What didn't he want her to know? Should she press him or shelve her curiosity for another day?
Jaclyn unlocked her door. The lights she kept on in her entryway masked the house's emptiness. It was a noticeable contrast from DeMarcus's home. “Thank you again for dinner and for seeing me home. I hope to hear good news from you tomorrow.”
His eyes creased at the corners. “Good night.”
She entered her grandfather's house under DeMarcus's careful regard, locking the door behind her.
Unease shadowed Jaclyn as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Even if DeMarcus agreed to coach the Monarchs, would she be able to keep the team in Brooklyn? And would her growing attraction to the former NBA superstar and his dimples further complicate the situation?
DeMarcus found his father reading in the sitting room. “Are you waiting up for me?”
Julian gave his son a skeptical look. “Why? You're not sixteen anymore.” His father closed the hardcover novel he'd been reading. “Are you going to coach the Monarchs?”
Trust his father to get right to the point.
DeMarcus settled into the matching armchair. His mother's chair. “Should I?”
“It's your decision.”
DeMarcus pushed out of the soft armchair and wandered across the room. The days were getting shorter. Long, evening shadows protected the view of the neighborhood from the sitting room window. “I'm risking my reputation if the team continues to lose.”
His father snorted. “No matter what happens, no one will take away your awards. You've earned them.”
DeMarcus turned from the window, shoving his hands into the front pockets of his black warm-up pants. “Those are things. What about my image? I've built a name as a winner. What happens to that if I coach the team to another losing season?”
Julian shook his head. “It doesn't matter what other people think. At the end of the day, all that matters is what you think.”
“But what do
“Listen to your gut. It hasn't failed you yet.”
“Why won't you give me your opinion?”
“You aren't sixteen anymore.”
DeMarcus scrubbed a hand over his face. In his mind, he held the image of Jaclyn's cinnamon eyes sparkling with the light of the street lamp outside her mansion. His shoulders tensed. “I can't guarantee her a winning season.”
“Did Jackie ask for a guarantee?”
“If you take the job, do your best. That's all anyone can expect from you and all you can expect of yourself.”
DeMarcus's chuckle was dry. He perched on the edge of the bay window's shelf. “I remember that lecture from my years at basketball summer camp. You and Mom gave me some version of that speech before every game.”
Julian put the novel on the small table between the two armchairs and settled further into the overstuffed brown cushions. “The philosophy was right then, and it's right now.”
“But Jack needs a winning season.”
Julian cocked his head. “That responsibility wouldn't be just on you. It's on the entire coaching staff, the players and the front office.”
“That's what I told her.” DeMarcus straightened off the window shelf. He propped his hands on his hips and studied the gleaming hardwood floor. “I can coach her team, but she has to keep Gerry and Bert out of trouble.”
DeMarcus looked up. He couldn't read Julian's expression. He had a lot riding on this decision. Whatever he chose to do, he didn't want the outcome to reflect badly on his family's name. “I don't know. What should I do?”
Julian arched a brow. “If you decide to coach the Monarchs, you'll give the team your best effort. But no one could blame you if you decide not to. The front office is in disarray.”
“Jack called it dysfunctional.”
“I wish I knew whether we could win.” DeMarcus sighed. “The Monarchs have taken all the losing they can stand. It's time to put up some
“Sometimes winning isn't determined on the scoreboard.”
DeMarcus's brows knitted. His father was doing his
Obi-Wan Kenobe impersonation again. “What does that mean?”
“As far as the community is concerned, a winning season means the Monarchs stay in Brooklyn.”
DeMarcus blew out a breath. “I can't guarantee that, either.”
Jaclyn rubbed her eyes. That annoying noise was her cell phone ringing beside her. She checked the clock on her home laptop. It was almost ten o'clock at night. Who was that? She saved the client summary she was drafting and picked up the phone. She didn't recognize the number. Great. “Hello?”
“Jack, it's Marc Guinn. I hope I'm not calling too late.”
Her mind spun, trying to anticipate the reason for his call. Had she left something in his car? At his home, perhaps? And why was he calling her Jack? “It's not too late. What can I do for you?”
A heavy sigh. “I'll coach the Monarchs, but on one condition.”
Her grip tightened around the slim, black metal phone. “What's that?”
