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Episode 16

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“I still can’t believe you did that.” Cormack’s smirk slackens for the quickest second when he signals to April that we’ve arrived. Once she announces she’ll fetch us when our table is ready, he shifts his focus back to me. “But as much as I want to believe your wise ways will rub off on Clara, Isaac, values are not what she wants you to rub on her.” 

 

He rolls his eyes when he catches my unapologetic glare. 

 

Stupid bastard.

 

The restlessness making me edgy doubles when he mutters, “Dropping her off at an employment agency and her seeking actual employment are two very contradictory responses. I’ve been pushing for her to stamp her mark on the world for years. She continuously stated she wasn’t ready.” He slips into our booth, signals for the waiter to bring us a bottle of whiskey from the top shelf, then mumbles, “Now, all of a sudden, she wants the top position.”

 

“Why do you think that is?”

 

He waits for the bartender to serve us a double nip of whiskey before replying, “I want to say to lighten the load, but I’m done lying for Clara.” He peers at me with his blue eyes glistening. “She feels threatened by Harlow. She thinks I’m falling for her too quickly.”

 

Air huffs out of his nose when I ask, “Are you?”

 

“Probably.” He downs his whiskey before serving himself another generous helping. “But it can’t be fucking helped. I’m not in control of anything happening right now.” 

 

His unusual use of a curse word endorses his claim. He only lets them fly off the handle when he forgets he’s a twenty-eight-year-old billionaire in charge of thousands of employees. Harlow has a way of making him forget about the controversy that’s surrounded him the past nine years. 

 

Cormack freezes with his glass partway to his mouth before he locks his eyes with mine over the rim. “Did I tell you what she said when I showed her the newspaper clippings?” 

 

I shake my head, both displaying my annoyance that he hasn’t burned the many false reports about him and reminding him that this is the first sit down we’ve had since he patched things up with Harlow. Life has gotten so busy, I barely get the chance to breathe. 

 

He wets his lips like they’re not sparkling with whiskey before cracking them into a smile. “She said, ‘who wrote this crock of shit?’” He relishes the laughter rumbling in my chest from his impersonation of Harlow’s take-no-shit attitude before adding, “Then she asked if I sued the living shit out of them.” He drags his teeth over his lower lip before whimsically shaking his head in disbelief. “She took my side even without me uttering a syllable.”

 

Trust is a huge thing for Cormack and me. We don’t give it easily, and you will never get it back if you lose it from us, so when we’re given it with no strings attached, it’s an attractive quality we can’t help but admire. 

 

I bob my head in understanding when he mutters, “She’s knocking me on my ass, Isaac, and for some reason, I’m not scared by the prospect.” 

 

I’ve felt the same way since I bumped into Isabelle. Control is all I know. It stops mistakes from happening, and keeps the cogs churning with smooth, un-jarring rotations, but rarely does it teach you how to let go of the things holding you down. 

 

I’ll never forget my time with Ophelia, or the lessons her death taught me, but I won’t have a future if I don’t let go of the past.

 

The possibilities of what I could achieve if I’m willing to open myself to the prospect stop filtering through my head when Cormack checks the time for the third time in the past minute.

 

“What’s she doing right now?” When Cormack’s brow arches in confusion, I nudge my head to the antique time telling contraption on his wrist. “Harlow. She is the cause of your distraction, is she not?”

 

A grin I haven’t seen him wear in years stretches his mouth from ear to ear. “If her routine the past two weeks is anything to go by, she’s getting ready for bed. Bakers are early risers.”

 

“Hence your bike being parked in the alleyway each morning when I leave the Dungeon.” I almost choke on my whiskey when heat inflames Cormack’s face. I’ve known him for years, but this is the first time I’ve seen him blush.  

 

Unappreciative of my gawk, Cormack snaps out a stern, “Shut up.”

 

I flash him a confused look, feigning innocence.

 

It makes him blush even more.

 

He isn’t impressed. After cursing under his breath, he mutters, “Men do not blush.”

 

Some of the anger reddening his cheeks converts to anger when I reply, “That isn’t what I’m seeing.”

