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Birds chirp in the distance as the angry honk of commuters grows louder with each second I stand at the tinted window in my office, waiting for Isabelle to arrive. It’s been two weeks since she brushed away the tear high on her cheek. That’s also how long it’s been since I saw her. She still runs every morning. She just no longer detours past my nightclub. Hugo assures me it’s because her work schedule is too heavy for her to run over an hour each day, but I suspect there’s more at play than he’s letting on.
Normally, I can read Hugo like a book. I haven’t partaken in the skill for the past six weeks. He’s been as evasive as Hunter, and I’d be a dishonest crook if I said it wasn’t grating my last nerve.
My inner circle is tight for a reason. One loose thread will unravel my entire operation and the chances of that occurring increases when my astuteness slips for the third time this week.
After sliding my cell phone out of my pocket, I dial a well-used number. Hugo answers a couple of rings later. “Boss…” He sounds breathless, like he’s running. It has me hopeful my unexpected sleep-in this morning didn’t lose me the opportunity of scrutinizing Isabelle from afar today. “Isaac…” Now he sounds straight-up worried. It’s understandable. I’m not known for my patience.
I cough to clear my throat of infuriating nerves before asking, “What time does Isabelle break for lunch?”
I can’t see Hugo, but I picture him slanting his head and raising his brow when the thuds of his feet are switched for fast, sharp breaths. “A little before one. Why?”
Happy to let him stew, I disconnect our call before moving back to my desk. I have a stack of paperwork to take care of and only eight hours to do it because if I have it my way, Isabelle will be mine by the end of today.
“Welcome to Harlow’s Scrumptious Haven. How can I help you…” The auburn-haired female serving behind the counter at the bakery Isabelle frequents every day for lunch swallows down the remainder of her greeting with a hearty gulp.
Her response to her eyes landing on my face is nothing out of the ordinary. Women have a thing for men in tailored suits. Then, when you add my eye coloring's uniqueness into the mix, they’re practically puddy in my hands.
Well, everyone but Isabelle.
I haven’t had to work this hard in years, and even now, minutes away from making a fool of myself, I’m still not convinced I should. I wouldn’t be here if Hugo’s suggestion for me to take a step back didn’t cause Isabelle to increase the distance between us by a hundred. I knew I was on her mind when she stopped by my office each morning. Now, I have no clue if I pop into her thoughts as often as she does mine.
“I’m sorry,” the bakery staff apologizes while running her hand down her flour-dusted apron. “But don’t you own a restaurant a couple of blocks from here?”
My lips quirk. She’s smarter than she looks. Don’t misconstrue; she doesn’t represent the docile women who usually endeavor to warm my sheets. Her smarts just aren’t hazed enough by my looks to have her speechless. “I do own a restaurant near here. Many of them—”
“Then why are you here?” she interrupts, her hip cocking as efficiently as her manicured brow. “Nothing on my menu is over ten dollars, so I doubt I’d have anything of interest for you…” Her words trail off for the second time, except this time, interest doesn’t soften her features. It hardens them. “As I told your associate this morning, I’m not interested in selling. This business has been in my family for years, and it will remain in my family. I don’t care how enticing your offer is.” The confidence in her tone would be more convincing if the sigh of a woman struggling to stay afloat didn’t rumble in her chest. She’s drowning; she just refuses to acknowledge it.
“I’m not here to place an offer on your business.” I have staff who handle the acquisition of assets on my behalf, so I’d never rock up to place a bid uninvited. “I’m here to have lunch.”
“Oh…” She doesn’t look like she believes me. However, since she seems to issue trust as readily as she serves her customers diabetes, she keeps things amicable. “Then what can I get you? We have premade sandwiches in the deli section. Warm pies if you’re seeking something a little sweeter, or you can make a beeline for heart attack alley by eating cupcakes for tea. The choice is yours.”
“Umm…” Considering I haven’t eaten since breakfast, this is the last thing I should order. “I’ll have a mug of coffee with cream and sweetener, please.”
She’s quick to clear away the disappointment on her face. “Coffee. Great. Was that eat in or take away?”
