Rise of the Billionaire
Page 23

 Ruth Cardello

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In plain sight of everyone, Jeremy boldly took Jeisa’s left hand in his. Jeisa turned to look at him and lost herself in the emotion she saw in his face. He mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
She whispered back, “Me, too.”
In an act driven by the emotion of the moment, Jeisa turned and put her right hand on her father’s on the table. He looked down at her and some of the anger in his face lessened. He let out a long sigh as if releasing some tension. In a soft voice loud enough for only her father to hear, she said in Portuguese, “I know that you’re angry with me, but try to enjoy today. These are my friends and this is the life I’m hoping to have.”
Her father didn’t say anything, but he rubbed his forehead in the way he often did when he was reconsidering his position on something.
Jeisa turned back to Jeremy and whispered, “I think he’s starting to like you.”
Jeremy coughed doubtfully. His response was more serious than she’d expected. “Maybe not yet, but he will.”
As Victor Andrade’s toast ended, Jeisa whispered to Jeremy again, “Did you see who they sat on his other side?”
Jeremy leaned back in his seat to see, then whispered back, “Your father had better behave.”
Jeisa laughed into her hand. “He will.” Watching her father bend his head to hear Marie better, Jeisa felt proud of the older woman. When she’d received a polite thank-you note for the dress, Jeisa had wondered if Marie would actually wear it. But there she was, looking elegantly sexy draped in the sleeveless, floor-length golden gown, dotted with silver appliqués, and a complementary sheer shawl.
And her father was hanging on her every word.
Jeremy interrupted her observation by asking, “Can we talk after dinner?”
With her heart fluttering in her chest, Jeisa asked, “So, you’ve made your decision?”
He leaned across to kiss her cheek. “There was nothing to decide, just foolishness to forget.” He nuzzled her ear.
Jeisa’s breath caught in her throat. She nodded.
He does love me.
Dominic growled into his wife’s ear as he watched the couple across the table talking. “Look at him talking Marie’s ear off. She can’t wait for this meal to be over.”
Eyes dancing with humor, Abby said, “I’m not positive that’s what she’s thinking.”
“If he says one rude word to her, I’m throwing him out the front door.”
Abby placed a soothing hand on Dominic’s tense thigh. “He’s a diplomat. I’m sure he knows how to behave himself at a social gathering.”
Dominic glared at Romario. “You wouldn’t think so if you’d heard him talking to Jeremy.”
Abby rubbed her husband’s thigh beneath the table until his attention refocused on her. “Tell me you didn’t get involved in their family dispute.”
Instantly attentive, Dominic lowered his head and whispered suggestively, “Move your hand a little higher and I’ll tell you whatever you want hear.”
Abby slapped his stomach playfully. “I’m serious.”
Dominic kissed his beautiful wife’s neck, knowing there was no way to avoid her lecture but enjoying the delicious pink it brought to her cheeks. “So am I.”
Despite the desire that lit her eyes, Abby chastised her husband playfully. “You are incorrigible.”
He kissed her neck again, but also offered her what he knew she was waiting for. “I may have exchanged a few harsh words with Romario.”
Abby’s head cocked to the side in doubt. “May have?”
It was impossible to stay upset when his wife smiled at him that way. He conceded, “He doesn’t think Jeremy is good enough for Jeisa.”
Tongue-in-cheek, Abby asked, “Is any man good enough for a father?”
“Do not mock me, woman,” he said, but there was no bite to his words.
Instead of continuing down the teasing thread, Abby took Dominic’s hand and laid it on her small belly bump. “It couldn’t have been easy for Jeisa’s father to come here today. He doesn’t know any of us, and from what I’ve heard, Jeisa wasn’t entirely honest with him about what she’d been doing here in the States. He flew over here because he was worried about her and he met a suitor he’d previously never heard a word about. Can you blame him for being protective? How would you feel if Jeisa were our daughter?”
Dominic shook his head ruefully. “I’d want to kill the bastard.”
“And?” Abby pushed.
With a groan, Dominic conceded, “And I might not want her to hang around with people who have been in the news for as many questionable reasons as we have been.” He closed his eyes for a pained second. “Don’t ask me to be nice to him. I’m only human.”
Abby smiled up at her husband. “Do you know what I think?”
Looking down at his wife’s beautiful, concerned face, Dominic said, “No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“You know that Jeremy looks up to you.”
Dominic waved one hand in the air in frustrated emphasis. “He’s just so . . . naive. He doesn’t understand how the world works.”
Tears of emotion filled Abby’s eyes and she said huskily, “And you want to protect him. Oh, Dominic, you went through hell and it shaped how you see families. But this isn’t the same, and Jeremy needs to work this out on his own. He’ll be fine. He knows how to love through adversity. Romario is not like your father. It’s too easy to judge him by what we see today, but he’s trying to protect her. Today must be difficult for him. There is nothing worse than watching your child do the exact opposite of what you consider safe for them. It unhinges even the nicest person.”
