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EPISODE Thirty

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After collecting evidence from the warehouse for Hunter, and assuring Hugo I’d give his idea some thought, Cormack and I travel back to Mummon Koti. My mood is already sour from the information Hunter disclosed during the hour drive, but it deteriorates further when I receive a text message partway down the long, gated driveway.  

It contains footage I’ve seen before but never from this angle. It’s from when campus police arrived at my dorm to inform me Ophelia had been in a traffic accident. Although they never said she had passed, the blank expression on my face exposes I knew that was the case. I’m staring straight at the police officer’s bodycam, unblinking and unmoving. 

 

I didn’t ask to see her body or to be taken to her. 

 

I just stood there like a statue. 

 

Like a man without a heart.

 

My response was so callous, Cormack assumed I was still in the dumps about our fight. He promised again that with some time, Ophelia would understand that I had no choice but to fight CJ and that she’d forgive me within a nanosecond before begging me for forgiveness. It was only when I muttered that there was no chance of that ever occurring did reality dawn for Cormack. 

 

The woman I was in a relationship with for over six months died hating me.

 

That isn’t something you simply get over. Even now, fully aware Isabelle is not responsible for what happened, I can’t stop hearing the words Ophelia screamed at me that night to truly comprehend that. I’m mad and grief-stricken, my volatile temperament as obvious as the moon hanging in the sky. So, instead of granting Isabelle permission to run into my arms as she so desperately craves when I enter one of the many sitting areas in Mummon Koti, I shake my head before stalking into Cormack’s downstairs office, certain I need more than a hot shower to wash off the funk the last part my video message coated me in.

 

There were no people in the brief montage that followed the video footage. No stunned nineteen-year-olds with no clue how drastically their lives are about to change. Just two short words.

 

Unknown number: Who’s next?

 

***

 

By the time Maximus, head of security for Attwood Electric, joins Cormack and me in a back office, I have eight double shots of whiskey under my belt, and a sealed guarantee of a lonely, miserable life. 

 

I couldn’t respond to Col’s threat this time around even if I wanted to. Not only is he nowhere near Mummon Koti, but Cormack has also been babysitting me like he did the weeks following Ophelia’s death. He knows I won’t hurt myself. He’s more afraid of who my grief will once again trap than me self-harming.

 

Back when Ophelia passed, I didn’t have access to the capital that funds my empire now, but I had enough to set wheels in motion to take Col down. His entity took massive hit after massive hit the six months following Ophelia’s death, and we’ve been at war ever since.

 

That’s how I know the threatful message is from him. I don’t have many enemies, but the rare few I do leave no stone unturned when they wrongly believe vengeance is fueling their motives. 

 

When Maximus shakes his head in response to the silent questions streaming from my eyes, I drop my feet from Cormack’s gigantic wooden desk “Your boy was right. Col didn’t send you that message.”

 

“Then who did?” Cormack asks before I can, the whiskey strumming through my veins slowing my response time.

 

Maximus shrugs. “Someone who wants him to think the message was from Col.”

 

“The same person from the warehouse?”

 

Maximus shrugs again. It maddens me, but before I can advise him of that, he discloses, “Perhaps. Hunter triangulated the signal to the same tower the drone’s network was bounced off, but that could mean anything. I’ll go over preliminary findings again in the morning with a set of fresh eyes. Until then…” He nudges his head to the door like he’s giving Cormack and me marching orders.

 

I fold my arms in front of my chest. “I’m good here.” 

 

“Me too,” Cormack parrots, happy to maintain his earlier promise about having my back like I do his even with him itching to tuck Harlow in.

 

After dumping my empty glass of whiskey onto the desk, I shift my eyes to Cormack. “Go spend time with Harlow, Cormack. This weekend was never meant to be about business.”

 

“It wasn’t?” When I nod, he balances his elbows onto his knees. “Then what are we doing here?” He waves his hand around an office large enough to be a library. “Inside these walls are safe, Isaac. They always have been. Even when my father lived here.” He locks his eyes with the window that shows the sun is preparing to rise. “It’s the people out there we need to worry about.” My eyes bounce between Cormack and Maximus when Maximus gives Cormack an encouraging pat on the back. Before I can decipher a reason for their unusual comradery, Cormack stands, then adds, “So I will take you up on your offer, because if tomorrow is my final day, I want to make sure it’s a good one.”

