Valerie Joan Connors, Author

   

 

 

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Read Chapter 1 Below...



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Praise for A Better Truth

"I loved taking this thrilling journey with Willow, who learns that the truth will set you free…if you can survive it.   Fascinating, with twists and turns that keep the pages rolling!"

--Lynn Cullen, nationally bestselling author of Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End      

"A Better Truth is a real page-turner! Valerie Joan Connors has crafted a book that has it all: suspense from the beginning, complex characters, a plot that keeps the reader guessing, and lots of surprises—including a breathtaking ending. At the same time, this novel has substance as it reminds us of our frailties, of the bonds of family and love, and of the possibility of recovery. It’s a book that should be passed from reader to reader and one I will not soon forget."

--Constance McKee, author of The Girl in the Mirror


A Better Truth is a psychological thriller whose central character struggles to recognize the difference between reality and the paranoid imaginings of her damaged mind.


When the frantic pace of her Washington, D.C. life becomes too much for her to bear, Willow St. Claire takes refuge in the North Georgia Mountains. She buys a bookstore, hoping to spend her days talking to customers about the latest releases, and her evenings in the quiet oasis of her mountain retreat. Alone in her cabin, two miles away from the nearest neighbor, Willow must learn to cope with the terror of her past, heal from the loss of her mother, and maintain a relationship with a teenaged daughter who refuses to leave D.C. where she lives with her father. But a knock at Willow’s kitchen door late one night, sets off a series of events that will shatter her newly found peace and tranquility, and threaten to trigger another breakdown. Willow has held tightly to her own version of the truth for over three decades, because for her, real truth is far too disturbing to acknowledge.


CHAPTER 1

Shadows danced on the bathroom walls in the flickering candlelight. The claw-foot soaking tub was filled nearly to the top, enveloping her in warm and soothing comfort, and as always, the lilac scented bubble bath reminded Willow of her mother. The knotty pine interior of the log cabin was reminiscent of the stables at her parents’ home in Virginia where she and her brother Garrett had grown up.

Willow listened to her favorite playlist on her iPod; songs that brought her back to her teenage years when she had played those same songs on her boom box from the compact disks she carried in her oversized, leather shoulder bag. The songs reminded her of a time in her life when the memories of what had happened all those years ago were still fresh, the fear still palpable. For a time, she had stopped listening to music altogether, because it evoked such painful and terrifying memories. But rather than giving in to her pain and her fear, Willow was determined to face them head on. If she gave up the things she loved, then the bad guys won. She’d have none of that.

Willow had lived in North Georgia nearly three years and had gone through this same ritual almost every night; the candle lit bathroom, the lilac scented bath salts, and the old songs, in hopes of getting a good night’s sleep without using prescription drugs. But nine out of ten nights she had conceded defeat and taken the pills. The rat race of Washington D.C. drove her mad. Although her quality of life was much better in Blue Ridge, she was still nervous being alone in her cabin after dark.

During the day, though, it was everything she had longed for. No car horns, sirens, or people interfered with her peace and tranquility. No one told her what to do, or when and how to do it. No one criticized her clothing choices or the shape of her body. Having always been naturally lean and lithe, Willow maintained her figure with little difficulty. Of course there was always someone thinner or more beautiful. Her ex-husband, Walter, had never missed an opportunity to point those women out to her. Although she missed seeing her daughter every day, Willow didn’t miss her old life. Her new life in Blue Ridge suited her, at least during the daylight hours. She felt better about herself than she had in years. The trade-off was the nighttime.

Alone in the cabin, her closest neighbor two miles away, she was vulnerable and she knew it. But Willow took steps to protect herself; including the semi-automatic Glock G43 she kept within reach at night and the two German shepherds, trained as guard dogs, that never left her side.

It had been Roger, who lived in the next house up the winding road from hers, who had taught Willow how to fire her weapon. As a retired Atlanta detective, he knew a lot about guns and security systems. He helped her pick out a gun that would feel comfortable in her hand and was easy to use. The best possible outcome, he had told her, would be that she’d never have to fire it. But if she did, Roger made sure she’d be ready.

