Alicia Thomas, the administrative assistant to the director of the Grace McMatthews Foundation, looked up from the papers she was reading when Anna entered the reception area. “Thank goodness you’re here, Anna. What’s going on? Mark stopped by long enough to open the office. He was in a hurry, as usual, so didn’t take time to explain Marian’s change of plans for the day. He said that you would fill me in.”
“Mornin’ Alicia. Marian called to let me know that she’s at the hospital with her daughter Natalie. Natalie woke early this morning with severe pains in her right side. Since Natalie’s husband is out of town, and she didn’t want to rouse a friend at five o’clock in the morning, she called 911. Then she called her parent’s number. Her dad is also out of town on business. Marian joked that Richard’s absence is a blessing. He panics when anything happens to his little girl. For now, that’s all I know. Marian will call when the doctors make a diagnosis.”
“She did the smart thing. It sounds like appendicitis. It’s never a good idea to ignore severe symptoms of any kind. My cousin Jean put off getting medical attention and her appendix ruptured. She developed peritonitis. It took her months to regain her health.”
“Let’s hope that’s not the case with Natalie.”
“What should I do about Marian’s nine o’clock appointment with the Cantrell’s? It’s a little late to cancel it.”
“I’ll see them. Do you have a bio on the couple?”
Alicia handed her a file. “There’s not a lot there. You are going to have to wing it.”
“Thanks. I’ll see what I can put together before they arrive. Did you put coffee on?”
“I’ll bring you a cup when it’s finished brewing. And don’t worry about me, Mark gave me enough work to keep me busy all morning.”
At nine on the dot, Alicia buzzed. “The Cantrell’s are in the parlor. I’ve set out coffee and Danish. Buzz me if you need anything else.”
“Thanks Alicia.” She picked up her laptop and hurried down the hall to the parlor.
When she entered the room, Philip Cantrell was inspecting her mom’s painting of wildflowers that was displayed behind a credenza across from the sitting area. He turned and said, “Brilliant brush strokes.”
“Are you an art lover Mr. Cantrell?”
“Philip, please. And, yes, I am. So is my wife Jeanette. We recently met a brilliant artist named Beth Summerfield who uses color much the same way that Kingston does. She owns an art gallery in Laurel Springs, Virginia. Are you familiar with her work?”
She motioned for him to take a seat. “No, but then I’m not an authority on art and artists. That would be my mother, Bertie Kingston.”
He turned and glanced at the painting. “That artist who painted the wildflower scene?”
“Yes, she and our director here at the Grace McMatthews Foundation, Marian Freemont, are friends. When Mom shipped the painting to Marian she did so as a thank you gift for Marian’s kindnesses to me. She didn’t realize that Marian was on the board of the North Carolina Art Museum, or that one of her passions was promoting the work of North Carolina artists. When Marian received Field of Wildflowers, she promptly hung the painting where all of the Foundation’s employees, guests and donors could enjoy its beauty. I love the painting because it reminds me of home.”
“It was kind of her to share the paintings’ beauty. I, for one, am appreciative.”
“I’ll pass on your compliments. Mom will be pleased to know that the painting brightened your day. As for Marian, she regrets not being here to personally greet you this morning. There’s been a medical emergency in her family. My name is Anna. Anna Kingston. I’m the publicist and the event planner for the Foundation.”
Philip glanced at his wife, and responded for the two of them, “Sorry about Mrs. Freemont’s medical emergency, but we appreciate your willingness to step in for her. “If you don’t mind, I would like to ask one more question about your mom. Do any of the local galleries handle her paintings?”
Anna jotted down a web site address and handed it to him. “Her web address. You can see more of her paintings on her site.”
“Thank you. I apologize for getting sidetracked. I realize that we are here to talk about the Foundation, not art.”
Anna chuckled. “We encourage our guests to ask questions so that we can get to know them. You never know. Your interest in art might influence your choice of event. We haven’t sponsored an art exhibit, but we pride ourselves on being flexible. As I’m sure you’ve heard, raising money for children’s causes is our passion. What you might not have heard is that the Foundation ultimate goal is to explore ways to bring about change, change in children’s lives and donors’ lives.
