For Love or Legacy
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“My parents have been married for 40 years. That’s what they are celebrating this summer with their extended vacation. Dad still gets the biggest kick out of Mom’s humor. So, yes, it’s possible.”
“How do you think they do it?”
“Why are you asking, Nicole?”
"Stephan and I had a real connection once.”
“I want to believe it’s possible to find that again, but men don't stay with me, Jeff. Why don't they stay?"
"Why do you think they don’t stay?”
Nicole shrugged helplessly.
Jeff put the packages aside and said, "Listen, I don’t know your history with men.” Nicole opened her mouth to share, but Jeff raised a hand and added quickly. “And I don’t need to, but from what I know about Stephan I wouldn’t suggest you throw yourself at him. He won't respect anything he gets easily.”
Nicole chewed her bottom lip. “He might not even be interested.”
"He moved you into his penthouse. He’s interested. Just be careful.”
Stephan’s penthouse was a disappointment. Sure, it’s location near Central Park had likely cost him well over twenty million, and the interior was modern and spotless, but it reminded Nicole of the stark house she’d just escaped.
Where were the photos of Stephan’s family? Every decoration had been perfectly placed to balance the room. She’d been hoping to find something of the old Stephan within these walls. Nothing.
A short tour of the other rooms did not make Nicole feel any better. She went back to meet Jeff in the living room. He was seated on a couch whose crisp lines and modern white design did not appear to provide any comfort. Just like my father's house, all for show.
“The penthouse only has one bedroom. Just where does he think I’m going to be sleeping?” Nicole asked, as much to herself as to her driver.
Jeff rolled his eyes.
So, you think it's going to be that easy, Stephan? Move me in, enjoy yourself for a few weeks, then toss me aside like every other woman you’ve dated?
I don't think so.
She walked over and opened the door to his home office again. “Do you still have the number to those movers, Jeff? I’m not done shopping yet.”
It was pretty obvious that she hadn't heard him come in. She was standing on top of a small chair, attempting to bang a nail into the wall with the tiny heel of a shoe. The image of her bare shoulders, hair loose down her back, olive cotton sundress — simple, yet mouth wateringly sexy at the same time. And completely unexpected.
What was she up to?
Her slim hips swayed slightly to the music blaring through the penthouse. He had to say something. In fact, the longer he said nothing, the more scenarios his imagination came up with for how to quickly get that little sundress off.
He stepped into the room and turned down the music.
She jumped, nearly toppling from the chair. He caught her just in time, pulling her against him and letting her bare feet slowly slide to the floor. He could have let her go, but when she looked up at him, he saw a memory in her eyes—a memory of another time and place when he had held her this closely.
"I didn't think you'd be home until tomorrow," she said breathlessly.
"I left earlier than expected."
"I hope you don't mind that I made a few changes."
She referenced the room behind him as if he'd noticed anything but her when he'd walked in. He hadn’t seen her with her hair down and in a dress since…
“I don’t mind at all,” he said as his hands naturally found the small of her waist and settled her more fully against him, not caring if she could feel what her nearness was doing to his body.
Her acceptance of the situation was exciting, even if it came with a twinge of disappointment that the chase was over before it had begun. She was already here in his arms, her nipples already pushing against the thin material of her cotton dress, eager for his attention.
The next few weeks were going to be exhausting, but oh, so pleasurable.
He swooped down to take her lips, but she turned her head to the side and his kiss fell on her cheek. His head drew back with a frown. He hadn't fallen victim to that move since third grade when his first crush hadn’t reciprocated his affection.
And he didn't like it.
She pulled out of his embrace and took a few steps away from him. "I think it's a good idea, Stephan, to discuss some ground rules."
"Ground rules?" he growled.
"Yes, so no one gets confused."
"I'm not confused." He moved closer.
She moved further away. “This arrangement is strictly business.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“I’m only here to save my father’s company. In a few months, we’ll be out of each other’s lives again.”
“Even more of a reason to take advantage of this time together.”
“I don’t agree, and that’s why I converted your home office into a second bedroom.”
My office? He stalked to the door of a room he normally banned everyone from and whipped it open. Sure enough, his black and gray office furniture had been replaced by an explosion of white and lavender, feminine crap. On one side of the room, a small twin sized bed stood where his desk had. She’d even repainted the walls white, with what looked like a flower stencil near the baseboards. “What the hell did you do with all of my stuff?” he yelled.
Nicole didn’t so much as flinch.
“Everything that looked important was boxed and sent to your main office. The rest was put in storage. Isn’t that why you sent the movers? So I could make myself at home here?” Her innocence sounded a bit calculated.
