For Love or Legacy
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She would do just about anything for the ones she loved – even put herself at the mercy of a man who had once broken her heart. Admittedly, going to Stephan for help had been far fetched, but George and some of the other top executives had stood by her these past few weeks as her father’s health had declined. They’d sat with her at the hospital, and had come to her house to make sure she was ok when her father passed away from a final heart attack.
They and their families had comforted her while her own brother had chosen business negotiations in Beijing over attending their father’s wake and funeral.
They were all she had left.
“Ma’am?” asked one paramedic in a tone that implied he’d been unsuccessfully trying to get her attention.
“Sorry. Yes?” Nicole said, shaking off her thoughts.
“Are you coming in the ambulance with us?”
Nicole had barely opened her mouth to say no when Maddy raised her head, baby wrapped warmly beneath blankets on her stomach, and reached for her from the stretcher. “Please come,” she said weakly and laid her head back on the pillow.
Concerned, Nicole looked at the paramedic who quickly assured her, “She’s just tired, but I need to know if you’re coming with or riding behind.”
Nicole leaned over and gave Maddy’s hand a supportive squeeze. “I’m coming with.” To Maddy she said, “I won’t leave you, don’t worry.”
Stephan reclined the custom-designed seat his private jet and tried to close his eyes. He needed to be well rested if he was going to be on his game as soon as he hit the ground in Beijing. Dominic was not going to stay in the US long. Stephan needed to have a solid standing with the Chinese Minister and his council before Dominic returned if he was going to have any chance of pulling this off.
Several members of his team had been in Beijing for almost a month, laying the groundwork and cultivating the connections that would make this coup possible. Revenge doesn't require luck, just patience. Like a snake curling in preparation for a strike, Stephan had waited years for Dominic to slip up.
And he finally had.
Sleep was elusive. Stephan looked around the small cabin of the jet. It wasn’t impressive by Corisi standards, but it gave him the advantage of speed. He could get almost anywhere in half the time of his flashier rival.
When Stephan closed his eyes again, all he saw was Nicole. He didn’t need to torture himself with an old photo this time; she was back in all too vivid detail. Nicole in a hot little red dress. Nicole buttoned chastely up to her neck in her navy pants suit. Nicole deflating before his eyes when he told her that he wouldn’t help her.
She’d been beautiful in her early twenties, but the woman she’d grown into was runway gorgeous, tall and lean with legs that went on forever. Her flawless features and her unusual dark gray eyes belonged on a magazine cover. Not that she seemed to care. Most women would have used their natural assets to gain the upper hand in situations, but Nicole attempted to hide hers beneath severe clothing.
And that damn black bun! It was just as tempting now as it had been when he’d fabricated every excuse possible to enter her office at his father’s old company. It left her neck delectably exposed, itching to be kissed.
Stephan turned on his side and punched the pillow beneath his head. He had to stop thinking about her. He should be focusing on the reason for this flight.
Dominic was finally going to pay for what he had done.
Was it wrong to take advantage of his rival stepping away from negotiations to attend the reading of his father’s will?
In most cases, the answer would be yes, but this was Dominic. His indifference was evidenced by his lack of attendance at the funeral and wake. Dominic had only returned to the US for the money he hoped he’d receive from the will. More was never enough for a man like Dominic. He had to have it all.
Had the situation been reversed, Stephan had no doubt that Dominic would have done the same. There was a bit of pleasure in knowing that taking advantage of someone’s misfortune was a classic Corisi move. They were a ruthless bunch, bent on the destruction of not only their competition, but also each other.
In some ways, Stephan had Dominic to thank for his success in the business. Victor Andrade had been too old fashioned to weather the global market changes. He’d believed in long-term business relationships and maintaining a good reputation. His kindness had been his downfall. By helping, rather than buying out his competitors, he’d left himself vulnerable for corporate sharks.
On the other hand, Andrade Global was based on what Stephan had learned by watching Dominic’s rise to power: Morality is subjective. Take, don’t ask. Attack the stronger, absorb the weaker. Accumulate enough so that you never have to apologize, and pay people well to clean up the mess you leave behind.
It was a recipe for success that had made Stephan a billionaire.
But money and power weren’t enough.
Dammit. This wasn’t about her. It was about his family’s island. It was about settling an old score.
There was no way she was as innocent as she claimed. Her timing revealed her involvement. She’d infiltrated his father’s company just before Dominic’s forced buyout of it. And now, she’d thrown herself at him the day before he planned to take down her brother.
Ok, so she hadn’t actually suggested anything more than a business deal, but it was pretty obvious that the whole engagement, the fake fiancé scenario, was a lie designed to distract him.
Did she have to look so sincere in her appeal? So saddened by his refusal?
