I had about ten seconds until Johnny was going to call me to walk out. That meant I had about ten seconds to catch my breath and somehow pull myself together.
That moment with X was real. I know it was. There’s something between us, and I can no longer brush it aside.
There’s just something about him that touches me somewhere deep inside. Something about his tough exterior that makes me feel safe while at the same time luring me in with something so much softer underneath. So far I’ve gotten sneak peeks of his boyish grin, hearty laugh…and, sadly enough, his deep pain.
But what can I do about it? Nothing can happen between us. He’s my employee. Not to mention he’s only sticking around because there’s a psycho after me.
As my entrance music blares through the speakers, I shake off my thoughts and paste a bright smile on my face. Everything after that happens in a blur. The audience members screaming and jumping. Me waving and laughing as I walk to my chair. All of it so surreal.
I think of X’s words. He’s watching.
I embrace Johnny in a strong hug as if we’re old friends and laugh at a few of his opening jokes as I take my seat.
“Eloisa, I feel like you came out of nowhere! And now you’re about to embark on the most anticipated tour of the year. To what do you attribute your superstardom?”
I take a deep breath. “To be honest, I don’t really feel like a celebrity. I followed the music, and I was lucky enough for it to bring me here, where I am today. I know how blessed I am. But otherwise, I’m just along for the ride.”
“Uh-huh. I’ve heard you’re considered to be pretty elusive by the industry…”
I laugh. “I wouldn’t say that. I just like doing my own thing. My creative freedom means a lot to me.”
“I can understand. I lost mine years ago!”
The audience erupts in laughter, and I force myself to do the same.
“Now, let me ask you this,” he continues. “What comes to mind when you hear the name Martha Mathers?”
Of course. The snub. I knew it was coming, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. “Honestly, nothing really comes to mind. I know she’s had a lot of success in her career, and I wish her the best.”
“I hate to bring this up, but she hasn’t had the best things to say about you.”
I shrug. “I haven’t paid attention.”
Johnny laughs. “I can understand that, too! Have you seen her recently?”
“Not lately, no.”
“Well, you’re in for a surprise, because she actually called us last night and demanded we let her on the show!”
My stomach drops. “What?”
Before I can fully understand his meaning, the woman herself comes strutting out from behind the curtain. She looks like the devil wearing Prada incarnate. Flawless in her beauty, she has sleek, shoulder-length white hair and is wearing a bold, formfitting cerulean power suit. She looks nowhere near the fifty-nine I know her to be.
She also has a sickly sweet smile on her face that I’m sure matches mine. It looks as if she was coming right for me, and sure enough, her thin, pale fingers gently touch my shoulder as she air-kisses both of my cheeks.
After that awkward moment, we both sit down and look to Johnny for some sort of direction. I can’t believe they would paint me into a corner like this. The woman whom I had so heartily offended by refusing to work with her.
“Great to have you back, Martha,” Johnny starts, folding his hands on his desk. “And I have to say, you look incredible!”
“Thank you, Johnny,” Martha says with a titter, reaching up to pat her hair. “You really do know how to flatter a lady.”
“Don’t tell my wife that,” Johnny jokes, causing the audience to laugh again. It’s all I can do not to roll my eyes. I can’t believe this is the same man I met backstage.
“Anyway, anyway,” Johnny continues, catching his breath. “Martha, I hear you’ve got tickets to Eloisa’s first show?”
“I do,” Martha confirms. “I have to see what all the fuss is about, of course.”
I smile politely, trying to keep my cool. “Well, I hope you enjoy the show. It will be an honor to have you watching.”
She accepts the compliment with a nod. “Although, I hope the tour is still on?”
Oh, no. She had clearly been reading the news and heard about my hasty exit. I decide to play dumb. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Her eyes narrow. “Well, you’ve seen the news, of course. Everyone is quite concerned about what happened at the arena in Hartford.”
Johnny leans in. “Well, now that you brought it up. What happened, Eloisa?”
“Yes, what happened?” Martha croons nastily, her heeled foot bouncing up and down. “You’ve had quite a time of it lately. The red carpet incident—then this?”
I pause, unsure of what to say. I can’t tell the truth—it would put the whole investigation at risk. An idea sneaks in, and I decide to go with it. “Stomach bug. I thought I was going to lose my lunch all over the stage.”
Martha frowns. “Stomach bug?”
“That’s all there is to it,” I explain. “After getting home I had a bit of water, and now I feel much better.”
“Hmm.” Martha hums from beside me.
I can tell she doesn’t believe me, but I don’t care. The woman is out for blood, and I’m not going to offer a vein. “As we all know, the media is often full of fake news.”
After that first blow, the rest of the conversation goes a lot smoother. I was able to combat any and all subtle blows that were thrown my way by both Johnny and Martha. I was a little surprised Martha kept her claws sheathed for the most part.
