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Episode 14

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My head pops up from an acquisition I never thought I’d peruse in my life when Roger enters my office. After a rigorous undertaking on the deep dark web, Hunter secured me an invitation to Callie’s sale. We were hoping our procurement would occur under an alias, but regretfully, Vladimir is more clued on than a man of his years should be. The Popovs are notorious for leaving a paper trail. They do this for one reason—to make everyone they collude with easily distinguishable. The lack of transparency ensures only those already lost down the rabbit warren would dare to work with them. 

 

If you like your hands unstained, their company isn't for you. 

 

The dirt on my hands is thick, but I’m optimistic the outcome of our efforts will make the blemish less noticeable.   

 

I save my personal reflection for a more appropriate time when Roger says, “If you want to make your ten o’clock meeting, boss, it would be best to leave now. Traffic is heavy.”

 

“Traffic is always heavy,” I mumble under my breath while standing to my feet. “Where are we meeting again?”

 

Having no clue my daftness of late has nothing to do with business aspirations, and everything to do with a little girl who could be sold to a monster, Roger smirks about the slip of my astuteness before joining me inside my office. “Embers. Your table reservation was made by Ms. McGregor. She called to say she’s on her way. If we don’t leave soon, she may beat us there.”

 

That’s Roger’s way of saying I can’t cancel on Clara for the third time this week. She’s been ringing non-stop since my supposed unintentional ‘double date’ with Isabelle, Harlow, and Cormack circulated throughout our inner circle. I brushed off her first few attempts to reach out to me without the slightest bit of hesitation. Time is imperative to me, and it was needed on more than one pressing issue, but my thought process changed when I bumped into Cormack late yesterday afternoon. He was a shell of the man I interacted with when he aimed to wrangle the cash register at Harlow’s Scrumptious Haven into submission the morning following Isabelle’s birthday celebration. Although he had no clue what he was doing, his eyes were blatantly contrasting to the gloomy pair he’s owned since his father railroaded him. 

 

I had never seen him so comfortable in his own skin. 

 

He appeared truly happy.

 

I can’t express the same sentiment after bumping into him mid-meeting yesterday. His face was gaunt, his skin was flaky, and the dark circles rimming his eyes revealed his sleep had been as lackluster as mine the past four days. He was miserable, and although he didn’t have time to update me on the cause of his misery, a scholar on human psyche wasn’t required to unearth the reason for his dreary mood and shabby dress sense. 

 

He was heartbroken. 

 

Cormack and Clara aren’t close, but I can’t give Clara the chance to rectify that if I don’t lead by example. She looks up to me as if I am her brother—all her siblings do—but her admiration extends more to me than Cormack since she sees similarities in our stories. 

 

Not many people are aware of Clara’s loss. She kept it a secret, because unlike me, she doesn’t use it to fuel somewhat quenchless motives. She uses it to suffocate them instead.

 

“Please bring my car around.” Embers, another one of Cormack’s beloved babies, doesn’t have a parking lot. It will be quicker and more convenient for Roger to drive me to my appointment than seek a spot in one of Ravenshoe’s ever-growing infrastructures. “And Roger?” Only his head pops back into my office. The rest of his body remains outside. “Did you organize the flyers I requested at the start of the week?”

 

Since his smug grin is warranted this time around, I let it slide—barely! “Yes, boss. One was placed on the noticeboard this morning.”

 

“Good.” I dismiss him and his grinning face from my office with a wave of my hand before gathering up my suit jacket from the coatrack in the corner of the large space. I’m torn on leaving things how they are, but time isn’t something I must unnecessarily horde right now. Callie’s sale is scheduled in my calendar. Her father personally approved my invitation. All I can do now is wait.   

