I wake up in a daze. My face feels swollen and my body achy. What…?
Then I remember. My poor, beautiful, life-saving little Bella is gone. My best friend and confidante spent her last moments alone, probably scared, squeezed in next to a toilet.
My chest seizes painfully, and more tears come. I miss her so much already. I reach out toward the bed beside me, to her spot, but feel nothing there. It’s like my right leg is missing.
But then I remember something else…moving over X’s rock-hard body. His soft lips pressing against mine, his solid, strong arms holding me close. A burst of awareness has me sitting up in bed. Did that really happen?
I put a hand to my lips. Holy crap. It did happen. I fooled around with my bodyguard. I kissed him after he told me what was probably the darkest secret in his life. The poor man was carrying around so much guilt.
Did I regret it? The answer was instantaneous. No.
I wanted X. I wanted to do more than just kiss him with my clothes on. I was tired of denying myself his comfort, his strength. I didn’t know how this whole thing was going to play out, but I wasn’t going to let it go. I was a red-blooded woman attracted to a perfect-looking man, and I wasn’t going to run away scared.
I lie back down in bed, overcome with desire for X and a deep sadness for Bella. The mix of feelings is exhausting. The window outside tells me the sun is going down, and I know we’re probably late for leaving for the next show in Massachusetts.
The door opens a few minutes later, and I see X peek his head in. I lift mine infinitesimally so he knows I’m awake. His eyes never leave mine as he comes to kneel beside my bed.
How was he going to act? What was he going to do? The X I knew wasn’t one to show emotion. He kept everything locked up tight to his vest, but…looking at him now, he seemed lighter. Had talking about what had happened with his mother helped? Speaking of…
“Thank you for telling me about your mother,” I whisper, reveling in the fact that his face is only inches away from mine. Just his presence makes me feel good.
His jaw flexes. “Thank you for listening. I understand if you feel differently about me now—”
I put a finger to his lips. “Don’t. You’re blaming yourself for something that wasn’t your fault. I think deep down you know it, and I think if you talked to your dad, he’d tell you the same thing. It was a tragic accident. You have to allow yourself to let go.”
He takes a deep breath and then looks away. He’s a smart man. I know he knows I’m right. But I also know that forgiving oneself is easier said than done. And it doesn’t happen overnight. I can only hope this is a first step for him.
“Besides,” I continue boldly, “if I feel differently about you now, it’s because you gave me the kiss of a lifetime.”
His eyes flash. “I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you when you were sad about Bella.”
I would have laughed if I wasn’t so heartsick. “I’m pretty sure you were the victim here.” He doesn’t say anything—just scans my face. I’d never seen his eyes look like they did now. As if in wonder. As if he was staring at something beautiful. “What do we do now?”
He sighs, looking to the ground. “I don’t know. My first priority has to be the job. Until this guy gets locked away…”
I nod, understanding. Now is not the time to explore what is between us. I can’t help but want him, though. And right now he’s so close. I haven’t had sex in a year, and I’m feeling desperate. “Does that mean we can’t…?”
He knows what I mean and puts his forehead to the bed in response. “Don’t tempt me.” But oh, how I wanted to. The thought made me squirm, and he definitely took notice. “We both can’t afford to be distracted right now,” he finally says.
I pout, and he shakes his head, laughing under his breath. “You’re something else.” He pauses, as if trying to find the words. “I’m not used to…I don’t know what…”
He’s scared. He isn’t a man used to giving up any sort of control. I can understand that. The man I see before me now is nothing like the man I first met only a few short weeks ago. I’m taking him out of his comfort zone. “Good.”
He sighs, giving me another one of his hardened looks. Unbidden, thoughts of Bella swarm back in, and all the good feelings X just brought out in me dissipate. “Have you heard from the vet?”
He shakes his head. “Not yet.”
“Is Rob freaking out right now?”
I groan and try to blink away the tears that come to my eyes. The last thing I want to do is wreck a tour everyone has worked so hard for. But how can I perform when I feel like I do now? “I can’t do it.”
