Kennedy wasn’t saying anything regarding my confession, so in the usual fashion, I continued to ramble. “I know, I know how horrible I sound, but I’ve changed, and I need you to tell me how to prove it to you. There’s a lot of the old me inside, but—and I’m not trying to make you feel guilty here—when it all went down, something changed inside me,” I told him, unsure if it was really meant as a warning.

He stared at me for a moment, so of course, I didn’t stop talking. “I’m not the same guy, and I don’t know if you can care for the man I am now, Kennedy. We shouldn’t have rushed into sex, but I couldn’t wait to have you. I’ll keep my feelings in check in the future,” I offered him with all the sincerity inside me.

He swallowed and looked at the ceiling for a moment, leaving me with a wrenching pain in my chest. When he returned his gaze to me, I saw something in his eyes I’d never seen from him. He was vulnerable, and that wasn’t Kennedy—well, that wasn’t the Kennedy I knew all those years ago.

“I… I’ve tried to deal with so much on my own. I mean, I don’t even let Aurora in as much as I used to. I’ve changed as well, Thornton, and I’m not sure if you’ll care for the man I’ve become. I’m at a loss for how to deal with this mess on my own. I need help,” he whispered as tears slid down his temples.

I leaned forward and kissed him gently. “Kennedy, I’m here, love. Maybe we came back to each other when it was right—when we needed each other the most?”

He appeared to be stunned, and I was worried about what I’d said, quickly babbling. “I should get up and dress. It won’t bode well if Jude wakes to find me here like this. I’ll go start breakfast.” I started to get out of bed before I made a bigger ass of myself. I turned to him, seeing the concern on his gorgeous face, so I offered, “You can lean on me, Ken. I’m not going anywhere.” I hoped I sounded reassuring because I meant every word.

I saw another tear slide down his temple, and I kissed it away. I’d kiss away all of his tears if he’d allow it. He was what I needed, and it sounded like I was what he needed, so maybe it was right?

After a quick shower, I dressed and hurried to the kitchen to fix breakfast before Jude woke up. I was just dropping bread into the toaster when Jude slowly walked into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. “Dad? What do we have to do today?” he asked. He sounded so exhausted, I felt sorry for the little guy.

“Your dad’s still sleeping, but all you have to do today is go talk to the lady Uncle Rob told us about the other night. You remember us talking about it?” I asked as I picked him up and propped him on my hip. Hell, he was a big kid, but he needed as much affection as we could give him, so I didn’t hesitate.

He rested his head on my shoulder, and I sat down and held him on my lap, wrapping my arms around him and knowing he’d probably go back to sleep for a few minutes. It was a new routine, and I didn’t hate it at all.

Kennedy strolled into the kitchen as the coffee perked and Jude slept on my lap. He quietly laughed when he saw us, but there was a smile on his face that seemed genuine. “Well, what’ll it be?”

“You want to trade me places? I’ll make omelets,” I offered.

He kissed my lips quietly before he lifted Jude from me. The boy molded around his body, and he sat down in a chair, gently stroking his son’s back.

“Coffee?” I asked quietly. Kennedy nodded.

I poured him a cup and added a bit of cream as he liked. I went to work on breakfast after I turned on quiet music. It was part of the new morning ritual which I could see myself settling into for the rest of my fucking life.

“Have you checked in with your office recently?” I asked as I chopped ham for the omelets.

“I called in yesterday afternoon when I was finished at the bank. I’ve got a few calls to return, but Laurie was able to stall them until Monday. She told them I was on vacation. This damn well isn’t a vacation,” he commented as I added eggs to the pan for Jude’s omelet.

I turned to Kennedy and picked up my coffee, taking a sip. “I’ve made a lot of plans, and you haven’t offered an opinion one way or another. Are you okay with them?”

I was worried because I had no idea what he was thinking about the decisions I was making on his behalf. If I was stepping on his toes, he wasn’t saying a word.

