episode 4

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Air whizzes from my nose when my eyes shift to my watch, noting it’s a quarter past ten Saturday evening. My club is full to the brim with patrons hankering to wash off the funk of a hard week, yet the clench of my jaw is fierce. I charge double that of my competitors to ensure the homage of my nightclubs remains high. Profits are steamrolling in hard and fast, but, once again, my mood is dismal.

 

I understand tardiness, especially when it comes to the opposite sex. I’m merely frustrated about the number of times I’ve glanced at my watch today. Usually I’m, as Hugo likes to say, too busy to scratch an itch. Today, I’m seeking any excuse to slack off. 

 

Isabelle hasn't left my thoughts all week. Her down to earth personality was such a refreshing change to the over-gleamed, Stepford-wannabe-wives who usually endeavor to slip between my sheets. 

 

My head has reenacted our interactions in the plane on repeat the past six days. Time and time again, I reached the same conclusion. Isabelle is an unpolished diamond. Her exterior is a little rough, and she could do with a polish, but beneath those minor flaws could be a real gem. I just need her to arrive as per our agreement so I can unearth her polished exterior for myself, because if you want anything done right, you must do it yourself. 

 

I barely know Isabelle, however, the hour and a half we spent together during our flight was the longest exchange I’ve had with a woman since Ophelia’s death. Well, if you exclude bedroom antics. Even then, I never went out of my way to make my guests feel comfortable enough to linger longer than necessary. The faster our exchange was over, the quicker I moved onto other rendezvous that didn’t riddle me with guilt.

 

I didn’t experience that same level of remorse with Isabelle. Her eyes are beautiful. They’re dark pools of seduction that, along with her teasing curves, demand the attention of any man in the room, but there’s more to them than an ability to strip me of my shrewdness. There’s pain in them, suffering, and a gleam that reveals she’d back the underdog in any fight, because she knows as well as I do, it isn’t the size of the dog that matters, it’s how vicious its bite is. I’ve fought for everything I have. Not a dime in my bank account has been placed there without me having something to do with it. Now I can help other underdogs unleash their greatest possibilities, and I’m more than eager to commence that with Isabelle. 

 

My eyes lift from a set of acquisitions splayed across my desk when I detect I am being watched.  When it dawns on me it’s the same hankered gaze Isabelle awarded me with when I switched her irrational fear to euphoria during take-off and landing earlier this week, a smirk raises my lips.

 

They soon sag when the confidence beaming out of my interrupter is far too confident for me ever to believe she is Isabelle. This is the stare of a woman hopeful for a second tussle beneath the sheets. 

 

Regretfully, Isabelle and I have only flirted with the prospect of becoming bed companions. Since that’s a title I only use for one-and-done flings, I can’t confidently say that’s what tonight is about. I asked Isabelle to my office for a reason, but the intention behind my change-up has not yet been brought to light. Even knowing she was on her period didn’t weaken my struggle to touch her, so there’s no chance I’ll hold back for a second time. It just seems as if I am impartial to the idea of seeing her almost black locks fanned across the same pillow as many women before her. Our connection was unique, so shouldn’t our pairing be as well?   

 

Once it dawns on Tina, my head barmaid, that she has secured my attention, she prances into my office. Wrongly believing she’s higher ranked than other members of my staff, she props her barely covered backside onto my desk before dragging her teeth over her lower lip. The team at the Dungeon don’t wear a uniform, although Tina’s much-loved micro shorts and mid-drift tops have had me considering implementing a dress code multiple times the past three months. 

 

Don’t misconstrue, Tina has work ethics by the bucket loads, and the clientele love her friendly demeanor, but her casual attire should have been all the warning I needed that sleeping with a member of my staff would end disastrously. She was the first woman in a long time who could match my intensity in the bedroom, but not once have I caught myself peering at my watch, praying for the hours to clock over for our next hook up, and I know of her abilities between the sheets. 

 

A lessor man could say I’m foolish hinging my every desire on Isabelle’s arrival this evening. For all I know, she could be a dud in the bedroom, however, I’m not worried. No matter how far in life you are, you never stop learning. From the moment you speak your first word, take your first step, and earn your first dollar, you are continually learning. 

