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Dad, you are in so much trouble.
Meghan surveyed the papers fanned out on her father's desk. The ones she'd discovered when she'd shouldered her way into the study to deliver his afternoon cup of green tea and plate of Oreos. Evie's list had specified fig barsin capital letters, no lessbut over the course of the week Meghan had fed those to an adorable family of gray squirrels. That the discovery the squirrels liked fig bars had taken place after she'd dumped the cookies out the window was entirely coincidental.
She picked up a stack of photos, every one of them depicting a work by a well-known artist named Joseph Ferris. Either her dad had shifted his interest from antiques to art or else he was planning to become an art thief.
Which could also explain the blueprints of what looked to be a sizable estate fanned out on the desk blotter.
She'd gotten suspicious when she'd seen the light glowing under the door of her father's study two nights in a row. At midnight. Patrick always went to bed promptly after the ten o'clock news. Both times she'd ignored it, not wanting to draw attention to her late-night forays into the kitchen for leftover wedding cake.
But the night before she'd heard the phone ring a few minutes after twelve and then her father's muffled voice on the other side of the door as she padded down the hallway. She'd assumed he was talking to Evie, but when she'd asked about it at breakfast, her father had almost choked on his whole-grain bagel and mumbled something vague about talking to a friend.
Right. Suspicious, she'd pushed a special code on the phone and listened to a nice little robotic voice recite thenumber of the last incoming call. From an area code somewhere in upstate New York.
Meghan had to face the truth. Evie's list had turned her into Evie. But there was no going back now. She had to find out what he was up to.
Ever since Patrick had discovered the whereabouts of the Noble, a ship Lake Superior had claimed in the late 1800s, and solved the mystery behind a century-old scandal that had plagued Sophie's family, random people had started to contact him. Some asked for help researching their genealogy while others wanted to hire him to locate missing family heirlooms.
In spite of his daughters' initial misgivings, Patrick had actually taken on some "clients" over the winter and, judging from the growing number of inquiries, his reputation must have spread.
Meghan blew out a sigh. She didn't want to be the wet blanket that snuffed out the fire of enthusiasm in her dad's new hobby, but a person couldn't be too careful nowadays. Hadn't Patrick learned that lesson the summer before, when a man he'd thought he could trust had turned on him and Jacob Cutter while they'd searched for the Noble?
She put down a photo of Joseph Ferris's haunting watercolor Momentum and pivoted toward the door. And came nose to nose with her father.
"Dad." Meghan crossed her arms and did her best imitation of Caitlin. It must have worked, because a deep red stain crept out from under the collar of her father's oxford shirt and worked its way to his cheekbones.
Patrick coughed. "Ah I was wondering where you were."
I'll bet you were.
"It's three o'clock. Tea and cookie time."
"My watch must be slow," Patrick muttered.
Meghan sighed and decided to stop being Evie. And Caitlin. Especially Caitlin. Her suspicions were ridiculous. This was her father. Patrick McBride. The absentminded professor. Mr. Integrity himself.
"Why the sudden interest in Joseph Ferris, Dad? And please tell me that you aren't planning to supplement your retirement income by becoming an art thief." Meghan laughed.
Patrick didn't. Instead he gave her a thoughtful look. "Do you think it falls under the label of stealing if a person is taking something back that technically belonged to them in the first place?"
Meghan groped for the plate of Oreos she'd set on the desk. "Does the something that technically belongs to someone else happen to be a work by Ferris?"
Meghan shoved a cookie in her mouth. Never mind twisting the two sides apart and delicately scraping out the cream center. "You're going to to steal a Joseph Ferris?"
Patrick smiled. "Of course not. I wouldn't begin to know what an authentic Ferris even looks like."
"Well, that's a relief"
"That's why I was hoping you'd do it."
