Ten minutes later, E and I are in her dressing room. She’s pacing around nervously while I stand off to the side, looking at the pictures fans posted with her father earlier that night. There are tons of them. The bastard.
When E begins fixing her hair in the mirror, I can’t stand it.
“Hey, stop that. You look gorgeous.”
My voice is a little rougher than I’d intended, and I know E picks up on it. She stops fixing her hair and looks at me over her shoulder in the mirror. In another life, I’d take her away. Somewhere far away from all this bullshit. But she’s famous, and I’m…me. I’m not the man who can do that for her.
The problem is, I can’t help wanting her. I can’t stop myself from touching her when she wants it or needs it. Like after the show. One taste of it, one taste of her, and I lost everything I’d worked so hard for…but it didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would.
“You think I’m gorgeous?”
I stare at her. Is she serious? She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. “It was the first thing I thought when I first saw you.”
Her mouth drops open. Literally. “I thought you hated me!”
I shrug. “I didn’t know you. I thought you were just like all the other celebrities I had encountered. But I still thought you were gorgeous.”
She turns around, leaning against the vanity. She has a devilish smile on her face. “I still can’t believe you walked in on me naked.”
“Best day of my life,” I tease.
She smiles, biting her lip. “So far.”
A knock sounds at the door, cutting the moment short.
Sandy pushes her way in, followed by a man I recognize from the photos as E’s father. I bristle as I watch E do her best to pull herself together.
Sandy comes to stand by my side as E and her father size each other up. His face is etched in what looks like a mix of sadness and awe. E’s looks blank.
I think I’d been expecting an evil monster, but E’s dad is just a regular old man. Shorter than average, balding. He has her clear green eyes, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Everything else about him is completely average.
“Eloisa,” he begins, fidgeting with his hands. “Your show was so much fun. I’m so proud of you.”
He takes a step closer. “I’m so happy I got to come. And thank you for letting me back here. I’ve been calling…”
“I know. I’ve been busy.”
Her father apparently isn’t deterred by her short answers. “You…you reminded me so much of your mother up there. You look so much alike.”
“So I’ve heard.” E runs her eyes over his face. “I also heard you were taking photos before the show.”
He nods. “I hope you’re not mad…I’m just so proud of you I could burst. I know you’re probably ashamed of me.”
“I’m not ashamed,” E tells him, her arms crossing defensively. “I just…I don’t know you.”
There’s a moment of silence, and then…
“I thought your aunt was going to take you!” he tells her desperately. “I was a coward. I was an alcoholic, depressed coward! I never knew you were on the streets. If I did—”
My stomach sinks when I hear alcohol was involved. Damn. She was surrounded by it. And here I was, adding my own shit to her plate.
E put up a hand. “We don’t have to go over this again. What’s done is done. Let’s just…What did you think of the show?”
I watch the scene, anger and frustration bubbling beneath my skin. Her father is waxing poetic about her performance when all I can think about is punching his bum face. How could he leave his little girl on the streets to rot? Anything could have happened to her. He didn’t deserve to bask in the air she breathed. Watching him snivel at her feet, desperate for her approval, was the only thing that made me feel any better.
I look over to see Sandy with the same expression. She seems to hate E’s dad as much as I do.
My phone signals a text, and when I see it’s from the vet, my heart skips a beat.
Vet: Poison. Bromadiolone. She had enough in her system to kill a dog three times her size. What the hell happened?
My stomach sinks like a block of concrete.
I stare at the phone, unsure of what the hell to do. When could she have gotten poisoned? Who could have given it to her?
What the fuck was I going to tell E?
I show the text to Sandy, and the second she sees it, her eyes widen. Her breath picks up, and the next thing I know, she bursts into tears and runs out of the room.
E doesn’t notice Sandy’s hasty exit, as she’s still dealing with her father. I want him the hell out of the room so I can get to the bottom of what’s going on and break the news to E. I send a quick text to Joe and Big, asking them to come to the dressing room as soon as possible.