 

Take Isabelle’s nibble on my thumb, for example. I had never seen my hands as an erogenous zone. They’ve earned me millions, got me out of some hazy situations, and have dabbled in far too many businesses to name them all, but not once have I looked at them as I did when Isabelle gnawed on the tip of my thumb. It wasn’t even considering the possibility of replacing my thumb with my cock that captured my devotion. It was the breath I sucked in when our eyes collided for the quickest second. My father’s favorite saying has always been, ‘it isn’t about how many breaths you take, but how many moments take your breath away.’ I never truly understood his statement until that lazy Sunday afternoon in a plane thirty thousand feet in the air. 

 

We all make mistakes, even men as governing as me, but the biggest one I’ve made thus far in my life was when I pulled back from Isabelle after she licked her lips in preparation for our kiss. I regretted it from the moment I did it, and I’ll continue regretting it until I’m given a chance to make it right. 

 

I am free no matter what rules surround me, but the chains of remorse on my shoulders will always be my biggest challenge, and their weight intensified tenfold Sunday afternoon.

 

I’m drawn from my thoughts by a somewhat snarky, yet willing to do anything to please me voice. “Boss… did you hear what I said?” 

 

Tina scoots closer to me, acting oblivious that her backside is crinkling papers I’ve spent hours compiling. Perusing acquisitions is a favorite pastime of mine. It isn’t getting close to the pinnacle of pleasure I’m wagering all my anticipations on tonight. My sexual drive has always been excessive, but its reaching levels I didn’t even realize it could strive for this week. 

 

“We’re run off our feet out there.” Tina excessively flutters her lashes, a tell-tale sign her inexorable attempts to get back into my bed hasn’t waned in the slightest the past week. “An extra set of hands wouldn’t go astray.” The gleam in her eyes that had me running for the hills quite a few months ago ramps up as she adds, “The tips are always extra generous when you work the bar with me. So, what do you say? Fancy rolling up your sleeves and tossing together some overpriced cocktails for a couple of hours?”

 

“I have plans.” My tone is nowhere near as chipper as hers. It has her recoiling as if my snapped words bruised her cheek more than her ego. It couldn’t be helped. She didn’t mention the activities she’d like us to undertake after work, but the frantic nibble of her lower lip as she stares at me with lust-drenched eyes most certainly did. 

 

Unversed at being turned down, Tina huffs before folding one of her legs over the other, forcing the already high rise of her shorts even higher. “Plans with who?”  

 

I hit her with a stern sideways glare, unappreciative of both the jealousy in her tone and the narrowing of her eyes. I have no intention of securing a long-term relationship, but whom I converse with is none of her business. It wasn’t before we slept together, and it won’t be when her inability to remember her place sees her transferred to another division of my empire.

 

“Call Hugo. He will either come in and assist or contact someone who can.” 

 

Hugo’s social life is as absent as mine. He too sleeps, eats, and breathes for my empire. His reasoning behind keeping his mind occupied are as diverse as mine, but for some reason, he refuses to benefit from his expertise. His lodging is provided by me, Catherine keeps his fridge as well-stocked as mine, however, not one check I’ve handed him the past five years has been cashed—not even the exorbitant one I gave him while trying to convince him to leap into the deep end without a life jacket. The false reports in his police record assured me he would be an asset to my team, then the way he endeavored to right the murder of his sister was a sure-fire sign.

 

With my mind bogged down on the past, I stop Tina’s prance out of my office mid-hip swing. “Perhaps a few hours of solid work won’t kill me. It is, after all, the business owners willing to get their hands dirty who have the greatest success.” I don’t mean stained with the controversy my enemies shroud their entities in. I mean true to the bone hard work. My empire was founded by bloody knuckles and sweat, so I’ll never be afraid of putting in the hard yards. 

 

“What about your guest?” Tina spits out the word ‘guest’ like she knows where my focus has been the past four hours. I’m not surprised. She is very perceptive. She also hasn’t seen me leave with a ‘date’ the past six days. 

 

This will make me sound like a chauvinistic pig, and rightfully so, it should, but the past six days of abstinence is a new record for me. I don’t bed women with the hope of replacing the horrid memories in my head. I’m with them to get off. Plain and simple. That hasn’t been my focus the past week, however. Not even my empire has had the top spot in my head. That position is solely reserved for one person. Isabelle.

