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Authors: Regina Hart

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BOOK: Fast Break
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DeMarcus scrubbed his face with both hands, hoping to ease his temper. The Lady Assassin had charged him like a lead-footed defender at the post.
They shared the same goal—a winning season for the Monarchs. Then why was she determined to get rid of him?
Cold air cut into Jaclyn's skirt suit as she exited the Empire Arena. Leaving her coat at home during autumn in Brooklyn hadn't been a good idea. But at least the chilled breeze was cooling her temper.
She shivered as she hustled toward the curb. “Thanks for waiting, Herb.” Jaclyn gave the liveried limousine driver a grateful smile.
Yes, she was angry about the Mighty Guinn's galactic stubbornness and mammoth ego. But she wouldn't project her wrath onto Herbert Trasker. The quiet older gentleman from the limo service she retained had been driving her around the city for years.
Herbert straightened away from the silver Bentley sedan. The black suit and tie made his wiry frame seem taller. “You're welcome, Ms. Jones.”
Herbert's emerald eyes twinkled at her. With a familiar gesture, the driver touched the brim of the black leather hat covering his iron gray hair. He opened the back passenger-side door and waited while Jaclyn thanked him before settling in. Their routine eased some of her tension.
Herbert slid behind the wheel. “The Bonner and Taylor office, Ms. Jones?”
“Yes, thank you, Herb.” She'd stopped trying to get him to call her Jaclyn.
Herbert muscled the Bentley into the crowded, chaotic streets and set it on a course toward the downtown law firm. Bonner & Taylor represented the owners of the Empire Arena, which had been the home of the Brooklyn Monarchs since the franchise's birth in 1956.
Herbert maneuvered them past the neighborhoods of the borough in which she'd been born and raised—the congested city sidewalks, packed bodegas and busy storefronts. Framing these streets were trees, young and old, their brilliant autumn colors vying for attention.
The glass and metal corporate building that housed Bonner & Taylor rose into view. Jaclyn beat back her cresting nervousness. Could she convince the arena owners' lawyers to extend the franchise's opt-out clause?
Herbert double-parked beside a delivery van and activated the Bentley's hazard lights. He climbed from the driver's seat and circled the sedan to hand Jaclyn from the car. Stepping onto the street, Jaclyn felt as though she were moving in slow motion.
“I'll meet you right here, Ms. Jones.”
She smiled with more confidence than she felt. “Thank you.”
Jaclyn strode to the offices. Revolving doors swung her into the tall, thin building. Her stilettos clicked against the stone floor as she crossed the lobby. The business directory mounted to the marbled teal wall listed Bonner & Taylor's offices on the twenty-eighth floor of the thirty-floor structure.
Jaclyn wove through the hustling crowd toward the express elevators. The lobby reeked of wealth, prestige and self-importance. As she waited for the elevators, Jaclyn straightened the jacket of her power suit. Hopefully, it would prove more effective with Bonner & Taylor than it had with the Mighty Guinn.
Despite its claim to express service, the elevator ride gave her plenty of time to settle her nerves. It wasn't until its doors opened to the firm's offices that she realized she hadn't been successful.
A thin-faced, blond receptionist looked up as Jaclyn approached. “Good afternoon. May I help you?”
Jaclyn tried another confident smile. “Jaclyn Jones to see Misters Bonner and Taylor.”
The receptionist's expression warmed to a polite welcome. “Yes, Ms. Jones. They're expecting you.” She gestured toward a grouping of beige armchairs to the left of her desk. “Please make yourself comfortable. I'll let them know you're here.”
She'd just settled into the chair, which was as comfortable as her sofa, when a tall, middle-aged gentleman in a double-breasted, navy pin-striped suit strode toward her. “Ms. Jones, I'm Greg Bonner. It's a pleasure to meet you.”
Jaclyn stood and accepted Gregory's outstretched hand. “Thank you for meeting with me, Mr. Bonner.”
“Greg, please.” The firm's senior partner studied her with sharp, gray eyes. His salon-styled chestnut hair grew back from his forehead.
“And I'm Jackie.”
