DeMarcus smiled. “I was wrong.”
“And you said you'd watched me play in the WNBA.” Jaclyn tutted. “You also didn't want to charge me because you didn't want to risk hurting me.”
“I noticed you didn't worry about me.”
“Sorry.” Jaclyn finished her glass of water.
DeMarcus kept his eyes glued to hers, ignoring the damp T-shirt that clung to her curves. “Is there a lesson in your game?”
Jaclyn's grin revealed even, white teeth. “Of course. I love a well-educated man.” She stood and moved to the sink to wash her glass. “I used what I know about you to beat you. By getting to know our players, you can make the best match of their personal ticks against our opponents.”
DeMarcus followed her to the sink. Beneath the earthy scent of sweat was a hint of lilacs. Intoxicating. “I don't have to psychoanalyze the players to develop the team's game plans.”
Jaclyn's shoulder brushed his chest as she turned to him. She stepped back. “I used more than my physical abilities to beat you.” She took his glass, washed it, then set it beside hers on the gray plastic drain board.
DeMarcus moved closer, drawn by her warmth, her scent, her magic. “What would I learn by bonding with the players?”
“Their temperament.” Jaclyn shifted sideways, opening more room between them. “You don't want a hothead guarding someone who could taunt him into committing a foul.”
Why did she keep moving away? DeMarcus closed the gap. “The team needs discipline more than anything else.”
Jaclyn stepped back. “Exactly. But to bring discipline to our team, you need to know what's happening to them off the court as well. Players listen to coaches who listen to them.”
DeMarcus stepped forward. “I'm a coach, not a priest.”
Jaclyn's back bumped the fridge. “Did you know Bling has a drinking problem? I'm sure you've noticed Jamal is a ball hog. That's going to be an issue. And Rick second-guesses himself. That's going to be a problem, too.”
“I can't be their coach and their friend. It's one or the other. You want me to get them to the play-offs. Let me do my job.”
Jaclyn sighed. “All right. Preseason starts in nine days. We'll see whether your strategy works.”
She pressed her right hand against the center of his chest. “In the meantime, when did you become a close talker? Back up.”
DeMarcus shuddered. Jaclyn's touch scorched his skin through his jersey. He was edgy, anxious. Like a sixteen-year-old with his first crush. DeMarcus flattened his palms against the refrigerator behind her, caging her in. “You said you can read me. What am I thinking now?”
Her voice was as husky as his. “I can read you loud and clear. But I don't know if this is wise. I'm your boss.”
His gaze dropped to her lips, full and moist. “Harass me.” DeMarcus waited, willing her to toss caution to the wind with him.
Jaclyn's hand slid up his chest and curved around the back of his neck. She brought his face closer to hers and raised up on her toes to meet his mouth. DeMarcus groaned. His body warmed as he rubbed his lips across the warm, soft plumpness of hers. He nibbled at them, sipping their sweetness. Her body shivered against him. DeMarcus dropped his hands from the refrigerator to hold her closer against him. Her soft breasts pressed against his chest. He caressed her lithe waist before moving his hands lower to cup her full, firm derriere.
Jaclyn shivered again. She dug her fingernails deeper into his back. DeMarcus felt his heart beat slow and heavy in his chest. His blood heated in his veins, boiling until it whistled in his ears. He pressed into her.
He stroked his tongue against her mouth, coaxing her to open for him, wanting a deeper taste. Jaclyn parted her lips to accept him. DeMarcus was swept away. He slipped between her lips and explored her wet warmth. He tasted her inner walls then stroked her tongue. Jaclyn's tongue reached out to touch his, sliding along its length, wrapping around its width, then taking it into her mouth.
DeMarcus groaned at her acceptance. His body heated. A low, deep throbbing started inside him. He slid his hand over her hip to the cool, bare skin of her thigh. Hooking his hand behind her knee, he lifted her leg, pressing her thigh against his hip. They fit together perfectly. At well over six feet tall, DeMarcus often had to fold himself over to embrace his date or lift her from the ground to kiss her. But not with Jaclyn. She fit with him as though she were made for his arms.