 

“We will reconvene when she arrives.” My lips quirk, surprised about my fortified tone. My intuition is warning me I’m hours away from being disappointed. My stubborn resolute is on the opposing end of the field. It doesn’t understand the word no. 

 

Tina’s face congeals with annoyance at my confirmation my guest is a female, but she plays it cool, aware of what she brings to the table, and willing to remind me at every possibility. “Sounds like a plan.” 

 

Smiling, she tosses an apron into my chest. It isn’t the dowdy ones Catherine gets around in when she’s stocking my refrigerator with homecooked meals and tooth-ache-guaranteed desserts. It only goes from the waist down, is black in color, and its pockets are filled with nip measuring instruments, lime cutters, and all those other good things bartenders should have access to. “We’ll do an even share of the tips this time around… since you now know what you’re doing.”

 

I don’t have the heart to tell her I could mix a drink long before she showed me, so I keep my mouth shut. It’s for the best. Anything I would have said would have been gobbled up by the music pumping out of the speakers above my head, anyway. It isn’t music I particularly like, but Spencer, the lead DJ for this nightclub, knows what gets the patrons heart pumping. The more they sweat, the higher my profit margin. 

 

My clientele are entertained, my business is thriving, and both those subjects give me a great excuse to ignore Tina’s gaga eyes for the next several hours. 

 

It’s a win/win for me, but unfortunately, I still feel as if I’m losing.

 

***

 

 “Wow. That was just like old times.” Tina props her sweaty hip onto the counter next to me. She wasn’t deceitful when she said the bar staff were run off their feet. We’ve been pulling beers, serving cocktails, and kicking out the patrons who happily pay twenty dollars for a cocktail just to sniff the perfume of the well-to-do customers my businesses attract since the heavy security presence guarantees no date rape drugs will be slipped into their drinks for the past seven hours and twenty-four minutes. 

 

How do I know the exact amount of time I rolled up my sleeves and worked next to my staff? Being snowed under didn’t hinder the number of times I glanced at my watch. I saw every second tick by for every hour that has passed. It’s been a woeful waste of time, my annoyance firming the longer it occurred. 

 

I was so convinced Isabelle would arrive tonight, I cleared my morning meetings and requested for Catherine not to arrive at my home until late in the afternoon. She was as shocked by my request as me. She wasn’t scheduled to exterminate the apartment I take my standard ‘dates’ to. She was to arrive at my home only hours from now—the private sanctuary I don’t take anyone to. Not even Hugo has been invited inside, and he is one of my closest confidants. That alone shows how perverse Isabelle’s hold of my senses is. She knocked down my defenses in an instant, and even quicker than that, cleared my astuteness. 

 

Exercising control during volatile times is all I know. I’ve wheeled and dealed with mobsters, billionaires, and folks born into wealth you wouldn’t believe, yet, it feels inconsequential when I consider what I’ve given up to achieve what I have.  I have more money than I’ll ever need, businesses dotted across the globe, and a reputation that is feared as much is a revered, yet I have no one to share it with. Not a single soul. 

 

I’m thrust out of my negative thoughts when Tina asks, “How do bagels and fresh coffee sound?” She undoes her apron before tossing it in the sink I just finished wiping out. “There’s a cute little bakery around the corner from here. She’s a little overpriced compared to her competition, but when you’re downing carbs like they won’t kill you, you don’t care how much they cost.” 

 

She peers up at me with hopeful, wanton eyes, their gleam slackening when I shake my head. “I still have a stack of acquisitions to finalize.”

 

Mistaking my strong work ethic as the only reason I brushed off her underhanded invitation into her bed, she garbles out, “Well, how about I grab the bagels and coffee and bring them back here?” Not waiting for me to answer, she snags her purse out from underneath the bar, then spins away from me. “I won’t be more than a few minutes.”

 

“I don’t want any bagels.” I work my jaw side to side when my tone comes out more brusque than intended. I’m frustrated, but Tina isn’t the sole cause of my annoyance, so she shouldn’t be stung with all its wrath. She’s more than willing to give me someone to share my millions with, but I don’t want someone who’s infatuated by my wealth. I want them to like me for me, not the funds in my bank accounts. Isabelle knew nothing about my status when she let me grip her throat. She had no clue about the money I’ve earned or how many businesses I owned when she licked her lips in preparation for our kiss. It truly seemed as if she only saw me.

