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"This cannot seriously be happening," Imani mumbled as she tried to keep what was left of her patience. The speedometer in her gold Lexus hadn't gone over five miles per hour since she got stuck in this bumper-to-bumper traffic. Morning traffic in downtown Chicago was something she had never gotten used to. Her meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Sims was scheduled to begin any minute. She had thought she would make it in time if she left her condo two hours prior, but clearly she'd thought wrong.
The Simses owned several luxurious estates in Illinois and were founders of one of the best job-resource agencies in the country. Imani was meeting with them to discuss buying one of their top estatesthe one that had the gorgeous view of Lake Michigan. She had promised her grandmother she would act fast when the Simses were ready to sell.
Imani's family and the Simses were close friends, and although many people were trying to get their hands on the estate, the couple had narrowed down the list of prospects to Imani and one other buyer. Unfortunately, the other buyer was willing to beat her price.
"Come on, move out of the way!"
Yelling alone didn't seem to get her point across, so she honked her horn for good measure. She didn't care what the other drivers thought of her. Her morning had begun badly when she'd realized her flat iron was broken, resulting in her having to straighten half her hair with a curling iron. The day became progressively worse after she spilled coffee on her favorite black business suit, and had to settle for a suit that fit her backside a tad tighter than she'd liked. The awful traffic wasn't helping matters. But just as she'd almost given up hope of ever making it off Lake Shore Drive, traffic finally started moving, and she reached her destination.
She entered the corporate building ten minutes late. "Hello. My name is Imani Rayne, and I have a 10:00 meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Sims."
The French receptionist waved her manicured hands toward two grand doors. "Mr. and Mrs. Sims are waiting for you. Please go right in."
Imani stepped into the conference room. "Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Sims. I'm so sorry I'm late." Imani gave a soft smile.
"No problem, sweetie." Mrs. Sims took Imani's hands in hers, stepped back and appraised her from head to toe. "Just look at you. It seems like just yesterday, you were a little baby girl holding your grandmother's pinkie finger. My, how you've grown."
As a teen, Imani felt like she'd never mature out of her awkward phase. She no longer had the look of an adolescent girl unaware of how to accentuate her curves and master her feminine walk. Now, she embraced her beauty and had confidence in her stride.
"We haven't seen you in so long, Imani. You seem to be doing fine, just a little sad in the eyes," Mr. Sims said.
"I'm fine. It gets a little easier every year. I still miss Gamine, but everything is going well."
It had been five years since her grandmother, Faith "Gamine" Burrstone, passed away. At times, she still felt the same gut-wrenching ache she felt that fateful day she'd gotten the news of her passing.
Mrs. Sims softly squeezed Imani's hand. "It takes time, and she wouldn't want you to be sad."
She gently stroked Mrs. Sims's hand. "I know."
"Let's get down to business," Mr. Sims suggested. He stepped aside to escort Imani to a nearby chair. Until that moment, Imani hadn't noticed the handsome gentleman with smooth chocolate skin sitting at the end of the conference table.
"Imani Rayne, I'd like to introduce you to Daman Barker, the other buyer vying for the estate."
Daman stood and walked toward her. "Ms. Rayne, it's a pleasure."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Barker, but please call me Imani." She was surprised at how low and sexy her voice had gotten.
"It's nice to meet you, too, and you can call me Daman."
She grasped his hand a little longer than she should have, surprised by the electric spark. The way his masculine hands encased hers shot shivers through every part of her body.
Daman Barker is your competition. Pull yourself together, girl. You got this!
Easier said than done. Daman was tall and muscular. And God bless the tailor who draped his body in that stylish, blue, pin-striped suit. The man had swagger. She'd noticed that much in his short stride from his seat to her side of the conference table. But that wasn't all she'd noticed. He was arrogant; she could tell by the way he carried himself. But goodness, he made arrogance look sexy.
She scanned her memory, trying to recall why his name seemed so familiar, but she came up short. He was observing her so closely that it was hard for her to keep her breathing under control. It felt like he could see right through her business suit. Is he attracted to me, or is he just assessing his competition? As if he knew her thought process, he winked and gave her a sexy smile, catching her off guard.
Yes, it was definitely attraction.
