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“Why did we receive a double order of Cristal? The hedge fund investor found his fiancé in bed with the gardener. Her hens party was cancelled. Were you not informed?” With her eyes locked on the clipboard in her hand, Tina saunters into my office. “There’s a wedding at one of your hotels next month, but I’m unsure if their budget can stretch far enough to offer champagne to their guests, so do you want me to send the Cristal back to the distributors?”
Her tit-bouncing strut freezes partway into my office when Hugo answers her questions on my behalf, “Craig cancelled Sophia’s party at short notice, meaning we either accepted the stock as invoiced or be charged a restocking fee. I agreed to take the stock on Isaac’s behalf, but it was meant to be shipped to the hotel. The corkage fee alone guarantees the clientele won’t bat an eye at paying two-hundred dollars for a bottle of champagne.”
After winking at the annoyance crossing Tina’s face, loving that his unexpected arrival foiled her endeavor to get me alone, Hugo sidesteps Tina, slumps into the chair across from mine, then hooks his ankle onto his opposite knee. “Any other questions?”
“No,” Tina replies with a huff. “That answered everything.”
She strays her hopeful eyes to mine for the quickest second before she pivots on her heels and leaves. Even pissed, her hips swing with every step she takes. Although Hugo has no troubles attracting bed companions, I can confidently declare Tina's strut is solely for me. With me removing Hugo from Isabelle’s tail a little over two weeks ago, Hugo is once again the head of operations for my empire. That makes him Tina’s boss. If I were to believe a single thing Tina said when we fooled around, only I have tempted her to cross the boundaries between employers and staff.
Hugo waits for my office door to close with Tina on the other side before he swings his amused eyes to me. “She doesn’t give up, does she?”
I answer him with an exorbitant huff before returning my focus to the mountain load of paperwork on my desk. The nightclub I purchased last month was in worse trouble than perceived. It's being strangled by debt the owner kept on the down-low and a building that’s almost in disrepair.
When the stack of papers between us doesn’t give Hugo the hint to leave, I add words into the mix. “Was there something you needed?”
My tone is curt, but he takes it in stride. It’s rarely left brusque the past two weeks. “I was hoping we could have a word… in private.”
I drop my pen on to my desk before leaning back into my large leather chair. “Roger scanned my office for bugs this morning.” With my trust at an all-time low, I’ve spent more time the past couple of weeks updating the already impenetrable security protecting my empire than attending to personal matters. It hasn’t been all bad. With my mind occupied with business aspirations, it’s only had the chance to stray to Isabelle a handful of times each day instead of over a dozen. “You can talk freely here.”
“All right.” After dumping a manila folder onto my desk, Hugo moves to the two-way mirror at the back of my office to lower the privacy blind. Once he has it in place, he nudges his head to the folder I haven’t taken my eyes off. It’s the file Hunter compiled on Isabelle at my request months ago. It no longer sits flat with only one page inside. It’s brimming with documents.
I drag it to my side of the desk, but I don’t open it. I value my integrity, but I’ve barely given it the chance to shine since Isabelle tumbled to my feet. I invaded her privacy to ensure she was seated next to me during our flight, put a tail on her within hours of her failing to arrive for our ‘date,’ then stormed out in a huff when she called me out for being the exact man I swore I’d never emulate. Does the knowledge make my anger any less potent? Not at all, but I prefer admitting to my mistakes than sweeping them under the rug.
“Have you read the information inside?”
Hugo’s stance exposes his years of military service. His shoulders are rolled back, his feet are planted to the width of his shoulders, and his hands are intertwined behind his back. “Yes.”
He tries to weaken the shock on his face that I’m seeking information from him instead of sourcing it for myself. His efforts are woeful. His tone could only be higher if he sucked on helium. “There are matters of interest I believe you need to be aware of.”
“Anything that will affect my brother, his soon-to-be family, or my employees?”
