The stakes just got a lot higher. He wasn't coaching just to safeguard his legacy anymore or to protect a franchise. He was coaching to save her family, the only family she'd ever known.
Losing had never been an option, and winning had never mattered more.
DeMarcus stopped in front of Jaclyn's executive assistant's desk and waited until she'd finished whatever she was typing. “Althea Gentry, I'd like you to meet my father, Julian Guinn.”
Althea's smile was uncharacteristically bashful. “This is your father? The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, does it?” She turned to extend a hand toward Julian. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Guinn.”
Julian took Althea's hand. “Please call me Julian. It's a pleasure to meet you, too.”
Althea's smile broadened into a grin. A blush dusted her rounded brown cheeks.
DeMarcus looked from Althea to his father and back. “Is Jack in her office?”
“No, she's right behind you,” Jaclyn answered.
DeMarcus turned as Jaclyn laid a folder on Althea's desk. She was wearing her red power suit adorned with the ever-present Monarchs lapel pin. “Pop and I came to see if we could take you to lunch.”
Jaclyn stepped forward to embrace Julian. Her red stiletto boots brought her almost equal in height to his father. She stepped back, keeping one hand on Julian's shoulder as she addressed DeMarcus. “I'd love to, but the meeting I'd mentioned to you yesterday was moved up. I don't think I'd be very good company today. But thanks for the invitation.”
Disappointment merged with DeMarcus's concern. “Why did they move up the meeting?”
Jaclyn let her hand drop from Julian's shoulder. “Apparently, Mr. Abbottson has a connecting flight to Miami for the All-Star weekend. He doesn't want to miss it.”
Julian shifted to face Jaclyn. “The Monarchs will get some players chosen to the All-Stars next season.”
A shadow crossed Jaclyn's face. “This is the second year in a row we were overlooked.”
DeMarcus wanted to wrap his arms around her and give her comfort. But he didn't think such a display of affection was appropriate for the office. “Pop and I will give you a rain check on lunch.”
She gave him her special smile, the one that softened her features and warmed her eyes. “I'd like that. Thanks.” She surprised him by kissing both his and Julian's cheeks before returning to her office.
DeMarcus and Julian walked the few blocks to a small, popular cafÃ©. It was only eleven-thirty, and already the neighborhood establishment was packed. But the pair didn't have to wait long before being seated at a booth near a window.
Julian opened his menu. “I didn't mean to upset Jackie when I mentioned the All-Star weekend.”
DeMarcus glanced up before returning his attention to the list of lunch items. “Don't worry, Pop. Jack will be fine.”
“What meeting does she have today? You both looked like doom and gloom when she talked about it.”
DeMarcus lowered his menu when the server arrived to take their drink order. He and his father requested unsweetened iced tea. The young man nodded without writing anything down, then walked away.
DeMarcus spread his cloth napkin on his lap. “Gerry arranged a meeting with a Nevada investor who's considering building an arena in Las Vegas for the Monarchs.”
Julian's menu dropped from his fingers. “The Monarchs' founders must be spinning in their graves.”
“Jack won't let anyone take the team out of Brooklyn.” DeMarcus hesitated. “She's taken a mortgage on her grandfather's house. She's going to buy the arena.”
Julian's brows almost disappeared into his graying hairline. “That's a little drastic, isn't it?”
“I said the same thing.” DeMarcus scanned the entrÃ©e items without taking in a single word. “And there's nothing I can do to help her. She won't let me loan her the money for the arena.”
“It isn't personal. I'm sure she'd have to clear that with the NBA. Besides, Jackie Jones is too independent to borrow money from her boyfriend. She's the kind of woman who pays her own bills.”
Julian's description distracted DeMarcus. He was Jaclyn Jones's boyfriend. What had started as a casual relationship had grown to mean much more to him. What did it mean to her?
The server returned with their drinks, then took their orders. DeMarcus asked for a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Julian wanted a meatball sub. They both ordered side salads.
DeMarcus waited for the young man to leave before continuing. “I have my self-respect, too. This relationship can't be one-sided. Even if I coached the team to the Finals and we won, she could still lose the arena. So what am I contributing?”
