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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.}

Eden took another sip of red wine and wrapped her sweater tighter. Jude popped the last bite of steak into his mouth. She could hear his low rumble of appreciation, despite the soft slap of water against the dock. Maybe because she expected it. Found herself listening for it.

“Dinner was good. Thank you.”

Jude nodded, his mouth still full. It was fall, the long light of summer gone. But it was early enough in the evening that Eden had a perfect view of her dinner companion, especially with the lanterns that Jude had placed on the table and around the dock.

Eden had to give him credit. He knew what he was doing. When she’d agreed to dinner, she’d never expected this.

They were at the lake. Eden had arrived at the address he’d given her right on time, ready to get the evening over with. But Jude had brushed off any attempt at heavy conversation and lead her down a short path to a dock. He’d set up a table for two at the very end, complete with linen tablecloth, flickering lanterns, and food he’d cooked himself.

Steak fresh off the grill. Potatoes mashed with grainy Dijon mustard. Brightly steamed green beans with a squeeze of lemon. Washed down with a pinot noir that Eden decided was a new favorite.

While Jude was distracted refilling their glasses, she licked a stray bit of mashed potato off her fork. Eden agreed with Jude’s ‘hmmmm.’ The food was delicious.

She didn’t know when Jude had learned to cook. Eden marked it down as one of the many things that had changed since she’d left.

They hadn’t talked much during dinner. The sun was sinking towards the tree-line. If Jude wanted the opportunity to explain, he needed to get on with it.

“As lovely as this has been, maybe we stop avoiding the reason I’m here.” Eden leaned back in her chair, cradling her glass between her hands.   And waited.

Jude pushed his plate aside and leaned forward, forearms on the table. “You’re right. But first, can I ask – when’s the last time you spoke to Allison?”

Eden refused to squirm under his steady gaze. “Does it matter?”

“I just want to know how much you know. Or think you know,” he amended. “So I know where to start.”

Eden snorted. “Just start from the beginning. It’s as good a place as any.”

Jude sighed, but stayed where he was, angled towards her. “If only it was that simple…,” he drifted off, eyes shifting to the water. “Do you remember that summer, right before you left for college?”

“What about it?”

“We were here. Out there.” Jude pointed to the center of the lake. “You were so excited, Eden. We’d come out here a second time that day because you couldn’t keep still. You begged me to go swimming one more time. So you could burn off some of the jitters.”

Eden followed the direction of his gaze, hoping the growing darkness covered her blush. She did remember that day. It was one of those bitter-sweet concoctions, the kind that hit her in the heart at the same time it made her sick. She’d been happy. Excited. Nervous as hell. She hadn’t just wanted to go swimming because she’d been excited about going away to school. She’d wanted to go swimming because she’d been dying to kiss Jude. Finally. She’d made up her mind. They’d skirted around for months. But summer had been about to end and, terrified or not, Eden had been ready to go for it. Lips to lips, skin to skin, in the lake’s smooth summer water.

“Yeah, I remember.”

“And then your dad came to get you.”

“Stepdad.”

“Walter, yeah.” Jude’s jaw flickered. “He took you home so fast I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. And I wasn’t sure when I’d see you again. Not before your big going away party.”

Eden just nodded, her throat thick. She hadn’t said goodbye. Not then. Not later.

“I think that was the day it started, Eden.”

“When what started?”

“You hating me.”

“I don’t ha–”

Jude laughed, cutting her off. “It’s okay. You don’t have to pretend. Especially not when you told me straight to my face earlier. I can handle your hatred, Eden. I’ve gotten very used to living with it, actually. It’s your indifference that would kill me.”

Eden started to say something, but Jude waved her off. The sadness in his eyes held a weight that frightened her.

“What you don’t know,” he continued, “is that I came to find you that day. After. I went to your house. No one answered when I knocked. I figured you must have been upstairs, packing. I went around to the back door and was about to knock again, when I heard your parents shouting.”

Eden straightened in her chair. She remembered getting home that day. Pissed and disappointed, she’d run strait up to her room and turned her music up as loud as it would go. She hadn’t heard Jude knock. And she hadn’t heard her mom and Walter arguing.

“I can’t tell you,” Jude said, his voice suddenly harsh, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about it, tried to remember what I was thinking when I opened that door. How often I wonder how things would’ve been different if I’d just turned around, gone home, and called you later.” Jude ran a hand down his face.

“You didn’t come up to my room.”

“I didn’t,” he said. Jude wouldn’t look at her and Eden suddenly realized why he’d picked the lake. It might be a sentimental spot, but they were outside and the sun was setting and Jude could hide in the growing darkness, while forcing himself to finally explain.

“What were they fighting about?”

“You.”

Eden almost dropped her glass. “What?”

Jude’s eyes were a flash in the growing twilight. “Walter was going to make you stay.”

