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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.}

Surprisingly, it had been a good day.

Eden had been wary when Maddie had insisted that her dad tag along, and she’d braced herself for a drive filled with awkward silence. But Maddie had filled the short trip to the lake with updates about school and music and questions she’d obviously been dying to ask her aunt.

Like, how many countries had Eden visited? 83, by her last count.

Which was her favorite? Impossible question. Next, please.

What was one thing she’d never do again? Well, there were way too many answers to that one, most of which weren’t suitable for a teenager, let alone Jude’s daughter, but Eden managed. Riding an elephant. You feel like you are going to tip right off the side and get squished by a giant foot.

If she could pick any place in the world to live, where would it be? Easy. Florence, Italy. Great food, great wine, beautiful art, even more beautiful men.

Maddie had laughed at that one. Jude had frowned.

Jude…. Eden focused on him through her camera’s viewfinder before lacing the strap around Maddie’s neck. It was one of her smaller ones and her niece was able to hold it with one hand and scan the landscape, occasionally taking a picture.

The late afternoon sun hung low and Eden pulled her jacket a little tighter as a breeze kicked up off the water. Maddie sat next to her on the huge picnic blanket and Jude was collecting logs for a fire.

Eden smiled when she saw him pick up, inspect, then discard one log. Even from her spot yards away, she could see his look of concentration and the way he assessed each piece of wood before adding it to his stack. A builder inspecting his materials before he got to work.

Her eyes still on Jude, Eden asked Maddie, “So, who spilled the dirt on me?”

“Dirt?”

“Yeah, you know. Dirt. The details. I was kinda surprised you knew anything about me at all, other than the fact that I existed. So, who’s been telling stories? Your Mom?”

Maddie pointed the camera towards the lake. The almost-silent click preceded her answer. “Nah. Not Mom.”

Eden leaned back, propping her hands behind her. “Amy, your grandma?”

Maddie smiled over her shoulder before taking another picture. “Yeah, sure, grandma talks about you. But mostly it’s about how she worries, and as soon as I ask her why, she just wanders off muttering. She never tells me any of the good stuff.”

Eden’s brows dropped. That just left…

“Uncle Noah. He was happy to answer my questions. He always had the good stories.”

“Oh, god.” Yeah, Noah definitely had the good stories. Some of them too good, and definitely not the ones she wanted Maddie knowing anything about.

“Nah, Aunt Eden. You don’t have to worry. Dad always made him stop just before he got to the really interesting parts. It didn’t matter how much I begged, Uncle Noah would always just chuckle and tell me I’d have to ask you myself.” Maddie lowered the camera and grinned gleefully.

“No such luck, kid. It’s going to be years before you’re ready for those stories. Definitely years before I’m ready to tell them.” Eden laughed when Maddie grumbled. “Don’t worry, they go better with alcohol, anyway. So you’ve got the next five years or so to wear me down.”

“Really?” Maddie abandoned her view of the lake and faced Eden. “You’re sticking around? I’ll really get to see you?”

Eden had thought Wes and Jude were persuasive. Obviously she was utterly unfamiliar with the wiles of bright-eyed teenage girls. No wonder Jude looked at her like she hung the sky. Saying no to this girl was impossible.

“I, uh, am planning on sticking around for a while. Yeah.”

“Oh my, God, that’s awesome,” Maddie squealed, her knees bouncing. Eden grabbed the camera before it got knocked down towards the rocky shoreline.

“Yeah,” Eden answered, a smile slowly spreading across her face. It really did feel kind of awesome. And a little terrifying. “I had some leave stored up at work. So I’m taking a break for a bit and, depending on how things go at the gallery and with my, um, partnership with your dad, I’ll figure out my long-term plan in a month or so.”

Maddie’s thick brown hair rippled as her head bobbed up and down. Eden found herself sharing the young woman’s excitement and had to blink when, abruptly, her niece’s face fell.

“What’s the matter?”

Maddie stared at the blanket for a second before glancing up at Eden. When she spoke her voice was quiet. “It’s all he wanted, you know. For you to come back.”

Eden’s eyes darted to were Jude was carefully stacking wood next to the campfire he was building. “He? You mean….”

“Uncle Noah.”

Eden winced, the picnic lunch they’d finished hours ago suddenly protesting low in her stomach. “I did know that, actually. Yes.”

Maddie was focused on the blanket again, her next words barely audible. “If you knew, why didn’t you? He talked about you a lot, Aunt Eden. I’m not sure I even remember a time when he didn’t talk about you. And for a while he sounded really happy, really proud when he told me where you were and the kind of stories you were photographing. But later….”

Eden forced herself to swallow around the burn in the back of her throat. The tightness of Maddie’s voice mirrored Noah’s tone the last time he’d called. The last time she’d promised she’d try to come back, knowing full well she wouldn’t.

Maddie continued, “Dad didn’t like it, you know, when Uncle Noah talked about you. He wouldn’t say anything, but I could always tell. His neck would get all tense and he’d grind the back of his teeth. Dad would try to get Uncle Noah to change the subject and would leave the room if he refused.”

