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The nasally screech of my date’s voice pierces my ears when she gushes about the crystal table setting of a restaurant I’ve owned the past five years. She claps her hands together before twirling on the spot like the tightness of her clothes isn’t restricting.
Tatiana is gorgeous, but her inability to hold a conversation has me double-guessing Keke’s recommendation. She said one night with Tatiana would make me the envy of every man in town. She failed to mention the possibility of permanent hearing loss or extensive dental work for how often I grind my back molars together to stop me from retaliating to Tatiana’s numerous suggestions for us to skip dinner and go straight for dessert.
No, her dessert reference has nothing to do with the many sugar-ladened stores on the main street of Ravenshoe. There’s only one meal in her sights, and it’s the only thing not on the menu.
“Thank you,” Tatiana gushes with an excessive flutter of her lashes when I pull out her chair before draping her napkin over her lap.
I’m not usually known for my suave, but with the hostess ushering my prearranged guest to his table, I’m bringing out a charm usually reserved for behind closed doors.
“Would you like something to drink?” I ask Tatiana after dragging my eyes away from Col, who’s being eyeballed with more than zeal as he makes his way across the packed restaurant floor.
He looks flustered.
I can’t help but smile while wondering what has him so worked up.
“I could think of something far more enticing to drink than a glass of champagne,” Tatiana replies while tiptoeing her rake-thin fingers up my chest.
Keke was right when she said her antics would attract the eye of almost everyone in the room. Not only is Col eyeballing our exchange, but so is Isabelle, who is standing at the end of the table, looking far too ravishing in a mouthwatering mini dress to be a mundane police officer’s date.
Ryan Carter is batting way out of his league, and it takes everything I have not to announce that to him after finishing my assessment of Isabelle’s barely covered physique.
Her dress leaves nothing to the imagination, but it forces my mind in overtime while wondering how easy it would be to rip it off her.
After taking a moment to settle my shock that Isabelle isn’t as surprised by my presence as I am hers, I shoot my eyes to Col’s table. Since he is in the process of being stunned by his own exquisite brunette in a bustier dress with a teasing hemline, he’s failed to notice Isabelle’s unexpected arrival.
Keke has a beauty that can place Tatiana’s looks into a shadow, but she rarely hires them out. There’s only one woman she can’t shine a light to. It’s the same woman Ryan cozies up to like he isn’t aware his date with Isabelle will both commence and end here.
Isabelle is mine, and I don’t care who I must takedown to ensure they are aware of that.
Ignoring the buzz of my cell phone, most likely Hugo calling to warn me about Isabelle’s change of plans, I shift my eyes to Ryan when he greets, “Isaac, I haven’t seen you in months. Where have you been?” Much to the displeasure of my fists, he releases his hold on Isabelle’s hand to offer it in greeting to me. “How’s Nick? How many months left until we have another Holt player running around?”
A vein in Isabelle’s neck pulsates faster when I stand to my feet to return Ryan’s greeting.“I’ve been around. I’ve just been busy.” I keep my eyes locked with Isabelle’s during my last sentence, emphasizing who is occupying all my spare time. “Jenni is due in a couple of months.”
Isabelle’s smile draws the attention of every man in the room. Even Tatiana drinks it in before she straightens her back like the game is only beginning instead of her chances of going home with me being forfeited before we were officially introduced.
“Isabelle, this is Isaac Holt,” Ryan introduces, unaware we’ve already been thoroughly introduced. “I’ve not yet had the pleasure of arresting him, but I’m sure my day will come soon.” The humor in his reply is lost on me when he mistakes his influence in Isabelle’s life by presenting her as his date. “Isaac, this is my date, Isabelle.”
When Isabelle thrusts her hand my way like she did two weeks ago after I claimed her as mine in the private jet, I accept it, but instead of shaking it as both Ryan and Tatiana are hoping, I raise it to my mouth so I can kiss the edge of her palm.
As a rosy, pink hue creeps up her delicate neck, Isabelle yanks her hand out of my grasp before waving it at Tatiana. “Are you going to introduce us to your date?”
“Isabelle, Ryan, this is…” On purpose, I act as if Tatiana’s name has slipped my mind.
It’s the standard ploy of any man wanting to portray he is only with a woman solely for her looks, and it goes down a treat when Tatiana sneers, “Tatiana.”
