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I freeze, genuinely unsure how to react to Isabelle's unexpected kiss. I've wanted precisely this for months, but not now, and not like this. I'm angry, remorseful, and confused, and I am reasonably sure I'm also being played. By whom, I don't know, but I do know that this isn't right.
With my mouth refusing to answer the pleads of Isabelle's lashing tongue, she soon withdraws from our embrace. The further she inches back, the more wetness bombards her eyes. She's devastated I've rejected her, but the pain in her eyes is only half the hurt I'm experiencing.
My empire has faced numerous allegations since Ophelia's death, but this is the first time it's felt personal.
As her teeth gnaw her bottom lip, Isabelle slings her watering eyes to Harlow and Cormack. "Thank you for a lovely evening."
Her voice is clear and without worry, a stark contradiction to the brutal rattle of her hands when she snatches her purse off the table before she leaps to her feet. My confusion is pushed aside for vengeance when I foil her quick getaway by seizing her wrist in a firm grip. I want answers, and although the last person I should attempt to get them from is the very woman at the root of my confusion, prior dealings award me the knowledge she may be the only person who'll be brutally honest with me.
An honest enemy is better than a friend who lies.
"I'll drive you home."
Isabelle shakes her head as if my command is a suggestion.
I wasn't asking permission.
I'm telling her this is what we're doing.
With my hand still circling Isabelle's wrist, I stand to my feet before drifting my eyes to Cormack. The shock of both Harlow's and Cormack's faces reveal they are not a part of the second attempt to derail me. Cormack is so confused by my response to Isabelle's kiss, it takes him glaring at me for several long seconds before the truth smacks into him like a wayward missile.
He forgot what day it is, his astuteness also irrelevant when his soulmate is in his vicinity.
The knowledge doesn't lessen the angst in my voice, though. "Can you take Harlow home?"
"Yeah." Cormack nods before cranking his neck to Harlow. "If Harlow is okay with that?"
As cautious as me, Harlow wordlessly seeks Isabelle's opinion on my suggestion. If Isabelle's chin so much as moves a millimeter in the wrong direction, Harlow will shut this down quicker than a worldwide pandemic.
When Isabelle nods, although hesitant, Harlow leans across the table to give her a farewell hug. I'm unsure what she whispers in Isabelle's ear since her voice is so soft, but if the daggers she shoots my way are any indication, I doubt it's pleasant.
As I walk Isabelle toward the restaurant's back entrance, I dig my cell phone out of my pocket so I can request Hugo to bring around my car. I wasn't devious when I said I'm watched more cautiously on this day every year. Hugo reverts to being my chauffeur, afraid the whiskey in my veins could get me in a wreck, and Cormack lingers at my office like a bad smell as if I'm incapable of functioning without his constant nagging. Even Catherine gets in on the act. She stocks my refrigerator with enough desserts, pre-cooked meals, and baking to force a relatively fit man into a weightloss program.
When our race through the packed restaurant gains us the eye of many, I walk even faster. Isabelle can barely keep up. She stumbles over her pretentiously high stilettos several times, her fumbled walk no doubt adding more false rumors to my once previously unstained reputation.
By the time we make it outside, my anger is at a pinnacle, and Isabelle is pulling away from me instead of toward me.
The knowledge she's once-again trying to run has me tightening my grip instead of lessening it.
"Let go of my arm," Isabelle snaps out a couple of seconds later, her command stern and direct. "You're hurting me."
I drop her arm before raking my fingers through my hair, hopeful it will hide the brutal shake of my hands. Even if I were certain she was playing a cruel, malicious trick on me, I'd never intentionally hurt her. All women are off my radar. Dominance is fun in and out of the bedroom, but I am not an abuser.
After a couple of seconds of awkward silence, Isabelle whispers, "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you. It was just a harmless kiss. It didn't mean anything."
"Then why did you do it?" I fire-back before I can stop myself, too worked up to save my interrogation for a more suitable location. "If it didn't mean anything, why did you kiss me?"
"Because I wanted to." Not an ounce of deceit highlights her tone. "And I wanted you to admit you lied."
"I didn't lie." When the reasoning behind her comment comes to light, I get defensive. "I said no brunette I have fucked has maintained my interest outside of the bedroom." Her pupils expand when I take a step closer to her. "If you want to prove your point, Isabelle, I'll have to fuck you first."
