SIX YEARS EARLIER
Isabel hopped off the subway and alighted in Starling City. Her hair was pulled back into a loose bun and she wore thick-framed glasses. Patent leather flats accompanied a tweed knee-length dress that was a little too tight for her full figure. She looked a little frumpy, and slightly unsure of herself. A business student and time-poor, she quickly checked her watch and picked up the pace as she reached the sidewalk.
I’m going to be late…
She wove her way gingerly through the pedestrians, trying to appear invisible as she passed them. When she finally reached her destination, the headquarters of the mega-corporation Queen Consolidated, Isabel smiled as she entered the building.
“Good morning, Bobby!” She greeted the security guard as she swiped her QC badge to enter.
“And hello to you, Miss Rochev,” Bobby replied. “You look happy for a Monday.”
“Not much to complain about when you intern at the number one company in the city,” Isabel said, grinning now as she headed for the elevator.
A few minutes later Isabel arrived at her cubicle, placed her bag down, and logged into her computer. She walked over to her cubicle neighbor, Marcus, to see his head down, buried into his arms on his desk—asleep.
“I guess I don’t need to ask you how wild your weekend was.”
Sitting up with a jolt, Marcus looked groggily at her.
“Ergh,” he responded. “I hate Mondays. I have all this work due to Mr. Klein by the afternoon staff meeting. I’m not nearly finished, and this hangover won’t quit.”
“Okay, well, I’m happy to help you if you need it,” Isabel said.
Marcus smiled weakly. “You love work way too much for an intern, my friend.”
* * *
Later in the afternoon, Isabel and her friend Becca caught up while en route to a meeting. They chattered down the hall, carrying their notes with them.
“So tell me about your weekend,” Isabel said. “Anything fun and noteworthy happen?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. I partied way too hard at Spark.”
“It’s a club! Geez, Isabel, you have to come next time—the boys are so cute there, and they’ll buy you endless shots.” Isabel smiled shyly at this revelation. It sounded pretty far out of her comfort zone. “Then I don’t really remember how,” Becca continued, “but I ended up at Big Belly Burger, and I woke up yesterday with this massive hangover.” She frowned, remembering the pain, then brightened. “But next time—you are coming!”
“Yeah, well… maybe,” Isabel said doubtfully. “I’m not much of a drinker.” This warranted an eye roll from her friend.
“So what did you do this weekend?” Becca asked.
“I pretty much just worked on my reports that were due to Mr. Klein. I wanted to get a head start on things. Then I went for a jog—”
“Seriously,” Becca interrupted, “you need to come out with me—you need a life. It can’t be all about business school and this internship.”
Isabel turned without stopping. “I don’t see anything wrong with getting my work done,” she protested. “Plus isn’t now the time where we should be all work and no play—”
She ran right into someone as she turned the corner into the hall. Her files and notes flew up into the air and landed, scattered, on the ground. Recovering her balance, she bent rapidly to pick them up.
Becca burst into giggles.
“I am so sorry! I am so sorry, I wasn’t paying attention,” Isabel babbled as she looked up to see who she had hit. It was none other than the CEO of Queen Consolidated, Robert Queen. Isabel felt her heart start to race and her stomach drop to the floor. Then, to her surprise, a loud, contagious laugh escaped her victim’s mouth as he bent down to help Isabel pick up her work.
“It’s my fault really,” he protested. “I was too distracted by such a young woman saying that her life should be all work and no play, Miss…” Mr. Queen said as he handed Isabel her files.
“Rochev,” Isabel managed to croak out. “Isabel Rochev.”
Ohmigod, he’s talking to me.
“Isabel. What a beautiful name. What department do you work in that keeps you from living your life in such a way?”
“I’m just an intern, Mr. Queen,” she replied meekly.
“Intern? All the more reason to be out there enjoying yourself—you only live once, you know?” he said with a wink.
“What is it that you want to do, Miss Isabel Rochev?” Mr. Queen asked.
“She wants to take your job,” Becca blurted out.
“Well… not exactly,” Isabel said, glaring daggers at her friend. I can’t believe she said that!
“My job!” he responded, and he smiled. “I like that. Hopefully someday,” he added without taking his eyes off her. “A word of advice, though, since you’re going to be taking over for me one day—business is supposed to be interesting, and fun. If you concentrate too much on the tedium, you’ll miss out on all the good.” Mr. Queen gave Isabel another wink, then adjusted his tie.
His confidence was almost intoxicating.
“I hope to be seeing more of you, Miss Rochev,” Mr. Queen said, placing a hand on Isabel’s shoulder as he moved past her to continue down the hall. She and Becca turned slowly to watch—his swagger undeniably attractive—as Isabel touched her warm cheeks, which were flushed with embarrassment. She took a breath, feeling completely the fool. To her surprise, however, she also felt intrigued, and wanted more of whatever it was that she had just had.
* * *
A few days later, Isabel was in her cubicle working diligently on a complicated report after business hours. She was startled when her intern advisor, Mr. Klein, suddenly appeared, peering down at her, giving her a strange look.
“Working late again?” he said. “Isabel, I can’t tell you how impressed I am with your work. The presentation you did with your team went above and beyond the call of duty.” Humbled, she thanked him profusely and expressed her gratitude for all his support and guidance. But she could tell there was something else on his mind.
“You’ve made an impression on me,” he said, “and, it would appear, you’ve also made an impression on Mr. Queen. He’d like to speak with you directly… in his office.”
Isabel gulped hard. “Mr. Queen?” she said. “Why does he want to talk to me?”
Mr. Klein smiled. “Don’t worry, Isabel, your future here at Queen Consolidated will be bright and long, of that I’m sure. There’s no reason you should be intimidated.” With that Mr. Klein went on his way, leaving Isabel in a panic-stricken daze.
What did he mean by that? she wondered.
