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Authors: Regina Hart

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BOOK: Fast Break
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Albert's smile wavered. He lowered his coffee cup from his mouth. “Frank
was
proud of you, Jackie.”
Her breathing quickened as though she'd sprinted across the basketball court in hot pursuit of an opponent. “I don't think so, Bert. My grandfather entrusted me with his franchise, his dream. And, while I was wallowing in self-pity after his death, you and Gerry have been destroying it.”
Albert's lips parted as though her attack surprised him. His reaction was understandable. In the past, she'd been deferential toward the elder partners. Today, the gloves were off.
Albert's eyes darkened with confusion. “We're not trying to destroy the Monarchs. We want to improve the franchise by finding a bigger market for it. We need to move the team to a state where we won't have to compete with another franchise for market shares.”
“I've negotiated contracts for years with Jonas and Prather. Do you know what I've noticed over my career?”
“What?”
“When people parrot other people, they don't sound sure of themselves. That's because they're expressing someone else's decision.”
A spark of anger straightened Albert's back. “I'm not parroting Gerry.”
Jaclyn crossed her legs. “Do the math, Bert. There are more than eight million people in New York City. Almost two-and-a-half million of them live here in Brooklyn. The Empire Arena only seats twenty thousand ticket holders. How much of a market share do we need?”
Albert stared into his coffee. “We aren't filling the arena.”
Jaclyn eased her grip on the fragile cup, afraid she'd crush it and stain her russet-heather sweater dress with Folgers's breakfast blend. “You're not going to automatically fill an arena once you move the team.”
“We need to fill the arena.”
Albert's tone told Jaclyn he was sticking to the script Gerald had given him. “Then help me rebuild the team.” She pushed herself to the edge of her seat. “The best way to fill the arena is to win. The fans came when we were winning.”
Albert shifted in his chair. “Gerry said you'd have an emotional reaction to our decision to move the team. But, Jackie, this is business. Our fathers would agree with us.”
Jaclyn blinked. Did he really believe that? “Why?”
Albert frowned as though he didn't understand her question. “Because we'll bring in more money.”
She could hear her pulse beating in her ears. “Our families didn't start the Monarchs to become rich. The franchise is for the community. Neighborhoods in this area were dying. Businesses were failing. When the Monarchs started playing, people came back. Jobs came back. Kids who grew up here returned to raise their own families in their neighborhood.”
Albert gripped his coffee cup like a shield. “If the neighborhood starts to struggle again, someone else will help.”
Shock stole her thoughts. “Someone else? What would your father think if he could hear you?”
What could she say to reach him? What could she do? He didn't have the connection to the community that his father or her grandfather had had. If he did, he wouldn't leave the neighborhood to others to help. He wouldn't move the Monarchs.
Albert flushed. “I'm sorry, Jackie.”
Frustration threaded her words. “How much money do you need? How much is enough for you?”
Albert shifted in his seat. “It's not just the money. I'm tired of having to worry about the team as well.”
Jaclyn gripped her coffee cup between her palms. “Then sell your shares to me.”
Albert shook his head. “I promised Gerry I wouldn't.”
That caught her off guard. “Why not?”
“He said having three partners keeps us honest. Otherwise, it would just be you and him butting heads all the time.”
In other words, Gerald wanted to keep Albert as his puppet and force Jaclyn to divide her attention and energy between the two of them. Clever.
She settled back into the thickly padded chair. “If the solution to keeping the franchise in Brooklyn is to fill the arena, then I expect your support in bringing the fans back.”
Albert returned his gaze to her. “What do you mean?”
“If we're going to increase attendance, we have to win. So I expect your support for the personnel and marketing decisions I make to help turn the team around.”
Albert frowned. “I saw the e-mail message announcing you're the GM now. But the franchise doesn't have much money.”
“I know. Gerry spent the franchise's money as though it was his own. I'll have to put us on a stricter budget and get creative.”
“Is that why you replaced Gerry?”
