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Eden slipped her hand into her coat pocket and silenced her phone. She didn’t check to see who was calling. She didn’t need to. It was the same person who’d been calling for days, weeks. The same person she hadn’t spoken to. Not once, not in years.
She couldn’t avoid him forever. He’d find her, try to explain. Try to make her listen. But no matter how many times he called, today wasn’t the day she would finally answer.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” she said, head bent. Eden’s voice was naturally low; too low for a woman, she’d always thought. But that day it came out muffled, forced, like secrets trying to make their way through the cracks around a long-locked door.
She’d arrived straight from the airport, hadn’t even stopped at her hotel to change. The points of Eden’s black leather flats were digging into the freshly laid sod and the guilt that had gripped her since hearing that first voicemail intensified.
She’d missed the funeral, hadn’t been there to say goodbye with the rest of his family and friends. She hadn’t even picked up flowers to lay on his grave. And now the dark divots in the still-soft ground would be the only proof she’d been there.
A gust of wind whipped between the headstones and Eden shivered. She wasn’t prepared. Not for the shift in the seasons or the drop in temperature. She wasn’t prepared to be back, to be there. She would never be prepared to say goodbye. “I’ll visit soon, I promise,” she whispered to the damp autumn air before pressing two shaky fingers to her lips and carrying a kiss to newly-carved stone.
Eden jammed both hands into her pockets and carefully navigated around the dips and divots in the ancient cemetery. It would take her fifteen minutes to get to the hotel. Twenty, if she took the scenic route through the center of town, something she had no intention of doing. An unfamiliar car, even one as nondescript as her rental, would be noticed immediately.
People would crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the newly-arrived stranger only to gasp and cover their mouths when they saw something worse.
Eden Ellis. Home at last. Home too late.
Passing the hotel’s circular drive, Eden drove to the rear parking lot and claimed a spot in back. To make it easier to leave, she reminded herself.
As she climbed the steps to the wrap-around porch her phone started ringing. Again.
“God, you’d think he’d have given up by now,” Eden muttered.
“Well, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one you’re avoiding.”
Eden almost dropped her overnight bag, but the woman rising from the nearby rocking chair slipped delicate fingers around the handle, steadying it.
“Mom. What are you doing here?”
“I was going to ask you the same question.”
Eden stepped around the petite woman and headed for the hotel’s front door, refusing to meet the eyes she knew looked so like her own. “You know exactly why I’m here. You were the one who demanded I come home.”
“I didn’t demand. I asked. And this isn’t exactly home.”
“It’s close enough.” Eden was about to go inside, the antique brass door handle making her fingers tingle with cold, when her mom sighed. Eden stopped. “Mom….”
The words were crowding her throat and Eden couldn’t grasp the right ones, not amidst the jumble of unshed tears and choking sobs that she was desperately trying to contain until she reached the privacy of her room.
“I know, baby girl,” her mom soothed as she laid a hand on Eden’s shoulder. “We were all so shocked. Such a tragedy.”
Eden swallowed down a cry even as her mom’s soft voice and warm touch threatened to tear it loose. “I really can’t talk about this now,” she managed to say.
“I know,” her mom repeated. “We can talk about him later. That’s not why I’m here.”
Eden shifted just enough so her mom’s hand dropped from her shoulder. Their eyes met under the vintage carriage lamp that was always lit, the hazy glow bleeding into the twilight. Eden expected her mother to continue; instead, she retrieved something from her pocket and pressed it into her daughter’s free hand.
“I need you to go to the gallery.”
“No.” Eden shook her head and tried to give back what she realized was a key. Her mom retreated to the porch’s wide railing. “Mom, I’ve been traveling for three days straight. I need to shower, I need to change, I need to eat, I need to sleep. I’m not going there until I’ve done all of those things. Preferably more than once.”
“Eden.” The other woman’s soft voice was laced with a familiar thread of steel. “You are here because of Noah. But you are also here because of the gallery. And he left something for you there, something I think you’ll want before the meeting tomorrow.”
Eden clenched her fingers around the teeth of the key and was thankful for the bite. It distracted her from the need to scream. “You couldn’t have brought it – whatever it is – here?”
“No one is supposed to touch it except you.”
Eden stared at her mother, dread and exhaustion and despair and morbid curiosity warring within her. “How do you know that? He couldn’t have said that.”
“There’s a note. You’ll see. When you get there.”
“Mom….” Eden hated the way it came out, part whine, part whimper.
Her mom smiled, a small, placating tilt of her lips, one she’s perfected over years and years of parenthood. “You won’t be able to sleep until you see it. You know that as well as I do.”
Thanks, Mom. Low-fucking-blow.
“Besides,” she continued, “it will only take a minute. You’ll find it on his desk, in the back office. I wouldn’t send you if it wasn’t important, Eden. You know that.”
“I do.” It came out with more conviction than Eden felt.
“Thank you. And I’m glad you’re back. It’s been far too long. We’ve missed you.” The other woman pushed off the railing and laid a hand on Eden’s arm. “I’ve missed you.”
“I…,” Eden trailed off, wondering how long it would be before she could say those words back.
“Do you want me to walk with you?”
“No.” She was exhausted, strung tight; the last thing she wanted to do was to talk to anyone, but especially not to her mother. Not when she was on the verge of breaking. “I’ll be fine. Go home. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“If you’re sure….” Her mom was stalling, wanting to make sure Eden didn’t escape into the hotel. Or worse, into her car.
“Positive. I’ll see you in the morning. Goodnight.”
“Welcome back, sweetie.”
For a second she thought her mom was going to kiss her cheek and she forced down disappointment when the woman left, her fingers falling after giving Eden’s arm the lightest squeeze.
Eden didn’t bother to drop off her bag. If she went inside the hotel she’d never come out again. Hauling the strap onto her shoulder, she let her legs carry her the short distance to the gallery. The trip required no directions, no thought, just muscle memory and the hope that she’d survive whatever was waiting for her there.
She could have lied, pretended she’d gone when she hadn’t. But her mother was right. She’d never be able to sleep, not with the promise of some piece of Noah, however small, however heart-wrenching, waiting for her at the gallery.
Eden had the key in the lock and the knob half turned before she realized something was wrong.
The drapes her mother kept closed behind the window display were open. All the lights were on. And something – someone – was casting a shadow across the polished concrete floor.
Scrambling to pull her phone from her pocket, Eden was on the verge of calling the police when the person stepped into view.
It was jet-lag, surely. Exhaustion. Lack of sleep. Lack of food. Any or all that had her seeing things, seeing him.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Eden chanted, eyes going wide, lungs growing tight as she watched Jude stride across the gallery, coming to a halt in the center, his back towards her, his head turned as he scanned the photographs lining the wall.
It didn’t matter how many times she blinked, he didn’t disappear, didn’t vanish into a sleep-deprived haze. Eden felt a war blaze to life inside her, her feet demanding she run far, far away, while her fingers begged to get closer, to slip into that thick mahogany hair, longer than it had once been, and see if it was as soft as she’d always imagined.
However fierce a battle her body was waging, Eden’s mind was painfully blank. A problem, she realized, when Jude began to turn towards the door and she had only seconds to decide if she was going to run. Or if she was going to stay and fight.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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….
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.
Noah’s brother watched her from across the room. Eden met Wes’s gaze and tried to smile but her mouth wouldn’t cooperate. Her lips trembled as she found the envelope’s flap with her fingers.
