Read an Excerpt
Come on, you stupid thing," Sage Collins grumbled, huffing vigorously. "I gave you my change, now give me my damn Kit Kat candy bar!" Forgetting that she was at Indianapolis's illustrious Westchester Academy, and that impressionable young children were milling about, she smacked the vending machine glass powerfully with her right palm. "I want my chocolate bar and I want it now, you good for nothing piece of"
"What's going on here?" demanded a voice behind her.
Sage didn't bother to turn around. Her eyes were fixed on the chocolate bar, held captive between a jumbo bag of Cheetos cheese puffs and a can of roasted peanuts.
"Do I need to get security?"
Now the man had her attention. Sage tossed a look over her shoulder and quickly regarded the taller-than-average brother. He was a giant of a man. Built like an NFL linebacker, but without the jiggly beer belly and menacing stare, he had extrawide shoulders, ripped forearms and a pair of strong, sturdy legs. Staggered by his height, but not the least bit intimidated by his brisk tone, she expelled a breath. "This machine sucks," she told him, sweeping her bangs off her forehead. "If I had matches, I'd torch it."
"Ever stop to think that maybe it's the customer and not the product?"
"No, because it robbed a six-year-old of his allowance five minutes ago."
His furious scowl matched the heat in his eyes. "You're acting like a deranged psycho, and I'm supposed to believe you? Are you on medication or something?"
Sage was a mature, cultured, twenty-eight-year-old woman, but she felt like smacking the man hard upside the head. Hot with anger, she scrutinized the burly stranger with the aggressive wide-leggedstance. His plaid shirt should be in a box on its way to Goodwill charity donations and his faded jeans had obviously seen better days. In Las Vegas, a brother would never be caught dead wearing scuffed shoes, she thought. They dressed to the nines or not at all. But up here in Indianapolis, dressing casual took on a whole new meaning. The man needed a new pair of Birkenstock shoes, and most importantly, a new attitude.
"Are you from around here?"
"No, and I don't have a name or phone number, either."
Snorting, he shrugged dismissively. "Don't flatter yourself. I'm not interested."
"Sure you aren't. That's what all the rejected guys say."
His face darkened. "Move out of the way so I can take a look at it."
"No thanks." Turning around, she bumped the machine with her hips. The Kit Kat bar fell, along with a jumbo bag of Doritos chips and several packs of gum. Bending down to retrieve her goods, she donned a proud smile. "I told you I didn't need your help."
"You didn't pay for those things! What you're doing verges on theft."
"So what are you going to do, make a citizen's arrest?" she asked, the absurdity of her words mocking him. His cologne, like his shirt, screamed for attention, but Sage wasn't going to give him another second of her time. Turning away, she quipped, "I wish I could stay and continue this riveting verbal exchange, but I have a game to watch."
Grinning, she ripped open the bag of Doritos chips and popped one into her mouth. "Mmm, delicious!" Deaf to his threats, she continued down the hall, and ducked inside the gymnasium. In the ten minutes she'd been gone, the stands had filled up and now a row of spectators stood beside the bleachers. Middle-aged men wore the home team's lively orange jerseys, adoring mothers waved homemade signs and teenage girls stomped their feet to the swish of the cheerleader's pom-poms. The scent of popcorn and nacho cheese mingled with colognes, perfumes and sweat.
Smiling apologetically, Sage inched past a row of overzeal-ous fans with spiky hair and vibrant face paint. Stepping over a wailing toddler, she took her place beside her stout, barrel-chested boss, Leo Varick. At fifty-eight, the former sixties child star had been in the entertainment business since birth and a celebrity manager for decades.
Plunking down on the bench, she reached in her handbag and pulled out a bottle of Perrier water. Shifting uncomfortably, her jean-clad legs colder than blocks of ice, she munched hungrily on the bag of chips. She'd had nothing to eat on the connecting flight from Atlanta. But after partying at the Voodoo Lounge with her girlfriends until dawn, she needed a solid meal, and not the packs of crackers the stewardess had offered.
"What do you think so far?"
"I think a lot of these kids have raw talent."
"Anyone stand out?"
Sage shrugged. "Not really."
"That's because you haven't seen Khari Grant yet."
Stuffing the last Dorito chip into her mouth, she brushed the salt from her hands. "That's the fifth time you've mentioned this kid's name today. He must have some crazy skills on the court, because I've never seen you this excited."
