When I wake up, I know something’s wrong. Call it a gut instinct or chalk it up to years on the job, but my radar is flying off the handle.
Thinking of E asleep in the next room, I throw the covers back, grab my gun, and go to her as quickly and quietly as I can. The clock in the hall reads 4:00 a.m. We had just gone to bed about three hours ago.
I turn the knob to her room carefully and walk to her bedside. Unfettered relief assaults me when I realize nothing is amiss. She’s sound asleep, her arms up by her head.
But the feeling won’t go away.
Even though I know no one is there, I check the closets and under the bed, and then head out to the living room. The coast is clear.
Then it hits me. Where’s Bella?
She hadn’t been in bed with me, and she wasn’t in E’s room. I would have expected her to hear me wandering around by now and be nipping at my heels, looking for those treats she loves so much.
Something isn’t right. A sinking feeling pulses in my stomach.
Could someone have come into the room and taken her? I shake my head as I head to the bathroom. No one could have gotten into this suite. I’m the only one with a key, and I would have heard it.
Really worried now, I turn on the light in the bathroom.
Could she have jumped into the shower? It’s low enough—
But when I pull back the curtain, she’s not there.
It’s when I’m turning back around that I see her. She’s wedged between the toilet and shower, as if she’d tried to hide.
I know before I kneel down that she’s dead. Her small body looks completely stiff, and her face is frozen in place. I take in the glassy eyes and wide-open mouth, trying to think over my stuttering heart.
Dear God. The poor little thing.
What could have happened? What the hell was I going to tell E?
I don’t move for a few moments, resting my head in my hands. The dog was old—perhaps it was just her time to go. What shit timing, though. A wave of sadness passes through me.
I agonize for a few minutes over what to do. My instinct says to get the dog out of here as soon as possible, that E won’t want to see her like that, but I can’t decide, knowing that she will be in shock and might want to say goodbye .
I walk over to the connecting door and knock as softly as I can, praying Sandy will hear me. Maybe she’ll have some insight on how to handle this. The stars are in my favor this night, as Sandy opens the door a few minutes later, her eyes sleepy.
“What’s going on?” she asks, midyawn.
“It’s Bella…she’s—she’s dead.”
“She’s what?” Sandy is now wide-awake, racing into the room. “Where is she?”
I point to the bathroom, and when she sees the small dog, she bursts into tears. “Oh, no…oh, Bella!” She turns to me. “What happened?”
I run a hand over my face. “I don’t know. I noticed she wasn’t running around, and then when I found her here, it was too late.”
“Oh, no,” Sandy keeps repeating. She reaches out to pet Bella’s fur but immediately pulls her hand back, gasping. “Look at her gums!”
Her gums are black!” Sandy whispers, tears still streaming down her face. She leans over to get a closer look. “Why are her gums black?”
My heart races. The thought that Bella could have ingested something toxic had crossed my mind, but what the hell did I know about that? “I don’t know. I’m going to call emergency services, but what do you think I should do? Should I let E see the body before…let her say goodbye ?”
Sandy whimpers and buries her face in her hands. She sniffles a few times and then nods. “I think it’d be worse if we just took her away. If she just woke up and Bella was gone.”
I was hoping that wasn’t going to be her answer, but if that’s what she thinks is best, so be it. I haven’t known E as long as she has, so I’m going to take her word for it.
Sandy and I creep into E’s room, and my heart feels as heavy as a ton of bricks. I turn on the light as Sandy goes to her bedside and shakes her awake.
As E blinks into reality and sees us both standing over her, she instantly comes alert. “What? What’s wrong?” She takes note of Sandy’s crying and scrambles out of bed. “What is it?”
“It’s Bella,” Sandy whispers, crying harder now. “She’s…she’s gone.”
It’s at that moment that I know E’s reaction is going to be worse than I even anticipated. She goes stock-still, and her face drains of color. Her hands shake as she wipes hair from her brow, looking between Sandy and me. “What do you mean, she’s gone? She’s missing, you mean?”
I know E understood what Sandy meant but clearly doesn’t want to believe it. And before Sandy can respond, E races out of the bedroom, calling Bella’s name. Sandy watches her go and then sits down on the bed, sobbing.
I find E flying around the living room looking under the couches. “Bella! Come here, girl!”
I take a deep breath, trying to keep my emotions in check. “E, she’s in the bathroom, but I have to warn you, she looks—”
Without waiting to hear the rest of my sentence, E flies past me and into the hallway. I give her half a second before following her.
