The day of my first show dawns clear and sunny. To say I’m filled with butterflies would be the understatement of the damned century.
Scared to open my eyes and face the day, I curl up in bed, remembering the small girl with the guitar on the street corner. The small girl with the ratty hair searching for spare change on the side of the road to buy food. She has come so far. She has learned so much. And today, all of the hard work, the failures and the losses, culminate with one show.
I’m ready to sing my heart out.
The sound of Bella’s nails hitting the floor let me know that it’s time to get up. I have to let her out and have the largest cup of coffee this hotel will permit.
The accommodations this time around aren’t as luxurious, but they’re still pretty nice. The best thing about this place is that it’s hidden away in the suburbs of Cromwell. Not as well-known. We’d gotten in and out with little fanfare.
I pad down the hallway, the smell of fresh brew hitting my nose and raising the hair on my arms in anticipation.
X is standing at the counter with his back to me, pouring out two mugs. Man, he is a sight for sore eyes. His large, muscular back is encased in a tight black T-shirt, and a pair of jeans hug his sinfully well-formed legs and ass. I can’t help but admire it and daydream about what it would be like to touch him. To have him touch me.
My shiver at the thought must have been so loud that he heard me. He looks quickly over his shoulder. “Mornin’.”
I swallow hard, the glimpse of his strong and handsome face dancing behind my eyelids. God, I have it bad.
But today is not the day to confront my feelings about my bodyguard, or look into what happened between us last night, so I take the cup of coffee from his outstretched hand and breathe the aroma in deeply. “Mmm, good morning. Thank you for this.”
“It’s the least I can do,” he replies, crossing his arms and watching me take a few cautious sips. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I’m about to perform in front of seventeen thousand people.”
He laughs. “Better you than me.”
“I don’t know,” I tease. “I heard you humming in the car the other day. Do you have a voice you haven’t told me about?”
His eyes twinkle. “I’ll never tell. We men have to keep our secrets.”
I can feel the shit-eating grin on my face, but I’m unable to wipe it off. Holy crap. I think we were just flirting. The easy banter between us feels good after the tension from last night. I really want to know what he had been so close to telling me. What awful things had he done?
I deliberately keep my voice light. “And what secrets are you keeping, X?”
“That I’m not a morning person.”
I’m shocked. “I don’t believe that. You’re always up at the crack of dawn!”
“Because it’s my job to be. But I’d love to sleep in one morning.” He sighs, picking up Bellatrix, who had just begun to bark.
She settles into the crease of his arm, up against his hard and probably warm chest. I can’t help but glare at her jealously. “Well, how about tomorrow morning? We have a two-day break in between shows.”
He gives me a hard look. “Not while I’m on the clock.”
I take another sip of coffee, a terrible thought suddenly occurring to me. When the psycho is caught, does that mean X will leave? I mentally slap myself. Of course he will! He dreaded this job from the beginning and is probably champing at the bit to return to his real life. The thought is depressing as all hell.
“What’s the frown for?” he asks.
“I’m just going to miss you when you’re gone,” I tell him, not caring how it makes me look. Must be those first-show nerves. Why not put everything on the line?
He laughs. “Where am I going?”
“Well, once we catch the guy who’s stalking me, you’ll probably go back to DC…”
I leave the comment open-ended, obviously hoping he’ll refute me. I can tell my words take a moment to settle in, and he looks at me over the rim of his mug. “Are you saying you want me to stay, E?”
“Yes.” Damn, I’m feeling bold!
He opens his mouth to respond when the door bursts open. Michonne, Sandy, Jacques, Rob, Joe, and Big pile into the room like a herd of elephants.
“Good. You have coffee,” Sandy says first. She has a pile of notepads in her arms and an actual camera.
“I can’t believe the day is finally here!” Michonne cries, pulling me into her arms. “I am so proud of you, baby girl.”
I hug her back. Rob catches my eyes over her shoulder. “Ellie, I need you to approve a few things, and you have a last-minute interview in ten minutes.”
And so it begins.
I’d like to say that I remember every moment of that day, but in truth, it went by in a blur. Makeup and clothing choices, racing to the arena, calling one of the backup dancers because one of the regulars had gotten sick, microphone checks, a power outage, bursting into tears, holding on to Bellatrix for dear life…
And X. X standing silently by my side in support the entire time: helping me choose the best color eye shadow, helping me into my insanely high shoes, holding my hand on the way to the arena, handing me the number for the new dancer, checking my microphone, rubbing my back as I cried, and taking Bellatrix from me when it was showtime.