So positively sexy in her indifference to him?
If only she had propositioned him and revealed her true nature; maybe then he wouldn’t be fighting an erection each time he pictured letting down her hair, unbuttoning her collared blouse, and kissing the cool reserve right out of her.
There was nothing special about her. He knew plenty of beautiful women. She was merely a challenge, the intensity of which had been heightened by the length of time he’d wanted her.
Stephan crossed the aisle and got his laptop. Apparently, he was not going to sleep on this flight. He was also, damn well not going to spend it in some hormonal stupor just because he had seen her again.
Nicole had not belonged in his life seven years ago and she did not belong in it now. Sex would only complicate things more.
Even hot, wet, climax-until-you-can’t-move sex.
He opened his laptop and stared at the start up screen, then closed it with a snap.
A pretend engagement to help her break her father’s will? Insane! People don’t buy companies and sell them back for no profit. She couldn’t have imagined that he would even entertain her request.
Unless she was desperate.
Even so, refusing to help her had been the best choice.
The only choice.
He leaned his head back against the headrest and groaned as he remembered the tear that had twisted through his gut like a dull knife. Was it possible that her father’s death had shaken her? Why was it important to stop Dominic from temporarily taking control of her father’s company?
And the most painful question: Will the great Dominic be able to save her company after his own empire comes crashing down?
Why do I care?
I don’t care.
Stephan put the laptop aside and reclined back in his chair again. He covered his eyes with one forearm.
This is going to be a long flight.
Maddy was handed out of the ambulance on a stretcher to where her anxious husband was waiting. He took her hand, unashamed of the tears running down his cheeks.
A paramedic cautioned Richard to move, but the reluctant husband took another moment to plant a kiss on both his wife and the exposed forehead of his new son. One more gentle touch of the baby, as if making sure all was fine, and he allowed the medical staff to wheel Maddy down the hallway as he continued to hold her hand.
Alone, Nicole stepped down and out of the ambulance, feeling a bit dazed by the whole experience. She hadn’t wanted to interrupt the reunion, but she wasn’t sure what to do next. Should she stay? Should she leave? What did one do in this circumstance?
A middle-aged nurse touched her arm and asked, “Would you like to get cleaned up?”
Nicole looked down at the bloodstains on her pants, stains that even the dark material of her clothing did not conceal. She’d been so focused on the mother and baby that she hadn’t noticed the dried blood that was still splattered up and down her arms. “Yes, please. I didn’t realize…”
“That babies are so messy?” the nurse laughed as she led Nicole to a room where she could wash and change into scrubs. “The mother was lucky to have you there. We heard you stayed calm and did a great job with your first delivery.”
Nicole started scrubbing down at the sink, grateful to have someone to debrief with about the experience. She said, “I was terrified,” and realized how true that statement was as she said it.
The nurse turned her back as Nicole changed into the scrubs, but kept talking. “They say that courage isn’t a lack of fear. It is doing what has to be done, despite your fear.”
Nicole joined her when she was dressed and said, “I’ll have to remember that saying. I like it.”
“Ready to go?” the nurse asked, moving to open the door of the changing room.
Not really, she wanted to say, but didn’t. She wasn’t sure what she wanted. Her part in all of this was finished. Time to slip out a side door of the hospital and go home. She may have helped Maddy, but she didn’t belong here with Stephan’s family. The sooner she left, the better. Instead of sharing her thoughts, she simply nodded and followed the nurse back out to the emergency room entrance.
Nicole called her limo driver who informed her that he had arranged for a new vehicle and was already on his way, but lacking a siren, wouldn’t be there immediately. Nicole headed back into the hospital’s waiting room to get out of the late evening humidity. Sitting was a welcome relief.
A short time later, an older woman with a slight Italian accent approached her. “Nicole?”
“Yes?” Nicole answered unenthusiastically and stood, feeling drained now that she was coming down from the adrenaline that had been coursing through her. She was filthy and tired. The last thing she wanted right now was to be seen by anyone.
“My name is Elise Andrade, Maddy’s mother. Richard told us you were here and I just had to find you to thank you for everything.”
Why couldn’t it have been someone who knew my father? Someone I could give a fake smile to and run away from? Why did it have to be someone I used to dream of one day meeting?
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Congratulations on your new grandson.” Nicole shook the woman’s hand and accepted the double cheek kiss the woman pulled her down for. Elise was a petite auburn-haired woman with a waistline that hinted at a love of pasta. Her delicate features were framed by expertly shaped curls. The simple flowered dress she wore was comfortable, understated elegance.
Looking down at herself ruefully, Nicole supposed she should be grateful to have had time to clean up before meeting her. At least in the scrubs, she didn’t look like an extra in a horror flick.