Ignoring the snip of sarcasm in her tone, I reply, “Eat in.” I nudge my head to a stack of newspapers at our side. “Are they free?” I’ve already caught up on the gossip circulating in my town today, but I need something to take the edge off the heated stares directed my way the past five minutes. Harlow’s bakery is at barely twenty-percent capacity, but the lack of clientele hasn’t dampened the heat of her customers' wanton gawks.
“Yes, they’re free. Help yourself.” The auburn-haired lady snickers at me as if I’m cheap before she moves to the coffee machine at the side to prepare my wallet breaking order. “Take a seat. I’ll bring your order to your table.”
I dip my chin in thanks before straying my eyes across the establishment. Even with it not being fitted to my tastes, I can admit it has a funky, retro vibe that some clientele would appreciate.
After snatching up a recent copy of Ravenshoe news, I move for a table near the window. It’s warm out today, but the view out the window will be worth the glare, most particularly if I get to drink in Isabelle in her natural habitat.
I enjoy my favorable spot for approximately thirty-seconds before I realize my stupidity. Even an establishment like a bakery can have an uptick in sales when it attracts the right clientele. I barely perused the paper's financial section when the three tables surrounding mine are filled with bottoms. The women swarming me like vultures don’t pay the menu any attention. I doubt they even know the products listed since they’re too busy batting their lashes at me.
“I’ll take my coffee at the back,” I say to the bakery staff when she arrives at my table with my order.
Once again, she’s quick to shut down the disappointment on her face. She just isn’t quite fast enough for a man with my level of astuteness. “Are you sure there isn’t something else I can get you?” she queries after placing down the mug brimming with freshly prepared brew onto my new table. “We have a selection of celiac products if you’re gluten-free.”
I toss my head back and laugh, doubling the number of patrons in her establishment within the blink of an eye. I’m not laughing at her assumption that I’m on a gluten-free diet. I’m chuckling at the way she screws up her nose while mentioning the gluten-free range of products she has for sale. She has the same look of disgust Isabelle had when we were served roast pumpkin, spinach, and feta salad during our flight.
Once my laughter settles down, I say, “I’m not celiac. I am waiting for someone to arrive.”
“Oh.” She looks on the verge of peeing her pants with excitement. “Okay. Great. Well, if you need anything in the meantime, shout my name.” She pushes aside the long ponytail draped down one side of her chest to reveal her name tag. “My name is Harlow.” After sheepishly waving her hand around the no-longer dormant space, she adds, “I kinda own this place.”
“Kind of?” I reply, curious. Her name is on the door, her products are in the cabinets, so why isn’t she claiming ownership as she rightfully should?
After placing down my bill that shows I owe a whooping three dollars and fifty cents for my coffee, she mumbles. “I inherited the bakery from my Aunt. I’ve been trying to wrangle it out of the red since then, but I’m not quite there just yet.”
“All businesses take time,” I say before I can stop myself. Even with having no patience, I’m as generous with my knowledge as I am my bank accounts. “Has a financial advisor looked at your books?”
Her first downfall is exposed when she sheepishly shakes her head. Those who despise talking about money usually don’t have any.
“My financial advisor isn’t taking new clients at the moment, but if you tell him I sent you, he may squeeze you in.” After digging a business card for Jeremy Klost out of my wallet, I hand it to Harlow. “But be warned, you can frost up the books as much as you like to make them presentable, but Jeremy will see straight past it. If this ship is sinking, he won’t suggest you buy an oar. He may tell you to jump ship.”
It’s sporadic for me to admire a stranger. Still, I do Harlow when she raises her chin while saying, “Even a man with a 2.325 million-dollar Serpico y Laino Gold Patek Philippe wristwatch knows the captain always goes down with the ship.”
With a smile that exposes she appreciates the shock on my face, Harlow pivots on her heels and stalks away. My watch is so exclusive, not even Regan could guess the closing price when I purchased it at a Christie’s auction last year, so I’m stunned a humble baker would be aware.
