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Authors: Billie Green

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BOOK: That Boy From Trash Town
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Whitney simply stared in stunned silence. Her mother was shaking with anger, her face flushed as her fingers clenched into a fist around the letter.

"Understand this right now." Anne's voice had dropped, but it was hard and tight as she continued. "I will not tolerate this kind of intrusion. In the future you will stay out of my desk, out of my.. .my personal things."

The strength in the older woman's voice had dwindled with the final words and an instant later Anne turned and walked out of the room.

Whitney stood and stared in bewilderment at the empty doorway. She had never, not once in her life, seen her mother lose her temper. It left her feeling oddly displaced, as though she had stepped into Alice's Wonderland where ordinary things were suddenly extraordinary, where nothing did what it was supposed to do. She felt as though she had been bitten by a butterfly.

* * *

Later, after Whitney had showered and changed into a blue silk jumpsuit, she curled up in the window seat in her bedroom and stared out the window, a confused frown adding small grooves to her brow.

Even now, after she'd had time to think, the scene with her mother had a surreal quality about it. Every motion and emotion seemed strangely exaggerated and out of place. Why did her mother suddenly object to Whitney using her desk? Menopause was already behind Anne Grant, but could there be some other physical problem, one that her mother was hiding from Whitney?

No, Whitney told herself, it wasn't about the desk. It was the letter. The change in her mother had taken place when Whitney mentioned the letter from her father.

Leaning her forehead against the glass, she replayed the scene in her mind. She had already admitted to herself that she'd been wrong to read the letter. Letters were personal things, especially a letter from a loved one. But the more Whitney thought about it, the less she was inclined to believe her mother's outburst had been sparked by an invasion of her privacy. For one brief moment, as she'd stared at the letter, Anne Grant had looked afraid.

It was only moments later that Whitney saw her mother leave the house and take the path that led to the main house. As she watched the older woman disappear from sight, Whitney chewed on her lip in indecision. Then she stood up abruptly and left her bedroom.

Downstairs, Whitney returned to the study and began once again to search through the drawers of her mother's desk. This time she unfolded every scrap of papa. She looked in every cubbyhole and between the pages of Anne's appointment book.

Whitney wasn't sure what was driving her; she wasn't even sure what she was looking for, but she knew she couldn't stop until she had some answers.

And that was why, when she left the study, she went upstairs to her mother's bedroom.

As she searched through her mother's personal things, in the bureau, the nightstand and the closet, guilt nagged at Whitney, but the guilt wasn't strong enough to overcome her need to know.

She found nothing in her mother's bedroom. Absolutely nothing. No letters, no mementos, no photos. Frowning in frustration, she wandered into the adjoining bathroom, stopping abruptly as the smell of smoke reached her.

It wasn't tobacco smoke—Anne Harcourt Grant would never do anything so unladylike—more of a charred or burned smoke. Something had been burning in the bathroom. And it had been burning recently enough that the smell still lingered in the air.

Whitney found the evidence, still warm, in a brass wastebasket.

Dropping to her knees beside it, she began to sift through the mound of ash, her fingers trembling with a growing sense of urgency.

She found two scraps of paper in the remains. On one, in her father's distinctive hand, were the words "please, love." The other piece was the top half of an envelope with the return address still intact: 1132 Quintan Street, Dallas, Texas. The postmark showed it had been sent only seven years earlier.

For a long time Whitney sat on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, staring at the scraps of paper, then she rose slowly to her feet and walked out of the bathroom. By the time she left the house, she was running.

She took the path she had seen her mother take only minutes earlier, stumbling several times as she went. It was when she rounded a decorative evergreen bush that she saw her mother and uncle standing together on a small terrace that extended from the side of the main house.

Whitney stopped running and moved toward Anne Grant with carefully deliberate steps.

"Tell me how Daddy died." Her voice was breathless from exertion, agitated from disbelief. "You never told me any details. Not one. You just said he drowned in a boating accident. When I was little, all I cared about was that he wasn't coming home again, then later, when you never mentioned him, never even spoke his name, I just assumed that it was too painful for you to talk about. I hurt for you, Mother. You had lost a life partner, and I could see...anyone could see that you weren't strong enough to cope on your own."

She shook her head slowly. "All these years, I thought I had to protect you. I thought you were too vulnerable, too soft, to deal with reality. I thought it was my job to do that for you. I honestly believed that's what Daddy would want me to do. You see... you see, I felt—"

She broke off and drew in a deep, steadying breath. "You have to tell me the truth, Mother. You have to tell me now."