"Khari's the real deal. One day fans will be lining up just to see the kid practice."
"If he's such a big-shot athlete, how come I haven't heard any buzz about him?" Sage sipped her water. "I'm always on the ESPN sports channel message boards, and I haven't heard jack about a high school player named Khari Grant."
"Until last season, Khari was just another point guard, but he went through a major growth spurt and now he's mopping the floor with his opponents."
"But he's still a teenager. How good could he be?"
"Khari Grant is one of those rare athletes who only comes along once. Six years ago LeBron James took the basketball world by storm, and it's just a matter of time before Khari does the same thing. Soon he'll be signing endorsement contracts and "
Crossing her legs, she inspected the frantic crowd of basketball fans. It was the first week in January, and despite being weighed down with bomber jackets, sweaters and velour sweat suits, spectators cheered relentlessly for the home team. Sage had only been in Indianapolis for twenty-four hours, but she already missed home. Unlike Las Vegas, the city was a dark, gloomy gray, and from what Leo had told her on the plane, it was only going to get colder. Thank God we're only here for the weekend, she thought, stuffing her chilled hands into her wool coat.
"Did you see that?"
"No, I missed it. What happened?"
"He hit a three pointer from half court!" Shaking his head in awe, Leo flipped open his folio case and perused the documents inside. "The kid's stats are amazing. Twenty-one-point average, three blocks, a couple steals, and he makes the other team work hard on defense."
Aware of her boss's love of basketball, she decided this was the perfect time to talk to him about the executive position job, and her plans for the future. "Leo, I tagged along on this scouting trip because I was hoping we could talk about my career. I want to know if you've given any more thought about who'll be replacing Ryan."
"Why? You interested?" Chuckling, he turned his attention to his scouting report.
"Yes. In fact, I'm very interested."
"No offense, Sage, but you don't have what it takes to be an executive manager." He patted her leg sympathetically. "You're great at what you do. The kids love you."
"But I'm tired of babysitting overpaid pop stars whose only ambition is to be on the cover of US Weekly. I need a change. And I know I'd do a kick-ass job as the second in command. I've made so many contacts in the entertainment industry, it'll be a cinch to slide in and take the reins."
"A cinch, huh?" His tone reeked of sarcasm. "Sage, you don't want the job, trust me. You'd have to put in ten or more hours a day, and although there's an enormous salary hike, there'd be a lot more responsibility too."
"Sounds like it's right up my alley," she argued. "I can do it, Leo. I'm capable, I'm qualified and people love me!"
With a deep sigh, he folded his beefy hands in his lap. "All that might be true, but the executive manager job is no joke. You'd have to lead by example and stay on top of things. I'd expect a lot more from you."
"And I'm ready to give you more. All I'm asking for is a chance. A chance to prove myself and take Sapphire Entertainment Agency to the next level." Sage paused to let her words sink in. Ignoring the butterflies ruling her stomach, she faced her boss, convinced that this was the single most important moment of her career. "Leo, I think it's time we branch out and add more pro athletes to our client roster. We only have a couple, and we're not going all out for them. It'd like to be the one to head our athlete's discussion."
His cell phone rang to the sound of the Jay-Z classic, "It's a Hard-Knock Life." Whipping out his iPhone handheld, he checked the number and leaped to his feet like a jack-in-the-box. "Hold that thought. It's Mariah's people. I have to take this call." Phone at his ear, he jogged down the stairs and out of sight.
Around her, fans cheered and a few energized ones started the wave, but Sage was too upset to join in. Leo thought she was joke. Just another pretty face working at the agency. He hadn't come right out and said it, but she caught the underlying message.
Sage considered her options. Bribing Leo with VIP passes to the hottest clubs in Vegas wouldn't work. As a regular in and around town, he had access to everything.
But there had to be something she could do. Something that would demonstrate just how serious she was about the executive manager position. Eight years of controlling arrogant, snotty child stars was eight years too many. At first, Sage had been enamored with the glitz and glam of the business. Concerts. Backstage passes. Private parties. When she'd first attended the Academy Awards and saw all of her favorite actors, she'd become a bumbling fool in a Versace evening dress. Drinking flutes of champagne didn' t help, either. And every time Terrence Howard swaggered by, she imagined tripping his wife and shimmying up to the handsome star. But these days, Sage would rather watch paint dry than go to another movie premiere.
