DeMarcus gritted his teeth. “It was implied.”
Gerald waved a hand. “It doesn't matter. You're in on the plan now.”
“You want me to lose.” Losing was a foreign concept to DeMarcus. He never allowed himself to imagine it. He always envisioned success.
“Yes, we do.” Gerald's tone was definite.
You and Bert?” DeMarcus pictured the third Monarchs franchise partner, Albert Tipton. The smaller man hadn't spoken much during DeMarcus's job interview.
“And Jackie. All of us.”
DeMarcus stilled. “The
of you discussed it?”
“Yes. We've had several in-depth discussions.” Gerald's expression was earnest. The liar made a good actor.
“And what did Jackie say?”
Gerald shrugged his shoulders. “She agrees that we should go for a losing season.”
DeMarcus's blood heated. Gerald's dishonesty didn't bode well for their working relationship. “Why?”
Gerald pulled his chair farther under his desk and leaned across it. “We want to break the arena contract and relocate the team.”
DeMarcus hadn't considered that. “Have you had any offers?”
“Not yet. But I'm sure the offers will come once we put out the feelers.”
“Where are you looking?”
Gerald shrugged again. “We'd prefer a state that doesn't have an NBA team. Like Nevada.”
The situation couldn't get any worse if he tried. “What would my role be?”
“Of course, we want you with us.” Gerald settled deeper into his green executive chair. “Once we're out of this arena and have an NBA market to ourselves, we want someone who can take us to a winning season. Someone who could rebuild the team for us and create a dynasty.”
Gerald lied as easily as he breathed. Could DeMarcus trust anything out of the man's mouth? A deep breath eased the tightness in his shoulders. His eyes were cold and his voice flat as he began to unravel Gerald's tall tales. “Jackie Jones would never go along with this idea.”
Gerald narrowed his eyes. “What makes you say that?”
“She told me when she asked for my resignation.” DeMarcus took small satisfaction from Gerald's shock.
The other man's eyes stretched wide. His mouth opened, then closed. “Don't worry about Jackie. Bert and I can handle her. After all, she was against hiring you, but you're here, aren't you?”
“You and Bert offered me this job under false pretenses.”
Gerald frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I thought you wanted me to coach. Instead you want me to bend over.”
Gerald shook his head. “We're just asking you not to win. Not this season.”
“When I accepted your offer, I wasn't handing over my integrity.” DeMarcus stood. “I quit.”
Gerald raised his chin to maintain eye contact with DeMarcus. “You can't quit. We have a contract.”
“My lawyers will shred your contract.”
Gerald popped out of his chair. “That contract is airtight.”
“You misrepresented your intent.” DeMarcus laughed without humor. “You don't want to go public with that when you're looking for a new market. You won't come across as trustworthy.”
“How will you come across once the media reports that you couldn't keep the coaching job for even a week?”
DeMarcus remembered the reason he'd wanted to coach the Monarchs. “My integrity is more important than what the media thinks.”
“Dammit. We just need one more losing season. You can win next year.”
DeMarcus pinched the bridge of his nose. “You don't have any idea what it takes to be a champion. A champion doesn't take a season off. Ever.”
“I thought you wanted to coach.”
“You don't want a coach. You want a stooge. I'm not anyone's stooge.” He ignored the partner's demands and turned to leave.
DeMarcus strode into the main office area. The two administrative assistants regarded him with open curiosity. Two doors to the right, Troy stepped from his office. DeMarcus exchanged a long look with him before marching down the hall.
DeMarcus couldn't hear Troy's footsteps on the plush, wall-to-wall silver carpet behind him, but the other man's voice sounded close. He didn't stop until he came to the elevators.
“The rumors are true?”
DeMarcus looked over his shoulder at Troy. “Yes.”
The elevators arrived. Troy stepped on with him. “Are you really going to quit?”
“I already have.” DeMarcus ignored the sudden silence surrounding him and watched the elevator's liquid crystal display count down the floors. He didn't know why the media executive was following him around the arena to his office. He didn't care.
DeMarcus strode to his desk and punched the keys to log back on to the system.
Troy finally spoke. “You should talk to Jackie.”
“We talked yesterday.” He should have listened to her. She'd told him Gerald and Albert weren't trustworthy.
DeMarcus selected the word-processing program and typed a short, curt resignation letter. Two more mouse clicks and he sent the document to the printer.
“It doesn't matter if you don't have Gerry or Bert's support as long as Jackie's on your side.”
“She's not.” DeMarcus went through the process of shutting down programs that were running on his computer.
“What makes you think that?”
“She asked for my resignation.”
“What? When?” Troy seemed as baffled as DeMarcus was angry.
