Isabella walked into her apartment and grinned as her dog Casper barked excitedly doing spins in front of her. “Hello boy,” she scooped him up in her arms and accepted his happy licks of welcome.
She laughed at the zealous intensity of his attentions. No matter what the rest of her day had brought, coming home to Casper was always the highlight of her day. Some days she needed him more than others but today had been a decent day and he sensed she was calm and ready to just have fun with him.
She grabbed his leash off the hook by the front door and helped him into his harness while he danced excitedly. Had anyone told her having a Dachshund as an emotional support dog was possible, she would have thought them crazy, yet she and Casper were inseparable. He was her best friend.
Her cell phone rang just as she was walking out the door and after checking the call display, she put the phone to her ear as she stepped back out the brown stone home she owned in Queens New York.
“Hey big brother, what’s up?” Isabella let Casper sniff around the tree on the sidewalk and shivered against the cool fall air.
“Just making sure you got home okay,” Elian spoke quickly.
Ever since her kidnapping when she was nineteen, her family had remained a tad overprotective. Usually though, her brother Elian, married to her boss and knew all of their secrets, was a bit more relaxed. She wondered what he really wanted.
“Which kid is crying in the background?”
“Callie,” he groaned. “How can an eighteen-month-old be so damn defiant?”
“Have you met her mother?” Isabella chuckled. Elian’s wife was not only her boss, she was her mentor, her savior and one of the most ruthless women she’d ever met. She loved her but she feared her too. Clara’s daughter Callie was proving to be a handful rivaling her mother’s tense nature. “So, what do you want?”
“Just wanted to know you got home okay.”
Elian was one of the few people in the world who knew she was more than an actuary, so his concern was odd. “I’m fine. Just out walking Casper.”
“He’s not a real dog you know,” Elian teased.
“I will let him loose on your face if you insult my dog again,” she quipped dryly, “he will eat your face.” Her brother laughed in her ear, and she rolled her eyes again, “tell me why you are checking in to make sure I got home okay. I haven’t been in the field in two weeks and my work at Draxton is literally to sort out financial risk. It’s the epitome of dry. If you looked up the least risky job in the world, actuary is it.”
“We had dinner last night with the Andropov’s,” he spoke quietly, “just wondering if you knew Evgeni was back in town?”
“Why would I?” she grimaced as she allowed Casper to take the lead and walk them down the street.
“Because you dated for three years and then suddenly you weren’t dating but Clara says you two still talk once in a while,” he was trying to be a good big brother.
She gave a mirthless laugh, “Evgeni Andropov is currently dating a leggy blonde, blue-eyed influencer who spends more time in exotic locations taking bikini photos and body shots. Trust me, I have no need to know his whereabouts.”
“So, you’re not friends with benefits?”
“Eww, Elian, I’m not discussing my s*x life with my older brother,” she shuddered at the notion. “I’d sooner talk to mom.”
“I can call her,” he offered with a low chuckle.
She heard the relief in his voice and shook her head. “Elian, I’m fine. Evgeni and I ended things on an amicable note, and I’m happy for him.” The truth was, they had hooked up twice since they had split, and she regretted it deeply. Her eldest brother did not need to know this information. He also didn’t need to know she sometimes missed the fun she’d had with the Russian but not enough to cry over. He had been her first lover but not her last and she was okay with it.
She saw Casper was ready to turn back after only five minutes of walking and shook her head. Lazy dog didn’t like the cold and it wouldn’t be long before she’d be fighting him to walk in the winter snow. “Is there anything else you need, or can I hang up now?”
“Oh, um,” he paused, “yeah, I guess Clara wants you for a minute. Hold on.”
Isabella rolled her eyes as he fumbled with his phone. How someone as composed as Clara put up with someone as technologically challenged as her brother was unknown to her.
“Isabella,” Clara’s voice was crisp on the line. “You left the office late today.”
“Checking my comings and goings boss?” she walked slowly back to her front door.
“I only know because I saw you leaving just ahead of me.” Clara’s chuckle made her smile.
“Ah, I was busted.” She laughed. “I had a report I wanted to make sure was on Calvin’s desk when he got in tomorrow morning. He had asked for a statistical risk analysis of the prototype project.”