I smirk about how easy it is to manipulate people into believing what you want them to believe when my somewhat dismissive introduction sees Isabelle plonking into her seat with a groan. She’s displaying signs of a jealous, scorned woman, and her ill conception works in my favor when Col’s smug snigger exposes he’s reached the same conclusion as me.
He thinks I’m in for an uncomfortable night, and I am a mere step behind him when Isabelle answers Ryan’s interrogation on how we know each other by acting as if our natural connection is nowhere near as blistering as it is. “I don’t know him. He’s practically a stranger.”
With my pigheadedness being fueled by the flare of hope darting through Ryan’s eyes, I drag my tongue along my top lip, wordlessly reminding Isabelle of the time I had more than her lips on my mouth.
When the hue on Isabelle’s neck deepens, and she snaps her eyes away before she combusts, I chuckle like whatever Tatiana is jabbering on about is funny before retaking my seat.
“Maybe we can get that drink now?” Tatiana mutters in my ear before squeezing my thigh in a way that exposes Isabelle’s arrival hasn’t altered her plans for dessert.
When our eyes lock and hold, I realize I misread her gall. She’s intimidated by Isabelle, but not enough to take her eye off the real prize.
In case you are wondering, the trophy she’s hoping to win doesn’t belong to me.
Her eyes only maintain my hold for approximately two seconds before she flicks them in the direction Col and Keke are seated. She stares at Col with hate so palpable he can’t help but glance her way. His glare switches the expression of Tatiana’s face from loathsome to ditzy in under a second, and her antics go from friendly to flirty just as fast.
She is aware of her role tonight, and she’s going to ensure she earns the five-thousand-dollar payout awarded for it.
“Play along,” she whispers into my ear while slipping onto my lap. “Because if you want Izzy off Col’s radar as badly as I want to slip a sedative into his drink, I know just the way to achieve that.”
This time, when she tiptoes her overly varnished nails up my tie, I play along.
Over the next hour and a half, I nip at the fingers she playfully scrapes across my pecs and jaw, press my lips to the throb in her neck more times than I can count, and only show the slightest bit of frustration at her numerous underhanded mentions about the size of my cock.
Her tactics are aggressive, but since they have Isabelle on the verge of storming out, I encourage every ditzy comment and over-friendly gesture.
When it is for the greater good, nothing is off-limits.
If only Harlow understood the assignment. Tatiana’s fifth comment about my male appendage has barely left her mouth when Harlow reminds her that Isabelle and Ryan aren’t the only duo sitting across from us. “Okay! We get it. It feels so big. It’s so big. Isaac has a ginormous cock, but can you please shut your mouth for the next thirty minutes so I can enjoy my dessert without having to hear your nasally, whiny voice anymore? Thirty minutes of peace! That’s all I ask.”
While watching Col and Keke exit the restaurant via the back entrance, I send a message to Hunter to make sure he has men on-site while Tatiana replies to Harlow’s slander. “You’re just jealous.”
Harlow scoffs off her claims with a gusto she shouldn’t hide since it has Cormack all hot and bothered under the collar. “Oh, honey, please. I have absolutely nothing to be jealous of.”
Two hours ago, I would have agreed with her, but after spending the last hour and a half in Tatiana’s presence and witnessing her deliver the perfect line when Col bypasses our table, my opinion continues to alter. “She’s just disappointed because you’re planning to show me exactly how big it is tonight instead of her.”
When Hunter replies that two security personnel are at the ready to intercept Keke before she can slip into Col’s car and that Hugo is waiting out back near my town car to drive Isabelle home, I return my cell phone to my pocket, then raise my eyes to the commotion.
Partway there, they lock onto the most alluring pair of chocolate eyes. Isabelle is staring at me, and although I’d give anything to disperse the jealousy in her eyes with hours between a pair of satin sheets until Hunter gives word that Col has left the premises, I can’t, so I wink at her instead.
It doubles the jealousy brightening the richness of her eyes before it sees her responding positively to Ryan’s attention for the first time tonight instead of negatively.
After smiling large enough to gain the attention of my cock, she parts her lips at Ryan’s request before swallowing down the cherry he’s dangling above her succulent mouth.
The tables surrounding us descend into the same irreverent silence bombarding ours when Isabelle fishes out a cherry from the large banana split a waiter recently set down in front of her so she can return Ryan’s gesture.
