Abby stepped between Jeisa and Alethea. “You said it because you don’t care who you hurt as long as you win. But this time you didn’t check to see if you were alone.”
Alethea looked around and sought the support of her best friend. “Lil, you know I didn’t mean it. You heard what she said to me. I just lost my temper.”
Near tears, Lil joined her sister and stood beside Jeisa in support. “You should go, Al. We’ll talk later.”
Jeremy came rushing into the foyer. “Jeisa, there you are!” He reached for her, but she stepped back.
Time froze and for a moment everyone else disappeared, leaving only Jeremy and a question that could not be denied. “Is it true, Jeremy? Are you leaving with her?”
Despite the audience of people, he kept his focus on her as he said, “Yes, but only for a couple of hours. I’ll be right back.”
Jeisa’s stomach flipped painfully. “That’s all I need to know.” For a moment she thought she might pass out, and the voices around her grew faint and distant. Her greatest nightmare had become a reality—and a humiliatingly public one at that. “Go. Don’t let me stop you.”
He grabbed her hand. “Jeisa, if I could explain this to you I would. I swear I would.”
She ripped her hand out of his and was instantly enveloped into the protective arms of her father, who said, “You little bastard. Get out before I wring your neck with my bare hands.”
Stepping into the mix, Marie said, “Romario, there has to be a reason.”
Above his daughter’s head, Romario growled, “Do you have children?” Marie shook her head slowly, sadly, and took a step back. “If you did, you would understand why I don’t care what his reasons are. I’m getting my daughter out of here and away from this toxic place.”
Still in shock, Jeisa numbly let herself be led away by her father.
Dominic cursed and said, “I’m going to kill him.”
Jake asked, “Which one?” Dominic glared at the departing Romario and Jake said, “I’m with you on that one.”
In a few long strides, Dominic crossed the room to Marie’s side and pulled her into his arms. For once the woman, who usually fussed when being touched, welcomed the embrace, knowing it meant Dominic loved her.
Abby stepped aggressively toward Alethea. “Are you finished here, or is there anyone else you’d like to upset before you go?”
A cold determination fell over Alethea’s face. “Come on, Jeremy.”
Therese clung to her son’s forearm. “Don’t go with her, Jeremy.”
Jeremy looked around the room helplessly, gently removed his mother’s hand, and straightened his shoulders. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
As they walked away, Jake hurried after them and said, “I sure hope whatever you’re doing is worth it, Jeremy. Do you need help?”
Jeremy looked to Alethea, who vehemently shook her head. “No, this is something I have to do alone.”
With that, Jeremy stepped outside with Alethea and motioned to the helicopter pilot to start up the engine. He gave him instructions to head to Corisi headquarters and helped Alethea into the main compartment. Once they were both settled into the flower-ridden seats and had left the ground, Alethea said, “You couldn’t tell them, Jeremy.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Jeremy turned away from her to watch the Andrade mansion quickly disappear behind them. Would Jeisa wait for him? For the first time since they’d met, he wasn’t sure.
“We’ll fix this.” Alethea said. “You’ll get a message to our people. We’ll warn Alvo so he can live one more day, and then we’ll pull out of this deal. No one needs to know what we’ve done if we cover our tracks well enough. Jeisa’s angry with you now, but she’ll forgive you.”
“I hope you’re right,” Jeremy said tiredly, staring out the helicopter window.
During the silent ride into the city, Alethea had a lot of time to regret her impulsive words. Jeisa had been right in part. When Jeremy had announced his love for another woman, it had shaken her. Not because she loved Jeremy, but because she’d always assumed that he’d be there for her.
Selfishly. It hurt to admit that to herself.
Abby’s harsh words hadn’t hurt as much as the look in her best friend’s eyes had. Lil should have defended me. Who stood by her when she found out she was pregnant? Who risked everything to make sure Abby was safe when Dominic’s motives had been questionable?
I did that.
But sitting across from Jeremy, amid the evidence of his love for another woman, knowing that she might have ruined his chance with her, Alethea was struck by a real sense of shame that she had never felt before.
I used this man.
I took advantage of the feelings he once had for me.
I risked his life more than once without giving it a second thought.
What kind of person am I?
I could have reassured Jeisa. She could have come along.
But I didn’t care about how this hurt him or her.
I wanted what I wanted.
Maybe I’m exactly the person Abby has always said I am.
Her voice husky with emotion, Alethea said, “I am so sorry, Jeremy.” Sorry for more than I could even begin to apologize for.
He didn’t acknowledge her words, and she didn’t repeat them. She just let them hang in the thick, rose-scented air of a ride that would forever change how she saw herself.
