Two days into her suspension, Nina knew one thing for sure: If she didn’t get out of her house, she was going to lose her mind. Lamar had texted her and asked about the incident in the locker room. Her reply had been a middle finger emoji.
Then her sister Yolanda had called her and asked why she hadn’t cussed Cody Cameron out for being a disrespectful ass.
“Because I want to keep my job,” she’d told her. “And from the way things are looking, I’m hanging on by a thread.”
“You can do better than writing for some local rag anyway. Why aren’t people jumping on your side like they do when a white girl gets treated like this?”
“Because I’m not a white girl and obviously I’m in the wrong. Look, Yolanda, I got to go. I’m tired of talking about this and everything else.” Nina had been asked to appear on a local newscast, but she covered stories and she wasn’t going to become one.
“What else is going on? Spill it, Nina.”
Nina had broken down and told her about Lamar and the woman he’d been with at the diner.
“Oh, girl, I’m—”
“We’ll talk later.” Nina had hung up on her sister and forced herself not to cry.
She needed to get away from Charlotte and the best place for her to go was home. She could spend some time hanging out at her father’s bed-and-breakfast in Charleston, South Carolina. Then she could ignore the dull pain thudding in her heart and fight the urge to call Lamar. Nina knew she wouldn’t get the apology or explanation she wanted or deserved.
Sheldon Richardson would be happy to have his baby girl come home. Her oldest sister, Alexandria, might not be so inviting though. She’d want to know why she was making this impromptu visit and ask too many questions. Then she’d probably try to put her to work. Alex was more like a mother to Nina than a sister. When Nina had been two years old, her mother died and Alex, who was ten years old at the time, became Little Mama. Alex took responsibility for her little sister and mothered her—sometimes smothered her. She’d been thankful that Alex wasn’t on social media enough to know about the hoopla surrounding her and Cody.
Her father had called and told her he’d be happy to teach that smart-mouth quarterback how to respect women with his leather belt. Nina couldn’t love her father any more if she tried.
Despite her viral encounter in the locker room, Nina had done quite well for herself as a sportswriter. Her career was thriving with her work appearing in several regional and national magazines and newspapers. She was set to have a spot on one of ESPN’s broadcasts of SportsCenter at the start of basketball season, but she was hired by three magazines to cover Independence High School’s historic winning streak and turned the ESPN job down because writing was her true passion.
If she was going to do TV, Nina wanted a spot on NFL Live, though she didn’t see that happening anytime soon. Nina had heard so many people say that real football fans wouldn’t want to listen to a woman’s opinion on the sport. And she wasn’t blond enough for most networks. And with all of this unflattering press about her, she probably wouldn’t be bankable enough for a network to take a chance on her.
What made things even worse was the fact that Lamar’s presence loomed over her like foreboding storm clouds. It wasn’t as if she’d be able to avoid Lamar all season. His school had a regular season game against the Patriots and there were the jamborees. As a matter of fact, she was supposed to cover one Friday. To make matters worse, she’d invited him to sit in the press box with her at the Carolina Panthers’ Monday night game and she’d already given him the pass. Oh, how she wished she could’ve taken it back. If she were bolder, she would’ve done just that two days ago.
Cursing inwardly, Nina wondered why she’d tried to buy him with football games and promises of media coverage. Did she really think that doing all of that would make Lamar love her? She basically allowed him to use her for coverage and exclusive access to NFL games. Nina played along, hoping things would change and he’d see her as more than a sex partner. Clearly, nothing changed.
But he bugged her about media coverage. Always wanted to tag along to Panthers’ games and celebrate afterward.
Nina couldn’t sell his story to anyone she worked for. No one cared because the story about Independence was bigger. At one time she’d hoped that his school would knock the Patriots off their throne. Now she just prayed Independence would keep West Meck from scoring a point and Lamar would get fired. A public firing that she would love to write about—for free.
Despite how much she wanted to, Nina couldn’t totally blame Lamar. She made it easy to be used. Easy to be thought of as a fool.
Nina carefully set her laptop on the coffee table and picked up her cell phone. She couldn’t face this right now. She was going to leave, even if it was going to cost her money. She dialed her father’s number. She couldn’t wait to tell her Daddy that she was coming home for a visit.