Unaware of the immense bolt of danger about to surge his way, Ryan playfully nibbles on Isabelle’s fingertips before his tongue delves out to scoop up the cherry she’s barely clasping in its slippery state.
“Don’t,” Tatiana begs when the uncontrollable urge to bang my chest while claiming Isabelle as mine in front of the hundreds of guests gawking our way almost gets the better of me. Not thinking, I removed her backside from my thigh and placed it onto the seat it left abandoned two hours ago. “Col could still be lurking.”
Col is the last person on my hit list when Ryan leans in intimately close to Isabelle’s side.
They look like a couple, like the powerhouse duo I plan for Isabelle and me to become one day, and the recollection has me desperate to show Ryan the game was over long before he joined the fight, that he will never be a contender in any bout that includes Isabelle.
And the chaos muddling my mind grows when Isabelle leans in to seal her mouth over his.
I thought the image of her kissing another man via surveillance was bad, but it has nothing on the absolute hysteria it rips through me from witnessing it firsthand.
My astuteness is lost.
My intellect is depleted.
So any chance of good judgment remaining is a farce.
I’m out of my chair and storming for Isabelle’s half of the table before Ryan can consider how much he will lose if he dares to ram his tongue down her throat. Isabelle is mine, and although murder has never been a skill I considered adding to my resume, Ryan’s inability to recognize that has me reconsidering my objectives.
I’ve never wanted to kill a man as desperately as I do now.
With the growl of a man thirsty for blood, I band my arm around Isabelle’s slim waist, then yank her away from Ryan. After a sluggish start due to an emotion that better be shock, Isabelle’s fighting spirit returns stronger than ever. She lashes out, her words as jaded as the frantic thrusts of her legs and arms. “Put… me… down!”
Too blinded by rage to consider the consequences of my actions, I continue walking us through the brimming-with-patrons restaurant. In a way, Isabelle should consider herself fortunate that we’re surrounded by paying customers. If we were alone, and I trusted myself not to take things too far, she’d be over my knee and my hand would be spanking her sass right out of her.
Twice! She kissed a man twice in three days, and to make matters worse, she didn’t sign the death certificate of one pathetic weasel of a man I plan to squash like a bug. She smeared the entire board with anarchy, leaving me no choice but to add mass murderer to my list of credentials.
“Isaac…” Isabelle snaps out more sternly. “Put me down.”
When I storm through the back exit of the restaurant, the first person my slitted eyes land on is Hugo. He takes one look at my red face, drops his amused gaze to Isabelle wiggling in my arms, curses under his breath, then hotfoots it to the driver’s side door of my town car.
Tonight’s charade was for the public eye, so I collected Tatiana from her home in my Mercedes.
The remembrance of how things went tonight sees me placing Isabelle in the backseat of the Mercedes Hugo is now helming before slamming shut the door with her on one side and me on the other. “Stay here.”
Warm air blasting from vents above the door morph with the furious heat furious roaring through my veins. I’m worked up, overheated, and on the verge of hitting Ryan with more than words when his brow arches about my return.
He assumes he forced my hand.
I’m well aware that he did.
After demanding Tatiana to collect her things, I say to Ryan, “I once asked if you could fight. You said, ‘You don’t need talent to fight. Anyone can take a hit. It’s how you accept it that proves your worth.’” I wait for him to nod in acknowledgment of a conversation we had years ago before finalizing my comment. “I never understood what that meant until now.” My hands ball when I confess. “I’ll accept your hit like a man, Ryan, but you need to accept mine in return.” I lean in close, my anger so white-hot, sweat beads on Ryan’s temples. “Love is about guts. If you have it, you fight the world to keep it. If you don’t, you fight no one but yourself.” A feeling I’ve never experienced before lightens the heaviness plaguing my chest when I mutter, “This isn’t your fight. It is mine.”
By ‘it’, I mean Isabelle.
I take a moment to ensure Ryan understands whom I am referencing before flicking my eyes to Cormack and Harlow. Cormack appears shocked. Harlow is both bemused and happy, but her smile slips when I farewell them with a dip of my chin before guiding Tatiana out of the restaurant by placing my hand on the small of her back.
The hairs on my nape are prickling, and although Isabelle’s presence can evoke many uncanny responses from my body, the deprived sickly feeling my stomach gets when being eyed by a man more evil than Satan is not one of them.