I anticipate for my cheek to feel the sting of her wrath, so you can picture my shock when nothing but lust roars through her impressive eyes. A person acting on the orders of another wouldn't respond with so much hope. They'd be mortified, perhaps even disgusted. They wouldn't act as if their every wish is on the cusp of being granted.
As my eyes bounce between a pair begging to be kissed, consumed, and utterly annihilated, I crowd Isabelle against the brickwork in the alleyway bordering my restaurant. No longer thinking about the consequences of my actions, I cup her cheek, then rub my thumb across her pouty, cupid-bow lips.
My voice is as rough as the brickwork I have her squashed against when I ask, "Is that what you want, Isabelle?" Do you want to be fucked, ravished, wholly consumed? "Because your body says one thing, and your eyes relay another."
I can smell how much she wants me. It's slicking her skin, voicelessly screaming for me to let go of the restraints I'm governed by, to forget the ghosts of my past and race toward my future, but her eyes can't hide her inner turmoil. They're the gateway to her soul, and the very barrier no amount of optimism could have me ignoring.
With my disappointment at an all-time low, both displeased about the maniac I'm portraying, and Isabelle's inability to admit what this is truly about, I shove the hand that caressed Isabelle's cheek into the pocket of my trousers, then nudge my head to my car Hugo just pulled to the curb. "Get in the car, Isabelle."
Incapable of facing another rejection head-on, I spin away from her and pace to my car. If she lets me leave without protest, I will be done. The chase will be over. If she doesn't… I don't know how I'll respond. I've never handled such an array of emotions before. I'm struggling, and that's putting it nicely.
Hugo's eyes stop dancing between a frozen Isabelle and me when I snatch the keys for my sports car out of his hands. "Can you drive?"
"Yes, Hugo." My tone reveals I am unappreciative of his distrust on how I handle my liquor, but I also understand it. A drunk driver killed his sister and unborn nephew. He can't bring Jorgie back, but that won't stop him from doing everything in his power to ensure the same thing doesn't happen to another family. "Festivities were cut short. Whiskey is barely heating my veins."
"Because something else is?" His tone is a cross between amused and hopeful.
"Or should I say 'someone?'"
Instead of answering him, I raise my eyes to Isabelle whose back is still balancing on the brickwork. The thrust of her chest is brutal, and apprehension is seen all over her face.
Although I should be just as cautious, I nudge my head to the passenger side door Hugo is jogging around my car to open for her, giving her one final chance to learn about the real Isaac Holt.
The man, not the enigma.
The furious pounding of my heart weakens a smidge when my slide into the driver's seat occurs with Isabelle pushing off her feet. She makes a beeline for the door Hugo is holding open for her, but regrettably, it doesn't happen without her eyes first sweeping the alleyway.
My teeth grit when Hugo asks if she's okay while aiding her into her seat. She's quick to nod, but it does little to dose the anger burning my alive. I pay my staff well to maintain the integrity of my empire. If my intuition is anything to go by, neither Hugo nor Hunter have done that the past several months.
Hugo barely closes Isabelle's door when I plant my foot onto the gas pedal. My engine roars to life, its surge of power not lost on me even in my gloomy mood. I push it to its absolute limit, hopeful a rush of adrenaline from racing through the streets of the town I own will excuse the upwelling the high rise of Isabelle's skirt caused my pulse. My car sits low to the ground, meaning inches upon inches of her luscious thighs are on display for the world to see.
My frantic speed also has a secondary purpose—to lose the tail that doesn't squander no matter who is in my passenger seat. I could have a nun seated next to me, and the scrutiny still wouldn't end. My life is lived under the spotlight, and the burn is more noticeable when I consider how much I'm willing to lose just for the chance to escape it for one night.
My next shift of the gears is brutal, angered by the prospect that today of all days, I'm thinking with the head between my legs instead of the one my shoulders. The woman who has invaded my thoughts at all times of the day and night the past several months arrived at my restaurant, on the exact day of my deceased girlfriend's birthday to celebrate her birthday.
Only a fool would believe this isn't a hoax.
I take the corner of Mercer and Tate ten miles slower than its previous two counterparts when Isabelle breaks the stifling silence ridding the air of oxygen with an apology. "I'm sorry I kissed you. I shouldn't have done it."
