She couldn’t say she hadn’t been warned. The note in her dressing room stated in big, bold type, “fourth row center on the aisle,” and sure enough, there he sat, larger than life and twice as intense. Her soon-to-be-former husband looked razor sharp in his tailored black suit, black shirt, and black tie. She couldn’t see them, but she knew his shoes were black too, polished to a high shine. He really was sex on a stick. It was a crying shame she was on a one hundred percent Rick Mundy-free diet. It was almost painful when she forced herself to look away again. She’d been sneaking peeks all night, but she didn’t want to get caught staring at him like he was a brownie in a bakery window and she was on her way to the gym.
The stiff silk train of Eloise Bright’s gown rustled as she made a quarter turn to the right and lifted her face to the balconies edging the theater. She couldn’t see the faces from this distance; the stage lights were a blinding white. But she knew they were full and the people up there had paid good money for the tickets so they deserved the full show. Her stage presence was one of the things she’d been working on; her recent reviews noted that she involved the whole audience in her shows, not just the first couple rows. And now the effort was paying off. With a quick last glance to the fourth row, she returned to the middle of the stage, trailed her hand along the piano, and ended the song on a note that first silenced the audience and then brought them to their feet.
The curtain dropped, although the thundering applause continued. Eloise ran her hands over her head in an attempt to smooth down any locks that had fallen out of place during the show. Then she laughed. She’d forgotten she no longer had shoulder-length, pencil-tight ringlets. Instead, her hair was a half an inch long, the curls only half hiding her scalp. It had been a huge risk, but she’d been ready for something new. It was time.
She straightened the skirt on her raisin-colored dress. It was new too. The cut and color complemented her cocoa skin. Eloise had embraced the whole “starting over” concept with a vengeance, and she was determined to make a complete change from the inside out. Her new look made her feel more confident than she had in months.
The stagehand in the wings waved to let her know the curtain was about to rise again. Eloise stepped up to the microphone stand and waited. The crowd hushed as she eased into Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and then Ella Fitzgerald’s more upbeat “A-Tisket” for her encore. When the curtain dropped the second time, she let herself be led through the backstage area to her dressing room.
She stepped into the room and closed the door, locking it behind her. Then she leaned against the wood paneling and enjoyed the near silence for a second. Performing was fantastic and the post-performing rush was great, but the crash in the middle was a killer. She pushed herself off the door and took a look around.
The petals of six gerbera daisies in shocking uncoordinated hues fluttered under the air-conditioning vent. Eloise didn’t need to check the card. Her friends Natasha and Jimmy Wilde made it a point to send her the most outrageous flowers they could find after each of her shows. They said that an extraordinary talent like hers deserved extraordinary flowers. The hideous-but-yet-not purple lilac and orange tulip combination from two years prior was still the mark to beat though.
At the other end of her dressing table was another bouquet that didn’t need a card to identify the sender. A dozen flawless long-stemmed pink roses dotted with baby’s breath gave off a heady scent. Her unfailing admirer ensured she never received sterile, scentless hothouse flowers. Rick made sure the blooms he sent had the smell that would remind her of summer nights and moonlit gardens. They always did.
Eloise slipped off her shoes and crunched her toes into the plush carpeting under the table. She nimbly removed her bracelet and necklace and hoop earrings, dropped them all into the velvet jeweler’s case, and snapped the lid shut. She reached for the zipper between her shoulders. All that was left to do was a quick change out of her gown and into some more practical clothes and a cab ride back to the hotel. Then would come some much-anticipated undisturbed sleep and a brunch with her best friend, Natasha, to kick off four whole vacation days in a row. Freedom was hers once she got out of her dress.
The knock at the door interrupted her awkward grabs at the miniscule tab. “Who is it?”
“Jimmy and Rick. Can we come in?”
Hell, no. Her employer, coincidentally her ex’s best friend, and her ex himself wanting to talk to her together? There was no way this was going to end well. Eloise got to her feet. “I’m decent.”
She cracked the door open and two men slipped through the narrow gap. Jimmy Wilde, the Regent Theater’s brush-cut sales manager and co-owner, stepped forward with a broad smile on his face. “Great show, Eloise,” he said as he gave her a peck on the cheek.
Behind him, Rick Mundy closed the dressing room door and flicked the lock on the doorknob. “You were amazing.”
She felt his gaze on her as she crossed to the sofa and sat down, tucking her bare feet under the skirt. “Thanks. What do you want?”
Jimmy’s smile didn’t falter. “Rick’s going to be your personal security escort tonight.”
“No, he’s not.”
“Yes, I am.” Rick hadn’t taken one step farther into the room from the door. “I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. I didn’t ask for this. Steve was supposed to be working tonight but he called in sick at the last minute. Something about chicken salad. And my other guys are prepping for another assignment.” He stared at her without blinking. “We aren’t conspiring to set you up.”
Eloise shook her head. “I don’t need a security escort at all, thanks for asking. The flowers are beautiful. Have a good night.” She rose to show them out.
“This isn’t only you and it isn’t negotiable,” Jimmy said in an attempt to soothe her. “Natty’s been getting a lot of hang-ups and heavy breathing messages in the last few weeks. It’s making her jumpy, so we hired Pacific Security for a little extra peace of mind. Until she’s comfortable, everybody gets an escort. Usually the boss doesn’t work the body guarding detail but Rick was short on personnel tonight. If you have a problem, I’ll let you talk to my wife about it.” He leaned forward and took her hand in his. “We tried to arrange someone else, but it worked out to be Rick so you are both going to deal with it.”
Eloise was right. This definitely wasn’t going to go in her favor. As Jimmy and Rick were well aware, she’d never go to Natasha about this. Natasha had always been paranoid about security and once she was on a roll, nothing could change her mind, not even a bitter divorce-in-progress. Eloise took a read of Jimmy and realized he wasn’t lying about her escort. He’d made an honest effort to make sure she wasn’t paired with Rick.
Which meant karma was blowing her a raspberry.