NOTE: 18+ due to language and sexual content.
NOTE FROM KATY: This story started as a way to thank romance readers for their passion and support. I couldn’t think of a better way to show my appreciation than by bringing everyone into the heart of the story, literally. So, #ChooseYourOwnRomance was born — a serial in which readers voted each week on how the story continued. Now, almost five months later, Chapter 20 marks the end of Eden & Jude’s romance, at least in this format. And, again, it’s time to say thanks. Thank you to everyone who read, followed along, and voted. This story wouldn’t exist without you. As is the case with every reader for every book, I am indebted and forever thankful.
(Oh, and I can’t wait to bring you an extended version of the story in novella form in a few months – stay tuned!)
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.”
Fifteen years ago
“She’ll be here.”
“It’s your wedding. She’ll be here,” Noah insisted.
“My wedding to her sister. She won’t. I sure as hell wouldn’t come, if our places were switched.”
“Step–sister. And, really? Where would you be the day your best friend since forever got married?”
You mean, the day the person I’ve been in love with for the past four years married someone else? As fucking far away as possible. And as drunk as possible.
“Just…not here,” Jude mumbled, yanking down the cuff of his rented tux. There was a smudge near the buttons. Jude scratched it. The faded yellow looked suspiciously like the mustard that had dripped off his burger the night of Senior Prom.
“Gross.” Jude found a bottle of water and tried to wash out the stain. “Pretty sure this is the same tux I wore to prom. You’d think Mr. Jenkins would’ve used those six months to get the stain out.”
“Man’s half-blind. I doubt he noticed,” Noah muttered, poking his head out the little waiting room’s door, assessing the crowd gathering in the church. As best man, he was wearing a rented tux too. Jude smirked when he noticed the long thread dragging from the bottom of his pants.
Stained and unraveling. Yup, that pretty much summed up how he felt on his wedding day.
Fuck. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He shouldn’t be getting married at 18. He shouldn’t be getting ready to be a dad to another man’s kid. And he sure as hell shouldn’t be marrying Eden’s sister.
The clip-on bow tie was stabbing his throat. Jude tried to adjust it, but fumbled, accidentally tearing it half off. He’d lost feeling in his fingers.
It’s the cold.
It’s the fear.
“Yo, Jude. You okay?” Noah was giving him a strange look from across the room. “You look like you’re gonna hurl.”
That was it. Maybe he could postpone. Pretend he was sick. Maybe he could go to the ER. Say it was food poisoning. The shrimp at the rehearsal dinner had been a little shady. People would believe it, right? There was still time. He could stop this whole fucking charade. He could not marry the sister of the woman he was in love with.
“Stop.” Noah shut the door, but not before Jude heard knees knocking against pews and the first sticky notes coming from the organ.
“What?” Jude tried to fix his tie, but Noah brushed his hands out of the way, yanking it roughly back into place.
“It’s written all over your face. You’re going to bail. You’re going to jump out of that fucking window and leave the poor girl abandoned and alone at the alter on her wedding day.”
“It’s my wedding day too,” Jude hissed, suddenly pissed by how well Noah could read him.
“My point exactly.” Noah tugged on his lapels. “You proposed to Allie. You decided this was the only option. And, fuck it, I think you’re nuts, but I also think you’re right. That girl’s prick of a dad has cut her off, thrown her out, and she shouldn’t be alone. Not like this. Not when she has a baby on the way and she won’t tell anyone who the father is. And not when she’s unemployed without a roof over her head or money to pay for doctor visits. God, and all those diapers kids need.”
“Babies need,” Jude corrected, panic making his tongue thick. “Pretty sure kids learn to shit in a toilet. At some point. I think. Fuck. I don’t know. Noah, I think I really fucked up. What if I can’t do this? What if I’ve just made everything worse?”
Noah crossed his arms and neither paid attention when the sound of a seam ripping slid through the air.
“It’s temporary, right?”
“You’re getting married to give her security, health insurance, and a place to live. Food on the table and money in the bank while she needs it. And the support of one of the town’s oldest and most influential families, in case there’s any sort of legal shit down the road. She has the baby, you help her for a little while, long enough to make sure she gets back on her feet. Maybe hook her up with a job at your dad’s construction firm when she’s ready to work. She could even be your secretary, now that you’re gonna be working there full time.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Jude heaved out a sigh. It sounded okay laid out in Noah’s even, rational tone. Like a totally insane soap opera, sure. But doable. And temporary.
“You two stick it out for a little while, until Allie feels like she can handle things on her own, then you get a divorce. The prenup is already signed, so you don’t have to worry about things getting messy. You guys are friends, now at least, so you don’t need to worry about the romantic shit. No unrealistic expectations about fancy dates. No kissing, no groping. No wild and crazy sex. No big, romantic wedding night.”
No big, romantic wedding night. Jude glanced down at his crotch and almost laughed. He could practically feel his dick shrinking. He didn’t want to sleep with Allie. Yeah, he liked her. They’d become friends, close ones, over the past few months. But he didn’t want to bang her. His perpetually half-hard, teenage cock should’ve been over the fucking moon about the idea of a guaranteed lay. But Allie wasn’t the one he wanted. She wasn’t the one he loved.
“Temporary,” Jude finally muttered, shoving his still-frozen fingers into his pockets.
“Temporary. And a really amazing thing, if you ask me. You’re a good guy, Jude. Allie’s lucky to have you. We all are.” Noah’s smile was bright and genuine. Jude was surprised at just how much older Noah looked at that moment. Less boy, more man.
This was really happening. They were adults, at least in the eyes of the law. Old enough to vote. Old enough to go to fight and die in war. Old enough to get married and have babies. Old enough that Allie’s dad couldn’t stop them, no matter how much he wanted to. And old enough that no one, not even Jude, could make Eden come back, regardless of how much he missed her.
“Do you see her?” He shouldn’t have asked. He knew it the second he saw Noah’s face. But he couldn’t help it. When it came to Eden, Jude would never stop asking.
Noah skimmed the church once more, his eyes shuttered when he turned back to his friend. “She’ll turn up. You’ll both be well on your way to getting shit faced at the reception in no time. But first, let’s get you married.”
“I was going to come.” Eden traced the base of her wine glass against the white tablecloth, then slid her bread plate closer to the center of the table. Anything to avoid meeting his gaze.
“You weren’t.” Jude leaned back in his chair, catching sight of the waiter bringing over dessert. “It’s okay. I know.”
Jude cut her off. “If you’re going to say sorry, don’t. We’ve both done a lot, and we both have a lot to be sorry for. But, trust me, you don’t need to apologize for missing my wedding to your sister.”
“Step-sister,” Eden said with a soft, half-teasing smile.
Jude watched her, soaking up the curve of her lips, his hands getting hot against his thighs. That was a good smile. One of his favorites. One that made him think he really did have a chance.
“I, uh, haven’t talked to Allie much.” Eden sounded embarrassed and kept her eyes on the dessert the waiter placed in front of her. As soon as the young man was gone she leaned closer, whispering, “I’ve been a really bad sister. A terrible aunt.” Her eyes flicked to his and Jude wished they were anywhere but in the middle of a well-known, completely full restaurant. He found her hand on the table just as she muttered, “An awful friend.”
“I won’t lie, Eden. You’ve been pretty shit.” She tried to pull away and Jude chuckled, the rough pads of his fingers skimming her skin. “But we’re all involved, here. We all share some of the blame.”
“No,” Jude agreed. “Not Maddie. You’re right. She’s blameless. And pretty much perfect. Though don’t you dare tell her I said that. She’ll be harassing me to increase her allowance every day for months.”
Eden tracked his features, a thoughtful expression filling her eyes. She freed her hand and poked her chocolate cake. “You like it, don’t you?”
“Hmm?” he asked around a spoonful of creme brûlée.
“Being a dad.”
“I do, yeah. Don’t get me wrong. It’s hard work. The hardest, actually. But there’s something about that kid…. I fell in love the second I saw her. The day she was born, her little fingers reached out and bypassed my hand completely. Locked around my heart instead. She can irritate me like no other. And make me madder than hell. But she’s my little girl.” Jude shrugged, knowing his mouth was curved in a goofy grin, the one talking about Maddie always slapped on his face. “She’s happy, I’m happy. She’s sad, and I want to kill the fucker who made her that way. Simple as that.”
Jude took another bite before he realized Eden wasn’t eating. She’d gone still, and that thoughtful look had darkened. Shit.
She blinked and pricked her cake with the tines of her fork. “Hmm, yeah?”
“You vanished there for a second. What were you thinking about?”
“Uh-uh, nope.” Jude pushed his dessert away. “We’re not doing that. You agreed, remember? It’s part of the whole get-reacquainted plan. We let each other in. We ask questions, and we answer. So, tell me. What were you thinking about?”
Eden slid her chair back, the motion noiseless against the plush carpet. Her eyes were bright, almost brittle when they met his.
“I was thinking that you’re probably the best dad. And that Maddie is incredibly lucky to have you.”
“Eden?” Jude leaned forward, searching for her hand, his fingers flexing when he found her cool skin and saw a tear slip down one check. “Fuck, Eden. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing. I was just thinking, wondering…what it would’ve been like if Maddie had been mine. Ours.”
Jude caught his balance on the table. It wobbled, one of the water glasses soaking the cloth. He stood, trying to process Eden’s comment and shivering as the ice water seeped through his pants. Images slammed into his brain in rapid succession. Eden pregnant with his baby, Eden giving birth to their child. Eden as a mom. Eden as his….
Jude had to force his heart to slow and his head to clear, hope and loss and longing making it hard to catch his breath. It took him another minute to realize Eden had slipped away, her red hair flashing as the restaurant door closed. And Jude couldn’t stop replaying that one word over and over again.
Jude grabbed her hand just before she stepped off the curb. Her cool fingers fluttered before settling against his.
“Thanks for dinner,” she muttered, not looking up.
“No. You can’t just drop that bomb and run away.” Jude tugged, pulling her shoulder against his chest. Her warmth and the subtle spice of her perfume made his chest ache.
Eden sounded defeated and Jude wanted to kiss away the sadness dampening her voice. He cupped her jaw, tilting her eyes to meet his.
“Did you mean it?” Jude felt every muscle in Eden’s body still before a shiver tumbled through her.
“What you said, about wishing Maddie had been ours? About thinking what it’d be like to have a child together?”
“Jude….” Eden was trying to pull away and he could barely think over the pounding of his blood.
