Authors: Grayson Cole
Genesis Press, Inc.
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All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author and all incidents are pure invention.
Copyright © 2011 Grayson Cole
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Maybe on any other day, in any other place, it wouldn’t have happened. Michael had never been one given to fancy or fantasy, but in the summer heat and fragrant sea breezes of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, he found himself relaxed and almost wistful, so much so that he deeply regretted being in an airport getting ready to leave. Maybe it was the sea of smiling brown faces he saw everywhere, the ones that made him feel more welcome than he had ever felt. Maybe it was the wild contrast between his orderly, efficient, desensitized Birmingham and this chaotic, laid-back, and utterly charming island paradise that had changed him somehow. The windy nights he had spent on the beach watching a black sky with more stars than he had ever seen made him contemplative and ready to believe. In what, he didn’t know. He had been on assignment in many different places, but none had captivated him like this island.
Whatever the reason, when he saw the chocolate Caribbean queen stepping through the double doors before him, fantasy took hold and held him thoroughly spellbound.
He had never seen a walking chocolate kiss before. She was dark and, he thought, probably just as sweet. She wore a long halter dress decorated with brilliant reds and yellows and greens and browns. As she walked a flash of long, dark leg peeked out and he caught a glimpse of a small beaded chain around her delicate ankle. She wore a short matching top that tied behind a long beautiful neck. It had a scoop that showed the fullness of her breasts. His gaze traveled from the small ankle up the well-muscled leg to the slim waist and silky bare shoulders. Then his gaze found her face. She had wide, black eyes, a strong nose, and a bottom lip that looked nothing short of delicious. Her features were set in a perfect heart-shaped face accentuated by the long, neat twists cast over her shoulder, begging for his fingers to tangle in them. She held up a small wrist to check her watch. Her smooth, cocoa-colored brow creased as she did.
Michael’s gaze snapped to a short man wearing a multicolored knit cap and a scraggly beard. Though he couldn’t hear what the man said, Michael thought by the way he tilted his head it must have been something crude. Michael had to work to tamp down the powerful urge to go over there and pummel that man. However, the woman just smiled politely and shook her head in a diplomatic “no.” He smiled to himself, thinking,
. The twists bounced on her back as she moved out of sight. That was a woman who would never have to wonder where her man was come nightfall. Without a doubt he would be home. Only a fool wouldn’t be. After all, Michael didn’t even know her and she had his full attention.
A woman like that
, he mused. As a journalist, Michael had always had an uncanny ability to read people, an ability that made him damn good at what he did. When he was a kid, his hobby was sitting in the park and watching people. He would watch them and attempt to figure out what their lives were like just from what he observed. The way a man held his cigarette. The way a woman touched her hair. There were so many telltale signs about the lives of people that most rarely noticed. Michael had always noticed, and it had helped him in his career. But it had been a long time since he’d played this divining game. Nevertheless, seeing this mahogany beauty, he felt he already knew her.
The fluid swing of her hips, the way she walked with her head held high on graceful shoulders, and the subtle dare in her eyes signified pure self-assurance. Her long, black twists and island dress seemed an elegant display of her heritage as well as her femininity. Even still, what really captivated him was her mesmerizing smile, which held intrigue and mystery.
Descending further into fantasy, he pictured her in a stunning strapless, black velvet dress at the winter banquet at home, or maybe something beaded and white. Yes, with that warm mahogany skin, he could envision her in white. He could see every eye in the room transfixed on her. She would put her delicate arm in his as he introduced her to his world.
“Now boarding first class passengers at Gate 23C, Flight 207 to Birmingham,” a voice announced over the PA system, startling Michael out of his fantasy. He picked up his bags and headed toward the plane, though he still craned his neck to see the beauty. He noted that a sleek black laptop case hung on her shoulder and that she was frowning down at a cell phone she’d taken out of her handbag. Anyone could see that look meant serious business. Her fingers flew across the small keyboard on the device. Okay, so maybe he would need to revise his impression of the island stunner just a little.
When he settled into his seat on the plane, his thoughts turned to much more serious matters. He took out yesterday’s issue of the
. There on the lower half of the front page was his article. He’d finished it only two days before and emailed it home. It hadn’t taken any time for an extract of the story to make it to their website and the complete feature to be printed in the weekly paper. The story was about a scholarship fund for young, talented artists of the Caribbean. The Art Sentries Foundation, in its seventeen years, had provided full tuition for more than one hundred eighty artists at highly competitive colleges around the world. Michael had learned of the foundation after casually dating a scholarship recipient who had graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and became an influential Southern interior architect.
