Rise of the Billionaire
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Romario straightened his shoulders and glared down at Marie. “Don’t tell me how to raise my daughter.”
Marie stepped closer, her hands going to her hips. “She’s a grown woman. The raising part is finished. What she needs from you now is acceptance of who she is.”
Romario growled down at her, “This is none of your business.”
Marie held his eyes, her face flushed with emotion. “Yes, it is. I care about your daughter and her happiness. She loves you. I’d hate to see you lose her just because you’re too stubborn to hear what she’s trying to tell you.”
Jake murmured to Dominic, “You tell him, Marie.”
Dominic made a guttural sound in his chest.
Abby took her husband’s hand in hers. “I’ve never seen Marie look at a man like that before. I think she likes him.”
Dominic swore beneath his breath when Jake agreed.
“Does that mean we can’t punch him?” Jake asked blandly.
Dominic growled, “Not right this second.”
Abby leaned over and asked, “What are you two conspiring about?”
“Nothing,” Dominic said quickly. Too quickly. Abby eyed him suspiciously.
When Romario turned to Jake and Dominic, he spoke with the calm authority of a diplomat. “My daughter thinks Jeremy may be in some trouble. Do you know why he left with that woman?”
Dominic’s temper flared. “Hoping someone else will take him out so you don’t have to?”
Jake injected, “None of this makes sense unless Alethea told him something that he felt he couldn’t share with us.”
Jake’s mother stepped into the conversation and said, “Maybe something to do with his work in Tenin?”
“What would he be doing in that country?” Romario demanded. “They are verging on civil war.”
Ever the voice of reason, Jake suggested, “Whatever’s going on, I suggest we find out where he went.”
Dominic motioned for one of his security men to approach as he asked Jake, “Did you bring your helicopter?”
“Never leave home without it.”
Dominic conferred with his security for a moment, then said, “Let’s go. I think I know where he went.”
Jake’s parents joined them. “We’re coming, too.”
As Dominic started to refuse them, Jake’s father said, “Jeremy has helped us more than anyone in our field. If the trouble he’s in has anything to do with hacking, you’re going to need us.”
“They’re right. We may need them,” Jake added.
Romario flexed his shoulders decisively. “I’m also coming.”
“No way in hell,” Dominic countered.
Nose to nose with Dominic, Romario said, “My daughter loves that man. If there is the slimmest chance that he is not as bad as I think he is, I need to know. This involves my family. I’m going to either save him or kill him. Can you tell me that you’d do any differently?” When Dominic didn’t waver, he added, “Besides, if this is a political issue, I may have some pull.”
Dominic tensed. God, I hate that man. I hate him even more when he’s right.
Victor Andrade put a hand on Dominic’s shoulder and said, “Strength is also shown in restraint, friend. Take him with you.”
Knowing that it’s the right thing to do doesn’t make the unpalatable more desirable. Dominic looked down into Abby’s trusting eyes and swore beneath his breath in concession. “Is anyone else coming?”
“I’ll stay here. Jeisa will need someone,” Abby said.
Lil gave Jake a quick kiss on the lips. “Me, too.”
Victor Andrade bowed out gracefully. “I can wait to hear how it turns out. I’m getting too old for all this.”
Therese stepped forward and, with a hint of desperation in her voice, said, “Jeremy is a good boy. If he’s in trouble, you’ve got to get him out of it.”
Marie took the woman’s hand in hers to comfort her. “If anyone can, it’s these boys.”
Abby met Dominic halfway for a lingering, parting kiss. “Be careful, Dom. You don’t know what you’re walking into. I know you have to go, but”—she stepped back and put a hand on her belly—“just remember all the reasons you have to come home.”
He pulled his wife to him and gave her a long kiss that promised more than just his return. Marie cleared her throat behind him and said, “Enough of that, off you go.”
Dominic chuckled and reluctantly released his wife. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
Abby nodded and hugged herself.
With that, Dominic, Jake, Jake’s parents, and Romario—along with some of Dominic’s security—boarded Jake’s helicopter and headed after the elusive Jeremy.
A perk of being integral to fortifying Corisi Enterprises’ technology infrastructure was that building security was no hassle for Jeremy. He simply showed his high-level badge, vouched for Alethea, and walked into an area of the building that very few ever saw. Behind the access-controlled security doors was a room filled with rows of black racks. The hum of fans and blinking of lights was familiar and calming to Jeremy. He and Alethea walked down one of the rows until he found the server he was looking for.
Alethea hadn’t said much during their trip over and he was grateful for that. He didn’t want to know if she had followed her usual behavior and made the situation worse rather than better. He was already having difficulty concentrating. He pulled a shelf out of the rack and flipped up a monitor. He took a seat in front of the console and started typing in codes.