“Gerry's interim term was over.” Jaclyn stood, setting her half-empty cup on the small coffee table. “Can I expect your support?”
Albert's smile didn't mask the unease in his inky eyes. “Of course, Jackie.”
Jaclyn turned to leave. “I'm glad to hear it.” Even if she didn't believe it.
 
 
She knocked this time. DeMarcus looked around to see Jaclyn standing in his office threshold. Her fist was still raised and resting on his door. The bright orange dress followed her slender curves. Her smile and that dress lit up his office like a bolt of lightning.
She waved a stack of papers in her left hand as she strode into his office. “I have your revised contract. Gerry, Bert and I have signed it.”
DeMarcus stood, reaching for the documents she extended to him. He caught a whiff of lilacs and inhaled again. ”That was fast.”
Her lips parted in a teasing grin. “I didn't want to give you a chance to change your mind.”
DeMarcus caught the sparkle in her cinnamon eyes. Disarming. Where was the woman who'd wanted to rip him a new one two days ago? He gestured toward the three black guest chairs between them. “Do you have time to wait while I sign these?”
“I believe I do. I'm just upstairs now.” Jaclyn swayed around the chair to slip onto the seat.
DeMarcus sat. “How did Gerry take your e-mail reclaiming your GM position?”
Jaclyn crossed her long legs. She swung her shapely right calf to an idle beat only she could hear. “I've learned that Gerry doesn't believe in confrontations. I'm sure he's planning a sneak attack. You should watch for those, too.”
DeMarcus shrugged his eyebrows. “Thanks for the warning. You're in the office starting today?”
Jaclyn nodded. “Close at hand to lend managerial support.”
He dropped his gaze to the contract. Her response sent a dangerous shot of heat to his stomach. The words in the document finally pulled into focus. Jaclyn grew still as he reviewed the new contract. He couldn't block out her presence, though. He doubted any man could.
He signed his name to both copies and returned one to her. “Thanks for revising the contract.”
Jaclyn relaxed into the armchair. “I'm glad we were able to find a suitable compromise. How are things going today?”
DeMarcus propped his right ankle onto his left knee. “I met with Oscar Clemente this morning.”
Jaclyn's eyes sparkled with mirth. “How did that go?”
“Is it true he doesn't want the head coaching job?”
“Absolutely.” She didn't hesitate.
“How do you know?”
“Gerry offered it to him twice. Oscar stopped taking Gerry's calls.”
DeMarcus's eyes widened. “He stopped taking a franchise owner's calls?”
Jaclyn's lips twitched with a persistent smile. “Oscar doesn't like to repeat himself. Be sure to listen the first time.”
DeMarcus absorbed that. It was a lot to take in. “Why do you keep him?”
Jaclyn freed her smile. “Some people find Oscar difficult to deal with. But he has a brilliant offensive mind and he's passionate about the team.”
She was loyal to the assistant coach. It was in her words, in her voice, in her smile. DeMarcus couldn't look away from that smile. If it ever came down to a choice between him or Oscar, DeMarcus was sure the man who could make her smile like that would win.
He put that thought aside. “I met with all of the coaches and the trainers. They're good, but they're not excited about the new season. There's no energy or enthusiasm.”
“That's what I was talking about Monday. We've assumed a culture of losing. They expect losses now. So what is there to get excited about?”
“They don't have to be happy about the season, but I expect them to be excited about their jobs.”
Jaclyn shook her head. Her shiny brown curls bounced around her head and shoulders. “We need them to be enthusiastic about both. We need the whole organization to be excited. The Monarchs season isn't a job. It's a quest for the championship. And that quest starts with you.”
DeMarcus lowered his right leg from his left knee. “Preseason starts in eleven days. The regular season starts in four weeks. I don't have time to do some pep squad routine while Oscar tightens up the defense.”
Jaclyn propped an elbow on the chair's arm and shrugged. “Managing personalities—of the coaches as well as the players—is an important part of managing the game. And, by the way, Oscar's weak on defense.”
“No one's ever managed my personality.”
“There's a lot to manage.”