“Our founder was a teacher for almost twenty years, so many of the causes we support are directly related to education. While you are enjoying the Danish and coffee, why don’t you tell me what you know about the Foundation, and what your expectations for us are.”
Jeanette joined the conversation. “We heard about the Foundation purely by chance. One of our neighbors mentioned a walkathon for special needs children that you sponsored. She is enthusiastic about that particular area of your work because she has a special needs child.
“Philip and I moved to Raleigh eighteen months ago. Most of our charitable giving in Richmond was church related. We will continue to support missions, but we would like to be hands-on in our future charitable efforts. Even before we relocated, we had decided that it was time to diversify.
We don’t have children, but that doesn’t keep us from being concerned about the thousands of children who were born with disabilities or the children who are disadvantaged in other ways. If one of the Foundation’s programs inspires us, we have the means, time and the desire to help. I reiterate, we don’t want to write a check and walk away. We want to become personally involved.”
Anna handed Jeanette a flyer. “With us, participation is welcomed. You’ll find the causes we currently support listed in the flyer. Keep in mind; the Grace McMatthews Foundation team is here to help and to make dreams come true. If there is another cause that fits our parameters and yours, don’t hesitate to discuss it with us. We are always open to new ideas. Let me tell you about Grace McMatthews, the founder of the Foundation, and maybe it will give you a better idea of who we are.
“As I mentioned, Grace was a, teacher, but she was also a dedicated mother. She and her CPA husband, Stephen, were not wealthy and had no expectations of becoming wealthy. Before fate stepped in, they were busy working and raising their family, a daughter and son. According to the author who wrote Grace’s memoir, Grace was an advocate for disadvantaged children long before she had the money to implement or sponsor programs.
“On a lark, Grace and Stephen purchased a lottery ticket while they were vacationing in New York. The year was 1969. They won two million dollars. Because they were frugal people, their lifestyle remained relatively unchanged. Stephen invested the money, and their fortunes increased. Two dramatic events occurred that changed Grace and her daughter’s lives. Stephen suffered a fatal heart attack, and Grace and Stephen’s down’s syndrome son Robin died.
“Grace retired from teaching, and she and her daughter Carolyn, a recent college graduate, set up the foundation using most of their life savings to fund it. Until her death, Grace worked tirelessly to raise money for the causes that she, Stephen and Carolyn held dear. When Grace died, Carolyn became the director. Our current director is Carolyn’s daughter. What I like to point out to prospective donors, and Marian is hesitant to admit; all the hard work that has gone into the foundation has been a labor of love and sacrifice by three exceptional women.
“As much as we might wish otherwise, we can’t help every child, so we try not to spread ourselves too thin. What we can do, is guarantee that donors’ money is used wisely. The McMatthews Trust pays the salaries of the staff, so the entirety of your money—if you make a donation—will go to the cause of your choice.”
Jeanette was wide-eyed. “Amazing. It’s good to know that there are people out there like Stephen and Grace, their daughter and their granddaughter. I’ve often wondered if any of the winners of the lottery used the money to help people in need.”
“Now you know one couple did.” Anna turned her laptop around so that Philip and Jeanette could both see the screen. “Let me show you some photos of the events we sponsored last year. Afterwards, feel free to ask questions.”
Thirty minutes later, Anna thanked the Cantrell’s, and then walked them to the door. Before returning to her office, she stopped by Alicia’s desk to ask if there had been a call from Marian.
“The diagnosis was appendicitis. Fortunately, Natalia arrived at the hospital before her appendix ruptured. She’s out of surgery and doing well. Marian will come into the office after lunch. She asked that everyone be available for a short meeting between one and two.”
“Has Mark come in?”
“No, but I sent him a text. He’ll be in by one, and Julia came in while you were with the Cantrell’s.”
“Did Marian say why she was calling a meeting?”
“No, only that it was important. How did the meeting with the Cantrell’s go?
