For Love or Legacy
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"Haven't lost much?” Stephan roared. “Do you realize the international influence Dominic will now wield? Not to mention the financial force this will gain him. I just lost any chance I had of regaining Isola Santos."
Robert signaled with his hand for Stephan to calm down. "Don’t shoot the messenger."
The messenger wasn’t the problem. Fuck, I should have seen this coming. How could I have gotten this close, just to piss it away?
His lawyer said, "I refuse to believe that you don't have a plan B."
"I do, but..." He stopped himself from saying more. Regardless of what had happened today, he wasn’t ready to go that far.
"Do you care?" Stephan motioned for his staff to gather their belongings and head out.
Robert stayed beside Stephan and said, "Not as long as you make enough money to pay me to defend you in court."
Stephan laughed at that. Leave it to Robert to see this as an opportunity for business. "At least you say it like it is."
"Always, Stephan, always. Let's get out of here before the press descends."
At the sight of Dominic with his security detail, Stephan's lawyer said, "Dominic never leaves home without his militia, does he?"
"He needs it. I'm not the only one who wants to see him fail - and some of them are not as scrupulous as I am."
"You're a paragon of virtue. I've always said that."
"Why did I take you with me?"
"Because I'm the best and you wanted to win."
"Oh, yeah. How much extra do I have to pay for you to shut up?"
"More than you can afford. Hey, looks like your friend Dominic is having some trouble."
Why? The scene unfolding on the other side of the foyer was heated and one that Dominic looked like he wasn’t fully in control of. "This, I have to see," Stephan said, stepping away from his friend.
"Be careful, Stephan."
Stephan glanced back over his shoulder and joked, "Are you charging me for this advice?"
Robert shook his head and slid his hands into his pockets, rolling back onto his heels with a small smile on his face. "No, it's free, but if you get tangled up in the Chinese legal system, that'll cost you."
Stephan stepped right into the mix of things. “I don’t know how you always seem to squeak a win out in the end, Corisi. I thought I had you this time.”
Dominic’s muscles bunched and twitched beneath the tailored suit. “Are you behind this, Stephan?” he asked, his question a blatant threat.
Stephan quickly assessed the tension of everyone in the room. He studied Jake’s defensive stance, Zhang’s defiant tilt of the head, and the tears running down Dominic’s girlfriend’s cheeks. A slow, wickedly satisfied smile spread across his face. “I wish I could take credit for whatever is going on here, but unfortunately, this mess is entirely of your own making. For a man who just won, you look pretty miserable. That alone makes my trip here worth it.”
Dominic took a threatening step toward Stephan, but his friend Jake interceded smoothly, “We wondered who was knocking on the back door. I should have known it was you.”
Jake Walton, as polished as Dominic was rough. Stephan doubted Dominic would have gotten as far as he had in business without him.
“It wasn’t easy staying off your radar, Walton,” Stephan said. He added a jab he knew would get a rise. “You know if you ever decide to leave Corisi Enterprises, I could use a man like you on my team.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Jake said and moved to stand shoulder to shoulder beside Dominic. How a man like Dominic could inspire loyalty from anyone was mind boggling to Stephan, but maybe it had more to do with dollar signs than personality.
“How touching,” Stephan mocked. Luckily, this wasn't a social visit; it was an assessment. Dominic was hiding something.
Stephan turned his attention to the women in the room. Zhang Yajun, one of the few female billionaires in China, stood like a tiny warrior next to Dominic’s little teacher friend. He should have included her scholarship fund program in his own proposal, but he had underestimated Zhang’s commitment to it. “I can’t believe you pulled it off, Zhang. This is the kind of coup they write about in the history books. Consider yourself welcome for dinner anytime. I’d love to hear the details behind today.”
Zhang responded harshly, leaving little doubt in the room as to her opinion of the man addressing her. "Careful, Stephan. Water has been known to flood even the dragon-king's temple."
Ah, he’d almost miss her sweet disposition now that he’d lost the contract. Stephan shared his sarcastic amusement with Abby and said, as if speaking in confidence, “That’s Zhang’s way of saying – Go to Hell.”
Abby Dartley, Dominic’s newest conquest, was the buzz of conversation across the globe. This was the first time anyone had seen Dominic involve a woman in his business. A perfect opportunity to stir the pot a little and see exactly how vulnerable Dominic was when it came to his lover. Stephan walked closer until he was practically standing over her and smiled down with practiced charm. “Is this the little teacher who brought the great Dominic to his knees?”
Abby ignored his extended hand. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, but count me out of it.”
He blatantly appraised her with a deliberate slowness that achieved his goal of fanning Dominic’s fury. She was beautiful, but he preferred his women taller and thinner— edgier. An image of Nicole popped into his mind, but he shook it off angrily. She was not part of his life, and not even her memory belonged in this mix.
