Disruption and Enlightenment
It’s six a.m. on a dismal Saturday. I’m standing in awe of a memo sheet jumping across Alec Zavos’s desk blotter in his freezing barn office across from his residence. My breath forms vapor from the cold as I reason out what’s underneath. I lift one corner of the paper and spot a pair of antennae belonging to a silent cricket taking refuge.
“Sorry, cricket guy, you need new lodgings.” I slide a manila folder beneath the memo sheet to capture the critter, then place the bug in the spacious barn breezeway. “It’s safer out here. In the mood I’m in, you’re bound to wind up as my next victim, smashed under my coffee cup.”
While Alec answers emails inside his Brookehaven estate, I plan to spend time with Harriet, my thoroughbred mare, a gift from Alec. He keeps her in his stable of racehorses because my Greenwich Village brownstone in Manhattan isn’t the place for farm animals. In the presence of livestock, my insights come alive, and I’m able to see his point of view before I take actions that can’t be undone.
Alec and I have been on the outs since my thirtieth birthday party last December, and I’m desperate for a new beginning with him. We’re in big trouble; he’s adulting while I’m being extra—and always—over the top.
“Annalisse, you’re my next breath, my next day, my forever. I love you.”
Weeks have flown by, and Alec’s magical proposal speech during the party skips through my thoughts, reminding me of how close I came to accepting his ring. The sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring he’s tried to give me twice, or was it three times? I’ve lost count. Each proposal came during my open questions about our relationship. At some point, he’ll stop asking me to marry him. Waiting for the perfect moment to tell him yes will never arrive if I keep bouncing away from commitment.
I sit and pour the last few ounces of orange-and-clove tea into my mug. Cinnamon hits my tongue, then the tart singe of clove as the stable’s office chair teeters on its springs, breaking the silence with a high-frequency squeal. The sound sets off guttural noises from Harriet, who’s waiting for me in the adjacent stall. I’ve made my escape to Alec’s stable to think about his ex-girlfriend and her nine-year-old boy that she says is Alec’s son. That was Virena’s birthday present to me when she interrupted Alec’s proposal in such an ugly way.
I don’t believe her story.
She’s an intruder messing with our future, and I don’t like it one bit.
Harriet whinnies again to be sure she gets my attention.
“Okay, girl. Give me a second to grab the curry and brush.”
The last of the tea slams against the back of my throat and I stuff my shoulder length hair beneath my hooded sweatshirt, snugging the drawstring tight against my head, sorry for leaving the heavy coat on a hook in Alec’s mudroom. We have the entire weekend together―a quiet two days. Time alone we need to sort out our problems, he said.
“Brr.” A shiver rattles my teeth. “Darn it, I brought the wrong gloves too. That’s what I get for hurrying out of the house.”
Winter in upstate New York is stimulating, but cold when there’s a foot of snow on the ground because of a blizzard kicking up from the south, as often happens in January. The toasty fireplace in the drawing room and Helga’s pastry platter on the counter try to lure me there, but those comforts have to wait. Harriet needs my attention, and I need her today more than ever.
My breath forms a cloud bank at the front of the desk, and my knuckles stiffen beneath the equestrian gloves. Having my hands on Harriet’s hundred-degree body will circulate heat and oil my joints.
The mare does her side-to-side hoof dance when she catches me standing in the breezeway with her halter in one hand and comb in the other. It’s a ritual for her that makes me grin. Animals have their habits, just as people do.
Entering her stall, the aromas of horse hide, copper pennies, and clean pine shavings bombard me, notching down the strain from another disagreement with Alec about Virena’s boy, Noah. His sudden appearance on Alec’s property during my party is a constant reminder of Alec’s short fling almost a decade ago.
Harriet’s more antsy than usual, bobbing her head at the halter.
“Easy. Stay still, girl. I can’t buckle it while you’re moving.”
Harriet complies as if she understands what I’m asking and follows me through the door to the breezeway tie-out. We’ve done this routine many times; I’m surprised she’s so agitated with me. She might feel the storm’s bite like I do, or she senses Noah’s imaginary shackles on my ankles, making it hard to move forward.
“That’s right; you miss your girl in the other stable, don’t you, Harriet?”
Alec weaned the foals from the mares last week, including Harriet’s filly. She doesn’t have a name yet because Alec doesn’t care for my ideas. The Jockey Club has strict rules requiring all registered horse names to go through the association prior to approval. For now, she’s merely, “Harriet’s foal.”
Harriet flinches, showing me her gums when the curry comb’s teeth rake her skin, removing the flyaway undercoat, and leaving a path of shiny, chestnut hair behind. I’m lucky to stand almost as tall as Alec to reach such a tall mare for grooming.
“Sorry, girl. We haven’t done this in a while.” I gentle the pressure and slow the comb on her skin.
