For Love or Legacy
Page 19

 Ruth Cardello

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A healthy marriage. Shared dreams. Amazing kids. They had it all.
And what do I have?
I have this weekend.
Nothing short of Armageddon was going to stop Stephan from whisking Nicole away to the nearest hotel as soon as the boat race concluded tomorrow. He was finally going to have her. Although his blood pounded at the mental image, the feeling of triumph was tainted.
She was his for the weekend. Maybe even for the next few weeks.
Then what?
California was making him crazy. Then what? Then it ends. That’s what the plan had always been. Imagining any other scenario was unrealistic and dangerous.
Nicole tapped a finger softly on his chest as if she were aware that he’d wandered away in his thoughts. She said, “Kara asked me if I work with a charity.”
“Sounds like Kara. What did you say?”
Nicole pushed a lock of hair out of her face. “I said I don’t. I never have. How bad of a person am I that I never even thought about it until tonight?”
Why did everything she say only make him hate himself more? “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Nicole. You weren’t exactly raised by the most generous man.”
“But I’m almost thirty, Stephan. How long am I going to blame my father for who I am? When does it become my fault?”
Nicole shook her head in disagreement to words he had not even yet voiced. “I’m serious. Looking at myself through Kara’s eyes was enlightening, to put it nicely. I’ve spent too much time feeling sorry for myself, thinking only of myself.”
The burning sensation in his gut was worse than unfulfilled passion. He didn’t want to label it. Some things were better denied even to yourself. “You fought for the top executives at your father’s company.”
“Because I didn’t want to lose them. It was still all about me.” He was about to say something, but she rolled off of him and onto her side, tucking one folded arm under her head. “What would you say if I said I want to auction off my father’s house with everything in it and donate the proceeds to an abuse shelter?”
He rolled over onto his side, propping his head up on one elbow. “I’d ask you what the hell happened in that house.”
Nicole closed her eyes.
Stephan ran a gentle finger across her cheek. “Tell me.”
When she opened her eyes, Stephan’s entire body tensed with anticipation and fury. Someone had wounded this woman deeply. He’d never seen that expression in her eyes, and realized it was because she’d never let him past her defenses before. This was the Nicole she hid from the world. He was torn between wanting to gather her to him and comfort her, and bolting for the door before it was too late. Instead, he held his breath and waited.
She looked him right in the eye and said, "My father was a violent man. His mood could change as a result of one misspoken word. When we were very little, he only hit my mother. Dominic and I would run to the back of the house when we heard him raise his voice because we knew what was coming. As we got older, Dominic refused to hide, and my father started to take his anger out on him as well.” Nicole looked past Stephan and at the wall behind him as if she were revisiting that time in her mind. “I was thirteen when my mother disappeared. The police were at our house every day for a while. They said she had deserted my family, but Dominic imagined something worse. He couldn’t let it go. He demanded that my father tell him what had happened to her. Papa tried to intimidate him, but he couldn’t scare Dominic anymore so he gave him a choice: stop looking for her or lose everything. Dominic left that night. He said he wouldn’t come back until he found our mother.”
For the first time, Stephan felt a twinge of admiration for the man he’d hated for so long. Dominic had stood up to a cruel father, a man whom many feared, and had walked away from his own legacy to search for his mother. He didn’t want to find anything to like about Dominic. But, the grudging respect was there, nevertheless.
“What happened after Dominic left?” Stephan had to ask. His heart twisted painfully in his chest. Please tell me it got better. What can I do with so much anger at a man who is unfortunately, untouchably dead?
“Our family lawyer, Thomas, came to the house and threatened my father. They had been friends since grade school, and Thomas was the only one who ever stood up to Papa. That night they started off yelling at each other and then it got very quiet. I snuck into the hallway to listen. Thomas said there was no place on Earth my father could hide if he laid a hand on me, and that he knew enough about my father’s business dealings that he could ruin him if he heard that my father went after Dominic. My father claimed that he hadn’t killed my mother, and Thomas said it didn’t matter. He said there would be no warning, just retribution if my father stepped out of line.”
“But he left you there?” Stephan was having trouble processing the details through his fury.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“You must have been so scared,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. He pulled her to his chest, breathing harshly into her hair. She neither refused his embrace nor returned it, too lost in her memories to do either.
“I was at first, but my father never even raised his voice at me after that. Something inside him died that year. There were no more bad times, but there were no good times either. I even tried to get him angry at me once. I thought, at least if he hit me he would have to look at me while he did it. But he just walked away like he couldn’t see me. I just wanted him to see me.”
