I arrived at my office after having spent a much-needed week alone with Bella in Tokyo. Yes, Tokyo. After the fiasco with Vandenberger's wife delivering her baby in the middle of a business dinner, Bella and I checked out of our hotel room, took a cab to the airport, and hopped onto the first flight out of Macau—which, thankfully, had been Tokyo.
Tokyo. Wow! That city was busy...crazy busy. I'd never been anywhere so congested in my life. At the same time, the city was extremely structured, clean, and the people were super polite. I was amazed at all of the modern buildings. From a construction and engineering standpoint, they were technological wonders. In the United States, we were so used to having a ton of land and space to construct buildings, expand highways, etc, that we took land for granted. The Japanese did the same thing, but in an extremely limited space. As far as buildings were concerned, all they could do was build vertically towards the sky. And the buildings needed to be structurally sound so they could withstand earthquakes. I actually went to visit the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Tokyo and was able to talk to a few researchers about their ideas. Later, I stopped in to visit the company from whom I buy my copper wiring from for a quick visit—this was supposed to be a working vacation, after all. The president of the company was so surprised that he and his wife took Bella and I out for a sushi dinner. I liked the Yamamotos. They were polite, courteous, and they had their priorities straight. They knew we were on vacation and didn't usurp our time and when we went out to dinner, we didn't talk business at all; rather, we just talked about life in general which was a nice change when dining with a business associate.
Our time in Tokyo was a success, we got to explore a new city and my wife and I reconnected—something we desperately needed to do. We decided that Bella should definitely take her time and explore her options before returning to work again. One of the things that we both wanted was for her to take a bigger role in the charities we supported privately as a couple and the charities my company supported. It had become more important in the last year or two because our income had increased dramatically. We needed to donate a sizeable chunk of our income in order to keep our tax rate as low as possible. Taxes were a huge thorn in our side.
I settled in to my office and then called Crispy in for a quick meeting.
"How was your trip?" he asked as he seated himself across from me.
"Necessary," I told him. "Thanks for keeping things afloat here."
"Are you sure about not pursuing the contract with Vandenberger?"
"Positive. I told you what happened over the phone."
"I'm still in shock. I can't believe that the guy could be so callous as to hold an overseas business meeting when his wife was so close to her due date. Thank God Bella was there."
"So, now might be a good time for me to bring something up."
"Go for it."
"Is Bella going back to work?"
"Not yet. Why?"
"Babs is pregnant."
Pregnant? I must have looked shocked because the next thing Crispy said was, "What? Am I the only one happy about this? Babs is so upset that she's been making me sleep in a different room."
"Didn't she have to participate in order to get pregnant?"
"Yeah. She's just pissed off because her career is taking off. She's also upset because Bella's not working right now and she wants her to be her midwife."
I chuckled and patted him on the back. "Congratulations, man. I'm happy for you."
"Yeah. You'll make a great father."
"I hope so. You know, I was kind of hoping that we'd have our kids around the same time."
"Crispy, you and Babs have been married for over ten years. Bella and I haven't even gone on a proper honeymoon yet."
"Yeah, but I married Babs straight out of college before law school."
"So, it's time you two started a family."
I was about to ask if there was any other news when we heard a commotion outside. I could hear my secretary Lorna yelling, "I'm sorry, but you can't just barge into Mr. Lahote's office!"
"I've been trying to get in touch with him all week! I want to see him, now!" Joel Vandenberger abruptly burst into my office.
"How can I help you, Joel?" I asked, calmly.
"I'm just here to tell you that you've been awarded the contract for constructing my new casino."
"I don't see how. You were sent a letter stating that we've withdrawn our bid."
"You can't do that!" Vandenberger looked wild and desperate. "No one has ever withdrawn a bid from my company!"
"It's within Mr. Lahote's legal rights to withdraw any bid during the contract approval process," Crispy quickly informed him.
"Paul, your company is the best. I only want the best working on my casino. Besides, Bambi said that she'll leave me if I don't hire your company. I can't afford another divorce. I'm already shelling out millions in alimony and child support as it is."
"That's not really my problem, is it? I can't work with you. While it might be a sound decision financially, personally—I think you and I differ too much in our ways of thinking. I think you should go with Baklund."
Hell, no! Didn't you hear? Baklund's firm is under investigation. There was a roof collapse at that new multi-million dollar multiplex he just constructed. Thank God it happened before the grand opening because a ton of people could have been hurt. He took too many shortcuts. I can't risk that kind of shoddy construction." He paused for a minute and seemed to be gathering his thoughts. "Please, Paul? I'm begging you. I don't want any other firm working on my casino."