Willow had been in Blue Ridge only a week when Roger stopped by to introduce himself. He convinced her to have a security system installed, which she did, and suggested that she consider getting at least one dog. Criminals don’t want the hassle of a barking dog, he had said. They would rather just move on to the next house. Besides, he’d said, at the very least a dog would alert her that something was wrong. That could give her time to call 911 and get her gun. When she told him that she refused to have a telephone in her house, Roger told her that was a very bad idea. She took his advice about all of the other precautions, but refused to budge on the landline. Nor would she carry a cell phone. If someone needed to reach her, they could call her during the day at the bookstore. The rest of the time she wanted to be left alone.

Willow had been nearly ready to get out of the bathtub, put on her pajamas, and go to bed, when she heard the noise outside. Both dogs, which only moments before had been resting quietly on the bathroom floor, sprang to their feet, barking as they ran toward the kitchen. When she turned down the music, Willow realized that someone was pounding on the kitchen door. She got out of the tub quickly, and in her haste to grab the terry-cloth robe that was draped over the toilet seat, she knocked her gun to the floor. It landed with a thump. She put on her bathrobe and picked up the gun.

Slowly and quietly, she walked across the bare hardwood floor, checking over her shoulder as she moved toward the kitchen to see if anyone was behind her, but seeing only a fading trail of wet footprints. She had gone through this scenario in her mind a thousand times. Willow had spent many sleepless nights imagining what she’d do if a stranger actually tried to break in. She wondered if she would be able to pull the trigger and actually shoot another human being, even in self-defense.

Willow paused at the end of the hall, afraid to enter the kitchen, hoping that whoever it was would just go away and leave her alone. Finally, she convinced herself that if it were a deranged killer at the back door, he probably wouldn’t knock. Still, a good Girl Scout is always prepared, as her mother used to say.

The house was dark except for the light over the stove that she always left on, because she had intended to go straight to bed after her bubble bath before its soothing effects had worn off. Now she wished she’d left all of the lights on.

Both dogs were in the kitchen, poised to attack whomever or whatever was on the other side of the door. The sound of the two ferocious animals barking and growling in turns should have been enough to make anyone in their right mind step away from the house. When Willow pulled aside the curtain on the door to the mudroom, she saw the shape of a person through the etched glass window of the outside door. It wasn’t a very large figure, but still, after everything that had happened, Willow knew she couldn’t afford to let her guard down. She wished she’d listened to Roger and installed a phone line in the house. But she did have a loaded gun in her hand. So, unwilling to stand in the kitchen until dawn, she opened the door and stepped into the mudroom. With her gun pointed at the center of the etched glass window of the outer door, she shouted, “Who’s out there and what do you want?”

She had wanted to sound confident and unafraid, but her voice had cracked. Willow was terrified. What if it was Him? What if he had finally tracked her down after all these years? Her vision was starting to get grey around the edges and she felt light-headed. If she had a full-blown panic attack now, she thought, it was all over. She had to remain alert and in control.

She asked again, more forcefully this time, ”Who is out there?”

“It’s only me,” came the muffled reply.

In spite of her shaking hands and thundering heartbeat, Willow took a deep breath and threw the outer door open, her gun aimed at the intruder’s head.

The girl jumped backward, missed the bottom step, and tumbled onto the ground. She sat there, frozen, eyes wide, staring at Willow in the doorway in her pink terry-cloth robe with two growling German shepherds, one on each side, her weapon aimed and ready to fire.

“Jeez, Mom,” the girl said. “If you had a phone like normal people, I would have called first. Could you please put that gun down?”

“Gracie?”

“Do you always answer the door like that?”

She blinked, lowered the gun, and tucked it into the pocket of her robe. Then she walked down the back steps and reached out a hand to help her seventeen-year-old daughter up off the ground. Grace was taller than when Willow had last seen her, and significantly thicker around the middle. As Willow helped her to her feet, Grace instinctively put her free hand against her pronounced mid-section. Grace confirmed her suspicion immediately.

