“Clock's ticking, Guinn.”
DeMarcus Guinn, shooting guard for the National Basketball Association's Miami Waves, looked at his head coach, then at the game clock. Thirteen seconds remained in game seven of the NBA finals. The Waves and Sacramento Kings were tied at 101. His coach had just called a time-out. DeMarcus stood on the sidelines surrounded by his teammates. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and drained his sports drink. It didn't help.
He looked into the stands and found his father standing in the bleachers. He saw the empty seat beside him. His mother's seat. DeMarcus rubbed his chest above his heart.
“Guinn! You need to step it up out there.” His coach's tone was urgent.
Why? What did it matter now?
His coach grabbed his arm. “Do you have this, Guinn?”
The buzzer sounded to end the twenty-second time-out.
DeMarcus pulled his arm free of his coach's grasp. “I've got this.”
He joined his teammates on the court, walking through a wall of tension thick enough to hammer. Waves' fans had been cheering, stomping and chanting nonstop throughout the fourth quarter. DeMarcus looked up again at the crowd and the empty seat.
“Are you with us, Marc?” Marlon Burress, his teammate for the past thirteen years, looked at him with concern.
DeMarcus saw the intensity of the four other Waves on the court. He looked at his teammates and coaches on the sideline. He saw his father in the stands. He had to find a way to play past the pain, if not for his team or his father, then for his mother's memory.
DeMarcus took his position near midcourt. The Waves' Walter Millbank stood ready to inbound the ball. Marlon shifted closer to the basket.
The referee tossed Walter the ball. The Kings' Carl Landry defended him, waving his arms and leaping to distract him from the play. Marlon balanced on his toes and extended his arms for the ball. Thirteen seconds on the game clock. The referee blew his whistle to signal the play.
Ignoring the Kings' defender, Walter hurled the ball to Marlon. With the ball an arm's length from Marlon's fingers, the Kings' Samuel Dalembert leaped into the lane. Turnover. The crowd screamed its disappointment.
Eleven seconds on the game clock.
Dalembert spun and charged down court. Marlon and Walter gave chase.
Ten seconds on the game clock.
DeMarcus saw Dalembert racing toward him. The action on the court slowed to a ballroom dance. The crowd's chants of “Defense!” faded into the background.
DeMarcus's vision narrowed to Dalembert, the ball and the game clock. From midcourt, he stepped into Dalembert's path. His concentration remained on the ball. He smacked it from Dalembert, reclaiming possession. Waves fans roared. The arena shook.
Seven seconds on the game clock.
DeMarcus's vision widened to include his teammates and the Kings' defenders. With Marlon, Walter and the other Waves guarding the Kings, DeMarcus charged back up court. His goalâthe net, two points and the win. He felt Dalembert closing in on him from behind.
Five seconds. Four seconds. Three seconds.
DeMarcus leaped for the basket, extending his body and his arm, stretching for the rim.
Miami Waves, 103. Sacramento Kings, 101.
The crowd roared. Balloons and confetti rained from the rafters. The Waves' bench cleared. The team had survived the last-minute challenge from the Kings to claim the win and the NBA championship title.
DeMarcus looked into the stands and found his father. He was cheering and waving his fists with the other Waves fans. Beside him, the seat remained empty. His mother would never cheer from the stands again.
Less than an hour later, showered and changed from his Waves uniform into a black, Italian-cut suit, DeMarcus entered the team's media room. Reporters waited for the post-finals press conference. They lobbed questions at him before he'd taken his seat.
“What does this championship mean to you?”
“Why did you seem dazed during the fourth quarter?”
“You made the winning basket. What are you going to do now?”
He latched on to the last question. “I'm retiring from the NBA.”
DeMarcus stood and left the room.
Two years later
“Cut the crap, Guinn.”
DeMarcus Guinn felt the sting of the honey-and-whiskey voice. It slapped him from the doorway of his newly acquired office in the Empire Arena. He looked up from his National Basketball Association paperwork and across the room's silver-carpeted expanse.
Standing in the polished oak threshold, Jaclyn Jones radiated anger. It vibrated along every curve of her well-toned figure. Contempt hardened her long cinnamon eyes. The media had nicknamed the former Women's National Basketball Association shooting guard the Lady Assassin. Her moniker was a tribute to her holding the fewest number of fouls yet one of the highest scoring records in the league.
As of today, DeMarcus called her boss.
DeMarcus pushed his heavy, black executive chair back from his massive oak desk and stood. He didn't understand Jaclyn's accusatory tone or her hostility, but confusion didn't justify poor manners. “Excuse me?”
“You took the Monarchs' head coach position.” She threw the words at him.
DeMarcus's confusion multiplied. “Why wouldn't I? You offered it.”
