As Cassie Miller drove the Jeep Wagoneer down the sloping hill that led to the farm's driveway, she caught herself chanting, "I think I can, I think I can." Glancing ruefully at her reflection in the rearview mirror, she prayed that her nervousness wouldn't ruin her interview.
The entrance to the driveway was marked by the sign Five Oaks. Pulling in, she steered the Jeep over to the side of the well-graded dirt road, cut the engine, and twisted around to face the backseat.
"Okay, kids, time for a face and hands check." Two small children looked back at her with matching deep blue eyes and golden curls. They waited expectantly.
"All right, you guys, stick 'em up!" Cassie said in her best James Cagney voice. The two giggling five-year-olds raised their hands to the level of the front seat and showed them to Cassie for inspection. Cassie took Jamie's and then Sophie's, examining each in turn.
"Excellent! We've got two clean pairs of hands here. Now, Jamie, how many fingers have you got? We don't want any missing."
Jamie looked down, wiggling his fingers. "One, two, three, four, five," he began and rushed on, "six, seven, eight, nine, ten!"
"That's terrific. Now I know you'll be able to shake hands politely with Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer."
"What about me?" clamored Sophie, eager to be included in the game.
"Have you got ten fingers, too, Pumpkin?"
"Yes!" crowed Sophie triumphantly. "Just look!"
"Why, imagine that! You're right! What luck. You do have ten fingers." Cassie pretended to wipe her brow. "Whew! I was so worried! But what about your faces? Are those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you had at lunch in your tummies or on your cheeks?"
"In our tummies!" cried both children, this time a little doubtfully.
"Hmm, I guess they look clean enough."
In fact, both Sophie and Jamie's faces fairly glowed, Cassie having taken the precaution of arming herself with packets of moist towelettes for the trip. She leaned over and kissed their soft cheeks, marveling once again at the beauty of her two little imps. She was so proud of them. Had been from the day they were born.
"You two certainly look smart to me. But let's make sure of one last thing. Your shoes. Are they on the right feet? We can't have you going off to an interview with shoes on the wrong feet!"
"But Mom," cried Jamie in an aggrieved tone. "You're the one who's gonna get the job. We're just kids."
"I don't know about that. If I get this position at Five Oaks, you two will be my assistants."
"We will?" Jamie's small voice rose with excitement.
"Of course. And I'll also need both of you to take care of Topper and Pip. Those ponies are a big responsibility."
"Yes, Mommy, we know."
"And, kids, I need you to be on your best behavior. Mr. Sawyer was super nice about letting you two tag along while I talk with him about working here."
"We know Mommy, Uncle Alex and Thompson told us that, too."
"About a zillion times."
"No, it was a quadrillion times."
Cassie smiled. "Right, well, don't forget. I'm counting on you. Now that that's settled, how do I look? Any muck on my face?"
Now it was the children's turn to inspect Cassie. Treating the matter with utter seriousness, they leaned forward, bending at the waist to look at her more closely.
Sophie pronounced judgement. "You're the most beautiful mommy in the whole wide world!"
A bittersweet lump formed in Cassie's throat. She swallowed hard before attempting to speak.
"Thank you, Pumpkin. I love the two of you very much. You're so wonderful to me."
"But Mommy," interrupted Jamie, who already knew he didn't like gooey kisses and hugs and wanted to stop things before they got out of hand, "Your hair is coming out again."
"Oh, dear," cried Cassie in mock dismay. "Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer will just have to see the wild side of me." As a child, Cassie's hair had looked like Jamie's and Sophie's, but over the years the corkscrew curls had softened, so that now they more closely resembled riotous waves that flowed down to the middle of her back. But whenever she tried to tame it, pulling it back into a knot at the nape of her neck, as she had done for the upcoming interview, strands escaped and framed her face with golden curls.
"Well, we'd better get a move on before I lose my courage and drive us straight back to New York. I faxed the Sawyers and told them to expect us at about three o'clock. It's just three now."
Cassie turned the key in the ignition and pulled the car back onto the driveway. The farm, she already knew, was spread out over two hundred acres of prime Virginia horse country. When Cassie had seen the job announcement, offering a dual position as trainer and rider for Five Oaks, she'd immediately faxed her résumé and crossed her fingers. Professionals from all over the country would be responding to the ad.
She'd been thoroughly elated, as well as a bit astonished, when she received a call from Hank Sawyer asking her to come down for an interview. The driveway stretched for nearly a quarter mile with white wooden-fenced pastures on either side. Cassie and the children could see horses grazing on the new grass. As they reached the horse barns, pastures gave way to riding rings with brightly colored jumps set at various heights. Behind them, Cassie noticed a large indoor ring. The driveway ended in a wide circle around which stood five enormous oaks.
