For Love or Legacy
Page 16

 Ruth Cardello

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Elise leaned in to add, “Whatever you decide, we’ll understand.”
Impulsively, Nicole pulled the invitation out of her purse. “I found this with the photo. It’s an invitation to a fundraiser in California. I think Stephan wants to go.”
They passed the invitation around.
“You’re right. He kept that invitation for a reason,” Maddy said.
Katrine agreed and added, “He should go. You should both go. Being around his old friends might help him remember what was important to him.”
If only it were that easy. “I don’t think Stephan will say yes if I ask him.”
Elise said, “Then don’t just ask him.”
Nicole said, “I’m sorry?”
The women exchanged a quick look.
Elise said, “Maddy, go stir the sauce while Katrine and I explain men to Nicole.”
Nicole watched her walk away with some trepidation.
Maddy laughed from across the room. “You should be scared, Nicole. They gave me the same talk when I got married. I’m still scarred.”
Katrine motioned for them to sit at the counter of the kitchen island. “Just watch the food, Maddy. Now, Nicole, some of what we’re going to tell you will sound crazy to you at first, but women have been using these techniques since the beginning of time. When you’re dealing with something important like this, and you know your man is going to be difficult to convince, you can take advantage of his biological weaknesses.”
Bemused, Nicole shook her head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Elise pulled her chair closer and said, “Step one is called: The Shake Up. It’s all about getting his attention and keeping it.”
Alessandro stuck his head into the kitchen and said, “How is everything?”
Elise scooted him out. “We’re cooking, Alessandro. Go talk to the men.”
He looked around, “But..”
“Out,” Elise said after her husband left reluctantly. “Ok, where were we?”
Katrine said, “You were still on step one.”
“I don’t know if I feel comfortable with this,” Nicole said.
Katrine nodded sympathetically but stressed, “Nicole, the Andrades are loyal and loving, but they can also be stubborn and bossy. You’ve got to know how to maneuver around their egos.”
Elise added, “It’s really for their own good. Everyone ends up happy, and they are none the wiser.”
Nicole said, “I’d rather just be honest with Stephan. I’ll tell him how important it is to both of us that we go.”
Elise and Katrine shook their heads. Maddy chuckled while stirring the sauce.
With a clear look of skepticism on her face, Elise said, “You can try it, if you think it will work.”
Imagining the scenario in her head, Nicole had to concede that it probably wouldn’t. So far reasoning with Stephan had not gotten her very far. What if going to California held the answers to all of her questions? Wasn’t it worth a little subterfuge? “Ok, I’m in. What is step one?”
Maddy piped in from across the room, “Just remember that I warned you.”
Elise shushed her with a wave of her hand. “The male physiology…”
Maddy cut in, “La la la, I can’t hear this again.”
Katrine said, “Elise, maybe you should skip that part. I’m sure Nicole doesn’t need the birds and the bees talk.”
Shrugging, Elise moved on. “Then back to the actual steps. Tomorrow, when Stephan comes home from work, this is what you should do…”
On the way home from the party, Stephan was pensive. He sat next to her in the back of the limo, but they were about halfway home before he said anything.
“My family really likes you.”
Did he have to look so miserable about that fact? “I really like them.”
He turned away from her, looking out the window while speaking to her. “In the future, we’ll make some excuse why you can’t accept their invitations. I haven’t changed my mind. I don’t want you spending any time with them, Nicole. There is no reason to involve them in this.”
“I understand,” Nicole said.
They couldn’t be more involved, she thought, biting the inside of her check to stop herself from smiling.
“So, it’s settled.” He sounded relieved and surprised.
“Yes,” she said.
If by settled, you mean that this conversation just convinced me that you deserve every moment of what you’ll be coming home to tomorrow.
Chapter Fourteen
Nicole felt a bit ridiculous walking around the house in a little red bikini, waiting for Stephan to come home from work. When she heard the click of the outside door, she sprinted to the lounge chair she'd placed on the patio and pretended to be sunbathing.
He walked out onto the balcony.
She pretended she didn't notice his arrival. Then she said casually, "Oh, Stephan, you're back."
The expression on his face was almost comical. It couldn’t really be this easy. Could it?
Step One: The Shake Up. Elise assured her that this step was a breeze because bikinis muddle men’s minds. Until now, Nicole hadn’t actually believed her. Lean in all asset areas, Nicole had never considered her figure particularly sexy. Yet, when she stood slowly, Stephan’s eyes popped and his jaw went slack.
This might actually be fun.
"How was work?" she tried to sound casual.
