Breaching the Billionaire: Alethea's Redemption
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Alethea held out her hand to Stephan and didn’t lower it even when he didn’t immediately move to shake it. “I almost came to see you yesterday, but things didn’t work out.”
Stephan met her eyes, acknowledging that he was aware of what had happened, and shook her hand for no other reason than that she refused to lower it. Their touch was brief. He turned and led them into his office, telling his secretary to hold his calls.
He sat at his large glass desk, leaned forward on his elbows, and motioned for them to sit in the pristine white chairs before it. “Well, you’re here now. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Alethea sat first, waited for Marc to take the seat beside her, and then said, “I was wondering if you and Nicole have set a date for your wedding.”
Stephan steepled his fingers. “Why the interest? Are you looking to work it?” He looked at Marc. “No offense, but I have my own people.”
“None taken,” Marc said and sat back. Simply watching.
“You and Nicole seemed so in love the last time I saw you together, I figured you’d be married by now.”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but we decided to wait for the excitement to die down a bit. We’re happy, no need to rush. Nicole wants to let Abby have her time with the baby and help plan Lil’s wedding.” He looked at his watch. “Listen, I have to be somewhere in ten minutes. Get to the point of your visit, because I highly doubt it is to ask where we’re registered for gifts.”
“Is it difficult seeing Dominic as happy as he has been? You hated him for a long time. I know you’ve said that’s a thing of the past. But you can’t truly be happy for that bastard. He beat you.”
Stephan stood. “I don’t like where this is going.”
Alethea smoothed her linen pants and shot Marc a deliberately sly smile. “You don’t have to pretend with us. We hate him, too. The way he flaunts his wealth. The way he uses his power to manipulate those around him. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of being forced to worship at the altar of the Mighty Dominic Corisi. I’d love to see him humbled a bit.”
Glaring at them, Stephan said, “Marc, is this some sort of sick joke?”
Marc shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
Alethea pushed her agenda. “Think about it, Stephan. Right in this room we have three people who have different ways to access his defenses. He’d never see it coming. You could finish what you started, and we could make sure that he wouldn’t be able to retaliate.”
Stephan searched both of their faces. “You two are serious.”
Alethea stood, preening herself deliberately. “We couldn’t be more so.” She walked closer to Stephan and leaned into his personal space suggestively. “Nicole is wonderful, but I’m sure the thrill of being with her has worn off. You’ve had time to think about how close you came to beating Dominic, haven’t you? And you regret not following through. I don’t blame you. He may love your family, but he’ll never accept you. Not really. And watching him with your father, that can’t be easy. He’s exactly the son your father always wished you were, isn’t he? Strong. Perfect. A winner. How does it feel always coming in second to him, even with your own family?”
Red spread up Stephan’s neck. He walked away from Alethea and went nose to nose with Marc. “I’d expect this from her, but you? After everything Dominic has done for you? I hope for your sake that you’re armed today and willing to shoot me right now, because neither of your lives will mean much after today. You don’t mess with my family. I would kill you, but you’re not worth the jail time.” He pressed a button on his desk and said, “Anita, have security come to my office. I’d like to have some trash taken out.”
Four men arrived. Two flanked Alethea and two Marc.
With a sigh of relief, Alethea looked across to Marc. “He didn’t do it.”
Marc nodded in agreement. “Thank God.”
Stephan crossed the room to confront Alethea. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Marc positioned himself just off Alethea’s side—close enough to intervene physically if necessary. “Someone has been accessing Dominic’s server and planting coding errors using your IP address.”
Alethea faced Stephan: chin high, eyes unrepentant. “We had to know if you were involved.”
Stephan looked at his security men, then the duo in front of him. Then he waved the men to the door. “Give us a few minutes.” Once they were alone again, he said, “How do I know you’re not lying right now? I haven’t heard about any problems at Corisi Enterprises.”
Marc met his eyes. “What would I have to gain by hurting Dominic? He’s made me a very rich man.” Stephan nodded at Alethea. Marc shook his head. “Not even for her.”
Alethea threw her hands up in the air. “Seriously, you can believe I am after Dominic but not Marc?”
A glimmer of the man she’d seen in the bunker surfaced as Marc postulated the reason. “People naturally trust me. It’s my strong jaw.”
Alethea rolled her eyes. She had to admit to herself, though, that watching him hold his own with Stephan was turning her on. Like her, he wasn’t intimidated by wealth or power, and it made her impatient for a repeat of last night.
Stephan cut into her burgeoning erotic fantasy. “If there are problems with Dominic’s server, why are you two here and not with him?”
Alethea scolded her raging libido. Now is not the time to lose focus. Stop imagining Marc naked. This is important. She directed her next comment to the man in the room she didn’t want to pounce. “We think you’re innocent.”
