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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.}

“Bad idea, Ellis. Bad idea.” Eden shifted, foot to foot. Dust bloomed into clouds around the tops of her boots.

There was still time to back out. To reschedule. To pretend she had a project to edit or a call with a journalist in some far-away timezone. There was still a chance….

She didn’t have time to finish the thought before Jude’s truck rumbled up and filled the space next to her dinky rental car.

“Morning,” he said, hopping out.

“Morning,” Eden answered. Her smile was no where near as bright as his. A fact she was happy to blame on her sudden panic over her little plan, and not at all on the way Jude’s broad shoulders filled out his plaid shirt perfectly. Or the memory of exactly how strong those denim-clad legs felt against her bare ones.

“You ready for this?”

“Uh, yeah.” Eden kicked the ground once more before heading to the little barn that was next to the parking lot.

Jude caught up with her in two strides. “You totally want to back out, don’t you?”

“Nope.”

“Don’t lie. I can literally see your brain screaming at your feet to run.”

Eden stopped short and Jude smirked at her over one impressive shoulder. She was about to tell him that he didn’t know a damn thing about her, when he opened the building’s door.

He was half inside when he turned back, his smile blinding. “Last one to the orchard has to pick up all the rotten apples.”

He vanished behind the solid red door and Eden laughed. God damn Jude Cavanaugh. That’s all it took – a smile, a laugh, an extremely well-fitted pair of jeans, and a poke at her competitive streak – and she was utterly at ease. Maybe even excited.

Shit. Eden was a lot more screwed than she thought. Because, now, running away was the farthest thing from her mind.

Eden caught up with Jude at the entrance to the orchard. He was still grinning when he handed her a white paper bag stamped with bright red apples.

“Gonna be a messy day for you, runaway.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re the one who always picked the bruised ones. I, on the other hand, always walked out with a bag full of perfect apples.”

“Yeah, so perfect your mom turned at least half of them into apple sauce.” Jude pulled her past the first few rows, deeper into the lines of trees. “Besides, don’t you remember that you always needed me to reach the good ones at the top?”

Eden glanced down to where he was holding her hand. “I’m taller now.”

“So am I.” Jude’s eyes were bright and warm and Eden found herself staring at him as he turned them off the path and down between long rows of tall, leafy apple trees.

The autumn sun hadn’t broken through the foliage yet and the air was cooler there. Eden dragged in a huge breath and, for a second, felt years of her life fall away. It smelled like childhood. Sweet, earthy, soft around the edges, and absolutely wonderful.

“Perfect,” Jude said. “We’re the first ones here. All the best pickings.”

Eden squirmed from his grip and dashed down the dewy grass. Jude shouted after her and she giggled between breaths. When she stopped she was deep into the orchard and was smiling so hard her face hurt.

Jude was only a second behind, his hands outstretched to grab her, but Eden scampered up the nearby ladder, her hair a wild cloud as she grinned down at him.

“Now who’s left with the rotten apples?”

Jude stared up at her, his chest moving rapidly. His breath came out in little pants between parted lips and the temperature of his eyes had spiked well past warm to blazing hot.

Eden gripped the cool metal beneath her hands and swallowed. “What?”

“I, uh….” Jude stepped back, blinking rapidly. One hand gripped his apple picking bag tight while he shoved the other into his jeans. “Nothing. We should get started.”

“Okay,” she answered softly, still watching as he wandered a few trees away and started rummaging through the branches.

They worked in silence. Eden’s bag was balanced on top of the ladder and it didn’t take her long to fill it with shinny, bright red fruit. The once-familiar scent filled her lungs and Eden slowly realized she felt completely relaxed. At home in a way she hadn’t in a very long time.

Despite the furtive glances Jude occasionally shot her way.

The most recent of which came while he was reaching for a high branch, the hem of his shirt lifting to reveal the taut skin of his abdomen.

Eden couldn’t help but notice. Hell. She wanted to do more than that. She wanted to know what he felt like there. What he’d taste like if she ran her tongue across those exposed muscles.

Her thoughts must have been clear on her face. And Jude must have seen. Because he gripped the apple a little too hard, and yanked it off the tree even harder, the branches shaking and fruit falling under the force.

“Ow!” Jude glared at the particularly large apple that bounced from his head to his feet before rolling away.

Eden swallowed her laugh as she hopped down to the ground. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Fine,” he grunted, still rubbing his head. “Just surprised.”

“Um hmm.” Eden got up on her tiptoes and brushed his hand away, feeling the tiny lump that had formed on the back of his skull. Jude hummed and leaned into her touch, his hands finding her waist and pulling her close. “You’ve got a hard head, Jude. You’re gonna be just fine.”

