The moment she’d said the words, it was as if the world grew three shades brighter. No longer carrying the huge weight of Todd’s secret, she couldn’t help but feel relief. Her son stared at her and she watched the entire image of his life shattering before his eyes.
“Dad was gay?” he asked, pure shock on his face.
“Yes, he was.”
“But…I don’t understand. You knew?”
“I did,” she said.
“Should I go?” Clay asked behind her.
She turned, shaking her head. “No, you should stay, Clay.” She looked between the three of them, the three men in her life. “I want you all to hear this.” She stood up, helping Kyle to stand, and moved them to the couch. Clay sat down on the edge of the recliner while Frank found his way to the loveseat. She held Kyle’s hand as she spoke.
“When your father and I got married, we were truly in love. We’d been dating for around a year and we were happy.” She smiled at Kyle, squeezing his hand. “We were really, really happy.” She paused. “You know about the miscarriages,” she looked around, “you all do. We lost three babies before we were blessed with you,” she told Kyle. “Which was very hard on both of us. It caused problems in our relationship.” She sighed. “And then your dad told me the truth. He’d been interested in men most of his life but had never felt brave enough to act on it. His family—you know we don’t spend much time with them—is very southern and very conservative. Your dad never felt like they would accept him if he told them the truth and so, he’d lived with his secret most of his life. I was the first person he’d told.”
“Why wouldn’t he have told me?” Kyle asked.
“Your father had gotten very good at hiding who he was. He was terrified, especially once he got into government, that coming out would ruin all that he’d worked for. I think, by the end, he’d convinced himself that he’d grown out of it or that he could forget it. That wasn’t the case, though, Kyle. And it made your father miserable trying. You were the only good thing in his life. I think he must’ve been trying to prevent you from the life he’d lived, but he did it all wrong. The only way for your life to get better was for you to do exactly what you did today. I’m so proud of you,” she told him, patting his hand.
“But why would you stay married to him?”
“Because he asked me to,” she said simply, “and despite how much him coming out hurt me at first, I loved him. Your father was my best friend. Our marriage, obvious issues aside, was pretty great. We truly did love each other, and we were partners in raising you. Things worked out well for us, sweetheart. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
“So, that was why you had the affair,” Kyle said, nodding his head. “I shouldn’t have gotten so upset.”
“Your reaction was completely normal, Kyle. You had every right to be hurt. But no, I was never with another man while I was married to your father. The man you met, Drew, was one of your father’s best friends for years. He worked on the campaign with us. He was the only man your father was ever in a relationship with. He was—” She paused, rubbing his hand again. “Your father was in love with him. After a while of them being together, and once I found out, Drew became jealous of our marriage. He wanted your father to come out officially, so they could be together, but your father refused. Drew was angry and he threatened to go to the press. It destroyed your father. I’d honestly never seen him so upset. He didn’t want his secret to destroy our family.”
“Mom,” Kyle said, wonder on his face, “I’m so sorry.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” she assured him, rubbing his face.
“I was…awful to you. I was horrible.”
“You were confused. I should be apologizing to you. It’s my fault that you didn’t know the truth. I was so set on keeping your father’s secret that I didn’t think of what it could be doing to you. I should’ve told you the truth years ago. You deserved to know. I just didn’t want to hurt you. The truth is, I’ve hurt you more by not telling you, I think.”
“I understand why you didn’t.”
“Now, do you want to tell me who did this?” she asked, pointing to his face.
He shrugged. “It honestly doesn’t matter. Just some stupid guys from school.”
“You’re getting ready to start back. Do the kids at school know?”
“I mean, I haven’t told anyone, but I don’t really deny it, either.”