 

After a final glance of a pair of eyes identical to Isabelle’s in every way, I place on my jacket then join Roger outside. Hugo often quotes that you can’t fight fate. Up until a few months ago, I often wondered if he was cooking with gas. Fate brings people into your life, but it doesn’t keep them there. Now I have more understanding of his infamous motto. If Isabelle had arrived for our date, I wouldn’t have asked Hunter to do a background search on her, then Hugo wouldn’t have noted several identifiable features between Isabelle and Callie.

 

In all honesty, I don’t know what the next step will be when I win Callie. I just know buying her is the right thing to do.  

 

I slide into the back seat of my town car before slamming the door shut, blocking out the noise of a jackhammer. “What are they working on?” I ask Roger after wiggling my finger in my ear to loosen the squeal of the industrial equipment. “I thought Cormack put a hold on demolition work?” 

 

The evening Cormack spent the night with Harlow saw him getting a guilty conscience. After ordering Levi to end negotiations for Harlow’s bakery, he organized for the bakeries we had placed in direct competition of Harlow’s to be decommissioned, so I’m lost as to what altered his mindset for the second time?

 

I know better than anyone about the unforgiving mistakes men make when suffering a broken heart. However, I’ve always believed Cormack was the smarter half of our duo. I win with looks—not that he’d ever agree with that.

 

My eyes met Roger’s in the rearview mirror when he says, “A gas leak was reported this morning. A cracked pipe was discovered in an underground line. Hugo ordered excavation works.” 

 

Confident I’m happy with his reply, he commences our short yet tedious commute. I’m proud of the mecca Ravenshoe has become. It is a thriving community full of hardworking, pride-hungry residences, but I’d give anything not to need twenty minutes to travel a couple of miles.

 

Although I complain, I utilize the time well. I trade half a million dollars in stock, secure a contractor to commence refurbishments on the nightclub I purchased two months ago, and listen to a radio interview Nick and his bandmates did on the West Coast earlier today. Their journey to success has been long, but Nick is slowly learning that success isn’t simple but extremely worthwhile when done right.

 

“Here will be fine,” I say to Roger half a block out from Embers. The cars in front of us stretch for at least a quarter of a mile. It will be faster for me to walk. “I have an appointment with my real estate broker after this, so I will call when I need you.”

 

I smirk when Roger waves his hand over a stack of newspapers in the passenger seat. “I’ll be ready when you are.” If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear he is the town gossip.

 

I slide out of the backseat of my town car and make it half a block down before I’m harassed by a flirty, playful voice, “You have to cancel the cake orders before my ass explodes.”

 

I wait a beat so I don’t appear desperate before spinning around to face Isabelle. She’s standing on the sidewalk across from me, looking ravishing in a body-hugging pair of jeans, and a shirt that shows off her fantastic tits. Her hair is pulled up and off her face, and her makeup is light. She stands before now as temptingly enticing as she was when polished to perfection. 

 

I haven’t laid my eyes on her in person since our kiss. The desires I’ve struggled to rein in the past several months didn’t wane because of our kiss. They’re more furious than a wildfire. My time has merely been utilized fixing the injustices I made so there will be nothing standing in my way when it is time to make her mine.

 

My bed.

 

My house.

 

My rules.

 

Mine.

 

She will be mine because I’m too ruthless to accept any less. I just need to be patient.

 

It may very well kill me. 

 

While stepping off the curb, Isabelle says, “It was very sweet of you, but after only five days, the struggle to squeeze into my jeans is already real.”

 

My lips arch into a smile when the lowering of my hooded gaze to her snug jeans causes her knees to curve inward. Isabelle has sexual appeal by the bucket loads, but the fact she is unaware of how appealing she is makes her even more striking. 

 

After clearing the yearning from my voice, I say, “That just means there will be more Isabelle to explore.” 

 

As I touched on earlier, the morning following Isabelle’s birthday, I visited Harlow’s bakery. Although Hugo’s constant berating about me leaving the restaurant with Isabelle before she could sample her cake was frustrating me to the point of cracking, his riling didn’t fuel my motives that morning. I made mistakes the night of Isabelle’s birthday—many of them—and I am brave enough to admit that. Organizing for her to be gifted a personally crafted cupcake every day for a year was the commencement of me fixing the erroneous errors I’ve made thus far. 

