Tuesday, April 27, 2021

First Chapter Reveal: The Truth About Rachel by Deanna Lynn Sletten

 Hi all,

I am so excited about sharing my upcoming novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT RACHEL, with all of you. It is my first time writing in the murder mystery genre, and hopefully you will enjoy it enough to continue reading the series. 

Below are the first two chapters of the novel. It will set up the story for you and give you an idea of what the book is about. Hopefully, you'll want to read more. :)  Enjoy!


Release date: May 11, 2021

Genre: Murder Mystery/Women Sleuths

Preorder on Amazon Kindle

Audiobook now Available

Paperback coming soon



 

The Truth About Rachel

Deanna Lynn Sletten

Copyright 2021


Chapter One

August 1985

 

 

Rachel pushed back her long, dark hair as she concentrated on braiding a friendship bracelet. The eight-year-old had recently learned to create the colorful string tokens and spent most of her time, and her small allowance, on making them in multiple colors. Her friend, Amy, sat beside her on the park bench, braiding the string for her own creation. It was a warm, sunny day, typical weather in central California. But the two girls were comfortable in the shade of a large oak tree that swayed gently in the breeze.

Two teenaged girls rollerbladed past them on the paved path that winded around the park and through the small grove of trees that lined the narrow river. Rachel looked up from her braiding and saw the tall, lanky form of her older brother, Keith. He was near the opening to the river path, his skateboard at his side, his dark, menacing eyes studying the teen girls heading his way. Beside him stood his sidekick, Jeremy Mitchell. Jeremy was two years younger and several inches shorter than Keith, but he was always following the older boy around. Rachel knew that her brother only tolerated Jeremy. He also used him as a punching bag whenever he had the urge to push someone around.

As Rachel studied her brother, his eyes caught hers, and he smirked. A chill ran through the young girl. Keith had been cruel to her for as long as she could remember. Only their father could control him because Rachel’s mother never paid them any attention. Quickly, Rachel turned her gaze back to making her bracelet.

A shriek broke through the serenity of the park, causing both Rachel and Amy to look up. Just as Rachel had suspected, her brother had scared the two girls who were rollerblading. One had fallen and scraped her knee, and the other girl was yelling at Keith. Rachel’s brother was laughing hysterically as if the girl falling down was hilarious.

Amy shook her blond head and returned to the bracelet she was braiding. “Your brother’s a jerk.”

Rachel sighed. “I know.”

“My mother didn’t want me at the park today. I had to beg her to come,” Amy said. “She said there’s someone scary around town, hurting women. It was something she saw on the news.”

Rachel raised her dark brown eyes to meet her friend’s blue ones. “I heard that on the news this morning. My mom was watching it.”

“Who do you think is hurting women?” Amy asked, her voice low.

Rachel glanced over to where her brother still stood by the shaded area. The path was thick with trees along the river, and Rachel avoided it. It scared her not knowing who or what could be waiting in the shadows on the path. “I don’t know,” she finally answered. “But as long as we’re together, we should be safe.”

Amy had brought along two cans of Coke and a fruit roll-up for each of them. The girls stopped braiding long enough to eat the long strips of sticky strawberry-flavored treats and sip their Cokes. Younger children were playing on the swings and slide as their mothers watched from nearby benches. Older children ran around, skateboarded, and rollerbladed. It was hard for Rachel to believe that their tiny town, which was surrounded by farmland, wasn’t safe. Everyone knew everyone’s business. Other than the migrant workers who came during harvest season, the same faces could be seen all over town, day after day.

As the girls went back to their braiding, a young girl with long, dark hair like Rachel’s approached them. Rachel looked up and smiled. She didn’t recognize the girl, but it didn’t matter. Rachel’s father had taught her to be nice to everyone.

“Hi,” Rachel said.

The girl drew nearer. She was the same height as Rachel, and her skin was tan from long days in the sun. Rachel thought she might be the same age as she was.

“Hi,” the girl said shyly. “What are you making?”

“Friendship bracelets,” Rachel said. She lifted her arm to show her the yellow and blue one on her wrist. “Like this.”

“Are they hard to make?” the girl asked.

“Not really,” Rachel told her. “Would you like me to teach you?”

The girl’s eyes lit up. “Oh, yes.”

Amy had been quiet, but now she nudged Rachel with her elbow. “Don’t,” she said under her breath.

