Grumbling to myself, I tossed my duffel bag over my shoulder and slammed my trunk shut. Damn woman. The next four months of my life would no doubt be the most trying of my career—I had been right about that.
Perhaps I could have tried to be a bit more accommodating, dealt with her gently, but there was no time for that. After seeing that note—one I heard she had refused to read—there was no time for indulgence. I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling, though, that my father would have been appalled with my behavior.
It’s not like I wasn’t used to being around celebrities—I was. It came with the territory of working for the president. And I’d found that unless you were forceful—stood your ground—they’d walk all over you.
That wasn’t going to happen here.
Walking up the wide, wraparound porch, I took in the pots of flowers and general clutter that usually accompanied a home well lived in. No doubt Eloisa employed a gardener. Another thing celebrities didn’t do? Their own chores.
I was thinking back to her comment about not celebrating her birthday when the sound of footsteps had me glancing up and inside the house. Two men dressed in black waved in greeting as they came down the stairs and exited onto the porch. They were almost as tall as I was, but a little bulkier in the arms and shoulders. Belying their figures, their faces looked to be about as menacing as a pair of college football players—which I already knew them to be.
“X, nice to meet you, man. I’m Joe, and this is Big.”
Joe regarded me with a wide smile, as if he was excited I was here. With his blond hair and jolly expression, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a golden retriever. Big, on the other hand, was more Saint Bernard.
They both would learn very quickly that I wasn’t here to make friends.
I shook their hands and removed my sunglasses. When they got their first glimpse of my expression, their smiles dimmed. “The security upgrades we spoke about over the phone are set in motion. Several teams will be here within the hour. I want you two to familiarize yourselves with the equipment immediately and report back to me with any questions by EOD.”
Joe looked taken aback, and I watched his blue eyes darken. “We thought we would give you a tour, show you the lay of the land and what you’re going to be working with, but I guess you already have that under control.”
Ah, sarcasm. Duly noted. The golden retriever had some bite. I expected the pushback, and I held my ground. “I’ve been here for nearly half an hour, something you two should have known immediately.”
Joe raised an eyebrow. “Oh, we saw you all right. Giving old Harold the third degree. Just so you know, he’s very important to Ellie.”
As if that would change my behavior regarding the man. I stifled an irritated sigh. “What’s important to me is her safety. Do you honestly think old Harold could stop an intruder?”
Joe crossed his arms and stood firm, but didn’t answer the question. “Look, X, we’re relieved that you’re here. What happened to Ellie…shit…we feel awful about it. We need the extra manpower. Last week we were scoping out the scene by the limo when—”
“You don’t have to explain,” I cut in. “And you’re right. Now that I’m here with extra manpower, it won’t happen again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to bring my stuff down to the basement.”
I didn’t wait for a response. Just maneuvered my way around Joe, who I knew was glaring at me with disdain. A potted plant fell over as I opened the screen door, and I made a mental note to right it once I put my bags down. Just as the door shut behind me, I heard Big speak up for the first time.
“Be careful with Ellie’s plants. She takes a lot of pride in her flowers.”
The finished basement was larger than I was expecting and nearly empty. The walls were a crisp white, and the only furnishings were a large wooden dresser and a king-size bed. A soft hum drew my attention to a humidifier in the far corner, and I saw that the shower was just large enough for me to be comfortable in. The stark design would suit me just fine.
I had just set my bag down on the bed when my phone rang. Seeing the 203 area code had me picking up immediately.
“Xavier? How are you?”
The relief I felt at hearing his voice was staggering. I never knew when I’d get my last call. “How are you feeling?”
“Well, I’m alive.” He laughed at his own morbid sense of humor. “How are you? Are you in Connecticut yet?”
“Just got here. I am hoping to make it out to you on Sunday. Does that work?”
“Sunday? Sure. I have dinner at the boat club, but not until five.”
My fists clenched at the news. “Should you really be going out?”
“I may have cancer, son, but I also have a social life. I don’t know how many days I’ve got left, and I want to make the most of them.”
I pressed my fists to my forehead and bit back a response. I’d convince him to stay in when I saw him on Sunday. “Don’t talk like that.”
“Talk like what? Come now. You heard the doc. I don’t plan to spend my remaining time moping around feeling sorry for myself.”
My heart pounded furiously in my chest, and my voice got lodged in my throat. I wanted to tell him so many things—mostly I wanted to apologize. I’d never apologized.
“So tell me about this singer you’re working for. What’s her name? I may have heard of her.”
I doubted that, but I answered anyway, grateful for the subject change. “Eloisa Rae Morgan. I don’t think she plays your type of music.”
A gasp over the phone had me looking at it in confusion. “Eloisa Rae Morgan! Son! I’m a huge fan!” I didn’t know what to say to that, feeling speechless at the revelation. He chuckled, and I heard his cane stomp on the floor. “You have to get me an autograph. Oh, I love that song of hers…what’s it called? ‘Bay of Lights.’”
“‘Bay of Lights’?” I questioned. It seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. But once he started singing it, the recognition clicked.
“Ah. I have heard that song. The first lady was a fan and would sing it nearly every morning for a month; it drove me crazy by the end.” Now here I was listening to my dad sing the same tune.
“I love that song!” my dad exclaimed. “You have to get me an autograph.”
“I hate that song,” I grumbled, feeling annoyed. “And I won’t be getting any autographs, Pops. I’m here to do my four months of hell with the pop princess, and then I’m getting the hell out.”
A throat cleared behind me, and I whipped around toward the stairs. Eloisa stood there with an armful of towels, her expression suspiciously blank. She had clearly heard my comment, though, as my expertise with reading people was able to home in on the twinge of hurt in her eyes. A sliver of guilt ran through me, which made me angry. Why the hell should I care what she thought? But, man, she and I were not off to a good start.
“Eloisa, I put a high value on my privacy. Please knock or announce your presence immediately next time you come down here.”
Ignoring me, she walked toward the bathroom. She was wearing shorts and a tank top, her long brown hair in a messy knot atop her head—her feet bare. I deliberately averted my eyes from the ample curves her outfit didn’t do much to hide. As she passed me, her bright-green eyes met mine, and the twinge of hurt I saw earlier had transformed into detached resignation. Interesting.
She placed the towels in the bathroom and retreated toward the stairs, her steps fluid and graceful. She didn’t say a word until she hit the middle step. “Dinner’s in two hours. We’re ordering pizza.”
I watched her disappear from view until I remembered my dad was on the phone. I could almost hear his disapproval through the line. “Don’t tell me she heard what you said! Xavier, you have to apologize.”
“Liking her music wasn’t a job requirement,” I told him stiffly, hating that I even felt a little bit guilty.
“I bet you haven’t even heard it,” he chastised. He was right. “You haven’t listened to music since Mom—”
“Don’t go there.” I cut off that line of conversation, as I always did. “I’ve had a long day, and it’s not even close to being over. See you Sunday?”
He sighed. “Fine. See you Sunday. And try not to be such a hard-ass, X. You sound like a drill sergeant.”