For Love or Legacy
Page 21

 Ruth Cardello

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Nicole offered a truce. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you hadn’t.”
Abby looked around at the boxes that were in every adjoining room. “Are you moving?”
“Yes. I’ve decided to auction off the house and its contents. So, if there is anything you want, Dominic, take it now. The auction house is sending someone to do the evaluation and the real cataloguing, but they asked that we make sure that when we said everything must go that we meant everything."
Dominic scowled. "There is nothing here I want."
Nicole said, "I feel the same way.” She hesitated, then added, “I’m giving the proceeds to a local abuse shelter."
Abby said, “That is a beautiful thing to do.”
“It seemed…appropriate. I’ve decided that it’s time to let go of the past.”
Dominic— strong, ruthless Dominic, flushed and his eyes shone with emotion. He stepped toward Nicole then seemed to rethink the move and stopped. "I am so sorry, Nicole. So very sorry that I wasn't the brother you needed."
Nicole clasped her hands together, fighting to retain her composure. "He damaged us both, Dominic."
Never one to hedge, Dominic said, "I want to make it up to you. I need to make it up to you."
With reflection came understanding. "I don't think you can, Dominic, and maybe our healing starts when I accept that. The past is done. We should bury it along with Papa."
"So where will that leave us?" he asked, sounding almost humble.
"I don't know. I never thought we'd get this far."
There was no hugging. It was too early to do more than look across the chasm at each other and acknowledge that neither and both of them had been at fault.
“I should have come back for you, Nicole,” the words were wrenched from him.
“And I should have left when I was old enough. We can’t change the mistakes we’ve already made.” Loving someone involved forgiving them for not being perfect, but Nicole was learning that it also involved forgiving yourself.
Dominic took another step toward Nicole, determination hardening his features. “No, but we can make damn sure we don’t repeat them. Nicole, you can’t marry Stephan.”
Wham.
The door that had just begun to open between them slammed shut. Nicole spun away. "Don't talk about Stephan."
Dominic strode to stand in front of her. "I know you don't want to hear it, but whatever he told you...however he convinced you to get engaged to him...he's using you. I don't know what he thinks he will gain by doing this, but he’s lying to you."
Abby broke in, "Dominic, we don't know that for sure."
Dominic snarled, “You might not, but I do. He's using her to get to me.”
A spark of anger ignited into a slow burning fury. Nicole advanced until she was toe to toe with her brother. Her voice shook with emotion. "So, my entire relationship with him is about you, Dominic? It can’t be about me, right? He can't love me? It all has to be about the great Dominic Corisi."
"That's not what I'm saying, Nicole. I just don’t want to see him hurt you.”
"Hurt me? Stephan saved me. You know what, our engagement isn't even real. He did it as a favor to me. Imagine. He cared enough about me to not only play along, but also to put his own money into the deal, risking his reputation, for me. And what did he ask for in return? Nothing. Because he's not like you, Dominic. He doesn’t play by your rules. He's a good man. A decent man." Angry tears began to spill down her cheeks.
"I don't believe that Stephan wanted nothing from you." Dominic’s face went red with anger.
"That's because you judge him by your standards. But he's not you. He stands by his family and his friends. And even after everything you did to him—to us—he helped me when I asked him to. So don't tell me what you think you know about him."
Dominic’s phone rang. He answered it and said roughly,"No, that's not a good idea. She can’t handle it today. Stay in the limo."
"Can't handle what?"
"It's nothing. Nothing we need to get into today."
“More lies? How are we going to put the past behind us if we still can’t be honest with each other?”
Abby jumped in, physically standing between Nicole and the door. "I have to agree with Dominic on this one, Nicole. Not today."
A red haze blurred Nicole’s vision as a sickening possibility grabbed hold of her. It couldn’t be. "Just who the hell is in that limo? Who, Dominic?"
Nicole pushed past Abby and Dominic and rushed down the stone stairs to the vehicles. She marched over to Dominic’s limo. The lies end today. She opened the door and slammed it just as quickly.
"Get me out of here, now, Jeff,” Nicole said from within the safety of her own limo.
He floored the gas and hit the control for the gate ahead to open. Although he was driving forward, his attention remained on the scene unfolding in the driveway behind them. "Are you sure, because there is a whole crowd of people running after us...even some older woman."
Nicole clutched her stomach with both hands. "I'm sure. That woman is my long deceased mother. Unless you want to see me completely lose my mind, I'd beat them to the gate."
He sped off. "Are you sure that was your mother and not a cousin or a..."
"Twin? No, that was my mother. There are some things you just know. Oh my god, my mother is still alive. I should be happy, right? I mean, she's not dead. Why isn't she dead? Dominic said all of his investigators reported she'd died in Italy over ten years ago. Why would he lie?"
