Wickedly handsome and shamelessly rich, Tristan Stahl is a villain. A businessman by day and an underground cage fighter by night, he fears no one, and respects one man alone – his adoptive father, Mark Stahl. It’s at Mark’s request that Tristan recruits Isolde Molnar for her “special talents”. He doesn’t expect complications from this “piece of livestock”, but working closely with her turns out challenging in more ways than one. Throw a modern alchemist’s potion in the mix along with Mark Stahl’s growing infatuation with the girl, and there you have it – Tristan and Isolde Reloaded. Enjoy!
It’s lunchtime, and the café is packed. Can’t discharge the self-pity just yet. I make a beeline for Nadine’s red head among the boisterous corporates that litter the place, hoping she’ll help me feel better. She types in a frenzy on her smartphone, but tucks it away as I drop in the chair across from her.
“How did it go?” She really hopes for the best, I can tell.
“Sorry to disappoint. I’m overqualified. They took someone with fewer degrees, an impeccable collar and, of course, male.”
“Oh, Isolde, I’m so sorry.” She reaches over the table and puts her hand over mine.
I appreciate her compassion, even though I could use more encouraging lines right now. Maybe something like, “there are plenty of opportunities out there.” But there aren’t, and she knows it. I know it. Berlin is oversaturated in my field, and my peasant girl face, no-name suit and cheap briefcase don’t exactly increase my chances.
“Don’t worry, I expected it.”
“What did I tell you about negative expectations? You’re calling this upon yourself.”
“It’s not being negative, Nadine, it’s being objective. No one needs another market analyst. The world is full of them. I’m useless.”
Nadine replies and keeps talking, but nothing she says helps. I lean back in my chair, looking around and feeling angry at the world, starting with this place. It’s pretentious, expensive and kitschy – for all the leather seats and marble pillars, our waitress is wearing a skirt and sneakers. Even my decrepit sense of style feels offended, so the sin must be capital.
“You’ve been successfully foreseeing market trends for months now, Isolde,” Nadine says. “Your predictive calculations are mind-blowing, almost clairvoyant. They should’ve been of some help during your interview.”
“Shoulda, coulda.” While she’s right, I have nothing to show for my “successful” anything. “And who is going to endorse me on my predictions? I haven’t had a client in six months, those calculations were mere mental weight-lifting. A means to keep myself in shape.”
“I can endorse you. I was your client – sort of, since you never let me pay.”
A smile spreads over my face. True, dat. One of the most powerful people in Germany is buying Nadine’s services as a consequence of my guidance. She met him at an exclusive conference that I dug out for her, and that cost her a fortune and high-up connections to attend. The contract she’s supposed to sign today is a huge deal. Not many people can brag to have ever even met the mighty Mark Stahl, founder of Stahl Biotech, face-to-face, let alone work for him personally. His headquarters is top secret, not even his employees see much of him, if at all, and he picked one of the places he owns to meet her.
I expect him or his people to be here soon, so I hurry to sip my cappuccino, dreaming of something stronger. I’m not a drinker, but today I can’t wait to get home and fix myself an Aperol Spritz from my brother’s spoils from the bar, and drown my sorrow.
Customers finish their lunch and leave table by table, men in dark suits and stiff attitudes typical for a mogul’s bodyguards replacing them. Soon there are only few “real” customers left, the café almost entirely populated with Stahl’s men, which makes sense. If he wants to keep anonymous, he can’t just pop up in public and wave like the Queen, he’ll need good cover.
But the café staff didn’t see any of this coming, it seems. The skirt-and-sneakers waitress stares puzzled, clutching to her chest the electronic device she uses to take orders. The bartender is virtually shrinking behind the mahogany counter. Tension grows. It’s too much for me. I’m grateful I’ll soon sprint out the door in the direction of my Aperol, not having to share with Nadine the burden of this meeting.
“Okay, I should go now.” I take one last sip of cappuccino as I stand up. But as soon as I’ve grabbed my briefcase a rough hand grips my shoulder from behind and pushes me right back into my seat.
“Ouch!” I make to stand up again and face my aggressor, indignant, but the guy’s hand keeps me put. His grip is like forceps on my collarbone. I look to Nadine, searching her face for answers. She looks uncomfortable too, but she’s smiling.
“I e-mailed Stahl’s vice president your calculations after I met him,” she explains. “Since you used Stahl Biotech for some of your mental weight-lifting, I thought he might be interested in your results. So – ” She looks around, the smile quivering on her lips. She didn’t expect the freaking commando, and she’s clearly scared too. “Surprise.”
