I stood on the front porch, rocking back and forth on my heels as I waited for Ashley to open the door. The moment she did, my eyes lifted to meet hers, and what I saw nearly took my breath away.
For months, I knew she'd been suffering, but I definitely wasn't expecting this.
The woman standing in front of me wasn't the Ashley I'd grown up. Instead, she'd been replaced by someone twice her age. Her once glowing face was now a sickly pale color, and the hollowness of her cheeks didn't go unnoticed either.
"Derek," she greeted with a hoarse voice, fighting back tears.
I reached out to her and pulled her into a hug, stricken by how much weight she'd lost. Her arms clung to me as if her life depended on it, and I let myself be the friend she needed in that moment.
"I'm so sorry, Ash," I murmured, resting my chin on her head.
Just this morning, her mother had passed away after suffering from terminal brain cancer for years. Sarah Lawrence was a wonderful woman who'd contributed more to my childhood than my own mom ever had, and her loss deeply affected me.
I hadn't seen or heard from Ashley since the day I'd fired her, but today, I knew I needed to be there for her. Despite all the things she'd done, she didn't deserve to lose her mother like this.
The past couple of months, I'd gone to visit Sarah in the hospital whenever I could, but even then, I could tell that her life was hanging by a thread.
In mid-July, she was able to go home until three weeks ago when her symptoms came back, more severe than ever. The last days of her life had been spent at a hospital, and knowing that completely devastated me.
"D-do you wanna come inside?", Ashley asked.
"Do you want me to?"
"Yes," she replied, a pleading look in her eyes.
"Alright. But only for a bit." I sighed, glancing at my watch.
"That's fine. My dad's supposed to be here in an hour or so, too. He doesn't want me to have to spend the night alone."
I nodded, and she stepped aside to let me in. For the next half hour, we sat on the couch drinking wine while making small talk. I asked her about her new job at Ameriprise Financial, and she said it was good.
When it was time for me to leave, I stood up only to see tears pouring down her face again. I cupped her cheek with my hand, feeling her tremble against my touch.
"Are you gonna be ok?", I asked gently.
"Y-you're such a good man, Derek. Claire is so unbelievably lucky to have you," she choked through her sobs.
I stiffened and dropped my hand, releasing a pent-up breath at the mention of my wife's name. I had to leave now before she got worried about where I was.
And if Ashley had thought that me coming here changed anything between us, then she was wrong. I could never forgive her for all the pain she'd caused Claire.
"Now is not the time for this, Ashley."
"I'm sorry." She directed her gaze to the floor.
I sighed, giving her shoulder a squeeze.
"I have to go. Call me if you need anything. And tell your dad I'm sorry about his loss."
She nodded, and I pressed a brief kiss to her forehead before walking out the front door.
Setting all thoughts of Ashley and her mother's death aside, I drove home, eager to spend the rest of the night with my wife. When we were together, she made me forget about all my other problems. In just a few weeks, I would no longer have her all to myself, but nonetheless, I was thrilled to become a father.
The past couple of months, I had created a list of potential names for our son. In the end, though, I'd decided that only one held special meaning to Claire. She probably already had ideas of her own, but if she asked for my opinion, I'd tell her.
I loved my wife with all my heart, but when I found out that she was carrying our baby, it made me love her even more. She'd been through hell and back during the early stages of her pregnancy, throwing up at least three times a week and experiencing the craziest mood swings.
And yet, she always conquered it all with a smile on her face.
Lately though, I hadn't seen that smile often. I didn't know if it was because of stress from work or worrying about her pregnancy, but she seemed...off.
I only hoped that she would tell me if anything was wrong.
Because I felt like doing something sweet for Claire- and reminding her how much I loved her- I stopped by the local florist on the way home and bought a bouquet of red roses.
Although we'd been married for over a year already, I'd never given her flowers before. Hopefully, this would put a smile on her beautiful face.
The first thing I noticed when I got home was the absence of her car. I checked my watch and saw that it was past eight. Her boss couldn't have possibly made her stay after that late. To be sure, I called her office, but the phone went to voicemail. Then, I tried her cell number and also failed to reach her.
I didn't recall her telling me that she was going out tonight, but she may have had last minute plans. Feeling slightly worried, I searched through my phone for Charlotte's number and dialed it.