My performance also went off without a hitch. I chose a light, poppy song off my album, and the audience seemed to love it. I lost myself in the words, words that I remembered writing while sitting by the ocean at my house. This is why I did this. Nothing else in the world made me as happy as sharing my music. Hoping that I was making a difference in someone’s world would also be my motivation, as music had done exactly that for me.
Midway through the song, I take a moment to glance at the crowd. A guy about my age was staring at me in what looked like adoration. Could it be him? Technically it could be anyone in this crowd. I had no idea. A shot of fear pierces my gut at the same time that a girl rests her head on his shoulder, both of them clearly enjoying the song. I let out a deep breath, relieved.
There’s another girl in the audience who catches my attention. She has a large bow in her hair, and she’s swaying her head to the beat as if transfixed. Somewhere a little behind her there’s a child in her mother’s arms, clapping along and smiling in my direction.
My fans. This is why I did this. I had to remember that.
When I finish, Johnny and the entire audience give me a standing ovation. Martha, to her credit, does clap lightly, but I see the tightness around her mouth as she stares at me. Why did that woman hate me? It’s like no one had ever told her no before.
After the show, I walk backstage thinking, all in all, I got off pretty lucky. Hopefully, I had squashed all the rumors circulating about my abrupt exit from the arena and settled any lingering questions about Martha and me. No, we would never be best friends, and I sure as hell would never work with her, but we could be in the same room and be cordial. Maybe all the press would go back to normal and focus on my music and upcoming tour instead of all the manufactured drama.
I should have known better.
As X, Sandy, and I are leaving through the back door, I hear Martha call my name. I turn just in time to see the evil glare on her face change into an expression of detachment.
“Eloisa, I’m glad I caught you,” she says, a little out of breath. She turns to look at X. “Fetch me a glass of water, please. My Evian is in that room just there.”
My hackles rise, and I suddenly want to claw her eyes out. How fucking dare she talk to him like that? Like he was nothing but hired help to aid us “important” people through life. When I turn my angry eyes to X, I notice he looks perfectly composed, as if her order didn’t bother him one bit. He raises a brow in my direction, probably at the severity of the emotion showing on my face. It’s also clear he doesn’t plan on going to fetch the woman any water. I take a deep breath. “Martha, we’re all on our way out. Is there something you wanted?”
She sniffs lightly in X’s direction when he doesn’t move, and as I knew she would, Sandy scurries off in the direction of the dressing room after a few more tense moments. I’d have to talk to that girl about dealing with awkward silences.
“There is something,” Martha begins. “Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot. That’s regrettable. However, I am willing to forgive any past transgressions between us…if…well, I assume you’ve heard about Cher Kahn?”
Of course I had. Martha had just signed the most naturally talented emcee and DJ that I and the country had ever had the pleasure of hearing. He was incredibly creative and totally progressive in his approach to harmonizing. Secretly, I was dying to work with him. “I heard you scooped him up, yes. Congratulations. He’s one of a kind.”
“Yes,” Martha says proudly. “And he’s expressed an interest in working with you.”
My palms literally begin to sweat. “Really?”
“Indeed. He’s got some beats laid out he wants you to hear. Shall I tell him you’ll be by the studio?”
Her studio, she meant. She was asking me to work with her…again. Maybe. Maybe I would have considered it if she hadn’t just treated X like scum on the bottom of her shoe. Sure, she and I could make a hit record together. And with Cher Kahn involved, I’m sure it would be the hit of the summer. But I’m making hit music on my own, and I don’t need someone like her. “Not just yet,” I tell her, hedging. “I’ll call you.”
The beast’s eyes flare, and her hands fly to her hips as if getting ready to scold me like a child. Everyone knew I’ll call you was the industry signal for fuck off. “Eloisa, I’m confused. I’m offering you the opportunity of a lifetime here.”
“I’m just not interested at this time,” I say, moving to X’s side. I hope he realizes that means I am ready to go. “Look, I need to run…”
“Don’t you dare walk out on my offer again,” she bites out, taking a few steps toward me. “I can end your career before it really begins!”
I back up into the double doors, more nervous than I should be. One door pops open slightly just as X moves in between us. “Hey, back off,” he growls at Martha, pulling me into his side. I stumble on the doorstop, but X catches me instantly. He tries to close the door again, but it’s too late.
Cameras start going off, catching me off guard. I know what it must look like. Me hiding in X’s arms with Martha glaring at us.
“Shit,” X curses under his breath. He tucks me in securely as we take off toward a waiting SUV. I hear Sandy run up behind us, and we jump into the car and manage to speed away fairly quickly.
“What a bitch!” Sandy cries angrily from the backseat. “I’m so glad you told her no.”