 

That’s what I’m seeking. 

 

That’s what I crave. 

 

And although my wish to be someone’s equal could see me dying alone, I’d still choose it over the loveless, one-sided relationship my parents had. My father loved my mother, he gave her everything he could, but it still wasn’t enough for her. She craved possessions more than love, and for now, they’re keeping her heart colder than the dead.

 

Although my mood is dismal, my tone doesn’t come out as snappily as it did earlier.  “I’m going to take the acquisitions home with me.” 

 

The way I say ‘home’ should get my point across. Tina is smarter than the other women I’ve taken to my penthouse. It only took her peering into the almost empty fridge to know I don’t live there, so I won’t mention the discontent that hardened her features when her yearning eyes drunk in the monstrous-size mirror above my bed. 

 

In case you’re wondering, the mirror was not my idea. Hugo and Hunter are known for infuriating wagers that often see one of them being handed the short end of the stick the following month. The final week of my apartment build saw my name thrown into the mix. Their main wager centers around how long it will take for me to have the mirror removed. The second, more subsequentially funded bet, focuses on the women I take back to my apartment.  If they leave within ten minutes of seeing the emasculating piece of gleaming material tacked to the roof in the master suite, Hugo must pay Hunter one thousand dollars. If they stay longer than an hour, Hunter pays Hugo. 

 

Now I understand why Hugo doesn’t cash my checks. He’s making a killing off Hunter’s belief women don’t watch porn. That might have very well been the case if they were spectators instead of participants. Alas, Hugo hasn’t paid a dime to Hunter the past almost two years, and I’m too stubborn to ever let on that the mirror drives me crazy. 

 

Besides, the longer I maintain my ruse, the longer their one hundred-thousand-dollar pot is locked in my investment account. I get a great amount of satisfaction knowing I’m forcing them to invest without them realizing they are. 

 

The smirk itching my lips higher sags when Tina once again mistakes it as an indication that I’m interested in what she’s selling. “Are you sure, Isaac? From what I’ve heard, Harlow’s Scrumptious Haven is on its last legs. You might not be able to get her famous treats for much longer.”

 

While hiding the fact I’ve heard about the bakery she mentioned previously, I reply, “I’m sure but thank you for asking.” Eager to cut her off before she falls to her knees and shamefully begs, I add, “Enjoy the rest of your morning. I’ll see you late this afternoon.” 

 

Confirmation I’ll be here when she arrives later today sees her accepting my rejection. She is displeased by it, but she’s aware she’ll face more than a declined invitation if she continues pushing me. I’ve reached my quota for insolent people today. I can’t handle another.

 

With that hot off the press, I gesture for Travis to join us at the bar. He is the head bouncer at The Dungeon. “Make sure Tina gets home safe.” 

 

I dig a hundred dollar bill out of my wallet before passing it to Travis, not only tipping him for the number of drunken fools he had to handle today, but for making sure Tina can walk the three blocks to her apartment building without hindrance. He will get a portion of the tips jar tonight, but it’ll be a pittance compared to what Tina and the other three bartenders will get. Tina was flirting when she said my presence increases the customers generosity, but she was also honest. 

 

“I’ll help Roger place the day's takings into the safe before locking up,” I advise while removing a set of keys from Travis’s hand.

 

Travis looks more than happy to leave, but something stops him from racing to the door. I’m reasonably confident it is the glaring stare Tina is hitting him with but can’t one hundred percent testify to that. “Are you sure you don’t want me to wait, Boss? There are a few stragglers out the front unwilling to go home.”

 

Over people’s disbelief I can’t handle myself in a dangerous situation, I jerk up my chin. “As long as they stay on the other side of the door, I have no issues with them.” 

 

It’s wrong for me to admit I hope they test the boundaries tonight, so I won’t. Although I have excess energy to burn, there are many other ways I can dispel it that don’t include my fists, and for once, that scenario doesn’t involve becoming lost in a busty blonde either. I’m genuinely too disappointed to place that suggestion on the table, which is almost as foreign as my veins only housing the nip of whiskey I enjoyed before Tina interrupted me. 