Eden stepped down the hall, leaving the trio in the conference room behind.
Hands shaking, she pulled a stack of papers out of the envelope. She’d expected a note. A farewell, maybe even an explanation scrawled out in Noah’s sloppy writing.
The papers she unfolded contained no note. Nothing handwritten at all. Eden squinted, focusing, as she flipped through the pages, skimming the tiny font.
It was full of legalese. Bullets and sub-bullets she didn’t understand. Not right away.
It wasn’t until Eden got to the final page and saw the signatures that something clicked. Eden returned to the first page and re-read the words typed out in black and white.
“Holy shit.” Eden swallowed, hard. Her eyes were stinging as she blinked back tears. She wasn’t going to fall apart where they could see her, where they’d hear the remaining chunks of her heart split open and shatter on the floor.
So she did the one thing she was so good at. Eden ran.
She could hear them calling. Wes and her mom. Someone was following her, large, heavy steps pounding behind her as she escaped.
Eden caught a glimpse of his dark form just feet away as she slammed her car door and tore out of the parking lot.
Her phone was vibrating madly. One call would end and seconds later another would begin. Eden grabbed her purse and threw it – phone, envelope, and all – into the backseat with a curse.
This time when the tears came, Eden didn’t try to stop them. Silently, they ran down her cheeks, tripped over her jaw, and fell to her lap, soaking through to her legs, the wet heat scalding her numb skin.
In death, Noah had achieved the one thing he’d never been able to in life. He’d brought Eden back. And he’d figured out a way to make her stay.
Seven years ago.
“Eden, can you hear me?”
“Noah?” Eden was shouting into the phone, one finger jammed into her other ear. Even five stories up, the car horns were deafening.
“I’m here.” Noah’s voice crackled. “But you’re breaking up.”
“Hold on.” Eden crossed to the other corner of her room and leaned against the window. “Is that better?”
“Yes,” Noah laughed and Eden could immediately picture his face, eyes soft, mouth parted as he smiled at her from thousands and thousands of miles away.
“God, it’s good to hear your voice.”
“You could hear it every day if you wanted to.”
“Oh,” Eden pressed her head against the glass and looked down at the chaos below. “You finally coming to visit?”
“You know the answer would be yes if you were still in London. In fact, I’d be packing my bag as we speak.”
“I see,” Eden laughed. “You don’t actually want to see me, just the cities I stay in.”
“Not all cities,” Noah teased. “I have no desire to visit Islamabad, for example. Regardless of whether you’re there or not.”
“Shit, Noah, that hurts.”
“Stop,” he chuckled. “Besides, if you wanted to see me so damn bad you’d come home.”
“You know I can’t. I’m on assignment.”
“Your assignment is over in a week.”
“You told me so yourself.”
Fuck. Eden squeezed her eyes shut. She had. “I have a new one. Have to fly to Moscow as soon as I’m done here.”
The line went quiet and Eden looked at her screen, checking to see if the call had dropped. “Noah?”
Another beat of silence, then, “Just say it.”
“Say what?” Eden tried to keep her voice light, even as her stomach twisted tight.
“You won’t come back. Not even for me.”
“That’s not fair, Noah.”
“Fair or not, it’s the truth.”
“Noah…,” Eden trailed off, knowing no excuse would be enough. No apology, either.
“I miss you. Amy misses you. We all do.”
“I miss you too,” she whispered, not sure if he’d hear her.
“I can’t. Not yet.”
“He isn’t here, Eden.”
Eden’s head jerked back from the glass, a muscle in her neck protesting the sudden movement. “What?”
“He’s in the city. Moved there. If you come back for my opening you won’t see him, I promise.”
“He’s gone?” Eden heard it in her voice, the hope and agony twisted together. Goddamn him and his ability to rub raw every nerve she possessed. Just the idea of him had her fingers tingling where she pressed them to the glass.
“He’s gone, Eden,” Noah repeated. “Come home. Come see me, see your mom. Come home for my show at the gallery.” Noah paused and when he spoke next his voice was thicker, barely audible. “It would really mean a lot. To me.”
Eden swallowed around the panic clogging her throat. She almost laughed. Her work took her to war-torn countries and places devastated by everything nature and man could devise and never, once, did she feel the same dread that gripped her when she thought of returning to the place she’d left behind.
“I’ll try,” she finally managed. “For you, Noah, I’ll try.”
Eden glared at the front door before climbing the porch steps. Bad idea or not, she needed answers and this was the only place to get them.
She’d spent the past few hours driving blindly, navigating the roads she’d memorized the summer she’d gotten her license.
Eden had hoped the twists and turns would calm her as they once had, but they were narrower, new buildings pushing against the asphalt, traffic
lights where there had never been stop signs. The things that had once been so familiar were now foreign and it had only made her cry harder.
She’d finally stopped long enough to call her mom. But Amy had only one answer for her. An answer that had her standing on Jude Cavanuagh’s porch.
Eden knocked. He must have been expecting her. Warned by her mother. Jude opened the door and looked at her without a hint of surprise.
Which made Eden even angrier.
“What the fuck is this about?” She shoved the now-wrinkled papers into his chest and pushed past him into the house, not waiting for an answer.
“If you’d stayed for the meeting, you wouldn’t have to ask.”
“But I didn’t and I do. So cut the shit and explain.”
“It’s simple, Eden. We own the gallery. You and me. Fifty-fifty.”
“I don’t understand.” She shook her head, her hair forming a knotted red cloud around her shoulders. “My mom owns the gallery. With Noah. Not you, not me. How the hell did this happen?” Eden pushed the papers against him again, her fingers digging into his broad muscles.
Jude moved fast, catching her off guard. His hand pinned hers and he took a step forward, his chest brushing her coat, Eden’s head tilting back, her neck straining as her breath came out in angry pants.
“How can you not know this?” His question grated, weighed down by hurt and anger. “Did you really not care? All this time, did you never once ask? Did we mean so little to you?”
He took another step forward, throwing her off balance, cutting her off as he backed her against the door. His dark brown eyes had gone almost black. With pain. And a longing so deep Eden almost gasped.
“Noah,” Jude choked on the name, his Adam’s apple catching. “Noah,” he started again, “bought the gallery from your mom years ago. But recently he needed a partner. I stepped in.”
“And me?” Eden’s voice was thin, unsteady, and Jude’s eyes fell to her mouth.
“You….” Jude moved so slowly Eden thought she was imagining it, his hand coming up to brush her hair off her shoulder, his fingers skimming the exposed curve of her neck. “Noah gave you his half of the gallery. That is what this-” Jude pressed her hand – and the papers beneath it – tighter to his chest “-is about.”
Eden stared at the man in front of her, the man she’d spent years hating. The man she hated still. The same man who was thrumming with
life beneath her palm, who was feathering her throat with the whisper of a touch.
“He made us partners,” she whispered.
“Yes,” Jude nodded.
“But I hate you. He knew that.”
“Yes.” Jude nodded again, his lips pinched, deep creases bracketing his beautiful mouth.
“He knew we hate each other.”
Jude’s frown deepened, his forehead falling to rest against hers.
“No, Eden.” Jude rocked his head, his nose skimming the tip of hers, his hand coming to cradle the base of her skull.
