I’m looking at my phone when E starts gagging. Sandy and I both look over in alarm and see that she’d dropped the ice cream all over the floor.
I run over to the couch, ready to pound her on the back if need be. But then…time seems to slow. I watch in horror as she puts two fingers inside her mouth and pulls a clump of God knows what from her throat, still gagging. What the fuck?
Sandy screams as the clump of something chocolate-covered drops on the couch. E runs out of the room, hand over her mouth.
I run around the couch and look closer at the clump, my heart seizing in my chest. Bellatrix is barking and goes for it, but Sandy scoops the little dog up and runs to follow E. I bend down to get a closer look, and my fears are confirmed.
A clump of hair. Blond hair. I grab the ice cream dish, and my hand touches a piece of paper. Taped to the bottom is a note with one word.
Anger and fear war inside me, and I just stop myself from smashing the bowl against the wall into a million pieces. The fucker is on a different level. How was he able to do this? How did he know where E was staying? How did he know about the blond wig?
I run into the bathroom, where E is currently throwing up her dinner into the toilet.
“Was that hair?” Sandy’s shouting, her free hand rubbing E’s back. “Tell me it wasn’t hair!”
“Let’s pack our bags,” I say, my voice somehow staying level.
E, white as a ghost, turns her eyes to mine. “Why was there hair?” she chokes out. “Did someone…is it a joke…a mistake?”
“It wasn’t a mistake. There was a note.”
I have no desire to keep the truth from either of them, and both catch on to my meaning immediately. E’s eyes fill with tears, and Sandy’s hand flies to her mouth.
“How…?” E whispers, heavy tears dropping from both eyes.
Guilt pumps through my system, but I try to drown it out with reason. “I have no fucking idea. He must have followed us here and seen us enter the building.”
E empties her stomach again, and I race back into the living room to grab my phone. I call the FBI immediately to update them on the situation, and then I call the local police. Then I get Joe and Big on the line.
“What the fuck!” Joe shouts. “Hair?”
“Human hair?” I hear Big demand from the background.
“I don’t think so,” I say, examining it again. “It looks synthetic. I think it’s a nod to the wig she’s been wearing.”
“Fuck,” Joe hisses. “This is bad. Do you think it’s the same guy?”
“How the hell was he able to get that into her food?”
“That’s what I need you two for. Get here as soon as you can to meet the police. Somehow he got into the fucking kitchens, and I want to know how. Then I want camera footage pulled and sent to my phone.” My heart’s thumping angrily in my throat. It’s almost hard for me to catch my breath, but I need to stay calm for the girls. “I’m getting her out of here, so I need you two to watch over Sandy, too.”
The phone goes silent for a second, and a question that’s been plaguing me from the beginning slips out. “How did he know? How did he know the ice cream was for her?”
“Everyone knows Ellie loves chocolate ice cream,” Joe answers sadly. “It’s her thing. He probably assumed and got lucky.”
I hang up with them a few minutes later, desperate for answers. I think back to when I got the food from downstairs, but the manager was only too happy to hand it to me. I want to go down to the kitchens myself and take all their heads off, but there’s no fucking way I’m leaving E’s side.
I walk back toward the bathroom and find E leaning up against the tub, her arms around her legs. Sandy and Bellatrix are both pacing the floor.
“I’m really scared,” Sandy says, her small frame shaking. “How is this possible? How did this happen? He’s fucking crazy!”
I give her a look and have her follow me out into the hallway. “We need to stay calm for E,” I tell her. “I need you to take a few deep breaths and relax. Can you do that for me?”
She nods and swallows loudly. “Are we really leaving? Should I go pack our bags?”
“Yes,” I tell her. “I want to leave within the hour.”
She picks up Bellatrix and disappears into the master bedroom. Once she’s gone, I put my head on the wall and take a deep breath, trying to gather myself before facing E. Why the fuck couldn’t I keep her safe? This was all my fault! I bite my tongue until I taste blood and then manhandle myself into composure. Now is not the time for me to lose it.
When I walk inside the bathroom, she’s running her fingers through her hair. I kneel down in front of her and fight the urge to grab her into my arms with an ironclad force of will.
“I know you have questions,” I say quietly. “I sure as fuck do, too. But I want you to know both the FBI and the police are on the way, and we’re going to leave as soon as our bags are packed.”
She puts the back of her hand against her mouth. “I can still taste it,” she whispers. “The hair. I knew it was hair the second it hit my mouth.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, unable to help myself, showing her a vulnerable side of me I haven’t before. I can’t help it; her face is breaking my heart. “I’m so sorry, E.”