It was showtime.
When the chords of my introductory song begin, I’m so nervous I can’t feel my legs moving as I walk onstage. I know I’m waving. I know I’m smiling. But other than that, the flashing lights and the deafening roar of the crowd rob all of my senses. Standing there, picking up my guitar from the center of the stage, feels like it’s happening in slow motion.
Is this really happening? The moment is so out-of-body I can barely catch my breath, let alone belt out a song.
As I get closer to the center of the stage, I’m able to make out a few faces in the front row. They are raucous in their excitement—excitement for me! It’s unbelievable. Some of them are crying as they try to get my attention.
A crushing wave of panic washes over me, and I put one hand on my stool to hold myself up. I don’t deserve this fanfare. Why me? How did I end up in this position when thousands of other singers across the country never will? No one deserves to be this lucky. No one.
The faces of the crowd swim back into my vision, and another wave of panic nearly topples me over. Is he out there? Is he watching?
I look toward the curtains, fading fast. This is a nightmare. I can’t control my own actions. No matter how much I tell myself to get it together, it’s not working. Reality slams me hard back to earth. I’m not going to be able to do this.
X catches my attention from the side of the stage. He’s just standing there, arms crossed, his expression one of determination. I wait for him to come get me. To carry me offstage away from all this, but it’s clear he’s not moving.
His eyes narrow, and he nods in my direction. I know what he’s thinking. Get ahold of yourself, E.
I think of what he would do in this situation. He’d pull himself together, that’s what. He’s the most skilled human at hiding his emotions that I’ve ever met. He never lets on that he’s not a morning person. He never lets on that he’s carrying massive amounts of guilt on his shoulders every day. He never lets on that his dad is sick.
I have to do the same.
A deep inhale and a look to the heavens later, I hold both hands up and take a bow. I adjust the monitor in my ear and greet the crowd, just as I’m supposed to, and strum the first notes of my first song, like I’m supposed to.
And the show goes on.
The entire time, X doesn’t move from his position in the wings. I feel his eyes on me, and I swear it’s my lifeline. With X around, nothing bad will happen. With X around, I’m safe.
And my God, did I have a blast. My fans are incredible. Hearing them sing along with the music, watching them sway to the beat—I was so incredibly high on life, and when it was all over, all I wanted to do was press the reset button and start again.
When the lights go out after my second encore, I race into the wings and throw myself into X’s arms. It’s the only place I want to be. I don’t care that I’m sweaty, and I don’t care that I’m openly showing him so much affection. For me, he’s made this show possible. I was able to take his inner strength and use it as a model for my own.
“Thank you,” I whisper into his neck.
It takes me a second to realize he’s holding me as tightly as I’m holding him. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispers back.
His words settle over my heart, and I nuzzle closer to him, wanting his touch. I feel him tense in my arms, but the moment is lost anyway when the crew comes over and joins in a group hug.
Apparently my minor freak-out was barely noticed, because Jacques lifts me into his arms and tells me I didn’t miss a beat.
“I couldn’t have done this without you guys,” I tell them seriously, tears filling my eyes. “Each and every one of you. Thank you for doing this for me.”
“You were amazing,” Michonne says, sounding teary. “I couldn’t take my eyes off you.”
“Pictures are already going up,” Sandy puts in excitedly. “All good things. I think we can officially say this show was a success!”
I’m on cloud nine as I meet and thank my band and all the dancers that have been a part of the show, and whenever I meet X’s eyes, he has nothing but a huge smile for me. I want to talk to him alone, but there’s too much going on. I want to thank him again, as he was as much a part of the show’s success as anyone else that had anything to do with it.
It feels great to get into comfortable clothes back in my dressing room and hug Bella. The next show is in two days—the one my dad said he would be going to—and I’m looking forward to a day or two of lounging around. The thought of him seeing this show no longer scares me. Let him watch. I secretly hope that it makes him regret what he has done: literally abandoning his daughter to the streets.
X is furiously texting on his phone when I step out of the room. Bella nips at his heels, and I hide a grin as he absentmindedly bends down to pet her. “Fans with access passes are waiting by the back door,” he tells me. “I’ve got eight security guys down there, and they’re giving me the go-ahead that it’s safe to push through.”
“I’ll have to stay and sign autographs,” I tell him, a little worried about his reaction. “They’ve already paid for it.” X begins to shake his head, but I give him a pleading look. “Please? I’d hate to let them down. There should only be about fifty of them.”
