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Natasha "Tasha" Bloom sat in the large, mahogany-paneled conference room of her grandfather's mansion and tried to warm herself from the chill. Like everyone else who'd traveled to the cemetery for his burial, she was nearly soaked to the skin from standing in the torrential rain during the ceremony. The tentlike structure set up by the funeral home staff to shield the family from the mid-June downpour had been little more than four poles and a tarp that obviously hadn't been designed to withstand gale-force winds because as soon as the pastor had begun reading the words, a powerful gust had picked it up and sent it flying across the cemetery's well-kept grounds. Since Walker Bloom's death three days ago, it had been raining like Miami under hurricane warnings. Those who knew him well figured he'd dialed up the weather just to make everyone miserable.
In the front of the room stood Gunther Hayden, her grandfather's attorney. As far as Tasha knew, Gunther's only job was to keep the monthly alimony checks flowing into the accounts of her grandfather's four ex-wives, known collectively by Walker as the Witch Bitches. All were seated around the conference table. They hated him, but he'd hated them more. The only wife he'd ever loved was his first wife, Rhonda, the mother of Tasha's dad, Marshall. Tasha never knew her grandmother because she died before Tasha was born.
Tasha discreetly scanned the faces of the other people invited to witness the reading of the will. Many were employees from his various enterprises: chauffeurs, housekeepers, vice presidents, administrative assistants. Walker Bloom had been an auto industry legend. In the fifties and sixties his designs spawned cars that revolutionized what America drove. As a result, he'd made a ton of money.
Further panning showed a group of men standing by the door. By their heights and girth she guessed them to be members of the Michigan Freighters, the minor-league football team her grandfather owned. When her eyes locked onto the dark gaze of Drew Davis, her heart stopped. He gave her an almost imperceptible nod of greeting then looked away. She hadn't seen him at the funeral, but here he wasa former All Pro quarterback and presently general manager of the Freighters. He was also still as gorgeous as he'd been the last time she'd seen him twenty years ago. Back then, he'd been a college phenom and she a seventeen-year-old high-school senior with a crush on him larger than the state of Michigan. Feeling all of seventeen again at the sight of him, she gathered herself and redirected her attention to Gunther, who appeared ready to start the proceedings.
"Okay, everyone. Let's get this under way."
The large-screen monitor on the wall suddenly went from blank to the face of her grandfather, and a few people jumped in surprise. The Walker Bloom glaring at them now bore little resemblance to the handsome, too-rich-for-his-own-good scoundrel he'd been when Tasha lived under his wing after the death of her parents. His brown-skinned features were ravaged by age and illness, yet he'd remained the sharp-tongued, judgmental hell-raiser he'd always been until he day he died at age eighty-five.
"If you're watching this, it means I'm dead. So hello to all the vultures."
Heads shook all over the room. Tasha sighed. She loved her grandfather, but it was like loving a pit bull that made its living attacking the neighbors.
"First off, to my employees. Because of all of you I was able to afford the best of everything, so thanks. If you worked for me for five years or more, I'm leaving you five years' worth of salary. A few of you will be getting more."
He directed his next words at Gunther. "And make sure the checks go out as soon as possible. If the employees don't get their money within five business days, fire yourself and bring somebody else on board who can get the job done."
Tasha watched Gunther's lips tighten. During his thirty-five-year tenure, he'd been fired and rehired more times than anyone in the room could count. However, the employees, like his longtime chauffeur, Tony Craig, and the housekeeper, Carmen Nash, were smiling. A lump sum of five years' salary would pay off mortgages, help with tuition costs and allow some to retire. Walker Bloom could be a pit bull, but he could also be an angel with a heart of gold.
He then narrowed his eyes as if he had the ability to see the people gathered in the room. "The Witch Bitches get nothing. Zip! Nada."
Their shocked gasps filled the silence. A couple looked faint. Others looked like they wanted to pull out a Glock.
"You all signed prenups," he reminded them, "so I hope you didn't come here thinking I'd let you keep feeding at the Bloom trough. And to Barb and Treena, the little bastards you've been passing off as mine, they get nothing either. Had myself fixed forty years ago but never told you. Hope their real fathers make enough money to pay for their fancy schools and clothes from now on."