I blink at her, struggling to grasp what’s happening. It’s like I’ve been catapulted from my sorry life right into James Bond’s world. Before I can gather my wits a pair of blond bodyguards flank the chair to my right, and a man in a high-quality dark suit takes the seat. When my eyes settle on him I freeze.
He can’t be Mark Stahl. Mark Stahl is an old man. This guy is very young, with a strong build and a face like nothing I’ve seen before. He has white blond hair and ice blue eyes, resembling a ruthless Viking god who’s lost his way from Norse mythology. A scar interrupts his eyebrow, which adds to his heathen looks along with his chiseled, rough features. He seems a man few would ever dare cross – maybe only the stupid.
“Isolde, this is, this is,” Nadine babbles, motioning toward him, “Mr. Tristan Stahl, Mark Stahl’s adoptive son and second in command, so to say. The vice president of Stahl Biotech.”
Adoptive son. I wonder what happened before the adoption. Might sound cliché, but everything about him screams “violent childhood”, lurking beyond those eyes of steel.
“I see,” I whisper.
Tristan Stahl doesn’t greet us. He doesn’t speak at all. He measures me with those chilling eyes, and I’m so intimidated my tongue goes stiff. I can’t think of anything to say. I’m embarrassed to stare, but I can’t look away either. The tension eases a bit when his focus switches from me to the file a woman appearing on his left hands him. She’s pretty and stylish with her shiny blond bob and white leather gloves.
“Why the pharma industry?” His voice is commanding baritone, masculine and thick. It makes my belly prickle, and my words faint.
“It’s an ambitious endeavor. You could’ve at least gone with a niche. Maybe the homeopathic field.”
“That’s not what will deliver the next breakthrough,” I say automatically.
“And what will?”
My eyes flick to the file in his hands as he leafs through it. I recognize my charts and bolded highlights. “It’s all in there, isn’t it?”
“Just answer the questions, ma’am,” the woman with the white gloves cuts in.
I gulp down the discomfort in my throat as I realize Nadine and I are the only dots of diversity in an Aryan pool. Everybody around is tall, athletic and some shade of blond, which makes me feel at odds with my Latino short-and-curvy build, dark hair and dark eyes. My German father refused not only to give me his name, but also to pass down any blond genes.
“Your results are interesting, Ms. Molnar.” Tristan Stahl draws my attention back to him. “But some of your reasoning doesn’t seem very logical. There’s little data to work with.”
“I relied a lot on my intuition, it’s true.”
He drops the file on the table. “That’s not very professional, Isolde. I may call you, Isolde, yes?”
“If my work doesn’t convince you, why take the trouble to meet me – Tristan?” I want to defy him, but I’m only glaring at his lips. I could never hold that arctic gaze of his. He relaxes back in his seat, and a wicked smile curves up a corner of his mouth. It makes him look even younger. And staggeringly handsome.
“Because I’m intrigued.”
“What an honor.”
“Are you sure you want to go sarcastic on me, Isolde?”
“I didn’t mean to offend.” I can feel his gaze rest on the top of my head as I lower it.
“You considered the Psychosomatic Research Institute our main competitor,” he says. “That’s a pretty far-fetched theory. What led you to it?”
“Intuition, I guess.”
“And what activated your intuition? It must have been some kind of data.”
“In a way.”
I pause, but he seems comfortable with the silence, waiting for me to continue. I don’t want to break the first word, but I feel like I’m sitting on needles. I crack.
“All intuition is a form of logic,” I mutter. “It’s like . . . tapping into information that’s stored in the back of my mind.”
“And what information made you look at the I.P.R.? They’re not a big player on the market, why should we worry about them?”
“That’s exactly it – they don’t work on the market yet, but on the side of it.” The words start tumbling out of my mouth, soon turning into a waterfall. I even forget all about the hostile environment. Once I get started on my work, it’s hard to stop.
“Whoever finances the I.P.R.’s research is giving them a shitload of money, no questions asked, not budget limits set, which is pretty rare in our times of austerity. Nobody invests in psychological research these days, let alone astronomical amounts. This can only mean the financers are certain they will one day profit from the Institute’s findings big time, on the market. Other pharma companies in Germany – your direct competitors – never took the trouble to look at the Institute in any depth because they don’t expect any competition from this field, the underdog, but you –” I point at him as if he were the person responsible himself, “Stahl Biotech, you paid every influencer e-zine in the country to publish trashing articles about the Institute’s dubious practices.”
Tristan glances at Nadine, probably understanding how one thing led to another: Nadine is my best friend, and she’s been an investigative reporter for years. She has friends at all major journals. When I came across those articles over and over again, I became suspicious and asked Nadine to activate her contacts and track down the source. Her inquiries led, however diffusely, to Stahl Biotech. The theory took shape in my mind – Stahl Biotech felt threatened by the Institute for Psychosomatic Research.