Alone with her father in the library, Jeisa struggled to find her emotional footing within an embrace so tight she could barely breath. No matter how many times she ran the foyer scene over in her head, it felt surreal. Why would Jeremy go to so much trouble to convince her that he wanted her only to pick Alethea?
“Get your purse, Jeisa. We’re leaving. I’ll get a car to take us straight to the airport. We’re going home.”
“No.” Jeisa pulled herself out of her father’s arms. Her mind was still spinning with what had just happened, but she wasn’t going to run back to Brazil.
“I’m going back to Boston.”
“I cannot allow—”
His words stung like a bucket of cold water to the face. Normally, this was where she’d retreat and despise him for not understanding her. Never again. “Dad, you’re making things worse.”
Unaccustomed to criticism from his daughter, Romario grew angry. “Worse? Worse than what I just witnessed? These people are not good for you.”
The pain his words caused drove Jeisa to be honest. “And you think you’re better? You just insulted a woman who has done nothing but help me since I came here. Marie didn’t deserve what you said to her.”
Romario looked away, his jaw tight with emotion. The sight of her proud father at a loss for words, even temporarily, touched Jeisa’s heart. She’d created this situation—it was time for her to take responsibility and try to explain it to him. “I know you don’t think I’m safe here. You think someone will try to hurt me, but these people are my friends. I did make the mistake of trusting someone I shouldn’t have and you met him. Reese is an awful man who preys on women like me. Women who have been protected so much they are vulnerable. I don’t want to be that person anymore, Dad.”
Romario rubbed his temples. “I just wanted to keep you safe.”
How can I make him understand? “I know, Dad, and that was okay when I was a little girl. But I’m a woman now. I can’t live like that anymore. I want my own life.”
With tormented eyes, Romario said, “I can’t lose you, too.”
Jeisa touched her father’s cheek. Not since the day her mother died had she seen his eyes shine with unshed emotion. She was so used to seeing him as strong and inflexible that she often forgot he was also a man who had suffered a great loss. She wrapped her arms around his waist and just held him. When she lifted her head, she sniffed loudly and said, “You’re not going to lose me, Dad.”
He buried his chin in her hair and admitted, “I was scared when you stopped answering your phone. I thought something had happened to you. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if it had.” Jeisa hugged him tighter. “And then when I found out it was a lie . . . that you’d made up everything you’d told me for the past few months . . . I was angry.”
“I know,” Jeisa said. Seeing the events through his eyes filled her with both regret and a deeper understanding of how much her father loved her. “I was wrong. I should have told you as soon as I found out that Reese was a liar. I just didn’t want you to—”
“Come here like I did.”
Jeisa nodded. Tell him. Tell him how you feel. “I’m going to get hurt, Dad. I’m going to make mistakes. But you have to let me make them.”
He gently pushed her back from him and asked, “Are you okay?”
In the past she would have lied and said she was. This time, Jeisa let out a long shaky breath and chose the truth. “With what happened with Jeremy?” He shook her head sadly. “I don’t know, Dad. I keep going over the scene in my head and I don’t understand it. That wasn’t the Jeremy I know. He would never deliberately hurt me.”
Romario tensed a bit. “You think he’s in some sort of trouble?”
“I wish I knew,” Jeisa said and turned to look out the window.
She was too emotionally spent to say more, or to care when she heard her father leave the room.
Only Abby’s hand on his arm stopped Dominic from crossing the room and strangling the man who had, in one day, made his short list of those worth risking jail time to hurt.
Without so much as a glance at Dominic, Romario crossed directly to where Marie was standing. Abby stopped Dominic from intervening, softly saying, “Marie can handle this, Dom, and she knows she’s not alone.”
Romario stood before a tight-lipped Marie as everyone in the room collectively held their breath. “I didn’t mean to lash out at you earlier.”
Marie took a deep breath and chastised him softly, “It was rather cruel and poor manners for a man who should know better.”
He inclined his head in concession to her point.
Relaxing a bit, Marie conceded, “However, I know you were concerned for your daughter and that can make a man say things he doesn’t mean.” Ignoring the fact that they’d become the center of attention, Marie asked, “How is Jeisa?”
Romario’s jaw clenched. “Understandably upset.”
Marie nodded. “My father loved to sail. He always said that children are like boats—they cannot reach their potential while tethered to the dock.”
Looking less than pleased, Romario countered, “How very American of you. My family made their money from mining. I would say that when you have something as precious as a child, you must guard it as diligently as you would a diamond.”
Marie raised her chin, looked him directly in the eye, and said, “You may have hoped for a diamond, but you birthed a boat. Denying it won’t change the truth.”