A Mother's Lie


By Sarah Zettel

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A compulsive family drama about a mother’s desperate search to reclaim her daughter from the horrors of her own past, perfect for fans of Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone.

Beth Fraser finally has her life together. She’s built a successful career in the tech sector, has a bright fifteen-year-old daughter, and she’s completely erased all evidence of her troubled past. At least that’s what she thought.

Dana Fraser always wondered why she’s the only kid with two backup phones, emergency drills, and a non-negotiable check-in time every single day. When a stranger approaches her on the street claiming to be her grandmother, Dana starts to question what else her mother has been hiding.

Soon Beth’s worst nightmare is coming true: Dana is in grave danger, and unless Beth is willing to pull one last con job for her parents, she may never see her daughter again.


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Evil is not the illegality, or the magnitude of the sin, but the consistency of the sin.

—M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie


When that first child is on the way, every woman wonders, What kind of mother will I be? Beth Fraser had plenty of reason to wonder, but she didn't really find out until her daughter, Dana, was four years old.

They were still living in San Francisco and had gone to Bloomingdale's, the big one on Market Street. Beth had a partners' meeting about the new fund for Lumination Ventures. There were problems with the suit she had ordered. At the time, this had seemed important.

The woman behind the counter was slower than molasses in January. Beth demanded to speak to her manager. The charge was not accepted, the alterations had not been completed as promised, and they were going to get this sorted out.

Beth had told Dana to stand right here. She promised Dana a trip to the Disney Store just as soon as they'd straightened out this one thing.

The manager came over. Beth looked down. Dana was not there.

Beth did not remember anything after that for a while.

Dana remembered a bit more. Not everything, but more.

For instance, she remembered promising she would stand right here so Mommy could talk to the store lady. She remembered feeling that if she could look out the big front window, maybe she could see the Disney Store. She remembered the idea that right here kind of included the window, because she could see the window and Mommy at the same time. She remembered not really moving. Just drifting. She was still right here. Mommy was arguing with the lady behind the counter. She could hear them. She was still right here.

"Hey there."

She remembered looking up to see a man in a gray suit and blue overcoat. His hair was slicked back in dark stripes against his pink-and-tan scalp. She remembered he had very round blue eyes and plump, pink hands.

"You lost?"

Dana shook her head.

"Where's your mommy, then?"

Dana looked around. Suddenly she wasn't sure. Mommy was by the counter. That was her dark jacket, but that wasn't her head. She didn't wear that hat. She was right here, wasn't she?

"Oh, wait," said the man. "I see her out there. Come on."

He took Dana's hand, and all at once she was walking with him. She wasn't sure how that happened.

They were going out the sliding door now, and he was right behind her, bumping into her back and kind of pushing her along. Then, they were out on the sidewalk, heading up the hill, and his big, soft hand was holding hers and he was saying, "Now, where did Mommy go? Oh! There she is. Come on!" He gave her hand a little shake and also squeezed her fingers. Dana craned her neck, trying to see what he saw. He was pulling her along too fast. His hot, damp hand hurt as he squeezed her fingers and sang, "There she is! Come on! Keep up, sweetie!"

Then the world spun, and the sidewalk slammed against her head and Dana saw stars.

She sat up, not sure how she got onto the ground. The man was on the ground too, and Mommy was there. She was screaming—bad, bad words, louder than sirens, louder than anything. A lot of people were yelling.

The man was bleeding, and Mommy was kicking him. Hard. His head was bleeding. Bright red smeared his hot, pink hands. He was crying.

Mommy kicked him again, right in the teeth. His head snapped back.

A big lady with sunglasses swept Dana into her arms.

The man with the pink hands wasn't moving anymore. Mommy turned around and walked up to the lady and to Dana.

"Give me back my daughter."

The lady handed Dana across. Mommy wrapped Dana in her arms and they sat down on the curb. Mommy held Dana on her lap. She was breathing hard. Dana could feel her chest heaving under her jacket. Her eyes were straight ahead. She was shaking all over, and tears streamed down her face.

Dana wanted to hug her. She knew she should hug her, but she couldn't. Not while her eyes were so blank like that. It was like she wasn't even her mother anymore.

