For Love or Legacy
Page 23

 Ruth Cardello

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:

She'd sat with the board of directors for two weeks of meetings, running her father's company, waiting for a feeling of euphoria to hit, but it never had. Even as she negotiated new contracts and strategized on how to get the red bottom line to green, there was no pleasure in it for her.
I don’t really care about computers or software design. How did I not know this about myself?
Nicole looked at her father's office, at her father's company, with a fresh perspective. It was all her father's dream, not hers.
Until now, I was so busy trying to be the person I thought I should be that I never asked myself who I want to be.
In the beginning, learning about computers had been all about winning her father's love, and saving the company had been more out of the fear of losing the few people she was close to rather a desire to work in the corporate world.
She picked up the phone and called someone she knew she could trust. Someone who had always stood by her. "George, how do you feel about choosing a new CEO? No, I'm not taking a vacation, I'm switching careers." He wasn’t surprised and only had one question. “What am I going to do?” She thought about her abuse shelter auction and said, "I don't know, but it's going to be in the non-profit sector."
Dominic was not alone in his office. The ever-present Jake was leaning on a book case; close enough to hear the conversation, but far enough away to be an observer. Stephan walked in with the determination of a man who wasn’t leaving before he’d set things right.
Surprisingly, Dominic had included his fiancé in this meeting. She stood at his side, holding his hand, which was likely the only reason why it wasn’t already wrapped around Stephan’s throat.
"Stephan," Dominic said in a less than warm greeting. "I'd ask you to sit, but I really don't want this to take any longer than necessary. You said you had information for me. Something that couldn't be said over the phone."
Stephan braced himself mentally and said, "There is no way to make this sound good so I'm just going to say it. Your Chinese server has been hacked and I'm responsible. Don't put it online next month until you've completely debugged it and run extensive tests here."
Dominic's face went bright red, then cold white. He took a threatening step toward Stephan, who didn't back away. "I'm going to kill you."
Abby got between them, one hand up on either chest. "Dominic, hitting him is not going to solve anything"
"I'm not just going to hit him..."
Stephan said, "Let him go, I deserve it."
Dominic wholeheartedly agreed. “Yes, you do.”
Jake pushed away from the wall and joined the trio. "Why did you come here, Stephan? Why tell us?"
Dominic snarled, “Did you slip up? Someone found out and you think that things will go easier for you if you come clean first?"
Stephan stood perfectly still, hands casually buried in his pants pockets. "No, I did it perfectly. There's no way to trace it back to me, no one who would benefit from exposing my involvement."
Jake pressed for more. "Then why confess? Is this blackmail? You've got the code to fix it?”
"No, I wish I did. In fact, I'm not even sure it can be fixed."
"You just wanted to die young?" Dominic ground the words out.
Abby lowered her hands and said, "Is this about Nicole?"
Dominic said, "If it is, you're a fool. You’re going to spend so much time in prison she'll be in a nursing home by the time you get out."
Stephan's shoulders slumped somewhat. It was no more than he deserved. "I completely understand if you call the police, Dominic. I would have done it if our situations were reversed."
Abby asked urgently, "Stephan, where is she?"
All or nothing. "I haven't seen her since yesterday. She said she loved me and she asked me if I had an ulterior motive for helping her. I wanted to say no, but I had used the fake engagement with Nicole to distract Dominic so he wouldn't push for more software testing until it was too late. And it worked. I just didn't know..."
Abby finished the sentence for him. "That you would fall in love with her."
Stephan said, "Exactly. Listen, I know she never wants to see me again..."
Dominic growled, "Good. Because you've got about as much chance of seeing her as you do of staying solvent once this news gets out."
Jake interceded again, a voice of reason amid the threats. "Dom, hang on. Think this through. We probably don't want anyone to know about the virus. Not unless you want China to get nervous and pull out of the deal. If we keep this quiet, we can fix it in-house."
Dominic took another threatening step toward Stephan. “Does anyone else know?”
Stephan didn’t back down. He didn’t hate Dominic anymore, but he wasn’t going to cower before him either. “No.”
Dominic’s fists clenched. “Don't think this lets you off the hook. You're going down for this...if not through the legal system then...”
Abby got between the two of them again and threw up her hands in exasperation. “Enough! Enough already. What is with you two? You're like two little kids fighting over a toy in the sandbox. Now that we know about the virus, we'll fix it, but the bigger question is where is Nicole? Yesterday she found out that her dead mother is alive, and that the man she loves was using her. That's not good. We've got to find her.”
Stephan leaned in, unconsciously threatening Dominic. “Her mother is alive? And you knew?”
