“I think I can make it down if I go really slow.”
“Clay, just let us help you like we normally do.”
Keeley stood awkwardly beside Clay and his siblings while they debated the best way to get Clay down to the dock. The four of them were gathered at the top of three flights of steep wooden stairs that overlooked a breathtaking view of Lake Marion. From what Keeley could tell, there were two ways down: take the stairs or walk down the hill that the stairs cut. The stairs posed an obvious problem and the hill seemed far too steep for Clay to navigate himself.
“Is there any way that I can help?” she shyly offered, unsure of what to do.
Clay shot her a pained expression. Okay. Wrong thing to ask. She tried to take it in stride and backed up slowly with her hands held up in a position of surrender, in an effort to lighten the mood. Laura--who seemed to have either forgotten about the awkward kitchen encounter, or simply didn’t care--laughed at her antics.
“Keels…” Clay said in a low voice. Keeley looked at him and smiled gently. He took a deep, steadying breath and returned the smile, though it looked strained. “Go grab us a good spot in the boat, up in the bow, what do you think?”
She hesitated, wanting to be of some sort of help. Clay looked at her pointedly. “You’ve got to hurry and snag the good spots before they get gone.”
“Oh! Gotcha.” She nodded, understanding that Clay meant to momentarily get rid of her. “I’m on it.”
As she hurriedly made her way down the stairs, she heard Clay begin to give Mark and Laura instructions on where to grab his chair and specifically to refrain from any “funny business”.
When she got down to the waterfront, she wasn’t really sure what to do. Keeley had grown up in the suburbs of Atlanta and though most of her friends had had houses or known someone who’d had a house at Lake Lanier, she’d never really been exposed to the lake lifestyle--or lakes in general-- beyond swimming in one a few times. And most of that had taken place at Girl Scout day camps. Clay had told her to grab seats in the bow. And she didn’t know what that was, she realized, looking at the boat. Should have paid better attention at camp, Keels. She wasn’t even sure how she was supposed to get from the dock into the boat which was perched on a hydraulic lift looking thing.
“I know it looks questionable, but Lake Marion is actually one of the cleanest lakes in South Carolina,” Cara said, coming up behind her and mistaking her hesitancy as disgust.
Keeley laughed. “Oh, I’ve seen worse.”
She watched as Clay’s sister-in-law simply hopped over the back of the boat and stepped inside. “Just step right over, you can step in the seat. It’s not a big deal.” She smiled kindly and extended her hand.
“Thanks.” Keeley took her hand and climbed into the boat, fleetingly wondering how Clay was going to manage that. There wasn’t a lot of room in the boat and she figured at this point, she had two options: front or back. She chose the back.
Cara started filling a compartment behind the steering wheel with towels, sunscreen, and a cooler. “Clay will probably go up front in--” she stopped as Phillip yelled from the other side of the dock and instructed his daughter-in-law to check how much gas was in the boat. Cara checked and answered, then smiled apologetically at Keeley before continuing. “I was just going to tell you, I think it’s normally easiest for Clay to get in the bow area, but don’t feel like you have to sit up there. You can definitely stay back here if you want.”
“Ah,” Keeley started to head towards the front of the boat. “You know, he told me that. I just didn’t know if the ‘bow’ was the front or back. Went with the back because I like alliteration.”
Cara laughed and then went back to loading up the compartment, waving away Keeley’s offer to help. She sat down in the front -- the bow -- and chanced a look up at the house where she’d left Clay. Laura and Mark each had a grip on one of the wheels of Clay’s chair, effectively hoisting their brother -- who looked pained and uncomfortable-- between them. They were almost to the dock and Keeley could see Laura talking and laughing, probably, she imagined, trying to alleviate some of the embarrassment of being carried down a hill by one’s little sister. Whatever she said seemed to work, sort of, because Clay rewarded her with a tight smile.
And then his eyes locked onto Keeley’s and his expression hardened. It was the same expression he’d worn the night a few weeks ago that they’d sat on his porch swing and he’d told her the specifics about his injury. It was an expression that Keeley didn’t relish seeing.
