For Love or Legacy
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Death wasn’t something Stephan normally celebrated, but this one had its perks.
"Is everything set for tonight?" Stephan Andrade asked without looking up from the screen of his laptop while he typed in one last sentence. He'd completed the final presentation himself, more than an hour ago, but wasn't satisfied with it. Nothing new there. He hadn't brought his family back from the edge of financial ruin by doing anything half-way.
"If by everything, you mean do I have my overnight bag packed and sitting under my office desk in case I go into labor while checking for the third time that your itinerary for the next few days is set? Then, yes," his secretary answered ruefully, easing her very pregnant body down onto his white Maxolta sofa and propping her swollen ankles up on one of its pillows.
"Good," he said absently, then stopped and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand when her words sunk in. "Maddy, you shouldn't be here today; you're on maternity leave. I could have had made the arrangements myself.”
"You were already snapping at everyone in the office. I thought I should help out before you had a mutiny. If I didn't know how important this deal was to you, I would have called Uncle Vic and told him that you need a parental intervention.”
His father would love that phone call. Victor Andrade was in his early sixties and had moved back to Italy, but that hadn’t slowed him down. He flew across the Atlantic on a regular basis, enjoying his retirement in a villa on the Amalfi coast while keeping track of his family in New York. Luckily, Stephan’s mother reeled her husband in now and then or Stephan would never get any peace.
"No need to involve my father; your husband already called me twice this morning," Stephan said.
That brought a smile to the brunette’s face. Not a difficult feat. Madison D’Argenson was habitually, chronically, in a good mood. She said it was part of her charm. Luckily, she was equally efficient and detail oriented, or she would be a highly paid mailroom clerk instead of Stephan’s secretary. She said, "He's supposed to be concentrating on the new restaurant opening, not worrying about me. The baby isn't due for another week. What did he say?"
"The usual threat—I'd better not work you too hard in your condition or he'll poison my next plate of tortellini."
His younger cousin laughed at that, but Stephan didn't join her. Her joy echoed through him, a hollow reminder of how much he had changed. He was only six years older than Maddy, but he felt ancient next to her.
Her enthusiasm could be exhausting. Unabashedly, she grabbed life with both hands and shook it until she got what she wanted, rewarding those around her with the sweetest smile that had probably ever graced the planet when she won, a smile that usually crumbled any residual opposition.
When she’d come home from a year of studying abroad in the South of France with an unknown French Chef in tow, Stephan had voiced his concerns and he hadn’t been alone. On paper, Richard D’Argenson hadn’t been impressive. Maddy’s response? She’d gathered the family from brothers to cousins—and informed them that Richard was there to stay and that they would love him.
They were married in less than a year and pregnant soon after that.
Richard had won Stephan’s respect by refusing to accept financial backing for his restaurants and for allowing Maddy to continue to work at Andrade Global. Even as a newlywed, Richard hadn’t been put off by how protective the Andrade men were of their women. He was devoted without being controlling, and he fit into the family just as Maddy’d proclaimed he would. Most impressive was the fact that he was constantly learning traditional Italian cuisine from Maddy’s mother so he could feed multiple generations of the clan at her parents’ house each Sunday. How could they not love him?
Even when he threatened to poison you.
Usually it was amusing. Today, it was annoying. There was too much riding on this deal for Stephan to allow himself to get distracted. In just a little over twenty-four hours, he'd be pitching his proposal to China's Minister of Commerce, and if all went well, Andrade Global would be an international player, and the infamous Dominic Corisi would be scrambling to survive the financial fallout.
Maddy eased her feet back onto the floor and said, "I actually had a good reason to come in and interrupt you this time."
Stephan crossed the room and, with a gentleness that not many outside his family would associate with him, assisted his petite cousin as she struggled back to a standing position. "You really should go home, Maddy. Whatever it is can wait until I get back in a few days."
Yes, the deal was important to him. In fact, it was all he had thought about since he'd first heard that Dominic was going to make a bid to the Minister, but Maddy was family, and family, to an Andrade, was everything.
Maddy rested a hand on the sleeve of his jacket. "No, this can't. I'm worried about you."
"Me?" His head pulled back with pride.
"Yes, don't lose yourself in China, Stephan."
"I don't intend to lose." He knew by her wince that his tone had been harsh.
Not that it stopped her.
She said, "That's not what I mean and you know it." Her voice softened with concern. "Are you going to Beijing for the right reasons?"
Why was she doing this now? He checked his watch. About forty-five minutes until scheduled takeoff. It wasn’t like his private jet would leave without him, but he had meetings lined up for when he landed and making them depended on getting there ASAP. "If Andrade Global succeeds in winning this contract -"
"What, Stephan? What will change? You've already more than made up for what your father lost..."
