Peighton sat on her front porch swing, staring into the yard. She watched as a bird landed on top of Kyle’s old treehouse, remembering the summer that Todd and Frank had built it for him. Kyle had loved the treehouse. She recalled the nights he’d attempted to make it through without coming inside because he’d grown afraid, and how so many times she’d wake up to find Todd outside with him, just to show him there was nothing to fear.
Todd had loved their son, she smiled just thinking about it. There was nothing he wouldn’t have done for that boy. She could remember so clearly how the three of them would huddle in Kyle’s bedroom during a storm, eating pizza and brownies, and waiting for the rain to pass. They’d watch movies together, play board games and make shadow puppets on the walls when the power went out. Peighton could see those memories in her mind as if they’d happened only hours ago, could picture the pizza-stained chin of her eight-year-old son, hear his electrifying laughter. She could see Todd: his flannel pajama pants, brown hair that had fallen from its perfect style, and his giddy smile that always reminded her of a child. Nothing made her happier than seeing those two happy and together.
She wondered what Todd would say to her now, knowing that she’d somehow managed to lose the best thing they’d ever created together. Would he blame her for Kyle’s disappearance? She knew the answer before she could even form the question in her head. No. He wouldn’t have. Todd would’ve known what to do, he would’ve had the words to bring Kyle home. But he wouldn’t have blamed her. Todd was gentle and kind to a fault, always trusting. He’d never had an ill word to say of anyone in all the years they’d been married. He’d been hurt, sure, but his heart was pure and Peighton was convinced there was nothing in the whole wide world that would’ve ever changed that.
“I miss you,” she whispered to her husband, wherever he might be. “I wish you were still here. None of this feels right anymore.”
As if in answer, she felt a gust of warm air, the wind chime Todd had bought her for Valentine’s Day dancing in the breeze. She smiled up at it as if it were him, glad to know, to hope, that he was still watching her.
She glanced up as something in the distance caught her eye, surprised to see Clay’s truck pulling into the driveway.
She stood, holding onto the chain that held the swing to the roof and watched as he climbed out of his truck, walking up the covered path to the porch.
“Hey,” she said to him, before he was quite close enough.
“Hey,” he said breathlessly, “I wasn’t sure you’d be here.”
“Frank had to work this morning, so I came home early. I wasn’t sure I’d see you again.”
“I’m sorry I ran out.” He held his arms out to her.
She walked to him, burying her head into his chest. “It’s me who should apologize. I had no right to talk to you the way I did when you were only trying to help. You’ve always been trying to help.”
He placed a finger under her chin, pulling her face up toward his. He moved his lips closer to hers, touching them slightly. She opened her mouth, willing him to continue, but he pulled away, catching her off guard. She took a step back.
“What was that about?”
“It was a truce.”
“A truce?” She laughed.
“Yes,” he said seriously. “I shouldn’t have run away like I did. I needed to clear my head. It wasn’t fair of me to get so upset with you when you didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know what?” she asked.
“Sit down,” he said. “We need to talk.”
“Okay,” she said cautiously, sitting down on the swing once more. He walked in front of her, sitting down on the white railing around the porch.
“I haven’t told you everything about my marriage.”
“It’s not my business, Clay.”
“It is,” he said, “it is if we want us to work.”
Her jaw fell open, heart picking up speed. “Since when is there an us?”
“I know what I said, Peighton, and I meant all of it. We’re messy and complicated and probably a terrible idea, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are all I think about.”
“I am?” she asked, closing her eyes for a split second to take in what he was saying.
“You are,” he told her, stepping closer. “You are absolutely all that I think about. And I know we haven’t known each other for that long, and that in the short time we have known each other we’ve gone through more madness than I care to recount…but I care about you, Peighton. And I’m willing to put everything aside and give us a real shot.” He paused, looking at her watchfully. “If you are.”
She stood up, placing her hands on his chest and leaning toward him. “We are messy.”
“We are,” he confirmed.
“And we are…way more than complicated.” She leaned a bit closer.
“And this probably won’t work,” she warned him.
“It probably won’t,” he agreed.
“And we’ll probably both end up hurt,” she said, her lips inches from his now.
“But…” she said softly, “I’m in this, Clay. I’m in this with you.”
Without another word, he put his arms around her, pulling her to him and pressing their lips together. She kissed him back, her heart pounding in her chest as if it were going to explode. She tried to calm herself, their hurried breaths bouncing off one another. All too soon, he pulled back, wiping his mouth.
He held up a hand. “But, if we’re going to start this, I want it to be done the right way. Which means, I owe you the truth.”
“What’s the truth?”
“I owe you the truth about Sarah, my wife. I owe you the truth about our marriage and her death.”
“Meaning what, Clay?” she asked, growing worried.
“It’s a long story,” he said, rubbing her cheek with his thumb, “and in order to tell it, I need you to sit.”
“Why?” she demanded.
“Because I can’t be distracted,” he sighed, pulling his hand away, “which means I can’t touch you or I may never finish this story.”
Blushing slightly, she sat down, almost sad to leave his arms. “Okay,” she said, folding her hands properly in her lap and preparing herself for the worst.
“The first thing you should know is the reason I reacted the way I did last night when you told me I didn’t have children.”
“Clay, I’m really—”
He held up a finger. “Just, please, let me finish. The reason I was so upset was because when my wife was killed around two years ago, she was five months pregnant with our first child.”
“Oh,” she said, the words hitting her hard. “Oh.”
“The baby died too. It was,” he cleared his throat, “it is the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with. When Sarah and the baby died, my whole world ended. I was depressed, I started drinking, I was ready to let my whole life fall apart.”
“Clay—” She held her hand out for him though neither of them moved.
