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Our trip back to Mummon Koti doesn’t strip the annoyance from my veins in the slightest. In some ways, it worsens it. My exchange with Col filled Isabelle’s head with questions I am not sure I’m ready to answer just yet. If that isn’t already troubling, it once again has her looking at me as if I am a criminal, like my morals are as poorly misguided as Col’s and her father’s.
Just the thought doubles my annoyance, and it adds a touch of grouchiness to my voice I shouldn’t be directing at Isabelle but am too worked up to fully acknowledge that. Even more so when she disregards my numerous requests for her to exit my car.
Despite what she now thinks of me, her life was threatened tonight.
That is inexcusable.
“For the final time Isabelle, get out.” My last two words are spaced by big, frustrated breaths. I am beyond ropeable about tonight’s turn of events, and I’m done pretending as if I am not.
When Isabelle relatches her seat belt with a stubborn shake of her head, I treat her as if she’s a member of my staff. “For once, do as you’re told and get out!”
My shouted words scare her, but not enough to get her feet moving. With her teeth bared and her nose crinkled, she shakes her head for the second time. “No.”
A growl I can’t contain rumbles in my chest when I throw open the driver’s side door of my borrowed ride and stomp to Isabelle’s side of the car. I’m not solely irritated about her ability to disobey me and not suffer the consequences of her actions. I am furious that the more time I waste wrangling her out of the car, the more chance Col will have to evade me for the second time.
I let Cormack guide me out of the warehouse like an insolent fool the night of Ophelia’s accident because I was shocked by her anger and the subsequent mistreatment that stemmed from it. I can’t use the same excuse this time around. Isabelle may be refusing my numerous demands for her to exit my vehicle, but her hands are balled in her lap. They’re not skimming across my cheek on repeat.
Her ability to keep a cool head ensures mine is clear and sound, and I am far wiser than I was six years ago, but I have the means to stand up to Col, so I refuse to once again walk away from the fight he’s instigating.
After tossing open Isabelle’s door with enough force to pop its hinges, I lean in to unclasp her belt. The sweet smell slicking her skin boosts the arrogance thickening my veins. We were set to have the night of our lives, then a foolish bastard reminded me that rarely does anything in life come easy for me.
I fought for everything I have, and it appears as if that will continue long after I’ve hung up my gloves.
When I place Isabelle in a wicker chair on the front veranda of Mummon Koti, she springs to her feet in preparation to sprint back to my car.
“Stay here,” I snarl out in warning, the dominance in my voice unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
It has the effect I’m aiming for. It pins Isabelle in place, her eyes the only part of her body moving while watching my stalk back to my ride. I slam Isabelle’s door shut, noticing it is a tighter fit than it was earlier, before slipping behind the steering wheel and flooring the gas.
I’ve barely skidded out of the long driveway when Hunter’s cell phone number flashes up on the console of Cormack’s flamboyant ride. Even conscious he is most likely going to advise me against approaching Col, I hit the connect call button on the console. My veins are already littered with adrenaline, but there is no such thing as too much hype.
I cut him off, my blood too hot to pay the caution in his tone any attention. “Where is he?”
“Mixing in shit you should not be near.” I’m about to tell him I can take care of myself, but his next set of words steal my concentration. “Especially with Callie’s auction coming up.”
“He’s at an auction?”
His lack of reply has me wringing the steering wheel as if it is Col’s neck.
“Yes or no, Hunter?”
I hear him scrub at his beard before he mutters, “He’s in the process of organizing one.”
“With whom?” I question, my interests uncontained.
My jaw grits when he utters a name that should have automatically been on my list of suspects. “Dimitri.”
“I thought he was trying to steer his name away from the shit, not douse it in it?”
“I thought the same,” Hunter admits. “But there’s only one way to transcribe the text conversation between Dimitri and Col the past hour. It ain’t pretty.”
“And neither will be Col’s face by the time I’m done with him,” I mumble under my breath.
I realize my whisper wasn’t as soft as hoped when Hunter replies, “Then kiss your chances of winning Callie goodbye.”
I shake my head, incapable of backing down even when I should. “I don’t have to play by their rules because I am not one of them. Furthermore, he threatened Isabelle.” When he attempts to interrupt me, I reiterate. “He threatened her, Hunter. That tosses mafia etiquette on its head. The rules no longer apply.” There’s an edge of arrogance to my tone when I mutter, “Besides, you need proof of a crime to arrest someone for it, and you’ll ensure there’s none of that. Because you always make sure my hands are thoroughly cleaned.”
