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Isabelle references me after the kiss she shared with her date, and she pulls back first, but no matter how many times I remind myself of this while watching the footage on repeat, I can’t unhear the faintest of moans that escaped her lips when his tongue slid into her mouth.
She moaned for him.
A man not worthy of her time.
A man who isn’t me.
She. Moaned. For. Him!
Too angry to think rationally, I send my laptop flying across my office. Its sail ends when it crashes into the only solid wall. It indents the area Nikolai’s knife stabbed before sprinkling the floor beneath it with broken shards of plastic and metal.
After taking a second to breathe out some of my anger, I snatch up my phone from the desk and dial a frequently called number. Hunter answers two rings later. “His name is Brandon. Find him.”
“On it now, boss. Give me a second.”
Even though he can’t see me, I jerk up my chin before moving to the bar at the side of the large space to fill a glass with whiskey. My veins are bubbling with annoyance, and my palms are itching with an unbridled urge to take Isabelle over my knee and spank her until she submits to my every whim.
And the urge worsens when a signed classic lands at my feet with a thud two seconds before Isabelle’s enraged words. “You son of a bitch!”
While flexing my fingers against my cell phone, I pivot around to face her. Her eyes are filled with as much anarchy as mine, and the hickey I left in warning that she is a taken woman is dotted with tiny beads of sweat.
Ignoring Hunter’s request for me to remain calm, I tell him I’ll call him back before darting my eyes between the book Isabelle hooked at my back and her. I’m fuming mad, and the urge to use Isabelle as a crutch out of the deep hole worsens the longer I drink in the anger enveloping her.
Is she mad I marked her skin? Or angry it drove away her ‘date’ as intended.
While I house my untraceable cell into my trousers’ pocket, Isabelle announces the reason her blood is close to boiling. “This wasn’t an accident. You marked me. You branded me like some sort of…” She takes a moment to consider an objective. It isn’t one I’m happy with when she finalizes with, “… animal.”
I marked her to stop me from becoming one. To save her from experiencing one tenth of the angst that ripped through me when I heard she was on a date.
I marked her to stop her from making a mistake she can’t take back.
Unless she doesn’t think it was a mistake.
Before I can ask, Isabelle reconsiders her stance by racing for the door. With fury heating my motives, I beat her to it. My steps are so fast, before my head has the chance to tell me to settle down, I slap closed the door she’s endeavoring to bolt through before I crowd her against it.
“Did you enjoy his kiss, Isabelle?”
Her eyes widen more in shock I am aware of her kiss with Brandon than me curling my hand around her throat.
“Did it make the veins in your neck throb faster like it does when I kiss you?”
I feel every needy swallow she does when I brush the back of my hand down her budded nipple.
“Did your breasts become heavier and your nipples erect?”
She shakes her head, announcing what I already know but am unwilling to acknowledge while in the throes of blinding jealousy.
Isabelle’s knees buckle when I cup her pussy. I’m being rough, but since her needs will always be higher than her fear when she is around me, a moan of pleasure escapes her lips when I ask, “Did you get wet?”
My erect cock digs into her back when she rears up. She is as angry as me. Rightfully so. We have a lot to be mad about, and no one to take it out on.
Although I know a great place to start.
“He needs to learn not to touch what isn’t his.”
I recoil when Isabelle shouts, “I’m not yours either!”
The reminder steals the last of my astuteness. While fighting the urge to prove otherwise, I ball my hands into fists, then take a step back. Desperate for air, Isabelle races through the no longer blocked doorway a second later.
I tell myself it’s for the best, that a storm out will be the ultimate proof Col needs that I’ve moved onto another target, but no matter how long the words swirl in my head, they’re never fully absorbed.
With the consequences of a haste decision pushed to the back of my mind, I sprint into the bustling area of my nightclub. The sweaty mass of bodies part when they see me coming, meaning I make it onto the sidewalk in just enough time to see Isabelle slide into the front passenger seat of Hugo’s car.
