Rise of the Billionaire
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Now, chest heaving with anger and lips pursed as she tried to keep her opinion to herself, she was the stuff of late-night dreams.
I’m only human.
I doubt even married men can look at her and not ask themselves “what if.”
Not that she’d appreciate it.
He closed his eye and said, “Say it.”
Jeisa asked a bit too innocently, “Say what?”
“Whatever is eating at you.”
“You could have been seriously injured today,” she gushed, and the depth of emotion in her voice surprised Jeremy into sitting up. He could handle thinking she was angry with him, but he was unprepared for her to be hurt by what he’d done.
I’m an ass, he thought. Here I am imagining her naked and she’s genuinely worried about me. I really have to get this under control. And I will. When I’m with Alethea, I’ll be able to look at Jeisa and not imagine those full breasts in my hands, and those delicious lips around my cock. I’ll stop wanting to slide the straps of her jumpsuit over her shoulders, drop it to the floor, and savor what would definitely be a slice of heaven on earth.
He shuddered and turned on his side to conceal how his body was responding to the images of her in the nude his imagination was supplying in abundance. This type of unwelcome and poorly timed arousal would soon be a thing of the past.
Jeisa was the wrong type of distraction at the wrong time. Didn’t Marie know any hideous image consultants?
I can’t waver now. I am so close to being the man I swore I’d become—so close to having it all. I don’t want Jeisa. I want Alethea. Jeisa is here and hot. Of course I’m tempted.
But Jeisa deserves better than that.
She was more than an employee; she was a friend. A friend who was hurting because he’d been foolish enough to let her witness the less savory side of his transformation. Change doesn’t come without some pain. He was so used to letting her into every corner of his life that he didn’t consider how today might have upset her. “Jeisa, I’m fine. It looks worse than it is.” When she didn’t look convinced, he tried humor. “Besides, I plan to tell people that you and your Brazilian temper did this.”
She almost smiled, but then her beautiful face tightened again. “I’m serious. Don’t go back there.”
He wanted to ease her worry, but nothing—not even her pleas—would stop him from following through with his training. He’d come too far to turn back now. “Next week won’t be like this,” he assured her.
“How do you know that?”
“Because we came to an understanding today.”
He shared his thoughts openly with Jeisa. “He wanted to prove that I don’t belong there.”
“You don’t. Just like he doesn’t belong in your office. God, Jeremy, people send private jets for you. I think you can afford your own security.”
She didn’t understand, and he didn’t expect her to. This wasn’t about what he could afford. Money had stopped being an issue as soon as he’d stepped out of the shadows of hacking and offered his services to the highest bidder. He was quickly amassing more money than he’d be able to spend in ten lifetimes, but wealth was only part of what he sought. He still had a long way to go before he commanded the same respect as the men who hired him to work on their software security issues. “You know why this is important to me.”
“Alethea,” Jeisa said quietly and stood.
There’s that look again—she doesn’t approve, but she doesn’t have to.
No one does.
Jeremy lay back on the couch and closed his eyes. “Yes,” he said. An image of the red-haired woman he’d spent so much of his life dreaming of was oddly difficult to conjure. Jeremy didn’t let that lessen his resolve. Alethea wasn’t just any woman. She was the one who had pulled him through the darkest hours of his teens. She was the goal that had made the years of caring for his father and then mourning his loss bearable.
A goal that had kept him sane when nothing else in his life had made sense.
One that was suddenly now within his reach.
If I don’t fuck it up.
“Just go,” he said wearily.
He heard the retreating click of Jeisa’s high heels on his tile floor. He wanted to chase after her and explain his reasons again, but he fought and won against that impulse. There was nothing to say that he hadn’t already said.
A few moments later he heard her return, and then he felt the cold touch of a bag of ice against one side of his face. He covered the bag with one of his hands, feeling miserable in a way that wasn’t connected to his physical pain. Having her there made him feel better and worse at the same time, and the conflicting emotions frustrated him. With his eyes still closed, he said, “Thank you. I should be fine by tomorrow. I’ll call you in the morning.”
The sound of Jeisa plopping into one of his armchairs was followed by the soft thud of her discarded shoes. “You could have a concussion. I don’t think you’re supposed to sleep.”
Please tell me she’s not going to stay.
“The Internet says that’s a myth.”
She let out a long sigh. “If I leave now, I am going to spend the rest of the day wondering if you’re okay.”
If you stay, I’m going to spend the rest of the night suffering, and it won’t be for the reasons you think. He growled, “So you’re just going to sit there and stare at me while I sleep?”