When I turn the corner into the bathroom, E is staring down at Bella, her mouth twisted in shock. And when her eyes meet mine, I’m positive I’ve never seen such abject sadness. My heart lurches in my chest, and I reach out a hand. “E…”
E grabs onto my hand for dear life, dragging me into the bathroom toward Bella. We both fall to the ground, and E lets out a harrowing sob. “X, we have to help her! We have to call someone!”
I don’t know how to respond, and when I make no reaction to help, she narrows her fists in anger, throwing away my hand she was holding. “Why aren’t you doing anything? Why are you just sitting there?”
She kneels down and tries to pick up Bella, but pulls her hands back immediately, just as Sandy had. I know she knows then that nothing can be done. She falls back into the tub, her whole body shaking. She must be short of breath, because it looks as if her next words are painful to get out. “Why? Wha…why?”
Worried she’s going to pass out, I stand up and try to get her to go with me. “I’m so sorry, E.”
“Get off me!” she yells, pushing my hands away. She doesn’t take her eyes off Bella as she says it. I’m worried now she’s going to hyperventilate, as she’s gone even paler, if possible. “I’m not leaving her!”
Sandy appears in the doorway, and I get up to tell her under my breath to call emergency services. She nods tearfully before disappearing back down the hallway.
When I turn back around, E has her head in her hands. God, I have never felt so goddamned helpless in all my life. I kneel back down beside her and put my hand on her back. I whisper I’m sorry over and over like an idiot, because I have no freakin’ clue what else to say.
We sit there for who knows how long. E seems to be in a state of shock. I know that Bella was a best friend to E when she had no one else in the world. My heart aches in pain as I scramble for the right words. Nothing feels right to say.
I hear a knock on the door some time later, and Sandy rushes to open it. Normally I would have vetted anyone who came to the door, but I can’t seem to move from E’s side. When the two women appear in the doorway, E finally springs to life. “No,” she whispers, clinging to me. “Don’t let them take her,” she begs. “Please don’t let them take her.”
“Come on,” I tell her softly, trying to encourage her to get up. “We have to say goodbye .”
“No!” she screams, beginning to fight me. “Please don’t let them! Please!”
The two women skirt around me to take a look at the dog. “We’re so sorry, ma’am. We understand how much pain you’re in,” one of them says sadly, kneeling down beside us.
I see the women exchange a look when they see Bella. Something is wrong here. I know it.
One of the women gestures for me to follow her out of the bathroom, and I get up reluctantly. Once we we’re out of earshot, she looks at me somewhat suspiciously. “There’s piles of vomit by the front door.”
I hadn’t even noticed. “What does that mean?”
“It can mean a lot of things, but after seeing the black gums, I don’t have a good feeling. I’ve seen this before. It’s likely she ingested something.”
Bad thoughts swirl through my head like a deadly tornado. What could she have gotten into? “As I’m sure you saw, that’s Eloisa Rae Morgan in there. I’d like a rush on the autopsy. We’ll pay double. Triple if you don’t leak this to the media.”
The woman looks insulted but agrees. “You have my word.”
We both head back into the bathroom. The other emergency services worker is whispering in E’s ear and rubbing her back, just as I had been. After a few moments, the other woman pushes by me and kneels down beside the pair. “Let’s say goodbye ,” she says softly. “Let’s let her rest in peace.”
For the first time I see a tear trickle down E’s face. The shock is wearing off, making way for a new, sad reality. She bends down and puts her face into Bella’s fur and begins sobbing.
The two women look at me, and I know what I have to do. I give her a few more seconds and then walk over to her, scooping her up in my arms in such a way it leaves no room for argument. She screams as I drag her out of the bathroom.
Sandy is looking at us, her eyes wide.
“Give us some time. Make sure this gets sorted out,” I tell her, nodding toward the women. “Give me an update when there is one.” I start down the hallway, trying not to let E’s wailing affect me.
Sandy watches E and me disappear into her bedroom. E’s inconsolable now, sobbing out Bella’s name and crying harder than I’ve ever witnessed anyone cry in my life.
I feel fucking terrible.
Going on instinct, I lay her down, pull my gun out of its holster and get in beside her. She curls into my arms immediately, her cries louder than ever.
I hold her close, my hands running up and down her back as I whisper in her ear. “It’s OK,” I tell her. “It’s OK.”