Stephan tucked her head beneath his chin, feeling her silent tears through the light material of his shirt. "I wish ...” He groaned and buried his face in her hair. If he had known, he would have been kinder to her when she’d come to his office to ask for help. He wouldn’t have been so quick to believe the worst of her seven years ago. "I didn’t know, Nicole. If I had known…”
Nicole leaned back and placed a comforting hand on his jaw. Her cheeks were wet with memories and her eyes stormed with emotion. "It wouldn't have done any good. I wouldn't have left my father. I hated him so much, but I loved him, too. When word came that my mother had died, Dominic became obsessed with tearing down everything our father had built. His constant attack on our father made me protective of Papa. Crazy, huh? I hated my father, but I thought he needed me. Dominic should have been my hero for standing up to him, but I did whatever I could to protect my father. Why would I do that?”
“Because he was your father.”
Nicole shook her head sadly. “I’m not sorry that he’s dead so painting me as a loving daughter is a stretch. I’m just glad it’s over. Maybe now I can move on. I don’t want to be angry or afraid anymore. I want to surround myself with genuine, loving people. I can’t change my childhood, but I can choose who is part of my life today.” She caressed his jaw absently. “People like you and your family. Good people.”
Her words cut him to the core. Not like me. Once upon a time, he might have been the man she was looking for, but not any longer.
He eased his arms from around her and said, “It’s late, Nicole. Go to sleep.”
A worried frown creased her forehead. “Did I say something wrong?”
Stephan turned off the lamp beside the bed. “No, I’m just tired.” He flipped onto his side, facing away from her.
“Ok,” she said slowly, hurt evident in her voice. She rolled over and on to her side of the bed.
Stephan waited until her breathing deepened and he was sure she was asleep. Then he eased off the bed and sat in a chair in the corner of the room. As he watched her sleep, the weight of his guilt settled over him. He had no right to sleep with her when she came to him honestly and openly, not when he knew that there was no way their reunion could withstand what he had set into motion.
She had endured and survived.
Coming to California with her had been a mistake. Staying and leading Nicole on for the rest of the weekend would be an even bigger one. Tomorrow morning, he’d say that he'd received an emergency call from New York—a problem at work that only he could solve. Then, as soon as they returned, Stephan would initiate the paperwork to transfer Corisi Ltd back to Nicole, and announce that they’d broken off their engagement. The sooner he got her out of his life, the better it would be for both of them.
A perfect plan with only one flaw. Stephan layed back against the chair and closed his eyes in resignation.
I love her.
Chapter Sixteen
Sunday morning, Nicole sat at the small table in Stephan’s kitchen – alone. Yesterday, he had rushed both of them back to NY so he could deal with some upper-management emergency. He’d sent her back to his penthouse in a limo and had headed off to his office. She’d waited up for him past midnight, but he hadn’t returned. So, here she sat, all alone, with the breakfast for two the cook had prepared.
Her driver called from downstairs, but instead of going down, she asked him to come up. He took a long look at her pajamas before saying, “So, not going out today?”
“Boycotting the shower, too?”
“Maybe. Want a coffee?” she gestured to the cup that was going to waste.
“That bad, huh?” Jeff asked, joining her at the table.
Nicole pulled both feet up onto the chair with her and hugged her legs. "I messed up in California.”
Jeff pushed Stephan’s scrambled eggs around the plate a few times before shrugging and having a few forkfuls. “What’s your definition of messed up?”
“Everything was going smoothly. His friends were great. He and I were connecting. We kissed. It was hot. I mean the best kiss I’ve ever had. I’ve had sex before, but this…”
Jeff cut in, “Just get to the part where you messed up.”
“I told him about my family.”
“And he barely talked to me on the flight back. He didn’t come home last night. I don’t want to call him because he said our early return was work-related.”
“But I don’t believe him. He looked miserable yesterday. It wasn’t like he didn’t care when I told him the story, but afterwards he wouldn’t look at me. I don’t know what that means.”
Jeff took a sip of the cold coffee then put it down. “It’s either a good sign or really bad.”
Nicole almost smiled. “Wow, you are helpful.”
Jeff pushed out of his seat and stood. “I’m not psychic if that’s what you were hoping for. But if you want to know what he’s thinking there is one way you could find out.”
Nicole dropped her feet to the floor and stood. I'm getting desperate enough to try anything. “Yes?”
Jeff said, “Ask him. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.” He closed the door quietly behind him.
An hour later, dressed in yoga pants, a t-shirt and sneakers, Nicole headed out the main door of the apartment building. There was a small coffee shop about a block away. The sun was shining. Maybe a walk will clear my head.