“I feel like I’m fucking drowning here, Eden,” he whispered. “I know this was my idea, that I wanted to talk about everything we’ve missed the past fifteen years. All the things we should’ve told each other but didn’t. But you can not confess something like that and expect me to drop it. Not when it gives me so much goddamn hope I feel like my heart is about to explode.”
Eden’s watery gaze fell from his eyes to his lips and lingered. Jude was leaning in, his fingers slipping beneath the fall of her hair, his breath heated puffs against her skin, when she said, “I was engaged.”
Jude almost swallowed his tongue. “What? When?” His hand went lax and Eden stepped back.
“About, uh, eight years ago.”
He shook his head, trying to clear the fog away. “Okay.” He didn’t know this. He hadn’t heard a single fucking word about it. Eden had almost gotten married…. “Who? Who were you engaged to?”
Eden nibbled her bottom lip, her eyes drifting across the street. Jude immediately wanted them – all of her – back again.
“Jonathan,” she answered.
“Wh-why aren’t you married? To Jonathan?”
Eden winced. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this here.”
“No!” Jude banded her hands in his, anchoring her in front of him. They were in the middle of the sidewalk in the center of town and in sight of evening shoppers and restaurant goers and Jude was about to crawl out of his skin and he didn’t care who saw as long as Eden kept talking. “No,” he repeated. “Tell me.”
Eden’s expression was guarded when she finally continued. “Our engagement fell apart when he figured out why I’d wanted to get married in the first place.”
It didn’t matter how close he held her, Eden refused to meet his eyes. He forced himself to ask the question. “Why did you want to get married?”
She answered his question with one of her own, her voice a slip of sound in the twilight. “What happened eight years ago?”
Jude ripped through his memory. What year was it now? What year was she talking about? There were so many details to shift through and his brain wasn’t working right. It took longer than it should have. And then Jude felt ill.
“The baby,” he whispered, his voice catching.
“Yes.” Eden drew in a shaky breath. “When Noah told me that Allie had gotten pregnant, that you guys were going to have another baby….” Her voice trailed off, her sightless stare fixed far away. “I was so angry. I couldn’t even think about it without wanting to scream. I was so angry, so jealous. So heartbroken.”
Eden’s throat worked, swallowing back tears. Jude wondered if they burned as badly as his.
“It doesn’t even make sense,” she continued. “You already had Maddie. You were a family. Another baby shouldn’t have made a difference. I tried to be happy for you, Jude, I swear. I wanted to be happy for you and Allie. But I couldn’t. Because I knew, then, it was over. There was no chance. Not for us.”
Her voice dropped to a distant echo, swallowed by years of misunderstanding and silence. “I knew, at that moment, you were theirs. And you’d never be mine. So I tried to do what I should’ve done from the start. I tried to move on. With Jonathan.”
Jude buried his face in her hair, desperate for the contact. And comfort. “But you didn’t,” he murmured.
With his eyes closed he could only feel Eden shake her head. But he couldn’t stop the sigh that tore through him when she squeezed his hands, the pressure warm and solid where he’d gone numb.
“I’m so sorry, Jude. About the miscarriage. I was gutted when I heard. The rest of it…it didn’t matter, not then. Noah told me how devastated you guys were. So awful, so unexpected in the second trimester. I’m so, so sorry.”
Jude squeezed his eyes shut, wondering if Eden could feel where her hair was getting wet. His baby. Adelaide.
She’d been their hope, his and Allie’s. Their last chance at making their bizarre, fraying marriage work. Their last chance at keeping them all together as a family. A family for Maddie. A family with Adelaide.
In the end, losing her had finally broken them. As much as Maddie was his daughter in every way that mattered, in his heart and his soul, Jude hadn’t been prepared for the debilitating pain he’d felt when the doctor had confirmed they’d lost their child. His child. His chance to bring his own flesh and blood into the world.
Jude’s heartbreak had been clean, and severe. A vicious blow that had gone straight through the tender organ and ricocheted across his ribs and down his spine. Allie had seen it. So had Maddie. And Jude had felt like a traitor to the woman he’d tried so hard to help and the child he loved more than life. Because they’d seen a part of him that they’d always considered theirs die right before their eyes and he hadn’t been able to stop it.
Allie had moved out only a few weeks later. They’d been divorced within the year.
He felt his chest jump against hers, the rhythm of his lungs off. Shit, he really was losing it, right there in the middle of the fucking street.
“Hey, shhhhh,” she whispered, catching his face in her hands, her thumbs soothing dampness across his stubbled skin. Her lips followed, warm and gentle against his cheek.
Jude felt himself melt into her embrace. No, he didn’t care where they were or who saw. He suddenly didn’t care about much of anything, as long as his heart was still beating and Eden was still touching him.
“I’m glad you didn’t marry him,” he managed to say, voice scratchy.
Eden’s laugh was startled, nervous. And divine against his neck. “Yeah, me too.”
“This isn’t how I saw the night ending.”
Eden’s head found the curve of his shoulder. “Me neither. I’m sorry for dragging all of this up for you. God,” she said, rueful, “maybe I should just get ‘I’m sorry’ tattooed on my forehead. It would make all of these conversations a lot more straightforward.”
“Certainly less painful.”
Eden frowned, her teeth punishing her bottom lip. Jude slipped it free and soothed the silky, slightly damp surface with his thumb. “Not your fault, Eden. It would have come up at some point. Besides, I want you to know. I want to be able to talk to you about it. About her.” Jude watched his thumb slide across her lip and felt his voice roughen against his esophagus. “About everything.”
Eden’s eyes had gone wide, the edges inky. And Jude knew that he wasn’t done staring into them. Not by a long shot. “Come home with me.”
“Or take me home with you. I don’t care, Eden.” He found the palm of her hand with his mouth and kissed. Lips open, and not so gentle. “I want to be with you, Eden. I’m so fucking tired of not being with you. I’m so fucking tired of being alone. We can keep our clothes on, we can just talk. But, please, be with me tonight. Please just say yes.”
Eden realized within the first three minutes that she was in trouble.
From her seat on Jude’s living room sofa she could see the front door clearly. She could make it in fifteen steps. Ten, if she ran. Eden’s soles practically thrummed with the desire to do just that.
The man responsible for her current panic was behind her, somewhere in the kitchen. She could hear the soft thud of a door closing, the measured tread of his feet moving across the floor, then the click of ice against glass.
Jude was getting them drinks, as requested. Eden didn’t even care if the bourbon was good, as long as it dimmed the chatter in her brain. And the itch in her feet.
In the warmly lit room Eden could see the thump of her pulse against her inner wrist. Coming home with him wasn’t a bad idea.
It was a dangerous one.
The earthy tang of Jude’s cologne greeted her a second before long fingers slipped a glass into her hand.
Eden took a sip before daring to meet his eyes.
I love you.
That’s what he’d said that night on the dock. It had been almost two weeks and Eden could recall it perfectly. The unvarnished truth in his voice. The unyielding heat of his body pressed against hers. The ecstatic, terrified race of her blood.
Every night since, Eden had gone to bed with those three words lulling her to sleep.
Words she hadn’t said back. Words she could feel crawling farther and farther up her throat as the seconds passed.
“Yes. Great.” Eden took another sip, focusing on the burn.
His “hmmm” didn’t sound convinced.
Eden shifted, the leather creaking in soft protest beneath her. The sofa was enormous, one of those sprawling yet sleek Chesterfields filling bachelor-centric showrooms throughout all suburbia. Jude could lay across that sofa and they’d still be feet apart, with no risk of touching.
But the fabric of his pants slid across Eden’s legs, exposed below her dress, when Jude took a seat opposite her on the equally spacious coffee table.
Eden crossed her legs, missing the hard curve of Jude’s calves immediately. “I’m fine.”
“Uh-uh.” Jude shook his head, a wry grin growing. “Don’t forget. I have a mom, an ex-wife, and a teenage daughter. I know that ‘fine’ means anything but.”
Eden’s lips quirked, but she was too anxious for the smile to stick. Her view was now equally split between Jude and the front door and Eden was very aware that the draw of one was quickly drowning out the call of the other. Especially when her muscles had no trouble remembering just how solid that door felt when Jude had crushed her against it with that kiss all those weeks ago.
“I, uh, am just getting my bearings.”
“It’s a house, Eden. Not a orienteering course.”
Unknown and potentially hazardous terrain, all the same. Eden dropped her attention to her drink, forbidding her tongue from tracing her bottom lip. “You wanted to talk?”
“That’s what you said. Before. On the sidewalk.”
Jude slid forward on the table before propping his elbows on his knees. In that position their faces were level. Eden could feel him studying her. “Hmm, so I did.”
Eden swung one foot and her lids fluttered shut when she met the back of Jude’s leg. She wanted to stay pressed there, skin to cotton, but she let gravity have its way, parting them again. “So, what do you want to talk about?”
Jude was silent for a beat before, “Hedonistic escalation.”
Eden coughed, her bourbon lighting fire in her throat. Finally she managed to say, “What?”
Jude’s tone was soft and low. And serious. “I heard it on the radio, in a conversation about food. About how a complex combination of flavors drives us to take another taste, then another. Then even more, like we are helpless to stop.”
“You want to talk about eating?”
Jude held her gaze, the shake of his head almost imperceptible. “Craving. Not eating.”
She opened her mouth, speechless, then shut it again. Jude set his drink on the table then slipped hers from lax fingers. Seconds later Eden’s chilled skin was blanketed by the warmth of his hands.
“It’s a instinctive reaction that humans have to keep eating, not because they’re hungry, but because they’re driven, on a biological level, to identify individual flavors with every successive bite.”
She swallowed, her eyes drifting to his mouth. “Because of the complexity?”
“Yes. And because of the compulsion.”
Eden squeezed her thighs together, the heat from his grasp and the flutter in her gut coalescing and sinking deep. From the way Jude shifted, his thigh muscles flickering, Eden wondered if he was experiencing something similar.
She had to clear her throat before muttering, “Sounds fascinating. But why talk about that now?”
Jude’s grasp on her hands tightened, the muscles beneath his shirt flexing as he pulled her towards him. “Because I heard about it, Eden, and suddenly everything made sense.”
“Everything?” Eden had to work to hear her voice over the rush of blood in her ears.
“Everything I feel when I kiss you.”
She hadn’t realized she’d stopped breathing until Jude’s fingers found her mouth. His gentle tap on one corner had her lips parting and her lungs filling on a shallow gasp.
“I didn’t know how to explain it before, the overwhelming craving that hits me when I taste you.” He pressed on her lower lip, the rough pad of his thumb catching against the softness.
