On Saturday morning, Anna woke with a pounding headache. If it had been a viable option, she would have gulped down a couple of sleeping pills, crawled back in bed and shut out the world. Sadly, sleep was no longer a guarantee of peace. She could no longer escape from the nightmares. The dreams about a blood-spattered room were once again haunting her, and she was having flashbacks of the speeding SUV. Now, there was the added pain of Mark’s abandonment. Despite the creeping depression and her aches and pains, sleeping in wasn’t an option. Her mom was due at nine.
The previous evening she’d learned that her parents were in town; something about a last-minute invite from Avery Starnes, a friend of her dad’s. Anna had been distracted when her mom called, so she’d failed to ask how long they would be in town, or how much free time they would have to spend with her.
After a long shower, and a quick cup of coffee, Anna was in a better frame of mind to face the day. Last evening, her mom’s voice had radiated happiness and excitement about their visit to Raleigh, and Anna wasn’t going to ruin the day by obsessing over her own issues. Surely, she could mask her anxiety for a few hours.
A cold blast of air rushed in when she opened the door. “Br-r-r. Where’s your coat, Mom? Summer’s come and gone.”
Her mom ran her hand through her wind-blown hair. “I don’t mind being a little tousled, Anna. I love it when there’s a chill in the air. But . . . I could use a cup of coffee.”
“Well, you’re in luck. Come on back to the kitchen. I can hardly wait to hear about the fancy party that you and Dad attended last evening. Where was it, and who attended?”
“The party was at Raleigh’s City Club, and the celebration honored Avery’s 70th birthday. The club was quite swanky, and the food was superb. It was a delightful evening, even though I didn’t know anyone but Avery and Marta. Several other guests were in the same boat. Your dad, on the other hand, has met several of Avery’s friends.”
“And they are playing golf this morning?”
Bertie nodded. “Marta’s gave him golf clubs, so of course, the logical thing to do was to arrange a round or two of golf. Four of the men were available this morning. I have absolutely no idea when Avery will drop him off, so I hope that I can hang out with you.”
“You don’t have to ask, Mom. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with you. Remind me; is Avery the author Dad used to talk about?”
“He is, but he was the director at Burke County Community College when we moved to Clarksville. When he wrote his first novel, he hired your dad to go over the contract the publisher wanted him to sign. They hit it off, and the two of them had an occasional lunch until Avery and Marta moved to Raleigh. Marta and I moved in different social circles, but I’ve always liked her.” She took a sip of coffee. “Mm-m this coffee is good, and it hits the spot.”
Anna laughed. “I inherited Dad’s knack for making coffee, but I sure didn’t inherit your ability to cook. So . . . what would you like to do this morning?”
Bertie put her mug on the table. “I want to go shopping. My only suitable, party dress is twenty-five years old. Last evening, I looked like a country bumpkin come to town. I should have listened to you when you offered to go shopping with me. Jeans, t-shirts, flannel shirts and boots are indispensable on the farm, but I’ve decided that I need a more versatile wardrobe. If your dad and I are going to travel, and he insists we are, I want to look presentable.”
“Mom, you wouldn’t look like a country bumpkin if you wore a gunny sack, but I think it’s great that you are finally going to update your wardrobe. What exactly are you looking for?”
“A party dress, and at least one dressy outfit—not necessarily a dress; something suitable for dining in an upscale restaurant. I’ve forgotten what I once knew about style, although it would be stretching it to say that I was ever a fashion plate. I’m hoping that you will give me some pointers.”
Anna’s eyes widened. “I can’t believe my ears But let me ask you this before I say yes. Are you going to take my advice, or are you going to complain about prices?”
“How about this? I won’t even look at price tags until I’ve made my selection.”
“I’m going to hold you to it.”
“Are there any boutiques at North Hills that I can afford? I love that shopping center. Maybe we can have lunch at that cute restaurant you took your dad and me to the last time we were in town.”
Anna’s weekend with her parents was exactly what she needed. She completely forgot about her problems, and enjoyed the moment. Her mom purchased two lovely outfits. Despite her promise not to quibble about prices, she did. She made up for the quibbling by treating Anna to grilled salmon at Vivace’s, a popular Italian restaurant in the North Hills shopping mall. Saturday evening, she stocked Anna’s freezer with chicken pies and two dishes of lasagna. One of her mom’s favorite sayings was; “There’s nothing like a home-cooked meal to remind you that you are loved.”
“Anna, there is a Ben Summerfield here to see you.” Alicia’s usually calm voice sounded agitated.
Or . . . was that Anna’s own reaction to the name Summerfield. Why was he in Raleigh? What could he want? Her first thought was; I wouldn’t be quite so apprehensive if Mark was down the hall. Well, Mark wasn’t, but his absence didn’t mean that she had to face Ben Summerfield without back-up. “Alicia, I’m finishing a report—lie, but Ben didn’t have to know. Give me five minutes, and then send him back.”
“Why don’t you buzz me when you’re ready.”
Anna, rang Marian’s office. “Marian, I need a favor. An uninvited guest is waiting to see me. I’m uneasy about seeing him in my office, so, I'll be talking to him in the parlor. If you wander into the room on the pretext of getting a cup of coffee, I’ll introduce you.”
