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in this together, too

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When Jude and Zero reached the main entrance, Marcus was standing just outside the doors, speaking to reporters on the steps. Zero’s stride faltered for a second before he kept going, and Jude wondered if he’d flashbacked to being ambushed there by reporters over the leaked e-mail.

“Who called the reporters?” Jude wondered out loud as his feet slowed.

“Three guesses,” Zero said dryly. “And two don’t count.”

“Jelena,” Jude said disgustedly. “I wonder if she snuck out the back so she didn’t have to deal with them?”

“That doesn’t sound like Jelena,” Zero said. “She’s quicker on her feet than that; she could’ve tried to spin it.”

“She’s still licking her wounds,” Jude said. “Literally and figuratively.”

Just then some of the reporters caught sight of them. Marcus took their cue and looked back over his shoulder. When he spotted Jude and Zero standing there, he raised his hand and beckoned them over. They stepped outside into the noise of reporters clamoring for answers to their shouted questions, and walked over to stand beside Marcus.

“Speaking of new owners,” Marcus said, “let me introduce you to one of them. You all know Jude Kinkade, our current EVP, a former agent for athletes such as Zero here, and Oscar Kinkade’s son. He’s been part of the Devils family for a while, and now it’s official.”

“Jude!” someone yelled. “What’s it feel like to be part owner of the Devils now?”

“It feels . . . amazing,” Jude said honestly. “I’ve always dreamt of being part of the Devils organization, but I never imagined this.”

“Will you remain EVP?” someone else shouted out.

“Yes,” Jude said. “So really, it’s business as usual around here.”

“Thank you, Jude,” Marcus said, and Jude gratefully stepped back next to Zero and ignored the questions still being thrown at him. “I’d like to assure the fans that, while the ship is being steered by a new hand, none of the faces are new. Jude Kinkade and Jelena Howard have been part of the Devils family, and as such, want the same thing the rest of us do, and that is what’s best for the Devils.”

“What about the rumors that Zero was being traded?” another reporter yelled.

“Does that look like the face of a man being traded?” Marcus said, and Zero dutifully smiled and waved at the reporters. “I’m not sure where the rumor came from,” Marcus went on, “but the shareholders, and the fans, are very happy that Zero is a part of the Devils. There are no plans to trade him, now, or in the future.”

Marcus raised his hand and stepped back. “No more questions right now. Thank you all for coming.”

The three of them retreated to the relative quiet of the arena. “That could’ve gone better,” Marcus said.

“Could’ve been worse,” Zero said. When Jude and Marcus both looked at him, he explained, “Could’ve been Jelena out there answering their questions. And announcing my trade.”

Marcus gave a half-shrug that said he couldn’t argue with that as much as he might want to. He turned to Jude. “Maybe we should have our meeting now.”

“Oh, I . . . ,” Jude began, gesturing towards Zero.

“We’ll celebrate later,” Zero said. “You go be awesome and protect our team.”

Jude felt an overwhelming surge of affection for Zero. “I love you,” he said.

Zero looked pleased. “I love you, too. Now go.”

Jude’s stomach growled.

“I’ll check the board room, see if there’s any of those pastries left,” Zero offered.

“Bring the tray,” Marcus said. “And any remaining coffee. We’re going to need it.”

They rode the elevator together to the administrative floor, and separated once the doors opened.

“We need to let the other shareholders know that the cat’s already out of the bag,” Marcus said as he and Jude walked down the hall to what was now his office.

Jude called Lionel so she could tell Oscar, and Marcus called Susan. Jude had just disconnected his call when Zero entered the office. He carried a tray of pastries, and was followed by Alan, who carried a tray holding the coffee carafe, mugs, and fixings. Lionel had wanted to make sure Oscar saw the news, and voiced the happy thought that perhaps seeing Marcus and Jude standing in front of the Arena speaking with the reporters might send him into cardiac arrest.

Jude took the pastry and mug of lukewarm coffee that Zero offered him. “Thank you.”

Marcus disconnected from his call with Susan. “Susan is going to call the other shareholders. Sorry for bollocksing up your celebration.”

“It’s not ruined,” Zero said. “Just postponed. And not your fault in any case.”

Marcus nodded. “Well. Let’s get to work. We need to get ahead of the PR on this.”

“A party,” Zero said. Jude and Marcus gave him their attention. “At the Playground. To introduce the two new shareholders. Forget about the bad blood behind Jelena’s take-over and Oscar’s ouster, and spin the change as a positive rather than a negative. New people, new ideas, a change for the better . . . .”

“He’s handy to have around,” Marcus told Jude.

“I often think so,” Jude said, grinning proudly at Zero.

“I’m not just a pretty face, either,” Zero said.

“Flirt later,” Marcus said. “Party planning now. When should we hold the party?”

“Tomorrow,” Jude said. “We have three away games after tonight’s home game, and tomorrow’s the only off day for the rest of the week. We need to get in front of it, so we can’t afford to wait for a more convenient day. We need to announce the party today, and get the invitations out.”

