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Marah Briscoe sat in a line of early morning traffic that seemed to be going absolutely nowhere. Vehicles were bumper to bumper on I-35, everything slowed from Zang Boulevard to Illinois Avenue. After a seriously long night with almost no rest, Marah was not in the mood. Sleep had been alluding her for days, ever since the last family meeting when her father had shocked her and her sisters with what he had called "good news." Since that moment, her mind had been a random mush of reflection, her concentration challenged. Some sleep would have helped because the lack of it was truly messing with her thoughts and this morning was surely not the one for her to be unfocused.
From the moment she'd risen from her bed, her day had not gone well. The alarm on her clock radio had not gone off, setting her thirty minutes behind schedule, and a previous problem with the plumbing in her apartment had resurfaced with a vengeance. There had only been a short burst of hot water for her shower and premenstrual cramps were wrecking havoc on her body. With the traffic now holding her hostage, making her drive downtown a tedious chore at best, Marah was wishing she could crawl back into bed, pull the covers up and over her head and forget any of this was happening.
She was grateful when she finally pulled into the lower parking deck of the highrise offices and quickly found an empty parking spot in the front row. It felt as if she'd been given a minor reprieve from her misery. Exiting the vehicle, she took a series of deep breaths before entering the lobby of Stallion Enterprises'executive office complex. Anxiety swept through her as she maneuvered her way past a uniformed officer sitting at thefront security station and eased over to the building's office directory. The oversize display case was recessed into a marbled wall, the black surface and bright white lettering illuminated by a hint of light that seemed to seep from somewhere in the back of the unit. She scanned it slowly, confirming the location of the corporate boardroom. When she located the appropriate floor and wing she depressed the up button for the elevator, waiting with the small crowd that had quickly gathered around her.
Taking a glance over her shoulder Marah noted the security guard eyeing her curiously, his gaze sweeping the length of her size-four frame with much appreciation. She tossed him a wry smile, then turned her attention back to the opening doors of the conveyor. Stepping inside she pushed the button for the fifty-fourth floor and eased her body in among the others who were riding up with her. The doors closed quickly and Marah blew a sigh of relief, cementing her decision to follow through with her mission.
Marah had been having second thoughts about what she planned to do. But what she was doing had become necessary. Six weeks ago she'd gotten word that Stallion Enterprises had made a bid to purchase her father's ranch, one of the last black-owned granges in the county of Dallas. Some egotistical, corporate demagogue had preyed on her father's soft nature and had conned the old man into actually believing this was in his best interest.
Since his wife's death five years ago, Edward Briscoe had been beside himself with grief, his bereavement consuming every aspect of his life. He'd lost his one and only love and, besides his children, all he had left was that ranch. Marah was willing to go to any lengths to ensure her father didn't lose it and definitely not to the likes of a silver-tongued, snake-oil salesman by the name of John Stallion.
Taking a glance down to the gold-toned watch on her wrist, Marah was suddenly concerned that she'd missed her window of opportunity. The executive committee of Stallion Enterprises would already be gathered together, preparing for the annual board meeting that would be commencing later that morning. Marah knew that slipping into the boardroom and interrupting their planning session before someone called security and tossed her out on the heels of her Abilene cowboy boots would be no easy feat.
A few stops later the elevator was exceptionally full when the doors opened and another crowd of bodies pushed their way inside. Marah took a step back to make room, pressing herself against the people already standing behind her. She tossed a quick look behind her, suddenly aware that she had stepped into someone's space. A woman standing just over her right shoulder met her gaze, a slight smile of polite acknowledgment pulling at her thin lips. Marah couldn't see the man at her back without turning all the way around, but she was acutely aware of his seductive cologne and imposing stature, and had caught a glimpse of his expensively tailored dark gray suit and classic Bostonian cap-toe shoes.
Marah found the small accommodations disconcerting. The man behind her was standing so near that she could feel the heat from his body mixing with her own. She was also aware that it had been some time since any man had been that close to her. His body heat teasing hers suddenly felt like lighter fluid being tossed on a raging flame. Marah felt a mist of perspiration rise between her cleavage.
The tall stranger stood with his back pressed against the elevator wall, his arms crossed evenly over his chest. He was unconsciously tapping the toe of his leather shoes, everything about his body language announcing his eagerness to reach his destination. The elevator jerked harshly, causing the woman in front of him to fall awkwardly against his body. A soft voice muttered a quick apology as she fought to regain her footing.
