Rise of the Billionaire
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Or he could break my heart.
“I came to the United States to find myself, not a man.”
“Find yourself?” Marie gave a delicate snort. “No one ever found themselves by running away from what they want. It’s when you decide to fight for something you believe in that you discover what you’re really made of. What do you believe in, Jeisa?”
The directness of the question brought a spontaneous confession out of Jeisa. Besides Jeremy? “I’ve always wanted to work on the next generation of toilet design and distribution.”
“Excuse me?” Marie’s eyebrows pinched into a small line of confusion on her forehead.
“Back when I was at university, I read an article about an American billionaire who was hosting global contests for designing the perfect waste-disposal system. He saw it as a way to bring safe water, possibly even an energy source, to isolated areas in third world countries. It was such a basic goal that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How is it that in this day and age there are still people who cannot access clean water or sanitary means of disposing of waste? We talk about diseases, but we don’t like to talk about what contributes to them. I’d like to be part of a movement to change that.”
Here it comes. In the silence that followed, Jeisa had just enough time to regret her decision to share that particular aspiration. Just like my father, she’s not going to see past the unpopularity of the topic to the seriousness of the need.
Jeisa remembered the one and only other time she’d made this admission aloud. Her father’s response had been, “You are not linking your name publicly with waste disposal. Not while you’re my daughter.” She still wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but she’d been wise enough not to push the issue further with him.
When Marie spoke, Jeisa almost dropped her cup and saucer. “Jeisa, I like you more every time we speak. I can see why you don’t want to spend the rest of your life as an image consultant. You have more important projects waiting for you.” Another woman might have said those words in a snarky tone, but Marie meant them. “Now, my only question is: What is stopping you from doing it?”
Normally I would have said, “Father,” but she’s right. He dismissed it as a silly idea, but how would he know how important it is to me when I haven’t done anything toward that goal? I’ve been so busy thinking about the ways he disappointed me that I didn’t consider that I may have let myself down. I need to stop focusing on why I can’t do something, and start making things happen.
Like Jeremy does.
Suddenly the boxing trainer made sense to Jeisa.
Just like me—he needs to prove something to himself.
“Wait,” Jeisa said, “I thought you were trying to talk me into going after Jeremy.”
“One should never be exclusive of the other. If you have to choose between your dreams or your man . . . always choose your dreams. The right man will love your strength and your passion. He’ll join your cause or cheer you from the sidelines. The man who leaves would have probably left you anyway—he just would have picked another reason.”
Fear shot through her as she considered Jeremy as a serious possibility. It was one thing to moon over a man you know you’ll never have. It was an entirely different thing to decide to go after him.
No. He’s already made his choice.
And it’s not me.
Jeisa put down her cup, sighed, and stood. “I appreciate your advice, Marie. I really do. It doesn’t change what I know I have to do, but thank you for understanding.”
Marie stood and nodded. “Follow your heart, Jeisa. Things tend to work out for the best when you do.”
Jeisa turned to leave, then stopped. Somewhere during their conversation she had changed her mind. No, it wouldn’t be easy, but she didn’t want to lose Marie as well as Jeremy. “I won’t be working for Corisi Enterprises anymore after today, but I’d like to come back to see you now and then, if that’s okay.”
Marie smiled. “I’d be hurt if you didn’t.” Jeisa was about to step out of the room when Marie said, “I’ll ask around and see if I have connections to that water project you’re interested in.”
Jeisa opened her mouth to say it wasn’t necessary but was cut off by a tsk, tsk from the older woman.
She said, “Make an old woman happy and let me do this for you.”
Jeisa smiled. “You play dirty.”
Marie’s smile brightened. “Sometimes.”
The housekeeper met Jeisa at the door, her enormous shoulders practically filling it. Jeisa smiled sweetly at her and was rewarded with a steady stare. The woman turned and Jeisa followed her out. Just before she stepped out of the room, Jeisa paused and said, “Thank you, Marie. For everything.”
Marie nodded and waved good-bye, once again looking every bit the unassuming sweet lady she pretended to be. You can’t fool me anymore, Jeisa thought, and chuckled to herself. Marie would be far too gracious to ever turn down a gift, and Jeisa decided to use that fact to her advantage. They don’t call me an image consultant for nothing.
The next morning, Jeremy greeted the doorman as he entered Jeisa’s apartment building at seven thirty. “Morning, Tim. How are Carol and the kids?”
The smile of the older man, whom Jeremy guessed was in his late thirties, was easy and open. “Good, thank you. How was your trip?”
Jeremy thought over the last few days and said, “Successful. I accomplished what I set out to do. Did you get that science project done for your youngest?”
Tim chuckled. “I did. I think the teacher suspects that I helped her, though. Maybe I shouldn’t have soldered the pieces together.”