 

He slaps my back as if my throat is burning from the pricy bottle of whiskey we shared before he stumbles out of the room. 

 

I slant my head to hide my smirk when his shoulder rams into the door on his way out.

 

He’s always been a lightweight.

Once he disappears into the corridor, Maximus draws my focus back to him with an indiscreet cough. “Perhaps you should do the same?” he suggests once he gains my attention.

 

Shaking my head, I sink deeper into my chair, confident my ass won’t be vacating it anytime soon. “Just because the message wasn’t from Col’s cell phone provider doesn’t mean it wasn’t sent on his behalf.”

 

I hit him with a rueful glare when he mutters under his breath, “And here I was thinking you were a smart man.” He brushes off my stare as if it’s pronged with kindness before he moseys to the door. It isn’t an easy maneuver for him to pull off since he’s six foot four and built like a tank. Just as he reaches the hallway, he adds another grumble to underhanded ribbing. “I guess not considering you left Miss Sweet Thing sleeping in a room only two doors down from Colby. He spent half the night searching for her. Now he’s close enough to smell her.” When my jaw involuntarily ticks in response to his rile, a grin tugs on his lips. “Uh-huh. Just as I thought. You want to be with the girl, you’re just too scared to fight for her.”

 

“I’m not scared,” I spit out in disgust. “I can protect her from Col.” 

 

There’s a hesitation in my voice, an awkwardness I’m not familiar with. Col doesn’t scare me, but I’d be a liar if I said his interest in Isabelle didn’t fill me with unease. He let his own daughter perish for greed, so how far will he take things when his target doesn’t share his blood?

 

Furthermore, rumors are circulating that Callie’s auction had an influx of bidders when a new buyer registered in the wee hours of this morning. Although the identities of the auction-goers are being kept under wraps, everyone knows who he is. Col wants what everyone else has, but I refuse to let him have either Isabelle or Callie.

 

“Keep me updated on anything you find. Even if it doesn’t directly correspond with Isabelle, I want to know about it.”

 

When Maximus jerks up his chin, I collect my suit jacket from a coat rack on my left, skirt past him, then make my way down the corridor of the room I share with Isabelle, acting ignorant to the victorious gleam in his eyes.

 

Even with the hour being earlier, I feel Isabelle’s eyes on me when I enter the room. They’re full of relief, but nothing can detract from the number of questions swirling in her head. She knows who Col is, which means she’s dying to work out our connection. 

 

Since that isn’t something I’m ready to disclose just yet, I strip down to my boxer shorts, slip between the heated sheets, then roll Isabelle onto her opposite hip so her truth-bearing eyes face away from me.

 

Once my nose is buried into her hair that still smells like me, and my hand is flattened on her stomach, I say, “No questions. Just sleep, Isabelle.”

 

When the quickening on her pulse darts through my hand, I recall the steps it took to ease her restlessness the night prior. Within minutes of me gliding my hand up and down her arm in a lulling motion, her breaths shallow and her lips part before she falls into a peaceful yet still restless slumber.

 

I soon join her.

 

My sleep is only interrupted when the frustrating buzz of my cell phone announces I overslept my alarm. It is nearly ten in the morning. I haven’t slept in this long since Isabelle tumbled to my feet at the airport. The first time she jogged past my nightclub, I altered my routine. It isn’t as bad as Cormack’s has been the past couple of months, but it’s cutting it close.

 

Isabelle murmurs in her sleep when I carefully commence sliding out from beneath her. Her head is resting on my left pectoral muscle, and her leg is wrapped around my midsection. I’m tempted to stay put, or worse, finish what I started last night, but regretfully, the message illuminating on my phone's screen won’t allow it. Hunter has an update, and since his message is in all caps, I can’t ignore it.

 

“This better be important,” I grumble down the line while pacing into the attached bathroom. 

 

While Hunter advises me he located footage of Col in Las Vegas last night, I stare at myself in the vanity mirror. I look well-rested for a man who only had approximately three hours of sleep. My sleep regime is back to what it was when I launched my very first nightclub. Good genes grant me the ability to function on five to six hours of sleep per night. My reputation makes up for what it lacks.

