One month later…
The further my chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz town car glides down the asphalt, the tighter the infuriating knot in my stomach becomes. The past four weeks have flown by in a nanosecond. Usually, I’d savor the rush. The busier I am, the less time I have to worry about things out of my control.
I can’t say I’ve exerted the same level of control this time around.
Not only am I waking with the sparrows to witness Isabelle’s pre-dawn jog in the flesh, but old plans I thought were debunked months ago have resurfaced stronger than ever. Since they immensely affect the very person I’d die for, I have no choice but to have breakfast with the devil’s spawn.
Delilah Winterbottom has been an associate of mine for years. We met when she married Henry Gottle, Jnr. in an elaborate, no-money-spared extravaganza that should have seen their marriage sail long past the honeymoon stage.
Regretfully, Delilah’s true self was exposed within hours of Henry signing their marriage certificate. He could have filed for an annulment, but with him wrongly believing his father took the easy way out of his relationship with his mother, he dug in footholds and held on for the ride.
He lasted an impressively long twenty-six months.
I wouldn't have made it to the end of the week.
Delilah is a headstrong woman whose take-no-shit attitude gets the job done. She's attractive in a fierce, ominous way, and she needs a man strong enough to remind her that relationships require mutual respect and understanding.
Henry could have been that man for her if she hadn’t fallen into bed with their accountant.
Just like me, Henry is unforgiving when it comes to infidelity.
Although Henry’s marriage woes shouldn’t have been my concern, just like when I assisted him in defending himself against a group of thugs who believed he was the gateway to gaining his father’s attention, I couldn’t stand by and watch Delilah drain the life from his veins either. He wasn’t facing an army that time around. However, I had my own battle in the works I stupidly believed Delilah could assist me with.
I’ve often wondered if infatuation can be mistaken for love. It makes you as unhinged as a college boy enjoying the thrill of the chase and has you risking everything to prove passion is the only thing you should strive for.
Isabelle has me acting like that now, but before her, there was a less captivating, but beguiling woman who had me portraying a fool. I didn’t look at her as I did Isabelle when she tumbled to my feet, but I most certainly pursued her on the basis she had many similarities to my deceased girlfriend. Same lips, eyes, and hair coloring. Even the shape of their noses was similar.
Their uncanny resemblance was unprecedented, and it had me acting as if I was capable of resurrecting a ghost from my past.
I’m ashamed of the man I portrayed after dancing with Emily, but I’m putting measures into place now to correct my unusual crassness.
“Here is fine,” I say to Roger when I notice the stream of cars that forever clog the streets of Ravenshoe stretches for as far as the eye can see. “Remain close. I can only pray Delilah is still on her skinny shake diet.”
Roger’s eyes pop up to the rearview mirror. They’re glistening with humor. He too isn’t a fan of Delilah. “I’ll circle the block until I find an opening. Buzz me when you’re ready.”
I lift my chin in thanks before exiting the back seat of my town car. Usually, I drive myself to these types of events, but since my sportscar has gained more than admiring glances the past couple of weeks, I’ve resorted back to treating Roger as if he's my chauffeur. He doesn’t seem to mind. There could be far worse things occupying his time as he creeps toward retirement than driving luxury vehicles all day.
An unusual sensation hits the lower half of my stomach when I commence walking down the street. Several pairs of eyes track me. That isn’t unusual. I’ve grown accustomed to the glances I get when doing the most mundane tasks, although I am grateful these gawks are minus the ones I’ve felt scrutinizing me through long-range lenses the past couple of weeks.
Word to the wise, if you don’t come from money, then the naysayers believe you suddenly have some, expect every penny to be analyzed. Even if every dollar you've earned is through hard work, sound business decisions, and the occasional risk-taking that burns your chest more ferociously than guzzling down the most potent bottle of whiskey, still anticipate scrutiny.
I coasted toward my first million without too many hiccups. To everyone around me, I was a college student struggling to make ends meet. I had a billionaire friend, but since he chose to go it alone than lose who he was, everyone around me, excluding Cormack, were none the wiser that I had built an impressive nest-egg.