“Those articles claimed that the Institute’s scientists are scammers, and their practices border on the esoteric.” I lean in over the table, narrowing my eyes as I look straight into Tristan Stahl’s wickedly handsome face. I can’t believe my own guts. “But I think you are out to destroy them. You felt threatened by their research, because their results are stunning. Yes, I took a closer look at –”
“I’m not here to discuss the Institute’s research,” Tristan cuts me off, his voice splintering mine like a slap. My tongue freezes. He leans in, and a rich scent slithers through my nostrils, filling my heart with memory – mulled wine on winter nights, the magic of Christmas. I breathe it in deeply, trying to hold it.
“You’re a highly intelligent woman, Isolde. But brains and a big mouth make a dangerous combo nowadays.” He measures me from head to toe like he’s scanning me. “Take my advice – talk less, dress better, and your life will improve. Someday it may even get you a boyfriend.”
Shock and his scent muffle my indignation at first, but soon after he turns his attention to Nadine and begins discussing the conditions for their further collaboration it starts to boil inside of me. I bite my lips bloody and manage to keep quiet, but then the woman in white gloves drops a document and a ballpoint pen with Stahl Biotech imprinted on it on the table in front of me. She sneers, “Sign,” and I can’t hold back anymore.
“You really are a spoiled brat, aren’t you, Tristan Stahl?”
He turns to me, eyes glinting like metal. “Excuse me?”
“You have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll sign a document I haven’t even had the chance to read just because you’re one of the most powerful moguls on the continent. Well, guess what?” I slap the document shut – Service Agreement stands written on the cover sheet – and drop the ballpoint pen on top of it. “I do not want to work for you.”
Silence. All I can hear is the buzz in my ears. “Are you crazy?” is written all over Nadine’s face. Soon the words start pulsing in my own head, and only moments later I’m not so sure anymore. This is suicide!
Tristan leans in to me, his features locked in a handsome mask of ice. “Listen carefully, Isolde, because I’m only going to say this once: Sign the contract, or you’ll never get a decent job again in your life. You’ll be happy if a pimp hires you for your juicy curves to wipe the tables at some red light.” His upper lip curls over his teeth as he spits the last words, as if he despises me. Like I’m nothing but a worthless piece of meat, brains or not. Indignation flares in my chest, and I knock back my chair. My face is burning.
“You entitled bastard! I rather wipe a pimp’s tables and his ass than call you boss.”
My pulse drums in my ears as I grab my briefcase and stomp out of the place without waiting for his reaction. No one tries to stop me on my way to the exit, but I can feel the hostile eyes on my back.
I’m so angry I can barely swerve in the crowd at the underground, and bump into people who cuss the crap out of me. In the train I find a seat against all odds, and I manage to at least even my breathing. I realize what I’ve done, and I despair.
“Everything all right, ma’am,” an older man in a shabby coat asks, holding to the overhead rail. He looks worried, so my distress must be glaring.
“Yes, fine.” Like hell I’m fine. That bastard Tristan Stahl is so fucking powerful I’ll be lucky to make rent next month. Now I find myself wondering what services I was supposed to render for him. I should’ve bitten my lips yet more and waited for him to grace me with his attention again for the details before breaking out like that.
No way! I know the world is in the hands of men like him, and I know I can’t beat that, but this I can do – refuse them my allegiance, my services, my dignity.
I get home, take the rattling piece of junk we call an elevator to the third floor – my knees are still too shaky for the stairs – and go straight for the refrigerator. I pull too hard, and the tired chipped magnets clatter on the floor, the grocery list I left for Roland this morning floating like a feather. He forgot again. I grab the Aperol and the Schweppes, but can’t wait to fix a spritz. I end up drinking straight from the bottle.
“Wow, sis, what’s with the thirst?” Roland’s voice resounds from the doorstep.
Startled, I choke on the liquor and drop the Aperol. It smashes against the floor, the rosy liquid creeping on the old tiles like anemic blood.
“Jeez, woman, what’s wrong with you?” Roland hurries over to clean up the mess. I didn’t expect him to be home at this time, I thought I’d be alone. I watch him with my arms limp, feeling like a total loser.
What can I tell him? That I’ve screwed up my life completely, probably also his? That he might be stuck as a bartender at a nightclub forever because his big sister, who was supposed to take care of him, decided to go smartass on a freaking oligarch?
He looks up at me, his eyebrows furrowed, but his face clears once his eyes settle on mine. He comes back to his feet and takes my head in his hands.
“God, Izz, you look like shit. What happened?”
My chin trembles, and I can’t control myself anymore. I burst into tears and throw my arms around my little brother’s neck.
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