 

“I’m forwarding the footage to Maximus’s server.”

 

I spin to face the bed Isabelle is resting on. “Send it directly to me.”

 

“Can’t,” Hunter replies, the gruffness of his voice undeterred despite his short reply. “For one, your burner phone is too outdated for videos. Two, the files are too long for a standard system. And three, I don’t know Isabelle from a bar of soap, but I’m reasonably sure you won’t want her overhearing the conversation between Col and her father. I thought Col would remain the most vindictive man on my villains' list, but Vladimir Popov gave him a run for his money last night.”

 

As a growl rolls from my chest to my throat, I exit the bathroom and head for the antique closet on the far side of the room. “Does the video have audio?”

 

When he hums in agreeance, I advise him I’ll return his call once I arrive at Maximus’s office, disconnect our call, then remove a freshly laundered three-piece suit out of the closet. While getting dressed, I keep my eyes locked on Isabelle. The fact she can sleep so peacefully exposes I was right in keeping both Col’s connection and her sister’s sale from her. I’ve only slept the bare minimum since Hugo unearthed information about Callie’s sale, and she doesn’t have an ounce of my blood. I don’t see things being better for Isabelle if she were to learn about the multiple tasks my team are juggling right now. I’d rather keep her in the dark than taint the fascinating gleam of her eyes I can’t get enough of. It’s kept me motivated for months on end. Nothing has been as motivating in my life previously. Not even the woman I pledged to have loved only hours before her demise.

 

With my dithering moods making me hot, I forgo the tie and jacket. Instead, after brushing away the dark locks spilling down one side of Isabelle’s beautiful face, I exit the room in trousers, a buttoned-up dress shirt, and a vest I’ve noticed Isabelle eyeing in awe on more than one occasion.  

 

I recall the number of cameras monitoring Mummon Koti when my cell phone commences ringing a second after I enter Maximus’s office. Conscious it’s most likely Hunter calling, I dig my phone out of my pocket, slide my finger across the screen, then squash my phone to my ear. 

 

“Maximus must have slept in. His office is empty.”

 

My long strides to Maximus’s desk halve when a distinct male voice replies, “Who’s Maximus?”

 

“Is everything okay?” I ask my father, put off by his call. He only ever makes contact electronically when it’s urgent and he can’t locate me at the Dungeon. “Nick—”

 

“Nicholas is fine.” He coughs to clear his throat. Another telltale sign something isn’t quite right. “It’s your mother.”

 

There it is.

 

“She’s… ah… come into a little bit of trouble. I offered to help her…” Like you always do even with her telling you on multiple occasions you were never good enough for her. “…But it’s a little outside of my means.”

 

“So she asked you to come to me?”

 

“No,” he blatantly defends. “I offered.” 

 

He’s lying. Don’t ask me how I know. I just do.

 

My jaw tightens when he mumbles, “And I thought it was better than the alternative.”

“Nick doesn’t have the means to support her. Especially when she didn’t even try to parent him during adolescence.” 

 

My mother has and will always be about the money. Some say I get my tenacity for success from her. I’m quick to prove them otherwise. I built my empire so I wouldn’t have to mooch off people as my mother has her entire life. She finds a target, milks them for all they’re worth, then, once she has sucked them dry, she moves on. She only agreed to carry Nick on the stipulation she got everything in the divorce my parents were in the process of filing when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

 

Once I was given the all-clear, and the well she’d been mining from having a sick child, she took everything from my father, and I’m not merely talking in the material sense. She stripped him bare as I once believed Ophelia’s death had done to me. It’s only seeing how Isabelle is returning the oxygen in my veins one cupid bow’s lip smile at a time that has me reconsidering old objectives. 

 

Even now, when my fangs would usually be pronged with poison, watching her race out of the room we shared last night via a monitor next to Maximus’s desk has me offering a leniency I rarely give. “Send details of her situation to my lawyer. If Regan deems it appropriate for my empire to be associated with it, I’ll have the funds wired by the end of today.”

 

I stop admiring the generous swell of Isabelle’s breasts as she effortlessly skips down the hallway when my father asks, “And if it isn’t deemed as appropriate?”  