DeMarcus caressed Jaclyn's small waist. His fingers slipped beneath the hem of her scanty T-shirt. Her skin was hot, just a little damp. He skimmed his fingertips down her abdomen to her waist. Her stomach muscles quivered. DeMarcus groaned. His hand lifted farther up her torso to cup her breast. Jaclyn moaned, pressing into him. She opened her mouth wider, deepening their kiss. DeMarcus responded, his blood on fire.
His mind spun at her contrasts. Sweet and spicy. Bold and bashful. He wanted to taste her, all of her. Her breast was warm and soft, its weight a temptation in his palm. He tightened his hold on her thigh and pressed his hips hard into hers.
Jaclyn broke their kiss. “Marc. Wait.”
DeMarcus froze. His left hand pressed her breast; his right hand cupped her thigh. His body ached. “All right.”
Jaclyn opened her eyes. She pressed her hand against his chest, creating more room between them. “I'd be lying if I said I didn't want you. What an understatement.” Her chuckle was breathless and awkward. “But things are complicated enough for both of us without adding a sexual relationship.”
DeMarcus made himself release her. He turned away from Jaclyn's scent and breathed deeply to clear his mind. “You're right. You're my boss. This isn't a good idea.”
“I'm glad we can be sensible about this.” She didn't sound glad. Small comfort.
DeMarcus collected his jacket from her kitchen chair before facing her again. His palm tingled from the feel of her. His body ached from the taste of her. “We can be sensible. But for how long?”
“A losing preseason is a good sign.” Julian sat beside DeMarcus on the thick-cushioned brown sofa.
Sometimes DeMarcus didn't understand his father. “Why?”
“It betters the odds of a team winning in the regular season.”
“Then the Monarchs should go undefeated.” DeMarcus turned off the digital video disc recorder and the sixty-eight-inch high-definition television. He couldn't stomach any more footage of the Monarchs' preseason games.
Julian shrugged. “So the team lost all of its preseason games. Take whatever you can learn from this experience and throw the rest out.”
DeMarcus set the universal remote control on the mahogany coffee table and stood to prowl the family room's dark green carpet. “The losses left me with more questions than answers.”
Julian shifted sideways on the sofa. “Like what?”
DeMarcus dragged both hands over his hair. He paced toward the mahogany shelves of DVDs and compact discs. “Do those guys even want to win?”
“Of course they do.”
DeMarcus gestured toward the DVD machine. “You can't tell that by the way they played.”
“That's not fair, Marc. Most of your players have been in the league ten years or more. You know as well as anyoneâand better than mostâhow much sacrifice and commitment that takes.”
DeMarcus settled his hands on his hips and stared out the picture window. This view gave him a different angle of the neighborhood from the den's bay window. “There's no passion. They're going through the motions and collecting a paycheck.”
“You're wrong, Marc.”
DeMarcus heard the disappointment in his father's voice and regretted being the one to cause it. “I don't mean to be hard on your team, Pop. But over the past four seasons, the Monarchs have lost their competitive drive.”
“What they've lost is hope. Help them regain it.”
DeMarcus faced his father. “How? We open the regular season with the Miami Heat Wednesday. That gives me six days to figure out the magic combination of players.”
“You will.” In the dark depths of Julian's gaze was a steadfast assurance.
DeMarcus's stomach muscles knotted. He turned away from his father's expectations. “I've never been on a team with a losing record. For three of the last four seasons, that's all the Monarchs have known. We weren't competitive in any of our preseason games.”
“Dick Vermeil said the real test comes when you lose.”
It was a struggle to keep his back straight, his voice steady. “Despite what legendary NFL coaches say, the media's saying I've made a mistake. They think I'm ruining my legacy.”
“What do you think?”
DeMarcus flexed his shoulders. The tension remained. Outside, the shadows fell faster now as the autumn evening arrived. “We've already lost seven games. I think we've been tested enough.”
“Be patient. You'll figure it out. It didn't take one season for the Monarchs to fall to the Eastern Conference basement. You can't expect to turn them around overnight.”
