I hang up the phone after letting Big know my father will be arriving. He wasn’t thrilled with the news, but after I promised he could escort him up and stay for the duration of the visit, he agreed. Dad would definitely have to go through a full pat down, but that was the price he was going to have to pay.
A knock signals Sandy’s arrival. I hurry toward the door, looking forward to what she has to say. What could be bothering her that she doesn’t want to tell me?
I swing open the door, but it isn’t Sandy standing in front of me.
A short girl about my age with a bright-red bow in her boyishly cut black hair stands in front of me. Before I can even ask, there’s a small pistol in my face.
“Get inside,” she says. Her voice is eerily high-pitched, and her small, fairylike features strike a chord somewhere in my brain. I’ve seen her before.
I back into the room, trying to figure out what I can pick up and throw at her. I look around out of the corner of my eye, but it must be obvious.
“Don’t even think about it,” she growls, eyes lit with anticipation. She looks wild, and it smells as if she hasn’t washed in days. I watch in terror as she shuts and locks the door behind her, trapping us in.
Oh, God. X is going to blame himself for this when it’s really all my fault. How did this girl know my room number? How did she get past security? Why didn’t I look through the peephole to make sure it was Sandy? Could she be my stalker? Surely not.
I back away until my legs hit the coffee table, nearly causing me to fall over. I right myself quickly and run behind the couch, just to put something between us. She isn’t saying anything. She’s just staring at me with a sick sense of fascination as she makes her way toward me. I have to stall her.
“Who are you?”
She scoffs. “You don’t recognize me?”
I rack my brain, desperate, because I can’t remember who this girl is. But someone must be looking out for me from above, because a hazy image arrives from the far reaches of my memory. It’s the bow that ultimately gives her away. I’ve seen it before. “You came to one of my brunches.”
She smiles sweetly, as if lost in the memory. “I knew you’d remember me. You told me I was your favorite.”
“You are my favorite,” I choke out, playing along. At least I think playing along is what the crime shows tell you to do. Then I remember something else. “Oh my god. Darla’s doggy treats.”
She comes closer, a crazed look in her eye. “Right again.”
I’m at a loss for words. I’ve been accepting packages from this woman for months.
“Darla’s doggy treats! Darla’s doggy treats! Box after box sent with care. How could you?” she scoffs, pulling at her hair with her free hand. “How could you betray me?”
“How…how did I betray you?”
“You didn’t say hello. At the red carpet. Sorry about that rock, by the way. But I just got so mad when you didn’t recognize me.”
“There were a lot of people there,” I say carefully, trying to defend myself. “I didn’t see you.”
“Bullshit!” she screams. “You looked right at me! I took a damn picture of you! We locked eyes, but you looked right through me! That’s what everyone does! No one ever notices me. If they did, I wouldn’t have gotten away with throwing that rock at you in the middle of a crowded red carpet. But no one saw a thing!”
Her face twists in anger, and she raises the gun, so I fight to placate her. “If I had known who you were, I definitely would have said hello. I appreciated all those packages you sent me. I’m…I’m sorry!”
She sighs loudly. “I’m trying to forgive you, Eloisa. I’m really trying, but you make it so hard. Especially all that bullshit with your bodyguard. I wanted to die when I saw those pictures.”
At her words, a flash of a girl in a bow springs to my memory from that day. Oh, God. It was her. “You were at the Crenshaw show, too.” I remember seeing her in the audience, behind the woman with the child.
She shrugs, the gun held casually in her hand. “I’ve been a lot of places. Your house, your hotels…behind your SUV. I followed you that day. But you didn’t notice. Sometimes you look me in the eye, sometimes you don’t. You’ve been playing games!”
This bitch is crazy. I had to keep her calm. “I haven’t! I swear! I…I’m happy to see you. But how did you…how did you know my room number?”
She reaches into her pocket, and I freeze, terrified that she has another weapon, but it’s a phone. Sandy’s phone. Oh, God! She sent that text asking about the room. “What did you do to Sandy?”