He breathes noisily out of his nose before his fingers working a keyboard jut out of the speaker of the console. “He has four men surrounding him.”
“Not a problem.”
“Three are carrying automatic weapons.”
He groans in frustration when I reply, “Still not an issue.”
Although his formal salutation expresses his true concern, I act as if it doesn’t. “Give me his location, then shutdown surveillance.”
When silence is the only thing resonating out of the speaker for the next twenty seconds, I prepare to remind him who he works for, but before I can, Hugo joins our conversation. “He’s at the warehouse you fought in for the first time. In an office on the west side.”
I realize Hugo and Hunter are in the same room when Hunter tells him he’s a fucking idiot. I miss what Hugo replies since he muffles the mic before speaking, but it calms Hunter down effectively enough for him to load the warehouse’s address into my GPS before advising, “The only surveillance close by is in an ATM camera three miles out. It’s currently going through an update.”
My thumb hovers half an inch above the disconnect button when Hugo issues a warning. “As my ma always said, look before you leap because you never know what’s lying beneath the surface.”
His saying is lost on me until I commence pulling down streets several miles from the university Cormack and I attended. A car is tailing me. Its headlights aren’t the standard sedan shape. They’re curved, eccentric, and as blinding as the hair on Cormack’s head when his platinum blond locks are illuminated by a streetlight.
“Call him off.”
I’m anticipating a familiar twanged, “No can do,” from Hugo.
I don’t even get a snicker.
“For fuck's sake, this isn’t his fight. Call him off!”
My narrowed eyes rocket to the rearview mirror when Cormack says, “Are you sure about that, Isaac? Because from where I’m standing, pretty much everything that happened back then was my fault.” As his voice projects from the speakers in the console, I watch his lips move in the rearview mirror. “I took you to your first fight. I paid the entrance fee. Then I accepted an offer for a fight I knew was too good to be true, but I was too greedy to ignore.”
“You left with only the clothes on your back—”
“That doesn’t excuse anything, Isaac. You were my friend. I should have looked out for you like you always did me.” He brings the hood of his car to within a car length of my trunk, then says, “So let’s do this. Let’s show Col the men we’ve grown to be.” I know where his speech is going before his mouth can articulate it. “It won’t bring Ophelia back. Hell, it might even lose you Isabelle, but why should that matter? When vengeance comes into play, who cares who it takes down. It’s all fair game, right?”
I slam on my brakes, shutting down both Cormack’s rant and my speed before I peel out of the driver’s seat and stomp to his idling car. “He threatened Isabelle!”
“Because he knew you’d react.” He clambers out of his car, then steps up to me, thrusting chest to chest. “Just like he knew using his daughter was the only way he could get to you. He can read you like a fucking book, Isaac.”
A motorist toots at me when I pin Cormack to the side of his vehicle by a rueful clutch on his shirt. I glare at him with flaring nostrils, my mood so worked up, it takes everything I have not to wipe his abhorrent grin from his face with my fists.
“Do it,” Cormack encourages, his voice without a quiver. “Hit me. Because I sure as fuck would rather you take your anger out on me than watch you play on his fucking field again.” The number of times he curses reveals how foreign our bust-up is, much less what he says next. “I thought you were better than this, Isaac? That you play a tactical yet fair game.” He nudges his head in the direction we were traveling. “None of his games are fair. And you know that because that’s the sole reason you chased Ophelia as relentlessly as you did.”
I try to shake my head, I try to brush off his claim as if it’s a lie, but the longer I stare into his eyes, the more honest his statement becomes. Ophelia rarely talked about her family or her past. I thought that centered around the loss of her mother at a young age, but it was only after her death did my thoughts probe a little deeper. She was skittish and reserved, and no matter how much I try to deny that my instincts to protect and nurture are as high as my wish to dominate and rule, my endeavors display otherwise.
I like fixing broken things. It’s why hardly any of the buildings in my empire were built from scratch. Watching an uncut gem slowly form into something magical is far more enticing than purchasing an over polished diamond on the black market. There’s value in the unknown, and Ophelia guarded her secrets almost as well as Isabelle does.
“There he is,” Cormack mutters when I loosen my grip on his shirt enough to expose he’s slowly getting through to me. “The man who can fight with his fists but prefers to use his brain. You’re smarter than him, Isaac. More tactical. And that’s all that is needed to win a game of chess.” After pulling himself out of my hold, he straightens his disheveled clothing then nudges his head to his car. His 1995 McLaren F1 is his prime pick from his fleet of vintage sports cars. “Let’s go get a drink.”