“I want a one-year contract. At the end of the year, we'll reevaluate the situation and decide whether we want to continue the agreement.”
Jaclyn wanted to do back flips across her cramped and cluttered home office. Instead, she swallowed a primeval scream of victory and responded with admirable calm. “That's fair.”
She closed the client summaryâit could waitâand opened the electronic file of DeMarcus's employment contract. “I'll e-mail the new contract language to you in the morning. If you still agree to the terms, Gerry, Bert and I will sign it tomorrow.”
“Fine. Then I'll be in the office Wednesday.” His tone was resolute, determined. Sexy.
Jaclyn hesitated. “That's tomorrow. You don't want to wait until you get the revised contract?”
“I don't have time to wait. Preseason starts in twelve days, October fourth.”
Jaclyn wanted to pump her fist. The team had a coach committed to winning. She had an ally to help her save the franchise. Her joy had nothing to do with DeMarcus's coal black eyes, chiseled chin or the dimples that creased his cheeks when he smiled. She wouldn't dwell on his lack of experience. That would come. For now, she'd focus on his drive and dedication.
“Thank you, Marc. I appreciate your giving us another chance.” Jaclyn didn't care if DeMarcus heard her relief. He'd just given her the best news she'd had in years.
“I can't guarantee a winning season.”
She recognized concern in his voice. “All I'm asking is that you try. The team can win. I know we can. We just need someone as committed to the season as we are.”
“You've got that. I hate to lose. I really hate to lose, even more than I love to win.” His chuckle was self-deprecating.
“We have that in common, then. I'll call you in the morning.”
“Good night, Jack.”
Jaclyn hesitated. “Jack?”
“It suits you, don't you think?”
“No. I don't.”
He chucked a low, wicked sound that did things to her. “I do.” He ended the call.
Jaclyn glanced down at her B-cups. “Not hardly.”
She touched her cellular screen to disconnect the call. Jaclyn closed her eyes. She wasn't alone anymore. Someone else was willing to help keep her grandfather's dream alive. Now, she needed to keep her end of the bargain and make sure Gerald and Albert didn't stand in their way.
“I convinced Marc Guinn to stay on as head coach. His only requirement is that we alter his contract term to a one-year commitment.” Jaclyn shifted forward in the guest chair opposite Gerald Bimm's deskâsoon to be her deskâWednesday morning. She gave him the revised contract. DeMarcus had already e-mailed his approval. They were both early risers.
Gerald's incredulous look passed from the contract lying on his desk to Jaclyn and back. “How did you change his mind?”
Jaclyn settled into the green-cushioned chair and crossed her legs. “A better question is, why didn't you contact me as soon as Marc resigned?”
Gerald scanned the first two pages of the five-page document. “I knew you hadn't wanted him in the first place.”
Jaclyn gripped the arms of her chair but kept her voice cool. “The regular season starts in a month, Gerry. The team needs a head coach.”
Gerald shrugged as he finished scanning the contract. “Oscar isn't doing a bad job as interim.”
The careless words put Jaclyn's teeth on edge. “Oscar Clemente is a good offensive strategist for the Monarchs and has been for well over a decade. But he knows he doesn't have the strategic mind a head coach needs.”
“Well, you've got Marc back.” Gerald smirked. “It seems like the only thing that changed is the length of the contract.”
“I'll stop by Tipton's Fashionwear to get Bert's signature this afternoon.”
Gerald folded the document to the final page and signed his name with a flourish. “We're back in business.” He handed the papers to Jaclyn.
Jaclyn checked to make sure Gerald had both signed and printed his name. “Almost.”
He grinned, satisfied and confident. “What else can I do for you?”
Jaclyn smoothed the hot pink silk skirt over her knee. Her gaze roamed the office before coming back to him. Gerald had removed everything her grandfather had displayed when this office had belonged to him. Nothing remained of Franklin Jonesâor the Monarchs. “I'm ready to assume my position as Monarchs general manager.”
“That's wonderful, Jackie. How soon were you planning on starting?” Gerald's lips curved into a stiff smile. His eyes looked through her.
Jaclyn sensed his mind churning. What was he up to?
“Now. Althea Gentry, my executive assistant at Jonas and Prather, has already sent an e-mail to the organization announcing the management change.”