She got up abruptly, reached into her desk drawer, and pulled out some perfume and gum. After a few puffs of perfume, and shoving gum into her mouth, Isabel headed for the elevator. During the ride up, she fretted about what might be waiting for her at the top. Emerging from the elevator, she saw Robert Queen standing next to the large glass doors. He was dressed in an impeccable suit.
“Miss Rochev, please come in!” He beamed as Isabel entered his office, outfitted with a lot of dark, expensive-looking furniture. She sat down nervously in a leather club chair, scanning her surroundings, admiring the artwork on the walls and the array of books displayed on high shelves. There was a framed photo on the side table next to her—it was a photo of the Queen family. Everyone who worked at Queen Consolidated recognized the golden ones. Robert and his wife, Moira, were smiling while Oliver and Thea made faces into the camera.
Isabel smiled. Suddenly her eyes went wide as she realized she still was chewing her gum.
He’ll think I’m an idiot—a stupid little girl.
As Queen turned to step behind his desk, she pulled it out of her mouth. Glancing around, she couldn’t find a wastebasket, so she slipped her hand under the edge of the chair and stuck the gum there.
“Your daughter is adorable, Mr. Queen,” she said nervously, motioning to the photo.
“Oh, don’t let her cuteness fool you,” Mr. Queen said. “She’s a handful, that one—but so smart and beautiful. I love her for keeping me on my toes.” He smiled proudly as he offered Isabel a glass of Scotch from a nearby sideboard. She set the glass on the table, hoping he wouldn’t notice.
“Most girls tend to do that to their fathers,” she said, and she laughed in spite of herself. He smiled in agreement.
“My son, Oliver, he was easy as a child,” he said. “We’d play catch, or I’d take him to a game and he would be the happiest kid in the world. Now, Thea, on the other hand, she loves to challenge me in ways I never thought possible, always asking for the moon, and I always try to give it to her.” Mr. Queen was glowing with pride as he spoke. That made Isabel smile.
Abruptly he grabbed his glass of Scotch and raised it.
“Cheers,” he said. “To challenges and new possibilities.”
“Oh… I probably shouldn’t,” she replied, eyeing her glass and trying not to sound too meek. “I’m not much of a drinker.”
“Nonsense, this is the ‘mixing work and play’ part of the job, Miss Rochev,” Mr. Queen said, giving her a wink as he took a sip from his drink and sat down on the couch opposite her. “Still, you’re probably wondering why you’re here. I can assure you, it’s nothing to be alarmed about.
“As you know,” he continued, “being CEO of this great company comes with great responsibility, and I take pride in knowing what everyone is doing within these walls. I asked Mr. Klein how the presentations were going, and he immediately singled you out among our fine crop of interns this year.” Isabel was thrilled to hear this, but tried her best to hide her growing excitement.
“And as much as I hate to admit it, I am not getting any younger,” Mr. Queen continued. “I won’t be around forever and even though my son, Oliver, will someday take over the company, Queen Consolidated will only survive with good, strong-willed people on the board helping him, supporting him. We’re only as good as our best employees.” He reached for his Scotch and took another sip. Then he peered at her intently.
“I’d like to become your mentor, Miss Rochev. You show great promise, are a true asset to the company, and I want to make sure you get the chance to shine.”
Isabel sat very still, unable to speak. She wasn’t exactly sure what she could say that wouldn’t sound completely unprofessional—and then it would be over. She ran her fingers through her hair, thinking carefully about how to thank him.
“Mr. Queen, I don’t even know what to say,” she replied slowly. “Working here has been a dream of mine for so long. I love coming to the office every day, and I am so flattered that you see potential in me. I’d be honored if you became my mentor.” She paused, trying to maintain her composure. She then picked up her drink and extended it toward him.
“To new challenges and endless possibilities,” Isabel said as the two clinked their glasses together.
Monday morning, and Isabel arrived at her cubicle, as usual. She walked with confidence and purpose, dressed in a sleek black pencil skirt with a pink long-sleeved shirt on top. She had traded in her patent leather flats for a refined black stiletto. Her hair had a light curl to it, and her heavy glasses were nowhere to be seen.
“Oh… you look fancy, who are you trying to impress?” Becca inquired.
Isabel smiled, knowing she looked good. “No one.”
“Perhaps… Mr. Queen?” Becca suggested.
“Becca, he’s my boss!” she protested. “Actually, I’m going to try to make the intern mixer tonight, if I can get everything done in time.”
“Finally!” Becca squealed. “We get you out of this cubicle and into the world with us! I’m so excited!”
For more weeks than she could count, Robert had been Isabel’s mentor, meeting with her regularly, showing her the ropes. She had already learned so much–things she would never find in a book or back in a classroom. She felt as if she mattered in some way to the company, and, more importantly, to someone in the company. Robert had real life experience—at building an empire, and making a name for himself.
That was what she wanted, and to get it she had to continue making changes. One of them was to practice the art of socializing.
* * *
The end of the day arrived, and the two women prepared to leave. They were interrupted when Mr. Klein popped over to tell Isabel that Mr. Queen wanted to see her. She managed to hide her excitement at the prospect of another late night spent with Robert, talking endlessly about business, and even life in general.
Her friend shot her a look.
“Next time, Becca, I swear,” Isabel said as she grabbed her belongings and headed for the elevator to the top floor.
* * *
Takeout Chinese food was spread out on the coffee table, mixed with work papers. Isabel sat on the floor eating with chopsticks while Robert sat on the couch across from her. She laughed, despite the fact that her mouth was filled with lo mein.
“I can’t believe you were arrested in college!” she said. “That’s insane.”
“Oh, yes, I was young and dumb as most teenagers tend to be—it’s probably where Oliver, gets it from,” Mr. Queen said as he stuffed a dumpling into his mouth. He looked at his watch. “It’s past nine o’clock, please don’t let me keep you if you have weekend plans.”
“I’m right where I want to be,” Isabel said as she scooped noodles into her mouth.
Robert grinned, looking pleased with Isabel’s response.
“So, what about you?” he asked. “What crazy stories do you have from your childhood?”