 

The remaining items on my rapidly growing list will be far more extravagant. 

 

It’s the least I can do after making her cry on her special day.

 

For a woman tossed away and discarded like a broken doll, Isabelle’s smile when my compliment sinks in is immensely coy. Her uncle either succeeded in raising a well-adjusted woman or Isabelle is well-versed on keeping her guard up.

 

I’m not bothered on which one is a more accurate portrayal of her personality. I can break through either of them, or both, if necessary.

 

Just as Isabelle’s lips twitch, we’re interrupted by a snarky, yet trying to sound anything but a snarky voice. “Isaac, honey, are you going to introduce me to your friend?” Clara’s term of endearment isn’t new, but her public display of affection most certainly is. My jaw spasms when she cozies up to my side before resting her chin on my shoulder. She is usually a couple of inches shorter than me, but the pretentiously high stilettos she’s wearing makes us almost the same height.

 

After working my jaw side to side to ensure my words don't come out with the clipped command they generally yield, I offer an introduction. “Isabelle, this is Clara. Clara, this is Isabelle Brahn.”

 

I use Isabelle’s surname to remind her that superiority comes in many forms. Clara may be dressed to the nines, and the diamonds on the tennis bracelet circling her thin wrist could fund Isabelle’s retirement decades earlier than necessary, but a woman’s value isn’t appraised by what she wears. It is how she makes those around her feel. 

 

No one is above anyone.

 

No one is below anyone.

 

We all stand side by side.

 

Isabelle believes that. Clara isn’t close to understanding the metaphor. Just the spike in her pulse from staring at Isabelle is extremely telling, much less her delay in finalizing my greeting. She initiated the greeting, so shouldn’t she finish it?

 

It takes me nudging Clara with my elbow for her to recognize she is the cause of the stuffy rigidness of our exchange. She swallows to clear her throat before extending her hand to Isabelle in greeting. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Isabelle.”  Her tone is as regal as she thinks she is. The McGregors aren’t royalty, but the funds in their multiple bank accounts could purchase them more than a few castles. 

 

After an awkward handshake, and an even more uncomfortable bout of silence, Isabelle says, “Well, I better get going.” She swivels on the spot before locking her eyes with mine. They’re brimming with unease, but there is something much more significant than nerves keeping them lit. It could be playfulness, tranquility, or lust. I can’t pick between the three. I settle on happy when she adds, “I just wanted to thank you for the gift, although it was completely unnecessary.” 

 

Her smile assures me she would have been just as grateful to have received a handmade trinket. The thought makes me smile. Since it is a rarity these days, Isabelle isn’t the only one taking notice. If Clara gawks at me any more rigidly, her vision will suffer irreparable damage. 

 

Unlike Clara’s greeting, Isabelle’s farewell is far more amicable. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Clara.”

 

Never one to back down from what she wrongly believes is a fight, Clara impedes Isabelle’s wish to flee with an invitation. “Oh, don’t go. Can’t you join us?” 

 

When Isabelle spins back around to face us, Clara silently begs for her to deny her offer, to deny me. 

 

I do the exact opposite. 

 

I’m fascinated to see how she will thrive outside of the norm, but I want it to be via her own choice. From what I’ve learned of her family the past five days, I doubt many things she’s done has been of her own accord.  

 

I wipe the yearning expression from my face before Clara can see it when Isabelle replies, “Thank you for the offer, but I’m slightly underdressed.” 

 

When she glides her hand down her skin-tight jeans, I permit my eyes to follow its descend. I don’t stop at her jeans, though. I drink in her fitted blouse with the top two buttons teasingly undone, the thin necklace on her delicate neck, and the slightest hue of pink on her cheeks my wanton gaze caused. She is ravishing, and I’m not a man who holds back a deserved compliment. “You look perfectly fine.” 