He didn't answer at first, which gave her the confidence to continue. She arched her back, as if stretching after a long rest, enjoying the impact her moves were having on him. So this was why women invested in push up bras and sexy outfits. Knowing that looking at her was wreaking havoc with Stephan’s ability to think was a powerful turn-on.
The men in her past made sense to her now. She'd been passive and insecure, grateful for whatever affection they had given her, and devastated when they’d left her.
No surprise that they hadn’t cherished her when she hadn’t valued herself.
Her passive acceptance of loss had also cost her Stephan. She saw that now. Yes, she had gone to Dominic and asked him to stop, but she had accepted Dominic's decision without a fight. She’d accepted her brother’s indifference toward her feelings as she had always accepted it from her father, convinced that there was no way she could win against either Corisi.
But she had won.
By signing the company over to Stephan, she'd finally beaten both her father and her brother. She wasn't a flower in a thorn bush anymore. She didn't need rescuing.
She was free.
She was strong.
And this time she was going to fight for Stephan.
Right now, that meant getting him out to California, even if it was the last place he thought he wanted to be. The strategy to do it was simple enough, but it was difficult to concentrate when his eyes were lit with desire for her. She was basking in the heat that was spreading through her body in response.
"Stephan?"
"Huh?"
"Are you listening to me?"
His face reddened just a tad and he shook his head as if to clear it.
She stepped closer to him, enjoying the way his eyes widened with pleasure at her advance, the way he seemed to stop breathing. The sizzle between them was…delicious.
His hand reached for her waist and stopped. "Are you changing the rules, Nicole?”
She retreated a step. “No, I just wanted to ask you a question, but I can put something on if this bothers you.”
“No,” he said automatically but then, sounding a bit more strangled, he added, “Yes. Maybe you should.”
Nicole turned and bent to pick up her cover up from the floor where she’d laid it earlier. She almost let out a nervous giggle as she slid it on one shoulder at a time. A reverse strip tease. She was so far outside her comfort zone that she would not have been surprised if she had heard Stephan start laughing.
When she glanced back at him, he made no effort to conceal exactly how her antics were affecting him. From the desire in his eyes, to the bulge in his pants, there was no denying that she had woken the tiger within him.
Other men had wanted to have sex with her, but none had burned for her. None had ignited a responding need within her, one so strong she was quickly losing her own ability to focus on anything but how he made her feel. The younger her had once yearned to have his lips pressed against hers. The mature woman she’d become hungered for that and so much more.
Focus. This is about California, not ripping his clothes off.
Not yet.
She almost lost her nerve and stopped the game, but she quickly reminded herself of how much was at stake. Somewhere beneath all of his bravado and sarcasm, was a man who’d kept her picture with him all these years. To save his family, he’d turned his back on his own dreams and her. No wonder he didn’t trust her. For now, he only offered sex, but if she could help him remember who he’d once been, maybe they could finish this journey – together.
Taking a deep breath, Nicole walked back over to him and initiated Step Two: The Request. Expect a refusal.
“Maddy found an invitation in your desk to a weekend fundraising event off Seal Beach, California. We should go.”
“No,” he said without hesitation in a tone that implied there was no room for negotiation.
“It sounds like a worthwhile cause: a boat race to raise money to help clean up the beaches.”
“No, and you can tell Maddy that she is not going to be working for me long if she keeps looking in my desk. Forget it, I’ll tell her.”
So much for the direct approach working.
She could stop now and accept that he clearly didn’t want this trip. She might even be able to keep their relationship platonic until the dissolution of their engagement and save herself from further heartbreak. The pivotal decision she needed to make right here and now was if she believed in Stephan. Not a perfect Stephan. Not a fantasy Stephan. Did she believe that beneath all of his anger there was still a good man with whom she could imagine spending the rest of her life?
Yes.
Then her course was set.
Love is a risk I’m willing to take.
California, here we come.
Step Three: The Undesirable Alternative. Make it count.
Nicole did her best sashay across the penthouse to get a glass of water from the kitchen. Stephan followed. Her deliberate stretch for a glass from one of the top shelves earned a delightful, tormented male groan. Good. Success relied on not giving him too much time to think through his options.
Turning so that she rested one hip against the counter, Nicole poured water into her glass with a slightly unsteady hand. “Ok, well, then you should probably call your mother. She asked me to come over and start planning the wedding with her and Elise, but I told her I couldn’t because we were going to be in California.”
He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “We’re not even getting married. What the hell is there to plan for?”
One lie led to another. “She doesn’t know that, and she’s excited.”
The scowl on his face had been accurately predicted.
Damn, those Andrade women were good. They could have scripted this exchange.