For Love or Legacy
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"What did you think would happen when you walked through the door? Did you think I'd be overcome by old emotions and forget about everything else?"
She wasn’t surprised that his words held some bite. Looking at him holding her arm, all of her anger left her. Really, what had she expected? "No. It's pretty obvious that whatever you felt for me is gone. I wouldn't have come if my lawyers had been able to find any other way."
"A way to what?”
Nicole met his eyes."To break the will. A year ago, you made a bid for Corisi Ltd. My father initiated, but never completed, his acceptance of your offer so it still falls under unfinished business and therefore provides the only loophole my lawyers could find."
His hand tightened. "So, this is all about money after all."
Nicole shrugged sadly. "Does it matter? You won't help me."
His face tightened and his blue eyes raged with emotion she hadn’t expected to see. No, she chastised herself. Now was not the time to imagine that he was unwilling to let her leave for the same reason she wished she could stay. Life didn’t work that way. Not hers, anyway.
"What did your lawyers come up with?" he asked.
What do I have to lose? she thought. She said, "If you bought Corisi Ltd and sold it back to me, the company would be outside the control of the stipulations of the will."
He shook his head as if he’d heard her wrong. "Buy it? Buy a thirty million dollar company for you?"
If there was even the slightest glimmer of hope that he would help her, she couldn’t leave yet. “It would just be on paper. It wouldn't end up costing you anything.”
"Just my stock standing as my board and investors begin to doubt my sanity."
He hadn’t said no — yet.
"I thought about that, too. No one would be surprised if..."
She spoke quickly, getting her plan out before she had a chance to reconsider the wisdom of it. "If you and I were engaged. This would all make sense. When families merge, their companies do, too. It's natural. Then, when we call off the engagement, you sign the company back to me for the same price and you've lost nothing.”
His expression was unreadable. "You've thought of everything except for why I would do it."
"That patent. Stephan, it shows real promise. It could make you millions."
For a moment, he looked like he was tempted, but then he said, "Even if I wanted to help you, no one would ever believe it. No one would believe we're engaged."
"They would if you said we'd been secretly dating."
"Engagements happen all the time. Tell people I'm pregnant. I don't care."
He raised his voice, "My family would lose their minds if they thought we'd been secretly dating — never mind engaged because you're pregnant. No."
Did he have to sound disgusted?
A knock on the door. Maddy poked her head in. "Stephan, my car is here so I'm leaving."
Stephan checked his watch and swore. "Maddy, do me a favor and double check that mine is coming. It was supposed to be here ten minutes ago. I'm on a tight timetable."
Maddy looked back and forth between Stephan and Nicole. "Will do." She closed the door as if reluctant to do so.
Lost in his thoughts for a moment, Stephan stared after his departing secretary.
"Stephan," Nicole said.
"Let go of my arm."
He dropped it. "I don't hate you, Nicole. If you were asking me for a reference or...hell, even a loan, I might be able to help you, but this is too much."
"I understand," she said, composing herself and stepping back from him.
His phone vibrated in his breast pocket. He checked it quickly then said, "That's my car downstairs. I wish I could help you, but I can't. You're going to have to live with your father's will."
Well, that went worse than expected, Nicole thought as she exited the elevator and entered the main foyer of Stephan’s office building. The click of her Louis Vuitton heels caught the attention of the men at the security desk. They both looked up and, in union, dismissed her with insulting speed.
Was there a flavor of ice cream that would make this day tolerable? Probably not, but Nicole had plans of testing out a carton or two that evening.
Her inability to gain weight was a gift and a curse. In her teen years, she’d sprouted to a couple inches shy of six feet, and without much padding, she’d looked like an awkward scarecrow for years, all arms and legs. Not someone men looked twice at. Age had softened the angles of her face, but the real curves she’d hoped for had never come. No need to buy sexy clothing when you don’t have the assets to support them.
Not that the general lack of male attention bothered her. She’d poured herself into her studies and various internships over the years with one single goal in mind – saving her father’s company. A goal that had never seemed further from her reach than it did today.
Dominic wouldn’t care that the top executives had worked for Corisi Ltd for almost twenty years. The private company had survived a failing economy and deliberate sabotaging because of the loyalty and integrity of those very people. They were more than long term employees, they were the only family Nicole had ever known.
And she’d failed them.
"Are you ok?" Stephan’s secretary asked as she stepped away from the lounge area and into the main foyer. Even pregnant, or maybe because of her condition, she held the attention of the security guards longer. Nicole envied the woman’s natural confidence. Her ruched, plum maternity dress accentuated her delicate form and clearly celebrated her temporary figure.
"Yes, I'm fine,” Nicole answered automatically.
