After Thornton walked out of the bedroom that morning, I began making a list of shit in my head. There was a quiet knock on the door, and I prayed it wasn’t Rory again because I didn’t want to have an argument with her regarding Thornton’s presence. He was there, and he was staying—end of story.

I pulled open the door, bracing myself for battle. I was surprised to see Franklin standing in front of me with a cup of coffee and the worst case of bedhead I’d ever seen. “Hey, Ken, you want another cup of coffee?”

I chuckled humorlessly. “Only if it’s got whiskey in it.” I saw him frown, and I knew how inappropriate my humor was at the moment, but it was the first thing that popped into my head, and clearly, my verbal filter was shot to hell.

“How bad is the craving?”

“How fuckin’ bad do you think?” There was more bite in my voice than was necessary, but I didn’t have a lot of tolerance for bullshit at the moment. Frank had seen me in a lot worse humor, to be sure.

“If you go on a bender, is it going to bring Lark back? Is Judah going to be any less heartbroken at the loss of his mother?” I rolled my eyes at him as I shoved my wallet and keys in my pocket.

I felt the brush of something on my left arm, and when I looked down, I saw the cuff with the bar of music engraved on top—the one Thornton had given me years ago that was still resting there from the previous night when I’d hunted it down. Finding it had brought the recollection of too many bad nights I’d spent trying to obliterate my memories of him attached to the bracelet, but with Thorn coming back into my life, the notes engraved on top had a new meaning… one that had filled my heart with hope, even in light of the current tragedy.

“No, no it won’t. It certainly never helped in the past, and now I’ve got more responsibilities than ever. Thank you for being here, Frank. I know Brenda must be worried about you,” I surmised.

His wife was a lovely woman, and the things Franklin had revealed to me during my fight for sobriety proved she was strong as well and loved him more than anything. Franklin always claimed Brenda was the reason he finally got his shit together. He was adamant he owed her every sober day until he died to make up for all the hell she’d been put through when he was drinking. I remember thinking how lucky he was to have that kind of support.

“Brenda understands how things are in situations like this and offered to babysit Jude if you have tasks you need to see to. So, the Thornton who called me and who’s been protecting you like a rabid pit bull is the Thorn? How’d that come to be?” He walked in and sat down on the bed, so I joined him because clearly, he wasn’t letting me out of the room until he felt I was in control and not about to steal a car to get to a liquor store.

I sighed. “We’re in talks for a book deal. I’m sure Brenda’s heard of him… Thornton Marsh. He’s the author of the Caine Winslow mystery series.”

“Wow, I had no idea when you told me about Thorn it was him. Is he going to write more stories for the series and put them out through your company? That’s a big deal, isn’t it?” Frank asked, seeming duly impressed.

I had to be very careful how I explained things to Franklin. I wouldn’t lie to him, but I would protect Thornton’s privacy at all costs. “He’s going to write for us under a pen name. He’s still writing the mysteries, but he wants to go in another direction. Anyway, we’ve been talking since he came in for the first meeting. We were actually going on a date last night. When Lark didn’t show at four, he watched Jude while I went to her house.”

Frank nodded. “So, are you two trying to—is Lark’s death going to make a difference with the two of you reconnecting? I mean, now you have Jude full-time. That’s certainly a bit different than just dating a guy who has a child around part of the time.”

I knew he was right on that count, but I couldn’t dwell on it at the moment. I needed to talk to Jude, and I needed Franklin’s advice. “Look, I can’t think about any of that right now. Thornton mentioned it might not be the best idea to tell Jude his mother took her own life. I hate the idea of lying to my son, but he’s only eight-years-old, and how would knowing his mother committed suicide affect him? I mean, it’s going to mess him up because she’s gone anyway, but if I tell him she took her own life, will Jude believe it has something to do with him? Will he feel he’s somehow responsible for Lark’s actions? I don’t know how I’d handle it if I were a kid.”

I looked down and fingered the cuff on my wrist, thinking about Thornton having heard the news his mother and father were dead. He was older at the time, but he’d always told me, even though it was an accident, he still felt like he’d been abandoned. I never wanted Judah to feel that way. It would break my heart if he thought he’d been left behind. I’d never, ever, wanted him to feel that pain.

Franklin took a deep breath and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Do you think you can keep it from him? I mean, your sister, brother-in-law, the authorities, Thorn, Brenda, and me all know the truth. I’d guess her parents will need to be told the truth at a point,” he prompted. He wasn’t wrong.

