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"Dad, what are you thinking about?" Ari Alexander asked.
His father sat with his brows drawn together in an agonized expression. He hadn't said much since learning he was the only heir to the late Robert DePaul's vast estate, which included the chain of luxury DePaul Hotel & Spa Resorts.
Three days ago, they were just a family living a normal life in the small town of Aspen, Georgia, located forty miles west of Atlanta. They had been thrust into the limelight with the news that Malcolm Alexander was the illegitimate love child between the hotel magnate and Pearle Strickland, an African American woman.
"Dad," Ari prompted. "You okay?"
"Just wondering why my mother never thought she could tell me about him," Malcolm replied. "She never once mentioned Robert DePaul. I have no idea how she could've met him. As far as I know, she never left Georgia. She did tell me that Theodore Alexander wasn't my biological father, but that never mattered to me. He was a good father."
He drew his lips in thoughtfully then glanced out the window of the private plane transporting them to Los Angeles. "She never volunteered any other information about my real father, and I never asked her about him, but now I wish I had. Knowing about Robert DePaul could've prepared me some for all this." He shrugged. "My mind is going in a hundred different directions."
Ari nodded in understanding. Robert DePaul had been one of the richest men in the world until his death a week ago. His attorney contacted Ari's father, and now they were headed to meet with Ira Goodman.
"I keep wondering where Grandma met DePaul."
Malcolm gave a slight shrug. "Son, I suppose we won't ever find out, but evidently their paths must have crossed at some point, if what they're saying is true."
"The media are having a field day with this," Ari uttered. "Robert DePaul's African-American son is sole heir to his fortune. I can't wait to see the expression on the faces of our newfound relatives. I can read the headlines now'The Georgia Hillbillies Are Moving to Beverly Hills.'"
"Our family lives just fine, Ari," Malcolm interjected quickly. "We don't have to take this man's money or anything he owns. I'm only flying out there to learn more about the man who fathered menot committing to anything else."
A muscle quivered at Ari's jaw. "Dad, he was your father, and legally, you are entitled to everything DePaul left in his will for you. It's your legacy."
"Just because I'm entitled doesn't mean I want it," Malcolm responded. He rested his chin on his hand.
Ari gave Malcolm a sidelong glance. "What does Mom think about all this?"
"You know your mother," Malcolm said. His mouth curved into an unconscious smile. "She told me that she's fine with whatever I decide to do."
That sounded exactly like his mother, Ari thought. Barbara Alexander trusted her husband's instincts as much as she relied on her own. His parents were partners in business as well as in life, and perfect examples of what a good marriage should look like.
Ari glanced down at the wedding band on his left ring finger, his heart saturated with grief.
At thirty-two years old, Ari was a widower, having lost his wife to cancer. He was still dealing with her death two years later.
He glanced over at his father, who appeared to be deep in thought. Ari and his siblings all agreed that their father should accept his inheritance, but they knew that their deeply spiritual parents would not make a decision until they spent time in prayer, seeking divine guidance.
Ari couldn't understand why his father would willingly walk away from his inheritance. His parents and grandparents had worked in the hospitality industry for as long as Ari could remember, and they often talked about owning a chain of highend hotels. This was a dream come truenot just for his mom and dad, but also for him.
They owned two hotels that were performing well, but they always dreamed of expanding. Ari loved working alongside his parents, and this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to manage a conglomerate like the DePaul Hotel Group was just too tempting to pass up.
Ultimately, it was his father's decision, and his alone to make. Despite what Ari felt about it, he would respect Malcolm's choice.
The May temperature in California was what Ari considered comfortable. It wasn't extremely hot and it wasn't as humid as it was back home.
They had arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport fifteen minutes ago and were now in a sleek, black limousine on the way to Beverly Hills. Ari and his family had traveled to California for vacation once, but it had been years ago. Nothing looked familiar except for the palm trees and all of the nonstop traffic that flowed around them.