 

I am about to reply, then it won’t be funded by me, but then I recall exactly how murky things have become for my empire the past couple of months. I’m wading it through waters I swore it would never sail for a woman I can’t confidently declare is mine in every meaning of the word, yet I wouldn’t change a single thing.

 

Words mean nothing when it comes to understanding the meaning behind them. They’re pointless gasps of air that only come to life when you prove them via actions instead of statements. Sitting back and waiting for greatness to come to you will never happen. If you don’t go after what you want, you will never get it. 

 

I begin to wonder if my father has the same beliefs as me. Is that why he continuously helps my mother no matter the cost? Did he promise her the world knowing it may not always include him? And if he did, would he change anything he’s done between then and now to alter the outcome?

 

When it dawns on me that his answer to my last question would mirror mine to a T—a very resounding no—I tell him I’ll organize a hefty six-figure sum to be deposited into his bank account today that he can use in any way he sees fit before disconnecting our call. When Hunter’s scruffy face pops up on one of the many monitors in Maximus’s office a second later, I hold my finger in the air, telling him I need a minute before I dump my iPhone and burner phone onto the beaten wooden top, then make my way in the direction I last saw Isabelle.

 

I had greatness in my grasp last night, but instead of relishing it, I let my past cruelly snatch it away from me. I can’t travel through time to change the errors I made yesterday any more than I wish my father could, but I can put steps into place to ensure Isabelle doesn’t bear the brunt of my frustrations. 

 

The unease making my dress shirt cling to my chest clears away for the thrill of the chase when I spot Isabelle entering the patio we convened at yesterday. Her steps are playful, but it has nothing on the impishness that sets the air on fire when I realize she’s wearing the two-piece swimsuit she donned yesterday during our thrilling yet unfortunately cut short jet ski ride.

 

A smirk tugs at my mouth when Colby’s attempt to greet Isabelle before me is thwarted by Cormack. He asks him about a business proposal he’s hoping his inheritance will fund, freeing me to stalk to Isabelle’s side of the patio with only a handful of guests eyeballing my every move instead of the two dozen that were gawking when the shift in the air announced our dual arrival from opposite ends of the patio.

 

A moan similar to the one that left her pouty lips last night when she announced she was hankering for a dessert of the none-eating type rumbles up Isabelle’s airways when her name leaves my throat in a husky groan. 

 

When I lean in close, feigning that I can’t reach the croissants without trapping her between the buffet table and me, the scent her obviously brisk shower failed to remove doubles. It’s an amorous smell that fills me with confidence that it will take more than a man like Col Petretti to come between Isabelle and me. Not even the almighty himself could break such an intense connection.

 

She almost drops her mug brimming with freshly brewed coffee when I greet her with a husky purr of her name. When she peers up at me, the air shifts. Unlike last night when her inquisitiveness was helming her thoughts, this morning, nothing but unbridled hankering is firing through her alluring eyes. She wants to be ravished, but regretfully, Maximus didn’t get the memo. He’s gesturing for me to join him. His expression is so urgent, I have no choice but to wink at the desperateness in Isabelle’s eyes in silent confirmation I’ll take care of it at the first available opportunity.

 

Acting ignorant to the disappointed sigh rippling through Isabelle’s plump cupid’s bow lips when I spin away from her, I continue pacing toward Maximus. The length of my strides should indicate I want this matter handled with the swiftness as if he is four men, but just in case, I add words to the stern expression on my face. “Let’s make this quick. Did Col announce Isabelle’s heritage to her father?”

 

His reply isn’t shocking, and neither is the firmness it causes my jaw.  “Yes and no. He was more sending out feelers than straight up admitting he’s aware of her location.” After gesturing for me to follow him down the hallway that leads to his office, he adds, “He can’t siphon millions from you if he exposes his hand before play commences.” 

 

“I’ll kill him long before I give him a dime of my money,” I mutter under my breath.

 

Maximus stops in his tracks, stunned by my reply, but understanding of it. “We figured as much, hence Hunter’s late night to reinvent your previously publicized regime.” He motions for me to enter his office. When I do, he steps into the hub usually solely responsible for Attwood Electric’s security means before closing the door behind him. “There’s no denying things have been tense between the Popovs and Petrettis for the past few years.” 

