I try not to hang up on one of my contacts as he relays the bad news. Still. Nothing.
I knew I should have gone to the house myself. Clearly my team is fucking incompetent. As soon as the words enter my consciousness, I know they aren’t true, and I take a deep breath to calm myself down.
If I trusted anyone else to watch over E, I would have gone to her house myself. Maybe they overlooked something. Maybe the stalker left something behind that they weren’t picking up on. I pride myself on my instincts, and they haven’t really failed me yet.
How could one man attack a goddamned celebrity on a red carpet without being seen, and then break into her property without leaving a fucking trace? How was it possible? Who was he?
I down a glass of water and register E’s presence over my shoulder.
“Rob called,” she says quietly. “He said he tried to call you first but…”
“I ignored it.” I knew Rob was just going to bitch about E’s schedule, and my mind wasn’t in the right place to listen to him right now.
E laughs quietly. “He wants to know what the deal is for Crenshaw.”
It had been a few hours since we’d gotten back from visiting my old tree house, and while E had been upstairs locked in a room with her guitar, I’d been coming up with a plan to make that happen for her. I knew she didn’t want to miss it.
“We’ll be leaving here within the hour,” I say, surprising her. “I’ve rented a room at the Radisson. The suite on the top floor. I don’t want you going back to your house right now.”
Something about that sentence makes her sad. Does she want to return home? Does the thought of staying at a hotel scare her? Her big green eyes blink a few times as if clearing tears, and then she nods. “I’ll start gathering my things.”
I watch her walk away, damning myself that I didn’t ask her what was wrong. But besides my father, I wasn’t sure that I had ever asked anyone about their feelings. I didn’t think I had it in me. But if that was the case, why did I feel so shitty?
After locking up the cabin, I watch in amusement as E and Sandy run toward each other like long-lost lovers. I’d decided to have her, Joe, and Big meet us here as a surprise for E—to cheer her up—after I got some final clarification on a few things in their backgrounds. I’d been 99 percent sure they were innocent, but I had to be certain. Sometimes stalkers were hidden in plain sight, after all. So here they were—hopefully they were able to follow my directions.
The two friends laughed and gripped each other tight, and when they were done, Joe swooped her up and gave her just as big of a hug. I rolled my eyes. Did he really have to hold her for that long?
I walk over and clear my throat loudly to get everyone’s attention, trying to hide the annoyance on my face. How would I ever explain that? The joy from their reunion simmers down a bit at my loud interruption, and an unfamiliar thrill spirals through me when E returns to stand by my side.
“Joe, did you bring what I asked?”
He nods, shrugging off a backpack. “Michonne already had one on hand.”
“Had what?” asks E, trying to see what’s in his backpack. Her eyes widen when she sees the long, blond wig. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Sandy wrings her hands. “We’re going to use it to sneak you into the hotel. As far as we know, no one knows that you’ve rented out the suite. X said we don’t want word of your whereabouts to get out…”
Sandy’s nervous eyes meet mine. “She’s right,” I say. “For right now, we still want to keep your location a secret.” I eye the phone clutched tightly in Sandy’s hand. “So that means no social media posts.”
Sandy pouts, and Joe swings a meaty arm over her shoulder, which she quickly shoves off. Those two are so odd together.
E fingers her pretty lavender locks. “But won’t people get suspicious anyway when they see three large SUVs show up? They’ll start snooping around, and I’m sure they’ll figure it out.”
I shake my head. “It will just be one SUV, as you, Sandy, and I are the only ones staying at this particular hotel. And we’re going to be entering through a back door. I’m confident we can go two nights uninterrupted.”
The sad look washes over E’s face again, but she doesn’t comment.
Sandy notices, too, and links her arm through E’s. “This is all going to be figured out, Ellie. Right, X?”
I nod stiffly. “We all just have to be diligent. And I don’t think I have to remind anyone to keep me informed of any little thing that seems out of the ordinary.” Sandy, E, and Big nod and start walking toward the waiting SUVs. Joe hangs back, and I wait patiently for him to get what he wants to say off his chest.
“Have you thought of drawing this guy out somehow? Making it easy for him?”
I cross my arms, knowing where this is going. “You mean using E as bait.”
He pales a bit. “Or a lookalike. Just…make him come out of his damn hidey-hole.”
I don’t have time to discuss the full stupidity of that plan, and I force myself to keep my voice light. “There are probably many men across the country right now who have a desire to harm E. That’s the sick, sad reality. Some because they have sexual fetishes, some because they hate women. Whichever category our bastard falls into, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish him from the crowd just yet. He needs to show us his cards first.”
I walk away, vowing that I’ll do everything in my power to force his fucking hand.
I stare out the front window from the passenger side of the SUV as E scrambles around in the backseat, trying to arrange her disguise.
“You make quite the blonde,” Sandy jokes in response to E’s grunting. “I think it’s a good look for you.”
“This sweat suit is two sizes too big,” I hear E say. “Not to mention it’s the middle of July and a little hot to be buried in this thing. That in itself will draw attention to me.”
We’d just arrived at the hotel ten minutes earlier, and so far we were the only ones parked in the lot behind the building. It was a good sign, but I wasn’t going to be too careful. My eyes dart around as I try to spot any sign of life. There’s nothing.
Why then, did I have such a strange feeling in my stomach?
With about forty floors, the hotel was one of the largest in the state. Not only was it smack in the middle of downtown Stamford, but it was home to a popular Brazilian restaurant chain, along with a few small vendors, which made it a buzzy spot for businesspeople and revelers alike.