But it’s not OK. E just lost her best friend, and I know how much of a blow this is. That dog meant the world to her, and I can literally feel her pain in every cry and jerk of her chest.
I don’t know how long we lie there, but she doesn’t stop crying until the sun starts peeking through the windows. Thank God she had a couple of days until the next show. Would she even want to do it? I couldn’t give a shit. All I wanted was to give her a little relief.
I knew she’d fallen asleep when I felt her cries even out. But still, I didn’t move. I didn’t move when Sandy came in a couple of hours later and told me they were hoping to have results within forty-eight hours, or when she brought in water and some Advil an hour after that.
I didn’t want to move. If this was the only comfort I could give, then I was damn well going to give it.
Around noon, I felt her come awake. She started sniffling, and every few moments her chest would shake, but she was otherwise silent. She made no move to get out of my arms, and I was thankful for that. I only hoped I was giving her an iota of comfort.
Ten minutes later she shifts so she can look at my face, and for a moment we just stare at each other. Her beautiful green eyes are filled with tears. Her face is red and sticky, and her hair is matted down with sweat.
I’d never seen anything so perfect in all my life.
Her bottom lip is shaking, and for the millionth time I search for the right words, but I can’t think of a thing. What a failure I am as I just stare at her with nothing to say.
Then, something comes to me. I don’t think; I just speak.
“My mom was an alcoholic,” I start.
I see E’s eyes widen, and I take that as a sign to continue. “She was a wonderful mother, and an even better wife. She and my dad, they were so in love. High school sweethearts.” Images assault me, and I close my eyes. “I can truly say I had a fulfilling childhood. I did all the sports I wanted. We had dinner as a family every night, and we took vacations a few times a year. Growing up, I had no idea my mom struggled with depression.”
I took a deep breath, unable to believe I was saying this out loud. But the need to distract her outweighed everything else I was feeling. “As I got older, I noticed the wine in her water bottle. I noticed her getting up to refill her glass several times a night.”
E doesn’t say a word—just watches me.
“And as I got older, thirteen to be exact, I got curious. I didn’t understand the repercussions of what I was doing. All I knew was that when Mom drank this stuff, she laughed a lot. I remember thinking how much fun it must be.”
This would be the hard part of the story. Because this was the part that haunted me my entire life. I’d never really spoken about it out loud. God, how had I gone all these years?
“I got into her liquor cabinet one night. Did like seven shots—something insane like that—and I passed out.”
E’s biting her lip, her eyes still spilling over in tears, but I can tell she’s listening.
“My mom was the only one home—and she was as drunk as I was, I’d find out later. When she found me, I was unconscious, with a bottle in my hand. She tried to drive me to the hospital, but we went over an embankment about a mile from our house.”
E gasped, and I felt her hand fist my shirt.
“She died instantly. I woke up without a scratch on me, with the hangover of a lifetime. It was so bad, they didn’t even tell me about the car accident until a day later.”
She stares at me now with a different kind of shock. I wonder what she thinks of me. A monster. A killer. I thought I’d share my own story of loss, but hearing it all out loud…how could she even want me around after this?
But I continue the story, not knowing what else to do. “My father has never blamed me. He’s treated me the same my entire life—with nothing but love and understanding. He knows the guilt I struggle with daily. And there has to be some Freudian shit involved, considering the career I went into, but…I’ve never apologized to him. Can you believe that? I mean, I punish myself. I haven’t had a drink since, and I never will. But I’ve never apologized to him. And now he’s sick…and I’m still too much of a coward.”
I stop talking, overwhelmed by my life and the terrible memories of what happened. God, my old man deserves so much more. I took his wife from him, and he’s never blamed me. The opposite, in fact. And I can’t even look him in the eyes like a man and tell him I’m sorry.
E must see all the emotions churning within me, because she grabs my face with one soft hand and directs my eyes to hers. And in that second, we’re just two people dealing with loss. Me, stuck in tragic memories, and she, stuck in a nightmare.
Rational thought exits my brain at top speed. I can feel it happening, but I can’t stop it. All I can think about is the understanding I see in her eyes, so far from the rejection I’d expected. It brings me to a state of disbelief. A state of disbelief mixed with a sense of peace from getting all that off my chest.
I knew what was going to happen a second before it did, and I couldn’t have stopped it. Not even if I had possessed all the willpower in the world.