My words don’t seem to comfort her, because she starts sobbing. Next thing I know, her arms are around my neck, and she’s crying into my shoulder. Fuck it. I wrap my arms around her small waist and grip her tight, desperate to give her whatever comfort I can.
My hand runs in small circles over her lower back for a few minutes, and her cries quiet. I’m overwhelmed by her scent, her heated skin. She snuggles closer, and I shock myself when I realize I’m nuzzling into her hair.
Sandy clears her throat from the doorway, and we break apart.
“Bags are packed,” she says, sounding unsure.
“Do I have time for a shower?” E asks.
I nod, even though I don’t want her here for another minute. But at this point I don’t think I’d have refused her anything. A loud pounding sounds at the door, so I leave the girls in the bathroom and shut the door.
Anxious as all hell, I check the peephole before yanking open the door to let the cops in. After demanding they show me their badges, I lead them over to the note and the clump of hair.
The hotel room is filled with people within fifteen minutes. Joe texts me that he and Big have just arrived and are heading for the kitchens. Goddamn, I wanted to go down there myself.
I hear a commotion at the door; it’s someone shouting and demanding to be let in. I race over to see the manager of the hotel. His face is bright red, and he is nearly in tears. He blanches when he sees my face.
“I…I don’t know what happened!” he stammers nervously. “Never in the history of this establishment! Is it true? Was there something in the food? Is everyone OK?”
“Let him in,” I tell the cops.
The manager tries to straighten his tie as he walks over. I want to strangle him with the thing. “Everyone is fine,” I force myself to say. “But there was something foreign in the food.”
His eyes go wide, and he tries to respond, but I cut him off. “What do you know about this?”
“Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Our food is of the finest quality, and this is the first time something like this has ever happened, I assure you!”
My phone rings, and I glance at the screen. Joe.
“What is it?” I demand.
“Sketchy-looking motherfucker down here with a wad of cash. We saw him trying to sneak out the back. Not our guy, but he’s guilty of something.”
“How do you know he’s not?” I ask.
“Old. Terrified of his own shadow. That sound like our guy to you?”
“Question him and get back to me.”
“Already on it.”
The line goes dead, and I direct my attention back to the manager. “You got drug deals going on in this hotel? Because if that’s the case, I’ll fucking have this place shut down faster than you can take your next breath.”
A couple of the policemen come over to stand next to me, interested in the exchange.
“Absolutely not!” the manager replies, completely affronted. “I am insulted you’d suggest such a thing!”
“Anyone in your kitchens hard up for cash?” I ask, a picture of what might have happened starting to form in my head.
But it’s clear the manager doesn’t know how to answer that question, because his mouth opens and closes like a damn fish. Finally, he seems to find some courage. “I want to know what happened now! I have a right to know!”
My arms cross over my chest. “Who knows that Eloisa is here?”
A panicked look crosses his face. “I only just found out it was her myself! My assistant put the pieces together. I only informed the people who absolutely had to know!”
“Who absolutely had to know?”
“Well, my front desk staff, of course. And the kitchen staff. I wanted only the finest food prepared, so I made sure they knew who they were serving!”
Things were starting to fall together.
“Get him out of here,” I say, walking back toward the couch.
My boss calls then, and I spend a few minutes getting him up-to-date before Joe beeps in.
“Dishwasher,” Joe says when I pick up. “He knew Eloisa was staying here and which room.”
“Someone wearing a blond wig came up to him out back while he was smoking a cigarette. Offered him $1,000 for her room number.”
“Fuck.” My blood was boiling.
“Dishwasher Dan had a burst of conscience and said no, but he was unable to walk away from the cash, so he made a deal. He let the guy go into the kitchens and leave a note on her tray instead. Said today was his last day, so he didn’t have to worry about losing his job.”
“What a guy,” I deadpan.
“My guess is he slipped it in then. He left immediately after.”
“What did this guy look like?”
“Said he didn’t get a good look at him. But said the voice was high and strange, as if this guy was trying to disguise it. Short. Dressed in a large hoodie and jeans.”
I get off the phone five minutes later and go to update everyone in the living room. The action items become pulling the camera footage and taking dishwasher Dan to the station. I pray there’s a solid image of the hooded stranger somewhere.
After all that is in place, I go to find E. She and Sandy are huddled on the bed, freshly showered and surrounded by their luggage. I take a few minutes to tell them what I’ve learned.
