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Dempsey Reynaud would have his revenge.
Leaving the football team's locker room behind after losing the final preseason game, the New Orleans Hurricanes' head coach charged toward the media reception room to give the mandatory press conference. Today's score sheet was immaterial since he'd rested his most valuable players. Not that he'd say as much in his remarks to the media. But he would make damn sure the Hurricanes took their vengeance for today's loss.
They would win the conference title at worst. A Super Bowl championship at best.
As a second-year head coach on a team owned by his half brother, Dempsey had a lot to prove. Being a Reynaud in this town came with a weight all its own. Being an illegitimate Reynaud meant he'd been on a mission to deserve the name long before he became obsessed with bringing home a Super Bowl title to the Big Easy. A championship season would effectively answer his detractors, especially the sports journalists who'd declared that hiring him was an obvious case of favoritism. The press didn't understand his relatives at all if they didn't know that his older brother, Gervais, would be the first one calling for his head if he didn't deliver results. The Reynauds hadn't gotten where they were by being soft on each other.
More important, his hometown deserved a championship. Not for the billionaire family who'd claimed him as their own when he was thirteen. He wanted it for people who hungered for any kind of victory in life. For people who struggled every day in places like the Eighth Ward, where he'd been born.
Just like his assistant, Adelaide Thibodeaux.
She stood outside the media room about five yards ahead of him, smiling politely at a local sportswriter. When she spotted Dempsey, she excused herself and walked toward him, heels clicking on the tile floor like a time clock on overdrive. She wore a black pencil skirt with gold pinstripes and a sleeveless gold blouse that echoed the Hurricanes' colors and showed off the tawny skin of her Creole heritage. Poised and efficient, she didn't look like the half-starved ragamuffin who'd been raised in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods. The one who used to stuff half her lunch in her book bag to share with him on the bus home since he wouldn't eat again until the free breakfast at school the next morning. A lot had changed for both of them since those days.
From her waist-length dark hair that she wore in a smooth ponytail to her wide hazel eyes, framed by dark brows and lashes, she was a pretty and incredibly competent woman. The only woman he considered a friend. She'd been his assistant through his rise in the coaching ranks, her salary paid by him personally. As a Reynaud, he wrote his own rules and brought all his resources to the table to make a success of coaching. He'd been only too glad to create the position for her as he'd moved from Atlanta to Tampa Bay and thentwo years agoback to their hometown after his older brother, Gervais, had purchased the New Orleans Hurricanes.
There was a long, proud tradition of nepotism in football from the Harbaughs to the Grudens, and the Rey-naud family was no different. They'd made billions in the global shipping industry, but their real passion was football. An obsession with the game ran in the blood, no matter how much some local pundits liked to say they were dilettantes.
"Coach Reynaud?" Adelaide called to him down the narrow hallway draped in team banners. Her use of his title alerted him that she was annoyed, making him wonder if that sportswriter had been hassling her. "Do you have a moment to meet privately before you take the podium?"
She handed him note cards, an old-fashioned preference at media events so he could leave his phone free for updates. He planned to brief the journalists on his regular-season roster, one of the few topics that would distract sports hounds from grilling him about today's loss in a preseason contest that didn't reflect his full team weaponry.
"Any last-minute emergencies?" He frowned. Adelaide had been with him long enough to know he didn't stick around longer than necessary after a loss.
He needed to start preparing for their first regularseason game. A game that counted. But he recognized a certain stiffness in her shoulders, a tension that wouldn't come from a defeat on the field even though she hated losing, too. She'd mastered hiding her emotions better than he had.
"There is one thing." She wore an earbud in one ear, the black cord disappearing in her dark hair; she was probably listening for messages from the public relations coordinator already in the media room. "It will just take a moment."
Adelaide rarely requested his time, understanding her job and his needs so intuitively that she could prepare weeks of his work based on little more than his daily texts or CCing her on important emails. If she needed to speak with him privatelynowit had to be important.
"Sure." He waved her to walk alongside him. "What do you need?"
"Privately, please," she answered tightly, setting off alarms in his head.