I’d set up Jude with a few camps, knowing I could fill in the gap with play dates with his friends and other activities when he didn’t have anything scheduled, but I was making assumptions. Kennedy hadn’t said much with regard to the schedule I’d posted, and it wasn’t like him, really. His lack of commentary had me walking on eggshells.

Kennedy smiled as Jude began to stir, naturally smelling the food. “I think what I said earlier should be explanation enough, Thornton. I need you, and if I’m right, you need us, too. I don’t just need you to get me through this, okay? I need you in our lives. Hell, I have since the day I laid eyes on you. Please, don’t think I don’t appreciate everything you do because it’s all been…” he trailed off as he buried his nose in Judah’s hair.

I knew Kennedy didn’t like crying in front of Jude because he was trying so hard to be strong for his son so he could be a little boy and grieve the loss of his mother, which was far different from the way KC and Lily had raised Kennedy and Aurora. I was proud of the man for trying to change. It was one of the things I still loved about him. To save him embarrassment, I changed the subject. “Aunt Nora and Uncle Rob are leaving Sunday evening after the reception. They’ve invited us to visit when you have a long weekend. They think Jude would like the pool.”

I saw Jude jerk up his head and turn to me, which made me laugh. That kid had very distinctive buttons, and swimming was definitely one of them. “Pool? They have a pool?” he asked as he crawled off Kennedy’s lap and situated himself in his chair.

I poured him some apple juice, placing it in front of him before I sprinkled the ham and cheese he liked into his omelet. I pushed the toaster down before turning to look at him, seeing his bright brown eyes open and wide awake.

“They do, and they hope we can come to visit a few times over the summer. I know your dad has to work, but you have a week between soccer and computer camp, so I thought maybe we could go to Oregon for a few days if it’s okay with your dad. He might be able to come down for a weekend. I can work on my book there, and Aunt Nora can spoil you rotten. Let’s think about it, okay?” I asked.

I should have cleared it with Kennedy first, but he was stuck in neutral. From what I’d been able to ascertain through conversations, Lark had kept downtime to a minimum for Judah. The boy probably needed to settle into some sort of new normal, and with his father treading water, I would pick up the slack to help as much as possible. I loved them, after all.

When the toaster popped, I pulled out the bread and buttered it quickly. I loaded the omelet onto the plate and handed it to Jude. His favorite cherry jam was already on the table, along with the ketchup he glopped on top of his eggs, making me cringe. He wasted no time digging in.

“Mr. Catrelle, what’s your pleasure this Friday morning?” I asked as I whisked eggs in a bowl.

He looked at me with a smile. “That’s a question for another time, but I’ll have what Jude’s having, along with a little hot sauce if ya don’t mind, darlin’.” I glanced over my shoulder again, seeing that sexy smirk on his face I remembered from years ago. He knew how much I loved that fucking accent, and he was teasing me, which I heartily welcomed. If he was at the point where he could tease me, we had a fighting chance of coming out on the other side in a much better place than when we went in. That was precisely what I hoped for—the two halves of us coming out of the other side as a whole.


Later that afternoon, I was busy firming up plans for the celebration of Lark’s life we were having on Sunday afternoon. I’d spoken with Lark’s friends and invited them to Kennedy’s house for the gathering. It was being catered, and it wasn’t a funeral, which was what I assumed Lark wanted to avoid when she’d written her will.

It was planned to be a gathering of people who cared enough about the woman to show up and share stories about their friendship with her. It was nothing fancy, but I felt it was necessary for Jude and Kennedy, though Kennedy wouldn’t admit anything to me regarding his feelings for Lark.

I knew he cared for her deeply and was trying to hide his feelings about her, but I knew for a fact he loved her, just not the way he loved me. He’d have to admit it and deal with it before he could begin to heal. I was sure it would be hard to get him to own up to it, but maybe the therapist could help with that.


