blog

#ChooseYourOwnRomance: Chapter 20

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!)

 

“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.

“Show me.”

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.”

“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?”

“Imagined what?”

“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.

“Why not?”

“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.”

the end   

#ChooseYourOwnRomance: Chapter 19

Want to help decide how the story continues? Join in on my Instagram feed (at) katyamesbooks. I publish a new chapter every Thursday & ask readers to vote on what happens next. Interested in reading (and voting) a day early? Come join my reader’s group of Facebook, Katy’s Romantic Rockstars.

{You can read the entire story as I write it here; I’ll add a chapter each week, after I post to Instagram.}

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.”

“Oh.”

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.

“Ask me.”

“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?”

“A home.”

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.”

“You’re staying?”

“I’m staying.”

“With me?”

“With you.” He felt her lips curl against his ear. A smile.

“Why?”

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.

#ChooseYourOwnRomance: Chapter 18

Want to help decide how the story continues? Join in on my Instagram feed (at) katyamesbooks. I publish a new chapter every Thursday & ask readers to vote on what happens next. Interested in reading (and voting) a day early? Come join my reader’s group of Facebook, Katy’s Romantic Rockstars.

{You can read the entire story as I write it here; I’ll add a chapter each week, after I post to Instagram.}

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, Mom.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t tell me.”

“And I didn’t tell you.”

“Why?”

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.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

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.”

“Wai-”

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….”

“Yes?”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Eden-”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“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.”

#ChooseYourOwnRomance: Chapter 17

Want to help decide how the story continues? Join in on my Instagram feed (at) katyamesbooks. I publish a new chapter every Thursday & ask readers to vote on what happens next. Interested in reading (and voting) a day early? Come join my reader’s group of Facebook, Katy’s Romantic Rockstars.

{You can read the entire story as I write it here; I’ll add a chapter each week, after I post to Instagram.}

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.

“Why?”

“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.”

“I-I–”

“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.”

#ChooseYourOwnRomance: Chapter 16

Want to help decide how the story continues? Join in on my Instagram feed (at) katyamesbooks. I publish a new chapter every Thursday & ask readers to vote on what happens next. Interested in reading (and voting) a day early? Come join my reader’s group of Facebook, Katy’s Romantic Rockstars.

{You can read the entire story as I write it here; I’ll add a chapter each week, after I post to Instagram.}

Surprisingly, it had been a good day.

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

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

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

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

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

Maddie had laughed at that one. Jude had frowned.

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

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

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

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

“Dirt?”

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

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

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

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

Eden’s brows dropped. That just left…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the matter?”

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

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

“Uncle Noah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“He never talked about me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s stupid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was going to tell you, I swear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t you?”

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

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

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

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

#ChooseYourOwnRomance: Chapter 15

NOTE: 18+ due to language and sexual content.

Want to help decide how the story continues? Join in on my Instagram feed (at) katyamesbooks. I publish a new chapter every Thursday & ask readers to vote on what happens next. Interested in reading (and voting) a day early? Come join my reader’s group of Facebook, Katy’s Romantic Rockstars.

{You can read the entire story as I write it here; I’ll add a chapter each week, after I post to Instagram.}

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.

“Wha-”

“It’s Allie.”

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.”

Things heat up on the island!

Friends – In case you aren’t following me all over the interwebs, I wanted to be sure you knew:

Today is the LAST day to get the entire Seven Winds series for just $0.99! 🌟 After the Storm releases tomorrow (!) and is available for pre-order at $0.99. After the Island and After the Fall are both free, through the end of the day today 1/17. Which means you can totally binge-read under the covers and pretend you’re on a tropical island instead of smack-dab in the middle of January. Win-win! Get your copies here –> http://amzn.to/2B0nMlU

Seven Winds Trio UPDATED

 

#ChooseYourOwnRomance: Chapter 14

NOTE: 18+ due to language and sexual content.

Want to help decide how the story continues? Join in on my Instagram feed (at) katyamesbooks. I publish a new chapter every Thursday & ask readers to vote on what happens next. Interested in reading (and voting) a day early? Come join my reader’s group of Facebook, Katy’s Romantic Rockstars.

{You can read the entire story as I write it here; I’ll add a chapter each week, after I post to Instagram.}

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.

Eden.”

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 fingers 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.

After the Storm & #TeaserTuesday

Hi friends! A belated happy 2018 to you!

First, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who’s been following along with #ChooseYourOwnRomance. It is such a blast to write and I’m always so surprised to see how readers want the story to continue. It definitely keeps me on my toes! Chapter fourteen arrives this Thursday, Jan. 11, and it is going to be steamy.

I’m writing tonight because I want to share a few gorgeous teasers from my upcoming book, After the Storm. It’s the third standalone novel in my Seven Winds Series and I’m incredibly excited for it’s release on Thursday, Jan. 18. You can read more about Tristan & Tessa below. I hope you enjoy!! xoxo, Katy

Happy couple spending time in Santa monicaIMG_1870

After the Storm is coming JANUARY 18. Get ready to fall in love with the #brokenheartboy.
Tristan Hurst is tired of running. He’s spent every day since he was 16 trying to escape the consequences of one inexplicable, horrible night. So when his cousin buys a Caribbean resort and offers him a job away from the family firm, Tristan jumps at the chance to leave behind his intolerable father and the life he barely lives.
Tessa Armstrong has a plan and moving to a tropical island isn’t part of it. But when she lands the position of head pastry chef at a luxury hotel, she can’t pass it up. A new country, a new kitchen. And a fresh start far away from the secrets that are becoming harder to ignore.
On an island where neither expected to end up, Tessa and Tristan discover something they’ve always wanted: a safe haven. And when friendship becomes something more, they think they’ve landed in paradise.
But there’s a storm coming, and the secrets they’ve worked so hard to escape aren’t far behind. And with them, a truth that has the power to wash away a love they never dreamed to find.
After the Storm is currently available for a special pre-order price $0.99. Grab your copy & add to your TBR list today!

#ChooseYourOwnRomance: Chapter 13

Want to help decide how the story continues? Join in on my Instagram feed (at) katyamesbooks. I publish a new chapter every Thursday & ask readers to vote on what happens next.

{You can read the entire story as I write it here; I’ll add a chapter each week, after I post to Instagram.}

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.

“Drink okay?”

“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.

“You’re nervous.”

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?”

“Did I?”

“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.