“You’re right,” Marcus said. “It’s short notice, but we can’t wait, especially since the press already got wind of it.” Marcus spread his hands. “Who do we put in charge of planning the party?”

“Lionel,” Jude and Zero said at the same time.

“Get her back on the phone,” Marcus told Jude. “Who’ll have the list of names we need to invite to have a who’s-who?”

“Alan,” Jude said as he waited for Lionel to answer the call.

Marcus picked up the phone on his desk to call Alan, but Jude tuned out the call when Lionel picked up. “Hey, Lionel,” Jude said. “We need your help to plan a party.”

Jude filled Lionel in on the idea, and disconnected when she agreed to help. “She’s on her way.”

Marcus nodded in acknowledgment. “I can’t believe my first official duty is to throw a party to put out Jelena’s fire.”

“You have met Jelena, right?” Zero said. “And not to put too fine a point on it, you had to know who you were getting into bed with here.”

Marcus gave Zero a look, but didn’t argue. He stood and held out his hand when Alan appeared with the list of names he’d requested. Alan hovered uncertainly while Marcus scanned the list. Marcus shook his head. “Is this the entire list?” he said when he was finished.

“Yes, sir,” Alan said, stammering a little bit as he dragged his gaze away from Zero to respond.

“Alright,” Marcus said. “We’re going to need to edit the list, so I’ll get that back to you in a few. Also, we’ll need to talk to the manager of the Playground now, so give them a call if you would.”

“Yes, sir,” Alan said, this time without stumbling over his tongue. He gave Zero a glance from under his lashes before he turned and headed towards the door.

Jude gestured with his head and gave Zero a ‘seriously?’ look.

Zero shrugged. “I can’t help it that I’m too sexy for my shirt.”

Jude rolled his eyes.

“What did I say about flirting later,” Marcus said absently, his eyes back on the list.

Jude blushed; Zero gave Jude an unrepentant grin.

“Some of the names on this list have ties to the mob,” Marcus said.

Jude wasn’t surprised. Sloane had said that Oscar was building the Hollywood Arena with dirty money.

Marcus got busy with a pen, crossing off names and scribbling in others. “Start calling the other shareholders, ask who they’d like to have added to the list.”

Jude had only tried to call Thomas Heller and George Pullman, but he had all the board members listed in his contacts. Jude pulled up Susan’s information first. She made him uncomfortable – mostly on purpose – but she’d shown a surprising level of support and Jude found that he trusted her.

Jude was just finishing up his last call when Lionel waltzed into the office. Her gaze went to the rug that Jude had already forgotten about, and then she deliberately turned away. Cheryl Paulson, who’d been promoted when Raquel left the Playground to return to the Devil Girls, was already there, and Marcus abandoned the list to fill her in on the party in broad strokes. She’d begun making a list of things they needed, like to call in another liquor order and to schedule servers.

Zero was still standing to the side, arms crossed as he leaned against a credenza and observed. “What are you doing?” Lionel said when she saw him.

“Looking sexy, apparently,” Zero said.

“We don’t need that until the night of the party,” Lionel said, dismissing Zero with a wave of her hand.

“That’s not what Jude says,” Zero said.

Lionel paused in the process of setting down her purse, and turned back to give Zero a withering look. “Don’t you have something to do before the game?”

“You mean besides . . . ?”

“Don’t say it.” Lionel held up her hand. “Please.”

‘Already did him,’ Zero mouthed to Lionel.

Jude glanced at Marcus, praying that he hadn’t seen the exchange. Marcus was going over the revised list, but he said, “If I’d known this position included wrangling pre-schoolers, I might’ve declined.”

Lionel slipped the list out of Marcus’ fingers and glanced at it. “What about Jude’s mother?” she said.

Jude froze, and everyone’s eyes turned to him. He had the irrational urge to strangle Lionel for bringing this up in front of the others. Jude tried to sound nonchalant when he answered, but he wasn’t sure he pulled it off. “This isn’t her kind of thing.”

“Isn’t her kind of thing,” Lionel repeated. “Jude, she’s your mother, of course she’s . . . .”

“She’s really not,” Jude interrupted. “She didn’t want me to get involved with Oscar or the Devils.”

“Smart woman,” Lionel muttered. She picked up a pen off Marcus’ desk and added something to the list before handing it back to Marcus.

Marcus glanced at the list and gave a nearly imperceptible nod, and then set the list down on the desk. “I’ll get Alan to revise the list and get the invites sent out. Lionel and Cheryl will plan the party. You can use the Playground, it should be quiet enough right now for that.”

Marcus waited for Lionel and Cheryl to leave before turning to Jude. “Check in on your regular duties, and then I think we should talk about Jelena’s shooting before that comes back to bite us in the ass, too.” He turned to Zero. “You. Win me a god damned game tonight. We need all the positives we can get.”

Zero gave Marcus a mock salute. “Yes, sir.”

Marcus gave Zero a look, but merely said, “Send Alan in on your way out.”

“Would you like to do the honors?” Jude said dryly when he and Zero both reached Marcus’ door at the same time.

“I’d love to,” Zero said, and then surprised Jude by leaning in and kissing him.