“I told him to give you until Friday to get it in,” Clara said seriously. “He’s working you too hard.”
She laughed, “he did give me until Friday, but the data was cut and dry. I also know he’ll question thirty things in the report so if I have to redo something, it’s better I do it early so I can finalize it for him before your meeting Friday.”
“Elian said he was worried you were working too hard to avoid Evgeni,” Clara was blunt.
This was why she loved her sister-in-law. There was no beating around the bush, no pretences. She was who she was, and she made no excuses for it.
“No, not avoiding him. Didn’t know he was in town, didn’t need to know. He has a girlfriend. I’m keeping my distance.” She stepped up to the stairs and unlocked the door.
“Yeah, I met her last night. She’s a spoiled bratty socialite who needs to be knocked down a peg or two. Her father has done her no favors with her.”
Isabella rolled her eyes. “Well, I didn’t think she came from a middle-class family given her last social media photo was her on a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean.”
“You follow her on social media?” Clara asked incredulously.
“Not purposefully. She followed me and at first, I didn’t realize who it was. Stupidly I followed her back. Then when I realized who she was, it was too late to unfollow her otherwise I’d look like I cared. I have enough insanity in my life without adding my ex’s crazy new girlfriend to it yet, here we are.”
“You should come for dinner,” Clara said suddenly.
“Nope,” she refused immediately. “I heard Callie in the background, and I know you will use me as a distraction so you two can go hookup somewhere in your glass castle. Not happening. Amelia is supposed to come over and we’re supposed to watch the hockey game.”
“You could bring her here,” Clara begged.
“No,” Isabella shook her head as she bent down and removed Casper’s harness and lead. “I’m home for the night, I’m not going out unless I have a damn good reason to go out and watching my niece and nephew explore the terrible twos is not it.”
“Fine, I can’t say I blame you. This kid is out of control.” She griped, “my grandfather was here all day today and indulged her every whim and then left when she was overstimulated and exhausted.”
“Sounds like a you problem,” Isabella chuckled. “I love you Clara and I love those little demons, but I love them when they are happy and in good moods and want to play horsey on the big doggies.” A knock on her door had her looking over her shoulder as her sister popped through the door. “Amelia is here. I need to go.”
She quickly said by and threw her phone on the hall table. “Clara and Elian begging me to go over.”
Amelia pulled a face. “Edward is turning those kids into heathens. I told Clara she needs to put them in daycare with other kids their own age.” Amelia bent down and scooped Casper up. “Now this little guy is perfect!” She giggled as she accepted his kiss hello.
“He’s the perfect man and roommate. He eats whatever I make him, he never talks back, and he holds me when I’m sad.” Isabella grinned as she reached out and rubbed his ears. “How was work today? Deliver any babies?”
Her sister was a midwife and it had taken her many years to decide what she’d wanted to do with her life, but she’d found her calling and was thriving.
Amelia shook her head, her dark curls framing her face. “No, I have three ladies ready to go at any time,” she shook her phone in her hand, “so I’m on call but for now, I’m all yours.”
They went to the kitchen and Isabella pulled two beer out of the fridge and passed her sister one. “I ordered pizza on my way home. It should be here soon.”
“Yes, thin crust and not from Elian’s new pizza joint. Who the hell puts truffles on a pizza?”
“How he can even say he’s a New Yorker is beyond me,” Amelia shuddered. “I stopped in on the weekend and the special had artichoke hearts on it. Nasty.”
“Yet the place is packed, people are loving it and he’s making a killing.” Isabella shook her head in disbelief.
“Did you hear he has a television producer chasing him and Raoul to do a cooking competition?”
“Clara vetoed it immediately.” Isabella laughed as she plunked down on the sofa and grabbed the remote to turn the game on. “She said they have enough press without him actually appearing on tv.”
She rolled her eyes as she heard her phone ringing in the hall. “If it’s Clara asking me again to babysit, I’ll lose my mind.”
She walked back to the hall and grabbed her phone, immediately recognizing the number. She hit decline. She tossed the phone on the coffee table and flopped down beside her sister who was scrolling through her phone.
“Not answering it?”
“Yup. Why does he always call me when he gets serious with a girl? We broke up almost three years ago. I am not some sounding board to work through whether or not he’s making a good decision.”