They were so close Eden could almost taste him. The scent of the boy he’d once been, the friend she’d given up, had cut from her heart and left behind all those years ago, the piece of herself she’d always missed. Eden recognized it instantly, sweet and full of promise. There was only a hint of it now, tickling the back of her throat. But it was enough to have her chest tightening, pleading for air. Eden dragged in a breath. And realized her mistake.
The boy she’d loved and abandoned was gone. There was nothing sweet about man who filled her lungs. He was jagged edges and lost hope and years of heartbreak packaged in knotted muscle and long limbs and lips that hovered so close hers burned.
Lips she watched part, the tongue behind them curling as Jude whispered, “He knew I never hated you.”
Jude remembered the exact moment he knew he didn’t like Eden Ellis.
It was summer, the air just above the flat black of the driveway shimmering with heat. The kind that made their freshly-turned teenage bodies break out in sweat, sticky spots that sprung up under arms and on the crests of foreheads and got darker and dirtier the longer they played outside.
Jude and Eden were at Noah’s house, waiting for him to grab swim trunks.
Their morning had been identical to the forty or so before. Almost half-way through summer break, the friends knew how to work the day just right.
Shorts and sneakers on first thing, they’d meet at the school’s soccer field when the sun was still cooking the haze off the grass. They’d slip and slide through the dew, more slivers of green sticking to the ball after every kick.
They would run. The three of them. Up and down the field, kicking, dodging each other, longer but still uncertain legs getting tangled, their feet protesting the shoes they’d outgrown but refused to give up.
Noah was quick. Could outpace them both, if he really wanted. But he preferred to watch and wait for the perfect opening, the moment he could dive between them and free the ball with a well-aimed kick.
Eden was fast, but her legs hadn’t grown as long theirs. No matter how hard she sprinted, Jude and Noah could outstrip her with their galloping paces. So she learned another way. She was scrappy. Never shy, never afraid to throw herself between a much bigger boy and the ball.
And Jude. He just wanted to move as fast as possible, to fling himself into orbit. It was the feeling of flying he craved, the knowledge that his legs could carry him as far away as he’d let them.
They pounded that grass for as long as their stomachs could hold out. When, doubled over, wiping sweat from their eyes, the groans of hunger grew louder than their grunts over the ball, they’d stop.
Mr. Mitchum’s diner was only a few blocks away. The slightly soggy bills in their pockets would be enough for three burgers and one giant ice cream sundae. Three scoops. Always the same flavors.
Chocolate-peanut butter swirl for Eden.
Vanilla for Noah. He’d always been a purist.
Strawberry for Jude. He’d been a little self-conscious about the bright pink color the first time. But that feeling vanished the second the first bite hit his tongue. Bright, fruity. It tasted like summer. Like freedom.
After lunch they went to the lake. Every day. Even if it was raining. They’d strip down to their underwear and jump into the cool, still water and wash away the morning.
But on that particular day, Noah had decided he didn’t want to go swimming in his boxers.
So Jude and Eden waited outside his house while he changed, swatting at the occasional mosquito drawn to their slick body heat.
“Did you get hit?” Jude pointed at a bruise building on Eden’s upper chest.
She glanced down. “Not hard.”
Jude shrugged, an angsty teenage move he’d picked up at the end of the school year. Like he’d heard her, but didn’t care enough to answer out loud. If the bruise didn’t bother Eden, it wouldn’t bother him.
Except it did.
The entire way to the lake he wondered if he’d crashed into her too hard on that last attempt to get the ball. Or if Noah had elbowed her by mistake. He wondered how much it hurt.
By the time they were stripping off their clothes, Jude realized he was anxious. He wanted to ask her again, just to make sure she was okay. That she wasn’t in pain.
Noah was already in the water, sure strokes taking him further away from the shore. Jude tossed his clothes on a near-by rock and was about to jump in when Eden turned. Her underwear wasn’t more revealing than a bikini. Less so, Jude knew, blushing slightly when he thought of the well-worn magazines stuffed behind his dresser. It wasn’t her clothing – or lack there of – that made it hurt to breathe.
It was the dark bluish-purple pattern that had spread across to the middle of her chest and down into her modest cleavage, below the line of her sports bra.
Eden twisted, dropping her shirt to the ground, and winced. She wasn’t going to say anything, but it was obvious she was hurt.
She looked up at him, caught him watching her. Staring.
“You coming?” She waved at the water.
Jude thought he nodded. He wasn’t sure.
The one thing he was sure about was that he wanted to touch her. He wanted to sooth her bruised skin with his fingers, to press his palm to her chest to help ease some of the pain. To take a little bit of it into himself.
He wanted to place his lips there. Not a casual peck like his mom still tried to give when he came home banged up. No, something longer. Something that would tell her it would be alright, that she’d be ok. That he’d always be there to help make it better.
Jude was a teenage boy. He knew what it was when his dick jumped and his hand itched to stroke it. He’d felt that persistent prick of horniness almost every minute of every day for the past year.
This – whatever this was – wasn’t that.
It was rougher, deeper, and hit him up-side the head so fast Jude felt his knees buckle and his stomach curdle around the overdose of ice cream.
That hot summer’s day in the cool shade of the town’s lake was the day Jude realized he didn’t just like Eden Ellis. It was also the day he realized that whatever he did feel was absolutely fucking terrifying.
Jude had stopped thinking the second he’d pressed Eden against the door.
He’d lost his mind. It was the only explanation. He’d never thought he’d feel her, not like this. In all the time he’d wanted Eden, Jude had never given himself permission to believe that he’d actually have her.
Yet there she was. Securely wedged between him and his front door, one hand caught under his against his chest, the other gripping his elbow as he threaded fingers through her wild hair.
She was staring at him, wide-eyed, open-lipped, the anger and confusion of a second ago fading behind something he never thought he’d see again. Not from her.
Yearning. It was the white flag to his broken and battered heart.
Jude lifted Eden’s head and opened his lips against hers.
There was nothing tentative about it.
Jude wanted to kiss the fuck out of her. Years and years of wanting boiled beneath his skin and had him shaking. He pressed against her, his weight bearing down so she couldn’t escape. So he wouldn’t collapse to the floor.
He reveled in the softness of her lips, full, just a hint of wetness where he traced is tongue along the seam. Jude’s lids closed, his eyes rolling back, her flavor so exquisite it was almost painful.
Eden gripped his elbow harder, her nails digging in.
Fuck. If she wanted him to stop, he would. God help him, he’d always stop, even if he wasn’t sure he’d survive.
But she wasn’t pushing him away. She was pulling him closer.
Eden whimpered into Jude’s mouth and traced his top teeth with her tongue.
Jude answered with a groan, long and low, shifting her face so he could access every inch of her willing mouth. So he could taste the woman he’d thought he’d die without ever having kissed.
He devoured her.
Jude’s lips pressed Eden’s wide, his tongue sliding in and out of her mouth in broad strokes. He trembled when she caught his tongue with her teeth, the small bite ricocheting down his spine to his increasingly hard cock.
Jude rocked into her and Eden’s mouth opened wider on a gasp.
He wanted so much from her, wanted to give her everything. But this wasn’t the time or the place. Eden was an escape artist. With just the slightest nudge she’d disappear. And asking too much too soon wasn’t a nudge. It was a plunge off a fucking mountain.
Jude forced himself to calm down. He pulled back just enough so he could open his eyes and look into hers. Their lips clinging together, Eden watched him from beneath thick eyelashes, the blue of her eyes hazy and unfocused. And warmer than he’d ever seen them.