Dominic faltered before recovering and glared back at him. “She's my mother, too. I've only known for a few weeks. We were trying to find a good way to tell Nicole about her.”
That’s a laugh. “You? Find a good way? If you hurt her...” Stephan's hands clenched at his sides.
Dominic mirrored Stephan's aggressive stance. “You are the last person who should talk about hurting Nicole.”
The only real question was who would swing first.
Abby looked back and forth between them, and brought out what must have been her teacher tone. “Seriously, you two need to stop it right now. This is not about either of you. It's about Nicole. Where would she go?”
Dominic deflated somewhat and sounded apologetic when he met his fiancé’s indignant look. His tone was comically gentle. “I'll call Thomas. Maybe he heard from her.”
Abby turned to Stephan. “I bet you know where she'd go.”
Stephan released the breath he'd been unconsciously holding and said, “Not exactly, but I know who would.”
Outside of Dominic’s office building, Stephan said, "Thanks for coming, Jeff."
Jeff stood near the door of the limo and said, "I wasn't sure I'd heard you right when you gave me the address."
"Do you know where Nicole is, Jeff?"
"I might."
"It depends on what exactly this is..." He pointed to Dominic, Abby and Jake standing behind him.
"We want to make sure she's ok," Stephan said. I need to know she’s ok.
"I'm not sure any of you are qualified to make that determination."
"Unlike you? Just who the hell do you think you are?" Stephan roared.
Jeff shrugged. “Just the limo driver who knows where she is.” He stood his ground, unwavering with the confidence of youth.
Stephan threw both hands in the air. "I love her and I've made some serious mistakes that hurt her, but she shouldn't be alone right now." As awful as it was for him to admit it, Stephan said, "Even if she doesn't need me, she needs her family. You know that."
Jeff nodded, apparently satisfied by something he saw. "But don't rush in there all together. Yesterday sent her running, but she's working it out. If you really do love her, she's hurting and could use the support. But if this is just more of the competition between you and Dominic, do her a favor and stay the hell away from her."
Stephan wanted more than anything to go to Nicole, to go and beg her to forgive him. But odd as it was, Nicole's limo driver was right. The more he admitted to himself that he loved her, the more he realized that today was not about him. Nicole needed her brother in her life, and he could help her with that.
He turned to Dominic and said, "You go. She needs you. "
Dominic frowned and he looked down at Abby who smiled up at him and nodded. His tone wasn't warm, but for once it wasn't threatening either. "You can ride with us, Stephan. She'll want to see you."
No one moved at first.
Dominic said, “Abby is right. This is about Nicole.” When there was still no movement toward the vehicle, Dominic growled, “I get it. Some of this was my fault. I wouldn’t have bought your island if I had known how important it was to your family, and I wouldn’t have bought your father’s company if I had known how good you had all been to Nicole. I really want to hurt you right now, but I won’t if my sister loves you. There, can we all get in the limo now?”
For Dominic, that was a downright apology.
A bit tongue in cheek, Stephan answered, “We all make mistakes. I wouldn’t have sabotaged your server if I had known that we’d be riding in the same limo one day.”
His joke diffused some of the almost visible tension between them.
Jake patted them both on the back, "Right then. Let's go. Everybody in." He herded them into the vehicle and diplomatically sat between them even though they were at least a yard away from each other.
On the drive over, Jake kept looking at the closed window behind the driver. He lowered it and said, "Jeff, right?"
"You're not Nicole's regular driver, are you?"
"No, I'm covering for my father for the summer."
"You handled that situation back there very well." He handed him his card. "If you want to try your hand at business, give my secretary a call. We've got some entry level positions open."
Jeff laughed and returned the card. "I appreciate the offer, but I’m working on my doctorate in psychology. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for my internship, but now I’m leaning toward family counseling. It’s really much more fascinating than it sounds in books. I thought I'd be bored driving Nicole around, but my dissertation is practically writing itself."
Dominic leaned forward, his voice calm, but laced with deadly intention. "If I see Nicole's name, or any hint of what she shared with you..."
Stephan added his own threat. "You wouldn't have to do anything, Dominic, because he'd already be dead by the time I was done with him."
Abby leaned over and pushed the button for the window to go up and said, "Bye, Jeff. Don't be offended, but I just settled these guys down."
Jeff tossed in a final line just before the window closed. "You might want to consider talking to someone about all this. You could get group rates.”
Dominic grumbled, "See, that is the problem with the next generation. Absolutely no respect."
Abby let out a short laugh, then started to really laugh. Jake joined in. Stephan couldn’t hold back a smile when even Dominic, a man who had been vying for the world’s most miserable billionaire, shook his head in humorous defeat.