ONE YEAR LATER
It had been a year since they’d heard from Frank, a year since the mystery had been solved, and a year since Peighton had felt true, gut-wrenching fear. Though the police didn’t manage to catch Frank, he’d disappeared from the address he’d given Kyle, and Peighton was sure he was gone for good.
But, as she stared at the letter that awaited her in the mailbox, she knew that wasn’t the case. The postmark was from Washington, though there was no return address. It was addressed to her. She recognized his handwriting immediately, and all at once the cold fear she’d known so well a year ago was back.
Standing there in the driveway, she opened the letter.
It’s me. I’m sure I’m the last person
you expected to hear from, or wanted
to hear from, but I have to explain. I
owe you the truth.
By now, I’m sure you know about me
and Todd. We never meant to lie to
you. It killed Todd that we were
lying. He never wanted to keep
secrets from you, Peighton. He loved
you more than you will ever know.
In some ways, I guess I was jealous
of that. We started seeing each other
after you were married, but before
he told you the truth about who he
was. You were his first love. I was his
second. Drew came much later, and
it was more a fling than anything,
but he used Drew to hide us. It was
easier that way.
I truly did love him, Peighton, just as
much as you. I would’ve died for that
man. He meant everything to me.
Just like you and Kyle.
So, if, by now, you’ve figured out
that I was Beelzebub (which if you
hadn’t, surprise!), you should know
that I started it to catch Clay
cheating on his wife. He never did.
He’s a good man, babe. He’s good for
you. Sarah Williams’ death was my
fault, but it wasn’t my choice. The
truth is, she caught Todd and I
together one night when she came to
my office unexpectedly. She was a
reporter in Birmingham and she was
going to publish the story. I couldn’t
let that happen. It would have ruined
him and all that he’d worked so hard
Todd was devastated. I didn’t know
what to do other than to follow her
and try to convince her to keep quiet.
Once she’d figured out who Todd was
though, it was over. I knew it and I
knew what I had to do. I did it for
Todd. And I’d do it again in a
heartbeat. If you wouldn’t, you can’t
possibly understand my love for him.
I was able to keep what I’d done a
secret for a while. When the news of
Sarah’s death came out, I let him
believe it was a coincidence. When he
found out the truth, he was sick with
grief. He hated me, hated himself. He
went into a dark depression, though
he tried to keep it from you. He
wanted to find Sarah’s family, tell
them the truth. Doing so would have
ruined his career, your marriage,
and his life. It would have hurt Kyle.
Hear me when I say this, Peighton:
Todd’s death was an accident. I
would have sooner died than ever
hurt him. We were fighting about
Sarah on the stairs and he fell. He
missed a step. I reached for him, but
I was too late. I can still remember
the way his shirt felt as it slipped out
of my fingers. I’ll never forget the
sound he made when he hit the
ground or the look on his face when
Drew was the only deliberate
murder I’ve ever committed.
Planned, plotted, and done. There’s
no way to make this any prettier
than it is, so here we go: Once I knew
you had discovered Beelzebub and
Clay knew about Sarah and I’s
relationship, I had to work fast.
Drew was the obvious scapegoat. I
went to his house, wrote the suicide
note, and slit his wrists. He fought
back but I was stronger.
Todd’s death ruined any semblance
of humanity that was left in me. For
a while, I fooled myself into believing
we could be okay, you and me. We
could raise Kyle together, like you
and Todd had, but I could never
bring myself to tell you the truth
about who I was and what I’d done.
You were too precious to me,
Peighton. You always have been.
As for Kyle, just know that I won’t
come after him. He’s yours. I don’t
know if that was something you
worried about, but just in case, I
wanted to ease your mind.
Lastly, don’t worry about me. I’m
not coming for you. I love you like I
love Kyle. Hurting you any more
than I already have would destroy
me. I wish you and Clay all the best.
Oh, and, if you still hate me and plan
to call the cops, just know that by the
time you read this I’ll either be in
Mexico or dead.
Look me up sometime if you forgive
me. In Mexico, I mean, not death. I
fully plan on going to hell and you
don’t have any place there.