My two boys were at the therapist session Uncle Rob had helped orchestrate, and I was making a few last calls—follow-ups with people from Lark’s contact list I couldn’t get in touch with the first pass. I hadn’t left messages regarding her death because I felt if they were in her phone’s contact list, they must be somewhat significant and deserved to hear it from a person, not in an impersonal voicemail message.

I dialed a guy I’d been trying to catch for most of the week. His name was in Lark’s phone as Dante, and when I’d called him before, the phone had gone to his voicemail, the message was merely the canned message with the number and no details. I decided to try one more time before I gave up on reaching him.

It rang once before it was answered. “Lark? I’m sorry we had that fight, honey. I know it was a surprise to you, but you took me by surprise as well.”

I froze for a moment and cleared my throat. “I’m sorry, but I’m not Lark. My name’s Thornton, and I was a friend of hers. She, um, I’m trying to find out how you know her,” I asked lamely.

“I… We were… Wait, you’re not her husband, right? When she tracked me down again, she didn’t mention a husband. Hell, when I was at her house a few times or when she came to see me, she didn’t say she was married.” That had my ears perking up.

“No, no. Lark’s… I’m not Lark’s husband. She isn’t married. Are you a date or boyfriend?” I asked him.

He chuckled. “Dude, if you’re a stalker who stole her phone, she’ll hunt you down and beat your ass. She’s crafty like that.”

I had a sick feeling in my gut, but I couldn’t let it go. “No, it’s not like that. I was trying to get in touch with people she knew because she passed away. How long have you known Lark?”

“Damn. Son-of-a-bitch!” He didn’t say anything for a minute, and I prayed to God he wasn’t who I worried he might be.

After a minute, he responded, “Look, I’d rather not say anything more. I don’t think it would be helpful to anyone, okay? I met her one night about eight, maybe nine, years ago. We spent the night together, and I deployed the next week. I’m sorry to hear she passed. I really liked her and hated myself for sneaking out of her place that first time when I woke up, but I had PT that morning.”

That wasn’t good news to me. “Okay. When did Lark contact you again? I’m just trying to clean up things for her parents,” I lied.

“Shit! I guess about six or eight months ago she called my cell out of the clear blue. I didn’t even know she had the number. We talked and agreed to meet up again. We went on a few dates when I was in Spokane for a special training program or visiting some family I have outside Seattle,” he explained.

“Did she come visit you?” I prodded.

“When I had time off and could get away, Lark flew here for a couple of weekends. I’m stationed at Ft. Campbell in Kentucky, but we met up in Nashville a few times. I didn’t have any idea she was sick or anything. She didn’t mention it when we talked recently, but a lot was going on that day, so maybe I missed it,” he responded.

I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I had to be the one to tell you, Dante. What’s your full name?” I asked.

“I’m Staff Sergeant Dante Melendez, sir. I appreciate the call, but I’d appreciate it if ya wouldn’t call again. It makes things difficult for me, you see. Please give my condolences to Lark’s people. She really was a great girl,” he requested.

“I will, Sergeant. Did she ever mention her family at all? I’m trying to track down everyone,” I asked vaguely.

“She talked about a guy named Judah, but I assumed he was a friend. She seemed to care for him a lot, so maybe you should try to find him,” Dante suggested. I couldn’t begin to imagine what had been going through her head, but I didn’t have a good feeling about it.

“That’s a good idea. Did Lark mention anything about the guy that might give me a lead? There’s no Judah on her contacts list.”

“Uh, she said he was a great guy. She said he reminded her of me. She said we had similar features, so I’d say he was a Hispanic guy. Anyway, she said she cared for him a lot, but he wasn’t a boyfriend or anything. She said I’d like him, but really, we didn’t have it like that. I wasn’t into meeting her friends or anything. Hell, I’m set to be reassigned.”

“Oh, where to, Sergeant?” I asked.

“I pulled a good one this time. Germany. Uh, I’m sorry to cut this short, but I need to go back to work. Please give my condolences to her family, sir. What was your name again?”

