For Love or Legacy
Page 17

 Ruth Cardello

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Step Four – His Decision. It is essential to maintain a straight face while he works out the solution.
Nicole clasped her hands in front of her and did her best to appear sincerely worried. “Should I call her back and tell her that we’ll be here?”
Stephan crossed the room and didn’t stop until she was backed against the counter. He leaned forward, placing one hand on either side of the counter behind her, trapping her. Ok, that wasn’t the anticipated response. He was supposed to reluctantly agree.
There was no Step Five – nothing that covered this contingency.
“I get the feeling that you’re playing with me,” he said, practically purring the words into her ear.
Nicole made the mistake of looking up into his sky blue eyes. The desire she saw in them seared through her. She licked her lips nervously.
He ran a thumb softly across her moist bottom lip. Nicole caught her breath.
“Why do you want to go to California, Nicole? What’s in it for you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
With just that one thumb, he traced the line of her jaw then his hand moved slowly, purposefully, to the sensitive skin behind her ear and buried it in her thick hair. “Yes, you do. You are not a very good liar.” His hand cupped the back of her head. “Are you beginning to regret your ground rules?”
Rules? Nicole could barely remember her name when he touched her.
Would it be so wrong to give in to something they both wanted?
If by doing so, I lose the chance of something more meaningful, then yes.
I can’t give up now.
Step Five – The Truth?
“I do want to be with you, Stephan, but…”
His jaw clenched while he waited for her to finish.
“But not here. Not like this.” She waved her hand to indicate that she meant more than his penthouse.
He studied her expression for a moment before saying, “A different location won’t change who we are.”
Nicole laid one hand on top of his on the counter and said, “This might be all we ever have. A few weeks from now, we could be out of each other’s lives for good. All I’m asking you for is one weekend. I don’t want to think about your family or my family. I want a weekend with you. Just you.”
“Why California? We could go anywhere.”
Please just say yes. This could be our last chance. Nicole kept her tone casual. “A sailboat fundraiser sounds like fun. I want to do something spontaneous and crazy. Don’t you? When was the last time you did something just because it was fun?”
“One weekend. No strings? No promises?” He looked skeptical.
“Yes,” she said huskily.
“You could accept that?” His blue eyes were dark with emotion.
I hope I don’t have to. I hope your family is right. Nicole nodded.
He withdrew both hands and stepped away from her. “We’ll fly out Friday night.”
He said yes.
I can’t believe he said yes to a weekend away with his old friends.
And I said yes to sleeping with him.
Oh, God.
By next Monday things were either going to be better or so much worse.
Chapter Fifteen
A tall, thin man in jeans and a light blue buttoned down shirt stepped away from his hybrid car and met Stephan and Nicole on the tarmac of a small private airfield as they descended the stairs from Stephan’s jet into the warm Californian sunshine. He gave Stephan a back thumping hug. “Stephan, it’s good to see you!”
Stephan returned his hug, but appeared somewhat uneasy. He looked around and said, “I’d hired a car for the weekend.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t meet you?" His friend asked with a smile and added, "You don’t send a car to pick up family…even when they ignore your phone messages.” The jab was good-natured.
“I’ve been busy,” Stephan said, sounding the closest to apologetic that Nicole had ever heard him.
The man looked past Stephan and smiled at Nicole. He offered her his hand and said, “Mark Allen. You must be the infamous Nicole. I’ve heard a lot about you. A lot. ”
Nicole shook his hand warmly, instantly liking him. “Really?”
Stephan took their two carry on bags from the pilot. He said, “Don’t be an ass, Mark.”
Mark opened the trunk of his mid-sized vehicle and winked at Nicole. “He’s always been defensive when it comes to you. If he doesn’t want me to say anything, he shouldn’t get so upset when I do. I can’t help myself.”
Stephan threw their bags into the trunk and closed it. “This is why you got punched out by that football player Freshman year. You don’t know when to stop.”
Looking back and forth between the two men, Nicole did not see any family resemblance. She asked, “Are you actually related?”
Mark shook his head as he moved to open the front passenger door and motioned for Nicole to get in. “Feels like it, though. We met when he came out here for college, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen him.” He arched an eyebrow when he looked back at Stephan. “Too long.”
Stephan ignored the jab and folded his large frame into the back seat.
Nicole settled into her seat, but hopped up when she felt something. Reaching beneath her, she pulled out a Lego spaceship.
After getting in and closing his door, Mark said, “Oh, sorry, put it in here.” He opened the center compartment. She did. “I swear toys multiply. It doesn’t matter how many you take out of the car, there are always more.” He studied her for a moment.
Nicole had dressed casually for the trip, following Stephan’s lead. There was something incredibly freeing about not worrying about being perfectly manicured every moment of the day.
