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Nicole's hands shook uncontrollably as she tried to fit her key into the ignition. Damn, she dropped it again. She swiped the key ring up off the floor of her classic Benz, and gave up driving as a bad joke. If she couldn't even get the key in the ignition, how on earth did she expect to drive?
She got out of the car, slammed the door hard and swiped her cell phone from her bag. Thank goodness she'd had the presence of mind to grab the designer leather pouch from the hall table after her grand exit from the family dinner to end all family dinners.
Her high heels clipped a staccato beat as she marched down the well-lit driveway of her family home to the street, calling a taxi service as she went. Fine tremors shook her body as she waited for the car to arrive. The chill air of the autumn night made her glad she hadn't had a chance to change out of her tailored wool suit when she'd arrived home from work earlier.
Her father had requested that she dress up for dinner in honor of a special announcement he'd planned to make, but by the time she'd gotten home, there just hadn't been enough time. She hadn't thought her father would mind that she'd chosen to put in the extra time at the office instead of rushing home to get ready. After all, if anyone should understand her drive to devote her time and energy to Wilson Wines then surely it would be Charles Wilson, founder and CEO. Her father had invested most of his life into the business he had built, and she'd always intended to follow in his footsteps.
Another rush of anger infused her. How dare her father belittle her like that, and in front of a virtual stranger, as well? Who cared if that stranger was her long-lost brother, Judd. Two and a half decades after their parents' bitter divorce had split their family in half, what right did he have to come back and lay claim to the responsibilities that were supposed to be hers? She clenched her jaw tight and bit back the scream of frustration that threatened to claw its way out of her throat. She couldn't lose it now. Not when she had just discovered that she was the only person she had left to rely on.
Even her best friend, colleague and life-long confidante, Anna, had shown her true colors when she'd arrived home in New Zealand from Adelaide, Australia, late last week with Judd in tow. Sure, she'd tried to convince Nicole that she'd only been following Charles's orders to find Judd and bring about a reconciliation, but Nicole knew where Anna's loyalties lay, and they certainly weren't with her. If they were, Anna wouldn't have kept the truth from her about what Charles planned to use as Judd's incentive.
A painful twist in her chest reminded her to draw in a breath but despite the fact she obeyed her body's demand to refill her lungs, the pain of betrayal by her best friendthe woman she loved like a sisterstill lingered. How could Anna have known what was going to happen and not given her prior warning?
In her bag, her phone began to chirp insistently. Thinking it might be the taxi company calling back to confirm her details, she lifted it to her ear and answered it.
"Nicole, where are you? Are you okay?"
Anna. Who else? It certainly wouldn't be her father calling to see if she was all right.
"I'm fine," Nicole answered, her voice clipped.
"You're not fine, you're upset. I can hear it in your voice. Look, I'm sorry about tonight"
"Just tonight, Anna? What about your trip to Adelaide? What about bringing my brother home for the first time in twenty-five years, so he could take everything that was ever mine away from me?" Even Anna's gasp of pain at Nicole's accusations didn't stop Nicole's tirade or do anything to lessen the hurt of betrayal that rocketed through her veins right now. "I thought we were friends, sisters by choice, remember?"
"I couldn't tell you what Charles had planned, Nicole. Please believe me. Your dad swore me to secrecy and I owe him so very much. Without his support of me and my mum you know what he was like even when she was dying"
"His support, huh?" Nicole shut her eyes tight and squeezed back the fresh round of tears that fought to escape. "What about your support of me?"
"You always have that, Nic, you know that."
"Really? Then why didn't you give me a heads-up? Why didn't you tell me that he was going to bribe Judd to stay by giving him my home as well as the business?"
"Only half the business," Anna's voice came quietly over the line.
"A controlling share, Anna. That's the whole business as far as I'm concerned."
The shock of her father's announcement had been bad enough. Worse was the way he'd justified the decision to give everything to Judd instead of her. Just you wait, he had said, you 'll find some young man who 'll sweep you off your feet and before I know it you will be married and raising a family. Wilson Wines will just be a hobby for you. Years of hard work, of dedication and commitment to the business and to further her father's plans and dreams dismissed as just a phase, a passing fad. The thought of it made her blood boil.