Confident there's more to her remorse than she's letting on, I warn, "I won't be strong-armed, Isabelle." When she nods without hesitation, it softens my agitation by a smidge. "That's only happened once. It won't happen again."
I'm genuinely lost on where to take our conversation when confusion registers on Isabelle's face. If she's an elaborate ruse to pry me of information only those in my inner circle are privileged to know, wouldn't all aspects of Ophelia’s life be common knowledge to her?
Her confused expression would have you convinced she has no clue who Ophelia is.
That or she's a damn fine actor.
I'm unsure which I am more hopeful for. If she's unaware of Ophelia's influence in my life, she most likely isn't an elaborate ruse to take down my empire and me, but that also means my anger has no legitimacy, and that I removed her from her birthday celebration without just cause.
When stubborn restlessness overtakes the anger sluicing through my veins, I direct my car to Isabelle's residence instead of my apartment building on Hyde. My shrewdness needs to return full force before I can tackle a conversation I'm not sure we should have today, much less ever.
We make the twenty-minute trip in silence. There are many things I should say, but for the first time in my life, I'm unsure how to express them. I've never handled emotions like this before, and most certainly not on this day, so a bout of unease is understandable.
As I pull into the driveway of a soon-to-be-retired police officer's home, Isabelle twists her torso to face me. "Thanks for everything." The ghost-like grin I see in the corner of my eye doesn't belong on the face of a woman I've endeavored to frighten more than woo. "It was the most interesting birthday I've had in years."
With nothing but playful honesty highlighting her tone, I twist my head to return her farewell. An amicable goodbye is the least I can do after the way I acted.
Unaware Isabelle is leaning over to add a cheek kiss to her farewell, the unexpected movement of my head means her lips land on my mouth instead of my cheek. The briefest brush of our lips is as fire sparking as the one we shared after she blew out her candles. It doubles in intensity when I release the growl rumbling in my chest. Her mouth tastes as scrumptious as she looks and proves that this was inevitable. Regardless of guilt, you can't have chemistry this profound and not act on it.
After weaving my fingers through Isabelle's glossy locks, I spear my tongue between her parted lips. I suck down the surprised breath she exhales before dragging my tongue along the roof of her mouth.
While the delicious flavors of her mouth stiffen my cock to the point it's painful, I pull her closer to me, needing not an ounce of air between us. Once I have her right where I want her, I kiss her with everything I have.
My past isn't on my mind.
My deceased girlfriend isn't on my mind.
Not even my empire is on my mind.
Nothing but awarding Isabelle the kiss of her life has my focus.
There's no room for anything else.
It's a blinding, truth-emitting embrace that puts to rest any concerns Isabelle's attention is a scam to pry me of confidential information. It has my mind void of negative thoughts and convinces me the best is yet to come.
As I taste her, devour her, relish every single piece of her, Isabelle melts into my embrace before she returns my kiss with just as much passion. She duels her tongue with mine, tasting me as I taste her, then drags her cheek over the stubble on my chin as if she is as obsessed with my scent as I am hers.
We kiss, nibble, and moan for the next several long minutes, our needs only floundering when the tight confines of my car make it impossible for us to take things further. If I had any clue this is what my night would entail, I would have switched out my sportscar for my SUV. Alas, Hugo wanted to flex his muscles in a flashy ride. I can't blame him. The only pleasure he gets these days is behind a steering wheel. Since I was convinced I was about to walk down a similar path, I agreed with his request to take my Bugatti for a spin.
After tugging on the lips I've fantasized about more times than what's rationally plausible with my teeth, I slowly pull back from Isabelle's succulent mouth. It's a tortuously slow retreat, only made so I can commence rectifying the mistakes I made tonight. I took something out of Isabelle's control and used it against her. That doesn't make me a monster, but it does make me responsible for ruining her birthday.
"Happy birth…" A brutal swallow gobbles up the remainder of my reply. The intoxicating scent of Isabelle's pussy is lingering in the air, but that isn't the only wetness our kiss instigated. Tears are pooling in her eyes. They're on the verge of spilling over.
With my mind once-again stuck in the throes of my past, I dab at the wetness gathered in the corner of Isabelle's eye. A ragged breath escapes my mouth when my thumb verifies the dampness halving the allure of her tempting eyes. Our kiss has her on the brink of crying—the complete opposite to how I had hoped to make her feel.