 

Isabelle tries to hide my smile when the recollection of the last time I spoke those exact words to her sounded through her ears. She woefully fails. A touch of a smile graces her lips when she turns down my invitation with the maturity of a woman much older than her. “Thank you. But I have to return to work.” 

 

With her eyes exposing the honesty of her reply, I bow out of the contest with a curt nod of my head. You win some and you lose some, but as long as your objectives remain strong, you can always fight another day.

 

After waiting for Isabelle to enter Harlow’s bakery, I gesture for Clara to continue toward the restaurant she made a reservation at earlier this week. She watches me staring in the direction Isabelle went for several long seconds before she eventually pushes off with a huff. “You’ve always been known for your charity work, Isaac.”

 

Although her statement is authentic, I board multiple charities both in the United States and aboard, my jaw still tightens with annoyance. She wasn’t referencing the millions of dollars I donate each year. She was ridiculing Isabelle. The recognition has me wanting to cancel our plans immediately. I wouldn’t hesitate if Cormack weren’t my closest confidant. Instead, I remember that love is not about possessions or what the other half brings to the table. It is about appreciation and the freedom to feel without fear of prosecution. 

 

“No, thank you,” I say to the maître D attempting to take my coat upon arrival at Embers. “I do not intend to stay long.”

 

My reply falters Clara’s stride, but it does little to settle her barefaced expression.  So many people in the world grow up believing they are owed something. Whether time, appreciation, or respect, they fail to understand that they’re not automatic givens. Clara is one of those people. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth before it was cruelly ripped out by the same man who shoved it in there, but instead of endeavoring to process the reason for her father’s arrogant superiority, she has spent the last several years recreating his footsteps, unaware that the more she tries to emulate him, the further she pushes her siblings away.

 

When we arrive at our table, I unbutton my suit jacket before taking a seat. “I have a meeting with my real estate broker after this, so I can’t stay long.”

 

Clara is far too regal to let someone brush her off with the tactless excuse I just used. “Would that have been the case if Isabelle had accepted my invitation?” When she sees the truth in my eyes, she tsks me. “I don’t understand, Isaac. Love is not a renovation show. You have far more to lose than a dodgy rebuild.”

 

 

After hitting her with a stern glare, warning her she’s stepping over the line, I signal for the waiter to fill my cup with steamy hot brew. I need something in my hands to stop them from balling, and since it’s too early for whiskey, I must rely on coffee.

 

Clara places her hand over her mug before the waiter can add creamer or sugar, then shoos him away with a wave of her hand. The baguette diamonds in her tennis bracelet bounce rainbow hues across the table when she brings forward the storm clouds that usually precede rainbows. “You have no reason to feel threatened about an equal counterpart, Isaac. No rules state that the rich can only pursue the poor. Even your mother agrees with me.”

 

“You’ve been speaking with my mother?” My words are more growls than the punchy reply I was aiming for.

 

Clara takes a sip out of her coffee before nodding her head. “Of course. She’s rather concerned about you. As am I. We’ve never seen you like this. You’re usually more controlled, rational, and—”

 

“Miserable?” I interrupt, my tone clipped. I haven’t spoken to my mother in months, so I’m not only pissed to be the focal point of her conversation with Clara, I am also downright frustrated. 

 

“If misery means being respected, revered, and admired, then yes, miserable.” Clara rolls her eyes as if I am acting as childish as she is. “Look at the attention you have now. Every eye in the room is on you, both male and female, yet you only acknowledge the ones not worthy of your time.”

 

When I stand to my feet, needing to leave before I show her I still have the vicious tongue she so desperately craves, her hand shoots out to seize my wrist. She doesn’t apologize, withdraw her comment, or plead for forgiveness; she clutches onto the one thing she knows will never leave me—my remorse. “I’m being evicted from my apartment in New York at the end of next month. Sophia’s medical bills are outside of my means, so I fell short on my last couple of payments. Your mother helped me with the legal ramifications as much as she could...” She bats her eyes at me. “Then she suggested I reach out to you.”