 

He tosses a napkin into my chortling face a nanosecond before April arrives at our booth to advise us our table is ready. Since we’re minus any female guests, her approach is more flirty than cordial. She doesn’t bat her eyes at me, though. My tussle beneath the sheets with Tina taught me the consequences of bedding members of my staff, so I’ve been sure to give no indication it’s a possibility since then, but Cormack isn’t so lucky. April fawns over him when he slips out of the booth. Her efforts are pointless. Cormack is too busy checking the time for the umpteenth time in the past ten minutes.

 

April’s focus shifts to me when I say, “Give our table to someone on the reserved list.” This restaurant was booked out a month in advance before I owned it. Now, you’re lucky to be seated within six months. “Cormack clearly has somewhere he needs to be, and I don’t feel like eating alone.” I pause April’s offer to dine with me before a single syllable leaves her red-painted lips. “Have Luis prepare my usual order, but make sure there is enough for two. Surely, exquisite cuisine by a world-renowned chef will flatter my new tenant more than a cheap bottle of wine.” 

 

Cormack scoffs when I refer to his house-warming gift as cheap, but he waggles his brows when April reads my reply in the manner intended. 

 

Balsamic-glazed steak rolls are merely an appetizer.

 

Isabelle will be the main course.

 

“Certainly.” April maintains a professional front even with jealousy flaring in her eyes.  “And you, Mr. McGregor? Is there anything you’d like to order?”

 

Cormack considers her offer for half a second before he briskly shakes his head. When his cheeks inflame for the second time this evening, I know precisely where his thoughts have strayed. Who needs props when the woman you’re buttering up lives above a bakery?

 

He waits for April to saunter off before shifting on his feet to face me. I don’t miss the hope rising in his eyes when he stuffs his hands into his pockets and rocks on his heels. He wants to project a man not desperate enough to sprint for the exit at the first available opportunity.  I’m glad his commitments center around music production and not acting. He would have lost more than he earned if he ventured down the wrong entertainment route.

 

That’s how poor his acting skills are.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want me to stay? We’ve dined here almost every Friday since we were kids.”

 

“And we will continue dining here, but hopefully with additional guests from here on out.” I don’t feel as old as perceived when I waggle my brows at the end of my statement. I’ve been pursuing an acquisition far outside my usual business ventures the past few weeks, and have spent more time out of my office than inside the past three months. Usually, the changeup would bother me. I’m a stickler for routine. But the past couple of months, I’ve found it more refreshing than bothersome. I feel like I am actually achieving what I set out to do when I started my empire. I am helping people as I always envisioned, but I am also helping myself. “Just don’t keep her up too late. No one makes breakfast in this town as tantalizing as Harlow.”

 

“You have no idea,” Cormack murmurs under his breath before he farewells me with a handshake then dashes for the closest exit. He doesn’t sprint as predicted, but his walk would put Olympic power walkers to shame. 

 

Once the rumble of his bike converts to the buzz of a mosquito, I make my way to the bar to wait for my meal. My walk stumbles partway in. The bar is buzzing as it usually is, both with guests hoping for a reservation and the people wanting to soak up the atmosphere without paying out the eye for morsels of food on a gold-rimmed plate, but that isn’t the cause for my stumble. It’s spotting Clara at the end, wrangling her way through a stack of job applications.

 

I had hoped she’d take the comments I made when I dropped her off at an employment agency seriously. I’m glad to see she has.

 

After signaling to the head bartender for a double shot of whiskey, I move to Clara’s side of the bar. My stalk of the room gains me many eyes. Both male and female. That isn’t unusual. It’s been this way my entire adult life, but just like when Isabelle is in the room, I don’t pay them any attention. I’m not a man known for basking neither my staff nor friends in praise, but I can give credit where credit is due.

 

“Clara.”

 

She startles, smiles, returns my greeting, then drops her eyes back to an application form for an internship at a local law firm. “It’s all so confusing,” she murmurs. “How can an intern have experience? Isn’t that what an internship is about.”

