A/N: This is the last chapter! I tell you - you guys had so many ideas and suggestions that I had to read this over about 30 times, wondering if I should change it. However, this has been written pretty much since I posted the first chapter, and I wanted to stick with the story as I intended it to be. Thing is, you guys seem to love this story so much that it's hard for me to admit it's over! OK, OK, I know that's lame to say...Anyway, I hope you enjoy this.
The flight felt shorter than it should have. She had turned on her iPod and allowed herself to get carried away by the melodies it played. Music was the only thing that could save her from torturing herself with all the things she should have been thinking. She should have been coming up with explanations or apologies or assurances of her love. But she didn't know who they'd be for.
She got into a cab in the darkness of the middle of the night, and just prayed that she could get back to normal. Back to the life she'd grown so accustomed to. The air was already warmer, and she pretended she didn't hate it. But there was just something about the chill of the fall in Tree Hill that she loved. She pushed it aside, though. She couldn't think about it any more.
She entered her house quietly and set her bag just inside the door. She'd carry it up the stairs in the morning and unpack. Now, all she wanted to do was be with Julian; be home.
But looking around her house suddenly it didn't feel like home at all. She didn't want stainless steel banisters and a mahogany dining table and 4 bedrooms. She didn't want reclaimed wood floors from an old barn in the Sonoma Valley. She didn't want imported leather sofas and a closet full of wine glasses for when they hosted events.
What she wanted was comfort, and the further she got from Tree Hill, the less comfortable she felt.
But maybe she'd feel it when she saw him. She tiptoed into their bedroom and saw him sleeping. His left hand was resting on his chest and she noticed the moonlight bounce off his platinum band. Thankfully, she'd remembered to slip hers back on before she got off the plane. But dammit, she should have been wearing it the entire time, and there came the guilt again, rushing back just when she thought it had left her. Maybe she had been foolish to think that coming back to him would have made her forget.
She climbed onto the bed and positioned herself so she was straddling him. He was a heavy sleeper, but he awoke when she pressed her lips to his.
"Hey," she mumbled against his lips as she pulled away.
"I didn't know you were coming home," he said sleepily.
"Well I did," she said with a smile. She leaned down to kiss him again, but his words stopped her.
"You smell like airport," he pointed out as he placed his hands on her hips.
The first thing she thought was, 'Lucas wouldn't have said that.' Lucas would have thanked her for surprising him and told her she looked beautiful and said he loved her. And he would have meant it all. He wouldn't have cared how late it was or what his schedule for the next day was like. He would have kissed her and made love to her because he had missed her so much that he just needed to be with her.
"Flying all night will do that to a girl," she muttered, climbing off him and setting her feet on the floor.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I'm not really tired," she said. It was the truth. She had slept on the plane because, to be honest, she hadn't expected their reunion to go this way. "I'll be in my office."
She walked out of the room before he could argue, and he was left wondering what he'd done wrong.
"Peyton!" he called before getting out of bed reluctantly. He found her sitting at her desk with her sketch pad in front of her and a pencil in her hand. "What's wrong?"
Had he always been this oblivious?
"I just kind of thought my husband would be a little happier to see me after I've been away," she explained sadly. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was making him feel bad to make herself feel better.
"Peyton," he started, kneeling next to her chair and resting his hands on her thighs. "I was just surprised, that's all. Come on, you know I'm happy to see you."
"I thought maybe you'd show me," she said quietly.
"Is that still an option?" he asked with a cheeky smile.
He stood and pulled her up with him, hooking his arm around her waist and pulling her flush against him. He smiled against her lips before he kissed her deeply. He moved them so her back was pressed against her desk, then lifted her onto the surface and stood between her legs. He started kissing her neck, and when he came dangerously close to that spot - Lucas' spot - she pushed him away.
"What?" he asked, slightly annoyed that she'd stopped what they were just getting started on.
