.
“E, this is the colonel.” I pause for a moment. “My boss.”
That brings a genuine smile to her lips. “The man who keeps this guy in line. It’s nice to meet you. And, wow, you look just like your brother.”
The colonel gives her a grin I haven’t seen the likes of before. It’s typical for men—and women—to act differently around E, but I never expected it from the colonel. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Eloisa,” he says. “And yes, we’ve gotten that a lot. He’s just got fewer gray hairs than I do.”
They both laugh, but for some reason I just can’t get myself to find anything funny. After their laughter dies down, the colonel looks at her seriously. “Are you all right?”
E deflates a bit and cuddles her dog to her chest. “To be honest, I don’t really know. I’m trying not to think about it.”
The colonel gives me a look. “Well, either way we’ll make sure we keep you updated. I want you to know that my team and the local cops are doing everything we can to resolve this quickly and quietly.”
E nods. “I appreciate it.”
She glances back up at the house. “I love this place.”
Warmth settles in my chest at her assessment. Going to this cabin is one of my best memories from childhood. I turn back to the colonel. “Food?”
“You’ll survive,” he responds, rubbing a hand over his belly. “I did what I could.”
Everything is settled, then. The only people who know we’re here are me, E, the colonel, and the driver. We shouldn’t be bothered out here. Unsurprisingly, it does nothing to ease my fears.
E puts Bella on the ground, and the mutt immediately takes off to explore her surroundings.
“Cute little thing, isn’t she?” the colonel says unexpectedly. I give him a strange look, and he shrugs his shoulders.
“She’s my world,” E responds in a lighthearted tone. I catch her eye, and I’m grateful for the small miracle of remembering to tell Joe to grab the thing.
“I understand that. I used to have a greyhound back in the day. Best friend I ever had,” the colonel replies, surprising me yet again. It seems E has learned more personal things about my boss than I have in the past several years. Another unfamiliar emotion runs through me, but I can’t pinpoint what it is. All I know is that I’m starting to feel unsettled…unsteady.
“Well, I best get going,” the colonel continues. “You two stay safe and call me if you need anything.”
We both nod and watch in silence as he gets in his SUV and drives away. Bella begins to nip at my feet, and E chuckles.
“Surprise, surprise—I think she’s hungry,” E says with a smile. “Mind if I head inside and check the cabinets?”
The question stirs me into motion, and I lead the way up the wide wooden porch to the front door. The colonel left it open, and I quickly grab the key he left for me on the side table. E gasps when I turn on the first light.
“This might just be the coziest place I’ve ever been.”
I turn around and take in the familiar surroundings. Neutral colors, a large stone fireplace, dark wooden floors, thick woolen blankets strewn here and there—yeah, it is cozy. A thin coating of dust reminds me that my dad probably hasn’t been out here in a while, and the heavy weight of that knowledge settles on my heart. He’d always make sure to come up at least once or twice a month, but clearly he hasn’t been able to make the trip in quite some time.
E drops onto the nearest couch in a hilariously unladylike fashion. She opens one eye and peers up at me. “Thank you for choosing here and not some hotel. I think a little fresh air is exactly what I needed.”
Her eyes close, and after a few seconds of silence I clear my throat. “I’ll go see if there’s something for the dog to eat.”
I walk to the kitchen without waiting for a response, Bellatrix on my heels. Scouring the fridge, I find a jar of peanut butter and some turkey cold cuts. They’re not her favorite treats, but they’ll do.
As I’m scooping out the peanut butter on a Dixie plate, I hear E enter the kitchen. “She loves peanut butter.”
“So do I.”
E laughs quietly. “That makes three of us.”
I grab some wheat bagels off the counter and hold them up. E nods and makes her way over. “I haven’t had a bagel in so long. Rob is always telling me I need to watch my figure.”
An image of E in the shower comes to mind, and I quickly shove the vivid image away, swallowing hard. But the scoff comes out of my mouth without warning, and I decide to just go with it. “Rob is an idiot. You don’t need to watch your figure.”
“Be still my heart; is that a compliment from Mr. X?”
Feeling uncomfortable, I busy myself with the food. “It’s the truth.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t usually listen to what Rob says anyway,” she jokes.
“You don’t listen? That’s hard to believe.” I feign innocence and fight back a smile.
“A compliment and a smile?” I turn to see her eyes alight with mischief. “What has gotten into you?”
I honestly have no idea. “Must be the cabin. I haven’t been here for years. It’s nice to be back.”
As soon as the words come out of my mouth, I regret them. We’re here because there’s a psychotic stalker who wants to kill her. I let out a breath as I finish spreading the peanut butter. E hasn’t said anything. And just as I thought, when I turn around, she seems to be staring into space.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“No, don’t be sorry,” she says. “This isn’t your fault.”
“It isn’t your fault, either.”
She sighs. “The price of fame.”
I’m shocked to hear the words I had just been thinking about earlier. “No one deserves to be stalked or scared into hiding.”
I bring her the bagel, but she doesn’t reach for it. “I can’t believe this is happening. That note was so…scary. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
“Let me worry about that. And for right now, forget the note. I want you to eat.”
She smiles and lifts the bagel off her plate and takes a large bite. “It’s good,” she says with a full mouth.
I watch her closely as she eats, trying not to stare at her soft, pink lips. God, perhaps it’s been too long since I’ve had a woman. I’ve never been distracted on the job like this. It really must be the cabin that’s bringing out all these unfamiliar emotions. I need to get my head back in the game; the situation is too serious.
E yawns in between bites and gives me a self-deprecating look. “Can we do the grand tour tomorrow? I’m exhausted.”
“Yes. The bedroom is upstairs on the left. We’ll go up together.”
“Bedroom as in…only one bedroom?”
Her eyes are wide as she gives me a once-over. “We’re going to sleep in the same bed?”
“I’m not going to sleep much.” There was no way in hell my eyes were closing. There was too much to be done. I’d sleep later.
“What do you mean you’re not going to sleep? Are you human or not?”
“Don’t worry about me. I only need a quick nap.”
“You need to sleep, X.”
I sigh loudly in exasperation. “This is what I’m trained for. There’s a lot to do before sunrise. It isn’t your concern.”
Grumbling, she scoops up Bella. “Doesn’t sleep. Bah.”
She sends me a fake sunny smile as she saunters by and out of the kitchen. “No wonder you’re such a grump all the time.”
I let out a sigh and look to the heavens before following her out of the kitchen.