 

“More like decades.”

 

He grunts out his confirmation before continuing as if I didn’t interrupt. “But we’ve never had a common denominator between the two entities until now.”

I’m about to correct him, but before I can, Hunter joins our conversation. “He means Isabelle, Boss. Not you.” His comment announces that he’s kept Maximus in the dark about the possible intermingling of rivalling mafia entities bloodlines. That isn’t unusual. Trust is a very hard thing for Hunter to award. I’m known him for a couple of years now, and I’m not even guaranteed a spot on his who-he-trusts list. I twist to face the monitor Hunter’s voice is projecting from when he informs, “Although Col flew to Vegas, and requested a meeting with Vladimir, for the most part, he kept Isabelle’s identity under wraps.” 

“Because bribery is very much Col’s only defense these days.”

 

Both Maximus and Hunter hum in agreement, but only Maximus adds words to his reply. “And his five-hour flight to Vegas gave him plenty of time to strategize a plan.” 

 

He sets down a photograph that makes my blood boil. It shows Col exiting an airport hangar of a private airstrip in Vegas and entering a stretched limousine. Unlike the images his IT department wiped from the servers last night, he spends most of his time on the strip peering up at the multiple cameras dotted throughout the playground for the rich and famous, making no attempt to conceal his infamous face. “He wanted me to see this.”

 

“Very much so,” Maximus agrees, “Along with this.”

 

He places down another image. There are no pompous has-beens in this snapshot. Just a business proposal left out in the open for the world to see for a commercial property I know all too well. It’s the warehouse Ophelia sped away from after two of Col’s henchmen loaded her almost unconscious brother into the passenger seat of her car after refusing her numerous requests to call an ambulance. 

 

It is the exact location I last laid my eyes on Ophelia in the flesh.

 

I stop recalling the glare she hit me with as she slid behind the steering wheel when Hunter’s deep timbre breaks me from my thoughts. “Col placed in a tender for the warehouse you’re leasing in the wee hours of this morning.” Knowledge Col is aware I’m leasing out the warehouse he blames for the loss of two of his children on a long-term basis already raises my hackles, much less what Hunter says next. “He offered a very generous nickel and a promise to keep things strictly business if his tender is approved.”

 

“So, in other words, he’s inducing a favor to keep Isabelle’s birthright private?”

 

“Yes. And…” Hunter’s pause infuriates me to no end. “He expects more than the use of a warehouse for the next hundred years.” 

 

I realize his pause wasn’t solely to have me on tenterhooks. He needed time to load Col’s endless list of demands onto the monitor his face was filling. He wants equipment, staff, vehicles, and access to funds no startup business would ever have the gall to come up with, let alone request.   

 

“If I give him any of this, his list of demands will never end.”

 

“Exactly,” Hunter pushes out in a brusque tone. “That’s why Regan denied his bid this morning and sent him a very detailed reply as to why Colt Enterprises will never associate with the Petretti conglomerate.”

 

Although pleased my team is showing incentive, I’m also furious. I have a hand in all aspects of my empire, so shouldn’t it be the same for my personal life as well? 

 

Before my annoyance can be voiced, a video playing on Maximus’s monitor stuffs my words into the back of my throat. It’s footage I’ve seen before, but not from this angle. It is of me with a busty blonde who looks more than eager to suck my dick. 

 

“How long ago was this taken?” I ask, confident the date on the footage is fraudulent. I haven’t been on a single ‘date’ since Isabelle tumbled to my feet, but this video appears as if it was only recorded last night.

 

“From the night before you flew commercial in a very long time, but since we wanted Col to believe otherwise, I altered both the digital and anolog footage.” Hunter zooms in until the scandalizing event bouncing off the rearview mirror of the loaned Maserati I was getting around in months ago leaves no doubt as to what is happening. The blonde, whose name is slipping my mind, was so eager for dessert, she commenced stroking me through my trousers within a nanosecond of me sliding behind the steering wheel. 

 

Her head drops out of view even quicker than the valet closes my door. 

 

With her ability to keep me on the hook depleted during our thirty-minute drive to the hotel, I pulled into the valet at the front, then gave her an excuse that I had an urgent business matter to attend to. She fell for my ruse as many women before her have. 