Hugo gasps out a sharp breath when the shake of his head is quickly followed by me sliding Isabelle’s file into the drawer in the bottom of my desk. “Boss, there are things in that folder you need to see.”
He rakes his fingers through his dark hair when I ask, “Why, Hugo? In case she magically arrives for our date months late? Or for when she stops thinking of me as a criminal mastermind? What possible use could I have for anything in that file?”
“There’s stuff in there that explains why she’s cautious.”
I crack my chair back into place before regathering my pen into my hand. “Isabelle made it abundantly clear why she’s cautious the last time I saw her.”
“Be sure to close the door on your way out.”
Since my focus is on the documents in front of me, I can’t see Hugo’s face, but I can feel the anger radiating out of him. It’s as black as the marks my furiously high body temperature is scorching my heart with. I wanted this information weeks ago, so not only is it being delivered way too late, but it’s also being issued by the wrong person.
“You can’t fight fate, Isaac,” Hugo mutters under his breath before he storms out of my office, slamming the door for good measure.
I try to keep my focus on anything but our exchange, but within seconds of Hugo’s departure, I peg my pen in the direction he just walked before yanking open the drawer I stuffed Isabelle’s file into. I’m not succumbing to the pressure burning me alive; I’m on the hunt for the bottle of whiskey I hid when Nick unexpectedly arrived at my office last week. I wouldn’t mind sharing my top-shelf whiskey with him if he took the time to enjoy it. He’s the opposite of almost every man I know. He has beer taste even with his budget being capable of buying him the most expensive bottle of champagne.
After popping the cork on a bottle of Macallan Oscuro Single Malt Whiskey, I pour myself a generous nip into a glass. If my skyrocketing blood pressure isn’t enough of an indication of how unnerved I am, the brutal shake of my hands is a sure-fire sign. They’re rattling so much, droplets of whiskey topple onto the paperwork I’d give anything to forget exists for just a day. I eat, breathe, and sleep for my empire, but it’s been more than draining the past two months.
I add a healthy spray of whiskey to the droplets on my desk when Cormack enters my office. I’m not shocked at his inability to knock, we passed that stage in our friendship a long time ago, it’s the fact his usually faultless locks are stuck to his temples with a sticky substance, and his backside is covered with flour.
“Is that egg?” I ask after gesturing for him to take a seat in the chair across from me.
Cormack gives me a warning look, one that reveals I won’t be smirking like a cat in front of a bowl of cream if I don’t keep my snickering hidden before he crosses the room and slouches into the chair opposite me. “What are you drinking?”
Aware he neither cares about the price tag or taste, I poor him a generous helping of the Macallan before pushing a crystal glass to his side of my desk. He downs it without absorbing its rich flavor or coloring, delves his tongue out to make sure he doesn’t miss a drop on his lips, then requests another.
We do another two rounds before Cormack confesses the reason for his late-night visit. “I need to take advantage of your early morning awakenings.”
He doesn’t give me the chance to recant that I’m no longer waking with the sun because he knows as well as I do that any denial would be a lie. Isabelle no longer runs by my office, and Hugo is no longer on her watch, but my sleeping schedule has yet to shift back to its regular time-slot. Just because I haven’t seen Isabelle, doesn’t mean she isn’t on my mind.
The reminder has me swallowing down my fourth nip of whiskey as if it won’t make my head woozy.
“I have a delivery arriving. A delivery I can’t accept.”
I slant my head and arch a brow, confused by his riddle. Cormack is usually as straight forward as me.
When I see something in his eyes I’ve never seen, I scrub a hand over the stubble on my chin. A woman has caught his eye, and he’s shit-scared about the prospect.
I should throw him into the deep end without a life jacket. He’d do the same to me. I just can’t. If he didn’t invest in me my very first fight, I would have never amassed the capital needed to start my empire. For that alone, he will forever be in my favor.
“Seven? Fuck.” I’m not a fan of swearing, but if you felt how fired up my veins are from the whiskey we've shared, you can fathom my slip-up.