“He’s desperate,” I say. “The images today must have set him off, just as I thought. What I don’t understand is how he knew we were here.”
Sandy and E look at each other with guilty expressions. Sandy hands me her phone. “We were just talking about that. We think it was the picture we posted the day we got here. We made sure to keep her face out of it, but he might have recognized the lobby.”
I remember then coming back from talking to the manager that first day and seeing the two of them looking at their phones.
I swallow my anger as I grab the phone and look at the picture. Sure enough, the image is of E’s shirt and the lobby in the background. The huge chandelier, the paintings, the restaurant…a little research and anyone could have deduced where we were. Especially someone who was already in the area.
“I’m sorry,” E whispers. “I didn’t think. I knew enough to keep my wig out of it, but…I didn’t realize.”
“Someone is stalking you,” I say forcefully. “This gave him a path right to us. No more damn social media photos.”
They both nod, and I take a deep breath, willing myself to calm down. “This isn’t anyone’s fault. But you have to measure every move you make from now on.”
Hopefully, the cameras will give us some answers, and we’ll get this bastard, but while he’s still out there, we have to be incredibly careful.”
“So what now?” Sandy asks, her face filled with guilt.
“You’re going with Joe and Big,” I answer. “They’re downstairs and should be up soon. E and I are leaving.”
“Where are we going?” E asks nervously.
I pull out my phone. “My father’s.”
To say that my father was excited that E and I were coming would be an understatement. As I didn’t take the time to explain the truth behind our visit over the phone, he wasn’t aware of the situation and therefore could not contain his enthusiasm.
E and I leave the hotel room ten minutes later, bags in hand. She has a large jacket on with the hood pulled up to cover her face. She hasn’t said a word since I told her that we’re going to my father’s. I have no idea how she feels about it, but it’s a safe place for us both to regroup.
We just have to make sure we aren’t followed.
E and I jump into one black SUV while Joe and Big jump in another. We ride the streets together for almost half an hour, switching lanes and trying to confuse anyone who might be following us. After I’m sure we’re alone, I give the driver my father’s address.
E is silent, staring out the window, her chin resting on her fist. A bottle of water perches precariously on her lap. I have never seen her look so defeated.
“Hey,” I say, my voice carrying in the thick silence. “You OK?”
After a moment, she shrugs in response. “I honestly don’t know.”
“I want you to know something,” I tell her seriously. “I know it may be hard to be believe, due to what happened tonight, but I would never, ever let anyone hurt you. Do you understand?”
She turns to look at me, and I feel a thump of yearning in my chest. I want to reach out and touch her face, wipe the streaks of tears I see. “I know that.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, staring into her eyes. “I wasn’t careful enough, I—”
She shakes her head. “You’re the only reason I’m staying sane, X. I know you’ll keep me safe.”
Her words echo in my brain and send warmth shooting to my toes. Her trust means more to me than it should. It’s more than I deserve.
As we enter my father’s neighborhood, I try to point out personal landmarks to her along the way. The place where I broke my first bone. The spot where I got caught climbing on the neighbor’s fence.
She isn’t really responding, but her expression becomes a little less heavy, and her eyes brighten as I tell her a few childhood stories. Her giggle when I tell her about my dog feels like a triumph.
We pull up to my father’s, and I look at it as if seeing it through her eyes. Old. Built in 1900. Clapboard siding. A large wraparound porch with two cozy rocking chairs out front. This house holds wonderful and terrible memories for me, and the ever-present ache in my chest flares to life as we get out of the car.
E smiles as she takes in the place, bringing a hand up to remove her hood. Her long lavender-and-brunette hair spills out, and a burst of a wonderful scent reaches my nose. God, how I want to bury my hands in it. And damn me for having these thoughts with everything going on.
Tearing my gaze away, I head around back to grab our bags. I look over just in time to see the front window curtain open and quickly close again. I chuckle, swearing I can hear his footsteps running to the door.
Sure enough, the large red door swings open a moment later. My dad stands in the doorway with his hands on his hips, a jolly smile on his face. He looks as frail as ever, though. Bellatrix, as if she knows where she’s going, runs up the steps to greet him.
My father’s laugh carries as he bends down to pet the little dog. I walk around the car and gesture for E to go in front of me. She seems a little nervous, but I can’t imagine why. She’ll see soon that she has nothing to be afraid of.
“Hey, Pops,” I call out when we get closer. “Lookin’ good.”
