Jude had felt the phone vibrate in his pocket while he was in the meeting with his boss, but he’d had to ignore it. He was in some kind of sports agent purgatory – no longer Zero’s main guy, not quite a junior agent anymore – and so he had to be especially on the ball so he could make up ground and prove he was still a useful member of the agency.
Jude withdrew the cell now as he walked back to his office and checked the screen; a missed call and a voice mail as well as a text. Jude huffed when he saw that the missed call was from Zero. He opened the text, which was also from Zero. The message merely said 911.
Jude shook his head in aggravation and wondered what Zero had gotten himself into now from which he needed Jude’s help extricating himself. Still, there was a twinge of concern that Jude almost hated himself for feeling. Zero was a grown man who could handle his own shit. Besides, it was probably just something orchestrated by Zero to suck Jude back in.
Jude dialed his voice mail, prepared to erase the message without listening to it, but he hesitated when he heard Zero’s voice and he ended up listening to the message all the way through. Zero sounded a little bit rattled, but not as bad as that night when he’d learned that Jelena had betrayed him and he’d lost the reputation he’d worked so hard to build, even if it had been built on lies. When he was prompted, Jude listened to the message again, and then disconnected the call without deleting the message.
The entire drive out to Zero’s condo, Jude berated himself for being all kinds of a fool to be drawn into whatever drama Zero was involved in now, even when he stood on the doorstep outside Zero’s front door, but he couldn’t help himself. Jude had his keys in his hand still and was sorting through them for the one to Zero’s condo when he realized what he was doing.
Right then Jude considered leaving, and he got down two steps before the sound of Zero’s voice when he’d left the message stopped him. Hey, Jude. I know you’re not talking to me, or whatever, but I need your help. It’s . . . well, you’ll see when you get here. I . . . please.
Jude thought it was the ‘please’ that did it. Or maybe the way Zero had tried (and failed) to sound unaffected by the fact that Jude wasn’t talking to him. Or maybe it was the fact that the sound of Zero’s voice reminded Jude how much he missed him.
Angry with himself, at his own inability to let it go, Jude stomped back up the steps and knocked on the door harder than necessary, then pushed the doorbell for good measure. A few moments later, the door was pulled open to reveal a harried, but otherwise calm, Zero.
Jude didn’t know what to think about that.
“Jude,” Zero said, as if he hadn’t expected to find Jude standing on his doorstep.
Before either of them could speak, there was a sound from further inside the condo that made Zero glance over his shoulder. “I shouldn’t leave her alone too long. Come in, please.” Zero was moving away from the door already, tossing, “Thank you for coming,” over his shoulder.
Jude couldn’t stop the eye roll even as he stepped into the condo and shut the door behind him. Of course there was a woman involved in whatever mess Zero found himself in now. Jude tried to school his expression to not give away his feelings as he followed Zero. Even so, when he stepped into the kitchen behind Zero, Jude couldn’t hold back the gasp of surprise. “What’s that?” Jude said.
Zero raised an eyebrow. “It’s a baby, Jude.”
Jude gave an exasperated sigh. “I can see that it’s a baby,” he said. “What’s she doing here?”
Zero’s lips tightened as he handed Jude a piece of paper that had been sitting on the island beside the carrier the baby was strapped into, but he smiled when he turned to the baby. “Oh, sure,” he said to her as he placed the bottle he’d set aside back to her mouth, “you’re all smiles now that Jude’s here.”
It was Jude’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “I’m sure the bottle has nothing to do with it.”
The baby gurgled and chewed on the nipple in response.
Zero took the bottle away from her, which made her fuss a little bit even though she hadn’t been sucking on it. He tossed a towel over his shoulder and began to unbuckle her. Jude saw that there were already wet yellow stains on the towel, and a matching one on the white undershirt Zero wore. Which was when Jude realized that Zero was only wearing an undershirt and a pair of boxers.
“She was on my doorstep this morning,” Zero said when Jude mentioned it. “I haven’t had a chance to get dressed.”
Jude had to look away when Zero lifted the baby out of the carrier and laid her over his shoulder. His gaze fell on the paper he held, and so he read it.
I can’t do this anymore. I know you’ll take care of her. Her name is Emily. She has your eyes and your hair. Sally.
Jude looked at the baby who was chewing her fist and ignoring the pats on her back that were supposed to help her burp. She had blue eyes, and the hair that had come in was blonde with a hint of curl. When Jude pulled his eyes away from her, he met Zero’s gaze.
Jude looked away, saw the letter again, and fell back on business. “Is she yours?”
“No clue,” Zero said. The words came out light, but there was a twitch in the corner of his jaw.
“Do you know this Sally?”
“I don’t remember a Sally,” Zero said. “But that doesn’t mean anything. I spent a lot of time not learning anyone’s name.”
“What do you want me to do?” Jude said, clenching his fingers into the paper so he didn’t reach out and touch the baby’s . . . Emily’s head.
“I want you to help me figure out what I should do,” Zero said.
Jude pulled a stool away from the island and fell into it. “No you don’t,” he said, breathless at the realization. “You’ve already decided to keep her.”
“I can’t keep her,” Zero said, but it sounded weak.
Jude felt like he’d been hit in the chest by a 2x4. He dropped the note back onto the island and reached up to rub the ache between his ribs. “You want to keep her.”
Zero gave Jude a look and scoffed, “I can’t take care of a baby, Jude.”
“You look like you’re doing just fine,” Jude observed.
“I vaguely remember how to heat a bottle, and that a baby needs to be burped or it’ll cry all night, that doesn’t make me capable of taking care of a baby.”
Jude watched the look of pride cross Zero’s face when Emily finally belched.