"No problem," he responded, his gaze moving to focus on her female frame.
The woman's attire was conservative but casual. Too casual for her to be an employee of Stallion Enterprises. Form-fitting Levi's jeans hugged narrow hips and a small waist. She was leggy, the appendages seemingly a mile high for such a petite woman. A bright white blouse dressed her torso and from where he stood he imagined it was buttoned well up to her chin. He was suddenly aware of the faint scent of lavender wafting up from her space into his, the delicate aroma inciting a current of electrical energy through his bloodstream.
She tilted her head ever so slightly, just a hint of movement as though she were listening for something in particular to sound above the static breathing and the occasional cough of the other occupants. The elongation of her neck as it dipped, as if in invitation, suddenly made him want to lower his mouth to her flesh. He was suddenly lost in the thought of himself laying a path of damp kisses against the soft skin that peeked below the loose bun atop her head, a wealth of cinnamon-colored curls shimmering beneath the fluorescent lights. The moment was disturbing and he found himself fighting to resist the urge that had instantly consumed him.
The elevator stopped short, shuffling them one against the other. Marah's heart dropped into the pit of her stomach as the sharp movement caused her to fall back on the man.
The stranger leaned forward slightly, moving to whisper into her ear. "I'm very sorry," he said, his voice a low gust of breath against the back of her neck. His voice was a throaty, deep rumble, the seductive vibration of it and the warmth of his breath only serving to aggravate Marah's discomfort. She nodded ever so slightly, not bothering to respond, not quite sure what she should say, if anything at all.
The elevator climbed three more floors. As the conveyance approached the twentieth floor and came to a halt, it emptied enough for Marah to make a quick exit. Maneuvering her way to the front of the conveyor she stepped out into the corridor. Unable to resist, she turned to look over her shoulder, her gaze meeting the man's fully for the first time. She was suddenly taken aback by his rugged good looks, rock-solid body and imposing stature. He had stepped to the forefront of the elevator behind her and was staring as well. Their gazes locked for just a brief moment, then the elevator doors closed shut between them and the stranger disappeared out of sight.
Marah inhaled, a deep influx of air filling her lungs. She eyed her watch one more time, then glanced around to see where it was she stood. A neon sign directed her to a restroom and Marah rushed inside to regain her composure.
Minutes later, she resumed her trip up the elevator to the fifty-fourth floor intent on doing the one thing she'd come to do. As the elevator doors opened, pointing her toward her destination, Marah knew there would be no turning back.
Determined to get an audience before chairman and chief executive officer John Stallion, Marah eased her way down the short length of corridor. The man had steadily refused to take her calls over the past few weeks, not even bothering to acknowledge her efforts to reach him, and Marah fully intended to give him a very large piece of her mind.
The robust black woman seated at the oak desk in the foyer was ill-prepared for Hurricane Marah as she stormed toward the closed doors, pushing her way past without seeking permission first.
"Excuse me, but where do you think you're going?" the woman demanded as she jumped to her feet, rushing behind Marah.
Marah paused momentarily, turning in the direction of the booming voice. "I need to speak with John Stallion. And I need to speak with him now," she responded, her hand wrapped around the doorknob of the executive conference room.
"I don't think so. Mr. Stallion is in a very important meeting."
"Well, this is important, too," Marah intoned, the knob turning in the palm of her hand.
"You can't go in there," the woman reiterated, her voice rising sharply.
Marah snapped back, her own tone loud and crisp, "Watch me!"
Before either woman could utter another word, the door to the room swung open, pulling Marah over the threshold so abruptly that it took every ounce of effort not to fall flat on her face. As she stumbled through the entrance someone caught her by the elbow, stalling her fall to the carpeted floor.
A familiar baritone voice rumbled at her side. "May we help you?"
The matronly figure on Marah's heels answered before Marah could collect her thoughts. "I tried to stop her, John. Do you want me to call security?"
Marah shook off the large hand still clutching her elbow. Pressing a palm to her abdomen, her gaze swept around the room, acknowledging the four pairs of eyes that were suddenly fixed on her, her own stare finally resting on the exceptionally tall black man at her side. The man from the elevator.
