Nick Rome hated being late—for anything. That usually meant he was one of the first guys to show up in the clubhouse, whether it was game day or not. He wasn’t a superstar like Jake Miller or Nate Carter, but he made damn sure that nobody worked harder than he did.
He’d learned the simple but valuable lesson years ago, having it drummed into his head by his hard-ass, hard-working jerk of a father who’d had to scrabble for every dollar to support his family. That self-imposed and unforgiving work ethic had often given Nick an advantage over some of his more talented teammates. He’d spent the last eight years working hard to prove that he belonged right where he stood today—in the Patriots clubhouse as a valued member of the team.
Unfortunately, it was a point he’d have to prove all over again, and under less than encouraging circumstances.
Only one player had beaten him in this morning. Star pitcher Nate Carter sat in the executive chair in front of his locker stall, studying a stack of charts the pitching coach had prepared. Nick intended to study those same charts and with equal intensity. Tomorrow afternoon, he’d be catching when Nate took the mound against the Los Angeles Dragons in their first meeting of the young season. The lanky, veteran southpaw was an incredibly tough pitcher for any batter to face, but he was a joy to catch. Nate rarely made a bad pitch, and his delivery was so quick that few base runners dared to steal on Nick’s arm.
His friend looked up as Nick settled into his chair two lockers over. “Yo, Nick. Aren’t you meeting Dembinski this morning? Or is it over already?”
“Not for another half hour, but I’m in no rush.” Especially since he’d fired his agent a few days ago. The Patriots general manager was a notoriously tough negotiator, but Nick would simply have to handle it on his own. “How are Holly and the baby?”
Nate’s eyes lit up at the mention of his wife and their six-month old daughter, Emma. Holly was both gorgeous and smart, and a supremely talented pediatric surgeon. She also happened to be one of Nick’s favorite people in the world.
“Perfect,” Nate said. “Holly’s resuming a full surgical schedule next week.”
“Good for her.” There were days when Nick felt more than a tinge of envy toward his buddy. Not for Nate’s stellar career, but for the happiness he’d found in his personal life.
Tossing aside his charts, Nate swiveled his chair around to face him. “Are you sure you want to go head to head with Dembinski? You know the guy’s a total barracuda.”
“True, but I’d rather negotiate on my own than leave my fate in the hands of my late and unlamented dickhead of an agent. Arnie just wanted me to play out the season and then declare free agency. Swore he could get me thirty-two mil over four years if I did.”
Nate snorted. “Don’t take this the wrong way, man, but that promise and a couple of bucks might just get you a cup of coffee.”
“Yeah, news flash: agents are full of shit.”
“Some are. Friggin’ sharks circling in the water. But not all of them are that bad. My guy is trustworthy, and there are plenty of others.”
“I’m not saying they’re all assholes, but I’m done with the big agencies,” Nick said. “They might be fine for A-listers like you, but grunts like me get lost in the wash. I should have signed with a smaller operation right at the start when I had the chance. But the agency did such a number on me. Wining and dining me like I was going to be the next Johnny Bench or Pudge Rodriguez.”
“Well, you are a little pudgy,” Nate said with mock concern.
When Nick flipped him the bird, Nate laughed. “Just kidding, obviously. And you’re hardly a grunt, pal, if you’re the first string catcher on one of the best teams in baseball.”
“Yeah, I make your sorry ass look good every game.”
Nate’s smile faded into a thoughtful frown. “I agree that your former agent was a jerk, but he might be right in thinking that you’ll have to become a free agent to get that kind of money.” He stood and stripped off his red Patriots T-shirt. “An average of eight million a year would put you in the top five catchers, am I right?”
“You don’t think I rate that kind of spot in the rankings?” Nick had to work not to sound defensive. Nate’s apologetic grimace told him he’d been less than successful.
“As far as I’m concerned, hell yeah you do,” his friend replied. “You should be number one. But my opinion counts for dick all upstairs. And Dembinski’s still pissed that you got another suspension, and only two weeks into the season, too. You can bet he’s going to use that against you. He might even dare you to try your luck on the open market.”
That was exactly what Nick worried about too. In truth, he didn’t want to leave the Patriots and was ready to take a salary significantly less than what his statistics warranted. He could win the damn World Series this season with these guys, and having more money than he could spend had never meant that much to him. But what did mean a lot was having the respect of the organization’s ownership and management. And the only yardstick for measuring that respect was the amount of dollars they were willing to invest in you. Everything else was just hot air and bullshit.
“So, what’s your advice?” Nick asked, trying to throttle back his frustration.
“Just see how it goes today. If you’re not happy, you might want to think about getting a new agent.”
Nick blew out a sigh as he got up. Time to go face the barracuda. “After Arnie, I don’t know if I can trust any agent.”