I took a deep breath and lied. “Thorn Caine. Thank you for your time and safe travels.” He thanked me again for the call, and we hung up.

I sat at the counter of Kennedy’s home and made notes of Dante’s name, phone number, and various facts about him for future reference in a notebook I’d assembled. I quickly deleted him from Lark’s phone, and then, I broke the damn thing. Kennedy hadn’t asked about it, so I wasn’t going to tell him anything. If he ever seemed interested, I’d feign ignorance, but there was no way I’d ever tell him about yet another lie or deception on Lark’s part. Kennedy didn’t need to know she’d been in contact with Judah’s father all this time. He had enough on his plate.

I heard a key in the front door, so I slid the newspaper over the notebook and slipped the broken phone in my pocket. I’d dump it somewhere after I took out the SIM card. Yeah, I was fucking paranoid, but I was looking out for my family, and yes, they were my family.

Jude walked in first with a big smile on his face, immediately giving me relief. “Hey, where’s your cool car? Dad told me about it and said maybe you’d take me for a ride?”

Kennedy walked in behind him, depositing a stack of mail on the counter. He turned to me and crossed his arms over his chest, which made me laugh. “Is there a problem?”

“Why is there a new Mercedes SUV at the curb with temporary tags?”

I laughed then. “Well, my mother always loved a Mercedes, and with the stuff, Jude and I have planned for the summer, well, the Aston won’t work. I can’t take my guys out for dinner in a two-seater, can I? Speaking of which, I thought we could go out for some barbeque. I thought maybe we’d call the Nutters and the Edmonds and all of us go out for dinner. We’ve been eating in all week, and it is Friday night, after all.”

Jude didn’t even wait for Kennedy to say anything before he had the house phone and was punching in numbers. “Grandma? You and Gramps wanna go for barbeque?”

Kennedy walked over to where I was standing and leaned forward, kissing me gently on the cheek. “You didn’t have to buy a damn car, ya know. I’d have lent you my truck. I can take a cab or an Uber.”

Jude hung up the phone and stared at the two of us. “Hey, I don’t wanna see that business. I’ll tell you two like I told Mom with that Army guy. No kissing in front of the kid.”

We both looked at him, seeing him begin fiddling with his hands at his outburst. Kennedy spoke first. “What Army guy?”

“Crap, I wasn’t ‘posed to tell. I guess it don’t matter now. One night I woke up and heard noises in the living room. I could tell it wasn’t the TV, and I got worried, so I went to see what was going on. Mom was on the couch with a guy in camo gear. It was like he was eating her face. It was gross.”

“Did he see you?” I snapped without thinking.

“Naw. The man wasn’t lookin’ around. His eyes were closed. Anyway, next mornin’ I told Mom I saw the guy, and she said she was sorry and promised never to bring him to our place again. She told me not to tell you about it because you would be mad. I never saw him after that.”

“How long ago was that?” Kennedy asked holding my hand tightly. We definitely needed to talk about things.

“I don’t know. It was around Valentime’s Day. You were in New York with them.

He was looking at Kennedy, and I saw the man flinch before asking, “Remember anything else?”

“Not a lot to remember. Like I said, he was eating Mom’s face, so I got the heck outta there. I’m gonna go… I’ll be back.” With that, Jude left, and when we heard the bathroom door close, I turned to Kennedy. I saw the look on his face, and I knew I needed to tell him the truth, but we had to get through the weekend.

“Did you meet her dates?” I asked.

“Never. Lark told me she didn’t have guys at the house if Jude was there. Fucking hell,” he lamented. I held him in my arms until we heard the toilet flush down the hall.

“I’ll call and set up dinner. Why don’t you check your work e-mails, love?” Kennedy nodded and walked away. I had a bad feeling, but it could—it would have to wait. We had things to deal with, and after… Well, we’d see where it went, together.