"Hey, Charlotte. Listen, I just got home from work, but Claire's not here. Is she with you by any chance?", I asked, pacing the driveway.
"Where is she then?" I was growing more anxious by the second.
"You're her husband. Shouldn't you know?" Her tone was clipped.
"Wait, what? Did I do something wrong?"
"Never mind. And Claire is at a friend's house right now. They're hanging out."
"It's one of her co-workers. You don't know her. I have to go now."
I stared dumbfounded at my phone after she hung up.
What got her panties in a twist?
Charlotte was never this rude to me before...unless she was angry. And judging by the tone of her voice, it sure seemed like it.
Feeling utterly confused, I went inside the house and set the roses in a vase, leaving it on the dining table. Claire always informed me of her whereabouts, and it wasn't like her to just vanish like this.
On the other hand, she was an adult and had the right to do whatever she wished. I didn't want to act like a nagging parent, but God knows I worried too much.
To calm my nerves, I headed upstairs to take a warm shower and changed into a pair of boxers. I hoped Claire was enjoying herself wherever she was, but when ten o'clock neared, I started to panic.
With shaking fingers, I dialed her number again, praying she'd answer.
The call went to voicemail, and I cursed under my breath before leaving her a message.
"God damn it, Claire, where are you?", I muttered out loud, raking a hand through my hair in utter frustration as I paced the living room floor.
Minutes felt like hours, and I tried to make time pass by turning on the TV. My patience was wearing thin, and when midnight came, I completely lost it. Claire probably decided to spend the night at her friend's, but the fact that she hadn't even bothered to let me know made me livid with anger.
I stormed upstairs to our bedroom, and the first thing I noticed was that the closet lights were still on. She sure must've been in a haste to leave.
I went to go turn them off, but I couldn't help but feel like something was missing from our closet. My eyes darted between her side and mine, and that's when I saw the striking difference.
The space where her suitcase usually lay was now empty.
My face instantly grew pale as I gripped the door handle, feeling all the air escape my lungs. Everything was finally registering in my head, and the realization I came to was like a punch to the stomach.
Claire had left me. Again. But this time, I had no fucking idea why.
"You're all set to go. Room 226 is on the left up the elevator."
"Thank you." I smiled at the concierge, a bubbly young woman in her mid-twenties.
"You're welcome. Oh, and may I ask if you're expecting a boy or girl?"
"Aww, how cute. Is his dad staying here, too? We can add him to your reservation when he comes."
I drew a sharp breath.
"No, he isn't...We're not on speaking terms right now," I said solemnly.
"Oh, I didn't mean to intrude."
"Well, have a wonderful stay." She smiled, and I thanked her, dragging myself over to the elevator with my suitcase rolling behind me.
I'd chosen to stay at the beach-side Courtyard Marriott because it wasn't too expensive and had a great view of Sunset Cliffs. I needed time to clear my head before I could deal with Derek. The last thing I wanted was to see his cheating, lying face right now.
Besides, he wouldn't miss me, not when he had Ashley to warm his bed at night.
Prior to leaving my house, I had called Charlotte to inform her of my situation. Since I knew Derek was bound to call her once he discovered that I'd run away, I told her to lie and tell him that I was at a friend's house. If he continued to call, she could just ignore him.
After all the loving memories we'd shared, this was what it came down to.
I'd given Derek my heart, my soul...everything. Sadly, he never loved me the way I loved him.
Both Ashley and I had fought for his love, but in the end, she'd won. I'd officially lost Derek, and no matter how hard I tried to tell myself to move on, I couldn't.
Over the months, he'd become a part of me, and now, imagining the rest of my life without him seemed utterly impossible.
How could I live without the other half of my heart?
But it had to be this way. I needed to save myself from even more lies and heartache. God knows I was already hurting like hell inside.
I had to give credit to Derek, though. He was the greatest fucking actor I'd ever met. In fact, that's why our marriage had actually lasted all this time instead of breaking apart. I fell in love with him and got pregnant, just like I'd always wished.
But before our son could even come into this life, he destroyed everything we ever had.