I dart my eyes between hers, wanting to speak, but unable to. I never meant to hurt her so much she'd cry on her birthday. That was never my intention.
Hating that the sexual chemistry sparking between us is being overcome by unease, Isabelle whispers out a quick, "Thank you," before she throws open the passenger door of my car, clambers out, then dashes up the cracked footpath leading to her home.
It takes me staring at the warped wooden door for several long seconds before I fire up my ignition and reverse out of her driveway. The last place I should go is to one of my nightclubs, but with my astuteness vanished, the decision is out of my hands.
"Hey, boss." Tina adds a smile to her greeting that's brighter than the strobe lighting above the dance floor. "I didn't think I'd see you today." She isn't aware who today's commiserations are about, but she's been a member of my staff long enough to know it is rare for me to take a day off. Unless it is the anniversary of Ophelia's death, her birthday, or the day she finally relented to my ruthless chase, my focus forever remains on my empire.
Well, it did if you exclude Isabelle's unexpected arrival into my life. My hours haven't changed. It is my thought process that's been rehabilitated the most.
Tina is so under the pump, this is the last thing she should say, "Would you care for a nightcap once things settle down?"
I shake my head, my mood too woeful for company.
"Okay…" Her sigh seeps over the eerie silence from the DJ switching tracks. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me."
I slip through the door of my office before half her reply reaches my ears. While pacing to the drawer I hid Isabelle's file in, I pop open another button on my dress shirt. The top two buttons are already undone, but I still feel as if I am being asphyxiated.
Guilt has a way of buckling the strongest men's knees.
I freeze partway to my desk when the thick, disdained voice of Hugo booms into my ears. "You could have at least let her taste her cake before you dragged her out like a madman." He stands to his feet, dumps a Harlow's Scrumptious Haven cake box onto my desk, then turns to face me. "If you're here seeking confirmation for what I think you are, let me set the record straight for you. Yes, today is Isabelle's birthday. Yes, she was given life the same day as Ophelia. No, she is unaware of the connection."
"How can you be so sure?" I ask like there's no actuality in his tone.
When he steps closer to me, for the first time in a long time, I see him as more of a friend than a member of my team. "Because not only does Izzy wear her heart on her sleeve… as does somebody else I know…" He doesn't say my name during the mumbled half of his comment. He doesn't need to. The pompous glare in his eyes reveals who he's pointing the finger at. Me. "… she also doesn't celebrate her birthday on the day she was born."
It's rare for me to be speechless, but there's no denying it this evening.
I'm stumped of a reply.
Mercifully, Hugo wouldn't know the difference between a stunned man and an arrogant one, so he responds to my silence as if I am both. Since he isn't far off the mark, I let him. "Isabelle was born twenty five years ago, but her life didn't begin until six years and fourteen days later."
My jaw tightens when he hands me a sheet of paper that verifies Isabelle's twenty-fifth birthday was almost two weeks ago. I'm not frustrated she was caught lying. It's the fact Hugo removed his evidence from the file I hid in my drawer—the file I had every intention of rummaging through before he foiled my endeavor with his surly attitude, and protective big brother demeanor.
"Let me finish before you get all worked up," Hugo suggests when I shove a paper copy of Isabelle's license into his chest. "Today is Isabelle's birthday, Isaac. To her, it was the day she was given life. It just also happens to be years after her actual birth." When I walk to the bar in the corner of my office, it dawns on him that he's losing me, so he talks faster. "Since she was six, Isabelle has celebrated her birthday on the day her uncle purchased her. They didn't change the year or month, just the day."
I freeze with a whiskey decanter suspended halfway between my chest and the crystal table in front of me, too stunned to move. "Isabelle was sold?"
Hugo's Adam's apple bobs up and down before his chin gets in on the action.
"By whom?" I'm shocked I can speak with how tight my jaw is. My back molars are grinding together, and I'm moments away from sending the crystal decanter in my hand across the room.
Hugo hesitates before replying, "Her father."
When he attempts to hand me a second stack of papers, the hesitation on his face jumps onto mine. A forced truth is worthless, so my faith in one shared against a person's will is wholly useless.
