I open my eyes in the middle of the night, feeling groggy. For a moment I can’t remember where I am, but after a few moments of blinking away the sleep, it all comes back to me.
I feel a prickle of fear travel up my spine as I stare out the window into the darkness. Someone out there wants to kill me. Someone out there, for some reason, wants me dead. Why? The word echoes in my head as shapes in the dark room slowly come into focus.
I gasp, suddenly noticing the dark figure in the corner. Just as I am about to sit up, he holds up a hand.
“It’s just me. Go back to sleep.”
X. He’s sitting in the old wooden rocker that’s diagonal from the bed I’m in. That can’t be comfortable to sleep in—well, nap in—and I marvel over how seriously he takes his job. He’s watching over me.
I’m safe with him.
I close my eyes, exchanging that thought with the dark ones.
When I awake the next morning, X is nowhere to be found. It worries me slightly that I don’t feel uneasy about him watching over me while I sleep. The fact is, I can no longer deny that I need him.
I yawn and reluctantly crawl out from under what I’m sure is a hand-knit quilt. There are lovely ones all over the house, and I wonder where I can get one.
As I make my way into the adjoining bathroom, I also wonder where Bella is. She’s usually right by my side the second my feet hit the floor. I get into the shower, still wondering, but when the warm water washes over my skin, I groan aloud, all outside thoughts fleeing. Nothing like a shower to clear your mind.
After I get dressed, I head downstairs in search of food but pause when I pass the living room. My guitar is leaning up against the couch. X must have thought of that, too. Something about seeing it makes me uneasy.
How long are we going to stay here?
After a quick breakfast, I go in search of X and Bella. They’re both out front—X on the phone and Bella panting up at him and scurrying around his feet. When I open the door and come outside, she bounds over.
“Hey, girl. Where have you been?” I coo.
X turns around, and we lock eyes. The man doesn’t look tired at all. Dressed in blue jeans and a black Henley, he looks comfortable and formidable all at the same time.
“Good morning,” I say as I make my way over. “Any news?”
“Not yet.” He gives me a once-over. “There were no prints on the knife.”
“Ah,” I say quietly, stroking Bella’s soft fur. The conversation feels so wrong out here in the bright morning sun and crisp air. “So what now?”
He squints his eyes and looks off into the trees. “We’re going to stay here for a bit. It’s going to take a while to replace the team and get things back in order at the house. As of now, it’s a crime scene.”
I think about going back there and fight back a shiver. “Sandy? Joe and Big? Are they OK?”
“They’re fine but mad as hell at the situation. This…” He pauses to shake his head. “They’re worried about you.”
“Well, they shouldn’t worry. I’m with you.”
I don’t know where the words come from. Probably all my pondering about feeling safe with him near, but I automatically know they surprise him.
“I’m glad you feel that way.”
“Oh, yeah? Why?”
“Because it’s true.”
I laugh loudly, and Bella barks in response.
X glares at the dog in my arms. “The thing won’t stop following me around.”
“So what? She likes you.”
He growls and rubs a hand over his short hair. “You give a dog a little food and look what happens.”
I smile. “The change of scenery is probably exciting for her.”
His phone rings, and we both startle. He glances at it. “Do you want to talk to Rob?”
I shake my head. For some reason, I don’t feel like talking to anyone. He nods, screens the call, and shoves the phone in his back pocket.
“I have some work to do. Let’s head inside.”
Nodding, I follow him in and grab my guitar. He sets up in an alcove off the living room, and I sink onto the couch. I should definitely be using all this free time to get that last song written. Determined, I close my eyes and hum a few melodies. But a couple of hours later, inspiration still hasn’t hit. I’m bored and restless, a terrible combination for songwriting.
Peeking in the alcove, I notice X typing away on his laptop. He looks extremely busy. I wander into the kitchen and get something to eat, then go in search of a television for a little mindless distraction. After a perfunctory search, I realize there isn’t one. I also realize I don’t have my own laptop with me.
I’m just about to head back down when I notice a wooden chest across from the top of the stairs. It’s gorgeous. Light, washed-out wood held together with cast-iron locks. Old-fashioned with intricate, swirled carvings dancing up the sides. I run my hand over the top lightly before opening it.
There’s another quilt lying on top, this one made from bright blues and greens. I move it out of the way and smile when I see a pile of picture frames. A little boy holding a woman’s hand as they walk on a forest trail. Another one of the woman throwing the boy in the air and laughing. I get lost in dozens of memories of the boy and the lovely woman.
I know immediately it’s X. He had the same serious stare back then as he does now. But his eyes were lighter and happier in these photos. What could have happened to take that light of out of his eyes? How did he get to be the serious, no-nonsense man that I know now?
There are pictures of him with a man I presume to be his father scattered here and there on the walls now—I’d noticed that earlier—but this woman is nowhere to be found on those walls. She’s been hidden in this chest.
“What are you doing?”
I whirl around, gulping as if I’d just gotten my hand caught in the proverbial cookie jar. “Nothing.”
He walks around me, and when he sees what I’m looking at, he slams the chest shut.
I jump back. “What the hell?”
“Why are you snooping around my things?” His voice is louder than I’ve ever heard it.
“Snooping? I was bored, so I—”
He narrows his eyes. “Bored? I brought your guitar and your dog; what else do you need?”
My mouth drops open at the rude comment. “Well, excuse me for opening up your secret chest. I suppose you think I’m supposed to be cowering in a corner right now instead?”
“Don’t start with me,” he growls. “Just get back downstairs where I can see you.”
I grit my teeth as I watch him walk away. He is so dismissive and clearly treating me like a child. Will I ever get past his first layer? It’s a first layer that seems to be made of black steel. Does he even have anything underneath? Something inside me decides to push him. Maybe it’s the fear I’m keeping at bay, the frustration that’s clawing to push to the surface or the helplessness that sits hot in my gut, but I want something more from him. “Is that your mother?”
He stops cold on the third stair. Obviously, I’ve completely shocked him with my question. A few seconds tick by. I’ve never, ever seen him so uneasy before. His large shoulders are tight, his spine a tight rod, the back of his neck bright red—something must have happened. Something that made the memory of his mother painful. So painful he hid her away in a beautiful chest at the top of the stairs.
Loud pounding footsteps echo throughout the hall as he makes his way back downstairs, ignoring my question.
I cross my arms tightly over my chest, wondering why I feel so stung. Shifting from foot to foot for a few moments, I finally blow the pent-up air in my chest out through my teeth. “There’d better be a wine cabinet here.”