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"I think I know what your big wedding surprise is," Kate Lockwood told her younger sister. "You're not the only one in this family who can solve a mystery. It's either you've finally decided to share with your maid of honor, moi, where you and Gabe are going on your honeymoon or that you're going to have Detective Vic Reingold give the bride away. After all, he's helped you out twice. I'm betting on the latter. Or is it bridal jitters in general?" Kate asked, leaning closer across their restaurant table. "Tell me."
"I'm going to. I have to," Tess said, suddenly looking as if she was going to cry amid this celebration. "Actually, I wanted a public place to explain it all so you don't go crazy."
"Go crazy? You're not having second thoughts, not after all you and Gabe have been through?"
"Of course not! Never that. I love Gabe, and we've got the perfect life planned out together."
The Lockwood sisters sat in the back booth of the Little Italy Restaurant in their hometown of Cold Creek, Ohio, on a rainy June afternoon, four days before Tess's wedding to Falls County Sheriff Gabe McCord. Kate, who'd lived and worked in the British Isles this year and had flown in only yesterday, had to laugh at the European name and decor of this place, plunked right in the heart of rural southern Ohio on the edge of Appalachia.
Although the Lockwood family's beginnings in this small town had been humble, Kate was used to the international world of academia, where she loved research and fieldwork in her area of anthropology. She was looking forward to writing a book and teaching again at the college level. She knew she'd done well as one of the youngest professors in the country, but it was always onward and upward for her. Her East Coast schooling and Phi Beta Kappa résumé had opened doors in Europe for her studies of the Celtic civilization.
Kate hoped being here for the wedding would give her a chance to pursue her theory that the Celts might be linked to the prehistoric but advanced Adena civilization that had lived in this area and left behind burial mounds. The scattered, man-made hills she'd played on as a child could house skeletons and grave goods to help prove her theory and really make her name. Her stomach always cramped with excitement at that thought, but right now it was more important to calm her sister's nerves.
"It's about the party tonight," Tess went on. "I need to let you know before someone brings it up. Char knows, so you should, too."
Char was their middle sister, who was yet to arrive for the wedding. Kate was thirty, Charlene twenty-six and Tess twenty-four. It unsettled Kate a bit that the youngest of them was so in love when she herself had never really needed a manexcept her mentor, Carson Cantrell, at the university, but she'd left the country before permanent plans had come from that. The two older Lockwood sisters were married only to their careers. Char, a social worker in New Mexico among the Navajo, was the family's bleeding heart, but she understood Kate's dedication to her career.
As the oldest, Kate liked to keep control of things. She'd felt that way ever since their father deserted the family years ago. Now Mom had died and wouldn't be here for this happy eventmaybe happy, because Tess suddenly looked as if she was going to cry. Kate shoved the bread basket aside, reached across the table and covered Tess's clenched hands with hers.
"I guess I'd better just say it," Tess blurted. "Gabe says that's the best."
"Are you pregnant? Tess, honey, you're not showing, and you wouldn't be the first bride over the ages of civilizations to"
"No, not that. I know you always take the long view of thingsover the ages, the historic, butKate, I've asked Dad to come here and give me away for the wedding."
Kate gasped and squeezed Tess's hands. "Our dad?"
It was an utterly ridiculous thing to say, but she was hoping she'd heard wrong or that it was some sort of joke. She felt as if she'd been slapped. She released Tess's hands and sat back hard against the wooden seat. Dr. Kathryn Lockwood always had something to say, but for a moment, she was speechless. Then the words poured out.
"Tess, are you serious? The father who deserted us when we were in desperate need of him after your kidnapping? The man who blamed our mother when you were taken? The man who, for heaven's sake, had an affair with your groom's motherand she'll be here tomorrow and at the wedding? The man who will then be in the same wedding photos we'll have for decades? At least you didn't just spring him on us when he waltzed in! 'Oh, Kate and Char, look who's here!'"
Several others in the restaurant looked their way. The server, who had been approaching the table with their salads, did a U-turn back toward the kitchen. Kate finally shut her mouth, propped her elbows on the table and leaned her head in her hands.
