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by Kelly L. Stone
Description: Twenty-one-year-old Claire Bannister has just been released from a Florida mental hospital, where she spent over three years on the forensics unit for arson and murder--crimes to which she pled "not guilty by reason of insanity." The trouble is, Claire's innocent. She knows who really set the house fire that killed her siblings on that balmy night in Pensacola, but she can't tell. And she knows that her stepmother and lifelong nemesis, Sisley, will be watching her every move. Sisley never believed that Claire set the fire that killed her children, and now Sisley will stop at nothing to get to the truth. Claire flees to Tampa, unaware that Sisley is having her followed. Claire is on a mission to find her boyfriend, Billy Powers, who disappeared the night of the fire with a briefcase full of cash extorted from Claire's powerful father, Judge Oren Bannister. Will Billy still have in his possession the one item that Claire must get back from him? Confronted by one dead end after another, Claire finally marries Richard Quenell, a handsome and wealthy attorney with a few secrets of his own. Claire conceals her past from her new husband, a decision that has disastrous results. When Claire, Sisley, Billy and Richard finally square off, the consequences will be devastating, and Claire will be faced with a decision that could change her life--again.
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2007 2007
eBookwise Release Date: October 2007
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [440 KB]
Reading time: 298-418 min.
"This powerful book is about what people will do to hide secrets. A full panoply of motivations is on display, from love and loyalty to illness and greed ... a well-written book. 3 Stars!"--Romantic Times Book Reviews
Part 1 August 28, 2000
The night I set the Bannister house on fire the air was already burning. The summer had been one of the hottest on record in Sea Winds, Florida, and that day the sun scorched down with one-hundred-three-degree rays at noon. But it was nighttime when I lit the first match, and the sun had already swung over to the other side of the world. Besides, the weather was the last thing on my mind.
I moved in a trance, knowing what I had to do yet frightened of doing it. It was not so much vengeance I sought as setting things right. The situation had gone too far, and I meant to put a stop to it.
It was quiet that night, almost too quiet. Except for a few cicadas in the pine trees behind me, the occasional call of a night bird, there was no sound. And it was early still, just a little before nine, so the quiet was unsettling.
As I drenched the boards of the garage in gasoline, I had one fleeting glimmer of regret. If my plan didn't work, there's no telling what it would mean. Prison for sure. I could see the headlines screaming in my mind: Arson! Attempted murder! Judge Bannister's family consumed in flames!
I lit the first match. There was no going back.
The fire moved fast. Once the flame had its teeth in a few of the boards I couldn't have stopped it if I'd wanted to. It flickered, rose, licked at the boards above it, then consumed them in a greedy burst of light. Soon the garage was engulfed, and the heat became unbearable. I stepped back, eyeing the next section of the house, my thoughts turning to Claire--would she come?
A sudden cracking sound from the roof startled me and I jumped back, watching as a thin sheet of yellow and orange flame began to move inside the breezeway and reach out in bright tendrils to the kitchen. The scent of the gasoline that had soaked my hands and fingers drifted upward on a slight, lilting breeze. The flame cracked and popped its way along the roof, and burned with an intensity that amazed me. I watched it, mesmerized, unsure of how long I stood there before I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. That's when I saw that Claire had come back. She stood in the breezeway, her mouth covered by her hands, her light blue eyes wide with shock.
Funny, but the first thought that came to my mind was that she was still the prettiest girl I had ever seen. * * * *
Sisley wakes, roused by something she can't identify. Reluctantly she surfaces to full consciousness, the pain she'd been trying to escape pouncing on her as soon as she opens her eyes. The thoughts pick right back up, as though her mind had continued to ask the question from which her restless sleep had offered a welcome respite--where is the boy now?
She hears a faint cracking sound but barely registers it above the clamor of her thoughts. Where is the boy now? And more importantly, is Claire with him?
Rolling to the side, she gropes outward and feels the damp spot in the center of the mattress, the result of her and Oren's earlier coupling. The feel of the cold wet on her palm makes her nauseated, and for a minute she thinks she might vomit. But the wave passes, and her mind mercilessly pushes backward again.
Where is the boy now? How many hours has he been gone? Sisley leans up, sees the red numbers on the clock glaring 9:09 into the night. Only two hours have passed, yet already it feels like an eternity. Will he come back for her? she wonders, a single hot tear rolling from her eye.
Now a louder crack garners her attention. It seems to be inside the house, and for some reason it makes the hair on the back of Sisley's neck bristle. She sits up, throwing back sheets that are damp with summer humidity.
Switching on the lamp she listens--is it the boy? No, that's unlikely given his refusals earlier this evening to heed her begging; probably the sounds are made by Oren, rummaging in the kitchen for something to eat.
Fully awake now, Sisley walks to the bureau and leans into the mirror, checking her skin. Her black hair has loosened from the bun and falls in gentle arcs along her face, framing her dark eyes and steeply plucked brows. Pulling a sheer pink nightgown from the top drawer and over her head, she sees that in her late forties she is still beautiful, yet this alone had not been enough to keep the boy. Even the lure of money hadn't been enough.
Now something catches her eye in the mirror, and turning she sees a long gray tendril of smoke curling under the door, the string ending in a whitish blue tip near the handle. A crashing sound follows, as though the very roof is caving in, followed by the pungent odor of burning cedar.
