I purse my lips in frustration, brush my hair back, and tame it with the last bit of gel left in the jar. Damn, my weave is jacked! Time to take out these tracts. My hair has grown out too much anyway. Damn my homegirl Jada, too, for hogging all the hair product before she went to Vegas. I should be getting ready for the opening of our studio and record store. Instead I’ve spent all day cramming for an investment meeting.
I twist my mouth into a full-on frown as I gaze into the mirror at my warm, olive complexion and too large and luminous hazel eyes.
“Fuck it,” I say. I guess a stiff ponytail à la Gabby Douglas will have to do.
Jada Jameson, my roommate and business partner, took off on a redeye to a weeklong sorority getaway. This left me, the artist with the least business acumen, to discuss investment in our business with Tristan White the CEO of White Enterprises, Inc. In addition, I’m in the middle of working off my two week notice at La Perla on the Magnificent Mile.
I have to take the ‘L,’ Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated rapid transit system, all the way into Downtown to meet the gazillionaire venture capitalist. Tristan White is supposed to be like the Donald Trump of Chicago or some shit—I hope without that wacked out comb-over. Scoring a meeting with him is like winning the fucking lottery, but he granted Jada one. It just happened to be on the first day of her trip, and her plane ticket was nonrefundable. Now my head is swimming with numbers I don’t understand, or care to.
After Jada called White’s assistant every week for a couple of months with no success, she finally enlisted her father to secure us a definitive hookup. Mr. Jameson is a state senator, and on one of the many occasions he was required to rub elbows with the rich and powerful, he got his baby girl and her partner an audience with the elusive Tristan White.
Jada gives me a final pep talk by phone as I’m getting dressed, but I’m still not confident going solo.
“Don’t we have enough cash to get by a few months until you’re able to do the pitch?”
“As the CFO of this venture, I’m telling you we don’t have the capital to pull this off on our own. The break-even figures don’t lie. You can’t back out on me now.”
Even over the phone she’s more charismatic and business articulate than I’ll ever be. Girlfriend is savvy enough to converse with the one-percent as if she’s one of them.
“I wouldn’t be backing out. We’d just be postponing.”
“Yeah, we’d be postponing ourselves right out of this opportunity. Keisha, use some of that confidence I know you have as a musician. I’ve seen it when you’re performing. Draw on that and you’ll have Tristan White eating out of your hand.”
“I don’t know, Jada. Business terms give me the hives. I don’t feel like I know what I’m talking about.”
“Believe me, the more you use them, and put them into practice, it’ll become old hat. For this meeting, though, I want you to recite the information we practiced from the business plan like they’re song lyrics.”
“I remember song lyrics so easily because that’s what I do.”
“And, before you know it, Chief Operating Officer will be what you do. You can do this. Please,” Jada says in the voice she usually reserves for the men she’s trying to charm. I ignore my pang of irrational jealousy and relent.
“Okay. You just do your whatever-happens-in-Vegas-stays-there thing, and I’ll handle White. You know what I’m saying?”
“I knew you’d have my back, Keke.” She uses my neighborhood nickname, laying it on real thick. “I’ll be thinking of you the whole time.”
I roll my eyes. “Mmhm.”
“You’ve got the business plan I prepared, right?”
“Yeah, but those damn financial statements and break-even analyses are like Greek to me.”
“Just remember the numbers we went over together. The business plan will speak for itself. Make sure you’re not late. You should probably take my car.”
“And get caught up in downtown rush-hour traffic? No, thank you.” I cringe when I think of panicking and wrecking her fancy BMW on the Dan Ryan. Death would be more merciful than what Jada would do to me if I survived. I didn’t like to drive downtown anyway, and she knew this.
“Well good luck and thanks again, Keisha. I owe you one.”
I slip on my stilettos, grab my bootleg PRADA bag, and depart. I don’t usually do knockoffs, but this bag was the perfect shade of blue to match my suit. Once outside, I immediately ruminate about how I let Jada talk me into this shit. She’s a phenomenal woman and my BFF, but she is a manipulator. Jada could convince a drug dealer with his own stash to buy her unique brand of crack. She’ll be a formidable CFO for Kente Studio Records. I only hope I measure up as the COO and creative brain.