Marian demanded details, but Anna was evasive. “I don’t have time to explain, Marian. I promise to fill you in when he’s gone.”
She closed her eyes and slowly counted to ten. The simple exercise helped clear her mind. She tended to lose her objectivity when she was frustrated, and she was definitely frustrated with the Summerfield’s. She resented that Ben had come to her place of employment without making an appointment. But . . . wait . . . wasn’t that exactly what she had done to Beth? Beth had not rebuked her, so she just needed to paste on a smile, and deal with the man.
If this meeting with Ben was going to lead to an unpleasant confrontation, and it probably was, she needed to be reasonable and calm. She took her time filling the reservoir of the coffee maker. When she’d stalled as long as she could without appearing to be blatantly rude, she rang Alicia. “Alicia, you can escort Mr. Summerfield to the parlor.”
Anna had seen a photo of Ben Summerfield, but she wasn’t prepared for the man who strolled into the parlor. He was strikingly handsome—tall, dark brown, closely-cropped hair, green eyes, and craggy features. It was his laughing eyes, however, that she was instantly drawn to. She crossed the room and held out her hand. “Ben, I’m Anna Kingston.”
He held her hand while searching her face. “Beth said that you resembled our mom, but I didn’t expect you to be a mirror image. The likeness is incredible. I’m blown away.”
His reaction reminded her of Philip’s. She didn’t know how to respond, so she didn’t. “Can I offer you coffee, Ben.”
“Thank you. Right now, I could use a stiff drink, but caffeine will have to do.”
She handed him a mug of coffee and motioned for him to be seated. “Under the circumstances I’m surprised that you’ve chosen to meet me.”
“Sorry. I am not sure which circumstances you are referring to. That I'm skeptical of your motives? When money is involved, it's wise to be wary.”
“Beth made it clear that you thought that I was a scheming woman trying to deceive your family. Let me be upfront. My only interest in going to Laurel Springs was to see Claire's portrait. I have a family I love, financial security and comfortable home.
"What I don't have is answers about my early life."
He studied her face before replying. “That makes two of us. Why don’t we both try to get past our preconceived ideas about each other?”
Marian’s timing was perfect. “Sorry folks. I didn’t know the parlor was occupied.”
“No problem. Marian, meet my guest, Ben Summerfield. Ben, Marian Freemont. Marian is the director for the Grace McMatthews Foundation.”
Ben stood. “Delighted. I’ve read good things about your foundation.”
Marian’s smile was welcoming. “That’s good to know. Anna, be sure to give Ben a brochure when he leaves. I’m sure Anna will be happy to answer any questions you have.” She paused. “Are you by chance related to the artist Beth Summerfield?”
“Beth is my sister. I’m surprised you know her work.”
“An employee, Mark Quinn, recently purchased one of her landscapes. Her brush strokes are masterful and her colors are breathtaking. As you can see . . .” she motioned to one of Bertie’s painting, “I like to surround myself with beautiful works of art.”
“It’s a beautiful painting. Her style is similar to Beth’s.”
“I agree. Anna’s mom is a fabulous artist.”
Ben’s eyes met Anna’s. “Do you paint?”
She shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. I appreciate all talent, but I’m neither artistically nor musically inclined.”
Marian raised an eyebrow. “Anna doesn't broadcast her talents, but she has many. She organizes the events that make the Grace McMatthews Foundation one of the top non-profits in North Carolina. She also handles the publicity."
"I understand where Anna is coming from. When I was a kid, I envied Beth's talent. I tried to play several instruments, but it was a waste of time. No talent. It was only after I learned that talent is as varied as the people who possess it, that I began to develop my own talents."
Ben's words struck a note with Anna. She'd been there. "When I was in college, I was still struggling to understand who I was and how I could make a contribution to society. Then, I met Marian. She came to Meredith to recruit volunteers. I was fascinated by the concept of choosing a cause, and then raising money in support of the cause. I wasn't sure how I would fit in, but I knew that I wanted to be part of the process. I guess you could say I found my niche."
Marian nodded. "Well said, Anna." She turned her attention to Ben. "It is a pleasure to have you visit the Foundation, Ben. If I can ever help you in any way, please feel free to contact me. Now, that I’ve rudely interrupted your visit, I’m going to get my cup of coffee and let the two of you get back to your conversation.”
Ben didn’t sit down until she exited the room. “Lovely woman.”
“Yes, she is." She noticed him eyeing the coffee maker. "Feel free to help yourself."
He laughed. "That obvious, was I? I am tempted, but I better forego another cup."
She wondered if he was as addicted to coffee as she was. Anna felt an affinity for Ben that she didn’t understand. Was that because they were blood relatives? She took a moment to ponder that question before asking, “Why are you here, Ben?”
“I want to know why you decided not to go ahead with the DNA test.”
“Before I answer your question, I would like to ask you one. Did you or Beth hire a flunky to scare me away?”
His eyes widened. "No! Hell, no! Has someone accosted you?"