Zero kept his hand on Jude’s back as they exited Marcus’ office and walked down the hall. “Alan, right?” Zero paused when they reached Alan’s desk.

Alan blushed and nodded.

“Marcus needs your help,” Zero said, and then he nudged Jude on their way.

Zero stood behind Jude and placed both hands on his hips while Jude used the keycard to gain access to his office. Jude was flushed with embarrassment and pleasure when he finally got the door unlocked and they could step inside.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Jude said.

“I wanted to,” Zero said. “You think guys don’t look at you like that, too?”

Before Jude could deny it, Zero went on. “Plus, it earned me boyfriend points, right?”

Jude’s breath caught in his throat at the casual way Zero said ‘boyfriend’. Zero gave Jude a knowing look, and Jude cleared his throat so he could speak. “Yeah,” he said. “You earned some boyfriend points.”

“Cool,” Zero said, then made himself comfortable in one of the chairs in Jude’s office. He picked up the same magazine he’d been looking at every other time he’d been in Jude’s office, and opened it.

“Haven’t you finished reading that yet?” Jude said as he rounded his desk.

“Nah,” Zero said. “I’m usually too ansty to read it while I’m waiting for you, so I just flip the pages and stare at the words.”

Jude still couldn’t get over that Zero would admit something like that to him, let Jude see the real man behind the curtain. “It’s going to be boring, just sitting here while I work.”

“You’re never boring,” Zero said immediately.

Jude felt warm all through his chest, and then he noticed Zero looking at him over the top of the magazine. “Asshole,” Jude said softly. “You don’t get boyfriend points for saying things you don’t mean.”

“I meant it,” Zero said. “I always mean the things I say to you.”

Jude’s throat closed up and his eyes burned. He didn’t know why such a simple comment affected him so deeply.

“Hey,” Zero said.

Jude shook his head in lieu of trying to form words, much less a coherent thought.

“Hey,” Zero said again as he rose from the chair. He walked around the desk while Jude tried to compose himself. Jude let himself be pulled out of the chair and into Zero’s arms.

“You did it,” Zero said.

Jude nodded and clutched at Zero’s back. “We won,” Jude said. “Round one, anyway, I don’t understand . . . .”

“You’ve been so focused,” Zero said, “and now it’s over. For now. You’re just coming down from it.”

“Why aren’t you . . . ?”

“Because my boyfriend did all the heavy lifting,” Zero said. “All I did was offer emotional support and blow jobs.”

Jude huffed a laugh. “An important contribution.” He let Zero hold him for a few seconds more before pulling away. “I’ve got to get to work. Thank you for . . . .”

“The emotional support?” Zero said.

“Pulling me back together,” Jude said.

“Any time,” Zero said, and Jude believed him.

Zero went back to the magazine, and Jude got to work with renewed energy. He checked his e-mails, made a mental triage of open files he needed to deal with, and then called each of his department heads to inform them of the new management. (He also made a mental note to suggest to Marcus that they send out the internal memo he’d promised them would be forthcoming.) He got reports from each of them and scheduled face-to-face meetings with all of them for the next day.

“I’ve got to get back to Marcus,” Jude said finally.

Zero dropped the magazine. “I should head to the locker room.”

They met in the middle of the office and Jude let Zero give him another hug. “You’re going to be in LA for a while,” Jude said. “You should consider making friends with some of the other players.”

“I don’t do friends,” Zero said stiffly.

Jude didn’t let Zero pull away. He placed his hand against the side of Zero’s face. “Think of them as allies, if it makes you feel better.”

“You don’t need to handle me, Jude,” Zero said.

“I like to handle you,” Jude said.

Zero looked startled for a second. “Innuendo, Jude? In the middle of a serious conversation? That’s my department.”

“You’ll have to tell me if I’m doing it right,” Jude said lightly.

“No way you could do it wrong, babe,” Zero said.

~*~

Marcus was on the phone when Jude returned, so he stepped back out of the office and went to Alan’s desk. “We’re doing everything backwards here,”Jude said. First the press conference, then the party, then the memo. “But is there a form memo for this sort of thing, announcing new management?”

“I took the liberty of drafting something up,” Alan said, digging out the appropriate folder and handing it to Jude.

“Thank you,” Jude said. He flipped open the folder and skimmed the draft memo. “I’ll go over this with Marcus.”

“We also finalized the list for invitations,” Alan said. “I printed off a sample invitation for Mr. Douglas’ approval.” He handed Jude another folder.

Jude opened this one as well, and perused the invitation. “It looks great,” Jude said. “I’ll run it past Marcus for final approval.”

Alan looked pleased at Jude’s comment, and he gave Jude a slow once over. Alan blushed when he realized that Jude had caught him.

“I’ll get right back to you on this,” Jude said, and then walked back to Marcus’ office. He’d never noticed Alan giving him any kind of looks when Jude had come to this office to see Oscar or Lionel. He wondered if the fact that he was dating Zero made him suddenly look like a catch.