He continued. “What about your parents? It seems to me like the net has been cast pretty wide already, Ken. I don’t know if I’d give him the details about exactly how she did it, but I think if you tell him she was having a hard time with things in her life that had nothing to do with him, it might be enough for now. Do you know why she did it?”

I knew exactly why she did it, but I wasn’t about to tell him. I valued his willingness to keep my confidences, but he wasn’t a doctor, lawyer, or a priest. He was an accountant, and I doubted they took any sort of oath to keep a conversation of the kind we were having as confidential—well, nothing that would likely hold up in court if it got that far.

“I’m not sure of anything. Lark left a note for Jude that I need to get back from the police. She told him she loved him and apologized for making a mess of things she wasn’t strong enough to fix. I don’t really know what that means.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.

Just as Frank was about to say something else, Eli appeared in the doorway of my bedroom. “Hey, um, you want me to take Jude in the backyard and play catch or something?”

“No, I need to talk to him. He’s got to be worried about where his mom is and why I haven’t come out. Thank you, Eli.” I walked out of the room and went to find Jude in the kitchen with Rory.

My son was busy telling his aunt about an arcade Elijah took him to that morning after breakfast. I knew it was to distract him, but I wondered if Jude would ever want to go back to an arcade after I told him why he got such a treat on a Monday morning when he should have been in school. I hoped it wasn’t something he’d hate to do in the future.

“Hey, Jude. Let’s go back to your room for a little bit. We need to have a talk,” I told him, trying to keep my voice unemotional. Starting to cry before I ever got out the news wouldn’t help anything. He already had a look of concern on his face as he studied my features, probably seeing the bags under my eyes or the redness of my nose from the lack of sleep and the endless tears. I absolutely needed to be stable for him.

Jude got up from the chair and slowly walked back to his room, toeing off his sneakers and hopping on the bed. I sat down next to him after I pushed the door closed to give us privacy. I took a deep breath and prayed, Lark, you set me up to have to tell him this. You better help me get through it.

“So, um, I bet you’re a little confused about what’s going on right now, yeah?” I began.

“Well, yeah. I mean, where’s Mom? Is she at her doctor’s appointment?” I felt my body tense because Lark hadn’t ever mentioned anything to me about going to a doctor for any reason.

“Doctor’s appointment? What kind of doctor, son?” I asked him quietly. He glanced down at his hands and started fidgeting with his fingers like he always did when he’d said something he was told not to repeat.

“I don’t know. I just know Mom took me to extended day before school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays because she had a doctor’s appointment before she went to work. How come I ain’t in school?” he asked, looking up at me again.

School…shit, I need to call his school. I guess I’ll be taking him out for the last week. I can’t imagine it would be good for him to go back when people start finding out. I definitely need to find some sort of child psychologist to show me the ropes because I’m fucking lost.

“Well, um, you’re not in school because something happened to your mom, Jude. She, um, she had a lot of problems I didn’t…”

I saw his head snap up and a glare appeared on his face. “Had? Where’s Mom?” Fuck, he’s too smart for me.

“Your mom passed away, Jude. I found her last night when she didn’t come to get you,” I told him as the tears started to form in my eyes. His face was blank, and I knew it was hard for him to process.

“Passed away? You mean, like dead? Like when anybody talks about Granny Lynn how they say passed away but she’s really dead? What’s that mean?” he began shouting as I pulled him closer. He tried to shove me away, struggling violently against either me or what I’d just said, but I wouldn’t let him go.

I pulled him onto my lap and cradled him in my arms, feeling him begin to sob into my shirt. “Yeah, baby boy, that’s what it means. I’m so sorry, Jude. If I knew she was having problems, I’d have helped her. I’m so sorry,” I whispered into his hair as I cried with him.

Regardless of the fact she’d been lying to me about our son for eight years, I still felt guilty that her life took such a turn that led her to believe taking it was her only option. I worried I’d been too caught up in my own life and had missed signals that something was drastically wrong in Lark’s life.

The heartbreak my son was experiencing was killing me. Maybe if I’d have been more in-tune with Lark, I could have prevented it? Truth be told, I’d never know because she’d taken an irreversible step and all of the revelations went with her.

My son stayed on my lap crying for an amount of time I couldn’t measure because it felt like a second and a year at the same time. Something landed on the bed so I turned to see Elijah standing there pointing behind me. I saw a box of tissues, and I nodded in thanks.