"I can't," she sighed. She felt the tears coming to her eyes, and knew there was no use trying to stop them.
The only thing she could think when he was kissing her was that he didn't feel as good as Lucas did. And she hated herself for that. But she'd been fighting her feelings since she first saw that blonde haired, blue eyed man again, and this moment just confirmed everything for her.
But since that day and her talk with Nathan, was there ever really any doubt?
She knew she had to be honest with him. She'd only been home for ten minutes, and already she couldn't live with the guilt. She certainly couldn't live the rest of her life that way. And she didn't want to. She wanted to spend the rest of her life with someone else. She just had to break someone's heart in order to do it.
She loved Julian. She did. He had been nothing but wonderful and patient and caring. She realized now, as harsh as it sounded, that he was a replacement for what she couldn't have with Lucas. But he just wasn't Lucas. And maybe she had just been fooling herself, thinking she could ever love someone like she loved him. She knew that if they'd had that baby, or if things had somehow gone differently, that she'd still be with Lucas. She just had to tell Julian the truth. He didn't deserve her secrecy and she simply couldn't do it.
"What's going on, Peyton?" he asked, still standing in front of her, wondering what was making her cry.
"I have to tell you something that is going to make you hate me," she managed. The tears fell from her eyes and she knew that whatever she said next was going to break his heart.
"I doubt that," he said with a sympathetic grin. That damned grin that he had used to make her fall for him.
"No. You will. Trust me," she said. Trust me. It felt wrong to even say those words to him now.
"Babe, you're kind of freaking me out," he informed her.
"I need you to know that I didn't expect this or seek it out," she started, unable to stop herself from breaking down completely.
"What?" he asked desperately.
"I slept with Lucas," she admitted in a tearful whisper. Her eyes were fixed on her hands as they were clasped in her lap. She couldn't bear to watch the look on his face as she told him that horrible piece of truth that would undoubtedly tear down his entire world.
He didn't say anything. His brow furrowed and he shook his head a couple times quickly, as if trying to comprehend exactly the weight those words held. He moved away from her and turned around. He couldn't look at her.
"You told me, Peyton. You looked me in the eye and said that I had nothing to worry about," he said angrily, facing her again. "Is the guy that fucking irresistible?"
"It's not like that!" she shouted quickly.
"What's it like, Peyton? I'll tell you what it's like! It's like you married me, and then left the same day. And I understood that, believe me. Then it's like you saw him and your clothes fell off, right? You just couldn't help yourself, is that it?"
"Don't you dare," she demanded angrily. She stood from her place and pointed at him. "Don't you dare imply that I'm some kind of slut."
"So what is it? Boy wonder gave you his puppy dog eyes and made you feel sorry for him? Pretended to be all sad so you'd take care of him?" he asked spitefully.
"You fucking asshole. His mother just died! He didn't pretend to be anything," she shouted.
"Oh! I'm an asshole? I'm an asshole," he said, chucking bitterly. "I'm sitting here, pining over my wife, the woman I've loved for four years. Four years! And she's off banging her ex-fucking-boyfriend. Yeah. I'm clearly in the wrong here."
"I can't talk to you when you're like this," she said softly, raising her hands in defeat. "I'll stay in the guest bedroom."
"You really think that'll help?" he asked with a raised brow. "I'll talk to my lawyer in the morning. Should I have the annulment papers sent to Lucas' house?"
She let out a puff of air and shook her head.
"You know, I didn't expect this to go well, but I didn't think you'd be such a spiteful bastard," she said as calmly as she could.
"Actually, if I read the book correctly, I believe Lucas is the bastard."
She narrowed her eyes and slapped him hard across the face. He could say all the hateful, horrible, mean things about her that he wanted. But she'd be damned if she let him speak poorly about Lucas.
He brought his hand to his cheek and rubbed it where he'd been struck. She simply walked out of the room.