“Yesterday.” DeMarcus switched to his Microsoft Outlook program. He checked his Calendar schedule and scanned his e-mails. He forwarded his messages to other coaches to handle and canceled meetings he'd scheduled for the day. He didn't bother with explanations. He didn't have the time or the patience to make them.
“You should call her. Tell her what Gerry told you.”
“She already knows.” DeMarcus stood. “I can't dig this team out of the league's basement without management's support, and I don't have that. Two of your three partners don't want me to win, and the third one doesn't think I can.”
DeMarcus gathered the few belongings he'd brought to what used to be his office. He shoved his stopwatch into the front pocket of his dark gray warm-up pants. He placed the antique silver-framed photograph of his parents into his briefcase. But he'd carry the green and blue Miami Waves water bottle.
“What are you going to tell the media about your quitting?”
DeMarcus studied the other man. He had the sense Troy wouldn't let him leave the arena until he was satisfied with DeMarcus's response. “I'm not speaking to the media.”
Troy gave a dry laugh. “You were our coach for one day. They'll want to speak with you.”
DeMarcus expelled an impatient breath. “Fine. I'll feed them the usual leaving-for-personal-reasons crap. Tell them I want to spend more time with my father.”
“That won't satisfy them.”
“It'll have to.” DeMarcus itched to walk out the door.
Troy shoved his hands into the front pockets of his tan suit pants. “All right. And I'll tell them we're sorry things didn't work out, but that we understand your reason for leaving.”
The media executive's statement seemed personal. His words helped ease DeMarcus's temper. “I appreciate that.”
Troy inclined his head, then left the office.
DeMarcus dropped back into his chair and scrubbed his palms over his face. What a rotten option: lose or quit. He couldn't stomach either choice. DeMarcus dropped his arms and clenched his fists. Being a quitter seemed the lesser of two evils, but it still didn't sit well.
He grabbed the executive binder human resources had given him yesterdayâhis first and only full day on the jobâand turned to the contact information page. DeMarcus found Jaclyn's direct phone extension at the fancy law firm where she worked. He punched the number into his cell phone and waited for the call to connect. Her voice mail activated almost immediately.
Jaclyn's honey-and-whiskey voice took the edge off his temper. He remembered her pacing this office. The sway of her hips; the fire in her eyes. The discordant beep at the end of her message broke the spell.
DeMarcus straightened in his chair. “This is Marc Guinn. You were right. Gerry admitted he'd hired me to lose. I'll leave my resignation with his secretary.” He hesitated, unsure how to end his message. “Good luck. With Gerry and Bert as partners, you'll need it.”
He disconnected the call and stood. Removing his resignation letter from the printer, he folded it into an envelope he found in one of his desk drawers. He'd deliver the letter on his way out. Then he had to tell his father why he'd quit the team.
“You did the right thing.” Julian Guinn's response came after a contemplative silence that had stretched forever. However, the clock above their fireplace mantel said it had only been minutes.
Some of DeMarcus's tension drained with his father's approval. Would his mother also have agreed with his decision?
The Park Slope neighborhood outside the den's bay window was quiet. It was after noon on a sunny and warm Tuesday. Most of their neighbors were working. The retirees were enjoying Brooklyn's waning summer. The long, dark winter wasn't far away.
DeMarcus paced away from the bay window toward the fireplace. His sneakers were silent against the rich mahogany floor. He stood with his back to his father. “I've never given up on a job without at least trying. I wasn't cut out to be a broadcast reporter, but I stayed with ESPN for a full NBA season. I wasn't comfortable in that management position with the sports apparel line, but I stayed there, too.”
“Those situations were different. The Monarchs organization doesn't want you to win.” Julian paused. “As a Monarchs fan, I'm disappointed by that.”
DeMarcus paced back to the window. “You and Mom didn't raise a quitter.”
“If your mother were still alive, she'd support your decision, too.”
The rest of DeMarcus's tension drained away. “I hope so.”
“I know so.” Julian settled deeper into the overstuffed, dark brown armchair. His stocking feet were flat against the scarlet-patterned Oriental rug. “Coaching the Monarchs now would be an exercise in futility. Jackie Jones doesn't trust you with her team, and the other two don't care about itâor the fans.”
“Could I have helped the team win despite that? I'll never know because I didn't try.” DeMarcus paced back to the fireplace.
“Marc, sit down, son. You're making me dizzy.” His father gestured toward the matching armchair.
DeMarcus looked at the plump, brown chair before lowering himself into it. For years, he'd considered it his mother's chair. After her passing, it had taken him months to feel comfortable sitting in it. “Sorry, Pop.”