"My father didn't lose anything. It was stolen from him." She knew this.
"And China is all about making Dominic pay for that, isn't it?"
Oh, yes. "Dominic should pay for what he did to my father - for what he did to all of us. Isola Santos is a mockery of what it once was. I've offered Dominic money for it many times, but this time I won't be the one asking. When I'm done with Dominic, he'll be begging for whatever I'm willing to give him in trade just to pay for the lawyers he'll need to sort out the mess I'll leave for him in my wake."
It felt good to say it out loud.
After all these years, Dominic had finally miscalculated and left himself vulnerable. By including influential investors from around the world in on his push to create a viable network for China, Dominic had put his personal wealth at risk. His investors were not going to be pleased at all when Stephan offered the Chinese government the same service for a third less cost, with more freedom to implement the restrictions they wanted. Unlike Dominic, Stephan didn’t care if he had any control over the software once it was purchased. All that mattered was closing his rival out of that market.
"You don't have to do this," Maddy said urgently.
"Yes, I do." It was that complex and that simple. He put his hand lightly on her back and nudged her toward the door. "You worry too much, Maddy. I'll be back before the weekend. Just tell the little one in there that he or she has to wait for me."
Maddy refused to budge. "Stephan, I still have something to tell you and it's important."
He looked down with quick concern. "Is it the baby?"
Maddy placed her hand over her large bump. "No, the baby is fine, but I came in here to tell you that Nicole called earlier. She asked if you were here and if she could see you today."
"Nicole Corisi. Odd, that she would want to see you today, isn't it?"
"Yes, odd," he parroted, while his mind raced. What would Dominic's little sister want? He had been careful to keep the details of his planned coup under wraps until now. Only the closest members of his team knew what he was about to do, and half of them were already in China laying the groundwork for his presentation. Had information leaked to the Corisi camp? Did Nicole intend to ask him to back off her brother?
"I hope you told her that my schedule is booked,” he said.
Maddy tapped a finger on her chin. "Her father passed away recently. I couldn't say no. Weren't the two of you friends at one time? Maybe she needs someone to talk to."
An image of Nicole dancing shyly before him in the dim lighting of Lucida's seaside balcony dance floor near Coney Island would not be denied; her long black hair blowing lightly across the cleavage her little red dress revealed. Those dark gray eyes laughing up at him in response to something he’d said. After months of chasing her, she'd conceded to one date. All his ribbing about how seriously she took herself and her attire had produced this deliberate, physical dare. Without her office armor, she was…dangerous. Her moves were inexperienced, but deadly all the same.
He'd never wanted a woman more than he'd wanted her that evening.
He never had since.
Perhaps if the night had culminated in the usual fashion, she might have faded into the blur of women he had known. But news of Dominic's bid for his father's company had come out that evening, ending whatever they might have had before it had begun.
Taking her from him. Leaving him with a feeling of something unfinished.
No they had never been friends.
On any other day, he would have met her — if for no other reason than to see if she could still affect his breathing with just a look. He'd be willing to indulge himself for a day, or a week, or however long it would take to get her out of his system.
Oh, yes, on any other day he wouldn't have minded comforting her.
But not today.
Not the day before he exacted his revenge on her brother.
"Although it is sad about her father, there is nothing I have to say to Nicole that she would want to hear," he said.
"You must be a little curious about what she wants."
"I don't have time for this." Stephan checked his watch again. "I’ve got less than an hour before I fly out. Call her back and tell her that I can't see her."
Maddy didn’t move into action as he’d expected. Instead, she gave him one of those argument-melting smiles and said, "That would be a little awkward since she's sitting right outside the door."
Stephan rocked back first with shock, then forward as anger began to burn deep within him. He wanted to roar his frustration, but his cousin's delicate condition held his tongue. Later, there would be plenty of time to talk to Maddy about how she shouldn't interfere. She knew damn well he didn't want to see Nicole.
Get it over quickly and get out. "Two minutes. She has two minutes."
Maddy’s smile only widened, revealing that she not only knew what he was thinking, but also that she wasn't afraid of him. She turned to walk back to the door and said over her shoulder, "Oh, and Stephan, she's even prettier in person than she is in the picture you keep hidden in your desk."
"He's as ready as he'll ever be to see you," the very pregnant woman said with some humor to Nicole as she held the outer door to Stephan's office open behind her, one hand resting atop her well-rounded stomach.
"Thank you," Nicole responded stiffly and stood, mustering her resolve, but unable to make her feet move forward toward the door. The persuasive words she'd rehearsed on her way over flew out of her head.