It was in that moment that he realized that she would never be able to love him the way she'd love 'him'. He'd always be a stand in. And for the first time since he could remember, he felt a tear pooling in his eye. Because even though he really didn't like her right now, he was still in love with her. She was still the girl whose sarcasm and sadness had pulled him in and never let go. And she hurt him. This hurt him. He loved her so damn much, and this just confirmed that she'd never loved him as much as he'd loved her.
He followed her to the spare room and watched as she took off her shirt.
"Get out, Julian," she demanded through her tears. She had had enough of the conversation and his temper. She knew it was all her fault, but she just couldn't do it. A 1:00 a.m. argument wasn't what she'd had in mind.
"No." He moved towards her and stood directly in front of her. His size suddenly intimidated her and she knew her face took on a look of worry.
"What?" she asked in a small voice.
"Tell me," he said. She watched the tear roll down his cheek, but she couldn't bring herself to brush it away. She'd never seen him cry. Not once in four years.
"Tell you what?" she asked more forcefully.
"Tell me you love him," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Just...just tell me."
She looked into his eyes and they were nearly black. She knew she'd just done to him what she never thought she would - she'd broken his heart. He'd be a long time recovering from this, and it killed her that it had happened. She didn't want to tell him what he was begging to hear, for fear that it would break him more, but she knew that for some strange reason, that he needed to hear it.
"I do," she whispered tearfully. Ironically, they were the same two words she'd said just days earlier to him.
She slipped the band off her finger and placed it in his hand. She didn't miss it when it was gone. She realized then that it never belonged there to begin with.
"I'll uh...talk to my lawyer. I'll have the house appraised and buy you out of your half," he said as he turned to wipe his cheek. He knew there was no sense hiding it from her, but he did it anyway.
"I'm sorry," she said softly, pulling him back towards her and wrapping her arms around him.
He wanted badly to be able to push her away, but he'd simply never been able to deny her what she wanted. And if what she wanted was to take a moment to have his arms around her, he wasn't going to stop her. They stood like that for a while, just holding each other. Before he pulled away, she leaned forward and gave him one last kiss. It was an apology. A thank you. A goodbye. It was their last kiss.
He realized he'd never be able to kiss her again. He'd never come home to her sipping wine on the back balcony again; he'd never be able to walk up behind her and wrap her in his arms and smell her shampoo and feel her breathing with him. He'd never get to see that look on her face when she heard a great song for the first time again. He'd never wake up next to her again. She'd never be his again.
He pushed her away from him gently and left the room without another word.
She woke up in the morning to a quiet house. She padded down the stairs to find a suitcase packed and a plane ticket to Tree Hill waiting on the counter. There was a note as well, and she knew whatever it said must have been important because she couldn't remember the last time he'd actually written anything for her.
Go. Go be with him. It would be too hard having you here when I know you're not mine. I guess I should be thankful for the time when you were.
I don't hate you. I kind of wish that I could, but it's just impossible. I'll probably always love you, and that kind of sucks because you'll look back on me as just another stepping stone that got you to him.
Let me know where I can reach you. I'll take care of everything (packing, legal stuff, whatever else). Just go be happy. You deserve it.
If you ever find yourself single and in L.A., don't hesitate to call. (That's a joke...kind of).
She smiled at his attempt to end the note humorously, then checked the time on the plane ticket. She wouldn't have to be at the airport for another few hours. She took the time to pack another bag of some of the items she knew she couldn't live without. Favourite albums and photographs and books. A few items of clothing she knew she'd need. There were things in her office she wanted. Then she realized that she had a job she couldn't just up and leave...could she?
Yes, she could. No job, no paycheck, no work was worth as much to her as that feeling she got when her hand was tucked safely inside Lucas'. Or the way it felt to have him look into her eyes as that smile came to his face - that smile that was reserved only for her. Nothing was more important than that.