Upon sensing my unease, Hugo smiles like I responded how he hoped, slips the paperwork back into Isabelle's file, stores it into the drawer I will be placing a lock on first thing tomorrow, then yanks a secondary one out of the breast pocket of his jacket. "Izzy is more than capable of sharing her secrets, but this little girl can't."
The beat of my heart is unnatural when he hands me a single photo of a child I'd guess to be between the age of one and five. Her sunken cheeks and waif-like frame make it impossible to gauge her actual age. She's badly malnourished, although not even that can detract from the familiarity of her eyes. She is either Isabelle's sister or her daughter. Their resemblance is uncanny.
"That's Isabelle's three-year-old sister, Callie Popov."
My eyes snap to the door, not just surprised by Hunter's arrival, but shocked by his pronunciation of Callie's last name. He said it with the Russian mafia royalty twang it deserves. The Popov entity is based out of Vegas, many many miles from Ravenshoe, but I still know who they are. Their leader, Vladimir Popov, is a notorious, no-holds-barred man. He wants to rule the world, and if it weren't for Henry's interference a couple of years ago, he would have reintegrated the footholds he had in this area before I spruced it up.
His last attempt was almost six months ago. If his timetable of corruption indicates how he handles things, further endeavors to claw his nails into my empire are already in the works. Is Isabelle a part of his plan? Or am I so far off the scent, not even naturally engrained good judgment will steer me in the right direction?
I realize it is the latter when Hunter discloses, "Callie is being sold on the twenty-seventh of next month." I check my watch, noting that it is a little over five weeks away. "Unlike previous sales conducted…" He doesn't need to mention Isabelle for me to know she is being included in his reference. "… Callie's sale will be a private listing. Buyers are welcomed to view the asset before bidding, but their identifies will remain anonymous throughout the sale process."
"How is this occurring? Who in their right mind sells their own flesh and blood?"
Hunter's lips twitch as he prepares to speak, but Hugo beats him to it. "Men who care about no one but themselves, who treat their wives and children so worthlessly, they can't help but change the day they celebrate being given life."
I understand what he's saying, and I feel like absolute shit for making Isabelle cry on today of all days, but I'm still struggling to comprehend what benefit anyone gets from purchasing children on the black market. There are thousands of children seeking loving homes in orphanages, and they come without a hefty price tag…
My stomach gurgles when truth smacks into me. Nothing ever purchased is as worthwhile as something achieved through hard work and determination.
"How can I participate in her sale?" I ask, for once allowing my heart to speak before my head.
Hugo chokes on his spit, whereas Hunter maintains a cool, rational head. It is the reason he is the head of my security. "That isn't advisable, Isaac. This isn't an arena you should showcase your empire's abilities in. If Vladimir comprehends it for all its worth, you'll never get rid of the sponge."
Although I agree with him, opening my empire's doors to Vladimir will have it scrutinized even more than it already is, but I can't act as if I haven't seen what I have. I can't look at eyes identical to Isabelle's in every way and not consider what will happen to her if the wrong person purchases her. Just ruminating on what Isabelle could have possibly faced in her childhood has me suffocating desires I've never had. The urge will never fully taper with more than one name on the list.
I end the silence teeming between us with a somber question. "What will happen to Callie if I don't intervene?"
Hunter covers a majority of his face with a scruffy beard to hide his massive heart. How do I know this? I use business suits in the same manner. "She'll…" he licks his lips then tries again. "She'll most likely…" After breathing out heavily, he dumps his hemp bag onto my desk, drags the chair Cormack's floured ass dusted four weeks ago in close, fires up his laptop, then asks, "How much are you willing to spend?" like a monetary amount will weaken the colossal knot in my stomach.
I made Isabelle cry on her birthday, having no clue how many of her previous birthdays produced the same result. Guilt can't change the outcome of my erroneous error in judgment today, but I have the means to make the scald far less blistering.
After advising Hunter there's no limit as to how far I'll go for a little girl I've never met, I lock my eyes with Hugo's. "Shouldn't you be heading off? Your shift starts in a little over five hours."
The gleam in his eyes advises he understands my request. He is once again Isabelle's shadow. He's just too pretentious to let me off easily. He told me I'd regret my decision to transfer him back to the head of operations at my empire, and he won't give up the chance to boast for anything.