The crinkle etched between my dark brows the past nineteen hours deepens when I inch closer to the heavily-tinted window in my office. I was convinced Isabelle wouldn’t jog past my office this morning. You don't often find a woman with the gall to watch her life circle the drain than continue as if nothing happened.
I shouldn’t even be here. I should be home, in bed, ruthlessly endeavoring to replace the sleep I lost last night. I tossed and turned all night striving to work out why Isabelle continues denying the chemistry between us. It’s irrepressible, so I can’t fathom why she’s acting as if it’s inconsequential. It was even felt after she was caught spying on me, and it grows for every second she peers at the propriety name carved above the back entrance door of my nightclub.
I can see the struggle etched on her face. She is as tired as me, just as worn-down by the cat and mouse game we’ve been playing the past month, yet she refuses to give in to the temptation that has her burning the candle at both ends. They take hold of her features as harshly as they do mine when she curls her hand around the doorknob to authenticate the lock's durability. It isn’t locked. It hasn’t been since the day I spotted her outside my office window, and it won’t be until she realizes the only person erecting massive barriers between us is her.
“Open it,” I silently whisper to the woman I refuse to chase but would give anything to know more than a stranger.
The instant Isabelle peered up at me through thick, black lashes, I knew she’d be one of my biggest challenges. Not a single thing the past six years has shifted my focus from my aspirations. I slept, breathed, and ate for my empire, but business has hardly been a focal point of mine for the past four weeks.
Don’t misconstrue; I employ the best, so my empire has run like clockwork the past month. Its remarkable profit and loss statements just don’t fill me with the elation they once did. Investors are happy. My staff are happy. Even my brother, the proverbial playboy, has finally found happiness. Yet, here I am, watching everyone enjoy their life from afar.
I sink away from the window with a sigh when Isabelle does the same. She has a lot to answer for, and I have a head full of interrogating questions to ask her, but we’ll never reach that level of trust if she can’t take the next step.
My second sigh is heavier than my first when Isabelle goes off-script. Her wordless pullback is usually chased by a brisk jog down the alleyway. The faintest brush of her hand across her cheek has never occurred before.
“What was that?” I spin to face Hunter, who has just arrived at my office. His rumpled clothing, sunken eyes, and messy man bun advise he’s displeased by my request for an early morning meeting. Our security updates are usually reserved for daylight hours, but my inability to sleep last night saw me switching things up. “What did she brush off her cheek?”
“I don’t know,” Hunter answers on a groan while hooking his hemp bag onto my desk to remove his much-loved laptop. “I’ve only just arrived, but it was probably a stray hair or something.”
He logs into the mainframe of the security system he installed when Regan advised my empire had caught the skeptical eye of a local FBI syndicate. I won’t lie; my chest swelled with smugness, pleased by how fierce my reputation had become. I had nothing to hide, so I had no reason to fret.
My overinflated ego nosedived when Regan pointed out the Bureau’s scrutiny wouldn’t be solely reserved for me. Not only would our professional relationship be under the microscope, so would the ones I have with other valued members of my team.
Hunter’s time behind bars is well-known.
Hugo’s infamies are not.
I promised to keep Hugo’s family safe five years ago when he entrusted me to do the right thing with the man responsible for murdering his sister. I couldn’t do that and showboat to the FBI how I can’t be touched. Hence my request for Hunter to install a state-of-the-art surveillance system. It can’t be hacked, but it has no hassles exploiting the people watching me. The quality of the images it downloads each morning into its self-made database is second to none. It will leave no uncertainty as to what Isabelle brushed off her cheek before recommencing her morning workout regime.
Hunter’s frantic taps on the keyboard slow when I move to his side of my desk. Hugo is in pursuit of Isabelle on foot, so she’ll make it back to the residence she’s been bunking at the past month without incident. I just need to control all aspects of my life more than I care to admit.
I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a little unnerved when Hugo advised Isabelle was boarding with a soon-to-be-retired police officer. I have nothing against law enforcement officers, many of them are associates of mine, including Roger, but I find it a little strange Isabelle knows of Detective Regina Wamba. They have nothing in common and a massive gap in age and social influence. Up until last month, it appears as if they were strangers.
Although their connection is odd, I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve yet to find a single shred of evidence that Isabelle is anything close to customary. She frequents the same bakery multiple times a day, but she has no social media accounts, no criminal record, and no indication there’s a long-term or short-term suitor in her sights. It truly appears as if she moved in with Regina to map out her future one painstaking day at a time.
My thoughts are drawn from imagining Isabelle with an array of mangy cats when Hunter’s stomach gurgles. He’s crass, a little rough around the edges, and more times than not, loves grating my last nerve, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard his body respond negatively.
“What is it?”
He peers at me like he did when he siphoned my bank account of two million dollars directly in front of me, except this time, there’s no cockiness in his grin or smug gleam in his eyes.
He appears panicked.
It’s understandable when he swivels his laptop around to face me. Recently captured surveillance of Isabelle is on the screen. It’s frozen with her hand halfway across her cheek. Since the cameras perched around my businesses are the best money can’t buy, there’s no question to what she removed from her face before she dashed away.
It was a tear.
It’s pretentious for me to say tears usually see me backing out of a prospective relationship long before words like matrimony and family, so I won’t. Furthermore, I’m not facing the same contrition today. Isabelle’s tear was a single almost too transparent blob to notice, but the knowledge of its existence cuts through me like a knife. It has my cunningness misplaced as fast as it did when she hid from me in the washroom.