With each pass, a movie plays out in my head where Alec and I hurt each other because of outside forces pushing in on us. My relationship with Alec grows more fragile in favor of strangers appearing and disappearing from the scene, using mind games to destroy us. A cute kid enters out of nowhere to weaken and threaten our bond, as Alec moves toward him and farther away from me.
I shake the images away and change grooming tools, starting at her mane between the ears, then traveling down her back to her hindquarters, using the stiff palmyra brush. Who could blame her preference for bristles over sharp curry comb teeth?
“Let’s stick with the brush, shall we? I like it better too.” Sweeping her powerful muscles, my arm thaws out somewhat. “What should I do, Harriet? We can’t blame the boy for this. Alec has to figure it out, but he’s ignoring the obvious.” I gaze into Harriet’s soft, twinkling eye. “The more we talk, the more he pulls away from me.”
Harriet exhales as if she empathizes, and I go back to brushing her flank.
My pocket vibrates from a text message.
I draw out my phone and find a few words from Chase, asking me to call him at the gallery when I get time. I do and set it for speakerphone.
Chase picks up on the first ring. “You’re up early, Anna.”
“A lot on my mind. It’s Saturday; why come into the shop so soon?”
“I couldn’t sleep. A package came in yesterday’s mail for you. Gen stuck it on her credenza. It’s addressed to Personal, Annalisse Drury—not the gallery.”
Gen Zavos is Alec’s mother and our business partner at the Zavos Gallery in Manhattan. She allows me the freedom of days off from my usual duties of valuating antiques for the shop to spend quality time with Alec.
“Hmm. Is it from Kate? Read back the return address for me.”
Paper rustles in my ear.
“No one’s heard from her since she and Ethan left last summer. Please let it be Kate.” I drop the brush and work a hand into my sweatshirt pocket.
Ethan Fawdray, who came from New Zealand, used to manage our farm, the family enterprise belonging to Kate and Ted Walker. The Walker farm in Goshen, New York is where I spent my teen years to adulthood, once “Uncle Ted and Aunt Kate” took me in after the death of the Drurys. They were made-up parents who played a scripted part to cover for Kate’s affair with another man while she was still married to Ted.
“Hang on. The print’s hard to read.” Chase crinkles what sounds like a shipping envelope. “It’s an international envelope from New Zealand. Yeah. Someone by the name of… Fawdray.”
Ethan. We assumed he left with Kate after Ted’s arrest, telling none of us their final destination. It’s possible that Kate went to New Zealand with him, and it gives me hope of finding her now that Ethan’s made contact. Kate’s running instincts must be where I get my urges…
As a child, Kate raised me to believe she was my aunt, but the letter she left behind before she left said she was my true birth mother, not her sister Amy Drury, whom I’ve always known as my mother. The terms aunt and uncle were turned upside down after Kate and Ethan departed from Goshen. Kate added one more thing in her handwritten note; I shouldn’t try to find my birth father because he doesn’t know I exist. Amazing. Does she care what I want? Demanding answers to the many questions I have is on hold until my mother decides when we can talk about it. On her own timeline and no one else’s.
“Huh. It’s a small three-by-three box wrapped in newsprint.” Chase interrupts my daydreaming with his report.
“Is there a note inside from Ethan or Kate?” I pat Harriet’s cheek and lean into her musky muzzle. “Forget looking for a note, just open it. I’m dying to know what’s inside.” My lungs swell with relief. We’re confirming Ethan’s whereabouts, and he’ll know where Kate is.
“No note that I can see. It’s tied in twine. I’m gonna put the phone down.”
I stroke Harriet’s long neck with a gloved hand. “Maybe we’ll get some good news for a change, Harriet. I could sure use some,” I whisper.
“A weird gift.” Chase has a lilt to his voice. “There’s something else in the box. A note. Want me to read the note first?”
“Just tell me about the box. I’m standing in the middle of a freezing barn with a horse—turning into a Popsicle.”
“Oh, got it. There’s a skeleton key inside. The note says you’re invited to Wool… comb Station. It’s signed Ethan. Isn’t that who worked at the farm for you guys?”
“Yep. That’s him.” I’m jazzed about staying on a sheep station, ready to do my version of a happy dance. “Did he leave a telephone number?”
“Skipped a part. He said it’s the station cottage. No phone number, but there’s an address for the cottage.”
“Is there an email address?”
“Aren’t you and Alec going on your flight to New Zealand soon?” Chase asks. “Alec knew you wanted to see that country in the worst way because of their sheep. He asked me if you’d be willing to fly that far for your birthday. Stop in and visit Ethan then.”
I untie Harriet’s lead rope and walk beside her to the stall. A hundred questions flood my mind while unclipping the rope from her leather halter. “I’m going to sign off now and put Harriet away. Would you give the box to Gen and ask her to bring it when she comes? She always stops at the gallery before she leaves for Brookehaven. Alec said his mom was dropping by the estate today.”