A desire to lick him, just there, rushed through her so fast Eden’s vision went hazy.
When he next spoke she swore he was plucking thoughts from her own head. “I used to think kisses were simple. Straightforward. Not always a means to an end, but not necessarily things to be savored, either. But with you….” Jude tugged again and Eden could only lean closer. “Sometimes I think I could live off kissing you, the way your breath fills me and your little sighs satisfy me like nothing else in this world can. And my heart pounds, Eden, but my soul is calm. Fuck, maybe even happy.”
“But, other times….” His eyes danced across her face, dark and focused. And beloved. “Other times I can taste the sadness, yours and mine. The loss, the yearning. And it makes me feel desperate, because I want to wipe it all way, every unspoken word and unshed tear. I want to kiss you until the only thing left behind is joy. And comfort. That is when I want to kiss you harder, to make sure you know how much I’ve missed you, how much I want you.” Jude’s thumb dropped from her mouth to her chin, then drifted lower, tracing the column of her throat. “How much I love you.”
Eden pulled her hands from his grasp and pressed them to his thighs, halfway between his knees and the place her fingers begged to be. Jude’s thumb dropped below her clavicle, destined for the valley between her breasts, and his voice seeped into her where they were separated by only fine layers of fabric.
“But even then it’s not that simple. It goes beyond sour and sweet, deeper than just love and loss. Because, always, Eden, you taste of more. There is a darkness, a richness, that I cannot get enough of. You are the woman who can break my heart with silence and mend it with one look and that is the flavor that taunts me at night and teases me every single time we’re together and ensures that one more kiss, one more bite will never be enough.”
Eden felt his hand coast down her chest, air catching and teasing her peaked nipples as he ghosted past but didn’t touch. Then his caress was gone, and she felt, more than heard the whimper that escaped her.
A whimper that turned into the softest moan when Jude found her hands and slowly inched them up his thighs.
“Hedonistic escalation. Undeniable impulse. Chemical, biological, instinctual. Whatever you want to call it, you, Eden, define it for me. You always have. And, God, now that you’re here, I need another taste. Another hundred, another million. Or just one. Whatever you’re willing to give me. Whatever you’ll let me take.”
Eden was barely on the couch, her grasp on his legs keeping her balanced as she catalogued the stern set of his features and the sweep of his eyelashes and the fine lines that weathered his eyes that she guessed had formed over the years that had been his alone and not theirs together.
Jude’s lips hovered above hers and for the first time since Eden entered his house she understood her mistake.
If she’d wanted to feel calm, relaxed, at home, she should never have asked for a drink. She should have just asked for him.
That night on the dock, Jude had confessed to fantasizing about her. About them.
Eden had fantasized too. More times than she could count. She’d dreamed up scenarios that she’d happily enact on any surface they could find, flat or otherwise.
But this wasn’t a fantasy. Jude’s muscles were hard beneath her hands, desire making them jump at the lightest touch. Eden wasn’t imagining how his shallow breaths skimmed her cheek. Or how the memory of his tongue between her thighs had her stomach swooping low and her pulse spiking in anticipation.
They both watched as Eden skated her hands towards his hips, their breaths hitching as she got closer to the erection straining his pants.
No. This might feel like a dream come true, but it definitely wasn’t a fantasy.
“Upstairs,” Eden murmured. Her voice came out even lower than usual.
“Upstairs? You’re sure?” Everything about Jude – his body, his posture, his punishing restraint, the unholy and ravenous glint in his eyes – was pure, unadulterated man. But the hope in his voice, that little lilt of vulnerability, held a sliver of the boy he’d once been. And had Eden’s heart protesting against her chest.
I love you, her soul screamed.
“Yes, I’m sure,” she whispered.
Seconds later, Jude was leading her by the hand, their movement through the house unhurried but certain.
At one point in her life, Eden would have distracted herself with things, unimportant details. The plushness of the carpet. The nick on the top of the newel post. The creak of the fifth step.
But that was before, with other men. Before, when she was Eden the runaway. The bad sister, the heartbroken friend.
Jude’s thumb skimmed the inside of her wrist and Eden gave his fingers a squeeze.
Those pieces of herself were still there. Eden knew it would take years – not weeks – to quiet all of the doubts and fears and uncertainties that had gathered during her absence. But as she watched Jude’s shoulders shift beneath his shirt and the column of his neck turn and tighten and his Adam’s apple bob as he looked at her, eyes burning in the dark, all of those niggling voices vanished. And the lovesick girl who still lived in the body of a unabashedly aroused woman gave a riotous shout of joy.
They were two steps into Jude’s room when Eden slipped her hand free.
“Wh-” Jude started to ask, but Eden silenced him with a kiss. One pass of her tongue along the seam of his lips, one tug of his thick hair and the only thing that mattered was getting skin to skin.
Their lips parted and pressed as Eden untucked his shirt and undid the buttons.
Jude moaned – or was it her? – when Eden’s fingers, then the palms of her hands coasted down his abdomen. His muscles danced beneath her touch, more solid and hotter than she’d imagined.
“Fuck, Eden.” It was little more than a groan, and she giggled when it was followed by a grunt. Jude couldn’t get hands out of his cuffs, the fabric trapping his arms as she dragged the sleeves down.
He yanked harder and Eden felt a wicked smile curl her lips. She gripped the shirt where it hung behind his back, his wrists pinned below the curve of his ass. “No. You got to play before. Now it’s my turn.”
Even in the moonlit room, Eden could see color flood Jude’s cheeks and his lids drop as his head lolled back. And as much as she loved the sight, she had other things to focus on.
With his shirt pulled taut in her left hand, Eden used her right one to undo his belt, then the tab and fly of his pants. She dropped to her knees without thought, the scratch of the carpet beneath her bare skin obliterated by the vision of the man in front of her.
Jude’s broad, sculpted torso narrowed to sleek hips, those mouth-watering grooves just above his groin issuing an undeniable invitation. The waistband of his black boxer briefs cut across his angled planes and Eden used her lips to follow the subtle line of chest hair to where it disappeared beneath the tented fabric.
Jude’s moan filled the room, his arms straining against his shirt, when Eden dropped lower, her mouth finding and caressing the concealed head of his cock.
“Christ.” His voice shuddered high above her. “You’re gonna kill me.”
“Want me to stop?” she teased, the glide of her lips only adding to the torture.
“Fuck, no.” Jude’s voice was pained and his legs were tense, but he shifted enough so that Eden could drag his pants off his hips, followed by his underwear.
He should have looked ridiculous. He was still wearing his socks and shoes, his pants and boxer briefs were tangled around his knees, and his hands were trussed in his shirt, any excess fabric pulled tight by Eden’s grip.
But Jude didn’t look ridiculous. He stood tall before her, his abs straining, his shoulders bunched, the muscles of upper arms corded with tension. And barely-leashed desire. The cool glow of the moon illumined half of his face and Eden traced it with upturned eyes. His lids were heavy, his jaw locked, his lips parted around ragged breaths.
He looked glorious. He looked like heaven.
He looked like hers.
Eden dropped her gaze to his groin. Yes, this had been a fantasy. Jude rock hard and exposed in front of her. Eyes on his thick erection, Eden felt that wicked smile return before she licked her bottom lip. She was rewarded with a feral groan and a drop of moisture that beaded on his tip.
She anchored Jude with his shirt and used her free hand to cup his sac before circling the base of his cock. He was smooth and silken and as hard as steel, and Eden hummed in pleasure.
With one stroke, Jude was pushing his hips towards her. On her return stroke down, his fingers were scrambling against their fabric prison.
Jude’s voice slipped through her and Eden dropped her forehead to his groin, dragging in his scent and tracing his crown with her tongue.
“Please,” he barely managed to say. “Put me in your mouth before I lose my fucking mind.”
Jude was hers, but Eden was his. And she answered the only way she could.
Her lips parted over his swollen head, the salty tang greeting her before Eden drew his length into her mouth. Jude was large, his crown broad and his shaft thick, and she wanted to taste him more than anything.
Glancing up, Eden watched his eyes close and his chest shudder as she swallowed, pulling his cock as far into her mouth as she could. His next groan was loud, dying off as she stroked up from the base, her flingers sliding easily as she slicked his skin.
Eden’s lungs were burning. So was the rest of her. Her nipples chaffed against her bra, her breasts were full, aching for Jude’s hands. And lips. And teeth. Sweat gathered beneath the weight of her hair and every drop of moisture she coaxed from Jude was answered ten-fold in the juncture between her thighs.
Her hands tightened, one in his shirt, the other around his straining length. Eden stretched her jaw, craving the way Jude’s entire body shook when she took him deep.
When his crown pushed into her throat, Eden felt, rather than heard, the shout the tore through him. Eyes closed, cheeks damp with tears of exertion, she consumed him, loved him with her mouth and tongue and lips and hand until she had him begging her to never stop. Until she had him begging her to let him go.
“I’m not coming in your mouth, Eden. Not this time.” Jude jerked his hips away and Eden barely registered the sound of fabric tearing before his hands were beneath her arms and he was hauling her off the floor.
When their mouths met, Jude didn’t hesitate. His tongue was against hers in an instant, the contrasting flavors – the saltiness of him and the sweetness of the bourbon – making Eden lightheaded.
His teeth caught her bottom lip before he jerked away, pulling his arms free from his ruined shirt before tossing Eden onto the bed.
She bounced then settled, her unsteady fingers finding the tie of her wrap dress as Jude dragged off the rest of his clothes.
It only took him a few seconds, but when Jude’s attention returned to the bed he froze. God, the look he gave her. It felt like the scorch of the sun and the bite of brutal winter, both at once. As he raked his eyes across her, from head to toe, Eden’s body melted, her limbs parting, sinking into the bed, melting in submission. And her nipples hardened, the peaks so stiff against the lace of her bra she thought they might pierce the delicate fabric, and her clit tingled with an anticipation that bordered on painful.
“Tell me you’re here, Eden. Tell me this is real. That this isn’t a dream.”
Eden blinked, the lust and longing in Jude’s voice making her back bow in submission.
I love you, her soul screamed.
“It’s real. We’re real,” she murmured. “Come, show me we’re real.”
One wave of her hand and Jude was on her, above her. They worked fast, stripping Eden of her clothes.
Their sighs shook the air when they finally met, chest to chest, hip to hip, heart to heart.
Eden went sightless when Jude’s fingers swept between her legs. It was simple and astonishing, the way her body opened to him. One finger, then two, sunk home, stretching and filling her.
