Things I Never Told You(10)

By: Beth Vogt


“More than likely that’s it.”

“Go ahead and look over the week’s schedule. We’ve got Mrs. Anderson’s very posh eightieth birthday party on Thursday and the Morrison wedding on Saturday. And some consultations—”

“I’ve got it, Payton. Don’t keep the guy waiting.”

Keep him waiting? I could have lived my whole life without ever seeing Zachary Gaines again.

Zachary was chatting with Bianca when I entered the reception area. Could I say I would have recognized him anywhere? No, not really. Gone was the eighteen-year-old boy who’d been a high school cross-country standout with dark hair and an alluring smile. The guy who seemed to always be surrounded by a joking, laughing group of friends and who attracted the attention of quite a few of the teen girls. In his place stood a wiry man with a weathered face and eyes that seemed to shift between shadow and sunlight.

And now I was waxing poetic about a man I didn’t want to talk to.

“Hey, Payton.”

There was just a hint of the smile I remembered. “Zach. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“I wasn’t sure you would . . . would have time to talk to me.” Zach shifted his feet, his hands tucked in the pockets of jeans that were worn at the knees.

“What do you want?” Even with my voice lowered, my words sounded harsh, but surely he wasn’t expecting me to welcome him with a hug and a “What have you been up to since I last saw you?”

“I was hoping we could talk. I know you’re working, but this was the only way I knew how to find you.”

Why did he need to find me?

“Payton?” Bianca spoke behind me.

“Yes?”

“I have some things to work on in the back.” She pushed her chair away from the semicircular desk. “I’ll take any phone calls back there, too.”

“That’s fine, Bianca. Thank you.” I motioned for Zach to follow me to the alcove where Kimberlee and I talked with clients. “Well, she staged a convenient exit, didn’t she?”

“Yeah.” Zach settled into the cloth chair covered with bright, multicolored polka dots, a small tempered-glass table between us. He picked up one of the pens resting on top of a pad of paper decorated with our company name, rolling it between the palms of his hands. “So this is your business?”

“Yes. Kimberlee and I plan events for people. Birthday parties. Wedding receptions. Showers. Whatever.” Maybe my initial hope was correct. “Did you come here because you wanted us to help you plan something?”

“No.” Zach glanced away, hesitating for a moment. “I wanted to talk to you about Pepper.”

Below the table, I clenched my hands into fists. “Pepper?”

“I know it’s been a long time—”

“Ten years.”

“Ten years. Right.” His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “I got a call about this event the high school is doing to honor some of the former athletes . . .”

Again with the ceremony. My mom had said they were honoring various athletes. Zach Gaines had broken numerous school cross-country records. Jaunted off to college on a four-year scholarship months after my sister died. It only made sense he would be included in the group of students the school would be celebrating.

“Congratulations. But I still don’t know why you needed to see me after all these years.”

“I asked my coach who else was on the list. He said they were retiring Pepper’s jersey number, so I figured your family was going to be there.” When I didn’t say anything, Zach continued, “And that got me wondering . . . hoping . . . I could finally make things right.”

Everything Zach said made sense until those last three words. Make things right. I didn’t like that he was here. Didn’t like what he was saying. But at least I understood him until then.

“What did you just say?”

Zach rubbed his hand down his face. Small black letters were tattooed on several of his fingers. “I mean . . . I know I can’t make things right. But I thought maybe I could finally apologize to you . . . to your family . . . for the accident.”

“You want to talk with my family?” I flexed my fingers, but they fisted closed again.

“Yes. Look, I’m not proud of that night . . . of the five years of my life after. But I’m also not that messed-up kid anymore. I’ve changed . . . a lot . . . in the past few years. I’m not drinking or doing drugs . . . I’ve gotten myself straight with God—”

Zach Gaines could stop right there. Because just as much as I didn’t want to talk to him about Pepper, I had no desire to talk with the guy about any god he might have stumbled across, drunk or sober. “What is this? Some sort of religious thing?”

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