Mark asked, “Different from what you’re used to?”
Nicole adjusted the strap across her shoulder and said, “Yes, but in a good way.”
As Mark started the car, Stephan said, “We’re staying at the…”
“No,” Mark countered. “Maddy canceled that reservation after I spoke with her. We haven’t seen you in years, the kids are excited to meet the mysterious man who sends them presents, and Kayla aired out the guest room for you.”
Stephan leaned forward between the seats, his tone firm, “That’s nice, but Nicole would probably be more comfortable in the hotel.”
Sure, blame me. Nicole crossed her jean clad legs and smiled sweetly at Stephan. “I’m ok with staying with your friends.”
Stephan sat back with a frustrated growl.
Mark laughed. “You’ve got the rest of your lives to chase each other around hotel rooms. You’re only here for two days. You’re coming home with us.”
The topic was closed for further debate.
Nicole wanted to turn in her seat to see Stephan’s expression, but she didn’t. She was too busy trying to figure out how she felt about the change in plans. On one hand, she couldn’t have hoped for more than the warm welcome Stephan’s friends had extended to both of them. On the other hand, she sympathized with the lack of enthusiasm emanating from Stephan. The promise of a steamy weekend getaway was disappearing as quickly as the airport behind them.
Mark checked in on his friend with his rearview mirror. “Ah, the angst of new love. You’ll live Stephan.”
Stephan threatened, “Payback will come tomorrow when I run your new boat into a sandbar.”
Unimpressed by the threat, Mark included Nicole in his joke. “He says that like it wouldn’t happen anyway. Luckily, he can afford to replace it. How many things did you borrow and break when you used to stay with us in Palo Alto?”
“Everything you bought was old,” Stephan said in amused defense.
“Yeah, because Kayla was on a save-the-world-through-extreme-recycling kick. It took a while to convince her that some new things might be easier on the environment." Mark shrugged. "At least my sailboat is new.”
“I saw pictures of it online. Fifty footer, right? It looked sweet,” Stephan said.
“It is. I had to promise Kayla I’d host a fundraiser every year that I own it. My boat isn’t fast, but I lose every race in style.”
Stephan chuckled, then said, “You’ve never asked me for a donation, Mark. You know I don’t mind.”
Mark said, “We’re grateful that you’ve always supported our causes, Stephan, but we’d rather see you. I thought for sure this was another year that you’d ignore the invitation.”
Stephan said, “I…”
Mark interrupted, “You don’t have to explain. We’re just glad you’re here.”
So am I. Nicole thought as she listened to the two men. Stephan looked years younger when his face relaxed and he laughed with his old friend. This might actually work.
I could get used to this.
Sitting on a wooden Adirondack chair on the back deck of the Allen home, Nicole took a moment to appreciate her surroundings. The house was middle class utopia – a four bedroom raised ranch, two baths, inground pool on a two-acre lot. Upon arrival, as if on cue, a yellow Labrador had bounded around the corner of the house to greet them with a tennis ball in his mouth. A moment later, two children – a boy and girl also came running from the backyard, Kyle and Kara – eight year old twins.
Kayla, Mark’s wife, joined everyone on the front lawn a moment later. She completed the postcard perfect family. Like her husband, she was casually dressed — jeans, t-shirt, sandals. She appeared effortlessly confident, comfortable, and successful. The couple was well known both in California and in Washington, but you’d never guess it from their modest lifestyle. Kayla hugged Stephan like a long lost brother, then turned to give Nicole a warm welcome. After introducing the children, she’d herded everyone into the house. Once inside, Nicole had stepped out onto the back patio while Stephan and Mark discussed his new boat.
“Ask her,” a young voice prompted.
“No, you ask her,” another answered.
Kyle gave his sister a push in Nicole’s direction. Nicole hid her grin. The two were adorable. Brown hair, brown eyes and so serious it was almost comical. “What do you want to know?”
Kara stepped forward and asked, “Is it true that you and Uncle Stephan are uber-rich?”
That wasn’t a question Nicole had a ready answer for. “Why?”
Kyle said, “It’s for her stupid website. She interviews everyone she meets. Don’t let her take pictures of you. She’ll post them with captions you won’t like. Trust me.”
Kara folded her arms and glared at her brother, “He’s just jealous because people read my blog.”
“You have a blog?” Nicole didn’t mean to let so much of her surprise show. When did children become so tech savvy?
“Sure. Change a mind, change the world,” she chimed. She settled down on a chair next to Nicole. “So, are you? Rich, I mean. My post needs a good angle.”
Maybe coming onto the patio was a mistake. Nicole said, “Are your parents ok with this?”
Kara nodded. “Sure, Mom was going to interview you for her blog, but she told Dad that you don’t do anything worth mentioning.”