<DL>Charleston, South Carolina
<TXT>Sheldon Richardson was a formidable man, Clinton Jefferson surmised as the older man shook his hand. Before Clinton could say a word, Sheldon spoke in a booming voice that reminded him of thunder and made him cringe like a sharp bolt of electricity had struck him.
“I know why you’re here and the answer is no.”
“Mr. Richardson.” His voice didn’t convey the nervousness that flowed through his body like his own blood. He actually sounded confident, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Clinton was damn near petrified as he prepared to do the unthinkable.
“No. I’m not selling, no matter how much Birmingham is offering. I don’t want to be a part of a chain. You see, what I offer isn’t something you can get from any hotel and you can say that nothing will change, but it will. I’ve been around the block and know how these things work. Hell, you’re not even representing one of the best chains. So go back to Randall Birmingham and tell him Sheldon Richardson said hell no.”
“Sir, I didn’t come with another buyout offer.” Clinton reached into his briefcase, pulled out his résumé, and handed it to Sheldon. “I’m looking for a job.”
Sheldon laughed and his round belly shook like jelly. Clinton wondered if he could talk the older man into dressing up like Santa for the holidays. Before they’d have that conversation, Clinton would have to get the job first.
“A job? Why would you want to work for a family-owned company when you’re hot shit at Randall’s Fortune 500 company? I can tell you right now I won’t pay what they were paying you.” Shelton took the résumé and looked over it. He nodded, impressed with the young man’s credentials.
Clinton Jefferson didn’t have many heroes growing up in North Charleston, but Sheldon Richardson had always been one of his. Every time he saw him in the newspaper, Clinton swelled with pride. Here was a man who looked like him making headlines for positive reasons. It was because of Sheldon that Clinton had studied hospitality in college. He also majored in marketing because he wanted to work in upper management and not the day to day running of the property. He’d been working with Randall Birmingham’s company since he landed a paid internship there his junior year of college. But deep down, he’d always wondered what working for Sheldon Richardson would’ve taught him.
The day he walked into the Richardson Bed and Breakfast with an offer from Birmingham Properties to purchase the historic and picturesque hotel, he’d never been more nervous in his life. But Sheldon had made such an impression on him that he wanted to work for him and learn everything he could about the hospitality industry. It wasn’t as if he was coming into the company empty-handed. With his marketing expertise, he could get nationwide recognition for the bed-and-breakfast and help Sheldon make more money than he’d ever dreamed of without having to sell to anyone.
“Sir,” Clinton said. “If I wanted to keep making the same salary, I wouldn’t have quit. I want to brand your business and make this bed-and-breakfast the premier destination in the Southeast. When people think of Charleston, this should be the first place they think about. I have media contacts and the know-how to get the job done. When I analyzed your company for Birmingham, the only weakness I saw was in your marketing. You don’t do a lot of it and in this media-driven marketplace, you’re going to need to do more if you want to keep the Randall Birminghams of the world at bay.”
Sheldon looked over Clinton’s résumé again. “Why should I take a chance on you? You could come in here and take my secrets back to your old boss. I know how this game is played, son. One thing you don’t want to do is cross me.”
Nodding, Clinton understood the older man’s apprehension. “Give me a ninety-day trial period, have me sign a confidentiality agreement or whatever. Mr. Richardson, I’ve always admired you. When I was growing up in North Charleston, you were a legend. You came downtown in a time of segregation and opened this luxurious property and thrived. I’d never dream of doing something underhanded to take away what you’ve worked so hard for.”
Sheldon smiled and pointed to a picture of an older white man hanging behind his vast oak desk. “Mr. Richardsonis the reason a lot of racist white folk stayed here in the days of segregation. People assumed he owned this place and I was just the hired help. I made up so many excuses as to why he was never on the property. Would’ve paid a lot of money to see the look on their faces when they found out I was the real owner.” Sheldon chuckled, then leaned into Clinton. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. That’s just an old picture I found at a yard sale in 1963. I don’t even know who that man is. It was my wife, Nora’s, idea to create the persona of Mr. Richardson being white. She was right, too.”
“What you’ve done with this place is admirable. It’s certainly understandable why you wouldn’t want to sell. But I know I can make this place even more well-known than it is now with social media and—”
“Why are you here again?” an angry female voice boomed from the doorway of Sheldon’s office.
“Alex, meet your new marketing manager, Clinton Jefferson.”
