Nerves tickled under the surface of Jude’s skin, popping like champagne bubbles. He had a lot riding on this meeting, but Jude allowed none of that to show on his face as he and Oscar discussed Devils business while they waited for Zero to arrive. Oscar broke off in the middle of a comment about their likely rivals in the run up to the championship when a knock sounded at the door.
“Come in,” Oscar barked.
Zero pushed the door open and poked his head in. “You wanted to see me, Boss?”
Jude and Oscar shared a look before Jude turned to face the door. His heart raced, and the hands in the front pockets of his slacks curled into fists before relaxing, but the expression he showed to Oscar and Zero was placid.
“Yes,” Oscar said in reply to Zero’s question. “Come in. Close the door behind you.”
Zero waited until he’d stepped into the office and closed the door before letting his gaze fall on Jude where he stood in front of Oscar’s desk. “Jude,” Zero said, his voice smooth as silk.
Jude tilted his head in acknowledgment of the greeting.
“What can I do for you?”
Zero’s gaze moved back to Oscar as he spoke, but Jude could still feel the heat of it licking over his skin like flames. It reminded Jude of the first time Zero had looked at him like that, and the only time they’d done something about it.
There was a reception after the press conference where they officially presented Zero with his Devils jersey and announced his move to LA. The other players were in attendance, as well as the owners and the Devil Girls, and some reporters that Oscar trusted to tell only the stories he wanted told.
Jude spoke with Marcus, Charles, and some of the other owners, greeted Pete and the players, stopping to converse briefly with the guys he’d had a hand in bringing to the Devils. When Jude judged that he’d mingled enough he snagged an open spot at the bar and ordered a drink. Jude was a beer guy in the privacy of his own home, but he’d learned to appreciate the smoky taste of good scotch enough to create the image he needed to portray in order to live up to Oscar’s expectations.
Jude was nursing the drink when Zero leaned against the bar next to him. Zero was smiling and flushed with the pleasure of being the center of attention. His eyes were heavy-lidded when he ran them over Jude, his voice raspy from all the talking he’d been doing when he said, “Have I thanked you yet for bringing me to LA?”
Jude suppressed a shiver. “Oscar brought you to LA,” he deflected. Jude took a sip of watered down scotch and then licked his lips. Jude felt the weight of Zero’s gaze drop to his mouth and determined that now was the time to make his move. He pulled his bottom lip into his mouth as he turned towards Zero, reaching out to set the tumbler on the bar.
Jude lowered his eyelids and looked at Zero through his lashes. “Have I thanked you for allowing yourself to be convinced to come to LA?” He put as much suggestiveness into his tone as he could without being too obvious. Zero was silent long enough that Jude had the momentary thought that he’d overplayed his hand, but then Zero moved, shifting almost imperceptibly closer.
“No,” Zero said, his voice sliding down Jude’s spine and curling around the base like warm honey. “I don’t believe you have.”
Jude bit his bottom lip again. He’d have wondered if it was too much if Zero’s gaze hadn’t dropped again. “You should let me remedy that,” Jude suggested.
Zero’s eyes met Jude’s. “Now?”
“Can you think of a better time?” Jude said. He gave Zero a look as he pushed away from the bar, and then he walked through the crowd, a path opening before him to the door of the Playground. Jude didn’t need to look back to know that Zero was following him. He caught Lionel’s eye and gave her a nod that she acknowledged with a tip of her glass. Jude suppressed a smile as he imagined Oscar’s reaction to that little byplay.
They didn’t speak in the elevator, which was just as well because Jude didn’t think he’d be able to keep up either his demure demeanor nor his disinterested facade now that this moment was within his reach.
Everyone was upstairs in the Playground, so the lower level was empty. Only the sound of their soft footsteps disturbed the silence. Jude held the key card beneath the scanner outside his office, and then entered first so he could flip on the light switch.
Jude waited for Zero to enter the office and close the door behind him. He took a step closer to Zero and then paused. To Zero it probably (hopefully) looked like hesitation – Zero smirked and leaned against the door in a casual pose. Jude accepted the invitation to look, and let his gaze move over Zero. He appeared relaxed, but Jude knew he was more like a snake coiled to strike.
“Having second thoughts?” Zero said mockingly.
“No,” Jude said, adding a defensiveness to his tone. He pushed into Zero’s space and placed both hands against his shoulders, pressing him into the door as if he’d tried to get away.
Zero gave Jude an amused look that made Jude want to kiss it off his face. So he did. Zero’s arms went around Jude, and he kissed back. The kiss was rough as they both battled for dominance, but gentled when Jude ceded control. Zero tasted like the champagne that had flowed liberally at the reception, and the pate Oscar liked to serve.
Since his hands were on Zero’s shoulders, Jude pushed at his suit jacket until Zero moved away from the door enough for Jude to slide it down to his elbows. Zero released Jude one arm at a time so Jude could slip the jacket off and toss it towards a chair. Zero broke the kiss when Jude reached for the knot at his throat. His arms remained a loose circle around Jude as he let his shoulders take his weight against the door.
Zero moved his hips against Jude, slipped one hand down to cup Jude’s ass and tug him that little bit closer. Jude bit his bottom lip as he concentrated on the knot, and then the buttons at Zero’s throat. Finally he couldn’t hold back the moan of pleasure any longer and he pushed back against the roll of Zero’s hips.
Zero made a satisfied sound when Jude broke his silence, and then leaned forward to kiss Jude again. Jude’s brain started sending conflicting messages as he tried to return Zero’s kiss and rut against him and make his fingers continue their work on the buttons.