But a second later, as his siblings deposited him safely on the ground, the expression was gone. A beat later, the Clay that she knew--easy smiles and loud laughter--returned. Keeley watched as he wheeled smoothly onto the dock, his strong arms propelling him forward, the muscles in his pecs and shoulders showing prominently. He wheeled to the very edge of the dock where his nephews were standing, looking at the greenish-brown water with unsure expressions on their faces.
He quickly grabbed the one nearest him and in one swift movement held the squealing and kicking little boy in his arms. “What? You want down Noah?”
Clay caught Keeley’s eye across the dock and winked. “Okay, I’ll put you down, bud!”
Noah's squealing turned into screaming at this point. Two seconds later he bellyflopped into the water. He emerged grinned and laughing and crawled out of the lake, immediately asking his uncle to throw him in again.
Keeley laughed as she watched. “What’re you laughing at, Dr. Burns?” Clay yelled from across the dock and swiftly wheeled towards the boat. He stopped, and leaned forward, propping his elbows on the side of the boat. His dark green eyes had a mischievous twinkle in them. “You want to be next?”
“Oh no,” she apologized solemnly, trying not to smile.
“Good.” Clay he said, grinning. He pushed back from the boat and realigned himself parallel to it. Using his hand, he lifted each of his legs by the knee, off the footplate of his chair. Then, using his arms he braced himself against the bow of the boat, lifting up and awkwardly twisting his body around, grunting a little from the exertion. He paused to straighten out his legs, which had become twisted in the transfer and readjusted them so he wasn’t sitting splayed.
“You look like you’re a showgirl modelling the boat,” Laura said in a teasing tone. Clay struck a pose. “Stop showing off for your girlfriend and just get in the boat.” She had a weird expression on her face, doleful yet sour, and Keeley wondered why. Clay laughed at his own antics, and started to scoot on his butt towards the edge of the seat.
When he got to the edge, he paused. “Keels, could you scoot over a little to your left?” Keeley nodded; she hadn’t even realized she was in his path. Clay stretched out his legs so that they were extended on the seat in front of him. Then, using his arms, he slowly lowered the rest of his body onto the seat. He shifted in the seat, trying to get comfortable. Keeley watched as he adjusted his legs, noticing again how they kind of fell awkwardly to one side if they weren’t in just the right position.
When he looked up and met Keeley’s eyes, there was something sad and hard behind his eyes again.
“Well now you’re too far away,” he said glibly, his tone not giving her any hints as to what he was thinking. He patted the seat beside him. Keeley scooted closer and he put his arm around her. She let herself relax into the familiar -- yet tense -- contours of body as his Phillip slowly backed the boat out of the dock and they began to idle out of the cove.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered lowly into her ear when she was closer.
She looked up at him. “What?”
“For this,” Clay gestured at his legs, but he didn't elaborate. He didn’t need to.
Keeley patted his knee. Then, she kissed his cheek. When she pulled back, she grinned an impish grin. "Just my luck. Brent acted like a dick and a hitter; you act like a motorboat showgirl, I guess--"
"--Wait, ‘a hitter'?"
Keeley blanched. As soon as the words were out of her mouth she'd hoped that Clay hadn't heard or processed them. That tidbit of information was something she'd never told anyone and that no one knew. Except Jan and, ironically enough, her officemate Dean. But he only knew because he'd seen Brent smack her once during a fight in their shared office.
And she didn't want to drag those memories up right now. She tried to shrug it off.
"Keeley, he hit you?" Clay's voice carried on the empty lake. "He hit you?"
"Ssshhh!" She elbowed him in the side; the irony of the gesture during this conversation not lost on her.
"Don't fucking shush me, Keeley. I thought he cheated on you--not abused you!"
Clay was like Keeley had never seen him before. His green eyes were flashing and his face was red. A vein popped out in his neck, and for a moment she was afraid he might have a stroke. He would have been scary if he weren't stage whispering furiously.
"Clay," she looked up him. "We can talk about this later, but I really don't want to talk about this on a boat surrounded by your family, okay?"
He nodded solemnly and pulled her tighter. "Are you okay?"