“Jude,” she whispered his name. It died on his tongue as he kissed her again. More gentle than before, but no less sure.
He didn’t know why she was doing it, why Eden was letting him in. But the pounding of his heart was drowning out all of the questions and he fell into the rhythm they made. Lips open, together, tongues touching, retreating, breaths halting, melding.
The kiss felt endless. Perfect and forbidden. Jude traced his fingers beneath Eden’s jaw and pulled his other hand from between them so he could cradle her face between his palms.
He should stop and tell her he regretted everything that had happened all those years ago. Apologize for how he’d hurt her. For how he’d destroyed what should have been theirs. For how he’d never forgive himself for Noah. But Jude didn’t have the strength to stop. He had no hope of finding the words. So he told her with his lips and his touch and the beat of his blood beneath her hand.
He was shaking with it, everything he wanted to say but couldn’t. He was off balance. So was Eden.
She shuddered against the door, as if she’d gone cold, and dropped her hand from his elbow. It was quick, erratic, and Eden hit the small table next to them.
They both jumped when something fell and broke.
Breathing hard, Jude pulled back and looked down. He went still as Eden ducked out of his hands and picked the frame up off the floor.
Jude stared at the face that smiled from behind cracked glass.
“She’s beautiful,” Eden whispered and Jude closed his eyes, the pain in his chest a sharp echo of that in her voice.
“She is,” he whispered back. Eden glanced around, as if the woman in question might appear any second. “She isn’t here, Eden. She hasn’t been here for a long time.”
Eden set the picture back on the table, face up. “I shouldn’t have come.” Her eyes were hard again. Lightless and cold. “Everything about this was a mistake.”
Jude heard Noah’s paperwork crumple in her fist.
“Not everything,” he managed to say, voice flat. Please, please, not everything.
The look she gave him was as effective as pulling his heart right out of his chest.
“Reschedule the meeting with Wes. My lawyer can be here by morning.”
“No,” she cut him off, the front door already open. “He was wrong, Jude. I can’t do this. He should have known I’d never be able to do this.”
She didn’t bother to say goodbye. The hard click of the door did it for her.
Eden was so distracted she almost drove past the gallery, barely registering that the lights were on. But movement behind the door’s window caught her attention and she pulled into a parking spot. Crooked.
She was still shaking when she got out of the car. She’d been angry with Jude for the last fifteen years. But she’d wanted to kiss him for the last twenty. It was a crazy thing, the way her body fought her mind over him. Her heart? Well, it had tapped out of the fight long ago. But now….
“You shouldn’t have done that, Eden. So fucking stupid,” she muttered as she peeked through the gallery’s window. Because now she knew what it was like. His breath in her lungs. His hands in her hair. His arms holding her like he’d never let her fall.
Well, fuck that. He had let her fall. Shit, he’d given them both a great big push and she still had the bruises. That was the thing about heartache. On the surface Eden looked fine. Healthy. Successful. On some days, even beautiful. But she knew better. Eden knew just how sick her soul was over the boy who’d become a man. And, Goddamn, if that man didn’t have her head spinning.
“Hello?” The gallery was unlocked and poking around seemed like a much better idea than returning to the hotel and reliving that kiss over and over while the airline kept her on hold as they tried to change her ticket.
“Eden?” A familiar voice answered from the back office. Seconds later a head peeked around the corner.
Noah’s brother crossed the gallery in long strides and wrapped her in a huge hug.
“Uhh-” Eden was thrown off balance, but settled as he held tight.
“Sorry,” he murmured against her hair. “After you ran out of the office I wasn’t sure I’d see you again. Figured I better hug you while I still had the chance.”
Eden smiled against his chest. “Fair enough.”
Wes pulled back, his hands cupping her shoulders. “God, it’s so good to see you.”
“You too.” Eden glanced down at her feet, avoiding those brilliant green eyes. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here…before….”
Wes’s face fell, grief deepening the brackets around his strong mouth. “I know. We all do.”
“I would have been here,” she whispered. “I swear. If I’d known, I would have come.”
Wes answered with another hug, his strong arms pulling her flush against him.
Eden squirmed. It was too much. First Jude. Now Wes. She needed space to breathe.
“So,” she wiggled free and scanned the open room, ignoring the concern on his face. “Is this a new exhibit?”
Wes turned and focused on the large-format black and white photos that lined the walls. “Yes. His last.”
Eden could only nod, her attention drawn to a large landscape dominating a side wall. Leaving him, she went to get a closer look. It was big, as long as she was tall. The image was fuzzy on the ends, but the shades of gray sharpened into individual leaves and trees in the center of the photograph, a sun-speckled path cutting down the middle.
“It’s the trail to the lake.”
“Yes,” Wes confirmed, just behind her shoulder.
“It’s stunning.” It was. Even in black and white, Noah had captured the sensation of disappearing into a different world. It had been their escape. The place the three of them had loved the most. And for a split second, looking at that photo, Eden felt like she was on her way to the lake. Wide and quiet and free of everything that had happened since.
“I miss him,” she whispered. “So much.”
“Me too.” Wes wrapped his hand around hers. “You’re going to leave, aren’t you.” He didn’t make it a question.
“I can’t stay here.”
“You can, Eden. You have to try. That’s all he wanted, was for you to come back and stay. Even if it was just for a little while.”
“Is that why Noah gave me his half of the gallery?”
Wes’s eyes clouded. “I think so. He didn’t tell me why. Just asked me to handle the paperwork.”
“It’s a lot to ask,” Eden sighed. “After everything. It’s a lot to ask, even from him.”
“Eden.” Wes’s voice was sharp as he dropped her hand. “I know you got hurt. Badly. Everyone could see that. But it’s time you get it through your head that this isn’t just about you.”
Eden blinked, Wes’s anger catching her off guard. “I didn’t-”
“Honestly, I don’t care what you did or didn’t do, or think. I just lost my brother. My best friend. And he left the one thing that meant the most to him in the entire world to you. The friend who disappeared fifteen years ago and hasn’t been back since.”
“I did come back-” Eden tried to interrupt, but West cut her off.
“That doesn’t count and you know it.” He stared down at her, the sharp cut of his jaw tight. “Yes, Jude fucked it up. But so did you. Because you left without getting the whole story. Without talking to him. Or Noah. You vanished, flew half-way across the world, threw yourself into your work – which could get you killed at any moment, I might add – and didn’t give two shits about what it did to the rest of us.”
Eden couldn’t look at him. Wes was right. Noah had tried to tell her the same thing, in his calm, reasonable voice. She hadn’t listened. Now his big brother was doing it for him.
“Time to stop running, Eden. You’re a strong woman. You have to be, to see what you see and survive. So be strong now, and stay.”
Eden just nodded, shame making her silent. You knew you couldn’t run forever.
“Is that a yes?”
She nodded again, daring to look up at him. Some of Wes’s anger faded at that second nod, but his mouth was still tight.
“Good,” he said after a pause. “Because we have work to do. And it starts here.”
Jude had done a bunch of stupid shit in his life. The list was longer than he cared to remember, but he was pretty sure kissing Eden was at the top of it.
She’d barely slammed the door in his face when he’d yanked it open, keys in hand, running to his car to follow her.
She couldn’t leave. Not again. He’d been worried she wouldn’t come back before. Now, Jude knew if Eden left she’d be gone for good. Just like he knew he wouldn’t survive it. Not a second time.
