In Her Keeping

In Her Keeping

Valerie Joan Connors

August 2013 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-330-6

In a North Carolina tiger sanctuary, she found new love and a new purpose.

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In a North Carolina tiger sanctuary, she found new love and a new purpose.

Sylvia Holt has lost her dream of the perfect suburban Atlanta life—via infertility, a painfully failed adoption, and a husband who's cheating on her with a younger woman. Her divorce leads her to a North Carolina vacation home, where she settles in with no other goals than to become a sad recluse. But then her next-door neighbor, Ethan Montgomery, lures her into the amazing world of his tiger sanctuary.

Sylvia slowly heals, and her bond with Ethan and the tigers—many of them rescued from abuse and neglect—turns her into a fierce advocate for the big cats. She and Ethan battle a sinister dealer in black-market potions made from tiger parts. Sylvia's maternal instincts kick in even more with the rescue of a tigress and her tiny cub. Despite challenges, threats, and doubts, Sylvia and Ethan forge ahead, falling in love and working against all odds to secure a future for the endangered cats they adore.

Valerie Joan Connors is the Michigan-born daughter of an artist and a musician. In addition to her career as the operations manager for an architecture, engineering, and design firm, she makes time for her true passion, writing. She is the 2013 president of the century-old Atlanta (Georgia) Writer's Club. IN HER KEEPING is her first published novel. Visit her at


"Valerie Joan Connors scores a home run with her wonderful story about two fascinating subjects:  true love and tigers." -- New York Times bestselling author, HAYWOOD SMITH

"A warm and inspiring novel of second chances, starting over, and learning that happiness comes in all forms and all (tiger) stripes." -- New York Times bestselling author, DEBORAH SMITH


Chapter 1

THE DAY I WAS finally forced to admit that my eight-year marriage had unraveled was also the day that I held a tiger cub for the first time.

I had stopped at the mall on my way home from the doctor's office. But after wandering aimlessly through the clothing racks for a very short time, it became obvious that I wasn't in the mood for shopping. So I decided to pick up a cup of coffee and head back out into the damp and gloomy afternoon. As I waited in line at Starbucks, I noticed a crowd of people gathered near the fountain on the lower level.

"What's going on down there?" I asked the girl who was pouring steamed milk into my double shot of espresso.

"Tiger cubs," she said. "According to one of the men down there, they travel around to malls with these little cubs and let people pet them. For ten dollars you can have your picture taken with one." She snapped the lid on my latte and slipped a corrugated cup holder around it. "He told me they've been on the road for three weeks, making stops all over Georgia and Alabama. But apparently a couple of the malls here in Atlanta refused to let them in, and I guess I can kind of see why. I feel sorry for the poor little things, being passed around like that. They sure are cute though."

I thanked her for the coffee, walked back out into the mall, and took the escalator down to the ground floor. There were four cages in a row, all of them tall enough for an adult to stand up in. Inside each cage there was a person wearing a grey shirt with a logo of some kind over the front pocket and their name stitched underneath it with red thread. They were letting people into the cages, one or two at a time, and handing them a tiger cub to play with. One of the cubs was crying, and the handler repeatedly tossed it several inches into the air, caught it, and blew into its face. That seemed kind of mean, in my opinion, and I wanted to know why he was doing it, so I approached the side of the cage closest to where he was standing. The man had tattoos covering both of his arms and smelled like he was in serious need of a bath.

"Excuse me," I said. "Why are you doing that?"

"Doing what?" he asked.

"Blowing in the cub's face," I answered.

"It calms them down," he said. "I guess it's what their mothers do."

"But it doesn't look like the cub is enjoying it very much. I don't think it looks very calming," I said.

"I'm just doing what I'm told, ma'am. Do you want to have your picture taken with one of these little guys?" he asked. "It's only ten bucks."

I took a closer look at some of the cubs. They looked miserable and tired. These were just babies, I thought,

"How old are these cubs?" I asked.

"Some of them are four weeks old. These over here are six," he said. "Between you and me, we're really not supposed to bring them out like this until they're a little older, but they sure are adorable," he said. "So what about it? Pretty lady like you would make a great picture with one of these cubs."

A little girl had just sat down on a stool in the next cage, and someone had placed a baby tiger on her lap. A woman in a grey shirt squatted down in front of her and snapped a close up of the child holding the cub, and the camera flashed right in the cub's face. It seemed to me that poor cub probably hadn't even had its eyes open for long, and I worried the flash might blind it.

"I'll pass," I said.

"Oh, come on," he said. "How often do you get a chance to hold a real live tiger cub?"

I had to admit that I'd never had a chance like that, and it was tempting. Besides, I really needed a diversion after the kind of morning I had.