"Let's just say that for the past several months there have been times when I feared for my life."
"I don't know what to think. Rest assured that neither I nor Beth wish you harm.
“When Beth called about your visit, I suggested that she question you about your background. My reservations had to do with your motive and your timing, but I was never against DNA testing. It’s an easy test, and it’s conclusive.”
“Did the other women who claimed to be Jessica have the test done?”
“No. James, the family lawyer, didn't let it go that far. Beth and I were young when we began our search for Jessica. We had Aunt Rosalie and Uncle Jamie's blessing, but James insisted that we keep him informed.
"We desperately wanted to believe that our sister was alive, so we were too trusting when women came forward claiming to have facts that only our missing sister could have. We didn’t realize that the police files could be viewed by any Joe Q. Public.
"Fortunately, James stepped in. Neither woman resembled our mom or dad, and that should have been a red flag. Now, I’m less gullible. For everyone concerned, I suggested that it was wise to proceed with caution.
“Except for the hair, you are a dead ringer for Mom. You and I are driven to help people. Perhaps it's our way of playing forward the help we received, or maybe it's drive that we were born with. Who knows.
"We're strangers, and yet I sense that was have a similar view of life. As much as I love Beth, we frequently clash. She is more into creating beautiful works of art than championing causes. She’s temperamental, and I'm even-tempered. Her idea of a good time is working in her studio, and I'm happiest when I'm interacting with other people. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture.
"Now that we've met, I feel comfortable moving forward."
“Similar personal traits don’t necessarily make us blood relatives, Ben.”
“True. Sister or not, I think we can be friends."
So, he felt a connection too. Interesting. Even if they were related, could she trust him?
After a brief silence he said quietly, "Tell me about this mysterious person who you see as a threat."
She hoped she wasn't making a mistake. "I was a happy and contented woman until an incident of voyeurism occurred at Millie's, a favorite café of mine. Two of my friends and I have been meeting there for coffee and girl talk for years. The first time I sensed that I was being watched, I didn't attach too much importance to the incident.
"Lindsey, Kelli and I know most of the regulars, but there are always a few first timers. There were several unfamiliar faces the day it happened. The second time I sensed a watcher, I feared that I was the victim of a voyeur or a stalker. Later, I learned that Philip was the guilty party. His fascination was due to my likeness to your mom. His admission would have relieved my mind, except there were other incidents that he knew nothing about."
"What happened on the other occasions?"
"For now, all you need to know is that the incidents were disturbing enough to cause a deep and persistent anxiety. Unfortunately, the incidents triggered a return of the nightmares that I experienced as a child. My childhood therapist believes that my nightmares are due to an event that occurred before my adoption took place. It took years of therapy, and a good home environment, to become nightmare free.
"Now, the nightmares have returned. Intellectually, I suspect that I'm overreacting. I’m skittish and suspicious of strangers. The uncertainty and anxiety are interfering with my job, and my personal life. I need to get to the bottom of this. Maybe then, the nightmares will be banished forever.”
“No wonder you are frustrated. Believe me, Anna, whatever is going on, Beth and I aren’t involved. I realize that Beth told you about the trust fund our dad set up for Jessica, but the money was not why I questioned your authenticity. That was my own distrust of strangers, especially a stranger who had the power to disrupt my life, and Beth's life."
"I don't want or need the trust fund money, Ben."
"And neither do we. Beth and I have trust funds of our own, but we also have successful careers. Even if the trust fund money was an issue, we'd negotiate instead of hire someone to harass you.
"I realize, although a little late, that I should have contacted you at home. I’ve upset you, and my intent was to assure you that Beth and I are both excited about the test. To make amends for my inconsiderate behavior, I would like to treat you to dinner this evening if your schedule is free.
"If you choose to tell me about your nightmares, I'll listen, but I'm primarily interested in your childhood memories, or lack of memories. I promise not to pressure you. If you don’t want to discuss your past, we’ll just enjoy dinner and get to know each other.”
Anna took a moment to consider his invitation. She didn't enjoy eating alone, and . . . he had been open and honest with her. Shouldn't she give him the benefit of a doubt? “For now, I’m more comfortable dining at home. That's one of the downsides of being skittish. I have chicken pie and lasagna in my freezer. You are welcome to share.”
“Thank you for the invite. I accept. As for the menu, why don't you surprise me.”
“You have my address?”
“A word of warning. If you see a man in a silver Toyota in front of my condo, don’t be alarmed. Sam is watching my back. I’ll send him a text so that you can come and go without interference.”
Ben's eyes narrowed. “If you have a body guard, you must be dealing with more than a few incidents of voyeurism? What didn't you tell me, Anna?”
“It's complicated. I'll fill you in over dinner. How does six-thirty work for you?"
"Have you contacted the police?"
"They know that I've had issues, but without proof of a threat, they don't have the manpower to provide security. Mark Quinn, a co-worker, hired a friend named Sam Weston to keep an eye on me, and to periodically ride by the Foundation during office hours. It would be bad publicity if there was an incident at the office. Sam is a retired Navy Seal. He takes on an occasional security job. It's just a precaution, Ben."