As if on cue, her phone rang on her desk and she saw that it was her boss. They'd always had a close relationship, ever since she started working at the label as his assistant. Slowly but surely, she worked her way up through the ranks until she was basically his right hand. He was her go-to. She knew everything about every artist, and he'd promised her that one day she'd be his partner, once the label got to a size where a partner was needed. She dreaded what this call was concerning.
"Sawyer," his voice called out before she'd even said a word.
"Hey Peter," she said as calmly as she could.
"Got a visit from your boyfriend this morning," he informed her. "Well, ex, I guess."
"Yeah," she sighed. Why the hell had Julian gone to see her boss?
"Sorry to hear about you two. He's a good guy."
"He is," she agreed solemnly. This call was not helping her. Not at all.
"I gotta tell you, I wasn't expecting to hear that you were leaving L.A. from anyone other than you," he said. She couldn't place the emotion in his voice, and it scared the hell out of her.
"I'm sorry. It wasn't exactly planned," she explained. She wondered what else Julian had told him, but she knew that he wouldn't slander her to anyone. He may have been hurt, but he wouldn't drag her name through the mud. It just wasn't in his nature.
"Well, listen. Julian and I had a good talk today," he started. "I've been thinking of expanding for a while, and the east coast seems like a smart business move. I want you to set up a branch for me out there."
"What?" she asked, completely dumbfounded.
"I mean, Tree Hill, North Carolina can't exactly be a bustling community, but it'll have you, and that'll make it great," he assured her.
"Peter, this is crazy," she said, shaking her head as she tried to comprehend what he was saying.
"No, it's not. It's a smart move for both of us. Listen, you go to Tree Hill and find a space. We'll build a studio and find some artists. I trust you, Peyton," he said sincerely.
"I don't know what to say," she insisted. "Thank you so much."
"You're welcome. But you should thank Julian. He gave me the idea, I just talked to the investors. We're excited about this," he said. She could practically hear him smiling. "I'll be in touch in a few days once you're settled and we'll get the ball rolling."
"OK!" she said, her excitement building. "I'll talk to you soon."
She hung up the phone and let out a squeal she just couldn't hold in. She took out a pad of paper and knew she had to write a letter for Julian. She wanted to apologize and thank him for everything he'd done since she'd known him. She wrote that she never meant to hurt him, and that she knew that didn't count for much. She said she was sorry for not being the kind of woman he thought she was. She said she hoped they could keep in touch and she wished him all the very best.
She would miss him. Of course, she'd miss him. But more overwhelming was the want - the need - to get back to Lucas. She knew how hard it must have been for Julian to let her go. She knew that's just how much he loved her - to want her to be happy above all else.
She gathered her things, left the note on the desk in his office, and waited outside for the cab she'd called.
She'd spent a lot of time in LAX over the years; there were business trips and vacations, or simply picking Julian up from wherever he'd been. This was different. She knew she'd be back, but she didn't know when. There was no timeline for her return.
She was going home.
The entire flight, she could barely sit still. She hadn't felt that sense of urgency, of anticipation, in ages. She knew it would be a surprise to everyone in Tree Hill that she was back, and that she was staying for good. God, she didn't even have a place to live! But it didn't matter. What mattered was that she was choosing happiness and love over everything else. She'd figure the rest out as she went along.
When the plane finally landed, her feet wouldn't carry her to baggage claim fast enough. She literally tapped her toes impatiently as she waited for her bags to appear on the carousel, and went to the same car rental place that she'd been to just days before.
She didn't know where to go first. Should she go to Brooke's and beg for a place to stay? Should she go to Nathan and Haley's and tell them the whole story? All good options, yes, but none of them involved the one person she needed to see. She needed to see him.
She drove to the River Court, just assuming he'd be there. He was. He didn't see her pull up, or didn't recognize the car, so he just didn't pay attention.
