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EPISODE Thirty-Three

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I drop a surveillance write-up Hunter is showing me onto the coffee table of an almost empty private jet. “Is this it?”

 

He looks upset about the disappointment in my tone but knows better than to test me when my moods are unsure which way to swing. I want to protect Isabelle, but it is the fact my best form of defense is to stay away from her that I’m struggling with the most.

 

“Online chatter is minimum. It’s the conversations I can’t hear that I’m most wary about.” While scrubbing a hand over his bushy beard, he locks his eyes with mine. “We’re not the only ones watching Col, and he knows it.”

 

I jerk my chin up in understanding. I’m not happy, but at the moment, there’s nothing I can do to fix things. “Reach out to the contact you have in the Petretti realm, see if he’s willing to help.”

 

“Smith—”

 

“Could be more obliging if you used your manners. Stroke his ego, if you must, but do something. I need eyes and ears in the Petretti compound.”

 

“We have eyes and ears on Col. He’s just cautious whom he talks around.”

 

I cut him off with a glare this time around instead of words. 

 

It expresses my every demand without a word seeping from my lips. 

 

“Fine. I’ll reach out to Smith, but if Tallis hears about this—”

 

“He can vent his annoyance to me. I’ll be sure to remind him who gives the orders around here.” It sure as fuck isn’t him.

 

Needing to end this meeting before it makes me the grouchy bastard my competitors believe I am, I shift on my feet to face Hugo. “Bring around the car. The quicker we get Col off Isabelle’s tail, the faster life can return to normal.”

 

Before he can voice that my life has never been anything close to ordinary, I head for the room at the back of the private jet Isabelle has been sleeping in the past couple of hours. My chest swells with smugness when I enter the sex-scented space. Isabelle is cradling the pillow I tucked under her naked body when I snuck out of the bed to answer Scout’s tap, and only the slightest portion of her kiss swollen lips are peeking out from beneath her hair fanned across her face instead of her pillow.

 

After brushing away the locks clinging to her hued cheeks, I slide my phone out of my pocket before bobbing down to take a picture. The way a woman sleeps exposes a lot about her personality.

 

Isabelle’s sleeps are peaceful and free of nightmares.

 

Ophelia’s never were.

 

After taking enough photos to capture every unique feature of her face, I return my phone to my pocket before endeavoring to wake her up. 

 

“Isabelle…” 

 

She murmurs before rolling away from me. The change-up awards me the slightest peek of her rosy, pink nipple. 

 

After brushing the needy bud, doubling the size of the bumps on her areola, I raise my hand to her lips. My bite at the end of our exchange hours ago was rougher than planned. Her lower lip is wearing the imprint of my cruelty, and the knowledge has me desperate to fix my mistake.

 

After huskily breathing out her name again, I swipe my tongue over the bite mark in her lip, chuckling when she shoos me away. I’m about to nibble on a mouth as sinful as the hardness of my cock, but before I can, Isabelle jackknifes into a hard seated position. Our headbutt at the airport was brutal, but it has nothing on the crack my nose makes when our heads collide.

 

As I take a stumbling step back, Isabelle rubs the sting in her head while cursing under her breath. “Shit.” Her worries about her being injured fly out the window when she spots me pinching the bridge of my nose. “Oh god.” When she scuttles across the bed, the sheet hiding her body from my hungry gaze pulls away. “Is it bleeding?” 

 

“It’s fine, Isabelle,” I reply, my focus no longer on my nose.

 

She’s naked, and despite my head knowing Hunter and Scout are just outside the door, my cock thickens so quick, I take a mental note to thank my tailor for the durability of my zipper. 

 

“Isabelle, I’m fine,” I growl out with a moan when she continues to fuss over me. 

 

After sinking back until her delicate ass is resting on the balls of her feet, she drags her tongue over her mouth, sampling the same delicious taste I just consumed. “Were you kissing—”

 

“We’re back in Ravenshoe,” I interrupt, happy to skip an interrogation that will make it seem as if my reputation has nothing to do with respect and everything to do with fear. 

 

“What?” She gasps out a shocked breath when her eyes rocket to the window of the private jet. The darkness of the hangar makes it appear later than it is, but it gets across my point that she’s been sleeping for hours.

 

“Why didn’t you wake me?” 

 

“You look tired. I wanted you to sleep.” With honesty the strongest point of my reply, it comes out sounding that way. 

 

Isabelle’s smile has me wanting to rip off the shirt and jeans she’s tugging on.

 

As quickly as joy enhanced her beautiful features, panic mars them. “So we did the whole landing without a seat belt?” When I nod, she chokes out.  “Are you crazy?”

 

“Do you truly believe a scrap of material will save you when a plane is plummeting to the ground?” 

 

The color drains from her face when it dawns on her that I’m right. 

 

If a plane is going down, ninety-nine percent of its passengers are going down with it.