“Good girl,” Zero said approvingly. He brought her down and cradled her in the crook of one arm as he reached for the bottle with the other hand. Jude waited until Emily was happily suckling at the bottle before he spoke again.
“If you’re not going to keep her, we should call Social Services.”
Zero went tense, then forced himself to relax when Emily sensed it and raised worried eyes to his face. “It’s fine,” Zero said. “You’re alright.” When Emily was suckling again, Zero raised his eyes to Jude and narrowed them. “They’ll put her in the system.”
“Yes,” Jude agreed. “Is that the only reason you want to keep her?”
Zero didn’t answer right away. He looked down at Emily. “I never thought I’d have a kid.” He huffed and gave Jude a look. “It wasn’t in The Plan.”
Jude couldn’t stand it anymore. He slid off the stool and cupped Zero’s face and kissed him. Zero looked surprised when Jude released him and stepped back, leaning against the stool for support more than sitting on it.
“You kiss me now?” Zero said, indicating Emily.
“Safer that way,” Jude said, breathless.
“Safer for who?”
“For me,” Jude admitted.
Zero removed the empty bottle from Emily’s mouth and put her against his shoulder again.
“Do you want to have a paternity test?”
“No,” Zero said immediately. “If I don’t have a legal claim to her, they can take her away.” He indicated the note. “If we take her word for it, I have the right to keep her.”
Jude reached out and laid a hand over Zero’s. “What if she comes back in six months, or a year, and says it was all a lie, that she just didn’t have anyone else to leave Emily with?”
“So she chose a guy who was recently involved in a prostitution scandal?” Zero said. He lowered his eyes to Emily. “Doesn’t matter, she needs me now.”
“Did you ask me to come over here to talk you out of it, or to support you?”
“I asked you over to be the voice of reason,” Zero said.
“You’d already made up your mind,” Jude pushed.
“You think it’s stupid.”
“Wild,” Jude said. “Crazy, even, but not stupid.”
Zero raised hopeful eyes to Jude. “You think I can do it?”
“I think you can do anything you set your mind to,” Jude said.
“Couldn’t keep you,” Zero said.
Jude’s throat closed up and he could barely get the words out. “We wanted different things, that’s not your fault.”
“Wanted you,” Zero said.
Jude huffed. “Wanting each other was never the problem.”
Zero nodded, then lowered his gaze to Emily so he wasn’t looking at Jude when he said, “I can’t do it alone.”
Jude’s heart raced and he swallowed hard. He didn’t know if he could do what Zero was asking him to do. Being around him, watching him gently hold Emily, when they were still miles apart on what they wanted out of their relationship, would be too hard. Watching Zero have to give Emily up when Sally inevitably came back for her would be even harder.
Not being there, wondering what Zero was doing, how he was doing, would be the hardest of all. Jude took off his suit jacket and hung it over the back of the stool.
Zero raised his head. “What are you doing?”
Jude held out his arms. “Holding Emily while you take a shower.”
“She hasn’t burped yet,” Zero said without relinquishing her.
“I can pat her back,” Jude said, willing his hands to not shake, because he hadn’t held a baby since he was twelve and his best friend Billy’s older sister got pregnant.
“That’s not . . . . She might spit up on your shirt,” Zero argued.
“I’m sure the dry cleaner will be able to get it out if she does,” Jude said, though he couldn’t hide the twitch at the corner of his eye at the thought of ruining a new shirt.
Zero saw it and laughed softly. “You could always take your shirt off so you don’t ruin it,” he suggested with a gleam in his eyes.
Jude frowned. “Stop trying to get me out of my clothes and hand over the baby.”
Zero got a clean towel for Jude to drape over his shoulder, then carefully set Emily in his arms. While Jude was focused on not dropping Emily, or letting her head fall, Zero leaned in and gave him a kiss.
“Thanks for coming,” Zero said again before Jude could protest the kiss. “You’re the only person I could think of, the only one I’d trust with . . .” Jude heard the unspoken, Me. “. . . this.”
Zero was gone before Jude could corral the butterflies in his stomach enough to formulate a response. Emily kicked her feet as if she knew Jude had been distracted, and he rubbed her back.
Jude couldn’t sit still, so he paced the kitchen as he rubbed and patted Emily’s back. This was such a bad idea. He was already in too deep, and it was only going to get worse. Jude stopped at the end of the island where Zero had his laptop set up. He read the lines scribbled on the pad of paper in Zero’s terrible handwriting – it was notes on how to care for a newborn.
Jesus, Jude thought. Zero was really going to do this.
Emily burped so loudly that Jude was afraid to look. He breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled Emily away from his shoulder and saw just a tiny spot of spit up on the towel. “Good girl,” Jude said as he settled Emily back in the carrier. He wiped her mouth with the towel, and then gave her what looked like a set of plastic keys to play with. She closed her tiny fingers around the ring and immediately stuck a key in her mouth.
Jude buckled Emily into the car seat and then sat on the stool near the laptop. He slid over the pad of paper and flipped back. Zero had started making a list of things he’d need, from diapers and formula to clothes and a crib.
Zero appeared while Jude was still staring at the list in a state of shock. He went straight for Emily, tickling her and letting her squeeze his finger, which gave Jude too much time to let his eyes wander. Zero had taken the time to gel his hair, but he’d just combed it back without taking the time to style it. He’d put on a pair of jeans and a soft cotton Henley and he looked so touchable.
Jude shook himself out of his reverie when Zero glanced over and noted the pad in Jude’s hand. Instead of apologizing, Jude said, “What did she come with?”
“Whatever’s in that bag,” Zero said, indicating the diaper bag with a tilt of his chin.