Jude slowed when he saw it. That funny little car she’d rented. It was badly parked in front of the gallery, the taillight sticking out into the street. Her parallel parking skills were as crap as ever. It was good to know that at least one thing hadn’t changed.
Jude parked a few spots behind her. He could see Eden in the gallery, Wes Parker engulfing her in a hug. A low sound broke out of his chest that Jude didn’t recognize. No fucking way. There was no fucking way she was going to kiss him one minute, and fall into Wes’s arms the next. Especially since Wes knew the one thing that would guarantee Eden wouldn’t have anything to do with him ever again.
Jude was out of his car and across the street in a heartbeat. His was at the gallery door when a chirping sound from his pocket stopped him short.
She’d set the ringtone during her last visit, so he’d always know when she was calling.
“Hi, Dad.” Maddie’s voice was chipper. It always made Jude smile, even then.
“Did you get the form?”
Jude quickly thought back, trying to figure out what she was talking about. Ah, yes. The permission form.
“Yup. Sure did.”
“But you haven’t signed it yet, have you?”
Shit, he hadn’t. “Sorry, honey. Things have been crazy. I’ll do it today. Promise.”
“Please don’t forget,” she begged, the faintest hint of his little girl buried beneath the voice of a teenager. “It’s really important. I really, really want to go.”
“Maddie, don’t stress. I won’t forget. I’ll sign it today and email it back. You’ll get to go.”
“Cross my heart.” Then, softer, “I’m really proud of you kiddo.” And he was, so much his chest burned.
“Thanks, Dad. You’re the best.”
“Oh, hey. Mom wants to talk to you.”
Jude held back his groan. Of course she did. Allison knew he ignored her calls, but never Maddie’s. “Sure. Put her on.”
“Cool. Love you, Dad.”
“Love you too.”
“Oh, how sweet,” Allison’s sharper voice filled the phone.
Jude rolled his eyes. “I was talking to our daughter.”
“You mean the daughter who won’t be able to go to Europe if you don’t return the form she sent you ages ago?”
“I’m on it, Allie. No need to tell me I almost fucked it all up. I know that refrain by heart.”
“Sorry,” she said, her voice slightly softer. “I know things have been stressful. I talked to Mom.”
“I’m sure that was enlightening.”
“Conversations with Amy usually are.” Allie paused, her deep breath audible on the other end. “She said my sister finally came home.”
“Step-sister,” Jude shot back.
“Seems like an unnecessary distinction to make at this point.”
“It’s always worth pointing out. Trust me.”
“If you say so.” Jude could practically see Allie shrug on the other end. “I’d tell you to say hi for me, but-”
“Yeah, not going to happen.” Jude watched Eden and Wes move away from the window and further into the gallery. He couldn’t see if Wes was still touching her. “Is there anything else?”
“Nope, just the form. Please don’t forget.”
“I said I won’t,” Jude bit out. God, he was about to lose it. He pushed a breath through his teeth. “Sorry, Allie. It’s just been a really fucked up week.”
“Don’t doubt it.”
“I gotta go.” Jude was done with their conversation. He was at the gallery door, Eden and Wes visible in the sliver between the curtain and the edge of the large front window. Wes had Eden’s hand locked in his, his head bent as she tilted her beautiful face up.
“And, Jude?” Allie’s voice barely made a dent in his growing agitation.
“Good luck with Eden.”
“Thanks.” He’d take it, even from his ex-wife. Fuck, he’d take any luck he could get. Cause he sure as hell was going to need it.
One year ago.
“Noah?” Jude stepped onto his best friend’s back patio, looking around.
“Hey. Down here!”
Jude saw Noah waving from the dock. He slipped off his shoes once he got to the wood planking, rolling up his pants so he could drop his feet into the water next to his friend.
“Goddamn, I love it here.” Jude looked out across the lake, watching the late afternoon sun break across the soft current. A few brightly colored leaves were caught, red and orange and yellow dancing around each other as they drifted across the surface.
“Me too,” Noah answered. He was wearing that faraway look that Jude realized he had more and more often.
“What’s up? Why aren’t you at the gallery?”
Noah dunked a leaf with his foot before saying, “I talked to Eden.”
Jude ignored the mess of love and loss that hit him every time she came up. After so many years, it had become a dull roar in the back of his head. Constant, but something he’d learned to drown out. “How did it go?”
“I didn’t tell her.”
“I didn’t know what to say.”
“You can’t keep putting it off, Noah. She’s going to find out. And when she does, she’s going to be fucking pissed you didn’t tell her about it sooner.”
“She doesn’t have a right to pissed,” Noah spit out, angrier than Jude had heard him in a long time. “She has no fucking right.”
“I don’t disagree. But you know that won’t make a damn bit of difference.”
“Shit!” Noah pushed himself up quickly, water splashing across the dock and Jude’s legs. He started to pace up and down, the ancient boards creaking under his heavy steps.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“I need to sell half of the gallery.”
Jude twisted, eyes tracking Noah’s agitated movements. “Why?”
“I need the money.”
“Yes,” Noah didn’t let him ask the question. Jude knew he didn’t want to talk about it. And they wouldn’t. Not until they needed to.
“I can lend you the money.”
“No. I don’t want you to do that.”
Noah stopped and stared down at Jude, his face hard and flushed with the emotion he was trying to keep in check. “Because I won’t be able to pay you back.”
Jude didn’t care, and he knew it wasn’t that simple, but he wasn’t going to push. “What about Wes?’
“He wouldn’t ask you to. He’s your brother. You know he just wants to help. We all do.”
Noah was back to pacing, his hands scrubbing his short blonde hair. “I don’t want help. I want to sell half of the gallery.”
“Fine,” Jude answered, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. “I’ll buy it.”
“Jude. Stop. What the fuck will you do with half an art gallery. You don’t know the first thing about art. “
“You think a semi-decent circle on an etch-a-sketch is worthy of praise.”
“Fuck off. That was once. And we were, like, four.”
“More like six.”
“Whatever. That’s not the point. I won’t be running the gallery. You will. And you’ll have the money you need. Win-win.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“That I’ll be running the gallery. Because I won’t.”
Jude dropped his head. They still weren’t saying it out loud. The thing that hung around their necks like a dead weight, slowly choking the hope out of them.
“Fine. Yes. I do know that. But I also know that there is someone who can run it.”
“Eden? And how is that going to work, exactly?”
“You tell her the truth.”
“What, like you did?” Noah narrowed his eyes at his friend. “How’s that working out for you, Jude? Huh? Have you had your little heart-to-heart with Eden, explained to her how everything got so completely fucked up?”
Jude jumped up, not caring that his lower-legs got soaked. “That’s not the same thing and you know it.”
“Oh? Explain it to me,” Noah was practically shouting, impotent rage coursing through his large frame. “How is you keeping your huge fucking secret from her any different from me keeping mine?”
“Because,” Jude shouted back, “it isn’t just my secret, Noah. You fucking know that. Just like you know she isn’t ready to hear it. If she was, she would’ve come back. Just once. Just long enough for me to explain, for Allie to tell her what really happened. Goddamnit! If I thought for one fucking second that I could get her to listen, that I could get her to come back and stop running around war-torn countries, taking pictures, and almost getting herself blown on a daily fucking basis, don’t you think I would’ve?”
