“I’m telling you, Peter. For someone with his kind of wealth, there’s suspiciously little about him. He controls information around him like nothing I’ve ever seen. I don’t even know if the $36 billion net worth is a real, imagined or conservative figure and to be honest, I suspect the latter.”
Peter pursed his lips, hands hanging between his legs. He clasped them together to keep from punching something . . . anything. Braeden’s news was not welcomed news. Not at all.
In the week since Stiles’ initial meeting with Asher Maximilian, they had begun to uncover the breadth of the man’s years of slow infiltration into every aspect of Stiles’ life to the point where Peter had held his fiancé last night as he shook with the knowledge of the full extent of how much of what he did had Max’s fingerprints on it.
Stiles was currently asleep. It had been a restless night for them both, but Peter had finally got him back to sleep after John’s call last night.
Peter got up to pace – over to the windows and back as Braeden watched him.
“Peter?” Neither of them had heard Derek enter the room. His nephew stayed intermittently between Laura’s place and his. He was due back out to work in another two weeks and was using these last days to simply rest. “Braeden.”
“Hey, Derek. You’re looking better.”
He smiled at his ex. “I’m feeling better, thanks. Is Stiles finally asleep?” He looked at his uncle this time.
Peter glanced at his watch. “Yeah, less than three hours now. He was exhausted.”
“John’s worried,” Derek added.
“I know. I spoke to him again this morning to try to give him perspective, at least for the guilt. He feels like he failed Stiles.”
Derek grimaced. “What are we doing about this man? How the hell didn’t we even know he was there, in the background all this time?”
“It’s what he does, Derek. He’s a master at hiding what he does.” Braeden said, getting to her feet.
“What have you found?” Derek asked, firmly in detective mode now, voice hard.
Braeden didn’t take offence. They knew each other too well for that. While their relationship, if one could have called it that, didn’t work out, she and Derek had always understood each other. Braeden wasn’t the settling down type, and Derek had been too closed off for what they had to go anywhere. They’d called it quits and remained friends. Besides, she liked his new girlfriend. They suited each other much better than she and Derek ever had.
She inhaled. “He comes from wealth – on both sides. His father was American and his mother, Austrian. She was from a prominent family and so most of her wealth was passed down to him when she died. From all the information I could scourge, it seems he was raised by his father from age 8, after the death of his mother, whom he’d lived with up to that point.
“To say his father was a bastard is an understatement. The man used his power, influence and wealth to destroy anyone that stood in the way of what he wanted – which, surprise, surprise, was more power, influence and wealth. He had politicians, CEOs, law enforcement, anyone you can think of with power in his pockets. That’s the world Asher Maximilian grew up in.”
Derek sank into the sofa as he listened.
“It seems that no one was surprised when Asher forced his father out of his own conglomerate when he was just 22 and took over. Within five years he’d near doubled his net worth and by then had also cultivated a vacuum of information about himself. You only know what he wants you to know about him. A lot of what was written about his father – numerous articles that were published by business magazines; lifestyle features that he and his father were in – all of them no longer exist. I got a copy of one of them because a contact knew someone with a printed copy. It’s probably the only one and the man wouldn’t even let me photocopy it. Said it could be considered proof that it exists and was terrified word would get back that he had it. I had to get three people to vouch for me just to be able to read it.
“People around him; people who know of him, and especially those who work for him are all paranoid about crossing Asher Maximilian. There are stories about what he does with people who ‘displease’ – and that’s a legit word people in his circle use – people who ‘displease’ him. Of course I could not get any names from anyone to see if any rumours were true. If his records are right, and there’s no telling – he’s 40 years old now.”
She looked at Peter. “If I were you I would tread carefully. Not a lot of people scare me, Peter. But he does.”
“Well I’m not. And hell will freeze over before I let him hurt Stiles any more than he’s already done.”
“He could hurt you.” Stiles’ voice was rough, hoarse and the three people spun, surprised to see him standing just beyond the kitchen, where Boyd was still sitting silently. “He could really hurt you, Peter, and that would hurt me.” Despite his rest, his eyes were still bloodshot from a night spent crying and shaky from his panic attack.
Peter moved quickly to pull him into his arms. “No one is going to hurt either one of us. I promise you, Stiles. Trust me.”