Isabel put down her chopsticks and took a long sip of water, clearly not wanting to give away too much information.
“C’mon, Isabel,” he prompted. “I’ve been your mentor for four months now. This is the third Friday in a row we’ve sat and chatted over cheap takeout, I think I have earned the right to know a little bit more about you. Where are you from? What are your parents like? They must be proud of their daughter.” He moved from the couch to join Isabel on the floor.
“As cliché as it sounds, my parents were simple people,” she replied reluctantly. “I was born in a small town in Russia where they were also born. My father, whose name was Viktor, made some poor business choices while we lived there. He became indebted to the Bratva, the Russian mob, and, well…” She stopped for a moment, before continuing. “When I was nine years old, they ended up taking both my parents’ lives.” Isabel looked away, and tears slowly welled up in her brown eyes. “So I was shipped off to the States as an orphan. I don’t remember much—I feel like I’ve blocked a lot of those terrible memories from my mind.
“From that time on, I spent my childhood going from facility to facility, until finally I landed in a foster home. The couple that raised me are lovely people, but I never felt a very strong connection to them, which is why I think I’m sometimes unemotional about things… except for right now,” Isabel said, wiping away her tears and feeling as if she could die from embarrassment.
Robert reached for her hand. She tried to hide her reaction, but then, in that instant, it didn’t feel all that surprising. In fact, it felt right and—above all—comforting to her. She smiled at the gesture, wiping her eyes again.
“You are a strong… and special young woman, Isabel,” Robert said. “I am in awe of you.” Isabel felt her heart leap at the compliment, and did her best to brush it aside.
“So I just poured my heart and soul into school,” she continued. “My parents—the real ones—always told me they wanted my life to be different from theirs. I made a promise to them, and to myself, that one day I would make something of myself. That one day people would know my name, and it would mean something…”
“That is very admirable, Isabel,” Robert interjected. “However, as I’ve said to you before, don’t forget that there is more to life than work.” He paused, then continued, “Work is wonderful, and gives you a purpose, but don’t let that be the only purpose you have for yourself. Don’t be afraid to take a chance, every now and again.”
Isabel looked into his eyes as she felt his thumb softly stroke her hand, and realized her mouth had gone dry and she wasn’t physically able to speak.
“I know what it’s like to come from nothing,” he said. “I remember coming to Starling, and not knowing what to do with myself. I had so many doors slammed in my face. But you and I share a lot of the same qualities, it seems. One of them being perseverance.
“Many people assume that this name, this empire, the money is all something I’ve had my whole life, but the truth of the matter is, I married into the money, the connections—and the good and bad that come with that. I know what it’s like to struggle—to want and see something for yourself that some days just seems so unobtainable. Yet I’m living proof that it is obtainable.”
Isabel smiled, appreciating Robert’s willingness to share.
“It’s given me such joy to watch you grow these past few months, and there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that good fortune will come to you.” He winked. “And that people will know your name.”
Isabel beamed at his words. She slowly let go of his hand and leaned into him, grabbing the fortune cookie from the table behind him.
“For now, I’ll have to settle on a fortune cookie,” she said as she unwrapped the cookie from its plastic. Robert grabbed a cookie for himself. Isabel carefully cracked open hers, popping half of it into her mouth as she unraveled the fortune.
“The greatest risk is not taking one,” she quoted, looking coquettishly at him.
“A voyage will fill your life with untold mysteries,” Robert read enigmatically, looking at Isabel.
The two sat in silence for a moment, breathing each other in. Isabel reminded herself of her position—that she was an intern, and Robert was her mentor—but her heart yearned for him. She wanted to find out all there was to know about him, but she stopped herself—realizing her feelings were growing into something beyond the professional. He was the reason she got out of bed in the morning. He was the reason she had changed her wardrobe, and he was the reason she had pep in her step.
Suddenly, flooded with emotions she didn’t know how to process, Isabel reached for her bag, thanked Robert abruptly for a good time, and left his office.
Isabel stood in the gathering gloom on the cold doorstep of the Queen mansion, wrapped up in fear.
She had been curious for quite some time about Robert’s home—how he lived, how lavish his home really was. Standing there nervous in her slate-gray business suit, in her feeble attempt to keep this uncharacteristic personal setting professional, she finally found the courage and knocked on the door. Robert answered in jeans and a polo shirt, a casual look Isabel wasn’t used to seeing.
“Isabel, so happy you could stop by,” he said, giving her a hug. “Please come in and be warm.”
As she entered she couldn’t help but gasp at its beauty and scope. Isabel’s entire apartment could have fit into the foyer, with its wide-open space and art scattered on the walls. An array of American landscapes surrounded her. A large golden chandelier hung from the ceiling, looking impressively expensive. Robert led her into the living room, where they were met by plush white furniture and a black grand piano in the corner. The gas fireplace was lit with a roaring flame.
“This house is incredible,” she finally said.
“Thank you, although I can’t take credit for much,” Robert replied. “My wife hired decorators, and an old college friend of mine did the overall design.”
Isabel carefully sat on a pristine white sofa and put her briefcase on her lap. She opened it up, pulled out several folders, and placed them on the glass coffee table.
“Here are the files you requested,” Isabel stammered, trying to keep composure as Robert took a seat next to her. Why didn’t I sit in a chair? she chided herself.
“Thank you, but I have to be honest,” Robert said with a note of reluctance, “I called for them as an excuse to see you.” He stopped, and seemed to gather his thoughts. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he confessed. “I had to see you.”
Isabel blushed at his honesty. It had been several days since their encounter in the office, and despite the effort she had put into maintaining a purely professional attitude, she was afraid and excited by what this meant. Her head asked so many questions, but her heart was fluttering with emotion.
“Is your… family at home?” she stuttered.
“Moira and Thea are having a mother-daughter weekend in the city, and Oliver is out for the night with his friend, Tommy. He won’t be returning till much later, if at all.” He smiled, then placed his arm along the back of the couch. After a moment, he spoke again. “I know you probably think this is wrong of me. I know, I am married… but there’s just something about you, Isabel.”
