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Authors: Regina Hart

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BOOK: Fast Break
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DeMarcus flashed a grin. “I've been home for about two years. It feels good.”
The next twenty minutes passed with similar questions about his likes and dislikes. DeMarcus may have forgotten Troy's caution about the reporter except for the warning glares the other man kept sending him.
Andrea glanced up from her notepad. “It's not a secret the Monarchs have struggled for the past four seasons. What are your plans for turning the team around?”
They were moving into the meat of the interview. Her direct question relieved DeMarcus. Maybe Troy was worried for nothing. “We're going to get back to the basics—offense, defense, shooting and footwork.”
Andrea entered his answer into her notepad as he spoke, then paused as though waiting for him to say something else. DeMarcus didn't have anything to add.
The reporter glanced at her notes, then back to him. “The Monarchs have the oldest roster in the league. The average age of your players is thirty. Does that concern you?”
DeMarcus had been prepared for that question, too. “No, it doesn't. We have the talent and the experience to win.”
“Then why aren't you winning?”
He couldn't ask for a more direct question than that one. Unfortunately, he didn't have an answer. Yet. He glanced at Troy. The media executive gave him an I-Warned-You look.
He turned his attention to Andrea's steady gaze. “It goes back to leadership. In addition to skills and experience, a team needs a stable structure to succeed.”
Andrea recorded his response even as she kept her questions coming. “Then you're conceding this season?”
That pulled him up short. “What makes you ask that?”
She scribbled across the sheet of paper. “This is only your first season. You'll need more than one year to build a stable structure.”
DeMarcus leaned forward, drawing her gaze to his. “We're going to have a winning season. I'm not conceding anything.”
Troy shifted in his seat. “I'm sure you're aware of Marc's reputation. He's used to winning. Losing isn't part of his vocabulary.”
“But it's very much a part of the Monarchs' vocabulary.” Andrea shifted her attention from Troy back to DeMarcus. “They've struggled for the past four years. For the past two years, they've been at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. Do you really expect to turn them around in one season?”
Her follow-up questions had him against the ropes like a baby boxer facing a veteran pugilist. “Yes, I do.”
Andrea arched a brow. “By getting back to basics?”
DeMarcus caught her faint sarcasm. “Yes.”
Andrea recorded more notes. “What about the rumors that you were hired to lose?”
DeMarcus went cold. “What rumors?”
Troy turned toward her. “Where did you hear that?”
Andrea glanced at the media executive. “You know I can't reveal my sources.” She returned to DeMarcus. “How do you respond to those rumors?”
DeMarcus ignored the seed of anger growing in him. “What are you talking about?”
Andrea paused. “You really don't know? There are rumors the owners hired you for your name, not your ability. They don't want you to win.”
DeMarcus unclenched his jaw. “Why would I join an organization that didn't want to win?”
Andrea shook her head. Her straight brown locks shifted over her shoulders. “I don't know.”
“I wouldn't. Not as a player or as a coach.” DeMarcus no longer found her brown eyes friendly or her directness refreshing.
Troy leaned into the table, claiming Andrea's attention. “The Monarchs are committed to reclaiming the team's winning tradition. That's why we hired Marc Guinn as our head coach.”
Andrea resettled her gaze on DeMarcus. There was speculation in her eyes. “But you don't have any coaching experience.”
“I know the Monarchs' offensive and defensive playbooks.” DeMarcus kept his voice level even as his mind spun. Where had these rumors come from? Who had started them?
Were they true?
Troy argued the point. “He was a leader on the court, and he has what it takes to win.”
Andrea tilted her head. “What's that?”
Troy sat straighter. “A winning attitude. A winning philosophy.”
DeMarcus interrupted Troy before the media spin cost him his breakfast. “The proof will show in the number of
W
's at the end of our season.” Confidence and conviction prompted him to predict more wins than losses this year.
Andrea rose from her chair. “Monarchs fans will be keeping count. Thank you again for the interview. It's been informative.”
DeMarcus stood. “I take my job as seriously as you take yours, Andrea. To me, winning is everything. Otherwise, why play the game?”
“I wish you luck.” She nodded toward Troy.
DeMarcus escorted Andrea to the door, then shook her hand. With his back to Troy, DeMarcus watched the reporter walk past the assistant coaches' offices before disappearing beyond Elia's desk.
He kept his attention on his executive secretary's desk. “What do you know of these rumors Andrea's talking about?
3
Silence stretched a little too long. The media executive's hesitation wasn't a good sign. DeMarcus half turned to look back into the room. “Was I hired to lose?”
Troy stood beside the conversation table and met DeMarcus's gaze across the cavernous office. “I don't know what Andy's talking about. I haven't heard any rumors about your being hired to lose.”
Shit. The media executive was more cautious giving an answer than a rookie point guard was at taking a shot. “Let's try this again. Was I hired to lose?”
Troy shook his head. “I don't believe that. Jackie wouldn't do anything to hurt the team.”
“But?”
Troy's sigh raised his shoulders. “But it's not all up to her.” He paced back to DeMarcus's desk. “Combined, Gerry and Bert own fifty-one percent of the franchise. Gerry's also the interim general manager.”
