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With my mood sour from Cormack’s visit, I shower and get ready for my day at a time I’m usually heading to bed. A lot of acquisitions and business proposals have gone dormant the past couple of months, so once I’m dressed in a tailored three-piece suit, slicked back my overdue-for-a-trim hair, and placed water and tablets onto Isabelle’s bedside table, I trade assets worth millions while waiting for Isabelle to wake.


Regretfully, the early hour she went to bed doesn’t parallel with an early awakening. Hours tick over as fast as profits, and before I know it, it’s a little before ten.


While dragging a hand down my tired face, a proposal I’ve been avoiding the past few days catches my attention. It isn’t Callie’s upcoming auction. It isn’t as imperative in nature as being sold, but since it affects the man who’s been at my side for years, I need to give it the due diligence it deserves.


“Has Clara withdrawn her bid yet?”


Regan’s growl sounds down the line before the whoosh of her headshake. “Although she did schedule a meeting with key members this morning. It could either be to announce her withdrawal from the race—”


“Or a last-ditch effort to secure votes.”


She hums in agreement. 


“When is her meeting?”


“A quarter past the hour. Why? Do you think you have what it takes to persuade her, Isaac?”


If our meeting was occurring in person, I’d snuff her conceited tone with a knee-quaking sideways glare. Since it isn’t, I tell her I want the three proposals she’s juggling on my desk by close of business today. That should keep her occupied long enough, she won’t have time to meddle in my private affairs. She’s worse than Hugo of late, and that’s saying something. He’s an old romantic at heart who happens to also have a fascination for tattoos. 


I consider asking Ruel to chaperon a meeting with Clara in my room, but one smell of Isabelle’s intoxicating scent ends that thought before it’s truly considered. Isabelle is beautiful in general, but the warmer morning has given her cheeks an aroused look, and the parting of her lips as she sucks in shallow breaths is an erotic visual for any man. Furthermore, I’d rather avoid another confrontation like the one that soured my mood early this morning, not encourage one.


So, with that in mind, I stand to my feet before heading for the door. An unusual set of variables plague me partway there. Sneaking out is my go-to option when my bed companions don’t get the hint to leave, but it feels wrong this time around. I’ve been waiting for Isabelle to wake for hours, and just as she starts to rouse, I’m tiptoeing toward the door.


It feels wrong yet amusing at the same time. A man with my aura doesn’t tiptoe, but I’d be a liar if I claimed the heels of my feet have touched the floor my past ten strides.


Even if I wanted to continue with my devious exit, I lose the chance when my cell phone commences hollering. Since it isn’t the one resting on the mahogany desk in the corner of the vast space, I immediately answer it.


“Can you talk?” Hunter asks, not bothering to issue a greeting, his tone gruff.


I sling my eyes to Isabelle to ensure she’s still resting. She is but she rolled onto her side to drown out the shrill of my cell bouncing off the wallpaper walls with her pillow. After pivoting away to project my voice in the direction opposite her, I ask, “About?”


I hear Hunter scrub at his beard before he answers, “I think Callie, but I’m not one hundred percent sure.”


Conflict rains down on me. Hunter is rarely off his game, so for him to feel unease, he is truly unsure what is happening.


“Give me five minutes then I’ll call you back.”


Stealing his chance to reply, I pull my cell down from my ear, disconnect our call, then pace to Isabelle’s half of the room. Goosebumps break across her skin when the last half of my trek includes the faintest glide of my fingertip up a portion of her skin sticking out of the bedding. She looks good in my shirt, so much so, the only way it will be improved is when it’s crumpled on the floor next to my suit.


“Isabelle…” I keep my tone clipped and short with the hope it will summon more of a response from her than the moans my closeness elicited from her multiple times last night. “It’s time to wake up.”


When my command only increases the ruddy hue on her cheeks, I brush her dark hair away from her face, tuck her in like the featherdown quilt is responsible for the heat radiating out of her, then pace for the desk to call for assistance. 


Although I’d rather her not wake until I return, I can’t risk her waking alone in a foreign environment just to let my domineering personality reign supreme. Even more so since I stripped her bare.


Just as I pick up the receiver of the intercom system wired into every room at Mummo Koti, the familiar whistle of a woman unknowledgeable of her worth sounds from behind my bedroom door. 


I return the receiver to the hook before moving for the door. As suspected, Harlow is making her way down the corridor. She appears a little lost, and I don’t mean solely in reference to the location of her room. Her shoulders are hanging lower than they were when Cormack ushered her into our private jet yesterday afternoon, and her usually chipper personality seems to have been sideswiped by a truck.


When Harlow spots my stalk, I take a mental note to pass my findings onto Cormack before moving out of the shadows so I don’t look like a creeper.


After settling her erratic heart rate from my unexpected arrival, Harlow greets, “Oh, hey, Isaac. Everything okay?” When I nudge my head to Isabelle, her mouth falls open. "She's still asleep? Jesus. What's it been? Fourteen hours?"


“A little over eighteen, but who’s counting?”


Sparks of the woman Cormack is obsessed with shines brightly when she replies, “You, by the sound of it.”


I throw my head back and laugh. Touché.


When my chuckles stir Isabelle, I put motions into play to ensure I’ll be back before she wakes. “Would you mind keeping an eye on Isabelle for me? I have a very important call I need to make.” Harlow nods without pause for thought, loosening the knot in my stomach in an instant. “Thank you. I won’t be long. Please don’t leave her side. I don’t want her to wake up alone.” 


