For Love or Legacy
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"I like him," Abby said, laying a hand on Dominic’s thigh.
Dominic rolled his eyes and pulled her closer. "You would."
Nudging an elbow into Dominic side, Abby said, “Come on, group rates? That was hilarious.”
Dominic’s stern expression melted away when he looked down at Abby’s smiling face. “Whose side are you on?”
She leaned over and planted a kiss on his lips. “Yours, Dominic.” Then she added, “But that doesn’t make it any less funny.”
Dominic leaned down and whispered something in her ear and Stephan looked away. Had he lost his chance at that kind of happiness? He wouldn’t blame Nicole if she never wanted to see him again, but if she somehow found a way to forgive him, he would make damn sure he was worthy of her this time.
Nicole answered the door of her hotel suite, expecting the room service she'd ordered. Instead, one very chastened billionaire brother filled her doorway.
"Can I come in?" he asked gruffly.
She held the door in her left hand. "I'm not ready to see you yet, Dominic."
He didn't push, and for a man like Dominic that was evidence enough that he was sorry. "I just wanted to make sure you were safe after yesterday."
"What are you afraid I'm going to do?" She blanched at what his expression revealed. "I'm not that upset, Dominic. I'm not going to hurt myself."
His face whitened more and his shoulders rounded. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. He said, "I can't lose you again, Nicole."
Nicole moved back so her door opened wider. "Come on in."
They sat on separate couches. Nicole perched nervously on the end of one. Dominic sat with his hands between his knees on another. Nicole asked, "Where did you find Mother?"
He studied her expression and said carefully, "She found me when I took Abby back to the island. She thought I was becoming too much like our father and wanted to save me from myself."
"Where was she all this time?" she asked in a whisper.
"Thomas helped her run to the village where she'd grown up in Italy....then she faked her death, changed her name, and lived on the run until our father died."
"She was that afraid of him?"
"So, it wasn't because she didn't love us?" Nicole bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from openly crying.
Dominic leaned forward on the couch. "She loved us, Nicole. She still loves us. She genuinely feared for her life—and probably rightfully so. But she wants to see you. She wants to apologize for everything."
Nicole shook her head. "I don't want to see her. Not yet."
Dominic nodded. "I didn't want to either. I didn't think I could forgive her. But she's family, Nicole, and she's the only mother we'll ever have."
Nicole put a shaky hand to her mouth, "I am still so angry with you, Dominic."
He sat back. "I know."
Eyes full of unshed tears, Nicole said, "You were right about Stephan. He didn't love me."
Dominic stood and walked over to join her on the other couch. He touched her arm gently. "No, Nicole. I was wrong about that. He is one incredible pain in my ass -" He stopped abruptly and restarted. “He came to me this morning and told me that he'd used your engagement to keep me distracted while he sabotaged my new server for the Chinese internet."
She sniffed. "See? He used me."
"You're missing the point. He didn't have to tell me. He could have watched me put the server online, and then taken over once China tossed me out. As far as we can tell, no one would have been able to trace it back to him."
"So, why tell you?"
"He did it for you."
Nicole jumped up. "He said that?"
Dominic mouth twisted with distaste. "He did."
"You could have put him in jail."
"That would have been the least of it. He could have lost his company, his reputation, and maybe his life if Abby hadn't intervened." Dominic said, remembering some of his anger.
"He loves me." He loves me!
Dominic groaned deep in his chest and said, "Yes."
She announced, "I love him!"
Dominic groaned again. "I know."
She looked around franticly. "I've got to find him."
"He's downstairs in the lobby," Dominic admitted grudgingly.
Nicole's jaw dropped. "You brought him?"
"He came over in the limo with us." Dominic flushed a bit.
Nicole leaned over and hugged Dominic tightly, their first hug in fifteen years. "I can't believe you brought him with you." She leaned back and looked up at her big brother. You did it for me. Despite how angry he must have been with Stephan, he had put her needs before his. "You do love me. Who knew you were a big softy under all that roar?"
He smiled down at her, returning her hug so tightly she almost couldn’t breathe. "Just don't tell anyone. I'm having a hard enough time commanding respect as it is since I met Abby."
Nicole eased out of the hug and said, "I'm glad you found her.”
“I’m a better person when I’m with her.”
Nicole nodded. “I feel that way when I’m with Stephan and his family. I feel like nothing can touch me. I’m free to be the person I was meant to be.”
Dominic took her hand, “I was wrong to come between you and the Andrades. I was scared.”
Nicole blinked quickly with shock. “Scared? You?”