“You?” Stephan repeated with growing anger. “But not Jake and Dominic? Or did they send you?”
Marc raised one hand hastily and said, “Let me take over, Alethea. No one knows we’re here. Jake is trying to clear you. Dominic is . . .”
“Plotting my death, probably.”
Another realist. Her opinion of him rose a bit. “You can’t blame him, really, after what you did . . . or tried to do to him last year. And the cyber trail leads directly to your doorstep.”
Stephan turned away and slapped his hand forcefully down on his desk in frustration. “I made a mistake last year. A horrible mistake, one that almost cost me Nicole and my family, but things were different then. I was different. I don’t know how this is happening, but it’s not me.” When he turned around his face was twisted with torment. “Does Nicole know?”
“Yes,” Alethea said quietly. The sadness in Stephan’s eyes tore at her conscience.
“When? How long has she known?”
Alethea looked at Marc for help, but when none was given she admitted, “Two days. I told her two days ago.”
Stephan moved back to the seat behind his desk and slumped into his chair. “That’s why she’s been weird.” He searched Alethea’s face with an expression akin to desperation. “What did she say when you told her?”
She’d always felt that whatever was gained by speaking the truth outweighed any hurt it caused, but she was having difficulty meeting Stephan’s eyes. What if Nicole left him over this? I shouldn’t have involved Lil. I should have handled this myself. Alethea searched for what to say that would alleviate some of Stephan’s pain. “She said she didn’t believe me. Accused me of making it all up to cause trouble.”
“It must be eating her up to not ask me.” He shook his head sadly. “She’s been hurt so many times by those who were close to her. Even me. I swore I would never hurt her again. Who would do this? How could they do this? I have state-of-the-art firewalls. I’ve never had an issue.”
Alethea walked to the front of his desk and said, “What can you tell us about the man you gave Dominic’s access codes to last year?”
Stephan stood, suddenly alert again. “You think he’s involved?”
Alethea nodded. “He worked for you, didn’t he?”
“Yes, for a short time. He was one of the best coders I’ve ever met. When he left two years ago, he sent me a prepaid phone and gave me a phone number to call. He said he could plant a virus that would take Dominic’s whole server down. Then he gave me the number of someone who would get me the information he needed to do it. At the time it sounded tempting, but something I would never actually do. I should have thrown the phone away. I was wrong not to. I was obsessed with beating Dominic. You were right about that, Alethea—I hated coming in second to him. I thought he deserved what I did. I was wrong. When I tried to call off the deal, he said he’d make me pay if I did. He could be behind this.”
Marc asked, “What was the man’s name?”
“Jack. Jack Mineoff.”
Alethea threw up her hands. “An obvious alias.”
Stephan shook his head in confusion. “We do full background checks on everyone who works here. That was his name.”
Hand on one hip, Alethea said the name again, slowly. “Jack Mee-noff? Seriously? Jack Me Off? No one would do that to their child. This guy was screwing with you from the day you hired him. He has to be Sliver. That would give him the skills he’d need to create a false background.”
Marc countered, “But what links him to Dominic? Why repeatedly go after him? What’s the connection?”
Alethea turned to Stephan. “Did he ever mention Dominic?”
Stephan shook his head. “Not beyond offering to upload the virus to his server. He said it would make him famous.” He held up a hand and said, “Give me five minutes.” He walked out of the office.
Marc crossed to Alethea’s side and put his hand on her lower back, caressing the tension he felt there. “Jack Mineoff. Good catch. And Stephan believes us. We’re going to catch this guy, no matter how many aliases he creates.”
Alethea nodded sadly.
“What’s the matter?” Marc asked, sensing her mood declining.
She shook a bit beneath his hand. “People will always believe the worst about me, won’t they? No matter what I do.”
He turned her to face him. “I won’t. I know what you risked to come here.” He lifted her chin with a finger and said, “So strong on the outside. So easily hurt on the inside. If you let people see the real you, they’d love you.”
As I do.
He didn’t say the words, but they rocked him to his core. This woman fiercely fought for those she loved and secretly yearned to be accepted by those very people. It made him want to protect her from them or demand they see her as he did.
Across town, Abby was folding the napkins on her dining room table for the third time. She’d given her staff the happy news that they would have not only this afternoon free but also the next. She wasn’t sure how either meeting was going to go, but she was sure neither would benefit from an audience.
Marie had arrived early to help with Judy so Abby could get dressed. Only Marie would come early to help prepare for her own visit. Abby couldn’t imagine what she would have done without the woman she considered her mother-in-law. Her support made the absence of her own mother easier to bear.