Jude reached Zero’s waistband and tugged the tails of the shirt out of Zero’s pants. He managed to get the shirt unbuttoned despite the distractions Zero placed in his path. Jude pushed back the sides so the tips of his fingers brushed bare skin and felt Zero’s shiver. Jude reached for Zero’s waistband, but Zero stopped him. Zero pushed at Jude’s suit jacket, and soon they were both bare to the waist, clothes strewn across the backs of the two chairs in front of Jude’s desk.
This time when Jude reached for his waistband, Zero didn’t stop him. Jude watched Zero’s face as he unbuckled the belt, and then slipped the button. Zero’s eyelids lowered as Jude tugged the zipper down, intentionally doing nothing to relieve the pressure his knuckles put on the erection tenting the material.
Jude reached into Zero’s boxers and stroked his cock. “I want to suck you,” he said with a breathlessness that wasn’t at all faked.
Zero gave Jude the confident smirk that Jude wanted to wipe off his face, and said, “No one’s stopping you.”
Jude kissed Zero hard, then slid down Zero’s body, grazing his teeth over a nipple as he went to his knees, taking Zero’s slacks and boxers with him. Jude circled Zero’s cock with his fingers and pulled it away from his stomach. Jude kept his eyes on Zero’s face so he could see his reaction. He licked the head and teased the slit, the bundle of nerves beneath the ridge, with the tip of his tongue. Jude took the head on his tongue and then slowly, slowly slid his mouth down the length of Zero until the tip brushed the back of his throat.
Jude pulled off just as slowly and opened eyes he hadn’t meant to close to meet Zero’s stunned gaze. “You should fuck my mouth,” Jude said, then took Zero in again. Jude let the head slip down his throat and swallowed before retreating once more.
Jude lowered his eyes so Zero couldn’t see the gleam of satisfaction when Zero swore and slid his fingers into Jude’s hair. Zero tipped Jude’s head back and gave an experimental thrust. Jude clasped Zero’s ass and urged him deeper. He opened his throat when Zero threw caution to the wind and fucked into Jude’s mouth.
The floor was hard on Jude’s knees, but he barely felt it as all his focus was on the flex of Zero’s ass beneath his fingers, the taste of pre-come, the weight of Zero’s cock on his tongue, and the sound of their harsh breaths. Jude was surprised when, instead of finishing in his mouth, Zero pulled out and dragged Jude back to his feet.
Zero gave Jude a hard, messy kiss, and then turned them around so that Jude was pressed face first against the door. Jude braced his hands against the metal-masquerading-as-wood when Zero pressed his front to Jude’s back. Jude tipped his head back when Zero nuzzled at his neck, and a moan escaped when Zero’s fingers went to his waistband.
Jude dug his fingers into the faux wood and tried to control his breathing as Zero pushed slacks and boxer briefs down Jude’s hips. Zero ignored Jude’s cock and caressed his ass. “Can I fuck you?”
Jude groaned. He’d thought there wouldn’t be anything heavy tonight, perhaps a quick and messy blow job, but he was nothing if not flexible. “Yes.” Jude let Zero rub his cock against his cheeks, between them, then said, “Bottom left drawer, in the back.”
Jude felt cold when Zero stepped back. He took a breath and made himself stand up straight. Jude turned around to watch Zero and was reminded of the pants around his thighs. Zero had already toed off his shoes and kicked off the slacks and boxers that had been tangled around his ankles, leaving a trail of clothing behind him. Jude let his eyes wander over the long, lean lines of muscle until Zero rounded the desk.
Jude added his own shoes and slacks to the pile on the floor and nodded his head when Zero pulled out the toiletries bag that Jude kept on hand to freshen up after long days spent at the Arena. Tucked in beside the shaver and shampoo were a tube of lube and several packets of condoms.
Zero brandished both as he returned to Jude. “Boy Scout?”
Jude had to drag his eyes up to Zero’s face. He tried to imagine Oscar taking him to meetings and on camping trips, but couldn’t. “I like to be prepared.”
“I like that about you,” Zero said.
Jude didn’t let Zero’s comment go to his head, but he did let Zero turn him around and push him against the door once more. Zero pressed the foil wrapper into Jude’s hand as he opened the lube with a snick. Jude tore a corner of the wrapper with his teeth, and then shoved his feet further apart for Zero’s fingers.
“Eager?” Zero said against the back of Jude’s neck.
“Wondering if you’re ever gonna . . .” Jude broke off speaking with a groan when the two fingers circling his hole pressed inside.
“Too much?” Zero said, stilling his fingers.
“Fuck, no,” Jude said, pressing his forehead against the door. “Just let me . . .”
“Figured a guy as prepared as you could take two,” Zero said conversationally.
“I can take more than that,” Jude said as his body adjusted to the stretch.
“You will,” Zero promised, but now that he had two fingers inside Jude, he went slow. Jude couldn’t tell whether Zero was being a considerate lover, or making sure Jude knew who was in control. By the time Zero withdrew his fingers to add more lube and then push back in with three, Jude was scrabbling at the door and biting his tongue so at least half the moans and exhortations for Zero to move faster stayed lodged in his throat.
At this point Jude was going with ‘being a dick’, but as Jude stretched around three fingers, all thought of refusing to give Zero the satisfaction of hearing him beg fled. Jude groaned as he rode Zero’s fingers, the muscles in his thighs burning with the effort, his cock straining for release. He let out an embarrassing moan of relief when Zero reached for the foil packet clamped between his thumb and forefinger.
“Fuck,” Zero said, his voice an even deeper rasp than before. “Yeah, I need to be inside you as much as you need me to be inside you.”
“You talk too fucking much,” Jude said, but then the head of Zero’s cock pressed between Jude’s cheeks and against his hole. Jude pushed back and the head popped past the ring of muscle guarding his entrance. Jude couldn’t hear Zero’s groan over the sound of his own, but he felt it against his skin when Zero closed his teeth on Jude’s shoulder.