He hated how his blood pounded at the thought of her taking care of him. Hovering beside him.
Jeremy wondered what she’d say if he put the ice on his lower region, where he apparently needed it more. She’d probably kick my ass.
On the outside, Jeisa was calm and sophisticated, but he’d glimpsed her inner fire. The image of her standing between him and the boxing trainer, like some protective lioness, filled him with an emotion he couldn’t define.
The kind of woman a man marries.
Another man, he corrected himself.
Just before Jeremy drifted off to sleep, he felt the comforting warmth of a blanket being draped over him and he smiled again.
Jeisa soaked in the quiet of Jeremy’s apartment and the soothing rhythm of his light snore. Idiot, she thought. No one is worth what you’re doing to yourself. Calling him a name in her mind provided her only the briefest comfort, before a real sadness settled over her.
Unless you love them enough that you’re willing to do just about anything. Even stay when they told you to leave and blame it on a concussion. Then, I guess, all the rules are off. Jeisa tucked her legs beneath her and watched Jeremy try to escape his pain via a fitful sleep. She relived the fear that had filled her when she’d seen Ray cock his hand back for one final blow.
For about the millionth time, she regretted not keeping their working relationship purely professional, but where he was concerned she’d thrown all common sense aside.
She thought back to the first time they’d met. He’d arrived on her doorstep in a suit that had clearly belonged to someone else—about twenty years ago—and shyly presented her with a surround-sound system for her television. Although she’d refused the present, he’d quickly shed his jacket and was halfway through installing it before he’d stopped, put down the wires he was in the process of organizing, and said, “Did you say you didn’t want it?”
He’d sat back on his heels and smiled sheepishly at her. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m nervous.”
Right then and there she’d known she was in trouble. She hadn’t been sure what to expect from Marie’s description: a socially awkward computer genius poised to earn a substantial amount of money. She certainly hadn’t considered that he could have eyes as blue and warm as the first day of summer, and a smile so disarmingly sexy that his general state of disarray didn’t matter.
“No, I’m sorry,” she’d said and joined him on the floor, tucking the hem of her sundress under her knees. “What a generous gift. And I didn’t even ask if you needed help.”
His grin had widened. “Possibly because you’d said no.”
She’d grinned right back at him. “Possibly, but it looks amazing.”
“Marie told me to bring you something. Since you haven’t been here long, I figured you wouldn’t have one of these.” His face had reddened a bit as he said, “It was easier than flowers.” Suddenly serious, he’d looked directly into her eyes and said, “I really want this to work, and I’ll do whatever it takes.” And he had. He’d tolerated a spa day, several fittings, and even etiquette lessons on which fork to use with which course in a fine restaurant. In the spirit of change, he’d included her in his travels, his social events, and almost every aspect of his transformation—until now.
She’d expressed her opinion before, during, and after his boxing lesson, but her feelings on the matter hadn’t swayed his decision. She hadn’t realized until just now how much he’d already changed. Soon he wouldn’t need her at all. No matter how close she felt to him, at the end of the day, she worked for him.
This is a job.
Just a job.
Someday Jeremy will be nothing more than a name on my résumé.
The thought brought a heavy weight to Jeisa’s heart. The only idiot in this room is me. He knows what he wants, and nothing is going to stop him from getting it. What would my life be like if I had the same courage?
Jeremy groaned and rolled over onto his side, covering his bruised face with one arm.
I’m going to miss him.
I’ll miss the private smile he gives me when we mingle at a party and only I know that he practiced everything he is going to say.
I’ll miss the midnight phone calls when something goes particularly well for him at a meeting and he wants to share the wonder of how quickly his life has changed.
How can I continue to help him become the man he thinks he wants to be when I’m already in love with the man he has always been?
“I have plenty of security on my payroll if you need to borrow some,” Dominic Corisi said with some humor when Jeremy entered the infamous computer tycoon’s office. Dominic’s joke lacked the warmth that would qualify it as friendly ribbing. Instead, it was another reminder that Jeremy provided work for Dominic’s company and operated within his realm because he was useful, not because he was an equal or a friend.
Jeremy said, “About the server in the Demor Republic, you were right to send me out there. No one had accessed it yet, but it would’ve been easy had anyone wanted to.”
Dominic studied Jeremy, tapping one finger thoughtfully on his desk. He sat back and nodded.
Jeremy said, “I am juggling a few projects right now so if there’s nothing crucial you need me for, I’ll be in and out of the country for the next couple weeks.”