Cassie parked, opened her door, then let the children out of the back. They clambered down from their seats, chattering excitedly. Cassie stood silently, taking a moment to gaze at the beauty of her surroundings.
There were four barns in all, two attached together to form a T shape with the third one off to the side. As Five Oaks was a breeding farm, Cassie assumed that the separate barn was used for the brood mares. A fourth barn was set off at a distance. She noted with approval the pristine condition of the buildings. Painted white with dark green trim, they shone invitingly in the afternoon sun. Muffled noises and the occasional whickering of horses floated out on the air.
"Come on kids, take my hands and let's go find Mr. Sawyer."
They entered the shaded interior of the larger barn. Rows of box stalls flanked a wide concrete aisle. The barn smelled of horses, leather, hay, and creosote, a scent that was as familiar to Cassie as the smell of her own home. As familiar and as loved. Hooked up to a pair of cross ties, a large bay was being groomed by a man wearing an Orioles baseball cap. He looked to be about thirty, and from his dark olive complexion Cassie guessed him to be Mexican.
"Excuse me. Could you please tell me where I might find Hank Sawyer?" The man stopped brushing but continued to lay his hand on the horse's shoulder in a soothing gesture. A smile spread across his features when he saw the young woman holding the hands of two almost identical children.
"He's in the office. Follow this aisle down and then make a right. His office is around the corner." From the man's slight accent, Cassie knew that her guess had been right.
"Thanks a lot."
The trio moved past the horse and Cassie ducked her head under the cross ties.
"Mommy," Sophie whispered excitedly as they began walking past the long line of stalls. "Can we say hello to the horses as we go by?"
"Yes, a couple, but let's not be late for our appointment." Cassie knew only too well just how much time it might take two five-year-olds to say hi with this long a row of box stalls. Many of the horses standing with their ears cocked forward and their necks arched gracefully over the stall doors, seemed as inquisitive as the two chidren. They observed the humans' progress down the aisle toward the office.
The door to the office was shut, so Cassie let go of Jamie's hand and knocked. From within, a voice called out instructing them to come in. Cassie, Jamie, and Sophie stepped inside. Behind a large desk piled high with stacks of papers and books, a man stood and came forward to greet them.
"Hello, you must be Cassandra Miller. I'm Hank Sawyer. You're right on time. Hope the trip down from New York wasn't too exhausting."
He paused a moment, his glance lighting on the two small children standing at her side. "And what are your names?"
"Hello, Mr. Sawyer, I'm Jamie Miller." Jamie stretched out his small hand. Hank shook it with a solemn smile, his large hand engulfing the tiny one. Sophie thrust out her hand, too, determined to be as grown-up as her brother.
"Hi, Mr. Sawyer, I'm Sophie. Jamie and I are twins. He was born before me. But I can count to twenty faster." She boasted proudly.
"That's true for the moment, Sophie, but Jamie's catching up to you. I'd keep practicing." Cassie glanced at Hank Sawyer. "Thanks again, Mr. Sawyer, for letting us impose on you this way. Sophie and Jamie learned all about the Baltimore Aquarium in school this year. They were desperate to come, so we've turned the trip into a three-day cultural adventure."
"The aquarium's a fascinating place, and the harbor, too. You'll enjoy it. We've taken our grandchildren there quite a few times. Just let me telephone my wife so that she knows you've arrived." Hank turned to his desk and picked up the phone. As he dialed, he looked up, "Make yourself comfortable. On the wall over there are photographs of some of our horses."
Sophie and Jamie scrambled over to the wall to peer excitedly at the pictures of horses soaring over fences; horses standing in the judges' circle, blue ribbons hanging from their bridles; riders smiling as they leaned down to shake hands with women in sequined gowns. Cassie thought she could make out the younger features of Hank Sawyer as well as another, unidentified man.
As she waited quietly while Hank spoke into the phone, she took the opportunity to observe him unobtrusively. He looked to be somewhere between fifty-five and sixty. His full head of hair was silver, cut short to reveal the strong bones of the face. It was a kind and open one, with laugh lines bracketing the corners of his mouth. The lines etched into his brow and the deep gold tone of his skin, even this early in spring, attested to the hours he spent under the sun. Cassie liked the way his eyes had crinkled up at the corners when he'd smiled at Sophie and Jamie. She'd also seen the shrewdness and intelligence in them, something she'd expected to find. One couldn't survive in the horse business, let alone run such a clearly successful establishment as Five Oaks, without those qualities.
She hoped Hank was also a bit of a gambler, that he'd be willing to take a chance on her.
Hank interrupted Cassie's thoughts. "Melissa will be here in just a few minutes. She was wondering whether the kids might be interested in a snack."