Cormack nods. “She doesn’t trust couriers, so she has to deliver them before opening.” The whiskey warming my gut could have me mistaken, but I’m reasonably sure there’s a ghost of a smile on his lips.
It fuels my reply. “I’ll meet you at Destiny Records tomorrow at seven.”
Destiny Records is Cormack’s baby. He has the funds to make my brother’s band an overnight global sensation, but since he’d rather see them achieve success instead of having it handed to them, he’s taking them through the standard process of recording an album—month-long stints in the studio included.
It’s been good for Nick. Hard work wasn’t his forte before he joined Rise Up.
The cuffs on Cormack's expensive dress shirt ride up on his wrists when he leans closer to my desk. “I thought you could collect the cupcakes on my behalf.”
After standing to my feet, I shake my head. It took a lot of pushing for him to scrub his hands clean of the controversy his father coated them in. That should have taught him there’s only one way to do things—the right way. This baker has sparked enough interest out of him for him to get me involved. That means something.
“I’ll meet you there at seven.” I snag my jacket off the coat rack in the corner of the room before sliding my arms into the openings. “Don’t stand me up, Cormack. Tardiness is one of my pet peeves.”
Stealing his chance to reply, I hotfoot it out of my office. Regretfully, my brisk speed doesn’t save me from hearing his mumble, “Until it comes to Isabelle.”
“Circle the block. This shouldn’t take long.”
After locking his eyes with mine in the rearview mirror of my Mercedes town car, Roger lifts his chin. He looks as hopeful as me, but tiredness is seen all over his face. He isn’t accustomed to driving me home at eleven, then returning the following morning at four.
The only good that's come from my inability to forget Isabelle is that traffic is lighter before the sun wakes, meaning we made the trip from my nightclub in Ravenshoe to Hopeton in under thirty minutes.
My pace into the alleyway that sides Destiny Records slows when I spot a woman with reddish-brown hair balancing a set of bakery boxes with her hands. Since she’s peering at her reflection in the tint of her car window, I can’t see all her face, but what I can see has me confronted with a sense of familiarity.
When she pulls away from her car to head toward the single glass door of Destiny Records, I conceal my watch by popping into the alleyway with barely a second to spare. Her face is once-again concealed by bakery boxes, but I understand Cormack’s immediate interest. Her tight pencil skirt and fitted shirt expose an enticing body, and the heels on her stilettos make it seem as if her legs go for miles.
An unexpected snicker leaves my mouth when she uses the toes of her expensive pumps to knock on the entrance door of Cormack’s business. I’m about to announce the service entrance is at the side when Cormack steals my gamble. He opens the door, sending the brunette and the cupcakes she most likely spent hours baking toppling straight for him.
When the grin on my face jumps onto Cormack’s, humored by the baker’s clumsiness, I pull open the side entrance door before making a beeline for Cormack’s office. He craves control as much as me, so his office will be the perfect location to peruse his exchange with the woman who has his panties in a twist.
I’m hoping just like Isabelle’s tumble to my feet, that this baker’s daftness isn’t a ruse. Cormack has been stung by greedy, needy women before, so I’ll do everything in my power to ensure he doesn’t face the same bone of contention this time around.
Just as I pass Cormack's fat leather chair, Cormack and the baker enter the conference room from the other side. As my eyes drink in the brunette’s slender frame and wavy hair that’s pulled back in a messy bun, my brows furrow. I have an uncanny ability for remembering faces, but hers has me a little stumped.
Don’t misconstrue. I’ve interacted with the dark-haired beauty before, she just didn’t have the wide-eyed, hued-cheek look she’s showcasing now. I’m so surprised she can pull off the ‘hesitant’ look, I’m beginning to wonder if the flirty, take-no-shit-from-no-one baker I wrangled with two weeks ago has a doppelganger living in a town neighboring ours.