“I got her, boss,” he mouths while she pulls her seat belt across her body. Once she has the buckle latched into place, he nudges his head to the long line of patrons aiming to get into the Dungeon.
Logan is less than impressed that Travis is blocking his entrance with his gigantic frame and even bigger attitude. “The end of the line is around the corner and three blocks down.”
He looks close to bursting an artery, but before he can, I join them at the front of the queue.
“Is there an issue…” Logan looks set to demand Travis’s removal from my team, but his mouth snaps shut when I finish my question, “…Travis?”
Travis glares down at Logan while muttering, “This gent…” He spits out the word like he doesn’t believe it is true. “… seems to think money excuses manners.” He locks his eyes with mine, bypassing the hundred Logan is trying to bribe him with. “We’re at capacity, so cutting
the queue won’t work no matter how much he offers me.”
“It’s fucking Tuesday, so how can you be at capacity?”
I give Logan a look as if to say, you’d know exactly how if you had come to the table with more than a measly three million before spinning on my heels and stalking away.
Like all suckers with family money they didn’t lift a finger to earn, he gabbers out, “I came to increase my offer.”
After waiting a beat, and without peering back at him, I ask, “By how much?”
When he mutters, “Billions,” I signal for Travis to let him through the velvet rope designed to keep shady businessmen out of my realm.
“You should run for politics. You have the gift of the gab, and the ability to make anyone do as told.”
I down the whiskey I’ve been nursing the past ten minutes before replying, “Says the man calling to cancel the weekly arrangement we’ve had since we were nineteen. What was your excuse again?”
“It’s our two-month anniversary.” Cormack’s teeth grit when I can’t hold back my laughter.
He’s so pussy whipped, even with Hunter stalking Isabelle’s apartment for any signs of her visitor’s return, I can hear his whipping noises. “The small stuff is important, Isaac.”
“I wouldn’t say that too loudly. Your staff might get the wrong idea.”
He joins me in laughing this time around. “It would be better than the other rumors they could hear.”
“That wasn’t you, Cormack. You did nothing wrong, and anyone who knows you is aware of that.”
He breathes out deeply before the woosh of a head bob sounds down the line. I’m shocked he’s finally believing me, but also grateful. My mother values money over integrity, but I don’t ever see her pinning false charges onto her child purely to fund the elaborate lifestyle she’s become accustomed to the past seven years.
When I notice the late hour, which is most likely early for Cormack with his change in schedule of late, I tell him I’ll have the chef order some of his favorite meat cuts. “It’s the least I can do with the sale increasing my profit margin.”
Cormack laughs before counterbidding that he will forward me the bill.
I’m about to tell him his meal is on the house when a female voice interrupts our conversation. For once, it is coming from Cormack’s half of the line. He has issues with trust, so his sexual conquests before Harlow were never publicly broadcasted. For a long time, I had wondered if he was ‘dating’ at all.
“Why don’t you join us, Isaac?” Harlow offers. “It will save Cormack a stamp.”
Stamp? Who uses snail mail these days?
“I would,” I reply, genuinely grateful for the offer. “But I have a prior arrangement.”
Cormack groans when it dawns on him that my objection about his cancelation has nothing to do with him canceling on me and everything to do with needing to blow off steam after my confrontation with Isabelle last night.
I’ve never been more worked up, but this is the first time I haven’t fallen into bed with the first pretty blonde to attract my eye.
I shift my focus back to my call when Harlow says, “Then bring her with you.” Her tone pitched with the unrestrained matchmaking I’m confident is a requirement of every baker.
They’re in everyone’s private business as much as hairdressers. “We’ll make it a double date. It will be fun. Please, Isaac.”
A smirk etches onto my mouth when I imagine Cormack’s stern, hard lips from Harlow begging me. His dominant side isn’t as obvious as mine, but there’s no way he would approve of his woman pleading with anyone who isn’t him.
That isn’t the way alpha males work.
After waiting long enough for Cormack to cite an objection, and it not occurring, I ask, “What time?”
