Beth fiddled with her silverware while the silence wailed into a crescendo.
Anna turned to Mark. “I think it’s time for us to leave, Mark.”
Before he could respond, Beth seemingly found her voice. “Wait! Walking away isn’t going to help either of us, Anna. If what you say is true, then I apologize.”
“I have no reason to lie to you, and I don’t want an apology, Beth. I want to know why my resemblance to Claire is upsetting to you. I’ve made it clear that I don’t need a biological family to make me feel good about myself, or to establish my identity. I don’t understand why you consider me a threat to you and your brother.”
Beth began, “You have to understand . . .
Anna didn’t let her finish. “I understand far more than you think I do. Mark researched your family. I understand that the Summerfield’s have suffered. I sympathize, but I don’t pretend to know the depth of your grief. If my visit has reminded you of the tragedy, I’m sorry. My history might not be as tragic as yours, but I've suffered too."
“My concerns aren't about the past. I was eight when my parents' died, Anna. There’s a missing piece of my heart that belonged to my parents, but talking about the tragedy no longer upsets me.
"As soon as you left the shop, I called Ben and our lawyer. Because there is money involved, both of them urged me to be wary. In the past, we’ve dealt with a couple of women who claimed to be Jessica. Both women were professional con artists. Unfortunately, Ben and I were gullible. We desperately wanted to believe that Jessica was alive. Fortunately, James Brennan, our lawyer, did a little digging and uncovered the women’s shady past.”
Anna was incensed. "Money? That’s insulting! And, laughable. I . . .
Mark gently laced his fingers through Anna’s. “Don’t say something you’ll regret, Anna.” Then, he looked directly into Beth’s eyes. “I know that none of this is my business, but Anna is a co-worker and a special friend. She’s honest, hard-working and caring. I’m sure that your friends would say the same about you. So, why don’t we shelve the conversation about the past for now. When the two of you revisit the subject, I hope that you will both weigh your words carefully.”
Beth looked at Anna. “Truce?”
Beth asked, “What about the gallery visit? On or off?”
Mark responded quickly. “There’s one of your paintings that I’m definitely interested in, so I say it’s on.” He looked at Anna. “Any objection?”
“No objection. We’re all adults here.”
Shortly after their entrees arrived, Anna noticed a tall, burly man is his thirties swaggering toward their table. She nudged Mark at about the same time the stranger spoke. “As I live and breathe, if it isn’t Mark Quinn. Tell me Mark, how is it that an average-looking guy like you is always surrounded by pretty ladies, and a handsome dude like me can’t get a date?”
Mark scrambled out of the booth and shook the stranger’s hand. “Chase Mullins. What are you doing in Laurel Springs?”
“I was transferred to the Richmond office three years ago.”
“How is the job here working out for you?”
“Richmond is growing, so the move has been good. The people are friendly, and the weather is better than New York."
Mark motioned toward Anna. “Chase, meet Anna Kingston, a friend of mine from Raleigh.”
Mark continued, “I surprised that you and Beth haven't met. She owns Summerfield Gallery here in Laurel Springs.”
Beth laughed. “We met months ago, Mark. Chase is a cut-up and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The crack about the ladies is pure fiction. Every time he’s been in my gallery, he has a different girlfriend with him.”
Chase protested. “You wound me, Beth. I come in to see you. Seriously, I can’t believe that you know my buddy, Mark. As much as I love him, beware; he’s known for his smooth tongue and deep pockets.”
Beth laughed. “If I’d known about the deep pockets, I would have dragged out my outrageously expensive paintings.”
Anna listened to the good-natured jabs in amusement. She’d seen Mark in many different settings, but she’d never seen him drop his reserve. It was refreshing. Mark and Beth let Chase command center stage for about five minutes before they eased him out of the conversation.
Chase rolled his eyes and threw up his hands in mock despair. “Guess I’ve overstayed my welcome. Seriously, as much fun as this is, your food is getting cold. I’ll come by the gallery soon, Beth. We’ll catch up and you can sell me one of your overpriced paintings. Mark, buddy. Great to see you. The next time you and Anna are in town, give me a call. We’ll get together for dinner.”
Chase’s unexpected appearance was better than any of the ice-breakers she and Mark used at their seminars. After his departure, conversation flowed easily though dinner and during the short gallery tour immediately following dinner.
While Mark and Beth were hammering out the details for the painting he purchased, Anna revisited one of Beth’s beach paintings that struck a chord with her. She was so enamored with the painting that she didn’t hear Mark when he joined her. “The painting would look great behind your desk.”
“Wouldn’t it? I’ve been searching for a beach scene that includes a child.”
“We have room in the car if you want to buy it.”
“I do, but I’m not sure that it’s a good idea until I know how this Summerfield thing is going to work out?”
“I’m sure Beth will send it to you, if you decide that you want it. She’s made coffee for us. It’s getting late, so we should probably wrap this up and let her be on her way. She has to be here by seven tomorrow morning.”
Beth handed Anna and Mark mugs of coffee when they entered her office. “I won’t keep you long, Anna.” She motioned for Anna to take a seat. “It would be foolish for either of us to turn our back on the truth. “I’m game to do DNA testing if you are.”
“I have no problem with doing the testing. Do you know how to go about having it done?”
“I’ll ask Ben. He spent several summer vacations, during college, actively searching for Jessica. He knows how to go about having the test done. I’ll let you know as soon as we’ve talked. It might be a few days.”
“After so many years, why quibble about a few more days. There’s certainly no hurry.”
“I need to clarify a remark I made earlier. The hesitancy I have, isn’t about an insignificant amount of money. Jessica has a trust. My dad made sure that his children would have a financially secure future. Aunt Rosalie and Uncle Jamie were left money to see to our needs, and Ben, Jessica and I were left trust funds. He didn’t want us to live off our trust funds, so he specified that we couldn’t touch the money until we were twenty-eight. Jessica will be twenty-eight next year.”
Anna marshaled her thoughts and her words. She didn’t want to say anything that would make Beth regret having been honest with her. “Oh, no. From where you stand, it must seem that I have appeared at a very opportune time." She paused before continuing, "I assume that the beneficiary of the trust fund is listed as Jessica Summerfield. Is that correct?”
Beth frowned. “What are you getting at, Anna?”
“My name is Anna Kingston, and will continue to be even if the DNA report comes back positive. You can assure Ben and your lawyer that they don’t have anything to worry about. I can't touch the money, and I wouldn't if I could."