Although the condition of Harlow’s bakery reveals she’s on the opposite end of the financial scale as Cormack, I think she’s a good fit for him. He needs someone who won’t allow him to hide in the cervices of his past. Someone who can look past the lies to see the truth hiding beneath the surface. He also needs someone so confident, not even discovering she’s tussling with a billionaire will see her knees buckling out from beneath her.
Since I believe that person could be Harlow, I take a step back and watch their exchange from a distance instead of being front and center as Cormack begged via multiple text messages this morning. The fact he needed to reiterate how important my arrival was showcases how deeply Harlow has imbedded herself under his skin. That, in itself, deserves further exploration. It is the very reason I chased Isabelle so fiercely in the beginning, and it is why I am still struggling to push her into the back of my mind now.
The chase is enthralling, but it feels as if it is so much more than that this time around. I’m no longer a college boy. I’ve worked for every single thing I have, so I can’t help but wonder what I could achieve if I put the same effort into my personal life.
Alas, that isn’t something I’ll ever work out if the woman I am chasing thinks I’m a criminal.
With my thoughts hinged between watching a blistering connection form between Cormack and Harlow and wondering how I created one with Isabelle even with her being opposed to my ‘supposed’ shady business dealings, an hour passes at the speed of minutes, and Cormack’s hang-ups about being left alone with Harlow slipped through the cracks even quicker than that.
He and Harlow are no longer talking. They’re kissing—passionately. Hands, lips, and teeth are all in on the action. Even the occasional moan is released.
If it were any other man but my best friend pinning a woman to the wall of his conference room by his crotch, I’d wish him a silent congratulations before walking away.
Regretfully, I can’t do that to Cormack. He asked me here for a reason. Only someone who didn’t have his back would walk away now.
I tap on the door separating Cormack’s office from the conference room to announce my presence. When that fails to lessen Cormack’s gropes of Harlow’s breasts, I cough.
I don’t know whether to laugh or groan when my second attempt to interrupt them is ignored, so I do both.
With extreme reluctance, Cormack pulls back. With a ticking jaw, he snaps his eyes to me. They’re full of fury and expose he’s ready to take down the person interrupting his every want with more than words.
Some of the outburst in his eyes is swallowed when they lock on my humored gaze. I’m only doing as asked, so if he wants to be angry, the only person he can be angry at is himself.
“Busy?” I ask, still smirking about the romantic gleam in his eyes.
I’ve never seen him wear this look before, and I’ve known him since we were freshman at College. Usually, that’s the only expression love-sick idiots wear in their college years. I’m reasonably sure I wore it more than once, and I’m not even sure how to explain my relationship with Ophelia. At the time, I was confident it was love. Now, I’m not so sure.
“You don’t have to go,” Cormack assures Harlow when she lowers her legs wrapped around his waist. “Isaac was just leaving.”
“I am?” Since guilt is highlighting my tone, it comes out harsher than intended.
Cormack glares at me, his eyes saying so much more than his mouth ever will. “Yes, you are.”
I don’t get the chance to respond. Harlow’s reply steals Cormack’s undivided attention. “It’s okay. I have to go anyway.”
I can’t hear what Cormack replies, but it assures me Harlow’s smile is one of her biggest assets. It’s obvious she wants to stay, the need in her eyes is extremely telling, but her words come from her head instead of her heart. “I’m sorry, I have to go. One of my staff resigned last night, so I don’t have anyone available to open up shop.” Her eyes widen as her lips form a perfect ‘O’. “Oh, shit. If I don’t leave this instant, for the first time in nearly a century, my doors won’t open on time.” She somehow maneuvers herself away from Cormack to head for the door. I doubt it was an easy feat. He had her pinned to the wall like he had no plan to ever let her go. “I hope everyone loves the cupcakes. If they do, I’d really appreciate a review on my Facebook page.”
Her suggestion cracks my lips into a smile. Even with her mind hazed by lust, she’s still thinking about her business. All good businessmen and women should operate the same way. Their doors would remain open a lot longer if they did.