(“It’s the power,” Zero told Jude much later when Jude mentioned it to him. “He can sense the confidence. Competence must be a turn on for him, too,” Zero added, just before he slid down Jude’s body and took him into his mouth.)

Marcus was still on the phone, but he motioned for Jude to come in. While he waited, Jude gave the memo a more careful read. It was interesting to see how something he’d sweated and agonized over could be boiled down to a few well-chosen words.

When Marcus hung up the phone, Jude passed over the memo. “Alan drafted an internal memo. We need to send it out so our own people know what’s going on.”

Marcus reviewed the memo, made a few marks with his pen, then handed it back to Jude. Marcus took the folder with the invitation and took a little longer to peruse both the revised list and the sample invitation. Marcus made a note on the list, then called for Alan, who appeared a moment later, as if he’d been waiting for Marcus’ summons.

“Good job on these,” Marcus said. He gave Alan some instructions, and then sent him off to get both the memo and the invitations revised. When they were alone, Marcus turned his attention to Jude. “Anything I should know about?”

“Nothing concerning, if that’s what you mean,” Jude said. “I’ve set up meetings with my department heads for tomorrow so I can get full reports which will be submitted to you for review.”

Marcus nodded, then sighed. He scribbled a note for himself. “Hopefully the transition is the worst of it.” Marcus dropped the pen and leaned back. “The police don’t have a suspect. Rather, they have too many suspects.”

“Including me and Zero,” Jude said.

“It would not look good if our EVP and newest shareholder is accused of murder,” Marcus said.

“I didn’t do it,” Jude said, as if Marcus needed the assurance. “And neither did Zero.”

“No,” Marcus said. “I don’t believe that either of you had anything to do with it. This feels like a crime of passion to me, and from what I’ve seen, you and Zero would’ve planned things a little better than to have yourselves be found anywhere near the crime scene after the shooting.”

Jude frowned. “Thank you?”

“Trust me, it was a compliment,” Marcus said, then looked over Jude’s shoulder. “Susan.”

“Marcus,” Susan said briskly. “What can I do?”

“I need to concentrate on getting up to speed on the day-to-day aspects of running the team. Would you be willing to lend a hand to Lionel and Cheryl with planning the party?”

“Lionel’s here?” Susan said with an exaggerated casual tone.

“She is,” Marcus said. “They’re in the Playground.”

“Well,” Susan said. “Why don’t I just go see how I can help.”

Susan swept out as swiftly as she’d swept in. She hadn’t even made a comment intended to embarrass Jude. He twisted in the chair to look at the empty doorway, wondering whether he’d just hallucinated the whole thing.

“What just happened?” Jude said, turning back around.

“It’s best we don’t ask,” Marcus said.

“No, but . . . .” It had almost sounded like . . . . Jude shook his head. Maybe Marcus was right.

Just then, Alan knocked on the open door. “Excuse me, Mr. Douglas, but Adam Oberman is here to see Miss Howard.”

“Is he?” Marcus said. “Please send him in, Alan.”

As soon as Alan left, Marcus gave Jude a questioning look.

“Adam Oberman was Jelena’s and Terrence’s contact with the League when they were trying to buy the team in the forced sale,” Jude told Marcus. “I noticed he was at the Playground before the game yesterday.”

“I noticed that, too,” Marcus said. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Jelena was probably trying to cement her position with the League.”

Marcus stopped speaking when Alan appeared with Adam Oberman in tow. Adam stepped into the office before he noticed that it wasn’t Jelena sitting behind the desk. Oberman looked surprised to see Marcus, but even more surprised to see Jude.

“Thank you, Alan,” Marcus said. “Please close the doors behind you.”

Alan nodded, then backed out and closed the doors. When the three of them were alone, Marcus gestured towards the chair beside Jude. “Have a seat, Adam. And tell me what business you had with Jelena.”

Oberman, who’d started to sit, paused at that last comment. The smile that had gone tight when he saw Marcus sitting behind the desk slipped completely.

“Where is Jelena?” Oberman said, in a bid for time, or possibly to see how badly he’d miscalculated by supporting Jelena.

“She didn’t tell me where she was going when she left the board meeting,” Marcus said. “Your turn.”

“I . . . just . . . .” Oberman stumbled over his words, then gave up. “Oh, hell,” he said. “I stopped by to congratulate her, but I can see that things didn’t go the way she’d planned.”

“It would seem not,” Marcus said. “I’ve already given a press conference, and we’re having a party to introduce the new shareholders tomorrow night, so it’s not a secret.”

“New shareholders?” Oberman said, emphasizing the plural.

“You already knew that Jelena had managed to obtain additional shares in the Devils,” Marcus said.

“I did,” Oberman admitted, giving up all pretense of not knowing what was going on.

“Jude Kinkade, here, is our other new shareholder.”

Oberman looked surprised. “How’d you get Oscar to give up more shares?”

“I didn’t,” Jude said. He didn’t elaborate, not feeling very generous towards Oberman since he’d been working against him and Lionel while helping Jelena and Terrence with the forced sale.

“The League will get proper notification of the change in ownership,” Marcus said. “In addition to the new shareholders, we have a new CEO and Chairman of the Board.”

