“I’m sorry, Mr. Avery,” John offers as he glances into the rearview, his eyes apologetic. “They swarmed the garage right after I spoke with you. I tried to call and give you a head’s up, but…”
“It’s alright,” he shakes his head, cutting him off as he moves closer to me in my seat. “Just get her out of here.”
“Yes, sir,” he nods, the sound of the engine coming to life giving me no comfort as he presses down on the horn, issuing a warning blare to the people surrounding us.
They barely budge.
“Oh, my God!” I exclaim, my heart pounding inside my chest as I take in the growing mass of flashes still surrounding the car. “What the fuck?”
“Bella, watch your m-”
“Are you kidding me?” I cut him off, my voice hitched in panic and his jaw tensing at my blatant defiance. “Don’t you dare tell me to watch my mouth right now, Adam! What the hell was that? How did they get into the garage?”
“I don’t know,” he admits, shaking his head as he pulls me closer, pressing his lips to my hair as he tries to calm me. “There are cameras and security everywhere,” he reasons. “He must have paid one of the guards off. It’s the only explanation.”
“How would he even know I was leaving with you?” I demand. “We were so careful.”
“I have no idea, pumpkin.”
It wasn’t until Adam took my hand and led me through the mass of screaming reporters that I grasped just how many people were waiting for us inside the garage with Simon. I’d seen firsthand how crazy things had gotten when Adam took over, even thought I was prepared. However, nothing could have prepared me for that.
It was bedlam.
It was the first and only time I’ve ever felt unsafe with Adam.
His driver, John, navigates through the crowd, finally pulling out of the dark space and into traffic. The bright light seeps into the windows from outside illuminating the second mass of paparazzi waiting for us at the exit, pulling an expletive from his lips. Adam tucks me into his chest, hiding my face despite the tinted windows. The mob of photographers is chasing after us, filling the car with their obsessive demands until they begin to shrink in the background behind us. My hands are shaking, my breathing ragged as I think about what’s just happened, what it could mean for Adam’s future with the company, his future with me.
Once we’re in the clear and on the expressway, heading toward his penthouse, he pulls his phone from his pocket, although his attention on me remains unwavering. The faint sound of Richard’s live-in assistant comes across the line and Adam barks into the phone, making me pity the victim of his frustrations. A moment later, the line clicks again, and I hear Richard’s voice spill through the receiver, making Adam’s hold on me tighten.
“We just left Avery and Simon was waiting for us in the garage with a hoard of reporters,” Adam admits, his voice strangled with fury. “Did you tell him anything?”
A moment passes, Richard’s voice faint as Adam’s grip on me eases, his head shaking in annoyance.
“How the fuck did he find out then?” Adam demands, his voice pulling me back. “Aside from my personal staff, who is legally obligated to keep their fucking mouths shut, you’re the only person that knew about her, Richard.”
I pull away slightly and lean into the seat, the combination of cool leather and Adam’s palm reaching for my knee to give it an affectionate squeeze offering me some comfort. I feel his gaze on me and want nothing more than to turn to him, find sanctuary in him, but I can’t. I know the second I look at him, the very instant his hazel eyes meet mine, I’ll fall apart.
That’s one thing I simply can’t do right now.
I lift my hands to my face, trying my best to steady my breathing as I gently rub my temples. Remnants of bright light still lingers just behind my eyes, making it impossible to focus.
Maybe that’s best, I think to myself as I release a defeated sigh.
“Yes, I’ll wait,” he barks into the phone, his tone relieved of some of its edge, but not much until his hand moves higher on my thigh. “Baby, everything’s going to be alright.”
“How?” I manage, my voice so broken, it sounds like an imposter. “How will it be alright, Adam?” My resolve slowly begins to shatter, just as I knew it would, the second I face him. “How the fuck is anything ever going to be alright again?”
“Shh,” he whispers, his eyes softening immediately as he pulls me close once more. “It just will,” he promises, kissing my hair. “I swear to God I won’t let anything happen to you, Bella.”
“Adam,” I sigh, resting my hand against his chest as I glance up, searching his gaze before I clamp down on my lower lip with nerves. “You don’t get it, do you?” I smile sadly, shaking my head. “I don’t care what happens to me,” I admit, tracing his lips. “I can go somewhere else, get another job and start over, but you?” I manage, choking on my emotions. “You’ll lose everything just trying to spare me.”