I snatched a few from the box and wiped Jude’s beautiful, little face, seeing a lot of pain there. “Honey, your mom loved you more than anything. For whatever reason, she decided to take her life, but it has nothing to do with you, okay?”

He scrambled off my lap and sat down next to me, grabbing more tissues as he continued to sob. After a few minutes, he looked at me. “Momma did it to herself?” I nodded. He didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either. I held his hand, and we both cried.

The bedroom door creaked a bit, and I turned to see Thornton’s retreating back. “Thornton, please come back,” I beckoned quietly.

He returned, taking a seat next to me before he took my left hand in both of his as I sat holding onto Judah’s smaller hand. We sat there for a little while, none of us saying anything. Jude withdrew his hand from mine and grabbed a tissue to blow his nose. “Do Grandma Betsy and Grandpa Fred know?”

Thornton started to pull his hands from mine, but I grabbed his right one. I needed to feel him next to me so I didn’t lose my mind. “I haven’t called them yet. Do you want to be there when I do?”

Jude thought for a minute and retook my hand, sitting up straighter next to me. “If you want me to, Dad.” My little man.

“Thanks, Jude, but maybe it’s best if I talk to ’em alone first. I need to call Grandma Lily as well,” I further explained.

His face turned to anger in a millisecond, and I was immediately on edge about what he was going to say. “I don’t want them to come. They said something to Mom when we visited them, and it made her cry. I don’t want them here.” I definitely couldn’t blame him.

“Okay, son. Why don’t you go see where Aunt Rory and Uncle Eli are? Mr. Frank’s still here, too,” I told him. He really liked Franklin and Brenda, and they loved him because they’d never been able to have children of their own. They both doted on him as if he was a grandson. I was pretty sure Frank would be a godsend for Jude while I made the phone calls necessary.

“Okay, Dad,” he agreed before he turned to look at Thorn. “Will you stay with him?” Jude asked. I felt Thorn startle a bit from his seat next to me, but Jude didn’t notice. I was a little nervous about Thorn’s hesitation to respond.

“You bet I will if he wants me to. If he wants privacy, then I’ll come to find you, and maybe we can check out the food situation,” Thorn suggested. Jude nodded and left the room.

I got up from the bed and pulled Thornton with me into my room, closing the door so we could talk in private. “Jude told me Lark was seeing doctors on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. She took him to school early so she could have appointments before work. The woman never told me anything about it. Do you think she was sick? I mean, she left a note for Jude, but it didn’t say anything about her being sick. How will I ever find out who the doctors were?” I asked.

Thorn sat down on the bed and clasped his hands, his forearms resting on his thighs. “Actually, she was taking three different types of antidepressants from three different doctors, along with various other things, most of which I’m unfamiliar with, Kennedy. When I went to her place, the bathroom was… Well, I didn’t think any of you should walk in and see it in that rough of shape, so I cleaned it up,” Thorn volunteered, unsurprisingly.

“I’m sure it was a fucking mess,” I answered, remembering what I’d walked in on. All that goddamn blood…

“Yeah, it was. I got it as best I could. You’ll need to get a new floor in there. The grout is stained pretty darkly. Anyway, I was looking for some soap to wash my hands so I searched under the vanity where I found pill bottles in a tampon box. I threw out the pills that were left inside, but I have the bottles with me. Maybe those doctors are a place to start? I haven’t had time to do any research, but I know someone who can get to the bottom of it for you if you’d like,” he suggested.

I was surprised, and I sincerely appreciated his level-headed thinking. “Thank you for your discretion. I don’t know who knows what, and if certain things come out, well, it wouldn’t be good.” I looked at him for a reaction, but I didn’t get one, or at least not what I thought. He sat up and put his hand on my back, leaning in to kiss my cheek.

“I, uh, I think before you let anyone else into Lark’s house, you should go through it. You need to look for any type of will or insurance information. You’ll need Jude’s birth certificate, too. Your name is on it right?” he asked with concern.

“Yeah, it is. Thank God for that. I need to call her parents, and after, will you go over there with me? I don’t really want to go through her stuff by myself, but I don’t want anyone else there in case I find something she wouldn’t want people to know about,” I responded. I wondered if she’d left anything behind to hint Jude wasn’t my son, and if she had, I needed to find it as soon as possible.