Eden shifted, vaguely registering the chill that had seeped through the blanket beneath her legs. She knew it shouldn’t matter. If nothing else, Jude had made his feelings towards her very clear over the past few weeks. But something about the way Maddie said it sent a shiver down her spine to meet the one sweeping across her thighs.

“He never talked about me?”

Maddie was about to answer but stopped and cocked her head to the side, remembering something. “Almost never. There was one time….” She glanced at her dad, who was reinforcing the stone ring around the fire-pit with bigger rocks, before leaning towards Eden.

“He came down with the flu a few years ago. It was during one of my visits and Mom couldn’t get me until the next day, so I took care of him. Made him stay in bed. Brought him soup. Got him more water and painkillers. God, I had no idea guys got so whiny when they were sick.”

Eden laughed at Maddie’s tone and the vision of a thoroughly disgruntled Jude being confined to his bed by his teenage daughter.

“Anyway, he was super restless at night and I had to go into his room a few times to make sure he hadn’t gotten any worse. And, he, uh, talked about you then. When he was sleeping.”

Maddie met Eden’s wide eyes and turned away, color flooding her cheeks. “I couldn’t understand everything he was saying. But it sounded like he was trying to say he was sorry. And that he missed you. And that he, uh, lov-”

Eden squeezed Maddie’s knee, cutting the girl off. “It’s okay, you don’t have to continue. I get the general idea.”

“Whew.” Maddie blew out a gust of air, relieved. “I’m not sure he remembers. And we definitely didn’t talk about it after. But I did start to wonder if he’d be less weird when you came up in conversation after that. Especially because it was obvious he thought about you a lot, even if he didn’t talk about you.”

“Yeah, well.” Eden shrugged, her eyes tracking Jude as he pulled what looked suspiciously like marshmallows, chocolate, and Graham crackers from one of his bags. “Things between adults can get complicated, and even when it seems like we should talk about something, we often don’t. Even when it’s important to us. Shit, especially when it’s important to us.”

“That’s stupid.”

Eden barked out a laugh at Maddie’s bluntness. “Yes, it is stupid. But also true.”

Maddie rolled her eyes. “Whatever. True or not, Dad could’ve handled it better, especially when Uncle Noah got sick.”

“Oh, god, don’t tell me Noah caught the flu from your dad. He must’ve been so pissed. Noah was always so careful about not getting sick. He couldn’t even stand it when allergy season hit.”

In the growing twilight, Eden had a hard time deciphering the look Maddie gave her. But, even if she had, it wouldn’t have made the blow any less brutal.

“No, not the flu, Aunt Eden. Like, when he got really sick.”

The words felt misshapen when Eden asked, “What do you mean, really sick?”

Maddie looked at her like she was losing it. Which, to be fair, she felt like she was. “You know, Aunt Eden. When he found out he was dying.”

Eden thought she heard her heart kick. She definitely heard the “shit” that Jude whispered as he came to a stop at the blanket’s edge.

“What does she mean?” Eden was on her feet, her eyes locking on Jude’s. The look she found there – the sorrow and the embarrassment and the guilt – almost had her sitting back down. “What does she mean, dying?”

“Dad?” Maddie appeared at Jude’s shoulder, confusion and worry lining her face. “You didn’t tell her?”

“You didn’t tell me,” Eden said at the same time.

Jude gripped his daughter’s hand, anchoring and silencing her in one move, while he took a step towards Eden.

“I was going to tell you, I swear.”

“Noah didn’t t-tell me.” Eden didn’t care that her voice wavered. She suddenly didn’t care about a lot of things.

“He was coming to find you, to tell you. When you didn’t come home, he decided he’d go to you. He wanted to tell you in person.” Jude said it all at once, one word rushing into the next.

“Wha–” Eden stared at the man whose body and lips and eyes and sweet murmurs and love she dreamed about at night and craved during the day and she wanted desperately to run. It took everything she had to stay rooted to the spot. “That day in the orchard, when I asked how he died. You should have told me then. Why didn’t you tell me then!?”

Eden was yelling and Maddie’s lower lip wavered. Jude whispered something in his daughter’s ear and kissed her temple before letting go of her hand. The younger woman glanced between them before silently heading to the car.

When Maddie was safe in the passenger’s seat, Eden repeated, “You should have told me. As soon as I got back. At the gallery. That day at the orchard. On any of our dates since. Jesus, before we slept together!”

Jude’s eyes were wide, the whites glowing and glassy in the evening light. “I should have,” he agreed, hoarse.

“Why didn’t you?”

“I-I, fuck!” Jude raked one hand through his hair, cursing at the ground.

Eden’s blood beat faster. “No escaping, isn’t that what you told me, Jude? Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me all along? Well, now it’s your turn. No running away, no avoiding. Tell me what the fuck happened.”

She didn’t know which hurt more: the agony lancing through Jude’s eyes, or the mirroring pain shooting through her.

“Fuck, Eden. What happened? What happened is that Noah was sick. He was sick and he died and he shouldn’t have, not the way he did. He was sick and he wanted to find you and I told him not to go and we fought. We fought and I left and he drowned. That’s what happened, Eden.” Jude was panting, his chest rising and falling in great, shuddering waves. “Our friend was sick. You abandoned him. And I fucking killed him.”

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