“Find me after you’re done with Dembinski, okay?” Nate said as he reached into his locker. “I’ve got an idea about that if you’re interested.”
Nick doubted it, but he gave Nate a friendly nod anyway and headed off to do battle.
* * *
Dave Dembinski thumped down into the armchair directly opposite Nick. His opulent corner office and massive mahogany desk spoke of the kind of corporate power and wealth that characterized every major league baseball team today. But the general manager had forsaken the desk and its humongous gleaming surface and directed Nick to some comfortable chairs and couches set up along one windowless wall.
No pens or pads of paper were anywhere in sight on the low table that separated the two men—just a bottle of Glenmorangie, a pair of cut crystal glasses, a liter of Dasani, tongs, and a bucket of ice. The GM obviously thought the meeting needed lubrication of the Scottish variety. It was only eleven-thirty, but Nick wasn’t about to say no.
“Drink?” Dembinski asked, raising an eyebrow.
As usual, the guy was turned out in a three-piece suit that looked freshly pressed and insanely expensive. Nick preferred his Florida State T-shirt and Levi’s jeans to Dembinski’s dressed to impress—and intimidate—style. He had to admit, though, that the boss man was thoughtful to have his favorite Scotch on hand. Then again, it had probably been Tammy, the GM’s super-efficient and kind secretary, who’d come up with the welcoming gesture.
“Armchairs and Scotch?” Nick said. “I figured we’d be sitting on opposite sides of that big table in the boardroom down the hall.” That was the way Dembinski usually played negotiations.
“I’m hoping we can just talk man-to-man this time, Nick. Make this a bullshit-free zone for the morning.” Dembinski uncapped the Scotch and poured a couple of fingers into a glass. “Besides, this is just a preliminary chat. Rocks? Water?”
“Neat.” Again, it was a little early for Nick’s taste, but he didn’t want to rebuff his boss just starting out. “I don’t recall you ever bringing out the good stuff for Arnie.”
The GM plucked a couple of ice cubes from the bucket. “Fuck Arnie. In fact, fuck that whole damn agency. You were smart to dump them.” He sloshed Scotch over the rocks and took a quick drink, then gave Nick a smile he didn’t trust for an instant. “This stays in the room, of course, but I’ve always figured AISG does their guys more harm than good. And they sure do baseball a lot more harm than good.”
Dembinski’s vitriolic attitude toward the American International Sports Group wasn’t surprising. A lot of general managers and team owners hated their guts. And, according to gossip, the GM had also developed a massive hard-on for Arnie Peluso after Arnie convinced an All-Star pitcher to opt for free agency instead of signing the lucrative contract Dembinski had gone out on a limb to persuade his team owners to tender. It sure hadn’t helped Nick that Arnie had been his agent, too.
“Really? How so?” he asked in a neutral tone.
Dembinski crossed his legs and slumped against the back of the chair as if he was settling in for the long haul. “They don’t care about the individual player, Nick. They say they’ll die for their clients, but you know it’s all bullshit. All they give a damn about is sticking like crazy glue to their idea of the right salary pecking order. Numbers are all that matters—that and one-upping the other agencies by breaking new ground with the most lucrative, long-term deals. The intangibles mean dick all to those guys.”
Nick mentally nodded. That was the main reason he’d finally dumped Arnie and AISG. Arnie had royally pissed him off, too, and he didn’t mind hearing Dembinski expound on the subject. “What intangibles, specifically?”
Dembinski shrugged. “You know. The team. The city. The fit.” He shot Nick a hard look. “And loyalty, too.”
“Oh, you mean all the stuff that allows a team pay a guy less than he’s worth,” Nick replied sarcastically.
“Don’t be a such a smartass. Worth is relative. We both know that. A guy will often sign for a little less than a comparable player so he can stay with the team he loves, or because his wife and kids don’t want to move, or for any number of other good reasons. All I’m saying is that AISG would rather see a player get an extra few hundred grand even if it means he ends up miserable with a new team.”
“Well, that’s harsh of you, Dave,” Nick said. And also pretty accurate.
Dembinski snorted. “Yeah, right. So, let’s talk about you for a while.”
Nick raised his glass in a little salute. “That’s what I’m here for.”
“So, why did you fire Peluso?” Dembinski said. “But feel free to tell me to mind my own goddamn business.”
Nick knew it was a pro forma question. There were damn few secrets around baseball, and the GM would already have a pretty good idea why he’d parted ways with his agent. “Let’s just say I don’t disagree with a lot of what you said about AISG.”
That answer seemed to please Dembinski. “But why not hire another agent? Not many players want to negotiate their own contracts.”
Nick swallowed half the remaining Scotch and set the glass down before leaning forward to rest his forearms on his thighs. “Getting another agent would take time, and I’d just as soon get this donkey dance over with right now. One way or the other.”