His father's eyes were solemn. “Son, I understand you think there are only two ways of looking at this situation: losing or quitting. You've always seen things as either win or lose, right or wrong, early or late. No one was ever on time.” He smiled to soften the observation.
“Eighty percent of a game is mental. That's why you can't arrive on time. You have to be early to prepare.”
Julian raised his left hand, palm out. “I know, son. But what I'm saying is, sometimes there's a third perspective, another way of looking at the situation. And this is one of those times.”
DeMarcus's brow knitted. “What do you mean?”
“I'm glad you quit.”
His brows jumped. “Why?”
“Because Gerry and Bert were trying to buy your integrity.” Julian's voice deepened with anger. “They were trying to buy the name and reputation you've worked so hard to build your entire life.”
DeMarcus sat back in his mother's armchair and considered his father's observation. Julian had a point. Instead of beating himself up for quitting, he should consider whether his motivation for leaving was as valid as the reason he'd wanted to stay. “I'd wanted to win a championship for you.”
Julian looked bewildered. “You've already won two.”
DeMarcus shook his head. “I wanted to win this one with your team. You've been a Monarchs fan all of my life.”
“Longer than that.” Julian cleared his throat. “I appreciate that, son. But I'm glad you didn't stay. I hope they don't find anyone to help them with their scheme. The franchise founders are probably spinning in their graves.”
“The four men who started the Monarchs in 1956?”
Julian nodded. “Four friends who loved basketball and loved their community, so they formed a team as a way to give something back. Their investment in the community brought excitement. More importantly, it brought jobs. And, until about four years ago, they were one of the elite NBA teams.”
“It amazes me that black men owned a competitive basketball team back then.” DeMarcus leaned forward, propping his forearms on his thighs. “That was during Jim Crow.”
“And the start of the civil rights movement and the Harlem Renaissance,” Julian pointed out. “But it helped that one of the friends, Gene Mannion, was white.”
“What happened to Mannion's heirs?”
“He didn't have any. In his will, he left his franchise shares to Jackie Jones's grandfather, Franklin Jones. When her grandfather died two years ago, those shares went to Jackie.”
DeMarcus straightened in surprise. “She's the majority shareholder?”
“She has forty-nine percent.” Julian tipped his graying head back as though remembering that time and the way the news had traveled through the community. “Franklin Jones didn't think one partner should own half of the franchise, so he sold one share to Cedrick Tipton, Bert's father. Combined, Gerry and Bert have fifty-one percent of the franchise.”
“That's how they're able to outvote Jackie on franchise decisions, like moving the team out of Brooklyn.”
“And personnel decisions that have caused the team several losing seasons.”
“Why didn't Gene Mannion split his shares with all of his partners? Why did he give them all to Franklin Jones?”
Julian shook his head. “After a couple of seasons, Quinton and Cedrick lost interest in the Monarchs. Gene and Franklin were the only ones who still cared what happened to the team.”
DeMarcus frowned. “Why?”
Julian seemed to collect his memories. “Cedrick used his profits from the franchise to build a department store.”
“Quinton's story was different. He seemed to be jealous of all the attention Gene and Franklin were getting for the Monarchs' success. He started drinking more. Alcoholism eventually ruined his marriage. It also killed him.”
DeMarcus lifted his right ankle to his left knee. “I feel sorry for Jackie having to deal with Quinton and Cedrick's descendants when she's trying to save her team.”
Julian angled his head. A light danced in his dark eyes. “Have you ever seen Jackie Jones play basketball?”
“A few times.”
Julian winked. “My money's on her. She'll find a way to keep the team in Brooklyn.”
“She'll be devastated if she doesn't.”
Julian sobered. “She's not the only one. If the Monarchs leave Brooklyn, the whole community will be devastated.”
Jaclyn sat forward in the backseat of the Bentley as Herbert Trasker stopped the automobile in front of the Guinns' residence. “This is the address. Thank you, Herb.”
Herbert turned sideways in the driver's seat and ducked his head to study the four-story, single-family mansion through the front passenger window. “I'll park here and wait for you.”
Jaclyn gave the driver a wry smile. “This will probably take a while.”
He gave her an ironic look. “Or it may not.”
Her cream midcalf skirt rose slightly as Jaclyn scooted forward on the backseat. She laid her hand on Herbert's shoulder. “It's almost six o'clock. Go home to your family. I'll call you when I'm ready to leave.”
Herbert climbed out of the car and opened the back passenger door for her. He watched her step onto the sidewalk. “Are you sure?”
Jaclyn let Herbert's concern help steady her nerves. He worried over her like a parent. “Positive. I'm not going to be tossed out of the game that easily.”
“All right, Ms. Jones.” Herbert touched the brim of his black leather cap. “I'll wait for your call. Good luck.”