“Daddy,” she said as she breezed into the office like a hurricane. “You can’t be serious. Isn’t this Randall’s stooge?”
“I still own the place, so I’m serious. The decision has been made. Clinton has something we need. He’s a helluva salesman because I just bought his pitch; hook, line, and sinker.”
Anger shadowed Alex’s comely features as she glared at Clinton. A lesser man would’ve been intimidated by the Amazonian beauty. She was tall, nearly six feet. Her eyes were black as coal—just like Sheldon’s but lacking warmth. With her straight black hair pulled back in a conservative bun, she looked like the grade school teacher who you didn’t want to piss off.
But he didn’t appreciate being called a stooge. Clinton was his own man, no one owned him—especially Randall Birmingham.
“Well, Mr. Jefferson, welcome to the company. But keep in mind that I handle the day-to-day running of this business. You will answer directly to me.” Alex folded her arms across her chest and gave him a slow once-over.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m here to assist.” The way Alexandria spoke, Clinton had no doubt that this woman ruled with an iron fist.
Before Alex could say anything else, her father’s private line rang.
“Hello, it’s Sheldon,” he drawled. “Baby girl. It’s good to hear from you. How are you holding up? They did what? Now, that is some bullshit. If I ever meet that quarterback, he’s going to have a really short career. Why are you being punished? Darling, I am calm. Okay. I’ll be glad to see you. What about the Dallas game?” Sheldon laughed. “I hope the Dallas defense slams him to the ground and knocks some sense in his head.”
Sheldon hung up the phone and turned to his eldest daughter and Clinton with a bright smile on his face. “That was Nina. She’s coming home.”
Alex smiled and scratched her head. “Doesn’t she have to cover some sort of sporting events? How can she take off during the middle of football season?”
Sheldon shrugged. “You clearly haven’t been watching ESPN. She needs a break and she got suspended for a couple of days.”
“She’ll be here soon and I’m sure you’ll drag it out of her.”
Clinton felt as if a family argument was brewing and he figured he should leave. But go where? He didn’t have an employment start date or an office. He couldn’t help but wonder if Nina was anything like her older sister. He had to admit: Alexandria Richardson was one scary woman even if she was pretty. To remind father and daughter that he was still in the room, Clinton cleared his throat loudly.
All eyes focused on him and Sheldon smiled again. “Monday would be a good day for you to start. I’d like for you and Alexandria to go over a marketing plan that fits our company and for you to meet the entire staff—from the housekeepers to our cooks and the other managers. Get a feel for how we work. All of us are family,” he said. “You know what? Why don’t you get started tomorrow? Alexandria will show you around today so that you can get your feet wet.”
Alex didn’t look happy and Clinton got the feeling that he’d never view her as a sister or cousin—no matter how distant. “Let me show you to your office and it’s not going to be big.”
“As long as it’s not a broom closet I’ll be happy,” Clinton said with a forced smile on his lips.
Once they were out of Sheldon’s earshot, Alex whirled around and focused an evil sneer on Clinton. “I don’t know what your game is or why all of a sudden you want to work here. Know this: If you try anything underhanded to wrest control of this property from my family, there will be hell to pay.”
“Miss Richardson,” she snapped.
“My apologizes. Miss Richardson, your father has been one of my heroes for a long time and I would never do anything to try and take this company from him. When I came here two months ago, I was working for someone else who conducts business in a way that I don’t want to be associated with. I chose to come here and offer my—”
“How are we to know that you’re not still working for Randall Birmingham? I know his style and he doesn’t give up when he wants something. For all I know, this could be a new ploy,” Alex hissed.
“Because I quit and I suggest you call and make sure I did.”
“Don’t think for a second that I won’t and you better be everything you say you are.” Alex spun on her heels and stalked down the hall with Clinton struggling to keep up.
His office may not have been an actual broom closet, but it was close. There were no windows, just room for a desk, chair, and nothing else. The walls were the blandest shade of beige he’d ever seen and with the overhead fluorescent light on, the room looked as if it has been bleached. Sitting his briefcase on the desk, Clinton forced himself to pretend he liked the space.
“I’m right across the hall from you and I will be keeping my eye on you,” Alex spat.
“Never doubted that you would,” he mumbled as she walked across the hall to her lavish office with a view of the Charleston Harbor.