After my father died two years ago, the insurance settlement I got burned my pockets. I needed to do something constructive with it. Given the relationship I had with my old man, I might’ve signed it all over to a charity. After my father’s will was executed, Jada and I smoked a bowl of weed on the fire escape until we zoned and had a philosophical conversation about the sluggish economy. We wanted meaningful jobs when we got out of college, not something that barely paid the bills.
Then we brainstormed about what we could do to capitalize on our combined talents. I’m a music aficionado and an accomplished musician. My father’s Brazilian musical background and my mother’s history as a blues singer led me to major in music composition and performance at DePaul. Jada, a numbers girl, got a dual degree in business and accounting.
We conceived Kente Studio Records, a physical and online recording studio, vinyl shop, and music store all rolled into one. We wanted an ethnic name that described the various shades of clients to whom we expected to cater. Our music would be for people of all colors.
I settle on the ‘L’ and try not to listen to the homeless man reciting the maximum load-bearing weight of the train, what speed we would need to go to get to Waukesha, WI in an hour, and other shit nobody’s even asked him. My own inner voices whisper in my ear on the regular, so I don’t need his nonsensical ass adding to the mix.
There are two entities that war inside me, that I’ve seen manifested physically since I was a little girl—when my daddy stopped being a good father and husband and terrorized me and my mama. This may mean I’m certifiable, but I don’t care. They’re like the little football fairies in the DIRECTV commercials except without the football gear, and they are much more attractive than Deion Sanders and his companions, if I do say so.
These miniature, winged replicas of me sit or hover around on my shoulders, but sometimes I even see them in my mind’s eye with extraordinary clarity. On my right shoulder is my Ghetto Good Girl or “Triple-G” for short. She keeps me out of trouble and typically roots for me to do what’s right. The mischief maker, my Fairy Hoochie Mama, resides on my left shoulder. She generally wants the exact opposite.
Before I know it, we’re downtown. My destination, White headquarters in the Loop, is an imposing thirty-plus story building. The GPS on my phone gets me right to the glass doors on which the name “White” is emblazoned in what else? White letters. It’s a quarter to five, and I’m glad I’m not rocking “CP,” (colored people) time. The lobby is decorated in white and black leathers, stones, and chrome contemporary furnishings, which remind me of the yin and yang symbol.
Behind a black marble desk sits an attractive but androgynous man. Guyliner dark as a rock star’s rim his eyes, and his suit fits like he oiled himself and slid into it.
“I’m here to see Mr. White. Keisha Beale with Kente Studio Records.” Absent one Jada Jameson.
“Excuse me one moment, Ms. Beale.”
I feel as if I’m trying to get into a gay nightclub, and he’s the bouncer. I don’t feel self-conscious because I’m positive I look fly in my navy power suit. But the pencil skirt hugging my round apple-bottom is lost on the receptionist. As he clicks through the files on his white MacBook, the movements of his hands are more graceful than my own.
“You’re early,” he says, stating the obvious. “Please sign in using the electronic signature pad. The fourth elevator bank will carry you to the thirty-second floor.” As I sign, he pastes on a friendly yet perfunctory smile.
He reaches into a drawer and hands me a white badge that has “White Enterprises Temporary ID.” printed on the front, bearing a single magnetic strip on the back.
I arch an eyebrow.
“You’ll need it to access the elevator to the penthouse office suites.”
I thank him and walk over to the elevator bank guarded by security personnel. They resemble Secret Service men, complete with conspicuous communications earpieces.
The elevator beams me at warp speed to the thirty-second floor and to yet another lobby. I’m greeted there by a different impeccably groomed, effeminate man with an overly-manicured goatee who’s sitting behind a granite desk.
“Miss Beale, please wait here,” he says, orchestrating an elaborate spokesmodel-esque sweep of his arm toward a cluster of black leather chairs.