DeMarcus looked again at Julian. “You have more faith in me than I have in myself.”
Julian smiled with an understanding and wisdom DeMarcus hoped to have one day. “Who knows you better than your parents?”
DeMarcus checked his silver Rolex. It was almost half past seven. “I'm going back to the office to look at more game film and prepare for the Heat.
“That's what a champion would do.”
DeMarcus sent his father a smile before leaving the family room. “Don't wait up.”
DeMarcus tossed the
New York Sports
onto Troy Marshall's desk. The Friday morning headline read,
MONARCHS' INFIGHTING THREATENS SEASON
. He relaxed his jaw. “Have you read the paper?”
Troy spun his black leather executive chair away from his computer table and pulled it under his desk. He tipped his head back to meet DeMarcus's glower. “First thing this morning.”
DeMarcus jabbed a finger toward the newspaper. “Aren't you supposed to prevent articles like this?”
“I'm the VP of media and marketing, not a magician.”
DeMarcus narrowed his eyes. “Was that a joke?”
“Andy Benson doesn't ask my approval before she submits her stories.”
DeMarcus picked up the paper. “She writes that Serge has wanted to be traded for years.”
“That's not a secret.” It was only eight in the morning, but Troy's jacket was off, his tie loosened and his sleeves rolled to his elbows. “The problem is no other team will buy Serge's contract.”
DeMarcus scanned the article again. “She quotes Jamal complaining that he wants more ball time.”
“Jam-On-It is a ball hog. He won't be satisfied until he's handled the ball for the whole forty-eight minutes.”
DeMarcus's gaze bounced around the media executive's office. The black-lacquered furniture and silver carpeting reminded him of Jaclyn's office. Framed reprints of newspaper articles memorializing the Monarchs' past glory hung from his walls. Business marketing and communications awards paraded across his bookcases.
DeMarcus jerked the folded newspaper in his hand. “The team doesn't need this distraction. What are you going to do about it?”
Confusion darkened Troy's eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Are you going to ask for a retraction?”
“Based on what? We don't like the article, but it's not inaccurate. It's a true picture of how the players feel and what they've already told us.”
“But the paper doesn't have to print it.”
Troy sighed. “Look, I know the story hurts the Monarchs' image. But, if I called Andy to complain, we'd make the situation worse.”
DeMarcus dragged his right hand over his hair. “The Waves didn't have articles like this.”
“I'm not surprised.” Troy's tone was dry. “The Waves have been winning for years. They don't have any reason to complain.”
“You're saying it's the players' fault?”
Troy shrugged. “They're the ones quoted in the article.”
DeMarcus scanned the article again before tossing it back onto Troy's desk. It felt as though someone had hidden a microphone in the Monarchs' locker room and played the tape for the salacious satisfaction of their readership. “What do we do?”
Troy leaned back in his chair. “Tell the players not to take their grievances to the media. Keep their concerns about their contract or playing time or whatever in the family. I know you want an immediate solution, but complaining to Andy or any member of the press gives the situation greater emphasis.”
“I'll talk to the players before today's practice.” DeMarcus glanced at his watch. Practice was still almost three hours away. Could he wait that long? At least everyone would be on time. The late fine was working.
“I'm glad you've solved that problem.” Jaclyn's voice came from behind DeMarcus. She shut Troy's office door before continuing. “But why did Andy Benson decide to write this story?”
Troy shrugged. “Player dissatisfaction on a losing team isn't uncommon.”
Jaclyn crossed into Troy's office. Her dark blue dress hugged her small waist. The hem ended at mid-calf. Beside her, DeMarcus felt her tension.
She stared down at the article. “But this isn't our first or even second losing season. Why did she choose to publish this story now?”
Troy inclined his head toward DeMarcus. “Maybe because our new head coach is one of Brooklyn's favorite sons.”
Jaclyn shook her head. “She works the player dissatisfaction angle. She barely mentions Marc.”
DeMarcus folded his arms. “Do you think someone asked her to do this story?”
Jaclyn shrugged one slender shoulder. “It's possible.”
