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Aileen McKenna got off the bus last, excitement and trepidation warring within her. She looked around at the small town of Wolf Creek, Wisconsin, the bright winter sun making its main street, barely two blocks long and lined with snow, glow with welcome. She knew she'd been here beforeDad and Skelly both told her sobut her memory of that vacation twenty-two years ago was hazy at best. Her gaze swept past the people and shops and the handful of homes to the dark forest beyond.
A man with a furrowed brow and narrowed light-brown eyes stood on the porch of the combination convenience store and bus station, his arms crossed over his broad, hide-covered chest. Though his basic expression reminded her of a scowl, Aileen knew he wasn't angry at anything. She grinned and headed straight for Donovan Wilde, who circled her with strong arms and gave her a brotherly hug.
"It's good to see you, Donovan."
"It's been a while."
"As much your fault as mine."
"When you move out here permanently," he said, "we'll fix that right off."
Aileen didn't see her half brother as much as she would like. He'd been raised in the nearby town of Iron Lake, Wisconsin, while she'd grown up in Chicago. But he was a McKenna, even if he did go by his mother's last name, and that was a bond that couldn't be broken. She and Donovan and Skelly might have been born to three different mothers, but Congressman Raymond McKenna had seen to it that his children were not strangers to one another.
"How are Laurel and the baby?"
Donovan's loopy grin transformed him from wolf man to husband and new father. "Both doing great. Laurel is a natural. And Willow is the most beautiful baby you'veever seen. Well, you haven't seen her."
"But I will, and before Christmas,"Aileen assured him.
Other members of the McKenna family would be joining them for the holiday in a few days, the first time ever a McKenna family Christmas would be held in Wisconsin. Donovan and Laurel didn't know what they were in for when siblings and cousins and kids would descend on them. The McKennas had rented out an entire B and B in Iron Lake to hold them for the three days they would all be here.
"I probably sound sappy about Willow, right?" Donovan asked.
"You sound like a proud dad, just as you should." She was aware at how thrilled her brother and sister-in-law were at finally starting a family. Laurel's first pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage, and it had been a while before Laurel had felt emotionally ready to try again.
"Trust that I'm looking forward to meeting my new niece as soon as I get settled in."
"You could settle in with us. The invitation is still open."
Aileen shook her head. "You need to spend time with Laurel and Willow, and I need not to be distracted by a beautiful baby, or I won't ever finish my thesis."
The thesis was the final step in finishing her master's degree in wildlife ecology, a direction she'd been drawn back to after working as a massage therapist. She could thank Donovanthe original wolf manfor making her realize she needed to finish her graduate degree. Not that she wished to be a wolf biologist and be involved in research as he was. He was personally attached to the wolves under his care. He caught them and collared them and watched their progress as they expanded their territory over the years. Sometimes they strayed too close to civilization and got themselves killed.
Her interest took a broader turnmanagement of the wolves in the wild. She'd started the program several years ago, but had thought she'd made a mistake and left it. She was a city girl, she'd told herself.
Apparently not totally.
It had just taken her some time to come to terms with the decision that would change her whole life.
"I promise I'll leave some time to spend with you all, though. I mean beyond the research."
Though he no longer lived in a cabin deep in the woods with only a Franklin stove to heat it, he still kept his distance from town. Luckily his job required him to work in his beloved woods. Donovan would be a major resource for her thesis: "Can Wolf and Man Coexist in a Modern World?" She hoped to find out. Part of her personal research was going to be based on narratives from the locals in addition to those from the experts such as her brother.
She didn't see how she would get anyone to talk if she isolated herself as Donovan still did.
He fetched her bag and led her to a big black truck encrusted with dirty snow. Winter in these northern climes could be vicious, but she'd prepared for the cold just as she prepared for everything.
Rather for everything she could anticipate.
What she couldn't have anticipated was the sudden angst being in this place gave her. Nothing specific. Just an uneasy sense of foreboding, of something being off.
Donovan slung her bag into the snow-packed back of the pickup. "Inside's clean," he assured her.
She nodded and, hefting her shoulder bag with her laptop onto the floor, followed it inside, grateful for the ride. A city girl, she was used to not having a car, to taking public transportation. That would have to change, though. She would have to buy a car for her job.
A moment later they were on the road.
"So how did you hear about Gray Wolf Lodge?" he asked her.
"Internet. I was looking for a B and B, but I couldn't resist the photos of the lodge."
The perfect place not only to write, but also to research some of her facts in person. She respected her brother's findings and opinions, but she needed to cast a wider net. The lodge was only half a mile or so from townan easy walk for a woman who didn't own a vehicle and was used to hoofing it as far as she needed to in the big city.