“A winning season and ticket sales.” Julian's tone was dry. “You're the coach, Marc. That's all you're required to contribute. The franchise needs to increase its revenue base, otherwise Jackie will continue to struggle to keep the Empire.” His father offered a smile. “She still needs a hero, Marc.”
DeMarcus snorted. “I'm no one's hero.”
Julian's snort was identical to his son's. “I've seen the way she looks at you. You're her knight in shining armor.”
A part of him wished Julian was serious. But DeMarcus knew his father was trying to lighten the mood. “Somehow, I don't think a knight would put his lady in the position of having to mortgage her home.”
“That has nothing to do with you.” Julian was adamant. “The franchise began to deteriorate long before you came on the scene.”
“What can I do to help her?”
“You're doing it. For the first time in three seasons, the Monarchs have a winning record. You have twenty-nine
s to twenty-two
At the start of the season, there were days DeMarcus had wondered whether a winning season was possible. “We have to add to the wins column. But winning a ball game doesn't seem like enough.”
He'd won games for his mother. Had it been enough? Had she known how grateful he'd been to her?
Jaclyn had urged him to ask his father months ago. But he couldn't. He feared what the answer might be.
For now, DeMarcus pushed the questions to the back of his mind. “You impressed Althea.”
“She must be easily impressed.”
DeMarcus's chuckle was real. “You don't know Althea. That lady isn't easily impressed by anyone or anything. Ever.”
Julian shrugged. “You're just flattered by her comment about the apple and the tree.”
“You're the one who should be flattered.” DeMarcus enjoyed his father's laughter. It came a lot more frequently these days. Since Jaclyn had entered their lives.
They were quiet for a while, each enjoying the other's company and the view outside of Brooklyn in February. The silence was interrupted when the young server returned with their sandwiches and salads.
DeMarcus kept his voice low. “Mom's been gone for almost three years, Pop. I don't think she would have wanted you to spend the rest of your life in mourning.”
“I know.” Julian stuck his fork into his salad and poked around. “But your mother and I were together for a very long time. It's not easy to let go of someone who'd been so right for me.”
DeMarcus thought of Jaclyn. He understood what his father said. When you meet the right woman, it wasn't easy to let her go, under any circumstances.
“We're sorry to have kept you waiting, Jackie.” Gerald didn't sound sorry. He sounded amused.
Jaclyn looked up from her marketing project folder and rose from her seat at the head of the small mahogany table. Gerald always kept her waiting. Why would today be any different? That's why she'd brought work with her into the conference room.
She fixed a smile on her face and offered it to Gerald and his guest. “I had plenty to keep me busy.”
Gerald made the introductions. “Jaclyn Jones, Carville Abbottson. Jackie, Carville. I think we can all be on a first-name basis, don't you?”
“I don't know why not.” Carville offered Jaclyn a firm handshake.
Jaclyn enjoyed his energy and enthusiasm. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Carville.”
The real estate investor had a hearty Southern accent to go with his golden-age-of-Hollywood good looks. His silver hair and grass green eyes would have been startling in black and white film. Just over six feet tall, he was a commanding figure in his dark green pin-striped suit.
The two men chose chairs around the conference table. Gerald frowned at Jaclyn's location. If he'd wanted to sit at the head of the table, he should have arrived earlier.
Carville had claimed the seat to her right. “I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me, Jackie.”
At sixty-three, the chief executive seemed as fit as someone half his age. His conditioning was a testament to the discipline that had driven him from a community college in a tiny Kentucky town to the corner office of his Las Vegas real estate investment firm. Yes, Jaclyn had done her research. She'd never stepped onto the basketball court without committing the scouting reports to memory, either.
Jaclyn closed her project folder and recapped her pen. “I don't know how fruitful this meeting will be.”
Carville folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. “Las Vegas would welcome the Monarchs into our market.
Jaclyn noted the spark in Carville's eyes, the leashed energy in his posture. The self-made multimillionaire was an adrenaline junky. That probably contributed to his success. “How do you know the Las Vegas market could support the Monarchs?”
Carville gave her an engaging smile. “Well, first of all, your team would be the only NBA team in the market.”
Had Gerald fed him that line or had Carville used it first? “The Monarchs have done very well sharing the New York City metropolitan market with the Knicks for fifty-five years. But will the NBA allow Las Vegas to establish a team? I thought the commissioner wanted casinos to take NBA games off their books before Las Vegas would be considered a viable location for a team.”