 

I smirk at her ruffled expression before accepting the stool a man seated next to her is offering me. My reputation is so fierce, an Arabian prince would offer me his spot if it were the only one left in the room, but I have a feeling that isn’t the reason for his offer. He appears more fearful of Clara than he is me.  

 

I’m not surprised. Her eyes aren’t icy blue for no reason. They’re cooled from how many ice daggers they shoot out when she’s approached by what she believes is an unsuitable suitor. Clara has impeccably high standards. That’s why I was shocked to find out her first and only love was a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.

 

I thank Jimmy, the head bartender, for my drink before twisting my torso to face Clara. “The main objective of an internship application is to sell your ability to learn.” I flip over the pages of the document until we reach the dossier explaining the application process for online appliers. “Applying online will show you are fluent with computers…” My words trail off when Clara peers at me with big, panicked eyes. “You do know how to use a computer, don’t you?”

 

Her teeth rake over her bottom lip as she shakes her head. “But now I understand why all the agencies I visited today peered at me funny when I asked for a printed application.”

 

I don’t balk about her confession she attended more than one job agency today. I keep my shock hidden while muttering, “If you can’t operate a computer, how will you run a billion dollar entity?”

 

Her eyelashes flutter as a vein in her neck thrums. “Whatever do you mean? I don’t want the top job. I just want to earn a living.”

 

Her pupils widen to the size of saucers when I disclose, “Cormack advised me of your bid for his position at Attwood Electric.” When she fails to announce an objection, I add, “He believes it stems around your disapproval of his relationship.”

 

Now she scoffs. “That is absurd. Why would I care who my brother dates?”

 

“I’ve asked myself the same time and time again.” I down my whiskey to soften the agitation in my voice before saying, “Then I recalled your comments during brunch last month where you explicitly stated your thoughts on powerful men unnecessarily downgrading when it comes to finding a mate.”

 

“I am merely looking out for Cormack, Isaac.” She places her hand over mine like our conversation is more intimate than it is. “Why do you think I requested to become a board member?” She doesn’t give me the chance to respond. It’s for the best. I doubt she would like what I have to express. “If Cormack’s focus is on Attwood, his personal life doesn’t stand a chance. I want him to be happy.”

 

Although I agree with her, the strain of running a company is already tedious, much less several, but I also believe she should spend more time building bridges with her siblings instead of burning them. “Contesting his position won’t make him happy, Clara.”

 

She laughs a tight, reserved chuckle. “I’m not contesting his position. Oh, lord, where are you getting these horrendous assumptions, Isaac?” 

 

Her mouth snaps shut when I dig my cell phone out of my pocket to show her the email all board members were forwarded today. It states without singultus what Clara’s plans are. 

“Oh dear.” Her hand shoots up to cover her mouth like she’s about to sob. “There’s been a terrible mistake.” After slipping off her barstool, she signals for the bartender to bring her the bill. 

 

Her eyes return to my face when I request for Jimmy to place her tab onto my account. For one, she’s supposed to be financially struggling, and two, I’m more than happy to pay for a handful of cocktails if it keeps her mindful that I’m always watching. Not only is Cormack my closest confidant, so I will watch out for him as I do my family, but I am a significant shareholder in the Attwood firm. Clara squirms at the thought of balancing her check books, so I’d rather her not be the head of a company that earns me millions each quarter.

 

I dip my chin, accepting Clara’s gratitude when she whispers, “Thank you.” Her mouth freezes partway to my cheek when Luis arrives with my order. “Oh, Isaac, you are such a sweetheart, but I really can’t stay. I have an injustice to fix.” She plants her lips closer to my mouth than my cheek, snatches up the takeaway order like I had Luis cook it for her, then saunters to the door. Just before she exits, she slings her eyes back to me. “Perhaps you could pop around for a nightcap once I have this matter sorted.” She nudges her head to the stack of employment applications. “Bring them with you when you come. After this debacle, I may need them more than ever.”

 

In typical Clara fashion, she doesn’t wait for me to approve her request. She simply pushes past a man eyeing her like she is on the menu before sliding into her BMW convertible the valet must have kept at the front at her request.