Dominic ran his hand lovingly over the nape of his wife’s neck. “Is there anyone you hate?”
Her lips thinned. “Yes. The man who stole your childhood from you.”
Dominic kissed Abby’s forehead. For the millionth time since he’d met her, he wondered how he’d earned this second chance. Given the time, she might have redeemed even his father.
“Have I told you how much I love you?” He loved the way her eyes filled with tears again, but this time with happy emotion.
“Not since this morning,” she said cheekily. As dessert was served, Abby said, “Jeremy does need you, but not as his defender. Your opinion matters to him. Show him that you respect his kind of strength, too.”
Dominic looked across the table to where Jeremy was once again attempting to engage Jeisa’s father in polite conversation and had to admit that Abby was right. Any other man would have gotten into a shouting match with Romario, but instead Jeremy had a stoically determined look on his face.
That kid doesn’t give up.
Chapter Fourteen
After dinner, the guests spilled out onto the patio and lawn. The sun, on this warmer-than-usual November day, was valiantly delivering its last hour of light, and some of the younger Andrades had shed their jackets and were tossing a football around in what looked like a lethargic attempt at the sport.
Although Jeisa had spoken to people throughout dinner, she couldn’t remember a single conversation. All she could think about was what would happen when she and Jeremy were finally alone.
What if he doesn’t ask me?
Of course he’s going to. Why would he tell his mother if he wasn’t serious?
Maybe my father scared him off.
She scanned the room for Jeremy and found him engaged in a conversation with Jake Walton and his parents. He can handle my father.
Maddy and Lil approached, and every muscle in Jeisa’s stomach clenched in anticipation.
Lil’s smile was infectious. “Are you ready?”
Maddy said, “We’d better hurry. We lit so many candles we may set off a fire alarm.”
Jeisa was half-led, half-dragged to the kitchen by the two excited women. She caught her breath at the beauty of what they had done. Each table was covered with a white tablecloth and candles of all sizes scattered in every direction. In the fading light of the day, the large kitchen could have passed for a romantic restaurant. Jeisa hugged the two women who had scrambled to transform the space. “It’s perfect,” she said.
Maddy assessed their work with a critical eye. “It’s not subtle, but he was going to ask you anyway—you’re just giving him the perfect place to do it.”
Lil confided, “Jake told me Jeremy bought three rings because he wanted to make sure you had one you loved.” She sighed dreamily. “That’s so romantic.”
Or indecisive, Jeisa thought, then hated herself for thinking that.
Jeremy made his decision and it’s me.
Maddy grabbed Lil by the hand. “We can’t stay. I already told Richard to get Jeremy as soon as he saw us leave. He should be here any second.”
They each hugged Jeisa one last time.
“Good luck,” Maddy said.
“She won’t need luck,” Lil declared. “He loves her. We’ll be toasting your engagement before dark.”
Jeisa waved to them as they left her. She stood in the middle of the floor, her breath growing shorter as her excitement and nervousness grew.
And she waited.
Jeremy regretted mentioning his Tenin project in front of Jake. Although Jake’s parents hadn’t seemed fazed by his slip, Jake brought up the subject again as soon as they left the conversation.
“You’re working a deal with Alvo? His time in power is coming to a fast end.”
Jeremy dismissed his concern with a shrug. “Then I’ll help the other side.”
“You sound exactly like Dominic used to.”
Jeremy puffed with pride. “Thank you.”
Shaking his head in disgust, Jake said, “That wasn’t a compliment.”
Jeremy hid his confusion behind an accusation. “Who are you to judge my ethics?”
Calmly raising a placating hand, Jake said, “I’m not judging you. I’m cautioning you that you’re going down a dark road.”
A dark road you paved yourself. “It wasn’t so bad when you and Dominic made your fortune doing something very similar.”
Before Jake could answer, Dominic stepped into the conversation and said, “Jake, give me a minute with Jeremy.”
After Jake was out of earshot, Jeremy said, “That guy is—”
Dominic cut him off. “Always disgustingly right when it comes to things like this.” He put a hand on Jeremy’s shoulder and cautioned, “Before you follow too closely in my footsteps, Jeremy, you need to know that even I don’t want to be me.”
In shock, Jeremy asked, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I made my money by siding with whoever had the bigger wallet. I didn’t care who got hurt as long as I won. But even when I thought that was how the world worked, I paid a price for that lifestyle. When money becomes an obsession, there is an emptiness that seeps into you like a poison. Nothing can fill it. Nothing I built or bought brought me happiness because I hated myself. I still do sometimes, even though Abby brings me comfort.” There was such pain in Dominic’s eyes that Jeremy didn’t question his sincerity.