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{You can read the entire story as I write it here; I’ll add a chapter each week, after I post to Instagram.}

CHAPTER ONE

Eden slipped her hand into her coat pocket and silenced her phone. She didn’t check to see who was calling. She didn’t need to. It was the same person who’d been calling for days, weeks. The same person she hadn’t spoken to. Not once, not in years.

She couldn’t avoid him forever. He’d find her, try to explain. Try to make her listen. But no matter how many times he called, today wasn’t the day she would finally answer.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” she said, head bent. Eden’s voice was naturally low; too low for a woman, she’d always thought. But that day it came out muffled, forced, like secrets trying to make their way through the cracks around a long-locked door.

She’d arrived straight from the airport, hadn’t even stopped at her hotel to change. The points of Eden’s black leather flats were digging into the freshly laid sod and the guilt that had gripped her since hearing that first voicemail intensified.

She’d missed the funeral, hadn’t been there to say goodbye with the rest of his family and friends. She hadn’t even picked up flowers to lay on his grave. And now the dark divots in the still-soft ground would be the only proof she’d been there.

A gust of wind whipped between the headstones and Eden shivered. She wasn’t prepared. Not for the shift in the seasons or the drop in temperature. She wasn’t prepared to be back, to be there. She would never be prepared to say goodbye. “I’ll visit soon, I promise,” she whispered to the damp autumn air before pressing two shaky fingers to her lips and carrying a kiss to newly-carved stone.

Eden jammed both hands into her pockets and carefully navigated around the dips and divots in the ancient cemetery. It would take her fifteen minutes to get to the hotel. Twenty, if she took the scenic route through the center of town, something she had no intention of doing. An unfamiliar car, even one as nondescript as her rental, would be noticed immediately.

People would crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the newly-arrived stranger only to gasp and cover their mouths when they saw something worse.

Eden Ellis. Home at last. Home too late.

Passing the hotel’s circular drive, Eden drove to the rear parking lot and claimed a spot in back. To make it easier to leave, she reminded herself.

As she climbed the steps to the wrap-around porch her phone started ringing. Again.

“God, you’d think he’d have given up by now,” Eden muttered.

“Well, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one you’re avoiding.”

Eden almost dropped her overnight bag, but the woman rising from the nearby rocking chair slipped delicate fingers around the handle, steadying it.

“Mom. What are you doing here?”

“I was going to ask you the same question.”

Eden stepped around the petite woman and headed for the hotel’s front door, refusing to meet the eyes she knew looked so like her own. “You know exactly why I’m here. You were the one who demanded I come home.”

“I didn’t demand. I asked. And this isn’t exactly home.”

“It’s close enough.” Eden was about to go inside, the antique brass door handle making her fingers tingle with cold, when her mom sighed. Eden stopped. “Mom….”

The words were crowding her throat and Eden couldn’t grasp the right ones, not amidst the jumble of unshed tears and choking sobs that she was desperately trying to contain until she reached the privacy of her room.

“I know, baby girl,” her mom soothed as she laid a hand on Eden’s shoulder. “We were all so shocked. Such a tragedy.”

Eden swallowed down a cry even as her mom’s soft voice and warm touch threatened to tear it loose. “I really can’t talk about this now,” she managed to say.

“I know,” her mom repeated. “We can talk about him later. That’s not why I’m here.”

Eden shifted just enough so her mom’s hand dropped from her shoulder. Their eyes met under the vintage carriage lamp that was always lit, the hazy glow bleeding into the twilight. Eden expected her mother to continue; instead, she retrieved something from her pocket and pressed it into her daughter’s free hand.

“I need you to go to the gallery.”

“Tonight?”

“Now.”

“No.” Eden shook her head and tried to give back what she realized was a key. Her mom retreated to the porch’s wide railing. “Mom, I’ve been traveling for three days straight. I need to shower, I need to change, I need to eat, I need to sleep. I’m not going there until I’ve done all of those things. Preferably more than once.”

“Eden.” The other woman’s soft voice was laced with a familiar thread of steel. “You are here because of Noah. But you are also here because of the gallery. And he left something for you there, something I think you’ll want before the meeting tomorrow.”

Eden clenched her fingers around the teeth of the key and was thankful for the bite. It distracted her from the need to scream. “You couldn’t have brought it – whatever it is – here?”

“No one is supposed to touch it except you.”

Eden stared at her mother, dread and exhaustion and despair and morbid curiosity warring within her. “How do you know that? He couldn’t have said that.”

“There’s a note. You’ll see. When you get there.”

“Mom….” Eden hated the way it came out, part whine, part whimper.

Her mom smiled, a small, placating tilt of her lips, one she’s perfected over years and years of parenthood. “You won’t be able to sleep until you see it. You know that as well as I do.”

Thanks, Mom. Low-fucking-blow.

“Besides,” she continued, “it will only take a minute. You’ll find it on his desk, in the back office. I wouldn’t send you if it wasn’t important, Eden. You know that.”

“I do.” It came out with more conviction than Eden felt.

“Thank you. And I’m glad you’re back. It’s been far too long. We’ve missed you.” The other woman pushed off the railing and laid a hand on Eden’s arm. “I’ve missed you.”

“I…,” Eden trailed off, wondering how long it would be before she could say those words back.

“Do you want me to walk with you?”

“No.” She was exhausted, strung tight; the last thing she wanted to do was to talk to anyone, but especially not to her mother. Not when she was on the verge of breaking. “I’ll be fine. Go home. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“If you’re sure….” Her mom was stalling, wanting to make sure Eden didn’t escape into the hotel. Or worse, into her car.

“Positive. I’ll see you in the morning. Goodnight.”

“Welcome back, sweetie.”

For a second she thought her mom was going to kiss her cheek and she forced down disappointment when the woman left, her fingers falling after giving Eden’s arm the lightest squeeze.

***

Eden didn’t bother to drop off her bag. If she went inside the hotel she’d never come out again. Hauling the strap onto her shoulder, she let her legs carry her the short distance to the gallery. The trip required no directions, no thought, just muscle memory and the hope that she’d survive whatever was waiting for her there.

She could have lied, pretended she’d gone when she hadn’t. But her mother was right. She’d never be able to sleep, not with the promise of some piece of Noah, however small, however heart-wrenching, waiting for her at the gallery.

Eden had the key in the lock and the knob half turned before she realized something was wrong.

The drapes her mother kept closed behind the window display were open. All the lights were on. And something – someone – was casting a shadow across the polished concrete floor.

Scrambling to pull her phone from her pocket, Eden was on the verge of calling the police when the person stepped into view.

It was jet-lag, surely. Exhaustion. Lack of sleep. Lack of food. Any or all that had her seeing things, seeing him.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Eden chanted, eyes going wide, lungs growing tight as she watched Jude stride across the gallery, coming to a halt in the center, his back towards her, his head turned as he scanned the photographs lining the wall.

It didn’t matter how many times she blinked, he didn’t disappear, didn’t vanish into a sleep-deprived haze. Eden felt a war blaze to life inside her, her feet demanding she run far, far away, while her fingers begged to get closer, to slip into that thick mahogany hair, longer than it had once been, and see if it was as soft as she’d always imagined.

However fierce a battle her body was waging, Eden’s mind was painfully blank. A problem, she realized, when Jude began to turn towards the door and she had only seconds to decide if she was going to run. Or if she was going to stay and fight.

***

Readers were asked: Does Eden leave OR stay and fight?

Winning vote: STAY & FIGHT

Read Chapter Two.

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