His words hung there in the air, and she was unsure what to do.
Finally her emotions overcame her, pushing rational thought to the back of her mind. Like a spectator hovering outside of her own body, she felt herself lean closer to him on the couch, and he did the same. The two hovered with their lips close—timid and eager at the same time. Finally, Robert pressed his lips to hers, as Isabel felt the kiss for which she had been longing.
He put his hands on her face, and Isabel melted, putting her arms around his neck, taking his advice and letting go of herself, feeling his heart beating against hers. Her heart, ready for whatever was to come as Robert lifted his hands off her face and moved them down to unbutton her blouse.
* * *
They lay on the Persian carpet, wrapped naked in blankets by the fire. Isabel nestled herself into Robert’s chest and was taken aback by how natural it felt. She realized how strong her feelings were.
“I don’t want this to end,” she said, searching his eyes.
Robert kissed her forehead. “Nor do I.”
Just then, a car sped into the driveway. Robert rose quickly, going to the window. She followed, and saw Oliver stumble out of a car, clearly drunk. Robert rolled his eyes at his son’s childish actions, and Isabel hurriedly started to gather her belongings.
“What should I do?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “Oliver won’t remember anything in the morning, regardless of what he sees. And you can leave out the east wing of the house—there’s a side door.”
Despite his calm, Isabel quickly dressed, then scurried over to the door, kissing Robert on the lips. She slipped out into the night and peeked her head around the corner to see Oliver and his friend shouting in the driveway.
“I wanted to go home with her,” Oliver shouted.
“One little problem, buddy,” his companion replied. “What would you do tomorrow morning when you woke up and it wasn’t Laurel. It would be Sara—her sister, and there’d be hell to pay.”
“That’s easy,” Oliver said, slurring the words slightly. “After I’m done with Sara, I’ll just sneak into Laurel’s room and act like nothing happened. I’m smooth like that, Tommy.” He stumbled toward the door.
“Oh, yeah, real smooth,” Tommy said as the two entered the mansion. Isabel waited for the door to shut, and then ran to her car. She jammed the key into the ignition, started the engine, and drove into the night, her heart racing.
Never again, she promised herself—but she knew she was lying.
A trail of clothes led to Isabel’s bedroom, and right up to her bed. She and Robert lay tangled together in the sheets. They smiled at each other, happy and content. She rolled toward him, nestling herself in his arms as she liked to do after lovemaking.
“I love you,” Isabel said, and even after all the weeks, she was surprised at how naturally it came out.
“I love you, too,” Robert said, kissing her on the forehead.
“I wish we could stay here forever,” she murmured. “Forget about everything else in the world, and just be.”
“Why don’t we?” he asked. She just laughed at him, reaching for her robe and getting out of bed. “I’m serious, Isabel,” Robert said, sitting up in the bed. “I have been doing some thinking, and I think it’s time I left Moira.”
She turned to him.
Robert got out of bed and together they moved to the kitchen. He went over to the coffeemaker and turned it on, familiar with the way it worked.
“Yes, I think it’s about time I left Moira,” he repeated. “We’re terribly unhappy together, and I can’t stand being away from you. When I’m with my kids or Moira… I’m only thinking of you.” He handed her a cup of coffee.
“I can’t believe this,” Isabel breathed. “This is amazing,” she added, and then she frowned. “But what about the children? What about your reputation?”
“It won’t be easy by any means,” he acknowledged. “I’m still a father, and I want to be there for my kids, have custody of them—which I’m sure Moira will fight. Still, you and I could have a fresh start together. I’ve been dying to retire. You can take over, and then you can bring home the bacon.”
“I… I don’t know what to say,” Isabel said. “You’ve taught me so much, but I’m nowhere near ready.”
Robert went to her, grabbed both of her hands, and placed them on his chest.
“It would happen gradually,” he said. “You’d take part in more and more of the day-to-day processes, slowly but surely, so no one becomes alarmed. Even after I step down, I’ll work with you behind the scenes. The most important thing will be trust.” He peered into her eyes. “There is no one I trust more than you.”
“Not even Oliver?” Isabel said. “And what about Walter?” she asked. Walter Steele was Robert’s CEO and closest friend.
“Oliver is young and foolish, and wasn’t born a leader,” Robert said ruefully. “Walter will be taken care of—I owe him that much—and you, Isabel Rochev, were born to lead. You will be my future. I promise.”
Overwhelmed by his words, she kissed him passionately as he pulled off her robe.
* * *
Isabel and Becca sat in a booth in an upscale bar near Morton Square. Isabel took a sip of her wine as her friend scanned the room.
“Oh! He’s cute!” Becca said as she motioned toward a guy at the bar. “He’s in a suit, too, which means he probably has a job.”
Isabel glanced over at the guy, and shrugged.
“What, you don’t think he’s cute?” Becca asked.
“Look at his left hand,” Isabel said, smiling and taking another sip of her wine. “He’s married.”
Becca slammed her fist on the table.
“Seriously! All the good ones are either married or gay, I swear.”
“Don’t I know it,” Isabel said under her breath.
“Care to elaborate on that, missy?” Becca said.
Isabel shrugged her shoulders and took another sip, evading the topic.
“Well, take some advice from someone who… knows someone who knows,” Becca said. “Don’t get mixed up with married men. No matter what they say, they never leave their wives.” She summoned the waitress over for another round.
* * *
THUD. THUD. THUD.
Isabel opened the door to her apartment, and was shocked to find Robert on her stoop—with suitcases.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. It was winter, and the hall was cold.
“Isabel, we’ve been together for almost a year now,” he said, “and it’s all become clear to me. I want to start a new life together, leave this one behind, start over somewhere new where no one knows us.”
Suddenly she realized he wasn’t there to move in, and found herself skeptical about this sudden urge to leave town.
“What about your children,” she said, “and being a father to them? What about the company, and all of those wonderful challenges you said I… we could take on?” In response he stepped through the door and grabbed her tightly round the waist, brushed a lock of her hair out of her face.