Commandeering one of the smaller offices along the hallway, Dempsey flicked on a light in the barren, generic space. The facilities in the building were nothing like the team headquarters and training compound in Metairie, where the Reynauds had invested millions for a state-of-the-art home. They played here because it was downtown and easier for their fans. The tiny box where they stood now was a fraction the size of his regular work space.
"What is it?" He closed the door behind him, sealing them inside the glorified cubicle with a cheap metal desk, a corded phone from another decade and walls so thin he could hear the lockers slamming and guys shouting in the team room next door.
"Dempsey, I apologize for the timing on this, but I can't put it off any longer." She tugged the earbud free, as if she didn't want to hear whatever was going on at the other end of her connection. "I've tried to explain before that I couldn't be a part of this season but it's clear I'm not getting through to you."
He frowned. What the hell was she talking about? When had she asked for a break? If she wanted vacation time, all she had to do was put it on his calendar.
"You're going to do this now?" He prided himself on control on the field and off. But after today's loss, this topic was going to test his patience. "Text me the dates you want off, take as long as you need to recharge and we'll regroup later. You're invaluable to me. I need you at full speed. Take care of yourself, Adelaide."
He turned to leave, ready to get back to work and relieved to have that resolved. He had a press conference to attend.
She darted around him, blocking the door with her five-foot-four frame. "You aren't listening to me now. And you haven't been listening to me for months."
The team owned tackling dummies for practice that stood taller than Adelaide, but she didn't seem to notice that Dempsey was twice her size.
He sighed. "What did I not hear?"
"I want to start my own business."
"Yes. I remember that. We agreed you would draw up a business plan for me to review." He knew she wanted to start her own company. She'd mentioned it last winter. She'd said something about specializing in clothes and accessories for female fans. She hoped to grow it over time, eventually securing merchandising rights from the team with his support.
He worried about her losing the financial stability she'd fought so hard to attain and figured she would realize the folly of the venture after thinking it over. He thought he'd convinced her to reevaluate those plans when he'd persuaded her to return for the preseason. Besides, she excelled at helping him. She was an invaluable member of the administrative staff he'd spent years building, so that when he finally had the right football personnel on the field, he could ride that talent to a winning year.
That year had arrived.
"I've emailed my business plan to you multiple times." She folded her arms beneath her breasts, an unwelcome reminder that Adelaide was an attractive woman.
She was his friend. Friendships were rare, important. Sex was
sex. She was more than sex to him.
"Right." He swallowed hard and hauled his gaze upward to her hazel eyes. "I'll get right on reading that after the press conference."
"Liar," she retorted. "You're putting me off again. I can't force you to read it, any more than I can make you read the messages and emails from your former female companions."
She arched an eyebrow at him, her rigid spine still plastered to the door, blocking his exit. It had never pleased her that he'd asked her to handle things like that from his inbox. But he needed her help deflecting unhappy ex-girlfriends, preventing them from talking to the press and diverting public attention from the team to his personal life. Adelaide was good at that. At so many things. His life frayed at the edges when she wasn't around.
Plus, he was devoting every second possible to the task of building a winning team to secure his place in the Reynaud family. It wasn't enough that he bore his father's last name. As an illegitimate son, he'd always needed to work twice as hard to prove himself.
And Adelaide's efforts supported that goal. He was good at football and finances. Adelaide excelled at everything else. He'd been friends with her since he'd chased off some bullies who'd cornered her in a neighborhood cemetery when she was in second grade and he was in third. She'd been so grateful she'd insinuated herself into his world, becoming his closest friend and a fierce little protector in her own right. Even after the time when Dempsey's rich, absentee father had shown up in his life to remove him from his hardscrabble life in the Eighth Wardand his motherfor good. His mom had given him up for a price. Adelaide hadn't.
"Then, I'll resume management of the personal emails." He knew he needed to deal with Valentina Rushnaya, a particularly persistent model he'd dated briefly. The more famous a woman, apparently, the less she appreciated being shuffled aside for football.
