For Love or Legacy
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Unlike his father, Nicole had thought Stephan was…well, perfect. Nothing bothered him. He dressed like a man on vacation, and had a presence that had to be witnessed to be believed. Women fought to catch his eye. Men envied his ability to take his wealth and influence for granted.
Nicole loved his idealism. Stephan used to talk about saving the world like he could.
After each time she refused his invitation to dinner, he would linger in her office, often sitting on the corner of her desk and telling her about his latest project. His passion for saving coral reefs or charting the rate some glacier was melting was inspiring and incredibly sexy.
Stephan’s persistence had been flattering, but he changed women like some men changed their shirts. They were accessories he wore to one event and easily discarded for the next. Nicole refused him for the same reason she didn’t buy lottery tickets. Unexpectedly wonderful things did not happen to her. They never had and she didn’t have much faith that they ever would.
Which was why she still kicked herself for ever saying yes to Stephan.
For admitting to herself that what she felt for him was more than a crush.
For giving her family another chance to hurt her.
Nicole dried off and slipped on her long cotton nightgown and padded over to her bed. She didn't often allow herself the luxury of reliving that date, but tonight she wondered what life would have been like had Dominic not announced his takeover of Andrade Solutions.
She’d never forget the look on Stephan’s face when he’d casually asked her out and, for once, she hadn’t immediately refused. His blue eyes had lit with a fire that her body had instantly responded to.
To be wanted by a man like Stephan was something her virgin heart had no defense against. He’d leaned in, wiggled his eyebrows, and joked that the thrill of riding the Cyclone on Coney Island was just what someone like her needed.
“Someone like me?” she’d asked, half afraid of how he would describe her.
He’d sent shivers down her back by running a feather light caress up the lapel of her suit jacket and asking, “Do you ever let your hair down? Have fun?”
He’d made the word fun sound…positively erotic.
No, she’d never had fun, but the more he’d spoken the more she’d wanted to remedy that.
“Of course I do,” she’d defended breathlessly.
“Liar,” he’d whispered against her lips.
“Just because I don’t want to go out with you, doesn’t mean I don’t go out with anyone.”
Her comment had brought a delicious smile to his lips. “Really?” He’d caressed the exposed side of her neck with the back of his hand. “Who?”
She’d gulped, unable to think beneath his sustained attention. “Men,” she’d said.
He’d laughed out loud and said, “I would hope that was your preference, or I really have been wasting my time.” He’d stood up and challenged her with a request. “Spend tomorrow with me at Coney Island. We’ll go on the rides. We’ll walk on the beach. If you can survive being away from all of those other men for the entire day, I’ll even take you to dinner.”
She’d held her breath. Afraid to believe what she thought she saw in his eyes. “Are you teasing me, or are you serious?”
He’d leaned over, gently kissed her shocked lips and said, “Say yes and I’ll show you just how serious I am.”
Putting aside all the reasons she’d compiled for why it would be a bad idea, Nicole had said, “Yes.”
His face had been adorably flushed. “Do you want me to pick you up at your house around 10?”
“No,” Nicole had said quickly. “I’ll meet you outside the office building downstairs.”
“Afraid your father won’t approve of me?” The idea had seemed to amuse him.
With a small, tight smile, Nicole had conceded, “Something like that.”
Luckily, Stephan had accepted her answer and agreed.
Their date would remain so vivid in her memory that it would overshadow all the dates she went on after. Walking hand in hand with a man who couldn’t resist stealing kisses from her each time an opportunity arose had made her feel like she’d stepped into a dream. A wonderful, passion-filled world where anything and everything was possible.
Whether he was talking about his plans for his next environmental documentary or retelling the latest Andrade drama, she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He didn’t give a whit about money or computers. His father was dead-on right: he’d had no interest in joining the family company. He’d studied film instead of business, and even though his documentaries hadn’t gained him national acclaim, he loved making them and going on the adventures necessary to make them happen. He saw his wealth as nothing more than a tool that allowed him access to influential people who could help lobby for his causes.
He was everything she’d ever dreamt he would be.
On the seaside dance floor of Lucida's, she’d admitted the truth to herself.
I love this man.
Dinner had been an excruciating, prolonged exercise in foreplay. A kiss. A secret touch. A need that built until there was no denying how they both wanted the night to end.
Until Stephan’s phone had rung and she’d watched him change into a stranger before her eyes. Dominic had made his bid for Andrade Solutions public. “Did you know about this?” Stephan had stormed. “Did you? Is that why you followed my father around everywhere, so you could report back to your brother?”