Her father is taking pictures out of his back pocket, and when he does, a slew of letters come with it.
“Oh!” he says, bending down to pick up the pile. “Messages from your fans. They asked me to give them to you.”
I burst into action. “Give them to me.”
I snatch the few he has in his hands and bend down to grab the rest. I have a terrible feeling. I don’t know if it’s from the news I was just given about Bella or if it’s something else, but I’m not taking any chances.
Big bursts into the room a moment later.
“Where’s Joe?” I demand.
“X, what’s going on?” E asks. Her face looks scared.
“He’s talking to Sandy. She’s really upset,” Big replies. He looks around, eyes landing on E’s father. “Everything OK in here?”
“I told them I would give those to her,” her father says, gesturing toward the pile in my hand.
I ignore him, handing them to Big. “Can you look through these and let me know if you see anything?”
He nods, bringing the stack to the side of the room to begin sifting through them.
My heart is going a mile a minute. “Are we done here?” I ask E. “I need to talk to you.”
Rob walks into the room then, his face pale. When he notices E’s dad, he regroups. “X, we need to talk. Now.”
At that moment, my phone starts ringing. It’s the police. Holy fuck. I take a deep breath, trying to keep my head on straight. My mind is buzzing in a million different directions. I send them to voice mail to deal with later.
“We’re going to have to finish this visit on a later date,” I tell her father. I walk out of the dressing room and gesture to one of the guards. “Can you escort Mr. Morgan to his car?”
I feel E’s hand on my arm. “X, what’s going on?”
My phone starts ringing again. This time it’s the colonel—a call I can’t ignore. I hold up a finger to tell her I’ll be right back and walk down the hall. “What is it?”
“Martha Mathers was found dead this afternoon. Note was stuffed inside her mouth. It read, ‘For Eloisa.’ They had trouble between them, didn’t they?”
I sink against the wall, trying to process the news. I try to keep the shock out of my voice. “They did. Do you think it’s the same guy?”
“Has to be,” the Colonel replies. “Who else?”
“Not yet. I’ll keep you updated.”
“Do that. I’m dealing with some things here right now. I’ll call you back.”
I briefly tell him the situation before I hang up. I stride back into the room to find E’s father being escorted out by Rob.
“What did I do?” he asks me nervously. E is trailing behind, her eyes troubled.
“Nothing,” I tell him. “I’ll have E call you later.”
He turns back to her, as if looking for a hug, but she just stands there with her arms wrapped around herself.
“Come on,” Rob says. Then he turns to look at me. “We need to talk. It’s about Martha.”
I nod. “I just heard.”
Big comes up behind E then, his face hard. He holds up a letter silently behind E’s back.
Shit. One fucking thing after another.
I grab E’s hand, needing to hold on to her. “We’re going back to the hotel.”
I turn to Big. “Find Joe and Sandy. We all need to talk.”
He exits behind Rob and E’s father.
I take a deep breath, trying to gather my thoughts. I text the vet back and then look at E. “Grab your things. We’re leaving. And don’t look at your phone.”
The door of the hotel room closes softly behind Sandy. E’s core team is scattered around the room, quiet and unsure about what’s going on.
I have no idea what to deal with first, but I decide to tackle the news about Bella.
I walk to E’s side and put a hand on her shoulder. “I talked to the vet today. Bella…she was poisoned.”
Audible gasps fill the room, and Rob jumps to his feet. “Poisoned?”
I don’t take my eyes off E’s face. She’s incredulous. “What do you mean?”
“The vet found bromadiolone in her system, which is a rat poison.”
I let that sentence sink in. A few moments pass before everyone begins talking at once.
E, with tears streaming down her face, sits down on the couch a few minutes later. “Who could have done this?” she asks sadly.
Rob clears his throat, his face drawn. “Could it be…could it be the stalker?”
“It’s the same person,” Big cuts in to respond. He draws a letter from his back pocket, and I’m happy to see it’s now encased in a plastic Ziploc. “He must have found E’s father outside and sent a note back.”