“One day when my children are older and in love… they’ll understand why I’m doing this,” he said. “For now, let’s just go, and leave it all behind.”
Is this for real? Isabel thought to herself. For as long as she could remember she’d wanted Robert to say these words to her, yet now that the moment appeared to have arrived, she didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t even sure how she felt.
What about the work I’ve done? she thought furiously, turning away. What about the company you promised me? What about my career? Questions flooded her mind, but she turned back and saw the love in his eyes. In that moment, she realized that was the only answer she needed.
“Give me twenty minutes to pack my bags.”
* * *
At the airport, Isabel was thrilled at the sight of Robert’s private jet on the runway. She was wearing a long coat that billowed in the wind. Robert put on his sunglasses, ready for his escape to begin.
“I’ve never been to Fiji before!” Isabel said.
“Get used to it, my love.” He swung his arm around her shoulders, kissing the top of her head. “We can go anywhere and everywhere you want to go, from here on out.” Her head spun at the possibility of becoming a jetsetter, a far cry from the lost orphan she’d always felt she was, deep in her heart. As they strolled onto the tarmac their luggage was loaded onto the plane, and as they took their seats they were handed two glasses of champagne. Isabel extended hers instantly.
“A toast—to a day that I have been waiting for my whole life,” she said. “You have made me something that I never thought I could be—happy. I owe you so much, and I cannot wait to start this journey with you.” Tears appeared at the corners of her eyes as they embraced and clinked their champagne glasses together. Isabel took a long sip, then sat back, smiling in anticipation of their future life together.
* * *
Robert’s phone buzzed. He reached deep into his pocket, and when he pulled it out, he saw a text from Moira.
Please call me—it’s Thea.
Worried, he quickly dialed the number.
“What’s happened?” Robert asked.
“Thea was practicing jumps on her horse, Apollo.” Moira sounded terrible. “Somehow she lost control and was thrown. She’s broken her arm in two places, and one of them is bad. I’m at Starling General, and she’s asking for you. Where are you?”
Torn, Robert looked at Isabel, who was finishing her champagne and giving him a puzzled look.
“I’ll be there,” Robert said, and he ended the call.
“Everything okay?” Isabel asked.
He didn’t know what to say as reality struck home. It dawned on him that as much as he wanted to start a new life with Isabel, it wasn’t that easy. If it wasn’t Thea, then it would be Oliver, or even Moira. Try as he might, he could never escape Starling City. His business, his name—everything that came with his position would follow him.
Thea’s accident drove home a hard truth—one he couldn’t avoid. Robert knew that a life with Isabel would mean a life where his kids looked at him differently. Or perhaps he wouldn’t see them at all. Oliver and Thea would know he was capable of lying to them, shattering all that was once good in their relationship. They would look at him as a cheater, and the thought of losing his children scared Robert to his core.
Oliver and Thea were his life even if that meant a life with Moira.
“I have to go, Isabel,” he said finally.
“Go? But our plane is about to leave!” She stared at him as he threw his bag over his shoulder.
“It’s Thea…” Robert began. “She broke her arm falling off her horse, she’s in the hospital, scared, she needs me. I have to go to her.”
“Kids break bones all the time,” Isabel protested.
“Isabel, I can’t—not today. Tomorrow we’ll go, my darling. I promise.” He touched her face. As tears welled up in her eyes, Robert turned and started to walk toward the cabin door.
“Robert… please! You said you loved me,” she cried out. He turned back.
“Isabel, try to understand, I’m a father. I have to be there for my children. They are everything to me.” He went silent, and then added, “Tomorrow will be here before you know it.”
* * *
Isabel wanted to believe him, but she knew Becca was right. A married man would never leave his family. She had been delusional in thinking she could change him.
“But you told me yourself that Thea isn’t yours,” she said, rising from her seat. “It was Moira who betrayed you. How can you go running back to someone who doesn’t love you like I do?”
Robert went stiff at the mention of Thea’s paternity, and in that moment she knew she had lost him. Years ago, Moira had slept with Malcolm Merlyn. For the longest time Robert had blamed himself—he’d told Isabel as much—but he had finally let go of that guilt.
Or so it had seemed.
“Thea is mine, Isabel,” he said. “She may not have my blood running through her veins, but I’ve been there since the day she was born. I’m sorry, my love, but after work tomorrow we’re off to Fiji, I promise.”
She walked over to him, held his face in her hands, and looked into his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you need to do this. Tomorrow after work.”
The next day Isabel got off the subway and walked, blinking, into the sunlight. She put on her sunglasses and turned toward the office, her high heels clicking on the pavement as she rolled her suitcase beside her.
“Good morning, Bobby,” she said as she pulled out her badge.
“Morning, Miss Rochev,” he replied. She swiped her badge, but there was a loud, obnoxious beep and the screen flashed DENIED.
That’s weird, she thought, and she tried it again. Bobby stepped off of his stool and came over.
“Sometimes the magnetic strip gets worn out, Miss Rochev,” he said as he took the badge from her hand. “Let me have a look.” He examined the badge, rubbing the magnetic strip to remove any debris, but couldn’t find any damage. So he walked to a nearby phone and placed a call that she couldn’t hear.
Then he returned.
“Can you just let me up, please, Bobby?” she said, keeping her voice steady. “Mr. Queen is expecting me.”
“Actually, Miss Rochev, I need you to stay right here for the moment,” he replied, and the tone of his voice had changed.
“Is anything wrong?”
“Just stay put for the moment, Miss Rochev,” Bobby said as he returned to his security post and began checking in other employees. Her worry grew stronger as more employees passed her. Suddenly Walter Steele emerged from an elevator car and crossed the lobby. Isabel felt a sense of relief seeing him, and she smiled at him.
“Miss Rochev,” Walter said, his expression unreadable.
“Good morning, Walter,” she answered. “How are you doing? Is Robert in yet?”