After forcing the sleeve of my suit jacket over my expensive timepiece, I unfold the newspaper Harlow placed next to my coffee before immersing myself into a world of politics and financial stakes that would make most men’s eyes water. I even skim past the entertainment section to see if Nick’s band has scored a mention. Since Delilah’s focus is no longer directed at derailing the bandmates' personal lives, Rise Up has gained a dedicated group of fans the past two weeks.
I’m so deep into a sports article about a local fighter climbing the UFC rankings, it takes me a few seconds to realize the rush of adrenaline sluicing my veins isn’t from recognizing the fighter’s name. It’s solely centered on Isabelle’s thirty-minutes-late arrival at the bakery.
Even peering at her through a single pane of glass didn’t do her unique features justice. Her cupid’s bow lips are plumper in person. The heavy tint on the glass doesn’t weaken the richness of her eyes, and the hue that adorns her cheeks when she realizes she has captured my attention wouldn’t have occurred if I were still watching her from afar. She is truly fascinating, and she has my shrewdness precariously dangling on a cliff edge.
As the customers filling almost every inch of the bakery floor soak up the current teeming between us, I fold my paper in half before placing it next to my now-empty coffee mug. I watch Isabelle’s exchange with Harlow, curious as to if things are strictly business between them. They seem friendly, but Harlow seems like the type who’d be friends with anyone, so my assumption could be inaccurate.
Once Isabelle has a mug of coffee in one hand and a grease-laden bag in the other, I gesture for her to join me. She takes a moment to drag her eyes over the group of people eyeballing our exchange with hungry, shameless gawks before she pushes off her feet with a sigh. Since it was only half the strength of the ones she released before sprinting away from my nightclub her first month in Ravenshoe, I act as if I didn’t hear it.
As Isabelle pads my way, I drink in the features I’ve been denied the past two weeks. The mesmerizing bounce of her curves reveal what I’ve always known. If she weren’t on her period, I would have claimed her in that washroom thirty-thousand feet in the air. But it also has me curious where we’d be now if womanly issues didn’t place a massive barrier between us. I have never acted as imprudent as I have the past six weeks—not even when I was chasing Ophelia, so is that an indication I’m seeking more than a handful of nights beneath the sheets?
When Isabelle stops at my side, I greet her with a smile. “Hello, Isabelle.”
My tone comes out snappier than intended. It has little affect on the jolt of pleasure that darts down Isabelle’s spine from her name rolling off my tongue with a purr. “Hi.”
Morals my father instilled in me from birth are brilliantly showcased when I stand from my seat to assist Isabelle onto hers. The smile she struggled to rein in during our greeting creeps across her face when she slips onto her chair. It’s as ravishing as the spark of lust that bolts through her eyes when I slot into the seat directly next to hers instead of across from her.
I’ve watched her from afar for weeks. My patience is too thinly stretched to continue perusing her from a distance when she’s mere inches in front of me. The thrill of a chase is addictive. Nonetheless, it has nothing on the unknown. I can implement strategies to ensure I never fail, except when it comes to relationships. There, I’m flying blind.
After dumping her hideous satchel on the floor next to her feet, Isabelle exposes the real reason she runs miles every morning. Her sandwich is the perfect heart attack combination. It’s greasy, overloaded with calories, and smells almost as delicious as her.
Acting oblivious to my indiscreet watch, she swallows down the lump in her throat before taking a generous bite of her grilled cheese sandwich. My thoughts are already improper, but they become downright immoral when she moans about the cheesy goodness swamping her tastebuds. It’s a husky, throaty groan that inspires the yearning deep in my stomach to rumble its way up my chest.
Upon hearing my hungry growl that has nothing to do with food, Isabelle darts her eyes to mine. Her cheeks bloom with heat when she notices my prolonged gawk of her lips. A piece of string cheese is stuck in the corner of her delectable mouth, and it’s taking everything I have not to force it down her throat with my cock. I’d even settle on using my thumb if it assured my hands would be on her in some way. That’s how insatiable my needs are. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life, and quite frankly, that frustrates me even more than the frantic bite of my zipper to my cock.