"That's very kind of you. For the moment though, they seem pretty taken with your photo gallery. I noticed you rode at Devon, Mr. Sawyer."
"Call me Hank. Everyone does. I hardly know who they're talking about when I hear Mr. Sawyer." His gaze skimmed the photographs on the wall. "Yes, a couple of those pictures are from Devon. I'm just glad I wasn't riding against you when those were taken."
At Cassie's startled look, Hank smiled and continued, "Of course you didn't realize this, but I saw you compete both at Devon and Washington the year you were racking up points to qualify for the national team. You were amazing. And the way you handled that stallion, On The Mark, was incredible. You were what, barely nineteen, and you could hardly have weighed more than one hundred and ten, but you had him flying over those fences in the jump-off as if he were a merry-go-round pony in Mary Poppins."
The image of On The Mark being like a carousel ride brought a wide grin to Cassie's face. "He was a great horse, a great teacher. I was lucky to ride him so early on in my career. He taught me how to listen. And he taught me how important it is to figure out what makes each horse tick. In On The Mark's case, it was his pride."
"Interesting. How did you come to that conclusion?"
Cassie's hands lifted, gesturing as she explained. "He had such natural ability and he knew it. He was a cocky son of a gun. I realized that it really bothered him if he even so much as nicked a fence. He hated it, it threw off his whole performance. So I did my darndest to set him up perfectly for each and every fence. Then I tried not to mess around too much and let him do the rest of the work. By the end of that season, he was in a class by himself. Nobody could beat him."
"Well, when I got your résumé, your name rang a bell. It didn't take long to remember what you achieved with that horse. Those were some remarkable rides, Cassandra."
She felt a blush stain her cheeks. "Thank you. And please call me Cass or Cassie. I don't think I've quite grown into Cassandra yet."
That might be true enough. Although he knew from her résumé that Cassie Miller was twenty-four, there was a youthfulness to her face, especially with that charming blush that made her look hardly out of her teens.
Far too young to be the mother of five-year-old twins.
But the children looked a lot like her, he noted. Deep blue eyes and blond curly hair. It was like seeing the finished product when you looked first at the twins and then at Cassie. Even though Cassie's hair was pulled back from her face, accentuating her wide, high cheekbones and her full lips, he figured that in about ten years, Sophie would be a close copy of her mother. Jamie, too, looked like he would be equally good looking.
rdCassie Miller stood an easy five foot eight -- good, she'll be big enough to handle Orion -- and her body looked strong and fit. His glance next took in the long legs and well-defined arms revealed by the ribbed cotton top she wore under her jumper.
Hank would have been deeply embarrassed if someone had pointed out to him that he was cataloging Cassie's attributes much as he might a horse he was interested in acquiring. But he would probably have argued that he had no use for a rider who wasn't physically up to the challenge of riding their stallion, any more than he would be interested in purchasing a swaybacked, knock-kneed horse. Luckily, she had the look of a rider who kept her body in peak condition.
Hank motioned for her to take one of the seats near his desk as they waited for his wife. As Cassie rested her elbows against the wooden arms of the chair, Hank noticed there was no wedding band on her left hand. Interesting.
He was on the verge of broaching the awkward topic of why Cassie Miller's bid for the national team had come to a disappointing nothing, when his wife, Melissa, and their housekeeper, Mrs. Harris, came into the office. As he stood up to greet the women, he gave his wife a fond smile.
Melissa had been his wife for thirty years and Hank loved her even more now than he had when they first married. She was his mate, partner, best friend, and his lover. She was also as good a judge of human character as she was of horseflesh. Hank wanted Melissa here for the interview with Cassie. Even with her excellent résumé and the memory of her skill with horses, Cassie was nevertheless something of an enigma.
Why hadn't she continued competing, trying for the national team? After the Olympics, being a member of the U.S. equestrian team was most riders' greatest ambition, so what had prevented her? Riders with the kind of talent and skill she had just didn't drop off the face of the earth without a trace. As Hank remembered it, after that dazzling year, Cassie had vanished from the show circuit as if her season as the hot young rider to beat was just a dream. The question had been bugging him ever since he'd recognized her name at the top of her résumé.
He glanced at the twins, considering.
No, not even a pregnancy should have kept her away from the circuit for so long. Pregnancy would have sidelined her for a year, eighteen months at most, but she'd disappeared and hadn't come back. He wondered if perhaps the twins' father might have tried to discourage Cassie in her riding career, but if that was the case, what was she doing applying for the job at Five Oaks?
Thank heaven for Melissa. Hank had no doubt that a few subtle questions from his wife would provide them with answers to whatever had been going on in Cassie Miller's life.
Copyright © 2001 by Amey Begley Larmore and her licensors