As soon as I reached my hotel room, I left my suitcase in the closet then collapsed onto the bed, burying my face in the large pillow. Just seconds later, I'd managed to dampen it with my tears.
I felt so vulnerable and weak, but despite everything that had happened tonight, I longed to feel Derek's strong arms around me. The bed was too massive and empty without him, and my body shook as I cried even harder.
I hated that I could even think about being with him after all the pain he'd caused me. I hated that I needed him this much.
But I loved him and convincing myself that I couldn't anymore was honestly going to kill me.
After all, he was never mine to love in the first place.
The following morning, I'd woken to a pounding headache and had to take some Advil to relieve the pain. After changing into a long maxi dress, I'd gone down to the lobby to buy breakfast at a small café.
Since it was a warm, beautiful day, I decided to eat outside in the courtyard. Flowers bloomed all around me, and the trees swayed in the gentle breeze, creating a calming effect.
Once I finished my croissant, I took the trail down to Sunset Cliffs. Before I started working, I always used to run here in the early mornings and watch the sun rise. Every time, the beauty of it took my breath away.
Slipping off my sandals, I let my feet sink into the soft sand. The sound of the seagulls and crashing waves rang in my ears, and I closed my eyes as the bright sun shone on my skin. All other thoughts were forgotten for the moment.
"Mommy! I found a seashell!"
I silently laughed to myself and opened my eyes to see a little toddler boy scrambling on the ground, his hands covered in sand. Both his parents gazed down at him with pure love and pride, and the sight left a tear trickling down my cheek.
I wanted that for my son more than anything. How things would turn out between me and his father, I didn't know. But what I did know was that I was willing to sacrifice everything in order for him to grow up in a proper family.
The little boy's father turned away from him momentarily to look at something behind me, and I watched as his mouth curved into a huge grin.
"Long time no see, man!", he said.
"Corbin? Damn, look at you!"
My body immediately froze at the familiar male voice, and slowly, I turned around to face the man I'd run away from.
The image of him standing at his ex's doorstep just last night was fresh in my mind, making my fists clench with fury. The moment his eyes landed on mine, I began to storm away in the opposite direction, praying that the other guy- Corbin- would distract him.
"Claire!", he called, rushing after me.
I grabbed the bottom of my dress and quickened my pace, running as fast as my huge belly would allow. Suddenly, the sand sank beneath my left foot, and I felt myself begin to topple over.
But Derek caught me in his arms before I could fall. Just like he always did.
"Shit, Claire, be careful!"
"Let me go!"
At my order, he tightened his hold on me, and I thrashed around in his arms, struggling to free myself. Thankfully, we were at the quieter, vacant area of the beach so no one could see us.
"Why the hell did you leave me?", he demanded through gritted teeth.
"If you don't release me, I'm going to scream."
His eyes widened in shock, and he dropped his arms to his sides, taking a step backward.
"What's gotten into you? Do you have any idea how worried I've been? I drove everywhere looking for you last night. I even called your mother to see if you'd flown home."
"Quit acting so clueless," I said bitterly, turning away from him to stare at the water as I fought back tears.
"What's going on? Talk to me, baby," he pleaded.
"Where did you go after work?", I asked.
"I had a meeting with a client."
"Liar!", I snarled, spinning to face him. He blinked in surprise then narrowed his eyes at me.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"You weren't at a meeting, Derek. You went to Ashley's house!"
I watched the muscles in his jaw tick as he closed the distance between us, bringing his face down to mine.
"You fucking stalked me?"
My blood began to boil, and out of absolute outrage, I clenched my fist, throwing a punch at his cheek. He flinched but kept his ground.
"How dare you!", I cried as tears poured down my face.
"You left me with no choice, Derek. All those excuses you made up about having to go to meetings and shit, I actually believed them in the beginning. But I'm not stupid like you think I am. I knew you were hiding something from me."
He released a sharp breath and began shaking his head.
"I trusted you, Derek. I told you everything. But you lied to me. You've been lying to me the past four months."
"I didn't mean for this to happen, Claire," he muttered under his breath.
"How long have you been fucking Ashley behind my back?"
He drew a sharp breath and gazed down at me, his cheeks flushed with anger.
"Is that honestly what you think of me?"