"Listen, Joel. I literally just got back to my office after a week away and I'm sitting here trying to get a briefing from my lawyer. You barging into my office and threatening my secretary is not winning you any points. I'm not discussing this any further with you."
"You didn't give me a chance in Macau. You just took off after spending less than twenty-four hours there and had your attorney express me a letter withdrawing your bid. Give me a chance to prove that entering into a contract with my company will be worthwhile for you."
"My decision is firm. Our business here is done," I told him as I escorted him out of my office. He gave me one last pleading look before the elevator doors closed.
I walked back into my office, closed the door, and sat down.
"My, my, my...the tables sure have turned. Vandenberger is begging you to put a bid in when just last week you were the one who was clamoring for the opportunity to construct his new resort."
I turned to my attorney, who happened to be my best friend, and stated in all seriousness, "I never intended for this to happen."
"For what to happen? For you to become this big? Or are you saying that you don't deserve to be successful?"
"I don't know. You have to understand that I've had a completely different upbringing from you. I come from nothing, Crispy. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. My mother was on welfare from the time I was born. She hawked food stamps meant to feed me and traded them for liquor, drugs, cigarettes, you name it. My dad...he was a drunk, too. Most of the time he was passed out cold on the sofa and my mom and I preferred it that way cause he'd beat the shit out of us when he was awake. On a daily basis, my parents would remind me that I was unwanted, that I would amount to nothing, and that I meant nothing to them. I guess there's a part of me that still thinks that I'm not good enough."
"You're not good enough? That's ridiculous! Let me tell you something, oh Alpha mine, every single person in the pack respects you. Why? We respect you because you built something out of nothing. We also respect you because you've been humble about your wealth. You've worked hard for everything that you have and you still do on a daily basis. You don't expect anything to come easily to you, and you don't expect to succeed without hard work. So, Paul, don't ever let me hear you say that you're not good enough because you deserve every bit of success that has come to you."
Crispy abruptly checked the time on his cell phone and dialed a number. "Hey, honey, what are we having for dinner tonight?"
"Chicken Cordon Bleu," I heard Bella saying. What the hell? "Jeff's coming for dinner, too. Lisa is in San Francisco on business. What about Paul? Is he going to be there?"
"I don't know, let me ask him." Crispy turned to me. "Bella wants to know if you're having dinner with us tonight."
"I don't know. Am I invited?" I scoffed. I'm pretty sure that I had a scowl on my face.
"Of course, you're invited. It's your house, buddy."
"Well, gee, thanks. I'll be there." Seriously? Crispy and Bella were planning dinner together now?
"He says he'll be there, but I'll call you by four and give you a more concrete answer. Do you need anything? Milk? Bread? Eggs?"
"Nope, we're good. I'll have dinner ready and waiting."
"Okay, see you soon, sweetheart." Click.
I stood up and eyed him nonplussed. "Just how long have you been married to my wife?"
"Since, Babs started working second shift."
"Oh...and exactly how long has that been?"
"About a month—maybe more. I missed her cooking while you were away. Anyway, I think you're right in turning Vandenberger down. Word is that he went through alternate channels in order to obtain building permits for his Macau property and that an internal audit by the SEC has found him in breach of the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. He has most likely bribed several foreign officials and his financial statements have been tampered with. You don't want to get caught in the middle of that quagmire. That's why I sent him a notarized letter forfeiting your bid to build his casino."
"Thanks for being so thorough."
"It's what I do best. Besides, I know of a project that you'll be itching to dip your feet into it."
"What is it?"
"The Pinta Band of Indians right here in Arizona just won approval to start building their casino and resort. They want us to do the construction, but they're concerned that you're too big of a company to even consider them. Baklund's company practically laughed in their faces."
"What an asshole! His loss is my gain. Set up a working luncheon with the elders and the project managers here. Let's hear what they have to say."
"You see, Paul, you've already won them over."
"Why do you say that?"
"You remembered to include the elders."
"Why the hell wouldn't I? The project managers are going to consult with them anyway."
"But people like Baklund wouldn't understand that."
"Anyway, come on. We have an early working lunch today."
"With whom? I didn't schedule anything."
I turned to Crispy. "You do realize that most lawyers wouldn't be as presumptuous as you."
"I know." He shrugged his shoulders and grinned. "Come on, we're going to Mortons."
"And just who are we meeting with?"
"A prospective client."
"Alright, we'll do it your way."