"You will have no choice until you hire a new assistant," Adelaide replied. Then, perhaps realizing that she'd pushed him, she gave him a placating smile. "Thank you for understanding."
Hire a new assistant? What the hell? Was she grandstanding for something, like a raise? Or was she actually serious about launching her business right now at the start of the regular season?
"I don't understand," he corrected her, trying to talk reason into her. "You need start-up cash for your new company. Even without reading your plan, I know you'll be depleting the savings you've worked so hard for on a very long shot at success. Everyone likes an underdog but, Addy, the risk is high. You have to know that."
"That's for me to decide." Fierceness threaded through her voice.
He strove to hang on to his patience. "Half of all small businesses fail, and the ones that don't require considerable investment. Work for one more year. You can suggest a raise that you feel is equitable and I'll approve it. You'll have a financial cushion to increase your odds of growing the company large enough to secure those merchandising rights."
And he would have more time to persuade her to give up the idea. Life was good for them now. Really good. She was an integral part of his success, freeing him up to do what he did best. Manage the team.
The voices and laughter in the hallway outside grew louder as members of the media moved from the locker-room interviews to the scheduled press conference. He needed to get going, to do everything possible to keep their future locked in.
"Damn it, I don't want a raise"
"Then, you're not thinking like a business owner," he interrupted. Yes, he admired her independence. Her stubbornness, even. But he couldn't let her start a company that would fail.
Especially when she could do a whole hell of a lot of good for her current career and for his team. For him. He didn't have time to replace her. For that matter, as his longtime friend who probably understood him better than anyone, Adelaide Thibodeaux was too good at her job to be replaced.
He reached around her for the doorknob. She slid over to block him, which put her ass right over his hand. A curvy little butt in a tight pencil skirt. Her chest rose with a deep inhale, brushing her breasts against his chest.
He. Couldn't. Breathe.
Her eyes held his for a moment and he could have sworn he saw her pupils widen with awareness. He stepped back. Fast. She blinked and the look was gone from her gaze.
"I'm grateful that working with you gave me the time to think about what I want to do with my life. I got to travel all over and make important contacts that inspired my new business." She gestured with her hands, and he made himself focus on anything other than her face, her body, the memory of how she'd felt pressed up against him.
He watched her silver bracelet glinting in the fluorescent lights. It was an old spoon from a pawnshop that he'd reshaped as a piece of jewelry and given to her as a birthday present back when he couldn't afford anything else. Why the hell did she still wear that? He tried to hear her words over the thundering pulse in his ears.
"But, Dempsey, let's be honest here. I did not attend art school to be your assistant forever, and I've been doing this far too long to feel good about it as a 'fill-in job' anymore."
He didn't miss the reference. He'd convinced her to work with him in the first place by telling her the position would just be temporary until she decided what to do with her art degree. That was before she'd made herself indispensable. Before he'd started a season that could net a championship ring and cement his place in the family as more than the half brother.
He'd worked too hard to get here, to land this chance to prove himself under the harsh media spotlight to a league that would love nothing more than to see him fail. This was his moment, and he and Adelaide had a great partnership going, one he couldn't jeopardize with wayward impulses. Winning wasn't just about securing his spot as a Reynaud. It was about proving the worth of every kid living hand-to-mouth back in the Eighth Ward, the kids who didn't have mystery fathers riding in to save the day and pluck them out of a hellish nightmare. If Dempsey couldn't use football to make a difference, what the hell had he worked so hard for all these years?
"You can't leave now." He didn't have time to hash this out. And he would damn well have his way.
"I'm going after the press conference. I told you I would come back for the preseason, and now it's done." Frowning, she twisted the bracelet round and round on her wrist. "I shouldn't have returned this year at all, especially if this ends up causing hard feelings between us. But I can send your next assistant all my files."
How kind. He clamped his mouth shut against the scathing responses that simmered, close to boiling over. He deserved better from her and she knew it.
But if she was going to see him through the press conference, he still had forty minutes to change her mind. Forty minutes to figure out a way to force her hand. A way to make her stay by his side through the season.
All he needed was the right play call.