DeMarcus moved to the range and lifted the lid from the skillet. Mouth-watering fragrances exploded into the kitchenâcurry, cumin, paprika and more. “Did you get my message?” He checked the stewing chicken, adding the sautÃ©ed vegetables, before resetting the lid.
“Yes, I did. Thank you.” Jaclyn wandered farther into the kitchen, her low-heeled, cream suede pumps tapped against the small, gold and white square tiles that patterned the floor.
DeMarcus glanced at her over a broad shoulder. His expression wasn't readable. “Are you here to gloat?”
Jaclyn's stomach was jumping. Her heart did a pick-and-roll in her throat. Sheer willpower restrained her from twisting her fingers together. “I'm here to ask you to reconsider your resignation.”
DeMarcus's eyes widened. His lips parted. “Yesterday you stormed my office demanding my resignation.”
“And, today, I realized I made a mistake.”
DeMarcus stirred the couscous, then turned up the heat under the chickpeas. “When I wanted to stay, you told me to leave. Now that I've left, you want me to stay. Lady, you need to get your head together.”
Jaclyn appealed to his back. “I thought you were working with Gerry and Bert to ruin the team.”
“You should have asked me. I would have told you you were wrong.” DeMarcus checked the chicken again.
“You're right. I'm sorry. I jumped to conclusions. But the fact you chose to resign rather than go along with their plan means you're committed to winning. I need someone with that level of commitment.”
DeMarcus covered the chicken, lowered the temperature and checked the time. “What level of commitment do you have?”
“I'm fully committed to winning.”
DeMarcus leaned his firm glutes against the nearby counter, finally facing Jaclyn. “Your team didn't start losing yesterday. The Monarchs have been getting worse over the past four years. Where were you while this was happening?”
The question, though fair, stung. “Gerry and Bert blocked many of the operational and personnel decisions my grandfather thought would benefit the team. When my grandfather became ill three years ago, we weren't able to give the franchise the attention it needed.”
“Your grandfather's illness gave Gerry and Bert free rein to destroy the franchise.”
“It seems that way.”
DeMarcus gentled his voice. “Your grandfather has been gone for almost two years. What have you done to help the team?”
Jaclyn clenched her fists. “We need a majority vote to approve major decisions. They've formed a solid block against me with the intent of driving the franchise out of the city.”
“Troy kept referring to Gerry as the interim general manager. Who's the GM?”
Jaclyn closed her eyes briefly, realizing where DeMarcus was taking her. “I am. I've given notice at the law firm and I'm taking back the GM responsibilities tomorrow.”
DeMarcus cocked his head. “It took you two years to make that decision?”
“Do you see why I don't think you're committed to the team? I need management support to save the Monarchs.”
Jaclyn dragged her fingers through her hair. The glint in DeMarcus's eyes made her wonder whether he was enjoying the frustration he was visiting on her. Was this his payback for her attacking him yesterday? If so, she'd pay it gladly. For her grandfather, she was prepared to beg. “Marc, I know this looks bad.”
Jaclyn wished he'd stop interrupting her. “I know I should have been more engaged sooner. I'm trying to fix my mistake. Will you help me?”
DeMarcus felt himself responding to her plea. He stared into Jaclyn's cinnamon eyes. She spoke so sweetly, but did she understand what she was asking him? He straightened away from the counter. “The team is on a losing slide and two of the three partners want to throw away the season.”
“I know it won't be easy. Will you help me?”
DeMarcus's gaze dipped to the silver and black Monarchs lapel pin fastened to the collar of her cream suit jacket. Was it the same pin from yesterday or did she have one for each outfit?
He turned to check the chicken and chickpeas. He stirred the couscous. The pot spoon moved in time with his thoughts. There was too much to lose. “I'd have to make changes with the team and with the coaches. The team will resist it. The coaches will resent me. And Gerry and Bert will side with them.”
You have my word.”
DeMarcus considered Jaclyn's earnest expression. She could make him a believer. Almost. “When? In another two years?”
She bit her plump lower lip. “Before my grandfather died, he warned me Gerry and Bert don't have the same commitment to the franchise that he and I have. He said I'd have to fight to save the team.” Jaclyn shook her head. “I never imagined they'd try to take the Monarchs away from Brooklyn.”