Maybe she should have defended herself. Perhaps, if she had explained back then about her relationship with her brother — or lack thereof — Stephan might not have turned on her. The less she said, the more furious he became. He’d yelled questions and accusations at her that she never did answer. As soon as his tone had risen, she’d shut down, barely registering what he’d said or the long cab ride home after he’d left her there at the restaurant.
It wasn’t his fault.
He had every right to be angry.
He and his family were just more victims of her family’s curse. Nothing good or wholesome lasted for long when it came into contact with a Corisi.
Looking back, Nicole could almost have stomached Dominic’s actions had they been driven by a desire to protect her. But, no, Dominic had bought and dismantled the Andrade family company merely because he could, and because in doing so he had gleaned some financial benefit. His acquisition of the Andrade’s ancestral island had seemed almost spiteful. He’d immediately begun construction of some ridiculously modern complex on it that was soon splashed across the covers of every architectural magazine, and effectively ended any chance Nicole had of mending the rift between her and the Andrade clan. Victor had accepted her apology, but Nicole had retreated from how powerless the sadness in his eyes made her feel.
She’d never gone back to see him, even though he’d said she was welcome. She couldn’t bear the guilt and anger that filled her at the mere thought of seeing the Andrades again. Losing them was just one of the many reasons she would never speak to her brother again.
What would have happened that night with Stephan had the call never come? Would he have been like the man she'd finally lost her virginity to — more interested in the challenge of bedding her than anything else? Or like the few who had come after him, who had chased her in hopes of gaining some favor with either of the Corisi men in her life, only to leave her when they discovered that neither cared about her at all?
Had the connection she’d felt to Stephan been real or the product of an overactive and lonely imagination?
Like so many other questions she tortured herself with, it was impossible to answer.
The one thing she did know was that Stephan would never again look at her the way he did that night at Lucida's. The Stephan she loved was gone.
Nicole turned off the light, lying motionless beneath the coolness of her summer sheets. Maybe she should get a puppy or a cat, anything that would ease this...emptiness.
The energy of Beijing was invigorating. Stephan looked down at the crowded streets below his hotel room and mentally went over his list of last minute adjustments he could make to his proposal. Everything was clicking into place, just as he had planned.
The Minister of Commerce was entertaining his proposal and discussing it with his council. His sources informed him that Dominic’s recent disappearance had shaken the Minister’s confidence in Corisi Enterprises. Stephan didn’t have Dominic’s clout, but he had arrived at an opportune time with an extremely tempting offer. He would speak again before the Minister and the council tomorrow afternoon, at which time they said they would make their decision.
Nothing was going to stand in his way of finally showing Dominic Corisi exactly what it felt like to lose everything.
His phone vibrated with a text. “Good news at home, call as soon as you can.”
He would call, but not until he had good news of his own to share.
And it looked like he would have some soon.
Just in and out.
Nicole stood in the short line of people who were checking in to do exactly what she intended to do — look through the thick glass of the maternity ward window.
It's natural to want to check in on the life you helped into the world. At least, that was what Nicole kept telling herself that morning as she buttoned up the jacket on her dark gray pants suit.
The hospital was busy, but Nicole was quickly called over to a previously-closed station. Money had its perks. Never waiting in line long was one of them. She knew her clothing and her carriage implied owner of the hospital more than it did stray woman sneaking a peek at a child she had no real business visiting.
"Nicole Corisi. I am here to see the D’Argenson baby in the maternity ward."
"Are you family?"
Her heart choked in her chest. "No."
"I'm sorry, I have instructions here for only family to be admitted at this time."
I knew I shouldn't have come."Of course."
The woman appeared concerned. "Do you want me to call up and see if the mother would like to add you to the list?"
Nicole took a step back. "No. No. That's fine."
This was a stupid idea anyway.
She turned to leave when a nurse stepped in front of her. "Nicole?"
"I'm sorry do I know you?" Nicole searched the small blond's face for any hint of how she would know her.
"No, but you're exactly the way Maddy described you." She shook Nicole’s hand warmly. "My name is Samantha. Are you here to see the baby?"
"No. Yes. I mean I was going to take a quick look just to see how he turned out, but I'm not family so it doesn't look like that is going to happen."
The nurse spoke to the woman behind the desk. "Print her out a pass. I'd say she counts as family. Not only did she deliver little Joseph last night, but she's also engaged to his uncle."
Words of correction formed and then dissolved on Nicole’s tongue while the very friendly Samantha stuck the pass to her lapel.
"I probably shouldn't say anything. Maddy and I have known each other forever. She tells me everything and I think it's so romantic that you and Stephan had a secret engagement — but you never should have told Maddy. It's like calling the press. Who’s your doctor?"