“Got on my new shirt!” he responds proudly. “Knew I had to look sharp when I heard the most talented girl in the world was coming over!”
E laughs as she walks up the steps. “I’m Eloisa. It’s so nice to meet you.”
“Donovan,” my father replies, looking like the cat that ate the canary. “I’m sure you hear this all the time, but I am your biggest fan.”
“Thank you,” E says, her voice light. “I love your home. Is it as cozy on the inside as it is on the out?”
My father beams. “Well, what say we find out? Come right in. I’ve got the electric fire going.”
He had more than just the “fire” going. There are snacks littered around the table, and it looks as if he’s picked up a bit.
He follows E over to the sofa and fluffs her pillows before she sits down. “There now. Make sure you’re nice and comfortable.” He turns toward me. “Xavier, get the woman a drink, will ya?”
I send him an amused look before walking to the kitchen and grabbing three waters. I can’t help but think how nice it is to see the old man so happy. When I walk back into the living room, the two of them are laughing like old friends.
“Don’t let X scare you with his burly exterior,” my father is saying. “On the inside, he’s as soft as a kitten.”
“I don’t know about that,” E jokes, settling farther into the sofa. “He seems pretty burly to me.”
I roll my eyes and perch on the arm of the chair. “You must be getting senile in your old age, Pops,” I say coolly. “E knows I’m as mean as they come.”
She and I catch eyes, and when the tension flares between us, we promptly look away. My dad never misses a beat, and I’m sure he caught the exchange, but luckily he doesn’t say anything.
“I’ve been telling Xavier here to bring you by for a visit, but I didn’t think he’d actually do it, what with your busy schedule and all.”
E narrows her eyes at me, relaying what we both already knew: I had told her no such thing. “Well, I’m happy to be here now,” she says, petting Bella as she jumps on her lap.
She looks happy. She looks relaxed, and I’m so damned grateful. After everything that happened tonight, I wanted that for her.
My father pats her hand. “He knows that I’ve been following your music. I usually don’t like what’s on the radio these days, but your voice…” He whistles. “You sound like an angel. Rose and I were just listening to one of your songs the other day.”
E grins. “Rose?”
I nearly choke on my water. “Girlfriend, Pops?”
His chest puffs out. “Well, why not? I’m not dead yet, son.”
The phrase shocks me, but I block out the pain and try to make a joke. “She hasn’t tried your cooking yet. That’s why she’s sticking around.”
“X has never had a girlfriend,” my father continues, to my absolute mortification. “He’s dated here and there, but never anything serious.”
“Pops!” I cry, possibly turning bright red myself. “Can you not?”
E grins evilly. “That’s not too surprising. He doesn’t seem like the girlfriend type.”
“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, darlin’. X will make a fine husband one day.”
I glare daggers at the old man. Already knowing what he’s up to, I shouldn’t be surprised he’s trying to set E and me up, but it’s making me really uncomfortable. Probably because I have no fucking clue what’s happening between us.
“Hmm. I don’t know,” E replies stoically. “He needs to learn to laugh once in a while.”
My father belly laughs at that. “Oh, he used to laugh all the time up until—”
He abruptly cuts himself off. Up until my mother died—that’s what he was about to say. E looks confused at first but then realizes that it’s probably something better left unsaid. Clearing her throat, she eases the tension hanging heavy in the room. “Well, I’d love to meet this Rose. If she’s dating a man like you, she must have wonderful taste.”
“Indeed she does!” he replies. “Now, how long are you planning on staying for? You’re welcome as long as you’d like!”
E’s eyes are sad as she looks to me for an answer.
“Our schedule is flexible right now,” I reply smoothly. I don’t want to talk about what happened tonight just yet, and I’m sure E doesn’t, either. “E has some personal things going on that you and I can discuss later.”
I can tell my dad knows something serious is up, but he doesn’t push it, and for that I’m thankful.
He reaches over and pats Eloisa’s hand instead. “How would you like to see some old movies of Xavier here? Did you know he only ate french fries and hot dogs when he was little? Couldn’t get a veggie down his throat to save his life!”
E laughs out loud, her eyes twinkling. “I’d love to.”
“Really?” I tease. I don’t want to watch those old movies, but if it makes her smile like that, I’m up for anything.
My father hands E a blanket and prompts her to tuck in while he sets up the VHS. I watch as she does just that. Man, the scene in front of me feels surreal. I can’t believe I’m here with E and my father—and even little Bellatrix—watching home movies like some kind of family.
For the first time in a long time, I feel at home.