“The owners get rent plus profit share?”
“For ticket sales only. The profit share allows us to keep our rent low. At first, the arrangement worked in the owners' favor. Now it doesn't, which is the reason they want us out.”
Althea smoothed the skirt of her dress. “So, you're meeting with the Empire owners' lawyers again?”
Jaclyn checked her watch. Her stomach knotted as she thought of the upcoming presentation. “I'm meeting with Gerry and Bert this morning to discuss the numbers. But, yes, this afternoon I have a meeting with Bonner and Taylor.”
“Have you considered bypassing the lawyers and going straight to the owners?”
Jaclyn frowned. “That's not the way negotiations are done.”
Althea shrugged a shoulder. “So? You have too much to lose to follow the rules. Remember, nice guysâor girlsâfinish last.”
“Dorothy Parker?” Jaclyn enjoyed guessing the source of the quotes Althea frequently used. She was usually wrong.
“Leo Durocher, former Brooklyn Dodgers manager.”
Jaclyn watched her friend and assistant stride from her office. Althea had worked for the Monarchs less than a day, but already she was using sports references. Another Monarchs fan converted. Jaclyn smiled. Cool.
Gerald and Albert were waiting for Jaclyn in one of the Monarchs' smaller conference rooms. They grew quiet as her three-inch stilettos tapped across the threshold. What had they been talking about? Jaclyn clenched her teeth. She wouldn't give in to crippling paranoia.
She noted the blush in Albert's cheeks and the tightness around his mouth. Strain. He'd adjusted his red and blue patterned tie and unbuttoned his conservative navy blue suit jacket. What was bothering him?
“Good morning, gentlemen.” Satisfaction warmed her when her steps didn't falter.
Gerald had taken the chair at the head of the small rectangular mahogany conference table. It was the position of power in any meeting. It was a good offensive strategy, making sure to keep her on the defensive.
Jaclyn's stilettos tapped across the silver-tiled floor as she circled the table, handing both men copies of the report the finance department had generated. She then sank into the seat opposite Gerald.
Gerald smirked. His ruby knit crewneck sweater warmed his mocha skin and made his beady eyes and wavy hair look even darker. “I hope you're not going to make a habit of calling these last-minute meetings, Jackie. You have to get organized.”
Jaclyn returned Gerald's gaze without reaction. How could her father have formed a friendship with anyone from Gerald's family?
“Thanks for the tip, Gerry.” She folded her arms on the table in front of her. “The report I just shared with you shows the income from franchise merchandising and ticket sales. As of yesterdayâSeptember twenty-fourthâour profits are almost double last September's revenue.”
Albert's mouth relaxed into a smile. He flipped through the report, stopping at the summary sheet. “This is great news. What do you think caused it?”
“Our decision to hire Marc Guinn as the Monarchs' head coach, of course.” Gerald's tone was as dry as an emery board.
“That does appear to be the main influence on the increased sales.” Jaclyn always gave credit where it was due, just as her grandfather had taught her.
Albert nodded at Gerald, chuckling. “Then I'm glad we pushed for him.”
“So am I,” Jaclyn agreed. They had no idea how much.
Gerald's penetrating stare attempted to read her mind. “You didn't want to hire him at first. What made you change your mind?”
Jaclyn returned Gerald's gaze. “The numbers speak for themselves. Hopefully, the increased sales will continue.”
Gerald skimmed his right index finger down the report. “Ticket sales are still lagging. The Empire still won't be full.”
Jaclyn turned to the report summary. “We'll be close. It's a beginning. If this sales rate continues, we'll be up more than sixty-five percent once the regular season starts.”
“That's incredible.” Albert's demeanor was much more upbeat than it had been in months.
Jaclyn smiled at him. “I'm hoping these numbers will convince the Empire owners to give us a grace period, at least one more season, to stay here.”
Gerald laid the report in front of him on the small conference table. “Bert and I aren't going to stay here another year.”
Jaclyn turned to Albert. “What do you say, Bert? Do you want a grace period to stay in the Empire another season?”
Albert's puzzled gaze bounced from Gerald to Jaclyn, then down the report. “Iâ”
Gerald cut off his partner's answer. “We've already been over this, Jackie. The Monarchs deserve their own market.”
Jaclyn leaned into the conference table and enunciated. “Bert, what do you want to do?”
Albert's gaze wavered away from Gerald, dropping back to the report. “I want to do what's best for the team.”
Jaclyn stayed on him. “What do you think is best for the team?”
Gerald spoke for him. “Moving to another market where it could have the limelight.”
Jaclyn gritted her teeth. “This isn't about the Monarchs, Gerry. It's about you.”
Gerald glared at her. “Are you calling me a liar?”
