Stolen Series, Book Four
“Folks, let’s hear it for the man of the hour!”
Thad Leighton pulled himself up the swim ladder to a cacophony of cheers and claps and whistles. A broad smile spread across his face.
Water ran in rivulets down his cheeks as he climbed onto the deck and tugged the tight-fitting wet-suit cap off his head. Someone handed him a cigar, and behind the crowd, the distinct sounds of champagne being popped echoed on the warm Mediterranean breeze.
“This man,” Toby Jones said, wrapping an arm around Thad’s shoulder, not caring that his designer clothes were getting soaked, “is so the shit! Screw fame and glory. We’re gonna be stinking rich, people!”
More cheers and shouts went up. Thad’s body jostled as Toby—the money behind this privately funded project—pulled him in for a tight hug. In Thad’s ear, Toby said, “I fucking love you, man.”
Thad laughed and eased away. Someone lit his cigar. He took one puff and coughed, which caused the crowd to erupt in laughter. “Love me?” he gasped. “I think you’re trying to kill me.”
Toby slapped him on the back. “Are you kidding? Those bad boys are Cuban. And I’d never kill you, man. Not after you found Antony’s and Cleopatra’s sarcophagi. I’m gonna have a bronze statue of you cast for my front freakin’ porch!”
Another cheer went up. More laughter. Thad clamped the cigar between his teeth and peeled his arms and torso out of the wet suit. It hung at his hips, dripping on the teak boards while the rest of his underwater team climbed the ladder and stepped onto the deck.
More cheers for his team, more celebrating over what they’d found so far below the surface. Hands on his hips, he turned and looked across the water.
They were roughly eighty miles off the coast of Alexandria. He’d never been a huge Egyptology expert, but when Toby had approached him with his theory that Marc Antony’s and Cleopatra’s burial coffins could possibly be at the bottom of the Mediterranean, Thad had been one of only a few salvage experts to listen. He knew enough history to know there was a strong possibility they’d been thrown overboard when the Roman army had taken Cleopatra’s children back to Rome. And since he’d been between projects at the time and needed something to keep his mind busy so he didn’t think too much, he’d signed on to help Toby look.
Too much time to think equaled trouble for Thad. Because thinking meant remembering.
Someone handed him an ice-cold bottle of beer—they knew he wasn’t a champagne kind of guy—and he took it with a forced smile. Before long, they’d all get back to business, talk about the salvage operation and where they were going to start, but right now was for celebrating. He just wished he could enjoy it half as much as they all did.
He lifted the bottle to his lips and took a long sip. Someone grabbed his arm, causing him to spill beer over his feet. Irritated, he looked to his left and realized the girl—Sara? Stephani? Connie? He couldn’t remember her name—was shouting at him above the cheers. “You have a phone call! From a Dr. Hudson!”
A chill rushed down Thad’s spine, and the grimace died on his lips.
Nine years. He hadn’t heard from Maren in nine long years, and she was calling now?
He glanced over the crowd, then looked back at the girl. “Where?” he yelled so she could hear him.
“On the bridge!”
Nerves strung tight, he followed her through the rowdy group. When they reached the bridge, he waved a hello at the captain and crew manning the massive recovery vessel, set his beer on the counter, and took a deep breath as he looked at the sat phone the girl pointed to.
Shit. What was he going to say to her? Memories bombarded him—the way she’d laughed in the sun, the sound of her sweet voice whispering naughty words in his ear, her mesmerizing smile, which had always felt like a punch to the gut every time she’d turned it his way. Their time together had been short, but the kind that stayed with you, long years later. Even now, he thought of her at the most obscure times—when he was running the airlift underwater, excavating a wreck; when he was dragging on his fins and wet-suit mask on the side of the boat; when he was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, wishing like hell he could fall asleep.
Stupid, he knew. They’d both moved on, and he wouldn’t go back, even if he could. But the past had a way of doing that—haunting you until you wanted to run all over again. He knew that better than most.
Sweat broke out on his forehead, and tingles shot up and down his spine. He stared at the phone, afraid to pick it up. Afraid not to pick it up. Why the hell was she contacting him now?
Don’t be a pussy. He wiped his sweaty palm on his bare chest and reached for the phone. “Leighton.”
“It’s been a long time, my friend.”
Patrick Hudson. The air leaked out of Thad’s lungs. He wasn’t sure if he should be disappointed or relieved.
“Yeah. It has been.” While Thad hadn’t spoken to Patrick in just as long, irritation won out over any other emotion. Maren’s father wasn’t someone he ever planned to talk to again. He tightened his fingers around the cigar still in his hand and turned to look out the bridge’s windows. “What’s up?”
“I need you.”
Yeah, right. “I’m a little busy right now.”
“You won’t be once you hear what I have to say. In a moment, you won’t care about anything else.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
Smug victory laced through Patrick’s words. A victory that put Thad on instant alert.
“Son,” Patrick said before Thad could ask what the hell was going on, “I did it. I found her. It’s time to go back to the Yucatan.”
* * * * *
Call me. Urgent.
Maren Hudson eyed the multi-lit wall panel as the elevator came to a stop and her father’s cryptic text message ran through her head for the hundredth time. It was just like Patrick to give no hint what urgent meant, but she had a sinking suspicion whatever it was couldn’t be good. And just the thought was enough to ruin her entire day.
The elevator door opened with a ping. She stepped off the steel contraption, her heels clicking along the slate floor as she moved onto the main level of the Outland Hotel. Though she didn’t feel overly chipper, she forced a smile for the young couple dressed in white terry robes, holding hands outside the door, waiting for their ride.
You could always spot the newlyweds. They had that jovial, overeager, get-me-to-my-room-as-fast-as-possible look on their faces. And in Maren’s current mood, she wanted nothing to do with them.