Her tone was solemn, but DeMarcus caught the twinkle in her eye. Was she flirting with him? The idea piqued his interest. “We need to improve our speed and get back to basics.”
“Just remember the goal, Marc.” Jaclyn stood. “We have to get to the postseason. We need those ticket sales to stay in the Empire.”
DeMarcus stood as well. He watched her smooth the sweater-like material of her dress and almost swallowed his tongue. “I'll get us to the postseason. You keep us in the arena.”
Jaclyn smiled. “In other words, I should stick to the front office and leave the coaching to you. I know a thing or two about what it takes to win basketball games, too.”
“I've got all the assistant coaches I need.”
Jaclyn turned to leave. “We'll see how the season goes. If we're not winning, prepare to watch Dr. Phil's show.”
7
The Monarchs roster no longer boasted marquee players. DeMarcus had known that stepping into his role. Thirteen men sprawled before him on the bleachers of the Monarchs' training facility Thursday morning. They were NBA veterans several seasons past their glory days. The notable exception was a young rookie whose headstrong attitude had kept him from being a high pick in the 2011 draft.
DeMarcus continued his preseason speech despite his certainty no one was listening. Still his words echoed off the court, coming back to him. “We're going back to fundamentals—footwork, shooting, rebounds. Every time we touch the ball, we need to score.”
He was interrupted as footsteps squeaked against the hardwood. Barron Douglas sauntered toward him. The point guard's oversized black T-shirt hung past his hips. It bared tattoos extending like sleeves down his dark brown arms to his wrists. Baggy, black nylon shorts, a match to his teammates', skimmed his knees. His wraparound black sunglasses and silver chains weren't regulation. A rebel. Every team had at least one. How did this one become captain?
DeMarcus inhaled a calming breath as well as the faint scent of floor wax from the high-gloss court. “Barron. Nice to finally meet you.”
The six-foot-five player stopped and jerked his chin upward in greeting. “Coach.” Barron shoved his sunglasses to the top of his head, balancing them on his thick cornrows. “You can call me Bling.”
Great. They were bonding. Jaclyn would be pleased. “What time is it, Barron?”
Barron lifted his left wrist to read his watch. DeMarcus caught the play of light off the wide silver band. Was the point guard going to practice with that Wonder Woman wristband on his arm? Basketball was a contact sport. His teammates wouldn't want to get anywhere near that silver cuff.
Barron stared at the watch as he read the time aloud. “It's almost eleven-thirty, Coach.”
“Practice starts at eleven. The schedule's been the same for the four years you've been here.” DeMarcus took note of Barron's bloodshot eyes. How late had the guard gone to bed and how inebriated had he been?
The Monarchs' captain relaxed into a cocky pose. “I had stuff to do.”
“Like getting to practice on time.”
“Whatever, man.” Barron passed DeMarcus without another word or look.
DeMarcus tracked the captain's progress over the bleachers. “I'm docking your pay.”
Barron turned to DeMarcus. “That's bullshit.”
DeMarcus shrugged. “You don't want to be fined? Get to practice on time.”
Barron stomped to a seat, grumbling under his breath.
DeMarcus addressed the other players. “That goes for all of you. Get to practice on time and be prepared to give me one hundred and ten percent. Every practice and every workout we do is for June.”
“For June?” Anthony Chambers, the starting forward, grinned. His dark olive eyes twinkled in his fair skin. His rounded natural was a 1970s throwback. “You mean the championship?”
“Yes.” DeMarcus's tone was meant to squelch any humor. Anthony didn't get the message.
The forward laughed. “Man, have you seen our record? We haven't had a winning season in three years. We don't have a prayer of even making the play-offs.”
DeMarcus paced closer to the bleachers, where Anthony sat four rows up. “You're laughing at the
idea
of making the play-offs? That's funny to you?”
Anthony's grin faded to uncertainty. “No, Coach. It's not funny.”
DeMarcus turned to Barron. “Wins don't just happen. You have to work for them. Are you telling me you're not going to work this season?”