Dominic met her eyes, not proud of what he had done, but not hiding from it either. His tone was somewhat detached, but she saw now that distancing himself from the pain was how he’d survived. “I had meant to come back for you as soon as I thought I was strong enough to defend you against our father. One year became three, then four. You refused to have any contact with me. I kept thinking that everything would change after I found Mom. When news came that she was dead, I went crazy. I was angry with our father, angry with our dead mother, angry with you for seeming to accept it all. Then you found the Andrades and moved on like they were your new family. But you already had a family. You had me. I knew when I bought their company that it would drive a wedge between you and them. I knew it and I convinced myself it was for the best.”
Nicole squeezed her brother’s hand. “You and I have some serious separation-anxiety issues.” Dominic opened his mouth to say something but Nicole spoke over him. “It’s ok, Dominic. Now is what matters.” A thought came to her and she added, “But please don’t assign any body guards to me now that we’re talking again. You’re a little over the top with that.”
“I protect what is mine.”
“You’re my brother, Dominic. Nothing will ever change that, but I also love the Andrades. You’ll have to respect that. And I won’t go back to being sheltered from the world. If you want to be part of my life, you’re going to have to trust that I can take care of myself.”
“I will. I do.” He blushed and conceded the truth. “I’ll try.”
Speaking of Andrades, Nicole asked, “Now where did you say Stephan was?”
And without waiting for Dominic's answer, Nicole bolted out the door and into the elevator.
Stephan stopped, mid-pace when he saw Nicole step out of the elevator. He held his breath and waited. Was this the end or the beginning?
She crossed the foyer to him. Dammit, he should have met her halfway, but her expression was difficult to read and he couldn’t unfreeze his feet. She stopped a foot in front of him and said, “You lied to me.”
He swallowed hard. “Yes.”
“And you used me.”
There was no reason to lie anymore. “Yes.”
“And you really sabotaged Dominic’s server?”
He simply nodded. Waiting.
“So why aren’t you out celebrating your victory? Why did you confess?”
She knew. She knew why he’d done it. He cleared his throat. “Because I love you.”
She leaned in, cupping her ear, with a mischievous sparkle in her gorgeous gray eyes. “I’m sorry. What was that? I didn’t hear you.”
He pulled her to him, linking his hands behind her back, thankful for the millionth time that she’d given up her heavy pants suits for thin sundresses. “You heard me.”
Not ready yet to let him off the hook, she shook her head with mock sadness, “Well, if you can’t even say it in public, how am I going to believe you?”
Stephan stepped back and up onto the coffee table in the foyer. “Excuse me everyone,” His voice carried the authority to turn all the heads in the area. He pointed down at Nicole. “I love this woman. If she is willing to marry me, we are going to fill a huge house with tons of kids, and I am going to spend the rest of my life proving to her that she was right to forgive me.”
Nicole blushed the most beautiful shade of pink and said, “Everyone is looking, Stephan.”
He reached down and dragged her up onto the table with him. “Well, then this is the perfect time for me to ask you.” He got down on one knee. “Will you marry me?”
She looked down at her left hand which no longer wore his ring. “How do I know this is real? How do I know this isn’t just one more game?”
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small ring, less than a carat, in an antique setting. “This was my grandmother’s ring. My mother wore it when she was engaged to my father and hopefully, one day, our daughter will wear it. I’m done playing games. Marry me, Nicole, and let me prove that to you.”
She only made him suffer for the longest moment of his life before saying, “Yes. Yes, I will marry you.” She offered him her hand and he slid the ring on her finger.
They lost themselves in a kiss while the crowd cheered.
Eventually, coming back to earth, Stephan stepped down from the table with a huge smile. He held up a hand to help Nicole step down.
Abby said, “It looks like they made up, Dominic.”
Dominic growled, “I can see that.”
Jake said, “You’re going to have to forgive him.”
Dominic made a threatening sound deep in his throat.
Stephan joined them. No matter what had come before today, this was Nicole’s brother. Stephan held out his hand to Dominic. “I’m sorry, Dominic. I was wrong, and I let what I thought I knew about you guide me to some reprehensible behavior. I hope we can work this out.”
When Dominic didn’t move, Abby jabbed him with her elbow. He looked down at her and said, “How am I ever going to scare anyone if you keep doing that?”
Abby smiled up at him.
Stephan laughed. “I don’t think it will be a problem.”
Dominic’s expression remained serious. “If you’re good to my sister, you will never have anything to fear from me.”
Jake piped in, “See, Dom, that’s the kind of comment that makes people wonder what you’re capable of. Couldn’t you just shake his hand and accept his apology?”
Dominic did shake Stephan’s hand and the two of them reached an unspoken understanding in that moment.