Was that panic that flashed in Gerald's brown eyes? He spun his red leather throne toward his computer monitor. A few key strokes called up his e-mail system. Jaclyn couldn't see his messages, but she could read his reaction. Gerald was unhappy.
The traitor wheeled his chair to face her again. His eyes were stormy. “This announcement is sudden, Jackie. I wish you'd given me the courtesy of an advance notice.”
Was he kidding? “Like the advance notice you gave me before you contacted the Empire owners' lawyers to discuss breaking the contract?” Jaclyn smacked her right palm against her forehead. “Oh, that's right. You didn't notify me in advance. I found out from the lawyers.”
Gerald narrowed his eyes. “Is that what this is about? Revenge? That's petty, Jackie.”
“This has nothing to do with revenge. I'm trying to save the organization.”
“By going behind my back and having your law firm assistant e-mail a message about the management change? Nessa could have sent the announcement. You didn't have to go outside of the organization.”
“As your assistant, Nessa's loyalty is to you. That's one of the reasons Althea will work with me. I need someone whose loyalty won't be torn.”
Gerald's eyes sparked with irritation. “What will happen to Nessa?”
Jaclyn suspected his concern was more for himself than for his secretary's livelihood. “She can continue to support you. If she has time, she also can help with other administrative duties.”
Gerald's gaze iced over. “This is bullshit.”
“No, Gerry. It's business.” She enjoyed turning his words back to him.
“Are you doing this because Bert and I want to move the team out of Brooklyn? What do you have against that plan?”
Jaclyn sat forward in her seat. “Why would you want to separate the franchise from its community?”
“Oh, I don't know. Maybe to make money?” His voice rose. Her business partner was losing his cool. “The Monarchs aren't a nonprofit organization. If we had a bigger market share, we'd make more money.”
Jaclyn's pulse kicked into overdrive. “We were profitable before you and Bert started making colossally ignorant decisions that dropped our team into the league's basement and cost us revenue.”
Gerald sneered. “Oh, that's right. You and Frank were the only ones who knew anything about basketball. How could I have forgotten that?”
Confusion blunted her anger. Where had Gerald's resentment come from? Why hadn't she seen it before? “We never said that. But your decision to relocate the Monarchs has to do with more than just money. What are you really after, Gerry?”
“Money is at the root of everything, Jackie.”
“Have you received inquiries from other markets? Have you heard from anyone in Nevada?”
The hesitation was brief, but it was there. Jaclyn didn't know whether to believe him. Her heart sank. “Have you approached anyone in Nevada?”
Gerald sat back in his chair. He picked up his pen and rolled it between the fingers of both hands. “We're still compiling our wish list. These things take time. There's a lot to consider when you're selecting a new home for your franchise.”
Every word was a blade punched into her heart. Despite her upbringing to respect her elders, Jaclyn didn't think she'd hated anyone as much as she hated Gerald in that moment. From the look in his eyes, the feeling was mutual. “Just remember, Gerry. A franchise decision this big, which impacts so many members of the Monarchs family, requires a unanimous vote, and there's no way on God's green earth you'll get mine.”
“Bert and I are committed to this move, so unless you buy the franchise outright, you won't have a choice. And, at the end of the year, you'll lose the Empire.”
“Your uncle must be turning in his grave. You have no regard for the legacy he helped build.”
“I do appreciate his legacy. It will make me a very rich man.”
Jaclyn rose from the chair. “I'm moving into this office after lunch today.”
Gerald barely glanced at his gold Rolex. “That doesn't give me much time.”
Jaclyn arched a brow. “Do you need help?”
Gerald studied her face for several silent moments. “An excellent idea. I'll get Nessa to help me.”
Anger carried Jaclyn to the door. “As long as you're gone before I return.”
DeMarcus took the seat opposite the Monarchs' assistant coach at the small oak conference table. Oscar Clemente either had somewhere else to be or he was timing their meeting. Since he'd entered DeMarcus's office, the former interim head coach had checked his black wristwatch three times.
DeMarcus laid the printout of the team's roster on the table's surface. “I want to meet with each assistant coach individually to discuss issues they may have with the team.”
Oscar's intense dark stare stayed steady on his. “OK.”