Jeff interjected in his infuriatingly reasonable tone, “These sound like questions we could get the answers to if we turned around and asked them.”
Nicole burst into angry laughing, crying tears. “My mother is not dead.” My mother is not dead. She repeated the words in her head as they birthed even more unwelcome realizations. “She just didn't want me either. I liked her better when she was dead.”
They cleared the gate and Jeff took several random turns in case anyone was following. No one did. “Where do you want me to drive to?”
There was really only one place left to go. “Take me to Stephan’s office building.”
Jeff glanced back at her in his rearview mirror. “I'm not sure you should go like this.”
The cold anger bubbling in Nicole’s stomach left no room for debate. She had to know. “Dominic said Stephan had another reason to help me—a reason that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with getting back at Dominic.”
Jeff asked, “And you think he’s going to tell you?”
Nicole folded her arms across her chest. “Oh, he'll tell me. I'm going to wring the truth out of that bastard.”
Chapter Nineteen
"Nicole must be really good in bed, because you, my friend, have become delusional."
"Leave Nicole out of this." Stephan hissed. "Can you remove the virus? I don't care how much it costs, is the process reversible?"
"I don't think you get what I'm telling you. I don't want to reverse it. I bugged his system to become famous within the world of hackers, within the world of anonymous hackers. Not to become infamous for being stupid enough to try to get back into that program to undo it. This isn't a game. There isn't an off switch."
"Things have changed. I can't go through with this anymore."
"Nothing has changed for me. When Dominic uploads his software next month, it's going to be so full of server issues he'll be the laughing stock of the software community, and I will be set for life."
"I can't let you do it."
"It's too late, Stephan. It's done and I'm not taking the fall because your dick found your conscience for you. Don't call me again. If I get caught, you're the one who will pay the price. I'm the little guy in this drama. Who do they want splashed across the news for putting in prison? Some computer geek no one knows...or you, Stephan? Think about it. If caught, I'll probably end up working for some government agency helping them look for software vulnerabilities while you rot in jail. Don't call me again."
The phone line went dead.
Stephan caught his reflection in the mirror across the room and hated what he saw. How had he gotten to this place? When had saving the environment and then his family become this?
He'd become the man he had set out to destroy.
If only Nicole had been as cunning and as contemptible as he’d once thought her to be, he could have walked away from her at the end of this. But, no. She had to be the kind of woman a man feels he must protect – even from himself.
She didn’t really hate her brother and that made what he had done so much worse.
He was going to have to tell her.
Somehow.
Nicole was finished with the lies. Finished with the games. Either Stephan had feelings for her, or he didn't.
She stormed into his office.
"I love you," she said defiantly. "I have loved you since you pestered me to go out on a date with you seven years ago. I loved you even when I thought you hated me. And these three weeks together have been some of the best times of my life. But I need to know if you are lying to me, Stephan. Is any of it real? Do you love me or is this some sick game of revenge with my brother? I need to know the truth. I deserve the truth. Dominic thinks this is all about him. Tell me he's wrong."
She stood before his desk, finally releasing a breath, and waited.
Nicole felt like she'd been kicked in the chest when he didn’t answer. He just sat there looking as guilty as hell. "You...bastard. When were you going to tell me?"
He lifted an awkward shoulder, "It didn't matter in the beginning why I said yes, did it? You were using me as much as I was using you."
"And what exactly did being engaged to me get you?" He almost said something, but she interrupted him. "No, I don't want to know. I'm done with all of it. You, my brother, all the lies. I can't handle all the lies."
"Nicole, I..."
"What? Are you going to tell me that you love me, too? " She laughed without humor. "Why the hell not? Say it. Even if it's a lie it doesn't matter...I don’t seem to know anyone who tells the truth.”
She spun on her heel to leave.
He beat her to the door. "Where are you going?" he demanded.
"I don't know, but don't pretend to care.” When he reached for her, she evaded his touch and snarled, “Don't touch me. Don't ever touch me again."
Dry-eyed, Nicole walked out of his office and took the elevator down to where Jeff and the limo were waiting. She was done crying.
“Where to?” Jeff asked.
“Aren’t you going to ask how it went?” she asked tiredly.
Pulling out into traffic, Jeff shook his head. “Not really. Nope.”
Nicole smacked the seat next to her. “Dominic was right. It was all about some stupid rivalry between the two of them. Stephan never loved me. I doubt he even cares about me. It’s all a game to them. That’s probably why Dominic kept calling me. He wanted to win and this time I was the prize.” Getting angrier the more she thought about it, she turned on Jeff. “You think you know everything. Am I right? Was this whole thing nothing more than a contest between two over-inflated egos? Well? Nothing to say this time, Jeff? Where is your pithy advice?”