Her heels scrambled against the bed when he flexed those fingers, dragging them forward. Her teeth scraped his shoulder when he added his thumb to her clit. It would take seconds, just a few more strokes and she would be break. But….
Eden pulled Jude’s hand free, kissing his fingers dry as he trembled above her and his erection pressed against her thigh.
“Inside. I want to come with you inside me.”
She’d barely finished speaking before Jude was grabbing a condom from the bedside table. A heartbeat later it was on, her blood pounding harder when his head found her entrance.
“We’re real,” Jude promised, his lips taking her mouth at the same time he took her body.
Eden wanted it to last forever, the drive and drag of his cock inside her, filling her. Stretching her and making a space that only he could fill. But they were desperate. Absolutely mindless, their thoughts given over the single purpose of finding bliss. Together. At last.
Jude shifted his hips and thrust hard. Eden gasped, her spine curving, her nipples crushed against his chest as he struck the place inside her that had her breath unraveling and the world flashing bright white.
“Don’t stop, Jude,” she begged against his neck, her tongue tasting salt and the man from her deepest dreams. “Never stop.”
His fingers found her hip, squeezing, marking her, as he promised, “Never.”
Their teeth found skin, their nails dug deep, Eden’s legs shook and hips rose and Jude’s neck arched and his eyes bore into hers beneath heavy lids as he drove home and she took him. Over and again until their lungs no long burned for oxygen, just release.
I love you, her soul screamed.
“I love you,” Jude promised and Eden came, crying out and tightening so suddenly that she ripped Jude’s climax from him, her inner muscles clenching until even his soft curses dissolved into unknown sounds.
Eden was used to being woken up by many things. Alarm clocks at four a.m., demanding she make her next flight. Her phone vibrating against the dented surface of a shoddy bedside table, typically announcing a call from her editor, who never cared how many time zones separated them. And, on truly awful days, explosions shaking the ground, plaster drifting down from cracks in the ceiling as shrill cries echoed through the sand-filled air outside.
Life as a photojournalist had made Eden adaptable, and capable of waking up quickly and completely in a matter of seconds.
But the warmth of Jude’s bed kept her head hazy, her eyelids heavy.
And the soft tickling between her legs was nothing like the abrupt wake-up calls she was used to and had her heart pounding for very different reasons.
A hum vibrated in her throat as she stretched, her neck arching as her hands found Jude’s hair and tugged.
“Morning.” His greeting was muffled against the skin of her inner thighs, the rasp of his tone and his morning stubble drawing a choked giggle and a wash of arousal from her.
Eden was about to answer when his tongue slipped between her folds, the smooth skin of his shoulders hot where they pressed her legs wide, the pads of his fingers rough and divine where he held her open. Whatever she’d been about to say vanished beneath a gasp, her eyes fluttering shut as he licked her slowly. Thoroughly. So fucking well.
He dipped into her, and Eden’s throat constricted.
He groaned against her flesh, and her jaw locked.
He slipped one finger inside of her, then one more, his knuckles providing friction that lit up her body.
When his teeth caught her clit, Eden dug her nails into his scalp.
When he parted her slickness with the broad sweep of his tongue, she dropped her hands to the bed so she wouldn’t rip out his hair.
She almost growled when he stopped, the lick of heat deep in her abdomen making her skin shiver and toes twitch. But Eden was glad she stayed quiet because she heard Jude whisper, “You’ve been my fantasy for my entire life, Eden. And I didn’t think reality could ever be better than the things I dreamed of. But you….” He kissed the groove between her thigh and torso, then the tight curls above her clit, then the swollen heat of her lower lips. “You defy imagination. My gorgeous fucking runaway.”
Eden lost the ability to hear after that. The world was drowned out by the thud of her heart and the catch of her breath and the cry that started beneath the flick of his tongue and the stroke of his fingers and burned its way through her stomach and lungs and throat until she was screaming and coming and shaking beneath the relentless worship of Jude’s mouth and the gentling grip of his hands.
She didn’t have the energy to frown when he chucked against her stomach, or swat at him when he sucked on one sensitive nipple, then the other. But her limbs were suddenly working, her hands instantly mobile when he hovered over her, his thick cock seeking entry to her body.
Eden was scrambling for a condom, her anxious grasp landing on the foil wrapper just as a knock sounded against the front door.
“Ignore it,” Jude grunted, lids drooping as he watched Eden bring the condom to the tip of his erection. The latex was halfway unrolled when the knock came again.
“Fuck,” Jude grunted. Eden wasn’t sure if it was in answer to the interruption or because she stroked him as she guided him to her.
“Maybe they’ll go away,” Eden prayed, dragging his mouth down to hers. They both sighed when the knocking stopped. And both groaned when Jude’s phone rang.
He glanced at the screen where it glowed next to the bed and Eden did actually cry out when he crawled off her.
Yup, that definitely warranted the panicked look Jude wore as he yanked on his pants. Eden searched frantically for her clothes – any clothes – before Jude took pity and threw a t-shirt her way.
“Stay up here.”
She glared at him, the shirt already on and her fingers grappling with the tangles in her hair. “I certainly don’t plan on going down and greeting the step-sister I haven’t seen in years wearing her ex-husband’s clothes after coming on his face in what I assume could possibly be her old bed.”
“Eden.” Jude’s growl was pure censure, but she guessed more because his cock twitched behind his denim than due to her choice of words.
The pounding that apparently belonged to Allie got louder.
“Go.” Eden followed him to the door but stopped when she got to the hall. She bit her cheek when she caught the thin red lines that ran down Jude’s exposed back. Eden hadn’t seen Allie in a long time, but, regardless of how her sister might’ve changed, she didn’t doubt that Jude’s ex-wife would know exactly what those marks meant.
At one time the thought would have made her smile. Maybe even laugh. Not in a nice way. But in a cold, heartbroken version of the sound.
But as Eden peeked around the corner at the top of the stairs and saw Jude kiss the cheek of a woman who looked vaguely like the seventeen-year-old girl Eden hadn’t realized she’d missed, she felt slightly ill.
Jude and Allie had been divorced for almost seven years, but time didn’t necessarily mean distance. And a failed relationship didn’t mean that the ties that had once bound them didn’t still exist.
Ties like the young woman who followed Allie into the house, carrying a suitcase and overstuffed backpack.
The second Eden saw Maddie she rushed back to the bedroom and put on her own clothes. Her hair was a lost cause, but she managed to knot it on the top of her head and wipe off the streaks of mascara that had migrated to the fine lines bracketing her eyes.
Maddie lived hours away with her mom. If she was at Jude’s house with what looked like half of her possessions, there was a solid chance she was planning on staying. Which meant Eden could either climb out of Jude’s bedroom window or go downstairs and face her family.
The first thing Eden noticed when she reached the foyer was that Jude had found a shirt. The second was that his arm was slung across his daughter’s shoulders and he was looking at her with an expression Eden had never seen before.
It was a bizarre combination of concern, love, and joy. The love she understood. When she noticed the cast on Maddie’s arm and the sling holding up, his concern made sense. But it was the joy that made her catch her breath. And slammed a truth into her. Jude was a dad. A good one, going off the way Maddie was eagerly returning his embrace and the small smile that was cutting through Allie’s vaguely annoyed expression.
Jude, her once gangly-teenage friend, now business partner and occasional dinner companion and delightfully skilled lover was a devoted dad.
I love you. She almost shouted it right there, forgetting about her sex-crazed hair and day-old dress and the two women who were practically strangers standing only a few feet away.
Her mouth was already half open when Jude turned and smiled hesitantly at her over his daughter’s head.
“Eden. We have a surprise visitor. Come, say hi to Maddie.”
The young woman turned and the smile that took over her face caught Eden completely off-guard.
“Aunt Eden? Is that really you?” The girl was out from under Jude’s arm and in front of Eden before she’d finished speaking.
“In the flesh,” Allie muttered, her expression softer than Eden would’ve guessed possible.
“Yes.” Eden took her niece’s outstretched hand. “It’s really nice to see you.”
“I can’t believe I’m finally meeting you. I’ve heard so many stories, about the places you’ve been and the things you’ve seen. I’ve been dying to talk to you about your adventures, Aunt Eden. I knew coming to Dad’s was a good idea, but I had no idea it would be this awesome.”
Maddie was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet and Eden glanced from her face to Jude’s to Allie’s and back again. Maddie had heard about her, the black sheep of the Ellis family. The woman who’d run away from home fifteen years ago and had only been back once.
Not only had Eden’s niece heard about her, she was genuinely excited to meet her.
The little voice that had wanted to shout at Jude moments ago went mute with surprise.
Jude caught her attention and said, “Maddie had an accident. Broke her arm.”
“It was just a stupid fall. Such bullshit,” the girl muttered.
“Maddie!” her parents shouted at once.
“Language,” Allie admonished.
Maddie rolled her eyes, and Eden worked hard not to laugh. Jude’s own frown wavered.
“It’s just that I won’t be able to go on my trip. And I really, really wanted to.”
“I know, honey,” Allie continued. “And I’m sorry. But there’s always next year. I’m sure you’ll qualify for the trip again.”
Maddie puffed out an irritated breath and Eden instantly sympathized with the young woman.
“Whatever. If it means I get to hang out with Dad and Eden for the next week it will definitely suck less.”
“The next week?” Eden finally found her voice.
“Yeah,” Jude chimed in. “It’s her school’s fall break and she was supposed to go on a special trip to Europe with her orchestra. But she can’t play now, and Allie has a work trip she can’t postpone.”
Eden looked over at her sister and finally noticed the large black case she was holding. “Violin?”
Maddie’s smile was impish. “Close. Viola.”
Allie met her step-sister’s gaze. “She’s very good. She qualified for a spot in a special youth orchestra. She was supposed to leave tomorrow, until this….” She waved at Maddie’s broken arm. Allie sounded almost apologetic when she continued, “I didn’t plan on surprising you guys. I did call and text. Last night, and this morning. Just, uh, no one answered.”
Eden didn’t miss the flush that hit Jude’s cheeks, one she felt mirrored on her own.
Maddie, thank god, didn’t seem to notice. “So I’m staying here, with Dad. Till Mom gets back. And I’m finally going to have a chance to get to know the famous Eden Ellis.”
“Infamous, more like,” Allie murmured, her oddly soft expression still in place.
Eden’s blush intensified. “Ah, yes. That sounds wonderful.”
“Wonderful,” Jude repeated, the joy in his eyes intensifying.
