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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 TWO

He could stare at the black and white images as long as he wanted. The answers wouldn’t come.

Noah’s photographs had always spoken. To art collectors, to critics. To the casual observer who wandered by the window and stopped dead on the sidewalk, head canted, eyes wide in appreciation. In wonder.

Noah’s voice was stretched wide on those canvases, gradient shades of life captured in the split-second of a camera’s flash. The world seen through the eyes of his – their – brilliant friend.

It was the reason for Noah’s success, why his work lined wall after wall in the gallery. But for all the photographs said, to Jude they were silent. He couldn’t pick out the rhythm and timber of the voice he’d grown up with. He couldn’t find the answers he feared he’d go mad without.

Why did you leave?

Why didn’t you just tell her?

What am I supposed to do now?

Jude would have thrown something, would have stripped the walls bare and locked the entire collection in the back room. Would have considered burning the whole thing to the ground. Had considered it…. But it wouldn’t do any good. Not now. Amy would never forgive him. And her daughter, Eden….

Well, he didn’t want to give her a reason to hate him. Not another one.

It was time for him to go home. To try to get some sleep. Fuck, to find a large, stiff drink.

Jude felt for the key in his pocket as he turned towards the entrance, arm outstretched to switch off the lights. He was like that, mid-motion, when he saw her.

Eden.

He’d known she was coming home. She wouldn’t take his calls, but Amy had been able to reach her. Had tracked her down half-a-world a way and asked her to come back.

But it took only one shallow breath for Jude to register the difference between knowing something was going to happen and experiencing it first hand.

His body reacted instantly. No surprise. Eden had always affected him on the most basic level. It was natural, like a force of nature. He was the withering plant, she the sun breaking free from the clouds. He, the earth; she, the quake that tore it quickly, violently apart.

If Eden was aware of her effect on him, she gave no sign. Jude felt like he was losing his balance while she stood before him, utterly controlled.

Her auburn hair was tied back in a sleek ponytail. Her black coat covered the top half of her black pants that were perfectly tailored to reveal the tips of her black shoes.

All of which made her eyes stand out more.

He’d always thought them perfect. Vibrant blue, full of allure and promise and determination and, at that moment, a hardness he’d allowed himself to forget.

“Eden.”

She stared at him, perfectly still. Her hand gripped the door knob and Eden’s fingers flexed when Jude said her name.

“What are you doing here?”

“Welcome home,” Jude replied, ignoring her question.

“You know damn well there is nothing welcome about being here. Not for me.”

“But you came.”

“Of course I did.” Eden narrowed her eyes, the blue sharpening. “Did you think I wouldn’t? I’m not heartless.”

“I know.” Jude couldn’t stop staring at her face. The brow and bones and lips and smooth skin that had haunted his nights for years. Decades. Oh, she had a heart. One Jude was painfully aware would never be his.

“You didn’t answer my question.” Eden came forward, leaving the door open behind her.

Jude shifted back, conceding to her. Giving her just enough room so she wouldn’t run away. Again. “I had some work to finish up.”

“You don’t work here.” A statement. Never a question.

“You’ve been away a long time, Eden. Things have changed.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

Eden’s knuckles were white where they locked around the strap of her bag and Jude didn’t miss the small tremor that shook her.

He would have reached out, steadied her with his hand. Rested it on her shoulder, letting the heat of his skin sink down into the warmth of hers. If she’d allow it.

She wouldn’t.

“Thank you for coming,” Jude murmured.

“I didn’t do it for you.”

“I know,” Jude repeated, his eyes not falling from hers, his feet finally moving, bringing him closer.

“You don’t belong here.”

“I’ve always belonged here.” Another step.

“Not anymore.”

Jude’s thigh brushed the soft corner of Eden’s bag. Her head tilted up, her eyes holding his, her face blank in a way that set his heart racing.

Not in pleasure. In panic.

Angry Eden he could handle. Fiery, passionate, enraged Eden he knew what to do with. Had so many fantasies about what to do with.

But quiet, motionless Eden? Stoic and still and shallowed-eyed Eden?

She terrified him.

Without thinking, Jude curled one large hand around her elbow, his fingers overlapping themselves, her delicate bones dwarfed by the span of his palm.

Jude swallowed his relief when he felt life there. It was almost imperceptible, a flash that came as quickly as it went. But in the brief hesitation before Eden yanked away, Jude felt her, softer and more vulnerable than she’d ever want him to know.

“I need you to go. Now.”

“Why?” He knew she had so many answers to that single question. But he wanted, needed, one. One small admission to help him navigate the days ahead.

Something to help him survive her homecoming.

Or so he thought, until Eden answered.

“Because it should’ve been you.”

***

Eden didn’t watch him leave.

Her answer had made him flinch, exactly as she’d intended. She didn’t need to watch his lids drop or his lips strain in astonishment. In pain.

She’d wanted Jude gone and now he was.

Eden refused to stand and stare at the place he’d been seconds before. Refused to store away the sight of him, or acknowledge the fleeting comfort left behind by his touch.

The door clicked shut behind her and Eden set her bag on the floor, careful not to crash it against the concrete.

She stood in the center of the room and breathed, shaky. Eden could smell Jude’s scent, cologne and clean male, lingering in the air. Noah, he was all over the walls.

For one second, they were together again. In the space that she’d once thought so beautiful, in the town that had once been theirs. The three of them. As they should have been. As they never would be. Because she’d left. Because Noah had died. Because Jude….

Enough.

Eden needed to find whatever Noah had left behind and get out of there.

It was on his desk, just as her mother had promised. An envelope with her name on it, the note “only to be opened by” scratched out in Noah’s sloppy handwriting. Eden flipped it over and checked the back. Firmly sealed.

“Only for you, Noah,” Eden whispered as she tucked the envelope into her pocket, retrieved her bag, turned off the lights, and locked the gallery behind her.

***

“You’re late,” was the first thing her mom said. Eden groaned, wishing she hadn’t answered the phone.

“I’m pulling up outside. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.”

“Okay.” There was a muffled sound as Amy Ellis covered the phone’s speaker, her voice fading before she returned. “Do you have it?”

Eden squeezed the phone between her cheek and shoulder as she threw the car into park and grabbed her purse off the passenger seat. The “it” in question peeked from the outside flap. “Yes.”

“Good. Now get in here. We’re all waiting for you.”

Eden had barely made it. Too little sleep and too many memories making her sluggish. She’d barely had a chance to throw on clean, though wrinkled clothes before jumping into her car and driving across town to the address her mother had given.

She hadn’t opened the envelope, choosing gnawing ignorance over another sure-fire shot to the heart. She hadn’t even checked to see where she was going. She thought she knew. But she should have paid closer attention to what Jude had said.

Things had changed.

Standing in front of the receptionist’s desk, the conference table beyond within easy view, Eden realized several things at once.

The man who had once occupied the office was gone. Someone else in his place. Someone who’s familiar – but not quite identical – eyes and smile made her heart clench.

There were fewer people than she’d expected. Only three.

They all had their own envelopes, contents removed and spread across the table.

Everyone knew what was going to happen. Everyone but her.

Eden met the bright green gaze across the table, the one that reminded her so much of his brother. Her fingers found her own neglected envelope.

She shouldn’t have come. Not before finding out what Noah had left for her inside.

***

Readers were asked: Does Eden open the envelope OR go into the meeting without seeing what’s inside?

 

The story continues Thursday 10/12

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