We arrived at the restaurant and were seated in a private meeting space. Crispy and I were early. He removed two files from his briefcase and put one in front of me. Just as I was about to open it, the door opened and several gentlemen walked in—several familiar gentlemen.
"Paul, Crispy—you two are early. Were you afraid I'd come down on you like a ton of bricks if you were late?"
"Something like that," Crispy mumbled to his father.
"Well, lets start the meeting, shall we?"
"Um, why am I meeting with the elders of the Wa-Ya Nation?" I asked.
"Not all elders. Jeff here isn't an elder. He's just a little peon lawyer like my son."
Okay, I'm not arguing with these guys. They were like fathers to me.
"So, what's up?"
"We would like to respectfully ask your company to do a full and complete rebuild of our casino. We would also like renovations made to several of our tribal buildings. Also, it has come to our attention that we have a drainage issue on the south side of our reservation that is affecting our farming. We need Lahote Engineering Design Concepts and Construction to diagnose and repair the issue so we aren't plagued by this problem."
"I'm going to agree to it, of course. Why are we even having this formal business luncheon?"
"So we can have steak on the tribe with no women badgering us about cholesterol levels."
"In all honesty, Jeff has something to ask you. With this, I'll give him the floor."
"In the case of Jacob Black, I would like to assign a top notch BIA lawyer to handle his divorce and custody case."
"Good, good. Who is the lawyer?"
"Her name is Tawny Hodges."
"Isn't that your sister? The one I've never met?" I asked Crispy.
"Yeah, she's the rebel."
"The rebel? Why?"
"She hates Phoenix—always has. She's always thought it was too fast paced."
"Phoenix—fast paced? It's not like it's New York City or even Seattle."
"Yeah, well, that's Tawny for you."
Jeff took over the conversation, "Tawny went to college in New Mexico, then obtained her law degree from the University of New Mexico in Tribal Law. She's worked in the family law department of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office since her graduation. About a month ago, she was transferred to the Northwest Regional Office and made head of the family law department. When that happened, I realized that we had the perfect lawyer for Jake. She knows about the coyote pack. If you give me permission to disclose information about your wolf pack and the combining of our packs, I have the power to assign her to Jake's case."
"Do it," I stated without hesitation.
"Oh, good, cause I already did." He grinned at me.
"Why the hell are you asking me then?"
"I don't know. My dad said that I should have gone through the proper chain of command."
I looked over at Jeff's father. "I'm a stickler for protocol," he agreed with a nod.
I shrugged my shoulders and just let it go. I trusted Jeff implicitly, if he felt that Tawny Hodges was the best lawyer for Jake then she absolutely was. I really wanted everything to go well for Jake. He's had a rough time and he deserved some form of vindication. Hopefully, Tawny Hodges would provide that for him.
"Is that all?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's it, unless you want to play tennis on Saturday.
"Sure, why the hell not."
"Five nights in a row, baby. I've been home for dinner for five nights in a row."
"Yes, I know. I appreciate the effort."
"It was long overdue." And spurred on by a bit of jealousy. Crispy had been eating at my house every night because of Babs's new schedule and had gotten chummy with Bella. I knew there was nothing going on between them, but I was still insanely jealous. Crispy wasn't the only one who had shown up: Randy had shown up twice because Mina had catering gigs; and Manny had stopped by simply to check up on her. And I noticed that one of the wolves always wandered in to have dessert at my house as well. What was the one thing that each one of them had asked when the saw me? "What are you doing here, Paul?" Duh, it's my house. In all honesty, I knew they were concerned about my mate's well-being and I appreciated it, but damn it, damn it, damn it! I felt like a failure. No one liked the thought of Bella home alone in the evenings so they all made an effort to check up on her.
"Honey, can you put sugar on the grocery list?"
"Yep." I walked over to the notepad on the fridge and penciled it in. "Anything else?"
"Nope, nothing yet."
She continued to straighten out the kitchen, putting things away in cabinets and...wait a second...when did we get one of those? "Um, Bella?"
"Was that one of those one cup coffee makers that I just caught sight of in that bottom cabinet there?"
Her eyes widened slightly, but she'd quickly gone back to her poker face. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"In that bottom cabinet to your left. The one you just shut."
"Don't play stupid with me. You just bought one of those instant coffee makers, didn't you?"
"So, what if I did?"
"You...you know I make the coffee in the house!"
"You haven't been home to make the coffee! Besides, I like not having to measure the coffee grounds. Those little cups are convenient."
"And I like the Dunkin' Donuts coffee better."