“Like I said, whatever you need.” Thorn continued to rub my back as I pulled my phone from my shirt pocket to call Lark’s parents. Her mother, Betsy, answered on the first ring. “Kennedy? Hey, son. I’ve been tryin’ to get in touch with Lark to firm up plans for her and Jude’s visit, but I haven’t had any luck. Did she lose her phone again?” her mother asked with a laugh.

Betsy Nutter was a kind person, and actually, Lark’s parents had taken all the news a lot better than my own when we’d found out that Lark was pregnant. When I’d gone down to Mississippi after Jude had been born, I’d gotten to know them and had finally told them the truth about why Lark and I wouldn’t be getting married.

I’d been scared shitless about everything, but they’d both seemed to take the news in stride. The Nutters had been happy to have a grandson, and they’d accepted our unique relationship as if it had been just as normal as anything.

I hated the news I was going to have to deliver to them about their only child. No parent should ever have to hear those words.

“Betsy, where’s Freddie?” I asked. She’d need him once she heard what I had to tell her.

“He’s right here, honey. We’re at the store,” Betsy explained. They owned a little general store in Mississippi. They said it gave them something to do since they’d both retired, and they loved getting to interact with their friends and neighbors there.

“Get him and go back to the office. I need to talk to the two of you about something important,” I responded.

“Kennedy, you’re scarin’ an old woman. Freddie! Come here!” she yelled. I heard her shuffling around, and I finally listened to the sound of her husband telling her to quit screaming like a wild woman. The sound of the office door closing made me swallow before the phone clicked, alerting I was on speaker.

“It’s Kennedy,” Betsy informed him.

“Oh, hey, son. You finally gonna make an honest woman outta my little girl?” Fred joked. It was always the first thing he said to me. My usual response to him was Lark was just too much woman for me to try to tame, and we all laughed at that as well, him agreeing with me.

Unfortunately, the jovial nature of his comment caused me to break down because I was about to explode their whole world. I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t speak. I could hear them both calling my name over the phone, but I couldn’t answer. Thornton reached up and took it from my hand, once again taking care of me.

“Mr. and Mrs. Nutter, my name is Thornton Marsh. I’m a friend of Kennedy’s. I’m afraid he has some news for you,” Thorn stated.

“Is it Jude?” Betsey asked, her voice shaking a bit.

“No, ma’am, Judah’s fine. Kennedy wanted to be the one to tell you, but he’s still in shock. It’s about Lark. She passed away last night,” Thorn told them as gently as possible.

What? No, that can’t—” Fred denied, then there was dead silence.

Thorn looked at me, and I nodded for him to continue. “Kennedy found her at her home. I, uh, can you and Mr. Nutter come to Spokane? I’ll make the flight arrangements myself,” Kennedy suggested.

“Does Judah know? My pour baby…” Betsey sobbed.

“Yes, ma’am, Jude knows. He needs family right now. There are a lot of things to be done so I believe Kennedy would appreciate your help and input,” Thorn said. It was the damn truth.

“We’ll be there as quick as we can, son. If you’d make the flight arrangements, we’d appreciate it,” Freddie requested.

“Yes, sir. I’ll call you back within the hour. I’m so very sorry,” Thorn whispered, his voice wavering a bit before he ended the call.

I looked up to see the tears on Thorn’s face. I was sure it was reminding him of when he found out about his parents, so I wrapped my arm around him and rested my head on his shoulder in comfort… Comfort for both of us.

He tossed my phone on the bed and wrapped me in his arms. “Kennedy, I think I have something to do with Lark killing herself. I think it’s my fault.”

I pulled away and put my hands on his face, seeing guilt there that was most likely misplaced. I’d dealt with enough guilt in my lifetime, and I wasn’t going to allow him to take the situation on himself. “Babe, I have no idea what brought her to make this decision, but I’m sure it has nothing to do with you. I’ve told her over the years I love her, but I don’t love her as one should love a significant other. I promise you, this decision she made is based on something else.”

I thought for a moment about her odd behavior lately. “She’d been acting off. She’d show up at the house in a fantastic mood—nearly giddy—and for a week or she’d be happy and talkative. She’d tear closets apart and reorganize them, and recently, I’d come home to find she’d done it in Jude’s room at my house. Then, one day out of the blue, she blew a gasket about Jude’s shoes not being in the tray by the door. She was somber and angry, even nasty sometimes. There was something else going on with her, trust me.” I couldn’t say anything more without giving away what I believed to be the real reason for Lark’s suicide, so I left it at that, hoping he wouldn’t ask any questions because I knew I couldn’t lie to him—never could.

To be continued…

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