“Yes, Mom, I’m pregnant. Are you going to scream at me, too?” Grace asked.

Willow needed to sit down.

“No, Gracie. I’m not going to scream at you. Come on, honey, let’s go inside. You’re a mess. How did you get here?”

Willow led her through the mudroom into the kitchen and put Grace’s pink duffle bag in the corner. 

“Sit down. I’ll make us some coffee,” Willow said.

“I don’t drink coffee. I’m only seventeen,” Grace said, rolling her eyes. “Besides, it’s bad for the baby. Do you have any sparkling water? I have indigestion, something awful.”

Willow began to think she’d fallen asleep in the bathtub.

“So how did you get here, all the way from D.C.?” Willow asked.

“It’s a long story.”

“Maybe so, but you’re going to have to fill me in. I haven’t heard from you in weeks. I gather your father wasn’t too happy about the, you know, your condition. I assume he was the one screaming at you.”

“Oh my God,” she said, rolling her eyes again. “He screamed at me every day for a month. And then he threatened to send me away to this place for pregnant girls where they hide you out until the baby is born and then they make you put it up for adoption. That’s when I ran.”

“How long ago was that?” Willow asked.

“Night before last.”

“Wait, you’ve been gone since night before last and your father didn’t try to get in touch with me? He could have called the bookstore and left word for me there. How long has he known about the pregnancy?” Willow asked. “And how did you manage to get all the way to—?”

“I said it’s a long story, Mom,” Grace interrupted, “and I’ll tell you everything, but right now there isn’t time.”

“What do you mean, there isn’t time?” Willow asked, suddenly glad she had the gun in the pocket of her bathrobe.

“I can’t stay. I just need some money. I took the cash that Dad hides in his sock drawer, but it was only enough to get me this far. I need to buy a bus ticket to get the rest of the way to Florida to see Jason.”

Willow was trying to keep up, but things were happening so quickly. When she started to feel faint, she pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. Then realizing it was only a hot flash, she loosened her robe a little to let in some air.

“Who is Jason?” Willow asked.

“I met him at Disney World about five months ago. That’s how this happened,” Grace said, pointing at her belly with both index fingers.

“Okay, Gracie,” Willow said. “Slow down and start from the beginning.”

She gave Willow another “all adults are idiots” eye roll and sighed heavily.

“I told you, Mom, there isn’t time to talk about everything right now. I need to be gone before Dad gets here.”

The room grew cold. Willow felt that familiar chill run up her spine and choked out the words.

“Your father is coming here?”

“Yes. He could show up any time. See, I ran out of cash and had to use my credit card in North Carolina last night for the motel room, so I doubt if he’s all that far behind me.”

The last time Willow had seen her daughter’s father was in front of a judge, the day their divorce was granted. In the years that followed, she had only spoken to him in order to coordinate visits with Grace, who had opted to stay in D.C. with her father. 

Grace loved the city. Compared to life with her father in Washington, D.C., being forced to live in Blue Ridge, Georgia would have felt like a death sentence. She didn’t mind the traffic and the noise, or living in a high-rise condo with hundreds of other people, breathing recycled air.

Willow’s new home was opposite in every way. When she moved to Blue Ridge, she bought a bookstore and spent her days talking to customers about books, and meeting with publishers’ reps to learn about the new releases slated for the next season. At home, she sat on her screened porch with advance reading copies from the latest debut authors. She became a vegetarian, something her ex-husband had given her a hard time about, and pored over cookbooks, learning how to make healthy food that didn’t contain anything that had ever had a mother. The peace and solitude had been such a relief for Willow. But Grace hated the isolation, and only tolerated Blue Ridge on those rare occasions when Willow insisted that she come to visit. After the first couple of days, she was already talking about going back to D.C., and didn’t seem to care how much it hurt her mother’s feelings.

“Do you mean he could be here any day, or any minute?” Willow asked.