Jude got the bag, which was sitting in the basket of a stroller, and emptied it, though he was certain Zero had done the same already. There was some formula, a couple changes of clothes, diapers and wipes, and a few toys. Jude didn’t know how often Emily ate, or pooped, but he doubted any of the supplies would last too long.
“First order of business, diapers and formula?” Jude said, looking to Zero for his response.
Zero was staring intently at Jude, but he glanced away, focusing on Emily when Jude caught him. “Sounds good,” Zero said. “This is why I needed you, your organizational skill,” he added lightly.
Jude raised his eyebrows and indicated the pad. “Looks like you were doing fine without me.”
“Is that what it looks like?” Zero said quietly, almost too softly for Jude to hear.
Jude thought about ignoring it, but for his own peace of mind he couldn’t. “This isn’t about us,” he said. “It can’t be. This is about her.”
“I got it, Jude,” Zero said, almost bitterly. “It’s just business.”
“That’s not . . . I didn’t . . . Whatever,” Jude said. He walked around Zero and grabbed his suit jacket off the back of the stool. “I’ll be back.” Jude didn’t wait around to see what Zero would say or do.
Zero opened the front door as Jude walked up the walkway with a bag of formula in one hand and a bag of diapers under the other arm. Zero wasn’t looking at Jude, but at the silver Lincoln MKZ parked in the driveway.
“Did you trade in your Porsche?”
“It’s a rental,” Jude said, ignoring the tone of Zero’s voice when he’d thought Jude had gotten rid of the Porsche. “We’ll need a vehicle that’s capable of holding a car seat.”
Zero’s expression cleared and he gave Jude a teasing smile. “We?”
“Are you going to let me in?” Jude said, instead of reacting to the teasing.
Zero snagged the bag out of Jude’s hand and stepped back. “She’s asleep,” Zero said as he gave the reusable canvas bag a look.
They carried the purchases to the kitchen. Jude glanced at Emily, asleep in the carrier, as he set the box of diapers on the floor. She was wearing a new pair of pajamas. Jude gave Zero a questioning look.
“Diaper mishap,” Zero said, matter-of-fact, though with a slight wrinkle of his nose. “Wish you’d been here for that.”
Jude wasn’t terribly upset that he’d missed it. “Okay, she’s not gonna go hungry or lack for anything to catch it coming out the other end, so what next?”
“Clothes,” Zero said immediately. “The way she’s going through them with spitting up or crapping through her diaper, I’ll be doing laundry every day to keep her in clean clothes.”
“Okay,” Jude said. “Did you want to do that yourself, or is it alright if I call on a female friend to help?”
“Lionel?” Zero guessed.
“And while she’s picking up a few things, we can talk about what you want to tell everyone.”
“Why do I have to tell anyone anything?” Zero said.
Jude gave Zero a look. “Unless you plan on staying here with her and never leaving, at some point, someone is going to see you with a baby and start asking questions.”
Zero sighed. “I know, but . . . .”
“It’s complicated,” Jude said.
Zero huffed. “Yeah.”
“We should probably bring Lucas in on this,” Jude suggested.
“No!” Zero said immediately.
Jude was surprised by the vehemence of it. “Why not?”
“Because that would make it, I don’t know, official or something, and too many people would be involved in making decisions for her, for me. I don’t want that.”
Jude studied Zero, as if he could determine just by looking at him whether Zero was telling the truth. He was, Jude decided, but maybe not the whole truth. He nodded. “Okay. But they’re going to have to be told at some point. Sooner rather than later. Because if she’s here longer than a few days, you’re going to have to start thinking about things like child care and doctors appointments.”
Zero gave his reluctant agreement.
“Alright,” Jude said. “You think; I’m going to call Lionel.”
Jude walked out of the kitchen as he found Lionel’s information in his contacts.
“Jude,” Lionel said when she answered the call. “I was beginning to think you’d fallen off the face of the earth.”
During the off-season, Jude didn’t have the excuse of Derek and Zero to bring him to the Arena, even if Zero had still been his client. Now that Lionel was heavily involved with Devils’ business, Jude hadn’t seen her very often.
“Sorry,” Jude said. “How are you doing?” he forced himself to ask.
“In my new position, or in general?” Lionel said.
“I’m doing well,” Lionel said. “Brain overload from learning Running a Basketball Team 101, but other than that, well. Which you’d know if you weren’t finding excuses to stay away.”
“I’m not finding excuses to stay away,” Jude said. “It’s the off-season, and you’re not negotiating contracts with either Derek or Zero, so I don’t have an excuse to stop by,” he explained.
“You don’t need an excuse to come see me, Jude,” Lionel said.
Jude sighed. “I know, I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” Lionel said briskly. “Now tell me what you called for.”
Jude winced. “I need a favor.”
“I’m shocked,” Lionel said, not sounding the least bit shocked.
“I need you to do some clothes shopping for me.”
Jude could sense Lionel perking up. “Really? What’s the occasion?”
“The clothes aren’t for me,” Jude corrected quickly. “I just need you to do the sopping on my behalf.”
“You want me to pick out clothes for someone else? A gift? That’s tacky, Jude.”
“No,” Jude said. “Baby clothes.”
The silence that fell after that pronouncement was so heavy Jude could feel it pressing down on him.
“Why do you need baby clothes, Jude?” Lionel said, her voice tight.
“They’re not for me . . . .”
“Someone dropped a baby off on Zero’s doorstep,” Jude said.
“I feel like I just stepped into a Lifetime movie,” Lionel said, her voice sounding slightly more normal.
Jude huffed. “You have no idea.”
“What do you need?”