The conflicting emotions hammering me are undeniable when I press my lips to the corner of Harlow’s mouth. I’m not a kiss hello and goodbye type of man. Kissing is an intimacy I rarely participate in. When the women occupying my bed want to put their lips to work, I guide them toward an area certain to steal their focus from my mouth.


After dipping my head at Harlow, hopeful she won’t take my affection in the wrong manner, I head for the back entrance of Mummo Koti. It is where the staff come and go. Since they’re more reliant than the men and women who board Attwood Electric, I’m confident anything I say in their presence will remain between me and them. Gossip circulates more amongst people who haven’t earned their wealth than the hardworking half of society.


“Boss,” Hunter greets after answering my call within two rings. 


“What is it?”


I stop wearing out the antique rug covering the back patio when he replies, “Col Petretti didn’t assault Callie.”


“His family crest was embedded in her cheek. Only Petretti members can wear their family crest.”


Hunter huffs before disclosing, “Col was in New York at the time of her assault. I have hours of footage of him sourced from multiple locations. Half the time he was doing shit I would have preferred not to see, but there’s no denying it’s him.” Blood and gore aren’t Hunter’s kinks, but his reply seems about more than that. He has the same tight-jawed response he had when I asked him to research what happened to the previous children Vladimir sold. 


You can be assured his discoveries strengthened my determination to win Callie no matter how high her sale goes. I’ll forfeit everything I have for a little girl I don’t know simply to ensure she doesn’t encounter the cruel injustices her half-siblings have faced.


“What’s your angle?” Hunter doesn’t pause when blockers are thrown up. He plows through them.


After a beat, he says, “The theory you discussed with Parker…”


“The Popov legacy?” I fill in, hurrying him along. My intuition is telling me Isabelle is awake. I don’t have time to waste.


He hums. “It appears as if you were on the money. Col had his family crest placed onto a ring, a necklace pendant, and a knife two months ago. After paying for the order with cash, he requested for them to be delivered to the Popov mansion in Las Vegas.”


“Was the package addressed to someone specific?”


“No,” Hunter replies, frustrating me further. Col only ever keeps quiet about his schemes when they’re still in the process of being hatched. “But it reached the highest level at the Popov compound…”


“Vladimir,” I grind out at the same time as Hunter.


A keyboard being hammered sounds down the line along with Hunter’s gruff tone. “He did well covering his tracks, but he forgot about the security camera in the ATM across from Sonya’s apartment. Vladimir killed his favorite mistress and tried to frame Col for it.”


“Why would he do that?”


When a ping dings my cell phone, I pull it down from my ear. My jaw tightens to the point of cracking when I recognize the man at the front of a private jewelry firm in the image Hunter forwarded me. It’s Nikolai Popov, the exact man questioning the integrity of the Popov reign. He’s found Col’s favorite haunt to purchase custom pieces.


“Vladimir is trying to insight a mafia war.”


I hear Hunter’s office chair squeak before he hums out a murmur that’s neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Depends how far the rumors of paternity stretch. If it’s acknowledged by both entities, any payback for Nikolai’s wrongful retaliation will remain in-house.”


I don’t know much about Mafia Law, but I spent enough time with Henry, Snr. during my last two years of college to understand some of the rules they’re forced to follow. Such as, if Col is Nikolai’s father, and Nikolai kills him, the punishment for Col’s death will solely fall on Nikolai’s shoulders. If Nikolai isn’t Col’s son, and he kills him anyway, multiple laws will be broken, and privileges men in the underworld couldn’t live without will be evoked by Henry.


“If Vladimir is aware Nikolai isn’t his son, and he provokes Nikolai into killing Col, he not only gets rid of a competitor, he could rule two realms.” From the reports Hunter complied, Nikolai is a couple of months older than the heir Col is grooming to take over his rein when he dies, his youngest son, Dimitri. With Roberto’s location unknown by the Petrettis, and CJ pulling out of the race years ago, Dimitri is the sole remaining heir—if Nikolai doesn’t throw his name into the hat. “Is Henry aware of the ruckus?”


Hunter waits a beat before replying. I understand the cause of his delay when another photo pops up on the screen of my phone. It is Henry, Snr. and Nikolai standing side by side. “No one enters Henry’s house without his knowledge.”


“Hopefully that keeps Nikolai’s threat of retaliation at bay long enough he discovers the truth before he makes a mistake he can’t take back…” I pause as my throat grows scratchy. “Could we pass word to Nikolai without him being aware it came from us?”


“You want to play mafia games?” Hunter asks in disbelief.


“No,” I snap out. “I’d rather not associate with them at all, but if it’s the only way I can keep Isabelle and Callie safe, I will do it. You saw what those monsters did to Leiken. I refuse to let the same to Callie. The actions we’re putting into play are most likely years too late for Isabelle, but we still have a chance to save Callie.”


Realizing my somewhat overbearing protectiveness for a woman I hardly know has me speaking words I shouldn’t, I tell Hunter to keep me updated before hovering my thumb above the disconnect button on my phone.


Just before I squash it down, Hunter calls my name.


“Yes,” I reply after disconnecting the speaker function and placing my phone back to my ear.


My spine stiffens when he murmurs, “Remain on high alert this weekend. Col’s phone was last pinged in New York because we’re not just watching him—”


“He’s watching us as well,” I interrupt, mindful Col’s grudge from years ago is like my grief--everlasting.




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