Bedding the Billionaire
Page 24

 Ruth Cardello

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Jake felt her tense and asked, “Is there something wrong?”
Oh, just potentially, everything.
“No,” Lil answered evasively. “I just saw a friend of mine.”
Jake scanned the room and asked coldly, “Who?”
His tone made her temporarily return her focus to him. “Are you jealous?”
“No,” he said in an angry tone. “No,” he said again, sounding like he was aiming for a more casual answer. Then he turned her more fully toward him. “Should I be?”
No, but if you knew everything you might wish this were about another man.
“Not unless you think my taste is tall, red haired women.”
He let out a slow breath. “Your friend Alethea?”
Her eyebrows furrowed, “How do you know about her?” Then she remembered. “Would you stop reading my background check, please? It’s not fair.”
“Is it my fault they were so thorough?”
“It’s going to be your fault if I stomp this heel into your toes.”
He nodded. “Point made.”
Lil tried to pull away. “Excuse me, I have to go speak to her for a moment...”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No, you can’t because…” She stopped herself. No more lies. “Jake, do you trust me?”
His expression was unreadable. Then he said, “Yes.”
“Believe me when I tell you I have to talk to Alethea alone and I can’t tell you why. I want to tell you, but it doesn’t involve just me.” She took his hand in hers, trying to convey the importance without giving anything away.
“That sounds pretty ominous.”
“It might end up being something good, but I can’t say more than that right now. Can you do that for me? Can you give me a little time to figure this out?”
He looked like that was the last thing he wanted to do, but he said, “Trust goes both ways, Lil.”
“I know,” Lil said huskily. I hope I don’t lose yours over this.
“I’ll go get us a drink,” he said and withdrew his arm from around her.
No, she wanted to cry, but she let him walk away. Somehow, she was going to make this right.
She flew to Alethea’s side and grabbed her arm. “What the hell are you doing here?” Lil hissed at her friend.
“You’re not going to congratulate me for successfully gaining entry to one of the most heavily guarded events in recent history? I even snuck Jeremy in. He’s at the appetizer table.”
Lil looked over and saw a man eating everyone’s share of the shrimp. Oh, my God. “I thought we agreed you weren’t going to do this.”
Alethea flipped her thick crimson hair over one bare shoulder. In a simple, black, floor length Tom Ford gown, Alethea blended well with the crowd, looking more like a movie star that night than a security consultant. Her eyes flashed with annoyance. “You should have told me the Waltons were coming. They are like the holy grail of computer programmers. No one was even sure they were still alive until word came that they were coming to this event. I couldn’t miss it. Hell, Jeremy shaved and left his basement to meet them. They are that big.”
“You’re not worried about exposing everything by bringing him here?”
“No, because Jeremy has assured me that no one will ever know what we did unless we say something about it.” Alethea gave her friend a meaningful look. “And we’re not going to, are we, Lil?”
Lil’s composure cracked. Her feelings gushed out. “I have to tell them, Al. Jake and Dominic are in real jeopardy of losing their company if they don’t fix their server issue and Jeremy might be the only one who knows something that could help them.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Alethea sighed. “You’ve never been a good liar.”
Lil brought a grateful and shaky hand to her mouth as she realized her friend’s true motive for being there that night. “You brought Jeremy in case I need him.”
Alethea nodded and said, “I also know of at least three ways out of here if this goes south.”
Lil looked across at the man who was stashing crab cakes in the pockets of his checkered dinner jacket. “And Jeremy is onboard with this? He’ll help us?”
Alethea grimaced and said, “He really does want to meet the Waltons, but I may have also promised to run away with him to Mexico if Dominic decides to press charges and we have to escape and create new identities for ourselves.”
Lil bit her lip to stop from finding amusement in a situation that was really too scary to warrant it. “He likes you that much, huh?”
Alethea shuddered. “Yeah, make sure it doesn’t come to that. He’s not my type.” She looked around the room and nodded in the direction of a well-built, intense looking man who was dressed in a tuxedo but was far too alert to be one of the guests. “Now that man could frisk me, any day.”
As always, Alethea’s choice was one of the most dangerous men in the room. “That’s Dominic’s head of security. He does not have a sense of humor.” She tried to regain her friend’s attention by elbowing her discreetly. “Stop making eyes at him. If he finds out you snuck in here we’re both dead.”
“Don’t worry about Mr. Sour Grapes; I can handle him.” Alethea winked at the man across the room and smiled when the act brought a rush of angry color to his face. “Oh, yeah. I might actually have some fun.”