"Let me get this straight."An hour later Meghan had a new appreciation for Evie's suspicions about their dad's dedication to his side business. Her younger sister had tried to warn her, after all. "A woman named Nina Bonnefield contacted you by e-mail, claiming she knew Ferris personally. He supposedly left a gift for her on an estate he visited in northern Wisconsin almost twenty years ago. And she hired you to find it for her."
"That's it in a nutshell," Patrick said, way too cheerfully in Meghan's opinion.
Of their own volition, Meghan's fingers walked across the desk toward the plate of Oreos. Until she realized she'd eaten them all. "Why doesn't this Nina Bonnefield go back to the estate and retrieve it herself? If it really belongs to her."
There, she'd said it.
Of course it was. "Dad, this whole thing sounds kind of fishy to me. You said she isn't even sure if the gift Ferris left for her was a painting. Maybe it was a coffee mug. Or a souvenir toothpick holder."
"For reasons NinaMs. Bonnefieldcan't share, she can't go back. That's why she needs my help. There's a rumor the island is going up for sale and"
"Wait a second. Did you say island?" Meghan interrupted.
"The Halloway estate is on a private island on Blue Key Lake, near the Chequamegon National Forest. It's been in the family for years but they closed it up in the late eighties."
Halloway. Halloway. The name stirred up something in Meghan's subconscious, but another thought darted in and pushed that one aside for the moment.
"So Nina is somehow related to the family that owns the island?"
Patrick's gaze bounced around the room and finally came to rest on Meghan. "No offense, but I promised Ms. Bonnefield I'd keep that part confidential. Jacob and I checked out her story, and both of us believe she's telling the truth. She sent me a copy of the letter from Ferris and it does sound as if he left something for her. A thank you of some sort for her friendship and encouragement."
"That would be some thank-you," Meghan muttered.
"His paintings are valuable?"
"Paintings, drawings, sculptures. He dabbled in everything. Ferris is one of those artists who gained fame postmortem. By the time the critics finally noticed him and acknowledged his genius, he was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. The collection of his work isn't all that sizable because his career was short, so what's out there got snapped up right away. If there's still one floating around, I'm sure someone would have noticed. It may have already been sold."
"Or tucked away in a closet on an estate in northern Wisconsin."
And Meghan thought she was an optimist.
She tucked her teeth into her bottom lip and tried to figure out a way to discourage her father from getting himself into a potentially sticky situation. And helping oneself to a valuable piece of art definitely fell into that category, no matter who claimed ownership. "There has to be a way Nina Bonnefield can find out if the Ferris is there without involving you."
"There is a reason, but I can't tell you what it is. It's"
"Confidential. I know." She hated to ask the obvious. "So what's your plan?"
Patrick's eyes lit up and Meghan tried not to groan. Somehow she knew she wasn't going to like the answer.
"The house is going to be opened up temporarily for a family wedding in a few weeks. According to my sources"
Meghan blinked. His sources?
"after the wedding, the Halloways plan to auction off the contents of the house before the actual sale of the island goes through. From what I've heard, the family used to be quite a patron of the arts. There's a sizable collection of paintings and sculptures there. I'm more familiar with antiques, so I wouldn't be much help."
Meghan's eyes narrowed. She had a background in art. She remembered what her dad had initially said about her finding the Ferris. She'd assumed he'd been kidding. Now she wasn't so sure.
"Dad, please tell me you aren't thinking I'm a shoo-in for the job."
"Of course not, sweetheart." Patrick looked surprised by the suggestion. "I told Ms. Bonnefield you're a photographer."
That much was true. Meghan relaxed a little, relieved she and her dad were on the same page. It didn't sound like either of them would be of much use to the mysterious Ms. Bonnefield. Thank goodness.
"So she decided to find someone else to play Nancy Drew?"
"Not quite." Patrick plucked off his glasses and rubbed them against his shirttail.
Warning bells suddenly went off in Meghan's head. That particular gesture meant her father was either nervousor stalling. "Daaaad?"
"I had no idea she was going to pull a few strings."
"What kind of strings?"