 

I’ve never hidden the fact before Isabelle tumbled to my feet that I used women for one thing and one thing only—as a vessel to get me off—and Hunter’s doctored footage showcases that in all its erroneous conviction. I look like an ass who uses women for pleasure—the exact man I emulated only months ago.

 

I brace my hip on the edge of Maximus desk when Hunter informs, “I kept the circulation ratio low, but within an hour, Col caught wind of your supposed adventurous night.”

After growling at him in warning to keep his chuckles to a minimum, I ask, “How did he respond?”

He answers me with footage instead of words. It shows Col returning to the private jet he hired last night before dawn this morning. His grin is nowhere near as debonair as the one he was wearing earlier. He looks defeated.

“He believed it.” I smirk at his impotence not to look a gift horse in the mouth. If he didn’t immediately assess how he could profit from Isabelle’s birthright, perhaps he would have realized a man would never settle for an appetizer when he has access to every item on the menu. 

“Don’t get cocky just yet, boss,” Hunter pushes out with a chuckle, mistaking the victorious expression of my face as glory for pulling the wool over Col’s eyes instead of the ultimate prize I claimed last night. “It will take more than one incident to have Col believing he can’t milk you of funds to guarantee Isabelle’s safety.” 

 

With a nudge of his head, he orders Maximus around like a trainee security officer instead of a decorated ex-military Sargent. “An hour after Col boarded his flight, Maximus’s surveillance team documented two dark sedans circling Mummon Koti. Their tags are stolen.”

 

Maximus hands me images corresponding with Hunter’s statement. I don’t believe you should ever judge a book by its cover, but the neck tattoos on the two men behind the steering wheels of dated BMW’s give a ton of leniency to that theory. The Petrettis brand their crew within weeks of recruiting them, and there’s no missing their family crest on these men’s neck tattoos.

“Then there’s this.” 

Maximus hands me another grainy image. It is clear it’s from the same airport hangar Col entered and exited in previous surveillance, but unlike Col, this assailant keeps identifying features hidden from surveillance cameras while boarding a similar jet to the one Col utilized an hour before him.

 

“Who is he?”

 

My jaw grits when Maximus shrugs. “We don’t know. The flight manifest states only the pilot was onboard during the relocation flight.”

 

I point to a clear outline of a pilot seated in the cockpit. Although the image is graining and taken from a distance, the contour and shape of the shadow can’t be discredited.

 

“Hunter was right. Nothing gets past you.” Maximus clicks on the keys of his keyboard almost drowning out Hunter’s chuckle of confirmation before bringing up a second set of images. 

 

“He landed in Hopeton.” I’m not asking a question. I am stating a fact. Even though most of Col’s assets were swindled to nothing in the months following Ophelia’s death, he still has access to numerous modes of transportation—private jets included. So not only does Hunter regularly monitor the Petrettis favorite landing strip that borders a town nestled between Ravenshoe and Hopeton, a handful of the pilots and crew from said airstrip are umbrellaed under the Colt Enterprise group. When Hunter hums in agreement, I ask, “Where did he go from there?”

 

My teeth grit when I hear Hunter scrub at his beard before the whoosh of his shoulder’s lifting announces he shrugged. “As I said, he’s skilled at remaining undetected. I don’t even have a partial plate to work off.” 

 

“Do you think his visit corresponds with Col or Isabelle?”

 

Maximus jumps back into the conversation. “It could be both, but until we know either way, you need to…”

 

Since Maximus isn’t game enough to finalize his reply while in the same room as me, Hugo finalizes it on his behalf. “You need to stay away from Isabelle, Boss.” I’m confident he can see me when he instantly replies to the brisk shake of my head. “No one doubts you can protect her from Col.” The surge of confidence his reply thickens my blood with is sideswiped when he quickly adds, “But we don’t know how the Popovs operate. Vladimir sells his own children for fuck’s sake, so who knows how far he’d go if he were to learn a billion-dollar entity is willing to risk it all to keep one of his kin safe.”

 

Since I can’t deny his claim I’d put it all on the line for Isabelle, I remain quiet. It isn’t a common occurrence for me, but just like I knew Isabelle was it for me when she skidded to a stop at my feet, I know this abnormality will eventually show its true self as well.

 

XX

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