In Aspen, there were no hour-long commutes to work in a sea of heavy traffic, no outrageously priced real estate markets, no driving all the way across town to reach his favorite stores or restaurants.
In Aspen, the residents knew one another. Los Angeles would take some getting used to, Ari decided. The only time he'd left Aspen for a length of time was when he attended college in Pennsylvania.
Ari guessed they were in Beverly Hills when the scenery transformed from concrete sidewalks to lush, green lawns and from high-rises to mansions.
Malcolm checked his watch. "It didn't take long to get here from the airport. Just about thirty minutes."
They were in the heart of Beverly Hills, only steps from renowned Rodeo Drive. Ari drank in the beauty of the DePaul Hotel. "Wow," he murmured. "Dad, this now belongs to you."
Malcolm's faint smile held a touch of sadness. "Welcome to the DePaul Beverly Hills Hotel," a young man said as they exited the limo. "Miss Rivera will escort you to your meeting."
A young woman with blond hair and wearing a trendy-looking business suit greeted them within minutes of stepping inside the swanky hotel. "Mr. Goodman is waiting for you in the penthouse," she told them.
Ari took note that the outside of the hotel had been inspired by the Spanish Revival architecture and Mediterranean styling that was so prevalent in Beverly Hills. The interior evoked timeless elegance in sun-drenched colors of gold, salmon, coral and cream.
"Absolutely beautiful," he whispered.
His father agreed. "Looks much better in person than in the magazines."
They were taken up to the DePaul residence via private elevator and greeted by a stoic-faced man introduced to them as Franklin.
"He was Mr. DePaul's butler," the young woman explained. She led them into a conference room.
The attorney rose to greet them, but it was the woman behind him who caught Ari's attention immediately. His gaze focused on her face and then moved over her body slowly. Her skin reminded him of a smooth cafe au lait. There was just a hint of makeup on her face, dark brown eyeliner that enhanced her almond-shaped eyes.
Ira Goodman shook hands with both of them. "I asked Natasha LeBlanc to join us. She is a business consultant who has worked with Robert since she was in college. I think you will find her expertise in this industry invaluable."
Natasha smiled and then extended her hand. "It's very nice to meet you both."
Ari was rendered speechless for a moment by her beauty. He swallowed hard, struggling to recover his voice. "It's a pleasure to meet you, as well," he said finally. Something intense flared through his entrancement.
Their eyes met and held.
Ari cleared his throat softly and then stepped out of the way. He needed to put some distance between them; he was looking for an escape from the seductive scent of her perfume.
They sat around a large custom-designed conference table. Ari made sure to sit two seats away from Natasha.
"I thought you might be hungry, so I ordered lunch," Ira announced. "It should be here shortly."
Ari glanced over at his father, who kept his face void of emotion.
Ira cleared his throat nervously.
Malcolm took a long sip of water before saying, "Mr. Goodman, I have to admit that I'm surprised by all that's happened. I had no idea that Robert DePaul was my father."
Ira nodded. "I can certainly understand how overwhelming this must be."
"Why didn't he leave his estate to his family?"
Ari could feel Natasha's eyes studying him. He met her gaze, forcing her to look away.
"Robert had a private meeting with his family a few days before he died. He gave them a memorandum outlining his final wishes. I have been Robert's attorney for almost thirty years," Ira stated. "I knew him well enough to know that he had made up his mind, and this was the purpose for the meeting. He wanted his relatives to respect his decision in appointing you to replace him at the empire's helm. Robert didn't want knives drawn for his ten-billion-dollar empire."
"Surely he left something for his family," Malcolm said.
Ira nodded. "He did. He handed each of his nephews a two-million-dollar purse, and he set aside trusts for their children. All of the distributions are outlined in a copy of the memorandum before you. In addition to the rest of his estate, he also left a letter for you, which I believe will give you the answers you're seeking. Robert was a very thorough man when it came to matters like these. He never left anything to chance."
