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.
Kelly L. Stone's nonfiction essays have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul, Chicken Soup to Inspire Body & Soul, Cup of Comfort for Inspiration, and other anthologies. She has written for national magazines including Family Circle, Cat Fancy, Writer's Digest, and Inspire Your World. She is a member of The American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Georgia Writers Association. She lives in the Atlanta area but grew up near Pensacola, Florida. Grave Secret is her first novel.
"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."Romantic Times Book Reviews
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.
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 andsizzles, 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.