Breaching the Billionaire: Alethea's Redemption
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Marie’s expression softened a bit. “No one is saying you can’t be friends with her.” Lil held her eyes and Marie added, “And we should probably all try to make more of an effort to be nice to her. You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to defend her to us.”
Nicole laid her cup down and smiled. “I can’t believe she snuck into the hospital through the kitchen. That girl has balls. I’ll give her that.”
“I’m hoping you’ll both give her more than that.”
Marie cocked her head to one side. “What do you mean?”
Lil bit her lip nervously, then said, “She told me something and I don’t know what to do with it. Marie, you’re a problem solver. I need your advice. And, Nicole, you may know something that could clear all of this up before it goes any further. I trust both of you completely. I hope you’ll understand why I brought us together.”
Nicole went white. “You’re making me nervous.”
Alethea stood in the doorway, unannounced as usual. “No one told me this was a party.”
Lil crossed the room to join her friend and took her by the arm. “Al, this is better than your way. I can’t play detective with you this time. I have too much to lose. Tell them what you know. Let’s work together to figure this out.”
She tried to drag Alethea toward the other two women, but Alethea didn’t budge. She looked from Marie to Nicole and back. “Throw me to the lions, why don’t you? You think they want to hear what I know?”
With warming cheeks, Lil conceded her point. This is going to work. It has to. “Want? No. Need to hear it? Yes. I love you, Al, but I love them, too. Trust them. Trust me.”
Alethea reluctantly walked up to the table where the two women were seated. Neither stood. She looked at Lil one last time before saying, “I have information linking recent computer glitches at Corisi Enterprises to Stephan’s IP address.”
Marie suddenly stood and aggressively threw her napkin on the table. “What kind of nonsense is this?” A moment earlier, Marie had appeared to be a mild-mannered older woman. Everything from her choice of a conservative jacketed linen dress to her delicate jewelry broadcast New York sophistication. Her civilized veneer thinned at the hint of a threat to one of her boys.
Lil intervened quickly. “It’s not nonsense. If Al says she has information, it’s true.”
Alethea interjected, “It doesn’t mean that—” but didn’t have time to finish her sentence before Nicole cut her off.
“No,” Nicole said loudly. She stood and covered her mouth with a hand that shook. Tears filled her eyes. “Stephan would never do anything to hurt me or my family. We’re getting married. How could you think that he would be involved in anything like that?”
Alethea raised a placating hand, but her tone wasn’t as kind as Lil knew was necessary to calm a woman who still worried that Dominic would never fully accept the man she loved. “Let’s try to focus on the facts and not get emotional about this.”
Her voice rising, Nicole said, “Not emotional? Not emotional? You little bitch. You stand there and tell me that my fiancé is trying to sabotage my brother’s company and I’m not supposed to be offended by it?”
“I didn’t say—” Alethea started impatiently.
No, this is going all wrong. They weren’t listening to Alethea, and she was getting defensive. That didn’t bode well for a good outcome. Lil cut in, “Nicole—”
“What evidence do you have?” Marie asked in a cold voice.
Flipping her long curls defiantly over one shoulder, Alethea answered sharply, “Does it matter? Either you believe me or you don’t.”
Clasping her hands before her until they were white, Nicole announced, “I don’t. I don’t believe any of this. And I don’t have time to waste on someone who loves to stir up trouble.” Before she left, she turned to Lil and asked angrily, “Do you believe Stephan’s involved in whatever she’s accusing him of?”
I’m not good under pressure. I wish Abby were here. She’d know what to say to Nicole to reassure her. “No, I don’t. I don’t want to believe any of this, but Nicole, you’re the one who is closest to him. People make mistakes. He spent years hating Dominic. Is he over that? If anyone would know, it’s you.”
Backing away, with a voice that cracked with emotion, Nicole said, “I do know and I can’t believe that you’d even ask that.” She turned and walked out of the room.
“I didn’t mean it the way it sounded . . .” Lil said sadly, knowing that chasing after Nicole would only make it worse. Marie is still here. She’ll know how to fix this.
Alethea and Marie were standing nose to nose, two strong women who would never come to blows but who certainly knew how to tear each other apart verbally. I can’t let that happen.
Lil groaned when she saw the fire in Alethea’s eyes. She didn’t respond well to confrontation. Some people avoided conflict; Alethea ramped up in the face of it. Angry with her? She’d be angrier. It was part of the fear Lil had always sensed in her friend. Alethea needed to be in control, and the moment she felt she wasn’t she came out fighting.
In a cutting tone, Alethea said, “No one said Stephan is guilty. I don’t know who would have access to his accounts or why he’d give it to anyone, but the path leads back to him.”
