I weave through thousands of commuters, both amused and frustrated. I am more than happy to fly commercial if Regan and her baby sister, Raquel, get back to Texas before Raquel delivers, but my usually impenetrable façade feels on the verge of fracturing this evening. Raquel looks nothing like Ophelia, my girlfriend who was in a horrific accident the same night she told me she loved me for the first time, however, I can’t help but wonder what would have occurred if she wasn’t involved in the fatal collision that claimed her life. Would the child she forewarned about the night I fought her brother in an underground fight ring have my gray eyes or her baby blues? Would its hair have been as dark as a stormy sky or as mousy as a mouse? And would it have been a boy or a girl?
So many questions need answering, but not only do I have an inability to ask them, more than my reputation would be on the line if I did. Ophelia was the daughter of an infamous old-school gangster. Although Col Petretti’s ‘family’ no longer has the nobility it once did, they’re still well-known amongst the riffraff in my home state. They run drugs, weapons, and if the information Hunter, my head of security, unearthed the past three months is accurate, women and children in the towns bordering mine. I say bordering because, despite Col’s best efforts, I have never worked with him. I will never work for him. I only fought in his underground fight circuit to amass the capital needed to start my empire. I invested every cent I earned in the once-a-week fights in my college days. Now I have more money than anyone thought possible, and I’m only twenty-seven years old, although I feel more weathered today. It isn’t every day the baby sister of your lawyer goes into labor weeks early.
My impressive bank balances would have most people believing I can slow down my business endeavors and the aging process that will have me in the grave before I turn sixty. I wholeheartedly disagree with them. My businesses are all I live for. I eat, breathe, and sleep for my empire. They keep my competitive streak well-nourished while ensuring my family never goes without… if they’d accept my help.
My mother has no qualms taking my money. Her husband is a partner at a successful plastic surgery practice in Miami, but my motto ‘never enough’ was bestowed from my mother. She could have a 20-carat diamond dangling off her thin neck but would pout if she saw someone with a 20.1-carat diamond.
My father, on the other hand, is so goddamn stubborn, he’d rather live in a Hicksville town instead of one of my penthouses in a forever-growing metropolis, and Nick, my little brother I want to strangle more times than I want to nurture, is following our father’s footsteps. I’ve always encouraged him to find success for himself, and he is on the pinnacle of stardom with his band, Rise Up, but not everyone has what it takes to get bloody and bruised for a bit of coin. Nick would run from a fight before he’d ever glove up for one.
While smirking about my brother’s belief the only thing in desperate need of a pounding is women, I return Hugo’s text message. He’s the equivalent of Hunter to my team, he just brings additional brawn instead of a computerized brain. Don’t misconstrue. Hugo isn’t stupid by any means, he’s just too wired to sit behind a computer twenty-four-seven. He likes to get his hands dirty in more ways than one. If he has a grudge, you’ll know about it. Just like if he can rile you about something, you’ll be well aware of that too. Since he’s with me more than anyone, that somewhat irritable trait occurs more often to me than anyone else.
I freeze just inside the domestic arrival terminal at JFK international airport when it dawns on me how insolent I’ve been. I hate reneging, it is one of my pet peeves, but I must take back what I said earlier. Clearly, Hugo is stupid. Only a man with the strength of a hundred has the gall to go against me, and even then, he won’t win. My reputation is fierce for a reason. You won’t believe the shams some people have tried to pull on me. Women are usually the worst.
Take now, for example. I’ve barely stopped for a second when a flurry of dark, stormy locks smack into my face, and a mere second after that, the hair’s owner darts past me.
Since one of my hands is wrapped around my cell phone, and the other is shoved in the pocket of my business trousers—an obvious stay-the-fuck-away-from-me stance for anyone who travels often—I don’t have the chance to impede the brunette’s tumble to the floor. It’s for the best, with the news my flight is fully booked out, my mood is sour. I stopped flying commercial over three years ago. Being stuck on a seven-hour flight with a woman who believed rubbing plant leaves under her armpits would discount the copious amount of garlic-laced food she consumes each day is enough to scare anyone into buying their own fleet of aircraft.