She scoffs and throws the phone on the coffee table, where it clangs loudly. I notice then that she’s wearing gloves. “Sandy’s fine. She was making out with some blond-headed monster in the corner of the restaurant downstairs, so I stole her phone from the table. Can you believe my luck? I planned to knock on every door until I found you, but I didn’t even have to. Not a very keen assistant you’ve got there. Bad taste in men, too. But all those security types are idiots. They let me waltz right in here without even blinking.”
Something she said stuck. Making out with…Joe? It had to be. Sandy was with Joe? Was that what she was scared to tell me? That must have been what she was hiding. She was probably worried about my reaction, how I would handle it. She was such a stickler for the rules. My heart bangs in my chest as her behavior falls into place.
“I’ve been very lucky these past few weeks, you know. It just proves that I’m on the right path. Everything I’ve done has brought me closer to you. I’ve been so close.” She cackles, and my heart squeezes in fear. “And now, here we are,” she muses.
I stare at her in horror and confusion. How can it have been her who was behind everything? How could this small girl be filled with so much hate? What did I do?
“What do you want from me?” I ask, inching around the couch as she gets closer. “Why are you here?”
“Eloisa, you know why I’m here.” She waves the gun around in the air. “At the brunch, when you hugged me before I left, I knew what you were telling me. I knew you wanted us to be together.”
She’s insane. But while she’s holding the gun, she’s in charge. “You’re wrong. I wanted to be friends, that was it.”
“Friends? Friends? After that brunch, you never called! You just kept ordering more and more treats, but you never called! I was…crushed. But even then, I supported you. I’ve never stopped supporting you! I even killed that bitch Martha for you! I did have to teach you a few lessons along the way, of course. Poor, poor little Bella. No more treats for her!”
My breath caught. “How did you get to Bella?”
“When you were signing autographs at the show that night, I brought some of the doggy treats. I was hoping you’d recognize me and say hello if you saw the box. So I made it really pretty with my signature bow and the hearts. But, of course, you looked right through me again. But Bella remembered me! Bella got a whiff of my treats and came right to me. She really loved those, didn’t she? Didn’t you write to me one time and tell me she could smell them a mile away? Well, that was true. The greedy little bitch. Gave her one of my special ones.”
Every instinct was telling me to defend my dog, but I bit my tongue. Pain shot through me as I remembered the events of that night. I knew Bella always ran for those treats. Why didn’t I put that together?
She started coming toward me. What the hell was I going to do? I had to keep her talking, but I was scared witless that I’d say the wrong thing and she’d kill me. I had to ask, though. “Why Bella? Why would you kill an innocent dog?”
“Because you loved her more than you loved me.”
My phone rings then, startling us both. X’s name flashes across the screen, and I swipe my finger to pick it up.
She cocks the gun. “Give me the phone.”
A fresh wave of terror runs through me, but I refuse. “No. I’m asking you to leave. We can talk about this tomorrow, after we’ve both had a good night’s sleep.”
She throws her head back in laughter. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”
I can hear X’s voice shouting at me through the phone, but I don’t dare put it up to my ear for fear she’ll shoot me where I stand.
She narrows her eyes. “We’re going to talk now, damn it! I didn’t want to say this just yet, Eloisa, but I love you.”
X’s voice—if possible—gets even louder. I imagine the phone vibrating in my hand. I grasp it like a lifeline. “You don’t love me.”
“Don’t fucking tell me how I feel! Your music…it speaks to me. Isn’t that what you wanted, Eloisa? Your fans to love your music?”
I shake my head. “Please, my bodyguard is on the way—”
That was definitely the wrong thing to say. Her face turns bright red. “Tell him not to come. That we need to be alone.” I gape like a fish, trying to find the words to refuse her. “Tell him!” she screams. She holds the gun up until it’s pointing at my face. She’s about six feet away, so if she pulls the trigger, I’m done for.
I put the phone up to my ear, my hands shaking like leaves.
“X,” I squeak out. “You…you don’t have to come.”