His eyes scan my face for a few moments before blowing out a breath. “Fine. Ten minutes, E.”
Sandy’s eyes meet mine behind X’s back. “I’ll hold Bella,” she says.
I nod at X, knowing ten minutes won’t be enough time but thankful he’s even allowing it. There’s no way I can leave those fans disappointed after they paid for a little time with me.
A part of me is scared that the crazy psycho could be among them, but when I walk outside and see everyone’s happy, smiling faces, the fear dissipates. X is stuck to my side like white on rice as we make our way down the line.
I have lovely conversations with two families, a pair of frat bros, and girls here on a bachelorette weekend. One girl has a T-shirt with my face on it matched with a rose—my favorite flower—in her hair, and I smile a happy smile when she takes a picture of me. I’m smiling for a third picture when I hear Sandy shout Bella’s name.
A woman and her daughter start talking to me at that moment, and I feel X shift beside me. “It’s OK,” he whispers. “Bella’s just jumped out of Sandy’s hands.”
His words put me on edge, and I want to turn around and see where Bella has gone, but I don’t want to interrupt the mother and her tearful daughter. When I see X still looking around a moment later, my heartbeat picks up. “Does she have her?”
I see Sandy on her hands and knees, searching through people’s legs and calling Bella’s name. That answers my question.
“Bella!” I call out nervously, trying to be heard over the cacophony of voices and screaming. “Here, girl!”
X puts an arm around my shoulder, and we walk over to where Sandy is still searching. His arm is a silent warning for me not to run, not to panic.
Sandy looks up at me nervously. “It happened so fast!” she explains. “I didn’t even have time to grab her. It was like she got wind of something she wanted and there was no stopping her!”
I bend down. “It’s probably all the new smells. Bella!” I call again, trying not to freak out. There’s literally no sign of her. I keep hoping to hear a bell or something, or—
“Bella!” X calls out in a commanding tone only he can pull off. He’s on his feet scanning the crowd. About five moments pass before I hear a bark. And then there she is, pushing between legs, looking as satisfied as a clam.
“Oh, thank God,” Sandy and I say at the same time, watching as my damned dog jumps into X’s arms. I lightly grab Bella’s furry chin with my fingers. “Where have you been, girl! Don’t you dare run off like that again!”
She licks me a few times before settling into X’s arms. What am I going to do with her?
Sandy, X, and I jump into the SUV about five minutes later to return to the hotel. As expected, there are reporters waiting at the door, but we’re able to bypass them and get to our rooms without any other problems. X had requested the fourteenth floor, so between that, the extra security, and the locks, I feel pretty safe.
Sandy goes to her room after another congratulatory hug, leaving X and me alone. I pour a glass of wine and sink into one of the chairs by the window.
I’m beat, but being alone with X is making my heart pound. What the hell am I going to do about him? He isn’t even going to be sticking around.
“Thank you,” I tell him quietly. “I don’t know what happened to me up there tonight.”
His eyes are understanding, the color like molten chocolate. He’s beautiful and unique in every way. “Nerves. It’s normal, I hear.”
I laugh. “Oh, yeah, I forgot. You’re not afraid of anything.”
He looks at me with an expression I can’t decipher, but I get the distinct feeling he wants to disagree with me.
“Seriously,” I say. “You gave me that extra push. I can’t thank you enough.”
He nods. Even though he did nothing but stare at me from the wings, we both know something passed between us in that moment. And it had to do with the connection that was developing between us.
I slip off my shoes, groaning. My feet are absolutely killing me. I take a large sip of wine, savoring it with my eyes closed. I’m just about to speak again when I realize X is right beside me. Next thing I know, his hands are on my feet, rubbing tight circles into the sole.
I’m completely unable to stop the embarrassing moan that leaves my mouth. His touch feels unbelievable. It honestly seems as if he is circling magic healing powers into my skin.
I hear him chuckle, but I’m way too lost in the sensation of his hands to care. Visions of him taking me into his bedroom and rubbing down my whole body sear across my vision. I know it won’t happen, but oh, how a girl can dream.
He gives me his attention for a full ten minutes, and when he stops, I miss his touch like I would miss my arm. I try not to pout as he takes a seat across from me on the couch.
“Thank you. You’re a godsend.”
A loud ping signals he’s gotten a text, and when he looks at it, he chuckles. I have never seen him laugh at a text before, so I give him a curious look.
“My dad,” he explains. “He’s just discovered emojis.”
I laugh along with him. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope,” he says. “So for the past two weeks he’s been texting updates about his day, but with emojis. Literally, everything he does.”
