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At six o'clock, when his morning alarm clock sounded, Luke Stallion was already standing beneath the heated spray of his morning shower. Six perfectly positioned stainless-steel showerheads were pelting water over every square inch of his muscular body.
Maneuvering the shower massage feature, Luke adjusted the spray until the pressurized water felt like hundreds of sturdy fingers were kneading the tension out of his very taut body. Closing his eyes, Luke tilted his head forward, allowing the water to rain down over his closely cropped haircut and beat against the back of his thick neck. As he tilted his head back again, the water hit him in the face with full force and pounded against his broad chest.
A rise of steam billowed in the open space, painting the tiled walls with a cloudy mist. Minutes passed before Luke moved to soap himself with the organic body wash he favored. He took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of sandalwood and vanilla, and just like that he was wide-eyed and awake, his earlier moments of sluggishness vanquished.
Luke was suddenly anxious about the mandatory meeting that had been scheduled for first thing that day. The memo had said no one was excused, and he could only begin to imagine what was so important. Having spent most of the night brushing up on the details of all his current projects, Luke was fairly confident that he would be able to respond to anything thrown at him, but then again, with his older brothers, just how sure could he be? He heaved a deep sigh.
Reaching for his requisite loofah sponge, he guided his large hands across the tight, sinewy lines of his torso. The soft sponge gently caressed his flesh, his skin like dark satin stretched over rock-hard marble. As he soaped and lathered each taut muscle, Luke had the overwhelming sensation that something big was going to happen to him today. Something that would change his life forever. He only wished he had a clue what that was so that he could be prepared for it.
Luke heaved a deep sigh. Leaning forward, he pressed his palms against the tile, the spray washing over his back and buttocks. Beaded water like tiny pearls tolled down his back, puddling in small streams before running down the backs of his long legs.
Some thirty minutes later he stepped from the shower, reaching for a large white towel that rested on the corner of the marble countertop. As he swiped at the moisture that dampened his skin, he admired his reflection in the mirror. His time in the gym was paying off nicely, definition clearly painting the muscular lines of his body. The new trainer was working him well, and Luke appreciated the benefits the hard work was producing.
Wrapping the towel around his waist, he stood staring at his reflection for a minute longer. Energy gleamed in the pools of black gold that were his eyes. They were his father's eyes, and his brothers'. History glimmered back at him, a testament to the legacy he'd been bequeathed at birth. He was a true Stallion, through and through. Never mind him being prepared for whatever was coming. Whatever was coming had better be prepared for him, Luke mused, a soft smile pulling at his mouth. Nothing and no one had ever bested a Stallion man, and as far as he was concerned, nothing and no one ever would.
The laughter ringing through the conference room of Stallion Enterprises' corporate headquarters belied the serious nature of the business meeting the executive board was supposed to be holding. The Stallion brothers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were chuckling heartily as they sat discussing the impending anniversary celebrations for Mark, John and John's father-in-law, Edward Briscoe. It had been one year since all three men had jumped the holy matrimony broom, each of them taking a wife within weeks of each other.
The joint anniversary celebration had been the brain child of John's wife, Marah, and her twin sister, Eden Waller. Mark's wife, Michelle, had been pulled into the excitement, albeit reluctantly—the other women were adamant that since Edward and his wife, Juanita, and Michelle and Mark had both eloped, then their one-year anniversary celebrations needed to be the talk of Dallas. The three-day event was scheduled to coincide with the family reunion and the annual Black Rodeo hosted by the Briscoe-Stallion family at the renowned Briscoe Ranch.
"I swear," John was exclaiming, disconnecting the call on his personal cell phone. "This party is going to send us to the poor house. Every time Marah calls it's about the price of something having gone up. This thing is costing a fortune!" The man tossed up his arms, feigning annoyance.
His brothers all laughed, three pairs of dark eyes focused on his wide grin. The family resemblance ran deep, all four men imposing in stature. They each boasted well-formed physiques, black-coffee complexions, chiseled jawlines, seductive bedroom eyes and charismatic smiles.