“Gerry and Bert hired me. Jackie didn't sign my contract.” DeMarcus read his deduction in Troy's eyes.
Jaclyn
wouldn't do anything to hurt the team. But
Gerald
and
Albert
had hired him. Did they want the team to lose? DeMarcus didn't like uncertainties. “Why would Gerry and Bert want the Monarchs to lose?”
Troy's expression was tight with frustration. “No idea. But most of Gerry's personnel decisions don't make sense. He trades promising young players for older players or problem ones. He forced out one of the best coaches the franchise has ever had for a coach with a losing record.”
“And hires one with no experience.”
“No offense.”
“None taken.” What had he gotten himself into? “How far has the rumor spread? Are the other coaches and players aware of it?”
Are people whispering behind my back?
He wasn't used to being a laughingstock.
Troy pushed his hands into his front pants pockets. “I haven't heard anyone talking about it.”
“Someone must be talking about it. How else would a reporter have heard of it?”
Troy raised an eyebrow. “Don't look at me. I don't feed gossip about my team to the media.”
DeMarcus needed to move. He dragged a hand through his hair as he crossed the room. “Would Jackie?”
“Not on your life.” Troy's answer was quick and definite.
Some of DeMarcus's tension left him. At least his boss wasn't known to air her grievances in the media. Dammit. She'd tried to tell him yesterday, but he hadn't believed it. He still didn't want to believe it.
DeMarcus checked his watch. It was almost half past eleven. Gerald should be in his office. He pivoted on his heel and marched to his door. “I'm going to talk to Gerry.”
“What will you say?”
DeMarcus pulled up short. “I'm going to ask him about the rumors.”
“What good will that do?”
“If I'm going to turn this team around and start winning, I'll need the general manager's support.”

Interim
general manager. And if you don't have his support?”
DeMarcus continued toward the door. “I'll quit.”
 
 
“Tell me what's wrong.” Jaclyn frowned at Violet Ebanks O'Neal.
Her friend and former WNBA teammate stood beside her, serving food to the hungry and homeless at Morning Glory Chapel's kitchen and homeless shelter. Jaclyn added a serving spoon of mixed vegetables to an older homeless woman's lunch plate.
Violet shrugged listlessly, then added a spoon of mashed potatoes to the plate. “I don't want to talk about it.”
Jaclyn bit her lower lip. The situation was getting worse. Last week, Violet had claimed to be tired. Now her friend wasn't bothering with an excuse.
Violet had been her teammate for three years and a friend for what seemed a lifetime. But Jaclyn hardly recognized the woman these days. Their teammates had nicknamed Violet the Beauty Queen. But the woman standing beside her had scraped her auburn hair into a stubby, sloppy ponytail beneath the hairnet. Her violet blue eyes were dull, and her porcelain skin was devoid of makeup. The Violet she'd known for the past eleven years had worn cosmetics on the basketball court.
Jaclyn glanced at the clock mounted to the wall across the recreation area. It was almost noon. One day a week for the past five years, she took a longer break to help the lunch crew at the chapel. She'd talked Violet into joining her almost two months ago. The activity wasn't helping.
She served an older gentleman a spoonful of vegetables. “Is Dawnie OK?”
Violet had blamed her two-year-old daughter for her fatigue. The little girl had a truckload of energy. Violet's parents claimed Dawn was payback for Violet having run them ragged until she'd been drafted to the WNBA.
“Everyone's fine.” Her friend served the older man mashed potatoes. “It's me. I'm bored out of my mind and driving everybody crazy, including myself.”
Jaclyn glanced at a young mother comforting her sobbing toddler daughter before returning her attention to Violet. Her friend looked bored and frustrated. And a little scared. “What do you want to do?”
Violet shrugged again. “That's just it. I don't know. But I've got to do something.”
Jaclyn's shoulders tensed as she took on her friend's frustration. “Something will come to you, Vi. You'll figure it out.”
“When?”
She wished she had the answer. “Be patient. Maybe right now, you just need to get away from the house a couple of afternoons a week to just think. Dawnie can stay with your parents or Aidan's.”
“I hope you're right.” Violet shifted her troubled gaze to Jaclyn. “But, Jackie, what kind of mother wants to be away from her own child?”
Jaclyn shook her head adamantly. “Vi, just because you want a few hours to yourself doesn't make you a bad mother.”
“I love my daughter. I really do.”
“I know.”
“Then why do I want to be away from her?”
Jaclyn continued to add vegetables to the plates of stewed chicken as guests moved down the serving line. “You're not trying to get away from Dawnie. You just need a little time for yourself.”
“I'm not being selfish?”
“Of course not. A couple of hours away from you won't hurt her. She'll be with your parents. And it will help you relax so you don't drive your family crazy.”
Violet's chuckle wobbled. “Thanks. I'll take your advice. Maybe then Aidan will stop looking at me as though he thinks I need therapy.”
Jaclyn smiled. “How is our favorite financial advisor?”
“Busy taking care of his accounts.”