"You're calling me a blasphemer because I bought a Keurig machine?"
"No, I'm calling you a blasphemer for drinking that other brand of coffee!"
"Oh, give me a small break!"
"You know that I'm really sensitive about coffee, Bella!"
"You're nuts is what you are! You're obsessed with..."
We were saved from an argument by the doorbell ringing. I went to answer it wondering whom the hell could be calling at so late an hour. It was already past ten pm. "Who is it?"
"It's Joel Vandenberger."
"What the hell is he doing here?" I wondered out loud. Earlier in the day, I had just informed him that my decision to withdraw my bid to construct his casino was firm.
"I don't know. Should we make him some coffee or something?" Bella asked.
"Yeah, get out your one-cup cheaters' coffee maker."
She rolled her eyes at me, but I caught her giggling. I had to stifle my chuckle, too. We could be so ridiculous sometimes.
I opened the door and frowned. "Vandenberger, this is highly irregular. Why are you at my private residence?"
It was then that I noticed that the guy looked crazed and had two linebacker-sized goons who resembled pitbulls with him. "I thought we could discuss the build, Lahote."
"Who are your friends?"
"My bodyguards, I don't travel without them."
"That's odd, I've never seen them prior to today." I knew there was trouble coming when one of the goons fingered the outline of his gun over his jacket. I turned to Bella. "Honey, Vandenberger is here to discuss business. Don't you have that phone call to make to 'Samantha'?"
"I'll go upstairs and do that now." She nodded to me in understanding as she made her way upstairs. I saw Vandenberger and his goons eyeing her.
"Your wife is hot, you're a lucky guy."
He was trying to rile me up by mentioning Bella. I wasn't falling for any of his 'thug' tactics. I realized how Vandenberger's company had expanded so quickly—through bribery, coercion, and threats. Those two creeps were here to remind me that Bella's and my personal security could be taken away in a snap. It was going to take a hell of a lot more for them to intimidate me. With my wolf hearing, I could hear Bella calling Sam and telling him that he needed to stop by in human form because something was wrong. Good, she took the hint I gave her and ran with it. Hopefully, she'll stay upstairs while I assessed Vandenberger and his crew.
"What do you want?"
"I don't like to be refused."
"Well, so goes life—we win some and we lose some." One of the thugs cracked his neck joint after my comment. Gross. "Does your bodyguard need a chiropractor? He seems to have a kink in his neck."
Bella walked down the stairs with a smile on her face. Why the hell didn't she just stay upstairs?
"Joel, can I get you and your friends some coffee?"
"That would be nice, Isabella."
She took out her traitor coffee machine and started it up. "How are Bambi and the baby doing? I take it she's resting at home? I hope so because having a newborn isn't easy."
Vandenberger gulped. I bet he wasn't expecting that question. Bella did deliver his wife's baby...or had he forgotten that fact? He straightened himself out, cleared his throat and said, "Actually, I'm here to discuss business with Paul. Would you mind excusing yourself?"
"Yes, I would mind. This is my house. Paul knows better than to bring business home." She paused and narrowed her eyes at him. "Do not ever tell me what to do."
Yep, that's my wife! I love her!
"You're overstepping your boundaries, Isabella. Just because you delivered my wife's baby, doesn't mean that you can speak to me that way. I'm Joel Vandenberger. I'm..."
"...a Grade A asshole," Bella finished for him. "And I repeat, this is my house—a no business zone."
"That's it! Rocco, Hugo!" As soon as Vandenberger called them, his goons stepped forward. One of them plastered me up against the wall while the other one held a pen and a contract in front of my face.
"Mr. Vandenberger would like for you to sign this," he sneered.
"Um...excuse me?" Bella approached Vandenberger looking like a fierce warrior with her hands on her hips. "Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you come into our house and threaten my husband!"
"Shut the hell up before Rocco breaks off one of your husband's fingers!"
"Pfft. I'd like to see them try." Bella rolled her eyes at the two goons and smirked at them.
"You're a bitch, do you know that? I'll make sure that you learn your place! Lahote, sign the fucking contract!"
"Oh, I don't think so. No one calls my wife a bitch." I broke both arms of the guy with the chokehold on me before I knocked out the asshole holding the pen and contract in front of my face with a blow to his temple. Vandenberger shirked back, reached into his jacket, and hurriedly grabbed his gun. He pointed it directly at Bella.
"Sign the contract! Pick it up and sign it!"
"Put the gun down," I ordered. Now I was scared. I didn't need Bella getting hurt. "Put the gun down. You don't want to hurt my wife."
