I end the call and fight the urge to throw my phone against the wall. They still have nothing. No sign of the sick bastard who is stalking E. He’s smart; I’ll give him that. Somehow he was able to waltz up to her front door—shitting all over my defenses—and deliver his gift. The desire to wring his neck is strong. I can’t wait to find him.
A glass tinkling in the kitchen draws my attention, and I realize I haven’t heard a word from E since the incident on the stairs. The shock of seeing her standing by my mother’s chest is still there. I wonder what she’d do if she knew the truth. Would she pity me like my father? The thought sickens me and forces me into motion. The wooden chair scrapes against the floor as I push it back with all my might.
Yet another shock greets me when I walk into the kitchen. E is sitting on the countertop, sipping some sort of amber liquid from my dad’s favorite whiskey glass. A light shade of pink highlights her skin, and her long hair is in tendrils around her face. She’s drunk.
“Well, look who it is,” she says in a slightly slurred voice. The ice in the glass tinkles again as she takes another sip. “My very own storm cloud.”
I bristle. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“You forgot to mention whiskey.”
“Upstairs. My guitar, my dog, and whiskey. Now that’s all I need.”
I keep quiet while she takes yet another sip. I do feel bad about that comment I made, but I’m not about to apologize now that she’s three sheets to the wind. Since I don’t drink myself, my tolerance for drunks is paper-thin.
“Somebody really hates me,” she says in a scared, dreamy tone. “Someone out there, right now, is pondering my death.” She raises her glass in an imaginary toast. “A violent death, too, if that knife is any indication.”
I take a step toward her. “All right, I think you’ve had enough.”
I see her lip tremble for just a second before she bites it. “I know you think I’m just some dumb prima donna who craves attention, but I never asked for this.”
“I know you didn’t.”
Her vulnerable green eyes meet mine, and the air between us moves. The seconds seem to drag by as something passes between us, as it has been more and more lately.
The unbidden thought of how beautiful she is enters my mind, but I fight against it. The last thing I want is for her to realize I think that, but she has to be feeling that vibe from me, no matter how much I try to hide it. It’s hard even to admit it to myself, but damn it, it’s true. And watching her sit there, her eyes filled with tears, gives me an unfamiliar urge to wrap my arms around her. What is she doing to me? Why can’t I get a handle on this?
She takes another sip before continuing. “My mother died during childbirth, so all I had was my father growing up. But he wanted nothing to do with me. He made sure I ate once a day and once in a while took me to the thrift store—when my clothes got too ratty—but he never loved me. And then when I was twelve…he left.”
I took a step closer. “What do you mean, he left?”
“He just left. I don’t know where he went. One day I got home, and he wasn’t there. He probably went to live his own life, free from the burden of his shabby child. We had some good memories together when I was really young but…he stopped loving me.”
I watch her wipe an errant tear, my heart thumping.
She clears her throat. “He’d stopped paying bills on the house, and it was repossessed after about a week, so then I lived on the streets for a while. Found an old guitar in a dumpster and taught myself how to play. After about a month, someone noticed me—dirty and starving—and I was forced into foster care. Bounced around…”
She trails off and bites her lip again. “I don’t want pity…I…don’t even know why I’m telling you this.”
I didn’t know, either. Maybe because I wasn’t opening up about my family. But selfishly, I wanted to hear more. “And then what?”
She takes another large gulp, hiccups, and then looks at me again. “None of the families I was assigned were lasting. I met Joe and Big at my last house, when I was seventeen. After that I took odd jobs. Waitressing mostly. I was allowed to play a gig one night…and the rest is history, I guess.”
Her confession is alarming. My first thought was how much I wanted to kill her father. How could he do that? It was unthinkable. Never in a million years would I have thought that was her story. It seemed incredibly lonely. The image I had of her—the one that had been crumbling before my eyes—fell to pieces at my feet. “You made something of yourself, E. You have what you always wanted.”
“No,” she says, laughing sadly. “I never wanted this. I never wanted to have to hide or not be able to walk down the street. I wanted to play my music, yes. But lately, that music seems to have a mind of its own. I can’t control it anymore. It just keeps getting bigger. I can’t even write a damn song.” She pauses for a moment and clears her throat. “Music has been my lifelong companion. And my fans…they are always there for me. They never leave…not like…not like…”
Her words trail off again, and it’s then I realize how close I’m standing to her. We notice our close proximity at the same moment, because her eyes widen and she leans back. “My dad showed up out of nowhere a year ago, wanting back into my life. He told me my aunt was supposed to have taken care of me. That when he left, he thought my aunt would be coming to pick me up. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. She never came.”
The fucking bastard. I swallow loudly, unsure of what to say.
“Someone wants to kill me, X,” she whispers then. “Who is it?”
“I’m going to find out.” The slight waver in my voice scares me. “I promise you.”
She smiles sadly, as if she doesn’t believe my words. I stare at her face, willing her to believe me. I feel her body tense as if she’s suddenly uncomfortable, and when she tries to jump off the counter, she slips. Before I know it, my arms are around her, just as I had imagined.
I know I should let her go. I shouldn’t be holding her, not even if she’s drunk—especially not if she’s drunk. But my upper body seems to be encased in cement, my arms unable to move.
“I’m drunk,” she states, her eyes roaming my face. “And you’re beautiful.”
