For Love or Legacy
Page 20

 Ruth Cardello

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Jeff was right. Instead of dancing around the topic, afraid to offend or anger anyone, maybe she should just ask him.
Love is possible if you are willing to fight for it. Wasn’t that what Maddy always said?
So, why do I keep accepting everything without an argument? I could have asked Stephan these questions on the flight home. I could have demanded that he tell me why we were really coming back to New York. If I wasn’t still afraid.
What am I afraid of?
Losing him? He’s already headed out the door.
Angering him? Stephan is not my father. He would never hurt me.
She had only gone a few yards when a woman who looked vaguely familiar approached her. Lost in her thoughts, she barely noticed her at first.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"My name is Abby Dartley. We've met before. Once, at the reading of your father's will."
Nicole held her breath then let it out slowly. "Oh, yes, my brother's new fiancé. Congratulations, I guess."
The woman was dressed in simple, yet exclusive slacks and a conservative blouse. Two men watched from beside a limo across the street, one to drive and one to guard. Abby didn’t seem bothered by their presence. It sure hadn’t taken her long to get used to her new level of wealth.
"Can we go somewhere to talk?" the woman asked.
Nicole looked down at her watch. Why the hell not? It's not like my week could get worse. "I was going to get a quick coffee. You can walk with me if you want.”
Abby stepped closer and fell into stride with her. "Dominic has been trying to call you.”
“I know.”
Once inside the coffee shop, they suspended conversation until they had their order and were seated at a corner table away from prying ears. Abby seemed in no rush to break the awkward silence between them. Nicole said, "Well, spit out whatever you came to say. What does Dominic want?"
Abby didn't ruffle as easily as Nicole thought she would. "Your brother is really worried about you."
Nicole looked down at her coffee. "Tell him he doesn’t have to be.”
"He loves you, Nicole. He might not be good at showing it, but..."
Eyes snapping up to meet Abby's, Nicole said, "You've known him...what? a month? I've known him my whole life. He only cares about one thing – Dominic.”
"That's not true. He let you down. He knows that, but he would give anything for a chance to make it up to you."
"Is that what he told you? That he let me down? Does he think an apology will cover what he did? First, he deserted me like our mother had, and then, just when I thought I might have found a family who cared about me, he ripped them away from me, too. I’m sure he didn’t tell you that last part,” Nicole spat out the words.
Abby didn’t flinch. Her voice remained smooth with a soothing undertone that Nicole fought against. “He did tell me. Neither is something that he is very proud of doing. He was only 17 when your mother left, barely a man. You can’t hate him for the decisions he made fifteen years ago.”
“And what about the Andrade family? Did he have to take their company? Their island? Did he have to build that chrome monstrosity on it, and rub his lack of respect for their heritage in their faces? Did he do that out of his love for me?”
“No,” Abby said sadly. “I bet he doesn’t even know why he did that. He acted out of jealousy, and he was wrong. He’s stubborn and he’s proud, but he would never deliberately hurt you. Give him a chance to apologize.”
“He's had 15 years to do that. It’s a little late now. I want to move on.” Nicole stood.
Abby also stood and looked like she wanted to wrap her arms around Nicole. "It's ok to feel like that, Nicole. But Dominic is there for you if you need him. We both are. One phone call, and you'll see that he would do anything for you."
Nicole dropped her still full coffee into the trash. Her stomach was nervous and sour. "Sweet as you are to come here and plead his case, I have no desire to see him ever again. You can tell him that I absolve him from whatever guilt he is carrying from our childhood. I don't hate him anymore, but I don't need him either."
"I understand, but we're staying here in New York. We're not going anywhere." She passed Nicole a paper with her phone number on it. "Keep this in case you change your mind."
Nicole took it and said, "Why do you care? What do you get out of this?"
Abby's eyes welled with tears. "Hopefully, another sister." And she walked away.
Chapter Seventeen
Sunday night, Nicole waited up for Stephan. They needed to talk. She’d come to some decisions that would affect both of them.
After leaving the coffee shop, Nicole had taken a long walk in Central Park. The fresh air and sunshine had gone mostly unnoticed as she’d woven her way through the large number of people who’d also decided to enjoy the warm, summer day.
Before heading back, she’d stopped at Belvedere Castle to look out over Turtle Pond. She and Dominic had gone there many times as young children. It was their favorite destination with their mother when some function had necessitated Papa bringing them to the city. The Corisis didn’t have nannies either, but for more nefarious reasons. Cleaning services could be scheduled and canceled with no need to interact with the family. Nannies would have seen too much.
