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Her hands were going where they didn't belong, but they'd been doing that all evening. Jason Ward did his best to move away, but if he moved any farther, he'd fall out of his seat.
"I love a man who knows what he wants," Stephanie Armstrong said, as she purred loudly. She reminded him of a hungry feline ready for mating season. She was an attractive older woman whose husband was a possible key investor. Jason's partner, Dennis Collins, had put him in charge of keeping her entertained for the evening, but she only had one thing on her mind. And this wasn't the first time. He didn't know why the wives seemed to be drawn to him. Dennis laughed and said that, along with his good looks, he had a raw, hungry ambition their husbands lacked that sparked their interest. For a brief moment Jason thought of how he'd had to kiss up to many of them over the years, when he'd been younger and just starting out. He didn't mind the perks that came with getting a lucrative business deal, but right now he wasn't in the mood. He seized her wrist as it came too close to his manhood. His eyes met hers, and he saw them light up.
"I can make sure my husband gives you everything you want." She bent forward, giving him a clear view of her ample cleavage.
He shoved her hand away. "I'm not that desperate. Excuse me." Jason began to push his chair away. She extended her jeweled hand and placed it firmly on his forearm.
"You don't want to make me unhappy," she said in a low warning voice.
Jason took a napkin that was lying nearby and scribbled down a number, then handed it to her.
She grinned. "That's more like it."
He stood and left. Dennis saw him heading for the door and walked over to him. "Did I just see you give your phone number to that Armstrong woman?"
"No. I gave her a number, but it wasn't mine. It's for an escort service."
"Does she know that?"
"She'll find out when she calls them."
Dennis swore. "Couldn't you just flirt with her a little bit? I'm the brains and you're the"
"The what? The stud?"
"No, I'm just saying that you need to be a little more suave in your approach to people like that
"Who treat me like a boy toy or some kind of sex slave they've purchased for their private use?"
"She's an attractive woman."
"Just like all the others," Jason said, bored. "You know my policy. I don't sleep with wives."
"No one is asking you to sleep with her."
"You weren't at the tableher hands were saying a lot."
"We need this deal."
Jason knew that. He and Dennis, his best friend, were partners in a software development firm they had created several years earlier. Due to major cost overruns they had incurred developing innovative cyber-security software they had recently launched, they had discovered that their chief financial officer had been embezzling some of the funds. He had hired his girlfriend as his bookkeeperonly at the time he didn't let anyone know she was his girlfriendwho had fixed the books. Now the company was facing bankruptcy, but he and Dennis were the only ones who knew. To rectify what had happened, they had invited several key investors and speculators to a "wine-and-dine" weekend at a fancy golf retreat that cost them a fortune; but they were willing to spare no expense to get back on track. They had dismissed the CFO but desperately wanted to keep any knowledge of what had happened a secret, and had agreed not to file any criminal charges as long as he signed a nondisclosure agreement.
But somehow a rumor was spreading that the company was facing financial difficulty, and the two of them had decided they needed to make sure the investors were not nervous and felt secure with the direction the company was going. In order to avoid bankruptcy, Jason had recently forged a high-risk venture, which he hadn't revealed to the board of directors yet, with hopes it would come through in time.
Jason looked around him and swore. What was he doing? He was tired of "entertaining" wives and significant others, just to get a couple of bucks. He never wanted to be like his investors. They wore their fine tailored suits along with their weak ethics and kissed up to him when it suited them, but he knew they'd drop him in an instant. It was all just business. He knew he was in a shark-infested ocean and needed to make sure to keep his teeth sharpened.
"You know, man, you make people nervous," Dennis said.
"Are you still referring to Mrs. Armstrong?"
"No. I mean, people in general." Jason shrugged. "So what?"
"One day, someone may want to teach you a lesson."
Jason tugged on the cuff of his jacket. "I'm already well schooled."
"The company is in trouble. Bankruptcy is not something to toy around with."
"I know why we're here. Remember, I helped build this company with you, and I won't see it fail." He walked away.
Dennis watched him go and sighed. He was wrong. He wasn't just the brainsJason was, too, but no one would know it by the way he acted. He had the body of a wrestler and the brash manners of a street fighter. It wasn't just his intimidating build that put people on edge; he had a certain disdainespecially for individuals he could tell were only after the bottom line, no matter the costwhich he didn't mind showing. His eyes cut through them. What had once been an asset, his ability to fearlessly face whatever problem they had, was now a liability to the growth of the company. And Dennis knew the board was thinking of removing him.
"The man's a damn gorilla," one stockholder said. He could get away with saying such things in public since he was one of the biggest shareholders.
"He's jeopardizing the image of the company."
"He's also made this company rich," another said, one of the few who still believed in Jason. "He's the reason SENTEL, Incorporated is in existence."
"And he'll be the reason it fails if we're not careful."
Dennis looked over and saw Jason arguing with Mr.
Hansen, one of the key members of the board of directors. He gripped his hand into a fist and then released it. He wanted the company for himself. It was time. He no longer wanted to be overshadowed by Jason's brilliance or crass behavior. They'd risen higher than they'd both imagined, but Dennis felt that Jason was now a risk to that dream. Dennis hadn't grown up on the streets of Baltimore the way Jason had, but he'd tolerated Jason's rough ways because he made him money.
Now his usefulness was coming to an end. With the release of the new software, and the profits that would follow, Dennis felt ready to rule on his own. But he wished Gwen Duggin were here. She was the one person who knew Jason. How he thought, and why he acted the way he did. After her death, Jason had buried himself in work and buried the man he used to be. Dennis had little interest in resurrecting that man. He just wanted to find a way to remove his old friend so that he could be free of him forever.