“I-I don’t understand.”

“He was about to call your school and cancel your enrollment. Your mom was trying to stop him. Walter kept saying that they couldn’t afford to send you. Not anymore. Your mother was begging him to listen, to reconsider. Saying something about waiting, letting you start as planned and applying for financial aid for the second semester. But Walter was freaking out. I’d never heard him like that. I didn’t even think, I snuck into the kitchen to see what the hell was going on. That’s when I saw Allie.”

“I don’t remember her being there,” Eden murmured, trying to grasp at anything she might have forgotten about that day.

Jude shrugged, “She was there. At the kitchen table. Completely silent, still. Staring. So fucking scared, Eden.”

Wind whipped off the water and sank in beneath Eden’s sweater. “What the hell, Jude?”

“I didn’t understand until Water started shouting about the baby.”

“No.” Eden shook her head. “No, Allie didn’t get pregnant until after school started.” She and her step-sister were only a year apart. That year, Eden had started college, and Allie had been a senior in high school. Her voice shook when she continued, “You didn’t get Allie pregnant until after school started.”

Jude turned in his chair, finally facing her. He looked so serious, so exhausted. So hopeless. “I didn’t get Allie pregnant.”

“You didn’t–” Eden vaguely wondered if the shift beneath her was from the water, or her understanding of the last fifteen years falling apart.

“I’m not Maddie’s father, Eden. Not biologically.”

“What?” It was more a cry than a question. “Who is?”

“That’s Allie’s story to tell. I can’t say. Not unless she says it’s okay. I promised.”

“Jude!” Eden jumped up. “How? How!” She waved her arms, trying to pull all of the questions into once place.

“I’m trying to explain, Eden!” Jude shouted back. “Allie had just found out she was pregnant. And her dad was loosing it. Shouting about how the family was ruined. How they couldn’t afford to support you, and her, and a baby. Not after they’d just started the gallery. So he wasn’t going to let you leave, Eden! And you wanted to go so, so badly. You were so fucking excited. It was all you talked about. Going away to journalism school. Studying photography. Traveling the world.”

Jude was standing, too, his chest heaving as he gave up a secret he’d been holding for so long.

“I couldn’t let him do it, Eden. I wouldn’t let him do it. It would have fucking broke your heart, and I wasn’t going to let him do that to you.”

Eden came around the table and stood right in front of him. His head was bent but he couldn’t avoid looking at her. “What did you do?”

“I made him a deal.”

Eden caught herself on the table, her fingers numb. “What deal?”

“It was simple. I would stay and take care of Allie, help her with the baby. And you would go away to college.”

“Why?” Eden voice broke. “You had plans too, Jude. You had a spot in school across the state. You had dreams, things you wanted to accomplish. You never wanted to work at your family’s company, let alone run it. You didn’t want to stay here any more than I did!” Eden yelled. “Why would you give that up to stay here and take care of a girl you barely knew and a baby that wasn’t yours?”

“I didn’t stay for them, Eden!” Jude roared. “I stayed for you! I stayed so you could leave, so you could do everything you wanted to do. I stayed so your fucking step-father wouldn’t un-enroll you from the college you’d been waiting your whole life to attend.”

Jude grabbed her head, his hands rough and unsteady. Even in the semi-darkness Eden could see how wild his eyes were. “I didn’t stay for them, Eden. I stayed for you.”

The kiss was punishing. Eden didn’t have a chance to process what he said before Jude had her drowning beneath years of frustration, longing. Regret. All stoked by wine-stained lips and deep, long strokes of his tongue. Breathing became impossible, let alone thinking.

Jude’s grip in her hair tightened. The next drag of his mouth pulled a small whimper from a place inside that Eden didn’t know existed. Her head was swimming, her heart was pounding, and her entire body from the neck down felt like it was on fire.

“Stop.” She shifted enough to speak. “Jude, stop. Why would you even consider doing something so crazy? Why would you ever be willing to give up so much? I still don’t know why.” Eden needed the answer. Hoped for it and dreaded it at the same time.

“You do know. You’ve always known.” His lips brushed her cheeks, her eyes, her jaw. “That’s why you’ve stayed away. Why you’ve been so fucking angry with me for so long. You’ve always known why, Eden. And knowing, without understanding, is why you never came back.”

Eden tipped her head, staring up into eyes she knew by heart but could no longer see. “Tell me why. Please.”

“Because,” Jude whispered, the heat of his anger coaxed into something far stronger, “I love you. I’ve loved you for as long as I can remember. Didn’t matter where you were, or if I thought I was never going to see you again. I’ve never stopped loving you. Not once. Not after all these years. So, please, stop asking questions and let me show you how much.”

***

Readers:

Should Jude’s love stay PG-13(ish) OR do things really start to heat up?

Vote in comments below!

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