Here’s a hint, leaf deodorant doesn’t work. It’s like all fads—overused, under-trialed, and out of fashion within a month.
When a hiss of pain whizzes from below, I’m tempted to sidestep the woman vying for my attention with the savage of a cavewoman, but something holds me back. I want to say it’s because my father raised me better, but that would be a lie. He did raise me right, and he is the reason I’m as successful as I am, but there’s something greater at play here, and it isn’t solely coming from my side of the duo. Tension is bristling in the air. It is as perverse as the energy that surrounds me when I prep for a fight. I’m in for a battle, but I just have no idea how extreme it will be.
Needing to break the ice before my vacillating moods get the best of me, I say, “I’m used to people falling at my feet, but not quite as undignified as that.” My tone is as commanding as ever, but there’s also a dash of amused truth behind it. I wasn’t lying when I said people fall to my feet. It’s as regular as an alcoholic adding a nip of whiskey to their morning coffee.
As the brunette’s chest rises and falls in sync with the thudding pulse in her neck, she raises her eyes to mine. I almost take a step back, mesmerized by the darkness of her dilated gaze. You could almost say her eyes are as dark as death, but they’re too attractive to associate with something so gory, so I’ll settle on something more enticing and sweeter by saying they’re the color of rich chocolate.
She has an almost tulip-shaped nose, full, kissable lips, and the brow not arched as she scans my body is being brushed by lashes only coated with the slightest bit of mascara. Her clothes are casual yet enticing since they hug her curves, and her hair almost touches her tiny waist.
She is very attractive, which is odd for me to admit since I haven’t sought a single familiarity with Ophelia during my greedy assessment of her form. Usually, similarities with my deceased girlfriend are the first thing I seek. That isn’t occurring this time around. Until I considered the rarity of me not hunting familiarities, Ophelia’s brown locks, blue eyes, and angelic face weren’t in my head at all, and their pop-in now doesn’t linger for long.
They vanish as swiftly as the brunette’s belief the shock on my face is displeasure about our contrasting sense of style. My six-foot-one frame is clad in a tailor-made three-piece suit. She’s wearing faded sweats.
Her choice of outfit doesn’t make her any less appealing, though. If anything, it has the opposite effect. She’s too mortified with embarrassment for me to ever believe her tumble was a ruse to secure my attention, and her outfit all but confirms my beliefs. If she were out to impress me, she wouldn’t have worn lint-riddled clothes.
Not even someone as confident as Theresa Veneto would give that a whirl, and she thinks the sun shines out of her ass. It’s an exasperating trait of anyone in law enforcement. Instead of enforcing the law, they often mistake themselves as lawmakers. Theresa is the worst of the worst, but since the unnamed brunette is scampering herself up from the floor, that’s a story for another day. My father will lecture me for hours on end if the morals he drummed into me from birth aren’t launched into action immediately.
With the heat on her cheeks as warm as the blood tracking through my veins, the brunette’s footing is a little unsteady when I curl my hand around her elbow to aid her back onto her feet. I’m barely touching her, but the zap that roars up my arm redirects the blood pumping through my heart to my cock. His response to the attention of a beautiful woman is nothing out of the ordinary, but my lack of worry about his eagerness most certainly is.
This will sound conceited because it is, but I don’t prowl for dates, nor do I wine and dine the women who occupy my bed. I’m honest about what I want, fuck if they agree to my unbreakable no-strings-attached clause, then I leave the task of kicking out my ‘bed companions’ to my housekeeper slash PA, Catherine. Women are merely a vessel for me to get off on.
I’m not sensing the same one-and-done perception now. I don’t even know if this brunette is single, but for some stupid reason, I’m plotting ways to ensure she can only respond to her relationship status in one way.
It is crazy for me to think this way. I’ve only experienced this type of madness once before in my life, and it didn’t have the all-encompassing impulses it does this time around. I chased Ophelia like I had nothing to lose because, back then, I didn’t. I can’t say the same this time around. It feels like more than my reputation is on the line.
That doesn’t mean I’ll sit back and watch, though.
You don’t get fearless unless you’re willing to face your fears head-on.