“Denny's waiting for us in the conference room.”
Jaclyn recognized the name of his law partner, Dennis Taylor. She fell into step beside Gregory. Her stilettos sank into the plush teal carpet that led to a wood-paneled conference room at the end of the wide hallway.
Another tall, stylish middle-aged man stepped around an impressive glass conference table to greet her.
He gave her right hand a firm shake. “I'm Denny Taylor, Ms. Jones. It's very nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure's mine, Denny. And please call me Jackie.”
Jaclyn sat, waiting for the law partners to join her before beginning. She assumed the inscrutable expression she wore when negotiating contracts for her firm's corporate clients. “Gentlemen, you know why I'm here.”
Gregory shifted to face her across the glass table. “This season is the Monarchs' final opportunity to earn a profit. If it doesn't, our client can break your contract without either party incurring a penalty.”
Jaclyn corrected the senior partner. “Earn a profit or break even.”
“That's right.” Dennis nodded, his dark blond hair catching the light.
The lawyers' blank expressions were unnerving. Jaclyn folded her shaking hands together. “We have several programs we're implementing this season to increase attendance and ticket sales. We're offering discounts on multiple ticket purchases, and hosting fan contests and theme games.” The beat of silence lingered. Jaclyn resisted the urge to chatter nervously.
Gregory picked up his platinum Cross pen and rolled it between his thumb and forefinger. “You reduced ticket prices last season. Sales didn't increase.”
Dennis's concerned frown was disheartening. “If you reduce the price again, you'll have to sell even more tickets just to break even.”
Jaclyn hid her own misgivings. “We've planned a more aggressive marketing campaign to increase sales.”
Gregory shifted again in his maroon, straight back chair. “The Monarchs' fan base has eroded.”
Dennis looked doubtful. “You'll have to do more than lower ticket prices to lure your fans back. Because of low attendance during the past three seasons, the Monarchs' games were blacked out of television more often than not. Without being able to see the games, a lot of your fans switched their loyalty to the New York Knicks. And the Knicks are winning.”
Gregory nodded. “You'll have to win.”
Dennis's smile was wry. “But that might not be so far-fetched now that you've hired Marc Guinn. He's a winner. He'll help revive the Monarchs' winning tradition.”
Gregory brushed his hair back from his forehead. “And with his reputation, people will attend the games just to see him.”
Jaclyn kept her own counsel. The Empire owners' lawyers didn't need to know she was hoping the media's NBA darling would pack his bags and leave. “That's a possibility.” Her vague answer appeared to satisfy them.
Gregory rolled his pen again. “Even that bump in sales won't be enough to get the Monarchs out of the red. Have you considered asking the mayor to support a levy? The revenue from the tax increase could save your organization.”
Jaclyn stiffened. “That's not an option. My grandfather started the Monarchs to give something back to his community. I'm not going to dishonor his legacy by going to the community with my hand out.”
Dennis glanced at Gregory before returning his attention to Jaclyn. “What do Gerry and Bert think?”
“We've only briefly discussed the contract deadline, but I assume they agree with me.” Jaclyn had no reason to believe otherwise. “Why are you asking?”
Gregory sat back in his chair. His sharp gaze scanned her features. “They called a couple of days ago to discuss options for getting out of the contract and moving the team.”
Jaclyn blinked. “They never mentioned this to me.”
Gregory and Dennis exchanged looks again before Dennis spoke. “We'd assumed this was the reason you wanted to meet. But without access to your accounting records, we don't know what kind of an offer you can expect from markets looking for NBA teams.”
Jaclyn's heart stuttered. Gerald and Albert wanted to relocate the team? They knew she would never agree to move the Monarchs out of Brooklyn. Gregory had unknowingly confirmed her suspicions about her partners' intent toward the Monarchs. Some of their business decisions—such as hiring an inexperienced coach to save a struggling team—had struck her as irresponsible.
Why would Gerald and Albert discuss their plans with outsiders before talking with her? When she'd invited them to this meeting, they must have known the lawyers would mention their conversation. Had they intended she learn of their plans this way?
