Normally I’d be uncomfortable spending the evening at a bar, but it’s worth it watching E unwind.
This past week had been a whirlwind. Never before had I seen someone work so hard. All the decisions she had to make for this tour were blowing my mind. All the song lyrics she had to remember…all the stage directions. A seemingly endless parade of people constantly wanting her attention, and she’d cater to each one. It was remarkable. It was admirable. Especially with all the crap we were addressing with the police.
So seeing her now, laughing by the stage and surrounded by her crew, felt good.
Something had happened between us these past seven days, and our relationship had shifted once again. When we talked now, we always looked each other in the eye, as people who were close tended to do. Because of this, I knew exactly how she was feeling most of the time, and I realized the opposite was also probably true. I couldn’t help it. I wanted to offer my support, despite the fact I didn’t have much insight into running a tour, but I found myself genuinely wanting to make things easier for her. I wanted to relieve the load that was no doubt on her back.
She told me once, after a particularly grueling run-through, that she had no idea what she’d do without me. She’d said it casually, but I couldn’t get the image of her face when she said it out of my mind. I could tell she really meant it, and for some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I was getting to the point where I couldn’t imagine life before her, either. She was the one I felt I could turn to, even though I was still scared to open up. That I would get to this point with someone was astounding, and all the new feelings were truly scary.
I’d never paid attention to celebrities before I started this job. Didn’t think they had difficult things to deal with. After all, they were rich, beautiful, and happy. But man, how wrong I was.
Not about the beautiful part, of course.
I watch E take a sip of her wine, and our eyes catch over the rim of her glass. She sends me a big smile and waves me over.
I wade through the crowd to her side, where Michonne’s lifting her own glass in a toast.
“To Ellie,” she begins, her eyes bright. “To the most hardworking and talented woman I know. You truly amaze me. Inside and out, you are one of a kind. And I have to say, fabulously dressed, too.”
Everyone laughs and then someone yells, “To a tour that’s totally going to rock!”
Surrounding cheers ring out, and I stare at the oft-present blush rising on E’s cheeks. Goose bumps surface on my arms when she leans into me to hide her embarrassment. She’s so humble and barely lets anyone give her praise about what she’s doing. I understand now it’s because she doesn’t think she deserves it. She’s doing what she loves and doesn’t think that warrants the thank-yous and the well wishes.
“Hell yeah, it is,” Joe puts in happily. “Ellie, are you sure you don’t want to throw in my dance number I told you about? I think the crowd would dig it.”
“I’m sure,” E jokes. “I don’t think the world is ready for your twerking.”
“I know I’m not,” Sandy teases.
I’d noticed something different about Sandy the past few days. Couldn’t put my finger on what it was, however. It’s not as if she wasn’t doing her job, but something about her seemed off. I chide my suspicious nature and try to stay in the moment.
She pulls E in for a hug. “This is going to be a blast. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m so happy for you.”
“Here, here!” Big calls out, surprising everyone. “To the woman who turned my life around. I wish you nothing but health and happiness.”
In the midst of all the glasses clinking, someone yells out, “Song!” And after that, everyone starts insisting E go onstage and sing. At first she resists, but after some persistence, she finally agrees.
Someone hands her a guitar, and she makes her way onto the small stage. I stand right at the front and a little off to the left to watch. I feel a few curious looks thrown in my direction—which has been normal over the last few weeks—but I ignore it. Not everyone is used to my presence, and I don’t really make an effort to explain myself. The stalker situation has been kept within her immediate circle, and I want to keep it that way.
Someone brings E a stool, and she takes a seat, looking out over her crowd. “I wish I could explain to everyone how full my heart is. How thankful I am to each and every one of you for the time and effort you’ve put into making this tour happen. Your creativity and dedication to making this work…well…I’ll carry that with me for the rest of my days. I am forever grateful.”
Whistles and cheers ring out, and when the noise dies down, her eyes meet mine. She bites her lip—which I now know she does when she’s nervous about something—and adjusts her fingers on the guitar.
“This song goes out to someone special. He told me it’s his favorite song, and I want to play it for him here today.”
And then she starts playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” My heart squeezes in my chest as I hear the opening chords.
When you’re weary,
When tears are in your eyes,
I will dry them all.
A thousand emotions rush through my body, and I’m unable to look away from her face as she sings. This song means so many things to me, and I haven’t heard it in years. It means happiness, it means preserved memories, and it means guilt from events that I can never forget.
For a moment I feel as if I’m drifting.
I’m on your side
Oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.
Images of my mother fill my vision, and I have to look away. God.
The guilt of what I did was always going to be there, ready to be called upon and simmering beneath the surface of my everyday life. I’d never be able to escape it. Besides conversations with my father and my boss, I had never spoken about it to anyone, but here and now it felt as if E was sharing my pain.
Sail on, silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way.
I try to concentrate on her instead. Her face is tilted up, and her fingers are expertly maneuvering the strings. Her gorgeous, colorful hair, small, delicate face, and long lashes that lead to a body of absolute sin. It’s able to distract me enough until the end of the song.