Jaclyn matched his tone. “If
want to move, move. But Brooklyn is the Monarchs' home.”
“Says me.” Jaclyn dropped her hands to her lap and clenched her fists. She was allowing Gerald to shred her temper. She had to regain control.
Gerald sneered at her. “You're president and general manager of the Monarchs by virtue of carrying majority shares,
by virtue of your brains, obviously.”
Her temper flew out the window. “Excuse me?”
“Stop it.” Albert's low-voiced request barely registered to her.
“You're holding the Monarchs back.” Gerald pointed his finger across the table toward her. “They'll never be a world-class organization as long as they're in the Knicks' shadow.”
“How dare you.” Jaclyn's voice trembled with the rage she'd just promised herself she'd hold on to. “Under your management, we lost top draft picks and quality coaches. Yet you have the audacity to blame me for the Monarchs' problems?”
“Jackie, please calm down.” Albert spoke louder.
“Yes.” Gerald sprang to his feet, continuing his condemnation. “You have the chance to make it better and you're not taking it.”
Jaclyn rose for equal footing. “You think moving the team to Nevada would increase our revenue?”
“Yes.” Gerald leaned toward her from his end of the table.
of Nevada has less than three million people. The
of New York has almost four times that.”
“But New York already has a basketball team.” Gerald's voice raised another decibel.
Jaclyn stared at the angry partner as though she'd never seen him before. “What are you really trying to accomplish by moving the Monarchs?”
Albert surged out of his chair. “Stop it.” His voice was loud, his tone angry. He glared from Jaclyn to Gerald and back again. “We all want the same thingâwhat's best for our families and the franchise. Why does every meeting turn into an argument?”
Jaclyn faced Gerald. “Do we want the same thing, Gerry?”
Gerald gave her a look of cold contempt. “No, we don't.”
Albert pushed away from the table. “I have a business to run. In the future, Jackie, if you want to update us on our revenue and expenses, just e-mail the report to me. I can think of much better ways to spend my mornings.” Vibrating with anger, he stormed from the office.
Gerald moved away from the table. At the doorway, he stopped, half turning to face Jaclyn. “Maybe Bert and I should just stand back and let you ruin your grandfather's legacy.”
Jaclyn pushed her chair under the conference table and gripped its back. “We both know I'm not the one trying to destroy the Monarchs.”
Gerald turned to leave. He hadn't even bothered to deny her accusation. What would be the point? She was right and he knew it. Jaclyn's knuckles burned from gripping her chair's back. Now what should she do?
pâthe sweet cadence of a basketball kissing a courtâled DeMarcus to Jaclyn's driveway. A waist-high, teak wood fence barred him from her backyard. DeMarcus didn't hesitate. He braced his arms on the fence and vaulted over. His sneakered feet landed on a paved walkway between the Jones's residence and a well-manicured lawn as lush as a deep green carpet.
Past the house, the walkway opened to a space half the size of a basketball court. The lawn bracketed the court's thick, shock-absorbing tile. Two strong maple trees stood guard on either side. And in the center of the setting was the source of the steady thumping.
Jaclyn dribbled an NBA-regulation basketball. The Lady Assassin charged the post. She was part modern dancer and part ruthless predator. Her slender arms worked the ball hard to the basket. She spun, dodged and weaved around imaginary opponents foolish enough to challenge her. A foot from her goal, she leaped into the air, arched her lithe body and slammed the ball through the net. She landed on her feet as graceful as a cat.
“Two points.” DeMarcus applauded her game.
Jaclyn whipped around, eyes wide in the evening shadows. Her hand flew to her chest. “Good grief. You scared the life out of me.”
DeMarcus took in Jaclyn's skimpy gray T-shirt darkened by sweat and the tiny black shorts baring never-ending legs. She'd gathered her riot of thick, inky curls to the top of her head and restrained them with one of those clip things. Without makeup, she looked like a co-ed, not the confident businesswoman who'd persuaded him to risk what he valued most.
He stepped forward. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you.”
“How did you get back here?”
DeMarcus jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I hopped the fence.”
Jaclyn's gaze shifted to the walkway behind him, then back. “I need a taller fence. What are you doing here?”
“Elia said you'd wanted to talk to me.” His executive secretary had implied Jaclyn had been upset when she'd asked to speak with him earlier.
Jaclyn retrieved the basketball. It had rolled to a stop a few feet from the post. “It could have waited for the morning. I didn't mean for you to go out of your way to see me.”
Her voice was tense. He heard a hint of loneliness. Why was she out here tearing up the court?
DeMarcus tipped his head toward her regulation basketball hoop. “Who are you scoring on?”