Malcolm took the letter but didn't open it.
Ari knew that his father would wait until he was alone to read the note.
"Mr. Alexander, I can only imagine how overwhelmed you must feel right now," Natasha said. "Since Robert's death, the hospitality industry is wondering what's going to happen with the hotels. The employees are concerned, as well. There are a lot of unanswered questions."
Malcolm nodded in understanding.
She took a deep breath and released it. "I'm sure you'd like to take some time to adjust to all of your newfound wealth, however
"Do you have someone interested in the hotels?" Ari interjected, having a sense of where Natasha was taking the conversation.
She boldly met his gaze. "Although Mr. Alexander hasn't asked my opinion, I do feel that it would be in his best interest to sell the hotels."
"Why?" Ari asked. "Is it because you don't think he can manage the chain? You may not know this, but my family has worked in the hospitality industry for over forty years."
"I am well aware of the two hotels owned by your father. The DePaul Hotel & Spa Resorts are a chain of luxury resorts, and it takes"
"Miss LeBlanc," Ari said, cutting her off, "we are quite capable of taking over the properties. Like you, I'm sure Robert DePaul did his research before deciding to leave his estate to my father. I'm sure we all can agree that he was a very smart businessman." Natasha LeBlanc was extremely beautiful, but he couldn't excuse the condescending tone in her voice.
They were interrupted by a knock.
Franklin stood in the doorway with a cart laden with food. He carried plates to the table, two at a time. Moving about the room in a nonintrusive manner, he placed a plate in front of each of them. The stuffed chicken breasts smelled delicious. Ari prayed that his stomach wouldn't protest too loudly.
Franklin left the room without making a sound.
"Mr. Alexander, it was not my intention to offend you," Natasha said.
"Your suggestion that my father sell the properties left to him by his father wasn't meant to be offensive?" Ari asked, leaning forward in his seat. "Are you kidding me?"
"Son, let it go," Malcolm said quietly.
Ari shook his head. "Dad, I'm sorry, but I can't. Miss LeBlanc took one look at us and decided that we weren't good enough for the DePaul image." He gave her a hard stare. "Admit it. You think we're just a bunch of country bumpkins who don't have a clue when it comes to running a chain of luxury hotels."
Natasha's lips parted in surprise. "I know all about your family business, Mr. Alexander."
"Mr. Alexander is my father. Just call me Ari."
"All right," she responded calmly. "Ari, I know that you have some experience in the hospitality industry, but managing a chain of luxury spa resorts isn't the same as what you're used to doing." Nervously, she moistened her dry lips. "It's a bit more involved."
"Yes, there are some notable differences," Ari said. "But I assure you, I have worked with a hotel chain since I was sixteen, and I was very good at my job. Hotel chains ensure a level of consistencythe hotel operates on a larger scale, but if not managed properly, can feel a bit sterile and corporate. Our experience with a smaller hotel allows for a more personal touch. Robert DePaul successfully merged the two, by catering to each guest as if they were the only guest in the hotel."
Natasha nodded in agreement. "I see that you've done your homework."
Ari met her gaze straight on. "I studied Robert DePaul's business model in college. I am well acquainted with the organizational structure of the DePaul Group."
He studied her face for a moment to see if her expression would change, but it remained the same.
Ira gestured toward the woman who had escorted them to the suite. "My assistant will get you a full accounting of Robert's assets."
"Thank you," Malcolm responded.
Ari stole a peek at Natasha.
She was dressed to perfection in a cream-colored, sleeveless silk shirt and a teal-colored pencil skirt. The matching jacket hung on the back of her chair. Natasha was slender, but with an athletic build. She wore her shoulder-length hair in soft curls around her heart-shaped face.
Ari couldn't deny that Natasha was very beautiful, but he didn't like what she was trying to do to his father. Unconsciously, he played with the gold wedding band on his finger.