Jaclyn strode into his office. Her blood red skirt suit cut a wave of heat across the silver carpet, white walls and black furniture. Her fitted jacket highlighted the rose undertone of her golden brown skin. Slender hips swayed under the narrow, mid-calf skirt. Three-inch red stilettos boosted her six-foot-plus height.
She stopped behind one of the three black-cushioned guest chairs facing his desk and dropped her large gray purse onto its seat. Her red-tipped nails dug into the fat chair cushion. “That was my partners' decision. Gerry and Bert extended the offer.
was against it.”
Her admission surprised him. DeMarcus shoved his hands into the soft pockets of his brown khaki pants. Why was she telling him this? Whatever the reason, it couldn't be good. “I didn't ask to interview for the Brooklyn Monarchs' head coach job.
Jaclyn shook her head. Her curly, dark brown hair swung around her shoulders. It drew his attention to the silver and black Brooklyn Monarchs lapel pin fastened to her collar. “Not me. Gerry and Bert.” Her enunciation was crisp and clear.
So was her meaning.
You don't have what it takes. Stop wasting our time.
Confusion made a blind pass to bitterness. DeMarcus swallowed it back. “Why don't you want me as your coach?”
“The Monarchs need a winning season. We need
season. You don't have the experience to make that happen.”
“I don't have coaching experience, but I've been in the league for fifteen yearsâ”
Jaclyn raised her right hand, palm out, cutting him off. “And in that time, you won two NBA championship rings, three MVP titles and an Olympic gold medal. I saw the games and read the sports reports.”
“Then you know I know how to win.”
She quirked a sleek, arched brow. “You can
to win, but can you
“Winning is important to me.”
“It's important to me, too. That's why I want an
DeMarcus clenched his teeth. Jaclyn Jones was a pleasure to look at and her voice turned him on. But it had been a long, draining day, and he didn't have time for this shit.
He circled his desk and took a position an arm's length from her. “If you didn't want to hire me, why am I here?”
She moved in closer to him. “Majority rule. Gerry and Bert wanted you. I'd hoped, after the interview, you'd realize you were out of your element.”
DeMarcus's right temple throbbed each time he remembered the way she'd interrogated him a month ago. He should have realized she'd been driven by more than thoroughness. Gerald Bimm and Albert Tipton had tried to run interference, but the Lady Assassin had blocked their efforts.
DeMarcus shook his head. “I'm not out of my element. I know the game. I know the league, and I know what it takes to win.”
Jaclyn scowled up at him. A soft floral fragranceâlilac?âfloated toward him. He could see the darker flecks in her cinnamon eyes. His gaze dipped to her full red lips
“But you don't know how to coach.” Her expression dared him to disagree. “When you were with the Miami Waves, you led by example, picking up the pace when your teammates weren't producing. You were amazing. But I don't need another player. I need a coach.”
DeMarcus crossed his arms. “We went over this during my interview. I wouldn't have taken this job if I couldn't perform.”
Jaclyn blinked. Her gaze swept his white shirt, green tie and brown pants before she pivoted to pace his cavernous office. “We're talking about coaching.”
“I know.” DeMarcus tracked her movements from the black lacquered coffee service set against his far left wall and back to his desk. Her red outfit complimented the office's silver and black dÃ©cor, the Monarchs's team colors.
The only things filling the void of his office were furnitureâhis oak desk, a conversation table, several chairs and a bookcase. The tall, showy plant in the corner was fake.
Jaclyn paced away from him again. Her voice carried over her shoulder. “The Monarchs finished last season with nineteen wins and sixty-three losses.”
DeMarcus heard her frustration. “They finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.”
“We were at the bottom of the
” Jaclyn turned to approach him. Her eyes were tired, her expression strained. “What are you going to do to turn the team around?”
He shrugged. “Win.”
She was close enough to smell the soft lilac fragrance on her skin, feel the warmth of her body and hear the grinding of her teeth. “You sound so confident, so self-assured. It will take more than the strength of the Mighty Guinn's personality to pull the team out of its tailspin.”
“I'm aware of that.” He hated the nickname the media had given him.
“Then how are you planning to win? What's your strategy?”
As majority owner of the Brooklyn Monarchs, Jaclyn was his boss. DeMarcus had to remember that, even as her antagonism pressed him to respond in kind.
He took a deep breath, calling on the same techniques he'd used to center himself before making his free throws. “I'm going to work on increasing their speed and improving their defense. Your players can earn style points, but they do everything in slow motion.” Jaclyn stared at him as though expecting something more. “I can give you more details after I've studied their game film.”
He glanced at the tower of digital video discs waiting for him to carry them home. It was late September. Training camp had started under the interim head coach, and preseason was two weeks away. He didn't have a lot of time to turn the team around.
