Breaching the Billionaire: Alethea's Redemption
Page 26

 Ruth Cardello

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Alethea closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them, Marc knew she was temporarily far away. “I can’t imagine my life without her. We’ve been through so much together, and we’ve always been there for each other. She and Abby were fighting constantly, and my mother and I weren’t close. We became each other’s family, I guess. I love her.”
Marc pulled her into his arms and hugged her to him. The feelings she’d expressed for her friend touched him deeply. It made him want more than to have her in his bed again. He wanted to hear her speak about him with that level of emotion—and more.
He wanted to be her family.
He stood up and took her by the hand. “Come on, let’s go to bed.”
She looked down at the paper on her lap and said, “I’m not finished with my section.”
He tossed the paper on the coffee table. “I’m not either. I’ll do it in the morning. Right now I want to hold you.”
She stood and looked up at him, and he’d never seen anything more beautiful than the almost shy smile she gave him. “Okay.”
He swept her up into his arms and carried her to his bed. He laid her down and pulled the shirt over her head, then shed his own clothing. This time wasn’t about rushing or slaking a thirst. This was about holding her to him, bare skin to bare skin. Sex could wait. The list could wait. Nothing mattered except having her there with him.
He drifted off to sleep with her in his arms.
But awoke alone.
Alethea hesitated before ringing the doorbell at Abby’s house. She adjusted the front of her carefully chosen silk blouse. Her hair was tied back conservatively. The style of her pants was classic and nondescript. Even her makeup was toned down. Yes, I chose my most expensive pair of Manolo Blahniks, but a girl needs a bit of a confidence boost sometimes.
Give me a firefight any day over a room of women who want to talk.
She’d found respite in an hour of sleep within the haven of Marc’s arms, but her churning stomach had woken her. She’d stared at the dark ceiling until she acknowledged that sleep would not return. She’d shifted and replaced herself with a pillow, pausing to appreciate the outline of Marc’s muscular shoulders and back in the dimly lit room.
If she were looking for a relationship, which she wasn’t, a man like Marc would hit almost every criteria on her perfect match list. He was intelligent without being socially insecure. Strong without being threatened by her own strength. And flawed. Thank God for his flaws. She certainly had a good share of her own.
A man like Marc could accept her as she was while still pushing her to be better—no different from the way he pushed himself. Unlike any man she’d been with in the past, the more time she spent with Marc, the more she respected him. He was honest, blunt, and he genuinely seemed to want her to be happy.
Alethea swallowed hard. She didn’t want to fail here today. For Lil. For herself. And, remarkably enough, for Marc. She wanted more than anything to tell him she had navigated what was sure to be a minefield of temptation, held her tongue, and left this meeting with a workable truce. They may never be friends, but they could find a civil middle ground. One that allowed her to be close to Lil without the friction it presently caused.
Taking a deep breath, Alethea rang the bell and braced herself.
The door swung open and Lil pulled her through and into a tight hug. “You came, Al, I knew you would.”
Tears welled and were successfully contained. Alethea hugged her friend back, then said, “I will always come when you call, Lil. Always.”
Lil met her eyes and gushed, “When you weren’t answering your phone I thought you were angry with me about springing Marie and Nicole on you. I honestly thought it would make it better, not worse. I feel awful about how that went down.”
Calm. Peace. Control. Truce. “I was just as much at fault as anyone else. You know how I get when I lose my temper. But I wasn’t ignoring your calls. I lost my phone for a bit and things got a bit crazy. Know that no matter how bad you feel, I am just as sorry.”
Lil held her friend’s hand and said, “And here I am again, asking you to give them another shot. I wouldn’t blame you if you turned tail and ran, but Abby promised she’d be in your corner. She wants to work things out between the two of you.”
Alethea nodded. “I want the same thing. I want to be standing next to Abby at your wedding. I know how much that means to you and I’ll do anything to make sure you have that moment.”
Lil bit her lip with worry before she said, “Just one thing. Don’t bring up Stephan or your theories. Keep to safe topics. If they ask you, tell them that you were wrong and thought you’d found something but you haven’t.”
Oh, Lil. “I’m not a good liar.”
“For me. Just this once. Let Dominic and Jake deal with their business issues—issues you wouldn’t even know about if you weren’t so paranoid. I know what you said you found, but you could be wrong, couldn’t you? People make mistakes. Things look one way, but they turn out to be totally different when you look closer. Let this one go. Don’t cloud today with possible apocalyptic scenarios. Let them see the side of you I love. Just be you today.”
Lil sounded so much like Marc that Alethea fought back emotional tears again and hated herself for the weakness. Just be me. I don’t know who I am when you remove what I do. Like Marc, Lil was asking for what felt like the impossible.
Don’t expect things to get better if you do what you’ve always done.
I can do this.