“What does it say?” E asks quietly from beside me.
“It says, ‘I didn’t want to hurt Bella. I only hurt Bella because you hurt me.’”
“What the fuck!” Michonne shouts, pulling E into a hug. “How did he get to Bella? Why the fuck can’t we find this guy?”
“This is horrible,” Jacques says, wiping his eyes under his pink glasses. “We have to cancel the tour until we find this maniac.”
Rob turns white but doesn’t say anything. Just takes a seat on the couch and puts his head in his hands. Big slaps a meaty paw on his shoulder, his face contorted with sadness.
The room dissolves into angry conversation and tears.
“This situation is getting out of control,” Rob finally says. “The red carpet incident. The knife on the door. The chocolate ice cream, Bella, and now Martha? Who the fuck is this guy?”
“What happened to Martha?” E asks, her voice shaking, as if she knows what’s coming.
I guess it’s time to drop the next bomb. I have the group sit down as I tell them what the police just told me before this meeting. Martha was found dead in her New England home, a gunshot wound to the chest. I explain about the note and tell everyone the police are on their way.
Without another word, E runs into the back bedroom, slamming the door. I know her well enough to know that she’s feeling intense guilt. Sandy is now sitting on the couch between Joe and Michonne, crying hysterically.
The police and FBI arrive a few minutes later to get statements and to make sure we’re all up to speed. Because of Martha’s celebrity, the homicide case is escalated to priority one.
Everyone is on the search for this asshole, but no one more than me. It was going to take all my willpower to not wring his neck when I found him, and I would find him.
The problem is the media. After a long debate—in which I ultimately get my way—we decide to keep this whole thing under wraps for as long as we can. My fear is if it gets out to the world, the perp will go into hiding. I want the fucker feeling as if he’d gotten away with it.
After the smoke clears, I tell the team members to go back to their rooms and get some sleep. There’s another show in two days in New York, and as of now, it’s still on.
I head into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of water, thinking that I could really use a drink. I don’t even remember how drinking alcohol felt, but I have a feeling it would really do the trick right now and calm my nerves.
E, who only came out once to talk to the police, is back in her bedroom. She’s been quiet since hearing the news about Martha, her demeanor ghostlike. I need to talk to her.
I open the door and find her sitting up on the bed, her phone in her hands. She’s staring out the window when I sit beside her.
We don’t say anything for a few moments. I have no idea what to say. I’m so damned sorry she’s going through this. Going through this at a time that should be one of the happiest in her life.
“I talked to Joel,” she whispers.
I seize up. Did she turn to him for comfort?
“I wanted to warn him…just in case.” She wipes an errant tear. “If this guy went after Martha, maybe he’d try to go after him. He’s the only other person I’m publicly connected to.”
Relief sweeps away the jealousy. It makes sense, and she has a point. “I don’t want you to worry about the team. Security is airtight. No one is going to be able to get to you or them.”
She nods sadly. “Joel told me you talked to him.”
At first I’m confused, but then I remember picking up her phone that night at the cabin. She looks at me, and I shrug innocently. “You told me I could handle him. I didn’t want him calling you anymore.”
She sighs heavily. “He’s in Barbados with his new girlfriend. I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
“Why did you guys break up?” I ask, finally allowing the question to come out after so long.
She bites her lip nervously and can’t seem to meet my eyes. “Well, he cheated on me. The man I met in the beginning of our relationship is long gone. When he got famous and the groupies started coming around, he changed into a different person. He also had serious alcohol problems.”
Damn. Another one. I try not to let the news bring me down. I’m nothing like him. I want to tell her that, but it doesn’t feel like the time. “Yeah?”
“He cared about getting his next drink or lay more than he cared about me. I think he’s sober now. I just hope he’s changed, for her sake.”
I can’t help but wonder if she’s upset over his new girlfriend. I hope not. She goes quiet, resting her head on my shoulder, and I put my arm around her.
