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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.}

Fifteen years ago

“She’ll be here.”

“She won’t.”

“It’s your wedding. She’ll be here,” Noah insisted.

“My wedding to her sister. She won’t. I sure as hell wouldn’t come, if our places were switched.”

“Stepsister. And, really? Where would you be the day your best friend since forever got married?”

You mean, the day the person I’ve been in love with for the past four years married someone else? As fucking far away as possible. And as drunk as possible. 

“Just…not here,” Jude mumbled, yanking down the cuff of his rented tux. There was a smudge near the buttons. Jude scratched it. The faded yellow looked suspiciously like the mustard that had dripped off his burger  the night of Senior Prom.

“Gross.” Jude found a bottle of water and tried to wash out the stain. “Pretty sure this is the same tux I wore to prom. You’d think Mr. Jenkins would’ve used those six months to get the stain out.”

“Man’s half-blind. I doubt he noticed,” Noah muttered, poking his head out the little waiting room’s door, assessing the crowd gathering in the church. As best man, he was wearing a rented tux too. Jude smirked when he noticed the long thread dragging from the bottom of his pants.

Stained and unraveling. Yup, that pretty much summed up how he felt on his wedding day.

Fuck. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He shouldn’t be getting married at 18. He shouldn’t be getting ready to be a dad to another man’s kid. And he sure as hell shouldn’t be marrying Eden’s sister.

The clip-on bow tie was stabbing his throat. Jude tried to adjust it, but fumbled, accidentally tearing it half off. He’d lost feeling in his fingers.

It’s the cold.

It’s the fear.

“Yo, Jude. You okay?” Noah was giving him a strange look from across the room. “You look like you’re gonna hurl.”

That was it. Maybe he could postpone. Pretend he was sick. Maybe he could go to the ER. Say it was food poisoning. The shrimp at the rehearsal dinner had been a little shady. People would believe it, right? There was still time. He could stop this whole fucking charade. He could not marry the sister of the woman he was in love with.

“Stop.” Noah shut the door, but not before Jude heard knees knocking against pews and the first sticky notes coming from the organ.

“What?” Jude tried to fix his tie, but Noah brushed his hands out of the way, yanking it roughly back into place.

“It’s written all over your face. You’re going to bail. You’re going to jump out of that fucking window and leave the poor girl abandoned and alone at the alter on her wedding day.”

“It’s my wedding day too,” Jude hissed, suddenly pissed by how well Noah could read him.

“My point exactly.” Noah tugged on his lapels. “You proposed to Allie. You decided this was the only option. And, fuck it, I think you’re nuts, but I also think you’re right. That girl’s prick of a dad has cut her off, thrown her out, and she shouldn’t be alone. Not like this. Not when she has a baby on the way and she won’t tell anyone who the father is. And not when she’s unemployed without a roof over her head or money to pay for doctor visits. God, and all those diapers kids need.”

“Babies need,” Jude corrected, panic making his tongue thick. “Pretty sure kids learn to shit in a toilet. At some point. I think. Fuck. I don’t know. Noah, I think I really fucked up. What if I can’t do this? What if I’ve just made everything worse?”

Noah crossed his arms and neither paid attention when the sound of a seam ripping slid through the air.

“It’s temporary, right?”

Jude nodded.

“You’re getting married to give her security, health insurance, and a place to live. Food on the table and money in the bank while she needs it. And the support of one of the town’s oldest and most influential families, in case there’s any sort of legal shit down the road. She has the baby, you help her for a little while, long enough to make sure she gets back on her feet. Maybe hook her up with a job at your dad’s construction firm when she’s ready to work. She could even be your secretary, now that you’re gonna be working there full time.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” Jude heaved out a sigh. It sounded okay laid out in Noah’s even, rational tone. Like a totally insane soap opera, sure. But doable. And temporary.

“You two stick it out for a little while, until Allie feels like she can handle things on her own, then you get a divorce. The prenup is already signed, so you don’t have to worry about things getting messy. You guys are friends, now at least, so you don’t need to worry about the romantic shit. No unrealistic expectations about fancy dates. No kissing, no groping. No wild and crazy sex. No big, romantic wedding night.”

No big, romantic wedding night. Jude glanced down at his crotch and almost laughed. He could practically feel his dick shrinking. He didn’t want to sleep with Allie. Yeah, he liked her. They’d become friends, close ones, over the past few months. But he didn’t want to bang her. His perpetually half-hard, teenage cock should’ve been over the fucking moon about the idea of a guaranteed lay. But Allie wasn’t the one he wanted. She wasn’t the one he loved.

“Temporary,” Jude finally muttered, shoving his still-frozen fingers into his pockets.