Rachel frowned. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t ask her to join us. She’s one of the migrant worker’s kids,” Amy whispered, but it was still loud enough for the girl to hear because Rachel saw her smile fade and shoulders droop.

“Amy! That’s not nice. And who cares if she is?”

Amy sighed loudly.

“Come on over,” Rachel told the girl and saw her eyes brighten again. “What’s your name?”

She walked up to the picnic table. “Luna. Luna Hernandez.”

“I told you,” Amy said.

Rachel shushed her friend. “You’ll hurt her feelings.”

“I don’t care,” Amy said. “My parents told me to stay away from the migrant workers, so if she stays, I’ll have to leave.”

“My dad is a supervisor at the farm he works for,” Luna said softly. “We’re renting a house down the street. I was born in this country.”

“See,” Rachel said. “They live here. They aren’t just here for the picking season.”

Amy began packing her thread into the little case she carried it in. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t stay with her around. I’m going home.” She stormed off.

Rachel sighed and turned to Luna. “I’m sorry. She isn’t usually mean.”

Luna shrugged. “I’ve had that happen a lot. It’s hard making friends with the local kids. I’m glad you were nice to me.”

Rachel smiled at her. “Come sit next to me, and I’ll show you how to make a bracelet.”

Luna did as she was told and watched as Rachel continued braiding the green and red bracelet she’d been working on.

“See. It’s easy. I’ll help you get started. What colors do you want to make your bracelet?” Rachel asked.

“I like yours,” Luna said, pointing to Rachel’s wrist.

“Okay. Blue and yellow.” Soon, Luna was braiding her own bracelet while Rachel finished hers. The two girls talked about school starting up soon, and Rachel learned that Luna was eight and would be in her grade.

“I’m scared about starting a new school,” Luna said nervously. “Especially since the local kids don’t like migrant children.”

“I’ll be your friend,” Rachel said. “Hopefully, we’ll be in the same classroom.”

This seemed to make Luna happy.

Suddenly, a shadow fell over Rachel, and she looked up to see her brother standing over her.

“So, who’s your new friend?” Keith asked, leering down at Luna.

“None of your business. Leave us alone,” Rachel said, pushing down the fear she felt rising inside of her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jeremy standing on the sidelines. His dirty-blond hair hung around his face, and his eerie dark blue eyes stared directly at her. If Keith started harassing them, Rachel knew that Jeremy wouldn’t help her or Luna.

“Don’t be such a little bitch,” Keith said to his sister. He eyed Luna. “You’re kind of pretty, for a kid.

“Keith!” Rachel yelled. “Stop it!”

Luna cowered at the table while Keith laughed.

“Come on, Jeremy. They’re too young for us—now. Maybe in a few years,” Keith said, laughing wickedly.

To Rachel’s relief, they left.

“Luna,” she said to her new friend. “Stay as far away from Keith and Jeremy as you can. They’re not nice.”

Luna nodded, her face looking frightened. “I will.”

Rachel and Luna finished braiding their bracelets, and Luna proudly wore hers on her wrist.

 “We’re twins now,” Rachel said, both girls holding their wrists up next to each other. If anyone had been watching them, they would have sworn the girls were sisters.

The two girls said their goodbyes and went their separate ways toward home. It was almost five, and Rachel knew her mother would expect her back at the house.

There were nice homes and shabby homes in their neighborhood, and to Rachel’s embarrassment, theirs was shabby. It was a small bungalow with a Spanish tile roof that was in need of a paint job. The shutters hung crookedly next to the windows, and the front door, which was once red, was peeling and tired looking. Rachel’s father was away several days a week, trucking, and her mother spent most of her days inside, watching talk shows and drinking beer. Rachel never knew what her mother’s mood would be like when she walked inside the house.

Rachel smiled when she saw her aunt and uncle’s station wagon parked at the curb. She adored her Aunt Julie and Uncle Gordy. Julie Scott was her mother’s much younger sister. She had the prettiest curly auburn hair, and her blue eyes twinkled when she looked at Rachel. She was the opposite of Rachel’s mother, who was overweight with bleached blond hair and wrinkles forming around her mouth from smoking. Aunt Julie was smart, too. She’d graduated college—the only one in her family to do so—and worked in an accounting firm. Her Uncle Gordy was successful too, and very kind. Rachel always loved it when they came over to see her.