Take care of yourself, Peighton, and
take care of our boy. I’ll miss you
both every day for the rest of what I
assume will be a very short life.
Without my family, I am nothing.
Your brother forever,
Peighton carried the letter into the house with shaking hands. She walked to the bedroom, sticking it in the shredder. No one ever needed to see the letter and be haunted by those words like she feared she would be.
She walked to the bathroom, climbing in the shower and letting the water scald her skin. She was numb, her whole body shaken by his words. She wondered if she could ever bring herself to forgive him or if she’d ever found the strength to hate him in the first place. He’d been her family for so long, she supposed in some ways, she’d always love him.
She tried to clear her mind of thoughts of him, scrubbing her skin with a loofa, and scratching her scalp as she massaged in her shampoo.
Once she had rinsed and climbed out of the tub, patting herself dry, she threw a robe over herself and walked out into the living room. The boys were just arriving home, grocery bags in their hands.
“What have you all been out doing?” she asked, hugging Kyle quickly and taking the bag from him. “Groceries? I thought you were going to play basketball.”
“We did,” Clay told her. “Kyle asked me if we’d be okay with having a get together tonight with a friend of his.” He raised his eyebrows.
“A friend, huh?” Peighton asked. “Do we know this friend?”
“Not yet, but I think you’re going to like him,” Kyle said, taking the bag back from her.
“Well, what would you like for me to cook for him?” she asked, reaching for Clay’s bag. In unison, the boys shook their heads, refusing to hand over their groceries.
“Kyle wants to do all of the cooking,” Clay said. “We were just told to get ready.”
“Oh, really? Kyle? The boy who burns macaroni?”
“Clay has been teaching me,” he said.
“He has?” Peighton asked.
“I have,” Clay said, setting his bag down on the kitchen countertop and kissing her softly. “So, now it’s up to him. We have to go get ready.”
“Oh, we do?” she asked.
“Dress up, Mom,” Kyle said. “I want you both to look nice.”
“Oh, is the prince coming?” Peighton joked.
“Just do it,” Kyle groaned playfully, pulling out a bottle of champagne.
“Is that for your friend?” she asked.
Kyle began to shake his head but stopped. “Can it be?”
“Not a chance.” She laughed, grabbing the bottle from him. “Nice try, bud.”
Kyle walked behind her, pushing them out of the kitchen carefully. “Get out, you guys. Let me cook. Go get ready.”
Peighton looked at her watch. “It’s only four o’clock, Kyle. How ready do I have to get?” she asked.
“Like it’s the most important day of your life.” He smiled.
Clay took her hand, walking her up the stairs and down the hall. When they got to the bedroom, he turned, pressing his lips into hers and leaning her up against the door. “I love you,” he told her.
“I love you too,” she promised him.
He let her go, walking to the closet. “What do you think you’ll wear?” he asked, pulling a red dress out of the closet.
“Not that.” She laughed. “That’s way too dressy for a night at home.”
“Really?” he asked. “Because I was thinking of wearing this.” He reached behind the closet door and pulled out a suit she’d never seen him wear.
“We will officially be the dorkiest adults ever if we wear that to meet Kyle’s boyfriend.”
“Are you saying you won’t wear it with me?” he asked.
She twisted her mouth in thought. “Don’t you think it’s too much?”
“Oh no.” He eyed the dress. “I think it’s just enough.” He walked to her, dangling her dress in front of her. She took it from him, laying it on the bed.
“As you wish,” she teased, rubbing a hand through his hair.
“I like the sound of that.”
She sat down at the vanity, turning on her curling iron. He ran his fingers across the back of her robe, playing with her wet hair. He leaned down, kissing the top of her head.
“Sit down, big boy,” she teased. “Let’s curl those pretty locks.”
* * *
It was just after six when Peighton and Clay were finally dressed. The red dress hugged her curves perfectly and she’d curled every last piece of her light brown hair with perfect care. As a finishing touch, she brushed on two coats of mascara and a bright red lipstick. She turned around, feeling a bit silly, and stared at Clay. His eyes bulged slightly at the finished sight of her.