Harlow squeals in the same manner Tina did last night before citing the details for our double date Friday night. Her excitement has me apprehensive on if she is aware my date’s name isn’t Isabelle.
With Col due to return from a short New York trip Friday night, the dates I slimmed down to one earlier this week are back stronger than ever. Keke has a fresh batch of women at the ready she is convinced will pull the wool over Col’s eyes even faster than the media.
With that in mind, I say, “I’ll see you Friday at eight,” before disconnecting our call and hitting speed dial on another number.
Hunter answers two rings later, “Tallis doesn’t recognize him.”
“That doesn’t mean Brandon isn’t a part of Col’s team.”
“I know that,” Hunter replies, his voice strained with tiredness. “But it’s better than learning he’s one of Col’s henchmen.”
I huff. Brandon doesn’t have the balls to be a henchman. Just the way his cheeks inflamed during his kiss with Isabelle exposes this, much less the corny words he said after it. He doesn’t possess one-tenth of the possessiveness Isabelle craves. She wants to be dominated by a man not a boy.
Brandon is the latter.
“Keep working on it.” Realizing I’m pushing Hunter to the brink of exhaustion, I add, “In the morning. Having you collapse from exhaustion won’t help anyone.”
“I could say the same to you.”
I huff again before telling him I’ll speak to him at a more appropriate hour.
Although the knowledge it’s four in the morning should keep my phone on the desk, remembrance that a brothel manager’s hours are dithering as mine sees me returning it to my ear.
“Hello, darling,” Keke greets, her accent as fake as the lashes Tina bats at me while placing the days takings into the safe.
After spinning away from Tina and lowering my voice, I advise Keke the reason for my call.
“I need to send a gift. Friday night at eight PM.” The sound of her jotting down my order in a diary that’s manned by three security officers every night even with it being locked in an uncrackable safe when I mutter, “She needs a lot of experience in this industry. Her recipient is a vile, abhorrent man, and although the exchange will occur in public, he will want to take matters further.” The sheer actuality in my tone leaves no doubt to the honesty of my reply. I need to lure Col out long enough to see me with a date. Dinner with a woman way out of his league is the best way to achieve that, but there’s no way he’ll let her leave without first trying to get his money’s worth. “But if you forward her headshot to my security team, I’ll ensure she leaves the premises both safe and alone.”
“I know just the woman,” Keke assures after taking a minute to swallow down the urge to bring out her southern twang. She feels more edgy when people know she isn’t foreign like half the women on her ledger. “Shall I advise the gift is from you?”
“No. Let him believe she is interested in him of her own accord. He’ll be less arrogant that way.” When Keke hums in agreement, I tack on, “I’ll forward a movement sheet to you Friday afternoon. It will assist you in tracking down the gift recipient. A table is already booked.”
“Good.” This is one of the things I like about Keke. She is direct and to the point. She doesn’t pussyfoot around any more than me. “If I don’t hear from you before then, I’ll contact you Friday afternoon. Have a pleasant day, Mr. Holt.”
I return her farewell before tossing my phone onto my desk and unbuttoning the buttons in my dress jacket. I’m planning to commence winding down for the evening, but Tina has other ideas.
“Your exchange with Logan is creating quite the gossip.” She bounces up from the safe, plants her backside on the edge of my desk, then mutters, “A billionaire being shot down by a suspected millionaire has tongues waggling.” Her snarl of the word ‘suspected’ exposes she doesn’t believe the claims I’m not as wealthy as Cormack and Logan. “Did you sign him up?”
I curtly nod. “Contracts are being drafted as we speak.”
“We should celebrate?” Before I can tell her nothing is set in stone even if the ink is dry, she plucks a bottle of champagne off my makeshift bar, then fills two whiskey glasses with the pricy liquid. “Life shouldn’t just be lived. It should be celebrated.”