Jaclyn mounted the steps to the Guinns' house and pressed the bell. She looked over her shoulder to see Herbert leaning against the Bentley, waiting with her. Moments later, the locks turned and the door opened. She faced an older version of the Mighty Guinn.
Jaclyn waved to Herbert to let him know someone had answered. Then she turned back to the gentleman. “Good evening. I'm Jaclyn Jones fromâ”
The stranger opened the door farther. “I know who you are, Ms. Jones. I'm Julian Guinn, Marc's father. Please come in.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Guinn.” Jaclyn extended her hand as she entered the residence. “May I speak with Marc, please?”
“Of course.” DeMarcus's father led her down the polished mahogany hallway. A staircase wound upward on her right. A cozy den beckoned her to the left. “He's cooking dinner.”
Jaclyn stumbled over her feet. Julian reacted, his right arm shooting out to steady her. Jaclyn gave him a tentative smile. “Now I know where Marc got his catlike reflexes.”
His startled expression replaced his concerned frown. The twinkle in Julian's coal black, almond-shaped eyesâso like his son'sâinvited her to smile with him. “The idea of the Mighty Guinn wearing an apron knocked you off your feet, didn't it?”
Jaclyn's face warmed. “No, I didn'tâ”
Julian laughed, a warm rumbling sound that swept away her unease and coaxed a chuckle from her. “You should see your face.” He kept his hand cupped around her elbow. “He's a very good cook. You should stay for dinner.”
The elder Guinn escorted her across a formal dining room to the kitchen doorway. The scene stopped Jaclyn's mushrooming embarrassment. DeMarcus stood in profile to them at a large, rectangular ash wood island. A salad bowl perched in front of him. A tomato, cucumber, celery and two types of peppers surrounded the chop block on which DeMarcus was slicing a fat red pepper.
Julian released her elbow. “You have company, son.”
DeMarcus's contented expression tensed when he saw Jaclyn. “What are you doing here?”
Julian sighed. “We now know why they didn't nickname you the Charming Guinn. I've asked her to stay for dinner.” With that pronouncement, his father left them alone.
Jaclyn surveyed the large, octagonal kitchen hoping to distract the nerves bouncing in her belly. Stainless steel appliances stood on white counters. The walls, cupboards and shelving also were white. The wide gold trim separating the walls from the ceiling was a warm hug in the cool room.
She shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “I'm sorry to interrupt your dinner with your father. It's nice that the two of you get together to share a meal.”
DeMarcus gave her a curious look. His black gaze bore into her. “It's not that hard. We live together.”
“Oh. That's nice.” The Mighty Guinn lived with his father. “That's lovely.”
DeMarcus returned to slicing vegetables. His long, brown fingers braced the red pepper with a firm but delicate touch. “I moved in after I retired from basketball.”
That was the season after his mother passed away. Jaclyn's nerves settled and her heart softened. Who'd been in more need of the other's company, father or son? Probably both, but it didn't matter. What mattered was that DeMarcus had cared enough to come home.
“There's more than enough room for the two of you.” Jaclyn watched DeMarcus slide the red pepper slices from the chop block to the salad bowl. There was something intensely sexy about a man who knew what he was doing in the kitchen. “I moved back in with my grandfather after I finished law school.”
DeMarcus glanced over his shoulder. “Franklin Jones was a remarkable man.”
“Yes, he was.” Like Julian's home, her grandfather's house was large enough to give each of them privacy, but they'd enjoyed each other's company. Now that he was gone, his mansion was too large. She felt lost in all of that space. But, somehow, she felt at home in the Empire.
DeMarcus sprayed fat-free oil into a pan and adjusted the heat to low. His muscles flowed across his back and shoulders as he sautÃ©ed the vegetables. His silence was disconcerting. Jaclyn laid her hands flat against her cream skirt to keep from wringing them.
Her gaze swept the room's perimeter with its multitude of white cabinets, shelves and counter space. The rainbow of Tupperware sitting on the shelves added whimsy to the otherwise staid room. “Your kitchen is spotless.”
He didn't turn around. “It should be. We prepare food in here.”
“What are you making?”
DeMarcus turned up the heat under a nearby pot. “Curried chicken, couscous, chickpeas and salad.”
Jaclyn blinked. Her gaze moved over his lean, six-foot-seven-inch frame clothed in a long-sleeve, green and blue Miami Waves jersey and black warm-up pants. His large, dark feet were bare. The image of the Mighty Guinn heating a can of soup was odd. The idea of his cooking an exotic meal stretched the bounds of credulity. It also was a reminder never to judge a book by its coverâor an athlete by his image. “Sounds delicious.”