“Temporary. And a really amazing thing, if you ask me. You’re a good guy, Jude. Allie’s lucky to have you. We all are.” Noah’s smile was bright and genuine. Jude was surprised at just how much older Noah looked at that moment. Less boy, more man.

This was really happening. They were adults, at least in the eyes of the law. Old enough to vote. Old enough to go to fight and die in war. Old enough to get married and have babies. Old enough that Allie’s dad couldn’t stop them, no matter how much he wanted to. And old enough that no one, not even Jude, could make Eden come back, regardless of how much he missed her.

“Do you see her?” He shouldn’t have asked. He knew it the second he saw Noah’s face. But he couldn’t help it. When it came to Eden, Jude would never stop asking.

Noah skimmed the church once more, his eyes shuttered when he turned back to his friend. “She’ll turn up. You’ll both be well on your way to getting shit faced at the reception in no time. But first, let’s get you married.”

***

Present

“I was going to come.” Eden traced the base of her wine glass against the white tablecloth, then slid her bread plate closer to the center of the table. Anything to avoid meeting his gaze.

“You weren’t.” Jude leaned back in his chair, catching sight of the waiter bringing over dessert. “It’s okay. I know.”

“I’m s-

Jude cut her off. “If you’re going to say sorry, don’t. We’ve both done a lot, and we both have a lot to be sorry for. But, trust me, you don’t need to apologize for missing my wedding to your sister.”

“Step-sister,” Eden said with a soft, half-teasing smile.

Jude watched her, soaking up the curve of her lips, his hands getting hot against his thighs. That was a good smile. One of his favorites. One that made him think he really did have a chance.

“I, uh, haven’t talked to Allie much.” Eden sounded embarrassed and kept her eyes on the dessert the waiter placed in front of her. As soon as the young man was gone she leaned closer, whispering, “I’ve been a really bad sister. A terrible aunt.” Her eyes flicked to his and Jude wished they were anywhere but in the middle of a well-known, completely full restaurant. He found her hand on the table just as she muttered, “An awful friend.”

“I won’t lie, Eden. You’ve been pretty shit.” She tried to pull away and Jude chuckled, the rough pads of his fingers skimming her skin. “But we’re all involved, here. We all share some of the blame.”

“Not Maddie.”

“No,” Jude agreed. “Not Maddie. You’re right. She’s blameless. And pretty much perfect. Though don’t you dare tell her I said that. She’ll be harassing me to increase her allowance every day for months.”

Eden tracked his features, a thoughtful expression filling her eyes. She freed her hand and poked her chocolate cake. “You like it, don’t you?”

“Hmm?” he asked around a spoonful of creme brûlée.

“Being a dad.”

“I do, yeah. Don’t get me wrong. It’s hard work. The hardest, actually. But there’s something about that kid…. I fell in love the second I saw her. The day she was born, her little fingers reached out and bypassed my hand completely. Locked around my heart instead. She can irritate me like no other. And make me madder than hell. But she’s my little girl.” Jude shrugged, knowing his mouth was curved in a goofy grin, the one talking about Maddie always slapped on his face. “She’s happy, I’m happy. She’s sad, and I want to kill the fucker who made her that way. Simple as that.”

Jude took another bite before he realized Eden wasn’t eating. She’d gone still, and that thoughtful look had darkened. Shit.

“Eden?”

She blinked and pricked her cake with the tines of her fork. “Hmm, yeah?”

“You vanished there for a second. What were you thinking about?”

“Oh. Nothing.”

“Uh-uh, nope.” Jude pushed his dessert away. “We’re not doing that. You agreed, remember? It’s part of the whole get-reacquainted plan. We let each other in. We ask questions, and we answer. So, tell me. What were you thinking about?”

Eden slid her chair back, the motion noiseless against the plush carpet. Her eyes were bright, almost brittle when they met his.

“I was thinking that you’re probably the best dad. And that Maddie is incredibly lucky to have you.”

“Eden?” Jude leaned forward, searching for her hand, his fingers flexing when he found her cool skin and saw a tear slip down one check. “Fuck, Eden. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing. I was just thinking, wondering…what it would’ve been like if Maddie had been mine. Ours.”

Jude caught his balance on the table. It wobbled, one of the water glasses soaking the cloth. He stood, trying to process Eden’s comment and shivering as the ice water seeped through his pants. Images slammed into his brain in rapid succession. Eden pregnant with his baby, Eden giving birth to their child. Eden as a mom. Eden as his….

Jude had to force his heart to slow and his head to clear, hope and loss and longing making it hard to catch his breath. It took him another minute to realize Eden had slipped away, her red hair flashing as the restaurant door closed. And Jude couldn’t stop replaying that one word over and over again.

Ours.

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