Tess spoke, her voice shaky. "Like I said, I told Char already. She was surprised, too, but she's okay with it. I've reconciled with himDadover the phone these last months. He's sorry. He knows he did a lot of things wrong. He's rebuilt his life in Oregon with his wife, Gwen. I've talked to her, and she sounds really kind and understanding."
"And I guess I'm not." Kate looked up, now clenching her hands in her lap so she wouldn't pound on the table. "I hope she can trust him not to cheat on her and then abandon her and their kids. He does have children with her, doesn't he? Is he bringing them?"
"Yes, two sons, Josh and Jerod. They're seven and five. He wants them to see where he grew up and to meet all of us. I know how hard you took itthe things he did. You above all, but it's my wedding day, and a father should give his daughter away. Don't you want to patch things up and see him again?"
Kate almost said that she'd much rather have a long-dead Adena warrior resurrected from one of their burial mounds around here, but she managed to keep her mouth shut on that.
"So," Kate said, her voice calmer now. "He'll be at the center of things, not just a guest."
"You mean everyone will talk about the Lockwoods again?"
"I don't care what people around here say. Really. And obviously, Gabe is okay with this."
"Yes, he is. He understands, and we've told his mother. But I really wanted you to understand, just the way my future mother-in-law does. With Mom gone now, I do see you as the head of the family, so it's important to me."
Kate couldn't keep from rolling her eyes. "Head of the family until Jack Lockwood arrives with wife and kids in tow and takes over. Oh, sure, I guess I'm curious about him, but then, I'm curious about everything."
"Like especially what's buried in local Adena mounds, right?"
"Don't try to change the subject. For you, of course, I'll honor your wishes for your guests and who you choose to be in your wedding party. But don't expect your maid of honor to forgive that man. Can't do it, though I'll be civil to him and them. If we've got our crazy cousins coming from that strange religious sect they're in, we might as well have the ghost of childhood past there, too."
Tess breathed an audible sigh of relief; she seemed to deflate as her stiff stance relaxed a bit and she leaned back. "Once you meet Grant Mason, I don't think you'll be looking at Dad anyway," she said, trying another tactic. "Tall, handsome, deep voice. A Viking revisited, so too bad you're not studying them. Best man, for sure."
"I remember him. But he was older than me, and I didn't really know him. So he's stayed best friends with Gabe all these years?"
Tess nodded and wiped under her eyes. "Right. Even when Gabe was in the service and Grant went to college, then lived out West for a while, working with logging crews so he'd have that background when he took over his family's lumber mill. He's got a gorgeous house with a great view. You'll see that at the party tonight. Wish Char would be here for that, too, but we'll all be together soon."
At least, Kate thought, Jack Lockwood, alias former father, would not be here tonight, so she could enjoy herself. Not only was she curious to see Grant Mason, but she also couldn't wait to examine the Adena burial site she'd found on an old map in the university archives when she was back in the States at Christmas. The so-called Mason Mound was about twenty yards behind Grant's house, and she was much more eager to see it than him.
The caterers Grant had hired from the upscale Lake Azure area had taken over the kitchen, and he didn't want to disturb the setup for the buffet or the bar at the far end of the living room. So he sat in his favorite chair looking out over the back forest view through his massive picture window.
The guests for the party he was throwing for his best friend, Gabe, and his fiancée, Tess, would be here sooneighteen people, a nice number for mixing and chatting. He'd laid in champagne for toasts to the happy couple.
Gabe and Grant had been best friends since elementary school, when a teacher had seated them in alphabetical order by first names. Grant had been the first to marry. Lacey had been his high-school sweetheart, head of the cheerleaders, prom queen to his king. How unoriginaland what a disaster.
Four years into the marriage, she had wanted out of what she called "the boondocks," while he intended to make his life here running the lumber mill that had been in his family for three generations. He mingled with the movers and shakers in Columbus and D.C., lobbied politicians to pass green laws and made sure his loggers planted two trees for every one they cut, so it wasn't as if he was always in little Cold Creek. But Lacey's tastes ran to fancy restaurants, import shops and exotic placesprobably a life like Tess's oldest, world-traveling sister was used to.