Across from the chairs is a concave window with a view of the Chicago skyline that overlooks the city toward Lake Michigan. I feel as if I’m seated in front of Cloud Gate, the mirrored oblong sculpture in AT&T Plaza which Chicagoans affectionately call The Bean. The view makes me drool. The skyline is so distorted, close, and gorgeous.
So, this is how the one-percent lives?
I go over the business plan while I’m waiting and call Jada every kind of bitch in the book for not providing me any additional information on Mr. White. He could favor Eric Northman, that sexy vampire on True Blood, or Gandalf the Grey from Lord of the Rings. I should’ve checked him out on the internet. I hope like hell he’s good-looking, because if I’m going to spend my time trying to impress him, I at least want his ass to be handsome.
I’m not shallow, mind you. I did date Byron McCaskill, who isn’t handsome in the classical sense of the word. He’s got more of a rough edge to him, and he appealed to me largely due to his music video persona. I’ve always existed for the most part in the fantasies I’ve enjoyed in fiction—living vicariously through movie and book characters since I was a child. It’s sort of a coping mechanism. When life throws me curve balls, I have an endless fount of pop culture references to draw from that, together with my fairies, keep me sane.
My nerves get the better of me, and I chew a piece of gum to calm them. When I forget where I am and pop the gum, it sounds as if I’ve detonated a bomb. The receptionist glances impassively at me, and I swallow it with a gulp I’m sure he hears across the room.
I’ve never been totally comfortable around white people, not to mention the rich. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, a ghetto girl with lofty dreams, and prefer chilling with my homeys to perpetrating in the business world. To be honest, I’m even better alone, listening to tunes on my iPod, or better yet, singing and writing my own songs—not sitting in a sterile office building waiting to ask a rich white man for money to start my dream business.
I purse my lips. Stop tripping, Beale. To distract myself, I try to conjure an image of Tristan White. Judging from the aesthetic of the building, I guess that White’s in his sixties, from old Chicago money, a member of an all-white country club, has white-gray hair, and is as gay as the rest of his personnel.
Another well-dressed dude comes out of the door on my left. What is it with all these men who look as if they get grooming tips from The Artist Formerly Known as Prince?
“I’m Darryl Sykes, Mr. White’s personal assistant. Mr. White will see you momentarily, Ms. Beale. He’s wrapping up a meeting. May I get you anything? We have water, sparkling water, organic coffee, oolong tea—”
“Nothing, thank you.”
He retreats from whence he came, and I sing a Maxwell song in my head.
While humming “Pretty Wings,” I marvel over Mr. White’s office staff. Doesn’t he realize this setup is an EEOC lawsuit waiting to happen? The ACLU, the NAACP, and all the alphabets would jump on his ass in a heartbeat if someone reported him.
When the door opens on my right, a tall, biracial woman exits. I immediately recognize her by the signature blond micro braids. She’s Princess Danai, the rapper. “Thanks for the advice, Tristan,” she says, and my mouth falls open.
“You’re welcome,” comes the faint reply in a smooth, surprising baritone.
Princess Danai closes the door and upon seeing me, smiles and hands me a CD. “I’m doing a live show next Friday night at Wicked. You should come.”
I take this opportunity, which I’m hoping will be the first of many, to promote Kente Studio Records. “I just might, if you’d consider hooking a sistah up with some backstage passes.”
“Mr. White is ready for you, Ms. Beale,” the receptionist says. “You may go in now.”
I stand. Princess Danai scans me up and down, fishes into the pocket of her low-slung, linen cargo pants, and hands me a lanyard bearing three badges. “Yo, what’s your first name?”
“See you next Friday, Keisha Beale,” she says before strolling onto the waiting elevator and winking at me. I heard she bats for the other team and her scrutiny, topped off by a sexy wink, seals it for me. I manage a nervous half-smile as the doors close.
I scoop up my bag along with the binder that holds our business plan, take a deep breath, open the door… and walk smack into a man who’s at least a foot taller than I am in my ambitious hooker heels.
