Rise of the Billionaire, Page 6Ruth Cardello
She should have wished him good luck, but the words had caught in her throat. Rolling onto her side, she hugged a pillow to her chest and fought back a confusing swirl of emotions.
Alethea Niarchos stepped out of the limo Jeremy Kater had sent for her and onto the tarmac of the Tenin Republic’s private government airfield. The heat rising off the runway made Alethea momentarily wish she’d waited within the vehicle’s cooled interior, but patience had never been one of her virtues. She’d agreed to meet Jeremy partly because working with a foreign government would take her career to a whole new level, and partly because his involvement here intrigued her. On paper, it was a parliamentary democratic country, but in practice it was essentially a dictatorship. Prime Minister Akia Alvo had started his reign as a hero, being voted in after a government coup fifteen years earlier. Some said that the power had gone to his head. He’d filled his cabinet with those loyal to him, and although both he and his loyalists had been reelected, the press had cried foul on the process before he’d silenced them internally and banned foreign press.
The Jeremy she’d known since early high school would never have put himself or his skills on the market so publicly. Revealing himself would likely prove as dangerous for him as it was obviously financially lucrative.
What are you really doing here, Jeremy?
If money was all he sought, he could have found that merely by extending his association with Corisi Enterprises. His work in Najriad for the royal family had given him international recognition that he could have parlayed into any number of big contracts—and for a hefty fee. Why Tenin? Why get involved in a teetering government?
The answer came to her while she waited for the hatch door of the jet to open. Because money is no object when one’s survival is on the line. A government in crisis is as rich as it is volatile.
We could get killed here.
Or make a fast fortune.
Both possibilities were equally exciting. Lately she’d found the routine of what she did somewhat depressing. If she had to sit in on one more corporate-performance appraisal meeting where they focused more on damage control than prevention, she’d gnaw off her manicured nails. Eventually they would sell themselves on the importance of tightened security without giving her a tedious overview of their company first. More than once she’d been tempted to stab a CEO with one of her stilettos just to see if she could—and then make it out of the building alive.
Kill me, just don’t bore me.
Thanks to her recent affiliation with Dominic Corisi, the challenge of finding new jobs had disappeared—along with any enjoyment she found in testing building security systems. She had more potential clients than she had time to work with, but how much fun is breaking into a building if you’re asked to?
The hatch of the jet opened, and it took Alethea a moment to recognize Jeremy. Where was the pasty white man who had looked exactly like what he’d been: a computer geek who lived in his mother’s basement? His slightly rounded cheeks were now cut in strong lines, accenting his sharp blue eyes. His charcoal pinstriped Alexander Amosu suit was tailor-made to his new muscular frame. As he stopped to talk to the pilot before descending the stairs, Alethea’s jaw dropped in surprise. The modern cut of his thick brown hair was short, but edgy. It spoke of youthful power. Move over, Dad, your son is taking over the company.
Not that Jeremy necessarily had a company—or even a father, for that matter.
Honestly, Alethea had no idea what he had. She’d never paid much attention to his personal life. He’d always been her hacker friend—a reliable source of information one couldn’t obtain legally.
She shook her head in wonder. People don’t change that dramatically, do they? You don’t spend your life in a basement and then suddenly transform into a male model with an aircraft that screams, “Put me on the front page of Forbes. ”
He started down the stairs, saw her, and smiled.
She surprised herself by smiling back.
Jeremy, huh? I never would have believed it.
She expected him to approach her awkwardly, as he always had, with that look that said he longed to hug her in greeting. Instead, he strode confidently to her and held out a hand as if she were a business associate of his. “Alethea,” he said smoothly, “I’m glad you made it on time. Our meeting is in twenty minutes at Alvo’s compound. ”
His strong hand closed over hers, and she forgot what she was going to say.
This can’t be Jeremy.
He was the one who broke contact and motioned to the armed jeep detail that surrounded the limo he had sent for her. “I know you like to keep a low profile, but with the recent uprisings, these are necessary. ”
Alethea nodded, slid back into the limo, and gathered her thoughts. A hundred questions swirled through her head, but none of them sounded flattering, so she held them in and waited for her filter to surface. “Nice jet,” she said and mentally kicked herself. Since when don’t I know what to say to a man?
His smile turned to a pleased grin that spread across his face, and for just a moment she glimpsed the boy she’d known for so long. He used to smile like that when he’d successfully hacked into a site someone had told him was impossible to access. “I’m glad you like it,” he said in a deep voice that was both familiar and completely foreign to her.
He sat across from her and opened a briefcase on his lap. “I brought you a hard copy of the layout of the compound we’ll be in today, as well as that of the base that was attacked. ”
“Whatever happened to breaking in first and getting hired later?” she joked.