“I’m not going to lose anything. I just need you to trust me, okay?” he vows, bending to kiss the tip of my nose. I give him a nod, swallowing the lump in my throat as he presses his lips to mine. He sees my sadness, senses my hesitation and kisses me once more. “Relax, princess. Daddy’s gonna take care of it.”
“Okay,” I whisper, taking his hand in both of mine and settling it on my lap as he returns his attention to his phone call.
I trace the band on his right hand, biting hard on the inside of my cheek to keep from crying and praying he doesn’t notice. When the pad of his thumb gently brushes over mine, I glance up finding him watching me.
“Stop,” he mouths, his eyes soft despite the command.
I release a few deep breaths, trying to steady myself. I’m nearly there when my cell phone begins to vibrate beside me in my bag, tugging at my attention.
I reach inside to retrieve it and immediately wish I hadn’t.
In addition to the half dozen texts filling my screen from my family and Christie, my social media accounts are completely on fire. Not only has everyone in my personal life already caught wind of the reports that are obviously all over the social pages, so has everyone at the both local papers and worst of all, Avery Finance.
My name is plastered everywhere from The Post to the local tabloids. I scroll through the first few headlines and some are so ridiculous, I’d find them laughable if I wasn’t in the process of fighting off this pesky nervous breakdown.
Isabella Baxter: The Woman in CEO Adam Avery’s Life
Snag a Mogul: Isabella Baxter’s Secret Weapons Revealed
Who is Isabella Baxter?
How Isabella Baxter Seduced the City’s Most Eligible Bachelor
I’m Sorry, Miss Baxter… Are Your Boobs for Real?
“Mio Dio…” I whisper, dropping my phone onto my lap and focusing my attention on my now rapid breathing.
In less than ten minutes, I’ve gone from an overlooked, random employee to the center of the city’s most exciting new untold story.
Except I’m not.
There’s nothing exciting about me save for the man whose life I’m currently threatening to unravel at the seams.
It seems my quiet little life is no longer such.
When we pull up to his building a few minutes later, the reception isn’t any less overwhelming than it had been leaving the office. They surround his car, Adam pulling me to his chest and shielding me from their cameras as we enter the private security gate leading to his garage. I take comfort in knowing his personal security is much more tightknit here than at the office. Yet, when the door closes behind us, the car growing dark before taking on the soft glow of the fluorescent lights overhead, I know it’s safe for me to pull away, but I can’t force myself from him. Instead, I remain tucked into his chest, clenching to the fabric as the sob builds in my throat.
“Richard, I need to call you back,” he says into the line, hanging up immediately and reaching for me. “What happened?” he asks, taking me in. “Baby, you have to calm down. You’re going to hyperventilate.”
“I’m trying,” I admit, finally pulling away and pushing deep breaths out before inhaling fully, my best attempt at avoiding passing out as my vision goes hazy. “What the hell are we going to do, Adam?” I breathe heavy. “It’s already everywhere. The papers, online, all over the message boards at Avery…” I choke out. “My mother is losing her shit right now.”
He takes my phone from where it’s still resting on my lap, a quick glance making him hold me closer before pulling me into his lap to straddle him.
“Bella, it’s okay,” he promises, smoothing my hair before he pushes the door open, keeping me secure in his arms. “Hold on to me, kitten,” he whispers, lifting me when my grip tightens. “Good girl,” he croons. “We’re home now, darling. You’re safe.”
By the time I’ve undressed her and given her something for her nerves, Isabella is fast asleep in my bed. I stand over her, watching her sleep for a long moment before I move into the living room and slowly begin pacing, my palm moving to my jaw in concern.
Save for the impending lawsuit from my cousin and likely, attempted removal from the board, I’ve grown used to this, taken it for granted even. Isabella hasn’t. I’ve always known that, which is why I tried so hard to protect her from it. However, I don’t think I realized until I saw the panic in her eyes this afternoon as she fell apart in my car just how overwhelming it would be for her.
“You’re going to wear a hole in the floor if you keep pacing like that, kiddo.”
