For Love or Legacy
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Gavin led George back out the door.
George stopped just before he walked out the door and said, “Hurt her, Stephan, and it will be the last thing you do.”
Stephan continued to hold Nicole against him. He felt like he’d been run over by a mack truck and dragged down a highway.
She loves me?
No, she couldn’t. Their engagement was purely a business arrangement. She’d made that abundantly clear to him last night.
It was all a lie. He knew it. So, why had he stopped breathing and felt a little woozy when she’d claimed that she really wanted to marry him?
Without looking down at her, he forced out a question he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer to. “Do you love me, Nicole?”
Nicole stepped out of his embrace and he felt both relieved and profoundly disappointed at the same time. She said, “I had to say something. I couldn’t let him leave here worrying about me.” She walked over to the table and signed the paperwork.
Gavin had returned and was watching the two of them closely.
Stephan strode over and signed the contract.
“It’s done,” Nicole said. “Thank you, Gavin. I’ll be in touch.” She shook his hand and gave him a light kiss on one cheek. She turned to Stephan and said, “I’ll see you at home.”
Stephan’s stomach did a painful flip.
Without another word, Nicole turned and walked out of the office. He simply stood there, watching her go.
Gavin said, “You don’t deserve her.”
Four truer words had never been spoken.
“Just send a copy of the papers over to my office,” Stephan said and strode out.
Mr. Smooth Lawyer might be in love with Nicole. He might even be close enough to her that she shared confidences with him, but she wasn’t going home with him.
Nicole was already gone by the time he reached the street. He wanted to chase her down, demand that she tell him the real reason she had fought so hard for her father’s company, and kiss her till they both forgot why they didn’t belong together.
Instead, he headed to Tiffany’s and bought her the biggest, most expensive diamond they had.
Who knew burning sauce could make so much smoke? Nicole coughed and waved a hand towel in front of the smoke detector as it went off for the second time. Even in shorts and a white t-shirt, she was working herself up into a sweat.
Tonight she was celebrating. She’d done it! The top executives at her father’s company—no, now it was just Corisi Ltd—could rest easy. Their jobs were safe. Her quasi family unit would not be dismantled, at least not in the immediate future. And her phone would finally stop ringing with calls from a brother she refused to talk to.
With that stress behind her, Nicole was free to focus her attention on an equally pressing matter—Stephan. How did you say thank you to a man who purchased a computer software company for you? She knew how his family would.
Confident that she’d found the perfect gesture, Nicole had written her first grocery list and had happily, successfully purchased all of the items for the meal at the local supermarket. What she hadn’t anticipated was how quickly the heat from the oven would overtake the effects of the air conditioner.
The oven. The chicken!
Opening the oven door revealed a now blackened-beyond-recognition main entrée that billowed thick smoke into Nicole’s face. Her eyes stung and began to water.
“Corisi family recipe?” Stephan asked over the smoke alarm.
Nicole spun from peering into the oven. Stephan was leaning against one side of the door frame, jacket flung across his shoulder.
“Very funny,” Nicole snapped and waved a hand in front of her face in an ineffective attempt to dissipate the smoke. “How do you get the oven to stop smoking?”
Stephan laid his jacket on the back of one of the chairs in the kitchen and walked over to where she was. She didn’t move. He came to a close stop. His head came down until their lips were almost touching. At first Nicole thought he was going to try to kiss her again, but instead he reached behind her and turned a couple of the stove’s dials. “It helps if you turn it off,” he murmured.
Nicole tried to back up, but her legs were already against the stove. Leaning back brought her rump in contact with his hand briefly. She jumped forward as if burned, only to find that doing so pressed her chest against his. His quickly indrawn breath revealed that their fleeting physical contact had affected him as much as it had her.
She slid sideways and escaped to a few feet away, cursing herself for not changing into something nicer before he came home. Nothing was turning out the way she’d planned it. “The internet said that chicken and pasta is one of the easiest meals to make." She blew a stray hair out of her face. "They are full of shit.”
His chuckle was unexpected, and the best sound she’d heard in a long time. “I have a full-time cook, Nicole.”
“I know,” she said defensively. “I wanted to do something special to thank you for helping me today.”
He studied her for another moment, as if he’d been about to say something but had decided against it, and said, “Maddy would love this story. Her rule was that if she cooked for you, you had to eat it. The whole family was relieved when she married a chef. Before Richard, we were considering buying stock in an antacid company.”
Despite the fact that everything she’d planned for the evening had gone impossibly wrong, she smiled at the mention of his little spitfire of a cousin. “How could she not know how to cook with Elise and Katrine around? They are amazing.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Maddy doesn’t take advice well. She does what she wants to do...even with recipes.” Stephan shuddered.