When I tripled my investment with wise stock market analysis, I was scrutinized more. First, it was the admission clerk accepting a bank check for mine and Cormack’s full tuition during our second term of sophomore year. Then the Dean came knocking when a portion of my wealth funded the lending library for students incapable of purchasing their own textbooks. He wanted to know where I got the money from. I was honest from the get-go. Did he believe me? Not at all. He, like many of my competitors the past seven years, underestimated me.
To this day, I still fund the lending libraries of the local universities. I just request for them to keep my name off the donation acknowledgements. It’s easier this way. Just the belief I’m a selfish, money-hungry businessman means I’m rarely approached for donations.
Some would say that’s a bad thing. I’m not so inclined to agree. Being inapproachable means the millions I donate to charity each year goes to causes close to my heart.
It also gives me the ability to make rash, hasty decisions, but since I’m endeavoring to right that wrong now, we’ll save that foolery for another day.
“Good morning, Mr. Holt,” greets a doorman on the establishment I requested Delilah to meet me at. She was seeking an invitation to my private abode. I will never allow let that to occur. I'm already having issues keeping my home off the FBI’s radar. I won’t stand a chance if the soon-to-be ex-wife of a mobster kingpin’s son pops in for brunch.
After pulling off the aviator sunglasses I donned to hide the circles under my eyes from my leaden sleep schedule the past month, I dip my chin in greeting to the unnamed brute before passing through the door he’s holding open for me.
The strong aroma of coffee plumes into my nostrils when I weave through the tables nestled closely together. If this were my restaurant, I’d increase the privacy before upping the prices on the menu. Privacy-seeking folks pay top dollar for a couple of inches of space. This restaurant would double its profit margins within months, and the guests too wealthy to scoff at the high-priced menu would encourage those hoping to one day be them to dine here.
Alas, this is Cormack’s baby, not mine.
Cormack isn't just my closest business confidant, he's also the only person I truly class as a friend. If it weren’t for him taking a chance on me our first year in college, I would have never amassed the capital needed to start my empire, and Ravenshoe would still be a swamp.
The trials and tribulations of the past nine years have made our bond unbreakable, although, my request for him to make Delilah head of public relations at his record company made things a little hazy.
“Delilah.” I add a smile to my greeting before placing a kiss on her cheek. She was raised in a well-to-do family that comes from money older than dirt.
That should have been Henry’s first warning to steer clear of her.
People who have access to funds they didn’t earn via hard work are usually the worst of the worst. Delilah only slithered past that notion because unlike her siblings she’s willing to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty. It’s merely the fact she keeps them stained long after the business day ends that sees her precariously teetering between being my friend and my enemy.
How she responds to our meeting today will seal her fate.
“Have you had a chance to look over my proposal?”
I place down a duplicate copy of the tender I’m pitching onto the table before removing my suit jacket. Once it's fastened to the back of my chair, I take a seat.
Delilah’s grin assures me my proposal has sparked her interest, but it also reveals she won’t let me off easy. I forced her out of her stomping ground on the guise she’d be the lead publicist for the number one band in the country. Now I’m requesting for her to manage a rowdy bunch of journalists who couldn’t sell a personal ad to a hopeless romantic who hasn’t had a date in years.
No matter how much spit I polish my proposal with, it will never gleam as brightly as the one I tossed her way to cinch out the nails she dug into Henry’s hip pocket when he announced he wanted a divorce. There was no infidelity clause in their prenup, and Delilah had every intention to leverage it to her advantage.
“There are some matters I’d like to discuss first, though.” With an exasperated huff, Delilah takes a seat across from me. “Such as this.” She hands me a flight schedule for the band my brother, Nicholas, is the lead guitarist for. “Your plan is working, Isaac, so why go off-script now?”
“Because this wasn’t my plan,” I reply, tossing the flight schedule that shows Noah Taylor, lead singer of my brother’s band, has cancelled his flights home numerous times the past three months back to her side of the table.