"Whitney, for heaven's sake," Anne said, her voice flustered. "You're overheated. Look at your face, darling, it's all flushed and—"

"Did my father die nineteen years ago?"

"Whitney, calm down immediately!"

The barked order came from her uncle, but she ignored it as she kept her gaze trained on her mother's face. "Mother, please." Her voice was quieter now, calmer, but none the less determined. "Just tell me the truth. Did Daddy die like you told me he did?"

When Anne glanced away from her, avoiding her eyes, Whitney knew she had stumbled onto the truth. The inconceivable had suddenly become fact.

"All these years," she whispered hoarsely, her voice shaking with anger and anguish. "All these years, you've been lying to me. How could you do it? How could you coldly and deliberately tell a five-year-old child that her father was dead? It was cruel. You knew what he meant to me. You knew."

Whitney's fingers clenched into fists as rage overwhelmed her. "Every day...every damn day for nineteen years I've mourned him. I've grieved for him. Every single day I tried to fill up the Bole that his death left in me. But it never worked, Mother. The hole couldn't be filled." Her breath was coming in harsh gasps now. "You lied when you said he was dead, and you just kept on lying, no matter how it hurt me. For all my life, you've been telling one damn lie after another."

"That's enough," her uncle said, his voice hard. "Don't you take that tone with your mother."

Instantly Whitney shifted her gaze to him. "You knew, didn't you?" She gave a short, harsh laugh. "Why doesn't that surprise me, Uncle Ames?"

"I did what I thought was best."

The soft, trembling words brought Whitney's gaze back to her mother. Anne's pale hands were clasped to her breast, her gaze on a distant point as she still refused to meet the accusation in her daughter's eyes.

"I did what I had to do," Anne said, nodding her head as though she were responding to a question only she could hear.

"That's no kind of answer," Whitney whispered. "No kind of excuse."

She stared at her mother's face, and it was at that moment that she finally acknowledged the distance between them. But what caused the crippling pain in her chest was that she also realized the distance wasn't something that had sprung up as a result of her accusations. It had always been there. Whitney had no idea who her mother really was. The woman she thought she knew had never existed.

Without another word, Whitney turned and walked away.

Chapter 4

D
ean rolled over and looked at the clock, then groaned. It was after one. He had slept half the day away. When he tried to sit up, he groaned again, louder this time. He felt like death warmed over, and it served him right. He had come home last night and gotten quietly, totally drank.

Dean rarely drank at all. It always left him with a bad feeling. It always reminded him too much of his stepfather. He had sworn he would never do it, would never use alcohol the way his stepfather had, but occasionally Dean rediscovered the fact that he had learned more than he wanted to learn from the man who had raised him.

This legacy from a man he hated made Dean watch his motives and actions more closely than most people. He was always afraid he would find something else of his stepfather in him. Last night he had definitely seen a resemblance.

Yesterday Dean had taken Barbara to lunch, but he hadn't been able to concentrate on the blonde's cheerful conversation. Barbara Charles was an attractive woman, but not attractive enough, he realized now, to hold his attention for very long. During lunch, his thoughts had kept returning to another woman, a woman with hair like black silk and mischief in her startling blue eyes.

If Dean could have gotten his hands on Whitney, he would have throttled her. Thanks to her comments on Barbara's "police record," every tone he looked at his luncheon companion he saw, superimposed over her lovely features, a grainy black-and-white mug shot— both front and side views. And then he would start laughing, which hadn't done a lot to endear him to his date. She would probably think twice about going out with him again.

After he had dropped Barbara off at her house, Dean had driven around for a white. Then on the spur of the moment, he'd turned his car in the direction of the apartment building where Alvo lived when he wasn't being detained by the authorities. A little girl had been sitting on the curb, cradling a doll in her thin arms.

Tess.

Dean drove around the block until he found a parking spot, then he got out and walked hack to where he had seen Alvo's little half sister.

He didn't say hello to her. He simply sat down beside her. After a while he began to talk, he never addressed her directly, he simply talked. He talked about another little girl he had found sitting on a street curb years earlier. He talked about Whitney, about the times she'd gotten into trouble, the practical jokes she'd played on Dean and on her cousins.

He talked about how different Whitney's life had been from his own, about how she'd lived in a beautiful house and had her very own horse, white Dean had had to sneak into his own house to keep his stepfather from beating him.