"Sign it! Sign the contract!"
"I can't sign the contract, Joel. I've investigated your company and I'm not impressed by the way you do business."
"I really don't give a shit about what you think. I told you, Paul—I need you working on this project. I've never been denied and I'm certainly not going to be denied by a nothing Indian."
"For someone so racist, you sure are desperate to have him work on your project," Bella commented.
"You don't know when to keep your mouth shut, do you, bitch? Clearly, your husband didn't teach you to respect your superiors."
"Do you honestly think that you're superior because you own a couple of casinos? Come on now. At the end of the day, you're just a business owner like millions of other business owners in the world. There's nothing special about you." She smirked at him. "Of course, if you shoot me, you'll be a murdering business owner. That would put you in a separate category altogether, but not entirely unique since you won't be the first psychopath who committed murder in the name of business."
For real? Isn't my wife even remotely frightened for her life? She's facing this gun-toting lunatic down without even flinching. In fact, she looks utterly relaxed. Shouldn't she be freaking out?
Vandenberger took to spitting out curse after curse at her; clearly, she had annoyed him. He waved his gun in my direction, "Shut your woman up! Do you hear me, Lahote? Shut her up! I can't think with her incessant chatter!" The guy was unstable. I started slowly making my way towards him. My goal was to disarm him.
Sam walked into the house nonchalantly carrying a plate of muffins right at that moment. He had Barry with him—both of their eyes bulged at the sight of Vandenberger wildly waving his gun around. Fortunately, he was oblivious to their presence. He had to concentrate on keeping his focus on Bella and me. Barry pulled out his service revolver.
"You know, Lahote, I don't understand you. This contract can be the start of a new business partnership. I can use a top notch guy like you on my team."
"You forget, Vandenberger, I don't work on anyone's team," I reminded him.
"You're being stupid, you know that? An alliance with my company can have many advantages for you."
"I don't see how it can be advantageous. A company like yours can bring nothing but grief to a company like mine. I actually like to operate legally without bribes, coercion, or threats. I pride myself on honesty."
"You're selling yourself short. You're still green, you have no idea how miserable I can make things for you unless you sign that contract."
"Well, in that case. Go to hell!"
My imprint suddenly sprinted in my direction and jumped in front of me. That's when I heard the gunshot.
"Nooooo!" I reached out to grab my wife who looked into my eyes, put on a brave smile, before slumping into my arms. Blood poured onto the floor. "Bellaaaa? Bellaaaa?" I cried. "Honey, please, please..."
I heard a second gun go off. Vandenberger went down, apparently taken down by Barry who radioed in for back up and several ambulances. Meanwhile, Crispy and Randy came running inside of our house—fortunately in human form. "We all knew you were in trouble—we felt it. Randy and I ran here at once, everyone else is waiting for me to call. I told them to stand by while we checked out the situation." He took a look at a limp Bella in my arms. "Oh, God. No."
"Paul, you have to let her go. Let me check out her injuries," a worried Randy urged. I didn't want to let her go. I kept holding on to her. "Let Bella go, please!"
"Paul, let Randy look at her injuries." Sam came to my side and, along with Crispy, removed my arms from Bella so Randy could work on her. There was blood everywhere...everywhere. My old alpha wrapped his arms around me, the way he used to comfort me when I first became a wolf. "Stay strong, Paul. I'm not leaving you. I'm right here," he assured.
"Paul, I've got to stop the bleeding. She's alive, but she's losing a lot of blood. Do you know where Bella's medical bag is?"
"Yeah, it's upstairs next to her nightstand."
"I'll go and get it," Crispy offered. Quick as lightening, he returned with the bag so Randy could get to work on stabilizing Bella. A few minutes later, an ambulance arrived along with more law enforcement.
I stood outside of my house as they loaded my wife into the ambulance. I wanted to go with her, but Randy insisted it would be better if he hopped in so he could continue to administer care to her. I watched angrily as Vandenberger and his two goons were handcuffed onto gurneys and herded onto separate ambulances.
Barry approached me. "Come on, Paul. Let's get you to the hospital so you can be with Bella. I'll interview you there."
I nodded my head at him. Crispy and Sam came along as well. Neither of them was willing to let me go through this alone. Barry turned to Crispy. "Tell everyone to stay where they are. This is going to turn into a fiasco once we arrive at the hospital."
I broke down and started crying. I was shattering inside. I failed to keep my imprint safe; rather, she dove in front of a bullet in order to keep me safe.
Oh God! Bella...