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, Miss Rochev, but Queen Consolidated no longer requires your… assistance. Your position has been eliminated.”
Isabel felt her heart sink to the floor.
“What do you mean, eliminated?”
“If you would be so kind as to leave the premises as soon as possible, I would appreciate it,” Walter said firmly. “We will forward your personal belongings to your home address.”
Isabel’s confusion crystallized into anger, and before she knew it, she was engulfed with rage.
“He put you up to this, didn’t he?” she demanded, her voice rising. “Robert Queen can’t even be man enough to do it to my face,” she shouted. Walter reached for her arm, shifting into the role of comforting friend.
“Please, Isabel, just go quietly.”
Suddenly she felt something inside her snap. Her face grew hot as emotions flooded her brain. Tears that she would normally hold back flowed down her face. She saw vividly all the mistakes she had been making. She was angry with herself for putting her trust in Robert, and she knew for certain he had only made his empty promises to string her along.
Her heart was breaking… and her career was over before it ever began. Her dream of becoming someone people remembered—that was gone. Her name would only be remembered for the illicit love affair she had had with her boss.
“You tell Robert I’m not going anywhere,” she cried out. “He can’t hide like a coward behind the company. You tell him if he wants me gone, he will have to do it himself.”
Walter let go of Isabel’s arm, and turned to make his way back to the elevator, signaling for security as he went.
“You tell him that one day he will be sorry he ever did this,” she continued. “I can promise you that—he’ll regret it! He will learn how it feels to lose everything!”
Bobby approached Isabel, a pained look on his face, and told her that it was time for her to leave—but she refused to move.
“Call Robert Queen,” she demanded loudly. “Get him on the phone, tell him that I’m not going anywhere!” Bobby pleaded again for her to go.
“Please, Miss Rochev, you need to leave or I’ll have to physically remove you from the building, and I really don’t want to do that.”
“I don’t care!” she shouted. “I don’t care what you say! Everyone needs to know that Robert Queen is a liar!” Crowds of employees began to gather, watching her unravel completely. Two additional security guards approached her to try to soothe her, but there was no comforting her, so they moved in more forcefully, each gripping an arm.
“He’ll be sorry he did this to me!” she cried. “Tell him that he had better watch his back!” She threw her arms around, trying to escape their grasp. “He can’t do this to me! He can’t do this to me! He promised me!” she cried as the guards dragged her toward the door.
“This isn’t how it was supposed to be!” she shouted out as the guards finally removed her from Queen Consolidated. When they released her, Isabel looked around, noticing the many eyes staring at her. She took a few steps back, looking up to the top of the building, knowing that Robert was probably watching her from his window.
He will be sorry about this, Isabel thought furiously to herself as she finally walked away from the building. She promised herself, however, that she would return to Queen Consolidated one day.
A few days after the scene at Queen Consolidated, Isabel was driving recklessly through the streets of Starling City. She pressed her foot to the floor, catching a glimpse of herself in her rearview mirror.
Her eyes were bloodshot and beady, her once flawless complexion pale and ghostly. She didn’t recognize who that girl was in the mirror, and wondered how things had got this bad. She wondered when Robert had managed to take hold of her life like this. She felt foolish for letting him have this power over her, only to realize that it was one of the reasons she had been drawn to him in the first place. She cursed his name repeatedly as she swerved down the street.
“You think you can just make a fool out of me, and that I will just disappear,” she muttered out loud to herself. “Well, you have another think coming. You think you can just fire me and ruin my life—well, I can ruin your life, too.”
She made a hard right in her tiny car, and the open gates to the Queen mansion came into view. Isabel stopped the car just before the gates and took a minute. Inexplicably, she suddenly felt a little sad for him.
A sorry excuse for a man, and an utter coward, Isabel thought to herself. Only a weak, insecure person would do the things that Robert had done. She recalled the times they had talked about having children of their own… together. The thought sent a shiver down her spine as she saw now what a terrible father Robert was if he was capable of such lies.
She put her foot on the gas and drove through the gates.
Pulling up to the door, she got out of the car, her body shaking in a combination of fear and anger. She remembered the first time Robert had invited her to the house, the first time they had slept together. Isabel smiled a little, thinking about how she had felt about Robert in that moment, and her heart broke a little more thinking about where she was now.
As she reached the front door, she quickly snapped back to reality.
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
Isabel tried to compose herself as she heard footsteps approach the door. It opened, and Moira Queen stood there.
“Isabel Rochev,” she said. “I need to speak with Robert.”
“I know who you are, Miss Rochev,” Moira said flatly. “Robert isn’t here—he’s taken our children out fishing on his boat for the weekend.”
Isabel remained silent. Her plan to talk to Robert, to deliver the speech she’d composed in her head, was out the window. And though she couldn’t say why, she hadn’t been expecting Moira to even be in the picture.
“I know why you are here, Miss Rochev,” Moira said, “and I feel sorry for you. That a woman can sleep with a married man is one of the most disgusting things I can imagine.”
The words cut Isabel deep—she was surprised that Moira knew about the affair. Even more so when she remembered that Moira had been a cheater as well.
Does she hate herself as much as she does me?
“You didn’t think I knew, did you?” Moira continued. “You’re nothing but a fling to that man. A name on a list. You’re just one of many other silly girls before you who were foolish enough to think that a man like Robert would trade in the life he has now… for you.”
Suddenly Isabel felt a strange calm come over her. She finally felt able to shut off her emotions like a faucet, and no longer felt like crying. In fact, she decided then and there that she would never cry again—for Robert Queen, or for anybody. She was done feeling self-pity.
“Now, do yourself a favor and get off my property before I call the police,” Moira snapped as she went to close the door in Isabel’s face.
“Or what?” Isabel said. “You see, Moira, we both involved ourselves with a foolish man—a man who told me many, many secrets about his life. Your life. So it would be in your best interest to watch your back. Be careful, because you never know when I might decide to have a chat with the press about the precious Queen family, perhaps sell your secrets to the highest bidder… especially when it comes to little Thea,” Isabel said coldly. “How wonderful it is that she’s healing so quickly.”