 

***

 

With Luis and his staff run off their feet, it takes an additional forty minutes to refill my order.  Add that to a twenty-minute delay due to traffic, and my frustration is at a pinnacle. Although annoyed about the delay, I kept myself occupied by forwarding the links for the applications Clara left behind to her email address. Now, not only can I avoid an unwanted nightcap, but I’m also boosting Clara’s claim she’ll end up penniless if she continues aggravating Cormack. He will only take so much before he snaps. Clara’s antics the past couple of weeks have him precariously dangling on the edge of a very steep cliff.

 

The recollection drops my smile to a smirk when I greet the doorman of Isabelle’s apartment building. He dips his chin before guiding my walk to the elevator bank to ensure my ride to Isabelle’s floor is unaccompanied. Clayton is a good man who made friends with the wrong people in his youth. He’s clean now, but it will be a few more months before I switch him from a doorman to a more prestigious position.

 

My heart drums against my ribcage when I push the button for Isabelle’s floor. With Cormack keeping Harlow occupied, and Roger doing a quick drive past Isabelle’s old residence to ensure its sole occupant was home, I’m confident Isabelle is alone. Excluding the alleyway weeks ago when we were close to kissing, this will be the first time we’ll be alone since our exchange in the washroom while thirty thousand feet in the air. Nerves aren’t something I usually contend with but I’m a little off my game when it comes to Isabelle. She is unlike any woman I’ve ever met, and the fascination is more potent to my veins than whiskey.

 

When my cell phone vibrates in my pocket two levels from Isabelle’s floor, I remove it to silence it. My thumb hovers above the end call button instead of stabbing it when I spot who is calling me. Hunter’s contact is generally sporadic. He hates making a fuss even when he should. So, with that in mind, I connect his call instead of disconnecting it.  

 

“Yes.” If the briskness of my clipped tone doesn’t tell him I’m frustrated about the interruption, I’m hopeful my arrival at Isabelle’s floor will. Excluding my penthouse, all my residential properties are wired with monitored surveillance. Hunter can see my wrath as well as he can hear it.

 

I stop pacing toward Isabelle’s door when Hunter says, “We have a situation.”

 

“Nicholas?” My first thoughts always stray to my brother. He’s rarely from my mind, and the perversion became more intense when he attracted a deranged stalker. Overzealous fans are a part of the entertainment industry, but Nick’s stalker is above and beyond anything up and coming stars have dealt with previously.  She went beyond what is acceptable of a fan when she broke into our father’s ranch to prepare Nick breakfast. She snuck around while they were sleeping, removed family photographs and ornaments before replacing them with trinkets from her private collection. The entire situation is bizarre and unhinged, and it forced me to beef up security for Nicholas and our father ever since.

 

I breathe out a sigh of relief when Hunter says, “No. We’ve not had any reports of a disturbance.”

 

“Then what is it?” I ask while recommencing my stalk. It’s already late for a pop-in visitor, so I’d like to avoid further delay.

 

I hear Hunter swallow before he discloses, “The auction you were planning to attend this month has been delayed.”

 

It takes me a while to understand why he is talking in code. I curse my stupidity when I recall leaving my untraceable cell in the car with Roger so he could charge it during my visit with Isabelle. I don’t talk shop on devices that can be infiltrated by novice hackers. Although Callie’s sale isn’t legal, the last thing we want to do is alert law enforcement officers to her auction. The last time that happened, the child Vladimir was auctioning was left on the doorstep of an FBI Field Office in Las Vegas, deceased, and the clients were directed toward other assets.

 

I freeze two doors down from Isabelle’s apartment before spinning away from it so my voice projects in the opposite direction. “What has caused the delay?”

 

I’m no longer hungry when Hunter replies, “The asset you were hoping to procure was damaged during transport. The seller requires time to make amendments.”

 

I don’t recognize my voice when I ask, “How bad is the damage?” 

 

I dump the bag of takeout outside of Isabelle’s door then race for the elevator bank when Hunter murmurs, “You’ll need more than a blank check to fix all her cracks.”

 

xx

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