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FOUR WEEKS LATER...
While twirling amber-colored liquid around a crystal glass, I drag my eyes down Cormack's fidgeting frame for the second time tonight. He's been reticent this evening, more tense and sweaty. I've only seen him this unhinged once before. It was when he handed over a wad of cash to the MC the first time I fought in an underground college fight circuit.
He was convinced he was throwing money out the window.
I proved otherwise within ten minutes.
Eager to spot the source of his distraction, I scan the packed restaurant floor. Every year, on this exact day, my fluctuating moods are usually being scrutinized. Tonight, it's obvious Cormack's mind is far from my past grievances.
He has barely uttered Harlow's name since the incident in his conference room four weeks ago, but despite that, I'm confident she is on his mind as often as Isabelle is mine. There's a distraction only beautiful women can summon. More times than not, if used in the right manner, it's beneficial. Men are more ruthless, cut-throat, and merciless when they're striving to prove their worth.
Part of tonight's weekly meet-up is in celebration of our empires highly successful third quarter. Globally, times are tough, but since we buried ourselves in our work, hopeful it would keep our focus off matters beyond our control, our businesses saw substantial growth.
Up until earlier this week, our plans to rule the world were being implemented without a single hiccup, then something changed for Cormack. He isn't as cunning as he was at the start of the month. I wouldn't necessarily say that's a bad thing. I've always believed every breath you take should count since you're not guaranteed a specified number, but his distraction tonight is off-putting.
If my intuition is anything to go by, I'm confident it centers around a woman. Every self-made millionaire has a backstory based on the one who got away. For years, I believed Ophelia's death fueled my desire to amass the capital I'd need a hundred lifetimes to spend. After watching Cormack's interaction with Harlow last month, I reconsidered my objectives. I turned twenty-eight last month. My life is far from over. I just need to stop letting my past direct the course of my future.
Like many things in life, it's easier said than done.
When I fail to find any signs of Cormack's distraction in the restaurant's dining area, I down the remainder of my whiskey before signaling for the waiter to bring me another. While she scrambles to answer my every whim with the hope it will see her gifted an invitation into my bed, I shift my focus back to Cormack. I'm about to ask what's caused the bee in his bonnet, but before I can, he slips out of the booth we're utilizing while waiting for our table to be prepared, declaring he needs to use the restroom.
My curiosity peaks when he heads toward the front of the restaurant. The restrooms are in the back. Cormack is aware of this. Not only do we dine here every week, but his architect also assisted with the floorplan when I had the central hub gutted within a month of purchasing it. I told the pompous manager who kicked us out when we were celebrating the first million-dollar tally in my bank account that I'd fire him the instant I purchased this restaurant. I did that very thing only months later.
It's safe to say my thirst for revenge was galvanized that day.
When the waiter arrives at my table with a double nip of whiskey, I nudge my head to the front of the restaurant. "Can you see who Cormack is talking with?" I hand her a folded up hundred-dollar bill, wordlessly requesting discretion.
"Certainly, sir." Her formal salutation exposes her natural submissiveness. She doesn't seem the type who'd fully embrace the BDSM lifestyle, but she's so eager to please, nothing would be off-limits in the bedroom.
Regretfully for her, I'm not interested in discovering how far I could push things with her. She's attractive. There's just nothing extraordinary about her. Weeks ago, I would have overlooked the fact there's no chemistry between us. I may have even relished it. Now, I'm eager for something more than a mundane mutual attraction.
I nurse my half-consumed whiskey instead of finishing it when the waiter arrives back at my table. Her screwed-up nose divulges Cormack is liaising with a woman, much less the jealousy in her eyes. "Mr. McGregor is speaking with the maître d."
My lips purse with shock. April, the lead maître d of this restaurant, has impressive qualities, but Cormack could have bedded her months ago if desired, so why wait until he found a purpose for the air in his lungs to announce an interest in her?
I discover it isn't just my businesses under the pump the past couple of months when the waitress adds with a sneer, "He's attempting to have two women seated. We are fully booked out."
The way she says 'we' equally annoys and pleases me. We're not a 'we,' but I'm glad she values her position in my empire enough to class it as her own. A restaurant's brand gets customers through the door, but it's the staff that keeps them coming back.
"Have them seated at the bar until a table becomes available." The waitress isn't shocked by my suggestion. If clients are desperate to dine here even with the menu being priced out of most people's reach, I'm more than willing to cater to them. Furthermore, the tables are booked for two hours at a time. Despite this establishment bringing in high-profile guests, it's rare for someone to dine that long. "If a space doesn't become available by the time my table is ready, gift it to them. Cormack and I can take our meals to go."
"It appears as if that won't be necessary." The waitress peers at me with pleading eyes before she shifts them in the direction Cormack walked only moments ago. He's returning to our holding table with additional guests. Two guests I know very well.