Zero’s arm came around Jude and he pressed his palm flat against Jude’s chest right over his heart. His other hand curled around Jude’s hip. Jude dug his fingers into the door and braced his feet on the floor as Zero pushed until the entire length of his cock was buried inside Jude.
Zero pressed his face into Jude’s neck and just breathed, which gave Jude a few seconds to adjust. Despite his earlier comment to Zero, it had been a while since he’d let anyone fuck him, since he’d felt this full.
“Ready?” Zero said, warm breath tickling Jude’s skin.
“Good,” Zero said, not hiding the relief in that one word. “Not sure I could’ve held back much longer.”
Jude was glad he was still braced, because Zero drew his hips back and then slammed them forward, burying his cock inside Jude. Even so, Jude was driven forward, only Zero’s hand on his chest keeping him from face planting in the door.
Jude pushed back, fucking himself on Zero as Zero thrust into him, each one faster, harder than the one before it. Jude’s cock begged for attention, so he took the chance of lowering his left hand, leaving the right to brace against the door. Zero released Jude’s hip and grasped his wrist before Jude’s hand made contact. Jude groaned in frustration, then shivered when Zero raised his hand above his head and pressed it to the door.
Jude controlled his reaction better when Zero dragged his other arm up and clasped both of Jude’s wrists in one hand. Zero lowered his other hand, dragging it down Jude’s arm, his side. He curled it around Jude’s hip bone and just rested it there while he resumed fucking Jude.
Jude could’ve gotten loose if he’d wanted to; Zero wasn’t holding him all that tightly, and he wasn’t strong enough to hold Jude if Jude was determined to break free, but Jude didn’t want to. He liked the feel of Zero blanketing his back, fingers gripping Jude and holding him down. Zero let Jude continue to meet each thrust. He nuzzled Jude’s neck, tongue and teeth grazing the skin, and his hand slipped off Jude’s hip to lie flat against his groin.
Jude moved more desperately at the feel of Zero’s fingers so close to where he needed them. “Touch me,” Jude said. He tried to make it a demand, but he was too breathless and it came out more of a plea.
Zero moved his hand so that his thumb pressed against the base of Jude’s cock, his fingers curled around Jude’s balls. Jude tried to push into Zero’s hand, to somehow force it higher. When the attempt failed, Jude said, “Zero, for fuck’s sake . . . !”
“What’s the magic word?” Zero said, lightly squeezing Jude’s balls and rubbing his thumb in a circle at the base of Jude’s cock.
“Don’t be an asshole?” Jude said.
“Nope,” Zero said, lips moving against Jude’s skin, “that’s not it.”
“Fuck, Zero, please,” Jude said. He blamed the fact that Zero’s cock was hitting him just right for breaking so easily.
“Good boy,” Zero said.
Jude couldn’t suppress the shiver that went through him then, though he placed the blame on the feather of warm breath across his skin rather than the words Zero had spoken. Jude didn’t have time to think about it too deeply, though, because Zero’s hand moved up the length of him until his hand twisted around the head and began its return journey. The pace was agonizingly slow, and the grip too light, but Jude was grateful for it all the same.
Jude tried to meet Zero’s thrusts and fuck into his hand, but the rhythm was off and it left him frustrated. He turned his head to gripe, but Zero’s lips were right there, and so Jude kissed him instead. Zero appeared surprised at first, but then he kissed Jude back. It was hard and messy, all tongue and teeth as they both strove for something that was just out of reach. The kiss slowed, then stopped, until they were merely breathing each other’s air.
“I want you to come for me, Jude,” Zero said, his lips soft against Jude’s, his voice a deep rasp that sent another shudder through Jude.
“Please,” Jude said, though he didn’t know exactly what he was asking for – harder, tighter, let me?
Zero seemed to know exactly what Jude meant, what he needed. His hips slowed, but it was lost in the tightening of his hand, the stroke of his thumb in just the right places.
Jude sucked Zero’s lip into his mouth, and then had to release it so he didn’t bite and leave a mark. Jude tried to say Zero’s name, but he wasn’t sure it came out as more than a garbled sound. Jude rode the edge, so close he could taste it, and then Zero pushed inside of him and squeezed him just right. Jude’s orgasm began with a tingle in his toes, at the tips of his fingers, and spread throughout his body, washing over him in a wave of pleasure.
Jude was glad he had the door and Zero to prop him up when his muscles refused to work. Zero’s hips, which had paused for Jude’s climax, set up a rhythm again. His thrusts went even deeper and would’ve felt like they were splitting him in two if Jude’s body hadn’t gone pliant and malleable with his orgasm.
Zero was less careful about leaving marks, but Jude didn’t say anything when Zero closed his teeth on Jude’s shoulder. In part because Jude couldn’t muster the energy to remember why he cared, and in part because he liked it. Jude barely had time to reach that realization before Zero went stiff against his back, and his hips stuttered, their rhythm broken. Zero grunted softly and buried his face in Jude’s neck as he came. Jude closed his eyes and pretended he could feel the pulse of Zero’s cock inside him, the warm, wet sensation of come filling him.
Jude was happy to give Zero time to recover because that gave him extra time to regain his own senses so he didn’t say or do anything stupid in the heat of the moment. Finally Zero released Jude’s wrists and Jude carefully brought his arms down and winced as the blood flow resumed.
“Okay?” Zero said.
“Yeah,” Jude said. “Just feel like they fell asleep.”
“Should’ve let ‘em go before,” Zero said, “but I wasn’t thinking.”
“Wonder why?” Jude teased, then said, “It’s fine.” He didn’t admit that he’d liked it, being pinned like that by Zero even after he’d come.
Zero pressed a quick kiss to Jude’s shoulder, then drew back far enough that he could grip the condom before he withdrew from Jude. Jude didn’t let himself think about the kiss. As enjoyable as this interlude had been, Jude reminded himself, it was just business.