One of his eyebrows arched in subtle recognition of her humor. “You can try that, but in Tenin they tend to kill more than they imprison. This is the big time, Alethea. You get in with this government and you can set your price with countries instead of companies. ”
Damn, Jeremy. I want to take whatever vitamins you’re on.
“I appreciate you bringing me in on this,” Alethea said, and she did. This was exactly the kind of adventure her life had been lacking. She took the papers from him.
He shrugged. “You were a natural choice. We’ve known each other a long time. ”
Not true, Jeremy, Alethea thought. If this is you, I never knew you at all. Putting down the papers, she studied him again and shook her head in bemusement. Were you always this good looking and I didn’t notice? Or was it that, for the first time since she’d met him, he didn’t look the least bit interested in her? She sat back, crossed her legs, and watched his reaction from beneath her long lashes.
She’d chosen a blue-and-black color-blocked tank dress. She was fully aware of how the material molded to her body like a second skin, and she’d never been above using her natural assets as leverage. Men were easier to handle when they were slightly off balance—something she’d always found disappointingly easy to do. Jeremy’s eyes drifted to her legs, back to the view in the window behind her, then returned to her face. Casually, dismissing her flirtatious move.
A zing of excitement coursed through Alethea. Jeremy, you can pretend, but I know you’re into me. You’ve always been into me. She graced him with the sexiest smile she had in her arsenal. Heat flooded her cheeks when he looked amused instead of flustered.
In a perfectly calm, surprisingly disinterested voice, Jeremy said, “If you have any questions about the plans, we only have about ten more minutes before we arrive. ” He pulled out a tablet from his briefcase and began to read over a document.
Oh, I have questions, but not about the plans.
What the hell happened to you, Jeremy, and why do I suddenly want prove to you that I am much more interesting than anything you can pull out of that briefcase?
Jeremy listened to the prime minister drone on about the political climate of his country and was tempted to check his watch. He didn’t want to hear justifications or propaganda. He wanted to get his hands on their computer netwo
rk to see for himself if it had been breached.
The careful expression of interest on Alethea’s face suggested that she was equally impatient but was wisely keeping her thoughts to herself. She caught him looking at her and sat a little straighter in her seat.
When Jeremy had run through this scenario in his head, he’d been pretty sure it would fall short of his fantasy. But it didn’t. Not judging by the sultry smile she snuck him when the prime minister looked away. She’d never met his eyes for so long when they spoke nor chose to sit so close to him when given a chance to do otherwise.
If he were a fisherman, he would have said she was circling the bait.
When the prime minister walked out of the room for a moment to take a phone call, Alethea said, “We make quite a team, Jeremy. He’s drooling over us. ”
Jeremy deliberately kept his voice cool. “He seems to be. ”
“Do you have any other countries lined up?” she asked, excitement evident in her voice and the dancing light in her eyes. He’d known this project would interest her, especially since her recent work had seemed routine by comparison.
Everything was coming together exactly as he’d planned. He’d even anticipated this question and practiced his response in front of a mirror many times. He hoped it sounded natural when he drawled, “Let’s see how this one goes first. ”
There it was—the spark of real interest in her eyes.
She’s never been able to pass up a challenge, and I just made myself into one.
I can’t wait to tell Jeisa that it worked.
I’m not here because Jeremy is with Alethea.
I’m here because it’s the right thing to do.
Jeisa followed Marie through the foyer of her Beacon Hill luxury condo. It was full of a tasteful mix of American and European antiques, the collecting of which was a well-known hobby of Marie’s. If Jeisa remembered correctly, she owned a home near each of Corisi’s headquarters and loved filling them with furniture she found in nearby shops. Dominic’s wife, Abby, had once joked about Marie’s passion for finding priceless pieces in small, unknown shops most people would have dismissed.
Today had been Jeisa’s first invitation to Marie’s home, and she wished she hadn’t agreed to it. This was a conversation she would have preferred to have at Marie’s office. In Marie’s home, her prepared speech felt like she was reneging on something personal.
But I’m not.
I didn’t let her down.
This is more of a mission-accomplished visit.
Marie waved to the space around her and said, “Don’t mind how small the place is. I used to own a big home. I sold it when my husband passed away. ”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jeisa murmured.
“Don’t be,” Marie continued. “It’s going on eight years now. I still miss Stan every day, but the pain has grown bearable. Time does that. I’ve found happiness again, but my perspective has changed. Material things don’t matter much to me anymore. My home is wherever my boys are. ”
“Jake and Dominic?” Jeisa asked, feeling suddenly unsure if she should have referred to them as informally as she had.