The turbulent roar of the crowd yanked Sage from her thoughts. Candy wrappers rained down on her, cola splashed onto her shoes and popcorn fell like yellow balls of snow.
"What the hell?" Feeling around in her purse, she grabbed a handful of Kleenex tissues, and cleaned the stain from her leather Gucci boots. Have these people lost their damn minds? she wondered, picking kernels out of her hair and tossing them on the ground.
Sage looked up just in time to see a tall, majestic being suspended in midair. Palming the basketball in one hand, he waved off the bug-eyed defender with the other. He dunked the ball with such power, the backboard shook like a leaf in the wind. Fervent applause echoed around the gym, bouncing off the ceiling, the floor and the walls.
Mesmerized, she leaned forward in her seat. Sage didn't need to look at the back of the kid's jersey to know this man-child, the future heir to Michael Jordan's throne, was Khari Grant. She watched him play. He had the speed of Allen Iverson, the athleticism of Kobe Bryant and the grace of an African gazelle. No awkward moves, no misdirected plays, no jogging back on defense. Nothing but no-look passes, long-range jumpers and three-point shots.
Somewhere between a Khari steal and a Khari dunk, Leo returned. "I told you the kid was something special."
Sage closed her gaping mouth. "I've never seen anything like him," she managed, resurfacing from her trance. "I mean, I've watched hundreds of basketball games, trying to do research for us, but I've never seen a high school player dominate the court the way he does. And he's only seventeen. He'll be invincible in a couple years! Who represents him? In the Know Management? Sports for Life?"
"That's weird. Why would he have chosen a smaller, less-known firm?"
"Wrong again. The kid doesn't have a manager."
Her head snapped back. "Are you kidding me?"
"I wish I was." Leo tucked his phone into his suit pocket. "See the big lug sitting at the end of the home team's bench?"
Sage followed Leo's gaze. It was the angry brother in plaid. "I had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting him outside. What about him?"
"That's Khari's father."
Staring at him with fresh eyes, Sage reexamined the surly guy she'd met in the hall. Without the scowl, he was a different man. He still needed a gift certificate to a Ralph Lauren boutique, but she noted the defined features of his profile. The nose was straight, the mouth sensuously wide and full and his gaze start-lingly intense. Marshall Grant had perfect posture, strong male features, and when he cheered his smile revealed slight dimples. "Are you sure, Leo? He doesn't look old enough to have a teenage son."
"He's thirty-seven." Pushing his Armani eyeglasses up the bridge of his nose, he lowered his head and his voice. "Marshall knocked up his girlfriend and they got married just before sophomore year of college. They split up when the kid was around ten. Apparently, Roxanne had a drug and alcohol problem and refused to seek help. When Marshall returned from Kuwait, he chose not to reenlist."
"He served in Kuwait?" she asked, shocked.
"And Bosnia too."
"Hold up. How do you know so much about him?"
Leo held up his folio. "It's all in here. Why do you think I was studying the scouting report on the plane? I've got to bring my A game if I'm going to convince Marshall Grant that I'm qualified to represent his son."
"What reverence. You make it sound like this guy is next in line for the throne!"
His smiled fizzled like an Alka-Seltzer tablet in water. "Grant spent five years in the navy before joining the navy's counter-terrorist unit. Since being discharged, he's had a string of community service jobs and now runs a center for teens at risk."
Nodding, she considered their ten-second exchange in the hallway. "A glorified truant officer, huh? He's definitely in the right field."
"Marshall will be a hard one to crack. He won't let anyone get within a mile of Khari. He thinks someone's going to cheat his son."
Sage laughed. Nudging him playfully with her shoulder, she teased, "You're not scared of him, are you, boss man?"
"You wouldn't be laughing if you knew what Khari's projected net worth will be once he turns pro." Glancing over his shoulder to ensure no one was listening, he dropped his deep baritone to a whisper. "Fifty million."
Sage was glad she was sitting down. If she had been standing, she would have tumbled forward and knocked herself unconscious when she hit the gymnasium floor. "Fifty million dollars," she repeated, her voice rising with excitement. "At your standard twenty-percent fee and agency costs, you stand to make almost three million bucks!