“Yeah….” Allie looked at the trio, her lips thinning. “Jude, can I talk to you for a second?” She waved him into the living room, leaving Eden and Maddie alone.
“This is so freakin’ great.” Maddie was close to bubbling with excitement. “I mean, I’m really upset that I’m not going on the trip. I spent so much time practicing. But I love staying with Dad and having you here, well, that’s just the coolest surprise. I want to hear about everything, Aunt Eden. All of your stories. Promise me you’ll tell me everything.”
Maddie was squeezing Eden’s hand so tight she felt her bones crunch together. The girl’s face was wide open, her excitement palpable. Which astonished Eden so much that she answered without evening thinking. “Yeah, Maddie. I’ll tell you everything.”
Surprisingly, it had been a good day.
Eden had been wary when Maddie had insisted that her dad tag along, and she’d braced herself for a drive filled with awkward silence. But Maddie had filled the short trip to the lake with updates about school and music and questions she’d obviously been dying to ask her aunt.
Like, how many countries had Eden visited? 83, by her last count.
Which was her favorite? Impossible question. Next, please.
What was one thing she’d never do again? Well, there were way too many answers to that one, most of which weren’t suitable for a teenager, let alone Jude’s daughter, but Eden managed. Riding an elephant. You feel like you are going to tip right off the side and get squished by a giant foot.
If she could pick any place in the world to live, where would it be? Easy. Florence, Italy. Great food, great wine, beautiful art, even more beautiful men.
Maddie had laughed at that one. Jude had frowned.
Jude…. Eden focused on him through her camera’s viewfinder before lacing the strap around Maddie’s neck. It was one of her smaller ones and her niece was able to hold it with one hand and scan the landscape, occasionally taking a picture.
The late afternoon sun hung low and Eden pulled her jacket a little tighter as a breeze kicked up off the water. Maddie sat next to her on the huge picnic blanket and Jude was collecting logs for a fire.
Eden smiled when she saw him pick up, inspect, then discard one log. Even from her spot yards away, she could see his look of concentration and the way he assessed each piece of wood before adding it to his stack. A builder inspecting his materials before he got to work.
Her eyes still on Jude, Eden asked Maddie, “So, who spilled the dirt on me?”
“Yeah, you know. Dirt. The details. I was kinda surprised you knew anything about me at all, other than the fact that I existed. So, who’s been telling stories? Your Mom?”
Maddie pointed the camera towards the lake. The almost-silent click preceded her answer. “Nah. Not Mom.”
Eden leaned back, propping her hands behind her. “Amy, your grandma?”
Maddie smiled over her shoulder before taking another picture. “Yeah, sure, grandma talks about you. But mostly it’s about how she worries, and as soon as I ask her why, she just wanders off muttering. She never tells me any of the good stuff.”
Eden’s brows dropped. That just left…
“Uncle Noah. He was happy to answer my questions. He always had the good stories.”
“Oh, god.” Yeah, Noah definitely had the good stories. Some of them too good, and definitely not the ones she wanted Maddie knowing anything about.
“Nah, Aunt Eden. You don’t have to worry. Dad always made him stop just before he got to the really interesting parts. It didn’t matter how much I begged, Uncle Noah would always just chuckle and tell me I’d have to ask you myself.” Maddie lowered the camera and grinned gleefully.
“No such luck, kid. It’s going to be years before you’re ready for those stories. Definitely years before I’m ready to tell them.” Eden laughed when Maddie grumbled. “Don’t worry, they go better with alcohol, anyway. So you’ve got the next five years or so to wear me down.”
“Really?” Maddie abandoned her view of the lake and faced Eden. “You’re sticking around? I’ll really get to see you?”
Eden had thought Wes and Jude were persuasive. Obviously she was utterly unfamiliar with the wiles of bright-eyed teenage girls. No wonder Jude looked at her like she hung the sky. Saying no to this girl was impossible.
“I, uh, am planning on sticking around for a while. Yeah.”
“Oh my, God, that’s awesome,” Maddie squealed, her knees bouncing. Eden grabbed the camera before it got knocked down towards the rocky shoreline.
“Yeah,” Eden answered, a smile slowly spreading across her face. It really did feel kind of awesome. And a little terrifying. “I had some leave stored up at work. So I’m taking a break for a bit and, depending on how things go at the gallery and with my, um, partnership with your dad, I’ll figure out my long term plan in a month or so.”
Maddie’s thick brown hair rippled as her head bobbed up and down. Eden found herself sharing the young woman’s excitement and had to blink when, abruptly, her niece’s face fell.
“What’s the matter?”
Maddie stared at the blanket for a second before glancing up at Eden. When she spoke her voice was quiet. “It’s all he wanted, you know. For you to come back.”
Eden’s eyes darted to were Jude was carefully stacking wood next to the campfire he was building. “He? You mean….”
Eden winced, the picnic lunch they’d finished hours ago suddenly protesting low in her stomach. “I did know that, actually. Yes.”
Maddie was focused on the blanket again, her next words barely audible. “If you knew, why didn’t you? He talked about you a lot, Aunt Eden. I’m not sure I even remember a time when he didn’t talk about you. And for a while he sounded really happy, really proud when he told me where you were and the kind of stories you were photographing. But later….”
Eden forced herself to swallow around the burn in the back of her throat. The tightness of Maddie’s voice mirrored Noah’s tone the last time he’d called. The last time she’d promised she’d try to come back, knowing full well she wouldn’t.
Maddie continued, “Dad didn’t like it, you know, when Uncle Noah talked about you. He wouldn’t say anything, but I could always tell. His neck would get all tense and he’d grind the back of his teeth. Dad would try to get Uncle Noah to change the subject and would leave the room if he refused.”
Eden shifted, vaguely registering the chill that had seeped through the blanket beneath her legs. She knew it shouldn’t matter. If nothing else, Jude had made his feelings towards her very clear over the past few weeks. But something about the way Maddie said it sent a shiver down her spine to meet the one sweeping across her thighs.
“He never talked about me?”
Maddie was about to answer but stopped and cocked her head to the side, remembering something. “Almost never. There was one time….” She glanced at her dad, who was reinforcing the stone ring around the fire-pit with bigger rocks, before leaning towards Eden.
“He came down with the flu a few years ago. It was during one of my visits and Mom couldn’t get me until the next day, so I took care of him. Made him stay in bed. Brought him soup. Got him more water and painkillers. God, I had no idea guys got so whiny when they were sick.”
Eden laughed at Maddie’s tone and the vision of a thoroughly disgruntled Jude being confined to his bed by his teenage daughter.
“Anyway, he was super restless at night and I had to go into his room a few times to make sure he hadn’t gotten any worse. And, he, uh, talked about you then. When he was sleeping.”
Maddie met Eden’s wide eyes and turned away, color flooding her cheeks. “I couldn’t understand everything he was saying. But it sounded like he was trying to say he was sorry. And that he missed you. And that he, uh, lov-”
Eden squeezed Maddie’s knee, cutting the girl off. “It’s okay, you don’t have to continue. I get the general idea.”
“Whew.” Maddie blew out a gust of air, relieved. “I’m not sure he remembers. And we definitely didn’t talk about it after. But I did start to wonder if he’d be less weird when you came up in conversation after that. Especially because it was obvious he thought about you a lot, even if he didn’t talk about you.”
“Yeah, well.” Eden shrugged, her eyes tracking Jude as he pulled what looked suspiciously like marshmallows, chocolate, and Graham crackers from one of his bags. “Things between adults can get complicated, and even when it seems like we should talk about something, we often don’t. Even when it’s important to us. Shit, especially when it’s important to us.”
Eden barked out a laugh at Maddie’s bluntness. “Yes, it is stupid. But also true.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Whatever. True or not, Dad could’ve handled it better, especially when Uncle Noah got sick.”
“Oh, god, don’t tell me Noah caught the flu from your dad. He must’ve been so pissed. Noah was always so careful about not getting sick. He couldn’t even stand it when allergy season hit.”
In the growing twilight, Eden had a hard time deciphering the look Maddie gave her. But, even if she had, it wouldn’t have made the blow any less brutal.
“No, not the flu, Aunt Eden. Like, when he got really sick.”
The words felt misshapen when Eden asked, “What do you mean, really sick?”
Maddie looked at her like she was losing it. Which, to be fair, she felt like she was. “You know, Aunt Eden. When he found out he was dying.”
Eden thought she heard her heart kick. She definitely heard the “shit” that Jude whispered as he came to a stop at the blanket’s edge.
“What does she mean?” Eden was on her feet, her eyes locking on Jude’s. The look she found there – the sorrow and the embarrassment and the guilt – almost had her sitting back down. “What does she mean, dying?”
“Dad?” Maddie appeared at Jude’s shoulder, confusion and worry lining her face. “You didn’t tell her?”
“You didn’t tell me,” Eden said at the same time.
Jude gripped his daughter’s hand, anchoring and silencing her in one move, while he took a step towards Eden.
“I was going to tell you, I swear.”
“Noah didn’t t-tell me.” Eden didn’t care that her voice wavered. She suddenly didn’t care about a lot of things.
“He was coming to find you, to tell you. When you didn’t come home, he decided he’d go to you. He wanted to tell you in person.” Jude said it all at once, one word rushing into the next.
“Wha–” Eden stared at the man whose body and lips and eyes and sweet murmurs and love she dreamed about at night and craved during the day and she wanted desperately to run. It took everything she had to stay rooted to the spot. “That day in the orchard, when I asked how he died. You should have told me then. Why didn’t you tell me then!?”
Eden was yelling and Maddie’s lower lip wavered. Jude whispered something in his daughter’s ear and kissed her temple before letting go of her hand. The younger woman glanced between them before silently heading to the car.
When Maddie was safe in the passenger’s seat, Eden repeated, “You should have told me. As soon as I got back. At the gallery. That day at the orchard. On any of our dates since. Jesus, before we slept together!”
Jude’s eyes were wide, the whites glowing and glassy in the evening light. “I should have,” he agreed, hoarse.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I-I, fuck!” Jude raked one hand through his hair, cursing at the ground.
Eden’s blood beat faster. “No escaping, isn’t that what you told me, Jude? Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me all along? Well, now it’s your turn. No running away, no avoiding. Tell me what the fuck happened.”
She didn’t know which hurt more: the agony lancing through Jude’s eyes, or the mirroring pain shooting through her.