 

After grinning at her shocked expression, I curl my hand around hers then guide her to the main part of the jet. I feel the increase of her pulse when her eyes scan the deserted plane. Even Hunter has made himself scarce.  

 

“We landed over two hours ago,” I announce when her eyes seek the time on the clock of a microwave oven in the gulley. 

 

Her eyes pop as she struggles to swallow her spit. “You let me sleep that long?”

I shrug like it’s no big deal her lengthy nap gave Hunter plenty of time to organize a decoy. My security team is unaware if the car parked outside the private airstrip belongs to Col’s crew or Vladimir’s, but with them tailing Harlow and Cormack’s weave through the backstreets of Ravenshoe, it will keep the heat off Isabelle long enough for me to make sure she makes it home safely. 

 

When Isabelle continues gawking, soundlessly demanding an answer for her question, I repeat, “You looked tired.”

 

I assist Hugo with placing Isabelle’s suitcase into the trunk before guiding her into the backseat of my town car. When Hugo’s eyes lock with mine in the rearview mirror a couple of miles later, I stop sucking in the scent of our intermingled scent to stray my eyes in the direction Hugo inconspicuously nudges his head at.

 

We’re being tailed, and for once, it isn’t by the blue van that forever follows me when I’m in Ravenshoe.

 

When I jerk up my chin, granting Hugo permission to try and lose the tail, Isabelle's eyes slip to mine for the quickest second. I give her a brief smile before shifting my focus to Hugo’s eyes in the rearview mirror. I can see the shadow of the dark sedan he’s eyeing like a hawk in his large blue irises. It mimics every move and turn he makes.

 

Fighting the urge to tell Hugo to pull over, I yank my cell phone out of my pocket and dial a frequently called number. 

 

Hunter answers on the very first ring. “Second decoy already initiated. I’ll let you know who they are the instant their plates are scanned.”

 

His words have only just left my mouth when the flicker of police sirens reflects in the rearview mirror along with Hugo’s relieved gaze. Hunter went the full hog this time around. He called the actual authorities. 

 

“Keep them occupied until I get there.”

 

I end our call just as Hugo pulls into the curb at the front of Isabelle’s apartment building. 

 

I don’t need to tell him to keep the engine running. My tight jaw and balled fists tell him everything he needs to know. 

 

Despite the energy crackling between us during our short ride in the elevator to Isabelle’s floor, my hands remain stuffed into the pockets of my dress pants and Isabelle’s remain curled around the handle of her suitcase. There’s too much tension bundling in my stomach for me to answer any of the silent pleas Isabelle is projecting. If Col has more than one man on this, we underestimated Isabelle’s importance to his plan. He doesn’t have the resources to negligently toss them around. Even my team is stretched thin, and I recently beefed out our numbers to make sure exhaustion couldn’t be blamed for any fatal slips.  

 

I’m drawn from my negative thoughts when Isabelle asks, “Did you want to come inside?” 

 

She jabs her keys into the lock of her front door with more force than needed when I shake my head. “I have some business to take care of.”  

 

I try to keep deceit out of my tone, but Isabelle sees straight through it. “Okay.” She thrusts her hand toward me before saying in a cordial manner, “Thank you for a lovely weekend.”

 

After the weekend we had, her gall shouldn’t shock me, but somehow, it does. 

 

While smirking to hide my wish to see just how far her sass goes, I accept the hand she’s holding out in offering. But instead of shaking it as she is implying for us to do, I raise it to my mouth and kiss the edge of her palm. “The pleasure was all mine, Isabelle,” I mutter, making her squirm.

 

I suck in her addictive scent for another couple of seconds before spinning on my heels and rocketing down the corridor. Needing to disperse some excess energy before I do something I can’t take back, I take the stairs instead of the elevator. 

 

By the time I reach the elevator, I’m sweating as perversely as Hugo when I pull him out of the driver’s seat of my town car and slot into his place. 

 

“Stay with Isabelle,” I order before flattening my foot on the gas pedal.

 

While weaving through a thick clog of traffic, I hit the speed dial for Hunter’s number on the console in the dashboard.

 

“Officers are holding him, but they won’t be able to keep him for long.”

 

My grinding teeth are heard in my reply. “Where?”

 

“West and 42nd. He’s—”

 

I disconnect our call, over the constant excuses. If you want to follow me while I go about my day-to-day activities as a business owner, go ahead. That is part of the downfall of being a public figure. But when it comes to someone’s private life, you occasionally need to draw a line in the sand. You can’t have access to someone’s life 24/7.  Privacy laws were invented for a reason.

 

“Isaac…” greets Ross, a decorated veteran of Ravenshoe PD when I arrive on the scene.

“It’s been a long time since we last spoke.” He suspends his hand midair when he spots the expression on my face. I’m not here to talk shop with a man who thinks DUIs are the worst things he could arrest residence here with. “The photos are a little risqué, but unless they’re used in an article, there isn’t much we can do about them.”