I watch the reporters and journalists get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. “I wouldn’t work with that woman if my career depended on it,” I answer quietly, trying to get my breath after what had just happened. Did I think she was going to attack me? No. I’m clearly just on edge these days because of everything that’s going on.
X is typing furiously on his phone. What has him so agitated? His strong jaw’s locked tight, and his leg’s bouncing up and down.
“What is it?” I ask nervously. “Did something happen?”
“I got her water like a little chump, that’s what happened!” Sandy says, her voice full of anger.
I sigh, turning away from X, who doesn’t seem like he’s going to acknowledge my question. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. She is Martha Mathers, after all.”
“I don’t care who she is,” Sandy says with a pout. “And after the way she came after you on the show? I should have let her get her own damn water.”
“Don’t let it bother you,” I say. “I’m not.” I’m more concerned about why X is so upset.
I toe my heels off and put my feet up on the large seat. What a day. All I want to do is go back to my hotel room and watch another movie, preferably with X. Oh, God. With all the commotion, I’d almost forgotten what happened between us backstage. That was something else I’d have to deal with.
He’s still typing on his phone, his eyes hidden behind a pair of black sunglasses.
“What happened?” I ask again, this time determined to get an answer.
He puts his phone down. “I’m texting Joe and Big, hoping they can stop the cameramen from releasing any of the photos they got.”
“Why? I don’t care if they have photos of me and Martha. If they think we’re still arguing, fine. I couldn’t honestly care less.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” he replies, looking exhausted.
“Well, what are you worried about?”
As if on cue, Sandy gasps from the backseat. “Perez Hilton just uploaded a photo of you!”
X picks up his phone and starts typing as I turn around. “Of what just happened? It hasn’t even been ten minutes!”
She shakes her head. “You know how fast the media works these days. You won’t believe the headline! ‘Is Eloisa Rae Morgan having an affair with her bodyguard?’”
My mouth drops open, and I snatch the phone from her. “No way.”
Sure enough, the photo isn’t centered around Martha and me; it’s centered on me and X. My arms are around him, and my face is tilted up, looking at him in adoration. I remember that moment. At the time I was just looking to him to follow his lead. There are already tons of comments:
Holy sh*t that man is fine!
Thank God she didn’t go crawling back to Joel!
Aw, I’m happy for her.
My goodness. The media would seriously do anything for a story. I mean, I guess it could have been worse. And this was almost better than them harping on the story about Martha and me.
But when I turn to X, he looks furious.
I blink, confused by his expression. “What is it?”
“That damn story,” he growls. “This is the worst possible thing that could have happened.”
His words sting, and I bristle, crossing my arms over my chest. “I’m sorry that rumor is so distasteful to you.”
He finally puts his phone down and turns to look at me. “What are you talking about?”
“Clearly you’re salty because you don’t want to appear as if we’re romantically connected!”
“Salty? What does that mean?”
“You’ve been agitated since we got into this car,” I tell him, unable to help myself from leaning in. “And now you look angrier than I’ve ever seen you.”
“Because I was afraid this would happen,” he snaps back. “Your stalker is going to see those photos—a photo of you connected to another man—and lose his shit.”
Sandy gasps again, and the car falls silent.
“I didn’t think of it that way,” I say quietly.
“It may be a trigger for him. It may set him off. I was texting Joe and Big, hoping they could prevent what I knew would look like racy photos from getting out, but we were too late.”
Sandy shrugs. “But even if it is a trigger, Ellie is safe. No one knows she’s at the hotel. And no one can get to her—not with you around, anyway.”
“We’re not safe until he’s behind bars,” X says, looking out the window. “We can’t let our guard down.”
Sandy reaches into her bag and begins organizing her things, something I know she only does when she’s nervous. I eye the blond wig, waiting for me on the floor, and sigh inwardly. When would this be over? I don’t know how much more I can take. I feel a flare of anger take hold.
“Well, then let him lose his shit!” I shout. “He doesn’t own me! I’m tired of making decisions to combat his craziness. If I want to date my bodyguard, I will damn well date my bodyguard!”
Even behind his sunglasses, I can tell X’s eyes go wide at my words. I hear a small giggle from the backseat, and even the driver turns around and smiles. Embarrassment creeps in over the anger, but I try to mask it. “Why are you all looking at me like I’m crazy?”
“We’re not. I support whatever you want to do. In fact, I think you and X would make a great couple.” Sandy catches my eyes in the rearview mirror, and I glare at her. Way to make things awkward! The little traitor.
X’s lips twitch when he looks at me, and I wonder if it’s because my cheeks are turning bright red, per usual. “You know what I meant,” I say. “I’m tired of letting this guy run my life.”
“I know, E,” Sandy replies, smothering a smile. “I was just kidding.”