While breathing out a quick “Thank you,” the brunette glances down at the contents of her bag that burst open during our collision. It has all the items Regan refuses to travel without, but every man cringes while purchasing—lip gloss, an e-reader full of steamy romance novels, empty chocolate wrappers, and the very cause of my cock’s demise, a half-empty box of tampons.
There goes my inflight entertainment.
Is it pretentious of me to assume a beautiful stranger would change her plans solely for me and my raging libido? Not if you are as cocky as me. Furthermore, Isabelle’s boarding pass reveals she’s traveling to the town everyone considers mine, and now that I have the credentials needed to bump her flight from economy to business class, my odds are even more improved.
The knowledge she is on her period should alter my plan of attack, but what can I say, success doesn’t come to those who back down. She has sparked an interest in me. Is it more than a mutual attraction? I don’t know, but since I have the means to find out, I don’t need to summarize. I can fact-check.
In an endeavor to show her I’m not the arrogant prick my smirk has been portraying the past two minutes, I bob down to gather up her belongings. Since she’s just as eager to collect her things, our mutual swan dive causes our heads to knock together.
I curse out loud. “Fuck.”
Her swear word is seen in her eyes when her hand shoots up to caress her head.
I thought I’ve been single the past six years by choice. I had no clue it was because my dating skills are as rusty as the many cabs lining the departure gates of this airport.
While the mysterious stranger makes her way to the plastic chairs stretching from one end of JFK to the other, I gather up her belongings as I tried earlier. Once I have them placed back into a satchel that should be burned since it’s so hideously ugly, I join her at the side of the bustling terminal. My stalk across the room doesn’t go unnoticed. Not only is the ravened-haired beauty eyeing my arrogant strut, so are several other female admirers. My father forever encouraged me to dress for success. I started listening to him when I realized the ladies appreciate it even more than the men I was wheeling and dealing with.
After placing her satchel onto the empty seat next to her, I pinch the pleat in my trousers and drop down so we’re eye to eye. My closeness allows me to take in her features with more diligence. Her looks are enchanting, and her scent has me under a trance in less than a second.
“Are you okay?” I drag my teeth over my lower lip to hide my smirk at her response to my voice. Some may say she’s shuddering like she would if she was beneath me. I’m not so inclined to agree. Her response to my deep tone barely scratched the tip off the iceberg. She’ll do more than quiver when she’s beneath me. I’ll ruin her for any other man.
When she nods, assuring me she is fine, I run my finger across the angry red bump already forming above her brow. Her response to my touch is even more invigorating than the one she released after hearing me talk for the first time. It has me not wanting to take my hands off her. Alas, even someone as self-assured as me has to act unaffected while crouched in front of a stranger.
After holding two fingers in the air, I ask, “How many fingers am I holding up?”
Her smile makes her even more attractive. It almost feels like a reward, like my chivalry is already reaping benefits. “Two.”
Struggling not to smile as wide as she is, I continue my paramedic ruse. Raquel would be proud some of her skills rubbed off on me. She’s not a paramedic, just an up-and-coming surgical prodigy who’s taken a couple of weeks off to have a baby. “What’s your name?”
Like it could get any bigger, her smile grows. “Isabelle.”
It is clear she is finding my endeavor to act gentlemanly as humorous as Hugo would if he were here. Although I’m popular with the ladies, I’m not once I’ve had my fill. There aren’t many women willing to accept a one-night stand, and the handful who are usually change their mind once the deed has been done.
I’m not bragging. I am merely being honest.
Once I’ve returned Isabelle’s stare long enough I’m certain she isn’t concussed, I say, “I don’t think you have a concussion, but you need to ice it as a bump is already forming.”
She shoos away my worry with the quickest wave of her hand. “I’m fine, really.”
Not a man who takes no for an answer, I stand to my feet before holding out my hand for Isabelle. Some of the biggest investments I’ve made in the past four years were ones I was told I would never get. You must thrive for what you want, and for some unknown reason, I want Isabelle. Not just in my bed. I want to unearth why she’s sparked such a fierce fascination out of me. She’s beautiful, but there’s more to her than her pouty lips and tempting body. I’m so confident about my assessment, I’d swear on my nonna’s grave. That isn’t something I do lightly.