“Fuck, Eden. What happened? What happened is that Noah was sick. He was sick and he died and he shouldn’t have, not the way he did. He was sick and he wanted to find you and I told him not to go and we fought. We fought and I left and he drowned. That’s what happened, Eden.” Jude was panting, his chest rising and falling in great, shuddering waves. “Our friend was sick. You abandoned him. And I fucking killed him.”
The drive back to Jude’s house was quiet. Eerily so. Maddie didn’t attempt to fill it with chatter or lingering questions.
Which was good. Because there were already enough questions clogging the silence of that twenty-minute drive.
Jude stopped the car in the driveway and Maddie shot him an apologetic look before disappearing inside. The hair on Eden’s arm prickled when Jude reached for her hand, but her subtle shift stopped him.
“I agreed to come here so you could explain. We’re here. So, explain.”
Jude leaned back in the driver’s seat, but didn’t relax. “Noah was sick. He was dying.”
Eden nodded. Like it was a perfectly normal thing to hear. Like Jude was explaining some banality of life, not the end of one of her oldest friends. God, this was awful.
She cleared her throat with a cough. “Yeah. You said that already. Details, Jude.”
“Right. Shit.” His sigh was jarring. “Noah got the diagnosis about two years ago, but I think he suspected something was wrong long before that. You know how chill he was. How go-with-the-flow.”
Jude laughed in spite of himself. “He was never some brooding artist, you know? He didn’t take his shit out on anybody. Then, all of a sudden, that started to change. He’d have these intense mood swings. Which was strange, sure. But what really freaked him out was when he’d get off-balance. Or lose his coordination all of a sudden. He went from being the kid who could dribble circles around us on the soccer field, to the man I’ve seen practically scale buildings to get the perfect shot, to, all of a sudden, a guy who had a hard time putting one foot in front of the other.”
“Shit,” Eden whispered. “What did the doctor’s say? Please don’t tell me he had a brain tumor.”
“You have no idea how much I wish I could.”
Eden whipped to face Jude. It was an awful thing to say, a comment she could barely understand. But the bleakness on Jude’s face prompted her to bite her tongue, and wait.
“A brain tumor could have been operable. Noah might have lived if it had been a tumor.” Jude rubbed his hands across his thighs, like he was trying to scrub feeling back into them. “No, it was so much worse. Noah had Huntington’s.”
Eden didn’t realize she was crying until her hand flew to her face and she was met with moisture. “What? How?” She stopped, gulping down air. “It’s hereditary. He would have known if he was at risk. He would have said something. He would have told me.”
Eden didn’t want to think about all the times Noah had gone quiet on the other end of the phone, as if he’d been steeling himself to tell her something he knew she wouldn’t want to hear. How many times had she sensed it, the pregnancy of those pauses? Eden didn’t want to think about how many times she’d barreled on, assuming Noah had been about to bring up Jude, or Allie, or Maddie, or home. Shit. The tears fell faster when she realized he’d been trying to figure out how to tell her something else entirely.
“Most cases of Huntington’s are hereditary, yes. But not all. I swear, Eden, we got second and third and forth opinions. But the tests all came back the same. Noah fell into the small margin of cases that come from a new mutation. He never knew he was at risk. There was no way for him to have ever guessed. Not until things got so bad he couldn’t avoid going to the doctor.”
Jesus Christ. Eden swiped furiously at her cheeks and tried to corral her choppy breathing. “The rest,” she managed. “Tell me the rest.”
Jude stared out the windshield and nodded. Then began. He explained how it was a terminal diagnosis. That Huntington’s was incurable. He explained how the doctors had painted the picture for Noah very clearly. Clinically. Gradually, his coordination would get worse. It would become hard to walk. Eventually, impossible to talk. Noah’s brain cells would continue to die until he fell into a state of dementia. His chances for pneumonia and heart disease would sky rocket. He would require full-time, long-term care. He would be alive, but he would be dying. Slowly and painfully.
Jude managed to get through most of it without stopping, like he’d recited it so often it had become rote. But when he got to the end he had to stop and work through the emotion clogging his voice.
“The doctors also warned that he would be, uh, tempted to…to take things into his, uh, own hands. That it wasn’t an uncommon way for people with Huntington’s to die.”
Eden grabbed Jude’s hand. She thought he might have squeezed back, but she couldn’t be sure. She’d gone completely numb.
“You’re talking suicide.”
A huge rush of breath preceded Jude’s, “Yes.”
“You told me, Jude, in the orchard. You told me it wasn’t suicide. You told me!” Her sudden fury felt so much better than the utter helplessness of seconds ago.
His eyes were squeezed tight when he shook his head, his hand still a cage around her fingers. “I don’t think it was. I swear, I don’t think it was.”
Jude sounded as tortured as she felt and his confession from the lake came flooding back. She pulled out of his grasp. “What did you mean when you said you killed him? If he was sick, Jude, if he was dying, how could you have possibly killed him?”
They weren’t touching anymore, but that didn’t prevent Eden from feeling the pain that lanced through him.
“We fought that night. Noah had decided that if you weren’t coming home, he’d go to you. He’d already packed up most of his things. I don’t even know what he was planning on doing after he found you. He wouldn’t say. Maybe he was going to travel while he still could? Maybe he thought he could convince you to come back? Who knows. But I didn’t think he should go. I told him that and we got into it. God, I was desperate, Eden. And he was so fucking determined. And it got so out of hand.”
“Why didn’t you want him to find me? He was well enough to travel, right? Had it gotten so bad he couldn’t fly on his own?”
“No,” Jude answered quietly. “Things hadn’t gotten that bad. Not yet.”
Eden ran her gaze down the man next to her. His eyes looked sunken and flat. His lips were thin, pressed tight in what looked like anguish. And guilt was radiating off him in waves.
“I thought if he found you, that if you and Noah were far away together…that it would be over.”
“Jude! What would be over?” Eden didn’t hold back the bite in her voice.
“Us! Okay? Us.”
Her lip wobbled and she didn’t know if it meant more tears or maniacal laughter. “Wh-what do you mean, us?”
“Don’t you get it, Eden? Will you never fucking get it?” Jude was on the brink of fraying, a lick of madness coating his words. “It’s always about you. For me, it has always been about you. I’ve made decision after decision that I thought was right and they have always turned out to be so fucking wrong all because I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
“Tell me, what are the chances that if Noah found you and told you everything that you’d have actually come back? He’d already given up the gallery. His house was more or less boxed up. Everything that meant anything to him, he was planning on taking. He would have found you, he would have stayed, and you would never have come home.”
A muscle in the corner of Jude’s jaw ticked. When he continued his voice had dropped an octave and Eden watched, wide-eyed, as a tear escaped.
“He was always the thing that kept you tied to this place, Eden. He was my only hope for ever seeing you again. With him gone, that hope vanished. You vanished. And the idea drove me crazy. Crazy to the point that I became so enraged with my oldest friend that I said things I should never have said. And I made him angrier than I’d ever seen him. And what did Noah always do to calm down when he was angry?”
Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. There were a lot of things ricocheting against Eden’s skull but none of them were coherent thoughts.
“What did Noah always do?” Jude asked again with the stoicism of a guilty man waiting for his sentence. Like a man waiting to be condemned.
“He went into the lake,” she finally answered.
“He went into the lake,” Jude confirmed. “And that night, that’s exactly what he did. It was late. It was dark. He’d already had a few scares when swimming, times when he’d had to struggle to get back to shore. But that didn’t stop him. Goddamn it. We fought, I left. He went into the lake, and he never came out. That’s what I mean, Eden. That’s way Noah is dead, now, and not twenty years from now. And that’s how I know I killed him.”
Jude hadn’t asked her to stay. Eden hadn’t asked to go home. But, by some unspoken agreement, he drove her there anyway.
Amy Ellis answered the door after one knock and barely blinked before pulling her daughter into a hug.
“Hi, sweetie,” was Amy’s soft reply. “I’m really happy to see you.”
Eden’s smile was weak and the older woman squeezed her hand before leading her into the house. And, deeper, into the kitchen.
She slid a steaming mug towards Eden before filling the other chair at the little breakfast table. “I wasn’t sure you’d ever come.”
“Neither was I.” Eden blew a wisp of steam away, momentarily blurring her mother’s face.
“So, why have you?”
“I–” She was about to lie. To say something ridiculous, like she didn’t know or that it was a whim. Or a mistake. None of those were true. She gripped the mug harder, hoping the heat would thaw her fingers.
Amy scanned her daughter’s face. Eden wondered what she was seeing. The child she’d been? The woman she’d become? The pieces of herself that she’d lost in the years between?
It was those holes that had driven her to her mother’s kitchen. The gaps that Jude had practically heard widening in the silence that had followed his confession.
Eden turned the mug, one full rotation, before saying, “You knew about Noah.”
“And you didn’t tell me.”
“And I didn’t tell you.”
The corners of Amy’s mouth drooped. “Because he didn’t want me to. He wanted to tell you himself. Despite the fact that you refused to give him the chance.”
The next sip of tea was cool and Eden wondered if her touch had chased away the heat. “I should have come home. You should have made me come home.”
“Eden,” her mother said with a solemn laugh. “Both of us know I haven’t been able to make you do anything for a very long time.”
The mug left a ring of condensation when she spun it again. “No. But apparently that didn’t stop Walter from trying.”
Amy almost dropped her own cup. “Wh-what do you mean?”
“Jude told me, Mom. About Walter and college and Allie. About the deal he made. About how he agreed to take care of Allie and the baby so I could leave.”
Amy seemed to shrink in her chair, defeat written in the lines of her shoulders. “I tried to stop him. I tried to stop them both. It was just so awful. The entire thing. It was good you got away, Eden. Not that I’m glad you stayed away for so long. That still breaks my heart. But you leaving like that, when you were supposed to? When we all knew it was the only thing you really wanted? I’ll always be thankful to Jude for that. Always.”
“It wasn’t the only thing I wanted, Mom.”
The women’s eyes met. Stormy blue to a suddenly weary, worn-out color.
“I know,” Amy finally answered. “I mean, I wasn’t sure, but I saw the way you looked at him back then. The way you looked at each other.”
Eden knotted her fingers together, squeezing past the point of pain. “Jude won’t tell me who Maddie’s dad is.”
“No, he wouldn’t.”
“But you will.” Eden expected the words to come out harsh, demanding. Cruel. But they tilted the other way, towards desolation. A still-mending heart begging for answers.
“You know I can’t do that.”
“I know that Jude protected me, Mom. I know that he did something so ridiculously selfless to make sure I got away when you did nothing at all.”
