For Love or Legacy
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"My doctor?" No, tell me it's not what I'm thinking.
"For the baby? Will you have it here? Imagine how incredible that would be if you were there when Maddy had her baby and then she was there when you have yours!"
Nicole swallowed hard. Yeah, incredible. One might even say impossible since she hadn't had sex with anyone in over a year.
So much for Stephan's theory that no one would believe they were engaged.
"I’m on break for a few more minutes. I was hoping to see Maddy’s parents, but I’ll find them later. Come on, let’s go see Maddy," Samantha said.
"Oh, I can't. I - I have an appointment this morning. I just dropped by to see the baby really quickly but that was a mistake. I should go."
Being Stephan’s pretend fiancé had seemed like a good idea when it didn’t involve actually looking anyone in the eye while she lied. And then, of course, there was the small issue of Stephan not yet knowing
It was probably better if she just left before…
“Samantha! Nicole!” Maddy’s mother, Elise, called out from across the foyer and there was no evading her. She kissed Samantha warmly on both cheeks then greeted Nicole the same way. She held onto one of Nicole’s hands as if afraid she’d slip away. "I’m so glad you’re here. I was worried that I had upset you yesterday.”
Apologies were not something Nicole was used to hearing, never mind accepting.
“It’s forgotten already,” Nicole said softly.
Elise tightened her hold on Nicole’s hand briefly then smiled. It was easy to see where Maddy had gotten her charm from. “It should never have been said. Thank you for understanding. No wonder Victor and Katrine speak so highly of you. They are flying in this morning. When we told them that you were here, they said you had to come to dinner with us tonight. Please, say you’ll join us.”
Nicole’s mouth went dry. “Stephan’s parents are flying in? Do they know…?”
"That you’re engaged? Alessandro could never keep that from his brother. You have made them both so happy. I think they are as excited to see you as they are to meet their new nephew.” She turned to her husband and said, “Alessandro, could you check us in?” He waited in line about as long as you’d expect someone to who had paid for a new wing of the hospital – not at all.
Elise linked arms with Nicole, seemingly out of affection, but Nicole wondered what she would have done had she tried to pull away. On the surface, Elise was soft spoken, but Nicole didn’t doubt that she was accustomed to meeting very little opposition.
Elise asked, “Are you coming with us, Samantha?”
Samantha looked at her watch and grimaced. “I’ve got to get back to my ward.”
“You’re welcome for dinner.”
“I’m working a double shift today or I’d be there. Tell Victor and Katrine that I’ll come see them this week.”
Elise said, “We will. Bye.” Then she turned to Nicole and asked, “Have you seen little Joseph yet?”
Nicole said, “Not yet. So, they chose the name Joseph?”
Elise rolled her eyes in amusement and motioned to her husband with her head, “They couldn’t stand to see a grown man whine.”
Alessandro didn’t seem at all offended. He shrugged and explained, “Who is more likely to get picked on at school? A Joe or a Larry?” He stood so close that Nicole was half afraid he was going to crush her in a hug again. “Nicole. Explain to this woman that I am right.”
As they walked down the hallway, toward the elevator, Nicole said, “I guess it depends where you live. I like both names. Laurent is a popular French name.”
“Very diplomatic,” Elise said. “Nicole knows better than to get involved in something that is none of her business. She’s a smart girl.”
“Don’t tell me my family is not my business. My grandchildren getting beaten up in elementary school is my business,” Alessandro said stubbornly.
Elise released her when they stepped into the elevator. She linked hands with her husband, easing his irritation with just a touch. Then she joked to Nicole, “I hope you don’t expect to name your own children, Nicole, unless of course you pick a good Italian name. Andrade men brood over their children like little mother hens.”
“Piccola madre gallina?” Alessandro growled softly down at his wife.
Elise simply chided, “Si, Alessandro. You heard me. You know it’s true. Victor is the same. Two Italian mother hens, always butting into to their children’s lives. When are you two going to learn?”
Alessandro shrugged, revealing that change was not impending. He winked down at Nicole as they stepped out of the elevator and into the maternity ward. “I like Joe better. They can make it Joe Laurent if they want.”
Elise shared a look with Nicole that said, You see your future?
Nicole’s stomach twisted with acid and nerves.
The more time she spent with them the more she remembered how easy it was to love them. Not a good idea considering that it would all come to an abrupt halt when Stephan found out. So far, she had neither lied nor worked very hard to correct the misunderstanding. She had to see Maddy alone. If she explained the confusion to Maddy, she could hopefully inform the family and they would understand that the deception had not been deliberate.
Little Joseph was with Maddy when they arrived in her room. There was barely any space for visitors in the mash of balloons and flowers that filled her hospital room. Elise and Alessandro took turns holding him then held him out for Nicole to take.
