Sam watched Anna from the doorway in silence. She was humming softly as she shoveled hay and manure into a wheelbarrow. He was amazed by her efficiency. He was even more amazed at her willingness to tackle such a mundane and dirty job. He’d been wrong about her. His first impression had been that she was the spoiled daughter of doting parents; that she was pretty, but a little flighty.
Almost immediately, she’d proved him wrong. She was considerate of her co-workers and clients, and fiercely loyal to her friends. Sure, there’d been a few meltdowns, but she recovered quickly and apologized for her behavior. Despite her terrifying nightmares, she was determined not to let her fears rule her life. His admiration for her toughness had grown by leaps and bounds. He spoke softly in an effort not to startle her. “You’re up bright and early.”
She glanced his way. “Morning, Sam. I like the quiet time before the animals are fully alert. Thirty minutes from now they will be demanding their breakfast. When I was growing up, one of my primary chores was mucking out stalls. It’s good exercise, and unlike many of my friends, I like the smell of horseflesh and leather. Maybe, because the smell brings back so many memories of horses that have gone on to greener pastures, and young riders who have moved on to careers that don’t include horses. Time at the farm reminds me of who I am, and what makes me happy."
"Your dad mentioned that several of the horses Simon trained competed locally, but how successful have they been in national competitions?"
"For the most part, the owners who stable their horses here aren't interested in national competitions, but a few of the students have entered competitions during high school and beyond. Since Dad inherited the farm, only one of Simon’s students had the honor of competing at the Olympics, but at least a half dozen students competed with their college equestrian teams. While you are here, ask Simon to show you his wall of photos. It’s quite impressive.”
“I’ll do that. When I was in college, my girlfriend was on the equestrian team. I was at the barns so often that I was offered a part-time job. So . . . I've mucked out my share of stalls. And, I know how easy it is to get attached to horses.”
“Where did you go to college?”
“The University of Georgia. The university’s teams are perennially ranked among the top equestrian teams in the country.”
“I'm curious. What happened to the girlfriend?”
His grin was more like a smirk. “I broke up with Mia, but kept the job. I loved it. Changing the subject; did you get a report from Mark about the fund-raising event last evening?”
“I did. I would have shared the information if his call hadn’t been come at such a late hour.”
“How did it go?”
“Like clockwork. Some of the money raised will be used to buy musical instruments for students who can’t afford them.”
“Seems like a worthy cause. I’m happy to hear it went so well, but I’m not surprised. Mark claims that you are the most detail oriented person he’s ever worked with. Successful events don’t happen without thorough planning.”
“I admit to being obsessive about details. In the past, Mark and I have hosted dozens of events, but hosting is his thing not mine. I’ve learned the art of small-talk, but I find it tedious. If I could, I would work exclusively behind the scenes. Mark, on the other hand, is a social animal. He can be very persuasive when the time comes for donors to write checks.”
“Your combined skills make for a good team.”
“I like to think that we were a good team, but our partnership has come to an end. Now that he’s more or less moved on, I don’t think he’ll commit to working full-time again.”
“I’ve been surprised that Mark stayed with the Foundation as long as he has. He likes the freedom to work with different people and support various causes. Why haven’t you mentioned your friend Hallie’s project to him? It sounds like a cause that he could get behind.”
“How do you know about Hallie’s project?”
“Last night, after you and your mom turned in, your dad told me about Hallie's plans for a therapy center for disadvantaged children with emotional problems. I'm impressed with her efforts and applaud the efforts of her team. You didn’t answer my question, Anna. Why haven't you talked to Mark about the project?”
“I don’t want him to feel obligated. He steps in when his friends need help. That's well and good in some respects, but I hate it when people take advantage of their friends good nature.
"Besides, I'm fairly certain that Dad and Mom told him about the project. They tell anyone who will listen." She directed the conversation away from Mark. "Before last night, were you aware that horses are sometimes partnered with children and adults who have a panic disorder or those who are suffering from PTSD?”
Sam nodded. “When I returned from my last deployment, my therapist encouraged me to read an article about collaborative care. The article mentioned a non-profit organization called Warrior Outreach that’s based in Georgia. The organization offers therapy that is geared toward veterans and their families, but is similar to other equine therapy.