DeMarcus was hesitant to end the heavy silence. “I can't guarantee you a winning season.”
“No one could make a promise like that.” Jaclyn stepped closer to him. Her voice was urgent. “I know you have doubts about the team, about the coachesâabout me. But I'm not giving up. I can't. There's too much at stake.”
He sensed Jaclyn willing his gaze to meet hers. He raised his eyes. “I can't help you.”
“Please, just think it over.” She hesitated. “You don't have to answer tonight. You can call me tomorrow.”
The extra time must have cost her. Preseason was twelve days away. She'd asked so sweetly, still she'd asked too much. DeMarcus didn't want to think it over. He wanted to walk away. The Monarchs were a disaster from the basketball court to the front office. It would take a miracle to realize a winning season.
He hated himself. Still he couldn't be the one to steal the hope from her bright eyes. “I'll think it over.”
Jaclyn's face glowed with pleasure and relief. DeMarcus stared at her radiance and lost his train of thought. He felt like a hero, like he'd made the winning basket at the buzzer.
She reached out and wrapped her long, slender hand around his forearm. “Thank you.”
“Don't thank me. I've only agreed to think about it.” DeMarcus returned to the range, breaking the spell Jaclyn had cast over him. “Dinner's ready. You and my father can wait in the dining room. I'll bring the food out.”
He looked over his shoulder. “Aren't you staying for dinner?”
Jaclyn's eyes shifted between him and the pots on the range. Her consternation disappeared and she smiled again. “I'd love to. Thank you.”
DeMarcus watched her walk out of the kitchen. His gaze slipped over the flow of her long, slender figure, the sway of her firm, rounded hips. Somehow he had to find a way to resist the Lady Assassin's lure or risk losing his focus on what mattered most.
DeMarcus hadn't heard his father laugh this much in almost three years. Not since his mother's sudden death. For this, he could thank the woman sitting across the table from him, on his father's right.
Jaclyn was still grinning at a comment Julian had made. Her riot of dark brown curls framed her face and cascaded around her shoulders. She looked like an angel in her cream two-piece outfit. Where was the avenger who'd stormed his office in a blood red business suit? Angel or avenger? Which was the real Jaclyn Jones? He needed to find out.
Jaclyn scooped coucous with her fork and smiled at him. “The meal's delicious. Where did you learn to cook like this?”
DeMarcus's shrug masked his pleasure at her words. “It's a hobby. Cooking relaxes me.”
From his seat at the head of the table, Julian grunted. “If only he could bake.”
DeMarcus arched a brow. “Pop, if you want pastries,
can make them.”
Jaclyn drank more iced tea. “My cooking skills aren't in your league, but I would like to try baking.”
Julian winked at her. “You can try your recipes on us.”
DeMarcus sipped his iced tea. “Be careful. Pop has a sweet tooth.”
Julian sobered. “Why did you leave the WNBA to practice law?”
Her smile had a trace of mystery. “Judges don't penalize you if you argue in court.”
DeMarcus's laughter joined Julian's. There was more to the Lady Assassin's reason for retiring from the game she loved. He was sure of it.
Julian returned to his dinner. “The Monarchs have an impressive past.”
DeMarcus selected a juicy chunk of curried chicken. “You've got Pop on a roll, talking about one of his favorite subjects.”
“Your father and I have that in common. Basketball is one of my favorite topics, too, especially the Monarchs.” Jaclyn filled her fork with couscous. “We have ten players and three coaches in the NBA Hall of Fame, but we've never won a championship.”
DeMarcus shrugged. “A championship would be nice, but not everyone can achieve it.”
“So speaks the three-time MVP who has two championship rings.” Jaclyn's smile teased him.
DeMarcus winked at her. “There are thirty teams playing for one ring. Those are tough odds.”
Jaclyn nodded. “Yet teams like the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers have multiple rings from back-to-back titles.”
DeMarcus gestured toward her. “You have a championship ring of your own from your years in the WNBA.” And still she'd retired. Why?
Jaclyn sighed. “I want the Monarchs to bring home the ring.”
Julian gestured toward her with a forkful of chickpeas. “Even without a championship, the Monarchs have a storied history of a team and a community. As the team grew, so did the community because of the money the franchise brought in.”
DeMarcus swallowed a mouthful of couscous. “You can't live in the past. You have to build for the future.”