At first she shook her head, “I’ve never held a baby.”
Maddy laughed. “Liar. You held him yesterday. And I guarantee that he is much easier to hold today. Just remember to support his head.”
Nicole took Joseph into her arms gingerly. Yesterday, she’d looked at him through a haze of urgency and panic. Today, she saw how very small and delicate he was. She lifted one of his tiny fingers in amazement. He was gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. Thank God nothing had gone wrong. Nicole didn’t realize she was crying until Elise handed her a tissue. “He’s so beautiful,” she said.
The proud mother and grandmother agreed.
Elise kissed her daughter on the cheek and said, “Your father and I are going to go get a coffee. Nicole can visit with you while we’re gone. We won’t be long.”
After they left, Maddy said, “Thank you for yesterday. You were incredible.”
“It was nothing,” Nicole said, unsure of how else to respond. She handed Joseph back to his mother.
Maddy fixed the baby's cap with one hand and said, “No, you were wonderful. I will always be grateful for what you did.”
Unable to hold it in, Nicole burst out, “You have to stop telling people that I’m engaged to Stephan! It’s simply not true. You misunderstood what you overheard yesterday.”
Maddy smiled serenely and said, “I didn’t misunderstand anything.”
Nicole said, “Yes, you did. I haven’t seen Stephan in years. I came to him with some insane plan that he rightfully turned down. What you heard was part of that.”
Maddy looked up from her baby and asked, “Nicole, do you love my cousin?”
No! –was what she wanted to say, but when she tried to voice the lie, she found she couldn’t. Maddy knew the truth. She settled on honesty. “I used to think I did. I’m not sure I even like who he has become.”
Maddy nodded in agreement. “Stephan needs you back in his life – now, before he goes too far.”
Nicole said, “Too far?”
Maddy looked torn. “I’ve already gotten involved more than I should have, but I hate to see Stephan so unhappy. Aunt Katrine says he was never the same after losing you.”
Nicole thought about Isola Santos and said, “I don’t think it was me that he was so angry about losing. We only went on one date.”
Suddenly confident again, Maddy said, “Will you do me a favor?”
Yes. No. Nicole finally said, “Depends on what you’re asking for.”
“Don’t give up on a happy ending just yet.”
Easy to say when you’re sitting there with everything.
Nicole’s throat tightened and dried. “Life is not a fairytale for most of us, Maddy. Not everyone gets what they want.”
Maddy looked down at the baby in her arms and said, “They do if they are willing to fight for it. No one needs to know you’re not really engaged.”
“Stephan will be furious.”
“Let him be angry,” Maddy said.
Let him be angry.
Nicole had never heard four more empowering words.
She’d spent her life trying to keep the peace and where had that gotten her? Following the rules hadn't won her father's love. It hadn't brought back her mother or mended her relationship with her brother. Being apologetic and honest, hadn't even gotten her Stephan's forgiveness.
Nicole wasn’t buying that Stephan was harboring some deep feelings for her, but Maddy was right about needing to fight for what you want. She’d accepted Stephan’s refusal to help too easily.
Let him be angry.
He may not want to, but he is going to help me save my father’s company.
Nicole excused herself to make a phone call. When she was sure she was out of earshot of everyone, she called one of her lawyers. "Draw up the paperwork necessary for Stephan to buy Corisi Ltd. No, he hasn't agreed to it yet, but he will. I have a plan."
Stephan checked his watch for the third time since he’d gotten word that Dominic had arrived and had gone in to meet with the Minister of Commerce. His own meeting with the Minister had gone well that morning, really well. Negotiations had hinged on how much control Stephan was willing to give the Chinese government when it came to censorship and distribution.
To beat Dominic, Stephan was willing to concede all control.
His lawyer, Robert Hynes, came into the conference room and his expression instantly put Stephan on edge. “You don’t look happy,” Stephan said.
"Dominic just offered five percent of Corisi Enterprise's profit to fund a scholarship program for rural women."
Rage filled Stephan. "And that closed the deal?"
"It sure did. The Minister signed the deal like he was afraid Dominic would change his mind. What are you going to do now?"
Good question. It wasn't easy to think past the throbbing anger bubbling within him. He said through gritted teeth, "It's airtight?"
"Looks like it. They are preparing a press conference now regarding the deal."
"I thought we had this one."
"We did, but this win might not have been Dominic's doing. Rumor has it that Zhang ambushed Dominic with the scholarship fund as part of the deal—giving him no choice but to sign it."
Zhang. He should have guessed she would be involved in this.
"I underestimated how much she wanted that to be part of the deal," Stephan said, kicking himself mentally for that miscalculation.
"We all did. At least you're out very little investment. If you move quickly, you can still corner the market in..."