I scurry down the hall, late as usual. My socked feet skid on the floor in front of my dining room, and I just catch myself on the lip of the doorway. Scowling, I straighten and take a deep breath, staring at the closed patio-style doors in front of me. Everyone is probably already inside. These weekly team meetings we have are a necessity. My inner circle needs to be on the same page, and with the tour starting in three weeks, there’s much to discuss. This week, however, is the first meeting since my accident, and I’m dreading the fallout. I can’t even imagine the restrictions they are going to try to put on me. Well, they’d better be ready for a battle.
I stride inside with a lot more confidence than I feel. My personal assistant, Sandy, the quiet but incredibly organized superwoman in my life, waves in greeting. I smile back before taking the seat beside her at the head of the table. I compliment her glasses—she seems to have a new pair every day—as I settle in.
Looking around, I can see there are only a few of us here. Perhaps I’m not as late as I thought.
“Good morning, ma petite. You look awful.” Jacques, my talented and infuriatingly honest makeup maven and hairstylist, is sitting on my other side, wearing a large grin.
Rolling my eyes, I accept the small plate with a doughnut that he slides in my direction. Glazed. Yum. My favorite. I can never refuse a good treat—my dog and I have that in common. “Good morning to you, too.”
“Should you really be eating that with a tour in three weeks?” Rob says as he walks in from a side door. He glares at me before taking his seat across from me at the opposite head.
“Oh, leave her alone,” Michonne, my wardrobe stylist, growls at Rob. “Eloisa was just named the sexiest woman alive by InStyle magazine. Can you say the same, squishy pants?” A few crumbs fall out of my mouth as I choke on my first bite. Michonne, with her long dreads and bright lipstick, always has my back. She also has more venom than a cobra when provoked. Usually it’s aimed at Rob.
She winks at me, but I wisely suppress my laughter when I see the look on Rob’s face.
“Where are Joe and Big?” he asks impatiently, ignoring Michonne’s comment.
As if on cue, the heads of my security team appear at the door.
“Sorry we’re late,” Joe chirps. “We got caught up on a call.” He swings his big, blond, muscled body into the chair next to Sandy and nudges her with his shoulder. Sandy sniffs and doesn’t acknowledge the greeting, per usual.
“Oh, Sandyyyyy,” Joe sings under his breath, in a terrible impression of Grease. Sandy continues to ignore him.
Big takes the seat on his other side and makes a grab for the doughnuts. He’s the strong and silent type—the introvert to Joe’s extrovert.
I lick my fingers, enjoying the last bite of my own doughnut before locking eyes with my manager.
“Well, now that we’re all here—” Rob clears his throat and rises from the table. “I see no reason to waste time. Ellie, we’ve made a couple maneuvers regarding your security.”
I tense up, bracing myself for the conversation ahead. “What kind of maneuvers?”
“We’re bringing in a new head. He comes highly recommended, and I have full confidence that an incident like last Friday’s will never, ever happen again.”
“Damn right it won’t,” Joe mutters. Both he and Big spent the night at the hospital with me, furious they didn’t catch the threat in time. It wasn’t their fault; it all happened so fast.
“OK, that’s fine. But just a heads-up, I don’t want any drastic changes,” I say in response. “I can’t work with someone constantly breathing down my neck.”
“Ellie, be reasonable,” Rob retorts. “If you read that note—”
“Please, stop bringing up the note,” I plead for what feels like the fiftieth time. I haven’t read it, because I don’t want any negative words swimming in my head. Watching my team’s reaction that night at the hospital as it was discovered, I gathered that those words were pretty ugly. The only thing I unintentionally overheard was that it was signed “Your biggest fan.” And that hurt. I love my fans more than anything; everyone close to me knows that. Going above and beyond for them is one of the only things that brings me any joy. It hurts so much that one of them would do this, and I have no problem pretending that it never happened. I’m sure it’s a one-off incident anyway.
“Ellie, ma petite. You are in danger,” Jacques says, resting his hand over mine. “This security is needed. For you, for all of us.”
“But I already have Joe and Big and the rest of the guys we hired for the tour,” I say with an imploring look in their direction.
Joe regards me seriously. “This tour is going to be massive, Ellie. We don’t have the experience for something like this. Last Friday proved that. You’re…too famous now for just a few meatheads like us.”
Big nods and leans toward me. “He’s right, Ellie. X is going to bring in the big guns. We just spoke with him, and he’s on his way; that’s why we’re late.”
“Who is X?” I ask impatiently. And really? X? What a stereotypical moniker for someone in the security field. That can’t be his real name.
“His real name is Xavier Cannon,” Sandy whispers, answering me with her wizard-like mind-reading powers.
“He’s highly qualified,” Rob puts in. “He was the head of security at the White House and revolutionized the procedures there.” His eyes light up as he describes what he no doubt feels is a most admirable quality. “He’s a no-nonsense type of individual. He means business! My brother recommended him as the best they’ve got. And after reading that note…we need the best.”
I look down at my hands, my mood taking a nosedive. I get it. I really do. I also recognize that I’m putting on a tough act to hide how hurt I am, but this is exactly what I was afraid of. I don’t want to lose the closeness with my fans. I don’t want to seem untouchable to them, being whisked away or unable to interact on a whim. “I refuse to go on lockdown,” I respond. “If you guys want to amp up security, fine. But I’m not punishing my fans for this.”
“Sunday brunches are out,” Rob says next, his hands grabbing the back of his chair as if preparing for blowback.
The hairs on the back on my neck rise. “No.”
“Come on, Rob,” Michonne puts in. “You know how much Sunday brunches mean to our girl here. Can’t this X guy make it work somehow?”
Every Sunday, two fans are invited over to the house to enjoy brunch with the inner circle and me. I look forward to it more than anything else that I do. All the different faces and backgrounds, all with a different story to tell: Squiggy, who climbed Mt. Everest three times; Darla, who made doggy treats that my Bella loved so much I started ordering two boxes a month from her shop; Pierre, who’d beaten childhood leukemia. They are all special to me.
I haven’t missed a Sunday brunch in six months.
“This is nonnegotiable,” Rob continues in a stern voice as he shoots Michonne a warning look. “I hate to be the hard-ass here, but we’re not taking any chances.”
“Everything is negotiable,” I say loudly, refusing to back down. “Most of the time the fans are children anyway. What harm can they do?”
“Eloisa, be reasonable!” Rob says in exasperation. “How can you possibly want to continue to open your home to fans when one of them wants to kill you?”
His declaration is met with silence. Jacques reaches out to put his hand over mine. I give him a weak smile despite the turmoil coiling in my belly over the harsh words. I’m not stupid. I figured it was something along those lines, but hearing it out loud burns. Why? Why would someone want to kill me? I look around at the faces of my team. My closest confidants, the only people in the world I can trust. Everyone is subdued.
“Eloisa, I’m sorry,” Rob says. “But you need to know the truth. Your safety is our number-one concern.”
The deep frown lines around his mouth are prominent, which means he’s really upset. Rob may be a conniving, manipulative jerk, but I know deep down he has my best interests at heart. I sigh, pushing out my chair behind me.
“Where are you going? We have a lot more to discuss. The band, a few hiccups in the tour dates…Eloisa!”
Don’t cry. Don’t cry in front of them. I suck in a breath, trying to stave off the telltale prickle behind my eyes.
“Sandy can catch me up later,” I call out, disappearing around the corner. When I reach the music room, I immediately grab my guitar and settle into the worn couch by the window. Music is the only thing that can calm me when I feel this unsteady.