Saturday afternoon while we were setting things up in Kennedy’s house, he and Jude came home, both with fresh haircuts, a giant helium tank, and bags of multi-colored balloons. Rory had suggested a simple ceremony of sorts wherein everyone wrote a goodbye to Lark on a slip of paper and tied it to the end of the balloon string. They would all be released at the same time, sending the sentiments off to the heavens. Jude liked the idea very much.

“You both look rather dapper,” I teased as I plated the cookies Aunt Nora and Betsey had made. They were in the shape of snowflakes, but I didn’t know why. I wanted to ask Betsey about them, but I didn’t want to offend anyone by prying into something obviously personal to Lark’s family. I kept reminding myself I was the “outsider,” for all intents and purposes.

Jude walked over and reached for a cookie, looking at me. I glanced behind me to see the women were busy, so I handed him a few along with a napkin, and he hurried off. I looked at Kennedy and saw a pitiful look on his face as well. “Jesus,” I sighed as I handed him two cookies. He kissed me on the lips and slipped away, too.

I heard a laugh behind me and turned to see the three women with broad smiles on their faces. “You’re a pushover,” Rory teased. Yeah, I was, but I loved them. Who wasn’t a pushover for the people they loved?

“I am, and I don’t care who knows it. What else would I be when it comes to those two, Rory?”

She placed a hand on my shoulder, so I turned to look at her. “I truly wish I’d have met you when you and Kennedy were younger. I was at Fordham-Gabelli at the time because I thought I was too good to go anywhere else, but I missed out on something great by not being around to see the two of you together. I’m glad I’m here to witness this second incarnation. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better when things calm down. You’ll stay around for that to happen, right?”

I laughed and picked her up, spinning her in a circle which I could tell she didn’t appreciate at all. “Yes, Aurora dear, I’ll be right here.” The rest of the afternoon was busy, but Rory and I got to know each other better, so it was worth it.

Sunday morning, we actually went to an Episcopal church with the whole family. Jude fidgeted the entire time, tugging at his tie and sighing heavily every few minutes, but he really tried to behave. I had to give him props for his patience.

The sermon was about acceptance and forgiveness, and as Jude sat between us, holding both of our hands, I found it quite fitting.

When we returned to Kennedy’s house, the guests arrived, and after numerous discussions about Lark’s many antics, pranks, and loving gestures for those about whom she cared, there was the balloon release in the backyard. As the afternoon wound down, I saw a woman in the corner who had spoken with many of the people who had been Lark’s co-workers.

I deftly made my way over as she stood sipping a cup of coffee and seemingly trying to get Kennedy’s attention. He was busy with Jude, speaking with a few people who were apparently regular chums of Lark’s.

“Good evening and thank you for coming to honor Lark’s memory. I’m Thornton Marsh, a good friend of Kennedy’s. You are?” I asked.

She extended her hand confidently and looked me in the eye. “I’m Carleen Delaney, Lark’s boss. I believe you spoke with my secretary, Tonda.”

I nodded. “I’m sorry it took us so long to get in touch with your office, but there were a lot of things to sort through, and Jude was our priority,” I answered, waiting to see what she’d make of it.

“I’ve been worried about her erratic behavior for a while, but Lark kept telling me things were fine. I swear if I thought she’d have… Well, I’d have called Kennedy,” she confessed, appearing to feel very guilty.

“Ms. Delaney, how much time has Lark taken off recently?” I asked, thinking about the discussion I’d have with Staff Sgt. Melendez regarding Lark’s visits to Nashville.

She looked up at the ceiling for a moment and then looked at me. “I’d say over the last six months, she’s taken off early on Fridays. Maybe five or six. Nothing consistent and I believe they were the weekends Kennedy had Jude so I wouldn’t say she was neglectful. For her own sake, I had hoped she’d met someone,” the woman replied.

She glanced around to see it was just the two of us within earshot before she continued. “She always came to work with new ideas after the weekends away. I get the impression she didn’t sleep a lot. I’m not sure why, though being the selfish, business owner I am, I didn’t question her as to why. I sent her to New York a few weeks ago for her to meet with the manufacturer because the samples we were getting weren’t up to her standards, and she was beside herself with the opportunity to go speak with the factory face-to-face. Unfortunately, when she came back, she wasn’t the same,” the woman told me.