Looking around as they drove, Aileen said, "Beautiful area. I wonder if tourism will be off, though, after that death I read about. Most people being afraid of wolves."
"The official report is that Tom Patterson had a heart attack."
"You think something else is going on?"
"It's not what I think," Donovan said. "Some locals claimed a wolf killed him. That's ridiculous, of course. Wolves leave people alone. But Patterson dead is another story. Animals snacked on his carcass."
Aileen swallowed hard. "So I read."
Once the truck turned onto a private road, the rough graveled surface bouncing the truck made keeping conversation to a minimum a safety precaution.
Their cutting through a stand of huge white pines brought with it a touch of déjà vu. Aileen wrapped her arms around herself to control a sudden shiver that swept over her. She'd never been here, not in this spot exactly, but the forested area seemed familiar. No doubt the family campsite that long-ago summerin the woods not all that far from herehad been similar in nature.
Not that she remembered much of it.
After all these years, she still had a hole in her memory, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't force her mind to cooperate. When her dad and brothers had taken her from the clinic, they'd assured her she shouldn't worry about it, because losing a day in a life was nothing.
So why did nothing still haunt her?
And why did the forest seem to have eyes? Aileen imagined someoneor somethingwas watching.
"Here we are," Donovan said, as they came through to a clearing that set them back to a different era.
He brought the truck to a stop in front of the lodge. Aileen slipped out and took it all in.
Built at the turn of the last century by Scandinavian craftsmen, Gray Wolf Lodge stood in magnificent three-story testimony to their skill. According to the brochure, the planked outside walls of the twenty-room inn were held together by square wooden pegs.
A brawny fortyish man stood on the porch. He removed his billed cap and threaded long fingers through a shock of pale hair laced with silver. Even though it was mid-December, the part of his face below his faded blue eyes was still suntanned. He looked fit, a real outdoorsman.
"Say, you Miss McKenna?" he asked.
He stepped down to the driveway. "Fisk Oeland. Here to take your bags."
Donovan handed them to the man who carried them inside. "You want me to hang around for a while?"
"No need, but thanks for the ride," she said, giving him another big hug. "Give me a bit to feel my way around. I promise I'll give you a call in the next day or two."
"Sounds good." He kissed her cheek and headed back to the truck.
"Give my love to Laurel and Willow."
She watched him drive off, then turned toward the lodge. Nothing sinister about the place, she thought, but going inside set her further on edge.
The common area, free at the moment of guests, was filled with rustic furniture and had cathedral windows and a high peaked ceiling from which hung a huge antler chandelier decorated with a giant red velvet bow. Strings of cranberries as well as lights and ornaments made from pine cones and others of colorful blown glass hung from the branches of one of the biggest Christmas trees she'd ever seen.
The tree stood between the windows and a wall-sized stone fireplace where a wood fire roared, watched over by several elk and deer heads. And on the mantel, a stuffed rabbit and beaver were frozen in unnatural poses.
Trophies, she thought. Someone's idea of sport.
Her unease multiplying, Aileen noticed a man in one corner using his laptopthe only other person in the room. She turned to the service desk built from the same stone as the fireplace. The thick counter was of fossilized wood. On it were lodge brochures different from the one she'd gotten in the mail. She flipped one over to find a photo of a blond woman with a rugged, bearded outdoorsman who, if his salt-and-pepper hair were any indication, was quite a bit older. The brochure identified them as Magnus and Valerie Gleiter, but Aileen was certain no Magnus had been mentioned on the Web site.
Fisk came down a set of stairs and crossed the room. "Bags are in your room already." He headed for a doorway behind the desk. "Mrs. Gleiter'll see to you momentarily."
She set down the brochure and removed her jacket. "I'll be fine." She would be fine. She was always fine. She always pushed past the things that troubled her. "And thanks."
Valerie Gleiter had been the one to reply to Aileen's e-mail requesting information about the place. The owner had seemed quite amenable, asking about her food preferences and whether she favored pillows and bedding of down or of a synthetic material.
Aileen heard a woman's voice, low and sharp, then a man's. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but Valerie and Fisk seemed to be in disagreement about something.
And then a tall, athletic woman exited the office. Aileen's eyebrows shot up. Dressed in leggings, ankle boots and a thick sweater with a fancy design, her long dark-blond hair pulled into a sleek ponytail, the woman looked picture-perfect for an après-ski get-together.
"You're Valerie Gleiter?"