I begin to wonder if Isabelle has mindreading capabilities when she breaks our intense gray-eyes-versus-brown eyes stare down. After shoving her barely touched sandwich back into its packaging, she leaps to her feet. “I have to go. I… ah… forgot an important deadline.”
As shocked by her abrupt race for the door as me, Harlow shouts to a rapidly retreating Isabelle, “Do you want me to pour your coffee into a takeaway cup?”
The brisk shake of her head doesn’t slow her down in the slightest. She’s out the door in an instant, and even quicker than that, I’m chasing her down. I’m at a loss on what I plan to do when I catch her. I just know I can’t let her race away from me for the second time with tears damming in her eyes.
With Isabelle heading straight for the blue surveillance van I thought I had lost, I seize her elbow in a firm grip before guiding her toward one of the many businesses Cormack bought out the prior three years.
Once I have her trapped into the alcove of an old watering hole that went out of business after Bronte’s Peak was built, I stray my eyes to the street. When the blue van darts past the alleyway we’re camped in, I redirect my focus back to Isabelle. My anger is boiling, and although not all of it belongs on Isabelle’s shoulders, I can’t help but take out my frustration on her. “I assumed you must have left town when you failed to arrive for our date, but lo and behold, here you are, months later.”
I begin to wonder if the woman I met with on the plane was switched with a doppelgänger when Isabelle remains as quiet as a church mouse. She has the traits of a submissive, but she is far from a pushover, so why is she portraying one?
“Are you going to at least attempt a pathetic excuse?”
I take a step back, shocked when she shakes her head without pause for thought. I’m grateful she took the honesty route, but her response isn’t close to what I anticipated.
After a prolonged stretch of silence, Isabelle’s stubborn stance finally falters. “That person you met on the plane isn’t me. I’m not usually like that.” It’s either shame or disappointment darting through her eyes when she adds, “I don’t do random hookups with strangers.”
“And you think I do?” I ask, willing to throw myself under the bus to keep our conversation alight.
The bus careens straight for me when Isabelle replies matter-of-factly, “Yes.”
I’ve fought men double my size and survived a cancer diagnosis that should have me seen as a victim, yet they seem irreverent when it comes to the fight I undertake not to smile at Isabelle’s brusque reply.
For the first time in my life, I don’t win. My smirk is brief, but it ramps up the tension between Isabelle and me in less than a nanosecond. It’s as bristly as it was when I ran the back of my hand down her peaked nipple, and even more perverse than when I imagined replacing my thumb with my cock when she nibbled on the tip.
When I step closer to Isabelle, trapping her as I should have the first morning she arrived at my nightclub after our failed date, I raise my hand to her cheek. She doesn’t pull away. She merely breathes through the tension hissing between us with shallow, perfectly-timed breaths.
After dragging the back of my index finger down her heated cheek, I redirect it to her pouty cupid’s bow lip. “I still want to bite that lip.”
I gobble up the air that rushes out of her mouth from me scrubbing my thumb over her top lip. They’re not overly painted like the women who usually occupy my time. They’re neutral and nude, an enticing combination that has me forgetting every mistake I’ve ever made the past six years. Hasty decisions can cause unforgiving mistakes, but I don’t see that occurring this time around. This feels right. The overwhelming urge to make Isabelle mine feels right. And I’m going to make it happen.
With my eyes locked on Isabelle’s and my hand weaved through her thick hair, I tilt my mouth closer to hers. Our lips brush for the quickest second before the universe reminds me I still have a long way to go to fix the injustices I made in my youth.
“Sorry, boss, but we’ve gotta go.” Hugo’s tone alone assures me he wouldn’t have interrupted me unless it was urgent, much less the green light he gave me earlier today when I updated him on my plans for lunch.
The sigh that rolls up Isabelle’s chest curves my lips. I’m frustrated by the interlude in our exchange, but knowing she’s as irritated makes it not as evident.
My earlier angst smacks back into me hard and fast when I discover the motive behind Hugo’s interruption. Two blocks down from my black Mercedes Hugo is helming like my chauffeur is the blue surveillance van that tails my every move.