“Excuse me, sir. I’m so sorry.” I hope my apology is heartfelt and profuse enough so he won’t be ticked off. “I should’ve knocked first.”
“No problem, Ms. Beale.” He encircles my petite biceps with his brawny hands, which I’m proud to say are more toned than Michelle Obama’s. Once he’s sure I’m steady, he takes a step back. “I’m Tristan White.”
My gaze travels up to an undeniably handsome face with sharp blue eyes—all chiseled features, dimpled chin, and sun-drenched blond hair—then down a six-foot-plus body occupying a kick-ass tailored summer suit. Against his tanned skin, a crisp, white shirt is accessorized by a tie in brown multi. Me, my Triple-G, and my Fairy Hoochie Mama—the whole trifecta—are riveted by the most delectable specimen of man we’ve ever had the good fortune to encounter.
I take entirely too long to respond.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Yes. I’m fine, sir.” And so are you! I wave him off and project what I hope is sophisticated nonchalance, but in my mind I’m comparing him to Brad Pitt’s character in Legends of the Fall, the only other Tristan I’ve ever had the pleasure of fantasizing about. I would be his fucking Isabel Two any day of the week.
“I grew up kicking it with four brothers who played sports. It would take more than that to put me down for the count.” I realize I’m babbling like an idiot, so I offer him my hand to shake.
Damn, he looks so familiar!
His touch, and the fact that he’s young and handsome unnerves me more than our collision. When his eyes crinkle questioningly, I close my gaping mouth and kick-start my stuttering heart again. Then it hits me. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the point guard of the Chicago Buffaloes, only with shorter hair.
“Are you Nathan White’s brother?”
“Yes, we’re twins.”
“Oh, that explains it.” I decide to play it chill and not act like a rabid fan. “Um, Ms. Jameson is out of town,” I say. “I’m Keisha Beale.”
“Yes, I was informed. And your role in the business would be?” His voice is deep and sonorous, sort of like my dad’s when he wasn’t manic. His implacable expression doesn’t clue me in to what’s going on in his mind and whether he’s pissed Jada isn’t here.
“Chief Operating Officer, sir. Well, Jada, I mean, Ms. Jameson, gave us those distinguished titles. We’re partners.”
He narrows his eyes. “Are you normally so polite, Ms. Beale?”
“You keep calling me, sir.”
“Yes, sir. My mother’s family is from the South. She drilled the habit into us.”
He angles his head then gestures toward the binder in my hand. “Your business plan, I presume?”
“Oh yes, sir.” I say and hand it to him. He maneuvers to close the door, and his chin is inches from my line of sight. I close my eyes and breathe in. The cologne he’s wearing makes me want to lick that clean-shaven, dimpled chin.
What the fuck am I thinking?
“Would you like to sit, Ms. Beale?” My face grows hot as I open my eyes to find he’s squinting down at me with a hint of concern in his eyes. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine.” I say, acutely aware I was almost busted sniffing him. I take a seat in one of the black, stuffed leather chairs facing his desk, and he surprises me by sliding a chair next to mine. Then he unbuttons his jacket before sitting down to scan the business plan. I rattle off the numbers Jada insisted I memorize, and he nods as he peruses the financials.
White’s office is decorated in the same black and white design as his lobbies, but it’s accessorized with astonishing splashes of vivid color. A red floral arrangement in a black vase sits in one corner, a yellow sculpture in another, a blue mural behind a corner-shaped fish tank in another, and there’s a green tropical plant in the farthest corner.
The wall behind his desk is a floor-to-ceiling window that affords a different view of the downtown skyline. On the wall behind us are pictures of him at various groundbreakings, some where he’s flanked by luminaries from the city, others of him with business people around the world, and still more where he’s receiving a bevy of awards.
When I look back at him, he’s eyeing me with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Primary colors,” I say apropos of nothing. “You’re a man of unassuming tastes in a world of extravagance.”
“That I am, Ms. Beale.”
“So, what do you think about our business plan?” I ask.
“You get an ‘A’ for originality, but I’m afraid you get a ‘D’ for fiscal viability.” He frowns. “If we take the location out of the south side, financial viability goes up to a B plus.”