The sorrow on Cormack’s face shifts to hope when Harlow pops her head back into the conference room two seconds later. “Will you call me?” When she spots the smirk I was unable to contain from the desperateness in her voice, she straightens her shoulders and tries again. “If you want to call me, my number is on my business card. If not, it’s cool. Whatever.”
It’s pretentious for me to laugh, but I can’t help it. Harlow’s attempt to act disinterested was as pointless as Cormack asking me to chaperon their interaction. Their connection is so blistering, even if I were in the conference room with them, they still would have kissed. I’d put money on it.
After halving my laughter with a quick sideways glare, Cormack shifts his focus back to Harlow. “I’ll call you later today.”
“Alright. Cool. Sounds good.” Her efforts to act unaffected this time around is Oscar-worthy. “Bye.”
After a brief wave, she dashes back through the door she rocketed through only seconds ago.
Cormack waits a good thirty or so seconds to ensure we’re alone before he shifts on his feet to face me. “You were supposed to be here at seven!”
His shouted words expose he’s more annoyed at himself than me, so I let them slide with only the slightest retaliation. I ball my fists at my sides instead of connecting one of them with his nose. “I was.” I follow him into his office, smirking when he slumps into the chair I gifted him when he decided to go it alone instead of using Attwood Electric funds to endorse his dreams. “You asked me to be your backup, not a babysitter. You had things under control for the most part. When you didn’t, I stepped in.”
He groans before sinking low into his chair. “After I groped her boobs.”
Confident his worry has no basis, I waggle my brows.
He doesn’t find my reply humorous. “This isn’t funny. I’m supposed to be taking down her bakery, not her panties.” His reply stumps me, but he foils my endeavor to seek clarification on his comment when he continues talking. “This is bad, Isaac. It could be another re-run of Lucinda if I’m not careful. I didn’t even ask permission to kiss her. I just went for it.”
He stops peering at the ceiling when I say, “She’s not Lucinda.” Lucinda went after Cormack for his wealth and superiority. Harlow knew of neither of those things when she let him pin her to the wall by his cock.
“How do you know that?” Cormack asks breathlessly, the airless of his lungs compliments to both Harlow and panic. “You’ve known her all of two seconds.”
I smirk at his assumption today is my first run-in with Harlow. I may not know everyone in my town, but we’ve met before and I’ll be paying even more attention to her now. “Considering your record-setting pace the past two days, she’ll be family by the end of the week. That’s got to mean something, doesn’t it?” When a glint in his eyes reveals I’m getting through to him, I remind him he isn’t the nethanderal he thinks he is. “You knew the moment you met Lucinda that she was trouble. That’s why you steered clear of her.” I motion my head to the conference room. “You weren’t dodging bullets in there. You pinned a target on your chest because you want her attention. You’re just scared as to why.”
He tsks me. “You’re abstinent for six weeks, and suddenly you’re a relationship counselor?”
Six weeks ago, I would have cringed at the thought of agreeing with him. Today, the disdain is nowhere near as detested. “You’ll be amazed at the amount of brain power you have access to when all your blood isn’t rushing to your cock.” I’ve turned a once blacklisted company into a multi-figure entity the past two weeks. That deserves a mention.
Cormack laughs. It isn’t his standard, let’s-give-Isaac-hell laugh. It’s full of turmoil and truths he doesn’t want to admit out loud. I hit the nail on the head, but it will take more than a gallon of whiskey for him to admit that.
He hates when I prove him wrong.
After cradling his head in his hands, he mutters, “This shit isn’t right. I didn’t keep my dreams on the backburner the past nine years to give them up now, Isaac. I’m one step away from greatness.”
“There are more than two bases. You’ve still got a few steps to take before you reach her treasure trove.”
Cormack glares at me. It has no steam whatsoever. “I was talking about my business aspirations, you ass!” As his brows stitch, his eyes bounce between mine. “You know who she is, don’t you?” He didn’t ask his question as my friend. He asked it as my business associate.