His shouts were echoing across the lake, his chest heaving just as hard as Noah’s. He needed to stop. But he couldn’t. Because he was staring at the heartbreak and desperation on his best friend’s face and it was like looking deep into his own battered soul.
“Jesus Christ, Noah! I know I have to tell her. But I can’t fuck it up. Not again. So, no. You’re right. I haven’t said a fucking word. And I won’t. Not until it’s the right time. And that right there is the difference. Because I still have time, Noah. I still have time and you-”
Jude stopped, horrified by what he was saying. By what he’d been about to say.
Noah gripped his hips and looked out across the water, his breath short and his eyes glassy. “Because you still have time. And I don’t.”
“Fuck, Noah.” Jude clasped his friend’s shoulder, his own slumped in regret and defeat. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean to say that.”
“I know.” Noah wouldn’t look at him, but he didn’t step away. “It doesn’t matter. Because you’re right, about that, at least. I don’t have time. Not nearly enough. But you were wrong about the other part, my friend.”
Noah met his eyes then, the green already less vibrant than Jude remembered.
“You don’t have as much time as you think. None of us do. So stop fucking wasting it.”
Stop fucking wasting it. Noah’s advice clamored in his head as Jude returned his phone to his pocket.
His friend had been right. He needed to tell Eden. No more waiting.
“Jude?” Eden held the gallery door open, her expression wary. “Did you follow me?”
Her wariness tightened to a frown. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I should’ve. Long before now.”
Her crystalline eyes hardened, her hair flipping across her shoulders as she turned back into the building. “Well, you didn’t.”
“Have dinner with me.”
“What?” Eden stopped, thrown off by the rapid change of subject.
“You heard me. We need to talk. And I don’t want to do it here. So, have dinner with me.”
“Jude.” She said his name in a way that sent blood rushing below his belt. “What’s the point? We’ll yell. We won’t eat. It’ll be perfectly good waste of food. Not to mention time.”
“I won’t yell. And we will eat. And the point, Eden, is that we have a lot to discuss.”
Those perfect lips formed a perfect ‘O’ and Jude’s mouth practically watered with the aftertaste of their kiss.
“Yes. Regardless of whether or not you stay, Eden, there are things you need to understand. Things I should’ve explained. And, now that you’re here, I’m not letting you leave until you give me a chance to do it.”
“Do as the man asks, Eden.” Wes came out from the back room, his gaze level as he looked between them.
“Why do I get the impression you two are ganging up on me?”
“You shouldn’t. Cause we’re not,” Wes continued before Jude had a chance to speak. “It just so happens that, in this case, I agree with him.”
“You do?” Jude asked, surprised. Whatever else they were, he and Wes were not friends. And he definitely didn’t consider him an ally.
“Believe it or not, I do.” Noah’s brother said. “This has gone on long enough. And since she is staying, you two need to sort your shit out. So, Eden,” Wes turned towards her. “Go, talk. And, please, for the love of God, don’t do it here.”
“Eden?” Jude worked to keep his face as neutral as possible. This would only work if she agreed on her own. “What do you say? Have dinner with me? Give me a chance to tell you what I should’ve a long time ago.”
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.”
“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?”
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.”
Eden found Jude in the falling darkness. Her cool fingers slipped over his cheeks, the rough line of his jaw. The slope of his nose. His breath warmed her palms, his lashes a whisper as she traced the eyes she’d tried so hard to forget. His lips parted beneath her thumbs. They were slick, hot; the source of Eden’s darkest fantasies and the gateway to promises she never expected to hear.
And they were hers, if she wanted them. If she just said yes….
Jude shifted, their thighs rubbing. Eden pushed a thumb between his lips. His tongue coaxed her deeper, his groan as warm as his mouth. The scrape of his teeth was just sharp enough, the long pull that followed all Eden needed to give up, give in. To nod. Yes.
Jude dragged their mouths together and Eden’s thumbs trailed, one damp, both shaking, down till she found his shoulders. She held on, letting him take – and give – whatever he wanted.
His hands spread across her back, traced her spine, his fingers flexing around her hips before he cupped her ass. While he kissed her, no break, no breath.
Eden’s head fell, her neck bowing as he drew her tight. The air at her back was cool. The front of her was burning. Jude opened his mouth wider, stroked his tongue deeper. He turned, moving her with his hands and the hard wall of his body, backing Eden against the table. She felt the linen-covered edge hit the back of her legs just as Jude broke the kiss.
Eden’s mouth hung open. The hinge of her jaw ached from Jude’s onslaught, pressed so wide, used so fully, like he was trying to imprint himself on her bones. Like he thought it would stop her from running away.
If he only knew. No matter how far she traveled, or how long she stayed away, Eden had never been able to escape him. The longer she tried, the harder she failed. The more she couldn’t pretend he wasn’t everything she’d always wanted.
Wind tangled her hair, continuing the job he’d started. Eden couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t feel her toes. The chill of the table was seeping through the back of her pants and Jude’s solid erection was undeniable – and so fucking hard – against her front.
She should’ve been nervous, angry. Confused. Scared shitless, if she was honest. Breaking her own heart by running away was one thing. Willingly turning it over to the man who could crush it – or squeeze it back to life, depending on the pressure – was something else entirely.
Jude held her still, but couldn’t stop moving. One hand memorized the line of her throat while the other slipped beneath her sweater, coveting the two little divots at the base of her spine.
“Eden.” Her name hummed in the twilight. Jude rocked his hips, once, and Eden’s neck arched just a little bit more. “Be sure, Eden,” he said. They were so close she felt his voice before she heard it. “Be absolutely sure. Because if you let me in, there’s no getting me out again. I aim to be so deep inside you.”
Her soft whimper kissed his next breath. Jude’s thumb pressed against her pulse.
“Not just your body, Eden. I want all the way in.” His tongue traced his thumb against her skin and she shook. “Deep into your heart. Your soul. Sunk into the part of you that no one ever sees, that no one even knows exists. No one but me.”
Jude let go so fast Eden had to grab the table for support. He fisted his hands into the tablecloth on either side of her. Eden barely registered the sound of a glass falling and breaking.
“I know you there,” Jude said, rough, breathless, “the shape you are. The ragged edges and the sharp points and the soft lines that will stretch if I push down just hard enough.” The table creaked under their weight. “Do you know why?”
The moon had taken over the sky and it was enough to illuminate Jude’s eyes. What Eden saw made her lungs ache. She squeezed the table harder and shook her head.
“I know, Eden, because there’s a matching hole deep inside me. Rough to your ragged, barbed where you’re sharp, so fucking empty where you’ll mold to fit me.” Jude’s jaw flexed, groaning under the pressure. “So be sure. Because whatever happens next, I mean to fit us back together again. And, this time, I swear to God, I won’t let you get away.”
Eden felt Jude’s words trace the hollow in her chest, the place she had once held sacred, just for him. The yawning gap they were both responsible for. It flared and burned, and begged not so softly.
Thinking had only gotten her so far. Running, not far enough. Eden was tired of both. At that second, her brain was completely shot, her feet perfectly still. And her heart was trying to tear through her chest to get to it’s rightful owner.
With a soft sigh, Eden relaxed. She sank against the table and covered Jude’s hands with her own. A current of acknowledgement jumped from her skin to his. When he moved there was no ignoring the crash of plates and glasses behind them.