“I’m not sure. I think Jeanette was ready to write a check, but Philip appeared to be disinterested. Truthfully, I think he would have spent our entire hour together asking questions about Mom’s Field of Wildflowers if I had let him. He was cordial, but there was no enthusiasm about the presentation. Are you positive that he hasn’t been in to see Marian before?”
Alicia looked puzzled. “She told me Friday that she’s never met the husband or the wife. Why do you ask?”
“He seems vaguely familiar, but I can’t place where I’ve seen him. I was hoping that his uneasiness was because he wanted to deal directly with Marian.” Oh, well. I’ll probably recall why his face is familiar in the middle of the night.
“I need to run an errand, Alicia. I’ll be back in time for Marian’s meeting.”
The entire crew was already in Marian’s office when Anna returned from her errand. She apologized for running late. “Sorry, traffic was a bear. What did I miss?”
Marian waved away Anna’s apology. “Nothing except an update on Natalie’s condition. She’s awake and doing well. She was a fortunate young woman, and I’m grateful. While I was waiting for her surgery to be over, I had time to reflect on the past year, and my frenetic schedule. I’ve taken too many hours away from my family, and I’m going to rectify that. The first step that I’m going to take is to close the Foundation’s doors for a week. Next week.”
When recovered from shock, she spoke up. “Closing our doors isn’t necessary, Marian. I don’t have anywhere I need to be. I can keep the doors open.”
“Thank you, Anna. You have a good heart. I know that my announcement comes as a shock to all of you, especially since it goes against my policies of the past. I’ve made up my mind. I’ve always believed that family should come first, but I haven’t always acted on that belief. For the past year, every person in this room has been guilty of putting the work of the Foundation ahead of their families. We need a break. I want to assure you that your regular vacations will not be affected. This bonus week is my gift to all of you for your hard work and dedication.
“Alicia, you will need to spend out an email to all of our donors and our volunteers. Assure them that all’s well here at the Foundation. Tell them that I’m selfishly taking time to be with my family.”
Alicia nodded. “I will get those off today. Anything else?”
“If any of you have loose ends that need immediate attention, get those tied up before Friday.”
“Alicia, I heard you tell a friend that you’ve been so busy that you don’t have time for lunch. Now you will. Mark, this week will allow you time to work on that personal project you mentioned. Julia, you’re always juggling your family’s schedules. I hope a week off will give you time to catch up. Anna, I talked to your mom last week. I didn’t realize that you hadn’t been home since Christmas. Now’s your chance. If you decide to spend the week elsewhere, call your parents. I don’t want Bertie and John thinking that I’m deliberately keeping you away. They aren’t getting any younger.”
“All of you deserve a break. Come back refreshed and ready to hit the ground running.”
When the crew left Marian’s office, Mark Quinn followed Anna to her office. “Do you have time to talk about a couple of issues concerning the upcoming series of lectures in the fall?”
“Of course. Has something come up that I don’t know about?”
He reached in his pocket and took out a flash drive. “My notes for all four of the lectures. The lecturers for the first and second events have committed; the last two invited speakers haven’t. In addition, there’s a problem with the auditorium.”
“I booked the dates last fall.”
“They confirmed that, but the date for the auditorium’s renovation has been pushed forward. We need to make other arrangements before the publicity goes out.”
“I’ll take care of it, and I’ll take a look at your notes to make sure that there are no other surprises. Anything else?”
“Not unless you catch something that I missed.”
“I have a question that has nothing to do with upcoming events. What’s going on with Marian, Mark? Natalie’s surgery was successful, so something else must have happened that she’s not telling us.”
“If so, I wasn’t informed.”
“Her bonus week is generous, but puzzling. Are you going to head out to California to see Sharon?”
“I am. She has stopped communicating. I kept hoping that she would come to her senses, but Mom’s antagonism has caused a chasm that is going to be difficult to bridge. My number one concern is Sharon’s mental health, but I’m also concerned about her education. The longer she’s out of school the higher the odds that she won’t get a degree. Without one, jobs will be scarce.”
“Doesn’t she have a trust fund?”
“She can’t touch the money until she’s twenty-one. Unfortunately, she can get into a lot of trouble in two years.”