The divorce had been Lacey's call, though he knew he was better off without her. She'd kept insisting she was too young to get tied down with children, too, and he'd love to raise a family here. Yet, when it came to women, he, too, felt caught between two worlds. He might wear work jeans and steel-toed boots and fit in with his good-old-boy loggers and cutters, but he liked tailored clothes and a bit of glitz and class in his play-timeand in a woman.
And he did like this time of year, since the days were getting longer. Not only did they get more done at the mill, but when he came home, he could also look out at this view while he ate or took a run on the path through the thirty acres of hardwood forest he owned. Occasionally, he'd even climb into the great, old tree house Grandpa and Dad had made for him and his brother, Brad, and survey the stunning scene of treetops and, above and beyond that, the blue-green foothills, which fringed the Appalachians.
From that vantage point, he could look almost straight down on the low, conical prehistoric Indian mound Mason's Mound, the locals called it. Years ago when he was twelve and Brad was ten, with their friends Todd and Paul, right beneath the huge bird's-eye maple that held the tree house in its limbs and guarded the mound, they had done the forbidden and seen such wonderful and terrible things
The sound of the doorbell sliced through his thoughts. He glanced at his watch. Someone was early, probably Gabe and Tess so they'd be here when the others arrived. Tess was bringing her oldest sister, Kathryn, with them, the woman who would be his partner for the wedding, the maid of honor to his best-man role. He barely remembered what she looked like, and that was from years ago. As he hurried toward the door, he smelled something delicious in the kitchen, heard the caterers clinking china or glassware.
To his amazement, Brad stood outside, looking as if he'd already been partying but hardly dressed for the occasion. He lived fifty miles away, and he looked like hell. Maybe his high-flying bachelor life was doing him in.
"Brad. You all right? You should have called."
"And get 'nother lecture about not declaring bankruptcy for my paper millthe Lancaster Paper Mill owned and run by the brilliant, the illustrious Bradley Mason, younger bro of the brilliant, the illustrious, grand Grant Mason of Mason Lumber Mill of Cold Creek? Hell, Grant, I laid off the last workers today and closed the place. America the beautiful's cutting back on paper in this big, bad digital age, and my mill's jus' 'nother victim of that."
Brad's shoulder bumped against the door frame as he half walked, half stumbled into the house. Grant could smell the liquor on his breath when he got out of the June breeze. Had he driven fifty miles drunk?
"I hope you got your booze just uptown," he told him.
"Yep. My fav'rite ole watering hole in new town."
Looking at Brad, drunk or sober, was always like seeing a slightly younger version of himself, although Brad's blond hair had darkened over the years. Grant was outside enough that his stayed fairly bleached, but they both had their dad's light blue eyes. Grant was slightly taller at six foot two, but their features showed their family ties, and they were both built like the lumbermen from generations of Masons, though since Grant had worked in an office these past years, he'd lost some of his bulk.
"Ah, the old homestead," Brad muttered, looking around. "But looking ever new with the lord of the manor's stamp on it big-time. I'm hoping you'll give me a good jobjust tempor'ryin Dad and Grandpa's old mill, for which you're caretaker now."
"Which I own," Grant said, closing the door behind him. "Own because I bought you out and stayed here to keep it going while you skipped town."
"Yeah, well, I still know the ropes. A job there'll do for now, foreman or somethin'."
"You know Todd's the mill foreman. His life is trees, living and dead."
"Yeah, good ole Todd, the modern-day Tarzan, climbing trees when he's not buzzing them into boards for fancy furniture." Brad got only as far as the arm of the leather couch before he sat down, nearly tipping over onto the cushions. He tried to give the Tarzan yell, which came out garbled and made him start to cough.
Grant's heart went out to him, however frustrating he was.
"Hey, you're having a partywith a bar! I see my timing's good. I'll go up to my old room and clean up a bit. Clothes in the car, but I'll jus' borrow somethin' of yours, like in the old days. So, what's the occasion?"
"A pre-wedding party for Gabe McCord, Tess Lockwood and guests."
"Todd coming, then?"
"And Paul, as a matter of fact."