“Gerry.” She'd spat her partner's name.
This couldn't be good. “What has he done now?”
Jaclyn wiped the sweat from her eyes with the tips of her right fingers. “He's not interested in finding a larger market or raising more revenue for the Monarchs. He just wants to destroy us.”
That was dramatic phrasing. “He said that?”
“He didn't deny it. That's why I came to see you earlier.” Her shrug was self-conscious. “I wanted someone to talk to.”
There was the source of the loneliness he'd heard earlier. DeMarcus glanced at her large house. With her grandfather gone, to whom did she turn? How lost would he feel if his father weren't there to confide in? DeMarcus wished he'd been there for her sooner. “Why would Gerry want to destroy the franchise?”
Jaclyn settled the ball on her hip. “Before my grandfather died, he warned me that I'd have to fight Gerry and Bert to save the Monarchs.”
DeMarcus remembered her saying that before. “I don't understand.”
“Neither did I, at first. But they don't have an emotional connection to the organization.”
“Why is that important?” He didn't get the touchy-feely stuff Jaclyn was hung up on.
Confusion and fatigue dimmed her eyes. “If they cared about the franchise, they'd never dream of moving it. Bert's more interested in Tipton's Fashion-wear. I understand that.
his family's legacy. Not the team.”
“What about Gerry?”
“He inherited his shares from his uncle. Apparently, he also inherited his uncle's resentment toward my family.”
Jaclyn shrugged a shoulder, causing her T-shirt to expose another inch of midriff. “I'm trying to figure that out. Basketball helps me think.” She passed the ball to him. “Show me what you've got.”
DeMarcus caught her sudden pass by reflex. He looked from his gray warm-up suit and white sneakers to her skimpy T-shirt and barely there shorts. Somehow a game of one-on-one with his sexy boss didn't seem like a good idea. “Sorry, I'm not up for a game.”
She cocked a brow at him. “What are you afraid of, Guinn? Losing?”
Jaclyn caught her breath. The competitive spark that lit DeMarcus's coal black eyes at her challenge sent a charge through her blood. It heated her skin.
“You're on.” DeMarcus sent the ball back to her. He crossed to her deck, shrugging out of his jacket. His white Reebok jersey was revealed underneath.
Jaclyn's attention dropped to his glutes. Retirement hadn't softened the former shooting guard. DeMarcus tossed his jacket onto her deck's railing. He turned back to her. Jaclyn jerked her gaze upward. His long legs brought him closer.
Her fingers pressed into the basketball. Its skin was rough beneath the pads of her fingers. Her heart pounded against her chest. She'd never dreamed she'd compete against the Mighty Guinn. During her three years in the WNBA, she'd matched up against numerous future Hall of Famers. But DeMarcus Guinn was different. In so many ways.
Jaclyn bounced the ball once. It snapped against the tiled court before returning to her. She spun it back to DeMarcus. “Show me what you've got.” She balanced on her toes, ready to defend the basket.
DeMarcus stepped back as he dribbled the ball. “What are we going for?”
“Ten points with two-point baskets?”
He took her measure. What did he see? A woman? An athlete? His boss? What did she want him to see?
DeMarcus arched a brow. “Ten points? Is that the best you can do?”
Jaclyn grinned at his taunt. “It won't take me long to school you.”
DeMarcus threw back his head and laughed. The sound was full, deep and just a little cocky. It strummed a chordâor twoâin her lower abdomen. Jaclyn could listen to the sound forever.
Still grinning, DeMarcus drove to her right. Jaclyn favored her left side, forcing him back. She could smell him, spice and musk. The warmth of his body tempted her to relax into him. It wasn't easy to resist his appeal.
Jaclyn widened her stance, bent her knees and spread her arms to her sides. She danced with him as she guarded the perimeter. It was like confronting Mount Kilimanjaro.
DeMarcus stepped back, set his stance and leaped. The ball flew over her head. Nothing but net. “You thought you could school me? I just made honor roll.”
Jaclyn hustled for the ball, keeping DeMarcus on her left. His movements were tentative as he tried to block her. She snatched the ball in mid bounce, spun and pitched it into the hoop. Two points. DeMarcus got the ball. Crowding him on her left side, Jaclyn forced his turnover. DeMarcus tried to circle her. With her elbows, Jaclyn kept him back. She bounced the ball twice, spun and stuffed the basket, doubling her lead. “I just sent you to detention.”
DeMarcus caught the ball from under the basket. He dribbled it with him as he moved farther down the court. “I won't give up the valedictorian title that easily.”
Jaclyn maintained the pressure, trying to steal the ball out from under him. She placed her hand on the small of his back. Through his white jersey, she felt his damp, hot skin. His muscles flexed under her palm as he moved, sending a current up her arm and into her breasts. Jaclyn stumbled back, losing focus.
