For Love or Legacy
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“So, I’ll have to hogtie you after all,” Nicole said solemnly as if talking to herself.
The little boy tilted his head to one side in evaluation of her statement. “You’re funny,” he announced and offered her one of his muddy hands. Nicole took it and allowed him to believe that he was helping her stand up. He added, “And you’re fast.”
Nicole smiled. “Who knew?” She didn’t let go of his dirty little hand. He was not getting away a second time. “Let’s go back inside. I bet your mother is worried.”
“I’m not -”
Nicole suggested, “What if we find some manly soap? I bet Uncle Alessandro doesn’t like to smell like a girl either.”
Elise came out the back door of the large house and wagged a finger at her nephew. “Matteo, come in the house right now. Look, you've gotten Nicole’s pants dirty!”
Nicole looked down at her little captor and back up, and came to a quick decision. “It’s not his fault. I was running down the hill and I fell. Matteo was just helping me up.”
Elise nodded, knowingly. “Well, Matt, how lucky that you were there to help Nicole. Let’s go get cleaned up.”
Matteo looked up with pleading eyes. Nicole asked, “Elise, do you have ivory soap? I’m allergic to scented soaps.”
Elise cocked a curious eyebrow at Nicole who merely shrugged. “Sure,” she said. “Follow me.”
Matteo said, “Sorry about your pants, Nicole.”
Nicole said, “It’s ok.” And it was. She looked down at the stains on her left knee and knew that her pre-dinner adventure would likely be told and retold as a new Andrade family story, and there was a certain amount of pride in that.
Matteo said, “Want to race later?”
Nicole realized that he was now holding her hand rather than the other way around and her heart did a funny sort of summersault in her chest. “You’re on.”
And together they went into the bustling house.
Victor Andrade tapped his wife’s arm and stood the moment Nicole entered the house. Nicole froze in the foyer, hardly noticing when someone slipped Matteo’s hand out of hers and led him off to get cleaned up.
“Nicole, you came!” Victor said in a welcoming tone she’d never heard in her own father’s voice.
Katrine kissed one of her cheeks and hugged her like a mother who hasn’t seen her child in too long a time. Nicole stepped back and almost fell. Katrine grabbed her arm at the last moment and steadied her. “It’s good to see you, Nicole.”
Stephan’s father walked over and Nicole stiffened in anticipation of what might be another awkward embrace. Instead, he stopped and simply touched one of her cheeks. “It only took my son seven years to come to his senses.”
Nicole couldn’t meet Victor’s eyes. “His anger was justified. I…”
Victor’s hand dropped and his jaw clenched, his voice raising with emotion. “You did nothing wrong.”
Nicole shrank a little without realizing it.
Katrine said, “Victor, you’re scaring the poor girl. Nicole, don’t mind my husband’s mood, he’s upset with himself, not you. We were overjoyed to hear that you and Stephan had made up.” Then she linked arms with Nicole and said, “Come on, Nicole, Elise is in the kitchen and she’s been talking about you all day. She’ll be thrilled that you came.”
Nicole allowed herself to be led away.
Much to Nicole’s amazement, Elise was actually cooking. The large kitchen contained several ovens and heating elements on a center island. Every area seemed to be in use. Apparently, Nicole did not hide her shock well, because Elise asked, “Do you cook, Nicole?”
Once again, Nicole felt like an unprepared outsider. She shook her head. No one she knew cooked. They had cooks. Cooking was messy and in general considered a waste of time by those in her small circle of acquaintances.
Elise asked, “You never cooked with your mother?”
Katrine jumped in quickly and said, “Elise, you know…”
Elise went pink, then rushed to Nicole’s side. “I forgot, Nicole. You must think I’m a horrible person. I keep saying the wrong things around you, when all I really want is for you to feel welcome.”
There was no doubting the sincerity of the older woman. Nicole said, “I do feel welcome and please don’t worry. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy your company.”
Katrine said, “Isn’t she everything I said she was? She’s exactly what Stephan needs.”
This time Nicole blushed.
As if sensing Nicole’s discomfort at continuing to be the topic of discussion, Elise answered the questions Nicole wouldn’t ask. “You’re wondering why we don’t have someone cook for us, aren’t you? We often do. If it’s just Alessandro and me, our house cook will throw something together for us. And Richard makes the Sunday feast. But tonight was special. When the family gathers, the food is part of the love, no?”
Nicole shrugged awkwardly.
Elise explained, “The sauce is my grandmother’s recipe. The meatballs are Alessandro’s mother’s. Katrine makes her Norwegian lefse bread and everyone eats it. When we blend our food, we blend our families and old recipes keep those people alive in our hearts. You understand?”
There was little point in lying. “Not really, although it sounds beautiful.”
Katrine said, “Don’t worry, Nicole. I had no idea how to cook Italian food before I met Victor. Elise taught me everything I know.”