After a long tour in southern Africa, Michael had wanted a lightweight community piece, something relaxing and positive to lift downtrodden spirits. However, that hadn’t happened. He had found out quickly that Hatsheput Industries, an art empire born in St. Thomas that usually contributed about seventy-five percent of the funding for the foundation, was pulling out. It galled him that they had rescinded the funding without so much as an explanation or apology to the participants in the foundation. The lack of Hatsheput’s backing would probably cause the whole program to be dismantled. Michael’s indignation had turned to fury when he tried to get Hatsheput’s side of the story. No one on the executive board would talk to him.
The situation turned despicable when finally an executive at Hatsheput met with him one evening. The man, an Elphonse Deklerk, would only agree to meet in secret and refused to go on the record with what he knew. Michael had wondered at the high level of what he perceived to be paranoia. But he respected it. Deklerk had a long history with the family at the helm of the business. Soon he was to discover that there was more to the man’s caution than family loyalty. As the informant recounted everything he knew about the fund, Michael’s heart had started to beat hard and fast.
The kids enrolled in the Art Sentries Foundation in the past five years had been sold a dream. If they completed the program, the world would open up for them. They would be able to turn their lives around. Fifty out of sixty had arrest records in their backgrounds before they received scholarships. And in a startling change from the foundation’s outstanding success rate of keeping students out of the streets, in the past five years half of them had arrest records after placement, all drug-related. Six had ended up dead, four of them in just the past few months. These young men had been sold a dream only to live a nightmare. The Art Sentries Foundation had been used as a front for organized crime. Drug running, extortion,
It was all par for the course behind the scenes at the Art Sentries Foundation. The informant also provided Michael with the name of the Hatsheput leader responsible for the corruption, a man named Marshall Ellis. Investigating that man had been ridiculously easy, even to the extent that he granted Michael an interview. Believing the discussion to only relate to the legitimate portion of the Art Sentries Foundation, he provided an obviously manufactured explanation for Hatsheput’s revocation of support, but based on the tip from Elphonse Deklerk and the inconsistencies in Marshall Ellis’s own story, a clear picture had been painted.
Ellis was reportedly a long-time friend of the family that led Hatsheput Industries. Coincidentally, Hatsheput was trying to get out of the program ahead of a full FBI investigation. It wasn’t a far stretch to think that Ellis wasn’t the only leader in that company involved. What’s more, their refusal to speak to him on the record triggered suspicion. He hadn’t accused the company of wrongdoing in the article, but he certainly had raised the question, demanded answers.
Michael’s stomach roiled and his heart ached when he thought of what had happened to kids who had thought they were being rescued from difficult lives only to find themselves thrust into the belly of the beast. Trying to shake off the horror, Michael tossed the paper into the seat next to his and stood to get a book out of the overhead compartment. Now it was in the hands of the authorities. He’d made his report and turned over his files.
Nya Seymour noticed him. How could she not? Even as far back as she was sitting, this man’s presence was compelling. God, he was gorgeous. She watched as he pulled a book from his bag. Seeing him sitting at the gate had piqued her interest, but when he stood, and his starched white button-down stretched across a broad chest and his khakis relaxed against well-muscled thighs… well… he was impossible to ignore. She’d seen him board, had even paused next to him as she made her way to her seat, just to maybe get a closer look, but he hadn’t even looked up from the newspaper in his hand. Now he was standing there in all his fineness reaching for something in the overhead compartment. The movement of a newspaper sliding from the seat next to his momentarily diverted her attention. She could barely make out the name
, but when she did, her eyes narrowed. Angry, Nya turned her gaze away, abandoning the wayward thoughts. There were more important things with which to contend. Besides, who knew what he thought when he read that trash?
Her smartphone started to chime. She hadn’t turned it off yet, as travelers were still boarding. But she wished that she had. It was her father, and she could feel herself pull a face. The man liked nothing more than making Nya feel inadequate when he was in a sour mood. She grimaced when her phone started ringing before takeoff. There he was, as if on cue.