The door stopped, and Moira peered out again. Her eyes were wide with fear.
Classical jazz was playing softly in the background of a dark establishment. Patrons sat in leather-lined booths that lined the walls, speaking in low voices. Cherry hardwood shone throughout the establishment. While the majority of the people enjoyed a happy hour cocktail with coworkers as they exchanged stories about their days, Isabel was sitting alone on a tall stool at the bar.
Just a year after the debacle with Robert, Isabel was the picture of crispness and style. She was dressed in a dark red business suit. Her hair was long and poker straight. One black stiletto tapped on the bar’s ledge. A handsome bartender placed a martini in front of her, two olives, and she smiled at him devilishly as he threw her a wink and returned to work.
The local news played on the television above the bar.
“And in business news, Ramsford International—a subsidiary of Queen Consolidated—has been bought out by Unidac Industries,” news anchor Bethany Snow reported. “The takeover was engineered by Isabel Rochev, and this makes it the third subsidiary Queen Consolidated has lost to Rochev in the past six months.”
A small smile crept across Isabel’s face as she took a sip of her martini.
* * *
Exiting her sleek black Mercedes Benz, she grabbed her black leather briefcase and marched into her office at Unidac Industries. She walked with her head held high, steadfast and confident. Her subordinates lowered their gazes when she approached, and Isabel long since ceased to greet people with a smile. She remained focused on the task at hand, and had no time for chitchat or pleasantries.
As she arrived at her corner office her executive assistant, Theodore Decklin, greeted her with her morning latte and the rundown of her schedule for the day.
“First thing today, Miss Rochev, is the board meeting at 9 a.m.,” Decklin informed her. Without saying a word Isabel handed him her coat and briefcase, grabbed her latte and files, and headed for the conference room. When she got there, the other nine members of the board were already in place. She took her seat at the long table, and while the other board members chattered away, Isabel kept her thoughts to herself as she sipped her latte and reviewed her papers. Suddenly, the glass door swung wide open, and Malcolm Merlyn entered.
Malcolm Merlyn, CEO of Merlyn Global.
Thea Queen’s father.
Confidence radiated off of him in waves as he stood in front of the group. Dressed impeccably, he looked down at the people in the room almost as if they were bugs that begged to be squashed. All conversation ceased.
“Apologies for my tardiness this morning,” he said, and he smiled. “There’s nothing like a first impression.”
There was a smattering of laughter, and all eyes were on him.
“I know we all have a lot to do, a lot on our plates, so I will keep this brief. It is with great pleasure that I stand before you to announce the partnership between Unidac and Merlyn Global. For those of us at Merlyn Global, it was a no-brainer when it came to choosing companies with which we want to work.” To Isabel’s surprise, he turned to look directly at her. “Much of the reason stems from the tireless work led by Miss Isabel Rochev, who we’ve watched with great interest as she scooped up one after another of Queen Consolidated’s subsidiaries.”
The board applauded politely, and Malcolm continued.
“Nobody believes in this city more than I do. I was born here—Starling City is my home—and as most of you know, when my wife Rebecca was alive our family shared the common goal of making Starling City a better place. A better place for our children to grow up, for the community to work together, offering job opportunities for everyone. And even though my wife may not be here to witness it, this is still a goal toward which I intend to work, and tirelessly.
“This partnership will bring two great companies together, and it will help to make Starling City stronger,” Malcolm continued. “Thank you for your hard work, and your support.”
The board members stood and applauded Malcolm’s speech. Isabel rose to her feet with them. Malcolm made a circuit around the rectangular table, shaking the hands of each board member. When he reached Isabel, he gripped her hand tightly.
“I look forward to working with you, Miss Rochev,” he said, looking her straight in the eye.
* * *
The following morning, Isabel entered her office to find Malcolm Merlyn sitting at her desk. She was taken aback by his boldness, and she was intrigued.
“Mr. Merlyn,” she said calmly. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Malcolm smiled his devil smile and rose from her chair.
“I think the better question is how can I help you, Miss Rochev,” he said enigmatically. “Shall we sit and discuss?”
They moved to the side of the room and sat on the couch. Isabel sat stiffly, and folded her arms defensively over her lap.
“Miss Rochev, as a smart businesswoman, you shouldn’t be surprised to know that I’m thorough when it comes to business. I don’t just jump at an opportunity simply because it’s there. I do my research, especially on the people who created the opportunity in the first place. In this case—that would mean you,” he said. “I feel it only fair to tell you that I’m a very close family friend to the Queen family.”
Isabel shifted in her seat. To this day, the mere mention of them caused her spine to tighten. Yet she had learned to keep her composure when the subject came up.
“What’s more,” he continued, “I know about your past… relationship with them.” The tension increased, and she decided to get to the point before it became painful.
“Mr. Merlyn, what are you getting at?” she asked, keeping a tight rein on her tone.
“Well, as I said yesterday, I believe in this great city of Starling. However, you and I both know that it has been suffering for a great deal of time. The slums known as the Glades, for example, are tragic for many reasons, as I know firsthand. My wife’s life was taken there.” He paused for effect, then continued, “However, I’m confident that with the joining of our companies, this is the chance for Starling City to turn over a new leaf. This is only the beginning.”
Isabel stared blankly at him.
“I can’t do this alone, though,” he continued. “I need all of the power players in Starling City to be on board… including you, Miss Rochev. You especially are essential to my plans.”
“And why is that?” Isabel asked. “What are you proposing?”
“I’m proposing what you have wished for the last two years—something you fervently desire,” he said. “To remove Robert Queen from the picture, permanently.”
That took her by surprise, and she let her façade slip. Her eyebrows furrowed, and she cocked her head to the side.
“With your help,” he continued, “we can make this happen.”
* * *
The sky was black, and not even the moon could be seen. Isabel sat at her desk with her glasses on, typing on her computer, her office only lit by the glow of the screen. Another late night, but she hardly noticed. Finally she commanded the power and respect she had craved her entire life, and this time no one was going to take it away from her.