Still, Dominic's reaction was almost laughable and prodding him further was irresistible. “Are the tears for Dominic or because of him?” The growl behind him should have warned him, but he was intent on goading further. “He’s never been one to treat a lady well. Although, I must say that, until you, I’ve never thought twice about his discards. You, however, have the world talking. I’d love to find out if you live up to what they’re saying about you.”
Dominic grabbed one of Stephan’s shoulders and spun him just in time to meet the connecting force of his fist. Stephan stumbled backwards, grinning as he realized that his instincts had been correct—Dominic was not in control of the situation or himself.
Dominic glared down at Abby. “You can stop making eyes at him now, he’s leaving.”
Abby sputtered in defense. “I was not…”
Stephan’s derision-filled laughter froze their exchange. “You’re getting soft, Dominic, and that’s what is going to make it easier to bring you down.”
Dominic’s hands clenched at his sides. “Laugh all you want, but after today, Corisi Enterprises will be a bit more difficult to screw with. We’re out of your league, Stephan. You can’t touch us now."
Plan B was beginning to sound better and better. “Don’t be too sure about that, Dominic.”
Dominic gripped him by the lapels of his jacket and hauled him forward until they were nose to nose. Dominic’s voice held a deadly calm. “Any hurt you might have incurred from me in the past was an unfortunate consequence of your poor business skills. In the future, it will be a bit more personal.” He released Stephan with a powerful shove that sent him back several feet. “Get out of here, Stephan, before I stop caring about how killing you would affect this deal.”
How dare he judge and dismiss my father’s business skills? Devastating a man’s life’s work wasn’t personal? Taking a family’s ancestral island was just business?
What could be more personal than that?
An evil thought came to Stephan, the kind of thought that one would normally dismiss as too awful, if it were not hatched in the heat of the moment.
You want personal? How about sleeping with your sister?
It wouldn't really matter if his engagement to Nicole wasn't real—news of it would keep Dominic so off center that he wouldn't be watching his back. He wouldn't even know what hit him when he put his new servers online, only to have them crash again and again until the Chinese government threw him out by the scruff of his neck.
All he had to do was tell Nicole he’d had a change of heart. He’d love to help her.
Oh, yes, this was about to get very personal. He said, “No one is untouchable, Dominic. I doubt you’ll be as smug the next time we meet.”
Dominic nodded to his security.
Stephan bowed sarcastically, rejoined his group and left the foyer. Let Dominic think he’s won for now. As Stephan and his team slid into the limos waiting outside, he chose to ride alone. He called a number he hadn't thought he would ever use. It was to a throw-away phone, untraceable. "Mike. I've changed my mind. Do it." He read the security code off a small piece of paper that he’d kept tucked in his wallet.
There, it’s done. Dominic’s fate is sealed.
Surprisingly, there was no rush of pleasure at the thought.
Stephan hung up and dialed his father's cell phone. He could use some good news.
Nicole could hear the voices inside the enormous mansion even through the closed door. Elise and Alessandro’s home sat on top of a small hill, looking out over a reservoir like a Newport mansion, but with a more contemporary design. Only this family would own 34 acres of choice real estate property and adorn its pristine front lawn with a variety of tricycles and gym sets. Nicole raised a hand to ring the doorbell, but the door flew open before she could. A young boy, no more than five, sprinted past her and ran down the steps. His mother had a baby in her arms. She pointed to the escapee. “Can you grab him?”
Nicole looked down at her black Christian Louboutin sling back shoes and her cream colored pants suit and then at the boy who looked like he’d been playing in mud with his hands. Every other family she knew had nannies, but the Andrades didn’t believe in them.
The boy stood, poised to sprint, just four steps below her. “Grab him?” Nicole asked, not really sure what that would look like.
The mother said, “Catch him. Net him. Hogtie him. Just bring him to the bathroom. He doesn’t want to wash his hands before dinner.”
The little boy stuck out his tongue at Nicole and took off around the corner.
Oh, the little stinker.
Nicole stepped out of her heels and gave chase.
She chased him around two parked cars, but he snuck past her and took off across the sloped grass lawn. The two were in a full run, when the little boy tripped going down a small incline and started to roll. Nicole pulled back to avoid stepping on him and also fell. They both rolled a few times in the thick summer grass before coming to a stop at the bottom of the small hill.
The little boy got to his feet first and peered down at her, accusingly. “You almost rolled over me.”
Nicole tried to keep a straight face, “Sorry about that.”
He stuck out a defiant chin, “I’m not washing my hands with Zia ‘Lise’s soap. It makes me smell like a girl.”