Carville spread his hands. “We're going to petition the commissioner to consider Las Vegas as a host expansion city. I feel confident we have a good shot at it.” He shrugged. “And being an inaugural team in Las Vegas would be a great draw for your Monarchs. I know you've struggled to make book, and your profits aren't what they used to be.”
Jaclyn gave Gerald a brief glance. How much of their finances had he shared with the investor? “That has more to do with mismanagement on our part than the market. During my grandfather's illness and after his death, I didn't pay attention to the team as I should have. I'm correcting my oversight now.”
Carville's eyes darkened with sympathy. “I understand.”
Gerald interrupted. “But in Vegas, there wouldn't be another team to lure our fans away.”
Carville's laughter was deep and full. “Gerry's right. Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world. In addition to the almost two million people in our metro area, you're going to be pulling Vegas vacationers into the games.”
Carville Abbottson was smart, charming and exciting. Jaclyn liked himâand wanted him to leave. She wasn't going to change her mind about keeping the team in Brooklyn. Still, she wouldn't direct her impatience at Carville. Her target was Gerald. She glanced at her partner again. With very little prompting, she'd gladly poke him in the eyes.
She leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs. She adjusted the material of her teal skirt over her knee. “Where would the team play?”
Carville inclined his head. “You're asking about the arena.”
Jaclyn was gratified that the investor didn't pretend not to understand her question. He really was a likeable person. “How are you going to finance it?”
Carville folded his hands again. “We're hoping to put a measure on the May ballot for a levy.”
Jaclyn blinked. “You're asking for taxpayer funding?”
Carville nodded. “Bringing a pro team to Las Vegas will improve the city's standing. The arena will bring jobs to the area. We're going to ask residents to help us make this possible.”
Jaclyn frowned at Gerald. “Did you know about this?”
Gerald shrugged. “Carville mentioned it to me.”
didn't mention it to
” She turned back to the investor. “How do you think voters will respond to the levy?”
Carville's gaze sharpened. His tone was more cautious. “Our initial telephone poll results are mixed. But we've got some strong direct marketing and media campaigns that will help educate voters on why the levy is a good idea for the city.”
Jaclyn lifted her pen, rolling it between her index finger and thumb. Her grandfather hadn't liked the idea of asking a tax-burdened community to pay for his franchise and neither did she. “What will you do if the voters reject the levy?”
Carville shook his head. “I don't think they will.”
Jaclyn noted Carville's squared jaw and stubborn chin. The founder of Abbottson Investments had gotten his success through determination, hard work and positive thinking. In this case, Jaclyn didn't like his thinking.
She continued to roll her pen. “Even if they pass the tax levy in May, it will take at least a year after you break ground to build the arena. Unless we're able to get an extension on the Empire contract, the Monarchs will be without a home next season.”
Carville looked from Gerald to Jaclyn. “If we're able to meet agreeable terms, I'm sure we'd work something out for next season. Maybe the Knicks would let us play some games at Madison Square Garden. Or we could play at a couple of nearby arenas.”
Jaclyn would bounce her team between arenas when pigs flew. “That would be too disruptive to the team and our fans.
Carville looked concerned. “It wouldn't be for more than one season.”
Jaclyn sighed. “Carville, I don't want to move the Monarchs out of Brooklyn, and I haven't heard anything in this meeting that would change my mind. Even if we have to move out of the Empire Arena, I want to keep the franchise in Brooklyn.”
Carville shifted his surprised expression to Gerald. “I thought you both wanted to move to Vegas.”
Jaclyn arched a brow at Gerald. “You were misled.”
Carville leaned back in the thick, black-cushioned chair. “I want to bring an NBA team to Las Vegas. Is there a possibility that you'd change your mind about moving the Monarchs?”
Gerald answered. “Anything is possible.”
Jaclyn ignored her partner. “Not even the slightest possibility.”
Car ville got to his feet. “Then I'm sorry I wasted your time, Jackie.”
Jaclyn stood with him, extending her hand. “It wasn't a waste of time. It was a pleasure meeting you, Carville.”
The executive gave her a silver screen idol smile. “The pleasure was mine. Good luck finding a new home for your team.”
