Book: Tough and Tender (Bad Boy Romance Box Set)

Previous: Chapter Fifteen
Next: Epilogue

Chapter Sixteen


Nick frowned slightly with impatience as he spoke to his secretary on the line. “Yes, Brenda?”

“Sir, Mrs. Vitale’s here to see you.”

“What?” he said. “Keyonna’s here? My wife?”

“Oh no, sir,” Brenda said on a laugh. “It’s your stepmother.”

The smile he’d unconsciously had on his face at the thought that Keyonna had come to see him vanished.

What did Lena want now?

And that was the exact same thing he asked her the moment after the door closed and she was standing in front of him.

As always she was dressed to kill; hair perfectly groomed and her svelte figure sheathed in some designer get-up that enhanced her undeniable beauty. There had been a time her breathtaking looks had moved him, but not anymore.

“Really, Nick,” she drawled, tut-tutting. “Is there anything wrong with my coming to see my adorable stepson at work?”

“Your so called stepson is a busy man, Lena. What is it?” he said coldly, drawing back when she bent over him to try and kiss his lips.

“Well, well, well,” Lena murmured as she straightened and then went to take one of the chairs in front of his desk. ”How your attitude has changed. Could it be due to the fact that your runaway wife is back?”

Nick’s look was chilly as he met her scornful gaze. “Maybe. I’m certainly glad I found her, safe and sound.”

“Oh, I’m sure you must be glad indeed. Because if she wasn’t – safe and sound that is,” Lena drawled sarcastically, “Then you’ll be without all this.” And she waved a dainty, heavily beringed hand to indicate the plush office.

Nick scowled darkly. “If you’re implying that I wanted Keyonna back to ensure that our marriage stayed valid, just so I could keep my fortune then you’ve got it all wrong. With the marriage certificate, I no longer had anything to worry about. I didn’t need Keyonna anymore. But I did want her. And thanks to Rachel, I found her.”

“How ironic,” Lena sneered. “Your ex-fiancée ends up helping you unearth your heartbroken, disillusioned bride.”

She was cut off by the suspicious look on Nick’s face. “Why would you think Keyonna was heartbroken and disillusioned?”

Lena’s eye widened innocently as she shrugged. “A mere assumption, darling. I mean, what if the poor girl found out about you and me.”

“There is no ‘you and me’ Lena as you very well know,” was Nick’s cold response. “Once upon a time, I believed myself in love with you. And I’ve always felt grateful for your eye-opening rejection, believe me. Just don’t kid yourself that just because Dad’s dead, we can start up something because it’s not going to happen. I love Keyonna and nothing in the world would make me do anything to jeopardize that.”

Lena’s face twisted into something bitter and angry and far from pretty. “You love her,” she gasped furiously. “And what about me?”

He gave her a deliberately blank look. “What about you?”

Lena smiled thinly, even as she rose to her feet with fluid grace and then began pacing the office in her high-heeled pumps. “I always regretted turning down your offer to run away with you. But I knew your father was a powerful and ruthless man and he would destroy me – and you as well, for making a fool of him if I dared follow my heart. My marriage to him was never about love but I respected him and he treated me like a princess. I lacked for nothing. And yet...all that never stopped me from pining for you. You were the one thing I really wanted, but could never have.”

She stopped in her pacing to turn to him. “I was so mad when you didn’t ask me to marry you once you could. First you chose Rachel, and then ended up with Keyonna. In a flash I sensed that with her, it was different. Part of me wanted to find a way to get back at you for all the times you rejected me. But another part of me longed to win back what I’d lost. So when I showed up at the reception, I realized that the best way to do that was to get rid of Keyonna.”

Nick went stock still, unable to believe his ears. What the hell was Lena saying? That she had something to do with Keyonna’s sudden disappearance?

He suddenly shot to his feet and moved swiftly to grab her shoulders, shaking her angrily.

“Just what did you do, Lena? Tell me!” he barked, his eyes dark with fury.