"Isabelle," I greet, my voice somewhat raspy from seeing her for the first time in weeks.
With Hugo no longer on her tail and Hunter's time occupied with matters concerning my brother, I've not laid eyes on Isabelle in the flesh in over six weeks. Not only is my hooded gaze relishing the feast, so is my acute sense of smell. She smells delicious.
"Hi," Isabelle replies, sheepishly.
Even with my mood not knowing which way to swing, I can't deny she looks ravishing enough to eat. Her tight pencil pleated skirt exposes a runner's body can also be seductive, and her shimmering shirt that's scarcely containing the generous swell of her breasts enhances the mischievous twinkle in her rich, chocolate eyes.
My jaw gains an involuntary tick when it dawns on me how many hungry, lust-filled eyes are also drinking in her seductive allure. Fortunately for me, the spasms are hardly noticeable since Isabelle's eyes are devoted to one man—me.
After giving her a couple of seconds to take in my black dress pants and dark gray business shirt rolled up at the sleeves, I slide out of the booth to greet her with the ascendancy of a man who has no qualms warning others to stay away. Past conflictions haven't been resolved. I'm just not a man who sits back and watches the woman he's fascinated with be gawked at as if she's a buffet waiting to be ravished.
When I hold out my hand in offering, Isabelle slips hers into mine. Instead of shaking it as presumed, I raise the stakes of her informal greeting by placing a kiss on the edge of her palm. The shuddering breath she sucks in from my briefest touch should announce she's off-limits, but in case it doesn't, I dart my narrowed gaze between the numerous pairs of eyes watching Isabelle's every move, smirking when my glare loses her many wanton stares.
My smirk increases when Isabelle yanks her hand out of my grasp a couple of seconds later. Someone should tell her you can't shudder as she did then act disinterested. That will only increase the odds of a malicious chase.
While Isabelle peers at her hand, dumbfounded by the zap that scorched her skin when my lips landed her hand, I shift on my feet to face Cormack and Harlow. Something more than chance is at play here, and when I find out what it is, there will be hell to pay.
When the tension becomes too stifling to ignore, Harlow mutters, "I'm from the bakery." While staring straight at me, her eyes fill with pleading. She's terrified I'm about to foil her ruse that we've met more than once. "The bakery you left your card at for Izzy."
I'm tempted to let her burn at the stake. Alas, the whiskey I downed at the start of our evening has me mixing things up. A change is as good as a holiday, and I've not had one of them since… ever.
"Ah. The card that's yet to be utilized."
When I accept Harlow's offer of a handshake, Isabelle's deep exhale dries the sweat on my nape. Her wariness is as apparent as mine. Even knowing her for weeks won't stop me from saying that she was fretful my previous meetings with Harlow were personal instead of business-related.
Acting ignorant to the scorn I'm directing his way, Cormack glides his hand over the booth. "Please join us."
I do not mean to sound showy, but regular Ravenshoe patrons don't stumble onto my restaurant by accident. Marketing for an establishment of this caliber is solely via word of mouth. The prestigiousness of the clientele is high, which means big budget advertising is unnecessary. The high-priced menu we purposely leaked with the hope it would lessen the number of unpaying patrons usually puts off the people who stumble onto online advertisements. Furthermore, there are more price-appropriate restaurants Isabelle and Harlow could have chosen to dine at tonight, so I'm skeptical about believing their arrival is coincidental.
With her wide eyes bouncing between Isabelle and me, Harlow slides into the spare space next to Cormack, leaving Isabelle no other option but to sit with me. My nostrils flare for the second time when she slips past me to take her seat. She's wearing the same brand of perfume she wore the day she tumbled to my feet. It's an addictive, lush fragrance that adds a touch of riskiness to her already copious allure.
"Fuck, you smell good," I mutter before I can stop myself, my ability to maintain control null and void when she's in my presence.
Is that why Cormack did this? Is he aware Isabelle could quite possibly be the only person capable of stopping me falling into the depressive, rancorous cycle I'd give anything to skip when important events in Ophelia's life narrow close? Usually, I fall into the bed with the first woman with a remote similarity to Ophelia. Today, I'm sitting across from one with comparable features, but who couldn't be more unique if she tried.
After signaling to the waiter for another glass of whiskey, I slip into the booth next Isabelle. Her chest rises and falls in rhythm to mine, and her nerves are just as palpable.
On instinct, I endeavor to soothe her. Every fine hair on her arm bristles to attention when I drag my index finger along her forearm. I smirk, loving how receptive she is to my touch before striving to keep my focus away from that very thing. "How do you know Cormack?"
Just like when she was in the throes of a panic attack, my voice relaxes the deep groove between her dark brows. "Who?" she replies, her one-word breathless.