He squeezes my shoulder in support before peering past it. “Anywhere but here.”
When I follow the direction of his gaze, my palms drench with sweat. With my focus more on Cormack than the road, I didn’t realize I pulled over at the front of Ophelia’s last place of employment. Buck’s Diner is as rundown now as it was back in the day. Since it’s meant to be about what’s inside that counts, I’ve never had it revamped. Her uncared-for appearance is the reminder I need that no matter how much effort you put into something, sometimes they’re just not fixable.
It isn’t from a lack of trying.
It’s from a lack of chance.
There are no second chances when that happens.
After swallowing down my annoyance, I lock my eyes with Cormack’s. “You lead, I'll follow.” He only gets in two head bobs before the remainder of my reply slows his nods. “But when we get to where we’re going, you’re going to share your thoughts on Ophelia. The good, the bad, and the ugly.” He is already uneased about my request so picture how perverse it becomes when I add, “Then you’re going to shift your focus to Isabelle.”
“I don’t need to know her secrets, Cormack. I just need to make sure I’m not walking down the same path I did six years ago.”
As much as this kills me to admit, he was right when he said Col can read me like a book. He threatened Isabelle because he knew I wouldn’t hold back, that come hell or high water, I would protect Isabelle no matter what. That’s why I need to be smarter than him. You can’t play games with a man like Col and not expect him to cheat. It is all he knows, but for once, I’ve finally realized I don’t need to dumb myself down to make sure he copies my answers wrong.
I merely need to be ten steps ahead of him.
Well, that was the plan until I mimic Cormack’s slip into his car. My cell phone is ringing off the hook. It isn’t the one jammed into the drink holder in the middle console. It is the one Hunter only uses in emergencies, the burner phone he switches out every couple of weeks.
“What is it?” I ask after flipping up the screen and squashing it to my ear.
Before Isabelle tumbled to my feet, there was only ever one name that popped into my head when this phone rang. Tonight, there are many, and the confirmation on who it is about is like a kick to the stomach.
“It’s Izzy,” Hunter breathes out with an uneasy sigh. “Col knows who she is.”
When my heart overrules my head, I throw the gearstick into first then tear onto the street like a madman. My speed is so fast, even with Cormack’s vehicle being an old race car, it struggles to keep up with me.
I make it to the warehouse in under eight minutes, and I’m inside of it in under eight seconds. Unsurprisingly, it’s empty as Hunter warned during my race. There are clues Col was here, though. A crumpled invoice for a recently chartered flight to Las Vegas sits just left of an ashtray with a half-smoked cigar balancing on its edge. The air also has an aura of arrogance associated with it.
When I spin to face Cormack, who’s entering the warehouse red-faced and out of breath, my eye catches something in the corner of the room. “I thought you shut surveillance down?”
Hunter curses before his fingers work at a million miles an hour. “I did. That isn’t me.” When I pace closer to the blinking red contraption seemingly floating in thin air, he grunts out, “Don’t engage until I find a way to infiltrate their network.”
I ignore his suggestion. That isn’t uncommon. When it comes to my safety, nobody gets to tell me who I should or should not approach. I should have remembered that when I let Cormack blindside me ten minutes ago, then I wouldn’t be worrying about Isabelle’s true identity being exposed by a man willing to sell out anyone for a profit. Instead, nothing but tasting her for the second time would be on my mind.
Just as I recognize the unidentifiable object is a drone, it whizzes over my head and darts out the door Cormack burst through only seconds ago. Its speed only slows when it reaches a dark van with tinted windows half a block up.
“Government plates,” Hunter growls down my cell phone, his fingers still moving at the speed of light. “I can’t get an image of the occupant’s face. The tint is too dark.”
“There!” Hugo shouts just as the side door of the van pops open so the drone can be yanked in with a hook. “Did you get him?”
“No!” When the van takes off like a bat out of hell, Hunter’s keystrokes sound more like he’s working them over with his fists instead of his fingertips.
I want to join him when Hugo murmurs, “As much as you don’t want to hear this, boss, I’m going to say it. You need to stay away from Isabelle until the heat dies down.”
“I can protect her from Col,” I spit out with no uncertainty.
“No one doubts that. But who will protect Callie when they think you’re only purchasing her because you want to get into her sister’s panties?” When I can’t find an answer to his question, Hugo adds, “Get Izzy off Col’s radar, then eat your cake. It is so much sweeter than the alternative.”
“No cake at all,” we say at the same time.