Stephanie approached him. "You said he was a sure thing." Annoyance and hurt were clear in her voice.
"I was wrong," Dennis said, guessing from her tone that she had called the number Jason had given her.
"I don't like being made a fool of." She moved in closer to him, and he could smell the wine on her breath.
"Neither do I."
She arched a perfectly trimmed brow. "So we have a common enemy?"
"It looks that way." Dennis took a sip of his wine. "I want him gone and you want him punished, but there's not much we can do. I don't want the company to suffer."
"The company doesn't have to. I think I know a way."
"It could be risky, and he might not fall for it."
"He trusts me, and that's all you need to know."
"Good, then I know of a plan that will get him put out of the way for a long time."
As he listened to Stephanie's scheme, Dennis's smile widened.
One year later
A cold March wind blew past like a desolate breath as Jason stared at a man he'd once considered a friend. The two stood in the parking lot outside their office after a long day. "What do you mean I'm out?"
"The board voted, and we're replacing you."
"But I built this company."
"And we thank you for it. But you're a liability now."
"I can fight this. It will be a cold day in hell before I"
"You're lucky this is all that's happening. Mrs. Armstrong accused you of assaulting her."
"What? You know I didn't touch her."
"It's her word against yours. Who do you think they'll believe? That's the problem with you, Jason. You think it's all about honesty and integrity, but in business it's about image and getting people to believe you. You know how to make money, but not everyone respects you."
Before he could reply, Jason saw them. Several men, looking very serious, wearing what looked like identical dark suits, came up to him. "Mr. Jason Ward, you're under arrest for fraud."
"What?" He stared at them, unable to process what was happening.
"I'll get you a good lawyer," Dennis said as the officers led him away.
But no lawyer could help. Dennis had skillfully turned everything Jason had done over the past year to save the company into "questionable dealings," including the highrisk venture he had discussed with Dennis and the company lawyers, to see if the idea, though risky, was viable. They had concurred that, although the approach appeared a little shady, he was on the right side of the law. Now he'd been charged with an obscure fraud violation he never knew even existed. In an instant, his image was shattered, and he knew that, although he couldn't prove it, he was being prosecuted because of jealously and false accusation, and that Dennis and Mrs. Stephanie Armstrong were behind it.
Initially, he fought the charges long and hard, but soon discovered how difficult it was dealing with the federal government. The evidence presented was stacked up against him, and without the company's wealth to back him, his lawyer told him that he wouldn't be able to win and that he should make a deal. He did and was convicted, in spite of his willingness to work with the government and the fact that he had no prior record, and was sentenced to fourteen months in a federal penitentiary.
The fall of Caesar. The last person he'd trusted had betrayed him. But betrayal and disappointment were nothing new to him. He had gone through a lot growing up in the foster care system in Baltimore. His adoptive mom had given him a chance, once he'd aged out of the system. He had no memory of his real parents. As a child he just remembered going from one home to the next and having to take care of himself.
His adoptive mom, Beatrice Ward, had made a difference in his life. She saw what others didn't. At eighteen, he'd given up on having a real family of his own; then she'd come along. He remembered now that she never liked his best friend, Dennis, when he'd introduced him to her. Dennis's parents had briefly fostered Jason, and they'd struck up a lifetime friendship. At least that's what he thought.
After graduating from high school, he'd earned a degree in industrial engineering while Dennis got an MBA, and the two friends decided to build a company together. Work had been his saving grace after Gwen died.
He still couldn't stand being alone or quiet with his thoughts, but prison had forced him to face himself. To face the harsh description of the man the prosecuting attorney had portrayed in court, saying he was a brute, ruthless, a reckless man. He would lay down his sword. There was nothing more to fight for. Everything that had mattered to him had been taken away. He couldn't even face his mother and refused to see her when she came to visit. He wanted to disappear. That was until he heard she was ill, and he knew he had to be there for her. That's when the old fire in him returned. He became a model prisoner, and with the help of a new attorney, he served only nine of the fourteen-month sentence.
Eventually the ruling was overturned, but the damage had been done. The nine months he spent being locked up had been like living in a nightmare, and he just wanted to get on with his life. While the TV cameras and news reporters had been there when he'd entered the prison, no one was there when he came out. Only a small news article was placed on the last page of the major local newspaper. He was still a wealthy man, at least on paper, but he had enormous legal fees, and his reputation was now in ruins.
Jason spent the next six months making sure his mother, who had been diagnosed with a slow-growing uterine cancer, got the care she needed. She was the most important person in his life, and although he hadn't allowed her to see him while he was in prison, she had kept sending a steady stream of note cards, one a week, which he had saved and dutifully secured in his home safe, taking time to read them every now and then.
During some of those long hours alone in his cell, he'd remembered all of her sacrifices. How much she gave up, so that he could have the life he now led.
He spent hours taking her to and from her chemotherapy appointments and hired a private-duty nurse to stay with her when he couldn't, to help her during her recovery period. After she finished the series of grueling treatments, they got the good news they both hoped for: her cancer was officially in remission. Jason then focused on rebuilding his life.
He decided to go into a business that was totally opposite of what he had done before, that wouldn't care much about his past history. He purchased a chain of time-share resorts that was in foreclosure. He would rise again and prove that he was a man of integrity. To get the business off the ground, Jason needed a partner or at least one or two investors, but no one would partner with him. He tried to convince himself that he didn't need them, he'd be fine on his own, but he knew that wasn't true. He needed partners and millions of dollars if this new venture was to succeed.