Luke laughed. "I can't believe you and Mark keep giving in so easily. Those women have both of you whipped silly!"
Mark laughed with him. "Love will do that to you, baby brother. You should try it."
Luke shook his head from side to side. "Not me. I'm following in Matthew's footsteps." He gestured in his brother's direction. "You go, Mr. Bachelor of the Year!" he exclaimed, acknowledging their sibling's most recent claim to fame.
Matthew laughed. "That's right, baby brother! Don't go out like that. Enjoy it while you can!"
"What do you mean?" Mark asked. "Go out like what? John and I didn't do anything but get married."
"And married to very beautiful, talented, exceptional women," John added. "I have to tell you boys, it beats that dating game you two want to keep playing."
Luke's head waved from side to side. "I like that game. I play it very well."
"Me, too, as evidenced by the fact Te x a n magazine is giving me an award for it," Matthew intoned. "In fact," he said, gazing down at the Rolex watch on his wrist, "I plan to play with Miss Daphne Cuthbert at seven o'clock this evening, so let's get this meeting wrapped up."
"Does Daphne have any sisters?" Luke queried.
Matthew nodded enthusiastically, gesturing with his hands. "As a matter of fact, her sister, Janette, has a pair of legs that go from here to—"
John held up his hand. "Spare us." He chuckled. "You two are determined to learn your lessons the hard way," he said, his head shaking from side to side. "Don't say Mark and I didn't warn you!" Shifting the stack of manila folders on the table in front of him, John laughed heartily, his brothers laughing with him. "On to new business," he said, shifting back into CEO mode without batting an eye.
Not skipping a beat, his siblings shifted with him, their earlier elation replaced with disciplined reservation. John leaned back in his leather executive's chair, his arms folding over his chest as his gaze shifted from one brother to another. His forehead was furrowed as he fell into deep thought, something serious clearly crossing his mind. The other three men leaned forward, each of them attentive. Luke pulled his yellow-lined notepad closer, his ballpoint pen poised in anticipation.
John began slowly. "The reason I called this meeting is because Stallion stock has been under accumulation over the last few weeks. Too swiftly and too much of it. It's raising some concerns about who is suddenly so interested in us and why."
"Isn't interest a good thing?" Luke asked, meeting John's gaze evenly. "It's near an all-time high, isn't it?
John nodded. "That's true, but it's not a good thing if it's all being purchased for the wrong reasons. One entity in control of too many shares could present us with some major problems."
Matthew nodded. "Word on the street is someone wants us and wants us bad. We have to figure out who and why. I'll be contacting all of our major stockholders in the next few weeks to see if anyone can shed any light on the situation, but we can't afford to let our guard down. This could be a problem for us."
A look of confusion crossed Luke's face. "I don't understand…" he started.
"We four have controlling interest in the company right now, but if one individual acquires enough of our stock, we could find ourselves in the middle of a hostile takeover attempt," John answered.
Mark shook his head. "No one would be that bold, would they?"
John shrugged. "Anything is possible, but no matter what, we need to make sure we're on top of our game in case this gets ugly. We've all worked too hard to get where we are. We will not lose this company."
There was a pregnant pause as each man fell into his own thoughts, remembrances of Stallion Enterprises' growth and their individual contributions to the company crossing their minds.
John hadn't yet graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta before he'd begun negotiations for his very first acquisition. He'd formulated a solid business plan, the base of it grounded in determination and an adventurous spirit. Taking a chance on a small complex of rental units in foreclosure, he'd financed the deal with his share of the insurance money they'd all received after the untimely death of their parents. After investing a small sum of money to renovate and upgrade the property, he'd sold it some four months later for a sizeable profit. The rest had been history.
Building a financially secure future for his younger siblings had been foremost in John's mind, his determination motivating him to move mountains for his family's survival. Stallion Enterprises was now a respected corporate empire built on commercial real estate and development as well as a shipping company, with entertainment interests, and Mark's newest pet project, a nationally ranked professional race team. Success had come after much hard work.