The sound of Vera’s voice pulls my attention toward my doorway, surprising me.
“I thought you’d gone home for the day,” I admit, moving toward the bar for a drink.
“Not quite, sir,” she says, offering me a sympathetic smile, rubbing my arm with motherly affection. “I will be soon, but I wanted to make sure you didn’t need me for anything else before I did.”
“You helped raise me, Vera,” I smirk, recalling the hours I spent next door with her as a boy while my mother worked two jobs to support us. “You know you can call me Adam, don’t you?”
“You may have mentioned it once or twice, but old habits,” she chuckles before giving me a shrug. “How is Miss Isabella holding up?”
“She’ll be alright, thank you,” I sigh, giving her a small smile of appreciation. “We’re both going to be okay. Isabella is just a little overwhelmed to say the least. Tonight was a lot for her to take in.”
“I can only imagine,” she admits, shaking her head. “It takes some getting used to, that’s for sure, but she’s a strong, smart girl. She’s going to pull through and be just fine. You’ll see.”
“Thank you,” I manage.
“Of course,” she nods. “Do you have any idea how this happened? You were both so careful.”
“I’m not sure,” I admit. “I called Richard, he’s the only one I told outside of you and security here,” I sigh. “I know he wouldn’t… none of you would, I just… I have no idea how this happened. There must’ve been a breach at the office. Simon should have never had access to that entry, yet he not only found a way in, he had a reason. He already knew when we stepped off that elevator that she’d be with me.”
“Do you think Miss Isabella would have told any of her coworkers? Maybe someone slipped?”
“No,” I shake my head. “She told her best friend and her parents at first, but she’s even been keeping it from them. She told them we split up two weeks ago when everything started. No one knew, Vera.”
“Well, it seems like someone found out, kiddo. Someone who doesn’t care much about you or the repercussions of being so hurtful,” she sighs, patting my shoulder and giving me a soft, compassionate smile. “I’m sorry this is happening to you, but if there’s anything I can do to help…”
“Thank you,” I return her smile, knowing it hasn’t reached my eyes despite my gratitude for her. “Go home and enjoy your night. Make sure you have John go down with you. If anyone gives you any trouble, let me know and I’ll handle it.”
“Thank you. I will,” she promises. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
She moves toward the door, turning to glance over her shoulder before she leaves and smiles sweetly.
“You know, your mama was always so proud of the boy she was raising. You’ve grown into a good man, Adam,” she offers, making me swallow hard. “I tend to be of the belief that good gets good in return. You’re smart to take so much caution, but I wouldn’t worry too much about what’s to come.”
“Thank you, Vera,” I manage, my voice thick with emotion. “That means a lot.”
She nods, shaking her own emotion at remembering her best friend before pushing out a deep breath and taking her leave.
I take another sip from my glass, moving toward the bar when I find it already empty and pouring myself another. I’m leaning forward, trying to get a handle on what to do next when I hear something coming from my bedroom.
I make my way to Bella, finding her stirring in her sleep. I take a seat on the edge of the bed, running my palm over her stomach until she calms, both of us releasing a gentle sigh as she takes my hand. I lean forward to rest my elbows on my knees, my focus locked on her as I gently stroke her skin and slowly drain my scotch once more.
A long while passes where I just watch her, desperate for a way to relieve her of the impending mayhem and keep her by my side through all of it. I’ve wracked my brain in every direction when I finally lift, exhausted. I pull my clothes off and slide in beside her, savoring in the way she turns to fit perfectly against my front, her lips pursing against the inside of my arm as I press mine to her hair.
My mind has been racing all day, both of us on edge for months. They say you find solace in things coming to light and I guess somewhere deep down, I’d hoped if our relationship ever leaked out, I’d have that. Right now, though, I don’t feel solace. Right now, I feel more uneasy than I ever have before.
Her soft sigh pulls me from my wayward thoughts. I sink further into the mattress beside her, savoring in the feel of her bare skin against mine. She murmurs into my chest, her soft secrets spilling out as she dreams making my heart clench as I pull her closer.
I have no idea how to fix this, but right now, that doesn’t matter.
Right now, she just needs me beside her.
Right now, I just have to keep her safe.