“That’s a stupid thing to say to me, Peter,” Stiles bristled. “I trust you with everything I am, but these aren’t normal circumstances that we can make these pat promises and hope that they will hold. You’ve seen the extent of what . . .,” Stiles choked back a sob. “. . . The extent of what he has done. Everyone in my life, Peter. He’s everywhere.”
“I would never make an empty promise to you. Never! I will keep us safe, Stiles,” Peter swore.
“Let me make a few calls,” Derek spoke out.
“No! You stay out of this!” Stiles’ rebuke was swift. “We almost lost you once and we don’t even know if he had a hand in . . .” Stiles shook his head fiercely, refusing to finish the thought. “He’s the prime contributor to the Mayor’s campaign, and his company has the Kevlar supply contract for police in Boston. All it would take is for someone to give you a faulty vest, made just for you, Derek. Don’t . . . don’t you dare . . . go anywhere near him!” A tear rolled down Stiles’ eye.
He clung to Peter, burying his face in Peter’s chest as despair rolled over him.
Peter swallowed roughly. He’d never felt this impotent, knowing that the threat against someone he loved was not something he could do anything about. Even when Derek had been shot, at least they could call in doctors, and hover and nag until things were on even footing. This, he didn’t know what to do about this other than want to wrap Stiles in cotton wool and never let him out of his sight.
Over the last week, they’d found out that two of Max’s lesser known companies were clients of Allison and Jordan’s; the project Lydia had been gushing about since last year, that had her running ragged from one country to another decorating hotels was in fact, Max’s hotels; Kira’s scholarship and the sudden grant funding for the study she was currently involved in, again, Max’s doing. One of his companies was a major client for the company Danny was employed with.
Almost every movie Stiles had been involved in for the past four years, had been in some way connect to Max through funding, subsidiaries, film companies.
But the straw that broke Stiles was his dad. The donation to the county drive that Stiles had also supported and promoted, towards refurbishing the Sheriff station three years ago, yup, again Max’s doing. His father had even met the man and dined with him, played a round of golf with him once and regular poker nights – although John knew him simply as “Ash”. No one had made the connection until Stiles had called his dad in a panic when he’d found out about the link to his movies.
His father, was friends with the man that for all appearances, had been stalking Stiles for more than four years.
The worst thing for Peter was he could do no more than file a restraining order against the man, and Stiles had put a halt to any talk of that, as Asher Maximilian had truly broken no laws, which Peter was sure Max was perfectly aware of. He’d skirted the edges of the statutes on stalking and harassment, but nothing he’d done directly could be construed as threatening.
It made Peter even madder. The law was his weapon and he was powerless.
Erica bit her lips. She’d been doing it all day. She could not sit still for more than a few minutes before she got up to pace again. She didn’t know what to do. Peter was going to kill her, or fire her. She wasn’t sure which would be more merciful at this point.
And Boyd – Jesus! Boyd was going to lose it.
When her phone rang with the notification she had been waiting on – the receptionist telling her Peter had just come through the doors – Erica dialled Laura and then went into Peter’s office to wait. He’d want this done in private.
Peter came in to find Erica standing, wringing her hands together. He frowned. “What?”
She let out a shaky little breath. “Laura will be here in a minute.”
“For?” Peter asked. It was just past 11 a.m. and he already felt drained.
She needed Laura in case Peter lost his temper. And after the past week, she had no clue how her boss and friend would react. How either of them would react; but she trusted Laura to be the more rational, especially now, with this.
Laura knocked a second later and came in. Peter looked from one to the other.
“Ok, what’s happened?” he demanded.
Laura raised brows and looked at Erica, puzzled.
“I need you both to sit. I have something I need to tell you, but please understand how sorry I am. I didn’t know. I didn’t . . . Peter . . .,” her voice broke and she started to cry.
“Jesus, Erica!” Laura rushed forward to hold her before Peter could do likewise, but Erica flinched back.
“No, don’t.” She pulled herself together by sheer force of will. “You may not want to touch me or even see me after this.” She knew she was being melodramatic, but the guilt was killing her.
Her bosses sat as requested.
She remained standing and began. “Remember my holiday, two years ago? I was away when you met Stiles and returned the week after you two first started . . .,” she fell off again.