Jude’s forehead fell to hers, his thick hair like heavy silk between her fingers. Eden’s pulse kicked when his hands coasted across her hips to rest at the base of her spine. Standing as close together as they were, she realized his head wasn’t the only thing that was hard.

“Um, okay.” Eden scooted away, unable to meet Jude’s eyes when they opened. “Don’t yank so hard next time. We’re not out here to give you a concussion.”

“No,” Jude said quietly. He took several steps back, his attention on the trees. “I, uh, have to admit I was surprised when you suggested this.”

Eden shrugged, climbing back up the ladder. “I’ve always liked it here. You do too. Figured it was safe.”

“Safe?”

“Common ground.”

“Ah.” Jude moved to the tree next to hers. “It was a good idea,” he said a few minutes later.

“Yeah?” Eden stilled, looking down at his dark head.

“Yeah. I have a lot of great memories of this place. Memories of you. Of us. The three of us.”

Eden’s fingers slipped against an apple as she forced herself to ask the question that had bothered her for weeks. “What really happened that night, Jude? What happened to Noah?”

Jude dropped a few more apples into his bag, not caring if they bruised. “He drowned.”

“Yes, Mom told me that part. But what was he doing out in the middle of the lake? By himself, in the middle of the night?”

When Jude looked up his eyes were carefully blank, his brows drawn tight. “I ask myself that same question, Eden. Every fucking day.”

“I-it-” she stuttered, hating how terrified she sounded. Everything she said next came out in a rush. “It wasn’t suicide, right? No one will tell me. Not explicitly. I’ve asked Mom, and Wes. And they avoid the question. Almost as if they don’t know the answer. And I have this horrible feeling, Jude, that I’m missing something. Something big. Please, just tell me–”

“It wasn’t suicide.”

Eden wobbled on the ladder and Jude reached out, instantly, steadying her. “You know for sure?”

“It wasn’t suicide, Eden. I knew Noah as well as I know myself. As well as I once knew you. I know for certain. It wasn’t suicide. Noah drowned.”

Eden sighed, rough and uneven. “I wish I’d been here for the funeral.”

“I know.”

“You do?” Eden stepped down one rung, then another. When she stopped they were eye-to-eye.

“Of course.”

“You didn’t think I missed it on purpose? As some form of fucked up tantrum?”

“Eden.” Jude’s eyes went soft and he tucked her hair behind one ear. “You loved Noah. We all know that. He did, too. We know you would’ve been here if you’d gotten the message in time.”

Her next question came out so quiet it could have dissolved into the sweet, crisp air. “You don’t hate me?’

Jude’s chest met the side of the ladder and his hand dropped to her jaw. “I was really fucking mad at you, Eden. I still am, I think. But I don’t hate you. I’ve never hated you. I told you that already.”

Eden felt herself tumbling into his wide, open eyes, the memory of the last time they’d had this conversation burning her lips.

“I hate myself for not being here,” she whispered. “For not seeing him for so long. For not being here to say goodbye.” Eden’s hand found Jude’s heartbeat beneath his soft shirt. “For not being here when you lost your best friend.”

Jude’s lips grazed her cheek, his lashes a kiss against her skin. “You’re here now, Eden. You’re here and I can talk to you, I can touch you. I have you here in front of me, in my hands….” His fingers slipped into her hair at the base of her skull, the others sinking into her waist. “You’re here, and that counts for a hell of a lot.”

Eden found his mouth first. He’d barely finished speaking before she turned, her lips landing on his half open ones. Jude’s sigh trickled through her, soft and comforting, and exactly right.

It wasn’t a kiss of passion, but of promise. Of recognition of their past, and hope for what could be their future. Gentle sounds, slow tongues, and dizzying breaths.

A child giggled somewhere behind them, and they broke apart. Jude’s expression had Eden’s toes curling and the blush on her cheeks deepening.

“I have an addendum to your plan,” he murmured.

“Hmm?” Eden found it difficult to concentrate when he was still so close.

“Your plan. Our time together. I want to add a stipulation.”

“What’s that?” Eden had to grip the ladder when Jude’s hands fell away, a mischievous smirk on his face.

“You keep planning these little…outings. And I get a kiss during every one.”

“A kiss?” Eden forced herself to look stern, even if she was sure her enthusiasm was clear in her eyes.

“At least one.”

“Interesting stipulation.”

“What do you say?” he prodded, that grin getting wider.

Eden couldn’t help it. She smiled back. “I guess I’m gonna have to plan trips to places with fewer kids.”

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