"No picture," I said. "But I'll give you the ten dollars anyway. I'd like to just hold one of them, if that's okay."

"Sure thing," he said. "Follow me. My name is Phil. What's yours?"

"It's Sylvia," I said, hoping the guy wasn't seriously flirting with me, today of all days.

After I handed him a ten-dollar bill, he opened the cage door, and I followed him inside. I was led to a stool in the corner of one of the cages and told to sit down. Then he reached in to a big cardboard box and pulled out a tiny yellow-orange cub with black markings and put it on my lap. I picked up the cub the same way I pick up my tabby, supporting her weight with my right hand and forearm and cradling her close to my chest, stroking her fur and scratching behind her ears with my left hand. It felt familiar, yet strange at the same time. Her fur was soft but rougher than my house cat's, and her voice was different.

"Why is she crying?" I asked.

"No telling," Phil said. "Could be hungry or maybe just tired."

"When was she fed last?" I asked, not knowing what a right or satisfactory answer would be.

"You ladies always ask the same questions," he said, shaking his head. "Don't worry, she's totally fine. Want to change your mind about that picture?"

I held the club close to me, stroking her fur and gently swaying from side to side, hoping to soothe her and get her to stop crying. But when I looked into her eyes, I saw fear, and a tiny baby that wanted its mother, not me. Suddenly I knew I had to get out of there, right away. This was cruel, and I wanted no part of it. I handed the cub back to the man and practically ran out of the cage and into the mall.

As I turned and headed for the exit, I started to wonder where those poor little cubs' mothers were and got the feeling I wouldn't like the answer.

I took the elevator to the second level of the parking deck and found my car. When I bought the car, I chose the Volvo because of its safety record. I got the wagon so I would have room in the back for car seats and the hatchback for unloading diaper bags and all the other baby paraphernalia. Suddenly the whole idea seemed completely absurd. I was driving around in a family car without a family in it, and considering what I had found out during my appointment with the doctor that morning, it looked like that was never going to change. After years of disappointment and failed fertility treatments, I had lost another baby.

The trip to the mall was an attempt to put off returning to my big empty house. Since my husband was away on business, there would be no one home. I had needed a distraction, and the tiger cubs provided one but left me with a feeling of wrongness that I couldn't seem to shake.

When I got home, the house felt cold and damp. I went into the sunroom at the back of the house and curled up in a big, puffy, oversized chair. It was my favorite room in that huge drafty house, because it was usually warm and cozy in there. I liked to find the sunniest spot in the room and settle in with a really good book and a hot cup of coffee. Within minutes, my grey tabby cat, Gretchen, would find her way onto my lap. It was absolute bliss. But on that rainy October afternoon I couldn't find a sunny spot, nor could I find my cat, and even when I wrapped myself up in an afghan I still felt cold. There was a fetus inside me without a heartbeat, and I would have to carry it with me until the D&C procedure that was scheduled for two days later. The idea made me shudder, and I pulled the blanket tighter around my shoulders.

With the twelve-hour time difference, it was two o'clock in the morning in Hong Kong. I knew I should wait until that evening to call Jonathan, but I was suddenly desperate to hear his voice.

When I reached the clerk at the hotel desk, I asked for Jonathan Holt's room. The phone rang several times before it was picked up. The voice on the other end of the line was thick with sleep.


For the second time that day, I felt as though I'd been kicked in the stomach and had all the breath knocked out of me. It was the middle of the night where Jonathan was, and I knew he would be sleeping. I'd expected to wake my husband, but I did not expect the woman's voice I heard saying, "Hello?" and then, "Who is this?"

For a moment I couldn't catch my breath to speak. I was frozen, stunned by this voice coming from the room where my husband was supposed to be, alone.

"Let me speak to Jonathan," I said, in a voice that didn't quite sound like mine.

"He's asleep. It's the middle of the night. Who's calling?" the woman asked.

"Sylvia Holt. Jonathan's wife."

Then she was silent, but I could still hear her breathing into the phone. I heard his sleepy voice in the background asking who it was, and I heard her telling him his wife was on the phone.

"I didn't know he had a wife," she said, before he took the phone out of her hand.