Keeley's heart constrained at the tender tone of his voice. She tried to laugh lightly, even though the small conversation they'd just had made her blood boil and her body shake. "I'm okay, Clay." She tried to smile even though in her minds eye she could see Brent rearing back, the look of rage on his face, and Dean’s shocked expression as he walked in on them in the office that day. "It was a long time ago."
"Yeah, not long enough," she heard him mutter under his breath. He kissed the top of her head.
For the next hour Phillip shuttled the family around the late, playing tour guide for Keeley’s sake. Clay sat beside her quietly, only piping up to point out specific spots and his favorite lake house. But whether that was because of the information that she’d stupidly let slip, or leftover frustration from having to be carried down the hill, she wasn’t sure.
As they glided across the water, Keeley let her thoughts drift. Outside of the fact that she was divorced (which he’d known from day one) and that she was almost done with grad school, she realized Clay really didn’t know much else. In fact, he didn’t really know anything about her at all. Well, he knew a little about her family. And he knew where she lived. And what she looked like naked. And her best friend and her archaeological research areas, but with a start--because he’d been shocked at the revelation about Brent--she realized there was a lot he didn’t know too. Here she was, having a grand time with his family, and she wasn’t sure if she’d even shown him a picture of what hers looked like.
What was wrong with her? Just a few hours earlier she’d been giddy and excited about the prospect of envisioning a life with Clay Whitlow. But, should she really be so quick to pick up and move on? She’d been so wrapped up in falling in love again that she’d sort of forgotten everything else that went along with it. Including every shred of sense she had, apparently.
She looked at Clay, the speed of the boat blowing his hair around his face. One of his nephews had come up to the front of the boat and he and Clay were laughing and making fun of Laura, who seemed to be dishing it right back. Even after the mentally and physically frustrating and trying day that she knew he’d had, he was still laughing easily. There couldn’t be a malicious bone in his body and she was certain he’d never lay a hand on her.
But, she’d been certain about that with Brent too.
Keeley sighed heavily. Suddenly a cold blast of water hit her squarely in the face, abruptly pulling her out of her thoughts.
“Wakey-wakey; you look way too serious over there,” Clay teased in a chipper tone. “You ready for this next part of the whirlwind weekend?”
Keeley arched an eyebrow in question, eager for whatever was coming next and the distraction it would bring. She could feel an impending funk coming on if she didn’t stop dwelling on things.
Phillip brought the boat to a stop and Laura started to hand out life vests to everyone on the boat. Meanwhile, Sue had started to help her grandsons slip into what looked like snow skis and wetsuits.
“Water skiing,” Clay explained after seeing Keeley’s confused expression. He seemed back to normal. It'd taken him about an hour to cool down, which was long enough for her to realize she never wanted to see an angry Clay Whitlow. And that realization made her a bit nervous. But she shrugged it off. Thankfully, Clay hadn’t raised the subject of her ex-husband since she’d shut him down earlier. But, the silence between them had still left an awkward and empty void to be filled.
Keeley gave him a playful shove, glad that the awkwardness was starting to alleviate, and watched as the kids started unloading skis and ropes and dish soap. “What’s the dish soap for?”
"Exactly what you think it'd be for," he answered with a wink. Yes, all awkwardness was gone. The dish soap came flying at him from the other end of the boat. "Hey!"
“It lubricates the bindings so you can get in and out easier,” Laura explained, rolling her eyes at her older brother. "And trust me, getting in and out of those things is a bitch without lube.”
“That’s what he said.” Clay quipped again under his breath with a grin.
Laura outright laughed this time. “Shut-up,” she said as she jumped in the water and announced, “I’m going first, Dad!”
She gave the signal as her father slowly revved the boat’s engine and it gained speed. Keeley turned around and watched as Laura rose up effortlessly and gracefully on her skis.
“She’s really good,” Keeley commented to Clay as she watched.
“Yeah,” Clay nodded. “She got offered a water skiing scholarship at a school in Alabama before she graduated a few years ago.”
Keeley watched as Laura dogged a piece of driftwood. “I thought you said she goes to USC?”