Fire! Sisley's heart springs to her throat and lodges there.
She charges for the door, aware that she has to get her children out, the same children she would have, earlier that night, abandoned in the blink of an eye. The irony strikes her as comical, that she should now seek to save the very children she would have deserted for a boy who'd barely passed the threshold into adulthood.
She reaches the door and with a small gasp yanks her hand away from the hot knob. Laying her cheek against the wood, she feels the heat penetrate through it. Undeterred, Sisley flings the door open and meets a solid wall of smoke standing flat before her, and as she watches the wall folds forward like an aberrant fog and reaches for her in a ghostly embrace, the fresh air behind her providing it fuel.
Panic sets in in earnest. "Preeti! Christopher!" Sisley screams, tasting metallic bile in her throat. She strains to hear any sound of distress, any small voices calling for her. But there is nothing other than the crackling of flame that she now sees is in the den, near the kitchen. Is this where it started? Did she dump a smoldering cigarette into the trash? Or has Oren, in his drunken stupor, left a pot burning on the stove?
Sisley tries to move forward but the smoke chokes her. She can't see through it, not even to the other side of the hall to her daughter's room, the one Preeti has shared with Claire for the past eleven years. But Claire is gone now, isn't she? That's what the note had said. Or was Sisley only reading into it what she wanted to? The note had never said that Claire was leaving. In fact, the note had said nothing whatsoever about anyone leaving. And yet the boy already had.
The smoke creeps into her bedroom, diffusing into a thin mist as it passes her. Sisley stands rigid on the threshold, frozen by fear.
Move, she tells herself, squinting into the smoky hall. Don't just stand here. Move.
She steps into the blinding smoke, groping along the wall for guidance, when her bare foot touches skin. She kneels, tears streaming from her burning eyes. The smoke seems to crawl behind her dark irises, and inanely Sisley thinks that she'll never get the smell out of her nightgown.
Her hand touches skin, sweaty and clammy. A round shoulder follows, too large and bulky to be a child--Oren. Sisley can make out the outline of his body now, see where he has either collapsed from drunkenness or smoke inhalation, or both. She covers her mouth and nose with the collar of the gown. It is possible her husband is dead? Her heart leaps at the thought; he does not stir when she moves her hand along his neck, over his face. But he rolls over, reaches his own meaty hand toward her own, and Sisley is stunned at the depth of her disappointment.
Repulsed, Sisley withdraws. Time is growing short. Where are Preeti and Christopher? Have they already escaped, crawled through the windows in their own bedrooms? It seems impossible that anyone could survive all this smoke.
Sisley steps back into her bedroom, gazing with dispassion at her husband's form. Her home is on fire, but as long as her children are safe she doesn't really care. The house can burn to embers and Oren along with it.
She is about to close the door when she hears commotion outside her window, sounds like footsteps running. Sudden relief almost collapses her knees--her children have gotten out. Looking once more upon the fallen body of her husband, Sisley watches as he tries to sit up but collapses to his back again, one arm stretched in her direction.
Weak, Sisley thinks. He's a weak man. Sisley hates weakness.
Where is the boy now?
A sudden crashing from the kitchen forces her into action. Sisley closes the door and rushes to the window, pushing it open and sliding to the cool grass below. * * * *
Muggy salt air blows through the crack in the window as he massages the accelerator with the toe of his right foot, speedometer nestling against 75. He can't drive too fast, for fear of bringing undesired attention. If he gets stopped for speeding, well, it isn't like he's never been stopped before. But tonight he has something that he can't allow anyone else to see. And just because it's in the trunk doesn't mean they won't find it. With his record the cops have probable cause to search his car any time, any place.
He lights a cigarette and watches in the rear view mirror as the flame illuminates his eyes. The tip of a single strand of blond hair catches in the fire and sizzles, curling into a tight ringlet before wisping away. He laughs, blows white smoke out of the window. On the radio, Tom Petty is blaring American Girl through the speakers. He turns the volume up, thinking of the money hidden beneath the spare tire. That money is rightfully his, he thinks, although Judge Bannister won't see it that way. But to hell with the Judge, to hell with all of them. He's never concerned himself with what other people think and he's not about to start now. His only concern now is to get to Texas before they find him.
As he crosses the Florida-Alabama line and begins the long drive over the bay bridge toward Mobile, his thoughts drift. He thinks that maybe he should feel bad about what he's done, especially to the kid. She was so sweet, so trusting. An involuntary snicker escapes from his throat. Working her was like slicing a hot knife through cold butter. What would happen to her now?
Ah shit, why should he care? He doesn't, he reminds himself, throwing the cigarette butt out of the window. That's the whole damn point, he doesn't. He couldn't have done what he did if he cared.
A sodium light glints off the gold chain at his throat, and with a grin he eyes the charm in the rear view mirror, turning it this way and that. A small diamond at the base of the unicorn's horn winks in the light. How much is it worth? he wonders. Should he toss it into the bay? Pawn it?
No, he decides. He'll keep it for now. As a souvenir. A reminder of what he left behind, a symbol of his handiwork.
A rush of adrenaline pours through him as ahead he spots the low, sinking lights of the Mobile tunnel. Everything is working out fine, he thinks. Just fine.