Want to help decide how the story continues? Join the story on my Instagram feed (at) katyamesbooks. I publish a new chapter every Thursday & ask readers what they want to happen next.
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.”
If you’d like vote on what happens next (do they kiss or don’t they?), you can do so in the comments section of this blog post.
CHAPTER FOUR: Thursday, October 19