 

My twist away from Travis and Tina stumbles halfway when the closing of my wallet is thwarted by several foil-coated discs stuffed in the middle. I laughed this morning while preparing for my day. I have condoms in the drawer in my desk, in the glove compartment of my car, and scattered throughout my penthouse, so I’ve never felt the need to place one in my wallet. But what I said to Isabelle was true, men only pack condoms with the intent to use them the day they put them in their wallets, hence my overzealous presumption I’d need more than one tonight.

 

Sadly, the only people being entertained this evening are Tina and Travis when I dump the four condoms into the bin under the bar before stalking to my office. My walk is arrogant, fueled by my absurdity that I was ready to move on. 

 

Letting my guard down has always spelled disaster for me. I was just praying Isabelle would prove me wrong this time around.  My hopes wouldn’t have gotten up if I hadn’t let my shield down, but I thought I had finally reached a stage in my life where I could trust a stranger without it doing me any harm. 

 

Isabelle’s ghosting tonight proves I haven’t. 

 

I can push for success. I have the drive and tenaciousness to turn a thousand dollars into a million, but there is one thing I still struggle to grasp—that some people are meant to be alone. 

 

Not everyone gets to look into someone’s eyes and see their happy ending. Ophelia wasn’t given the opportunity, so why am I expecting any better? I want to say because the glint in Isabelle’s eyes when she peered up at me for the first time opened my heart to the possibility of a new beginning, but that would be a lie. I wanted to be selfish for just a minute. To pretend my personal life is as important as my business endeavors. I wanted to forget the hang-ups of my life for merely a moment, and for the briefest second Isabelle’s eyes locked with mine, that occurred. She saw me, a mere man, not the enigma everyone else sees. So, if I were honest as I pride myself on being, I’d admit her rejection makes sense. 

 

My eyes say more than my mouth ever will, and the words they speak aren’t close to being pretty because rarely is honesty seen as an asset. Only people raised by lies like me understand truths importance, and even then, they still veer toward the easy route, unaware there’s no easy route for what truly matters.

 

Life is hard. You just have to be tougher than it. Although Isabelle’s rejection fortified the rod in my back, it also reminded me that you never stop learning. Tonight’s lesson was brutal, but those who have triumphs without hardship don’t deserve a single second of recognition. I’ve worked for everything I have, and I will continue working for it—even if I must go it alone.

 

Roger’s eyes lift to mine when I enter my office. “Quite the good profit margin this weekend. Investors will be pleased.” His tone makes it seems as if their response won’t be close to positive. 

 

Roger has been with me for years. His demeanor is a little on the salty side, and he rarely smiles, but he’s been with me long enough to understand the ebb and flows of my empire, and perhaps even me. He barely looks my way, but the brief length of his stare is all that’s needed to know the cause of the low hang of my shoulders.  

 

“Personal endeavors are just like success, Isaac. You don’t dream about it. You make it happen.” He squeezes my shoulder, plucks the keys from my hands as I did from Travis only moments ago, then heads for the door. “I’ll lock up while you call Hunter.” I’m shocked when he twists back around to face me. He’s almost smiling. Almost. “From the gleam his eyes have had the past couple of days, I doubt he’s sleeping.”

 

Stealing my chance to agree with him, he exits my office. My unusual behavior the past couple of days isn’t the only change-up I’ve noticed. Hunter has been a little starry-eyed as well. That’s rare for a man as guarded as him, although nowhere near as foreign as me keeping Isabelle off his radar. 

 

Usually, a background search is the first thing I instruct for Hunter to undertake when I’m approached by a new person—both in business and private. I dated Ophelia for months but was unaware she was the daughter of a mobster until the day of her death. Would it have changed how I felt about her? I’m cynical. You can’t pick your family but sharing the same blood with someone doesn’t automatically make them family. Love, loyalty, and respect run way deeper than blood, and if Isabelle wants to be a part of that, she will now have to come to me, which she does not even five minutes later.

 

She doesn’t race for the front entrance Roger is in the process of bolting to spurt out an excuse as to why she’s seven hours late for our prearranged meet-up, nor does she return my gawk. She merely stares at the arched window in my office, as fascinated by its unique design as I am her beautiful face. 

 

She’s sweating, wearing gym clothes that showcase her appetizing curves. Her hair is pulled off her face in a high ponytail, and wireless EarPods are stuck in her ears. The faintest gray coloring under her eyes reveals her sleep has been as lackluster as mine the past six days, and the fact she’s running before dawn exposes pounding the pavement is the only adrenaline-shredding activity she’s undertaking right now. 