 

“Photos?”

 

Hunter steps out of his van at the side of the flashing patrol car to join our conversation. “As I tried to tell you over the phone, the man following you is a journalist. We matched his profile with some of the surveillance images Maximus was scanning from outside Mummon Koti.” He hands me a folder full of printouts. “He’s been following you for some time. These are the images I removed from his hard drive since Officer Johns isn’t willing to hand over the SD micro-card from his camera.”

 

I open the folder before snapping it shut again. As Ross pointed out, the pictures are risqué, but since Isabelle’s hands are down the front of my pants, they’re not exactly nudes. 

 

Ross chokes on his spit when I mutter, “Give Hunter the SD card.” I’m not asking him to do this. I’m telling him it’s what he’s going to do. “Then write up the pap on a citation.”

 

“For what?” he asks, his voice a mix of shock and reverse. “As much as the paparazzi are vermin, nothing he did is illegal.” After nudging his head to the file in my hand, he mumbles, “That, on the other hand—”

 

“Occurred on private property.”

 

“Not that far out from the shore, it wasn’t,” pipes up the man sitting in the back of Officer Johns's car. “Attwood Electric doesn’t own the Atlantic Ocean.” When my sideway glance warns him how close to the line he’s treading, he holds his hands in the air like he is in the process of being arrested. “Hey. I’m just doing my job. Images like that are front-page news. Their sale will put my kids through college.”

 

I should have realized this was about money. Whether it’s a shady mafia man clinging to a criminal entity that should have sunk years ago or the manager of a ma and pa corner store, every single transaction these days comes back to a monetary amount.

 

“How much?”

 

Hunter pffts my offer. “Don’t offer him a dime, boss. I can wipe images within a second of them hitting any server in the country before disturbing every dollar he made from their sale to people more needy of the coin.”

 

“I’m not offering to buy these images. I have no doubt you will do as suggested. I want to know his hourly rate to follow me around for a couple of days.”

 

Everyone but Hunter looks lost. 

 

“You want me to tail you?” the journalist asks, his brow high with shock.

 

I jerk up my chin. “As long as you agree to sell your images to both Ravenshoe and Hopeton News.”

 

The dollar signs flashing in his eyes dull. “They’re small fry. I could get a thousand a piece at a bigger publication. They’ll be lucky to hand over a hundred a pop.” My plan deepens when he dumps the cigarette he’s partway through smoking onto the ground, stomps out the glowing ash with his boot, then digs his camera out of the back of the patrol car. “Just this one was snagged by a Las Vegas publication last night.” He shows me an image of Isabelle and me leaving 57 nightclub. Excluding Isabelle’s flushed face, and wide with lust eyes, there’s nothing extraordinary about this image. “I asked for the sky, he gave me every fucking star.”

 

“Who?”

 

He stops gleaming like a chump. “Sources are kept confidential for a reason.”

 

I stray my narrowed eyes to Hunter. “I’ll get you a name within the hour.”

 

The journalist scoffs, having no clue Hunter never messes around. 

 

If it's electronic, he’ll find it.

 

I pull a business card out of my wallet before handing it to the journalist. “If you don’t want him going through every transaction you’ve ever made, forward him your source’s contact details to this address.” I tap on the email address cited at the bottom of my business card. “Once you’ve done that, I’ll forward you the address of every establishment I plan to visit over the next two weeks. You can take as many pictures as you like and distribute them globally.” The dollar signs in his eyes are back stronger than ever. “But…” I wait to build the suspense. “If I ever catch you taking a photo of this woman…” I turn his camera back to face him so he can take in Isabelle’s features long enough to burn them into his retinas. “You will lose the ability to breathe, much less sell her image again. Do I make myself clear?”

 

The paps’ eyes stray to Officer Johns, who does a mighty fine job of acting ignorant when needed before he returns them to me. 

 

Realizing Ross won’t be of any help, he works his throat through a hard swallow before bobbing up and down his head.

 

“Words,” I snap out. “Because even pests of the paparazzi know a verbal contract is legally binding.”

 

“Yes,” he pushes out in a flurry. “I understand.”

 

“Good.” I snatch his camera out of his hand before tossing it into Hunter’s chest. “Make sure every image is removed before returning it to him. If you can’t do that without destroying it, do that, then organize a replacement camera.”

 

Hunter hums, advising he understands me before asking, “And the ones I printed?” I answer him by tightening my grip on the manilla folder. “Understood,” he mutters under his breath with a concealed grin.

 

His chuckles are still ringing in my ear when I slide behind the steering wheel or my town car and slam the door shut. I had planned to go home and shower before my ‘date’ tonight, but with the safe in my office far more advanced than the one at my home, I take a detour instead.

 

Isabelle isn’t sleeping in these photos, but the loved-up look on her face is all the proof I need that they need to be added to my ever-growing collection of the images I have of her. 

 

xx

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