Walking up their cracked cement driveway to the kitchen door, Rachel was about to climb the steps of the small stoop when she heard loud voices inside. She froze. Rachel knew immediately that her aunt and mother were arguing again.

“You can’t have her!” Rachel’s mother yelled. “She’s mine, and I’m keeping her.”

“Judy, please,” Julie pleaded. “We could give her a good life. You don’t even want her. You sit in here all day and smoke and drink and watch TV. Where we’re going, Rachel could have a nice home in a good area and grow up to be anything she wants.”

“No!” Judy said. “Get out. You can move anywhere you want, but you can’t take her.”

Rachel jumped when she heard something hit the back door and shatter on the kitchen floor. She backed up, away from the stoop. Once her mother was angry enough to throw things, it got ugly.

“Fine. We didn’t want to do it, but we’ll get lawyers involved,” Julie yelled. A moment later, Julie and Gordy rushed out of the house, as another item hit the back door. Julie’s face looked shocked when she saw Rachel standing there.

“Oh. Dear. I didn’t know you were out here,” Aunt Julie said, her face softening. “How long have you been here?”

Rachel didn’t want her aunt to know she’d heard anything. “I just got here,” she told her.

Julie looked relieved when she heard this. “We’re just leaving,” she said, hugging Rachel. She pulled back and gazed into Rachel’s eyes. “You’d like to live with us, wouldn’t you? I mean, if I can talk your mother into it.”

Rachel didn’t understand why her aunt kept fighting her mother for custody of her, but she kind of liked the idea. She adored her father, but her mother and brother were always mean to her. She knew her aunt and uncle would be nice to live with. Not wanting to hurt her aunt’s feelings, she said, “I would like that.”

Julie smiled. “We’re going to make it happen. I promise.” She hugged Rachel once more, and then she and Gordy hurried off to their car.

Taking a deep breath, Rachel quietly entered the kitchen and turned left to go down the hallway bypassing the living room where her mother was watching the news. There was nothing cooking for dinner. Rachel knew that meant they’d eat hot dogs or lunchmeat sandwiches—again.

Stopping a moment in the hall, she listened to the newscaster talking about another local murder.

“A third woman in the San Joaquin Valley has been found dead in her home. It’s suspected she’d been raped and murdered in the same manner as the two earlier victims. She’s identified as Edith Arlington and lived on Third Street.”

Rachel frowned. She wasn’t sure what the word rape meant, but she understood murder. Edith Arlington. That name was familiar. As she stood there thinking, she realized the woman lived only two blocks over from them and that she’d been one of the people her brother used to mow the lawn for last summer.

Suddenly, Rachel was grabbed from behind, her thread box falling to the floor. An arm was wrapped tightly around her neck, squeezing the air out of her. Frightened, Rachel struggled, pulling on the arm to get free. The attacker laughed, and she knew immediately it was her brother. She kicked her feet and pulled at his arm, but he held on tight. Rachel tried to call out to her mother, but she could barely breathe, let alone yell. She reached up behind her, her arms flailing, and made contact with his face. Her fingernails dug into his skin, and he yelped when she scratched him.

“Little bitch!” Keith yelled, choking her tighter.

“Let her go!” a deep male voice demanded.

Keith instantly let go of Rachel, and she dropped to the floor like a ragdoll. “We were just playing around,” he said.

Rachel’s father took a menacing step toward Keith. “Never touch your sister again,” he ordered.

Keith snorted. “Sister. Right.”

“Keith. That’s enough,” their father growled. Keith stared at their father warily and finally backed away and headed for his bedroom, slamming the door.

Frank Parnell squatted down and studied his daughter as she tried to catch her breath. “Are you okay?” he asked, his tone gentle.

She nodded. He helped her pick up the thread box and offered her a hand up. She was so happy to see her father that she hugged him tightly.

“Well, that’s a nice greeting,” he said, smiling at her.

She grinned back. Her father wasn’t as tall as Keith, but he was stocky, and when he got angry, he could look menacing. He could have taken out Keith with one blow, but that wasn’t her father’s way. He was a kind man and used his words, unlike her brother.

“What’s going on in there?” Judy yelled from the living room sofa. “I can’t hear the TV.”