Beth didn't know what was happening inside her daughter's mind. All she knew was that somebody had tried to take Dana away, and she stopped them. Of course, the cops were on their way now. There would be lots of cops, and eventually lawyers. There'd be questions to answer and lies to tell. So very many lies. She needed to have them all lined up and ready to go.

But Dana was safe now. That was all that really mattered. Beth could handle everything else.

She always had.




"Time?" called Dana. She lifted the pan full of vegetable omelet off the burner and shook it to make sure the mass of egg and zucchini was loose.

Beth held up her phone. "Thirteen minutes, forty-four seconds. You're never gonna make it!"

"Watch me!" It was down to the wire in the Fraser kitchen's morning marathon—could Dana make an edible breakfast in fifteen minutes or less?

Dana shook the pan again and eyed the distance to the ceiling.

"You're cleaning up when you miss!" Beth reminded her. The game of the fifteen-minute breakfast was their way of combining Dana's love of cooking with the morning rush that never seemed to get any easier. Beth could not stand to be late, and Dana loved to show off, so it all worked.

Dana gave the pan a swift up-down jerk. The entire golden disk of egg and vegetables launched into the air, flipped, and came down. Dana bent her knees and held out the pan and—


—caught the whole thing.

"Yes!" She pumped her fist in the air. "Get the plates!"

Beth pushed the colorful Fiestaware across the breakfast bar so Dana could slide segments of omelet onto the dishes. She sprinkled feta cheese on top of each plate, along with a handful of tomato chunks, and dropped the grilled bagels next to them.

"And done!"

"Fourteen minutes, fifty-three seconds," Beth announced.

Dana threw both hands into the air. "Team Dangerface for the win!"

They both pulled their high stools up to the bar and tucked in. Dana glugged her orange juice. Beth poured a cup of coffee from the carafe. The speakers were cranked up, streaming a pulse-surging mix of Beyoncé, Adele, and Alicia Keys.

People who saw Beth and Dana together knew instantly they were mother and daughter. Beth had no idea where her ancestors had really come from. Her parents had regularly claimed to be everything from black Irish to Armenian. They had, however, gifted her and Dana with the similar oval faces, blunt noses, sandy skin, and thick brown hair. Time and determination had hardened Beth's hazel eyes, but she still smiled easily, although that smile could be a disguise as often as it was a revelation.

If Beth was an expert at hiding in plain sight, Dana was brash and loud and determined to be herself, even when she wasn't sure who that might be from day to day. Currently, she sported an uneven bob that ran down to her jawline on one side and barely covered her ear on the other. She had three piercings in one ear and four in the other. Her earrings never matched.

Dana's most striking feature, though, was her eyes. The technical term was heterochromia iridis, meaning her eyes were two different colors—the left one, green, the right one, brown. Dana had flirted with the idea of hiding them a couple of years ago. Since then, she'd gone the exact opposite direction to emphasize them with mascara and shadow.

"So, last day of freshman year, huh?" Beth dug into the steaming omelet.

"Halle-effing-lujah," Dana mumbled around her mouthful.

"Anything I need to know about today? And, by the way, this is really good."

"Thanks, and, um, no, I don't think so."

Beth eyed her daughter as she took another gulp of coffee. "As an experienced parent and professional lie detector, I am qualified to tell you that's a suspicious hesitation."

"I hate it when you do that."

"I know. So, what happened?"

"Nothing!" Dana tore her bagel half in two. "Except you might be getting an email about my oral presentation in English."


Dana huffed out a sigh. "Cuz when I was giving the report, I maybe kind of said that Holden Caulfield was a self-involved asshole and he should have jumped off that cliff he wanted to save all the kids from, like they wouldn't know it was there in the first place, and it seemed pretty obvious Salinger was full of horseshit."

"Uh-huh. And what did Mr. Kennedy have to say?"

"That I should please remember that horseshit was not a current vocabulary word, and so I said fine, Salinger was full of bullshit."

That was when the phone rang. Not Beth's cell. The landline in the kitchen.

