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EPISODE Thirty-ONE

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Maximus folds his arms in front of his chest before leaning back in his overcompensating office chair. His laidback aura makes it seem as if his next comment is nowhere near as frustrating as it is. “If you want your reputation to proceed you, you need to represent the monster it was formed off instead of the seraph you hide behind.” When I scoff off his claims that I’m an angel, he leans forward until his elbows balance on the edge of his beaten desk. “Just because you walk like the devil, speak like the devil, and act like the devil doesn’t mean you are the devil. There’s evil all around us. It’s how we respond to it that speaks the loudest.” He leans over his desk to switch off the bank of monitors I was using to scrutinize Isabelle’s every move before arching a brow. 

His smugness dissipates when I murmur, “Every man knows the fastest route to encourage temptation is by acting disinterested.”

My teeth grit when he counterbids, “If that’s true, why are you so worked up about Isabelle spending time with Colby?”

I don’t answer him. Not solely because I don’t answer to anyone but myself, but also because I am lost of a reply. I’m out of sorts today, rattled by the thought that every decision, protocol, and rule I conceived the past six years are being trampled by none other than me. 

The sweat and blood my empire was built on can handle the misfortune of dealing with the likes of Vladimir Popov and Col Petretti. It is my personal life I am unsure of. This is all so new to me. I don’t usually curve the rules for anyone. It is my rules. My protection. My way. I’ve never adjusted my need to control all aspects of my life for anyone, but Isabelle has my back bowing so immeasurably, it’s close to snapping.

As is my restraint when I realize what I must do. “Call Keke. Give her a description of the women I was generally seen with before Isabelle. Blonde. Tall—”

“Brainless,” Maximus interrupts, aware I can fire him since I am a shareholder at Attwood Electric but confident his relationship with Cormack will see him not touching his 41K for at least another three years.

 “Schedule a once-a-week date commencing on the night I’m scheduled to return to Ravenshoe.”

 

Hunter jumps into the conversation like he isn’t thousands of miles away. “Only once a week? Do you think anyone will believe that?” When I growl, I imagine him scrubbing his hand across his beard. “Don’t shoot the messenger, I am just telling it as I’m seeing it.”

“And I should trust your expertise because…” I don’t give him the chance to answer. “…Your daily exertive activities in the presence of your neighbor increased her prying instead of decreasing it?”

Maximus chokes on his coffee, but Hunter remains as quiet as a church mouse. It’s hard to fathom how he forgets I have eyes covering every inch of Ravenshoe when he was the surveillance tech who installed them on my behalf.

“Ask Keke her expertise. Book whatever she deems appropriate.” Keke is in the brothel industry, but since she works directly under Henry Gottle Snr. I trust her opinion as I do his. We all have skill sets to exploit. Henry’s are the cruel battles of the underworld. Keke’s is knowing how many dates it will take for men as vile as Vladimir and Col to think I’ve gotten over a buxom brunette with a cupid bow lip and sultry taste capable of bringing any man to his knees.

“And you?” Maximus sits a little straight when struck by my ruthless glare. “Ensure Colby is aware of the consequences if he were to arrive at my room tonight. Especially if he arrives with them.” I nudge my head to the square foil packets Colby commenced stuffing into his wallet a minute after telling Isabelle he will be down to tuck her in once she’s slipped into something more comfortable. She politely denied his request, but Colby isn’t taking the hint. He’s been pushing the boundaries all day with playful touches and a heap of flirty innuendo, and it has my anger reaching a point I’m about to tell Colby Isabelle is mine with more than words.

 

My bed.

My rules.

Mine.

Once I’ve convinced Col I crave the opposite.

 

***

 

My confession in Maximus’s office careened my mood to a low I haven’t experienced since Ophelia’s death. I’m often referred to as heartless and aloof with an icy demeanor by the women I use as vessels to get off, but it’s rare for me to show this side to people I invite into my inner circle. I garner their respect by giving them respect, but that thought process is null and void when it comes to Isabelle.

Her float down the hallway of our room is mesmerizing. The gentle bounce of her tits, the fluid movements of her hips, and her ghost-like grin has my astuteness faltering, but instead of relishing the usual slip, I’m despising it because I’m not responsible for her carefree demeanor. Colby is, and the awareness of this along with Isabelle’s smile slipping when she spots my gawk has jealousy fueling my responses instead of ardor. I snatch up Isabelle’s wrist, pull her into my side, then growl down her ear, “Stay away from Colby.”

With her hackles as spiked as mine, she slips out of my grip before entering our room with so much eagerness, anyone would be convinced she’s more interested in Colby than me.

