Coming down the stairs the next morning is an exercise in self-control. In other words, I basically have to force myself. How. Embarrassing.
Unfortunately for me, I am not someone who doesn’t remember things while drinking. I remember every detail of last night. Particularly vomiting the sob story of my childhood, assaulting X, and making a fool of myself. I honestly don’t know what came over me. I remember feeling so low over the events of the day and everything going on. I remember the whiskey went down really easily. I remember pressing my mouth to his without any warning whatsoever. Good God. How was I going to face him?
I hear dishes clanking in the kitchen, and when I walk in, his back’s to me, and a towel’s thrown over his shoulder. It’s strangely domestic.
“Good morning,” he says without turning around. “I left some Advil on the table.”
“Oh, thank you.” I feel OK, but I grab the Advil anyway to avoid talking, downing it with the glass of water he left beside the pills.
I watch him divide some scrambled eggs between two plates that already hold toast and bacon. It smells delicious, so I tell him so.
He doesn’t answer. Just grabs the plates and places them on the counter. I follow without a word and sit down, taking another sip of water in an effort to avoid meeting his eyes.
X apparently has other plans. He shifts in his seat on the stool so he’s facing me, and there’s a small tilt to his lips. “You kissed me last night.”
The man clearly needs a lesson in subtlety. “I know. I’m sorry. I have no idea what I was thinking. Well, I was drunk, so clearly I wasn’t.”
He holds up a hand to stop me. “It’s fine. I just need your word that something like that won’t happen again.”
That gives me pause. OK. “Of course it won’t. I wasn’t in my right mind. I would have never, ever done that otherwise. Trust me. You’re not my type.”
He scoops some eggs on his fork and raises a brow at my overly emphatic statement. My hackles rise. “Did you have to mention that first thing in the morning? Can’t a girl eat her breakfast before facing her humiliation of the night before?”
He ignores my comment. Then to my surprise, he leans down and gives my ever-hungry dog a few scraps of food. “We have to stay here another day. There’s no leads.”
My stomach drops, and I place the piece of toast I’m eating back on my plate. “Nothing?”
X chews his food for a moment before answering, and I watch his strong jaw work up and down. “Nothing. But I want you to know everyone is doing everything they can. And right now, I feel safest with you here.”
I sigh. “I’m on Crenshaw tomorrow night. I can’t miss it.”
X grunts. “You think a talk show is more important than your safety?”
“Of course not. But I can’t let this psycho ruin my life. What if it’s just some troll living under a bridge? I…I’ve worked too hard to get where I am. This tour means a lot to me.”
I try to mask the sadness in my voice and bravely meet X’s eyes when he looks over. The brown orbs roam my face, and I have a sense that he’s remembering everything I told him last night.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he answers roughly.
“So what are your plans for the day?” he asks next.
“No idea,” I say, shrugging. “Trying to write my song seems useless. I’ve got a serious case of writer’s block.”
He nods, standing up and grabbing our plates to bring to the sink. His next question comes out of left field. “Do you want to see one of my favorite places? It might give you a bit of inspiration.”
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the question embarrassed him. He busied himself with the dishes and didn’t look at me when he asked. The thought makes me smile, and I realize that is exactly what I want to do. Not only would it give me a look into his mind, but it would get me out of this house.
“Heck yeah! I’ll get my coat,” I say before jumping out of my seat and running out of the kitchen.
I could have sworn I heard a small chuckle, but that was probably just my imagination.
And then there I was, trekking through the woods with X on an unseasonably brisk morning.
The trees here are impossibly green and large, and an oversize, sweet-looking bunny bounds across our path, earning a laugh from me and what I think is a smile from X.
My troubles seem to melt away under the sun, and I lose myself in not just nature, but X’s company.
He’s different out here, too, his face not so tight with stress and worry as it usually is. But one glance at his hunched shoulders tells me he’s still carrying something around, something that’s weighing heavily on his mind. I think back to the woman in the chest and wonder what possibly could have happened.
Several scenarios run through my head. Is she missing? Did she pass away? Did something terrible happen and there was nothing he could do to stop it? I knew right away a man like X would not like to feel helpless. Perhaps the memory of being unable to save her haunted him.