 

The thought shouldn’t please me as much as it does, especially considering she left me high and dry tonight, but it does—very much so. Now I just need her to live up to the sparkle in her eyes when she peers at the proprietary name above the back-entrance door.

 

It’s clear she is interested, but something is holding her back. I want to say it’s because she’s afraid I’ll wholly consume her long before I’ve had my fill, but it feels more than that. There’s something more significant at play here. I just can’t fathom what it is, and the opportunity to dig deeper is lost when Isabelle releases a heavy sigh, pumps up the volume on her iPhone, stuffs it into the pocket of her stretchy pants, then sprints down the blackened alleyway.

 

My rationally inclined head demands my feet to remain planted on the floor, but my intuition has them racing for the exit before a single cognitive thought passes through my head. I’m not a man who leaves things to chance. I’ve fought for everything I have, and although Isabelle isn’t mine, that will never be the case if I’m not willing to occasionally throw caution to the wind.

 

Snubbing Roger’s shout asking if I am okay, I break into the alleyway Isabelle sprinted down. Unlike the front of my establishment, the back entrance of the Dungeon isn’t as well lit. It’s dark and dingy, and there’s an odd smell in the air. It has me recalling how Ravenshoe was once viewed. I was called a fool for wanting to see it prosper. Investors accused me of siphoning their money down the drain. Several cut ties with me early in the game, preferring to endure a loss than the rollercoaster that comes from building a metropolis on swampland. 

 

I bet they're regretting their decision to jump ship early. Ravenshoe still has a long way to go, but we have advanced hospitals filled with the best medical personnel money can buy, one-of-a-kind infrastructures, and a schooling system that rivals Finland. Billions of dollars have been pumped into Ravenshoe, and it shows. It's the highest growing region on this side of the country, and the asking price on every residence sold the past two years reflect this. I’m proud of the community I've created, but once again, it would be nice to share it with someone who appreciates it as much as me.

 

When I reach the end of the alley, I shift my eyes to the right before dragging them to the left. Even the early hour doesn’t weaken the number of commuters dotting both the sidewalks and the street. The bigger Ravenshoe became, the more gridlock developed. It’s annoying but tell me one success story that hasn’t had a few provocations?

 

“Boss…” Roger stops talking to suck in much-needed breaths. He prefers tailing perps in cars. I doubt he’s done an on-foot pursuit since his days in the force. “Who are you chasing?” His gun is in his hand, his brows are crinkled. “I locked the safe, didn’t I?”

 

I curse under my breath. It’s unusual for me to do. Exerting control in difficult situations is all I know. “I’m not chasing a perp. There was a woman in the alleyway.” I stop, loathing the inept fool I’m portraying. 

 

My incompetency is pushed away for the second time tonight when Roger asks, “Around five-six? Dark, thick hair? Real pretty face?”

 

I nod, too stunned to talk. “You saw her?” That shouldn’t be possible. Roger was locking up the front. You can’t see through the window in my office. I’m a man who appreciates privacy, so the first thing I implement in any premise I build is an area I can recluse to for reflection. 

 

“Not tonight.” He sucks in another much-needed breath while peering at his watch. “But I’ve spotted her the previous five days around this time.”

 

“She runs by every day?” Once again, I shouldn’t be pleased the only way Isabelle is dispersing excess energy is by an early morning run, but once again, I’d rather be honest than deceitful. 

 

Roger nods. “I didn’t think much of it. She’s a little too curious for my liking, but she seemed harmless enough.” Unnerve softens the grooves in his face. “Did I miss something?” He sounds genuinely mortified he has failed me. It is very much a Roger trait. 

 

I stuff my hands into the pocket of my trousers, an obvious sign I’m uncomfortable by the direction our conversation is taking, but incapable of holding back. “No. I was just curious as to who she was.”

 

I was trying to elevate Roger’s panic, not add to my idiocy. “Ah. I see.” He houses his gun, scrubs a handkerchief over his sweaty brow, then nudges his head to the back entrance of the Dungeon. “Would you care for a quick movie marathon?” The almost-smile that was cracking his lips minutes ago turns into a real smile when shock registers on my face. “I didn’t apprehend her for questioning, but I did log her movements into the security database.”