I can be the friend Lil needs.
I can smile and keep my mouth shut.
“I won’t let you down, Lil. Don’t worry. I’ll play nice.”
Lil linked arms with Alethea and walked through the foyer with her.
Abby met them halfway. Her smile looked a bit forced, but she gave Alethea a kiss on the cheek. “Welcome. Everyone is already in the atrium.”
“Everyone?” Alethea asked, her mouth suddenly dry.
Abby stopped and turned. Her expression changed, becoming more sympathetic and open. “Only Marie and Nicole. The house is empty. Dominic’s mother is watching Judy and Colby.” She paused, then said, “I’m glad you came today, Alethea. Sincerely. I know we’ve had our issues, but I’m hoping we can find a way to start fresh today.” She looked away and then back. “You’ve been a good friend to my sister and that is what I want to focus on. You love Lil and so do I. It’s time for us to find a way to get along.”
Say as little as possible.
With a tight throat, Alethea nodded. “I’d like that.”
She followed Abby into the atrium. Marie and Nicole stood when she entered. A tense silence filled the room for a moment.
Marie crossed the room and gave Alethea a kiss on the cheek. “Alethea.”
Alethea almost laughed as a clip from an old mafia movie flashed through her mind. Kiss of welcome or of death?
No jokes.
No sarcasm.
Be good.
I should hug the old bitty just to see what she’d do.
No, behave.
Maintaining what she hoped was a friendly smile, Alethea said, “Nice to see you again, Marie.”
Nicole walked up to her, hands clasped tightly before her. “What you said about Stephan really hurt me.”
Alethea took a calming breath. This was about a truce, not the truth. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to hurt you.” That much was true anyway.
White-faced, Nicole asked, “Do you still believe that Stephan is trying to sabotage my brother’s company?”
I never said . . .
Doesn’t matter.
“No, I don’t.”
Not letting up, Nicole pushed, “So, you were wrong.”
Alethea glanced at Lil, who was practically wringing her own hands as she waited. Lie. It doesn’t matter what she thinks of me. Not being able to get along with her hurts Lil. Put aside your damn pride and just fucking lie. Face tight, Alethea said, “Yes, I was.”
With an audible breath, Nicole relaxed a bit and covered her mouth with one hand as she said, “Oh, my God, I knew you were, but I needed to hear it.”
Abby stood beside Alethea and said, “Why don’t we all sit down?”
They sat in a circle around an antique table while Abby served tea and passed a plate of scones.
Alethea took her cup obediently and placed it before her. Unlike the other women, she didn’t reach for sweetener or lemon.
Marie asked, “Not a tea drinker?”
Instantly defensive, Alethea sat straighter, but bit back the first five responses that came to her. Finally she said, “Not really, but this is a nice treat.”
Lifting the teapot from the tray, Marie said, “This particular blend is from Ceylon. They say it teases the palate with a hint of ginger and is best with a slice of orange. Milk does not complement it.”
“Thank you,” Alethea said, and reached for an orange slice. “I appreciate the tip.”
Abby said, “I hope you’re here long enough to see Judy when Rosella returns with her. She’s getting so big so fast. Colby will be happy to see you, too.”
Don’t ask.
Don’t get involved.
“So Rosella took them out?”
Abby nodded. “Yes, they needed the fresh air. She took the double stroller and is walking them both at Central Park.”
“With security?” Alethea asked before she could stop herself.
Abby’s face darkened a bit with irritation. “Of course with security. Look at this place, it’s a virtual prison with all the men Dominic has patrolling it. It was bad before Judy was born, but thanks to your little hospital stunt, I can barely move without tripping over a bodyguard.”
Lil said, “Abby, that’s not really fair. Alethea saw a potential problem and she exposed it. We’re lucky it was her and not a rabid fan or reporter.”
Abby sighed. “Alethea, I know you did it to help, but you upset everyone the way you did it. From now on, please pick up the phone and tell me, or Dominic. I can give you Marc’s phone number. He’s Dominic’s head of security. Call him with your concerns next time and I promise to be grateful for your help.”
Bite your tongue.
She obviously has no clue what’s going on.
But that’s okay, because it’s being handled.
Nicole said, “I don’t know how you put up with this side of Dominic, Abby. It’s too much. He tried to give me my own security detail and I turned it down.”
Lil laughed. “He did the same for me when we first met. I had to threaten to call the police, remember, Abby?”
Abby smiled at the memory. “I do. You accused him of being worse than me.”
“He was,” Lil said. “Thank God Jake isn’t like that. We have a regular home security system and that’s it. I couldn’t handle living like you do, Abby.”
Marie interjected, “Dominic does it because he loves her. He lives a high-profile life. Even more so than Jake. That level of celebrity comes with a cost. He’s just trying to keep his family safe.”