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EPISODE TWENTY-Three

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“Good morning.” 

Cate, Cormack’s younger and much more dynamic sister, cozies up to my side before curling her arm around my waist. Unlike Clara’s earlier lingering touch, Cate’s affection is purely platonic. Not only is she years too young for me, and a spitting image of her brother but in the female form, unlike Isabelle, she loathes my naturally engrained dominance instead of loving it.

 

Cate thinks I’m a bear with a sore head. 

 

Mercifully, to her, it’s part and parcel of a ring-in brother. I’m as hard on her as I am Nick because I want them both to succeed. It just happens to help that they have oddly similar personalities.  

 

After returning Cate’s embrace, I ask, “How’s school?”

 

“Perfect.” She extends her reply by rolling her ‘r.’ After plucking two croissants from the pastry basket, she dumps them onto my plate before moseying to the coffee pot. “One of my professors discounted the theories you shared with me solely because of my last name, so I handed my thesis to his understudy to implement.” Her face gleams with arrogance. “And what do you know? He’s considering skipping school to start his own business.” When I arch a brow, she cocks a hip. “I know, Isaac. School first. Boys and business later.” I hide my smirk with a slanted head when she mumbles, “Party pooper.”

Cate is only nineteen. She’s a dynamite stick of mischief because her shoulders aren’t weighed down with the controversy Cormack and Clara faced before their father died. Colby has the same carefree aura as Cate. They live their lives without fear, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless they fail to find the brakes.

 

“Would you like me to speak with your professor?”

She takes a second to contemplate my offer before shaking her head. “He’ll learn. All boys do.”

 

When I groan about the deliverance of her last sentence, she bumps me with her hip before filling two mugs with coffee. “What about you? Are the rumors true? Did you really bring a date to Mummo Koti?” I wait for her to add a splash of milk to my coffee before lifting my chin. Her shock sees her drowning the brown brew until it turns milky white. “It’s true? Holy fuck!”

 

“Cate,” I chastise before reminding her that swear words won’t make her appear stronger to her competitor. It could possibly have the opposite effect.

 

She clears away the mess she made like she doesn’t have millions sitting in a trust fund waiting for her before replying, “Come on, Isaac. My shock is understandable. I never thought you’d bring a girl home.”

 

Although I don’t appreciate the jest in her tone, I value my inclusion in her family without us sharing an ounce of the same blood. Blood doesn’t make you family.  Love and respect do, and the knowledge has me speaking out of turn. “Isabelle is different. She doesn’t look at me like everyone else. She sees…”

 

“You?” Cate fills in when words elude me.

 

As a smirk tugs at my lips, I dip my chin. 

 

While swiveling on the spot, Cate says, “She sounds like a great girl. I can’t wait to meet her.” After handing me an extra milky mug of coffee, she asks, “Where is she?”

 

“Hopefully on her way,” I reply before peering out the swinging doors of the kitchen. 

 

My eyes return front and center when Cate offers, “How about you take this out on the patio while I fetch our new best friend?” She hands me an overloaded plate of food before darting for the exit.

 

“Cate…”

 

She continues skipping out the door, acting as if there isn’t an ounce of annoyance in my tone. “I won’t say anything about your grumpiness, Sir Cranky Pants. I just want to know if she’s heard what your nickname was in college.”

 

She shoots out the door before I can stop her, then even quicker than that, Clara steps into the frame, blocking my view of her scheming baby sister. “That was quick. I wasn’t expecting you at brunch for another hour.” She appears pleased my time with Isabelle was limited. “Shall we?” She waves her hand to the patio where several key members of the Attwood/McGregor entity are mingling. “Cormack took…” she pauses like she hasn’t snarled Harlow’s name a minimum of once a day for the past six weeks. “…. her riding. They won’t be back until after lunch.”

 

As I helm our walk outside, I ask, “Is he aware you withdrew your bid?”

 

Her diamond drop earrings shimmer in the midmorning sun when she shakes her head. “He left before I could tell him.” She places her hand on top of my wrist. “Please don’t share the news with him. I want him to know his position is safe directly from me.”

 

“Of course,” I reply, unsure why she’s requesting discreetness for an incident she instigated, but willing to play nice to keep things amicable between Cormack and his siblings. I railroad anyone who tries to get between Nick and me, so I have no objections sheltering less stable relations. 

 

Clara smiles like I offered her an invitation to my bed before she shifts on her feet to face Ruel who’s holding out a phone for her like he’s her personal butler. “Please excuse me a minute. It could be important.”