She takes her fingers off the strings, and amid the clapping, her eyes meet mine. I try to hide the emotion that must be shining through, but I’m not sure if I’m successful, as a nervous expression passes over her face.
Our connection is broken when Rob jumps onstage, yelling about adding that song to the lineup. I look away, eager to give my thrashing heart a break.
I work so hard every day to put on a brave face. I cocoon myself in a life of discipline and order, not leaving any room for surprises or mistakes. My mistakes. She nearly shattered all that hard work, and the realization is taking my breath away.
When I see E making her way toward me a few minutes later, I fight hard to put that face back on.
“Are you OK?” she asks, looking up at me with nervous green eyes. Innocent eyes. “That song…”
“You sang it beautifully,” I interrupt, trying to get my bearings. It’s hard when she’s standing right there and the song is still echoing in my head.
“You looked like you’d seen a ghost. I thought it would be a nice surprise, since you said it’s your favorite song.”
“I do. I love that song, but…I hate it at the same time.”
Her lips form a small circle. “Oh.”
“It was my mother’s favorite. She used to sing it to me before bed,” I hear myself say.
Her eyes go wide at my admission. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Don’t apologize,” I tell her sternly. “You shouldn’t ever have to apologize. Especially to me.”
“What does that mean? Especially to you?”
I have to stop this conversation. It’s getting out of hand. “Let’s just drop it.”
“X, I don’t want to drop it. What’s going on right now?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not. You can tell me. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
This conversation is making me want to crawl out of my skin, and I feel my armor come back in full force. “No, we’re not. And I want you to drop it.”
The lie feels like black tar spilling out of my mouth, and E rears back as if I’ve slapped her. Because we are friends. And there’s something more between us, too. A red-hot chemistry I can taste on my tongue, even now.
How long can I keep denying it?
“I’m sorry,” I tell her earnestly, desperate to get the hurt expression off her face. “It’s just…don’t ever apologize to me. I’ve done things. Bad things. I don’t deserve any pity over my reaction to a damn song.”
She leans in closer. “What have you done?”
At that moment, Michonne comes over and throws her arms around our shoulders. “Come on, you two! We’re celebrating. Why the glum faces?”
She looks between us cautiously when we both don’t respond. “Oh, no…did something happen?”
I pull myself together and shake my head. “No, nothing. Everything’s good here.”
Thankfully, E gets pulled away into another conversation, giving me time to recover from the one we had.
I can’t let her get to me like that. There’s something about her energy that has had me on edge from the very beginning, and it’s only getting stronger with time. I’ve worked so hard to hide my past. I’ve worked so hard to distance myself from the person I was.
And she is dragging him out without even trying.
E and I don’t talk again for the rest of the night. I know where she is at all times, of course, but I make sure to keep my distance, worried she’ll try to talk again and ask me more questions.
We aren’t alone again until the end of the night.
The tension between us on the ride back to the hotel is thick with unanswered questions. I stare at my phone, trying to ignore it. Bella, however, is not so easily ignored. She jumps onto my lap and circles three times before settling down. The little rat. I run a large hand over her soft fur.
“She loves you,” E whispers.
I laugh, despite myself. “I don’t know what I did to earn her affection. Well, besides all the food I slip her.”
E shrugs. “Maybe she knows you’re keeping her mom safe. I think she felt the job was up to her for a long time.”
“How long have you had her?”
“About twelve years. When I was…living on the streets…I used to camp outside the animal shelter. The barking, for some reason, was comforting to me. Maybe because they were all trapped like I was. Anyway, one night a man brought in a box of puppies. He was in a hurry, and the box fell out of his arms. About five or six puppies got loose. Bella here ran right over to me. I’ll never forget it. He eventually got all the puppies back into the box, but he didn’t realize there was one missing.”
I look down at Bella with new eyes, and as she stares back up at me, I can’t help wondering what’s going on in that tiny brain of hers. She’s a little hero.
“We’ve been inseparable ever since,” E adds. “I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s literally my best friend.”
Feeling like I should say something, I clear my throat. “Why the name Bellatrix? Is that Greek or something?”
To my surprise, she bursts into laughter. “Seriously? No. It’s from Harry Potter. You know, Bellatrix Lestrange?”
She laughs again, the rich sound filling the car. “That’s it. We’re watching the first movie when we get back to the hotel.”
Her laugh cheers my mood considerably. “Isn’t Harry Potter for kids?”
“Harry Potter is for everyone,” she tells me, her voice playful. “I promise you’re going to love it.”
“If you say so.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never seen it. Wait, scratch that, I think I can. You seem more like a Terminator guy to me.”
It’s hard to look away from her bright smile. “I don’t really have time to sit and watch movies. Once in a while I find time, but it’s rare.”
“Well, you have time now. What’s your favorite movie, then? Goodfellas? The Godfather?”
I think for a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe a Western.”
She blanches. “A Western?”
“Yeah, you know. Kill the bad guy, save the girl. Simple.”
She stares at me, and now I’m wondering what’s going on in her brain.
“A tale as old as time,” she finally says. “And here you are, saving me.”
Maybe. But what is she doing to me in return?