My strategy is still in the implementation stage, and the reminder has my eyes scanning the grounds surrounding me as readily as Isabelle’s needy eyes gaze at my suit when I return to my Mercedes.
Her happiness about my return is short-lived. Her lusty gaze narrows into thin slits when I signal to Hugo to release the locks so I can guide Tatiana into the seat next to Isabelle.
“Open the door, Hugo,” Isabelle demands, her voice as irate as the numerous tugs she does on the once-again latched locks.
With his humored eyes fixated on mine in the rearview mirror, Hugo asks, “Where to, boss?”
“Isabelle’s apartment,” I reply without pause for thought, aware she will be safer there than anywhere.
When Tatiana snuggles into my side, it dawns on me that she too is feeling the same unease ridding the air of oxygen. She looks sick. However, it isn’t close to the disgusted look that morphs onto Isabelle’s beautiful face when I run my index finger over her clenched fist to silently advise her not everything is black and white. That there’s a whole heap of gray no one pays any attention to.
After yanking her hand away from me like she is sickened by my touch, Isabelle shouts, “Move!”
She leaps over the privacy partition separating the back half of the cab from the front. When her wildly flung stiletto digs into my thigh, I’m tempted to use it to pull her onto my lap. Then, after scrubbing every morsel of Ryan’s kiss from her lips, I’d wipe the memory from her head permanently with an embrace so hazing, she won’t recall a single man she’s kissed in her life except me.
The only reason I don’t is because within a second of Hugo pulling away from the curb, a set of headlights beamed through the back window. We’re being tailed, and although I’m hopeful it is the FBI Regan warned me about until I know for sure, I must remain cautious.
My eyes snap to the rearview mirror when Isabelle grunts out, “Close your eyes, Hugo, or you’ll cop an eye full.”
I trust Hugo with my life, but any level of faith is worthless when it comes to the vehement jealousy I forever face when tussling for supremacy on Isabelle’s long list of suitors. Her grace and beauty attract a wide range of men, but regretfully, more times than not, it is from men with sinister intentions—Ryan included.
He knew what he was doing tonight, and despite knowing it would cause more harm than good, he still did it.
That places him on the opposite team to mine.
“I like her,” Tatiana mutters under her breath when two seconds after plopping her delectable ass into the seat next to Hugo, Isabelle leans over his torso to raise the privacy partition.
“And it seems as if Col has quite the fascination as well.” After angling her torso to face me, her eyes nowhere near as dull as they seemed moments ago, she asks, “What is his interest in her?”
Mindful Isabelle’s secrets aren’t mine to share, and aware there are still many I don’t know, I shrug like an insolent fool.
Tatiana is smarter than she lets on. “It would have to be something substantial if Keke put herself on the market tonight. She doesn’t do that for anybody.”
“I give her a lot of business.”
Her smile makes it seem as if I said more than I did. “I’ve heard, and although impressed by the capital you’re willing to lose to keep things professional, I’m just as curious to learn why you haven’t taken full advantage of the situation.” I begin to wonder if some of her comments tonight were part of an act when she mutters, “It isn’t cheating if you’re not officially together.” I realize I have the matter completely misunderstood when she nudges her head to the privacy partition separating us. “So perhaps you should remember that while discussing what happened tonight.”
I’d usually shut down unwarranted advice on my personal life with the tenacity of a bull shark. I don’t do that this time around. Not only is Tatiana not a member of my staff I can boss around, but she also has a point.
I pushed Isabelle, so it’s only fair she pushed back.
When my phone vibrates in sync with Tatiana’s, we end one conversation before taking up another.
“Col isn’t tailing us. He’s still with Keke in the corridor bordering the restaurant.” Tatiana swivels her phone around to show me a surveillance image that date stamp reveals it was taken only moments ago. “So if that isn’t him…” She nudges her head to the headlights following us during the ‘that’ part of her question. “Who is it and why hasn’t Hugo lost them yet?”
I smirk at the rile in her tone before replying, “Because Hugo doesn’t do anything unless asked.”
“Then perhaps you should have asked him to be your date tonight,” she quips back, her voice a mix of the nasally one she used at the restaurant and a sophisticated businesswoman. After reading the bemused expression on my face with more accuracy than a stranger should have, she murmurs, “We all strive for greatness in our own ways, Isaac. You fought. I do this.”
With a shrug, she glides her hand down her tiny frame.