Jaclyn swallowed her dismay. “We're determined to turn the team around and generate more revenue.” Or at least
was. “Is it possible to get another year on the opt-out clause in our arena contract?”
Gregory's tone was sympathetic. “I'm afraid not. Your grandfather agreed four years was a fair amount of time to allow the team to recover in the event of financial difficulties.”
But when her grandfather had passed away almost two years ago, he probably had never dreamed his beloved Monarchs would fair so poorly.
Jaclyn straightened her shoulders and rose to her feet. There was nothing left to say. For now. The law partners stood with her. “Gentlemen, thank you for your time.”
Dennis extended his hand to her. She winced at the pity in his pale blue eyes. “Good luck, Jackie. We hope you're able to rebuild the team.”
Gregory escorted her back to the lobby. “The Monarchs have been good for the community. The franchise brought a lot of jobs in addition to excitement to Brooklyn. I hope you're able to keep it here.”
She considered the senior partner. Her employer, Jonas & Prather Legal Associates, had negotiated with Bonner & Taylor on behalf of their clients in the past. Bonner & Taylor had always been diligent in protecting their clients' interests but fair in their dealings. “Do you have any advice for me?”
“We care about what happens to the community. But our client's interests have to come first.” Gregory gave her a sympathetic smile. “Make the play-offs.”
“I'll do my best.” But it wouldn't be easy with her partners working against her. The weight on her shoulders was steadily increasing.
“Jackie. I wasn't expecting you.” Gerald Bimm looked as surprised as he sounded.
Jaclyn's franchise partner was old enough to be her father. Her grandparents had raised her to respect her elders. But that upbringing struggled to assert itself over her nearly overpowering urge to blacken Gerald's beady brown eyes.
“I don't know why not, Gerry. You knew I was meeting with Bonner and Taylor today.” Her voice was cool, masking the anger that was eager to break free.
Gerald opened the door wider and let Jaclyn inside. He closed the door behind her. “So?”
Jaclyn hoped counting to ten would help her regain control. She held her ground in the center of the spacious ivory and blue entrance of Gerald's Park Slope home. “Didn't you think the lawyers would tell me you and Bert are planning to move the team out of Brooklyn?”
Gerald's eyes moved over each of her features as though trying to gauge her reaction to whatever lie he was concocting. Jaclyn in turn contemplated him, from his wavy, dark brown hair peppered with gray to his elegant mocha features. Tall and lean, Gerald was an attractive man. At fifty-seven, he appeared at least ten years younger. But his looks were marred by her growing awareness of just how treacherous he was. Gerald's betrayal would have broken her grandfather's heart.
Jaclyn gripped her purse strap and asked again. “Didn't you think Bonner and Taylor would tell me they'd spoken to you and Bert?”
“No, I didn't.” His bare feet moved silently across the stone flooring, carrying him closer but still out of her reach. Smart man. Jaclyn couldn't guarantee she wouldn't punch his lights out.
Her brows knitted. Her eyes narrowed. “Where do you think you're taking the
Gerald slipped his hands into the pockets of his black designer jeans. His white sweater shifted loosely around him as he shrugged his broad shoulders. “Let's sit down and talk about this. I'll fix you a drink.”
He started to lead her farther into his home, but her voice stopped him.
“This isn't a social call. I want to know what your plans are for the Monarchs.” Jaclyn struggled to keep her voice even. If only her father had survived. Then he'd have confronted Gerald as a peer. Jaclyn was at a disadvantage, confronting a man old enough to be her parent.
A lopsided smile curved Gerald's wide mouth. “We're looking at a couple of growing television markets.”
“They're scattered around the country.”
Jaclyn swallowed a scream. “You don't have a destination in mind? Give me a name, Gerry. Just one name.”
He shrugged again. “Nevada.”
Jaclyn's mind went blank. “Nevada? You want to move the
Monarchs to Nevada?”
Gerald cocked his head. “Nevada Monarchs has a nice ring to it, wouldn't you agree?”
A red haze clouded her vision. “No. I would not. If you want to leave Brooklyn, Gerry, Godspeed. But you're not taking my team with you.”