I disconnected the call. A few seconds later my cell phone rang, but I let the call go to voicemail. When it rang again, I turned it off and tossed it into my handbag. With the blanket still wrapped around me, I climbed the stairs to our bedroom. It was as if I were sleepwalking or having an out of body experience. I felt completely numb and disconnected. When I reached my bedroom door, I found that I couldn't make myself step inside, so I turned to face the room directly across the hall from ours, the one decorated in soft shades of yellow and green. There was a daybed covered with stuffed animals on one side of the room and a white crib in the corner. The butterflies floating from the mobile over the crib moved almost imperceptibly as I crossed the room. I swept the stuffed animals onto the floor, lay down on the narrow mattress and began to sob. Between my sorrow and rage, I cried until no more tears were possible. Then my eyes fixed on one of the stuffed animals on the floor. It was a baby tiger, about the same size as the one I had held at the mall. I picked it up and held it close to me, burying my face in its soft, furry coat.

My head was spinning with so many thoughts that I couldn't process any single one of them. I thought about babies and mothers and about tired little tiger cubs in a noisy, bright and chaotic shopping mall. Exhausted and drifting between sleep and wakefulness, I began to think that maybe it was all just a really bad dream and that when I woke up I would be in my own bed, my child still growing inside of me. When I finally did fall asleep, there were no dreams at all, a temporary respite from all the things I would eventually have to cope with.

Several hours later I woke up in a dark, unfamiliar room with my cat purring on my chest, and it took me a moment to realize I was in the nursery. I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and down the hall toward the master bedroom. The figure paused outside the door and switched the hall light on. I knew that it had to be our housekeeper, Maria, but it was long past time for her to go home and take care of her own family.

"I'm in here Maria," I said.

"Miss Sylvia, are you all right? I thought you were napping, but when you didn't come down for dinner I got worried you were sick or something. There's food for you downstairs. I can stay a while if you want me to warm it up for you."

I dragged myself to my feet and walked out into the hallway, trying to put on a happy face so she would stop worrying and just go home. I didn't want to see anyone.

"Thanks Maria, but I'm fine. Roberto and the kids will be waiting for you."

But I could tell by the way she was looking at me that she wasn't convinced I was fine, and the concern on her face melted away my last shred of self-control. I fell to my knees and began to sob again; no longer able to fool myself into thinking it was all just a bad dream.

"There now Miss Sylvia, come downstairs and let me fix you a nice cup of hot tea," Maria said. "I'll fix you a plate of food, and you'll tell me all about it. I made those chicken enchiladas you like so much."

She put her arm around my waist and led me down the stairs, still wrapped in my blanket and holding the tear soaked stuffed animal. On the way into the kitchen I grabbed the Kleenex box from the counter and attempted to clean up my face.

Maria was the same age as Jonathan, forty-five at that time, and about eight years older than me. Her boys were in high school. She loved her boys more than anything but secretly always dreamed of having a little girl. Don't most women? We used to talk about how much fun we'd have when I finally had the child I dreamed about. Maria promised she would crochet little booties, hats, and sweaters for the baby, and I knew that she meant it. I also knew that she felt the pain herself, each time I lost another one.

"I lost the baby," I said, sitting down at the kitchen table.

I could tell her about the baby, because that was sad, but not about Jonathan. That was just too humiliating.

"Oh, Miss Sylvia, I'm so sorry," she said, choking up as she spoke.

She stood beside me with tears in her eyes and her hand on my back. I could feel her trembling. As I stared into the teacup in its saucer on the table, how I wished that I could just slip into the warm liquid and swim away.

"Maria," I said, "I don't think I can go through this again."

"Don't give up, Miss Sylvia. You're young. There's plenty of time."

I was thirty-seven then, and already out of time. I just didn't know it yet.

The next morning, still groggy from the sleeping pill I took at midnight, I got up at six and tried to start my day as though everything was fine and my husband wasn't a cheating bastard. I drank two cups of black coffee at the kitchen table, trying to jolt the cobwebs out of my head, doing my best to keep the thoughts of my unborn, not living child at bay. Then I went to my seven a.m. yoga class like I had every Thursday morning for five years. When I got home I showered and dressed, but instead of heading to work, I called my office manager to let her know I'd be working from home for the rest of the week. I returned client phone calls and answered half of the fifty new emails in my inbox, but after several hours at my desk, my focus was gone, and I couldn't motivate myself to continue. At noon, I sat in the kitchen while Maria fixed me a sandwich for lunch.

I stayed to keep her company while she made a spinach quiche for that night's dinner. But in truth, it was she who was keeping me company. I tried to focus on Maria's meticulous preparation of the piecrust as she carefully crimped the edges in a uniform pattern, but was unable to distract myself from the reality of what was happening inside my body and with my marriage. I tried everything I could think of to take my mind off my troubles, but nothing provided any relief. That night, for the first time since junior high school, I went to bed at eight o'clock.

Chapter 2

FRIDAY MORNING, I went to the hospital for the familiar D&C procedure and made excuses to the doctor for why Jonathan wasn't with me. My friend Marilyn drove me to the hospital and waited while the remains of my child were vacuumed from my body. When it was over, she took me home, helped me back into my pajamas and tucked me into bed.