Before Grace could answer, there was a knock at the door. Both dogs erupted in barks and growls again. The dogs bared their teeth. Willow froze. Then she made a split second decision.

“Go into the basement,” she whispered to Grace. “I’ll get rid of him. Hurry.”

Willow could tell by the look in her daughter’s eyes that she was surprised by this response. Grace knew that her mother wouldn’t be happy to see her ex-husband. She’d moved across several states to avoid seeing him. Duffel bag in hand, Grace hurried into the hallway and down the stairs to the basement, closing the door quietly behind her. But before she rounded the corner, she had turned back to glance at Willow.

“Thanks, Mom,” she whispered.

Willow nodded and gave Grace enough time to get down to the basement and find a good hiding place.

“Who is it?” she yelled, to be heard over the barking dogs. 

“It’s Walter.”

“Who?”

“Willow, it’s me, Walter, your ex-husband. Remember? Grace’s father for Christ’s sake!”

She couldn’t stall any longer. Willow put the gun on the table so she wouldn’t be tempted to shoot her ex-husband with it. Then she tightened the belt on her bathrobe, combed her fingers through her damp hair, and opened the door. She had no intention of inviting him in.

“Walter, what are you doing here?”

“Where is she?” he demanded. 

“Where is who?” Willow asked. “What’s going on?”

Walter pushed past her into the kitchen.

“Don’t act like you don’t know, Willow. You know perfectly well I’m looking for Grace. Where is she? I know she’s here.”

“Slow down,” Willow said, trying to look alarmed. “Why would Grace be here? She’s supposed to be in D.C. with you.”

Walter took off his jacket and tossed it across the back of a chair, as if he had been asked to make himself at home.

“She ran away,” he said.

“What?” Willow asked. “Why would she run away?”

“We had a fight. She stormed into her bedroom and slammed the door. I didn’t hear another sound out of her for the rest of the night, so I figured she went to bed. The next morning she wasn’t in her room. Her car was still in the garage and she’d taken some cash out of my dresser. Maybe a hundred bucks.”

It had been smart of Grace not to take her car, Willow thought, in spite of how much easier that would have been. As connected as Walter was, Grace would have been pulled over by the police long before she crossed the state line.

“Oh my god, Walter, have you called the police? Why didn’t you try to get in touch with me?” Willow asked, hoping the panic in her voice sounded genuine.

“Of course I called the police, Willow,” he snapped, which seemed to be his only way of communicating with her for as many years as she could remember. “She’s a minor, for god’s sake.”

Only for a couple more months, Willow thought, but it looked as though they were going to be two very long ones.

“Well what did they say?” Willow asked. The panic in her voice sounding so real now that she almost forgot Grace was in the basement. “What are they doing about it?”

Willow wanted to know how much trouble she was in. Was she harboring a fugitive? Grace was her daughter, she thought, so probably all she was guilty of was torturing her ex-husband. She was perfectly fine with that.

“They’re working on it,” he said. “I didn’t think she would get very far without her car. I figured she was probably just staying with one of her friends until she cooled down. But when she didn’t come home after the first night and her phone kept going straight to voicemail, I started to worry, so I checked the transactions on her credit card. She stayed in a motel in North Carolina last night. That’s when I figured she was coming here. I would have called you if you had a phone, like normal people. Instead, I drove seven hours to the motel where she stayed, not that they were any help. How does a seventeen-year-old rent a motel room anyway?”

Willow wondered that herself. Walter walked to the kitchen table and started to pull out a chair to sit down, but stopped short.

“Why is there a gun on the table?” he asked.

“I keep it for protection,” Willow said. “I live alone, a long way from town.”

“Why is it on the table now? Do you carry it around the house all the time?” he asked, looking at her like she was an idiot, the way he had always looked at her after the first couple of years of their marriage. It was one of the many reasons they weren’t married anymore.

“If you must know, I keep it with me when I’m in vulnerable situations, like when I’m in the bathtub, and when people knock on my door in the middle of the night.”