"Do not say, 'Saved by the bell,'" said Dana as soon as Beth opened her mouth.

Beth just checked the clock. Seven thirty exactly. They both needed to be out the door in less than fifteen minutes. A well-known fact in some circles.

So, I wonder who this could possibly be?

Beth braced herself and picked up the receiver. "Good morning, Doug."

"Hi, Beth, it's…Oh, ha-ha," laughed Dana's father stiffly. "How did you know?"

"It's my superpower."

"Yeah, well, that's why Gutierrez pays you the big bucks, right?" Officially, Beth's title at Lumination Ventures was vice president, but unofficially, she was the chief bullshit navigator. "Anyway." Doug sighed. "I'm glad I caught you. I was afraid you might have left already."

You hoped I had left already, and that's why you called the landline. "What's going on?"

"Well, unfortunately—and this is not my fault. I really tried to get this moved, I swear, but…"

Beth stopped listening. She'd heard what she needed to. This wasn't exactly the first time Doug had called to wriggle out of a promise he'd made Dana.

"…I know this is the last second, and I should have called earlier. I know, I know…"

Exactly when did you degenerate into such a cliché, Doug?

"…I was really looking forward to this weekend…"

You were the one who always talked about living an authentic life. That really should have tipped me off right there.

"…and I just kept hoping things would work out…"

And the big ask is coming in three…two…one…

"…So, you'll tell her I'm really sorry?"

"She's right here, Doug. You can tell her yourself."

"Beth, I…"

"Dana, it's your father." Beth passed the phone to Dana.

"Yeah, I noticed," Dana said to her. Then, into the receiver she said, "What's going on, Dad?"

Dana listened and scooped up a piece of cold egg with the last of her bagel. Beth leaned back against the kitchen island and watched her daughter's face slowly closing down while Doug chattered and apologized and promised, all from a safe distance.

At least my father would lie to my face. The thought dropped into place without warning. Beth looked away, until she was sure she had her shock hidden.

"Yeah, Dad," said Dana. "It's fine. I'm sorry too. No, it's okay. I got invited to an end-of-year party at Kimi's…Yeah, so, you're right—it all worked out. Yeah. Say hi to Susan for me. Here's Mom."

Dana handed Beth the receiver and immediately dug into the last of her omelet.

"I really am sorry, Beth," said Doug. "Will you make sure Dana knows that? Please?"

Something about the particular pleading note in his voice pricked at Beth's awareness. "Are you all right, Doug? You sound"—worse than usual—"worried."

"What? Yeah. Fine, but, um, I don't want to keep you."

"No, of course not. Have a good day."

Beth hung up and went back to her cooling breakfast.

"Sorry, Dangerface." The nickname had come after a childhood accident. Dana tripped on the escalator and had to get five stitches in her forehead. She absolutely refused to wear a bandage, and instead ran around the house growling and shouting, "I got my danger face on!"

"It was gonna happen." Dana shrugged. "I don't know why he even bothers."

So he can tell himself he tried. But Dana already knew that.

Beth had promised herself from the start she would not get between Dana and her father, especially once they moved out to Chicago. She'd always known Doug was a hot mess and not good for much beyond romantic weekends and grandiose pronouncements. That was why she didn't marry him, even when she came up pregnant.

Especially when I came up pregnant.

Even so, she'd never expected Doug to treat his daughter first like a secret and then like an embarrassment.

"You can always say no when he starts making plans, Dana."

"Yeah. I guess." She smashed a chunk of tomato flat with her fork. "Maybe he'd like that better."

"It's just…you don't need to make things easier on him just because he's your father. That's not your job."

"I thought that was what families did."

"Families do all kinds of things."

"Yeah, well, my experience is kind of limited there."

The rebuke stung, but it was an old pain, and Beth told herself she barely noticed anymore.

Dana's phone buzzed, and she flipped it over. "Chelsea's downstairs."

Which meant all discussion was officially closed. The pair of them began the last stage of their morning routine—getting plates in the dishwasher, finding Dana's backpack and the final history paper that she'd almost forgotten, Beth's briefcase, and the extra folder out of her study that she might just need for this morning's demo session.