 

Sophia is the younger sister of Victor Remy, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks Clara once loved. He was killed in a motorbike accident not long after Clara’s eighteenth birthday party. The horrific accident saw Remy’s sister placed into an induced coma. On the agreement that Clara followed her father’s rule book to the wire, her father funded Sophia’s medical expenses. 

 

When Clara’s grandfather died, and the Attwood family fortune was left to Cormack instead of Clara’s father, he cut off all ‘unnecessary expenses.’ That included Sophia’s medical expenses.

 

Back then, my money was tightly controlled by locked-in investments, so I had no choice but to suggest for Clara to reach out to Cormack for help. As far as I was aware, Cormack stepped up to the plate, so I’m a little lost as to why Clara is struggling. Cormack is exceptionally generous with the allowances he assigns his siblings. If they were reasonable with their spending, they wouldn’t need to work a day in their lives.  

 

After taking in Clara’s tennis bracelet for the third time this morning, I ask, “I thought Cormack was helping?”

 

While licking her red painted lips, Clara folds her right hand over the expensive luxury circling her left wrist. “He was.” She waits a beat. I’m unsure if the delay is to get her story straight or to weaken the croakiness hindering her usually smooth voice. It may be a combination of both. “But I’ve been doing it on my own the past couple of years.” All isn’t forgotten about her earlier comments, but I do respect her when she says, “Remy’s accident was my fault, so it’s my responsibility to make sure his sister is taken care of.”

 

“Remy was involved in a traffic accident, Clara. It was no one’s fault.” Since Victor was also Remy’s father’s name, everyone called Remy by his middle name.

 

Clara peers up at me with her big blue eyes out in full force. They’re glossed with tears, but she’ll never let them fall. I haven’t seen her cry once in the years I’ve known her. “I could say the same to you, Isaac.”

 

I could argue that our loses are vastly contradicting, Remy died three weeks after his fight with Clara, Ophelia died the same night as ours, but the last time we had a conversation like this, it went for over two hours and ended when Clara attempted to kiss me. It was fortunate even in the woes of remorse, my astuteness was very much present that evening. Clara’s lip didn’t get to within an inch of mine before it dawned on me what she was hoping to achieve. She handled my rejection well; then the following morning blamed it on the wine she had consumed at dinner. Things have been somewhat amicable between us since then.  

 

After squeezing my hand, Clara switches our heated conversation to a plea, “I wouldn’t ask this of you if I had anyone else to turn to.”

 

“Cormack has been a little tough on you in the past, Clara, but I don’t see him ever leaving you defenseless. It isn’t in his DNA.”

 

I retake my seat so we don’t create a scene when Clara notches her voice up a couple of decibels. “But he doesn’t understand what we’ve been through, Isaac. Nobody understands what we’ve been through. The grief. The remorse. The inability to move on with only half a heart.” She gives me an all too familiar look before adding, “It isn’t easy putting yourself out there for scrutiny when you don’t recognize the person staring back at you in the mirror.” When she scoots her chair closer to mine, we gain even more nosey gawkers. “I’m only myself around you because you understand why my insides aren’t as shiny as my outsides. That I’ve been hurt more than I’ve been loved. Everyone else sees a shell, Isaac. An empty, hollow shell.”

 

I hate how easily she can read me, how she can tug on my heartstrings like no one else, but I also wouldn’t wish what we’ve been through onto my worst enemy. Anger is easier to express than grief. It’s a cloak that protects you from the hurt, bitterness, and fear that comes with loss. But eventually, you have to recognize it for what it truly is. 

 

Anger is grief. 

 

I’m only just learning that. 

 

Clara still has a little way to go.

 

With that in mind, and against my better judgment, I speak four words Clara has been dying to hear from me for years, “What do you need?”

 

xx

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