Nicole walked around the kitchen, looking into the various pots.
Katrine added with a smile, “So, you either help us cook, or you do the dishes.”
Wide-eyed, Nicole swung around, and Elise laughed out loud, “You are so bad, Katrine. We do have house staff. She’s only teasing you.”
Squaring her shoulders, Nicole decided she was up for the challenge. She’d delivered a baby for goodness sake. How hard could cooking be? She slid off her cream jacket and rolled up her sleeves. “Ok, where do I start?”
Katrine and Elise exchanged a blatant look of approval. Elise said, “All that is left now is desert. We always make a fruit crostrata in the summer, a kind of pie. Victor and Alessandro love them.” Elise pointed to a bowl of peaches and plums on a nearby counter and said, “If you peel the fruit, I’ll make the pastry for it. Then there should be blueberries in the refrigerator if you don’t mind rinsing them.”
Busy following her instructions, Nicole asked, “So, is everyone gathered tonight to celebrate the newest addition to your family? Too bad Richard and Maddy aren’t here.”
Elise walked over and patted Nicole on one shoulder, “We will celebrate Joseph’s birth this week when he comes home from the hospital and Stephan has returned. Tonight is about someone else.”
Nicole looked from Elise to Katrine, afraid to hope, afraid to care.
Katrine said, “Tonight is about you, Nicole. Welcome home.”
Nicole had never felt so wonderful and so awful at the same time.
Amid the gregarious discourse that was part of having three generations of Adrades gathered around one table, Victor’s phone rang. He held a hand up and the room quieted. "It's Stephan."
He listened to his son for a moment then said, "Yes, I know, it's all over the news that Dominic won the bid, but it’s for the best, Stephan. I'm surprised you went to China at all. Why? I'm looking at why. Nicole is here with us. It's time for you to come home and focus on what is really important." A red flush of anger filled the older man's face. "What am I talking about? I'm talking about this foolishness with Nicole. You put her in an awkward position of lying to us when you asked her to keep your relationship a secret. She deserves better than that. My future grandchild deserves better than that."
Victor shook his head in response to something Stephan said. "And what is this about buying Corisi Ltd without even mentioning it? It’s the right thing to do, but why the secrecy?” Victor didn’t give Stephan much time to explain before he said, “You're right, we will talk about this more when you get home. Be sure of that. And don’t dawdle in China. You have a new nephew waiting for you. Oh, yes, and you're lucky everything worked out with that, or even hiding in Asia wouldn't save you from Richard. Maddy had her baby the night you left. Thank God, Nicole was with her. You should have been. You should have made sure she got home safely."
Stephan responded with something that calmed his father somewhat.
Victor spoke with one hand waving in the air for emphasis. "She's fine. Everybody is fine. Your Nicole took care of Maddy. I'm not so happy with the details, but I'm glad you finally came to your senses and asked her to marry you."
Nicole held her breath.
"Now that is the first good idea you've had in a long time. Here she is."
Listening to an influential businessman being lectured by his father like he was an errant twelve year old was humorous, but Nicole wasn't fooling herself into thinking that Stephan was going to be anything less than furious with her. She took the phone and held it to her ear, careful to reveal nothing in her expression.
"Hi, honey," she said, half gurgling with a nervous laugh.
"What part of no did you not hear?"
"I miss you, too, honey, but we aren't alone right now. Your whole family is in the room with me."
"Be very careful with my family, Nicole. Very careful."
"Oh, don't worry. They're all thrilled at the news."
"Apparently.” He was quiet so long that Nicole began to worry that the connection had been lost. When he did speak, the sarcasm was gone from his voice. “Did you really help Maddy?”
“I didn’t have much choice. She decided to have your nephew in the back seat of my limo.”
He sounded shaken. “And they are both really fine?” His concern for his cousin was moving to hear.
“They are. Your family is planning a celebration for little Joseph early next week. Will you be back by then?” Nicole sounded more nervous than she meant to.
“Worried that I will and everyone will find out that you’re a liar?”
“You sound pretty confident about that.”
“Yes. I figure you’re at least a teeny bit grateful to me now,” she said.
Nicole sat down with the phone. “I am? You’ll help me?”
“It seems like the least I can do, everything considered.”
"Oh, Stephan, thank you." Wait, that's too easy. "You really don't mind everyone thinking...I mean knowing that we're engaged?" A few heads turned quizzically toward her, reminding her that she'd have to watch what she said.
"No, I've decided that your idea has...potential benefits."
Sex? Nicole swallowed the question just in time. All eyes and ears were still on her. "I’m not sure what you mean.”
"You will,” he said in a tone that sounded more than a little suggestive.
Nicole hung up and handed the phone back to Victor. She said, “He says he’ll be back early next week.”