I point to Cormack as if he and Harlow aren't eyeballing our exchange. "Cormack."
Isabelle smiles before embarrassment clouds her impressive eyes. "I don't know him. He just offered for us to be seated with him when we couldn't get a table."
Frustrated by the unsolicited need in her voice, she scoots to the far end of the bench seat, freeing her arm from my meekest touch.
Forever inclined to place pressure on boundaries I shouldn't be anywhere near, I fill the space she forced between us, but I keep my hands to myself. It's no easy feat. My hands itch to touch her, but that isn't something I should be considering at all, much less today.
Isabelle acts oblivious to the fire burning through her from my closeness while asking, "How do you know Cormack?"
With the whiskey in my veins doubling my wish to show her I'm an honest, upstanding member of society, I gift her an invitation into my inner circle without the scrutiny other invitees have never forgone. "We met in college. He was my roommate slash manager."
A ragged gasp escapes Isabelle's luscious lips as her eyes snap to mine. "Manager?"
I halve the curiosity blazing through her eyes with a smirk. "Not that type of manager. No one is the boss of me, baby." The term of endearment is an unexpected addition to my reply, but I'm glad I didn't hold back. It not only sees Isabelle’s scarcely covered thigh encroaching onto my half of the booth again, but it also lessens the hostility in her eyes by a smidge. "I fought my way through college. Literally."
"You didn't fight; you just showed up—" I cut off Cormack's interruption with a brutal stare. He ignores it—stupid bastard. "Don't believe anything this guy tells you. He acts all innocent, then bam, you'll be on your ass before you know it."
Irritated his comment awards him the undivided attention of both the women in our booth, I forget what day it is. "Who are you to talk? You're the one who created the ruse."
We've always been competitive like this, although the stakes seem much higher this time around.
Sparks of the man I once knew blast through Cormack's eyes when he mutters, "It worked, though, didn't it?"
Having no plausible defense to his truthful statement, I sink into my seat with a smirk. His ruse did work. It helped us pocket thousands of dollars every weekend. I'm just striving to work out if he's being as evasive tonight as he was back in our college days. The smitten looks he's given Harlow the past ten minutes make it explicitly clear he likes her, but it also has me curious as to what changed between now and last month. He all but begged for me to keep him away from her, yet right now, the pleading in his eyes is doing the exact opposite.
With the tension in the air thick enough to cut, Harlow surrenders to the pressure first. "Come on, out with it. This is more suspenseful than the Game of Thrones cliff-hanger. You can't share tidbits of information, then leave us hanging. We need details. Very informative details."
"All right." Cormack builds the suspense with a short bout of silence before saying, "Imagine Isaac decked out in corduroy trousers, a pair of leather-strapped sandals, a button-up, short-sleeve shirt two sizes too small, and a pair of suspenders."
"I did not wear fucking suspenders," I interrupt, mortified. The fierce reputation I've accrued the past six years will survive a wardrobe debacle, but that isn't the point. I've had Cormack's back the past eight years, so shouldn't he have mine just as equally?
My lips twitch into a smirk when Cormack gabbers out, "It was a few years ago. Maybe my memory isn't as good as it was, but I swear at least once I got you into a pair of suspenders."
The pompous delivery of his reply causes Isabelle and Harlow to giggle. They're not dainty, humored laughs. They're full of untapped want that grows needier when it concedes with the raking of Isabelle's eyes down my body. She takes in my buttoned-up shirt, suddenly clinging trousers, and the veins pulsating in my hands before she eventually returns her hooded gaze to my face.
There's so much yearning in them, I can't help but respond. Except, I don't solely use my eyes. My hands get in on the action as well.
I drag the tip of my index finger along Isabelle's arm and am about to track it across her tiny waist when Cormack steals the thunder long before the clouds have formed. "Anyway, we have him decked out like a choirboy about to go to church on Sunday. He arrives on the scene of an underground fight ring, acting innocent like it's the first time he's been to an event like that, then once an impressive purse was negotiated for a fight, Isaac revealed his true self. By then, it was too late for his opponent to back out. An easy five G's for ten minutes of work."
He makes it sound easy. For the most part, it was, but there was one fight I'll never forget. It shaped my life in a way I wouldn't wish on anyone. It made me bitter and resentful, and it almost made me the man Isabelle accused me of being six weeks ago.
"Wow." Isabelle's glowing eyes dance between mine as she struggles to think of something wiser to say. When she fails to stumble onto anything, she aims to settle her inquisitiveness instead. "How many years did you fight?"
"Just under two years," I reply, confident our conversation is veering in a direction I'm not comfortable with, but unsure how to stop it.
My intuition is proven right when Isabelle asks, "Why did you stop fighting?"