Rachel watched her father shake his head. “Well, it looks like there’s no dinner cooking tonight. How about you and I go pick up burgers and fries for dinner?”

The little girl nodded vigorously. Going anywhere with her father was better than being at home.

Frank looked down at her box. “What’s in there?”

“String to make friendship bracelets,” she said.

“Like the one on your wrist?”

“Yeah.”

He smiled. “It’s pretty. Like you.” He winked, and Rachel’s heart jumped. Together, they headed out the kitchen door to his pick-up truck to get dinner.

 

***

 

The next day was dreary looking, and it felt like it might rain, but Rachel didn’t let that stop her. After making her bed and eating a bowl of Fruit Loops, she grabbed a juice box out of the fridge, tucking it in the small bag she carried, and headed to the park. She hoped that Amy would be there so they could make up from their argument the day before. If not, maybe Luna would join her, and they could play together.

Rachel knew her brother had left earlier that morning and would most likely be skateboarding at the park with Jeremy. Ever since he’d grabbed her last night, he’d kept his distance because their father was home. Keith knew he couldn’t get away with his usual antics while their father was around. Earlier, Rachel had caught a glimpse of Keith as he’d walked out of the bathroom, and she’d smiled to herself. The scratches she’d given his face while he was choking her were prominent. For once, she’d gotten him back for being mean to her.

It was cooler than the day before, so Rachel had slipped her faded jean jacket on over her oversized yellow T-shirt and acid-wash jeans. She’d begged her mother for days on end last Christmas for the jacket, and even though it was the only present she’d received, she’d been thrilled. Many of the girls in their school had stylish new clothes, and some wore hand-me-downs. Most of Rachel’s clothes were bought in the second-hand shop, so having a brand-new jacket was a treat.

She walked slowly along the sidewalk, praying it wouldn’t rain. Rainy days meant staying inside. It might not be too bad with her father home, but he usually spent his days working on projects in the garage. She doubted he’d have time to play a card or board game. And she never invited friends over to her house. Her mother always found a way to embarrass her in front of her friends. Rachel prayed the sky would clear up soon so she could stay at the park.

As she turned the corner at the edge of the park, she heard a car drive up alongside her and slow down. Chills ran up Rachel’s spine. She knew never to get into a stranger’s car, and she’d heard terrible stories from her mother about children being kidnapped. She quickened her pace and was about to turn to run into the park when she heard a woman calling her name.

“Rachel!”

Rachel stopped and turned, relief flooding through her when she saw it was her aunt and uncle’s station wagon. She hurried to the car, noticing that the back end was packed full, and there was more stuff tied down and covered with a tarp on the top.

“Are you going somewhere?” Rachel asked her Aunt Julie as she drew closer to the passenger side. Her uncle smiled at her and waved.

“Didn’t your mother tell you?” Julie asked. “We’re moving across the country. Gordy was offered a new job, and I found one too.”

“Oh.” Rachel’s heart fell. She’d miss her aunt terribly.

“Don’t be sad,” Julie said, smiling widely. “We have great news. Your mother agreed to let us have custody of you. You’re going with us.”

The little girl stared at her aunt, stunned. “I’m going to live with you? And not in this town, but far away?”

“Yes, sweetie. Isn’t that great? We’re so happy. And I promise we’ll take good care of you.”

Rachel glanced around. Kids were starting to arrive at the park, as well as a few parents. Leave? Never see my father again? Rachel wasn’t sure how to react. She knew her mother and brother wouldn’t care if she left, but what about her father? Would he give her away so easily?

“Hop in the car, sweetie,” Julie said sweetly. “We have to get going so we can arrive on time. We’ll be stopping at hotels at night, and we’ll be sure to get ones with a pool so you can swim if you want. It’s going to be so much fun.”

It did sound like fun to Rachel. “What about my clothes? And my toys. I have to stop at the house for my things.”

Her aunt seemed to be getting anxious. “Don’t worry about your things. We can buy you new clothes and toys along the way. I promise you can have whatever you want. But we should go now.”

Rachel looked past her Aunt Julie to her Uncle Gordon. He was smiling and nodding his head. She adored her aunt and uncle, but it all seemed so odd to her. Leaving without even saying goodbye to her parents or friends.

“You do want to live with us, don’t you, Rachel?” Aunt Julie asked, sounding desperate now. “We love you so much, honey. You know that it’s always been my dream to have you come live with us. Don’t you want to?”