When Isabelle places her hand into mine, albeit a little more hesitantly than I would have hoped, I snatch up her satchel before making a beeline for the bar/restaurant that caters for business class clients at JFK. It is a privately run establishment branched outside of the airport industry, and I am its owner.
Although I dabble in the occasional foreign trades on the stock market, clubs, bars, nightclubs, and real estate are my go-to investments. They’ve netted me a lot of funds the past few years, and my establishments are dotted across the globe.
My brutal pace slows a few steps away from the frosted glass door when Isabelle takes more steps back than she does forward. We share the same air when I abruptly crank my neck to face her. She is so exquisite up close, I exhale a rushed breath that she promptly gobbles up.
When I arch a brow, wordlessly demanding an explanation for her tug on the reins, she waves the hand I’m not clutching to the bar. “I can’t go in there.”
The many ways I can kill a man with my bare hands enter my mind when I attempt to work out the reason behind her rejection. She could be one of those wives who refuse to wear a ring. Or maybe the soft cock she’s dating hasn’t stepped up to the plate yet and asked her to marry him. Whatever it is, her excuse will be null and void within days of her blurting it out, if not hours. Whether business or personal, I don’t join any game I do not intend to win. I signed up for this battle the instant I peered down at Isabelle sprawled on the floor, and I intend to come away with the championship trophy.
My ego gets checked when Isabelle murmurs, “I’m underdressed.”
I have no reason to consider her objection, half the people surrounding her are dressed worse than her, but since it gives me an excuse to drink in her curves without portraying a pervert, I go for it.
It is an entertaining thirty or so seconds, only growing more appealing when I return my eyes to Isabelle’s face and say matter-of-factly, “You look perfectly fine.”
Her smile is every man’s undoing. I guarantee it without a doubt. There’s only one thing that will triumph it, but since it is unkosher to kiss a stranger, I’ll have to seek proof for that at a later stage. For now, I recommence my quick strides to the business class lounge, smirking a greeting to the doorman when he welcomes me by name. I rarely use this airstrip. I prefer less-occupied locations to take off, but I’m a very hands-on businessman. If I own it, you can feel my trademark all over it. Even something as simple as an airport bar has a risky, seductive edge.
The empty wrappers in Isabelle’s satchel make sense when I lift her to sit on one of the many empty high-backed barstools nestled around the bar. Her breath is more chocolatey than minty. I’m disappointed there isn’t as many clientele seated around the bar as I would like, but with the hour being close to dinner, it makes sense. Not everyone considers a glass of whiskey as the equivalent to a piece of steak and vegetables.
After ensuring Isabelle is comfortably seated, I snatch up a napkin at my side, fill it with ice cubes, then press it to the welt on her forehead. “Hold that.”
Once she has everything under control, I lean back over the counter to gather two crystal glasses from a wire rack before signaling Jamie to bring me a bottle of top-shelf whiskey. Although amused at my impromptu medical station, he does as requested quickly. He’s used to seeing me with a woman on my arm, he just isn’t accustomed to me fussing over her like I am Isabelle. Furthermore, the women I usually date are blonde.
I dip my chin in thanks to Jamie before gesturing for him to fuck off with a stern glare. Once he’s out of earshot, I pour two doubles of whiskey into the glasses, then spin to face Isabelle. Her eyes are holding the same amused sparkle Jamie’s were, but she also looks confused.
“It will help with your headache,” I explain to her shocked expression, using the first excuse that popped into my head.
I down my shot before encouraging Isabelle to do the same. She appears hesitant, but within a nanosecond of my tongue delving out to make sure I didn’t miss a drop of liquid on my lips, she tosses back her shot like she isn’t a novice to drinking hard liquor.
Her ruse would be more effective if she didn’t grimace through the brutal wheeze of her lungs. It’s clear her throat is on fire, but she slams down the glass onto the glossed countertop before raising her bloodshot eyes to mine.
“Another?” I steal her chance to reply before refilling her glass to the tip, then sliding it to her side of the bar. Since my serving is as generous as my bank accounts will forever be for my family, whiskey sloshes over the rim.