“Fuck,” he swore, molding their lips together. Jude used his grip on the linen to haul Eden forward, wedging her between his spread legs. Their kiss was the conversation, repeated, moans and sighs were words had been. Eden accepting Jude; Jude pulling her in.
His hands flew from the table to her waist, then her chest. Eden pressed her breasts into his broad palms and yanked his head down. Their teeth knocked. Jude cupped and kneaded, plucking out little cries every time he rubbed Eden’s nipples through her sweater.
Eden spread her legs wider, her feet scrambling against the back of Jude’s calves. She dragged his tongue into her mouth when she felt his hands drop to her jeans.
Her lids fell, air escaping in a rush when Jude traced his thumbs along the juncture between her legs and torso. Leisurely, at first, like they had all the time in the world. But Eden shifted her hips, dragging the seam of her pants along the line of his thick cock. Jude jerked, his thumbs biting into her. Hard and so fucking right.
He dropped his mouth to her shoulder, teeth finding Eden’s exposed tendon when she arched against him. He nibbled and sucked, the flick of his tongue as coaxing as the water rocking the dock. Eden floated high on the sensation, barely registering the subtle jerks of his hands until he demanded, “Up.”
Eden’s body complied, instantly. She dropped her feet to the ground long enough for Jude to slip her jeans over her hips and down to her ankles. He hauled her back onto the table.
Jude littered kisses on her neck, her chin, her jaw, never leaving her, but not distracting her from the heat of his hands against her knees. Her thighs. The apex between, covered by just a scrap of cotton.
Eden squeezed his shoulders at the first touch. Not even an intrusion. Jude stroked one thick finger against the damp fabric, his hum of satisfaction sinking beneath her skin to coil and burn where he learned the feel of her.
Eden grabbed his narrow waist when he licked the rim of her ear. And searched, blindly, for his erection when he pressed between her folds, soaking the fabric even more.
She skimmed his tip and it jerked, begging for her hand. Jude pulled back. Not enough to take his hand from between her thighs, but enough so Eden couldn’t touch him.
“Uh-uh,” he said with a dark laugh. “Not now, not here. If you touch me, Eden, I won’t be able to stop. No chance in hell. And we’re not doing that here.”
Eden ringed him, thumbing his tip in protest. Jude groaned, cuffing her wrists in his free one. He kissed one palm, then the other, before lacing her arms across his shoulders. “Oh, my gorgeous, little runaway.” He licked her lips and they both tasted like wine. And wonder and lust.
“I’m not fucking you here. I’m not fucking you yet.”
Jude ran a finger along her once more before dragging the placket of her panties aside. Eden dug her nails into his neck as he slowly traced her opening. Her throat locked. Cool air laced between his strong finger and her slick flesh. Jude’s chuckle died on a groan when her swollen lips got wetter still. There was no way he could hide how his dick throbbed against her leg.
“I have plans, Eden. Fantasies. Visions that have driven me mad and kept me sane every day since you left. And as much as I’m going to enjoy making you come out here, hearing you scream my name, and having it echo over and over and over again, this isn’t where we’re taking each other for the first time. Got it?”
Eden didn’t say anything. She wiggled her feet until her shoes slipped off, then her jeans. She canted her hips as she locked her ankles behind Jude’s knees, the spread of her thighs giving him the answer: yes.
Jude moved fast, pulling away long enough to sweep the rest of the stuff off the table. The noise died as he laid Eden down, supporting himself on one hand. The other returned to her thighs, up, further, along her overheated lips, tracing just shy of her clit before drawing back down. Between, deeper. Then in. Just a tip, a tease.
Eden grabbed his arm where grazed her shoulder. She arched, trying to pull him in.
Jude didn’t follow. He held the blunt tip of his finger just inside her channel, testing her softness, her give. Then, so fucking slowly, he sank in. Eden felt his exhale against her gaping mouth, his coarse jeans against the inside of her knees. And, more than anything, she felt him open her, stroke her deep, slowly. Lovingly. With intention and a craving that had Jude curling that finger up and in, catching Eden so that she cried and her head thrashed.
“Fuck, Eden,” he growled. “Do that again.”
“Make me,” she whispered back. He did. Over and over. With stroke after stroke, some slow, smooth. Then faster, harder. Demanding. Jude added a second finger, stretching, reaching for the spot both of them were out of their minds to find.
Eden scratched his arm, her other hand white-knuckled in her hair. Jude muttered against her mouth, her neck, her breasts where they heaved beneath her sweater. He kept moving down, lower.
She stared sightless at the sky, vaguely aware that anyone could be out there. That anyone could be close enough to hear her buck against the table, or the wet stroke of Jude’s fingers inside her. Or the way she cried when his tongue traced her clit, flicking fast, too fucking gently to make her come.
“Jude,” she begged, not caring who could hear. Not caring about anything other than havoc he was creating with his mouth and fingers.
“My gorgeous, fucking runaway.” It was the last thing Eden heard before Jude replaced his fingers with his tongue and stroked her clit with his thumb. Strong and steady and so hard Eden shook, her hips driving against his face until she was screaming, shouting his name, coming violently as he ate and ate.
Then, silence. The world absent till Eden caught her scent, her taste as Jude kissed the corner of her mouth, her cheek, stroking her hair off her face. She opened her eyes on a deep sigh. He was above her, serious. Beautiful. Another kiss to her nose. Then, a smile.
“Come. Before you get cold.”
Eden realized she was dressed. Pants buttoned, shoes on. She had no idea how long she’d laid there, boneless. Thoughtless. Jude helped her off the table, steadying her when her knees buckled. “Come,” he repeated, twisting her hair around one hand before ghosting a kiss across her temple. “Let’s get you back. We have a long day tomorrow.”
“Hmm?” Eden looked at him, utterly blank.
Jude smirked. “At work, Eden. You. Me. The gallery.” The smirk vanished, his eyes somber in the moonlight. “Like I said. No escaping.”
“What about this one?” Eden pointed to a photo of the diner. The upward spike of the “M” in Mitchum ended below a low moon, the silver metal glinting in the light captured in black and white.
“Not for the central piece, no.” Jude shook his head. “That stays over here. The path to the lake stays on the big wall.”
It had been a week since their dinner on the dock and in that time he’d learned a few things about this adult version of Eden. For example, she still knotted her brow when she was concentrating. But now her head tilted, too, like the weight of all of her decisions had started to drag it down.
She was still scrappy. Jude had filled out since high school, the lithe muscles of his youth honed into sharp, regularly-exercised definition. He hadn’t stopped growing until he was twenty, so he was even taller than when Eden had left. But, his size didn’t stop her. Eden argued with her body, a whirl of limbs and declarative movements, and nothing about his larger frame kept her from going toe to toe with him. Literally.
Which usually came shortly after she used that tone. The one she took just then, saying his name. The one that told Jude that Eden didn’t think he was very good at this whole gallery thing. Definitely not as good as her.
“It’s the show, Eden. There’s a progression. Noah and I went over it, again and again. This is the way it’s supposed to go.”
Eden looked down at the floor and drew a line across the concrete with the tip of her shoe. She didn’t like it, but she wasn’t going to push back. Yet.
“What about the smaller room, the one back there?” Eden pointed to the more intimate space behind the main gallery. “Do you know what’s supposed to go there?”
Jude nodded. “The photos are still at Noah’s house, I haven’t seen them yet. But, yes, I know which ones go there.”
“We need to take a look. Can you bring them here?”