“Gee, thanks,” she teased, grabbing the edges of her dress and curtseying. He walked up to her, grabbing hold of her waist and kissing her firmly.
“My god, you’re beautiful,” he said, his lips close enough to brush hers.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” she told him, staring at the man she loved. The suit fit him well, snug around his muscled body. The sight of him took her breath away, causing her heart to accelerate in an instant. She grabbed his earlobes, squeezing them gently and kissing him once more.
“We should go,” she said. “Or we might not leave.”
Just then, the doorbell rang. “I’ll get that,” he said. “Put your shoes on.”
“I have to wear shoes too?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah.” He laughed. “Think June Cleaver, Ace. We’re going for the whole package tonight.”
“I’ll show you the whole package,” she said, huffing.
“I think that’s my job.” He kissed her hand, disappearing out of the bedroom door and shutting it behind her.
She walked to the closet, slipping on her most comfortable heels and shaking her head. That boy had better love me, she thought. Both of them. Once her shoes were on, she looked at herself in the mirror, shrugging with satisfaction, and opening the bedroom door. She walked down the small hallway, balancing carefully in her heels on the stairs, and into the living room. Kyle was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, a suit and tie on.
“Since when do you own that tie?”
“Clay bought it for me,” he told her.
“Oh, he did, did he? That was certainly nice of him.” She smiled, looking around the room. “Where’s your friend?” she asked.
“He’s in the kitchen,” he said, a giant smile on his face.
“Well, what on earth are you doing out here? Let’s go meet him before Clay scares him off with his super lame jokes.”
He laughed at her own super lame joke. “I wanted to introduce you to him.”
She smiled, accepting his hand as he held it out. “Well, let’s go then.”
As they walked into the kitchen, she gasped. The entire room was covered in candles and vases filled with tulips. The table was set with three glasses, the bottle of champagne, and a huge casserole.
“Where’s your friend?” she asked, looking at the empty room.
“Mom, I’d like you to meet my step-dad,” he said, pointing behind her. She spun around, only partially understanding his words.
“Your—oh,” she said, the word escaping her mouth as she stared down at Clay on his knee. In his hand, he held a black velvet box.
“Peighton,” he said. Tears filled her eyes, her vision blurring so she was only staring at a blob in front of her. Adrenaline coursed through her body, causing her to shake. He took her hand in one of his. “When we met, we were at the end of what we both believed would be the best years of our lives. I thought I could never love anyone ever again, but I fell in love with you…almost instantly. I can’t explain to you what you’ve done for me.” He smiled at her nervously. “You make me happy. You make me feel loved and safe. You make me feel like a part of something bigger than myself. And I try so hard to make sure I’m worthy of that. Our beginning, Peighton, was really an ending. It was an ending of everything we’d ever pictured for our lives. But somehow, in each other, we found a new beginning. Our beginning after the end. And, if you love me like I love you, and if you’ll have me…I’d like to start a brand new beginning with you. The beginning of the rest of our lives and the beginning of a love I’ve been dreaming about from the very first time…okay, maybe the second time,” he corrected, smiling at her with tears in his own eyes, “that I laid eyes on you.” He opened the ring box, revealing a beautiful diamond. “So, will you do me the honor of being my new beginning?”
“Yes,” she said, without having to think for a second. “Yes, of course, I will.” She grabbed his face, bending down and kissing him, her heart so full she was sure it was going to explode. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” She smiled with her whole face, feeling like she could jump up and down with pure joy. Nothing, besides the day she’d met her son, had ever made her feel this much happiness.
She reached up, pulling her son into the hug. “You’re okay with this?” she asked him.
“I’m wearing a tie, Mom,” he said, smiling. “If I wasn’t okay, I’d be wearing like…sweats or something.”
Clay laughed. “Kyle practically planned all of this.”
“You did?” she asked.
“I want you to be happy, Mom.”
She kissed her son’s head. “I am happy, sweetheart. You’ve both made me so happy.” And for the first time in what felt like so long, it was utterly and completely true.