“Big and Joe are on their way to your room now. They’ll be there any second, you just have to hold her off until then! Do whatever she wants! Tell her I agreed not to come!”
I nod jerkily, even though he can’t hear me. “He…he’s not coming.”
She looks around nervously. “We should leave anyway. There’s somewhere I want to take you.”
“Distract her, E. Tell her whatever she wants to hear. You’re doing great. Just keep calm.”
“I’ll go wherever you want,” I say loudly. The phone is still glued to my ear, and I’m finding it hard to look at her face.
“It’s going to be OK, E. I promise. I’ll be there soon.”
“I love you.”
The words come unbidden out of my mouth, and she must know I’m talking to X and not to her, because next thing I know, she’s flying toward me. I drop the phone, putting my hands out as we both tumble over the couch and onto the floor.
I feel her grab hold of my face, her nails raking across my skin as I try to pull away. Blood from her hands falls into my eyes, blinding me. I cry out in pain, grabbing for her wrists and then squeezing them as hard as I can to try to get her to let up.
She knees me in the groin, and I groan, ribbons of pain shooting up my spine. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” she grits out, trying to hold my arms down. “I don’t want it to be this way.”
Since she’s so small, I’m able to roll her over with the force I have left. I put my hands around her neck, straddling her waist, scared as hell. I have no idea if I can actually go through with choking her! My face is dripping blood, and when I notice her hand reaching out to the side, it’s too late.
The gun goes off, but the bullet hits the ceiling, missing me by a few inches.
In the split second she takes to get her bearings, I grab my phone off the floor and run into the hallway, knowing I won’t have time to make it to the front door. I hear her footsteps in the hallway just as I slam the bathroom door.
“Eloisa,” she screams. “Don’t do this! Don’t fucking hurt me again!”
“X,” I say again, putting the phone to my ear. “Are you still there? Please hurry!”
The phone slips out of my hand because of all the blood, and I hurry to scoop it back up before climbing into the bathtub.
The gun goes off again, and the doorknob falls to the floor. She’s going to kill me. They aren’t going to make it in time.
I put the phone up to my ear. “I love you,” I tell him again, closing my eyes and wishing I could tell him in person. “I love you, X. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t care if you think it’s too soon. It’s now or never.”
His voice hitches on the line. I can hear the rev of the engine as he speeds to get to me. “E, don’t. It’s going to be OK!” I hear him tell me sternly. “I…I love you, too.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him, my voice breaking. “This is my fault.”
“Don’t! Don’t, E! I can’t…I can’t bear to hear you say that! Hang on for me, Eloisa. Hang on. I’m on my way. I’m coming to you.”
I hear the door slam open, and I clench my eyes together in fear. My face is throbbing.
“I can’t lose you, too!” X cries into the phone. His words have my eyes opening. What the hell am I doing? I’m a sitting duck in this tub. No way I’m going down without a fight. I know I only have seconds, so I gather my courage.
When I pull back the curtain, several things happen at once. The girl is standing in the doorway, her eyes wild as she cocks her gun again, pointing right at my heart. But a loud slam in the living room startles her, and I take that second to charge her where she stands, both of us falling out of the bathroom and into the hallway.
There’s a scramble, and I see three faces come into view as I’m fighting her off. My father’s face is at the front. I look once more into the girl’s face, and it feels like I’m looking at the devil. Her eyes are deranged and angry as she brings the gun toward my temple. I barely register my father reaching down and grabbing her off me, but I hear the gunshot ring out loud and clear.
I scream as I watched my father fall against the wall, a hand over his heart. The bullet that had been meant for me went into him. Joe and Big are shouting as they wrangle the girl and drag her away from the scene. Her screams are now mingling with the police sirens in the distance.
I crawl on my hands and knees to my father. There’s blood gushing from his chest, and try as I might, I can’t stanch it.
“Dad!” I scream. “Dad!”
He jerks a little, then lets out a long, slow breath. His voice is choppy, and I have to lean in to understand him. “That’s the first time you’ve called me Dad in over twelve years.”
I’m sobbing uncontrollably now, still trying to stop the flow from the gaping wound in his chest.