 

She waits for me to bob my chin before accepting her cell phone from Ruel. As she converses with her caller in a chastised tone, I seek an ideal spot to sit on the patio. It’s late in the morning, meaning the sun has a bit of a bite to it, so I pick an intimate setting under a large umbrella near the grotto pool. The ocean breeze floating over the crystal-clear water is refreshing, and the salt and sand smell mingling in the air presents a nonformal setting even with me wearing a three-piece suit.

 

Old habits die hard, but it’s worse for a man who thrives from routine. 

 

That’s all set to change this weekend, though. Callie’s injuries are still notable but she’s being well taken care of, Nick is settled and content, and although I’ve let things slip in my empire the past couple of months, the profits are still churning over like wheels on asphalt. Everything is progressing as scheduled, there’s just one matter I need to finalize. She’s breaking through French doors I guided Clara out only moments ago, her denim shorts and fitted shirt combination adding to the playfulness impinging the air. 

 

Isabelle’s smile alone demands the attention of the room, but this morning, her curvaceous thighs give it a run for its money. I don’t know what to take in first. The furling of her lips when she spots me across the room, the drawing of her knees when my molten gaze heats up every inch of her body, or her submissiveness when my head nudge for her to join me sees her immediately jumping to my unvoiced command. 

 

I go for her lips when her smile doubles from me pulling out her chair for her. I’m not surprised they’ve once again stolen my focus. I’ve fantasized about her mouth for weeks, but my thoughts shifted to corrupt after our kiss. Now I imagine them being swollen from tasks more roughish than the sting of my bite.

 

“Thank you,” Isabelle whispers before taking her seat.

An amused gleam darkens my eyes when I take in the generous helping of food on her plate. “Hungry?”

 

“Starving.” 

 

You wouldn’t believe her comment is factual when her eyes remain on my face even after I take my seat and commence eating.

 

“Eat, Isabelle.”

 

After a final glance at my face, she shifts her eyes away before plucking a croissant drizzled in chocolate from her plate. I eye her with intrigue, waiting with anticipation for the faintest moan to leave her mouth like it does every time she eats.

 

I am left disappointed when her beautiful features whiten with concern instead of deepening with pleasure. I unearth the cause of her diminished response when I shift my eyes in the direction she’s facing. Clara has finalized her phone call. She’s making her way across the pavers to us, and although her expression is friendly, Isabelle doesn’t just unmask enigmas. She has a knack for reading women's real responses as well.

 

“Isabelle, what a pleasure to see you again.” Clara’s words are for Isabelle, but her affections are solely for me—regretfully. My back molars smash together when she bops down to plant a kiss onto my cheek. If that isn’t already bad enough, she curls her arm around my waist before plopping her backside on the edge of my suit covered knee.

 

Isabelle sounds as shocked as I feel while replying to Clara’s greeting. “Hi, Clara.” 

 

In a clear show of possessiveness, Clara lifts my coffee mug from the table, spins it so her lips will press the same section of porcelain mine did only moments ago, then takes a dainty sip. 

 

I’m already ropeable about the erroneous insinuation she’s endeavoring to display, so you can picture how woeful my mood becomes when Isabelle responds exactly how Clara hoped. “Excuse me,” she murmurs under her breath before leaping to her feet. 

 

My hand shoots out to seize her wrist before she can get two steps away from me, then I yank her back into her seat a little more abruptly than intended. Acting ignorant to the disappointed sigh Clara couldn’t hold back, and the one rumbling in my chest, I lock my eyes with Isabelle’s before saying, “Eat.” 

 

A vein in her neck twangs while she returns my stare. After several long seconds of tension-filled silence, she sinks her teeth into a bagel with the tenacity my teeth have been dying to do to her bottom lip since the day she bumped into me at the airport. 

 

As the cream-cheese slathered product slides down her throat, I stand, dislodging Clara from my thigh in the process. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

 

When Isabelle nods, I snatch up Clara’s hand like she didn’t use it to soften her fall before marching her to the other side of the patio. I’m so angry, it takes everything I have not to grip her hand with enough strength to break bones. There’s only been one time I’ve had my feelings so flagrantly disregarded. Since it concurred with the death of my girlfriend only hours later, you can be assured I will not tolerate a second coming.

 

“What was that?”

 

Clara’s eyes rocket to mine like she’s blindsided by my anger, but her shock does little to smother the disdain in her voice when she murmurs, “She—”

 

“Her name is Isabelle. Either address her accordingly or not at all.”

 

When I fold my arms in front of my chest, Clara’s face goes deadpanned. “You can’t seriously be taking her…” she pauses, swallows, then starts again, “… Isabelle’s side over mine.” When I give her a look, one that announces my answer without a syllable escaping my lips, she shouts, “Why are you men so blind! I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me, but because I’m not poor, you have no time for me.”

 

“Isabelle’s financial status is not the pretext of my contact.”