When a curse word seeps from Isabelle’s mouth, I shift my eyes back to her. Mistaking the anger on my face as annoyance about her profanity, her throat works hard to swallow. Although I would appreciate the opportunity to explain things aren’t as they seem, I can’t do that while under scrutiny. Not even a man as dominant as me enjoys performing in front of an audience like he’s part of a circus act.
“Meet me at the bakery tomorrow.”
After gulping down a brisk breath, Isabelle shakes her head. “I can’t.”
An ordinary man would soothe the sting of her rejection by falling into bed with the first woman with looks similar to hers.
I don’t concede that easily.
“It wasn’t a request, Isabelle.”
After running my index finger over the curve in her top lip, reminding her of the intensity that forever sparks between us, I head to my car, suddenly curious as to where Roger went. He’s been at my side even more than Hugo the past two months.
I’m a confident, self-assured man, but no matter how loud my brain screams at me to keep my exit dramatic, I can’t help but peer back at Isabelle as she did to me when she walked away from me at the airport.
The thrill of the chase thickens my veins when I spot her watch. It’s a hungry lust-filled stare—the very look I’ve wanted on her face since she tumbled to my feet. “Tomorrow,” I reiterate before entering my car.
My trouser-covered backside has barely graced the leather interior of my car when Hugo plants his foot on the gas pedal. His race to get away from the surveillance van is understandable considering he’s a ghost with no true identity, and I’m the man who drove him to his gravesite.
My teeth grit when Hugo takes the corner of First Avenue and Tate too sharply. His brutal tug on the steering wheel has our car careening straight toward a minivan overloaded with preschool-aged children.
“Fuck,” I push out in relief when we skid past the loaded van by a hair’s breadth. It was a close call, but I’d prefer it over getting into a wreck.
With images of the horrifying event Ophelia was most likely forced to endure filtering in my head, my voice comes out sterner than anticipated. “Where’s Roger?”
Hugo shifts down the gears, which, in turn, lowers the revs of my engine before he slings his eyes to me. “Hunter needed his expertise for a couple of hours. I knew about your ‘date’ with Izzy, so I volunteered to keep an eye out for unwanted lurks.”
The last half of his statement makes sense. However, the first is far from plausible. “Before Roger joined my empire, he specialized in facial identity and falsification of official documents.” That’s why Hugo’s papers are so authentic. Roger knew exactly where to find the most realistic product as he had hunted the main players for years. “What could Hunter possibly need Roger’s expertise for?”
Hugo emulates the man I’ve always seen in his eyes when he replies, “It’s something I can’t tell you about right now, but when I can, I will.”
“Does it have anything to do with Nick?” My annoyance is heard in my tone. I don’t pay my staff well because my empire deserves the best. I do it on the anticipation I’ll be awarded their utmost loyalty.
Hugo darts his eyes from the road to me before shaking his head. It fills me with relief, but it doesn’t wholly slacken my worry.
He slumps low in his chair, then scrubs at the stubble on his chin, but not a word seeps from his lips. It infuriates me more than our almost head-on collision. “I requested for Hunter to forward any information he unearths about Isabelle directly to me.”
“And he’s doing as requested.” Hugo grips the steering wheel in a white-knuckled hold before he releases it with a breathy sentence, “If you don’t trust us, Isaac, why the fuck are we working for you?”
“I trust you.” The firmness in my jaw tightens when even I hear the deceit in my voice. “I just need to maintain control,” I mutter, speaking truthfully for the first time in a long time.
When you’re a sick child, you don’t crave the same things other children do. I didn’t care about the latest crave or the highest-selling fad. I wanted to make it through the day without puking my guts up and to show the bullies in the playground my waif-thin exterior was concealing a warrior inside.
The day I went into remission, I set out to achieve those goals. It happened almost instantaneously with me taking control of my life. I’ve struggled to hand over the reins ever since.
“This isn’t about power. Isaac. We’re more than happy for you to keep it,” Hugo assures, his tone as smooth and unwavering as the tires of my Mercedes rolling over the asphalt. “We just want to ensure we’re giving you facts instead of half-assed assumptions. You’d do the same for us, wouldn’t you?”