He puts a finger under my chin so I look at him. “Yes, you can. There’s no can’t for you. There never has been. You lost your mother, you were abandoned by your father, and you lived on the damned streets. Through sheer talent alone you were able to not only survive, but also live out your dream of playing music to the world. And even now, even when you’ve made it, you’re still dealing with forces of antagonism. The media and their outrageous stories, Martha Mathers and her petty bullshit. Your douchey ex and his drama…and some fucking psychopath that someday soon I’m going to rip limb from limb. You can do this. You’re the strongest, most courageous woman I know. You put me to shame.”
His words creep around my chest like a vine and squeeze the breath out of me. A burst of emotion, like an exploding heart, erupts between us.
It’s then I realize we’re more alike than I thought. I’ve spent my life fighting an uphill battle, and he’s spent his trying to come down that hill after the battle he had, but it’s the same kind of fight.
“I don’t put you to shame,” I finally respond. “We’re meeting in the middle. The middle of the hill.”
He looks at me curiously, and I briefly explain to him what I mean. And as if by magic, we meet in the middle for a different reason, both drawn together for a kiss.
I travel to my second show in a haze of sadness.
I can only assume the loss of Bella feels like the loss of a beloved family member. Thinking of her little face saps me of my energy, and it’s all I can do to keep myself together. The poor thing. How I wish I could have been with her when she passed on. She was always there for me, and I wasn’t there for her in her time of greatest need.
But X is right. I can’t let my fans down and cancel. This show is just as much about them as it is me. Not to mention this is the show my father plans on attending. Who knows if he actually meant it, but…I don’t want to appear weak in his eyes.
Sandy, Joe, and Big all accompany us in our SUV while the rest of the crew rides in one of the tour buses. It’s nice to have the extra company, but a part of me wishes it was just X and me.
They do their best to cheer me up, exchanging stories about Bella and shedding a few tears. The vet still hasn’t gotten back to us. At least X didn’t mention it, if there was word. What could have happened to my little girl?
It was my main question as we made the three-hour ride to Boston.
When we get to our scheduled hotel, there are fans lined up outside the door. I know X tried to keep the location a secret, but sometimes things have a way of revealing themselves, no matter what you do.
I can’t get myself to sign autographs or engage. I feel so disconnected from everything, and all I can think about is getting in bed and trying to escape reality with sleep. That’s my plan until the show tomorrow night.
Luckily, the team understands, and they escort me through the crowd without question and into the lobby, where I’m eventually shown to a private suite and a large, comfortable bed.
I guess I pass out right away, because when I wake up, someone is crawling into bed next to me.
“Is this OK?” he asks into the darkness.
I don’t answer. I just wrap my arms around him, so grateful for the comfort. I feel him relax in my hold, sensing that he’s gaining just as much comfort from me. We hold each other, both squeezing once in a while as if reveling in the feeling. So much for now not being the right time.
“I couldn’t help coming here,” he explains. “You looked so sad all day. I…I couldn’t help.”
I nod, understanding. Being with him gives me a feeling I never knew existed, and one I have no idea how I ever did without.
“You ready?” X asks, the cacophony of a screaming arena nearly drowning out his voice.
I stand in the wings, about to make the entrance to my second show. I know he’s worried about a repeat performance—me freezing the second I get onstage—but I’m confident it won’t happen this time. “I’m ready.”
Sandy had come up to me earlier and let me know that my father was in fact here. It lit a fire under my ass like nothing else could. He wanted to see a show? I’d give him a show.
“Good. Good luck.”
“You’re supposed to say ‘break a leg.’”
“Why the hell would I say that?”
“Because it means good luck!”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You’ve never heard that before?”
I laugh, enjoying the playfulness that has sprung up between us in such a dark time. “Well, now you know. It’s what all performers say to each other before heading onstage. It’s tradition.”
“I’m still not saying it.”
I sigh. He’s so handsomely adorable, I stand on tiptoes and place a small kiss on his lips…and he tenses, but he lets me. I have no idea if that’s allowed or not, but I don’t care. He held me last night, but I’d barely seen him today with everything going on. But when we get together, it’s almost like we can’t help ourselves.