Lena merely laughed in his face. “Ah, I thought that would get your full attention.” She broke out of his grip, her own gaze stormy. “I did nothing devious, trust me. In fact, I’d say you had more of a hand in it yourself.”

“I’m losing my patience, Lena,” Nick warned, and heard her yelp in surprise when he took hold of her arm and twisted it round her back, not using enough force to really hurt but letting her know it could get really painful if she pushed him.

“Don’t be such a brute, Nick...ooh!” she cried, and at last agreed to tell him all.

“You haven’t changed, Nick,” Lena said sulkily, rubbing her bruised arm. “Still a bully – alright, alright!” she said quickly when he advanced again.

She sighed deeply. “Like I said, you did a lot to help. When I arrived at the reception and you came over to speak to me, I noticed Keyonna was watching us. I’m woman enough to tell that she was more than suspicious. I wasn’t sure how much you’d told her, but still I hatched this great plan to get you all to myself in some lonely spot. I was banking on the fact that Keyonna would follow and then maybe catch us doing something we shouldn’t.”

Lena paused, smiling thinly at the frozen look on Nick’s face. “You remember, don’t you? Our little head-to-head in the garden? It all went according to plan, as I recall. You came with me and Keyonna followed. She didn’t think I’d seen her, but I had. And you can imagine what she must have derived from our conversation that day.”

“You bitch!” Nick snarled, fuming as he smashed his fist down on his desk, sending files flying. How could he have been so stupid?

“You caused it all with your own words, Nick,” Lena went on triumphantly. “All those uncaring little things she must have heard you say about her. She looks like the sensitive type. Isn’t she?”

Lena chuckled with deep humor, not waiting for his reply. “I’ll just bet she is. Sensitive, silly, and obviously besotted with you. I worked that all out and used it in my favor. I mean who wouldn’t? I knew she’d feel hurt seeing us together like that. But I never expected her to do what she did – desert you completely, and at the reception! Now that was heartless.”

Nick just stood there, dazed with fury and dismay as Lena let out a hearty, grating laugh.

“Anyway,” Lena went on with a nonchalant shrug, “I soon realized it was a wasted effort. I mean, instead of forgetting all about her when she vanished, you went on a one-man search. I was furious!”

She laughed heartily once more, shaking her head at him. “I really shouldn’t have bothered. If anything, I only managed to have brought you two closer together. I don’t know what lie you must have told her, but it must have been foolproof.”

Nick buried his face in his hand for some moments. He went over the episode in the garden and knew with a sinking feeling how it must have seemed to Keyonna. He hadn’t been ready to admit his feelings for her then, certainly not to Lena. So he’d played tough, and said things he hadn’t really meant. The old Nick might have meant them, but not the same Nick who’d been twisted up in knots over her since that first reckless kiss they’d shared on that balcony.

Finally he looked up at the smirking Lena, his gaze dark slits of calm wrath. “I hope you’re happy now, Lena. Does it feel good to know you almost succeeded in destroying my chance at happiness?”

Lena pouted, tilting her head to the side as she had the grace to look sorry. And then she sighed. “Look, I’m not really proud of what I did. But you know what they say about a woman scorned. I just refused to believe you didn’t want me anymore. Hell, I was ready to settle for being your mistress; to have that affair with you I denied myself all those years ago when I was married to your father. I should have known you’d never want a part in something that would seem aversive. Especially now that you’re older and wiser. Your loss,” she said casually, adding, “And hey, it’s not like there was any harm done. You’ve got your precious Keyonna back, haven’t you?”

Yes, thought Nick bleakly, but for how long? Until her memory returned and she realized what a complete jerk he’d been on his wedding day? Just thinking about how hurt she’d been – hurt enough to up and leave him that first time – made Nick wary that she might still hold a grudge once she remembered what he’d done. No woman would like to feel like some mere object, or that her feelings didn’t count. But Nick could only hope that Keyonna would understand, and see that he’d changed. And that he’d absolutely fall apart if she ever decided to leave him again.

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Next: Epilogue