I understand what he’s saying, and I appreciate it, but I’m still struggling. “How long will it be before you have answers for me?”
Hugo signals to turn right before straying his eyes from the road to me. “Depends. When is your second date with Izzy?”
I can’t hold back the smirk his jeering tone demands, so I let it free. It doesn’t give Hugo the answer he’s seeking, but since it tapers my urge to kill him by a morsel, he accepts it. It’s very much on par with his personality. He knows all my weaknesses, but instead of exploiting them to his advantage, he pretends they don’t exist.
Silence commands the rest of our twenty-minute trip. It isn’t awkward. Hugo and I just aren’t men of many words. There are far better things we can do with the time than undertake in idle chitchat. Such as, me endeavoring to work out why my intuition is still warning me to remain cautious when it comes to Isabelle.
She initially denied my request when I suggested that we meet at the bakery tomorrow, but nothing but disappointment reflected out of her beautiful chocolate eyes when I abandoned her in the alleyway.
There’s only one time I’ve been confronted with such contrasting emotions. It caused the death of my girlfriend and shaped my life from there on out. Up until six weeks ago, I would have said it was a virtuous manipulation that had me addicted to becoming stronger. Only now am I realizing loneliness is the poverty of success.
It’s a somber intensifying revelation, but it also allows clarity to form.
As much as I want Isabelle, I’d rather not have her at all than the small fragments I’ve been forcing out of her since our flight. As disclosed in the washroom while thirty thousand feet in the air, it’s all or nothing. I’m too dominant to accept any less and too assertive to consider a different outcome, so you can only imagine my frustration when my arrival at Harlow’s Scrumptious Haven the following day sees me dining alone.
My father always said we create our own heartbreaks through unreachable expectations. I couldn’t fathom what he meant until now. I hate losing, but the emotions it evokes are worse since I volunteered to play a game I swore I’d never field again.
I stop adjusting my coat's collar to keep the rain off my neck when Harlow shouts my name. When I spin around to face her, she waves her hand at the fishbowl of business cards she suggested I place my card in when I arrived. If my name is drawn, I’ll be the lucky winner of a month’s worth of unlimited coffee. “You forgot to place your cell number on the back of your card. How will I reach you if you win?”
“My business number is on the front of the card.”
She acts ignorant to my snapped timbre. “You own a nightclub, and I wake up at ass-crack o’clock to bake. Our schedules don’t mesh. I’m sleeping when you’re awake, and you're asleep when everyone else is awake.” After hitting me with a frisky wink, she digs my card out of the stack like she’s been eyeing it the past hour, steps around the almost empty bakery counter, then heads my way. She’s prettier than I first gave her credit for. The kindness in her eyes assures me of this, much less her smile when she says, “Put your cell phone number on the back. Who knows, it could help you find the pot of gold under the rainbow you’re seeking.”
“I don’t seek luck. I earn it.”
Her eye roll dramatically decreases my guess of her age, which I originally pinned at around the same age as me. Now I’m leaning toward her being a couple of years younger. “Just sign the damn card before I smack you into next week.” She cocks her hip as a blistering smile stretches across her face. “Don’t let the flour-dusted nose fool you. Beneath this wholesome face is a ton of wickedness.”
Wholesome? That isn’t a word I’d ever use to describe her. She's got spunk, so much so, I’m certain I know her objective even with the secrets in her eyes locked up tighter than a prison.
After accepting the pen she’s holding out, I place my private cell phone number onto the back of my business card. Although I could keep it simple, I’ll never be known for being humble.
Harlow’s grin turns blinding when I hand her back my personally inscribed card. “When you stop denying what your body wants,” she reads off the card. “Nice.”
After hitting me with another brazen wink, she spins away from me, then saunters to the counter, where she stores my card in the cash register like it’s far more valuable than the handful of measly notes she has stuffed inside.
Her response has me hopeful not all my shrewdness dissipated when Isabelle tumbled to the floor in front of me. It merely got sucked in a vortex not even a man as domineering as me could control.
Emotions are uncontrollable, and when it comes to Isabelle, mine are all over the place.