X runs a hand over his short-cropped hair and blows out a breath. “I know things must feel suffocating. It’s been a long few days, but we have to make sure we stay two steps ahead of him at all times.”
“Well, Sandy was right. He has no idea where I am, and I’m not afraid of him when I’ve got you.”
The words feel good coming out of my mouth, mostly because they’re true. I do feel safe with X. He started out as a huge—pun intended—abrasive annoyance in my life, but he turned into my lifeline. My face in that picture says it all.
As we ride back to Connecticut, several more articles go up with photos of X and me. Different angles, but same story. Eloisa Rae Morgan is officially rumored to be having a scandalous affair with her bodyguard.
I briefly think of Joel, and for the first time since we broke up, I feel a sense of peace. How could I ever have dated a man like him for so long? He wasn’t my type at all. My eyes are drawn to X and his incredibly handsome face. He could have been a movie star with those looks. But here he was following after me.
I shove the wig on my head when we pull up to the hotel. We reach the back door without any problems, and once we get to the room, I flop on the couch, kicking off my heels. Bellatrix jumps on my lap, and I cuddle her close. Poor thing has probably been so lonely by herself in this unfamiliar place.
Sandy sits on the couch beside me, and X disappears into his bedroom.
“I can’t believe you said that!” I hiss, referencing Sandy’s comment about X and me in the car. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life!”
Her eyes twinkle. “What? It’s true. X is hot. You’re hot. You would make a great couple. Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.”
I decide not to lie. “I…sort of.” She squeals, and I throw a pillow at her. “Be quiet! He’ll hear you.”
“Once this whole stalker thing is finished, I think you should go for it,” she whispers.
“Um, you’re forgetting something,” I deadpan. “He’s completely, one hundred percent not into me.”
“Bullshit. Everyone is into you.”
I roll my eyes. “They’re not, and him especially. He’s too hung up on being my employee.” I tell her briefly about my drunken attack on him back at his cabin, and her eyes brighten.
“I bet he really wanted to kiss you but felt he couldn’t. I bet that’s what happened.”
“Either way,” I tell her, “I doubt it will go anywhere from here.”
Which is depressing because of my crush, but I keep that thought to myself. I do, however, tell her about a couple of more humiliating incidents: X walking in on me in the shower; me revealing I haven’t had sex in over a year.
She falls into a fit of giggles. “I think you like him, Ellie.”
I sigh, not really wanting to say it out loud.
She leans in to pet Bella. “It’s nice, you know. To see your attention directed elsewhere. Joel is such a dingbat. If we never see him again, it would be too soon.”
I can’t help but agree. “I thought the same thing myself in the car. It’s weird I haven’t heard from him, though. There’s never been this much radio silence.”
Sandy shrugs. “Let’s just count it as a blessing.”
I feel my stomach growl. “I’m starving. I wish we could go to Athens Restaurant.”
“Why can’t we?”
“I doubt X will let us leave the hotel.”
His voice makes us both jump. He’s standing over the couch, his face showing a hint of regret. “If the story about us having an affair dies down in the next couple of days, we can go. But we need to keep a low profile right now.”
Bella, at the sight of X, jumps out of my arms and into his. She definitely likes him more than me.
X catches her effortlessly, as if her jumping into his arms is no big deal, and walks toward the phone. “What do you guys want?”
We end up ordering over a hundred dollars’ worth of food. And it isn’t just X with the large appetite. After all the drama of the day, I’m ready to feast. We order a chicken parm dish, a penne vodka dish, two Caesar salads, and a couple of appetizers with the intent to share. I also order a large bowl of chocolate ice cream for dessert. My number-one weakness in life.
When I used to do the fan brunches at my house, someone always brought a gift of chocolate ice cream. It was a well-known tradition. Everyone knew it was my favorite. I thought of those fan brunches and hoped they weren’t a thing of past. I knew X would never allow one now. The thought was depressing.
X and I set up the table while Sandy kept us updated with what was going on with social media. Apparently there are some very unhappy reactions to the news that X and I are “dating.”
“Can you catalog anyone that seems especially angry?” X asks as he makes his way to the door. “You never know.”
Sandy nods and gives him a small wave as he leaves to get the food. “I think we need to put up another neutral picture of you—calm everyone down. They really loved the one we took in the lobby here.”
“We’ll take another one after dinner,” I agree. “Maybe something that focuses on the performance today. I really want to bring it back to the music.”
X returns a few minutes later with the food, and we all inhale it, exhausted from the long day. I can’t wait to dig into that ice cream, so I grab it from the fridge when we’re finished and walk over to the couch to enjoy it in full relaxation mode.
I put my spoon in and take my first delectable bite. Delicious. It isn’t until my second bite that I begin to choke.