“But I didn’t. Eventually, I moved past it. I never got over it. I still think about both of them every single day. I was, I was so excited to be a dad, you know?” he said, tears forming in his eyes. He cleared his throat, wiping his eyes quickly so she wouldn’t notice. She pretended she hadn’t. “But it happened. And it’s done. And then I got this chance to…to avenge them in some way. To catch the person responsible. I’ve already told you this part, but I wanted to tell you again, to set the record straight. When I initially started making contact with you, it was because I needed information about Beelzebub, because I believe she is the one responsible for my wife’s death. But that isn’t the case anymore, it hasn’t been for a very long time. I’m interested in you, Peighton. Completely. And I want you to know and believe that.”
“Is that all?” Peighton asked, tears collecting in her own eyes.
“Should there be more?”
“I thought there would be, the way you went on.”
“Not really. I just want to make sure we start this out with transparency. Honesty is important to me. Do you have any questions?”
“How did she die?” she blurted out, a question that had been on her mind. “I’m sorry. Is that okay to ask?”
“It’s okay,” he said. “She was in a car accident.”
“A car accident? I thought you said she was murdered?” Peighton blurted out, feeling disappointed. It wasn’t that she hoped it would’ve been something terrible, but she’d imagined every possible scenario in her head and a car accident hadn’t been in the running.
“How could you possibly know that?”
“She was run off the road. They thought it was by a deer first, but there were tire marks on the road that indicated someone else had been chasing her. There was no way to know for sure, no witnesses, no damage to her car that couldn’t have been caused by the impact. The case was closed quickly. I even believed it was an accident until I received the message from Beelzebub saying she was sorry.”
“But couldn’t that have meant she was sorry for your loss? Why do you assume she meant she was sorry because she had caused it? That seems farfetched, Clay.”
“Because I never told Beelzebub who I was. I told her I was married and that was it. She didn’t know anything about me…or so I thought.”
“I don’t believe Beelzebub is as much of a stranger as I did when we first began talking. I think she knows me. It could be someone at the precinct or around town. I believe whoever it was…she wanted Sarah out of the way, and she made it happen.”
“But then, if that’s the case, why would she kill Todd too? And more than that, it’s been two years since Sarah, you said. So why would she just now strike again?”
“For all I know, they aren’t her only two victims. And, I don’t know why she chose Todd. Maybe you were the target and Todd got in the way.”
She frowned, biting her lip.
“What? You don’t believe me?” he asked, though his face showed he knew the answer.
“I want to,” she said. “I don’t know, this just all seems…insane. And extremely farfetched. And maybe you just need something, someone, to blame for her death. I can’t blame you for that. I want the same. I don’t want to believe Todd’s death was an accident because that just makes it worse somehow. It’s not fair that he’s gone but somehow it seems less fair that he’s gone for no reason—an accident. That,” she placed her hands square on her chest, “kills me. But no matter how much it hurts, it doesn’t make it any less true.”
“How do you explain Beelzebub then?”
“Why can’t it be just a strange coincidence?” she asked, her eyes searching his. She stood, walking to him and taking his hands in hers. “Clay?”
“Yeah?” he said, though his eyes were a million miles away.
She took his face in her hands, forcing him to focus. “Todd’s death was an accident. No one else was home when he fell. He was alone. No one could have hurt him.”
“Do you honestly believe that?”
She pressed her lips together, sighing. “I have to,” she said softly.
He took hold of her hand from his cheek, pulling it to his lips and kissing her fingers. “I hope you’re right.”
“But you don’t think I am?” she asked, reading his face.
“To believe you would be to give up on everything I’ve spent two years working on. I’m not ready for that yet.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “Is there anything I can do to help you become ready?”
“You can kiss me,” he told her, leaning his lips toward her.
She moved forward, pressing her lips into his, his stubble scratching her chin. She ran her fingers across his strong jaw gently, feeling the pulse in his neck. He pulled her to him, his hands around her waist. His lips traveled to her neck, biting and kissing his way across her skin. He pulled away, his lips red, his eyes begging for more.
“Should we go inside?”
She nodded, not able to speak, and grabbed his hand to pull him into the house. She closed the door, twisting the deadbolt. Once they were inside, free from prying eyes, she turned to him, pressing him up against the wall. Their lips met once again, softly at first, but growing more ravenous with each kiss. He held her tight, turning so that she was pressed firmly into the wall. The bumps of the popcorn wall dug into her back, but she couldn’t move. He pinned her arms up above her, smiling at her devilishly. His lips traveled from her cheeks to her ears, jawline to collarbone. He kissed her delicately, his hot breath on her chest. His hands dropped hers from the wall, beginning to tug her shirt off of her shoulders.
She moaned as his tongue slipped in between her breasts and pulled her shirt the rest of the way off in one swift motion. Her heart pounded in her chest, her breathing growing quicker. Her hands found his chest, nearly ripping his buttons off in a hurry to remove his shirt. Once his shirt was open, she stuck her hands inside, her fingers scraping his back. The heat from his body nearly burned her cold skin. She pressed herself onto him, their bodies molded together, as he moved back up to her mouth.
He lifted her up, carrying her to the couch and sliding on top of her, his hands fumbling with her pants. She lifted her butt up, allowing him to remove the remainder of her clothes. He looked her over, his eyes lighting up with pleasure as she reached to undo his belt. She sat up as he leaned down, their mouths meeting again.
“You ready?” he asked, as she pulled his belt off, reaching for him.
“Yes,” she begged, the only word she could muster.
“Look at me,” he demanded, his hand under her head as he slid inside of her. Their eyes met, her dark brown locked with his blue-green, and she knew right then how far gone she was. Damn, she cursed mentally, both out of pure ecstasy and utter frustration. She was in love with Clay Nealson.