“I’m sorry, Eloisa,” he croaks out. And as soon as the words leave his mouth, the life leaves his body.
That’s where X finds me fifteen minutes later. Covered in blood and slumped against my father’s body. I refused to leave his side for anyone else, but the second X comes barreling into view, I lift my arms for him to pick me up.
His skin is ice-cold, his face is drawn, and I’ve never in my life seen the desperately frightened expression on his face. I cling to him something fierce, and he clings to me with the same intensity. We sway on the spot for long seconds as the chaos unfolds around us. A few people try to talk to me. I can’t lift my head away from his neck.
“I’m OK,” I whisper in his ear when I notice he’s shaking. “I’m OK.”
He pulls back, his face wet with my blood. He moves his palm gently over the scratch marks on my face. “I don’t know what I would have done. I was thinking the worst…I…I couldn’t have gone on without you. I knew it before, and I’m positive of it now.”
“You don’t have to,” I tell him, pressing my lips against his. “I’m so sorry, X, about your father.”
His breath hitches. “I’m sorry about yours.”
We come together for another kiss, and from that point on, we don’t let go.
Ten Months Later—Xavier
“Happy birthday, Eloisa!”
The boisterous cacophony of cheers startles the girl at my side. So much so that she grabs hold of my arm in surprise. I laugh as slow realization plays across her face.
She turns to slap my arm playfully, “Oh my God! X! You said we weren’t having a party!”
“I lied,” I tease, leading her into our new living room, which is filled to capacity with all of our friends. I take a second and admire the vast countryside that can be seen through the large window. I still can’t get used to it. “It’s not every day a girl turns twenty-six, after all.”
We’re immediately assaulted by Michonne. “Happy birthday, Ellie! Wait until you see what I got you. Come to think of it, it’s actually the perfect party outfit if you feel like changing…”
E laughs. “Thank you! I’m so surprised! I can’t believe you are all here!”
“X is good at keeping secrets. He planned the whole thing,” Jacques chimes in, giving me a smile.
“Thank you,” E says, grinning up at me.
Man, I was so lucky I got to see that grin every day.
We closed on our new house three months ago. It’s smaller than her old one, but perfect for us. There are still plenty of security measures—I insisted on it. She’s still a celebrity, after all.
Sandy comes over then with Joe close behind. I watch as E embraces her gently, oohing and ahhing over her pregnant belly. We haven’t seen them in a couple of weeks, as Sandy is due to pop any minute. I couldn’t wait to have her back as E’s assistant. No one kept the team as organized as Sandy, and E and I were going a little nuts without her.
I still couldn’t believe she and that big doof were together. My mind goes back to that night, as it often did. Their relationship had been what Sandy wanted to talk to E about. She’d been scared to lose her job—fraternizing with a coworker and all that—and it had been heavily weighing on her mind.
At first I thought they were going to be doomed to fail, Sandy being such a straight-edge, no-nonsense type of girl and Joe…well, Joe being Joe, but I guess opposites do attract, because they seem happier than ever.
He slaps my hand in greeting. “Nice job, sir. Never seen Ellie look so surprised before.”
I give him a nod. “Where’s Big?”
Joe leans in close. “He’s with the box in the back room. Damn thing won’t sit still.”
“OK, great. I’ll make the speech sooner rather than later so he can join the party.”
Rob and the colonel come over next. My former boss looks incredibly well rested. He has on a Hawaiian shirt with khaki shorts. Will wonders ever cease? Retirement looks great on him. He’s currently the antithesis of Rob, who is as immersed in work as ever. Rob nudges me. “Think this is a good time to bring up her second album?”
I shrug. “She’s taking her time. We’re enjoying traveling for the moment. We’ve got a trip to Norway coming up, and then we’re on to Alaska. Maybe when we get back.”
Eloisa’s tour—she didn’t miss a show—concluded with a bang. And she won a Grammy for what we liked to refer to as her hate song. It sat in a place of honor on our new mantel. Feeling like her goals had been accomplished and she needed a break, she didn’t rush to make a second album, but knowing her, she’ll be back in the studio eventually. I plan to be there next to her every step of the way—as I was in the middle of opening my own private security company.