“You,” Oberman said. “Congratulations, Marcus.”

“Thank you, Adam,” Marcus said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Is there anything else we can do for you?”

Oberman shook his head. “No.”

“Thank you for stopping by,” Marcus said, a dismissal and a fiction that Oberman had dropped in to see Marcus.

Oberman tilted his head in acknowledgment, and rose to his feet. Marcus must’ve pressed a button to summon Alan, but Jude hadn’t seen him do it.

“Please show Mr. Oberman out,” Marcus told Alan when he pushed the office doors open again.

“Of course,” Alan said to Marcus, and then to Oberman, “Sir?”

Marcus waited until Oberman reached the door to speak again. “Adam.”

Oberman paused, and looked back.

“Should you have any further business with the Devils, I trust you’ll deal with me.”

And now a warning. There was an almost imperceptible hesitation before Oberman plastered on a fake smile and said, “Of course, Marcus.”

~*~

As soon as Adam Oberman had been seen off, Marcus had Alan contact Pete and request a meeting. While they waited for Pete to arrive, Marcus asked Jude about Sloane Hayes.

“As far as I know, she was a good Director,” Jude said. “I really didn’t pay that much attention to the dancers.”

“I wonder why,” Marcus said wryly.

“The only reason Oscar fired her was because she’s the one who got him arrested,” Jude went on, trying to cover his fluster at Marcus’ comment. “And because she was trying to convince the League to sell the team.”

“I can see why Oscar wouldn’t have taken kindly to that,” Marcus said. “Can you call her to come in?”

Marcus made some phone calls of his own while Jude called Sloane. She refused to come in until Jude explained everything that had happened in the meeting that morning. The phone call reminded Jude that he’d wanted to speak to Marcus about Wendell’s embezzling, which Jelena was most likely holding over him.

When Marcus disconnected, Jude brought it up. Marcus looked contemplative. “I suspected it was something like that.”

“You knew he was embezzling?” Jude said.

“No, but Wendell was acting very out of character this morning,” Marcus said.

“Did she not find anything on the rest of you?” Jude said.

Marcus gave Jude a look. “I don’t know,” he said. “If she did, maybe she didn’t think she’d need it because we were all sewed up, so to speak.”

It wasn’t a denial of there being anything to find, but before Jude could question Marcus further, Alan knocked on the door.

Pete didn’t look surprised to see either Marcus or Jude in the office when Alan showed him in. “Marcus,” Pete said. “Jude. I saw the press conference. Congratulations to both of you.”

“Thank you,” Marcus said. “I’ll get right to the point, Pete: you supported Jelena Howard for this position.”

“I supported Jelena when I thought Oscar was the only other choice,” Pete said. “And to be fair, all of you supported her, too.”

Marcus tilted his head in acknowledgment. “Things didn’t go quite the way Miss Howard had planned at the board meeting today.”

Pete snorted. “Since she’s not sitting here right now, I’d say not.”

“I don’t believe that she’s going to accept that defeat lying down,” Marcus went on. “I’d like to know if I’ll have your support should Jelena approach you again.”

Pete took a moment to compose his reply. “Jude and I have our issues, but I don’t think he’s anything like Oscar. You, on the other hand, let a man like Oscar run this team.”

“There was nothing I, or any of the other shareholders, could do while Oscar owned a majority of the shares,” Marcus said. “We, too, sided with Jelena as the lesser evil once the opportunity arose. But then we were given a third option.”

“What was different now?” Pete said. “Isn’t it still basically Oscar or Jelena?”

Marcus glanced at Jude, and Jude spoke up. “I convinced Oscar to make me his proxy.”

“How does that change anything?”

“It took Oscar out of play,” Marcus said. “For the time being, anyway. While we were no longer willing to follow Oscar, and we only reluctantly agreed to follow Jelena, most of us were thrilled to be given a different path.”

“Jude’s path,” Pete said. He indicated the desk Marcus sat behind. “I can see why you were willing to go along with Jude . . . .”

“Not true,” Marcus interrupted before Jude could say anything. “Jude had my support before I knew he had this planned, and Jude apparently had this planned before he knew he had my full support. We were both going on faith. Who do you have faith in, Pete?”

“How long do you think Ahsha would’ve remained a Devil Girl under Jelena?” Jude said.

“Jelena promised not to fire Ahsha if she had our help,” Pete said.

“Did you believe she’d keep her word?” Marcus said.

Pete glanced at Jude and grudgingly admitted, “Sloane didn’t.”

“Jelena wanted this position because she had an agenda. I don’t have an agenda because I didn’t even know this morning that I’d be sitting behind this desk today. Well,” Marcus admitted, “I did have an agenda, and that was to make sure Jude didn’t fall on his face, because I thought he might be angling for this desk.”

“Thanks?” Jude said.

“You’re welcome,” Marcus said, then turned back to Pete. “Believe me, no one wanted Oscar out more than we did. Which is why we also jumped on the first opportunity that crossed our path. Turned out we had another, better, opportunity.”

Pete looked between Marcus and Jude, then said, “Would Ahsha’s position on the team be safe?”