As the company had grown, John had ensured that his parents' dreams of each of them attending and graduating from college had come true. Matthew had attended Harvard on a full academic scholarship, later earning a juris doctorate from Harvard's prestigious school of law. Mark had followed John to Morehouse, graduating with honors and a dual degree in engineering and physics.
And then there'd been Luke. The baby of the family had finally graduated from Texas Southern University with a degree in business management. Luke had done the six-year program, his two freshman years causing John much angst as the young man's focus had been on everything but his studies. And each of them had eventually thrown their hats into the Stallion ring, committing themselves fully to the company.
Looking around the table, John couldn't help but smile. His dreams come true had been more than even he had imagined. John knew their parents would have been proud. His gaze fell on Luke, who returned his smile as if he'd been able to read the older man's thoughts.
John turned his attention back to business. "Let's move on," he said softly.
A stack of manila folders rested in the center of the table. John pulled one file in particular from the heap waiting for his attention. He studied the typed file label only briefly before handing the profile of documentation to Luke. Leaning back in the cushioned executive's chair, John clasped his hands together in his lap. He nodded his head in Luke's direction, and the young man's eyes widened with a mix of curiosity and rising excitement as his older brother began to speak.
"Luke, you've been doing an excellent job for us. Your work has been truly impressive. We were thrilled with the results you managed to attain with the union negotiations. Both sides have commended your actions. As well, the legal department had some good things to say about what you did on that last acquisition."
Luke's lips bent into a slight smile as his other siblings nodded their agreement.
John gestured in Mark and Matthew's direction as he continued. "We've been discussing what's next for you, and we all agree that you might be ready to handle your own division."
Excitement pulled at Luke's expression. "Might?" the young man questioned, looking from one sibling to the other.
"Time will tell," John said, shrugging his broad shoulders.
A look of confusion washed over Luke's expression. "So, what does that mean?"
John leaned forward, his clasped hands moving from his lap to the conference tabletop. "It means that you are now solely responsible for the West End rejuvenation project."
Matthew nodded. "We will support whatever you want to do as long as you stay within the parameters dictated by the town council."
Mark interjected. "And please, don't irritate the mayor. We need him on our side."
John continued. "The details of the budget and the town council's criteria are all there. From start to finish you have exactly two years to get this project completed. Right now, you have eight weeks to pull your team together. I need you to give us your assessment of the property acquisitions, any revisions to the original proposal and budget and a detailed timeline. Any questions?"
"What's the budget?"
"One hundred million dollars, and not a penny more. Do you think you can handle it?" John answered.
Luke nodded, grinning broadly. "I welcome the challenge."
Matthew clasped his hands together on top of the table. "We hope so, baby brother. This one's a big deal. This rejuvenation project will be a coup for the city of Dallas and Stallion Enterprises' reputation. We're putting a lot of trust in you. If you really want to impress us, come in twenty million dollars under budget without compromising the integrity of the project."
Luke came to his feet, extending a large hand toward John. "You won't be disappointed," he said as he shook his brother's hand, his broad smile warming his dark face. "Thank you for the trust."
John nodded. "Just remember, if you need help, don't be too proud to let someone know. The only stupid question is the one you don't ask."
Pure adrenaline fueled Luke Stallion's ride from the corporate offices of Stallion Enterprises' luxury high-rise to the deteriorating Oak Cliff neighborhood the family was intent on revitalizing. It was a typical inner-city, working-class neighborhood renowned for its booming atmosphere back in the 1950s and 60s. Time had painted a new but not improved façade over the landscape despite the efforts of many grassroots and church organizations working to bring the community back to its original glow. The Stallions were hoping to do their part to inject some much-needed energy back into the area.
Parking his Mercedes coupe on the street, the young man exited the vehicle, set the lock and alarm, deposited six quarters into the meter and set out on foot to explore the strained area.