He’d underestimated Nicole and that was incredibly hot. Excitement drove his blood along with all of his irritation clear out of his head. He wanted to lift that dress and taste her right there on her new chaste linens.
“How long do you really think you’ll be sleeping in there?” he purred.
Instead of coyly pretending not to understand or retreating, Nicole surprised him by stepping closer to him. She stopped just before their bodies touched. Close enough that he could feel the heat of her skin. Slightly above a whisper, she said, “If you want to sleep with me, Stephan, you’ll have to do a whole lot better than cheap come-ons and well worn lines. In fact, you’ll have to do something that probably isn’t even possible.”
Sheer willpower stopped him from pulling her that last half-inch that separated them.
Their mutual attraction slowed time for a moment, until the only thing that existed was the two of them. She raised a hand toward him and his entire body tightened instantly in expectation of her caress.
God, he wanted her.
He was ready to promise whatever it would take to get her into his bed.
Her playful, dismissive pat on his cheek took him completely off guard.
“You’re going to have to get me to like you,” she said and pushed a stunned Stephan back a step, out of her room, and closed the door.
Leaning against the inside wall, Nicole let out a shaky breath. The shocked look on Stephan’s face had been priceless. He probably didn’t get turned down often. His ego could use the trim.
Would playing hard to get give them the time they needed to rediscover their old connection or would he lose interest and move on to someone else? For once, the uncertainty didn’t scare Nicole.
The challenges Nicole had faced and overcome recently had left her feeling empowered. Regardless of his feelings, she’d convinced Stephan to help her. Corisi Ltd and its top executives would soon be safe. As soon as the paperwork was completed, she could start pulling her company out of the red, and show everyone that she wasn’t some helpless, tragic victim who needed rescuing.
She’d finally won.
The confidence it gave her allowed her to look inward with more strength. Her past was a part of her, but it would only rule her if she let it. She refused to settle for being the sum of everything that had happened to her. It was about time she figured out exactly what she needed to be happy and fought for it.
That might mean rediscovering love with Stephan—if he was ready for something real.
Or it might mean leaving him in her dust.
Either way, she was taking control of her life.
Watch out, Stephan. It’s all or nothing, and I’m done playing by other people’s rules.
Stephan was not in a good mood the next morning. Falling asleep had been damn near impossible until the wee hours of the morning, and waking to see not a trace of Nicole in his penthouse irritated him.
And it shouldn't - which only irritated him more. Stephan padded from the shower to his bedroom closet in a towel. He chose what his father would call one of his "power suits." In less than an hour, he'd likely be knee deep in the legal jargon when he met Nicole at her lawyer's office.
His mood went from bad to worse when his phone rang. Dominic? He must be getting desperate.
As soon as Stephan answered, an accusation boomed out of the telephone. "What the hell are you doing with my sister, Stephan?"
"I don't think you want the graphic details."
Dominic hissed out an angry breath. "Why is she at your house?"
"Shouldn't you ask Nicole? Oh, wait, she won't take your phone calls. She hates you as much as I do. That has to hurt. "
"You're a new kind of low, Stephan."
"Maybe, but at least I don't kidnap my women." Oh, yes, he'd seen the news. The debate finally declared Dominic an over-the-top-romantic, but Stephan knew the truth. The little school teacher had never stood a chance against someone like Dominic. He felt sorry for the woman who had tried and failed to escape him.
Nicole was different. She’s using me as much as I’m using her. "Your sister happily moved into my penthouse,” he taunted.
"Leave her out of any vendetta you have against me."
Why, Dominic, you sound almost desperate.
How does it feel?
Wait, because it’s going to get a lot worse.
"I can't. You haven't heard? We're engaged. That makes us practically family, Dominic."
"I'm going to kill you."
"Just be a man and don't send your goons. Unlike some, I don't hide behind security. But I guess someone like you, someone who collects enemies like others collect coins, would have to."
"You're not going to win, Stephan. I'm going to crush you. "
"Is that any way to talk to your future brother-in-law?"
Dominic was voicing some new threat when Stephan laughed and hung up. He had Dominic exactly where he wanted him—furious and distracted. By the time he went back to check on his coveted new software, it would be too late.
Stephan headed to his home office, only to remember that it was now a bedroom and swore.
Normally his instincts were dead on when it came to reading people, but every time he thought he knew what Nicole would do, she did the opposite.
The only thing about her that he was one hundred percent certain of was that she monopolized far too much of his thoughts.
Nicole pretended not to notice when Stephan entered the outer office of her uptown lawyer. She turned a page of the women’s magazine that she’d stopped actually reading the moment she’d seen him exit the elevator.