She squirmed in her seat a bit. “You know, when I was a little younger than you, my dad died. And when your grandmother met Stewart, we moved to a very small town in Tennessee. I didn’t know anyone there, and it seemed like everyone in the entire town was related. They’d all lived there for their whole lives. And I remember, it seemed like there were only five last names you ever heard anything about: Allen, Kimbell, Jones, Smith, and Dowdy. And those names meant something. The friends that I made, they all had those names. And…I was a Crowder.” She smiled, holding his hands again. “And no one there was a Crowder. Not even my mother at that point. So, I felt like I was different. And that made me feel like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t quite fit in. And I know it seems really small, but to me, living it was anything but small. But the truth is, being different wasn’t a disadvantage. It helped me stand out amongst the other kids. And once I realized that, I was proud to be a Crowder. You need to be proud of who you are too.”
She nodded. “I never want you to feel like you have to hide any part of who you are or how you feel.”
“I won’t,” he promised, leaning up to hug her. She patted his shoulders, kissing the side of his head. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, baby,” she said, trying to hold back tears.
“I’m going to go clean up a bit,” he told her, gesturing toward his face.
“Okay.” She nodded, allowing him to leave. She watched him walk up the stairs and down the hallway before turning to Clay. “So, now you know the truth.”
Clay nodded, still sitting on the edge of the recliner. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
“What do you think? Are you freaked out?”
“No.” He shook his head. “It actually makes a whole lot of things make sense.”
“Yeah,” he said. “So, the paternity test…what was the deal with that? I guess I’m confused.”
She pressed her lips together. “So, obviously, Todd and I weren’t…together in that way. When he suggested invitro and we knew I couldn’t carry his child, he suggested that we approach Drew. They were so close at the time, I honestly didn’t see the harm. I’d always trusted Drew. He was a good friend to both of us at one point. I knew a baby would mean the world to Todd and it would give me some semblance of the family I’d dreamed of too. So, we agreed. We went to the clinic and I was inseminated. And then I was pregnant and Kyle was here. I never really thought to question anything. But then, Drew showed up at Todd’s funeral. He told me he wasn’t Kyle’s father and he had the letter to prove it. Todd had sent it to him after Drew had threatened to go to the press.” She stopped, looking at Frank quickly before turning back to Clay. “He never told me anything about it. We hadn’t heard from Drew in years, so, I thought maybe Todd had tricked me and used his own specimen. I hoped that was the case.”
“But the DNA test was negative.”
“Right,” Peighton said softly. “So, Kyle isn’t biologically Todd’s either.” She wasn’t sure whether to tell Clay about Frank.
“So, what did you find out?”
“Todd used his other best friend,” she told him, “the one I’d much prefer.” Her eyes twinkled as she smiled at Frank. Clay seemed to figure it out, looking over at Frank with a strange expression.
Frank spoke up, clearing his throat. “We don’t want Kyle to know. This is one thing we can protect him from.”
“Of course,” Clay said. “Peighton, this may not be the best time, but I came over here for a reason. Things have been a little crazy, and I’m sure you have a lot on your mind, but I really need to talk to you.”
Peighton looked at him, feeling the weight in his voice. “Okay. What’s wrong?”
“It’s, uh, it’d be better if we talked in private.”
Confusion filled her. “Okay, sure,” she said, standing up. “Will you excuse us, Frank?”
Frank nodded, leaning back into the loveseat and picking up the television remote from the end table. “I’ll be here,” he said casually.
She walked up the stairs and down the hallway to her bedroom, Clay following close behind. When they entered the room, she shut the door behind them, staring at him. “Okay, what’s going on?” she asked.
“Peighton, I don’t really know how to say this. I know you aren’t fully on board with the whole idea that Todd and Sarah might be connected, but what if I told you I found the missing link?”
She held back a laugh, listening to his conspiracy theory talk. “I’m listening.”
He reached into his back pocket, pulling out a white business card and handed it over to Peighton. She looked down, feeling the thick paper in her fingers. Across the front in a blue scrawling font read a name she recognized:
And then down below it:
Frank Beasley, President
She looked at Clay, confused. “Why do you have Frank’s business card?”
“It was in Sarah’s wallet.”
She scrunched her eyebrows, cocking her head. “Why?”