"Parker Halloway has hired you as her wedding photographer."
"Wedding " Meghan surged to her feet. "I don't photograph people. Didn't you tell Ms. Bonnefield that?"
"I did." Patrick smiled. "But she made you an offer I couldn't refuse."
Meghan's teeth rattled in her head as the small fishing boat bounced over the waves toward Blue Key Island. She kept her gaze trained on the slate-shingled roof peeking through a shield of poplar trees. Proof, at least, that one of Nina Bonnefield's claims was true. The Halloway house really did exist.
Meghan sincerely hoped the woman hadn't been making up the rest of the story.
She still couldn't believe she'd adjusted her work schedule to accommodate a visit to the Halloway estate in the first place. But like Joshua scoping out the Promised Land, a reconnaissance mission was all Meghan would agree to. Unlike her father, she didn't trust a woman who'd suddenly appeared out of cyberspace, claiming a friendship with a famous artist but not willing to disclose the nature of her sketchy relationship with the Halloways. Or why she couldn't simply knock on the door and ask for her property back.
It took several days of negotiations with Patrick, but in the end Ms. Bonnefield had reluctantly accepted Meghan's terms. If Meghan happened to spot an authentic Ferris hanging on the wall, it was up to its owner to figure out a way to claim it.
Meghan didn't trust Ms. Bonnefield but she trusted her dad. And it wasn't his fault that the thought of hunting for a work of art wasn't nearly as nerve-racking as playing wedding photographer. Even though she couldn't argue with Patrick's assertion that it made sense for her to be in a position where she could wander around the islandand the housewith a camera.
The boat tripped over a wave and Meghan grabbed the side to steady herself.
"It's a little choppy today," Verne Thatcher shouted above the roar of the outboard motor. "Storm's moving in quicker than they predicted."
Meghan glanced from the grizzled old fishing guide to the batting of dark clouds unfolding across the sky.
She and Patrick had spent the better part of the afternoon roaming through the sleepy little town of Willoughby, trying to find someone with a boat who was willing to take her across. With a major thunderstorm in the forecast, no one seemed eager to go out on the water. Or maybe it had something to do with the reason for Meghan's trip to the island.
Judging from the closed expressions on the faces of the locals whenever Meghan and Patrick mentioned the name Halloway, it was clear the family wasn't going to win any popularity contests. Meghan didn't want to speculate as to the reason why.
Close to giving up, they'd settled into a booth at the local diner to discuss their options when a shadow fell across Meghan's laminated menu.
The man standing beside their table was short and wiry, with features that looked as if they'd been carved from a piece of teak. Dressed from head to toe in field khaki, the only thing that prevented him from looking like a game warden was the Hawaiian-print handkerchief casually knotted at his throat.
He flicked the brim of his hat, which was studded with fishing lures. "Hear you're looking for a boat to the island. We better get there before the rain does."
Meghan barely had time to kiss her dad goodbye before Verne Thatcher tossed her suitcase into the back of his rusty pickup and hoisted her into the cab, where she found herself wedged between two damp, liver-spotted spaniels named Smith and Wesson.
Now, close enough to the island to see the dock jutting out from the gentle contours of the shoreline, a fresh crop of doubts stirred up the butterflies in Meghan's stomach. Just as a raindrop splashed against the back of her hand.
"Someone expecting you?" Verne barked the question as he eased back on the throttle and the boat agreeably slowed down.
It was the truth. They just weren't expecting her to arrive a full week before the wedding.
She'd talked to Parker Halloway's wedding planner, a young woman named Bliss Markham, on the phone the day before and told her that she wanted to come a few days early to find the best spots for a photo shoot. Bliss thought it was a marvelous idea. She'd even repeated the word marvelous several times. In the same sentence.
Listening to the woman's fake British accent fade in and out, Meghan thought it was a good thing her father had drafted her for the mission instead of Caitlin. Caitlin would have made mincemeat out of Bliss Markham.