I was still drowsy from the sedative they'd given me for the procedure, and I immediately fell asleep, thank God, before Marilyn even left the house.

When I woke up alone in the house at three o'clock that afternoon, I put on my robe and slippers, picked up a paperback from my nightstand and headed downstairs to the sunroom to read. When I reached the bottom of the staircase, I saw through the etched glass of the front door that a yellow taxi was pulling into the circular drive.

I'd been dreading that moment for two days, ever since the phone call to my husband's hotel room, the moment when I would have to look my husband of eight years straight in the eye and watch him lie to me. Jonathan had called many times during those two days, but I refused to answer him. I knew he'd be back on Friday and intended to have this particular discussion face to face.

He walked through the front door and saw me standing at the foot of the stairs. Then he put his suitcases down and just stood there in the foyer looking at me.

"Sylvia, I can explain. It's not what it looks like," he said, before I could even open my mouth to speak.

I started to laugh. I couldn't help it. It was like a bad movie. My laughter seemed to wipe the hopeful, pleading expression off his face, and it was replaced with something that looked like a cross between anger and confusion.

"Please Jonathan, go on," I said. "I can't wait to hear why it isn't what it looks like when a woman answers the phone in the middle of the night in your hotel room and claims to not have been aware that you had a wife."

My head was throbbing with the pounding of my heart, my mouth was dry, and my hands were clenched in fists to stop them from shaking.

"Okay, Sylvia. You're right about that part, but nothing happened, I swear. She's a client. A group of us met at the hotel to discuss business over dinner and drinks. Eventually, everyone else left, but she stayed and ordered another bottle of wine. I didn't want to insult her by leaving her sitting there at the table all by herself, so we finished the wine. Then she started feeling sick, and I couldn't just let her throw up in the hotel lobby, so I offered to let her rest in my suite for a while before she went home. Once we got up there, she passed out on the sofa, and eventually I just went to bed. I was exhausted."

How stupid did he think I was? His story was flawed on so many levels it was almost humorous, if not for the fact that I was the poor sap who was supposed to be buying it. He was a smart man, but he was lousy at fiction.

"I had meetings first thing in the morning, and I needed to get some rest. She must have gotten into my bed after I was asleep, and when the phone rang she reached over and answered it. I woke up to find her in my bed and you on the phone, and then you hung up and didn't answer for two days. What was I supposed to do?"

Then I got angry. It took all of my remaining strength to control my rage. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to beat him savagely until he understood how horrible his actions and words had made me feel, and I wanted him to understand every single way he had hurt me with his betrayal.

"That's enough Jonathan," I said. "Don't even try to turn this back on me."

"Listen Sylvia, we're finally having the baby we've dreamed of all these years, and I know it looks bad but—"

"Just stop," I said. "The baby is gone. That's what I called to tell you."

He stopped. It looked like he was trying to decide whether to approach me or not. But he must have realized that he was the last person on earth I would accept comfort from in that moment, and he stayed where he was, just inside the front door.

"We'll try again," he said. "It will happen next time, I know it will."

"No it won't," I said.

"Sure it will. We still have some options. The doctor said we could—"

"No. I don't want to look at you right now, and I can't imagine a time when I will ever want you to touch me again."

"We can get past this, can't we Sylvia? You know I love you," he said, looking at his feet. "Nothing happened in Hong Kong."

"I can't listen to any more of this right now," I said. "I'm more exhausted than you could possibly understand. I had the procedure this morning, and I haven't slept well for two nights in a row. I'm going back to bed."

"What should I do?" he asked.

"I don't care what you do, Jonathan. But here's something for starters. There are lots of empty bedrooms in this house, and it looks like it's going to stay that way, so I think you should pick one of them and move your things into it."

I turned and went back up the stairs, leaving my husband by the front door in his raincoat with his suitcases at his feet.

That should have been the end of my marriage to Jonathan. It was certainly the end of my trust in him. I knew he was lying, but in spite of that I still held on to the vision of the family I planned to fill that house with. It was more important to me than anything else, apparently even my own self-respect. Besides, I was thirty-seven years old. If I was going to have the family I wanted, there wasn't time to start over. Then I thought maybe I was partially to blame for what was happening to my marriage. Maybe I had been so obsessed with having a baby that I forgot to focus on my husband the way he needed me to. It's funny how rationalizations like that allow us to continue down a path that can only lead to heartbreak, and if I had been honest with myself I would have admitted that I already knew how hopeless it was. I listened to my heart instead and chose denial over common sense. I should have known better.

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