DeMarcus grunted. His annoyance multiplied. “I'll institute a hefty fine for any player who takes negative stories to the press.”
Jaclyn's troubled gaze lifted to his. “Suppose it wasn't the players?”
“Who else would it be?” Troy straightened in his chair. “Do you suspect Gerry or Bert?”
Jaclyn seemed to hesitate. “I . . .”
An expression of disgust crossed Troy's features. “My loyalty is to the team. I won't break your confidence.”
Jaclyn sat in one of Troy's guest chairs. “I trust you. Unfortunately, I can't say that about everyone in our organization. This conversation can't leave this room.”
Troy nodded. “Of course.”
“Agreed.” DeMarcus took the other vacant chair. Curiosity and concern made him want to touch her. It had been weeks since they'd been even this close to each other. Absence hadn't lessoned the hunger.
Jaclyn took a deep breath. “Bert wouldn't go to the media. But I could see Gerry planting a story like this to build on the team dissension we already have.”
Troy drummed his fingers against his teakwood desktop. “Knowing the negative publicity would damage the team.”
DeMarcus glanced from Troy back to Jaclyn. “Which is what he wants.”
Troy made a note on his memo paper. “I'll find a way to subtly ask Andy for her story's source.”
DeMarcus cocked a brow. “While you're at it, use your charm to convince her not to do any more negative stories on us.”
Jaclyn rubbed her forehead. “I'll pretend I didn't hear that.”
Troy chuckled. “You may have noticed that Andy Benson is immune to my charms. In fact, I don't think she likes me.”
DeMarcus snorted. “You'd better work on that. We can't have the press hating our media executive.”
Troy spread his arms. “Image is everything.”
DeMarcus locked gazes with Jaclyn. “That's not what I've heard.”
Jaclyn gave him a wry look before returning her attention to Troy. “Andy's too smart to give up her source, but ask her anyway.”
Troy nodded. “Are you going to talk to Gerry?”
Jaclyn rose from her chair. “Yes, although he'll deny any involvement in this story. We need to stop this negative publicity. It'll turn the fans against us when we're trying to increase ticket sales.”
DeMarcus wanted to fight these battles for her. She already was trying to prevent Gerald and Albert from moving the team. And she was trying to keep the Monarchs in the Empire. Now she had to add combating negative press to her plate. That was too much for one person to shoulder alone.
DeMarcus stood. “What can I do to help?”
Jaclyn gave him a grateful look. “Talk to the team. Tell them we can't afford negative publicity. But, more than anything else, we really need a winning season so we can pack those seats.”
DeMarcus winked at her before walking toward the door. “That's why you hired me.”
“And the Monarchs lose their home opener to the Miami Heat one sixteen to eighty-six.” The announcer's voice bounced around the arena.
DeMarcus crossed the court to shake Erik Spoelstra's hand. “Good game, Coach.” He forced the words past the lump of shame burning his throat. This was the most embarrassing loss of his basketball careerâand it happened on his home court in his home city.
DeMarcus followed his assistant coaches and the security guards off the court, maneuvering past television crews, sports reporters and arena staff. He ignored the crowd of scantily clad groupies cooing to him from beside Vom One, the tunnel that led to the Monarchs' locker room.
What would he say to the team? He needed something more constructive than “What the hell happened out there?” That was the question he'd hear from fansâand Jaclyn. And the media. DeMarcus's stomach soured. The postgame interview. He had to give one. Great.
The locker room stank of sweat and defeat. Dark gray metal lockers for the thirteen playersâstarters and benchâoutlined the square room. Clothes, shoes and personal items were strewn chaotically in and around the lockers. Players were getting ready for the showers. The quiet was crushing. Their movements were trancelike. Their posture was broken.
Why weren't they angry? Where were the accusations? Instead, their silence spoke of acceptance, and that he wouldn't allow. They couldn't accept any loss, especially such a humiliating one.
DeMarcus marched to Jamal “Jam-On-It” Ward and ripped the iPod headphones from his ears. Players glanced at him but otherwise didn't react. Their lack of concern pushed him almost to the edge.