Rachel did want to live with her aunt and uncle. She was scared of Keith, and she knew her mother didn’t love her. And her father was home so little. Maybe she would be happier if she left with them.

“Rachel?” her aunt asked.

“Yes. I want to come with you,” the little girl finally said. She opened the back door and climbed in.

Her Aunt Julie beamed. “We’re going to have such a great life, the three of us. I’m so happy you’re coming with us.”

Rachel nodded, still confused as to why she couldn’t at least pack a few things. But new things would be nice. And she did love her aunt and uncle.

As they drove down the road, past the park, and over the small bridge that crossed the river, Rachel saw Keith entering the woods that followed the river path. At least she’d never have to put up with him scaring her again. She turned her eyes forward and watched the road ahead.


 

 

 

Chapter Two

Thirty-five years later

 

 

Rachel Scott Emery was hunched over her computer, creating an advertising graphic for her newest client, Robbin’s Grocery. Jobs like this weren’t as interesting as creating ads and book covers for authors, which was two-thirds of her graphic design business, but it helped pay the bills. And with her daughter, Jules, in her second year at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Rachel needed as much money as she could earn.

Pushing a strand of her dark, shoulder-length hair behind her ear, Rachel tried to concentrate on the project before her. But the fall day outside her studio office window was gorgeous and distracted her. The leaves had just begun to change color in her lush yard behind the house. The oaks, maples, and dogwoods were tinging red with a yellow backdrop from the aspen and magnolia trees. Rachel sighed. She found great solace in the private yard filled with flowering and fruit trees as well as many other beautiful plants. Her husband had loved gardening and had turned their two-acre lot into a peaceful haven with colorful trees, shrubs, and flowers. He’d added brick pavers as pathways and the circular brick center with the firepit. They’d spent many a summer evening out by the fire in comfortable padded chairs as the moon rose in the Floridian sky.

How Rachel wished for those days again.

Her phone buzzed, interrupting her thoughts, and Rachel quickly picked it up. Seeing it was the memory care center in Tallahassee, she answered quickly.

“Hello, Mrs. Emery. This is Shirley again, from the Magnolia Memory Care Center,” the woman said with a light southern drawl. “I’m so sorry to bother you, dear, but Miss Julie is having another anxious day, and we’re wondering if you could stop by and help calm her down.”

Rachel frowned at the phone. Her Aunt Julie had been having quite a few agitated days of late. She wondered why she was upset so often. Rachel visited her aunt five times a week, sometimes staying to eat lunch or dinner with her. She loved her Aunt Julie, who’d been more of a mother to her than her own mother had ever been, but today she really needed to finish her work.

“Why is she agitated today?” she asked Shirley.

“Darlin, I just don’t know,” Shirley said familiarly, which made Rachel smile. Shirley was one of the sweetest women she’d ever met, and her aunt felt comfortable around her. “She had a nice lunch with the other ladies, but after she went back to her room, she started getting anxious again. She keeps saying she has to tell you something important.”

“Okay,” Rachel said, already heading out of her studio. “I’ll be there as quickly as I can. Thanks for calling, Shirley.”

“No problem at all. See you in a few minutes, sweetie,” Shirley said before hanging up.

Rachel hurried from her small studio down the hallway to the kitchen, grabbed her keys and purse, then walked through the door into the garage. Starting her Honda CRV, she sat back a moment and took a breath. She was wearing a pair of old jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers. Not exactly what she’d usually wear to visit her aunt, but she didn’t have the time or energy to change. So, Rachel pulled out of the garage, headed down her long, tree-lined driveway, and turned her car toward Tallahassee.

Twenty minutes later, Rachel parked her car at the memory care center and walked purposefully to the main entrance. The center had several separate units, each like its own house, where up to six residents lived. Each resident had a small apartment of their own, and the main unit held a central kitchen and dining room where they met to eat. They also had a shared living room where the residents could gather to watch television if they wished. Rachel had felt fortunate to find such a lovely place with beautiful outdoor grounds for her aunt to live. When she’d first moved Aunt Julie there in May, she seemed to transition well. But over the past few weeks, Julie had become more anxious and upset, and no one seemed to understand why.