"You don't look ok," the woman persisted.
Despite the difference in color, the woman's dark brown eyes reminded Nicole of Stephan. He didn’t have a sister. Was she a cousin? Victor Andrade had always advocated employing family. Stephan might have kept up that practice. "Maddy, right? I appreciate your concern, but I've had a really rough week and I'd rather not talk about it."
Relief! Her limo was at the curb waiting for her. Nicole excused herself and headed out the glass doors.
Maddy followed her out onto the street as if she had something further she wanted to say. Nicole watched her struggle to catch up and reluctantly waited for her. She said, "I thought you were leaving a few minutes ago."
"I gave my ride to Stephan." Maddy grimaced. "Don't tell him. This trip is important to him and I thought I could wait for the service to send another car."
"But?" Please don't have a reason I can't leave you here on the curb. Oh, God. Do you go to hell for thinking that about a pregnant woman? Nicole looked around, hoping that an extra limo had miraculously appeared.
"But I'm not feeling so good." Maddy put one hand behind her to support her back.
Nicole waved for her limo to pull closer to them. He backed up and opened the door. "Why not sit for a minute? Do you want me to call your service again?"
Settling onto one of the plush seats on one side, Maddy said, "I'm sure I'll be fine in a minute. I'm just tired. The air in here feels great."
Wanting nothing more than to drive off and away from everything Andrade, Nicole stepped inside and sat across from the reason she couldn’t. "Are you uncomfortable?"
Maddy rolled her eyes. "I am due in a week and shaped like an overblown beach ball. There isn't an inch of me that is comfortable."
They passed a moment of shared awkward silence.
Maddy winced. "Ooof."
"What is it?"
"I must have sat wrong at my desk because my back is killing me."
Shame on Stephan for having Maddy continue to work this late into her pregnancy. Was there any trace left of the gentler Stephan she’d fallen in love with so many years ago? Had he existed at all or had she projected what she’d wanted to see onto just another power-hungry suit? Little Maddy deserved better treatment. "Are you sure I can't call anyone for you? How about your family?"
"No.” Maddy made a face as she had another back spasm. "I'll be fine as soon as I get home. I hate to ask you this, but do you think you could give me a ride?"
“You're welcome to take the limo. I don't mind catching a taxi.” It would be a win/win. Maddy could get home safely and she could escape from what was turning out to be another awful day.
“Please don't. I mean, yes, I'll take the ride, but don't leave. I don't know why, but I feel funny about being alone right now.”
What could you say to that?
Nothing but yes, especially if you were well acquainted with how being deserted felt.
"No problem, what's your address?" Maddy shared her uptown address and Nicole repeated it to the driver. They pulled out into traffic.
Maddy was the first to break the silence. “So, are you ok with Stephan going to China?”
Nicole clasped her cold hands in her lap. “What Stephan does is none of my business.” A fact that was painfully clear after seeing him today.
“Do you know why he's going there?”
“Like I said, none of my business.” She didn’t want to be rude, but the last thing she wanted to do was discuss the man she was planning to spend the evening trying to forget.
“Even when it involves your brother?”
“Especially when it involves my brother,” Nicole said, turning to look out the window.
“That must be hard.”
“I'm sorry?” Nicole answered, continuing to watch the people on the street.
“Not getting involved. I don't think I could do…” Her sentence was cut short by another back spasm.
“Are you ok?” Nicole’s family had consisted of just her and her father since her early teen years. She had no experience dealing with pregnant women, but Maddy was looking more and more uncomfortable. That couldn’t be good.
“Yes, just some twinges. This happened a couple of days ago. It was false labor. I'm sure this will pass. Don't worry, even if it were real labor...this is my first, we'd have plenty of time.”
Nicole’s stomach twisted and she almost lost her lunch on the floor of the vehicle. She caught her breath and said, “Labor? You could be in labor?”
“I wish, but I’ll probably be one of those first timers who go past their due dates,” Maddy said with more confidence than Nicole thought the situation warranted.
Nicole tapped on the driver’s window. “Jeff? Head to the hospital. Fast.”
Maddy said, “I’m sure…”
The driver window lowered. “Did you say the hospital?”
“Yes, she could be in labor right now. How far are we?”
“Lenox is on 77th I think. That’s not too far, but the traffic is at a crawl.”
“Can you go around?”
“It’s all backed up. There must be an accident. Nothing is moving.”
Nicole took a shaky breath and then another. Shorter and shorter breaths until she felt a bit lightheaded.
Maddy said, “Breathe! Nicole, I'm not in labor.” But she gave a small yelp and lost some of her confidence. “At least I don't think so.”