They both cleaned up – Zero gave Jude a look when he saw the wet wipes Jude kept on hand for this very purpose, but he was glad to have them when he needed to wash Jude’s come off his fingers. Jude also made sure that none of his come remained on the door or the rug.
“Should I leave first, or should you?” Zero said.
Jude gave Zero a look. Since it was Jude’s office, and he only had his slacks on while Zero was knotting his tie, the answer seemed obvious. “You should.”
Jude slipped his arms into his shirt and then walked over to Zero and slapped his hands away from the knot.
“I know how to tie a tie,” Zero said, but he let Jude take over.
“It was fine,” Jude said, “but that’s not what it looked like before.”
Zero gave Jude a look, but didn’t say anything, and Jude didn’t explain that he’d learned to pay attention to detail so he could pass Oscar’s scrutiny.
Jude helped Zero into his suit jacket. Before he opened the door to double check that the coast was clear (Lionel would’ve warned him if it wasn’t), Jude said, “Zero, thank you . . .”
Zero smirked. “It was my pleasure.”
Jude caught himself watching Zero walk away down the corridor and forced himself to close the door. He buttoned up his shirt as he crossed the room to the mirror. Jude was knotting his tie loosely when there was a soft knock on the door.
“Come in,” Jude said absently, more concerned with how his tie looked.
Lionel stepped into the office and closed the door behind her, leaned back against it. “How’d it go?”
“Well,” Jude said, then noticed the smile on his reflection. “Very well,” he amended.
“Keep the details to yourself, Jude,” Lionel said. “Do you think he’ll play ball?”
“He’s the one,” Jude said. “And now we know he won’t balk at the idea of being with a guy.”
“We need to get back,” Lionel said. “Oscar’s going to wonder where we are.”
“No, he won’t,” Jude said. Oscar knew exactly where Jude and Lionel had disappeared to – or thought he did – which was a belief that Jude wanted to support.
“We’ve been gone a while,” Lionel said. She would have snuck out of the reception shortly after Jude to give the impression that they were secretly meeting up for some illicit sex. “No offense to your stamina and consideration as a lover,” she added wryly.
“None taken,” Jude said just as dryly. He put on his jacket and buttoned it. “Are you ready?”
Lionel dropped her little black bag and said, “Ravish me.”
Jude stepped closer, giving Lionel plenty of warning. They’d both agreed to this, but it was weird each time. “I’m going to protect both of us,” Jude promised, not for the first time.
“I know,” Lionel said. She grabbed Jude by the tie and jerked him forward. Lionel pressed a kiss to Jude’s neck, getting lipstick on his skin and the collar of his dress shirt. The devil really was in the details.
Jude lifted Lionel and pinned her to the door with his body, his leg between hers. He raised her skirt and scrunched it in his hands, wrinkling it.
“I’d be concerned at how forceful you’re being if I didn’t know your preference for dick,” Lionel said lightly as she scrunched the material of her blouse over her breasts.
“Too much?” Jude said.
“No,” Lionel said, all business-like. “Now kiss me.”
Jude kissed Lionel until her lipstick was smeared and her lips showed the same evidence of kissing that his did, and then they both carefully disentangled.
“That never gets less awkward,” Lionel said, mirroring Jude’s earlier thought.
They didn’t speak further as they straightened their clothes, making only a cursory attempt to smooth out the wrinkles. Jude cleaned the lipstick off his face, and scrubbed half-heartedly at the stain on his neck. Lionel used the mirror to fix her lipstick.
“Ready?” Jude said when she was done. He pulled a couple strands of hair out of the clip Lionel wore, so they fell forward and framed her face, as if they’d been dislodged during their amorous activities.
“As ever,” Lionel said. “You know, I hate this charade . . .”
Jude hated the pretense as well, but it was the only way to keep Oscar from discovering that Jude liked men, and from forcing Lionel into a relationship she didn’t want. As long as they pretended to be fucking, Oscar, as annoyed as he was that Jude got to Lionel first, left them alone.
“ . . . but occasionally it’s worth it to see the look on Oscar’s face.”
Jude had to agree. Oscar managed to keep his expression blank, but the vein at his temple jumped and his ears went red. It was a dangerous game they were playing, because if Oscar found out . . . Jude didn’t finish the thought; they both knew the stakes.
Jude bent his arm and offered it to Lionel, who gracefully set her hand on Jude’s forearm. They left Jude’s office, with its damning evidence of used condom and wet wipes that supported their ruse, and returned to the reception together.
Jude had slipped into the quiet of the Mezzanine Lounge overlooking the court to take the call from Howard Jensen. He was just finishing up his conversation when practice ended and the team broke up to head to the locker room. He’d been studying Terrence and Derek; it was only obvious if you paid attention (and had a P.I. follow him to a doctor’s appointment) that Terrence was favoring one knee. Even more obvious was the growing rift between the two men.
Zero stayed behind. He said something that Jude couldn’t hear to someone Jude couldn’t see until Jelena appeared in Jude’s line of sight from beneath the Mezzanine. Jude hadn’t expected Zero to pursue Jelena so hard right out of the gate, but it was only a temporary setback.
Oscar stepped lightly for a large man, but Jude had developed a sixth sense for when he was approaching. “We’ll talk later,” Jude said sharply, and ended the call. “Jensen is still holding out for more money,” he said without turning.
“Does his client know that?” Oscar said.
“Probably,” Jude said. “Milhone has always had an overinflated sense of his own worth.”
“Let it leak that we’re looking for a shooting guard.”
“What’s going on down there?” Oscar said, catching sight of Zero and Jelena.
“Zero’s ambition is coming up against Jelena’s daddy issues,” Jude said, making sure he sounded like a casual observer, rather than an interested party.
“How’s that working out for him?” Oscar said.