I know that isn’t the case. Her skin doesn’t prickle when he trickles his fingers across her nape, nor do her thighs press together, but with my qualm exhausted from a tiring day of bureaucratic bullshit mafia entities shouldn’t have, I snap out, “You shouldn’t have a problem with my request unless you’re interested in sleeping with him.” I work my jaw side to side while following her into the room. “Are you interested in him, Isabelle?”

When she hesitates, it takes everything I have not to prove her body belongs to me no matter what her head thinks. The only reason I don’t is because a person’s confidence should never excuse the pains of their past. More times than not, the person with the most pointed nose is the one who has suffered the repercussions of the heaviest family crown.

Mercifully, Isabelle is far too humble to let my thoughts wander so astray. It’s her ability to see past the shields others wear that makes her so fascinating. She sees me, Isaac, not the enigma everyone else perceives. However, that doesn’t make her any less curious.

 

The crinkle between her brows exposes none of the questions her curious mind formulated last night have left her head, much less her attempt to negotiate with a master negotiator. “I’ll answer your question if you answer one of mine.” 

“Ain’t going to happen,” I reply without pause for thought. Nothing in my personal life is up for negotiation. My mother has yet to learn that, but I plan to slowly teach her. 

A smirk etches on my mouth when some of the sass I’m dying to exert from Isabelle with hours on sticky sheets rears its head. “Then get out of my room.” 

We stand at loggerheads for several long seconds, but eventually, her frustration about my nonchalant response to her order sees her storming into the bathroom. She slams the door behind her, but its loud bang with the shower faucet switching on barely drowns out Colby’s amused chuckles. 

He’s standing in the hallway just outside my open bedroom door, eyeballing my exchange with Isabelle like it wasn’t blistering with reciprocated sexual tension. 

I could tell him to leave. I could walk him to his room myself. But instead of doing either of those things, I respond as if we’re still playing the game he instigated years ago. I strip down to my boxer shorts with slow meticulous movements before sliding between the sheets I plan to share with Isabelle for the third night in a row. Our fourth sleepover if you include the night I took her back to my penthouse.

One sleepover is one too many as far as Colby is concerned, so not only does he look disgusted by me calling ‘checkmate,’ but he also looks prepared to commence waving a white flag as well.

The game is over. 

It’s time for him to bow out.

And he’s finally at the point of recognizing that.

“Good night, Colby,” I mutter with a smirk when his stomps down the hallway almost overtake the thump of the blood surging to my cock when Isabelle exits the bathroom in nothing but the shirt I wore running earlier today and a confused expression. 

She looks divine in my college fraternity shirt, but my wish to remove the panicked flare darting through her wide-with-fear gaze is far more perverse than my desire to rip my shirt off her alluring body.

Isabelle has impressive eyes, ones that expose her every want long before the incessant babbling she constantly does under her breath, so although I want to say unbridled hankering is the only thing highlighting her rich chocolate brown eyes, lying isn’t my strong point. 

Like all women in a confronting situation, Isabelle’s barriers erect before my very eyes before she lashes out at the person responsible for her confusion. “Get out of my bed,” she snaps out in a husky tone.

I wait for her eyes to lift from my pecs to my face before replying, “This is my bed.” I hook my thumb at the shirt I left dumped on the bathroom floor. “And that’s my shirt.” 

With the flare in her eyes augmenting during the last half of my statement, I keep my final sentence to myself.

And you are mine.

“What?” As her eyes shoot around the room larger than the loft apartments in my latest build, she takes a stumbling step back. “This is the room Cormack assigned to me.” 

I shake my head, alerting to the fact Cormack had no say as to where I had intended for her to sleep. There was no discussion about that. No confrontation. She was always to be roomed with me from the moment I instigated steps to make her mine, and once I’ve assured Col’s trip to the other side of the country doesn’t spark unwanted heat, she will be roomed with me indefinitely.

I’ve never been more assured about anything in my life.

Isabelle is mine, and I’m more than ready for her to be aware of that.

“This is my room. I brought you in here the first night when you blacked out on the plane and last night—”

“Oh my god,” she interrupts with a gasp. “You didn’t sleep with me last night because you wanted to. You slept with me because I was sleeping in your bed.” As she throws a hand up to clamp her mouth, her throat rapidly swallows. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

When she commences packing, the dominance I’ve struggled to harness since I first laid eyes on her rears its ugly head. I dive out of the bed like my muscles aren’t aching for a grueling seven-mile run this morning, snatch her suitcase out of her hand, then forcefully place it back onto the luggage stand next to the dresser I plan to have filled with her clothes for our next trip. 