“What’s going on between us?” she asks, staring out at the moon. It’s not the first time the question has come up, but it feels different this time.
“I don’t know,” I tell her honestly, watching the shadows the moon is making on her face. I wish I had a better answer.
“Please,” she says, her voice breaking. “Tell me something good. I need…I need to hear something good. I feel so guilty.”
I squeeze her tight to my side. “This isn’t your fault, E.”
“It is. Indirectly,” she says, moving her face into my chest. “It is.”
“So, what, if you were never born, this wouldn’t have happened? I know it’s awful that the guilt is heavy, and it hurts.”
“What can I do to stop this?” she asks quietly. “I feel so helpless. He…this person must hate me so much.”
Her words swim in my brain. Something about her wording strikes a chord, but I can’t put my damn finger on it.
“This isn’t about you; it’s about him,” I tell her. “And you know I’m right.” She doesn’t say anything, so I push on. “Didn’t we just talk about guilt the other night? Didn’t you tell me not to blame myself about what happened to me?”
“That was different.”
“Yes, but it’s the same idea. And you were right. What happened with my mother was tragic and terrible, but it wasn’t my fault. And what’s happening now is not your fault. You hear me?”
She sits up and looks directly at me, and we stare at each other for a few moments. I feel the bond between us crackle. It’s there, holding us invisibly by our emotions. She must feel it, too. “What’s going on between us?” she asks again.
I stare at her lips, remembering how they feel against my own and dying to feel it again. But this—I feel like I need to give her a real answer. “All I can think about is you. All I see is you. And it’s not for the reasons I was hired for. Here I am, brought in to protect you, and I can’t find the man who’s hurting you.”
“I don’t want you to leave,” she says, leaning in. “When this is over, I don’t want you to go.”
“I don’t want to,” I tell her, surprising myself, but unable to take it back. “Whatever’s happening between us—I don’t want it to stop.”
“Why?” she asks, pressing her cheek intimately against mine, starting a fire. The heat burns through my body, damn near feeling like it’s opening up my soul.
I swallow hard. “I’ve lived such a lonely existence before this, before you. Work, diligence, order…I never let anyone else in, not even my father. You’re breaking that curse I live with. You’re breaking it down inch by inch, because you force me to see that my false bravery is for nothing, and you force me to see what real bravery looks like. You inspire me. I can’t imagine meeting anyone else…in the middle…like I’ve met you.”
She takes a short breath—surprised, I know—at how candid I’ve just been.
Feeling vulnerable as hell, I force myself to stay still. Damn, I had just bared the inside of my heart to this woman. But just as I did when I told her what happened with my mom, I feel lighter. I want to know, though, what does she see in me? I know what everyone else sees. A hard, mean, and angry person. And I know how I see myself. Does she too see the weak, emotionally challenged man who sits before her?
As if she can read my thoughts, she takes my face in her hands. “I want you to stay. I want you to stay, because you make me feel safer than I’ve ever felt in my life. You give me a peace like I’ve never known, a home, and you are the strongest, most selfless man, and you don’t even know it. You’ve lived your life repenting for something you shouldn’t have. And now that we’ve met in the middle, all I want to do is move forward. That’s what I want.”
Despite everything we’re dealing with, she’s still able to fill me with light. And I know I’m doing the same for her.
“And there’s one more reason,” she says lightly, crawling onto my lap and forcing me down to the bed. “Because you’re so fucking hot.”
Our mouths meet in a clash of teeth and desperate hunger. A low moan sounds in the back of her throat, and the sound vibrates through my body. The events of the day along with both of our confessions have me as electric as a live wire, and she’s so amped up I can barely keep my hands on her, seemingly able to feel the need pouring from her skin.
The darkness of the room outlines her body in shadow and gray light, and every time I open my eyes, it feels like a filtered dream.
Her mouth moves from my lips, and we both take a desperate breath of air, but a split second later she starts raining kisses all over my face, moving down to my neck and causing me to involuntarily push my erection into the space between her thighs. I’ve never wanted anything in my life as much as I want her. The feel of her body on mine is literally driving me insane.