“They’re big. We should probably see them in his studio, first. Plus, that way you’ll be able to give me tips on how to move them without damaging them.”
That non-committal murmur: he’d gotten used to that too. It hovered on the “no” side of “maybe,” and was a sound Eden made often. Every time he suggested they grab a drink after a day in the gallery. Every time he said they needed to go over to Noah’s to do, see, or grab something. And every fucking time he invited her out to another dinner.
Eight days, seven nights.
That’s how long it’d been since he’d had her writhing beneath his tongue, the feel and smell and taste of her clicking some long forgotten piece of him back into place. Jude had spent eight days and seven nights reliving every second of those moments together. How he’d been able to tell her with his mouth and hands everything he’d felt about her since he was a boy. How the little sounds she’d made, soft at first, then louder, more demanding, were the soundtrack to the life he’d always wanted to live. And how it had become clear that despite everything – most likely, because of it – they were virtually strangers.
“I’ll make you a deal.” Jude crossed the room to stand next to Eden. He let his fingers skim the back of her hand, relaxing when she didn’t move away.
Holding his breath, he twisted their fingers together. Jude’s heart flipped when Eden pressed her palm to his, their hands locking together easily. He studied her profile as she stared at the photograph.
“I’ll bring the rest of the pieces over from Noah’s myself. You don’t have to come. But, you have to do something for me, in exchange.”
“I miss you, Eden. So fucking much.” Jude’s voice sounded loud in the empty gallery, but he didn’t care. “I know you’re here. For now, at least.” He squeezed her hand tight. “And I want to spend every single chance possible getting to know you again. I want to spend time with you.”
“We’ve spent every day together for the last week.”
“Here, working, Eden. That’s not what I mean and you know it.”
“Okay, what do you mean?” Eden’s attention was still fixed on the picture in front of them and her fingers were cool between his.
“We don’t know each other. Not any more. And I want to get to know you again, so damn much. And I want you to get to know me. The person I’ve become. The grown-up, not just the kid who stayed behind, or the fuck-up you’ve been so mad at for so long. There’s so much I want to tell you. Stories I’ve been saving up for years, on the off chance you’d ever be willing to listen. I want to talk about Noah-” Jude stopped, swallowing hard, his hand locking around Eden’s when she tried to slip away.
“There are things–memories–I don’t want to talk about with anyone else. Really good parts of our lives, times when it was just the three of us. You’re the only one I can talk to about them. The only one who remembers, or understands.”
Jude turned so his chest brushed Eden’s shoulder, his uncertain breaths skimming the top of her hair. He was thankful she wasn’t looking at him. It was easier to confess when she wasn’t looking at him.
“I want my best friend back. Even if you’re nothing like the girl I once knew. Even if we have to start from scratch. Even if it means you get to know the man I’ve become and decide you want nothing to do with me, ever again.”
Eden’s eyes closed and she shook her head, just a little. “I’d never-”
Jude cut her off, not ready to hear her protest yet. “I’ve been really fucking lonely. Since even before Noah died. I can barely describe it. You were the one who went so far away, who went to live with strangers. And I stayed here, in this tiny freakin’ town that I know inside and out, half of which my family literally built.
“But when you left…when I made that crazy fucking agreement with Walter and gave you the chance to get away…. You took my home with you, Eden. It makes no sense, I know. I’ve had friends, a business, a wife, a daughter, a roof over my head, and food on the table, all of the things any soul on this earth should be grateful to have, every single day. But despite all of it, I’ve missed you. No, more than that. I’ve missed the piece of me that left with you. The part that grounded me, the part that’s always known that you are what made this town home.”
Jude felt Eden’s shaky sigh all the way down his spine. She wet her bottom lip before glancing up at him. “Th-that’s a fairly hefty trade for moving a bunch of photos, don’t you think? In fact, it might just be better if I get them myself.”
His throat went dry and it wasn’t until he saw Eden’s small smile that Jude could make his lungs work.
“Just tell me what you want.”
He spoke fast, as clearly as he could. “I want to spend real time with you. Not working. Not at the gallery. I want to get to know who you are, now. And I want you to get to know me, again.”
“Even if there’s the chance I don’t like who you are now?” Eden turned and looked him in the eyes, their hands still locked together. “Even if there’s a chance we don’t like each other?”
Jude gave himself a second to memorize her face and the way her eyes, bright and solemn, looked in the golden afternoon light. “Yes.”
He blinked, not understanding. “Yes?”
Eden’s smile, though small, didn’t waver. “Yes. I’m agreeing to your deal.”
“What, you don’t want me to?”
“No!” He pulled her a little closer, past the line maintained by even the closest friends and into the space reserved for lovers. It was hard for Jude to hear himself think over the pounding of his heart. “I mean, yes. I want you to to say yes. I’m just surprised.”
“I expected to have to campaign a little harder. I didn’t think you’d agree so fast.”
Eden pulled her hand from his, but didn’t back away. “Your campaign was effective, trust me. Besides, I’ve been thinking about everything you said that night. At dinner.”
Jude couldn’t help it. He loved the blush that creeped up her neck and tinged the tips of her ears. “Everything I said?” he prompted.
“I made decisions, too, Jude. And I’m starting to realize that not all of them might have been the right ones. Not when I really didn’t understand what was going on.”
“I should’ve told you,” Jude interjected.
“I should’ve asked.” Eden stepped back, putting distance between them, but she didn’t look away. “Look. This-” she waved between them and then again, at the gallery “-whatever this is, it involves both of us. I agreed to stay. I agreed to listen to you at dinner. And I more than agreed to everything that happened after.”
Some of Jude’s tension faded on the chuckle he was unable to hold back when Eden’s eyes flicked down to his crotch before she could stop herself.
“In which case,” he murmured, “can I just say, now, how much I like the way you agree?”
“Stop,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “That’s not the point.”
“Okay, what is?”
Eden’s smile vanished and the look she gave him made every inch of him hard. “I haven’t been fair to you. I keep thinking about it, over and over. What I thought happened verses what you said. And I have so many questions and so many things I still don’t understand. But I do know, Jude, that this awkward place we are now – it’s as much my fault as anyone’s. So the only answer I can give you is yes. Even though I’m stating for the record that I’m absolutely fucking terrified about what happens next, my answer is yes.”
“Okay.” It was stupid, not at all eloquent. But it was the only think he could say.
“Okay.” Eden nodded, taking a few more steps back. “But now you have to agree to my deal.”
Jude stayed silent, terrified that anything he might say would undo the truce they’d formed.
“You let me plan our time together.”
Jude gripped his hips, trying to stop himself from rocking on his feet. “Okay, this is suddenly making me nervous.”
Eden laughed. “Hey, this was your plan. I’m just going along with it.”
“Right. Exactly why I’m nervous.”
Eden closed the distance between them and threaded her finger through one of the belt loops on his jeans. And tugged, once. “Don’t be. I promise. It’ll be fun.”
“Nope.” Jude’s Adam’s apple bobbed on a harsh swallow. “Not helping.”
“So, is that a no?”
“No, no. Not a no. It’s a yes. Definitely, one-hundred-percent yes. But Eden?”
“Promise me one thing?”
“You’ll try. I mean, really try. Promise that you’ll let me in, that you’ll give us a chance to start again?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“You do?” Eden stepped down one rung, then another. When she stopped they were eye-to-eye.
“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.”
“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.”