Julian shook his head. “Young people don't understand that, if you don't know your past, you can't build a future.”
Jaclyn looked to DeMarcus. “There's been a connectionâa bondâbetween the Monarchs and this community for more than half a century.”
Julian grinned. “Yes, indeed. A lot of the playersâlike Lenny Smith, Willie Jones and Bobby Millerâgrew up in the neighborhood, went to school here, stayed to play here, raised families here. They were our neighbors. They made the community feel like the team was theirs.”
DeMarcus stared at his dinner plate. The Waves had drafted him after college. Should he have tried to be traded to the Monarchs? He would have been closer to his parents. He looked up and saw the concern in Jaclyn's cinnamon eyes. He shifted his gaze away.
Jaclyn returned her attention to his father. “You've followed the Monarchs for a long time.”
“Yes, indeed. Since I could turn on the radio.” Julian pointed his fork toward Jaclyn. “The Monarchs will rebuild its glory days.”
Jaclyn arched a brow at DeMarcus. “To do that, we'll need a coach who knows what it takes to be a champion.” Her eyes twinkled as she switched her gaze to his father. “You must have been devastated when the Monarchs' conference rival drafted your only child.”
Julian winked at her. “There were pros and cons. Of course you always want your child to succeed. But when the Miami Waves played the Brooklyn Monarchs, no matter who won, I went home happy.”
Jaclyn laughed. “I like your style, Julian.”
His father continued. “Marc's mother wanted him to play for the home team, though. But everything happens for a reason. Marc fit in well with the Waves. He had good chemistry with the other starters.”
DeMarcus swallowed more iced tea. “Which resulted in the team earning those two championship rings you mentioned.”
Jaclyn turned again to his father. “You must have been excited when Marc was offered the head coach position for the Monarchs.”
Julian held DeMarcus's eyes. “I've lost track of the number of times my son has made me proud. Two championship rings, three MVP trophies, Olympic gold. The day he learned to ride a two-wheeler.” He turned to Jaclyn. “Should I mention the day he was potty trained?”
DeMarcus closed his eyes and raised his voice to be heard above Jaclyn's surprised laughter. “Please don't, Pop.”
Julian inclined his head. “We raised Marc to make his own decisions. He's shown good judgment so far.”
DeMarcus dropped his gaze to the table. As always, he was humbled by his father's faith in him.
Jaclyn squeezed his father's forearm. “You and your wife did an excellent job with your son. You're right to be proud of him.” She turned to address DeMarcus. “And you're lucky to have such good parents. As I said earlier, I was wrong to have asked for your resignation yesterday. I think you're the coach the Monarchs need.”
DeMarcus returned her direct stare. “You could be wrong.”
Her hand fell away from Julian's arm. “I know I'm not.”
DeMarcus pressed for more. “And what about Gerry and Bert? Will you be able to prevent them from throwing away the season?”
Jaclyn didn't waver. “Yes, I will.”
DeMarcus could almost believe her. “I'll think it over.”
“Then I'll leave you to it.” Jaclyn pushed away from the dining table and stood to collect her dishes. “Gentlemen, thank you for dinner and your wonderful company.”
Julian took Jaclyn's dishes from her. “It was nice having a lady at the dinner table again.”
DeMarcus again wondered about the effect Jaclyn's presence had over his father. He circled the dining table and took the serving tray from her. He set it back on the table. “You're our guest. We'll clear the table.”
Jaclyn's arms dropped to her sides. “Then I'll get my cell phone so I can call my driver.”
“I'll take you home.”
She glanced at her watch. “I'd appreciate that, if you're sure it's not an imposition.”
Behind her, Julian snorted. “An imposition? Taking you home gets him out of kitchen duty.”
DeMarcus tried to look offended. “I cooked dinner.”
Julian snorted again, then extended his right hand toward Jaclyn. “It was nice to meet you, Jackie. Good luck with the season.”
Jaclyn took Julian's hand. “Thank you. Hopefully, we'll meet again.”
DeMarcus took Jaclyn's elbow to escort her from the dining room. “I'll be right back, Pop.”
DeMarcus put on his sneakers while Jaclyn called her driver. He then collected their coats from the front closet before leading her through the back of the house to his garage. DeMarcus breathed in the chilled air that carried the faint scent of autumn leaves.