We spend the next twenty minutes greeting everyone in the room. Most of the folks are from her tour and security team—including Harold. When he catches my eye, he holds up his ID before falling into a fit of laughter. The old man still likes to mess with me, but I think he has a soft spot with my name on it deep down. He’s retired as well, and he and the colonel have become good friends.
There are a few celebrities in attendance, and they make me think of Pops. Man, I would do anything to have him here to celebrate the occasion. A pang—one I’m used to by now—zings through me at the thought of him. I wish he could see me now, too. Happy and so in love.
I’ve been making progress, opening up more. It hasn’t been easy, and I rely on E’s help a lot, but we are both working to put the past behind us. Put what happened last year behind us.
Our fathers passed away on the same day, both with words of love as their final goodbyes. E still doesn’t talk about her father much. I know she wishes she could talk to him again. If only to thank him for taking that bullet for her. He might have been a shitty father, but his dying act was one for his daughter. It’s something neither of us will be able to forget.
Feeling overcome with love as I watch her laugh with friends, I decide it’s now or never. I find a break in the conversation and, without a word, lead E to the center of the room. Sandy hands me a microphone. She’s the only one I’ve trusted with my bigger secret.
“If I could have everyone’s attention,” I begin. I wait a minute or two for the chatter to die down before I continue. “Thank you all for coming out to celebrate with us today. And thank you especially for keeping it a secret from this one!”
Everyone laughs, and E sends me a chiding look, a smile on her face and a blush on her cheeks. “This party actually serves two purposes. The first one is to celebrate the life of the influential woman I have the honor of calling mine. Happy birthday, E.”
Cheers resound, and I give the signal for Joe to get Big, who’s watching my gift in the other room. As he appears in the doorway, I turn to E. “My first gift to you.”
Her eyes catch on Big carrying a big cardboard box—without a bow—and her face lights up with confusion and delight. “Oh no. Another gift, X? Wasn’t the trip enough?”
I shrug, giddy with excitement for her to open the box. When Big places it down at her feet, a loud bark echoes through the room. While everyone laughs, E’s eyes fill with tears.
She bends down slowly, lifting the flaps. A small white puppy, the same breed as Bellatrix, jumps into her arms.
“I’ve named him Dumbledore,” I tell her gently, bending down beside her. “I looked through all the characters, and since he has such white hair, I figured it was a good fit.”
She’s speechless, and I’m unsure if that’s a good sign or not. I didn’t know if it was too soon, but once the idea caught hold, I couldn’t talk myself out of it.
“Do you like him?” I ask, watching the small puppy lick her face. “We can find another home for him if you’re not ready—”
“I love him,” she whispers, burying her face in his fur. “X…this is the best gift I’ve ever gotten. Thank you.”
Relief fills me. If that hadn’t gone well, it would have totally messed up my next surprise. “Well, I hope you’ll change your mind about that, because I have something else for you.”
She looks at me curiously, her eyes full of love and her arms full of puppy. She stands up, smiling as the puppy pants with exertion in her arms.
I don’t want to wait another minute. The second she’s close, I drop down on one knee. She gasps.
“Eloisa Rae Morgan, you’ve made me a better man, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Loving you, honoring you, and cherishing you. I want to spend my days watching you onstage and rubbing your damn feet. I want to travel the world and make as many silly faces as I have to, to make you laugh. I want to do so many things, but I need just one thing from you: Make me the happiest man alive and be my wife?”
I—and the audience, I’m sure—can’t breathe.
She’s crying now. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you call me by my real name.”
I laugh, nervous as hell. “I thought it would be appropriate. But it’s a onetime thing.”
She puts the puppy on the floor and runs into my arms. “Yes,” she tells me. And then shouts louder for everyone else to hear. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
The crowd goes wild—this time for both of us—as I hold my new fiancée against my chest.
This is just the beginning—the opening act of our two-person show.
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