I highly doubt his absence is going over well with his girlfriend of almost two years, Emily. In the many surveillance images I’ve perused of her the past year, her face lights up in a way Ophelia’s never did when Noah surprises her outside of her classroom every Friday afternoon after a week in the studio, laying down tracks.
“I wanted proof Emily was Ophe…” I stop before I make a fool of myself. Delilah is not a part of my inner circle, so she isn't privy to the information I’ve only shared with a handful of people.
I’m positive they all think I’ve lost my marbles. Dead girlfriends aren’t revived years later younger than they were when they passed, but up until last month, I didn’t care what they thought. If I wanted to waste thousands of dollars and even more hours in resources documenting Emily’s every move, so be it. I earned my money, so only I can choose how it is spent.
Now I feel more than ridiculous, and Isabelle is solely to blame for that.
“I no longer have any interest in Emily McIntosh.”
Delilah arches a brow. “Because you suddenly realized cradle snatching isn’t proper?”
I cut off her breathy giggles with a rueful glare. She can’t talk. Henry Jnr. is many years younger than her. That’s how she trapped him so adeptly. Experience is often seen as a good thing when you’re youthful and loaded, but very rarely does the shine extend past three years. It's why I’m so cautious verbalizing that Ophelia and I would still be together if she hadn’t died. The chase was enthralling, but I can’t help but wonder if that had more to do with the fact she was the first girl in a long time to turn me down.
This is presumptuous for me to say, but that wasn’t the norm. Before Ophelia, I merely peered at a woman to be placed on her radar. If she wanted me, the chasing was left to her.
Just the thought that the adrenaline that comes from a hunt was the only thing responsible for the spark between Ophelia and me is why I haven’t pursued Isabelle as raptly as intended when I raced for the business class washroom in the plane. The spark was roused, it's still burning brightly now, I just don’t want it snuffed before I discover the reason it feels as if it's the only thing giving me purpose right now.
With my mood somewhat uneased, my tone comes out snappier than intended. “I will need an answer to my offer by close of business Friday.”
“And if I don’t have an answer by then?” Delilah asks, her tone way too haughty for my liking.
A not-so-nice reply sits on the tip of my tongue, but no matter how vigorously I try to relinquish it, my mouth refuses. I’m not stunned by Delilah’s gall. I didn’t bring her to Ravenshoe for no reason. I’m flabbergasted by the quickest flurry of almost raven hair outside the restaurant’s window. I can’t verify with utmost certainty that the stormy locks belong to Isabelle, but considering I’ve scrutinized them daily for a minimum of thirty seconds the past month, I’m reasonably confident.
“What is it?” Delilah asks, noticing the direction of my gawk.
“It’s nothing.” I commend myself for my honesty, but I refuse to have a woman as unbalanced as Delilah on Isabelle’s tail. I saw firsthand what she put Emily through within days of me placing her on her radar. I won’t stand by and watch the same happen to Isabelle, because I wouldn’t just beat the man Delilah orders to slip a date rape drug into Isabelle's drink, I'd kill him.
I almost did when news on what Delilah had done to Emily reached my ears. I brought her here to make things difficult between Noah and Emily. It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I demanded for Delilah to immediately pull back on the restraints. As far as I was aware, she had. The only reason I now believe differently is because of what Nick relayed to me earlier this week. He is finally moving away from the beliefs our mother raised us with, but he could only do that after dragging Noah to the pits of hell with him.
Jenni and their unborn baby dragged Nick out of the cesspool relatively unscathed.
Noah is still struggling to keep his head above murky waters.
While working my jaw side to side, I divert my focus back to Delilah. If I can't woo her with money, perhaps an ego stroke will work in my favor. “Cormack mentioned there’s a possibility Rise Up could book higher profile gigs with the right backing.”
“Yes, perhaps. They have quite the following.” She sounds more disgusted than pleased, which proves how inanely foolish I was to have her fiddle in anything associated with my brother. “But national recognition is far harder to achieve than state recognition.”