I knew I wasn’t going to hold back this time, and once I felt her chest rub against me, I put my hands on her beautifully curved hips, run them up the sides of her waist, and take her shirt with me until it’s all the way off. She isn’t wearing anything underneath, and my eyes blink rapidly, anxious as a thirteen-year-old boy to look at her, to take her in.
She sits up as if wanting me to look my fill. My eyes feast on the gorgeous sight before me. Perfectly formed, perfectly sized, pale-white breasts with small pink nipples are all I can see. My fingertips are drawn like magnets, and when I cup her, running my thumbs over those nipples, we both moan.
She moves to take off my shirt, and we spend long minutes exploring each other’s bare skin. Her little hands are all over my chest, squeezing my muscles. At the same time, she’s rubbing up against me in a rhythm as old as time. Her skin is incredibly soft, and I lean up to kiss every freckle that I’m able.
I need more. I push up against her more forcefully, sending a message that she reads loud and clear. Rolling to the side, she undoes her jeans with shaking hands. I help pull them down her legs, my eyes glued on what her white underwear is hiding.
Staring into her eyes, I shift her up on the bed and move over her. “I can’t believe we’re here right now,” I tell her.
“We made it to the middle,” she whispers back, hands still roving over my upper body, making me shiver.
I lean down, taking one flawless breast in my mouth, wondering if some God out there made her body and her mind just for me. Her skin feels incredible under my tongue, especially the underside of her breast, and I take my time nuzzling her there.
She’s worked up; I can tell by the heat of her skin. I lower my head and pepper openmouthed kisses across her stomach, trying to infuse how much I feel for her into every touch of my lips.
When I get to the top of her underwear, I don’t even have to ask. Her legs spread wide open, and her hands go to the top of my head as if wanting to force me to stay put.
I look up her, my eyes no doubt filled with emotion. Hers are molten with heat. “Sorry, it’s been a year,” she tells me, her voice hoarse.
Nothing else she could have said could have turned me on more. “Let’s fix that.”
I put two fingers in the sides of her panties and drag them down her legs, my mouth watering at the vision before me.
“Fuck,” I growl under my breath. Pulsing waves of heat unfurl inside me. “This is…you are…”
“Stop talking,” she tells me, her voice husky.
I lower my head and get to work, sliding my tongue eagerly through her folds. Her taste explodes on my tongue, and I close my eyes, savoring her and anxious as hell to get her off.
I don’t have to wait long. Her knees clamp around my head, and she bucks up off the bed, crying out my name and scouring her nails on my scalp. Best. Feeling. Ever.
I don’t want to stop, but her hands are tugging me up, so I move up her body and soon we’re kissing again. After that it’s a scramble of hands and wet kisses, and I fumble to unbuckle my belt and slide off my pants.
“I’m on the pill, and I’ve been tested,” she whispers to me, cradling my face in her hands. “Please don’t stop.”
She pulls back to give me a strange look, and I shake the cobwebs out of my head. “Wait, not the pill thing.”
She laughs beautifully. “I figured.”
Finally, finally, I’m positioning myself between her legs. I close my eyes and take a mental snapshot of the moment and of how she looks right now. It’s an image I never want to forget. She’s more than I ever imagined and more than I deserve. Her long hair is splayed around her head, her green eyes are dark and hooded, and her mouth is parted and glistening from my kisses. I stare an extra second longer at those lips, a part of me still unable to believe she’s even letting me kiss her.
Without warning, she moves out from under me and straddles me like a damned cowboy. “I want to be on top the first time.”
I can barely find the words—or the air—to respond before she grabs my cock, sending lightning through my body, and presses the tip inside her.
Time stands still as inch by inch she slides down on top of me. Her warm, soaking-wet heaven has my eyes rolling in the back of my head, and I have to mentally snap myself out of it before I leave the moment completely. Grabbing her hips, I push up at an angle inside her and gyrate my hips, rewarded when she throws her head back and cries out my name again.