She took a breath and stopped typing.
Isabel went to her cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Scotch. It was the same brand that Robert used to share with her in his office, so long ago. She poured herself a hearty drink and touched her lips to the glass as her phone rang.
“It’s done,” a voice said. “It should make the news tomorrow…”
“Thank you for your help.”
She put the phone down slowly, not exactly sure how to feel. Although she was now firmly committed to Malcolm Merlyn’s plan, she was still a little stunned. To her surprise, she was unable to catch her breath for a minute, so returned to the cabinet and retrieved her Scotch, taking a hard swig, letting it burn on the way down.
Then she returned slowly to her desk.
As she sat, a single tear traced its way down her cheek.
“Here, Miss Rochev,” a young intern said. “Miss Rochev?”
Isabel’s eyes were still locked on the television. Her mouth remained slightly open, her breathing fast as the shock overtook her body.
“Miss Rochev,” the intern said again, tapping Isabel on the shoulder.
Her mind was awhirl with the events that had led to the Gambit going under water, taking with it Oliver and his father. Snapping out of it, she looked at the puzzled intern as he proceeded to pick up the files she had dropped.
“Thank you,” Isabel said absently, and she scanned the room. “People should get back to work.” Wthout another word, she slowly stepped back into her office, her mind racing a million miles a minute.
Oliver Queen is alive.
How is this possible?
Five years ago, Isabel thought that with the help of Malcolm Merlyn, she had finally put the debacle of the Queen family to rest at last. Yet there it was—proof that Oliver still lived. Had it all been a ruse on Merlyn’s part?
Is Robert alive, as well?
Isabel went to her desk and pulled out a key to unlock the bottom drawer. There she pulled out a metal box, opening it slowly—even timidly—and pulling out a picture.
Her and Robert. She hardly recognized herself. The photo had been taken on Robert’s boat, and Isabel wore a bikini, her suntanned skin glistening. Robert was kissing her on her forehead, and she was smiling. Looking at the picture, she remembered what it was like to be happy, even if it was just a fleeting moment. Another smile flitted across her lips.
Are you alive?
Are you still out there, too?
Suppressing the smile, she locked the photo away again.
* * *
Seven o’clock, and she shut down her computer, checking her desk again to make sure the drawer was locked. Pulling her trench coat from the hook on the back of her door, she headed for the elevator.
The parking structure was nearly empty, and the only sound that could be heard was the clicking of her heels. It was this way every night, yet as she approached her Mercedes, a strange feeling swept over her. She stopped in her tracks, peering over her shoulder cautiously to see if anyone else was around.
Shaking her head, she let out a sigh of relief as she spotted her car just a row away. Approaching the driver’s-side door, she reached into her bag for the keys. Looking up, she saw her reflection in the window… and froze.
There was a man, standing behind her. He wore a black suit jacket, and an eye patch.
“He’s dead, Miss Rochev.”
His raspy voice echoed against the concrete walls, spurring her to motion. She spun around, dropping her keys in the process.
“Who are you?” she demanded, her hand back into the purse. “What do you want?” Finding her pepper spray, she pointed it at the intruder—yet he didn’t flinch.
“Even if I had both my eyes, Miss Rochev, that wouldn’t have much effect on me.” Raising his hands, he held them palm out, both empty. “Please, Miss Rochev, I’m just here to talk.”
“You chose a strange time and place for that,” she said without lowering the pepper spray. “Who are you?”
“My name is Slade Wilson,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to worry—he’s dead.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Robert Queen is dead,” Slade said.
At the sound of his name, she felt light-headed, and finally lowered the pepper spray. She studied the newcomer, dressed in a sharp black suit, his hair sprinkled with salt and pepper around the ears. The patch fit snugly against his right eye.
“I… I don’t understand,” she said.
“Oliver Queen has returned,” Wilson said. “Starling City’s golden boy has returned after all these years. You’ve been wondering if Oliver’s return would mean there’s still hope for his father, but I can assure you that Robert is gone.”
“Why are you telling me this?” she demanded, her composure returning. “What do you want?”
“I’m telling you this because I know what it’s like to lose someone you love. Someone you care about so deeply it runs through your veins, is enrooted deep within, and suffering a loss of such magnitude weighs on your soul for the rest of your life.” As he spoke she felt her cheeks grow warm, the tears forming in her eyes, and was afraid to blink for fear they would fall onto her face.
“I know that type of loss, Miss Rochev,” he continued, and if he noticed her emotions, he didn’t let on. “I’m here to help you.”
“I don’t need any help,” she snapped.
“You may not see it now, but you and I share a common interest—one that has weighed on us for too long.” He paused, and a glint showed in his eye. “One that needs to be destroyed.”
What the hell is he talking about? Fear gave way to anger. “What could we possibly have in common?” she demanded.
“Our hate for the Queen family.”
Suddenly the dizziness returned, and all the emotions she’d held in check began to boil over. She remembered the lies and broken promises, the times he’d abandoned her for those children—Thea’s spelling bee and dance recital, rushing to Oliver’s side to bail him out. Indignities she’d endured, only to have Moira dismiss her as if she was nothing but a street rat.
“The Queen family is poison to this city,” Wilson continued, as if he could read her mind. “They infect anyone and everyone around them. They believe their money lets them weasel out of any situation. Above all, they are liars, and murderers. Oliver not only took my eye—he stole away someone I can never get back, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure he gets exactly what he deserves.
“I know what Robert did to you, and yet somehow the Queen family remains unscathed. But the time has come for them to feel the pain they’ve inflicted on us.”
Every muscle in Isabel’s body tightened at Wilson’s words. Robert set out to destroy her, to leave a once promising career shattered at her feet, and now Oliver was back, a spoiled brat poised to become CEO of Queen Consolidated—the position that was once promised to her.
The thought made her sick.
“How do we make this happen?” she asked.