“Everything, I guess,” Jude said. “I don’t really know what all a baby needs. She’s got a couple of those onesie things, and a couple changes of pajamas, so maybe enough for a week?”
“We don’t know how old she is, but the tags in the clothes she’s wearing now say 3-6 months,” Jude said.
“Okay, leave it to me,” Lionel said purposefully.
“Thank you, Lionel.” Jude gave her directions to Zero’s place, but before they disconnected, Lionel spoke again.
“What are you doing there, Jude? You’re not Zero’s agent anymore.”
“I’m not here for the agency,” Jude said. “I’m here for Zero. As a friend.”
When Jude disconnected the call and turned around, Zero was standing there. “How’d it go?” he said, giving no indication that he’d overheard any of the conversation.
“Good,” Jude said. “She’s gonna do it. I told her to get enough for a week. We . . . .” Jude shook his head. “You should be able to keep up with the laundry that way, at least.”
“Thank you,” Zero said.
“For calling Lionel?”
“For everything. This can’t be easy for you.”
“Helping you take care of your love child?” Jude said, trying to keep his voice light.
“She’s not my ‘love child’,” Zero said.
“Yeah, it’s kind of awkward,” Jude admitted, ignoring Zero’s comment.
They were silent for a moment, and Jude searched for something to say. “You should get some rest,” he finally said.
Zero raised his eyebrows. “Why?”
“Isn’t that what they say?” Jude said. “That you should sleep while the baby sleeps because you won’t get much rest otherwise?”
Zero’s eyes went wide. “Does she even sleep through the night yet?”
“I guess you’ll find out.”
“I . . . You can’t leave me alone with her,” Zero said.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Jude said.
“You’re sure it’ll be fine?” Zero repeated.
“You want to keep her,” Jude said with little sympathy. “This is part of it.”
“If I’d thought about it, which I haven’t, I’d have thought there’d be a chance to break in slowly, or . . . .”
“Or that you’d have someone to do the heavy lifting of caring for a baby?” Jude said dryly.
“That I’d have help,” Zero said, looking beseechingly at Jude.
“No,” Jude said, because it was too much to expect him to spend more time with Zero and Emily than he absolutely had to.
Zero tilted his head and gave Jude what could be described as puppy dog eyes. Before Jude had to force another refusal through his lips, Emily woke up with an angry cry. Zero hurried for the kitchen, and Jude followed him.
“Hey, Emmy girl, what’s wrong?” Zero said.
Emily’s cries quieted when she heard Zero’s voice, and went silent when she saw him.
“Are you hungry?” Zero said as he unbuckled her. “Oh my,” Zero continued in that same tone. “I think I know what your problem is.”
A moment later the smell of soiled diaper reached Jude and he wrinkled his nose. He watched, transfixed, as Zero gently laid Emily down on the bath towel he’d folded on the island to create a makeshift changing pad. Zero gave Emily a toy to keep her busy while he unsnapped the legs of her pajamas.
Zero continued to talk to Emily as he changed her, saying things like, “I’m going to have to take the trash out more often, aren’t I?” in a tone that made her burble and grin.
Jude watched as Zero carefully and gently wiped Emily down and disposed of the soiled diaper and wipes before replacing the diaper with a clean one. He kept one hand on her belly to keep her from rolling away, and tickled her foot when her flailing feet kicked him in the stomach. Zero snapped the onesie closed and then snapped Emily’s legs back into the pajamas, and Jude felt his heart lurch as he watched Zero’s strong, capable hands handle Emily so gently. He thought it might be too late to escape unscathed, but before Jude had time to dwell on it, Zero plopped Emily into his arms and said, “Hold her while I heat up the bottle.”
Jude narrowed his eyes at Zero, because Jude knew what he was doing. Zero could’ve set Emily back in the carrier instead of handing her to Jude. Jude ignored the fact that he also could’ve set her in the car seat instead of tucking her into the crook of his arm and walking around the kitchen with her, bouncing her a little bit as he jingled the set of plastic keys in front of her face.
Emily was only distracted by the keys for a short time before her empty stomach took precedence. “How’s that bottle coming?” Jude said over the sound of her unhappy wails.
“It’s coming,” Zero said, sounding just as rattled by Emily’s cries as Jude was, but he managed to give Jude a smile over his shoulder.
“What?” Jude said.
“I’ve seen you negotiate million dollar endorsement contracts without getting rattled.”
“That was easy,” Jude said as he watched Zero shake the bottle to distribute the hot formula evenly, and then test it on the inside of his wrist.
Jude absently relinquished the keys when Zero plucked them out of his fingers, then found himself holding the bottle. “What . . . ?”
Emily didn’t care who held the bottle and her wails increased at having it so close. Jude popped the nipple between her lips and Emily let out a few more cries before sucking on it and making a contented sound.
“It’s easier if you sit down,” Zero said. He indicated a stool at the island.
Jude gave Zero a look to let him know he knew he was being played, but he sat on the stool. It did help because the arm of the stool was the perfect height to rest his arm on so he could keep Emily propped up. Who knew that babies got so heavy?
Emily sucked on the nipple as if she hadn’t been fed for days instead of hours, and she protested loudly when Jude pulled the nipple out of her mouth so he could check how much she’d drank. Zero raised his eyebrows.
“I read some of your notes,” Jude said, and Zero shot an almost embarrassed look at the laptop and pad of paper. “It’s good that you want to be prepared.”
“Yeah, well, don’t make a thing out of it,” Zero said.
Jude ducked his head to hide his smile, but if anyone asked, he was smiling at Emily.
Jude’s phone buzzed and Zero helpfully withdrew it from Jude’s pocket. He thumbed the screen and showed it to Jude; it was a text message from Lionel.