Heat flushed her face, a wave of embarrassment coursing through her. She took a deep inhale of air, stalling the quiver of nervous energy that rippled through her center. "I need to speak with John Stallion," she finally muttered, her attempts at a commanding tone failing her. Marah struggled to fight past the rise of anxiety, trying to maintain a firm hold on an icy demeanor.
The older woman motioned as if to speak, her words stalled by the nod of her employer's head. "Thank you, Miss Hilton," he said, dismissing her. "We'll take it from here."
Marah glanced over her shoulder to see the woman close the door behind her, suddenly leaving her, and them, alone.
John Stallion moved to the conference table, taking a seat in an oversize leather chair. He crossed an ankle over a knee and his arms over his chest as he eyed her curiously. A faint smile pulled at his mouth as he and the three men sitting around him appraised her, their gazes sweeping from the top of her head down to the floor beneath her feet and back again.
Marah was not amused as her own gaze shifted from one cocky face to the other. It was obvious that all four men were related, each possessing the same distinctive features: black-coffee complexions, chiseled jawlines, seductive bedroom eyes, plush pillows for lips and the same sexy, smug smile.
The man seated at the head of the mile-long conference table gestured in her direction. "So, Miss ?"
"It's Ms. Ms. Briscoe," Marah answered curtly, taking two steps in his direction.
"Well, Ms. Briscoe, what do you need to speak with me about?"
"Are you John Stallion?"
"I am and these are my brothers." The man pointed with his index finger. "That's Matthew, Mark and Luke."
Marah looked from one to the other, her expression voicing her amusement. Back in the day Ma and Pa Stallion obviously didn't realize their biblical brood was going to grow into evil incarnates set on stealing other folks' life savings. Marah could only shake her head at the absurdity.
Reaching into the leather satchel slung over her shoulder, she pulled a stack of legal documents from the inner lining, tossing them onto the table in front of the man. "I think these belong to you," she said, her ire ringing in her tone. "My father won't be signing them anytime soon."
John lifted the package of paperwork into his hands, scanning the documents briefly. He nodded slowly, then lifted his gaze toward brother number two. "Mark, it would seem that Ms. Briscoe is refusing our offer to purchase the Briscoe Ranch."
The brother named Mark extended his hand in the direction of the paperwork. He shook his head as he scanned them as quickly as his brother had done.
John turned back to Marah. "I think we might have a problem, then. Mr. Briscoe has already verbally voiced his intent to accept our initial offer. And that is prime real estate that Stallion Enterprises isn't willing to let pass."
Marah's hand moved to her lean hips, her head gyrating against her neck like a bobble-head doll. The index finger of her right hand waved from side to side in midair as she spoke. "Excuse me? Listen, I really don't care what Stallion Enterprises is willing or not willing to do. All I know is that you have taken advantage of an old man, preying on him at a vulnerable time in his life and I'm putting a stop to it right now. The ranch isn't for sale," she pronounced, snapping her fingers in the air.
The four of them were still smiling at her, annoying Marah even more. Mark nodded, his eyes meeting John's briefly before John spoke again.
"We're sorry you feel that way, Ms. Briscoe. But again, we have a binding verbal agreement from Mr. Briscoe. We're more than willing to consider renegotiating the deal if your father requires more time, but we will do whatever it takes to hold him to an agreement." It was stated with an air of finality that made Marah cringe.
She bristled, hostility raging from her eyes. Both hands fell against the line of her hips as her head waved from side to side. "Well, give it your best shot. But I can promise you my sisters and I will do whatever it takes to fight you on this."
John Stallion came to his feet, moving to stand directly in front of her. He stood close, his tall frame hovering easily over hers, the woodsy aroma of his cologne teasing her nostrils. Thoughts of their time in the elevator together flashed like cinematic photographs through her mind. A rise of perspiration suddenly puddled between her breasts, her temperature rising rapidly. She took a step back, dismayed at the way her body was betraying her.
The man stared her in the eye and Marah fought to hold his gaze, his piercing look seeming to undress her where she stood. When he spoke, his voice was low and even, so controlled that Marah imagined him to be the kind of man who was never unnerved by anything.
"I look forward to the challenge, Ms. Briscoe," he said, that smug smile resurfacing to his face.
Inhaling swiftly, Marah spun around on her heels and rushed out the door as quickly as she'd rushed in. Behind her she could hear a rise of laughter; the Stallion men were no longer able to contain their amusement.