“When your dad mentioned Hallie's project, it occurred to me that a session for veterans would be a praise-worthy addition to her project. Do you think that Hallie would be open to the idea? I personally know six veterans who would benefit from equine therapy.”
“Sounds like a great idea to me, but I can’t speak for Hallie. Why don’t I give her a call and set up a lunch date for the two of you? I know that she's open to any service that will improve the project."
“Thanks, Anna. I would appreciate an introduction.”
“She’s has a schedule you wouldn’t believe, so I’m not promising that she will take a lunch break. I’ll let you know what she says. If you don’t mind, let’s talk about this later. I need to finish mucking out this stall before Simon shows up. Since you’re not a stranger to the job, how about a hand? Simon will be appreciative.”
“Sure, why not. Where can I find a shovel?”
Anna tapped on the studio door. “Got a minute, Mom?”
“Sure, come on in. I’m blocking out my next painting, but I won’t begin applying paint until I have more time. What’s on your mind?”
“What’s your subject?”
“It’s going to be an autumn mountain scene. Lots of color.”
“Are you looking forward to teaching?”
Her mom shrugged. “I’ve agreed to try teaching for six months. I don’t know that I have the temperament for the job.”
“I think you are going to love it.”
“We’ll see. You didn’t come to the studio to talk about Hallie’s project, or my part in it. What’s bothering you?”
“What has Mark’s told you about Beth and Ben Summerfield.”
“He told us about Beth’s gallery, and her paintings. We asked about her background, personality, physical features . . .that kind of thing. He encouraged us to ask you; said that it wasn’t his place to give us feedback.
"Your dad researched the senior Summerfields, so I know about the family's tragedy. Do I think you are the missing Jessica? I honestly don't know what to think.”
“Maybe it’s time for the two of us to talk about my past.”
“Your dad and I are willing. We decided to wait for a signal from you before talking about the Summerfield's."
“I have a photo of Claire’s portrait and photos of Beth and Ben. Would you like to see them?”
“I would.” Bertie took Anna’s phone, and leisurely scrolled back and forth between the three photos. “Mark was right.”
“He’s convinced that Beth and Ben are your siblings.”
“So am I, but I’m not ready to have the DNA test done.”
“I might be the mirror image of Claire, but I don’t know what kind of woman she was. Let's just say that there were a lot of questions about the Summerfield's that were never answered. It's a stretch, but it’s possible that she or her husband had secrets that led to their deaths. Who knows, maybe their killer wasn’t a stranger. Maybe it was not a home invasion. Is her look of innocence a mask? Until I have a clear picture of who Ben and Beth’s parents were, I don’t want to proceed with the test.”
“What do you know about the murders?”
“I have copies of the police reports and photos of the crime scene. The murders were horrific. If I was born a Summerfield, there's a good chance I witnessed the murders. I’m not sure that I am ready to face that kind of horror.”
“And yet, you accept that Beth and Ben are your siblings?”
“Reluctantly. If Claire’s portrait hadn’t convinced me that I was born Jessica Summerfield, meeting Ben would have. As you can see from the photos, our coloring and physical build are quite different. Ben and Beth both have their dad's coloring. I have the same dark hair but my build and bone structure is like Claire's.
"The amazing thing about Ben is that even though we just met, we bonded. We have similar likes and dislikes. Beth’s a different story. I like her, but the two of us don’t have a lot in common.”
“Perhaps that's because she has the temperament of an artist.”
“I don't think so. You have the temperament of an artist, and we can communicate without any problem. Beth’s an interesting mix of artist, business woman and social butterfly. She likes being the center of attention. That works as a business owner, but when the doors close, everyone in the room needs equal billing." Anna frowned, "I realize that I could be totally wrong about her. The circumstances under which we met could have had something to do with my first impression.”
“Don't be too quick to judge, Anna. You don’t think that she and her brother have anything to do with this business in Raleigh, do you?
“No. I think it’s far more likely that some unbalanced guy has become fixated on me. I doubt that the guy's dangerous, but I don’t want to make the mistake of becoming too complacent.”
“Let's put that aside for now. So, tell me everything you know about Ben and Beth. Your dad and I have decided that Thanksgiving would be a good time to meet the Summerfield family. We'd like to extend an invitation to Beth, Ben and their aunt and uncle. If there are cousins, an invitation will be sent to them.