Marcus leaned back in his chair with a regrettable sigh. “Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be up to us. It would be up to the new Director.”

“And who would that be?” Pete said.

“I was told to come straight back,” Sloane said from the open doorway.

“Sloane!” Pete said, rising from his chair.

“Pete, what are you doing here?” Sloane said, returning Pete’s hug and letting him take her hand.

Instead of answering her, Pete turned to Marcus and Jude. “Is this some sort of bribery?” he demanded.

“We think of it as setting things right,” Marcus said. “But it wouldn’t hurt if it gave you the warm fuzzies so you’d throw us your support.”

“What’s he talking about?” Sloane said to Pete.

Marcus rose to his feet. “The Devil Girls are in need of a Director.”

“Oscar fired me,” Sloane said.

“Luckily for all of us,” Marcus said, “Oscar isn’t in charge anymore.”

~*~

Alan returned the moment Pete and Sloane left. He gave Marcus a tablet to review the final draft of the memo and affix his signature.

“Looks good,” Marcus said as he scribbled his signature across the screen, then handed the tablet back to Alan. “Send it.”

“The invitations are printing now,” Alan said. “I’ll contact our usual courier service to have them delivered?”

“Yes,” Marcus said, “do that.”

“I hope there’s an invitation in that pile for me,” Oscar said from the doorway.

Jude’s heart skipped a beat when he heard Oscar’s voice. He gripped the arm of the chair he sat in, then forced his fingers to relax.

Marcus nodded to Alan, who left with only a brief look at Oscar, and then he stood. “Of course there is,” he said to Oscar. Marcus gestured to the vacant chair beside Jude. “Please have a seat, Oscar.”

Oscar settled himself into the chair, rearranged his suit jacket, and leaned back. He watched Marcus lower himself back into the chair that had once been his, eyes glittering with avarice.

“What can I do for you, Oscar?” Marcus said.

“I’m wondering why I had to hear about this new ‘leadership’ on the news,” Oscar said.

“That was unfortunate,” Marcus said, offering sympathy, but not an apology. “I was blind-sided by that press conference. My best guess is that Jelena called it when she thought she’d be announcing her own take-over after the board meeting.”

And Zero’s trade, probably, Jude thought.

“I never thought I’d see you sitting behind that desk,” Oscar observed.

“I never imagined I’d be sitting behind it,” Marcus said.

“And yet here we are,” Oscar said. When Marcus didn’t respond, Oscar turned to Jude, acknowledging his presence for the first time since he’d walked in the office. “So, when the dust settled, you ended up on top.”

“I’m still EVP,” Jude said, “if that’s what you mean.”

“And apparently a new owner,” Oscar said. “You wouldn’t have happened to misrepresent that fact, would you?”

“No!” Jude said. “I wouldn’t lie about something like that.” Not least because it could so easily be discovered, and Jude liked to think he wasn’t that stupid.

“How did that happen?” Oscar said.

“George Pullman is selling his shares,” Jude said.

“To you,” Oscar said, as if it were impossible for him to believe that anyone would sell their shares to Jude.

Thoughts whirled through Jude’s head; he wanted to tell Oscar that not everyone thought he was a loser, not worth acknowledging as a son, but he bit all that back and merely said, “Yes, Oscar, to me.”

“How did you pull this off?” Oscar said.

His surprise stung, but also filled Jude with satisfaction, and even a little pride, that he’d pulled it off, that he’d done something Oscar had never expected him to. In part because Oscar hadn’t expected much of him, had underestimated him.

“Jude offered an alternative to Jelena,” Marcus said.

“When you told me that Marcus would follow you,” Oscar said.

Jude flushed and couldn’t bring himself to look at Marcus.

“I didn’t realize it was because you’d offered him my position.”

“I didn’t,” Jude said.

Oscar ignored him, and went on. “But what did you offer George? He’s always shown a propensity for women in the past, but . . . .”

“That’s enough, Oscar,” Marcus said, somehow managing to sound angry without raising his voice.

The blood had drained from Jude’s face. He’d thought that Oscar couldn’t hurt him anymore, but he’d been wrong. Jude pulled himself up straight. “You know what, Oscar, I did give George something. A promise. To be a better man than you are. Not that it would take much, but that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Jude,” Marcus said gently. “Why don’t you go check on the arrangements for tomorrow night.”

Jude pulled his attention away from Oscar, and tried to control his breathing. He nodded to Marcus, part acknowledgment, part thanks, and then he stood.

“That’s what’s wrong with Jude,” Oscar said before Jude had departed. “Everyone coddles him.”

“Is that what you were doing,” Marcus said, “when you signed the Appointment of Proxy?”

Jude didn’t hear any more. He knew he’d passed people on his way to the elevator, but he couldn’t remember who, much less whether they’d spoken to him, or if he’d responded. The elevator doors opened outside the Playground and Jude disembarked on autopilot. Once he stood in the foyer, he couldn’t bring himself to enter the club.