It glistens on the clear varnish as adeptly as Isabelle’s eyes when she asks, “Are you trying to get me drunk, Mr. Holt?”
I’ve always loved my name, but she just catapulted my affection to a new level. Her throat is still burning, so my name came out husky and raw, and it has me imagining how it would sound when she screams it in the midst of ecstasy.
Needing confirmation the tension teeming between us isn’t one-sided, I ask, “Would it make it easier to get into your panties?”
The veins in her neck throb as her pupils dilate, giving me the exact response I was aiming for, meaning it kills me to say, “I’m joking.”
Only during our intense staredown did it dawn on me that I’ll need more than an hour-and-a-half flight home to get my fill of Isabelle. If her pussy tastes anything like I’m imagining, I may even need a few days.
Isabelle throws a stack of wood onto the pile in my stomach when she sighs a disappointed sigh. She doesn’t seem like the type of woman to throw herself to the wolves like she just did, she is merely surprised about our immediate connection.
I’m just as stunned. Warning signs are flashing, advising me to slow down. It’s understandable. With how fast we’re racing for the finish line, if I don’t pump the brakes, we’ll get into a wreck.
Recollection of the last time I had thoughts like this force us into a long bout of silence. I’ve always been a little cocky, and rarely do I feel remorse, but those traits are nonexistent when it comes to the regrets of my past. Deceased girlfriends have a way of fucking with your head, but when you throw in the possibility she was pregnant with your child when she died, it wholeheartedly destroys any chance of you moving on without guilt.
The remorse eating me alive gets a moment of reprieve almost ten minutes later. The napkin I used to make an ice bag for Isabelle’s bump has disintegrated, leaving large smears of black in its wake. Not thinking, I lick the pad of my thumb before lifting it to Isabelle’s face. I’ve barely rubbed away the smudge when a scent unlike anything I’ve ever smelled teems into my nostrils. It is a sweet, honeysuckle smell that reminds me of cotton candy on a hot summer’s afternoon.
When I stray my eyes to Isabelle, certain the smell is coming from her, the scent I’m sucking down like an addict doubles. Her erotic smell causes my unusually impenetrable shield to crack. It has me willing to risk everything just for the chance to sample it one more time, but before I can, the shrill of my cell phone breaks the uncomfortable silence shrouding us.
I almost send my caller’s call to voicemail, then I remember if I had trusted my intuition the night Ophelia died, things could have turned out starkly different than they did. I honestly don’t know if we would still be together now if she hadn’t died, we lived separate lives more than any couple I knew, but I would have preferred for our relationship to end any other way than it did. It was brutal and solely my fault.
With my mood snappy, so is my tone when I drag my cell phone out of my pocket and press it to my ear. “Yes.”
My already nosediving temperament dips even lower when the humored voice of Hugo booms out of my phone’s speaker, “Hunter said you needed some pointers. Wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.”
As my eyes snap to the camera dome in the corner of the bar, aware that is most likely the cause of Hugo’s spying, Isabelle shifts hers to my watch. Her already massively dilated eyes expand a few more millimeters before she slips off her barstool. “Thank you for your assistance, but I must go, or I’ll miss my flight.”
When she snatches her satchel off the countertop, my brain screams at me to let her go. My life is as complicated as it gets, so bringing in a stranger is the worst thing I could possibly do, but for the life of me, I can’t let her go. It could be arrogance, hell, it may even be stupidity, but it honestly feels right when my hand shoots out to snag her wrist before she can get two steps away from me.
Relief softens Isabelle’s features before worry takes hold. She’s as uneased as me, which once again has me pushing on the brakes. I don’t slam my foot down as I did earlier. I merely apply the slightest amount of pressure that will see us coming out of the wreck we’re veering toward with perhaps a scar or two instead of total disfigurement.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Isabelle licks her dry lips before bobbing her head, genuinely thankful for the sincerity in my tone. “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.”
I take a few moments to count the frantic quiver of her pulse before letting her go, aware she may have won our first battle, but I will utterly annihilate the second round.
Nobody enjoys a knockout in the first round—not even someone as cocky as me.
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