Willow heard her voice rising as she spoke. She wanted him out of her house. Now.

 “Why would you want to live in a place where you feel like you have to carry a weapon inside your own home?”

He was looking at her as if she were deranged. Willow could only imagine his reaction if he learned about the rest of her safety precautions. As it was, Grace had probably already seen for herself.

“I feel safer here than I ever did in D.C. with you,” she said, then quickly changed the subject. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “Now tell me why our daughter ran away and what we’re going to do about finding her.”

Willow wondered if he’d tell her about the pregnancy, or the boy in Florida.

“You know how teenagers are,” he said. “Their hormones are raging. They fly off the handle at the littlest things.”

He wasn’t going to tell her, she thought, feeling a little less guilty about lying to him.

“Well the fight must have been about something,” she said.

“Are you telling me she hasn’t been here, or hasn’t tried contacting you at the bookstore?”

“That’s what I’m telling you,” Willow lied. “So where do we go from here, Walter? She could be in danger. How could you let something like this happen?”

“Don’t you dare try to blame this on me! You know I love our daughter more than anything in this world. I’m worried sick.”

Willow needed him out of the house as soon as possible. She was beginning to feel sorry for him.

“Listen, Walter. If I hear from her, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, did you consider that maybe someone stole her credit card and used it in North Carolina? Maybe she’s back in D.C. wondering where the hell you are.”

She could see he hadn’t thought about that. 

“It’s late,” he said. “But I don’t know what else I can do at this hour, and I’m exhausted. I’ll just stay here tonight and figure out the next move in the morning.”

There was no way in the world that was going to happen, Willow thought. With a loaded gun in the house, chances were good he wouldn’t survive until morning.

“Walter, I think it would be best if you went into town and found a hotel room. I’m not comfortable with you here.”

She held her breath and waited for the explosion that was sure to follow.

“You’re not comfortable?”

 “That’s right,” she said, trying to keep her tone firm without inciting an argument. “This is my home. You’re my ex-husband. We’re not friends. You can’t just invite yourself in for the night and expect me to be okay with it.”

Willow watched the vein in his neck throb, comforted by the loaded handgun on the kitchen table. Walter’s form of torture had been mental, not physical, but during each of their many heated arguments that had lasted into the small hours of the morning, the look on his face was much the same as it was now. She was prepared to get him out of the house at gunpoint, if necessary.

“If you’re lying to me, Willow, you’ll regret it.”

He turned and walked out the door without saying anything more. Over the years Walter had made her regret many things. She locked the door behind him and watched out the window until his car disappeared down the long, winding driveway that led to the main road. Then she went down to the basement. When she flipped the light on, Grace came out from under the stairs. There were tears on her cheeks. She looked exhausted.

“Dad is going to be so pissed at you,” she said.

Willow wiped away her daughter’s tears and folded Grace into her arms.

“You’re right, Gracie. But that’s nothing new.”

That made her laugh, which made Willow’s heart feel a little better.

“Let’s get you settled into your room, honey. You look so tired. Do you want something to eat first?”

“That sounds good. I am tired, but I’m starving, too. I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Okay,” Willow said. “You go get ready for bed and I’ll fix you something to eat.”

“Thanks. And, Mom?” Grace began. “What’s up with the room over there? You know, the one that looks like a bank vault with furniture in it.”

Grace was unaware of the demons her mother fought to keep at bay every day of her life, and Willow wondered how she would explain the “safe room” without either telling Grace the truth, or making herself look like a lunatic.

“We’ll talk about that tomorrow,” Willow said. “It’s a long story.”

She made a hummus and tomato sandwich and cut it on the diagonal, just the way Grace liked it. She didn’t have the sparkling water her daughter had asked for, but there was some Ginger Ale. Grace used to like that.