“Ah, now lookie here,” Shirley said kindly to Julie as Rachel walked into her one-bedroom apartment. “Rachel has come to visit you. Isn’t that nice of her?”

Rachel smiled at Shirley as she entered and noticed immediately how harried her aunt looked. “Hi, Aunt Julie. I hear you’re not doing too well today.”

Julie had been pacing in a small circle around her living room, mumbling to herself, but stopped suddenly when she heard Rachel’s voice. She looked up quickly, her once vibrant hazel eyes now dull. Her beautiful auburn hair was cut to chin length and had gone completely gray. Julie was only sixty-three, but she looked like a woman twenty years older. Alzheimer’s had taken its toll on her aunt, and it broke Rachel’s heart every time she saw her.

“There you are. You’re finally here. We have to talk,” Julie said in a rush as she wrung her hands. Her eyes darted to Shirley. “We need to talk in private,” she whispered to Rachel.

Rachel rubbed her aunt’s back, trying to soothe her. “Of course we can talk, Auntie,” she said.

“That’s my cue, darlin,” Shirley said, turning her bulky frame to leave. She winked at Rachel with her warm brown eyes. “You call me if you need me, hon,” she said.

Rachel nodded. She was so thankful her aunt had Shirley to care for her.

Julie continued pacing, so Rachel tried to maneuver her over to the sofa. “Let’s sit,” she suggested.

Julie did as her niece asked, but she looked tense and harried. “We must talk. I have to tell you something important.”

“Okay. We can talk,” Rachel said soothingly as she reached for one of her aunt’s hands and held it in hers. Julie had been wringing her hands for so long, they were turning red and bruised.

Julie looked up at Rachel, her eyes fearful. “You may hate me when I tell you. I should have told you years ago. I’m so sorry. I just couldn’t.”

Rachel was puzzled. What could her aunt tell her that would make her angry? “You can tell me anything, Auntie,” she said. “Is it this place? Aren’t you happy here?”

Julie shook her head vigorously. “No. No. It’s not this place,” she shrieked.

“Okay. Calm down. Just tell me what you need to say,” Rachel said.

Julie turned her head from side to side as if to make sure they were alone. She moved in closer to Rachel and whispered, “It’s your brother.”

Rachel pulled back, shocked. That was the last thing she’d expected her aunt to say. “My brother?”

Julie shushed her. “Don’t tell anyone. No one can know you had a brother. We have to keep it quiet. But you need to know.”

“Know what?” Rachel insisted.

Julie slouched lower on the sofa. “It wasn’t our fault. We were only doing what was best for you,” she whispered. “We didn’t know.” Her eyes met Rachel’s. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

Rachel saw fear in Julie’s eyes. She had no idea what her aunt was talking about—it all sounded like nonsense—but she nodded as if she understood. “It’s fine, Auntie. I understand. I’ll keep it quiet. No one will ever know.”

Julie nodded and slowly began to calm down. Rachel started talking about Jules and how she was meeting her for dinner later that night. This made Julie happy. She adored Jules—her namesake.

After a while, Julie seemed lost in her own world again. She asked Rachel how her husband, Carter, was doing and if he was on the road. Rachel didn’t have the strength to remind her aunt that Carter had died in a car accident four years earlier. It would only upset her all over again. An hour after she’d arrived, Rachel kissed Julie on the cheek and told her she’d visit again soon.

Shirley was in the hallway when Rachel left her aunt in front of the television, watching a talk show.

“Is she doing any better, hon?” Shirley asked.

“She’s calmer. I don’t understand what had upset her, but she’s forgotten already,” Rachel told her.

Shirley shook her head, her tight black curls bobbing. “Such a shame. Maybe she doesn’t even know what upset her. I’ll go in and check on her.”

“Thanks, Shirley.” Rachel waved and headed to her car.

As she drove home, Rachel wondered why her aunt had brought up her brother. Rachel hadn’t thought of Keith in years—decades even. The day she and her aunt and uncle drove away from the small town in California, little was ever mentioned again about her parents or her brother. Rachel remembered asking if she could write to her father a few times, and Julie had let her, but she’d never received a reply. That had hurt the little girl deeply because she’d loved her father, but as time went on, and they’d moved from one state to the next, she’d stopped thinking about her old family. Her Aunt Julie and Uncle Gordon had been such kind and loving parents to her that Rachel hadn’t missed her real parents. And she hadn’t missed Keith at all.