Barron glanced arond. His movements were sluggish. “You know that's not what I'm saying.”
Serge Gateau, the team's six-foot-ten-inch forward, raised his hand. The Frenchman from Lourdes wore his dark blond hair pulled straight back in a shoulder-length ponytail. His lean, square features were clean-shaven and earnest.
DeMarcus inclined his head. “Yes, Serge?”
“I would like for you to trade me.” Even after ten years in the league, his accent still heavily inflected his words.
DeMarcus studied the faces of the men he'd be spending the next seven months with—nine, if they made the championship. Long months of physical and emotional strain. He'd spoken to the team for almost twenty minutes about his goal for their season. In response, he'd received laughter, distain and a request to be traded.
DeMarcus returned his attention to Serge. “This isn't the time or the place for this conversation.”
Serge's blue eyes widened. “
Merde.
That I want to be traded, this is not a secret.”
DeMarcus was decades away from high school French, but he was fairly sure
merde
was not a polite word. “We're not going to trade you, Serge, and—”
Jamal Ward, the rookie with the attitude, sprang to his feet. He stroked his hand over his freshly shaven head. “If you're going to talk about players who stay or start, I'm going on record that Jam-On-It is not a sixth man. I'm not coming off the bench.”
At nineteen years of age, the wiry, six-foot-five-inch shooting guard was well on his way to challenging Barron “Bling” Douglas for most body paint in the league.
Jamal hadn't taken even one pass in an NBA game but was declaring himself a starter. They'd have something to talk about if he'd been a top draft pick. The muscles in DeMarcus's shoulders bunched. He scanned the faces of the coaches, players and trainers observing the meeting. They regarded the brash shooting guard with either disbelief or disinterest.
“Sit down, rookie.” DeMarcus watched the younger man hesitate before complying. “You don't
claim
a starting position. You
earn
it.” He repositioned his gaze to the twelve other men who finally seemed to hear his words. “That's right. You may have started last season. But if you want to start this season, you'll have to earn it. And we're going to the finals, Monarchs. We're going to play for the championship. If you aren't willing to put in the work, you can ride the bench.”
They all thought he'd lost his mind. DeMarcus could tell by the looks on their faces. Maybe he had. He'd do whatever it took to bring his father the trophy. This was about more than his competitive drive. It was about more than his ego. It was about finally repaying his parents for everything they'd sacrificed for him. Thanks to his parents, he'd proven himself a winner. He wasn't going to let this team make a loser out of him.
With his speech this morning, he'd set the course for them. But, to reach their destination, the coaches and players would have to row together. Right now, he couldn't see any of them picking up an oar.
 
 
If she could just ingest this cup of coffee, she'd make it through this Friday morning. She was sure of it. Jaclyn inhaled deeply as she filled her official Brooklyn Monarchs mug from the coffeepot in the franchise's kitchen.
The steam warmed her face. She took a long drink of the sweet, black beverage, then sighed. “Saved.”
“Another late night?”
Jaclyn turned toward her assistant's voice. Althea Gentry looked neat and efficient in her chocolate coat dress. A gold, flower-shaped brooch pinned the red and brown checked scarf to her shoulder.
Jaclyn rested her hips against the kitchen counter and cradled her Cup o'Joe protectively in her palms. “I'm prepared for a series of them while I'm juggling my general manager responsibilities and wrapping up the client files for J and P.”
Althea's sharp, black eyes darkened with worry. Her dark brown hair swung around her jawline as she shook her head. “I wish you'd waited the two weeks before taking your position with the Monarchs. It's too hard on you, doing two demanding jobs at once.”
Truer words may never have been spoken. Jaclyn felt as though she'd been beaten like a rug and thrown into the street.
She straightened from the counter and wrapped her free arm around the much shorter woman's shoulders and led her from the kitchen. “Stop nagging. You know we talked about this. Gerry has done enough damage to the team already. More than enough. I couldn't wait two more weeks before stopping him.”