“She does.” Clay smiled ruefully. “It wasn’t a full ride and it was right after I got hurt. Even though Mom and Dad told her they’d make it work, she knew they couldn’t afford my hospital bills and her out-of-state tuition. So she opted to stay in-state.” He shrugged nonchalantly but Keeley could tell that it bothered him. “USC has a better architecture school anyway.”
After about ten minutes, Laura signaled to her father to cut the engine. Slowly, she fell back into the water. They idled towards her as she worked on taking her skis off. “Your form could’ve been a little better at the end,” Clay said critically. Laura rolled her eyes as she hoisted herself back into the boat.
“What do you know about water skiing?” Keeley asked him with a playful grin. But Clay just smiled knowingly and shrugged.
“Yeah!” Mark yelled belatedly from the back of the boat. “Let’s see you go out there!”
“Okay,” Clay laughed and made like he was going to get up. But, of course, he didn’t.
The next hour passed in a noisy blur as each of the twins tried their hand at skiing. From what Keeley could tell -- and what she’d picked up from listening to Clay and his dad and sister yell instructions--the hard part was getting into a standing position. After that it seemed to be smooth sailing. Keeley was impressed; she laughed to herself, Keels, you can barely walk across a room without tripping. You’d break your neck trying to ski.
Clay caught her laughing to herself. “Looks like fun huh?” She nodded her head skeptically. Please don’t ask me if I want to try, please don’t ask me if I want to try. “You want to try it, Keels?”
Ughhhh. Keeley groaned inwardly. She jutted her head out at him in questioning. “Not really?” She laughed nervously.
“We’re the best teachers there are, go ahead and give it a shot,” Phillip said enthusiastically and thumped her on the back again. “Become a student of the Whitlow School!”
More like become the last student of the Whitlow school, she thought wryly to herself as she took her coverup off and jumped in the water. At least she would be remembered as a good sport.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she mumbled, more to herself than anyone else.
She swam towards Laura who had stayed in the water the entire time, helping her nephews into their skis and watching out for them while they had their lesson. Now, she instructed Keeley on how to put the skis on--a feat much harder than it looked she soon realized as she missed and ended up catapulting one of the skis into the air.
“Oh boy, this is going to be interesting,” Laura mused as she went and retrieved the ski. Keeley blushed.
“Now listen,” she began to instruct Keeley (which was probably a waste of breath). “As soon as my dad revs the boat everyone will start yelling instructions. Ignore everyone’s but Clay.”
“Well yeah,” Laura said in which clearly asked why Keeley, who was having trouble balancing at the moment, was questioning her authority. “He’s the one who taught me everything I know. And I’m pretty good. Just saying”
A million things clicked in her mind as Keeley strained to listen to Clay’s instructions. His knowing smile, his critique of Laura’s form. He’d been out there once too. No wonder he acted like he knew so much about water skiing. Nice Keels, stuck your foot in your mouth again.
“Okay Keels, my dad’s going to start the engine. He’s going to go nice and slow. And you’re going to raise up slowly, okay?,” Clay began to yell instructions from where he sat on the boat. Keeley strained to pick his voice out of the helpful chorus on the boat. Even Alex and Noah seemed to be yelling pointers and they were six.
“Now just don’t--” Phillip started to rev the engine and she missed what ever Clay said next. “-- force of the boat pulling you will do most of the work, you just have to balance at the end of the rope. Getting up’s the hardest but once you’re up it’s smooth sailing from there.”
Keeley nodded. Might as well go ahead and get this over with, she thought. Her mind flashed back to a ski trip she and Jan had taken in college where Keeley hadn’t known how to stop when they’d gotten to the bottom of the mountain. So, she’d thrown herself on the ground as a last resort and had a head-on collision with the ski-lift basket preparing for take-off. The results hadn’t been too pretty. Oh God, I hope I don’t break anything.
“Just hold on,” Laura said ominously as she handed Keeley the rope. She gave Phillip the signal to start.
The first thing Keeley thought was that the Whitlow’s version of slow was different than hers.
The second thing was that she couldn’t hear any of the instructions anyone was yelling from the boat.
She didn’t have time for a third thought, because at that point she was flying through the air.
With a loud smack she hit the water and went under. She did a quick assessment of all her limbs and didn’t feel like anything was missing or broken. Success?