 

“Then maybe it should be,” she snaps out, her face reddening in anger. “Because she isn’t here for any other reason than your wealth.” She thrusts her hand at Isabelle during the ‘she’ part of her comment. “Nobody trusts her, but you’re so focused on ridding the world of unfairness…” she air quotes her last word. “…you haven’t stopped to wonder why that is.” I attempt to scoff off her claims, but she continues talking before I can. “Even Cormack is weary. He had Maximus up until four AM this morning doing a background search on her, but here you are, schmoozing the enemy like her so-called beauty hides her hideous insides.”

 

Although her comment about Cormack ordering his head of security to run a background search on Isabelle pushes my focus a little off-center, I learned a long time ago the consequences of jumping before the gun. “Who I interact with is no business of yours, Clara. It never has been, and it never will be.”

 

As I spin and my heels to head back Isabelle’s way, Clara mutters, “I’m trying to protect you, Isaac.” 

 

When her comment does nothing but spike my agitation to an unprecedented level, she releases her frustration with a breathy scream before she exits the patioed area like she has a rocket strapped to her back. 

 

Isabelle acknowledges my return with a subtle smile, but she remains quiet. It is as frustrating as Clara’s monotonous tone ringing on repeat in my ears. It could be a coincidence that Clara picked a time that directly corresponded with Cormack’s arrival at my room, but my intuition is cautioning me to seek further clarification. Cormack’s visit was odd. I’m just unaware if that is because he found out something about Isabelle he felt the need to share, or if he was experiencing guilt about looking into her past.

It may have been a combination of both. Cormack isn’t a man who jumps first, then asks questions later. He researches every aspect of his life both business and personal. I just wish he had brought his inquisitions to me instead of a man paid to turn over every stone. Isabelle’s rights were disregarded when she was a child. I won’t allow it to happen for a second time.

 

I stop running the conversation I plan to have with Cormack through my head when Isabelle faintly asks, “Have you slept with Clara?”

I freeze with my coffee mug halfway between the table and my mouth before slinging my eyes to Isabelle. I’m not shocked by her question. I’m fascinated by the sheer jealousy in her low tone. 

While fighting the urge to run the back of my fingers down her bloomed cheek, I ask, “Are you jealous, Isabelle?” 

“No,” she replies with a huff.

She’s worse at lying than she is at hiding her envy. 

“You have absolutely nothing to be jealous about.” I’m not lying. I was confident she couldn’t be more enthralling but her dilated eyes and flushed cheeks have made a liar out of me. 

 

My brow cocks when she snaps out, “Stop skirting and answer the question.” Her voice is tinged with amusement, but there’s also a slight snippet of worry hidden behind her playful tone.

 

The panic dampening her alluring eyes clears away when I shake my head. “No, Isabelle, I have not slept with Clara.” 

 

As victory sparks through her eyes, she asks, “So, what was that about then? Because she was acting very much like she was your girlfriend.”

 

“Do I need to call a lawyer?” I ask, my tone playful. “Because this sounds a bit like an interrogation.”

 

She shrugs before murmuring, “Only people who have something to hide need to call a lawyer.”

 

“I have nothing to hide.” I mimic her nonchalant shrug before hitting her with a cocky wink. “Because I always ensure my hands are thoroughly clean.”

 

Clara’s comment about Isabelle not being trustworthy jumps back into the forefront of my mind when Isabelle replies, “Just because your hands are clean now doesn’t mean they weren’t stained previously.”

 

Testing a theory, I say, “Just because your hands are clean now doesn’t mean they won’t become stained. You don’t know what the future holds, Isabelle. Nobody does. So, until the day your body is laid into its final resting place, you can’t guarantee your hands will remain clean.” 

 

“Yes, I can. Morally and ethically—”

 

“What about for someone you love?” I interrupt, confident her thought process will alter if she looks at both sides of the coin. “You wouldn’t get your hands a little bit dirty for someone you love?”

 

Her lack of response irritates me more than I care to admit. I thrust my empire under the nose of a man who’d give anything to ruin it. I’m planning to stain it with so much murkiness, it may never come clean, yet she can’t comprehend a slight bend in moral obligations in a hypothetical setting.  

 

Perhaps more than my astuteness has been awry the past couple of months. 

 

Maybe my intuition is also crooked.

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve put everything on the line for a woman. I was just hopeful years of insistent advancement in both my intellect and empire would have yielded a different result.

 

Now I’m worried it hasn’t, and I feel like a fool.

 

“Not everything is black and white,” I mutter out before I can stop myself. “There’s a whole heap of gray no one pays any attention to.” 

 

Needing to leave before I say something I’ll later regret, I dip my chin in farewell, tuck in my chair, then enter Mummo Koti without so much as a backward glance.

xx

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