“He’s going to crash and burn,” Jude said. And when he did, Jude would be there with an offer Zero couldn’t refuse.
“Is it going to be messy?”
Jude snorted. “It’s Jelena, so, very.”
“Then we need to keep that from happening,” Oscar said.
Jude’s brain switched gears with a speed that would’ve surprised Oscar. “Jelena’s already a lost cause,” he said. You could tell by her body language that Zero was fighting a losing battle. “We’d need to place someone else in his sights. It couldn’t be another dancer,” Jude said as he warmed to the idea.
“Zero’s already gone for the top dog, he wouldn’t be satisfied with anyone else. And it couldn’t be another player because that would disrupt the team dynamics too much.” Jude paused to let the notion of setting Zero up with a guy sink in before continuing. “It would have to be someone big, and we’d need to go outside the team. Derek’s agency represents Hollywood; I could talk to Lucas.”
“Hmm,” Oscar said. “Let me think about it.”
Oscar walked away without another word. Jude turned back to the now empty court and allowed himself a small smile. Serendipity was wonderful thing. Jude had practically thrown his own downfall into Oscar’s lap – there was no way Oscar wouldn’t take full advantage of it.
Jude left the Mezzanine and headed back to his office where he could close the door and leave an anonymous tip with Kendall that the Devils were in the market for a shooting guard to replace Milhone next season. And then he’d call Lionel to invite her to lunch so he could give her an update.
The past few weeks faded into the background and Jude was once more standing in Oscar’s office, the heat coiling in his belly as much from Zero’s look as from anticipation. Zero’s question to Oscar was Jude’s cue to step to the side where he would immediately become invisible. (Oscar dismissed Jude, so everyone else did, too. It used to bother Jude, back when he wanted Oscar’s attention, his approval, but he’d learned to use it to his advantage. It was ludicrous how many people spoke in front of Jude without thinking, even though he was a Kinkade, because he wasn’t deemed important.)
Instead of allowing him to fade into the background, however, Zero’s gaze followed Jude’s movements, but returned to Oscar when he spoke.
“You’ve been sniffing around Jelena,” Oscar said indelicately.
Zero raised his eyebrow. “Is that against the rules?”
“No,” Oscar said, “but it should be.” His gaze drifted to Jude.
“Making Jelena off limits is just going to make her seem more attractive,” Jude answered Oscar’s unspoken question.
Oscar hummed, then went back to his conversation with Zero as if there hadn’t been an interruption.
“You’re ambitious,” Oscar said. “It’s one reason I let Jude convince me to acquire you.”
Jude didn’t contradict Oscar, though the notion of him letting Jude convince him of anything was laughable. There was a reason Oscar had made the fictional claim, and Jude was willing to see where it led. Jude let himself shift from one foot to the other in a show of nerves. This was the second instance in a short amount of time that Oscar had drawn attention to Jude rather than allowing him to remain an invisible presence in the room, which meant that Oscar wanted to make sure that Zero noticed Jude.
“You mean, acquired my contract,” Zero said, his eyes drifting to Jude.
“Right,” Oscar said, though his tone implied that Zero was very, very wrong. “I like a player who’s hungry and willing to fight to be on top, so long as the team isn’t compromised. But this . . . thing you’ve got going on with Jelena, it’s going to explode in your face, and it’s going to be very messy.”
“Are you forbidding me to pursue Jelena?” Zero said, sounding almost amused.
“I can’t do that,” Oscar said. He glanced at Jude, who shook his head. “But I can offer you a counter-proposal.”
“I’m listening,” Zero said into Oscar’s dramatic (melodramatic, Jude thought) pause.
“You give up pursuing Jelena, and I fix you up with someone who will be even better for your career.”
Zero frowned as if he couldn’t imagine anything better for his career than a relationship with Jelena. “Who?”
This was the moment it all came down to. Even though Oscar didn’t glance his way, Jude wore a mask of casual interest that he hoped hid the racing of his heart.
“Jude,” Oscar said.
“What?” Jude said, putting just enough surprise in it to be believable. (He’d been practicing with Lionel.)
“What?” Zero parroted, his gaze sliding over to Jude.
Jude allowed himself a quick glance to gauge Zero’s reaction – total disgust and disinterest, or merely as surprised as Jude pretended to be? – and then focused on Oscar again.
“Jude’s a Kinkade,” Oscar said as if neither of them had raised a question, “which is better than a dancer, even a Devil Girl, no matter how good she is.”
“Oscar,” Jude said, letting his voice go weak with shock and dismay.
Unsurprisingly, Oscar ignored Jude and continued. “I know that neither of you boys is gay, and I’m not suggesting that you consummate your relationship . . .”
Thankfully, Jude and Zero were both so used to keeping their male hookups on the DL that neither of them gave anything away at Oscar’s comment.
“. . . but we can spin your so-called ‘coming out’ to give you a lot of publicity. More than you’d get for being seen around town with Jelena. I don’t personally approve of the gay lifestyle,” Oscar said, “but the political climate is ripe to take advantage of the whole PC and tolerance nonsense.”
“That ‘PC and tolerance nonsense’ isn’t going to keep my career from taking a nose dive if I announce to the world that I’m gay,” Zero said.
“I’ll personally guarantee your career,” Oscar said.
“In writing,” Jude said, earning himself looks from both Oscar and Zero.
“In writing,” Oscar grudgingly agreed. “I don’t want an answer now,” he told Zero. “I want you to take some time to think about the alternative; to think about what’s going to happen when your unfortunate pursuit of Jelena Howard turns into a shit show that spatters all over my team.”
The tone was deceptively mild, and Zero must’ve realized this because his lips tightened, but he didn’t tell Oscar to shove his proposal. Instead he said, “What about Jude?”
“What about Jude?” Oscar said.
“Does he get a say in this?”