It was the first time in a long while that Dean had talked about his stepfather. He wasn't even sure why he had brought it up, but something in the little girl's face told him she wouldn't be shocked. Something told him Tess already knew that bad things happened to children.

It wasn't long before Tess began to ask questions, about Whitney, about Dean: Twilight was settling over the street when the little girl finally told Dean the truth about Alvo's quarrel with her father.

Tess had hidden under the bed—that part of her story had been true—but sounds had still reached her. And she had been present when the fight began.

As though she were talking about a movie she'd seen on television, Tess told him how her father had accused Alvo of stealing two dollars in change from the dresser, how her father had gotten out the rope that he always used to tie up her brother when it was time for another beating.

That was when Tess had left the room to hide under her bed, putting her hands over her ears so she wouldn't hear her father yelling, so she wouldn't hear Alvo crying out in pain. She knew she wouldn't be able to block out all the sounds, but she always tried.

This time, however, was different. This time Alvo rebelled. He refused to be tied up. He refused to be beaten. Tess didn't know what happened next. She didn't know what her brother was doing, but she knew it was bad because she heard her mother screaming for him to stop.

When Tess finally came out from under the bed, medical people were taking care of her father, the police were talking to her mother and Alvo was gone.

Tess's story didn't shock Dean. It made him sad and angry for both children. It made him want to strike out at something, someone, for the children's sake. But it also brought back memories that made him sick to his stomach. For a while, as Tess talked, Dean had become Alvo. He had been thrust forcibly back into the frustration and rage and pain.

But he wouldn't allow the feelings to take control. Not this time. As soon as he left Tess, he went to visit Alvo. And now that Dean was armed with the truth, it didn't take him long to find out that Jackson's threats to kill Alvo's mother and sister had kept the boy quiet.

Dean didn't pull any punches with his young client. He told Alvo that his stepfather wouldn't stay in jail forever. But Dean could make sure that he would stay in long enough for Alvo to get bigger and stronger. He would stay in long enough for Alvo's mother and sister to get psychiatric help. Dean had friends in the district attorney's office. He would make sure Jackson was put away long enough to give Alvo and Tess a chance at a better life.

All in all, Saturday had been a productive day, but after leaving Alvo at the jail, Dean had felt drained of energy and emotion. He'd made his way home, but as soon as he'd walked in the door, ghosts from the past rushed to greet him. He felt the presence of not only his mother and stepfather, but the presence of himself as a boy.

Back then he had been as wild and angry and frightened as Alvo was now. Until he'd found Whitney. Whitney had represented hope. She had shown him that life wasn't all dark, that there were bright spots to look forward to. She had kept him sane. She had kept him from turning on his stepfather the way Alvo had turned on his. As long as Whitney was in Dean's life, there was a reason to push forward, a reason to keep going.

As he'd sat in the empty house, Dean had felt a violent need for Whitney's company. He needed some of her brightness. He needed her to pull him out of the dark hole he'd fallen into. She would help him forget what he had been in the past. She would remind him of who he had become.

He'd almost called her then. He knew she would be beside him in minutes if he did. All he'd had to do was pick up the phone, but he wouldn't let himself do it. This particular hell was his own, and he wouldn't let it touch her. This was a battle he had to fight alone.

And that was when he had taken the first drink. He'd told himself he just needed a couple of drinks to help him sleep. There was nothing wrong with that But part of him—the logical, objective part—knew what he was doing. He wasn't simply taking a drink to relax. He was confirming that deep down, he was still that boy from Trash Town. He was still that wild, bad boy who did things decent folk didn't do.

And now, the morning after, Dean was paying for his little excursion into truth. Not only did he have the granddaddy of all headaches, but he felt diminished by his weakness. And he still felt those unbreakable ties with the past.

Pushing back the covers, he slid slowly to the side of the bed. Lying around regretting last night wasn't going to accomplish anything. He had to go see Jackson in the hospital, then start working on getting the charges against his client dropped. Alvo didn't care about Dean's ghosts. He had plenty of his own.

After Dean had it all settled, when Ins feet were planted more firmly in the present, he would call Whitney and tell her about the case. She would hurt for Alvo and Tess, then she would call him a legal genius and a true humanitarian, he thought with a slight smile. It was the kind of thing he needed to hear today.

BOOK: That Boy From Trash Town
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