Gerald raised his brows. “
team? I thought we were partners.”
“So did I.” Blood roared in her ears. “You and Bert must have been planning this for years.”
“What do you mean?” Even now, he was trying to mislead her.
“Cut the crap, Gerry. You and Bert have been blocking me from getting capable coaches and drafting talented players. At first, I didn't understand what you were doing, but now I see your game.”
Gerald's mask of urbane charm fell to reveal his irritation. “Can you blame us? You should be working with us to break the arena contract so we can get out of Brooklyn. Instead you're continuing on this Don Quixote mission to save an old man's dream.”
Jaclyn fisted her hands. “That old man was my grandfather. And if you and Bert would get out of my way, I could restore the team to the winning legacy he created before the two of you destroyed everything.”
“The Monarchs can't compete in the same market with the Knicks. We need a market of our own.”
“This is New York.” The volume of Jaclyn's voice rose to match Gerald's. “We have
football teams,
baseball teams and
hockey teams. Who said we can't support
basketball teams?”
“We've been losing revenue for the past three seasons.”
“That's because of your spectacularly poor management decisions, which I now realize aren't criminally stupid but deliberately destructive.” She tightened her grip on her purse strap, drilling her nails into her palm. “You're not moving the Monarchs out of Brooklyn.”
Gerald gave her a pitying smile. “You can't save the team.”
“I can, and I will.” Jaclyn strode from his entranceway and slammed out of Gerald's house. She'd rather have punched his lights out.
Two quick raps on his open office door Tuesday morning interrupted DeMarcus. He turned away from his computer monitor to find Troy Marshall, the Monarchs' vice president of media and marketing, standing in his doorway.
From his close-cropped hair, goatee and moustache to his three-button Italian-style tan suit and brown Italian leather shoes, Troy looked more like a male model than a desk jockey. Well over six feet and physically fit, the business executive looked like he could have played professional ball. But he hadn't.
Troy crossed the threshold. “Do you have time to talk about the newspaper interview?”
DeMarcus's silver Movado watch read half past nine. The sports reporter was expected at ten o'clock. He saved the player information chart he was creating and spun his hulking executive chair to face the other man. “The
New York Sports
doesn't have much of a circulation. My father's the only one I know who reads it.”
Troy sat in the black-cushioned guest armchair to DeMarcus's left and crossed his right leg over his left knee. He straightened the crease in his pant leg. “It's a free neighborhood newspaper. It's one of the few publications in the tri-state area that acknowledges New York has a professional basketball team besides the Knicks.”
“It's hard to find.” DeMarcus pulled an issue from a pile of papers on the corner of his desk. “My father got a copy from the grocery store yesterday. I also read the articles in the binder you gave me. Thanks for those.”
Troy inclined his head. “Good. I want to make sure you don't underestimate Andy Benson. She makes Darth Vader look like Jar Jar Binks.”
DeMarcus chuckled at the imagery of the very different
Star Wars
characters. Darth Vader was the archetypical unstoppable villain. Jar Jar Binks was the good-hearted buffoon. “Is this your way of making me comfortable for the interview?”
“I don't want you comfortable. I want you prepared. Andy will lull you into a false sense of security, then try to get you to say something you wouldn't confide to a blood relative.”
DeMarcus considered Troy. “Are you speaking from experience?”
“I've had some close calls with her.”
DeMarcus exhaled a deep breath. If the reporter caused the media-savvy executive to stumble, he'd better stay on his toes. “I don't like reporters. They're the ones who came up with ‘The Mighty Guinn.'”
Troy grinned. “It's a great marketing tag.”
“You try being a walking billboard twenty-four seven. It makes it hard to have a normal life.”
“I imagine most future NBA Hall of Famers find it hard to have a normal life.”
“The media make it harder.”
A calculating gleam lit the vice president's dark eyes. “Does this mean you'd oppose Take-Your-Picture-With-The-Coach Day?”
DeMarcus wasn't amused. “Yes, I would.” He tapped the cover of his
New York Sports,
which lay on top of his desk. “How many of these meet-the-coach interviews do we have scheduled?”
“Just this one.”