DeMarcus spun, lifted the ball and aimed for the basket. He jumpedâand Jaclyn's competitive motor restarted. She moved in and stretched with him. Her arm lifted to block his shot.
Their bodies brushed together, her breasts grazing his chest. Their gazes held for the longest second. The moment ended painfully as the basketball dropped onto her shoulder and bounced to the ground.
“Dammit.” White light exploded before her eyes. Jaclyn landed on her feet.
DeMarcus reached for her, his expression stricken. “Are you all right?”
Returning to her senses, Jaclyn took advantage of DeMarcus's concern. She sprinted after the ball and drove to the basket. A hook shot lengthened her lead to 6 to 2. “I'm fine.”
Laughing and shaking his head, DeMarcus grabbed the rebound. He dunked on her, bringing the competition to 6 to 4. He chased after the ball, but Jaclyn wasn't giving up her lead. She cut off his route to the basket. Planting her feet, she forced him to either give ground or go around her. DeMarcus tried to circle her strong right side. Jaclyn maneuvered him to her left. DeMarcus drew back. Quick as a wink, Jaclyn stole the ball. She sent a rainbow shot sailing through the net. She led, 8 to 4.
DeMarcus chased down the ball. Jaclyn followed, closer than his shadow. He claimed the ball a fingertip from her reach. Jaclyn guarded him as he tried to get free of the post. He feinted to his right, but Jaclyn anticipated his ploy and blocked him. He danced backward. Jaclyn waltzed with him. Her hand hovered just above his muscled back. No sense courting distraction again.
DeMarcus chuckled. “Your opponents must have cheered when you announced your retirement. You earned your nickname.”
Jaclyn's heart floated. “That's high praise from the Mighty Guinn.”
“I know.” Jaclyn faked left, drawing DeMarcus to her right. She snatched the ball from himâand let it fly to the winning basket.
“Whoa!” DeMarcus shouted his approval. He turned toward her, applauding. “Good game.”
“Thank you.” Jaclyn took her eyes off the dimple in his left cheek and accepted his proffered hand. His grip was warm and firm. “Can I buy you a drink?”
The dimple deepened. “Yes, you can.”
Jaclyn mounted the four steps of her cherrywood deck. DeMarcus grabbed his jacket from the railing and followed her. He tried not to notice the sway of her rounded hips beneath her short shorts.
A burst of pleasing spices drew his attention. DeMarcus moved to the deck's side railing and discovered rows of leafy plants set into a side garden. He smelled thyme, oregano and rosemary. “You grow your own herbs. Do you cook?”
Jaclyn's response came from behind him. “Yes, but not as well as you. Maybe we can work something out in your next contract.”
DeMarcus tossed her a smile from over his shoulder. “You're barely paying me to coach. You definitely couldn't afford my cooking.”
Jaclyn tried to look sad, but the laughter in her eyes betrayed her. “It was worth a try.” She opened the back door, which led to a solarium. DeMarcus paused before the flat-screen television. He studied the entertainment center and scanned several titles on the bookcases.
Jaclyn crossed into the kitchen and gestured toward the ash wood table and four matching chairs in the center of the room. “Have a seat.”
DeMarcus hung his jacket over one chair and sat in another. He scanned the stainless-steel appliances and gray and black marble counters. The dÃ©cor was a sharp contrast of bright walls and dark accents, but he thought the patterns had more to do with the Monarchs team colors.
Jaclyn took two tall glasses from an ash wood cabinet. She filled them with ice from the refrigerator's ice maker and water from the filtered tap.
She offered him one of the glasses, then took the seat to his right at the head of the rectangular table. “Would you like to know how I beat you?”
DeMarcus gulped a mouthful of the cold water. It soothed his dry throat and cooled his heated body. “I think it was the shoes.”
Jaclyn looked from his white sneakers to her silver and black cross-trainers. She swallowed more water. “Maybe. But you have half a foot and almost one hundred pounds on me. How did I beat you?”
DeMarcus recognized the line from the science fiction movie
Had she quoted it on purpose? “I don't know, Morpheus. Tell me.”
Jaclyn smiled at his reference to Laurence Fishburne's character in the movie. “I've studied you.”
“What did you learn?”
“You're a gentleman.”
He arched a brow. “That's bad?”
“Not at all. I find the quality very attractive.”
The buzz in his blood settled a little lower in DeMarcus's stomach. A slow, easy breath helped him think. “But?”
“No buts. I was able to use that quality to my advantage during the game. For example, you didn't want to play on my left because you assumed it's not my strong side.”