“Go ahead and open it,” Jude said.
Zero opened the message and rolled his eyes, then smiled as he read it.
“What?” Jude said.
“Lionel wants a photo of Emily so she doesn’t get anything that clashes with her coloring.”
“Seriously?” Jude said as he watched Zero play with his phone. “What are you doing?”
“I’m gonna take a picture of Emily,” Zero said.
“You’d get a better photo if she was in her seat,”Jude protested.
“No, this is fine,” Zero said. He took one photo, then changed the angle of the phone to take a second.
Jude looked back down at Emily, who was digging her little nails into his finger as if she could keep him from pulling the bottle away again. He glanced up when Zero was quiet for too long and saw him staring at the phone with a weird expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Zero said, shaking his head a little bit. “Just checking out the pictures.” He turned the phone so Jude could see the photo; it was of both him and Emily. Jude’s head was bent towards Emily because she’d just flailed her tiny fist into his chest and he’d glanced down just as Zero snapped the photo.
Zero pulled the phone back and scrolled to the close-up of Emily and showed it to Jude. Zero covered Jude’s shoulder with a towel and then sat at the island with Jude’s phone.
“Now what are you doing?” Jude said as he extracted the nipple from Emily’s mouth and got her on his shoulder despite her vocal complaints.
“Sending the picture to Lionel,” Zero said.
Jude was drowsing on the sofa when the doorbell rang. He opened his eyes a slit and watched as Zero popped up from the chair where he’d also fallen asleep. Zero cast an eye towards Emily, who they’d moved to the living room with them, and then hurried to the door before whoever was there could ring again and wake her.
Jude stretched and scrubbed his hands over his face. He also glanced at Emily, who was still sleeping peacefully, and then raised his eyes to the television. They’d put it on low for background noise, and Jude couldn’t tell whether the same movie was playing or not.
“That picture was so adorable it was sickening,” Lionel said as she bustled into the living room ahead of Zero. She was carrying two large bags, and Jude was relieved that she hadn’t gone overboard until he saw that Zero carried two more. Zero held them up and grimaced at Jude.
Lionel dropped her packages on the couch beside Jude, and then bent over the carrier and studied Emily. “She really is adorable.”
Lionel laid out her purchases, and Jude was really glad they’d sent her, and not just because Emily was going to be the best-dressed baby in L.A. Lionel had picked up things Jude wasn’t sure he’d have thought of, like soft blankets and a cute sweater, bibs, socks, and the tiniest sneakers Jude had ever seen.
“This is fantastic,” Jude said.
“Of course it is,” Lionel said, then smiled.
“Yes, thank you, Lionel,” Zero said.
Lionel looked at Zero for a long moment before she said, “You’re welcome,” and brushed it off with, “Have to keep one of my star players happy, don’t I?”
“Baby clothes is better than coke,” Jude joked, and then froze when Zero and Lionel both looked at him and he realized what he’d said. “I mean, hypothetically, of course,” Jude said, totally unconvincingly.
Emily took that moment to grunt in her sleep and draw all their gazes. After a couple more grunts, Zero said, “Crap,” which made Jude have to stifle a snort of laughter.
Zero narrowed his eyes at Jude. “Laugh it up, chuckles. This next diaper is yours.”
“No,” Jude said immediately.
“Fair is fair,” Zero said as he headed for the kitchen.
“How is that fair?” Jude said, unable to raise his voice to make sure Zero heard the disbelief in his tone because he didn’t want to wake Emily. “She’s not my baby,” Jude finished, his gaze going back to rest on Emily.
“You make a good point,” Lionel said.
“What?” Jude said absently, because he was captivated by the sight of Emily slowly waking up.
“She’s not your baby,” Lionel said in a deceptively casual tone.
Jude glanced at Lionel. “I know that?”
“And yet, here you are.”
“Zero needed help,” Jude said.
“You’re not his agent,” Lionel said.
“He didn’t want his agent,” Jude said, “he wanted a friend.”
“Is that what you two are, friends? Because as I recall, you dumped him as a client.”
“I didn’t dump him as a client,” Jude said, and could’ve kissed Emily when she finally woke up. “I should get her out to the kitchen before she goes in to full-blown anger.” Jude grabbed up the carrier and hurried out of the living room.
Zero glanced over when Jude entered the kitchen, then continued his task. He screwed the nipple on the bottle, shook it to distribute the heated milk evenly, and then tested it on the inside of his wrist. Jude got Emily out of the carrier and carefully laid her on the towel spread out on the island, and tried really hard not to think about how much he wanted to lick the tender skin at the inside of Zero’s wrist.
Zero raised the bottle to Jude. “Which end do you want?”
Jude didn’t hesitate; he grabbed the bottle.
“Coward,” Zero teased softly.
Jude didn’t deny it. He waited until Zero was in position before moving around to the other side of the island. The island was large enough that Emily would have to work pretty hard to roll off, but Jude wasn’t taking any chances.
Emily was already voicing her displeasure at the dirty diaper and being hungry, so Jude quickly popped the nipple into her mouth. She was so busy being angry that Jude had to rub the nipple against her tongue to distract her. When she realized that food was at hand, Emily began suckling. She gave a sigh of contentment, and both Jude and Zero sighed in relief. They looked at each other and grinned.
Jude was still grinning when he glanced towards the doorway where Lionel stood watching them. Jude raised his eyebrows at her when he saw how intently Lionel was staring at them “You want to hold the bottle?” Jude said.
An indecipherable look crossed Lionel’s face, but then she gave Jude a smile that was half grimace and held up her hand in a warding gesture. “No, thank you, I can smell her well enough from over here.”