The aforementioned Treena, his last ex-wife, who at age thirty-seven was a year younger than Tasha, promptly fainted and crumpled slack-jawed in her leather chair. Gunther ran to her side, shouting for water. Her twelve-year-old son, Walker Jr., stared first at her, then at the man he assumed to be his father before rushing past Drew Davis and his men standing by the door and out of the room. Walker's third wife, Barbara, hurried out as well, trailed by her confused-looking fourteen-year-old daughter, Bianca.
Tasha was speechless. She'd expected drama but nothing this award-worthy. Had Gunther known about the false paternity? By the shocked look on his blanched face the answer was no.
The remaining ex-wives snatched up their expensive hand bags and black gloves. With tight-lipped dignity and fire in their eyes, they stood and headed for the way out. As they made their exit, Witch Bitch #2, a bottle blonde named Caroline, flipped the glowering Walker the bird.
After reviving the weeping Treena, Gunther escorted her out and returned a few moments later alone.
Up on the screen Walker Bloom grinned like a ghoul. "I assume the coven has left the building."
Tasha knew smiling would be inappropriate, so she schooled her features not to react. She'd seen him give folks hell most of her life, but this performance from the grave ranked among the best.
"Now, the only people left to deal with are Drew and Tasha."
She stiffened. She owned a very successful and highly regarded brokerage firm, and due to the wise investment of the hefty sum of money she'd inherited upon the untimely death of her parents in a plane crash during her college freshman year, she was monetarily set for the rest of her life and didn't expect her grandfather to leave her a dime. In fact, the two of them discussed the subject last summer while on his yacht off Catalina. He'd agreed that she had more money than she'd ever need. Listening to him now, though, made her uneasy.
"To my granddaughter, Natasha, I leave every damn dime. Every stock, T-bill and certificate of depositall the houses in the United States and abroad, the cars, the horses, my collection of fine art and any change she finds in the couch cushions."
Tasha appreciated the humor, but in reality she wanted to smack him upside his head. She didn't need any more wealth. He could've left his estate to a deserving charity or his alma mater, Savannah State.
"I also leave her my sorry-ass football team, the Freighters."
That stunned her. He knew of her lifelong pipe dream to own a football team. The unexpected gift made her smile until she saw the shock and anger on the face of Drew Davis. Before she could figure out what his problem might be, her grandfather added, "Drew, I know I promised you the team, but I changed my mind."
Her mouth dropped. Drew's face was so stonily set it could've been chiseled out of marble. His eyes burning her way were like lava spilling from a volcano.
"And, Drew, so that you'll stay on as GM and coach and help Tasha out, I'm increasing your salary another fifty thousand. There'll be another five hundred thousand in bonus if you marry her. She needs a man and because she can't seem to find one on her own, I'm okay buying her one."
"What?" Tasha yelled not realizing she'd jumped to her feet in outrage. Her eyes now resembled Drew's.
Her grandfather chuckled. "Pretty sure Tasha's on her feet cursing by now, so Gunther, make sure she doesn't pull out that nine millimeter she carries to take a shot at me before I finish."
She heard a few low chuckles, but her glare silenced them as effectively as any handgun. Drew's eyes now showed amusement mingling with his fury. She added humiliation to her outrage.
"Hope everyone's satisfied." Walker Bloom smirked. "If not, write me in care of hell. Class dismissed."
The screen went black.
Tasha dropped down into her seat while the others in the room began filing out. She was so mad she couldn't see straight. It was a wonder steam wasn't rising out of her rain-dampened suit. She supposed she shouldn't be surprised he'd zinged her, too. Hadn't she already described him as a pit bull? A glance toward the door showed neither Davis nor his team. At least she didn't have to deal with him and his dark-eyed fury right then, but as the new owner she'd have to meet with him eventually, and it wasn't something she was looking forward to. Seething, she glanced up at the dark monitor. Her grandfather had lost his damn mind.