He had his back to her when she walked onto the court. She noticed his frame beneath his sweat-dampened shirt. He was perfect. He was a beautiful man, and it was all she could do not to run to him and throw her arms around him. He lifted the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his brow, and she felt her temperature spike at the glimpse of his bare skin. She didn't know when the last time was that she felt that affected by someone, just by being in their presence.
He spun around quickly and sent up a shot before seeing her, only noticing she was there when she caught his rebound.
"You be skins, I'll be shirts." Of all the things she thought she might say to him when she saw him, that wasn't even on the list. And yet, it was oddly perfect. It was playful and sweet and so utterly...them.
"I'd like it better if it was the other way around," he said with that crooked grin of his.
She rolled her eyes and tossed the ball back to him, but the surprised, yet contented, look stayed on his face.
He didn't know why she was there. He didn't know what made her come back to him. He was afraid to ask, for fear of what she'd say, but he needed to know. He'd just opened his mouth to speak when her voice cut him off.
"I told him," she said simply, shrugging her shoulders.
"It's over." She took a few steps towards him so there was only a few feet separating them.
"OK." He was certainly making his reaction hard to read.
"I'm in love with you." She said the one and only thing that she thought might get him to open up. And it was the truth.
"Alright," he said, a full smile finally breaking on his lips. She just scoffed and rolled her eyes as she found a grin gracing her own lips.
"Look, heartfelt declarations are more your thing, but if you wanted to kiss me, now would be the time," she said with a smirk.
"I'm sweaty," he pointed out, looking down to his damp shirt.
"You say that like it's a bad thing," she said with a raised eyebrow, making him laugh.
God, he had missed her. He had missed this. Joking and sarcasm and that beautiful moment when they both knew they were about to kiss.
So he stepped forward, leaned in, and heard her take a sharp breath. Then he knew how bad she wanted it, so he decided to tease her. Instead of kissing her the way he knew she was craving, he pressed his lips to her forehead before turning away to make another shot.
"I take it back," she said with a furrowed brow and a teasing tone. "I kind of hate you."
Before she even knew it was happening, her face was in his hands and his lips were on her own. They parted after a few moments, and she rested her forehead against his as she kept her eyes closed. That was what a kiss was supposed to feel like.
"Anything else I should know?" he asked, pulling away. She noted the smirk playing on his lips and raised an eyebrow questioningly. "No other secret husbands?"
She swatted him on the chest and stared at him with her mouth agape, making him laugh.
"I'm afraid not," she teased. "I'm all yours."
He snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her body flush to his as he smiled.
"There's a lot we have to talk about," she pointed out seriously.
"I know," he nodded.
"It's not going to be easy," she continued.
"I know," he repeated.
"It's probably going to be angry conversations and it'll get worse before it gets better. I understand if you can't trust me after everything and if you want to take things really slow and..."
"Peyton," he laughed. "I love you, but shut up already."
"I see you want to get a head start on those angry conversations, huh?" she teased, noting the playful look on his face.
"No," he said with a smirk. "I just want you to stop talking long enough for me to kiss you again."
"That's not going to fix anything," she scolded playfully.
She'd barely gotten the words out and his lips were on hers with a determination that left her weak in the knees. He literally had to hold her tighter to keep her from falling. When he pulled away, he thought he heard her mutter 'wow', but he couldn't be sure.
"You sure about that?" he asked, his voice low.
"Maybe it'll fix things a little," she mumbled, making him laugh again.
"Whatever it takes, Peyt," he said seriously after a moment. "I know we'll drive each other crazy and make each other mad and it'll take a while before we can really be us again. But this is it."
"Whatever it takes," she nodded.
"I'm in this with you," he insisted softly, staring at her as she digested the statement
"Finally," she said, repeating his sentiment from earlier.
She didn't know what it was about that moment, or him, or them, or home, but she felt more balanced and at ease, though she knew they had a long road ahead of them. She was back with Lucas. She couldn't erase the last 6 years, but she knew that timing was everything. She had an overwhelming feeling that this time, they had it right.