“Doesn’t Alec’s old girlfriend drop her kid there on weekends?” Chase utters a disgusted sigh.
“Yeah, Alec’s on babysitting duty again. To Gen, she treats Noah like her legitimate grandchild, but there’s no proof of that without a test. I wish Virena and her son would stay on the coast where they belong.”
“You’re it!” The words jar my ears from behind. Little knuckles barrel into my frigid thigh.
Harriet bounds into the corner, whinnying; her ears flatten to her head.
In the cold, a fist punch stings my skin, a surprise attack from a healthy boy.
“Noah, step out of the horse stall. She doesn’t know you.” Or like you. Clenching my teeth with one eye on the kid, I calm Harriet. “Shh. Easy, girl.”
The blond hellion in jeans and cowboy boots sticks his tongue out and stomps into Alec’s office.
“Chase, I’ve gotta go. Talk soon.” Stowing the phone, I limp to the doorway, rubbing my leg, and slide Harriet’s door shut with a glance at the latch. “We’ll finish brushing later, Harriet.” I turn to Noah. “The highway in front of Alec’s house is dangerous to cross alone in the dark. Where’re your snow boots?”
Noah sinks into the chair in front of the desk, gathering a notepad and pen. With a smile on his face, he ignores me when witnesses aren’t around.
“Did Alec come with you?” The vacant breezeway howls in a gust of wind. “Never, ever go into a horse stall when someone has their back turned. Horses are big animals, and they can hurt you.”
“Duh. I’m not stupid.” He scribbles while making faces at the page.
“Look, it’s too cold to play tag in here, and it makes the horses nervous. If you want to, we can play a game inside before breakfast. Any board game you want.”
“Board games are lame.”
“How about making peanut butter buckeyes with Miss Rissman, Alec’s housekeeper? It’s candy. Wanna learn how to make them?”
All kids like sweets, but I have no experience with little brothers or babysitting boys.
“Hellie’s fat and talks funny. Hard pass, Bi—”
“Stop. Her name’s Miss Rissman and she’s a German lady. She tries very hard to speak English.” I hold my breath in another jaw clench and talk myself out of dragging his disrespectful bones outside by the jacket collar. He uses gutter language to get attention, except around Gen. Noah knows when to sugarcoat words for the most gain. “Where’d you learn to talk like that?”
“It’s what Mom calls you.” Noah giggles aloud, coloring inside the lines of his horse drawing.
There it is. I’m sure he’s referring to the B word, not the weight comment, or maybe the weight too. A jealousy remark I wouldn’t push past her. I work hard to keep my lean figure. His mother, Virena whatever her last name is, nudges Noah’s opinions. Her knowledge of the dangling marriage proposal might be driving her to push Noah on Alec and against me. The possibility of Alec’s child with this person who’s dropped in from the past keeps me from accepting a marriage proposal until we know for certain that Noah is his.
I tolerate a lot from this boy, but now’s not the time to stand aside and allow Noah’s smart mouth to go unanswered. Trickery is needed.
“I’m going back to the estate to play Xbox with Alec. Wanna check it out?”
“He has Xbox?” His eyes widen at my lie, and he drops his pen.
“Yeah, I saw it in one of the guest rooms. We can hook it up and play; it’s up to you. The fort game is the bomb.” My brows bump for effect.
“Really? Awesomacious. Let’s go.”
“Stick close to me and wait until it’s safe to cross the highway.”
In a shocking move, Noah takes my hand, walking in silence from the horse barn to the road and looking both ways as he’s been taught. He crosses the frozen asphalt, with a layer of ice glistening crystalline in the sunrise, without words, gripping my hand.
I act on my plan as we approach the house, but Alec won’t like my deceit with the mood he’s in. Navigating Alec’s past from his college days is wearing me down more than I’m ready to admit. Either Noah is his son, or he isn’t. A DNA test is the only way to confirm for certain.
Alec’s wearing a dazzling smile and a turtleneck sweater when he greets us at the estate door. His gaze holds mine for the longest time, and I detect a mixture of curiosity and pride. Noah and I, hand in hand, must look like an unconvincing team, me in my tea-stained sweatshirt and double-layer sweatpants, and the kid in his new puff jacket and fancy boots, thanks to Gen.
“I spotted you guys at the barn. You must be freezing, Anna. Where’s your barn coat?”
“It’s colder than I expected. Excuse me, Alec. I’m going to stand in front of the fire.” Sliding past him to the entry, I hear Noah mention the Xbox. My grin is unseen and as wide as Alec’s was earlier. Fireworks are sure to begin after I thaw.
The peaceful warmth of Brookehaven Estate doesn’t stop my shudder.