And that’s what I’d done with the payoff from Banksoft. Instead of punishing the people responsible for the injustices I saw all around me, I built companies that answered those problems with solutions that didn’t exist yet.

Ironic, when my mentor was paying a hacker who’d done everything in his power to disrupt all my efforts. I curled my fists tightly, counting down the seconds until I’d be home and this fucked-up conversation would come to an end.

“I can see that you’re taking this personally, Blake. But you have to understand that after a certain point, this was damage control. Something I’ve had to do a lot of when it came to Max. I’m disgusted with what he did to Erica. I really am. But I wasn’t about to lead this investigation to him.”

“I thought you didn’t let emotions get in the way.”

“I don’t. Max and I are different that way. Every business decision Max has ever made has been emotional. Fueled by vengeance or pride. Trying to get my attention or tear you down because you’d always gotten so much of it. Max never understood why I brought you into the fold . . . why it couldn’t have been him instead. He was too young, of course, but it was never a matter of having faith in his abilities. There was nothing he could do to change the fact that he was my son, so he had to be sidelined.”

“He hates you now. You know that?” I remembered our brief interaction in the cafeteria. Before I’d wanted to rip Max’s throat out, I’d registered the smallest inkling of sympathy for him. Without Michael’s protection, he seemed so lost. I’d never forgive him for what he did to Erica, but an unmistakable feeling of shared betrayal tugged at me. Max had betrayed me a hundred times. I’d expected it, and half of the time, I’d seen it coming. But Michael had always had my respect and my trust. His betrayal cut deeper. It cut right through me.

“Regardless, he’ll inherit the empire I’ve built, and he’ll thank me. Maybe not right away, but eventually he’ll understand that in order for me to have come this far, I couldn’t allow my emotional attachments to rule my business decisions. There’s no greater attachment than a parent to his child.”

Michael seemed older in that moment. No longer the young, ambitious mentor I’d always known. But someone who had changed before my eyes. And suddenly I wasn’t the young man he’d coaxed out of a troublesome period. I had grown, and I had lived. More than anything, I’d learned. In this very moment, I was still learning.

I pushed at my forehead, the beginnings of a headache emerging.

“You seem surprised, but if you strip away all the emotion you’re feeling right now, this is what you would expect or even do.”

“It’s never something I would do.”

“This isn’t betrayal. This is business. If you look at your life, you’ve done the same thing. The way you handled Heath, for example. You marginalized him from your affairs. You’ve always exercised a level of control over your world that impressed me.” He paused. “With Erica . . . she’s good for you, I think, but she’s a weakness. You’re changing for her.”

I riled at the mention of her name. How dare he even presume to know what she was to me?

“She’s worth changing for.”

He nodded. “It’s normal to feel that way. Love and passion will do that. Clearly you have both with her, and I’m happy for you. It does pass, though. You’re married now. She’s pregnant. She’ll focus on your family, and this obsession you have for each other will settle. You’ll find your way back to yourself.”

No. Nothing could temper what I felt for her. That she carried our child now only added fuel to that flame. “The last thing I want to do is find my way back to myself when I’ve already found the best part of myself in her.”

“I have faith that you will. I’ve invested in you more than anyone else in my life. I have a pretty good track record of making sound investments.” His satisfied smile dimmed a bit. “Except for this whole situation with Cooper . . . Too much pride, I think.”

“Him or you?”

“Maybe both. I wanted to cheat and jump ahead a few spaces. Of course you know all about that.”

“Do I?”

“Moonlighting as a hacker? You don’t consider that cheating?”

“I’m not hurting anyone.”

“You’ve never sought out information to position yourself more favorably in a business deal? You’ve never used that information to discredit or eliminate competition? You can dress it up in whatever white-collar terms you’d like, but we both know it’s cheating. And that’s fine, because anyone who isn’t cheating at least a little bit isn’t making it very far.”