“Sissy,” Jude teased, and then grinned at the evil eye she sent his way.
“Look who’s talking,” Zero said, nose wrinkling as he made sure that Emily’s butt was wiped clean. “Huh?” Zero directed to Emily, who kicked her feet as she suckled.
Once Emily was in a clean diaper and snapped back into her pajamas, which had miraculously stayed clean, Zero disposed of the soiled diaper and wipes, then washed his hands before tossing a kitchen towel to Jude.
“You might want to lose the jacket,” Zero said, taking over holding the bottle so Jude could do that.
When Jude had the towel over his shoulder, Zero popped the nipple out of Emily’s mouth and checked the level of formula. Jude swooped Emily up before she could let out the wail he knew was forming, and settled her against his shoulder.
Jude rubbed and patted Emily’s back, glancing at Lionel because he thought it was safer than looking at Zero. She was giving Jude her ‘you’re so adorable’ look. “Do you want to hold her?”
“Oh, no,” Lionel said. “Not until she’s done doing whatever she’s gonna do there.”
Jude grinned at Lionel, then turned his gaze to Zero when he spoke. “Why don’t we move to the living room so Jude can sit down.” Zero started that way, and since he still held the bottle, Jude and Emily followed him, and Lionel came behind them.
“Let’s set out the play mat so she can play in it when she’s done eating,” Lionel said.
She made the suggestion in a casual tone, but Jude could tell that she was excited to see Emily play with whatever she’d bought her. “Good idea,” Jude said as he stood in the middle of the living room and bounced a little bit as he tried to get Emily to burp.
Lionel kicked off her heels and got down on her knees to pull the box out of the shopping bag. Zero went to the kitchen for scissors and sliced the tape holding the box shut. Lionel emptied the box and plucked the instructions out of the mess of quilted padding and plastic tubing.
Zero reached out and sorted the items. “What do you want me to do?” he asked Lionel.
“You’re going to put it together; I’m going to tell you how.”
“Sounds about right,” Zero said, and Jude had to hide a snort.
Not well enough, because he got a grin from Zero and a glare from Lionel. Luckily, Emily chose that moment to burp loud enough that Zero gave her an impressed look. Jude praised her and got her settled in the crook of his arm. He reached for the bottle Zero had left sitting on the coffee table and lowered himself onto the couch.
Emily suckled happily while Jude watched the two people he loved most in the world (aside from his mom), bicker over where to hang the nautical themed toys, and he didn’t even yell at himself for getting a little bit sappy over something he knew he didn’t get to keep.
When the play gym from some company named Baby Einstein was put together, Lionel and Zero stayed on the floor and watched Emily drink from the bottle as if it was the most interesting thing in the world. Jude had to admit that it might be, because even he could get lost in the happy gurgles that came from her throat, and the way she explored the world around her, from her own feet to Jude’s nose.
Zero waited until Emily had finished the bottle and burped before coming over to take her from Jude. Jude watched the gentle way Zero held Emily, and the way his face lit up when he looked at her. Jude couldn’t take his eyes off Zero as he told Emily about the toy ‘Auntie’ Lionel had bought her, and at the careful way he laid her on the quilted pad.
Jude watched Emily discover the rattle and the mirror, and watched Zero watching Emily. He glanced over to see what Lionel’s reaction was, but her gaze was on Jude. She tilted her head towards Zero, and then raised her eyebrow at Jude. As if she’d spoken the words aloud, Jude heard her say, “Really, Jude?”
Jude blushed and looked away, right into Zero’s smiling face. Despite Lionel watching, Jude couldn’t help smiling back.
“Well,” Lionel said after a few minutes of actually watching Emily play in the gym, “I need to get back to the office.” Lionel gracefully rose to her feet and straightened her skirt as she stepped into her heels.
“Thanks for picking up all this stuff for Emily,” Zero said. “Just leave the receipt and I’ll pay you back.”
“It was my pleasure,” Lionel said, and it wasn’t a lie, exactly, but Jude could tell that it wasn’t the whole truth.
Jude was still trying to figure it out when Lionel turned to him. “Can I give you a ride somewhere?”
Jude knew that Lionel was going to quiz him about Zero, but he needed to go pick up his car, so he gave in to the inevitable and rose from the couch. “Yeah, thanks.”
“Wait, what?” Zero said. “You’re leaving?”
“Um . . . .”
“You can’t leave me alone with her!” Zero said, going from his knees to his feet in a smooth move.
“You make it sound like she’s a serial killer,” Lionel said.
“Say that after you’ve been up close and personal with her diaper,” Zero said, pointing a finger at Lionel while keeping his eyes on Jude, as if he was afraid Jude would escape if Zero looked away. “What if she wakes up in the middle of the night?”
Jude didn’t have the heart to tell Zero that there was every probability that she would wake up sometime during the night. Probably more than once. He calmly said, “Then you change her and feed her just like you’ve been doing.”
“By myself?” Zero said.
“You’re doing fine,” Jude said.
“Because you’re here. You’re my back up.”
Jude sighed. He couldn’t tell Zero that it was too hard for him to watch Zero with Emily knowing that this was something he couldn’t have. Instead Jude said, “Fine, I’ll stay the night. Just tonight,” he clarified over Zero’s muted whoop so he didn’t startle Emily. “But I need to go pick up my car and get a change of clothes.”
“Alright,” Zero said. “Alright.” He got close enough to hug Jude, and Jude let himself be hugged. “Thank you.”
Jude swallowed hard, and very pointedly didn’t glance in Lionel’s direction as he patted Zero on the back and said, “You’re welcome.”