Her hands go to her breasts, and she tugs on her nipples as I try my damnedest to keep up a rhythm. It’s incredible. This is incredible. She’s incredible.
She places her palms flat on the bed beside my shoulders and starts moving up and down in time with me, and I’ve never felt more in sync with anyone. We’re connected in so many ways, physically and mentally, and my balls tighten as I try to hold on and not blow it too soon.
Our mouths connect again, and my hands slide around her back to hold her close. Her skin is moist, or maybe it’s my palms.
An immature sense of pride overwhelms me that out of all the millions of men in the world who probably fantasize about her, it’s me that she’s chosen. If they only knew that their fantasies pale in comparison to the real thing.
She leans up again and starts moving faster, and I bring my hand up to her clit, rubbing in small circles to try to get her to go off again, knowing I won’t be able to last much longer.
I don’t want it to end. I want her in so many different ways, in so many different angles. I want my hands on every millimeter of her skin, but I’m fading fast. She leans into my hand, helping herself along and then just like that, she hits her peak. I feel her inside walls clenching around me, sucking me dry, and I grit my teeth, forcing myself to last through her release. The second she lets out a breath, I explode inside her. A white-hot shot that overwhelms me in its enormity, guts me with its intensity.
I hold her tightly in my arms, trying to ground myself.
Long seconds tick by as we catch our breaths. Her arms are tangled around my chest and shoulders, neither of us making any attempt to move.
When she finally looks up at me a few long minutes later, her forehead is damp, her eyes gleaming. “Wow.”
We share a look, and I’m sure she can see the awe in my gaze. “Wow.”
“I needed that,” she says, nuzzling back into me.
I laugh, unsure whether or not I should be offended. “Well, glad to be of service.”
Her eyes are bright with laughter as she rubs a hand across my chest. “What? You were hired to protect my body, weren’t you?”
I pretend to be offended. “Seriously, E? This is your idea of pillow talk?”
She giggles. “I’m not in the mood for pillow talk.”
“What are you in the mood for?”
“I want to do that. Again.”
“Good God, woman.”
She sits up, straddling my hips. “I told you. It’s been a long time.”
I’m fascinated by the fact that I’m getting hard again. I’ve got stamina, but it usually takes me twenty minutes or so. When she feels me rising against her, she presses against me erotically, reigniting the heat between us.
While I’d love to spend the night getting lost in lust with E, a lot has happened tonight. A lot of terrible things.
“Wait,” I say. “Can we…can we talk first?”
She gives me a look and then puts her hands above her head, winding her hair into a ponytail. It gives me an amazing view of her breasts, and my mouth goes dry. I close my eyes to block the view. “Are you OK?” I force myself to ask. “There’s so much going on and—”
She presses a finger to my lips. “I know there’s a ton of shit I have to deal with, X. And I will. But not right now. Please?”
“I appreciate you trying to be a gentleman, but you’re one of the only good things I’ve got right now. I need to enjoy it. I need to enjoy you.”
“I still don’t feel right about it. I feel like we need to have a rational conversation, not to mention figure out our next move with the tour and—”
“You’re thinking too much.” She smiles devilishly as her hand snakes down my stomach to grab hold of my dick. Arousal zings through me, and I feel myself pulse in her hand. She lifts a brow, the saucy minx. I roll over on top of her and rub my hardness against her stomach. Her eyes close, and her lips part. Two can play at this game.
As I take her again, all I can think is that I want this pain-in-the-ass beautiful celebrity with a heart of gold and a voice to match to be mine. I’ve never wanted anything like that before.
We stare into each other’s eyes, enjoying the small moment of happiness while we can. But dark thoughts inevitably drift in.
I need to catch this fucker.
The fucker who wants to steal this from me.
I lean down to kiss her slowly, and we cling to each other in the darkness, both unsure of what the morning might bring.