"What other reason would you have for going to her house if not to fuck her?", I spat.
"Damn it, Claire, the only woman I've fucked since we got married was you!", he roared, kicking over a rock with his foot before storming away from me.
And by the hard look in his eyes, I knew he'd told the truth.
"Derek, wait!", I called, grabbing the bottom of my dress as I scrambled after him.
To my dismay, he kept on walking, ignoring my pleas to stop. He had every right to be furious with me right now, but I still wanted to know what was going on with him and Ashley yesterday.
"Look, I'm sorry, ok? I was wrong about you. Just please don't leave me."
He paused then spun around to face me, his expression cold as ice.
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm not like you, Claire. I don't just get up and leave after everything we've been through. We're about to have a baby for Christ's sake, and you ran off with him. He's my son, too. Don't you ever forget that," he seethed.
I felt myself beginning to crumble beneath his harsh glare, gradually losing any strength I had left.
"I know I shouldn't have left without talking to you. But God, seeing you with her killed me. I was so angry and hurt. I thought I'd lost you, Derek." My voice broke as tears trickled down my face.
He exhaled slowly, his features softening, and then he pulled me into his arms, hugging me tight.
"You'll never lose me, Claire," he vowed, pressing a kiss to my forehead. "Just promise me you'll stop running away."
"You always manage to find me, though," I said quietly, glancing up at his face.
"Claire..." His tone was serious.
"I'll stop running. I promise. But I'm curious- how'd you know I was staying here?"
"I went on our online banking account this morning and saw the hotel reservation you'd booked."
He rested his chin on the top of my head, still holding me in his arms as we listened to the sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs.
Everything felt so right when he was by my side.
"I should probably tell you everything about what went on the past few months."
"Go ahead. I'm listening."
He sighed, looking lost in thought as he rubbed his jaw then proceeded to talk.
"Ashley's mother, Sarah, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer a couple of years ago. She's had chemotherapy and other treatment, but back in May, more cancer cells invaded her body and her symptoms worsened."
It took me a moment to process the information, and when I did, I felt nothing but pain and sympathy for Ashley's family.
"You know all those times I left the house without telling you? I was at the hospital with Sarah. She was like a mother to me growing up," he explained, a desolate look in his eyes.
"Oh, Derek, I'm so sorry. Why didn't you tell me this sooner?"
"I was afraid you wouldn't understand. I know you hate Ashley, and if I told you I was spending time with her mother in the hospital, you'd be angry."
"Was Ashley ever there with you?", I asked.
"No. I always made sure she wasn't there when I went."
"What happened yesterday?"
Derek swallowed the lump in his throat.
"Sarah passed away. That's why I went to visit Ashley."
And now, after all those months, I finally knew. A wave of relief passed over me as my worries about Derek's infidelity ceased to exist anymore.
"God, that's terrible. You should've just told me everything yesterday when we were having lunch."
Derek sighed heavily, reaching out to cup my cheek with his hand, and I leaned into his touch.
"You know how much I love you, right? I only want you to be happy. Between your work and pregnancy, I knew throwing in the issue with Ashley's mother would create unnecessary worrying for you."
"If you loved me, you wouldn't keep secrets from me. Every time you leave without saying a word and lie about where you're going, of course I'm gonna suspect you're having an affair or something."
"I'm sorry, baby. I never should've kept this from you. But now you know."
"It's ok. It's all over now." I stood up on my tippy toes and gently brushed my lips against his, feeling his body relax against mine.
He grabbed my face and deepened our kiss, releasing all the emotions of today's events into this one moment. When we broke apart for air, I rested my head on his chest as he gently caressed my swollen belly.
"I never thought I'd be capable of loving someone this much...needing someone this much. But God, I don't know how I could ever live without you," I murmured, turning my head to look up into his intensely blue eyes.
"You'll never find out." He gave me his signature heart-throbbing smile, and I swore, I could've died a happy woman in his arms.
A/N- We all knew nothing would ever get in between this couple, not even Ashley...Right? On the other hand, there's still three chapters left, and unfortunately, the drama doesn't end here. Also, I just wanted to thank everyone that's been reading this story. You guys are the best(: Enjoy the rest of Claire and Derek's journey, and like always, remember to like and comment!