Jaclyn settled her long, slender hands on her slim hips and cocked her right knee. The angle of her stance signaled her intent to amp up their confrontation. DeMarcus narrowed his eyes, trying to read her next move.
“Maybe I should have been more specific.” Her voice had cooled. “The players no longer think they're capable of winning. How are you going to change their attitudes?”
“By giving them the skills they need to win.”
“These aren't a bunch of high school kids. They're NBA players. They already have the skills to win.”
“Then why aren't they winning?”
Jaclyn dragged her hand through her thick, curly hair. “Winning builds confidence. Losing breeds doubt. I'm certain you've heard that before.”
“Yes.” But why was she bringing it up now?
“Even with the skills, they won't win unless they believe they
win. How do you plan to make them believe?”
DeMarcus snorted. “You don't want a coach. You want Dr. Phil.”
Jaclyn sighed. “And you're neither. I'd like your resignation, please.”
DeMarcus stared. He couldn't have heard her correctly. “What?”
“It would save both of us a great deal of embarrassment and disappointment.”
His mind went blank. His skin grew cold. Jaclyn had landed a sucker punch without laying a finger on him. “You want my resignation? I've only been here one day.”
“Think of your reputation. Everyone remembers you as a winner. You're jeopardizing your legacy by taking a position you're not qualified for.”
Blood flooded his veins again, making his skin burn. “I disagree. I have what it takes to lead this team.”
Jaclyn didn't appear to be listening. She dropped her hands from her hips and paced his spacious office. “You can keep the signing bonus.”
“It's not about the money.” The vein above his right temple had started to throb. He heard the anger in his voice but didn't care. He was through playing nice with his new boss. She was threatening his goal and maligning his character.
Jaclyn frowned at him. “Then what
DeMarcus doubted she was interested in his motives for wanting to be the head coach of the Brooklyn Monarchs. “I'm not a quitter.”
“You're not a coach.”
DeMarcus studied the elegant features of her golden brown faceâher high cheekbones, pointed chin and long-lidded eyesâsearching for a clue to her thoughts. What was her game? “Do you have someone else in mind for my job?”
Her full, moist lips tightened. “We interviewed several candidates I consider much more qualified to lead this team.”
“Gerry and Bert hired me. Your partners don't respect your opinion.”
Jaclyn made an irritated sound. “I've realized my business partners don't have the team's best interests at heart.”
“Careful, or you'll hurt my feelings.”
Jaclyn's eyes narrowed. “Are you helping them destroy the team?”
“What are you talking about” Was Jaclyn Jones unbalanced?
“Why would you stay where you're not wanted?”
He gave her a wry smile. “But I
wanted. I have the letter offering me this job to prove it.”
“I didn't sign that letter.”
DeMarcus turned to reclaim his seat behind his desk. “Two out of three isn't bad.”
Jaclyn followed him, stopping on the other side of his desk. “You should be more careful of the company you keep. Gerry and Bert don't care about the team. They don't care about you, either.”
“I don't need your help picking my friends.” DeMarcus pulled his seat under his desk before giving Jaclyn a cool stare. “Now, you'll have to excuse me. I have work to do.”
Jaclyn straightened. “I want your resignation. Now.”
DeMarcus dropped his mask and let her see all the anger he'd been hiding. “No.”
“Then you're not getting my support.”
“Lady, you don't scare me.” He leaned back in his seat. “You're convinced I don't have what it takes to coach your team, but you haven't given me one damn reason why you've made that call.”
“I've given you several.”
DeMarcus held up one finger. “You want someone who'll get in touch with your players' emotions. Look, if they don't want to win, they don't belong on your team.”
“You don't have the authority to fire players.” There was apprehension in her eyes.
He raised a second finger. “You think your partners aren't looking out for the team. That's only because you didn't get your way.”
“That's not true.”
He lifted a third finger. “You don't think I can coach.” DeMarcus stood. “How do you know that? Have you seen me coach?”
seen you coach?” Jaclyn clamped her hands onto her hips.
DeMarcus jerked his chin, indicating his office. “This is what I want, an opportunity to lead the Brooklyn Monarchs to a winning season. And, in a few years, bring home the championship. We have to be realistic. That won't happen this season. But it will happen. That's my goal. And I'll be damned if I'm going to let anyone deny me.”
Jaclyn's gaze wavered. But then she raised her chin and squared her shoulders. “That's a very moving speech, Guinn. Can you back it up?”
“Watch me.” DeMarcus settled back into his seat and nodded toward his doorway. “But do it from the other side of the door.”
The heat of her anger battered his cold control. DeMarcus held her gaze and his silence. Finally, Jaclyn inclined her head. She grabbed her purse from the guest chair and left.