“Is she still with her boyfriend?”
“We’re not sure. Two months ago, Mom wrote a scorching letter to her. Those are Mom’s words, I didn’t read the letter. Sharon wrote back and told Mom that if she came out, she wouldn’t be able to find her. I contacted the apartment complex where they were living. I was told that they vacated the apartment three months ago. The manager wouldn’t give me their forwarding address.
“Mom’s a mental case. She was making an effort to rebuild her life after Dad’s death until Sharon’s abrupt departure from school. Now with the estrangement, she’s retreating into a shell. I don’t think that I can make the situation worse by making a trip out there.”
“You are a good brother, Mark. I hope you find her.”
“That’s part of the problem, I haven’t been. Sharon and I have never been close because of our age difference, but she is still my sister. If she needs help, I need to be there for her. What about you? How will you spend your bonus week?”
“Ironically, the week away has come at a good time. Back in May, there were three disconcerting incidents; one time someone was following me, and the other two times, someone was watching me. Since then, I’ve shied away from crowds. I’ve been edgy. With our heavy fall schedule of events coming up, I don’t need distractions. I hope a week out of the city will do the trick.”
“Ah hah. A secret admirer.”
“No, it wasn’t that kind of stare. I can handle secret admirers. When the incidents happened, I don’t mind admitting that I was terrified. Once I could think rationally, I realized that if the voyeur wished me harm, that he/she would have already attacked me. Even so, I’m not going to take any chances. It’s not knowing who or why I’m being watched that drives me bananas.”
“Where did these incidents occur?”
“The first one was outside Millie’s Café. The other two were inside the café.”
“Isn’t that where you and your girlfriends meet for coffee?”
She nodded absently.
“I don’t recall meeting your friends.”
“You haven’t, but I’ve known Lindsey and Kelli for years, and the café is a neighborhood hangout. It’s a five-minute walk from my condo in British Woods. When I was fresh out of college, I was fortunate enough to meet Lindsey through a “Roommate Wanted” ad. I was thrilled when I learned that the condo was in British Woods, and that I could actually afford the rent. Lindsey was ideal roommate material. She was rarely in town, and when she was, she was catching up on her sleep.”
“I thought you lived alone.”
“I do. Lindsey married and moved to the Cameron Village Condos two years ago. Her husband Grant is working toward his masters at NC State University. He wanted to be closer to State’s campus. I considered advertising for a roommate, but in the end, chose to live on my own. I miss Lindsey’s bubbly personality, but our Saturday morning get-together s have kept our friendship strong.”
“What about Kelli? How did you meet her?”
“Kelli lives in a town-home across from the condo complex. She doesn’t have much of a social life because she works a night shift. Lindsey and I both like her, so we invited her to join us at Millie’s. Recently, Kelli’s situation changed. Her boyfriend has been offered a job in Atlanta, and she is seriously considering joining him.”
“Sadly, our Saturday morning outings are going to end. I was upset about ending our get-together's when the first incident of voyeurism occurred, so I brushed the incident aside. Now, I'm not sure what to think, Mark. Since then, I’ve been cautious about where I go in the evenings.”
“Until there’s proof that you aren’t in danger, you need a buddy to keep you company when you go out.”
“I've considered that, Mark, but neither Lindsey or Kelli are available.”
“I am. While you are in Clarksville, try not to think about the Foundation or potential issues with the mystery person. When you return, we’ll talk about a plan of action. Unless you object, I’m going to stick to you like glue until we can find out if there’s reason for concern.”
Anna was stunned by Mark’s offer. “Thanks, Mark. That’s kind of you, but people will talk if we are constantly seen together. The Foundation doesn’t need rumors swirling around their employees. And, what about your current girlfriend? Platonic or not, females don’t like their male friends hanging out with other women.”
“When you’re the son of a public figure, people talk no matter what you do. As for having a girlfriend, my one and only serious relationship ended two years ago. If you are referring to Millicent, you’re dead wrong. I’ve escorted her to several social functions because her boyfriend is military. She’s a friend, so spending time with her is not an imposition.”