"Shall we get started?" Mr. Sims asked, interrupting the silent exchange between Imani and Daman.
"Yes," she and Daman both replied.
Mr. Sims tapped a small, disorderly bundle of paper on the desk until it lined up into a neat stack. "Okay, we have called you both here today because of your interest in our estate. We're having a difficult time making a decision. Therefore, we have a proposal for you both."
Imani sat and calmly glanced from Mr. Sims to Mrs. Sims. "And what would that be?"
"Well, you both are aware of the leading Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference and Expo that takes place every year, allowing African-American entrepreneurs and business owners a chance to network and receive recognition for their work. I believe you both have members in your families that have been honored at previous conferences. This year, Black Enterprise is throwing the First Annual Performance and Achievement Awards Gala that will honor business owners and entrepreneurs on a much larger scale. Are you both aware of the gala?"
"Yes," Imani replied. Daman nodded his head in agreement.
Mr. Sims pushed back from the table just a bit, placing one long leg across the other and laying his hand over his ankle. "My wife and I are on the Black Enterprise executive board, and we were asked to choose event planners to organize the gala. We expect this event to be the premier destination event for business owners. It takes place on July 20th, three months from now, and requires the confirmation of approximately fifteen hundred guests, catering plans, pre- and post-party plans
the list goes on and on."
Imani looked at Daman. Since he appeared as confused as she felt, she asked the obvious question. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sims, but I don't follow. What does the gala have to do with our interest in the estate?"
Mrs. Sims smiled. "What my husband is trying to say to you both is that we've received approval from the board and would like to ask you both to plan the gala
together. Afterward, you two will decide who will get the estate. If you accept the challenge, we have numerous volunteers to help you."
Having numerous volunteers wasn't important to Imani. What was important was finding out why the Simses thought it was such a good idea for her and Daman to work together on this.
Mrs. Sims poured herself a glass of water from the carafe sitting near her side of the table. She took a quick sip before continuing. "I guess you should also know that last week we decided to sell one of our smaller estates. Although it isn't as exquisite as the estate with the lake view, it's definitely a beautiful property. Whoever does not get the lake-view estate will get the smaller estate."
Mr. Sims nodded his agreement. "We understand how you both must feel, and if you accept, the board will be happy to have you on the planning committee free of charge."
"Free of charge? Why wouldn't we get paid for this event?" Daman asked.
Mr. Sims smiled slightly before continuing. "As a consolation prize for your doing us this huge favor, we are willing to give those properties to you for a minimal fee." He handed Imani and Daman each a piece of paper detailing the prices for the estates.
"Why would you charge us so little?" Daman asked.
"Mr. Sims and I have made some very wise investments, so we have all the money we could ask for." Mrs. Sims softly touched her husband's arm. "This is something that we want to do, and we'd appreciate it if you took us up on our offer. Selling the estates was never about the money. It was more about ensuring that the estates were in very good hands."
Imani hated surprises, and she really wished the Simses would have taken her aside to explain their proposal before having the meeting. But as a friend of the Simses, she knew better than to debate them on the issue. "I need a day or two to think about this," she said.
"I do, too." Daman stood and moved toward Imani's chair. "Imani, I usually work in Detroit this time of year, but I will be in Chicago for a while. May I suggest that you and I talk about this over dinner tomorrow?"
Daman was right; they had a lot to discuss. But at the moment, she couldn't even think about the Simses' proposal because the man towering over her was making her heart skip a beat.
"Sounds like a plan," she said, satisfied that her voice wasn't as seductive as before. "Here's my card. Call me, and I'll meet you at the restaurant of your choice."
Daman nodded as he took the card in one hand and reached out his other hand, waiting for her to return the gesture. She hesitated outwardly, but inwardly she was certainly responding to him. She reached out her hand, lightly gripped his and was once again caught off guard by the magnetic spark she felt. The heat reflected in his eyes mirrored what she was feeling.
When she rose out of her seat, he let go of her hand but still stood close by. "Mr. and Mrs. Sims, it's been a pleasure. Imani and I should have an answer for you in, oh
" He looked Imani's way to allow her to say when.
"In a couple of days. As always, it was nice seeing you both," Imani said.