When I wake to find him still wrapped around me, I can’t help the long, low breath of relief that moves through me.
It isn’t something that happens often, but he couldn’t have picked a better day to sleep in.
“Good morning, princess,” he whispers, his palm splaying over my stomach as he bends to kiss my shoulder. “How did you sleep?”
“Like I was drugged by my ridiculously handsome boyfriend in the midst of a scandal,” I manage, the corners of his lips turning up slightly on either side when I turn to face him. “Thank you for taking care of me last night,” I sigh, kissing his jaw. “I’m sorry I was such a handful. That’s the last thing you needed.”
“Hush, kitten,” he orders gently, reaching between us to angle my chin up and press his lips to mine. “It’s my privilege to take care of you. I just wish you didn’t have to be pulled into all of this. If I could, I would shield you from it altogether.”
“I wish that, too,” I admit, burrowing into his chest, humming when he wraps his arms around me tighter. “It’s not your fault, though.”
“Then why does it feel that way?” he asks, the slight tinge of vulnerability in his voice both warming and stopping my heart all at once. “If it’s not my fault, why do I feel like I’m the only person who had the power to prevent it?”
“Because you love me,” I sigh. “None of this would be happening otherwise.” I give his chest a kiss and glance up to find him staring down at me, turmoil in his eyes. “Maybe it would be best for me to go back to my apartment.”
“Just until things settle,” I argue, watching him shake his head. “Adam, they’re only being this crazy because of me. If I go back to my place, maybe then you can focus on what you need to without so much attention on us.”
“There’s only one thing I’m interested in avoiding and it has nothing to do with the media or you going back to your apartment, Bella.”
“Well, what is it then?” I ask, enraptured as I gently begin tracing his lips.
“You. Running scared,” he says bluntly, my eyes softening as he kisses my fingertips.
“Adam,” I sigh, swallowing the nerves that come both with his admission and my question. “Why do you think that’s something to concern yourself with?”
“Because I know what it’s like to be me, little one,” he says quietly, holding my eyes as he gently strokes my hair. “I’ve grown used to the prying eyes that come every time I step out of my front door. The reporters, the misconstrued truths, the never-ending pressure, the hidden agendas… manageable as it’s been the last few months, I knew it was only a matter of time. It’s all part of the package when you’re the bastard son of an Avery,” he smirks, the sadness in his eyes not escaping me regardless of how well he masks it. “But the difference between us, Bella, is that I signed up for it. I could have just as easily kept to myself, done what I was doing before I got the call about Richard. I knew what my life would become, but even knowing what was coming, I was still given the option of stepping into this lion’s den of my own accord.”
I say nothing for a long moment, simply staring back at him, feeling both compassion and appreciation at his words before I clear my throat.
“And you think I didn’t consider all of that before I knocked on your door?” I ask, pulling his eyes back to mine. “I’ll admit, what I witnessed before yesterday was little more than a glimpse from an outsider’s perspective, but I saw enough to understand why you stayed hidden for so long. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into before I ever took a step outside my door. I had no less than ten chances that night alone to turn around and go back… save myself from the very same den that’s become your reality.”
“So, why didn’t you, Bella?” he asks, his eyebrows quirking together slightly as he searches my features. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you came back, but why would you sign up for this given any other alternative?”
“I’ve seen you negotiate and have been on the losing end of at least two of our arguments. If anyone can tame a den full of bloodthirsty lions, I have the unrelenting belief that it’s you, Mr. Avery,” I whisper, searching his features. “Don’t ever let yourself believe I’m not here of my own accord. I told you before I wasn’t a smile and nod kind of girl, but I’m also not a simple-minded damsel, either. I can promise you that if I ever take a step away from this, it will have nothing to do with who is or isn’t waiting downstairs with a camera or the threat they may be tempted to bring my way,” I nuzzle into his chest, savoring in the feel of his strong arms winding around me, holding me closer. “It’s of little concern to me what type of person you are when the world is watching. I’m much more interested in the man you are when they’re not. If our brief history has shown me anything, it’s that the privilege of being with the man no one else gets to see far outweighs the risk of falling for my boss. It’s easy to walk into a lion’s den when I know the reward is you.”