Her lips meet mine in the sweetest, saddest kiss I’ve ever experienced. Just a small, brief touch that sends calm over me like a warm blanket but desire through my blood like a storm. A thousand bolts pass between us as we lie there, our lips touching for a second time, a third.
I can feel her short, staccato breaths in my mouth every time we separate, and it spurs me on to hold her tighter.
It feels like giving in. It feels…amazing. There’s such an overpowering relief on my end, because holding myself back and keeping myself in denial have been so hard.
I want this woman. I want her just like this.
But there’s so much going on externally between us. So much sadness and uncertainty. I feel it all, bubbling underneath the surface. After a fourth kiss that I’m desperate to take farther, I pull away. I press my lips to the top of her head and hold her close while I catch my breath. I can feel the puffs of air against my neck as she does the same.
As the seconds tick by, my mind swims with thoughts of What next? What did this mean for us? What did it mean for me working for her? Was it a moment of weakness for us both? No…no, that wasn’t it. Because the truth was that I wanted more. More from her. More with her. And no matter what, I knew I wasn’t leaving her side with that bastard still out there.
E falls asleep a few minutes later, and I’m able to get up without waking her. I take a long, hot shower before I check on her once again to make sure she’s still asleep. Then I head into the living room.
Michonne, Joe, Big, Rob, Jacques, and Sandy are all there waiting. I feel a surge of panic that they know what happened between E and me, but I tamp it down and keep a straight face.
Michonne has tears in her eyes. “How is she?”
I sigh, grateful for the cup of coffee Joe hands me. “Sleeping.”
Rob looks torn. “We have to get on the road tonight…Do you think she’s…”
“I don’t know,” I snap. “She’s hurting right now.”
The room goes quiet before Jacques breaks the silence. “Poor Bella,” he says, wiping under his eyes. “I’m going to miss that little doll.”
Sandy is sitting at the table, her head down. “She seemed fine the last time I saw her. It just feels so sudden.”
“It was sudden,” I say. “The vets are doing an autopsy. We should expect results soon.”
Rob’s voice is cautious as he addresses the room. “I don’t mean to sound callous, but we really can’t afford this interruption. Our next show is in less than two days.”
I know Rob means well, but the comment annoys me. “Her well-being comes first,” I tell him sharply.
He gives me a look but doesn’t say anything. I wonder again if any of my emotions regarding E are written on my face.
“This fucking sucks!” Joe spits out. He’s standing behind Sandy’s chair. “On top of everything else she’s going through, she loses her dog. How much can one person take?”
I understand his frustrations. “We’ll have answers in a little while. I think we need to give her some time.”
Rob sighs. “Fine. We’re supposed to leave by eight tonight. Keep me updated…and give her my best.” He grabs his briefcase, gives me another look, and then starts herding everyone up to head back to their rooms. “It’s business as usual for the rest of us. We have a few things to get done before we take off.”
Everyone but Sandy leaves. “Is she OK?” she asks. “I can’t imagine what’s going through her mind. She loved Bella so much.”
“She’s a strong woman,” I respond. “She’ll be all right.”
Sandy looks incredibly tired. The dark circles I’ve noticed under her eyes this past week are more pronounced than ever. I take a shot in the dark. “Are you OK?”
She shrugs, but when she looks up and catches me studying her, her eyes go wide. “Just, um…just tired. I should probably try to get a nap in before tonight.”
She pushes up out of her chair, gives me a small wave, and then leaves the room through the connecting door. There’s definitely something up with her, but I can only worry about one woman at a time. So with that thought, I grab a water bottle and head back to E’s bedroom.
I stop short of the door and decide to make a quick phone call. The person on the other end of the line is so happy to hear from me, and even happier to hear what I have to say. E will hopefully cheer up when she hears this news. And whatever I can do to help E and make her feel better, I’ll do. It’s a scary thought.
She’s awake when I go in, staring into space and clearly lost in her thoughts. I’m unsure of what to do. Am I supposed to just get back into bed with her? Am I supposed to keep my distance? Am I supposed to pretend like this never happened and go back to putting up my social wall?
I feel lost, but when she sees me standing there and opens her arms, I find I can’t resist. She wraps herself around me as soon as I settle in the bed, and another surge of relief pushes through me. Relief born from acceptance. If she’s inviting me to lie with her again, that must mean she doesn’t regret what happened. Because even with all my reservations, I can’t get myself to regret what happened. Not the kiss—or telling her about my mother.