“I hate protracted negotiations. I’d rather you just give me your best offer and let me decide yes or no. Quick and easy. If it’s no, we’re done. I’ll play out the season and then enter the free agent market.”
Dembinski held up his hands. “Slow down, okay? I’m not about to hand you a take it or leave it offer.”
As far as Nick was concerned, they’d already wasted too much time in previous meetings that had gone nowhere. “The offer you gave us last time we met sure as hell isn’t going to cut it. You really think I should be the twelfth highest paid catcher in the league? When my stats rank me fifth overall? Now, that’s bullshit.”
Dembinski pulled his burly form up straight. “Okay, you might be fifth overall, if I buy into AISG’s voodoo methodology, which I don’t. But your offensive numbers rank thirteenth, pal. Your defensive stats are still solid, but the bat isn’t quite what it once was, is it?”
Nick forced himself to stay cool, which took some effort. Dembinski was making it sound like he was nearly over the hill at thirty-three. Hell, he figured he might have another seven or eight years left in him if his knees held up. Not as a catcher, of course, but as a DH down the road. And damn right his defense was still great—number two in the league.
As for his bat, it was just fine. His production had suffered last year because of one horrendous, six-week long slump last that had dragged down his output. He had to believe a slump like that was unlikely to happen again.
He hoped so, anyway.
He leaned back and studied his GM. Dembinski was a master of bullshit games, and Nick wasn’t going to let himself be drawn into making an impulsive mistake. He’d already done too much of that in his career, and in his life.
“I appreciate the drink and the chat, Dave, but do you think you might give me a number so we can move things along? Arnie might have liked to shoot the shit with you all afternoon, but I’d rather spend my time in the weight room if it’s all the same to you.”
Dembinski’s toothy smile didn’t reach his eyes. “You’re already the strongest guy on the team. How much more can you bulk up?”
Nick shrugged. “Give me a number, Dave. And start with a four-year extension, because I’m not signing for anything shorter. I’ll walk first. You can take that to the bank.”
At their last meeting, Dembinski had offered Nick a three-year contract extension at an average salary of 4.5 million dollars. It was more than he’d ever made but considerably less than what he should be worth in today’s market.
“You’d walk from a team that’s favored to win the pennant this year?” Dembinski said. “Maybe you and Peluso are soulmates after all.”
“I might give up an arm for a World Series ring,” Nick shot back, “but this is about respect.” He wasn’t about to undercut the players’ union, either. If he settled for a salary below market value, it would hurt every other guy in the league, especially his fellow catchers.
Dembinski waved a dismissive hand. “Yeah, well, the Patriots organization respects you, Nick. Weren’t we the ones to give you another chance when nobody else was prepared to put up with your antics?”
Now, that pissed him off, even though his boss wasn’t totally off. Three seasons ago, Nick had found only tepid interest when he entered the free agent market. Too many suspensions and a nagging knee injury had eroded his value. And after he bumped the home plate umpire in a crucial, stretch-run game, his reputation as a passionate player had morphed into that of a hothead. He’d been trying to rehabilitate his image ever since, with mixed success, he was sorry to say.
Still, it wouldn’t do to show weakness—or that Dembinski could get to him. “That’s crap, and you know it,” he said in a genial tone. “Now, are you going to make an offer or not?”
Dembinski pulled a pen out of his jacket pocket, picked up a cocktail napkin from the drinks tray and jotted down some figures.
Nick laughed. “On the back of a napkin? Really?”
The GM handed him the small white square.
He stared at the numbers and tried not to let his expression reflect the sick feeling in his gut. “This is just peanuts more than your last offer, and you’re still stuck on only three years.”
Dembinski gave him a shrug. “You’re a hell of an asset to this team, Nick, but you still haven’t learned to fully harness all that fire inside you when you’re on the field. Until that happens, I’m not sure anybody’s going to give you a better offer than that.”
As much as he wanted to belt the smug bastard, doing that would just prove there was truth to what Dembinski had said—that Nick Rome couldn’t keep his fiery temper under control when it counted.
Maybe he had screwed up by coming in here alone. Dembinski was one of the most seasoned negotiators in baseball, a professional manipulator who could read an opponent like a supermarket paperback. Against a guy like that, Nick’s only weapon was to keep saying no, and that could only take him so far.
He crumpled the napkin and tossed it onto the tray before standing up. “Thanks for the drink.”
Dembinski stood, too. “My door is always open, Nick.” He stuck out his hand. “Have a great game tomorrow.”
“Count on it,” Nick replied before he stalked from the room.
Kate Berlin had taken an instant dislike to Jonathan Clay when they first met in his firm’s New York’s office last year. The fortyish corporate lawyer hadn’t even pretended he wasn’t checking her out, practically stripping her naked with his gaze. He’d then asked her if she’d like to discuss her client’s endorsement contract over dinner rather than in the office. She’d declined, saying that she had to get back to Philadelphia to pick up her six-year-old son from his afterschool program. That wasn’t strictly true, since her mother would be happy to fetch Dylan and take him home. But starting the meeting off by turning Clay down flat would have done Cara Prosser, Kate’s client, no good.