Jude paced away from the doors. He put his back to the wall and scrubbed his hands over his face, then tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Jude heard the ding of the elevator doors opening again, and he quickly stepped away from the wall so no one saw him looking as pathetic as he felt. He pulled out his phone and pretended to be checking his messages, but he heaved a sigh, as much resignation as relief, when Zero stepped off.

Jude slipped the phone back into his pocket, shoved his hands into the front pockets of his slacks, and leaned back against the wall again. He lowered his head and stared at the floor, then looked at Zero through his lashes when he drew closer. “Who called you, Marcus?”

Zero looked worried. “What happened?”

Jude didn’t speak until Zero stood next to him, his back against the wall, his shoulder pressed to Jude’s. “Oscar happened. He’s in Marcus’ office right now.”

“What did he do?”

Jude huffed a self-deprecating laugh. “He implied that I performed sexual favors for George Pullman in order to get him to sell me his shares.”

Zero laughed, and then broke off when he saw Jude’s expression. “Wait, really? Was he serious?”

Jude shrugged. “Who knows. He could’ve been fishing, or just trying to get a reaction out of me. If so, it worked.”

“Ignore him,” Zero said.

“I can’t ignore him. I made him think I had evidence that could put him back behind bars and get the Devils sold. He won’t stop coming after me, trying to get the team back.”

“I’m not suggesting that you stop watching your back,” Zero said. “Just that you let him go, don’t give him the power to keep hurting you.”

“I have let him go,” Jude said. “Mostly. It’s hard. I used to tell myself that my mom was wrong, that Oscar loved me, that I’d meet him and he’d look at me, and we’d just have this . . . connection, you know? And then . . . .” Jude shook his head. “I thought if I could prove myself to him, earn his respect, I’d earn his love.”

“You don’t earn love,” Zero said.

“I tried so hard,” Jude said. “I did things . . . . It wasn’t enough. Nothing would ever have been enough, because Oscar had already made up his mind about me. I was so stupid.”

“You weren’t stupid,” Zero said. “You’re a son who wanted his dad to love him, that’s natural.”

“Do you ever wonder,” Jude said, “what happened to your parents?”

Zero had been caught off-guard by the question, and Jude saw that his first instinct was to make light of it, hide behind a joke, but then it passed, and he said, “Not anymore.”

Jude nodded his acceptance of the answer, his acknowledgment that Zero had been honest with him. “Oscar said, when I blackmailed him into signing the proxy form, that maybe I was more like him than he’d thought.”

“You are nothing like Oscar,” Zero said vehemently. “You did what you did for me, and for Lionel, and for the Devils. Oscar has never done anything for anyone other than himself his entire life.”

Jude smiled.

“What?” Zero said, still irritated on Jude’s behalf.

“I’ve never had anyone like you in my corner before,” Jude said.

Zero shrugged. “Yeah, well, ditto.”

Jude laughed, and Zero’s stern expression finally broke and he smiled, too.

“It goes both ways, you know,” Zero said.

“I know,” Jude said softly.

Jude turned so he could kiss Zero, and Zero turned into the kiss, too. Jude was feeling much better by the time Lionel came out and interrupted them.

“Okay, enough canoodling,” Lionel said. “Chop, chop! We don’t have much time to finish planning your big coming out party.”

“It’s not . . . ,” Jude began, but Lionel was grinning at her own joke.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Zero said.

Jude panicked when he realized he’d be left alone with Lionel and Susan if Zero left. “Where are you going?”

“Back to the locker room,” Zero said. He leaned in conspiratorially and said, “Dad told me to make friends at school today.” Zero gave Jude a look that said ‘call me if you need me,’ but he gave Jude’s ass a squeeze and planted a kiss on his lips before saying, “See you later, boss,” and heading back towards the elevator.

Jude wanted to protest, maybe dig in his heels, when Lionel grabbed his arm and dragged him into the Playground, but he he’d already made a fool of himself once today.

~*~

It turned out that Lionel, Susan, and Cheryl did not need Jude’s help with the party because the three of them had things well under control, from drinks and catering to music and decorations. In fact, they’d just finished scheduling the necessary extra staff and were sitting at the bar. Lionel didn’t let go of Jude’s hand until he was seated on a stool between herself and Susan, a cold beer in his hand.

“I have to go back to work,” Jude said, even as he raised the bottle and took a sip.

“Oscar’s an ass,” Lionel said.

“I’ll drink to that,” Susan said.

The two ladies clinked their glasses together and took a drink.

“Don’t leave me out,” Cheryl said, and so Susan and Lionel clinked their glasses with hers and took another drink when she did.

Jude buried his face in his arm. “How did you hear?”

“There’s an early warning system in place,” Cheryl said. “Whenever Oscar shows up at the Arena, the word goes out.”

Jude raised his head. “Really?”

Cheryl nodded.

“But . . . .”

“We didn’t hear anything,” Lionel said. “Oscar shows up at the Arena, you show up here upset . . . . It doesn’t take a genius.”

“Not that we aren’t,” Susan clarified. “It just wouldn’t.”

“Right,” Jude said. “How much have you ladies had to drink?”

“Not nearly enough,” Lionel said.