Just as I was about to question her more, Jude grabbed my hand, drawing all of my attention. “Bud, what’s up?” I asked. I squatted down to meet his eyes, seeing he was a bit distraught.

“Would it be okay if I went to my room and played a game for a while?” Jude seemed to beg.

I nodded. “How about we go try that golf game again?” I suggested. He nodded, so I shook Mrs. Delaney’s hand, and the two of us went down the hallway and into his room.

“Why don’t you change into shorts and a t-shirt so you can be comfortable?” I suggested. He seemed relieved as I handed him clothes, and when he tiptoed down the hallway to the bathroom, it was as if he was conducting a covert operation.

When he came back, we settled on the floor and played the game. I slipped off my shoes and socks to get comfortable and surprised myself that I was catching onto the game—with Jude’s help. He laughed at some of my bad shots, but he gave me tips which I appreciated. Just before he mopped up the floor with me, Kennedy came into the room and sat down, taking the controller from me.

“We’re gonna have to teach you how to play, aren’t we, Jude?” he teased as he teed off.

Jude looked at me and smiled. “We need to teach him a lot of things, Dad. Do you know how to play soccer? Dad doesn’t.”

“Actually, I played in school. Maybe we can teach your dad how to play,” I teased. They played the video game, and I watched, resting my arm on the bed and tugging on Kennedy’s newly shorn locks to distract him every once in a while. He looked terrific with the new cut, and I couldn’t have been happier that the three of us were in our own little world.

There was a knock on the door, and Jude paused the game. “Come in!” When the door opened, it was Aunt Nora with her ever-present, gentle smile.

“Hi, Mrs. Edmonds,” Jude welcomed before he yawned.

She laughed. “You three have successfully avoided the awkward goodbyes. Rob and I are going to drop Fred and Betsey at the airport before we head home. Come say goodbye, boys.”

We hopped up from the floor, and after Kennedy hurried out, always the host, Jude grabbed my hand. “Will you stay tonight? Aunt Aurora is scared for Dad, and I know he’s not so sad when you’re around.”

“Jude, you and your dad are the two most important people in my life, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure nothing bad happens, okay?” I told him, meaning every word.

We said our goodbyes to everyone, and we promised visits. It seemed we’d been accepted as a family, which didn’t bother me at all, but I had to feel out Kennedy about his insights on the matter.

I was sitting on the couch in the living room with my laptop, fleshing out my characters a bit more. I had my eyes closed as I imagined an email of a suggestive nature Cole would receive when I felt a hand on my cheek.

I opened my eyes, seeing Kennedy smiling at me. “You’re not asleep, are you?”

I took his hand and pulled him down next to me. “No love, I was trying to imagine what a suggestive email from Derrick to Cole would entail. Is Jude asleep?” I asked.

He pushed me down on the couch after he took my laptop and placed it on the coffee table. He stretched out on top of me, and I wasn’t sorry about it at all. We kissed gently. I held him in my arms to let him know I loved him, and when I felt wetness on my neck that wasn’t coming from me, I shifted us to have him lying next to me on the couch. I saw his tears, and I’d actually expected them.

“Love, I know you’re hurting. I’m so sorry,” I whispered as I held him tightly, twining my legs with his.

After a few minutes, he pulled back and looked into my eyes. “Thornton, I have a huge fucking problem, and I swear to God, I have no idea how to deal with it. I have a feeling you might have some inkling of it. What did Lark tell you about my son?”

I took a deep breath and stroked his cheek, brushing away the tears as they continued to fall. “She told me how much the two of you loved him. She told me she’d made some mistakes. Why?” I asked. I couldn’t be the one to tell him if I was reading the situation wrong. If he didn’t know the truth, I’d never say it out loud to anyone, especially not to him.

“You’re lying to me. You know.”

“I know what, Kennedy?”

He took a deep breath, and I saw the fresh tears in his eyes, so I spoke first. “I know you love Jude, no matter what. I know what Lark told me and while your blood might not run through his veins, you are his father. I know she wasn’t stable, Kennedy, but I know, love, you are the best father for Jude in the whole wide world. That’s all I need to know,” I told him as I kissed away his tears.

I held him as he fell apart. He was due, and if I’d have been in his position, I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same. I shed a few of tears of my own, but as he cried, I only became more resolute I wouldn’t let one mother fucker come along to make our life difficult. The three of us would have a future together, and it would be fantastic. That was all I had on my mind, and I’d make him believe it.