We all went out for barbecue, but Kennedy and I didn’t really engage in conversation with the rest of the group. I paid the bill, and we all went our separate ways. Well, I went back to Kennedy’s house with the intention of spending the night. The next day would be full of plans. Aurora and Elijah had been working a lot that week, but they were coming over to help us get ready for the gathering on Sunday.

Kennedy carried Jude into the house because the boy had already fallen asleep in the SUV. He’d also lost a tooth at dinner thanks to an ear of corn, so as Kennedy settled him into bed, I slipped a ten-dollar bill under his pillow, the tooth in a napkin securely in Kennedy’s pocket.

Ten? When I was his age, I got a quarter,” Kennedy whisper shouted.

“Inflation? What’s the appropriate amount?” I whispered back. He slipped a dollar under Jude’s pillow and pulled out the ten, handing it to me.

“Oh, come on. The kid was such a trooper, and he didn’t even cry. That’s gotta be worth at least five,” I whispered as I slipped a five under the pillow. Jude rolled over, and we both froze. When he settled back into a peaceful sleep, we walked out of the room and pulled the door closed a bit.

Once we were sure he wasn’t going to wake, Kennedy and I walked down the hallway to the kitchen. He turned on the light, and I took a seat at the counter. “You need some parenting lessons,” he stated as he pulled out a juice box, offering one to me. I laughed.

I took it, poking the straw into it and tasting the strawberries and bananas. I pulled the box back and confirmed my suspicions. “This is good, but I can make you a smoothie that tastes better. Hell, I could drizzle chocolate on you and scoop it up with a nice ripe strawberry,” I suggested. Yeah, I was horny, and the idea was taking root. Hey, I’m a guy.

Kennedy chuckled, but I could see the idea intrigued the hell out of him as well. “Oh yeah? What else ya got?” he drawled. God, I wanted to put him on the counter and give him a sample of what was running through my mind.

“What else do you want, Mr. Catrelle?” I teased as I strolled around the counter, pulling him forcefully into my chest.

I kissed him on his neck, moving along his stubbled jaw until I met his soft lips. I cradled the back of his head to hold him to me, kissing him passionately. Our breathing was erratic, and when we pulled away for much-needed air, he looked into my eyes. “If you leave after giving me a kiss like that, I’m not lettin’ ya back in.” My heart was doing handsprings, and I was happy to hear the drawl from him. I’d missed it.

I decided to tease him a little because I genuinely wanted him to have a few minutes where he wasn’t thinking about all the shit swirling around him, especially about what Jude had spilled earlier.

“I don’t think you locking me out will do either of us any good, do you? I think this,” I reached down and cupped his hard cock through his jeans, “is a good indication your body doesn’t agree with what’s coming out of your mouth.” I squeezed a little and heard him moan.

“You’re still a fucking prick tease,” he moaned again when I flipped the button on his jeans.

“I’m not a tease if I plan to follow through. I’m going to my car to grab my bag, and you go back to your bedroom and sit on the bed. Don’t take off your clothes, and don’t touch yourself. Your orgasms belong to me from now on,” I instructed. I moved toward the kitchen, feeling a slap on my ass.

I turned to look at him and cocked an eyebrow. “I’d be cautious what you start, Kennedy. You might not like the results you get this time around,” I warned and let myself out of the house. I grabbed my bag from the back seat and locked my new SUV. After I returned inside, I made sure the front door was locked and turned off lights on my way back to Kennedy’s room. I quietly opened Jude’s door, seeing he was out like a light, and when I walked into the master bedroom, I saw Kennedy had done exactly as I’d demanded.

I closed the door and locked it, dropping my bag on a side chair. I walked over to stand in front of Kennedy, trying to hide my smile. He appeared to be a little nervous, but he seemed receptive to taking orders in the bedroom. That would bode very fucking well for us, moving forward. I wasn’t the shy, insecure kid he’d known in college. Based on the look on his face, he understood it correctly.

I took his hand, noticing we both smelled like smoke from the barbeque joint where we’d eaten that night. “Come on. I love your natural scent, but it’s masked by hickory smoke and barbeque sauce.”