DeMarcus's eyes widened. “You didn't contact any other media?”
“The outlets might run with the press release, but it's hard to get coverage for the Monarchs. They're more interested in the Knicks.”
DeMarcus heard the wry humor in the marketing executive's voice. “But the team's getting a new head coach.”
“The fourth one in three years. After a while, the franchise's coaching carousel loses appeal.”
DeMarcus glanced at the paper again. “I would have thought my marketability would have been a bigger draw.”
“There's some resentment that our native son earned his championship rings with the Miami Waves, our division rivals.” Troy rubbed his bearded chin. “You might actually cost us ticket sales.”
DeMarcus blew a heavy breath, dragging his hand over his hair. “So the Lady Assassin isn't the only one I have to win over.”
Troy frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Never mind. I'm surprised but I'm not disappointed that I don't have a lot of interviews scheduled. I don't enjoy them.”
“What a shock.” Troy's voice was dry enough for kindling.
The muscles in DeMarcus's shoulders bunched with tension. “I've seen a lot of good players—good people—ruined by reporters who've never run a mile in their lives. Still, they sit behind their laptops lecturing us on mental toughness and commitment. They think they know better than we do what it takes to win a championship.”
Troy gave him a considering look, as though trying to read between the lines of DeMarcus's resentment. “It's a balance. On the one hand, we need the media to help promote our sport. On the other hand, fans give reporters' words a lot of weight. The power goes to their heads.”
DeMarcus shrugged, trying to release his tension. “I wouldn't mind if it stayed in their heads. But instead it comes out of their mouths and causes people a lot of trouble.”
“Your name hasn't been associated with any scandals.”
“I was lucky. My parents were disciplinarians. They sacrificed a lot of time and money to get my career started. I made sure I repaid their sacrifice by making them proud. The media considered me boring.”
Could he continue to make them proud? Or would this head coaching assignment irreparably damage the legacy he'd created?
A commanding knock on his office door interrupted his thoughts. Elia Gomez, his executive secretary, stood just inside his office. She nodded toward the young woman standing beside her. “Coach, Andrea Benson with the
New York Sports
is here for the interview.”
DeMarcus got to his feet. From the corner of his eye he saw Troy stand. “Thank you, Elia.”
DeMarcus rounded his desk to greet their guest, but Troy reached her first.
The media executive offered Andrea his hand. “Hi, Andy. It's good to see you.”
Andrea Benson's smile was tight, her handshake brief. “Wish I could say the same, Slick.”
DeMarcus's gaze bounced from the reporter to Troy. The other man looked amused.
The reporter's appearance was as straightforward as her writing style: tan blazer and black pants. Sensible black shoes boosted her five-foot-nine-inch height. Her dark brown hair fell in a straight shot just past her shoulders.
Troy made the introductions. “Andy Benson, DeMarcus Guinn, the Monarchs' new head coach.”
“I prefer Andrea, but Slick here is hard of hearing.” Her mocha cheekbones were dusted pink. She scowled in Troy's direction before taking the hand DeMarcus offered her. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Guinn.”
“Marc.” He smiled at the reporter before giving Troy a warning look. The vice president of media could cool his libido until after the newspaper ran the article. He didn't need the other man irritating the attractive sports reporter during his interview.
He gestured Andrea to precede him and Troy to the conversation table. Andrea sat with her back to a window, casting her features in shadow. A deliberate move? She crossed her right leg over her left knee and opened her reporter's notebook on the oak table. DeMarcus chose a seat across from her. Troy sat beside her.
The reporter offered DeMarcus an apologetic smile. “Thank you for meeting with me this morning. I'm sure you're busy getting to know the organization and your new team.”
DeMarcus relaxed into the black swivel chair and returned Andrea's direct gaze. Her brown eyes were friendly in her heart-shaped face. “I appreciate your interest in the Monarchs. I understand your paper's the only publication that regularly covers us.”
Andrea settled back into her chair. She tucked her hair behind her ears. Silver sterling earrings, a match to her thin necklace, winked at him. “How does it feel to be back in New York?”
BOOK: Fast Break
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