Beth tried not to feel relieved that there was no more time to talk. Family was a perfect storm for them. Beth had secrets, Doug had issues, and Dana had anger.

And Beth didn't know what to do about any of it. She never had.


Dana opened one side of her school uniform vest to show what looked like the blank, black lining.

Every year when Dana got her new school uniforms, Beth took it to a particular tailor, a Ukrainian immigrant who made a quiet specialty of creating pockets for people who did not want security guards, or anybody else, to know just what they might be carrying.

"Mad money?"

Dana flipped open the other side.

"Text time?"

"Four thirty, on the dot," Dana recited. "Today and every day."

"Love you, Dangerface."

"Love you, Mom. Bye."

Dana kissed her on the forehead to avoid smudging her meeting-day makeup and charged out the door.

For years, Beth had walked Dana down to the lobby and waited with her until the car came. Like a lot of the parents at Pullman Preparatory Academy, Beth hired a car service to handle Dana's transportation to and from school. At least, like the parents who didn't have their own drivers.

Now, in a concession to Dana's simmering need for independence and after about a week of screaming fights, Beth waited upstairs. But she still watched, and she was not the only one.

The landline rang. Beth scooped it up off the hook. "Beth Fraser."

"Kendi at the desk, Ms. Fraser. Dana and Chelsea are in the car. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"No, thank you, Kendi. Not today." She said good-bye and hung up. She checked out the window and saw the black Metro car pull out of the drive and into the street.

Time to get a move on. Beth grabbed her briefcase, her tote bag, her keys. She checked her phone to see that her car service was on the way. She also checked her makeup in the mirror by the door. A demonstration day always meant dressing to her personal heights—suit, stockings, and sky-high heels.

What are you looking for, Beth? She smoothed down the front of her gray Chanel jacket. What's got you on edge?

Because she was too anxious for a normal morning. Even Doug's phone call was perfectly normal—frustrating as all hell, but normal. Probably it was today's presentation from AllHome Healthtech. She had been trying for two weeks to impress on her boss that this particular start-up was a waste of time. Rafael wanted to let it play out, though, and he was more than just her employer. He was the one friend she'd kept from her ragged teenage years in Nowhere, Indiana. He'd pulled her out of her grandmother's trailer and presented her with the chance at a career. If Rafi wanted to waste a morning with this demonstration, they'd waste a morning. Maybe he knew something she didn't.

Her cell phone rang—an unidentified number with a San Francisco area code. Beth stuffed the phone into her red briefcase. Let it go to voice mail. If it was important, they'd leave a message. She was running late, and between Doug, Rafael, and her own restlessness, she had more than enough on her mental plate.

In the side pocket of her briefcase, her phone rang, and rang again, and stopped.


"I hate to say I told you so, Rafi…" Beth settled onto the black leather sofa in his office and kicked her shoes off under the glass-topped coffee table. "But…"

"But you told me so. Yes, yes, yes. Mea culpa." Rafael Gutierrez opened his full-size fridge and pulled out two bottles of Pellegrino sparkling water. His office was a cool, black-and-white room with a window wall that looked over Wabash Avenue toward the Sears Tower. The skyscraper had actually been renamed the Willis Tower, but nobody bothered to remember that.

Rafael was a square-built man. His family had come to the States from Mexico and Ecuador, and he'd grown up on an edge even sharper than the one Beth knew. A black unibrow made an emphatic line above his brown eyes. He wore his black hair a little long and combed straight back so that it waved around his ears and against his neck. This helped de-emphasize a tattoo that had seemed like a good idea in another place and time.

"You have to admit AllHome is a good idea." Rafi handed Beth a water bottle like a peace offering and dropped onto one of the square leather chairs. "A specialized, virtual home-health-care assistant. It's got legs."

"For somebody who knows what they're doing."

Beth's gaze flicked to the vintage chrome wall clock with its sweeping red second hand. Fifteen minutes until Dana's check-in text was due. Beth pulled her phone out and laid it facedown on the chair arm.

"When we took on TrakChange, we had to hold their hand every step of the way, and they paid off big," Rafi said.