“He was your first.”
“But I wasn’t his,” Isabella snapped back, “so he shouldn’t be so damn concerned about my thoughts. He thinks because he had my virginity part of me will always belong to him. It’s annoying. I can’t decide if he’s trying to rub it in he’s moved on, checking to see if I’d take him back or be his side piece.”
“No,” she shook her head. “He’s smart and funny but he’s also self-centered and more concerned with likes and follows than being a normal decent human being.”
“It still bugs you, doesn’t it?” Amelia asked quietly.
“Yes,” she admitted as she stood to answer the doorbell, glancing at her phone noting the notification her pizza had arrived and had been deposited on her doorstep. “He would have kept walking and let those thugs hurt that girl in the alley.”
“Good thing Clara taught you self-defence and you saved her,” Amelia agreed.
“I just don’t have any use for minding my own business when someone is being hurt. The only reason his bodyguard helped me was because he was worried it would get back to his father if he let me defend a girl without help.” She grimaced as her phone started ringing again. “Hit decline on my phone, will you? I can’t be bothered tonight. Tonight, I’m hanging with my sister, my dog, watching the game, drinking beer, and eating pizza.”
She left to collect the pizza and then made her way back to the living room. Her sister was making a face. “Does he always send you explicit messages?”
“They must be fighting,” Isabella reached out and turned her phone off. “The only time he does s**t like this is when he’s fighting with a girl.”
“He thinks you’ll go back with him because he thinks has a big dong?” Amelia laughed as she considered the message, he’d just sent her younger sister. “He doesn’t know we have all seen these photos, does he?”
Isabella flipped open the pizza box and grinned, “the worst part is, I believed him when he told me he was huge. What did I know? He was my first. Imagine my surprise when I hooked up with the fella from the night club and found out what eight inches really was.”
Amelia chortled with laughter as she grabbed a slice and lifted it to her lips. “Imagine being so rich and spoiled nobody has the guts to tell you your d**k is small and you’re a one-pump chump. What could be worse?”
“Being the girlfriend of someone like him and being so concerned about his exes you follow them on social media like a creepy bitch.” She took a bite of her pizza and groaned. “This,” she lifted the slice in the air, “is way better than sex.”
“You’re doing it wrong if you believe that,” Amelia grinned at her, “but since you’re still trying to find your groove, I’ll let you keep the thought.”
They clinked their beer bottles together as they both giggled and settled into the sofa with the dog between them. Isabella tried to push the thoughts of her ex-boyfriend and his current girlfriend out of her head. She had no desire to be embroiled in his antics and caught in the middle of his relationship.
Later though when she was in bed by herself her sister gone home and she was pouting over her favorite hockey team’s loss, she stared at the ceiling while Casper snored beside her. She let her mind drift back to the night she knew she couldn’t be with Evgeni any longer.
They had been walking to his car a few blocks from a dance club when they’d heard the girl’s screams of terror coming from the alley. Instantly Isabella had walked toward it, but he’d pulled her back telling her to mind her own business. She had shoved him so hard he’d fallen on his ass, and she’d run full tilt into the alley and had beaten up two guys who were trying to assault the woman. Had Evgeni’s bodyguard not followed her, a third guy lurking in the shadows could have hurt her badly. Evgeni had simply walked to the car and waited for her to come back.
She hadn’t gone back. She’d stayed with the girl until the police officers arrived and then sat with her while she was examined by the nurses at the hospital. Eventually Clara had come to sit with them both, lending support the best way Clara knew how.
In the morning when she’d known Evgeni would be at his workplace, she went to his apartment, took all her belongings, and left the spare key on his counter. She had known he was not the right man for her following those events and other than two times in the last three years, she had been able to maintain her decision to not be involved with him. She hadn’t heard from him in almost six months now.
Rumor was his father was part of the Russian mob. Evgeni had once joked with her she’d never be able to leave him, once you were in, you could never get out. Now as she lay in the quiet of her bedroom, she remembered his words and groaned. Short of killing him, she didn’t know how to get rid of him. She rolled onto her side and wrapped her arms around Casper who sighed contentedly with the action. She kissed his furry head and smiled. Who needed a man when a girl had a perfectly acceptable dog to cuddle?