The woman inclined her head. "Welcome to Gray Wolf Lodge."
Aileen's collection of loose Native American bracelets clanked as she held out her hand, then retracted it when Valerie ignored the offer, instead turning to the leather-bound guest register. Okay, not real friendly.
Though she'd had no preconceived notions about her hostess, Aileen was surprised at how young the woman appeared. But while Aileen was just finishing graduate school, Valerie owned and ran a substantial vacation property. She couldn't help but be impressed.
As Aileen signed the register, Valerie took her credit card information and asked, "How was your trip?"
Leaning closer as she returned the card, Valerie sniffed and blinked. "Nice perfume," she said, but she stared at Aileen for a moment, and her brown eyes flickered before she rounded the counter. "I'll show you to your room."
She swept by Aileen, a strong scent of ginger wafting along her path. Aileen followed. Odd that Valerie would admire a light woodsy scent when the woman obviously preferred one so bold for herself. Perhaps she was simply being polite.
"So how long have you and your husband owned the place?" Aileen asked.
"I'm a widow," Valerie said, her voice a shade cooler than before.
Aileen winced. Undoubtedly she'd stirred up feelings the other woman was trying to repress. And here she was simply trying to be friendly.
They climbed a short flight of stairs to one of the smaller rooms that fit her budget.
"Technically, the bathroom is connected to a second room to be shared with another guest," Valerie told her.
"But you'll be alone in this section of the lodge. With Christmas right around the corner, next week will be a different story. By Christmas Eve, we'll be full."
Her quarters reflected the lodge, Aileen realized, with a headboard and dresser of rough hewn wood, fresh pine wreath splashed with a Christmas red bow on the wall and a braided rug on the floor the same rust-red and dark-blue as the coverlet. And if she wanted fresh air, she could go outside on a small stairless deck that butted against a century-old white pine. A chair there would allow her to sit and admire the spectacular view, which included the creek after which the town had been named.
"You're always welcome to use the great room," Valerie said. "If you want exercise, you can grab snowshoes or cross-country skis and explore the area on foot. Or take out one of the horses."
"That fits in with my plans perfectly. I thought this afternoon I'd get a little outdoorsy, check out the area on skis. Especially the part where Tom Patterson's body was found."
Luckily it hadn't snowed again since his death shortly after Thanksgiving.
Valerie started. "Why? You're not a reporter?"
Aileen shook her head. "Just a curious ecology student."
An awkward moment balanced between them before Valerie shrugged and said, "You know what they say about curiosity."
"But I'm not a cat," Aileen joked.
Valerie didn't so much as crack a smile. Apparently she didn't want to talk about the death. Instead she gave a quick rundown on the meal schedule and started to leave. Pausing at the door, she stared at Aileen as if trying to decide on something.
"If you do need to go into town," she said, her voice cool, "we can get you there. Or you could take one of the snowmobiles. The equipment shed is around back. Fisk can get you anything you need."
"Thanks, but I like walking."
"There's a shortcut. Follow the gravel road back to the main road into town. About a hundred yards down, you'll see an opening in the trees. A path has been kept cleared"
"A walking path?"
"A whatever path." The owner started out the door, saying, "You can take the snowmobile that way, as well."
Aileen put the peculiar feeling she got from Valerie Gleiter to her own edginess. Though gracious and obviously successful, the lodge owner wasn't warm, not a true people person. Not that she needed to be, Aileen thought, glad to be alone. Sometimes she was too critical of others, expected too much of them. After hanging her jacket on a peg next to the door, Aileen pulled off her knit cap and poked fingers through her hair so it fluffed around her face and spread out around her shoulders. Now to make the room her temporary home.
Prepared as always, she opened her bag and pulled out the framed photos she'd brought with her. A few were of the McKennasgrandparents, parents and little kids the others were of wolves she'd photographed while interning at a refuge the year before. Donovan had set her up with that gig. She lined up all the photos on the dresser so she could look at them if she got homesick, then trailed her fingers across the lifeless representations of the animals she both loved and feared. She knew everything about them. Their names, their diets, their health histories.
But she didn't know them, not in the same way the other interns and volunteers did. Even though she got physically close, a part of her kept her distance. Never one to let fear have the upper hand, Aileen had done everything the others had with the wolves, if with less confidence.
Would that ever change? she wondered. Would she ever be able to throw herself fully into her work?
Last, she pulled out a letter, the paper soft to her fingertips, the folds worn from years of inspection. The letter was her most precious keepsake, the loving legacy of a dying grandmother, who'd wanted to pass down her promise of a great future to each of her nine grandchildren.