“Thank you.” Jaclyn watched Gerald escort the real estate investor from the conference room.
How was her traitorous partner spinning this setback?
Once they'd disappeared across the threshold, she retrieved her cell phone from her skirt pocket and punched in the speed-dial code for Violet. Her friend and former teammate picked up on the third ring.
Jaclyn sat down again. “Vi, are you still looking for a business challenge?”
“I may have one for you. When can we get together to talk about it?”
“What's wrong with them?” DeMarcus studied the way Jamal defended Warrick. The Monarchs were more than an hour into their worst practice of the season.
Oscar Clemente shrugged. “Too tight.”
“Because of Tuesday's loss in Boston?” Last night's flight back to Brooklyn after the Celtics game had been tense.
After five monthsâSeptember to Februaryâ DeMarcus should have known better than to ask his assistant coach a yes or no question.
He followed the action on the court. The Monarchs ran through the defensive strategy he and his coaching staff had planned for Friday's match against the Wizards in D.C. There were only two games left in February before they turned the calendar to March. Every one was critical. The startersâJamal, Barron, Anthony, Serge and Vincentâwore silver T-shirts and black shorts. Warrick wore the black running shorts and matching T-shirt that identified him with the bench players on offense. Warrick did a better-than-credible impersonation of Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards' veteran guard. Jamal wasn't able to defend him.
DeMarcus crossed his arms over his chest. “They can't be worried about the Wizards. We beat them on their home court last month.”
Oscar grunted. “The Wizards aren't better than us.”
DeMarcus ignored Oscar's division rivalry smack talk and gestured toward the court. “Then what's the problem?”
“The rookie. He draws more fouls than flies are drawn toâ”
DeMarcus raised his voice to be heard above the squeaking sneakers and thumping ball. “Jamal, check Rick. Don't hug him.” He looked toward Oscar. “As often as I've had to repeat that, I should have a T-shirt made.”
Warrick circled to Jamal's left, keeping the ball out of the rookie's reach. He was toying with the younger player.
Instead of moving back, Jamal pressed closer. “The old man can't handle my pressure.” The younger man's voice was short of breath and edged with anger.
“I can take the pressure.” Warrick's tone was cool and controlled. “The team doesn't need you to foul.” He stepped back behind the three-point perimeter and sank a basket.
DeMarcus narrowed his eyes. Was the benched veteran finally getting his game back? He glanced at Oscar. “Jamal's a pain in the ass, but he can score.”
“He disrupts the team.”
“He's brought the team together.”
“Together against him. That's unhealthy.”
“We have a winning record. It can't be unhealthy.” DeMarcus brought his attention back to the court in time to see Warrick steal the ball from Serge and heave it to the member of his practice squad closest to the paint. That player, a back-up center, turned and slammed the ball into the net.
DeMarcus shook his head. “Our bench players are up eight points against our starters.”
“They're not tight.”
After a series of plays, the starters took a small and tenuous lead. Warrick remained cool and in control. But Jamal's game reflected his increasing agitation.
Warrick was dribbling the ball well outside of the three-point perimeter, biding his time until a teammate came open. Jamal's arm came across the veteran player from behind in a move guaranteed to earn the rookie a foul and send Warrick to the free-throw line during a real game. DeMarcus brought the whistle to his mouth, preparing to stop the game. He hesitated as Warrick dodged free, bringing the ball with him. Smooth move.
DeMarcus ran a hand over his close-cropped hair. His tone snapped. “Jamal, play the
Jamal's anger was palpable as he crowded Warrick again. “I'm sending Grandpa back to the bench.”
DeMarcus clenched his teeth. “I said play the ball.”
Warrick kept the ball out of Jamal's reach. “All of your fancy moves won't mean anything if you can't stay out of foul trouble. Work on your defenseâand your temper.”
Jamal sneered. “You're washed up, old man.”
DeMarcus blew his whistle. “All right. Bring it in.” His voice was sharp as the players gathered around him and Oscar. “Jamal, you're a good shooter.”
Jamal swiped sweat from his brow. “Damn right, I am.”
DeMarcus narrowed his eyes on Jamal. “But because you keep sending our opponents to the foul line, your teammates have to work harder and shoot more to stay in the game. You can't make those mistakes and expect to get to the play-offs.”