"Dad made it quite clear where I stand in all this, and by aligning yourself with him, you've made it quite clear where you stand, too."
Nicole paced back and forth on the pavement at the end of the driveway, filled with a nervous energy that desperately needed an outlet. Anna's voice remained steady in her ear; the sound of her friend's voice was usually a calming influence but tonight it was anything but.
"He put me in an impossible position, Nic. I begged him to talk to you about this, to at least tell you that Judd would be coming home."
"Obviously you didn't beg hard enough. Or, here's something to consider, maybe you could have just told me, anyway. You could have picked up a phone or fired me an email in warning. It's not that hard to do. You had to know what this would mean to me, how much it would hurt me. And still you did nothing?"
"I'm so sorry, Nic. If I could do it over I'd do it differently, you have to know that."
"I don't know anything anymore, Anna. That's the trouble. Everything I've worked for, everything I've lived for, has just been handed to a man I don't even know. I don't even know if I have a roof over my head now that Dad's given the deed of the family house to Judd. How would that make you feel? Have you asked yourself that?"
A sweep of lights coming down the road heralded the taxi she'd summoned, and not a moment too soon. She had enough dander up right now to march back on up the driveway and give her father a piece of her mind all over againfor whatever good it would do.
"Look," she continued, "I've got to go. I need some space right now to think things over."
"Nicole, come back. Let's talk this out face-to-face."
"No," Nicole answered as the cab pulled up alongside the curb. "I'm done talking. Please don't call me again."
She disconnected the call and switched off her phone for good measure before throwing it into the bottom of her bag.
"Viaduct Basin," she instructed as she got into the taxi and settled in the darkened interior with her equally dark thoughts.
Hopefully the vibrant atmosphere at the array of bars and clubs in downtown Auckland would provide her with the distraction she needed. Nicole repaired her tear-stained makeup as well as she could with the limited cosmetics in her bag. It annoyed the heck out of her that anger, for her, usually resulted in tears, as well. It was an awkward combination that plagued her on the rare occasions she actually lost her temper, and it made it hard for her to be taken seriously.
She willed her hand to be steady as she applied a rich red lip gloss and gave herself a final check in her compact mirror.
Satisfied she'd done her best with her makeup, she sat back against the soft upholstery of the luxury taxi and tried to ignore the echo of her father's words, the faintly smug paternal tone that seemed to say that she'd soon get over her temper tantrum and realize he was right all along.
"Over my dead body," she muttered.
"Pardon, miss, what was that you said?" the neatly suited taxi driver asked over his shoulder.
"Nothing, sorry, just talking to myself."
She shook her head and blinked hard at the fresh tears that pricked in her eyes. In doing what her father had done he'd permanently damaged his relationship with her, fractured the trust between her and Anna, and virtually destroyed any chance of her and Judd building a sibling bond together. She had no family she could rely on anymorenot her father, her brother, her sister and certainly not her mother. Nicole had not seen or heard from her mother since Cynthia Masters-Wilson had taken Judd back to her native Australia when he was six and Nicole only one year old.
Nicole had long since convinced herself she'd never wanted to know her mother growing up. Her father had been everything and everyone she'd ever needed. But even as a child, she'd always been able to tell that she wasn't enough to make up for the wife and son that her father still missed. It had driven Nicole to work harder, to be a top student and to learn everything she could about the family business, in the hopes of winning her father's approval, making him proud. Goodness only knew running Wilson Wines was all she'd ever wanted to do from the moment she'd understood just what held the balance of her father's attention every day.
Now that Judd was back, it was as if she didn't exist anymore. As if she never had.
Nicole reached up to remove the hair tie that had held her hair in its no-nonsense, businesslike pony-tail all day, and shoved her fingers through her hair to tousle it out into party mode. She would not let her father's actions beat her. Once she'd worked this upset out of her system she'd figure out a way to fix things. Until then, she was going to enjoy herself.
She alighted from the taxi and paid the driver then undid the top button of her suit jacket, exposing a glimpse of the gold-and-black satin-and-lace bra she wore beneath it. There, she thought defiantly, from business woman to party girl in one easy step. Squaring her shoulders, Nicole headed into the first bar on the strip. Oblivion had never looked better.