Peter nodded, not liking where this was going.
“It was supposed to just be a getaway and it was for the first week. Just me and beaches and flirty bartenders. But then I met this guy . . .,” she stopped when a sob got stuck in her throat. Laura handed her some tissues and she continued. “I met this guy during my second week. He was so gorgeous and he seemed so interested in me. I mean I wasn’t expecting like forever you know? So we spent the last few days together. He took me to his house on the island, we sailed around in his yacht. It was the kind of holiday you only dream about. By the time I got back here it was over. I figured I’d never see him again . . . and . . .” she dropped her eyes.
Peter was tense, still, clenching his teeth.
“How much did you tell him about Hale & Hale?”
Erica sobbed. “That’s just it. He didn’t ask me anything other than what I did for a living. That’s it. I swear? I just thought he wanted me, you know? How stupid was that?”
Laura looked puzzled. “What am I missing?”
“Was it consensual, Erica? Did he force you at any time? Threaten you?”
“God, no. He seemed like the perfect gentleman. Said his name was Ash, that’s all I knew about him . . . until I saw his picture in the files you . . .”
Laura’s hand flew to her mouth as she suddenly grasped what Peter obviously had from the very beginning. She stared at her uncle, watched as he curled his hands into fists as Erica stood there ready to be shattered by one harsh word or act.
Peter drew a deep, audible breath before he stepped forward and embraced Erica. And she fell apart in his arms.
When Erica was calm enough, Peter called Braeden and had her sit with and question Erica in-depth. They needed to know every moment of Erica’s time with that man. He’d targeted her for a reason. He’d targeted her because Peter had met Stiles.
Peter didn’t understand it. Back then he and Stiles had only just got started. They were nothing to each other then. Sure they enjoyed being together and the sex was off the charts, but was that enough of a reason to systematically target the people in Peter’s life like this?
He was beyond anger. He didn’t have a word for what he felt. He could kill Asher Maximilian for Erica alone; and grind his bones to dust for everyone else, not the least of which was the sheer terror he’d invoked in Stiles.
Laura came to stand beside him. “What’s our next move? There has to be one. He’s everywhere, Peter, but this. This feels like such a violation, Peter. Erica . . .” Laura’s voice was pained.
He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it with a reassurance he no longer felt.
“We start at the beginning. We trace every action of this firm, from the moment I met Stiles to now. All our cases, dig through them. I want to know if any have a connection to anything he owns, has interests in or any friends he has that are clients of ours.
“Then we interview everyone. We have a staff meeting and we put his photo out there. Anyone that has had any kind of contact with him – even if he only paid for their fucking coffee in the coffee shop two years ago, I want to know about it. Anyone who lies and is found to be lying is out. No questions asked.”
“Peter!” Laura said alarmed.
“He’s everywhere, Laura, and he’s arrogant enough to be doing some of these things himself. He met with Lydia. He employed Allison and Jordan and they had no clue. Funded Kira. Derek . . . We can’t make assumptions about anything he’s had a hand in. Anyone we hired in the last two years gets as rigorous an interview as we can give at this stage. We can’t assume he doesn’t have spies. And we also can’t assume he hasn’t gotten to the people closest to us – closest to me . . . and Stiles.”
“God, I’m so sorry, Peter. Stiles can’t know we’re doing this. After everything . . .”
“I can’t hide this from him, Laura. I won’t. That’s not how we work.”
“But why all this? Maximilian was in the background all this time. Why now?”
“Simple. I proposed, and Stiles said yes.”
“Scotty!” Stiles pulled his best friend into a big hug.
Boyd went back to his briefly vacated spot in the kitchen, to give the friends some privacy after opening the door.
Scott stood frozen for a moment, both at the uncharacteristic warmth that reminded him of the old days – they hadn’t done hugs in a long while – and also at Stiles’ appearance. He looked tired. So very tired.
His arms encircled his friend. “Woah. Hey. What’s going on? Are you ok?”
“I’m feeling better than I did this morning, that’s for sure. You’ve been gone for a while. Firing people?”
Scott laughed. “Not this time. Ali called though. Said she couldn’t tell me the details because of attorney/client privilege or whatever, but that you might need everyone home now? That you might need to talk to me? What’s happening?”
Stiles turned away. “Want something to drink?”