Jude got his suit jacket from the kitchen, said goodbye to Emily, who gurgled and shook the rattle at him, and then held the front door for Lionel to exit ahead of him. Zero walked them to the door and Jude could feel Zero’s gaze on him even after he’d gotten into Lionel’s car.
Lionel was silent until they were a block away from Zero’s condo. Jude was glad when she finally spoke because then he could stop waiting for it, like Damocles Sword.
“So,” Lionel said casually, and Jude tensed. “Zero’s your gay biker from Providence.”
Jude let out a soft breath, because it could’ve been worse. “He’s not gay,” Jude said, ignoring the rest of the comment.
Lionel raised an eyebrow and gave Jude a look that was very effective given the short duration she had to look at him before focusing back on the road.
“He’s bi, or whatever,” Jude said.
“Not the point,” Lionel said. “You and Zero?”
Jude shrugged and wiped a palm on his slacks. “Yeah?”
“A couple of months,” Jude said.
“So what happened?” Lionel said.
“We wanted different things,” Jude said evenly, ignoring the ache in his chest that had been his constant companion since breaking things off with Zero. It had been for the best, but sometimes it didn’t feel that way.
“But you’re still in love with him,” Lionel said.
“What makes you say that?” Jude said, because he couldn’t form the words, “No I’m not.”
“Really, Jude?” Lionel said. “First of all, you rushed over when he called, and second, I saw the way you looked at him.”
“I didn’t rush over,” Jude said.
Lionel laughed. “That’s it, that’s all you’ve got to say?”
“What do you want me to say, Lionel?” Jude said. “Yes, you’re right, I’m still in love with him, I think I always will be, and it’s killing me to see him with Emily when I know it’s something we can never have. Is that what you want me to say?”
“Oh, Jude,” Lionel said. She reached over and squeezed Jude’s hand. “This isn’t healthy.”
Jude snorted, but didn’t tell Lionel that was the understatement of the year.
“He cares about you, too,” Lionel said softly. “If it’s any consolation.”
“I think that makes it harder,” Jude said.
Jude made it back to Zero’s condo in about an hour and a half. He was glad he’d decided to use the key he still had on his key chain when he found Zero asleep on the couch with Emily asleep on his chest. It felt like his ribs were squeezing his heart, and Jude turned away before he could dwell on his reaction.
Jude headed for the master bedroom before he realized what he was doing. He deposited his duffel on the guest room bed instead, and hung his suit in the otherwise empty closet. Back in the kitchen, Jude set his briefcase on the island and started the coffee maker. He didn’t even want to know how many angry e-mails were waiting for him, and he was going to need caffeine to deal with them.
Jude got his computer powered up, and while it was connecting to Zero’s internet because he hadn’t changed the password from the last time Jude was there, Jude snuck back out to the living room. Zero hadn’t moved, and neither had Emily. Jude gave in to the temptation to take a picture of them, and then he escaped to the kitchen before he woke them.
Jude opened his gallery and looked at the photo, then scrolled back to the one Zero had taken of Jude holding Emily. Looking at it made Jude wonder what the hell he was doing. Every moment he spent with Zero was going to make leaving again that much harder.
Jude sent the photo of Zero and Emily to Lionel, and then let his finger hover over the delete button. Jude closed the gallery and stuffed the phone back in his pocket; he could always delete the photos later.
Jude read his e-mails and checked his revised schedule for tomorrow. He returned some e-mails and made a note of phone calls he needed to make. He was reviewing an endorsement contract when Zero padded into the kitchen, Emily still sleeping on his shoulder. His hair was mussed and his eyes were hooded and he looked to be still half asleep.
Zero raised his phone. “Why did Lionel send me a text that says ‘you’re so adorable’?”
Jude blushed. “Too much to drink?”
Zero narrowed his eyes at Jude, then turned the phone so Jude could see the screen. Lionel had also forwarded the photo Jude had sent her.
“Oh,” Jude said weakly. “Yeah. I might’ve sent her a picture of you and Emily sleeping.” Jude paused, then said, “Sorry if that woke you.”
“It didn’t,” Zero said. “Em’s been waking up for the last five minutes. I didn’t want to rush it, but then I realized she’s peed through her diaper.”
“How’d you realize that?”
Zero raised Emily’s lower half away from his body to reveal the wet spot on his t-shirt.
“Oh,” Jude said, biting his bottom lip so he didn’t laugh. “Do you want me to change her while you go change?”
“I’ll change her, and then I’ll go change while you’re feeding her. You wanna heat up a bottle?”
“Sure.” Jude mixed formula into distilled water and put the bottle in the microwave. “How were things, while I was gone?” Jude said when he had his back to Zero.
“Good,” Zero said. “Mostly. She was a little bit cranky. It’s been a rough day for you, hasn’t it?” he directed to Emily. “She wouldn’t fall asleep if I put her down, just cried. She was better once I found this stuffed bunny . . . Oh!” Zero said, a sound of surprised distress.
Jude had been listening to the sound of Zero’s voice while the bottle heated, but now he turned around quickly and hurried over to the island. Zero was holding the front of the diaper over Emily and looked like he didn’t know what had hit him.
“What happened?” Jude said, noticing the fresh wet spots across Zero’s stomach and forearms.
“I need another diaper,” Zero said, cautiously raising the other one and peeking around it.
Jude retrieved a fresh diaper. “Do you need a towel?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Jude grabbed a used burp cloth, and Zero used it to wipe off his hands and arms, and then used it on Emily. He withdrew the diaper and took the fresh one from Jude.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?”
“She peed on me,” Zero said, head down as he intently watched his fingers as he taped the diaper closed.
“She . . . what?”