I peek over at him from the corner of my eye. What other secrets does this big man keep inside? Does he have anyone to confide in at all? My curiosity gets the better of me.
“It’s incredible out here. How long has this place been in your family?”
He purses his lips. “My grandfather bought it back in the forties. My father had been keeping up with the place, but it looks like he hasn’t been out here for a while.”
The question hangs in the air, so I decide to take hold. “Oh?”
“He’s sick. Cancer.”
I stop short. “Oh my God. X…I’m sorry.”
He nods, accepting my words as he stops beside me. “He lives in Stamford. I’ve been visiting him on Sundays.”
So that’s where he goes during his three hours off. “Is it bad…is he…?” I don’t know how to phrase the morbid question and stumble to find the right words.
To my surprise, he laughs. “They shorten his timeline every time he goes to the doctor, but each time I see him, he’s in better spirits than the last. In fact, he went out on a date last week.”
His eyes light up, and I grasp at the happier line of conversation. “That’s wonderful. He sounds like a strong-willed man, staying positive like that.”
“He is. And he’s happy that I’m back in Connecticut. I didn’t get to see him as much when I lived in DC.”
He gives me a self-deprecating smile, and I imagine my location was probably one of the main reasons he decided to take this job. I try not to let that thought sting as I begin walking again.
“He’s a big fan of yours, you know.”
I can’t help but smile. “Really?”
X nods, a small smile on his perfectly formed lips. “He really likes your music. I think he may be a little jealous that I’m working for you.”
I laugh. “How nice. Well, let him know that I appreciate him as a fan. Maybe I can meet him sometime.”
X cuts in front of me with a mumble about leading the way, and I let my mind wander as I trail behind. So his dad is sick…and his mom, who knows? I hold these two small nuggets of information close as we make our way silently through the thick forest.
After another ten minutes, X stops in front of me. He waves me over without looking behind him, and when I walk up and peer over his shoulder, I stop short. Oh my God.
I bark out a laugh. “A tree house?”
He shifts on his feet. “I remember it being a lot bigger.”
I take in the old, dilapidated fortress sitting high in the tree and picture a small X peeking out of its windows. A little boy’s dream. I can’t resist a little teasing. “It does look like the perfect thinking place.”
He gives me a sardonic smile—then walks over to touch a piece of wood that’s nailed into the trunk. “My dad wouldn’t let me get one of those rope ladders, so he did this instead.”
I reach out and touch the wood myself in response to his comment. “So what did little Xavier Cannon think about when he was up here?”
He shrugs, shielding his eyes from the sun as he peers up at the house. “Fighting off cops and robbers, Indians and cowboys, terrorists and corrupt government officials.”
“So not much has changed,” I joke.
He laughs. Dear God. He laughs. The sound is rich and deep, and a thrill goes up my spine. Holy crap. My eyes find his lips of their own volition and linger there, observing where that wonderful sound originated. He clears his throat, and my eyes jerk to his, caught.
Luckily X doesn’t mention my staring. God, he probably thinks I’m wanton. Jumping him last night and then gazing at him like a lustful schoolgirl. I push all those thoughts out of my brain, not wanting to face the truth of what is really going on.
“Well,” he continues, “I was hoping I could take you up there and check it out, but that’s not happening. The place hasn’t really held up over the years.”
I click my tongue and give him a smile. “Too bad. I was hoping for some honest-to-God tree house inspiration.”
Instead of taking the joke for what it was, he looks at me seriously. “What do you think the problem is?”
I shrug. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve never really had a problem coming up with original love songs before, but since the attack, my creative brain has gone into hiding.”
X looks at me thoughtfully. “Well, you’re different now. Something like that changes a person. Why don’t you write about something new?”
“What do you mean?”
He crosses his arms as if uncomfortable making the suggestion. “You have a lot of love songs. Why don’t you switch it up? What do you hate?”
Instead of waiting for an answer, he leaves me standing by the trunk as he makes his way back to the clearing. After a moment, I jog over to catch up with him. “Something I hate?”
He keeps his back to me, but I see his shoulders jump up and down quickly. “Yeah, but don’t take my word for it. I don’t know anything about songwriting.”
A smile crawls across my lips as we walk in silence back toward the house. How very wrong he was.