“Yeah sure. It’s muggy outside.”
Stiles went to the fridge as Scott’s phone rang. He moved to answer it.
“It’s a client,” he told Stiles before connecting the call. “Hello?”
Stiles could only hear Scott’s end, but it sounded like his friend would be flying out again at latest tomorrow. That’s how it’d been for a while, but at least Scott was out of the country a lot, so maybe he was safer than the rest of them. Maybe . . .
Scott hung up and sighed.
“That sounded like work. Things have picked up again? Allison told me new contracts had fallen off a few months ago,” Stiles slid a bottle into his friend’s hand.
“Yeah. I was worried for a while, but so far so good. I didn’t get a chance to say, but congrats – about you and Peter.”
“You mean that?” Stiles’ brow pulled together.
“Yeah. I mean. I know I was a jackass there for a while, but I mean, I love you Stiles. But I understand that it’s just bros between us. I get it. I do. I just want him to deserve you, ya know?”
“He does, Scotty. He truly does. I wouldn’t have anyone else.”
“That’s good, I guess. But what’s going on with you lately?”
“I didn’t want you to worry. We’re dealing with it. Peter and me, and a few others.” Stiles’ eyes fell to his lap as he dropped onto the couch. He fiddled his bracelet.
“So tell me. Maybe I can help?”
“There’s a man who it seems has been stalking me for a while. He’s funnelled money into almost every area of my life and now I’m finding out he’s also had Allison and Jordan work for him, funded Kira’s study; Lydia’s new project; Danny’s workplace, Derek, everyone.” Stiles was afraid to look at Scott. He was afraid to ask Scott.
He knew. In the very back of his mind he knew that logically, if every single one of his friends had somehow been tainted by this man, that chances were slim Scott would be the only exception. The last two days had wrung everything out of him and he honestly didn’t want to deal with more.
Scott, at his revelations, had sat forward with a worried frown. “What do you mean? Have you contacted the cops? Who is this person?”
Stiles paused and looked at his friend. Scott was the last of them. Thus far he had excluded Scott purposely. He didn’t want to wreck his friend’s business, and Stiles knew that this could kill Scott’s consultancy if what he suspected was true.
All the recent travelling; the sudden jobs, could only mean one thing.
“Asher Maximilian. The billionaire.” Stiles croaked and waited for the reaction.
Scott went instantly pale.
Boyd’s phone rang. It was Erica.
“Are you and Stiles still at Peter’s?”
“Yeah. I don’t think he’s going anywhere today. He’s talking with Scott.”
“Jesus, him too?”
“Yeah, so it seems.”
“Can I come by, V?”
“Sure. Are you ok?”
“We’ll talk when I get there. See you soon.”
Boyd hung up wondering what else could possibly go wrong today.
“Everything alright?” he heard Stiles call from the living room.
“Yeah, but Erica’s coming over.”
In seconds Stiles was at the kitchen entrance. “Peter . . .”
“Is fine. We would have been told otherwise. Peter is fine. I’m sure of it. My guys would have contacted me if anything’d happened.”
Stiles nodded. He knew that. He just needed to hear it.
He went back to Scott.
In the last 20 minutes they had migrated to the carpet. Both of them sat, legs folded, facing each other, just like they’d done plenty of times as kids. They’d trashed out some of their biggest problems growing up – from Scott’s dad issues, to Stiles’ mom, Scott’s girlfriend troubles, Stiles’ lack of boyfriends – sitting just like this.
Scott had instantly turned his phone off and thrown it across the room at Stiles’ revelation. He’d just spoken to the damn man. Which meant Asher Maximilian had known where he was. He had to be tracking him!
Boyd had left the kitchen and was currently picking Scott’s phone apart for any tracking implements.
“Why didn’t you call me? I would have come back. Jesus, Stiles. I just fucking spoke to him! I work for him! We talked about . . .” Scott swallowed heavily.
Stiles trembled. “I know. At least I figured. I knew it was everyone when I found out about Lydia and dad. I just knew. But it’s not just me. It’s Peter as well.”
“What does he want? Have you spoken to him?”
“And said what Scott? ‘Hey, nifty detective skills you have there, dude’?”
“I don’t know. But to ask him what the fuck he wants? Why all this?”