After handing me a glass, she clinks her rim against mine, then downs the champagne as if it is tequila. Since I’m not a fan of the bubbly concoction, I move to the bar to replace my drink with whiskey while asking, “How did you meet Logan?” Curiosity is fueling my interrogation not a wish to know Tina on a more personal level.
Tina doesn’t see it that way. As she bats her lashes at me, she announces, “It was during my last trip home. We hung out a little, then when he mentioned he was looking to invest, I hinted that Ravenshoe would be a good place to look.” She shrugs like a heap of admiration isn’t in the remainder of her reply. “I told him he couldn’t go wrong partnering with a man like you. He believed me.” While peering at me with gaga eyes, she mutters, “That’s not surprising. You continue to wow me every single day.”
Conscious she wants to switch our celebration location to a room with a bed, I down my generous nip of whiskey before placing my glass onto the bar and walking to the coat rack in the corner of the room. Even if Isabelle wasn’t occupying my thoughts at all times of the day and night, Tina’s hopes of another wrestle beneath the sheets still wouldn’t occur. I made a mistake the night I let whiskey talk on my behalf. Every day we breathe air gives us an opportunity to learn something new. Mine the morning after taking Tina to my apartment was that bedding a member of my staff is never a good idea.
“Isaac…” The need in Tina’s voice sends a tick racing across my jaw instead of my cock. She sounds desperate, and her pitch makes sense when she adds, “Who is she?” I spin to face her just as she asks, “And is she worth all this effort? You nearly lost a staggering investment for her.” After swallowing in fret about the glare I hit her with for referencing Isabelle in a derogative manner, she pushes out with a huff. “I just wish you’d stop letting her pull the wool over your eyes.” She slips off my desk before moseying my way. Even in her dour mood, her hips swing with every step she takes. “You race off for her, yet you’re back in your office not even thirty minutes later.” The quiver in my jaw amplifies when she fists my tie and tugs me forward. “I know for a fact you last far longer than that.”
Too frustrated by the purr of her words to think rationally, I snatch up the hand she careens toward my face before it gets close to cupping my jaw. Although she is a valued member of my team, she is precisely that—an employee. She doesn’t make my heart beat faster or my cock twitch. Nothing she could do to me would make me experience one-tenth of the rush of euphoria my body endures when Isabelle is within sniffing distance, so she should quit before she loses more than her gigantic ego.
“It’s late,” I snap out, mindful saying what’s truly on my mind could have me sued. “And I have important meetings to attend later today.” I pull her hand down from my face before assisting her to take a step away from me. Once I have some much-needed distance between us, I place on my coat before saying, “I suggest you use my time out of the office wisely.” My annoyance that I must have this conversation with a valued member of my team is heard in my voice when I add, “What happens in my personal life is not a reflection on my business aspirations. If I wish to leave a gathering mid-meeting to attend a more urgent matter, that decision is solely mine to make. I worked relentlessly to get my empire off the ground, and I’ll do the same if it falls while endeavoring to put the same level of effort into my private life.”
With Tina’s eyes close to bursting, I button up my suit jacket, dip my chin in farewell, then head for my office door. I’m already suffocating the urge to make sure none of the tears I saw welling in Isabelle’s eyes fell during her race out of my office. I don’t need Tina reminding me how desperate the desire became when I watched Isabelle’s flee on the surveillance Hunter has wired around my nightclub.
I want to save Isabelle from additional pain, but the only way I can do that is by staying away from her. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for a man as assertive as me, one I don’t see me accepting for much longer, especially when Col’s first gift arrives later this morning.
It isn’t a date. It’s the knife Nikolai requested I return to him and a note that will expose him for who he truly is. Col’s greatest trick is convincing people there’s only one of him. He forever forgets about the spawn he mistreats more than the foot soldiers paid to jump on order, and that it only takes one disgruntled prince to topple the monarch.
With Dimitri not yet ready to step up to the plate, that leaves plenty of room for Nikolai to take a swing for the top job.
Russians will never run my town, but I don’t need to inform Nikolai of that just yet. The best part of valor is discretion, and I have that by the bucket loads.