“Jude will do what’s best for the team,” Oscar said dismissively. He looked at Jude then, the challenge clear in his eyes. “Won’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Jude said with more feeling than he probably should have.
Oscar nodded, apparently satisfied with Jude’s answer, and his level of commitment to the Devils organization. “We’ll talk more tomorrow,” Oscar said, clearly dismissing them both. “You two should spend some time this afternoon getting to know on another better.”
Jude was glad he’d learned to control his betraying flush long ago. Zero was good, but he hadn’t had the amount of practice Jude had with Oscar.
“Not in the Biblical sense,” Oscar amended when he noticed Zero’s reaction.
Jude started moving then. He brushed close to Zero and gave him a look that told him to keep quiet and follow him. Zero did, though the slightly shell-shocked expression he still wore at Oscar’s proposal worked in their favor.
Jude didn’t speak until they were in the hallway, the door to Oscar’s office closed firmly behind them. “Come with me so we can talk.”
“You call him Oscar?” Zero said.
“He doesn’t like it when I call him ‘dad’,” Jude said. “That’s what you took from that meeting?”
Zero shook his head, but his frown didn’t clear. “Do you ever tell him ‘no’?”
“No,” Jude said with a bitter smile. “It’s easier when Oscar gets what he wants. Or thinks he does.” Jude gave Zero a look. He reached out to give Zero’s hand a tug before releasing it. “Let’s go someplace we can talk about this more privately.”
Zero followed Jude out of the Arena and over to the black Porsche parked in Jude’s reserved spot. Zero showed the first reaction since they’d exited Oscar’s office. “A little flashy for the owner of the Devils, isn’t it?” Zero teased.
“The son of the owner,” Jude corrected. “And that’s what Oscar thought, too.”
“So you can say ‘no’ to him.”
“I didn’t ask him,” Jude said. He’d known that Oscar would insist that Jude get a car with class over flash, so he’d signed the lease before telling Oscar, who couldn’t do anything once it was a done deal except give Jude the disapproving look he’d gotten so often over the past 25 years.
“Better to ask for forgiveness?” Zero said.
Jude smiled at the similar paths their minds had taken. “Exactly.”
Zero ran his hand over the finish before lowering himself into the seat. “Why black, though?”
“I like it,” Jude said as he turned the key in the ignition with his left hand, the right already gripping the gear stick. The color reminded him of the safety of the shadows he hid in.
“Dark and tortured like your soul?” Zero said.
The corners of Jude’s lips twitched, though it wasn’t a happy smile. “Something like that.”
There was a moment of silence while Jude exited the Arena parking lot, then Zero said, “Where are we going?”
“Lionel’s,” Jude said. Oscar wouldn’t think to look for them to have this conversation there, which made it the perfect place to hold it. Plus, Lionel was waiting to hear from him.
“Your girlfriend’s?” Zero said with a raised eyebrow.
“Lionel’s not my girlfriend,” Jude said.
“That’s not what the tabloids say.”
“That’s the point.”
“Lionel Davenport is your beard?” Zero said.
“We help each other out,” Jude said.
Jude snorted. “No. Though her brother is, but that’s not relevant to this conversation. Our arrangement saves her from having to deflect unwanted advances.”
Jude slid a look across the car.
“Wait,” Zero said. “No. Oscar? Is that why he’s pimping you out? To free up Lionel?”
Jude’s smile was genuine this time, pleased. “I knew you were smart.”
“Why aren’t you more upset about it?”
Jude took a chance on telling Zero this before he’d explained the entire plan to him. “Because Oscar did exactly what we wanted him to do.”
“I don’t understand,” Zero said.
“You will. I’m going to explain everything.” And then, if Zero agreed to his proposal, they were going to take Oscar down.
“So Oscar really doesn’t know you’re gay?”
“Oscar doesn’t approve of the ‘gay lifestyle’,” Jude said, mimicking Oscar’s tone. There was a moment of silence before Zero let out a snort. Jude tried to hold back his laugh in response, but couldn’t.
When they stopped laughing, Zero said, “You have a fucked up relationship with Oscar.”
“Tell me about it,” Jude said. And it was about to get a lot more fucked up.
Lionel was waiting for them at the top of the wide steps leading up to the front door when Jude pulled the Porsche around. She must’ve heard the alarm ding when he opened the gate. Lionel watched them both get out of the car with a guarded expression. “How’d it go?” she asked when they reached her.
“Good so far,” Jude said. He gave Lionel a hug and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Let’s go inside in case Oscar sent his spies after us.”
In the foyer, Jude said, “Lionel, Zero; Zero, Lionel Davenport.” The two of them nodded greetings and regarded each other warily.
“I need to explain our proposal to Zero. Can we use the solarium?”
“Yes,” Lionel said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Give us a couple of minutes so I can lay the groundwork, and then we can all go over the specifics together,” Jude said.
“Okay, well, I’ve got a couple more scripts my agent sent over to go through, so I’ll be in the living room.”
Jude led the way back to the solarium, dropping Lionel at the entry to the living room. She gave him a worried look, but let them continue on without her. Zero followed silently until they stepped into the solarium.
“Two proposals in one day; should I feel special?”
Jude let the view onto Lionel’s sculpted back yard sooth him. The solarium looked out over a Koi pond surrounded by patches of flowers that appeared to be growing naturally, though Jude knew how much money Lionel paid a gardener to groom them. He took a deep breath and let it out before turning to Zero.
“I was seven years old when I realized that Oscar hadn’t kept me with him because he loved me. He took me from my mother to punish her. That’s the day I started hiding myself from Oscar, burying the real me so deep he’d never find it.”
Zero frowned, but before he could speak Jude continued. “I’m not telling you this because I want your pity, god knows your situation was worse than mine and you came out on top.” Jude ignored the way Zero’s expression shuttered. “I just . . . figure you should know why I am the way I am if you’re going to get into bed with me.”