I felt more comfort in those moments than I’d felt in years doing anything else. It was like a warm bucket of water had been thrown over my head, bringing me back to a reality I had forgotten about.
I run my fingers through her hair, half amazed to be in this position with her and half aching for her pain. “How are you?”
Her shoulders move imperceptibly. “I just…she was OK when I went to bed.”
I don’t want to mention anything about my suspicions until I’m absolutely sure. “We’re going to find out what happened. We’ll have answers as soon as we can.”
She doesn’t respond, but I feel my T-shirt grow wet again. Man, I wanted to stop her tears more than anything. I decide to tell her about my phone call.
“So, I called Harold just now.”
She tenses. “Harold?”
I blow out a breath, still surprised at my actions. “Gave him his job back. If he goes through some regulatory training courses. We can’t afford any more mistakes.”
There’s silence, and I wonder if she’s not as pleased as I thought she’d be, but when I feel her staring at me, I look down and see a small smile on her face. “Thank you,” she says. She leans in and—bold as can be—presses another sensual kiss on my lips. I’m rendered speechless. Is that how it’s going to be between us now? If so, I need time to catch up. I’ve never been in a position like this—where I wanted something so much, but at the same time was so scared of it.
That’s why it takes me completely by surprise when she shifts her body until she’s lying directly on top of me. Her long hair is like a curtain around my face, and when she pushes up on her arms and looks down into my eyes, I groan aloud at the view. The sensation of her weight, the smell of her skin, and the intense heat she’s emitting is an intoxicating combination.
We just stare at each other. Me because I have no clue what the hell to do. I search for my iron will, my black personality that I always have on hand, and it’s nowhere to be found. Instead, I feel myself grow hard as a steel rod beneath her. I knew she feels it, too, because her eyes go dark and she clamps her legs around me, grinding softly into my erection. I don’t have a chance.
Without warning she bends down and smashes her lips to mine. This kiss is different than what happened between us earlier, and my mouth opens instinctively when I sense her urgency. She takes full advantage and sweeps her tongue in, stealing my senses and all my rational thought. Her taste isn’t anything like I had imagined but just what I’d dreamed. She tastes like strawberries and the essence of her smile, if her smile had a taste.
It only takes me a half a second to overcome the white-hot shock blasting through my system and respond the way I want to. And then I become frantic.
I wrap both arms around her back, lift my knees up to rest my feet on the bed and pull her into me, running my hands through her hair to cup the back of her head. Our mouths fight for dominance, in and out, up and over. The cadence of it is deadly, the chemistry between us unreal. It’s as if I had kissed her a hundred times before, we’re so in sync.
She starts rhythmically grinding into me, making me half-mindless. I can feel the heat between her legs, and I run my hands down her back to cup her bottom—whether to stop her or keep her going, I have no idea. I start to feel like I’m completely losing control. She’s literally running this show, and that makes me short of breath for more reasons than one.
I don’t even realize until my hands hit bare skin that I’ve reached down into the back of her shorts. The feeling of the soft, smooth skin of her ass is my undoing. She’s so perfect. I suck in a sharp breath, my thoughts reeling.
Should this be happening?
I know that a part of her is doing this for comfort, but what about the other part? I’m so confused, turned on more than I’ve ever been in my life and…what is she thinking right now? Could she possibly need me as much as I need her? Panic starts to grip my chest.
“Stop thinking,” she whispers over my mouth. Her hands are threaded through my hair. “Keep touching.”
I pull away and grit my teeth. This has gone too far. The panic was building, clashing with desire. At this point I’d probably listen to whatever she told me. Do whatever she wanted me to do. I couldn’t let that happen.
“What are we doing?” I whisper back. I hold her cheeks in both my hands and lift her face away from mine. “What are we doing?” I repeat.
At first she looks angry that I stopped her, then she looks confused. And then, before I have a chance to prepare myself, she bursts into tears.
“I’m sorry,” she sobs. “I don’t want you to think I’m using you. I just…needed…”
“Comfort,” I sigh, feeling low as hell. Maybe I did have it all wrong.
She shakes her head against me. “No. I needed you.” She lifts her head. “I’ve wanted you. For a while now.”
She’s looking at me with clear, shiny green eyes that are begging me to tell her the same. That I want her, too.
I’m not sure if I can give her that control, but I can’t lie anymore. I’ll figure out the rest later, but I can’t deny her this. I don’t have any flowery words, but…“Me too.”