Both Susan and Cheryl agreed, and the three of them clinked glasses again and took another drink.

Jude escaped to his office while the three ladies were debating the merits of mixing a Raspberry Margarita over a White Russian. Talking about a party in his honor, and Oscar, and Zero’s parents, had gotten him thinking about his own mom. It had only been a week since they’d last spoken, but a lot had happened in that week.

She’d be excited about the house Zero had bought for them, Jude knew. Less so about Jude now owning a part of the Devils. And even less if Jude told her that he’d sunk to Oscar’s level to get his Proxy. The one thing she’d said when Jude wouldn’t be talked out of trying to have a relationship with Oscar was, “Don’t let him change you.”

Jude had changed. It had been inevitable. But he hoped he hadn’t changed too much. Enough to be unrecognizable to his mother.

Jude took out his cell and opened his contacts. He stared at his mother’s information for a few seconds before touching the call button.

“Jude!” Maria Rose Kinkade Smythe said when she answered the call.

Jude smiled, his spirit lightening at the sound of her voice, and her undisguised happiness to hear from him. “Hey, mom.”

~*~

Jude felt more balanced after the call with his mother, despite the fact that the news he’d shared had been happy and disappointing in equal measure. Jude went back to Marcus’ office, figuring Oscar had to be gone by then. He nodded at Alan as he passed his desk, then knocked on Marcus’ open door before entering. Jude couldn’t help glancing around just to make sure Marcus was the only person inside.

“Thank you,” Jude said. “For getting me out of here. And for calling Zero.”

“You’re welcome,” Marcus said. “But I didn’t call Zero. Didn’t even think of it, to be honest, and I wouldn’t have done so in front of Oscar.”

“Oh,” Jude said, brain whirling. He shook his head. “Well, the party has been planned down to the finest detail,” Jude assured Marcus.

“I had no doubt it would be,” Marcus said. “The memo has been sent out, and the invitations are in the couriers’ hands. They should all be delivered today. Alan is taking care of in-house delivery, so stop by his desk to pick up yours and Zero’s.”

“I will,” Jude said. “If you don’t need me for anything else . . . .”

“I think we’ve stemmed the bleeding from Jelena’s little stunt,” Marcus said. “For now. I’ll let you get back to work.”

Jude nodded and stood.

“I’ll see you at the Playground before the game,” Marcus said.

Jude paused. He’d forgotten about that new tradition. “Yes,” Jude said, and resisted the urge to pinch himself. He’d gone from a junior agent, and then Zero’s agent, to EVP, and now part-owner of the Devils, and it still hadn’t quite sunk in. “I’ll see you there.”

Jude stopped at Alan’s desk and asked him about the invitations. Alan looked relieved as he dug out Jude’s and Zero’s invitations, which had been clipped together. Jude thanked him and started to walk away, not missing the soft sigh of relief. It made Jude pause. He turned back and studied Alan, who was looking at Jude now like a deer in the headlights. “You called Zero,” Jude said.

Alan opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

“Thank you,” Jude said.

Alan couldn’t have looked more surprised if Jude had slapped him. “Oh,” Alan said, letting out a deep breath. “You’re welcome.”

~*~

Jude went by the locker room before returning to his office. When Zero saw him, he handed off the game controller and came over.

“I’ve got our invitations,” Jude said.

Zero took them out of Jude’s hand and glanced at them. He read out loud, “Join us in welcoming two new owners to the Devils family.”

Jude ducked his head to hide the flush.

“I hope we don’t have to give these up at the door,” Zero said. “I think I’ll get ‘em framed.”

Instead of addressing Zero’s sentimentality, Jude said, “I called my mom.”

Zero gave Jude a knowing look at the obvious change of subject, but merely said, “And how is Mama Kinkade?”

Jude snorted. “She’d kill you if she heard you call her that.”

“I do it just to get a rise out of you,” Zero admitted. “Did you tell her about this?” He gestured with the invitations.

“Yeah. She wasn’t thrilled about that. But she is excited about the house.”

“You told her about the house?” Zero said.

“Of course. She asked if there was a big yard.”

“What is it about you Kinkades and babies?” Zero said, but he sounded fond of at least one Kinkade when he said it.

“She wants before and after pictures,” Jude said.

Zero winced. “There’s still a sledgehammer in the wall.”

“I like the aesthetic,” Jude said.

Zero gave Jude a besotted smile, and then handed back the invitations when Curtis called his name. “I’ve got to go defend my honor,” Zero said. He unselfconsciously leaned in and gave Jude a kiss.

The cat-calls started before Jude had even left the locker room. “Shut up, Curtis,” Zero said with good humor. “You’re just jealous ‘cause my girlfriend’s prettier than yours.”

“Oooh!” someone else said. “I wonder who’d be more insulted by that, Natalie ‘cause you implied she ain’t pretty, or Jude ‘cause you implied he’s a girl.”

“I didn’t say that Natalie wasn’t pretty,” Zero explained as if he was talking to a dolt. “Only that Jude’s prettier.”

Jude returned to his office with a lighter step and a smile on his face.