“So why did she bring him up today?” Rachel asked aloud.

Shaking the past away, Rachel drove home to work a while longer and then get ready to meet Jules for dinner.

 

***

 

Later that evening, Rachel met her daughter at a small restaurant just north of Tallahassee. The two embraced and sat at a corner table in the back where they could talk privately.

“How is your first month of college?” Rachel asked Jules.

Her daughter shrugged, her long, auburn ponytail swinging as she moved. Rachel was always amazed at Jules's close resemblance to her Aunt Julie, from the reddish hair to her clear hazel eyes. The only difference was that Jules had inherited her father’s height and had long legs that went on forever.

“The first couple of weeks are always boring until we start getting into our studies,” Jules said. She suddenly gave her mother a full-lipped smile. “But Amber and I are loving the apartment at the off-campus complex. There are so many cute guys living there.”

Rachel laughed. Jules and her long-time best friend, Amber Johnston, had moved into an apartment this year—with Rachel’s financial help—and were enjoying their independence. Rachel didn’t mind helping them out. She wanted the girls to enjoy their college experience. It was a big difference from her own college days—she’d lived at home while attending. Aunt Julie and Uncle Gordy had felt it wasn’t safe for her to live off-campus. It wasn’t until her last year, after she’d married Carter, that she’d finally been free of living at home.

“Just make sure you study your schoolwork, not the guys at the pool,” Rachel said, then laughed.

Jules rolled her eyes. “I know. I know. I promise I won’t be married by senior year like you and dad were.” Her tone grew softer. “But that didn’t turn out so bad, did it, Mom?”

Rachel shook her head. “No, it turned out pretty good. But we should have waited that extra year. It was tough paying rent and finishing school.” Now, since her husband had passed, Rachel was thankful they’d married when they had. She wouldn’t have missed out on that extra year with Carter for anything in the world.

The two women ordered their food—a grilled chicken salad for Rachel and a burger and fries for Jules—and continued talking. Rachel loved spending time with her daughter. Their relationship had grown from mother-daughter to friends. Rachel was thankful her daughter shared everything with her, unlike some women she knew whose daughters barely spoke to them.

“How is Aunt Julie? Have you seen her lately?” Jules asked.

Rachel sighed. “I was there this afternoon. She was agitated again, and Shirley had called me.”

“Oh, no. Did you find out why?”

Rachel hesitated before answering. She had always been honest with her daughter about everything—everything except her past. Jules knew nothing about how she’d left her own family to live with her aunt and uncle. At first, Rachel hadn’t seen any reason to mention her family in California when Jules was younger. After all, Julie and Gordon had legally adopted her, and Rachel used their last name while growing up. But when Jules was a young teen, she’d asked her why she’d grown up with her aunt and uncle instead of her parents. Rachel had just said they’d adopted her and hadn’t given a reason why. Now, it seemed silly to keep it a secret. Secrets could be harmful if kept hidden too long.

“Mom?” Jules asked, looking concerned.

The waiter delivered their food, giving Rachel another moment to think. But once the waiter left, Rachel had already decided what she had to do.

“Dear. Remember when you asked me why I lived with my aunt and uncle?” Rachel asked.

Jules looked up from pouring ketchup on her plate. “Yeah. I think so. You never really gave me an answer, though.”

Rachel took a breath. “That’s because it had been a secret for so long, I didn’t know how to answer you. But you’re an adult now, and it’s time you knew the truth.”

The food forgotten, she now had Jules's full attention.

“Aunt Julie and Uncle Gordon adopted me. I have the birth certificate to prove it. But I did have a mother and a father. And a brother.”

“Really? Are they still alive?” Jules asked, looking stunned.

Rachel shrugged. “I don’t know. I was only eight when I left town with Julie and Gordon. My mother wasn’t a nice woman. She ignored me most of the time. And my father was always working. He drove a truck and was gone several days a week. And then, there was my brother, Keith.” Rachel shivered when she said his name. She was still affected by how much he’d terrorized her as a child. “I don’t know what became of them. After we left, I did write to my father a few times because I was closest to him, but he never answered. Then we moved several times and finally landed in Tallahassee. By then, I’d pretty much put my family out of my mind. Aunt Julie and Uncle Gordon were wonderful to me. I didn’t need the people in California.”