He used a remote opener to raise the garage door. Another remote control deactivated the alarm and unlocked the doors to his black Audi sedan. DeMarcus held the front passenger door open, closing it after Jaclyn had settled into the seat. He rounded the car and slipped behind the wheel. “Where to?”
He recognized the street Jaclyn mentioned. It was only a few blocks away in their Park Slope neighborhood. DeMarcus fastened his seat belt and waited while Jaclyn did the same before he drove the car out of the garage and into the heavy nighttime traffic.
Jaclyn's soft, whiskey voice broke the pensive silence. “Your father is charming. I enjoyed the evening.”
“So did we.” The truth of his words surprised him. His first impression of the Monarchs co-owner during his job interview hadn't been positive; neither had his second encounter with her yesterday in his office. But she'd been a different person tonight. She'd listened to and laughed with his father. Julian had seemed happier than he'd been in a long time.
A comfortable silence settled into the car until DeMarcus's curiosity kicked in. “I've seen you play. You were good. Why did you leave basketball for law?”
“Thank you.” Jaclyn didn't take praise from this gold-medal Olympian and future NBA Hall of Famer lightly. She shifted in her seat to look at him. She liked the clean, strong lines of his profileâhigh forehead, long nose, squared chinâalmost as much as she enjoyed looking into his dangerous, dark eyes. “I didn't leave basketball. I just stopped playing professionally.”
“I wanted experience in contract and employment law. I thought it would help me manage the franchise.”
“But it's taken you two years to claim your position as general manager.”
Jaclyn stared through the windshield, trying to shake off her guilt. “My grandfather had been sick for a long time. Still, losing him was hard. I thought I'd left the franchise in good hands with Gerry and Bert. I was wrong.”
DeMarcus stopped at a red light. “Why are they trying to move the team?”
Jaclyn felt his gaze on her. They were discussing business. Why did his attention make her want to change the subject? “Gerry and Bert don't appreciate the historical relationship of the franchise and the community as much as my grandfather and I do.”
Jaclyn shrugged. “Gerry didn't grow up around the franchise. He inherited his shares from his uncle. Bert inherited his shares from his father. But he also has Tipton's Fashionwear. My grandparents raised me after my parents and older brother were killed in a car accident.”
“You were very young when that happened, weren't you?”
Why had she introduced this topic? Jaclyn's stomach tensed. “I was three. After my grandmother died when I was eleven, my grandfather and the team were my only family.”
The light changed. DeMarcus crossed the intersection. “I'm sorry for your loss.”
“There's never an easy time to lose a loved one.” Jaclyn glanced at him. “I'm sorry about your mother's passing.”
The atmosphere in the car weighed heavy with regrets. Silence stretched before Jaclyn changed the subject. “Thank you for reconsidering your resignation.”
There was a smile in DeMarcus's voice. “If you could afford an experienced coach, would you have asked me to stay?”
Jaclyn suppressed a smile. The Mighty Guinn didn't miss a trick. “I thought you weren't in it for the money.”
“I'm not. But I am curious.” DeMarcus turned onto her street.
“Frankly, if the franchise weren't so dysfunctional, we wouldn't need a new head coach.” Jaclyn dug her house keys from her purse.
“True.” DeMarcus parked behind a dark blue Mercedes. He got out of the car, then came around to assist her.
“Thank you.” Jaclyn took his hand. His palm was big, rough and warm. Had he noticed she'd held on a little too long? She climbed her front steps, enjoying the feel of his presence behind her a little too much. “You're right. It's more fiscally responsible to hire a promising new coach than to lure a more established one.”
“A promising new coach.” His tone was dry as he quoted her. “Yesterday, I was the man who'd destroy the team.”
He stopped a step below her, but Jaclyn still had to look up to meet his eyes. His broad shoulders sheltered her from her surroundings. He was strong enough for her to lean on. But would he keep her from falling? Could he? Was he the franchise's savior or its destroyer? The evening was suddenly too quiet. “If the salary wasn't your motivation, why did you want to coach the Monarchs?” He stayed silent so long, she considered repeating her question.
But then he smiled. His tempting lips parted to reveal perfect white teeth. Deep grooves bracketed his mouth. “My father would get a kick out of it.” DeMarcus nodded toward her door. “You should go in. It's getting late.”