“I’m not repeating it,” Zero said.
“No, I didn’t, I . . . she peed on you?”
Zero raised his head and glared at Jude. “She needs a clean onesie and pajamas.”
Jude gathered together the requested items and watched Zero peel Emily out of the wet clothes and replace them with dry. He turned away to retrieve the bottle from the microwave and smiled to himself when he heard Zero speak softly to Emily. “That wasn’t funny, Emmy.”
Emily gave a happy gurgle in response.
Jude fed Emily while he watched baseball, and Zero joined them after he’d changed into dry clothes. Emily played in the gym that Lionel had bought for her while Jude and Zero ate the takeout that Zero had ordered, and then they stretched out on the couch with full bellies, commenting quietly on the game once in a while. It felt comfortable and familiar, and Jude had to remind himself that it wasn’t the same.
Jude took his dish out to the kitchen and glanced at the laptop. He needed to finish reviewing the contract, and it was a good reason for him to stay in the kitchen away from Zero. Jude hadn’t gotten very far when Zero appeared with his own dishes.
“What are you doing?”
“Reviewing a contract,” Jude said without looking away from the screen.
“Who’s it for?” Zero said, overly casual, not really wanting to know who Jude was representing now. Which was no one, because he was back to being low man on the totem pole – no one had been thrilled that Jude had jumped ahead of the line when Zero made Jude his agent, and they were enjoying his apparent fall from grace.
“It’s an endorsement contract,” Jude said, “so I can’t tell you until it’s been signed, which should happen tomorrow.”
“You’re going in to work tomorrow?” Zero said, again with the too casual.
“Yes,” Jude said. When Zero didn’t say anything for a few minutes, Jude looked up from the screen. “I have to,” he said. “I missed over half a day today, I can’t just not go in.”
“No, I know,” Zero said, but Jude could tell that he hadn’t really known.
“You’ll be fine,” Jude said, a little more sharply than he’d meant to, because how could Zero think this, having Jude here while he played house, when Jude knew it wasn’t real, and that it would never be real, was a good idea?
“Yeah, of course,” Zero said, his expression going shuttered. “I’ll just leave you to it, then.”
Jude exhaled slowly. “Wait, Zero. I didn’t mean it like that.”
Jude paused to see if Zero would stop, or keep walking. When Zero stopped, and then glanced back at him, Jude continued. “You know this isn’t healthy. For either of us.”
Zero turned around then, and gave Jude a look. “Emily?”
“No, me. Us. Pretending that any of this is normal, or real.” Pretending that they were doing anything more than playing house, and that it wasn’t going to hurt Jude just as much to stay as it would to leave.
“It feels real,” Zero said.
Jude shook his head. “No, it feels like a dream. And I’m inevitably going to wake up.” Zero looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what. Jude forestalled Zero by saying, “I’ve got to finish this.”
Jude turned his focus back to the contract and didn’t try to hear when Zero softly padded back out to the living room. Jude finished his review of the contract and sent a red-lined copy to his boss, and then powered down his laptop. It wasn’t late, but Jude needed to get some sleep, especially since Emily would probably wake up sometime during the night.
Jude set up his laptop and phone to charge in the guestroom, and then changed out of his suit, which felt like he’d been wearing it for days, and into a pair of lounge pants and a t-shirt. When the t-shirt cleared Jude’s head, he saw that Zero was standing in the doorway, casually leaning against the door jam.
Jude blushed and fumbled tugging the hem of the t-shirt down. “Did you need something?”
Zero’s gaze did a slow survey of the room, taking in all of Jude’s possessions. “I’m going to put Emily in the middle of the bed in the master, in a pillow fort. I thought you’d sleep there, too.”
“No,” Jude said. He had to draw the line somewhere if he wanted to get out of this with his sanity still intact. It was already too late for his heart. “That’s not a good idea.”
“What if Emily wakes up?” Zero said.
“Then you get up with her,” Jude said.
“What if I don’t hear her?”
“You’ll hear her, and if you don’t, I will. I’m not that far away, and I’ve heard her scream when she’s unhappy.”
Jude went to bed, but he didn’t fall to sleep right away. He kept listening to what Zero was doing, wondering if he should go out and lend a hand. Jude forced himself to remain in bed, and eventually he fell asleep.
Jude woke in the middle of the night to sounds coming from the master bedroom. He was up and moving before he registered doing so, because he recognized those sounds. When Jude reached the bedroom, Emily, surrounded by pillows, the bunny stuffed between her and a pillow, was still fast asleep; Zero thrashed in his sleep.
Jude grabbed Zero’s leg, and then his fingers, all while staying back so he wouldn’t get hit by a flailing fist. He couldn’t give Zero time to ease out of the nightmare this time, afraid he might wake Emily if it went on too long. Zero jerked awake, and he stared up at Jude with unseeing eyes for a moment before they cleared and he remembered where he was.
“Jude,” Zero said, his fingers tightening around Jude’s.
“I’m right here,” Jude said, moving closer now that Zero was no longer in the clutches of the nightmare.
“You’re leaving,” Zero said.
Zero had never told Jude what the nightmares he’d occasionally had were about, but Jude had guessed that they had something to do with his time in foster care, and right now, with the nightmare fresh, he sounded like a scared child. Jude pushed Zero’s hair back, then bent down and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Not tonight,” he said.
Jude released Zero’s hand and walked around the bed. He slid under the covers so that he and Zero bracketed Emily and her pillow fort. When Jude could bring himself to look across Emily to Zero, Zero was looking back at him. Wordlessly, Zero stretched his hand across Emily, resting his arm on the pillows. Jude reached out and slipped his fingers through Zero’s and closed his eyes.