“That’s what I’m telling you. I don’t know. I’d never heard of or met Frank before meeting you. So, why would my wife have his business card?”
“What are you saying, Clay?” she asked.
“I…I don’t know what I’m saying exactly, but doesn’t this feel like something? I mean, I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Frank knew them both.”
“We live in a small town. And she didn’t necessarily know him. She had his business card. Maybe someone gave it to her, maybe she found it on a billboard, maybe she grabbed it by accident. You can’t possibly know.”
“But what if—”
“No.” She held her hand up. “No. If you’re suggesting that Frank had anything to do with Todd’s death, just no. I would trust that man with my life. He’s like a brother to me. He was like a brother to Todd. He would never have done anything to Todd, his life was spent protecting him.”
Clay shook his head. “I’m not saying he did anything. I’m just saying I think we need to consider the possibility.”
“The possibility that what, Clay? That he…that he killed your wife and then killed Todd? That’s ridiculous. Do you realize how insane you sound?”
“Why would she have the card, Peighton?” he asked, raising his voice slightly.
Anger filling her, she shoved past him, opening the bedroom door, and storming down the hallway and then the stairs.
“Peighton,” he called, hurrying behind her.
Frank looked up as she stomped into the living room, reading her face and immediately sitting up straighter.
“Why did Sarah Nealson have your card?” she demanded, holding it out to Frank.
He took the card from her, still looking confused. “Who?”
Clay hurried into the living room behind her, stepping up beside her. Their arms touched and Peighton realized he was trying to make her feel safe. But he could stop, she realized, she’d never felt safer than surrounded by these two men. “Sarah Nealson,” she repeated, “Clay’s wife.”
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head and handing the card back to her. “She could’ve gotten it anywhere, I guess.”
“You didn’t know her?” Clay demanded.
“I don’t think so,” Frank said. “What is this about?”
“Clay found it in his wife’s wallet.”
“So?” he asked, looking back and forth between the two of them.
“So, I’m trying to prove to him that it’s just a coincidence,” Peighton said.
“As opposed to what?” Frank asked. He stood up, waiting for an answer before frowning and looking directly at Peighton. “What exactly am I being accused of here, Peighton?”
Peighton took a breath, seeing the annoyance in his face. “Clay doesn’t think Todd’s death was an accident.”
“What do you mean by that? I thought his death was ruled an accident by your department?” he addressed Clay.
“It was,” Clay said simply. “But we make mistakes.”
“So, what makes you think it wasn’t an accident?” he asked. “And why wouldn’t either of you have come to me? Did it not occur to you that I run a security company? I literally investigate for a living. I could help.”
“Why wouldn’t you have already investigated?” Clay challenged him.
Frank raised an eyebrow. “Because I didn’t know I needed to. I was told it was an accident and had no reason not to trust that.”
“So, what if Frank investigates? What if we give him the information you have on Beelzebub and let him check into her?” Peighton offered, looking at Clay.
Clay looked uneasy, not responding.
“Beelzebub?” Frank asked, his interest obviously piqued.
“It’s a woman who’d been talking to Clay before his wife was killed. Clay found emails between her and Todd as well, so we think they may have been connected.”
“Hold on, why would Todd be talking to a woman?” Frank asked.
Peighton paused. “You know, I hadn’t thought of that. I couldn’t correct you when you first told me about their affair, but now that you know the truth…Todd wouldn’t have been talking to another woman.”
Clay shook his head. “Unless he, like me, had believed she was a man. I met Beelzebub on a sports website. I thought she was a man. There’s a good chance Todd did too.”
“Man or woman, that doesn’t matter. The point is we need to locate the Beelzebub person and find out how they were connected to Todd and…Sarah, was it? How was your wife killed?” Frank asked.
“She was run off the road by another driver,” Clay said.
“And how did you find out about Beelzebub?”
“That,” Clay began, “is a long story.”
“Well, get talking,” Frank said, “if you want my help. And trust me, you do.”