“Get in bed, Isabelle.” My jaw ticks when she denies my request with a brisk shake of her head. I wasn’t suggesting we share a room. I’m telling her that’s what we’re doing. If I have to parade around like a peacock the instant we land in Ravenshoe to take the focus off her, I refuse to give this up for anything, and the anger of that reminder fills me with is heard in my curt tone when I bark out, “Now!” 

When she startles from my roar, I curse my inability to keep a rational head around her before moving to my side of the bed to place some much-needed distance between us. I’ve never had a woman make me so unhinged before. I’m truly torn between taking her over my knee until she submits to my every command and fueling the fire brewing inside her with more anarchy.  

I love that she’s not afraid to go against me, but at the same time, I must remain cautious. It was that spitfire stubbornness that drew me to Ophelia. 

We all know how that turned out.

I can’t afford to make the same mistake twice, especially since it’s more than my empire at risk.

Callie needs me to succeed this time around just as much as my heart. 

With that in mind, I slip back between the sheets, my eyes never once leaving Isabelle. If she wants to walk away, I’ll let her go—for the night. But she should be warned, I’m not a man who backs down when he wants something. I chased Ophelia relentlessly, and I will do the same for Isabelle because despite my worries this could be a retelling of an overtold tragic story, I’m just as certain I am smarter this time around.  

Every decision I made when I was with Ophelia was done with my empire in mind.

It is the last thing to enter my mind when memories of Isabelle hog the space.

Months ago, I confused my career as success. Tonight, Isabelle’s slow glide toward my bed is by far the most valued decision anyone has made.

“Good choice,” I mutter, confident she too listened to the pleas of her heart instead of the screams of her head.

With the hours in a day seemingly growing shorter than longer Isabelle is a part of my life, I anticipate for sleep to immediately beckon me. 

I should have known better. 

Nothing is simple when it comes to Isabelle. 

Not only is my cock as hard as stone from smelling my body wash on her skin, but she also commences counting out loud within a nanosecond of slipping between the sheets.

 

I don’t know how much time passes before she gives up on her endeavor to count sheep until she collapses from mental exhaustion, but when her eyes float over my face, intricately absorbing every feature, the tension becomes too much to bear. 

It isn’t the same palpable energy it’s had the past couple of days. It’s drowned with controversy, and the knowledge brings out a side of me I rarely use.

My playful side.

“Stop staring at me.” 

The moon bounces off Isabelle’s teeth when she smiles. “Are you awake?”

“Yep.” I roll onto my hip, so we meet face to face. “You need to learn to count in your head.”

“I’m so sorry,” she responds, half giggling. “I have a terrible habit of mumbling out loud.”

“I’ve realized that.” 

Her boisterous smile fleetingly rids the air of the desperation choking it.  

 

If only it could do something for her truth-probing eyes. 

She has questions, many of them, and although I want her to know me, the real Isaac Holt, there are only so many questions I can answer truthfully. I value integrity, it is what I look for any time I’m adding a member to my team, but how can you preach honor when most of your life has been cloaked by dishonorable intentions?

I want Isabelle to know the truth, I want to be honest with her, but if that could double the fight to make her mine, I’m not willing to take that risk just yet.

My heart has only thumped the beat of a content man since she crashed into me at the airport. My shoulders haven’t experienced this litheness in years, yet my empire is about to be embroiled in one of its biggest scandals to date.

As Jean-Paul Sartre hints, life doesn’t truly begin until you’re on the other side of despair. 

I need to remember that while granting Isabelle access to my personal life as I’ve never given anyone before. “One question, Isabelle.” 

With only the slightest hesitation she asks the last question I am anticipating for her to want to know. “Did you love Ophelia?”

After trudging through the many objections firing through my head, I reply with a simple, “Yes.”

Despite the confusion I feel every time I peer at Isabelle without seeking similarities between her and Ophelia, I can’t deny the feelings I had for Ophelia. She was my first serious girlfriend. The first woman I wanted to free from misery instead of pushing her headfirst into it. 

My parents’ volatile relationship made me bitter toward women, but even with Ophelia and I mostly living our lives separately, I wanted us to work, and I wanted her to love me.

 

I thought my every wish had been granted the day she told me she loved me, then it was cruelly stripped away, and I’m reminded of just how cold-hearted that made me when Isabelle whispers, “Do you still love her?” 

I want to say no. I want to tell her I was young and stupid and consumed by the chase, but since that will expose me as the victim I swore I’d never be, I mutter, “I said one question,” before I roll away from her and the hundred more questions she’s dying to ask that will expose me even more than my truth-bearing eyes.

xx

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