“No, Al, no fun,” Lil pleaded. “Promise me you’ll play it cool tonight. We’ll be lucky enough if we don’t land ourselves in jail when this is all over.”
Alethea sighed dramatically. “Fine, killjoy. The sacrifices we make for friendship…”
Asking her to stay out of trouble was like asking your dog to stay off the couch. Sure both might look innocent enough while you were right there with them, but you had a pretty good idea about how things would go down as soon as you left.
“It would serve you right to spend the rest of your life as Mrs. Jeremy Kater or whatever new name you two lovebirds came up with.”
“Nice, Lil. I’ll remember that when the police cars pull up.”
Lil sobered for a moment as the real possibility of that thing happening settled on her and she realized the enormity of what her friend was willing to risk for her. “They won’t when Jeremy tells Jake what he found. Thank you, Al.”
Alethea shrugged off Lil’s gratitude, but Lil knew it had touched her friend to hear it. “Go–” Alethea said. “Go get Jeremy and save your man. I’ll be here if you need me.”
With one last grateful hug, Lil left her friend’s side to do just that.
Chapter Fourteen
Taking advantage of Lil’s momentary absence, Jake shouldered up to Dominic. “So where is this couple you think has the answer to all of our problems?”
Dominic hesitated, a sure sign that he was up to something he didn’t think Jake would approve of. “Victor is entertaining them in the study. They aren’t too keen on being seen in public.”
“But they were willing to come to an event like this?”
Dominic shrugged. “You were enough of a lure.”
“Who the hell…” As soon as the idea came to him, he tensed with growing anger. “Tell me you didn’t bring my parents here.”
“Are your parents named James and Judith Walton?”
“Dominic!” Jake rubbed a hand over his eyes. “You just wasted another week of our time on a dead end. They haven’t worked in the computer field for almost ten years.”
“They seemed to understand what our issue is.”
“That’s because they are geniuses, but a decade of farming in Maine is not good preparation for something like this.”
“It’s amazing to think that they went from two of the most renowned physicists who to practically invented quantum encryption–to absolute obscurity. Didn’t they accuse the government of stealing their software designs for the military?”
“Yes, they did. They claimed that some of their experiments with laser beams were stolen and used to advance the guided missile program. They are also convinced that Ivan Getting stole their initial Global Positioning notes and sold them to the military.”
“You don’t believe them?”
Jake shot a glare at Dominic. “I stopped caring what the truth was a long time ago. My parents have paid a high price for the gift of intelligence. They built a shared reality based on paranoia and an over-inflated sense of self-importance. I’m surprised you got them to leave their compound at all.”
Dominic shrugged. “They said they missed you. How long has it been since you’ve seen them?”
“Are you honestly going to lecture me about family relationships?” He shook his head at the irony overload. “I don’t have a vendetta against my parents; I simply don’t have a close relationship with them. In fact, I find that the less time I spend with them, the happier we all are.”
“They didn’t seem that bad to me.”
“You didn’t grow up with them,” Jake growled.
Dominic smiled. “Are you getting angry about this?”
“No,” Jake gritted his teeth as even he heard the emotion in his denial. He took a calming breath. “Don’t be surprised if they refuse to help. If it doesn’t have to do with something they are working on–or apparently planting lately–they don’t usually spare any time for it.”
“They cared enough to come here, Jake. Give them that much credit.”
A bit too late for them to pretend to be doting parents. When Jim and Judy were together, they didn’t need anyone else – they never had. Why they’d bothered to have Jake at all still baffled him. He had been a responsibility that came after science, after each other, and after their growing distrust of the government. More times than he cared to remember they’d forgotten to pick him up from school, to make meals for him, to check that he had clean clothes. He’d learned early that the only one he could rely on was himself. At the age of eleven, he’d chosen a boarding school and enrolled himself. A small part of him had hoped that they would wake up and beg him not to go, but instead they had lauded his choice of schools and deposited him there with a disgusting amount of relief.
He’d found reasons why he couldn’t go home each summer – internships, study abroad programs. The reason didn’t matter to his parents, nor did his destination. They sent money when he asked for it and, he supposed, that was all that mattered in the end.
Holidays had always been the worst. In the beginning he’d had a choice between going home to parents who didn’t believe in celebrating days that they claimed governments or religions had arbitrarily chosen to give importance to, going home with a friend with a close-knit family who only reminded him painfully of what he didn’t have, or spending the holiday alone.
Meeting Dominic in college had offered a much better alternative…designing a company that would grow and one day dominate the computer market.