Relieved to done with the skiing part, she gave the boat a thumbs up, and started to swim towards it. When she reached it, she was surprised to see Clay leaning so far over the edge he was practically falling out of it with a look of intense concern on his face.
“Good first try, Keeley,” Phillip tried to console her. “That’s about how Clay’s first time went too.”
“He’s right,” Mark agreed. “It’s amazing he didn’t break his back fifteen years ago learning how to water ski!”
Keeley dodged the life vest that came flying towards the back of the boat where Mark was sitting as she climbed in. These people really liked to throw things at each other.
“How’re you feeling?” Sue asked concernedly. How she hadn’t had a nervous breakdown raising the Whitlow children, Keeley wasn’t sure.
Keeley shook her arms out and rolled her shoulders. “My arms hurt a bit.”
“Didn’t you hear me tell you not to lock your elbows?” Clay asked exasperatedly. “It’s amazing you didn’t snap them.”
Keeley shuddered at the thought. “One more try Keeley?” Laura asked in an encouraging tone, appearing at her side.
The mere suggestion of that made Keeley outright laugh. The whole family looked at her, apparently not seeing the same amount of humor in the situation as she did. She took a deep breath, trying to contain herself. Shaking her head, she announced, “Yeah, I think I’m done.”
As she toweled off and put her cover-up back on, she added, “And Laura, I give you serious kudos,” she said lightly with a smile. “That is much harder than it looks.”
By the time they got back to the house that evening, the sun was beginning to set, bathing the house in hues of orange and red, intensifying the lake’s natural beauty tenfold.
“I love the outdoors,” Keeley sighed as she lined Clay’s chair up for him. Everyone else had already left the boat and headed inside and Keeley was actually glad for the absence of everyone except Clay. Of course, Laura and Mark would be down soon to help Clay get back up to the house, but until then, it was just them.
“Me too,” Clay agreed as he levered himself up onto the edge of the boat. He repeated the reverse process as he had getting into the boat, going a little slower this time and wincing at certain movements. “Oof, I’m a little sore. Think I sat on that hard seat too long.”
Keeley frowned. “Probably not as sore as you though,” he went on, chuckling to himself. “You’re probably not going to be able to move your arms tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well, I’m an academic, not an athlete,” she shot back in a defensive tone.
Clay laughed as wheeled past her and towards the edge of the dock. “Don’t worry, that shines through loud and clear, Dr. Burns.”
Keeley laughed and followed him. The sun had almost completely disappeared on the other side of the trees, and the lake was now mostly cast in shadows. The water lapped gently against the side of the dock and a cool breeze blew through the air. She looked over at Clay; he was leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees and looking pensively out across the lake. His skin had a browner tint to it, compliments of a day on the boat, and his hair was windblown and messy, making him look rugged and disheveled. Meanwhile, she was red from sunburn and her hair--she ran her fingers through it to assess the damage--was knotted and tangled, making her look like a mess, she was sure. And, she could already feel the soreness from skiing -- or her failure at skiing, rather -- setting in. Yikes. She sighed and turned her gaze back out to the lake.
She suddenly became aware of Clay’s eyes on her. “What?”
“I’m just thinking, what could possess a man to ever lay a finger on you out of anger?”
His words practically knocked the breath out of her. Between the tender tone in his voice and the sadness in his eyes, she could tell that it that that had been weighing heavily on him since she’d told him. And she knew right then, without a shred of doubt that Clay Whitlow wasn’t Brent Heatherton. Tears welled up in her eyes and threatened to spill over as she looked down at Clay whose expression told her he would always protect her and try his hardest to never hurt her.
He was different. He had his limitations. He certainly had his own set of issues. But he was ten times the man Brent would ever be.
The tears spilled over as Clay opened his arms and she sank down gratefully into his lap. Over a year of keeping that secret just between herself and Jan had taken a toll on her that she hadn’t even realized. As she silently cried and let a years worth of secrets, stress, and the disgust over the real source of her divorce, she felt Clay tighten his grip around her and gently rock her back and forth. For the first time in a long time Keeley felt like things were truly looking up and the desperation that she felt in the parking lot day finally lifting.