As years of guilt crash into me, my eyes snap to Cormack in a silent plea. Usually, I blow off people's curiosity about my past with a quick-witted comment before making an excuse to leave. If that doesn't work, I leave the conversation by downing whiskey as if it is water. I can't do either of those things this time around. Not only is my glass empty, but my attempt to slide out of the booth is thwarted by the waitress arriving to advise us our table is ready.
I dip my chin in thanks before sliding out of the booth. Believing I'm eager for festivities to continue, Cormack and Harlow follow my lead. Glee is all over their faces.
The same can't be said for Isabelle.
She remains seated, peering at me with a slanted head and worry-filled eyes.
A stranger shouldn't be able to feel the unease pouring out of me; I pride myself on maintaining a rational head in confronting situations. Still, I'm certain Isabelle is aware of tension curdling in my stomach.
Her empathy sees me extending on Cormack's invitation by gesturing for her to follow the waitress to our table. It's foolish of me to do, but I'm careening too deeply into the darkness of my past to fully grasp my actions.
As I follow the waiter to our table, my final hours with Ophelia roll through my head like a movie. The horrifying footage plays on repeat, meaning I not only miss everything Cormack says during our trek, but I also act ignorant to Isabelle's shocked gasp when our arrival at our table results in me requesting for the waitress to return with an unopened bottle of scotch.
I try to push the memories of that fateful night into the back of my mind. I try to forget how it changed my life in unimaginable ways, but the more I fight the inevitable, the tighter a stranglehold of emotions choke me.
I can hear Ophelia's cries for me to stop, smell the tears that clung to her cheek when her brother fell to the boxing canvas with an unconscious roll of his eyes. I can even feel the sting of her palm when she took out the anger she should have directed at her father on my cheek.
I fought to save her from a life of misery.
In the end, I caused her much more pain, and then she died, foiling my chance to ever make things right.
I genuinely don't know where we'd be if I hadn't accepted an anonymous twenty-thousand-dollar fight bid, but I doubt Ophelia would have been buried beneath six feet of dirt before we celebrating her birthday together as an official couple. I didn't kill her, but the consequences of my actions have a lot to answer for.
The fog clouding my head clears a smidge when a tiny hand squeezes my thigh several whiskeys later. My appetizer and entree were served and removed without acknowledgement, but the briefest touch of a dainty hand breaks my head through the water enough I can suck down the quickest breath.
When my eyes collide with Isabelle's, her lips don't utter a word. She merely stares at me, like she can feel my pain as readily as I wish she could eradicate it. It's an intense, profound connection that fades to nothing when Cormack interrupts it with words powerful enough to douse the strongest inferno. "Don't take his lack of interest personally, Isabelle. For as long as I've known Isaac, he's never been interested in dating brunettes."
My fists ball as I struggle not to retort. Only part of his statement is a lie, but since that part includes the ghost of a deceased girlfriend, I can't let it slide. Ophelia died. She isn't here to defend herself, so to have her influence in my life pushed aside as if she meant nothing switches the remorse sluicing through my veins to anger.
"Oh." Isabelle wets her dry lips before returning her focus to me. "Is there any particular reason?"
She stares at me, wordlessly begging for me to deny Cormack's claims, to acknowledge his statement has no bearings on the crazy, foolish, imprudent man I was when I was with her in the plane, but the guilt is too much. It's crushing and unforgiving, and it finally has me knowledgeable of Cormack's plan of attack. He's throwing me a lifejacket on the very day I always feel as if I am drowning, and I'm foolishly going to accept it.
"It's a personal preference." With my throat harsh from the number of whiskeys I've downed in a short period, my voice comes out husky and despondent. "No brunette I've ever fucked has maintained my interests once we leave the bedroom."
Hating the lie that just spilled from my lips, I dump my napkin onto the table before standing to my feet. My quick getaway is hindered by the waitress for the second time tonight. This time, she hasn't arrived with the bill. A large chocolate cake is balancing on her hands, and the lit candles on top dance in the breeze of her breaths when she breaks into a familiar rendition of 'Happy Birthday.'
With my heart in my throat, I stray my eyes in the direction the waitress and several of her counterparts are peering. A curse word seeps from my lips when the waitress places down the cake in front of Isabelle. Suspicions force me back into my seat more than guilt. If today is Isabelle's birthday, she was born on the very same day as Ophelia—down to the wire.
That can't be a coincidence.
There's something more at play here than chance.
Doing everything in her power to stifle the tension hanging thickly in the air, Harlow locks her eyes with Isabelle before breaking out her biggest smile to date. "Make a wish," she instructs as if every bad thing can be reversed by blowing out a set of candles.
If that were the case, I would have done it years ago.
After drifting her eyes between Cormack, Harlow and me, Isabelle's eyelashes touch her cheeks before she blows out her candles with one big breath. Then, even quicker than that, her lips land on mine.