As Drew Davis drove down Jefferson Avenue toward home, there were no words to describe his rage. Walker Bloom had specifically promised him the team, but apparently his promises meant nothing. He wanted to punch something, wanted to dig up the old bastard and kick his ass. And to leave the team to his granddaughter? The ultimate insult. Drew had only seen her once. She had to have been in high school back then because he was the starting quarterback for State. She'd accompanied Walker to a practice. The exact details of the visit escaped him at the moment, but he vividly remembered throwing her spirals after practice while she tore down the empty football field to catch them. He'd been impressed, but what the hell did she know about running a team? Walker Bloom was the worst team executive Drew'd ever had the misfortune of being associated with; he never came to the games and never, ever wanted to spend a dime on anything. Not salaries. Not medical insurance. Not training facilities. Not anything. Trying to get money out of Bloom was like Bob Cratchit trying to get a raise from Ebene-zer Scrooge, only Scrooge was a philanthropist in comparison. And would she be any better? She might know how to catch a pass, but from the high-class looks of her, she probably knew more about nail polish and shoe shopping than the needs of a semipro football team. A part of him wanted to quit on the spot and say to hell with all of it. Walker Bloom could kiss his ass. If the granddaughter wanted to play at being owner, fine, but he wouldn't be on the sidelines holding her purse while she did.
Had he not been so enraged, he'd have laughed at the utter outrage on her face in response to the marriage bonus. What kind of man sets his grandchild up for something like that? But then again, this was Bloom he was referencing.
As he pulled into his driveway, he decided he needed to do some research. The first thing Drew did when he got inside was boot up his laptop. He needed to know as much about Natasha Bloom as possible. An internet search turned up an article on her done six months ago by one of the African American business blogs. She was thirty-eight years old. Received her MBA from Wharton and presently owned a top-tier San Francisco-based brokerage firm with branch offices in London and Milan, which meant she did have a brain somewhere beneath the high-society beauty, but that didn't make him feel better about her being team owner. She had her undergrad degree from Stanford in advertising. He studied the pictures of Tasha. One was taken of her sitting at her desk in her London office, and she was dressed for business in a sharp blue suit. Another was of her at a firing range, and the fierce determination on her face made him pause and rethink her again. When Bloom referenced her packing a nine millimeter, Drew hadn't taken him seriously. According to the article, her father won an Olympic medal in sharpshooting, and she'd learned to shoot at a young age. After her parents died in a plane crash, she was raised from that point on by Walker. Despite all of his marriages, her father was Walker's only son and she his only grandchild. Drew wondered if her ethics were as slippery as her grandfather's. His attention lingered on her photo. She certainly didn't look like the skinny, colt-legged teen he remembered. In fact, seeing her today it took a minute to connect the gorgeous, perfectly made-up beauty to Walker's granddaughter. She was certainly fine enough to get any man she set her sights on, so he wondered why Walker felt it necessary to buy her a man, as he put it. But in reality, that part of the equation didn't matter. Drew was no more interested in marrying her than she in himnot even to own the team.
Pushing back from the desk, he sighed with frustration. There was no way of determining if she'd be accepted by the playersnot that it mattered. She owned the Freighters, and there was no changing that, but if he decided to stay on, and the verdict was still out on that, he didn't want any of his men to quit the team over the issue. Finding and keeping capable athletes for a minor league team was hard enough without having to deal with this mess. He ran his hands over his eyes. The men knew Drew had been promised the team. None would be happy knowing he'd been shafted.
A glance down at his watch showed it was time to get ready for work at the jazz club he owned on the Detroit riverfront.
He'd purchased it out of his love for the genre and to make sure America's only indigenous music form continued to have a presence in a city that loved it just as much. He'd named the place "Drew's." It was common knowledge that many big-name athletes went broke after hanging up their pads. Some of his former teammates could no longer afford the lifestyles they'd grown accustomed to as players because they'd poured their millions into questionable business deals, mansions in South Florida, more cars than they'd ever drivethe more expensive the bet-terand set up parasitic relatives who did nothing but take.
He hadn't fallen victim to any of that. Although he'd come out of college early with no degree, he'd gone back to school during the latter years of his career. After age and injuries made retirement necessary, he finished his degree in business management and used what he'd learned to put together a small but profitable real estate empire. He owned a number of residential properties and businesses throughout the city, but the jazz club was his baby.