When Willow heard Grace leave the bathroom, she carried the sandwich and soda to the guest room, tapped on the door with the edge of the plate, and walked through it without waiting for a response. Grace was wearing a long T-Shirt and a pair of leggings. From behind she looked shockingly thin. No one would have guessed that she was pregnant. When she turned around, Willow saw the same shocking thinness everywhere except her belly. It looked like she had a basketball under her shirt. Grace had been wearing an oversized, hooded sweatshirt when she arrived, and in the excitement and confusion Willow hadn’t had a chance to take a good look at her. She hadn’t been eating. That was clear. And it wasn’t just today. She wondered if Grace’s weight loss was the result of trying to keep the pregnancy from her father, or if she had suffered so badly from morning sickness that she’d simply stopped eating. Willow had lost nearly ten pounds in her first months of pregnancy with Grace, and remembered having to forcing herself to eat.

“Here you go, Gracie.”

Willow put the plate and the glass on the nightstand and sat down in the rocking chair in the corner of the room. Grace got into the bed and sat with her back against the headboard, pulling the blankets up to her waist.

“Thanks, Mom,” she said.

Grace rested the plate on her belly, while she attacked the first half of the sandwich.

“I know you’re exhausted, honey, and I’m not going to ask for all the details until tomorrow morning after you’ve had a good night’s sleep. But just tell me one thing. Are you all right? I mean, has anything bad happened that I should know about?”

“I’m fine, Mom. We’ll talk about everything in the morning, okay?”

“Sure, honey. I’ll just keep you company until you finish your sandwich. Then we’ll both try to get some sleep. Whatever is going on with you, Gracie, I want you to know that I’m here for you and I love you. You have no idea how happy I am to see you.”

When Grace took the last bite of her sandwich, she washed it down with a big gulp of Ginger Ale.

“I do know, Mom. That’s why I came. Well, that and the fact that I need money to get to Jason in Florida. But I knew you’d help me. Daddy hates me now because I’m pregnant, but I knew you would understand why I couldn’t let him send me to a place where they’d take away my…”

Her eyes began to well up again and she put the plate down on the nightstand.

“It’s okay, Gracie. You’re safe here. Just snuggle in and get a good night’s sleep.”

Willow pulled the covers up to her daughter’s chin and tucked her in the way she had done when Grace was a little girl. Now her belly stuck up and made a small mountain in the middle of her otherwise much too thin body. Grace had said she was starving. Now, Willow could see that was true. Her beautiful blue eyes were red from crying. Willow had never seen her little girl look so exhausted. She wanted to make everything in Grace’s world good again and hoped to God she’d be able to figure out how. She turned out the bedside lamp and kissed Grace on the top of her head as she’d done every night for the first fifteen years of her life.

When she got into bed, Willow realized that as usual, sleep wouldn’t come easily. Seeing Walter had been upsetting, not to mention the strange circumstances under which she’d learned she was about to become a grandmother. Her mind raced, trying to process what had happened in the past few hours. Willow couldn’t quiet her thoughts, yet she hesitated to take a sleeping pill in case her daughter needed something during the night. She heard her little girl tossing and turning in the room down the hall and counted at least three trips to the bathroom before Willow finally gave in and took an Ambien to force herself to sleep.

The next morning Willow woke with a start, her heart pounding, and tiptoed down the hall to Grace’s room. Her bed was empty. Willow started to panic, until she saw that Grace’s duffel bag was still on the chair in the corner of the room. She went to the kitchen, hoping to find her daughter there, but the kitchen was also empty. The dogs were missing, too. They had been sleeping on the floor at the foot of Willow’s bed when she had finally drifted off. She put on her slippers and went out the kitchen door to the backyard and walked across the wet grass toward the detached garage.

“Gracie!” she yelled.  “Are you out here?”

There was no response. Willow called for the dogs, Lucy and Ethel, and clapped her hands together. Soon she heard the dry twigs on the ground snapping under their paws as the two dogs galloped out of the woods and settled at her feet, panting and agitated. A moment later, her daughter emerged from the same woods. Grace just stood there, looking past Willow into the distance, her clothes smeared with blood, her mother’s gun in her hand.