Eden cut her off, “I’m not here to accuse you. I don’t…I don’t want to rehash that day. Not now. But I need to know. I need to understand the thing that started it all. Jude won’t tell me and I can’t ask him. Not again. Especially not today.”
“What good will it do, knowing?”
“Good?” Eden looked at Amy, an ache digging its way behind her eyes. “It won’t do any good. I’m not looking for good, Mom. I’m looking for answers. Reasons. Things to plug the holes that have been causing me to slowly leach away over all these years. I’m…I’m….”
Eden took a deep breath before finally saying, “I’m looking for a way to stay.”
Amy was silent for a moment before saying, “How will knowing who Maddie’s father is help you stay?”
“Because I need the whole picture, Mom. I feel like I’m going crazy. Every time I talk to someone I find out some new detail, some little fact that I was completely blind to. And every time it happens I feel like the ground beneath my feet shifts again.”
Eden could hear the panic creeping into her voice. She took a deep breath, hoping to keep the swell at bay. “I’m used to uncertainty. I’m used to things falling apart around me. I’ve seen entire towns washed away by floods and families decimated by war. I’ve spent the past fifteen years documenting more destruction than most people see in a lifetime. I know, Mom, what it’s like to go to bed at night not knowing if the street outside will be there when I wake up. But this?”
She spread her hands out, her fingers stretched like she was trying to capture everything that had happened in that kitchen long ago. And all of the moments that had spiraled out of control since.
“I might not have been here, Mom, but this has never stopped being home. This has never stopped being the constant in a life that is so fucking scattered. Except,” Eden stopped, releasing a choked laugh, “except I was such a fool. I thought I understood, I thought I knew what this place was. I thought I knew the history and the reasons and the people that lived here, now matter how much it hurt too much to think about them. It was painful, but it was real. At least I thought it was. But then a secret slipped out, then another, and now I can barely find solid ground.”
Amy looked at her. Sadness and sympathy – and maybe even regret – swirled in her eyes.
Eden didn’t let herself turn away. No more escaping. “I don’t want to leave,” she forced herself to say. “But I’m terrified to stay, especially without knowing the whole story.”
Amy sat in considered silence for several minutes, her attention never falling from her daughter’s face. “If I tell you this, you must promise me one thing.”
It took her less than a second to answer, “Okay.”
“You never speak a word of this to Maddie. Allie has agreed to tell her when she thinks the time is right. So has Jude. But she cannot hear a whisper about it before then, understood?”
“Fine.” It came out on a heavy sigh. “Fine. But I’m talking to Allie first. This is her secret, Eden. I get why it’s important for you to know, but I need her to agree before I tell you.”
Amy left the kitchen, cell phone in hand, and Eden heard soft mummers from the living room before her mom returned.
Eden almost expected some delay tactic or even an excuse. But Amy started talking before she landed in her seat. “Walter was strict. I had an idea before we got married, but it wasn’t until I saw how he behaved with Allie day after day that I really understood how inflexible he was.”
Eden bobbed her head, memories of Walter’s lectures and rules rising to the surface. “He hated that I swam in the lake with the boys.”
“He hated a lot of things,” Amy muttered. “I was able to protect you from a lot of it, but it was different with Allie. She was his daughter, never mine. His to parent, his to discipline. And that poor girl…well, she was in desperate need of fun. Not just with you and the boys, but fun of her own. And when Walter went away on his fishing trips, I loosened the reins a bit. Let her go out, put on some makeup. Act like a teenager.”
“See some boys.”
“Go on dates.” Amy practically winced saying it. Eden stiffened in her chair. “That summer Allie had a crush on one of the kids from the high school one town over. I can’t remember where she met him. At a friend’s house, I think? A cousin of somebody or other. Anyway, I thought it would be good for her to go out, to have some fun and make some friends of her own. I didn’t realize….”
When Amy’s gaze drifted far away, her mouth frozen half-open, Eden prompted her. “Mom?”
“The thing they don’t tell you about parenthood is the amount of sheer luck involved. I think if people knew – really understood – how easily parenting can break you, how you can do everything in your power to keep your children safe and yet one utterly benign decision, one attempt to do something right can still go so horribly, horribly wrong through a simple matter of circumstance…. Well, I’m not sure everyone would still do it.”
“Mom? What are you trying to say?”
“I let her go on a date, Eden. I let Allie go on a date when Walter was away because she wanted to so badly and I thought to myself, hey, what’s the worse that could happen….”
“What was the thing that happened, Mom?” Eden already knew the answer, but there was no turning back now.
“That boy,” her mother spit out, “raped her.” Amy sat rigid in her chair, tiny tremors making her fingers shake around her mug. “He put something in Allie’s drink at that stupid party, dragged her off to a room, and raped her. She doesn’t remember many of the details, thank God, but she remembers enough to understand what happened. And Maddie is proof that he didn’t use a condom.”
“Holy shit.” Eden’s throat constricted around the words. “She knows who it was, though, right? She pressed charges? Tell me you pressed charges.”
Amy dropped her chin before shaking her head. “Allie was terrified to tell us. We didn’t know it had even happened until she told us she was pregnant. Walter was so furious and I was devastated and Allie, bless her, was so terrified….” Her voice died on a rasp. “By then, it didn’t seem like there was any point. It would have only made everything worse for Allie. She decided – we all decided to move on and do the best we could dealing with the situation.”
Eden could barely see through the rage clouding her vision. No shock or sadness that she’d felt since arriving home came close to matching the fury pounding in her veins.
“So not only did you practically abandon your step-daughter, but you allowed her rapist to go on with his life as if he hadn’t done anything wrong?”
“No. No.” She waved off Amy’s protest. “I don’t even know what to say to you right now. I don’t even know where to begin.”
Amy’s attention remained glued to the table, her body still visibly shaking. The impulse to run was making Eden’s feet burn but she couldn’t, not yet. “Did Jude know? When he agreed to marry Allie, did he know the whole story?”
“Positive.” Amy’s voice was quiet but certain. “It was part of the reason he offered to help in the first place.”
“Because he’s a good man.” Eden said it softly, more to herself than her mom.
“Because,” Amy answered, “he loves you so much he’d do anything to help your family, even if it meant he couldn’t be part of your own.”
Jude was exhausted. He couldn’t blame it on sleepless nights, though he’d had plenty of those. No. The weariness that made his heart beat a little too slow and his fingers slightly numb came from a lifetime of giving and losing.
He’d given so much. His love, his body, his freedom.
He’d lost even more. His friend, his wife, his child. His Eden.
“You are such a goddamn idiot,” he muttered. Only silence answered.
Jude glanced around the cabin. He was glad his parents had kept it. He, Noah, and Eden had spent more summer afternoons than he could remember rocking in the hammock outside and licking buttery corn off their fingers on the back porch.
Even when there wasn’t a soul around, Jude never felt alone at the cabin. There were more than enough memories to keep him company.
Jude tipped the last drops of the whiskey down his throat and was about to pour a third when the silence was broken by a knock.
Maddie was at a friend’s house for the night. His parents didn’t come to the cabin anymore. And, though Wes knew where he was, he’d never show up without calling first.
Which just left….
“Hi,” Eden said when he opened the door.
“Hey.” The porch light danced across Eden’s auburn hair, but her face was shadowed. When Jude cleared his throat it sounded unnaturally loud. “What are you doing here?”
“Wes told me where you were.”
Eden peeked around his shoulder, trying to get a better look inside. “Is Maddie here?”
“No. She’s at a sleepover.”
“Oh.” She paused, then, “Can I come in?”
He stepped back and waved her inside. Two drinks and no dinner made his brain sluggish and his thoughts scattered. But that didn’t stop his pulse from kicking when her soft scent slipped into his lungs.
Eden came to a stop in the center of the tiny living room. She dropped her bag on the well-worn plaid sofa before twisting to look at him. Despite the questions in her eyes, she didn’t say a word.
Her silence did nothing to help Jude’s blood pressure. “What are you doing here?”
“Like I said, Wes told me where you were.”
“That’s how you found me, Eden. Not why you’re here.”
She cocked her head towards the bottle of liquor. After a beat Jude held out his empty glass. It was the only one handy. Eden didn’t hesitate, but her fingers lingered against his before she pulled the glass away. “I’m here to talk.”
“I–” Jude brushed his hair back before dropping into one of the chairs. God, he was so tired. “I think we’ve talked enough for one day.”
Eden took three steady sips of his whiskey before sitting across from him. “Maybe you have. But I want a turn.”
Her face was so serious, her eyes so dark, and Jude thought he could see the end in them. Not that it surprised him. He’d kept too many secrets for too long for this to be anything more than that. But that didn’t mean he welcomed the inevitable.
“It’s late, Eden. And this day has been pretty shit. Whatever you want to say, can it wait until tomorrow?” Please.
Her expression didn’t lighten. “That’s not fair, Jude. For weeks you’ve been demanding I stay and face everything, so that’s what I’m trying to do. But now, all of a sudden you want me to wait?”
He wished he had the liquor back. It would help burn away the confession that was about slip loose.
Yes. I want you to wait. I’m not ready to give you up. I’m not ready to be broken, completely.
But Eden wasn’t waiting. She was drinking from his glass and leaning back on his sofa and pinning him with those unforgiving eyes. “Mom told me about Allie and how she got pregnant with Maddie. I know.”
Oh. Jude leaned over and plucked the whiskey from her hands. He finished it in one swallow. “She shouldn’t have told you.”
“She called Allie first. My sister gave her permission.”
“Step-sister,” Jude half-whispered.
“Does it matter?”
He was about to say yes. It had always mattered. In many ways it was the detail that had mattered most. At least to him. To his laughably heroic, ridiculous eighteen-year-old brain, the fact Eden and Amy weren’t related by blood had made the whole thing a little less awful. And the betrayal a little more forgivable.
But now that Eden knew everything….well, maybe the details didn’t matter much at all.
“I don’t know what to say.” Even to his own ears Jude sounded defeated.
“Good. Cause you don’t need to say anything.” Eden’s eyes settled on the empty glass in his hand. She wouldn’t meet his gaze. “I don’t regret leaving.”
Good thing she didn’t expect him to talk, because his voice abandoned him. Along with whatever shred of hope he’d been clinging to.
“I don’t regret leaving,” she repeated. “I would’ve been miserable if I’d stayed. Especially then.”
Jude stared at his knees and hoped Eden didn’t notice they were shaking.