“Of course it does. No, you didn’t accuse Stephan, you just said enough to plant a seed of doubt.” Marie bristled. “How miserable are you that you can’t stand to see anyone happy?”
No. No. No. “Marie, stop. Alethea didn’t organize this meeting, I did.”
Marie continued to challenge Alethea. “These glitches, do they even exist? I’ve heard nothing about them, and the boys tell me everything. You know what I think? I think you’re afraid you’re losing Lil and you’re willing to destroy anyone to stop that from happening.”
Head high, Alethea said, “Do you honestly think I care what you think of me? I don’t need to prove anything to you. Lil knows the truth.”
Do I? Lil searched Alethea’s face urgently. “I know you believe there is a problem, Al, but I’m not sure what to think this time. I know things have changed between us. That can’t be easy for you. Lately I’ve seen a side of you, though, that I don’t understand. You were cruel with Jeisa. I’ve never seen you like that before. I’m not saying you’re making this up, but could you be wrong?”
Alethea’s expression hardened. “So, you don’t believe me either?”
“I didn’t say that, Al, but do you see how this could ruin everything? Can’t you let it go?” Lil looked helplessly at Marie and then back at Alethea.
“You know I need to uncover the truth.”
Lil slumped a bit. “Even if this destroys our friendship?”
“Even then.” Alethea growled, and walked out of the room, out the front door, and to her car.
In the quiet after she left, Marie said, “That is one interesting friend you have.”
Lil hugged her arms around her waist and shook her head. “Don’t, Marie. You don’t understand her.”
Gathering up her purse, Marie said, “That is one point I certainly can’t dispute. However, I’d like to think I know you. You’re happy, Lil. Don’t let her ruin that for you.”
After Marie left, Lil headed to the back of the house to relieve the nanny. Colby ran over and buried her face in her mother’s leg. “Mama. Mama. Up.”
Lil reached down and picked up her young daughter. “Were you good for Karen?”
Colby laughed and stretched her answer into a comically long word. “Gooood?” Then she shook her head solemnly. “No.”
Lil hugged her closer and laughed out loud. “Me, neither. I think I really messed up.”
Taking her mother’s face between her little hands, Colby said, “Two minutes, time out.”
If only it were that easy for adults.
Alethea downed her third shot of what the bartender had promised would knock her on her ass: Three Wise Men. Johnny, Jack, and Jim—a combination that shocked initially, then brought a blissful burn. She stacked the small empty glass on top of two others and waved the bartender over. She fully intended to drink until she either stopped hating herself or stopped feeling anything, whichever came first.
She should have changed out of her tight-fitting sleeveless tank dress. There were two men at the bar watching her closely. She assessed them for threat and dismissed both. One was large and soft. The other didn’t look like he’d ever seen the wrong side of a fist. If either followed her out the door, she hoped she didn’t end up in jail for the pain she would inflict on them.
One smiled at her when he caught her looking across at him. She shook her head and looked away. Sorry, I can’t find a man attractive if I know I can kick his ass.
“Seems you’ve changed your mind about our drink,” a deep familiar voice said suggestively in her ear.
Alethea didn’t even look up. She just downed her fourth shot. “Don’t fuck with me tonight, Marc. I’ve had a bad day.”
“Apparently,” he said dryly.
“How did you know I was here?”
“Would you believe gut feeling? Or should I confess to light stalking?”
Almost smiling, Alethea waved over the bartender for another shot. “Don’t make me laugh. I hate everyone right now.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“No.” She downed her fifth shot.
He took her purse and rifled through it, pulling out her keys and sticking them in the front pocket of his charcoal suit pants.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, with the first hint of a slur in her voice.
“You’re not driving anywhere tonight.”
“How I get home is none of your concern.”
“Maybe not, but I’m not going anywhere.” He took a seat next to her. The bartender brought another shot by, but Marc waved him away. “So tell me about this bad day.”
Alethea closed her eyes, then leaned onto her elbows on the bar in front of her. “I’m celebrating my freedom from the responsibility of trying to make people see reality.”
“You’re not celebrating. You’re wallowing.”
Alethea tried unsuccessfully to stack her remaining empty shot glasses into a pyramid but missed. “You don’t know anything about what’s going on. Did Marie send you? She thinks I’m jealous of Lil’s new life. I’m not. I don’t want a husband and kids. I’d die of boredom in her perfect little life. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
“About what?” he asked quietly.
She looked up into his intense blue eyes and instantly regretted doing so. Even though they were slightly blurred, they looked just as beautiful. Maybe even more so because they were so close. Too close. Like those luscious lips of his that were pressed in a thoughtful line. It would be so easy to escape into them as she had into alcohol. “About life. If you have something you love, you have to protect it or someone will rip it from you.” She snapped her fingers in the air. “Look away and you lose, just like that.”