"TrakChange overran costs by four and a half million and we came thiiiis close to a partner revolt." Beth pinched her fingers together. "Do we want to go through that again for this bunch?"

"We could coach them through—"

Beth's phone buzzed right then, cutting him off. She checked the screen, frowned, and put the phone back down. Rafi lifted his eyebrows at her.

"Somebody with a San Francisco area code's been calling all day. I thought it might be the BlitzCom people, but they're not leaving messages."

"So, pick up or block the number."

"Yes, Mr. Gutierrez. Right away, Mr. Gutierrez."

Rafael tossed his bottle cap at her. Beth lifted her bottle to block it. The cap pinged off its side and dropped onto the couch.

Beth sipped her water and glanced at the clock again. 4:28. Dana was due to text her at four thirty. That was their standing agreement. Four thirty, every day. No exceptions.

It was eleven years since the day at Bloomingdale's where the worst possible thing had almost happened. After that, Beth had wanted to lock all the doors of her life and never let the outside world near her daughter again. She'd wanted to kill the man, because of who he was and who he might have been.

She'd almost done it too, although that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was how very right it felt.

Since then, things had gotten better. The move to Chicago had helped. So had the fact that she'd worked out a series of necessary steps, defined them, and organized them. The daily contact was one step. It gave Dana some freedom and allowed Beth to keep breathing.

Beth pulled her mind back to the problem in front of her. "Rafi, the AllHome guys are trying to break into health care, and they haven't even started to think through the legal concerns or a real system of care for people at their lowest and most vulnerable."

Rafi eyed her over the rim of his bottle. "But you know who has?"

"HomeAssist," she answered immediately. "I've met their developers, and I've been watching their proof of concept advance for a couple of months now. I think they've got the scope and vision to actually pull this off."

Beth checked the clock again. 4:29. She laid her hand on her phone so she'd feel the buzz.

"And it just so happens that HomeAssist has a woman-led development team," Beth told him. "And their CEO is Megan Reese, who just got named one of the twenty-five Best and Brightest by ChicagoLand Entrepreneur magazine. They'd be perfect for the Excelsior Fund."

Excelsior was still in the planning stage, and the plans were mostly Beth's. It was a venture capital fund specifically for women from outside the traditional tech sector who wanted to get into the tech sector. Their motto: The real talent's still out there.

Rafi blew out a sigh. "How long have you had this waiting in the wings?"

"Since I got a look at the nonplans of that little huddle of Stanford tech bros who could barely get their own laptops working." She leaned forward, elbows on her knees. "Rafi, Excelsior will pay off, and HomeAssist is a perfect vehicle. It's ambitious, it's sexy, and it's timely. There is an appetite for diversity and for VC to show it's got a heart as well as a wallet."

Rafi paused, but then he nodded. "Two meetings," he said. "And two phone calls to gauge initial interest and show I'm behind the idea. After that, we'll see what bubbles up." He raised his bottle and drank another swallow.

"Done." Beth raised her own bottle in answer.

The phone buzzed. Beth snatched it up. Face ID made the screen light up and displayed the message: Dana had taken a meta-selfie of herself in the front hall mirror. In the background, her best friend, Chelsea, hoisted two cups of bubble tea. The caption read:

4:30 oclock & all swells @home w Chelsea.

Beth put the phone down and took a very long swallow of sparkling water. Rafi drained his own bottle and pitched it into the recycle bin. "Okay, I need to get going. I've got a dinner tonight and Angela's on her tenth text. Where are we with BlitzCom? We ready for them?"

"I think so, but this one is really Zoe's baby."

"Is she ready?"

"She's completely ready. Tell Angie I said hi." Beth retrieved her shoes. He waved in acknowledgment, and Beth headed for her own office down the hall.


On Sale
Apr 7, 2020
Page Count
416 pages

Sarah Zettel

About the Author

Sarah Zettel is an award-winning author. She has written more than thirty novels and multiple short stories over the past twenty-five years, in addition to hiking, cooking, stitching all the things, marrying a rocket scientist, and raising a rapidly growing son.

Learn more about this author