“I really like Maddy,” Nicole said spontaneously.
Stephan looked like he was engaged in some inner debate. Finally, he said, “I believe you mean that.”
Nicole leaned back against a corner of the counter. “Your family has always been kind to me, Stephan. When our engagement ends, I’ll make sure that it’s done in a way that makes you look good in the eye of the public. I would never deliberately do anything to harm your family.”
Her words had the opposite effect on Stephan than she’d anticipated. His face tightened and he said, “Planning the end already? Do you regret signing the paperwork?”
“No, do you?”
Instead of answering, Stephan tossed Nicole a small box. She caught it just in time. Opening it revealed a 24-carat emerald-cut diamond in a raised platinum setting. Elegant, and wildly expensive. It was exactly the kind of ring you’d expect a Corisi to want. Nicole’s heart sank. She took it out of the velvet box and turned it slowly between her fingers.
Not me at all.
“You don’t like it,” Stephan stated flatly.
Nicole grimaced. “It’s fine.”
He said gruffly, “You can take it back and get something you want.”
What she wanted was not something she was going to find in a jewelry case at Tiffany’s. His choice of ring for her made it painfully obvious that he did not know her. She slid the large diamond on her left finger. “It’s beautiful, Stephan, and it’s only for a short time anyway. Thank you.”
He let out a harsh breath. “Most women would love that ring.”
Nicole bristled, “I said it was beautiful.”
His frustration was growing. “I spent thirty…actually thirty-five million dollars on you today. Thirty-five million dollars. Do you know any other women who can say they’ve had that kind of day? And you don’t look happy. I thought you’d be grateful.”
“I am. I cooked-” Sudden comprehension hit her. “Do you mean grateful? Or grateful?”
He put both hands up in mock defense. “I…”
She jabbed one finger into his chest and said, “Let’s get a few points straight right now. This is a business arrangement. Your help bought you the rights to one conversion patent. That’s it. And although you did spend a lot of money today, you’ll get it all back in a few weeks.” She waved her left ring finger in front of his face. “Along with this. I hope you kept the receipt. I meant what I said last night. I don’t know if I like you. You’re rude. You’re arrogant. Just because you’re gorgeous, doesn’t mean every woman wants to have sex with you. Women want more than hot suggestions whispered into their ears. They want conversation. They want…” His amused expression halted her tirade. Hands on her hips, she said, “What? What are you thinking? Just say it.”
A devil of mischief sparkled in those beautiful blue eyes. “No, go on. I’m listening.” When she didn’t, he prompted, “You were telling me what women want.”
She shook her head and said, “I’m serious.”
“You’re an ass,” she said.
His smile widened, but he stepped closer. “But I’m a gorgeous ass.”
She threw an oven mitt at him when he reached for her. “Don’t touch me.”
He didn’t, but he continued to stand so close to her that her body began to betray her. She licked her suddenly dry lips. He leaned an inch closer. “So, no whispering ideas into your ear? No touching? Just conversation? That’s what you want?” His lips were so close she could almost taste him.
She gulped, “Yes.”
“Because you want to sleep, every night, all alone in your little twin-bed?”
No. “Yes,” she forced the words out, trying to ignore how her skin tingled with anticipation of his touch—how her body was clenching, moistening, preparing for what she was refusing.
“Do you know what I want?” he asked, his voice practically purring.
He stepped back and said, “Pizza, because I don’t think I can eat that chicken. Do you mind ordering some while I make a few phone calls?” He sauntered over to pick up his jacket again and added, “I’ll be in the living room, since I don’t have an office anymore. Then we can eat and talk.” He emphasized the last word and her scowl gained a deep laugh from him. “Unless you have another suggestion?”
Not one that didn’t include smacking that smug look off his face.
He swung the jacket over one shoulder and headed for the door. “Oh, and ask them to put the ham and pineapple on only half. Fruit doesn’t belong on pizza.”
As soon as he was out of sight, Nicole plopped down onto one of the chairs.
He remembered my favorite toppings.
Would she ever figure him out?
For the next few days, Stephan and Nicole talked. They met at the small table in his kitchen each morning at seven thirty. His cook made them both light fare and coffee. He asked her about her plans for the day and then shared his. They took the elevator down to the lobby together, awkwardly parting with a wave that seemed to amuse him.
They met again for dinner in his ultra modern dining room. At first they had contained their conversations to work anecdotes, but as the rapport between them became more comfortable, their topics expanded. Nicole shared with Stephan her concern over meeting some resistance as she took over the CEO position at Corisi Ltd. She hadn’t expected to have to defend herself to the same people who would have been fired had she not fought for them. Stephan listened to all of her concerns and then suggested some ways to unruffle their feathers. His suggestions worked, which increased the fragile trust that was building between them.