“That’s a deal-breaker,” I say. “The current location is mortgage-free, and we can’t afford to buy property near Oprah’s business address… or yours.”
“Who owns the building?”
“It was my father’s.”
“Yes, sir. He left it to me when he passed away two years ago.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says in a kind tone. “Who’s fronting the other half of the start-up capital?”
“Myself, Ms. Jameson, and her family.” Jada’s parents while comfortable, aren’t so wealthy they could front all the money required to get KSR off the ground. Her father comes from a family of lawyers who made a name for themselves in Springfield. They both delved into politics and, as public servants, don’t make as much as they did practicing law. Her parents only agreed to allow her to play with one hundred thousand of her trust fund to match the hundred thousand I had. Then they threw in another hundred thousand to help us with capital improvements and capital equipment purchases.
“It’s a terrific idea in principle. The right financial guidance and mentorship would make it even more viable. This could work.”
“Guidance and mentorship? We’re not in the market for another partner. Ms. Jameson has a dual business degree, complemented by mine in music. The idea and all the intellectual property of Kente Studio Records will be ours and only managed by us.”
He sits back. “I’m a silent partner in all the projects I finance. I leave management to their own devices until some foolhardy move compels me to break my silence. Also, location is paramount if you expect any crossover clients, and neither I nor the demographic you want to appeal to will drive into south Chicago on a regular basis to patronize a fledgling business.”
“You can’t tell me there isn’t sufficient clientele on the south side to patronize us.” My second-hand Southern charm has left the building. Like the Hulk, I’m now struggling to keep the real Keisha on lockdown.
“The talent may be there, but I would require you to be in a thriving business corridor if you’re going to use my money to fund this project.”
“Sounds as if you want to control us, Mr. White. Like I said, we’re seeking venture capital only, not a partner.” I smile through teeth clenched so hard it’s like I’ve got a TMJ disorder.
“I haven’t achieved the success I have without exercising control in every aspect of business and life, Ms. Beale.” He smiles. “One doesn’t just hand over a quarter of a million dollars to a couple of female upstarts without as much as a serious gut check.” He says this as if being female makes us even more incompetent than the average upstart.
Misogynist much, White?
“We may be female, but we’re not upstarts. We’ve been out of college more than two years, and we’ve made all the capital improvements to the building and done the due diligence to get this business up and running.” For some reason, this man makes me feel like I’m thirteen again, trying to convince my father he needs to sell hip-hop and rap CDs in his music store. Javier Gonzales Beale, Sr. had little regard for my mother’s and my opinions when it came to running his business.
“Regular audits of your books and site visits will be part and parcel of this deal. Take it or leave it.”
This fucker didn’t realize he was talking to Clara Lee Beale’s daughter. Clara Lee and ultimatums are like oil and water. They don’t mix. My Fairy Hoochie Mama spurs me on. Tell him off, Keisha!
“Do you make personal visits to every project you fund? Or just the ones managed by African Americans?” I did not just go there with this good-looking fucker, did I? Jada is going to have a goddamn cow if I fuck this up, but I can’t help myself.
Either it doesn’t register or he chooses not to react. “Yes. But only annually to the ones that have been in operation for a while. I have my hands in over forty-five ventures, not to mention employing a large number of people in the companies I hold personally.”
I force myself to be civil to this arrogant asshole. “Is that level of control necessary?”
“If I don’t keep my finger on the pulse of all my investments, they could spiral out of control, which would put the livelihoods of my employees in jeopardy.”
“You have an extremely high opinion of yourself and the power you wield,” I say with more than a modicum of disgust. I’m on a fucking roll now and unable to stop for shit. All of Jada’s hard work to get this meeting is going down the tubes, and fast. It’s all her goddamn fault too, for not being here.
“You have no idea. I was being groomed for what I do before you were born.”
Like you’re that much older than I am. I hope you choke on that big-assed silver spoon.
I haven’t said anything, but his eyes light up as if he’s recounting a private joke and I just might be the punchline.