 

Knowing too well I’m too inquisitive for my own good, he pivots on his heels and stalks away. Against my better judgment, I follow after him. 

 

With the security at the Dungeon being the best money can’t buy, it only takes Roger a handful of clicks to bring up the footage he mentioned. It is as he stated. A little after five each morning, Isabelle darts into the frame of the monitored footage. She peers up at the proprietor name above the door for a few seconds before she continues on her way. Today was the first time she sighed.

 

I watch the five ten-second clips another two times before locking my eyes with Roger’s. Enacting the businessman I forever portray, I ask, “Does Hunter have access to this file?”

 

He nods. “He ran her face through facial recognition. No match was found.”

 

My brows quirk as high as my interest piques. If Hunter can’t find someone, they don’t exist. I can’t explain it more candidly than that. “Did he do a nationwide search?”

 

“Of course. It didn’t come up with anything bar the business class ticket you purchased for her last Sunday.” His eyes crinkle at the corners when he struggles to hide his grin. His shrewdness is as apparent as mine, so I have no clue why I tried to pull the wool over his eyes. “Not even knowing her name produced more results than a standard search. Her file is as empty as yours when Hunter has finished clearing it out—” 

 

I cut him off with a glare, churlish about his playful mood. I’m grateful he went above and beyond his job description, but my mood is not to be messed with today. “Does she live close to here?”

 

Roger’s shrug isn’t overly confident. “A couple of miles over.” I almost smile at the thought Isabelle is running miles to see me, but Roger soon takes care of my pretentiousness. “She could be mapping out her commute to work. Her placement at an accounting firm across the street starts Monday. With traffic always congested, running to work may be the only viable option.”

 

With my shoulders weighed down with disappointment, I take a seat behind my large desk.

 

Roger’s suggestion Isabelle is timing her route isn’t the cause for the heaviness inundating me; it’s ruminating the idea that Isabelle is an accountant. It seems too mundane of a position for her to do, too lifeless and inert. She was swift to hand all her power to me when I underhandedly requested it, but her submissiveness was far from that of a stuffy accountant. 

 

Needing time to deliberate without Roger eyeballing me, I spin my chair around to face my arched window. While recalling its similarities to the one in the master suite of my home on the outskirts of Ravenshoe, I also reminiscence on how gut-wrenching Isabelle’s sigh was before she banged out her frustration on the pavement surrounding my latest business adventure. It has me curious as to why she was a no-show earlier tonight. Only fools tease themselves with the possibility of what could have been. Isabelle is far from reckless, so why is she denying her body's every want?

 

As I move to the window to seek answers to my question, I say to Roger, “Have Hugo follow Isabelle. Ensure he keeps a safe distance. I don’t want her to know we’re watching.”

 

“Hugo?” Roger sounds disappointed. Rightfully so. He’s usually my go-to guy when it comes to surveillance, however, he’s far too old to be incognito in the establishments I’m certain Isabelle will frequent. Hugo is a couple of years older than me, but he is young at heart. He has the right to be since several years of his youth were drained by vicious, unfounded lies.

 

“Yes, Hugo, and have him report his findings directly to me.” 

 

This isn’t a standard business dealing, so it would be crass of me to treat it as anything but. 

 

I spin to face Roger, my qualm as faltering as the disdain on Roger’s face. “And have him start today.”

 

His nod is the only convincing part of his reply. “I will get in contact with him now.”

 

He waits for me to lift my chin in thanks before he leaves my office. I return to glancing out my window even faster than that, where I plan to stand every morning at precisely a quarter past five, hopeful one day Isabelle will see in her eyes what I saw from day one. 

 

Her beautiful chocolate eyes are the gateway to her soul. They show strength not even someone as dominant as me is eager to test, but, unfortunately, they also expose her weaknesses. She doesn’t trust herself, which, in turn, means she shouldn’t be trusted. 

 

Only those who give trust can be deemed trustworthy. Just like only those willing to take the first step are worthy of the greatness that comes from their leap of faith. I took the first step, I invited Isabelle into my inner circle without the scrutiny I usually subject my confidants to. Now she needs to do the same. 

 

If she wants me, nothing will keep her away. If she doesn’t… 

 

I honestly don’t know how to answer that. My greatest accomplishments were battles I should have never won. I can only hope things follow a similar path with Isabelle.  

 

 

 

xx

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