“That's good to hear.” Jaclyn paused as the young mother with the sobbing toddler stopped in front of her. Jaclyn nodded toward the little girl. “Will she be all right?”
The mother nodded. “She lost her teddy bear.”
Jaclyn looked at the little girl. Silent tears streamed down her flushed, rounded cheeks. “I'm sorry, honey.” The little girl returned her gaze with wounded big green eyes. “I'm Jackie. What's your name?”
“Tiff.” The watery whisper was barely audible.
“Tiffany.” The mother extended their two lunch plates.
As she nudged vegetables onto each of the dishes, Jaclyn noted the two tote bags that dragged on each of the thin woman's shoulders. Heavy makeup didn't mask the bruises on her face, nor did the limp, honey-blond hair swinging loosely to hide her features. Tiffany's mother moved on to Violet, checking to make sure her daughter kept up with her.
Violet added mashed potatoes to both plates. “Enough about me. How was your meeting with the Empire owners' lawyers?”
Jaclyn looked away from Tiffany and her mother. She scowled. “The lawyers told me Gerry and Bert want to end the arena contract so they can move the team.”
Violet gasped. “Are you kidding me?”
“No.” Jaclyn served another guest.
“Where do they want to go?”
She shrugged, checking the clock. She'd have to return to her office soon. “Someplace where they won't be competing with another basketball team. Gerry likes the sound of the Nevada Monarchs.”
“Nevada?” Violet sounded as baffled as Jaclyn felt. “Have they gotten any offers?”
“He wouldn't tell me.”
“I can't believe them. Is Bert really on board with Gerry's plan?”
Jaclyn had been wondering the same thing. “I haven't spoken with him yet.”
“Jackie.” Her former teammate's tone demanded her attention. Violet's eyes were dark with concern. “I know you're upset. But, if you're going to save the team, you've got to keep your emotions on the sidelines and approach this problem as a business.”
That pulled Jaclyn up short. “I
am
treating this as a business.”
“Then why don't you know whether Gerry has an offer from another market?”
“He wouldn't tell me.” Jaclyn pursed her lips. “And I was too upset to push.”
“You've got to ask. Gerry's decision to move the team isn't an emotional choice. It's a business decision. You've got to treat it the same way.”
“You're right.”
Violet used her serving spoon to gesture toward Jaclyn. “You can start by reclaiming your position as general manager. Your grandfather made Gerry interim GM when he was sick and you were taking care of him. Gerry's been interim for almost two years now. You need to take your spot back before Gerry grows roots.”
Jaclyn relaxed slightly. “I know. I wasn't ready before, but I am now. I gave the firm my two weeks' notice this morning.”
“Good for you.” Violet's eyes twinkled. Color warmed her cheeks. “You have to regain control. Gerry and Bert are on the verge of destroying everything your family helped build. You need to stop them.”
Jaclyn nodded. “I've also got to figure out a way to increase the franchise's revenue.”
Violet smiled as she added potatoes to another plate. Concentrating on Jaclyn's problems seemed to lift her spirits. “Pre-sales will shoot up with the Mighty Guinn taking over as head coach.”
“Maybe for the first game. But to sustain sales, we've got to win.”
“Don't worry. The Mighty Guinn knows how to win.”
Jaclyn paused as their replacements showed up. The two women took over Violet and Jaclyn's stations.
Jaclyn walked beside Violet back to the kitchen area. She tossed her apron and hairnet into the laundry basket. “But does he know how to coach? You know as well as I do that it takes three things for a team to win—talent, coaching and chemistry. We have talent. But we need coaching and chemistry to bring it out.”
“You don't think Marc Guinn has what it takes to bring out the chemistry in the Monarchs?”
“No, I don't. And, even worse, he doesn't want to.” Jaclyn led the way out of the chapel. She stood at the top of the front steps and swept her gaze over the aging storefronts, pedestrian lunch traffic and persistent street vendors. “After three losing seasons, if we don't change the team's attitude, we won't have a prayer of winning.”
 
 
Gerald Bimm was pretentious. His office was a showcase for his museum-quality art. DeMarcus considered the track lighting that lit the professionally framed modern paintings hanging on every wall. Abstract metal sculptures posed on shelves and tables all around him. There wasn't a single picture of the Monarchs or any team paraphernalia in the room. Not even a logo.
DeMarcus sat in one of the three green armchairs facing the franchise partner's desk. His office was smaller than Gerald's. Still, he felt lost in his room, whereas Gerald had wedged himself into this space. DeMarcus felt crowded by the other man's belongs.
“Is it true you hired me to lose?” DeMarcus didn't see the point in beating around the bush.
Gerald's body seemed to relax. His narrow form was impeccably dressed in a pin-striped brown suit. He was buttoned into his jacket even as he reclined behind his desk. “I'm glad that's out in the open. Who told you?”
He couldn't have heard correctly. “It's true?”
There was an edgy look in Gerald's small brown eyes. “It doesn't matter how you found out. All that matters now is that you know the plan.”
DeMarcus narrowed his eyes. “You lied about the reason you were hiring me.”
Gerald looked surprised. “I didn't tell you I wanted you to win.”
BOOK: Fast Break
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