Jules started eating her fries, the shock of her mother’s confession wearing off. “That’s incredible. Why did they take you, though?”

Rachel picked at her salad. “I’m not completely sure. Aunt Julie had always been kind to me, and for as long as I can remember, she’d been trying to talk my mother into letting me live with her. It didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. I knew life with my aunt and uncle would be great, so when they came to get me that day, I happily went with them.”

Jules’s thick brows lifted. “Came to get you? You mean this wasn’t done at a courthouse? They just picked you up one day?”

Rachel frowned. She’d never thought of it that way. “But I have my revised birth certificate. So, they did adopt me.”

“Is it legal?”

“What?” Rachel couldn’t believe her ears. “Of course it’s legal.”

Jules took a bite of her hamburger and chewed slowly as her mother let the last question roll around in her head.

“It just seems odd, Mom. Doesn’t it seem strange to you?”

It hadn’t seemed odd at all. If Jules had known what her life had been like before leaving with Julie and Gordon, she’d understand. But now that Rachel was finally talking about it, the story did have a lot of holes.

“It is weird, I’ll give you that,” Rachel finally said. “But no one came looking for me. I never saw my face on a milk carton.” She laughed, but it felt forced.

“I’m not saying they took you illegally, Mom. But it sounds strange. Is that what’s upsetting Aunt Julie now? The past?”

Rachel nodded. “Julie was so upset this afternoon. She wanted to tell me privately about my brother. She kept apologizing like she’d done something wrong. She even said I might hate her if I knew the truth. I really thought she was just rambling on. But now, I’m not sure.”

“Do you think she knows something you don’t?” Jules asked.

Rachel took a sip of her soda. “Maybe. But I don’t know what it could be. And I don’t want to press her about it in her current state of mind. It might just be a delusion on her part, too.”

Jules lifted her eyes to her mother. “Have you ever searched for your parents or brother online? That might answer all your questions.”

Rachel had thought of doing just that, years ago. And once, she’d even typed in her parents’ names, but nothing came up. She’d decided back then to let it all go. “I have no reason to search for them. They didn’t care enough about me to stay in contact, so why would I try now?”

Her daughter gave her a quizzical look. “Maybe they didn’t contact you because they didn’t know where you were. Your last name had changed. You said you moved from state to state before ending up here. Maybe Aunt Julie made sure they couldn’t find you.”

Rachel had thought that very same thing as she’d let her mind wander this afternoon. But her Aunt Julie wasn’t like that. She’d always been open with Rachel about everything. Still, they never talked about Rachel’s parents or brother after they’d moved away, except for letting Rachel write to her father. Could her aunt and uncle have been that devious?

“I guess I could do a search on them,” Rachel finally said. When she saw her daughter pull out her phone, Rachel shook her head. “Not here. I’ll do it at home, in private. Who knows what I’ll find?”

Jules looked disappointed but didn’t argue. “At least tell me what you find out, if you learn anything, okay?”

Rachel nodded. “I will. But I doubt after thirty-five years, I’ll find out anything at all.”

 

***

 

An hour later, Rachel returned home and headed directly to her office. She still had the grocery store campaign to finish, but that wasn’t foremost on her mind. Ever since telling her daughter the truth about her early years, she couldn’t get the idea of searching for her family out of her head. It was worth a try.

Opening her laptop, Rachel waited while it started up. She opened Google, and her shaking fingers hovered over the keyboard. Did she really want to unlock her past? What good would it do her now? She hesitated.

“It’s just a search,” she told herself. “It’s not like I have to ever see them if I do find them.”

With new determination, she typed in, “Keith Parnell, Casita, California.” The few seconds it took to display a response felt like an eternity. Finally, a list of headlines and links appeared.

“Keith Parnell, Life in Prison for Murder.”

“Keith Parnell Murder Case.”

“1985 Murder Case, Keith Parnell.”

Rachel stared in shock at the headlines. That couldn’t possibly be her brother. There must be a thousand other people named Keith Parnell, she thought. But then, the next headline from a 1985 article in the Casita Daily News made her eyes go wide.

“Eight-year-old Murder Victim Identified as Rachel Parnell.”

Rachel sat back and stared at the news headline in horror. “They think I’m dead.”

 


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The Romance Reviews

The Romance Reviews