Playing on the rocks behind the castle, Nicole used to pretend she was a princess trapped in a dungeon by an evil dragon. In their shared fantasy, Dominic had always slain the dragon and set her free.
Is that what I hold against him? That in the end, he wasn’t a hero—just a man?
And the only family I truly have left.
George and the others were people that she cared about, and that she was lucky enough to have return that affection, but they weren’t family.
The Andrades were everything she’d ever dreamt of in a family, but they weren’t hers. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
No matter what had happened between them, Dominic was her brother.
Abby said he loved her and Nicole was starting to believe he might.
He had called her every day since she’d seen him at the reading of the will, and although she hadn’t once taken his phone call, he hadn’t given up. What if Abby was right and he regretted everything, just like she did? Could they reach across the years of hurt and mend their family? Or was it too late?
Nicole jumped at the click of the door opening. Stephan was home.
He wasn’t going to like what she had to tell him, but maybe that was what they needed—simple honesty. No more trying to trick him into doing something she wanted. No more hiding how she felt. If they couldn’t talk – really talk – then they had nothing worth fighting for.
She met him in the hallway while he was still taking off his jacket and loosening his tie. He looked like he hadn’t slept since she last saw him. “You didn’t come home last night,” she said, attempting to keep her tone neutral.
“Yeah,” he ran a hand through his already tousled, blond hair. “Sorry about that. I had to get some things done.”
“Really?” she asked, following him into the living room. “I don’t believe you.”
He kept his back to her. “Don’t push it, Nicole.”
She stepped in front of him and looked him directly in the eye. “I am going to push it. I have a right to know what happened. Before California, I thought we were at least friends. Then at the Allen’s house we connected. I didn’t imagine that. So, what changed? Why won’t you look at me?”
“Why can’t you just drop it?” his voice rose with each word.
Nicole’s body tensed, but the fear did not come. This was not her father. She had nothing to fear here. Still, part of her journey was realizing that she played a role in how she was treated. “Do not raise your voice at me, Stephan. I won’t be yelled at.”
His face twisted with an emotion she couldn’t determine. “I would never hit you, Nicole.”
“I know,” Nicole said softly and she believed him. His family was loud, but they weren’t cruel. She stepped closer to him. “I trust you, Stephan.”
He stepped back and away from her. “Don’t. I’m not the man you think I am, Nicole. I wish I were. I wanted to have sex with you, that’s it. That’s all there could ever be between us.”
His hands were clenched at his sides and there was so much emotion in his eyes that Nicole didn’t believe him. If he was telling her the truth, if she meant nothing to him, why did he look tormented by his own declarations?
He said, “I realized in California, that you were right when you said that this should be a purely business arrangement, Nicole, and nothing more. Sex is just going to confuse a situation that will soon be over anyway.”
Nicole took a step toward him. “It doesn’t have to be that way, Stephan.”
His blue eyes raged with something he wouldn’t or couldn’t tell her. “Yes, it does.”
Why won't you look at me? There wasn’t much further they could go with that conversation that evening, so she changed topics. “I called my brother.”
Stephan head whipped up. “Why?”
I have to do this, even if it means losing you again. Nicole clasped her cold hands in front of herself. “I’m meeting him tomorrow at my father’s house. I can't spend the rest of my life hating him for what my father did to our family."
Stephan said nothing. He was shaking his head ever so slightly.
Nicole continued. "This doesn't change anything. I won't tell him that we're not really engaged and you’ll still get the patent.”
"I don't want the patent," he said harshly and turned away from her again.
"But that's why you did all this, wasn't it? Partly because I had helped Maddy, and also because you knew you would profit from the conversion software?" She laid a hand on his back, wordlessly begging him to turn around. His muscles jumped beneath her touch.
"Go see your brother, Nicole," he said and stepped away from her. Before she had time to ask him another question, he’d retreated to his room and closed the door
Chapter Eighteen
Monday morning, Nicole ate breakfast alone again before calling Jeff to take her to her father’s old house. She’d considered various locations where she and her brother could meet. Finally, she’d decided that they should return to where it had all begun.
Nicole had just opened the front door that led to a large main foyer of her father’s house when Dominic’s limo pulled into the driveway and parked behind hers. She watched him exit it then turn to offer an arm to Abby. He spoke to her as if preparing Abby for what was to come, and then leaned down and kissed her gently before taking her hand and walking with her toward the house.
He loves her. He really loves her.
Nicole stepped into the house and waited for them in the foyer. The three of them endured a painfully long silence until Nicole said, “Thank you for coming.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t?” Dominic asked roughly.
Abby slid beneath his arm and hugged him. She was a welcome buffer. Nicole and Dominic had never been good at making small talk.