Breaking through firewalls was something he normally did with ease. But Alethea was right—they’d been blocked out of the communication network he’d built. Someone had deliberately locked them out. He tried to gain access by using an SSH tunnel, but it failed. He tried again and, when that failed, he knew that whoever had locked him out had anticipated how he would try to break their codes.
This wasn’t the Tenin government. This was personal.
He’d done something similar to his online nemesis a hundred times before—and laughed about it. But lives had never been on the line back then. Sliver had made a name for himself in the hacker community by hijacking the sites of major companies. Although his real identity was a secret, many had felt his online presence had been felt in their wallets. In the past, when Jeremy had gotten a whiff of one of Sliver’s planned stings, he’d locked him out just for fun. Sliver had threatened to retaliate, but Jeremy had always remained one step ahead of him.
Which was why some referred to Jeremy as a cyber-superhero.
And this was payback for that title.
What if I can’t fix this? People are relying on me to save their lives.
I lose them. I lose Jeisa. Everything.
He couldn’t shake the haunting image of Jeisa as she told him to go with Alethea. She hadn’t looked as angry as she’d looked . . . defeated. Which didn’t make much sense to Jeremy since he’d spent the day telling her he loved her. Why wouldn’t she believe him? What happened to put that deep hurt in her eyes?
When he realized he’d stopped typing altogether, he swore. This is too important for me to screw up. More important than Jeisa and me. There are people depending on me to save them. Focus. Fucking focus.
He paused to send a plea out to the heavens. Let me figure out this one issue and I will change my ways. I swear it.
When his next attempt failed, he slammed his hand down on the table near the keyboard. “I can’t break through,” he said in frustration.
Alethea paced behind him. “Keep trying.”
He tried another code. Tried another access point. Each attempt had been anticipated and blocked.
“You’ve never met a code you couldn’t break. Don’t give up.” Alethea’s words of encouragement left him cold.
Jeremy shook his head. Even when he tried to clear his thoughts of the dire situation he and Alethea had placed people in, his mind kept racing. Images of Jeisa, of her father, of his mother with that stupid camera waiting to take photos of what should have been one of the best moments of his life.
But I screwed it up.
I screwed everything up.
Jeisa is never going to forgive me.
Not when she sees what I’ve done—not when this all explodes and hits the news.
She and her father will run as fast and as far as they can from me, and who could blame them?
He had stopped typing again when a message popped up on the screen in front of him. An instant message sent via a site he’d been trying to gain access through. It read, “Ready to give up? ~ S”
He typed back, “This isn’t a game, Sliver. There are lives at stake here.”
“Then you must really want to access this network.”
Noticing Jeremy’s online conversation, Althea asked, “Who is that?”
“It’s Sliver. Remember the guy Stephan hired to plant a virus in Dominic’s server? I guess he’s still upset that I stopped him.”
“Shit. What does he want?”
“Revenge . . . and to be known as the best.”
Alethea said, “Maybe we can use that.”
Jeremy thought about it, looked at the ceiling for a moment, then typed, “Let me back in and I’ll never mess with you online again.”
“You really are desperate,” Sliver answered. After a moment Sliver wrote again, “Give me the access codes to Dominic’s server and I’ll give you your network back.”
What does he want with Dominic? This wasn’t how Sliver normally operated. This felt personal. Jeremy stalled. “What makes you think I have them?”
“You wrote them.”
He looked over his shoulder at Alethea. “He says he’ll give me the codes if I give him access to Dominic’s server. I can’t betray Dominic, but I can’t let our people die in Tenin, either.”
Behind him, Jake’s father, Jim, said, “When forced to choose between two impossible scenarios, the solution is often a third and more creative option.”
Jeremy spun in his chair. The previously empty room was filling with almost everyone he’d hoped to keep this a secret from, along with what appeared to be a private swat team that was stationing itself throughout the room. Only Jeisa was missing. In her place, her stone-faced father stood in judgment.
Jake flanked Jeremy’s right side and said, “We can’t help you unless you tell us what exactly you’ve gotten yourself into.”
Alethea moved back as both of Jake’s parents stepped forward to hover over Jeremy. Hope surged through Jeremy. With the two infamous Waltons and their genius son on his side, they had to be able to beat Sliver. It wasn’t easy to admit the scope of his mistake to them, but it was necessary. “I went to Tenin for the fast money. Alethea worked on propping up their facility security. I took care of the software side. We planted people on the inside to keep us informed of changes, but Alethea heard chatter of a military strike as early as tomorrow.” He looked at Jeisa’s father and said, “My name is all over this if it goes bad. We’d hoped to send word to warn our people to get out before informing Alvo of the attack. I didn’t consider how the fallout of this situation could affect anyone else. I just saw easy money. Now I’m locked out of the communication network and I can’t break Sliver’s codes.”