Kate had no hard and fast rule against informal negotiations, but not when the obvious intent of the dinner meeting was to screw more than her client. Fortunately, she’d managed Clay well enough to walk away with a sweet, six-figure endorsement deal for her client.
Today, however, was a different story. The good part was that Clay was no longer hitting on her. The bad part was that Cara’s endorsement value had slipped in her first year as a clotheshorse for the Purple Max clothing company. Dropping from fourteenth to thirty-ninth place on the LPGA money list tended to do that to a golfer. The biggest reason for Cara’s fall from grace had been boyfriend troubles, which drove Kate crazy. High-performance athletes couldn’t afford to sink into a playing funk every time they had a fight with their lovers. Kate had spent two days in Boca Raton in December talking to her young client about professionalism, career pressures, and love. Fortunately, Cara had taken at least part of the advice to heart since she opened the current season with improved results in her first three tournaments.
It was kind of ironic since Kate’s own love life resembled nothing so much as a train wreck.
Clay shoved a piece of paper across the table at her. “We’re happy to have Cara on board for another year, make no mistake about it. But we’re not prepared to go higher than this number.”
Kate glanced down at the figure, breathing a mental sigh. The figure suggested that Purple Max was dead serious about throttling back. Cara was already in the dumps about her challenges on the golf course, and taking a massive haircut on her biggest endorsement contract was going to rub a serious amount of salt in her wounds.
Still, Kate wasn’t ready to give up. “Seriously, Jonathan? What about Bella Raposo? She got almost double this figure from your number one competitor, and she finished two places lower on the money list.”
Clay didn’t bother to conceal a smirk. “Come on, Kate. You know this business isn’t just about golf scores. Raposo’s got over two hundred thousand followers on Twitter. How many does Cara have?”
Less than fifteen thousand, which he obviously knew. And then there was the unspoken message—Bella Raposo was a blond hottie with an outstanding rack. Cara’s looks, on the other hand, would charitably be described as ordinary, and she’d probably finish last in any wet T-shirt contest. The fact that she was a truly nice girl meant nothing at all to Clay or her sponsor.
“Come on, Jonathan, the market for your clothing line is women, not leering guys. Bella is appealing to a different audience, and you know it.”
Though that argument wasn’t likely to win her any points, she wanted to see if Clay might squirm a little.
Clay shrugged. “Who do you think women want to look like—Raposo or Prosser? You bring us a client like Bella and we’ll talk that kind of money. Meanwhile, you’d better hope Cara wins at least a tournament or two this year.”
Message received, loud and clear.
Kate pushed back in her chair, swinging around to look at the outstanding view of the city and glimpses of the East River in between the tall buildings. She knew what she was going to say but pretended to be thinking hard. Finally, she swung back around and rested her clasped hands on the table, locking her gaze on the lawyer.
“I’m sorry, but Cara won’t buy this, Jonathan. It’s not going to happen. We have to come up with something more.”
Cara is going to fire my ass if I walk out of here with no contract at all.
Clay snorted. “Something more? Like free shirts for her aunts, uncles, and cousins?”
She gave him a narrow-eyed stare before responding. “I was thinking along the lines of a performance incentive.”
He returned her narrowed stare. “Go on.”
Kate flipped over the paper Clay had written on and jotted down some numbers before passing it back across the table. “I’ll recommend that Cara accept your guaranteed offer—the one your wrote on the other side of that sheet—if Purple Max adds an incentive bonus that doubles the payout if Cara either wins at least two tournaments this season or finishes in the top ten on the LPGA money list.”
Clay stared at her for a moment and then made a note on the sheet in front of him. “Interesting concept, Kate.”
“You’ve got nothing to lose. If she doesn’t produce, you’re not out of pocket. If she does, then you’ll be paying less than what those results are worth.”
“Okay, let me get back to you on that,” the lawyer said. He stood up, shot his cuffs, and extended his hand.
Kate knew she had him. Clay was going to accept her deal—he just wanted to make it look like he had to think about it. She rose and shook his hand warmly. “Cara’s got her act together now, Jonathan, and her scores are starting to show it. When we sit down next year, you’re going to tell me this was the best bargain you ever made.”
“Always a pleasure to do business with you, Kate,” the lawyer said. Then he gave her a bold once-over, as if to make it clear that he was still firmly in control.
Or maybe he’s just a sexist jerk. They were a dime a dozen in the sports world, a fact Kate had resigned herself to a long time ago.
Resisting the urge to smack the leer off his face, she smiled politely and left the room.