Mrs. Sims opened the door for them. "Imani, tell your family we send our love. We look forward to hearing from the two of you very soon."
Daman rocked his head to the beat of smooth jazz music as he sat in a popular downtown Chicago steak-house, awaiting Imani's arrival. He'd called her earlier that day to settle on a location for them to meet and discuss the Simses' proposal. However, the business side of him had some strong apprehensions about accepting what they had offered. He knew there was a catch, but he didn't know what the older couple had up their sleeves. Regardless of his apprehensions, he knew he had to accept their offer and partner with Imani to plan the gala. He'd promised his father he would buy the property when Mr. and Mrs. Sims were ready to sell, and he couldn't disregard a promise. On his deathbed, his father told him that the estate would be the best investment he'd ever make. He also told him that it held answers to questions he didn't even know he had. Daman never got the chance to ask his father to expand on his request. So, Daman not only wanted the estate, he needed the estate. He knew there would be something there from his father. What it was, he wasn't sure.
Taking a sip of wine to calm his nerves, Daman pondered the proposal. He was anxious about his business dinner with Imani. This wasn't like him. He never got anxious about meeting with a woman. Then again, he had never gone months without sex, either. Dealing with pressing personal issues had recently forced him to put everything else on the back burnereven his physical needs. But meeting Imani ignited an inferno under that back burner.
Partnering with her wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen. He was irritated, though, at the way his body reacted to her. Even now he felt like he needed a cold shower. Maybe it was the way her body had sweetly filled out her business suit. Her luscious curves and fair golden-tan complexion were causing him a lot of discomfort. He'd closely assessed her when they were introduced, and the fact that she had boldly assessed him in return every time she caught his eye had made it hard for him to look away.
He glanced at his watch and took another sip of his wine just as he spotted her being escorted to his table. She walked like a woman on a mission.
"Daman, it's good to see you again," Imani said. She gave a soft smile but remained professional.
Any man could tell she was poised and she exuded confidence. He usually avoided overly confident women. In his experience, he found them to be too much work, even though his friends would say he never gave that type of woman a chance. On her, however, he had to admit that he liked the confident air.
He stood to pull out her chair. "Good to see you, too, Imani." The attraction was strong, and so was his anxiety. The faster they got down to discussing business, the better off his body would be.
"I'm sorry I'm a little late," Imani said as she took her seat. "My mom needed me to run an errand for her. Sometimes I think she's oblivious to how much work I do. But as she always says, 'A Burrstone's work is never done!'"
"No problem. I understand."
As she ordered her wine, he couldn't help but observe her natural beauty. Then a thought struck. "Hold on. You said Burrstone. I thought your last name was Rayne."
"Yes, it is. See, my mother is a Burrstone. My father's last name is Rayne."
"Oh, okay. By Burrstone you don't mean
" His voice trailed off. Imani was smiling a little too hard. Something about the way she smiled made him want to suck her lips and really give her something to smile about.
"If you were going to ask me if I was a Burrstone as in the Burrstones, then the answer is yes."
Oh, so she's one of the infamous Burrstone women. The Burrstone family was well-known across the county. Its members consisted of educators, business owners, famous actors and actresses, sports icons, politicians and entrepreneurs. They had founded several charities for children and less-fortunate families, and were highly involved in community events. They were greatly admired, and Daman had always liked the fact that they were a close-knit family.
It dawned on him to whom the Simses were referring when they spoke of the loss of Imani's grandmother during their meeting the other day. He remembered reading about her death a few years ago. From various articles and interviews, he knew that Faith or "Gamine"as close family and friends affectionately called herwas a remarkable woman.
"I'm sorry about Mrs. Burrstone."
Imani grew quiet before speaking. "Thanks. I miss Gamine a lot, but I know she's in a better place."
"I know the feeling. I lost my father a while ago."
Daman wasn't sure why he had shared that information with her. He didn't share personal information about himself readily. He watched her trying to read his face and wanted to tell her to give up, since he wasn't an easy person to read.
"I know," she replied. "I did a little research on you before I got here. It must be hard for you. I couldn't imagine losing a parent."
Shrugging his shoulders, he blew off her words. The waiter stopped by their table, took their dinner orders and left again. After silent seconds ticked into minutes, Daman decided to get to the business at hand.