“And how much good are you going to be either here or for Jonas and Prather with only two hours of sleep each night?” Althea's voice was heavy with concern.
“It's three hours. And this schedule won't last forever. All of my client files will be transferred by late next week. How are you managing the transition?”
“I'm fine. In fact, I can help you reassign your client files.”
Jaclyn stopped, smiling at the twenty-something administrative assistant walking their way. “Hi, Nessa. How are you?”
Vanessa Klayer gave them a broad smile though her dark eyes remained wary. “Good morning, Ms. Jones.”
Jaclyn dropped her arm from Althea's shoulders. “When did I become Ms. Jones? We've known each other since you started working here four years ago.”
Vanessa's shoulders dropped and her smile relaxed. “I'm sorry, Jackie, I wasn't sure how you wanted us to address you.”
Jaclyn swallowed more coffee. “The only thing that's changed is that I'm the general manager now, not my grandfather. And he asked everyone to call him Frank.” She nodded toward her assistant. “Vanessa Klayer, I'd like you to meet Althea Gentry. Althea and I worked together at Jonas and Prather, my old law firm.”
Vanessa's demeanor cooled as she extended her right hand. “Oh, you're my replacement.”
“No, she isn't.” Jaclyn kept her voice casual as she corrected Vanessa. “You're Gerry's assistant. Althea's mine.”
Vanessa's gaze shifted between Jaclyn and Althea. “Oh, I see.”
Jaclyn hoped the younger woman did in fact see. “By the way, Nessa, who do the Monarchs play for the first game of the preseason?”
Vanessa's eyes widened. “I don't know, but I can find out for you.”
“That's OK. It's the Washington Wizards. I hope you watch the game.” Jaclyn walked on.
Althea caught up with her. “What was that all about?”
“My grandfather made sure everyone knew the Monarchs' schedule. He's only been gone two seasons, but I bet Nessa's not the only one who couldn't name the team's first preseason opponent. She probably doesn't know which college our draft pick, Jamal Ward, attended, either.”
Althea frowned. “I thought you didn't want that player.”
“That's a different story.” Jaclyn marched into her office and across the silver carpet. She settled into her ergonomically correct, black executive chair. She'd had Facilities remove Gerald's red throne. “I want the entire franchise to memorize the Monarchs' schedule. The games aren't just about the players. Everyone should support the team.”
Althea smoothed her scarf. “Vanessa was interesting.”
Jaclyn swung her attention to Althea's change of subject. She gave her friend a crooked smile. “You make understatement an art.”
“Flattery got me to take this position. Now I want to know exactly what the situation is.”
Jaclyn leaned into her desk, folding her hands together. She put into words her fears and dread. “I need someone with me whom I can trust.”
Althea grew still. Her thin black brows knitted. “You're a franchise owner. You've known everyone here for years. Why do you think you can't trust them?”
Tension crept into Jaclyn's shoulders. She sipped more coffee. It was growing cold. “I don't know who I can or can't trust. I've removed the snake from the Empire. But I have a feeling Gerry's cultivated loyalties among the staff, people who would tell him what I'm doing.”
Althea's jaw dropped. “I can't believe that. I'd never betray my employer's confidence.”
“I know. That's why I asked you to come work with me.” Jaclyn sensed the other woman's continued unease. “Gerry and Bert caught me off guard with their plans to relocate the Monarchs. I don't want them to find out what I'm doing to prevent that.”
“What are you doing?”
Jaclyn sat back in her chair, trying to relax. “The finance department ran the numbers for me yesterday. Merchandising sales have more than doubled, and preseason ticket sales are up almost fifty percent. I underestimated the welcome our fans would give their prodigal son returning as the Monarchs' head coach.”
Althea wagged her finger. “I told you so. Marc Guinn may not have played in New York, but he's from New York. And he's going into the Hall of Fame. He's going to raise the team's profile.”
Jaclyn waved a hand. “Whatever the reason, let's hope the revenue continues to increase. It will give a healthy boost to the Empire's profit share and persuade them to keep us as tenants.”
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