We walked into his bathroom, and I closed the door, turning on a softer light than the harsh lights over his vanity. “Are there towels in here?” He nodded and pointed to the linen closet to my right. I chuckled.

“Love, you can speak, you know. I’m not into mutes.” I reached into the closet and pulled out two towels and a bathmat.

I walked over to him and stripped his clothes from him, kissing his body as I exposed new flesh for my pleasure. He was so gorgeous, and I could tell he was a little uneasy, so I decided I needed him to voice his concerns. “What’s wrong?”

His shirt was in the hamper, and without thought, I pulled off mine and tossed it in behind his. I flipped the buttons on my jeans and tossed them in as well, waiting for him to say anything.

I looked into his beautiful, blue eyes again, seeing he was clearly organizing his thoughts. I placed my finger under his chin, forcing him to look at me. “Kennedy, tell me what’s wrong?”

“I—I’m just surprised, I guess. Are you into BDS&M now or something? I mean, do you have some kinky playroom at your apartment with whips and ropes and whatever other things go with that lifestyle?” I withheld the laugh. Clearly, Kennedy had been reading some of the erotica he published.

“No, baby, though I wouldn’t mind trying a few things if we can ever get a weekend to ourselves. I don’t have a playroom, and I’m not a sadist. Tying you up while I fuck you senseless could be fun, but I have no desire to subject you to any pain. I mean, if you’d like me to spank you, I’d definitely enjoy feeling your body draped over my lap while I turn your perfect ass a beautiful shade of red. I can’t say I wouldn’t enjoy seeing my handprint there in bright red while I fucked you from behind,” I taunted. Kennedy took a deep breath, his eyes lighting up at my words just as I hoped.

I continued to make my point. “But to be perfectly clear, my only desire is to provide you love, support, and pleasure. We’ve both had enough pain in our lives, and I don’t get off on that sort of thing. I do like the upper hand because I feel more secure when I’m in control, but I’m not a heartless prick.”

He seemed to understand a bit better, but I could tell he still had questions. He cleared his throat. “So, um, you won’t be doling out punishment for what I did to you in the…”

I stopped him with two fingers gently resting on his soft, plump lips. It was definitely time to wipe that slate clean and move on. Dwelling on it would only cause both of us hurt. “Let’s settle this once and for all. What happened back then between us is in the past. We can’t change it, and we can’t undo it. We can learn from it, and we can move on. That’s what I want to do, Kennedy. I want us to move past it and see where this relationship can take us. I think we’re good together. If we’re ever going to find out how good, we have to stop living in the past.”

I moved my fingers from his lips and saw a smile. “I love you, Thornton. I know we’ve made statements around it, but I do love you, very much. I’m extremely interested in learning everything about the man you’ve become.” He unbuttoned his jeans and slipped them off, along with his boxers, tossing them toward the hamper.

He turned on the shower and hopped in, so I quickly followed behind. He was under the spray with his eyes closed and his head tilted back, so I reached for his shampoo, filling my hand. I gently turned him, so his back was to me, and I shampooed his hair and massaged his scalp. His gentle sighs led me to believe he enjoyed being taken care of, which was something I derived a lot of pleasure providing. It was something I’d loved doing all of my life.

After he rinsed and I was sure all of the shampoo was gone, I pulled him into my arms. “I love you, too, Kennedy. I, too, want to know everything about the man you’ve become, but everything I’ve seen thus far tells me you’re still the same boy I fell in love with years ago. You’ve just matured and polished up a bit. I have as well, I hope. Now, let’s get cleaned up and go to bed. I’ll slip out after you’re asleep and hit the spare room, so Jude isn’t freaked out,” I told him quietly, hoping he sensed how honest and thoughtful I was with my statements.

I loved him, and I felt the two of us had a fresh start waiting for us. We just had to get through the immediate heartaches Judah and Kennedy were facing. I’d be there holding them both closely the whole time.

To be continued…

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