Her voice was low and calm when she continued, “And I refuse to regret the life I’ve lived. The people I’ve met, the things I’ve seen, the stories I’ve been able to tell…. It was good work, Jude. Work with purpose. Some might even say I had a life with purpose.”
As Jude listened and stared, the weave of his denim turned into a blur of dark blue. Maybe because his knees were shaking harder. Or maybe because a grown man with too much liquor and too much loss can only hold the tears back for so long.
“But…” Eden paused and when she spoke again her voice was louder. Closer. “But, I’ve missed so much, Jude. God, I didn’t even know how much until I came back. I’ve missed time with Amy, Allie, and Maddie. So much time with Noah. What feels like a lifetime with you. And that I regret. Very, very much.”
Something light and warm touched his chest. Jude blinked. It took a second for the haze to clear, but when it did his eyes confirmed what his heart was feeling. Eden’s hand rested on his chest.
He found her eyes – so bright, so vivid – and the trembling spread from his knees to his legs. This time, though, instead of empty air they met the warmth of Eden’s body where she kneeled in front of him.
“I’m heartbroken about Noah. I shouldn’t have abandoned him. And, whatever else you might think, I’m as much to blame for that final fight as you. It shouldn’t have been his job to come get me. I should never have been so distant, so unreachable, for so long. That was my unforgivable decision. I was a shitty friend. Still am, going by how I feel. But I’m also tired of thinking about the shoulds and regrets and what ifs. I don’t want to lose any more time. Not when the one thing I’ve wanted my entire life is so close I can touch it.”
Every line of her face was serious, intent. Every one but the line of her lips, which was curling it’s way to a tantalizing, glorious smile.
“Hmm?” Jude was terrified to break the peace that had settled over him, the one that ran from beneath her fingers deep into his bones. Then, deeper, tethering his soul to the earth.
“Ask me what that one thing is. The thing I’ve always wanted.”
He licked his lips, tracking the way her eyes tracked his tongue, before managing, “What’s that one thing, Eden?”
Jude’s hand flexed around the glass, the peace slipping. Was she teasing him? Taunting him? No, torturing him. “A home?”
“I’ve been looking for it, everywhere. All across the world. And no matter how close I got, no matter how hard I tried, I never found it. Not once. Not until I came back.”
“You mean here.” His voice was flat. “You mean you found your home here, where you grew up.”
Eden pressed closer, her elbow resting on his knee, the palm of her other hand still flat on his chest. “I mean you.”
It was three heartbeats before Jude realized why he didn’t feel hard glass beneath his fingers. He’d traded it for Eden and he was gripping her tight. Holding her so there was no escape.
“It’s always been you,” she whispered, her lips brushing his cheek. “You were always the one to push me, to encourage me. And always the one who made sure I was safe. You demanded the most from me, even when I wasn’t sure I had anything to give. And you were willing to give up everything just so I could have all the things I’d ever wanted. Except….”
Jude pulled Eden closer, their chests touching as their noses brushed together. “Except?”
“All those things meant so little without you. And it took years and thousands of miles for me to figure that out. Now that I’m back, I’m not letting go. I’m home, Jude. Like you said, no escaping.”
“With you.” He felt her lips curl against his ear. A smile.
Eden buried her fingers in his hair and leaned against him. And for the first time in longer than he could remember, Jude relaxed. He dropped his head to her shoulder and dragged in a deep breath, inhaling in the scent of whiskey and memories and Eden.
“Because,” she answered, before whispering the three simple, life-altering words Jude had waited his entire life to hear.
“Say it again,” Jude whispered.
“I love you.” Her breath blanketed his neck.
Letting go was impossible now. A fact confirmed by both his hands and heart. Jude’s grip tightened and Eden’s warmth pushed past his skin and settled low in his abdomen.
I love you. He could say it. He had often enough, out loud and in his head. But Jude wanted more than words. He wanted her.
Eden pulled back and met his eyes. And smiled. “Here?”
His answer would always be anywhere. Everywhere. But he just said, “Yes.”
“Yes,” Eden repeated, her hands dropping to her clothes.
“Slowly,” she agreed, her smile stretching.
Jude let her slip away, his fingers finding his knees as Eden’s found her sweater. Then her shirt and bra. She touched him for just a second, her hands resting on his as she rose to her feet.
Jude didn’t blink. Not once. Not when she leaned forward, her nipples pebbling and breasts swaying as she pushed her jeans over her hips. Definitely not when she sent her underwear in the same direction, the black fabric slipping down her legs to join the rest of her clothes.
Eden’s bare, beautiful body was inches from his fully clothed one and, still, Jude didn’t blink. He didn’t even breathe.
But, fuck, did he feel.
Her first touch met his cheeks, the brush against his stubble sending fire down his spine. When she traced his lips with her nail, his cock pushed so hard against his zipper Jude thought the teeth would leave a mark.
Eden’s smile wavered and pupils dilated as her eyes drifted lower and she straddled his lap.
Her knees squeezed the outside of his hips, her bare ass skimming his jeans; leaning forward she asked, “Is this what you want?”
I want everything. Forever. “Yes.”
Jude traced the sweep and slope of her back, his fingers lingering at the very base, pressing them together. Her nipples teased him through his shirt.
“Well,” she said, her voice rough with whiskey and longing, “now that you have me, what are you going to do with me?”
Everything. Forever. “This.”
Jude kissed Eden, with lips and tongue and teeth and a depth of love that threatened to crack his chest wide open. But the pressure of her breasts against his chest, her weight on his lap and her nails in his skin kept him together.
Chaos and certainty. Madness and absolute peace. With Eden in his arms, her air in his lungs, her limbs melting against his, her love clear in every shift and sigh, Jude felt like he was going to fly apart at the seams. And he knew he’d never been so happy in his entire life.
Eden came even closer, her tongue swiping across his. Jude spread her legs wider, dragging her center across his groin. Eden moaned and bit his lip.
“Take my cock out, Eden. I want your hands on me.”
“I thought you said slowly.” She was already attacking his zipper.
A groan replaced his answer. Eden held him, stroked him, her grip greedy and encouraging as she gently kissed the corner of his mouth.
“Slow later. Condom, now.”
Jude pushed up so Eden could grab the wallet from his back pocket. Their fingers met, trembling, across the leather, and they scrambled to sheath him. Eden’s fist lingered at the base of his erection and she squeezed. Jude groaned.
She held him in her hands. Jude cupped her neck in his palms. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the universe to stop their lungs from burning and their lips were desperate when they met, but the glide of his erection through her wetness, the slide of his body entering hers….
It was slow, excruciating.
It was everything.
Eden rocked, taking him deeper. Jude’s eyelids finally fell, the movement of her body making sight impossible.
“I love you,” she whispered.
Jude answered with his hands, his lips, his moans. Eden was naked, every inch of her available to his touch, his teeth. Just…his.
And as the grinding of her hips got more frantic, and the soft scrape of her skin across his fully-clothed form got louder, they became more and more desperate.
“Fuck, Eden,” Jude growled, his hips driving up hard. “You’re never leaving. Never again.”
“Never…leaving….” It was a promise broken by a gasp, her nails biting his neck as Jude thumbed her clit.
He licked one nipple, then the other, before drawing her breast into his mouth. The pull of his tongue matched the stroke of his thumb and the slide of his cock and Eden started to shake.
“Jude….” Her head lolled back and her neck arched. Jude tugged her nipple with his teeth, the rhythm of his finger and thrusts driving her mad.
Eden’s cry came a split second before her muscles clenched. The second tremor was harder, tighter, and made Jude’s balls burn. A tear slipped down one of Eden’s cheeks, the drop meeting her lips as they widened on a scream.
His name. It filled the cabin and Jude filled her. With his body, his heart, and all of the pieces left of his soul.
He tasted sweet tears when they kissed. His blood pounded in his veins and sweat slicked his back, and Jude pulled Eden closer. She was boneless, her body sprawled across his.
His gorgeous fucking runaway was home.
Jude didn’t know how long they stayed that way but eventually Eden murmured, “Is this how you imagined it?”
“Us. Starting over. Or, I don’t know…just starting.”
Imagined. Dreamed. Wished. Hoped…. Prayed. He’d done them all. But he didn’t have to, not anymore.
“Eden.” Jude cradled her jaw, his eyes full of warmth and undiluted love. “Is this where you think we begin?”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Yes.”
Jude brushed their lips together, lingering, knowing no amount of Eden would ever be enough. “No. We began a lifetime ago. Years and thousands of miles and too many heartbreaks ago. Through every misstep, every mistake, every loss, we’ve been tethered together. We’ve fought it and tried to ignore it and sometimes even hoped distance would break it, but it’s always been you and me, Eden. Just like you said. I’ve always been your home. And you’ve always been mine.”
Eden burrowed into his chest, their combined heat enough to protect her from the cold.
“So, you’re saying we started as kids?”
“Yes,” he answered with a low chuckle.
“Well….” Eden cocked a brow as she glanced at her naked body, squeezing him where they were still joined. “We’re not kids anymore.”
“No. Thank God.”
“And you’re not worried? About what our past might say about our future?”
“I’m not.” Jude tipped her face to his, smiling until she couldn’t help but smile back.
“Because, think of what we’ve survived, what we’ve overcome to get here. We made it this far, despite our past. And that makes me feel so very good about our future.”
“I can’t say I’ve ever seen you this optimistic.”
“That’s only because I’ve never been this happy.”
Eden’s mouth shaped an “O” before her expression softened to reflect the same joy that was practically burning Jude’s chest from the inside out.
His heart fell out of rhythm for a second when he asked, “And, you, Eden – are you happy?”
She didn’t say anything, but her lips caressed his ear, his neck, his cheek, till they stopped, hovering just above his. “I really, really am.”
They were millimeters apart, Jude’s body hardening as Eden’s softened and warmed to welcome him, those smiles of happiness splitting to something almost giddy.
“I’m going to do everything I can to keep you that way.”
Eden slipped her hands beneath his shirt, tugging it off as her teeth tugged her lower lip. “Hmm…, why’s that?”
“Because this is my wildest dream come true. You, here. Back home, happy, and in love. With me.”
Eden kissed his shoulder and pressed them skin to skin, her satisfied hum as intoxicating as her touch. “Then I’m glad.”
“Glad?” Jude had to force the question out, his mind slowing as Eden’s hands moved lower.
“That we started, anywhere, somewhere. That we started at all. Because you, Jude Cavanaugh, aren’t just my wildest dream.”
“No?” His question danced across her neck before he anchored it there with his lips.
Her answer was better than any kiss. “No. You’re my future.”