Jeremy laughed, “Hindsight is crystal clear, huh? Have your wife send her a gift card for coffee or something. She might let it slide.”
Shaking his head, Tim said, “You don’t know Mrs. Dubois. She runs a tight third-grade ship. I’ll be lucky if I get off with a warning.”
Remembering something, Jeremy reached into the interior breast pocket of his suit and pulled out an envelope. “I almost forgot. Someone gave me season tickets to the Boston Celtics. I’m not a big sports fan. You want them?”
“Are you serious? I mean . . . I couldn’t accept them.”
“Consider it a tip for all the times you’ve given me advice on the fly.”
Jeremy opened the envelope and held out the tickets. “There are four here. You could take your whole family.” When Tim hesitated, Jeremy said, “Hey, if I keep them they’ll end up unused and forgotten. If you don’t want them, at least take them and find them a new home. It’s a shame to see them go to waste.”
Tim pocketed them reluctantly. “Thank you.”
Jeremy nodded and started walking toward the elevator, then decided to take the stairs. The more he worked out, the more alive he felt, and today he was riding high on his latest success—with the Tenin government, and with Alethea.
Life is good!
“Sounds great. Okay, I’m heading up. It’s early, so Jeisa is going to be grumpy, but I brought a peace offering.” He held up a bag of Brazilian brigadeiros from her favorite bakery.
He took the stairs two at a time up the four flights to Jeisa’s apartment.
After a few moments of increasingly louder knocking, she answered and half-leaned against the door she held open for him, dressed in pink shorts and a plain white T-shirt. It was obvious from her sleep-heavy eyes that he had woken her, and it was equally obvious from the nipples he could clearly see through the thin material of her shirt that she’d rolled straight out of bed to answer the door.
The image hit him like a sucker punch. He fought an impulse to bury a hand into that long, wild tangle of dark hair and haul her to him for a morning kiss. Not now, he mentally addressed his errant loins. Not Jeisa.
Her scent sent a pulsing rush of blood southward. He stood just in front of her, glad that his jacket was long enough to conceal the effects of his momentarily haywire libido.
What is wrong with me?
I didn’t feel like this when I was with Alethea.
She motioned for him to enter, and although his feet didn’t move, a part of his lower region certainly did—with surprising enthusiasm.
Shit, I didn’t feel like this at all with Alethea.
Jeisa pushed a lock of hair behind one of her delicious ears and said, “Are you coming in or not?” Her voice sent unexpected shivers of pleasure down his spine.
You know you’re in a bad place when just the word “coming” is enough to clear your head of all coherent thought. He took a second look at how she was dressed. No woman should look that good straight out of bed.
Her eyes met his and she blushed slightly, but she didn’t look away. Was it possible that whatever insanity had overcome him was something she felt too?
He leaned in until their lips almost touched and breathed in the scent of her. His heart pounded in his chest. In an attempt to regain some control, he raised the bag he held in one hand and said, “I brought . . .”
She took the bag from him, quickly turned, and re-entered the apartment. He followed, releasing a shaky breath.
She led the way to the small kitchen and busied herself making coffee for both of them. Jeremy sat on a barstool at the counter, grateful for how it hid the evidence of his arousal.
“Was your trip successful?” she asked without looking back at him.
He tried to answer but got momentarily lost in the long expanse of tanned legs that her shorts revealed and the tight little ass they just barely covered. “I got the contract,” he said, his mouth suddenly dry.
“That’s great,” Jeisa said, still not turning from the coffee machine. “Did you see Alethea?”
His enthusiastic retelling of his trip died before it he uttered a word of it. Was it his imagination or was Jeisa upset? A myriad of emotions swirled within Jeremy. He strove to get things back to normal between them. “Yes, and she loved the jet. You were right about that.”
“I’m glad,” Jeisa said and turned, leaning back onto her hands, which gripped the edge of the counter on the opposite side of the small kitchen. The pose lifted her breasts and pressed them even more tightly against the material of her thin T-shirt.
Jeremy swallowed hard.
Seeing Alethea should have lessened his attraction to Jeisa. Instead, it had done the opposite, and he was struggling to understand what that meant.
“What did she think of the new you?” Jeisa asked.
The triumph he’d felt about finally gaining the interest of Alethea felt out of place with Jeisa. Still, he wasn’t about to lie to her. He tried to lighten the mood with a joke. “I rocked her world.”
Jeisa spilled the coffee as her hand jerked. She swore in Portuguese as she mopped the hot liquid off her bare legs. When she looked up, her eyes were full of hurt that had nothing to do with the spill.
No, Jeisa doesn’t feel that way about me . . . does she?
“Did you kiss her?” Jeisa asked as if the question were torn from her.
“No,” Jeremy said. He could have. She’d given him the opportunity when he’d dropped her off at her plane. His reluctance hadn’t made sense to him until just now. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”