Which is completely and utterly surreal. Me with the intimidating and angry storm cloud. Hearing my cue, I turn away to head out onstage. I see Sandy watching us from the corner of her eye, and I make a mental note to tell her about X and me. I don’t want her to feel like I was lying to her.
Walking onstage this time feels different. This one is for Bella.
And all in all, the show goes as it should, despite the fact that I cry during a few of my ballads. I’m still able to get through all my songs and let the crowd chalk it up to a passionate performance.
I can’t see him there, but I can feel him. My father. The one who abandoned me and basically left me for dead. I hit my highest note of the show with that thought in mind.
Goddamn it. I was proud of myself. I’d been able to push aside the devastation I felt over losing Bella and the nerves over my father in the audience and put on a show that was even smoother than the last. My fans bolster me, as they always do. And thoughts of X and what is developing between us make my heart sing.
It’s so uncertain, but once again, when the show is over, he’s the first one I run to. Even with everyone watching, he lets me fly into his arms. I catch the team’s questioning looks—and Michonne’s grin—over my shoulder. Apparently our embrace looked as heady as it felt.
I’d thought X might be nervous to outwardly show affection toward me, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. He had always been a man who didn’t care what people thought, basically doing whatever he wanted.
When we let go, he smiles down at me. “I’m proud of you.”
“Everyone is watching us, aren’t they?”
He sighs and turns around, a dark expression on his face. When he does, Rob, Big, and Joe look away awkwardly, like they hadn’t been watching us, but Michonne, Jacques, and Sandy walk over the few feet to where we’re standing.
“Come here,” Michonne says, holding out her arms for a hug. “You were amazing, just as I knew you’d be. I want to suggest upgrading your outfit for the second act, though. How would you feel about hot pants?”
“She would look amazing in hot pants!” Jacques puts in, taking his turn with a hug. “But no blues, please. The color makes her skin look washed out.”
“No more outfit changes,” Rob chimes in from afar. “We just got everything figured out!”
“Blue in general does not make her look washed out—only dark blue!” Michonne says back.
“Ellie looks great in blue!” Joe calls, genuinely confused. “Who doesn’t look good in blue?”
Jacques sniffs and waves his hand as if swatting the comment away. “What would you know about it?”
Big shrugs. “Blue’s my favorite color.” I notice X roll his eyes at the comment and can barely suppress a grin.
Sandy stands a bit off to the side, her face tense. I still haven’t asked her what’s been wrong with her lately, as I’ve been so distracted by my own drama. She seems especially troubled now. I gaze at her for a few seconds, and she looks away.
“Everything OK, Sandy?” X asks, picking up on the exchange.
Sandy runs a hand through her ponytail. “Your father. He texted me…he wants to come backstage and see you.”
There’s an awkward silence, but we had all been expecting this to happen.
“Hey, you don’t have to see the bastard,” Joe says, walking over with Big and Rob. He stands by Sandy, and they share a look. “I mean, it’s up to you.”
Rob clears his throat. “He made a big stink outside the arena today. Telling everyone he was your father and carrying around old photos of you two. There’s some pictures on social media of him posing with your fans.”
Ugh. The nerve. Stealing my fame to make himself feel less guilty over the hell he put me through as a child. But a part of me, the little girl who still feels a sense of abandonment, wants to see him.
“It’s fine,” I finally say. “I’ve been avoiding him for a year. I might as well face the music.”
“Are you sure?” X asks.
Everyone goes quiet, and I can tell they aren’t happy with my decision.
I look around at all their glum faces. The faces of my family. “Look, thank you all for your support. But please don’t worry about it. It’s not like I’m inviting him back into my life.”
“Damned right,” Joe said. “We’re just worried about you, that’s all.”
“But we support you,” Jacques says stiffly.
“Thank you,” I tell them. “I love you guys.”
After a few sappy moments, I smile and look at Sandy. “You can bring him to my dressing room in about ten. Does that work?”
She nods. And then, almost as an afterthought, she says, “Oh, amazing job, Ellie. You were beautiful out there.”
I watch her walk off, her face in her phone.