“I had no idea about it. In Lark’s suicide note to me, she told me the truth about Judah. Who does that?” Kennedy lamented.

I held him again for a while, and I decided the discussion was better had in his bedroom. “Let’s go to bed. We can talk there. We have less of a chance of Jude waking up without us knowing. Come on,” I coaxed as I closed my laptop and led him to his bedroom.

We settled on his bed under the sheets, and I decided it was time to just get it all out. “So, you know Jude’s not your biological child. How do you feel about it?” I whispered.

“I just wonder why she lied to me. I mean, I’d have tried to help her anyway, but why that? Why lie to me?”

I weighed the options of telling him what she’d told me, which was that she wanted his money, but in the end, I decided he didn’t need to be hurt by that news, so I took a deep breath and twisted it. “She thought you would be good for her baby. You were strong and steady, and for a while, she didn’t know if it was you or the other guy she’d been with the next night,” I explained to him.

Kennedy sniffed a little. “Go on, please.”

“After his eyes changed, she began to alter her appearance. She wanted the best for Jude, and you were definitely the best choice. She said she didn’t remember the name of the other guy, and she wanted her son to have a great dad. She picked you, Kennedy. She knew you’d be a great dad. At the end of it, she gave you a wonderful gift.”

He took a deep breath. “Yes, but Lark kept in touch with Staff Sgt. Dante Melendez, didn’t she? That’s something we’ll have to worry about, isn’t it?”

I felt my gut flip, but I wouldn’t lie to him. I didn’t have to ask how he found out. When I was cleaning the kitchen the previous evening, I saw I’d left the notebook on the counter under a stack of papers. “You saw the notebook, didn’t you?”

“I was putting shit together in my head, but when I saw your notes, I knew who it was. He’s the guy, isn’t he?” Kennedy asked though I knew he really didn’t need me to confirm it.

I didn’t answer for a minute because it seemed like if we didn’t say it out loud, it wasn’t true, but I could only ignore it for a moment. I turned Kennedy to look into my eyes because I wanted him to understand what I was about to say.

“I believe he’s the guy. Look, Kennedy, he’s being reassigned to Germany, and there’s no reason he needs to ever know because from what I gathered, Lark didn’t tell him the truth. Judah is your son. It says so on his birth certificate, and you have no reason to believe it to be any other way. Don’t you worry about any of it, okay? Jude is your son. Nothing in Lark’s will states otherwise,” I reminded him.

He exhaled deeply. “Realistically, Thorn, people will figure it out eventually. I can’t hide the fact he looks nothing like me.” His voice was getting louder, and if he continued on the path, he was going to be shouting which would only wake Judah.

I kissed him to shut him up, wrapping my hands in his shorter hair to shift him onto his back, happy to feel him against me again. My mind was running rampant, but my body was right there with him, feeling his heartbeat in time with mine. We were one. We loved each other, and we had for years although my stubborn pride kept us apart. It was right, and I was so fucking happy to have both of them, I felt my throat tighten at the prospects of losing Judah. It would take both of them from me because Kennedy would never be able to live without that boy.

When his body relaxed into mine, I pulled away and looked into his eyes. “There’s a way to fend off Dante Melendez. We never acknowledge he was in Lark’s life—ever. I’d say that’s the best way to go. I destroyed her phone, and he’s leaving the country. He doesn’t want to hear anything more from us, and that’s an easy promise to keep,” I assured.

Kennedy nodded, so I continued. “He mentioned family in the Northwest, but the chances we ever run into any of them are a million to one. We forget all about him, and we go to New York to deal with your parents. Maybe Rory and Elijah could keep Jude for a weekend while we go put an end to their stupid ass threats? He doesn’t have to go with us and deal with them, and I’ll be right there with you. I can handle them, Kennedy. I won’t let anyone destroy our family.”

A while later, after Kennedy fell into an exhausted sleep, I sent Uncle Rob a text.

Any word on the meds and the doctors? I have a feeling I know the answer, but I’d like you to confirm. Thanks again for coming. Love you both. Thornton

I put my phone on vibrate and fell asleep next to Kennedy, holding him tightly in my arms. It was as natural as breathing.

To be continued…

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