“You need to take a chill pill,” I say and stand to indicate I’m done. I’ve thrown caution and her mama to the wind. I’m too through with Mr. Tristan “I Wanna Own Your Ass” White. I wouldn’t take this guy’s money if someone guaranteed we’d pay it back with triple-digit returns in the first year.
Then he puts on his million-megawatt smile, showing the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen. Tristan White is even more impressive when he smiles, and it should be offensive for any man to have so much swag or be as wealthy as he is. Smug asshole.
“Whether I’m working or playing, you may be sure I’m always relaxed, so I don’t need any chill pills,” he says. “In fact, I’m even more relaxed when I’m in control.”
There’s a knock, and his personal assistant pokes his head in.
“Your car is here, Mr. White.”
“Please have Moses wait.”
Darryl gapes at him, flushes as if he’s embarrassed, and leaves. Apparently, I’m not the only one who reacts to Mr. White with awe, and in Darryl’s case, fear and trembling.
“Actually, I was just leaving,” I say and try to stalk past him.
Tristan stands, blocks my egress, and grabs my hand. Oh Man! He has quick reflexes.
“I have another matter I’d like to discuss with you, Ms. Beale. Another offer, if you will.” As our hands touch, a jolt of electric current courses through me. I hesitate and regard him closely to see if he was likewise affected, but he doesn’t appear to be. “Something that might be more appealing to a woman with your personal… assets.” He scans my body like he’s appraising a prime piece of real estate.
I have a strong desire to unnerve him as much as he has me. If my unwillingness to give him unhindered access to Kente Studio Records didn’t kill our chances of getting the venture capital we need, my next question will. “Do you even like women, Mr. White?”
He raises one eyebrow like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but he doesn’t look comical. He seems pissed. “I can assure you I do, Keisha.” He pulls me flush against him, and I feel something that indicates to me that he does.
I even like the way the arrogant fucker says my name. However, my Fairy Hoochie Mama encourages me to continue provoking him. I peer down to where our hips are joined. “How do I know this isn’t a reaction to your assistant?”
In a split second, I’m all trussed up in his arms and he’s kissing me. This is not a speculative, cordial first kiss. In fact, it’s so brutal I feel my lips bruising from the onslaught. His tongue wraps itself around mine and fills my mouth so thoroughly I can’t breathe. Simultaneously, he rolls his hips against mine like he’s about to bore into me through our clothes.
I want to fight him, but I have to admit I haven’t been this turned on by anyone since… well… ever. I’ve been in a drought, due in large part to all the time Jada and I have spent trying to get Kente Studio Records off the ground. The last real boyfriend I had was the first semester of my junior year at DePaul, and he wasn’t anything to write home about, believe me.
Incredibly, my sex-deprived body responds to Tristan White. Traitor, my Triple-G sneers. My Fairy Hoochie Mama sings “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa as she jerks her pelvis with the beat. Wetness blooms between my legs and an aching radiates from my belly. I drop my purse, wrap my arms around him, and kiss him back with an alacrity that bewilders me.
Tristan cups my ass and tries to hoist me up around his waist, but two things happen which prevent him from doing it. My pencil skirt is so tight, it’s impossible, and a knock on the door sends us scurrying away from each other as if we’ve been seared by a hot poker.
“What?” he bellows, sounding like a predatory animal whose meal has been interrupted.
Darryl opens the door and stutters something about the driver and traffic, and I take the opportunity to get out of there. I practically bowl Darryl over and run from White’s office, straight onto the waiting elevator. I push the button several times in rapid succession even though it doesn’t cause the doors to close any faster. Tristan appears at the threshold a split second before the elevator panels slide shut.
I exit on the first floor, my heart in my throat, and struggle to get my breathing under some semblance of control. I’m petrified that Tristan has called down and told his security henchmen not to let me leave, but they remain at attention by the elevator doors as I return the badge to the receptionist and hightail it out of the building. Even the clicks of my heels on the marble floors don’t reverberate with as much confidence as they possessed coming in.
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