DeMarcus waited, expecting Oscar to say more. “Since you were the interim head coach, I want to hear your impressions first.”
With their gazes locked, it became a battle of wills. Who would look away first? Oscar shifted his ample bulk in the black-cushioned chair. His eyes never wavered. What was the assistant coach trying to read in DeMarcus's mind?
DeMarcus finally spoke. “What's wrong with the team?”
DeMarcus tightened his jaw. The pissing contest had officially started. “Speak your mind.”
Oscar didn't blink. “Heard you were hired to lose.”
For a franchise that didn't have any leaks, a lot of people were asking about this rumor. He'd have to talk with the media executive about that. “Your source is wrong.”
“Yeah?” Oscar didn't sound convinced. His Brooklyn accent and attitude were in full display. If DeMarcus was going to work with the other man, he'd have to show him that the fifteen years he'd spent in South Florida hadn't softened him.
DeMarcus leaned back in his chair. He gave his assistant coach a cool look. “Does being passed over bother you?”
The big man bristled. “I don't want that job.”
“No?” He matched Oscar's insolence.
“Hell, no. You think I want this clusterâ” Oscar bit off the obscenity. The few gray hairs circling his round, pink pate stood on end. “Gerry doesn't know what he's doing. Bert can't wipe his ass without Gerry, and Jackie doesn't give a shit. I wouldn't take your job on a bet.”
“Then why do you stay?” He really wanted to know.
“Because Frank Jones was one of the greatest men who ever breathed.” Oscar's reply was just short of a roar.
How about that? DeMarcus considered the coach's glowering brown eyes. This hostile stranger and his genial father had in common an admiration for the Monarchs' cofounder. Sports really was the great equalizer.
DeMarcus raised his right ankle to his left knee. Now to diffuse the situation. “You're wrong, you know.”
“About what?” Oscar flushed a deeper shade of pink. His rounded features quivered with rage.
“Jack cares a lot.”
The coach strained forward in his seat, still on the attack. “Then why did she allow her grandfather's team to go to shit?”
DeMarcus flinched. Why should Oscar's assault on Jaclyn's work affect him? Hadn't he accused her of the same thing? Somehow that was different. “Her grandfather's death knocked her off balance, probably more than she'd even realized. And she trusted Gerry and Bert.”
Oscar grunted. “That was her first mistake.”
“She knows that now.”
The assistant coach gave him a speculative look. “Yeah?”
Oscar glowered a bit longer. “What's she going to do about it?”
The coach barked a laugh. “With
Not a ringing endorsement. “With
“You were a hell of a player. What makes you think you can coach?”
“You'll see.” DeMarcus was getting used to the insolence. “So, what's wrong with the team?”
Oscar grunted again. “The first thing you have to do is get them to act like a team instead of thirteen separate egos.”
have to do?” It was a test. He knew it and Oscar knew it. The sooner Oscar accepted that this experiment would be a team from the top down, the better. DeMarcus kept his gaze steady.
have to do.” The acceptance was grudging, but it came.
The office of the president and chief executive officer of Tipton's Fashionwear resembled a family sitting room. Jaclyn eased into one of the two overstuffed, yellow and blue armchairs bracketing a round mahogany coffee table. Albert Tipton Jr. sat in the other. The matching sofa crouched across the room. Family photos placed on the tops of file cabinets, bookcases and corner tables carried her back in time. She and her grandfather had attended those parties, graduations, weddings and baptisms.
Jaclyn tapped into those memories as she faced Albert. “How's Cheryl? She's a sophomore at Georgetown now, isn't she?” She sipped her coffee as she studied Albert's friendly, open features. Gray hairs scattered among the tight black curls along his temples. He was only a few years older than her father would have been if he'd lived.
Albert beamed as she'd known he would. His eyes moved to the photos on his desk. “Yes, she is. She's majoring in business with a minor in design. Going to take over her old man's company.”
His voice sang with pride as he continued to boast the accomplishments of the youngest of his four children.
Jaclyn strained against the bittersweet feelings. “That's wonderful, Bert, that your daughter would want to continue your family business.”
A flush highlighted Albert's cocoa cheekbones. “Yes, it is. I'm very proud of her.”
“I'm sure that's what she wants. For you to be proud of her, the same way I want my grandfather to be proud of me.”