Zero gave Jude a look. “That one’s too easy.” The humor disappeared and Zero was all business. “You’ve got something planned.”
“Yes,” Jude said easily; he’d already admitted as much.
“How long have you been planning it?”
“Since I was fifteen years old,” Jude said, surprising Zero. “It was the first time Oscar made a mistake. That I knew about, anyway. Before that I thought Oscar was all-seeing, all-knowing. That’s why I kept myself locked away back then.” Jude shook his head. “I started watching Oscar more carefully, and I realized that Oscar let his own lust, lust for power, lust for sex, blind him, and that I could take advantage of that.
“So I went to college, and I interned at the Arena, and I learned the business from the ground up, and I watched, and I waited. It took ten years, but the pieces started falling into place. I just needed one more.”
“Me?” Zero said. “You told me that Oscar brought me here, Oscar says you convinced him to bring me here.”
Jude gave Zero a humorless smile. “Oscar only gives other people credit when it works in his favor. He wanted you to think bringing you here was my idea. Truth is, it was. But I needed Oscar to think it was his.”
“That’s . . . twisted. What does he think now?”
“Oh, he still thinks it was his idea,” Jude said. “He was just trying to forge a connection between us. He doesn’t realize that we’ve already . . . connected.”
Zero gave Jude a look. “You said before that Oscar did exactly what you wanted him to do. How did you know he’d throw us together when you pushed him to sign me?”
“I didn’t,” Jude said. “Not at first. The original plan was to seduce you. You put a little hiccup in that plan when you made a play for Jelena. I didn’t see that coming.”
Zero raised his eyebrows. “So this is Plan B?”
“C, actually,” Jude said. “Plan B was to pick up the pieces after Jelena dumped you in a spectacularly public way.”
“That’s harsh,” Zero said. “You don’t think I could’ve won over Jelena?”
“No,” Jude said, brutally honest. “You were never going to win that battle. Not because of you,” Jude added quickly. “Oscar’s right about Jelena’s daddy issues. If you told her the sky was blue, she’d insist it was green. She likes to be in control, and you were pushing too hard, which just made her dig in her heels.”
“Fuck,” Zero said, gobsmacked by that revelation. “Does everyone know?”
“No,” Jude said. “I told you, I watch.”
“Alright,” Zero said, searching for a way to move the topic from his failed attempt to woo Jelena. “How’d you get Oscar to . . . ?”
“Throw us together? I made it irresistible. He protects the Devils organization – Jelena would’ve made a public spectacle out of your downfall, and it would’ve blown back onto the team – he frees up Lionel, and as a bonus he humiliates me and teaches me a lesson about taking things he wants.”
“Jesus,” Zero said. “How can you say something like that so calmly? He’s your father, he’s supposed to . . .” Zero broke off and stared out the windows.
“I know,” Jude said, “but we don’t all get that kind of childhood. You got where you are now out of sheer determination, and I need that.”
Zero didn’t look at Jude, but he tilted his head to let him know he was still listening.
“So I put a bug in Oscar’s ear about solving the problem of playing against you by bringing you here. Oscar loves a good power play, and throwing money at problems to make them go away. And then I convinced your agent that coming to the Devils was in your best interest.”
“How’d you do that?” Zero said, intrigued.
“Lucas was easier to seduce than you were,” Jude said.
Zero snorted. “Lucas is such a slut.”
“Yes,” Jude said. “Speaking of Lucas, whether you agree to this plan or not, you need to get a new agent.”
“Two words,” Jude said. “Pillow talk. He didn’t say anything to me about you, but who knows what he’s letting slip to other people.”
“Are you two done talking yet?” Lionel said. “It’s just . . . I can’t concentrate on the scripts with you two in my house, and I don’t need any more coffee. Is he on board?” Lionel turned to Zero. “Are you?”
“I don’t even know the plan yet,” Zero said.
Lionel threw her hands up. “What have you two been talking about? The plan is to make you two a power couple, and then topple Oscar from the throne.”
“In a nutshell,” Jude said.
“That’s . . . ambitious. You really think you can do that?”
“With the right team,” Jude said. He shivered at the intent expression Zero leveled on him.
“I want to hear more,” Zero said.
Lionel clapped her hands and bounced. “I’ll make coffee!”
“You don’t need more coffee,” Jude reminded her.
Jude took both of Lionel’s hands in his. “Why don’t we wait until we have something to drink to.”
Lionel nodded. “Alright. Let’s all sit down for this.”
They arranged themselves in a grouping of chairs that looked out over the gardens. Jude turned his so he faced the other two. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees.
“Okay. The first step is to make Zero the star of the Devils.”
“I like the sound of that,” Zero said.
“I thought you might,” Jude said. “The second step is to make you and I the newest power couple in LA, and the third is to replace Oscar as head of the Devils.”
“You sound awfully sure of yourself,” Zeros aid.
Zero groaned. “Stop it. You know competence is a kink of mine.”
“I didn’t, actually,” Jude said. “But I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Both of you stop it,” Lionel said. “I already know way too much about Jude’s sex life. Are you in?”
Zero’s gaze traveled back to Jude. “You really think you can pull this off?”
Jude’s smile was wolfish. “I know we can.”
“And if I don’t accept Oscar’s ‘offer’ he’ll make my life, all of our lives, difficult.”
“To say the least.”
Zero studied both Jude and Lionel, and then said, “Alright, I’m in.”
Jude and Lionel smiled at each other, part excitement to be moving forward finally, and part relief. They had a fallback plan if all else failed, but Jude and Lionel going public with their fake relationship had its risks. This, Zero, was their first choice.
“Okay,” Jude said. “Step one is two-pronged. First, raise you up. We convince Pete to add some plays that benefit you, as well as showcase your commitment to the Devils and the community. Make-A-Wish, things like that.”