The stark statement cuts through the rapid-fire thoughts running through my head, and I let out a staccato breath. She thinks I’m beautiful? I mean, I’d never had a problem getting a woman when I wanted one, but no one had ever called me beautiful. Damn it, she shouldn’t think I’m beautiful. Or at least, she shouldn’t be saying it out loud. This is wrong…the situation is careening out of my control.
But before I can get the words out, her mouth’s on mine.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone move so quickly before, and it takes a second to get my bearings. But the slight touch of her sweet lips begins registering, and my worrisome thoughts start flying out the window as I fall into the kiss. But when the hint of whiskey reaches my nose a few seconds later, I tear myself away. What the hell is happening here? What am I doing?
“No,” I tell her, backing up. “You’re drunk, and you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Her face crumples, and she hides her face in her hands. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”
Without another word, she runs out of the room and up the stairs. I take a moment to gather myself, overwhelmed at all the feelings churning and pumping the blood through my body. What the fuck was I thinking! Something like that can never, ever happen again. I’d lose my job and everything I’ve worked so hard for over the years. She isn’t even my type or anyone I could entertain starting something with, despite my recent thoughts about her beauty—about her vulnerability.
I’m disgusted with myself. Mostly because, no matter how much I try to fight it, I can’t deny I wanted to kiss her so bad that it hurt.
After about fifteen minutes, I pad up the stairs to find her. We have to talk about what had just happened. No doubt she’s feeling awkward—at least as awkward as I am—and with the situation at hand, there’s no room for any weirdness between us. E is in a lot of danger, and I won’t have her hesitating to call me or reach out to me because of some kiss. I sigh loudly, determined not to allow my thoughts to picture the kiss and what could have happened.
I hear snores as I make my way down the hallway to the bedroom. Hmm. She clearly isn’t as rattled as I am. Must be all that godforsaken whiskey. I’m definitely hiding the rest of the bottles—one drunken night was enough.
As expected, when I push open the door, she’s fast asleep. I walk over, slip her shoes off, and give Bella’s head a small pat before taking a seat in the rocking chair. I close my eyes for a few minutes, knowing I’ll wake instantly at even the slightest sound.
Sleep, however, was elusive. I was incredibly unsettled. Looking through hooded eyes at her small form on the bed, I wonder for the millionth time how in the hell I found myself in this situation. Fish out of water didn’t even begin to explain things. For Christ’s sake, I had been dealing with terrorist threats and shady politics for nearly a decade. Every day had been a planned routine. There was structure and discipline.
And now there was so much stuff I was unsure of. I mean, I wasn’t exactly hired on as a bodyguard, but it seemed that was exactly what the situation was becoming. I realized then that I couldn’t walk away from this if I tried. No one was getting anywhere near her. Especially not that damn stalker.
About ten minutes later, just as I start to drift off, I hear a light buzzing sound coming from the bed. E’s phone. She doesn’t stir, so I stride over and pick it up to see who it is. Unknown number.
My heart starts to race as I palm the phone and exit the room as quickly as I can. If this was the stalker, he had no idea what was waiting for him on the line.
“Who is this?” I ask roughly, walking toward the stairs.
“Who is this?” I growl.
“This is Joel. Who is this? And why are you answering Ellie’s phone?”
I was both relieved and disappointed it wasn’t our guy. I’d done a little research after Joel’s first visit to the house, and the timeline didn’t match up. He couldn’t have been responsible for the rock. Plus, Joel didn’t fit the personality profile, despite having motive. He was too concerned with himself and was too outspoken. I was sure E’s stalker was an introvert.
I grip the phone hard. “I thought I told you to get lost.”
Joel sighs on the other end. “Oh, it’s you. Where’s Ellie? I need to speak to her. It’s urgent.”
“What’s so urgent that you have to call her this late?”
“It’s none of your business.”
I roll my eyes toward the ceiling. “Fine. I’m hanging up now. Don’t call again.”
“Wait!” he shouts, just as I knew he would. “I just…I heard there was an incident at the arena today. I wanted to make sure she was OK. Especially after what happened on the red carpet.”
How the hell could he have heard anything? “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, don’t bullshit me. It’s all over the news. ‘Eloisa Morgan races out of the arena in the middle of rehearsal.’ A few arena workers spilled the beans, and I have to say, the rumors of why are getting quite nasty.”
“Is that all?” I reply, keeping an iron grip on my temper.
“Some say the two incidents could be related…”
“Is that all?” I repeat.
“Look,” he said, voice rising. “Eloisa and I go way back, and I want to make sure she’s all right! You don’t get to tell me that I can’t talk to her. Now give her the damn phone.”
“I’ve been given strict orders to make sure you two have no contact.”
“You can’t do that! She’d never say that!”
“Now, I’m only going to tell you this one more time. Don’t ever let me catch you calling this number again, or you’re going to have to deal with me. And I won’t be so nice next time.”
I hang up the phone and slide it into my pocket. My temper sizzles as I scroll through article after article of sordid speculation about what happened today. That damn rock-and-roll asshole was right. Word had leaked that Eloisa Rae Morgan left her sound check unexpectedly, and the gossip rags were all aflutter. There is nothing about the knife or note, however, which calms me down.
I take a moment to scroll through her texts, but there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. The grandfather clock ticks the hours away as I sit deep in thought about Eloisa and our current predicament. I also think a lot about the whiskey bottle in the kitchen.
Maybe in another life I could have enjoyed a casual drink like most adults. But in this one, the thought of taking even a small sip revolts me. I don’t deserve it, and I never will. Not after what it took from me.