“Not when someone like you is helming their campaign.” It's an effort not to let the quiver wreaking havoc with my spine be seen on my face. Just like Theresa Veneto, Delilah is attractive in her own right. However, no amount of polish could make her insides as appealing as their outer counterparts. “You want recognition as a renowned publicist. Here's your chance, Delilah. Show them stuffs at Browns your daddy’s money didn’t buy your degree.”
When the victory-seeking vixen in her eyes fans her wings, I stand to my feet. Time is money, and this arrangement is well-past cooked. Furthermore, I’m eager to see if Isabelle is watching me as closely as I've been viewing her the past month.
My plans are forced back onto the drawing pad when Delilah joins me in placing on her jacket. “Don’t leave on my behalf. Stay and enjoy a beverage or two.” The early hour isn’t a deterrent when you’re as wealthy and as immoral as Delilah.
A hope I’m getting through to her pumps through me when she replies, “As much as I love Ravenshoe, it is not the entertainment capital of America.” She shoos away the hundred-dollar bill I’m attempting to place onto her bill before switching it with a much less generous denomination. “It took the server almost a minute to refill my coffee. He doesn’t deserve a tip.”
When she spins away to storm toward the exit like a prima-donna, I hand my tip directly to the waiter, nonverbally relaying that I understand his hesitation when it comes to Delilah. I’ve never slept with her, but that won’t stop me from saying not even a tussle beneath the sheets would lessen the severity of her resting bitch face.
While joining Delilah on the footpath at the front of the restaurant, I request for Roger to bring my car back around. When he tells me he's only moments away, a feeling I'm being watched envelopes me.
Cautious it could be the agents I left high and dry at my apartment building this morning, I scan the street. When I fail to find the blue van that’s been tailing me the past several months, I shift my eyes in the direction I thought I saw Isabelle.
I make it to the potted hedges hiding the alleyway from the high-end patrons when the starch material of Delilah’s pantsuit brushes my hand. “My uber is forty minutes away. Can I get a lift to the studio with you?”
While waiting for me to answer, she stuffs a cigarette between her quirked lips before hunting for a lighter. Always at the ready to schmooze wealthy entrepreneurs into investing in Ravenshoe, I remove a gold flint lighter from my pocket so I can light the white stick aging her at double the rate of her older sister.
Just as I pop down the lighter’s cap, a second more distinguishable click sounds through my ears. It didn’t come from Delilah or me. It came from the direction Isabelle was last seen.
I’m confident my profile was just snapped, but since I’m unsure if it's for personal or business reasons, I’m undecided on how I should reply. I can’t get frustrated at Isabelle for snooping when I’ve done precisely that the past month, but I do feel it is necessary to advise her I'm aware of her watch.
With that in mind, I assist Delilah into the backseat of my town car before cranking my neck in the direction the click came from. I stare at the potted hedges for what feels like hours but is more a mere minute. I don’t see anything out of the ordinary. Isabelle either left, or she’s so embarrassed she was busted spying on me, she’s seeking shelter.
If the niggle in my stomach is anything to go by, I’d say the latter is more plausible.
Confronted by my unusual time-wasting, Delilah pops her head back out of the car. “Are you coming?”
I jerk up my chin before sliding into my seat. I make it halfway when the tingling of the hairs on my arms stops me. My eyes snap back to the potted hedges so fast, the image of Isabelle peering back at me is blurry for the first two seconds. She's casually dressed. Not as down-to-earth as she is when she stops by my office each morning, but she doesn’t exert the image of a stuffy accountant either. She looks good, if not a little shaken.
Her wide eyes and the terrified expression on her face expose she was spying on me. Now I need to work out why. I could ask her, but that isn’t the way I operate. If I have to force the truth from you, anything you share with me will be worthless, because it isn’t lies that bother me, it’s the fact you don’t believe I’m smart enough to know the difference between a truth and a lie that infuriates me.