“I think it’s clear why. Don’t you?”
Scott’s eyes darted away over his best friend’s shoulder. When he’d been obsessed with Stiles for that brief embarrassing period, he’d been convinced he had loved him, romantically, and could see why anyone would become infatuated with him.
Hell, Peter was head over heels for him.
Scott knew he had strong feelings of his own for Stiles and over the years they had been through so much together and for each other. Maybe those feelings had become mixed up. Or maybe he was just being a jealous ass. Either way, he’d come to terms with it and the breaks between his recent travels for work and Stiles spending more time with Peter and his family, he could see now that it had done their friendship good. They were back on track.
But this, what this man had done to all of them. There had to be a reason, something. He’d employed Scott for the last five months to reform one of his companies. He’d met the man, walked through the plant with him; sat in on management meetings with him; strategised how he could refocus the company so as not to lose employees, and all of that had been a ruse to get closer to Stiles? Because of what Scott was to Stiles?
Scott had finally been thinking he’d turned a corner. Rather than just being the one who went in to clean house, he was finally feeling useful. He was contributing to saving jobs; actively reforming a company. Fuck!
“If it’s you he wants, Stiles. I mean really wants you, then it makes sense that you meet with him. I mean he does seem to be trying to get your attention, if we’re now figuring this all out.”
“Scott . . .”
“Seriously, Stiles . . .”
“You want me to sit at a fucking table with him and not want to smash his face in? He befriended my dad, Scott. My dad,” he shouted.
“When dad mentioned this Ash guy he went golfing with, I thought, great dad’s finally getting out and doing stuff. I was happy, so I didn’t ask questions. He plays poker with my dad and his friends, Scott, in Beacon Hills. He’s been in my dad’s house. I want to throw up every time I hear his name and you want me to sit and chat with him,” Stiles yelled angrily.
Scott clearly just didn’t understand.
“That’s just it!” Scott yelled back. “You’re all reacting to everything he’s done, but no one has called him out on his shit. Asked him what he wants. I mean, Stiles, when have you ever not called someone out when they’ve acted in ways that are not acceptable to you? You do it to all of us. What’s so special about this guy? Why does he get a pass? Why are you running from him rather than kicking his ass?”
Scott sat still for a moment to let his words sink in. Stiles opened his mouth, eyes wide, but no rebuttal came forth.
Boyd opened the door at the next door bell chime.
Erica swallowed as she looked at him.
“What’s wrong?” Boyd asked at the look on her face.
“We need to talk.”
Boyd closed the door behind her. “I was in the kitchen.”
“Hey, Erica,” Scott called out at seeing Peter’s assistant.
Stiles gave her a little wave, but he looked distracted.
“Actually, this concerns Stiles too. I’ve already told Peter and Laura.”
Stiles frowned at her. “Told them what?”
“That I know Asher Maximilian.”
Stiles’ eyes widened again.
“How?” Boyd grated out.
“Please hear me out. Please. I’ve already told Peter and Laura the full story. Just wait until I tell the whole thing.”
And tearfully she did for the second time today.
Boyd was still through the whole thing. When she was finished, Stiles rushed to hug her as she broke down yet again. His skin was crawling all over again. Scott made shushing, comforting sounds of his own, trying to calm her. But Boyd still hadn’t moved. Not a single muscle other than a tick in his jaw and veins near popping in his neck.
Erica’s head came up to look at him, apprehensively. Eyes bloodshot, nose wet, cheeks red, her entire body language hesitant to approach. “V?” she said gently to him.
The rage the swirled inside of him was incomparable. This must be how Peter felt last night as he’d held Stiles while he screamed and cried and fell to pieces. This slow burning rage with nowhere to really put it.
The man had targeted Erica, because she was Peter’s assistant. Slept with her for four days. Spent practically every waking moment over those four days with her because unknown to her, her boss had just entered a relationship with a man Asher Maximilian wanted.
But in the true scheme of things, Erica was immaterial. She was nothing more than collateral damage in all this to that man. A deliberate move meant to do nothing other than wound.
By the time Boyd’s senses returned there was a lancing pain in his hand and one of the nearby wooden tables was in shambles at his feet. Erica was sobbing once more as Stiles tried to evaluate what damage he’d done to his hand.