“That is the cutest thing ever.” I sigh happily. “You should give him my number. I’d be happy to text with him.”
X gives me a look. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Why? I wouldn’t mind. Your dad’s great.”
“OK, I will, just because I know it will make his day. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
As his hands fly over the keys, I feel compelled to ask, “How is he doing? You know…?”
I don’t have time to finish the sentence. X knows I’m talking about the cancer. “Tough to say,” he begins. “Doctors say he must be in tremendous pain, but I don’t know, because he never complains.”
“You’re like him,” I say quietly. “The suffer-in-silence type.”
“Maybe.” X shrugs. “I just…I wish I could help him somehow. I wish he would tell me what he’s feeling. I’m afraid it’s going to get really bad—bad enough for a normal person to go to a hospital—and he won’t tell me.”
“Have you told him that?” I ask quietly.
X nods. “I don’t know how much good it did. He looked so frail when we saw him last week. I’ve never seen him like that.”
He’s scared. It’s not written on his face, but I know him well enough now to sense the fear. It’s in the tightness of his shoulders, in his eyes—in the way he keeps talking when he’s usually a man of few words.
“And I don’t know that he’s going to chemo regularly. He won’t tell me, and the hospital won’t, either.”
I fight the urge to walk over and pull him into my arms. “That must be scary. But even if he told you if he was going to chemo, or if he told you that he wasn’t, he’d still make the same choice. You knowing doesn’t make a difference or not. Your dad strikes me as a man of his own mind. I doubt you’d be able to change it if he’s decided what’s best for him.”
“He’s so damn stubborn,” X says, wiping two hands over his face.
At that moment, my phone dings. We both look at each other. Me with excitement in my eyes and X with exasperation in his.
Donovan: I hope you had a wonderful show tonight, darling! Make sure to celebrate and make sure Xavier celebrates, too. He needs more fun in his life.
The sentence is followed by a line of party emojis and happy faces, and I laugh out loud.
“What did he say?” X asks.
“That’s for me to know,” I tease.
X rolls his eyes, but I can see that he’s happy his dad’s reached out. I text back, periodically looking up at X as I do.
“Your dad says you need to have more fun,” I tell him in an innocent tone. “Is that true, X?”
He shakes his head and lets out a laugh without humor. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“I don’t know,” I say, my voice playful. “Right out of college you head straight to the secret service, then on to DC. You work for the president for eight years, then immediately after, you come to Connecticut to trail after me. Tell me you’ve taken a couple vacations.”
He looks distinctly uncomfortable, so I know right away he hasn’t.
“That’s so sad, X!”
He leans back into the couch, getting more comfortable. “I’ve been plenty of places with the president…I just haven’t had much time to explore.”
“Where would you go?” I ask suddenly. “If you could go anywhere?”
“Norway,” he tells me after thinking for a moment. “I’m a sucker for great views. I’ve always wanted to take a boat out there and get lost in the mountains.”
So he had given it some thought. “That sounds beautiful.”
“One day,” he says. “I’ve got plenty of time to vacation.”
“Well, you’ve got to take a day off for that to happen,” I tell him.
“How about you?” he asks after a moment. “Where would you go?”
“Alaska. I’ve always wanted to see the aurora borealis. Maybe in one of those heated igloos you can rent.”
“Sounds cold,” X comments. “But one of my buddies went last year and told me it was gorgeous.”
I want to keep the conversation going, as his mood is a lot lighter than usual. “Where would be the last place on earth you’d want go?”
“Wyoming,” he answers immediately.
We both laugh at that, and the conversation continues on, just as I’d hoped it would. I don’t know what’s in the air, or if X was left feeling emotional after talking about his dad, but he is in the mood to share. He tells me about how he used to want to be a firefighter or an astronaut, and that he had a huge crush on the Winnie Cooper character from The Wonder Years. He tells me that he loves animals and wants to have a farm one day. He tells me about how much he hates the current president and is thinking about refusing to go back and work for him even if his boss asks. I learn his favorite food is Mexican and that he hates classical music, and that, without fail, he has dreams every night.
I want to ask about his mother, but after a couple of hours I can barely keep my eyes open. I must have fallen asleep, because I suddenly feel myself being lifted into a pair of warm, strong arms. Heaven.
I’m not sure if I mumble that out loud, but I feel his chest rumble underneath my cheek. When he places me in bed, I almost ask if he wants to lie down with me, but either I’m too tired or I’m not ready to put myself on the line like that.
But I almost did.