“Send everything you have on Isabelle to my Mac.” I already know her day to day movements, but I’d be a fool if I continue walking into this as blindly as I have the past month. “Then re-run her credentials through the system. There has to be something we’re missing. She’s been at her job for a month. Surely, they’ve lodged some sort of tax record by now.” I laugh. It leaks how poorly my qualm is slipping. “Even the most corrupt businessman keeps some type of paper trail.”
Hunter sits a little straighter when I move to the coat rack in the corner of the large space. It’s barely five in the morning, but it’s humid enough for sweat to dribble down my back when I switch out my business jacket for one more suitable for a morning jogger.
“I don’t think Keke’s is open at this time of the day,” Hunter remarks with a chuckle. “So you won’t need a disguise.”
I hit him with a stern glare, halving his breathy chuckles. “Unlike you, I don’t need to pay for women to occupy my bed.” I stop, struggle to hold in my smirk, then start again. “Or should I say, my outdoor deck?”
The chances of reeling in my smile are lost when shock registers on Hunter’s face. He shouldn’t be so surprised. He’s the reason I know everything that happens in my town—including the women he paraded in front of his neighbor with the hope she’d be so disgusted by his antics, she would shut down the crazy notions that have been filtering in his head since she arrived on the scene.
“Forward what you have on Isabelle before shifting your focus back to Delilah. I thought an increase in offer would have seen her on the first flight back to New York. I forgot how ominous she is when she has her eye on something.” I freeze partway to my desk, shocked I hadn’t considered this earlier. “Dig deeper into the people surrounding her. She wouldn’t stay on as Rise Up’s publisher for no reason. Find out what it is.”
Stealing his chance to reply, I snag a baseball cap from my desk drawer, then exit my office. I look utterly ridiculous jogging through the packed streets of Ravenshoe in business pants that cost more than the average American makes in a month, so I’ll skip mentioning that I’m also wearing dress shoes. My sportscar is far too noisy for my surveillance to go unnoticed, so I’ll face the injustice of looking like a fool—although it will be nowhere near as stubborn as the glare I give Hugo when he spots my approach.
Up until last month, he was my head of operations. Now he shadows Isabelle’s every move. He should be thanking her strict exercise regime. It’s seen some of the weight on his midsection harden to muscle.
“I told him this was where you were heading.” He doesn’t need to say Hunter’s name for me to know whom he’s referencing. The gleamy glint in his eyes tells me everything I need to know. “I never thought I’d add creepy stalker to your list of credentials, Isaac, but here we are—”
The remainder of his reply stuffs into the back of his throat when I hit him with an unapologetic glare. I’m not here for a psych evaluation by the man I forced into counseling so he’d face the demons of his past head-on. I want to know why Isabelle was crying.
Sensing the reason for my infrequent bout of worry, Hugo twists back around to face the house where Isabelle is stretching her quads and triceps out front. We’re half a block back, so she won’t feel my presence no matter how great the tension bristles between us is. “She’s been a little off since yesterday morning.” His chin almost touches his chest when he peers at his feet. “Appears work-related.”
“Work?” My back molars smash together, irritated by the highness of my voice. Usually, my interrogations are much more controlled, but I’m off my game, distracted by the rarity I’m concerned about a stranger's emotions. “What makes you say that?”
Hugo scrubs a tattooed hand over the stubble on his chin. His change-up in position has also altered his dress sense. Before Isabelle arrived, I hadn’t seen him out of a black business suit and crisp white shirt in years. His jogging shorts and plain white T reminds me of the vast collection of tattoos he’s amassed the past four years. Although I don’t know the exact reason for their origin, I feel they’re as vital to him as me ensuring Nick’s contentment is always on the forefront of my mind.
If it weren’t for my baby brother being conceived in a test tube, I’d be dead. The same could be said for Hugo if anything were to happen to his family. He barely survived the loss of his sister and unborn nephew. I don’t see him coming out of a second ordeal unscathed.
“Just a feeling.” Hugo’s eyes snap to mine when a growl rumbles in my chest. I’m all about trusting my intuition; I just hate when my staff expect me to have faith in theirs. “You didn’t ask me to watch Izzy for no reason.” Izzy, so they’re friendly enough now to be on a first-name basis, are they? “You did it because I’m the only person you trust with her.” I don’t correct him since every word he speaks is true. “So, you need to trust me when I say she has a lot on her plate right now. Therefore, it isn’t the right time to show your stalker tenancies, Isaac.”
I shove my hands into my pockets before glaring at him with everything I have. It does nothing but increase the grin stretched across his face. Stupid bastard. Most men quiver in their boots when subjected to my glare. Hugo relishes every one I award him.
When I struggle to devise a reply to Hugo’s mocking grin, he fills in the silence with a suggestion I never thought he’d voice. “Step back just a wee bit; then she’ll have all the room she needs to make her move.” Before I can tell him that stepping back is the equivalent of giving up to a man as dominant as me, he puts things into perspective for me. “Sometimes you just need to step back to see where all the pieces fall. If they’re on your side of the fence, I’ll keep my relationship advice to myself from here on out. If they’re not…” His words trail off as a deep groove burrows between his thick brows.
After a few seconds of quiet deliberating, he shifts his blue eyes to me. “How about we cross that bridge if we come to it?”
Not speaking another word and pinching my chance to counter an objection, he heads to his vehicle parked a few spots up. His steps are as rickety as mine when I take his unpredictable advice. It’s rare for me to do, but since I trust he won’t lead me astray, I don’t have any other option.
Besides, it’s okay to occasionally step back and admit how ridiculous you’re being. I hardly know the woman I’m protecting as if my life will no longer have purpose if she isn’t a part of it, but they say the smile of a stranger can change your life, so imagine the impact when you recognize your soul mate within a nanosecond of them peering up at you.