I chose it so E could blend in, and I was hoping for just the right amount of busy. Too many people could be a problem, and too little even more so. That must be what had me so on edge. I check my phone again, waiting for a status update from the man I had inside the building.
“Whew!” E blows out a breath from the backseat. I take a look in my rearview mirror and see that she’s fanning herself. I blink twice, suppressing a small chuckle. The outfit is nearly swallowing her whole. The blond wig, however, looks flattering. Although I can’t help but miss the sight of her pastel locks.
Oh, God, what’s happening to me?
My phone dings. It’s one of the guys from the security team.
“All clear. There’s some teenagers hanging in the staircase—take her through the lobby to the elevators. Room 4040.”
I turn in my seat. “Ready?”
She nods. “Should I grab my bags?”
“I’ll have one of the guys do it. We’re going through the lobby to elevators on the south side. Act casual.”
I jump out of the car and stride around to her side, opening the door and grabbing her hand as soon as she comes out.
“What the—? X, at least loosen your grip; this looks too obvious.”
I try to do as she asks, but the churning in my stomach has my grip tightening even more instead. I sense E’s questioning gaze, but I ignore it. Sandy closes the door behind us, and the three of us make our way across the parking lot.
After going through a series of empty hallways, we come out into the lobby. Scanning the room, I make a mental note that nothing seems out of the ordinary. Which doesn’t mean anything. Feeling eyes on me, my gaze travels to the desk, where a man in a suit is whispering to a woman behind a computer. He lifts a hand in greeting. The manager.
The guys told the staff the bare minimum. They know a celebrity is staying in a suite over the weekend, but they don’t know who. Right now, I can tell he’s trying to discern who E is from a distance.
I let go of E’s hand. “I’m going to go speak with the manager. You two stay here.”
E’s admiring a large, colorful painting and nods imperceptibly.
I stride away, keeping my eyes on the manager. He straightens as he watches my approach.
“Welcome,” he says when I stop at the front desk. “Your room is ready for you.”
“Have my colleagues discussed the circumstances of our stay?” I know someone had, but I wanted this man to see my face as he repeated it back to me. A lot of men stronger-willed than he have wavered under my stare, so why not use it to my advantage?
He nods. “I assure you, we are most discreet here. And I will personally deliver any meals—”
“That won’t be necessary,” I interrupt. “I’ll be coming down to get any food we may need.”
The man deflates a little, and I watch his eyes look over my shoulder, so I move a couple of inches to block his view. His eyes fly to mine, and I know then my message is clear. Maybe I’m overdoing it, but I can’t take chances when it comes to E’s safety. That’s how I was trained, and I’m not going to examine any reasoning beyond that.
“Well, please let us know how we can assist you further,” he says stiffly. “We here at Radisson put the comfort of our guests above all else.”
I hand him a card. “Call me immediately if you see anything or anyone suspicious.”
When I walk back over to E and Sandy, they’re giggling and looking at Sandy’s phone. E’s eyes are bright with happiness, and an unexpected warm feeling settles in my chest. That’s been happening a lot more lately. I chalk it up to knowing her a bit better now, but that explanation doesn’t seem to sit right.
“Elevators are this way,” I say. “Sandy, your room will be connected to ours.”
“We’re staying in the same room?” E asks.
I throw her an incredulous look, surprised she hasn’t gotten the memo by now. She mumbles something under her breath as we walk toward the elevators, and I do my best to hide a smile. A part of me still likes pushing her buttons.
Our room is pretty luxurious, and E flops on the white leather couch as soon as we get inside. Sandy scurries off to her own room to settle in.
“I have so many e-mails,” E moans as she scrolls through her phone. “And Rob is going to kill me for ignoring his calls.”
“I’ve been keeping him updated,” I tell her. “He’s super busy with the tour. You two can catch up later if you don’t feel like calling right now.”
“I was looking forward to doing this talk show,” E says sadly. “It was supposed to be about promoting my tour…but now…”
Everyone would want to talk about what happened on the red carpet. Everyone would be interested to know the truth about why she ran from the arena. “It’s nobody’s business. Just say you don’t want to talk about anything but your music. If that doesn’t work, say you were feeling a little lightheaded and had to call it quits for the day. A white lie never hurt anyone. Chances are our guy will be watching for any indication that he’s gotten to you.”
E closes her eyes as if she is gathering strength. “But he has gotten to me.”
“Don’t let him. We’re going to figure this out,” I tell her forcefully. “We just have to be on our guard until then.”
She nods, reaching up and fingering the blond wig on her head. “Can I take this off now?”
I watch as she peels the wig from her forehead and places it on the coffee table. Her own hair underneath tumbles down, the pretty lavender strands a bit sweaty and a few shades darker. “I’m going to take a shower.”
She gets up but then pauses before the entrance to the hallway. “Are you hungry?” she asks.
I give her a quick nod. “I’ll order some food. Steak sound good?”
“It sounds amazing.”
I take a moment to gather myself once E disappears down the hallway. There are so many thoughts stampeding through my mind. A part of me wants to give the duty of watching E to someone else, so I can concentrate on catching the damn bastard who’s stalking her. But another part of me—a part I can hardly recognize—doesn’t want to let her out of my sight. It’s a hidden part that’s beginning to cause me extreme anxiety. I have to be honest and admit that I want to be around her because I like her, and the icing on that cake is the fact that I’m shamefully attracted to her. Attracted to not only her looks, but also her bravery. Her story.
I put my head in my hands, knowing that the situation is becoming complicated and there is nothing I can do to stop it. In a way, I’m losing focus. I’m losing objectivity. And in matters of life or death, there’s nothing more dangerous.