I prop my ass on the edge of his desk before shaking my head, truly unsure where he's leading our conversation.
“She’s a baker.”
“Duh, captain-fucking-obvious,” I push out with a chuckle. I was unaware my attempt to ease the burden of his guilt stamped ‘idiot’ across my forehead. I’m not known for my playfulness, but I was willing to give it a shot for him. I’ll reconsider my objective next time. I’d rather be seen as a ruthless businessman than a pushover.
My chuckle switches to a groan when Cormack adds, “Of a relic bakery smack dab in the middle of Ravenshoe.”
“Oh.” There’s only one bakery Cormack has referred to as ‘relic’ the past six months. It’s the same one our joint business adventure has been campaigning to take down.
“Yeah. Oh.” His last word is delivered as painfully as mine. Cormack has been buying up property around Ravenshoe for the past several years like it’s going cheap. He wants to build a massive recording studio in the heart of Ravenshoe. With his plans conjured many years ago, I forgot his delay centers around a handful of owners refusing to sell. All their stores surround Harlow’s bakery, so it’s fair to assume her bakery is in the firing zone.
After unbuttoning my suit jacket, I take a seat across from Cormack. His fascination with Harlow not only has the chance of squandering his dream. It could see mine circling the toilet as well. My goals just aren’t business based.
“Is she a friend of Isabelle’s?” I’ve seen Harlow and Isabelle interact once before, but I couldn’t tell if their relationship was solely professional or not.
When Cormack shrugs, truly unsure, I fight to keep my curse word inside of my head. “I don’t need more conflict. I’ve got enough issues already.”
I realize I said my last comment out loud when Cormack nods. He doesn’t need me to expand on my reply, though, as he’s feeling the same drowning on land sensation that’s hitting me. If Isabelle finds out just how far we’ve gone to secure the businesses in the location Cormack wants to build his musical empire, her comments two weeks ago will hold credit. Everything we’ve done is above board, but when you see how much money we let circle the drain to do it, it could be seen as fraudulent by the wrong set of eyes.
After a couple of minutes of silence, the business side of my head switches on. “What do you want me to do? The acquisitions team can pursue other locations? Hunter could run a background search on Harlow? You name it, I’ll have it done.”
Cormack takes a moment to contemplate. It’s a long-drawn-out process that only grows more frustrating when he says, “Keep me away from Harlow Murphy.”
Twenty minutes ago, I would have agreed to his request as if he had asked me to fund his latest business adventure. He’s never made an unsound business decision, so I’m confident my backing would be highly successful. Now, I’m certain we’re set to fail.
Keeping him away from the one thing he craves more than air will hurt him in a way I’m not willing to do. I’ve experienced death, betrayal, remorse, and rejection, but by far the most painful thing I’ve endured is denying my heart its opportunity to speak. It’s been burned, scarred, and broken just as much as my body, yet over the past six weeks, it has begged for a chance to show it functions perfectly fine.
A lessor man would be scared about the prospect. For the first time in my life, I’m unsure which side of the fence I belong. Denying the truth doesn’t change the facts, but hiding from them won’t fix them either.
Fate decides who enters your life, actions keep them there, but what happens when you realize you no longer control either of those things?
I’m in charge of all aspects of my life. However, there’s one thing I can't control—a brown-eyed, dark-haired beauty who challenges me even from a distance.
I love a good challenge, because almost always when I think I’ll fail, I achieve my greatest accomplishment, but I can’t help but wonder if the chips will fall in my favor this time around.
I can't tell if it's relief or panic that crosses Cormack's face when I counter bid, "Only if you promise to do the same for me with Isabelle."
I've always believed working through your problems makes you stronger, but this is one fight I don't see me winning, and although we're taught as children that winning isn't everything, it's obvious the quoters never gambled on something as substantial as destined souls that are worlds apart.
If they had, they may have bowed as cowardly as I am now.