“How are you going to convince Pete to do that?”
“Between Lionel and I, we know Pete’s soft spots,” Jude explained. “Second prong, bring Derek and Terrence down – widen the rift between them . . .”
“There’s a rift between them?”
“Yes. Lucas is distressingly easy to pump for information after he’s had sex. I confirmed it myself. Additionally, we use the information I’ve gathered on each of them individually to hurt them.”
“What information?” Zero said.
Jude studied Zero, and then decided to go all in. “Terrence is playing hurt . . .”
“What? How do you know that?”
“I told you, I watch. Plus I’ve got a great P.I. on speed dial.”
“Jesus Christ,” Zero said. “You really have been planning this for a while.”
Jude didn’t comment on that, but continued laying out their plan. “Derek’s downfall is his affinity for coke. Step two is you and I. Lionel and I have a list of people who’d want to interview you, possibly us, as well as sponsors.”
“I could lose my sponsors,” Zero said, and Jude could hear the concern in his voice.
“Some of them, yes,” Jude admitted, “but we’ll replace them with even more. The beauty of this plan is that Oscar’s agreed to help, so it won’t all be on us. Without knowing it, he’s going to help put us in position to take him down. We’ve also got a schedule of events we’ll be seen at, charity benefits we’ll support, and organizations like Make-A-Wish that you’ll volunteer with. All of which will garner us publicity above and beyond what Oscar’s promised.”
Jude paused to let that sink in. “The fact that this was Oscar’s idea means that he’s got a vested interest in making sure we succeed, if only so he can free up Lionel for his advances, so he’ll back every play we make. Up to this point, anyway.”
Zero nodded his head, though he wore a contemplative expression. “What about Lionel?”
“What about me?” Lionel said sharply.
“You won’t have Jude’s protection anymore. From Oscar, I mean.”
“I’ll have to take one for the team,” Lionel said. “Not like that,” she clarified at Zero’s horrified expression. “I just meant a date or two. Very public dates.”
“I’ve done some distasteful things in my climb to the top,” Zero said. “Are you sure this is worth it?”
“Yes,” Lionel said vehemently. “It’s a small price to pay to get rid of Oscar forever.”
“Alright,” Zero said. “How are you going to pull off step three?”
Now Jude and Lionel exchanged looks.
“We have information on Oscar that will put him in jail for a long time,” Jude admitted.
“Corruption,” Lionel said. “Murder.”
“Way to bury the lead,” Jude said.
“Murder?” Zero said.
“When Oscar can’t solve a problem with money or blackmail, he makes it go away,” Jude said. “Permanently.”
“This is fucking unbelievable.” Zero pushed a hand through the long strands of hair. “What’s he going to do to us when he finds out we set him up?”
“He’s not going to find out,” Jude said. “We’re going to anonymously release the information we have to several news outlets, as well as the police, so they can’t bury it. We know that Oscar has some of them in his pocket.”
“If you know he’s murdered someone, why didn’t you turn him in before now?”
“Because I wasn’t in a position to use it,” Jude said. It sounded cold, but it wasn’t like the delay was going to hurt the victim, since they were already dead. They’d get their justice. Eventually.
“And you are now?”
“I will be. With your help. Right now I’m nobody,” Jude said. “No,” he said when it appeared that Zero was going to argue. “I didn’t mind, because it served me well. I know the business inside and out, I play tennis with Marcus Douglas, I wrote a letter of recommendation when Karen Hiller’s grandson applied to college. People come to me because I’m easer to approach than Oscar, and I cultivated that. Inside the organization, to those who count, I’m known and trusted. But out here, where the Kinkade name is worth less than it is in there, I’m still going to be nobody unless we change that. Once we do, no one will be surprised that Jude Kinkade has been asked by the board to replace Oscar.”
Jude took a couple deep breaths in the silence that followed his proclamation. When he raised his eyes, Zero was staring at him, intent, thoughtful.
“Having second thoughts?” Jude said wryly.
“On the contrary,” Zero said. “I’m just . . . really turned on right now.”
The comment startled a laugh out of Jude. “Turned on enough to play the long game?”
Two nights later Jude stood in the middle of the court and waited for Zero to finish up a post-game interview. After the discussion at Lionel’s house, they’d met with Oscar to get his assurances regarding Zero’s career and publicity in writing. Lionel had grilled them for the press conference that would be held tomorrow, after giving the press a night to get worked up into a frenzy over the news that Jude and Zero were in a relationship. A car was waiting for them at the delivery entrance to whisk them away.
Everything was in place, and tonight would be the official start of Jude and Zero’s relationship as far as Oscar and the rest of the world were concerned. Despite the seriousness of this moment, the corners of Jude’s lips twitched as he watched Zero saunter over to where he stood. Jude wished he could blame the look Zero was leveling at him for the butterflies in his belly.
Jude had been playing this game for a long time, and it had been nearly as long since he’d been nervous about anything; he’d long ago resigned himself to living with whatever the outcome. But if their plan, his plan, fell through, then Zero and Lionel had to be protected.
“If this goes sideways,” Jude said when Zero reached him, “you’ll still have plausible deniability with Oscar.”
“This isn’t going to go sideways,” Zero said, sounding as if Jude was the moron for thinking it might, “but either way, I’m all in. And just so you know, I’m going to consummate the hell out of this relationship.”
Jude opened his mouth to issue a rebuttal, but before he could do so Zero leaned in and kissed Jude in front of everyone – the fans still in the seats, the players milling about on the court, the reporters with their cameras. At the press of Zero’s lips, Jude forgot everything but the kiss. When they pulled apart a fragile silence hung in the arena for a single moment before it was broken.
The plan he’d been putting together for the past ten years was finally in motion.