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The Beginning After by Kiersten Modglin (27)

Thirty-Two

PEIGHTON

Peighton sat next to Frank in the car, staring ahead at the light that shone out of Clay’s living room window. They’d been sitting for so long, her entire window was fogged up. In her lap, she held her hands together, wringing them with worry.

“Are you ready?” Frank asked again, touching her shoulder gently. She shook her head, unable to speak. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” She nodded.

His eyes bore into her, though she couldn’t bring herself to look his way. She felt foolish, embarrassed. “What am I supposed to say to him?”

“Ask him why.”

“But,” she asked, turning to look his way, “what if he lies?”

“Then I’ll kick his ass,” he joked, elbowing her playfully.

“Frank,” she cautioned him, not in the mood for jokes.

“Just ask him for the truth, Peighton. If he lies, it’s his loss.”

She shook her head, rubbing her temple with her cold fingers. “I can’t believe I was stupid enough to think I could trust him. I let him into my life, Frank, my son’s life, our home…” she trailed off, not saying what they both knew was on the tip of her tongue: my heart.

“Hey,” he told her, his voice firm, “you are not stupid. You are kind and trusting, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s one of your best qualities. You’ve always been able to find the good in people, Peight. Even when there’s no good to be found. If you see something in this guy, then maybe there’s something there. But for now, you need to find out why he’s been lying to you. Because if he hurts you,” he stopped, his jaw tight. “If he hurts you, I’ll kill him.”

She froze. “I’m scared to go in.”

“Then let me go in with you. I won’t interrupt. I’ll just be there to make sure you’re safe.”

“He isn’t dangerous,” she assured him, though she wasn’t entirely sure how she knew.

“You don’t know that,” he called her bluff.

“I’ll be okay, Frank, I swear,” she said, placing her hand on the door handle and pulling. The car door opened, the overhead light coming on. She cast one last look toward Frank before climbing out of the car. “I’ll be back,” she promised.

“I’ll be here,” he said.

She made her way up the short driveway and onto his front patio, pausing slightly before she opened the screen door and knocked. Within seconds she saw the curtain in his living room window swish open and then closed, and she heard footsteps. The oak door swung open. Clay stood in front of her, dressed only in flannel pajama pants.

“Peighton? What’s wrong?” he asked, his expression filled with worry. “What are you doing here?”

“Can I come inside?” she asked, staring at his face and wondering what secrets were hidden behind the eyes she’d come to trust.

“Of course,” he said, stepping back and allowing her to pass. “Is everything all right?” he asked, shutting the door and turning around to face her.

She looked down, unsure of how to start the conversation. Finally, gaining enough courage to speak, she looked up at him. “I know what you did.”

Without hesitation, he spoke, his brow furrowed. “What does that mean?”

“I know you lied to me.”

“What did I lie about?”

“Who broke into my house the night the alarm went off?” she asked, searching his face for a glimmer of realization. She wondered if he would try to lie again.

He sighed, lowering his head and rubbing his neck. “I did,” he said finally. “I’m sorry, Peighton.”

She paused, taken back by his honesty. She was sure she was going to have to drag it out of him. “You did?”

“Didn’t you know that?” he asked.

“Yes, I did. I didn’t assume that you’d confess so easily.”

“I told you I don’t want any secrets between us and I meant it,” he said, stepping toward her.

She stepped back, bumping into his coffee table. “Why wouldn’t you have told me before now?” she demanded.

“I wanted to,” he told her, moving back and giving her space. “I really wanted to, I just didn’t know how. I didn’t want you to stop trusting me.”

“Well, that plan backfired, Clay, because I don’t trust you now. I don’t understand what you could’ve possibly gained from breaking into my home. You have no idea how scared I was that night, you have no idea what I went through. I went to bed every night for days worrying about someone breaking in and hurting me. Every noise, every gust of wind…I was terrified. And now to find out it was you all along. I don’t know how to move past that. I don’t know how to accept what you’ve done.”

He stared at her, hurt filling his eyes. “I’m sorry. It was stupid. I know that. I felt like I had no choice.”

“No choice?” she demanded. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I needed to get close to you, Peighton, like I’ve told you. I needed you to trust me. I didn’t know how to do that when you’d just lost your husband. I didn’t know how to push myself into your life except to…well, to physically push myself into your life. I thought if I came to your rescue, so to speak, you’d trust me. I wanted to show you that I meant you no harm, but I needed in that house.”

“Because of Beelzebub? And your wife?”

“Yes,” he admitted.

“I feel like we’re just going to keep having this fight over and over. How much of our relationship is a lie? How many more secrets are we going to have to deal with?” she asked.

“Just that. You know everything now. I’m not hiding anything else from you. I was serious when I said I want to start this with a clean slate. I want to be with you. I don’t want anything I’ve done to mess that up. I’m serious about you…about us. Everything before this…if I could take it back, I would. But then again, maybe I wouldn’t…because that would mean there would be a chance we wouldn’t be here, right now. And, even here, even fighting with you, is better than never knowing you, never getting to know you…never loving you, Peighton. If this is it, if you can’t forgive me for what I’d done before we ever even had our first real conversation, then I get it. I can’t blame you. But I’m asking you to really, really think about whether it’s worth it. Because, if you feel about me the way I feel about you, nothing, not a thing in hell, could be worth walking away from this.”

She stared at him, watching him literally shaking as he spoke to her. She saw the passion in his eyes, believed every word that poured out of his mouth. The panic in his expression, the redness of his cheeks…she wanted nothing more than to run to him, to assure him that she wasn’t going anywhere, but she remained still.

“You fell in love with me?” she asked cautiously.

“I did,” he confirmed.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said, trying hard to maintain her composure.

“I know what I want you to say,” he said honestly, “but I can’t make that decision for you. You have to do what’s right for you, Peighton.”

“I don’t know, Clay,” she said, staring around the room.

He walked to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Do you trust me?”

“You lied to me.”

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“You broke into my house.”

“Peighton,” he said firmly, “that’s not what I asked you. Do you trust me?

“Yes,” she said finally, her voice leaving her without conscious thought.

“Then what else matters?” he asked, rubbing his thumbs across her shoulder blades.

She shook her head. “I’m in love with you too,” she said.

His eyes went soft, and he looked as if the wind had been sucked out of him. “That matters,” he said, his voice quiet.

“Yes,” she agreed. “That matters.”

For a moment, they both stared at each other, neither of them moving. When a small tear escaped, trailing down her cheek, he leaned in to kiss it away. She closed her eyes, feeling his lips on her skin. She turned her head slightly, allowing their lips to meet. It was a gentle kiss, full of the weight of what had just happened. Everything from that moment, she knew, would change.

She opened her mouth slightly, allowing him to kiss her deeper, yet they remained slow. She was in no hurry. They were in love, she reminded herself, the thought warming her insides. She threw her arms around him, locking her hands together behind his neck. A smile spread across her face, ending their kiss. He pulled away, smiling back at her.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Everything’s perfect,” she told him, and for the moment, it was.

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