Steeling her nerves for the day ahead, she moved into the lobby, glanced up at the front desk as she rounded the corner, and forced that smile again at Melinda behind the counter. An array of guests waited to check in. Her gaze surveyed the area, checking to make sure everything was flowing smoothly.
It was. It always did. It was her job to make sure the hotel ran as efficiently as possible. Not that it needed her.
The old, rustic lodge-style hotel was a mainstay in the San Juan Islands. People came from all over the world to experience the breathtaking Pacific Northwest views, to sample the world-class cuisine, to catch a glimpse of the whales that migrated through the Sound, and to relax in the hotel’s renowned hot springs. Today was no exception. They were packed to the gills and it wasn’t even June yet.
She headed down the long hallway with its rustic pine timbers and tried to convince herself that was a good thing too. Just because this was a cake job didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy it. So she wasn’t rolling in the dirt or digging up the past. This was satisfying in its own way, wasn’t it?
Yeah, right. Keep telling yourself that, girlie.
She shook off the thought as she reached the hotel offices and eased the door open with her hip. Her assistant, Candace, looked up and smiled.
“Any news for me?” Maren eased around Candace’s desk and into her palatial office. The view out her window was almost as spectacular as the view from the lounge in the lobby, only this one was private. She sank into the leather chair behind her desk and waited for Candace to follow like she always did.
Okay. Correction. Not her office. Her mother’s office.
That little fact burned too. More than Maren liked.
“Nothing too exciting.” Candace shook her short auburn hair away from her youthful face. Long silver drops hung from her ears, tinkling as she moved. “The plumber called a few minutes ago. He’s fixed the problem in 214. And they’re almost finished setting up in the ballroom.”
“Good. Have you blocked the rooms in the west wing for the conference?”
“All of them. We’re going to be bustling in a few hours.”
That news should make Maren happy, but she couldn’t seem to muster up any enthusiasm. The renovations on the hotel’s golf course had caused a decline in reservations the last few months, but things were steadily picking up now that it was done. She lifted the report Candace had left on her desk, outlining the physicians’ conference, and sighed. “Doctors. We’ll soon have a whole lot of egos running around.”
Candace waved a hand and sat in the chair opposite Maren’s desk. “Forget the doctors. What you need is to hook up with a hot pharmaceutical rep instead. Way better looking, a lot less stress, and they get paid really well.”
“Better looking, huh?” Maren glanced over the papers at her friend. “I see you’ve already got your eye on one.”
“Or two.” Candace winked. “Several are setting up displays for the expo in the ballroom.” When Maren rolled her eyes, Candace added, “Come on, your mother would be thrilled if you married an up-and-comer in the pharmaceutical world.”
Maren heaved out a breath and tossed the report on her desk. “I have no desire to get married. Ever.”
“Even if it got your mother off your back?”
The idea had merit. For a moment, Maren considered. Then she remembered the hell she’d been through and gave herself a mental slap. Not even to get out from underneath her mother’s thumb would Maren risk her heart again.
The phone in the outer office rang before Maren could answer her friend. When Candace moved to get it, Maren waved a hand, leaned forward to punch the line, and lifted the receiver. “Outland Hotel offices. Can I help you?”
“Maren, is that you? What on earth are you doing answering the phone? Where’s Candace?”
Speak of the devil. Maren closed her eyes and willed herself to remain cordial. “Hello, Mother. Candace stepped out for a minute. What can I do for you?”
The harrumph that came through the line clearly expressed Sophia Hudson’s disapproval. “How’s the hotel?”
Not, how are you? How is Isabel? Maren bit back the bitterness. Her mother’s only concern was the damn hotel. It always was.
She pinched the bridge of her nose, forcing herself to release the anger building to explosive levels. She’d gotten good at that over the years. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Candace tiptoe out of the room. Lucky girl.
“The hotel is fine, Mother. I received the second bid today for the new spa. It’s pretty reasonable. I have two more I’m waiting on.”
“Good. I’ll want to review them.”
“Of course.” While Sophia Hudson wasn’t interested in running the hotel anymore, she still wanted to have the final say in everything that went on there. Just another nail in Maren’s proverbial coffin. She was expected to do all the work but not make the big decisions.
“My plans have changed, dear. I’ll need a car to pick me up at the airport.”
Maren sat up straight in her chair. “You’re coming home?”
“Yes. I had a call from your father. You’ve spoken with him?”
“No.” Confusion hit. “I mean, he sent me a text, but we haven’t spoken.”
Sophia sighed. “Well then, I’ll be the one to fill you in. Your father’s had an accident.”
Maren pushed out of her chair. “What? Is he okay?”
“I’m not sure. You know your father. He’s impossible to read.”
Multiple ways he could have been hurt rushed through Maren’s mind. He refused to slow down. He was still working in the field as if he were twenty-five instead of fifty-nine. She looked around the office but didn’t see any of it. “Where?”
“He’s in the southern Yucatan, at a small facility just north of Belize.”
For a second, time stopped, and inside her chest, Maren was sure her heart stopped too.
Mexico. The Yucatan. No… Of all the places…
Her pulse sped up, and perspiration dotted her forehead. “What is he doing there?”
Her mother sighed again. “I can’t really say, Maren. You know your father never shares the details of his work with me.”
Yes, Maren did know that. Her parents’ strained relationship was worse than her own strained relationships with both of them. “Are you going?”
“He hasn’t asked for me. Only you. And considering the tension between you two these last few years, I think you should go to him. I know your father has his faults, but he’s your father and he loves you. You owe him this, Maren.”
Maren didn’t owe her father anything, especially when it came to the Yucatan. But if he was injured or—God forbid—dying, as her mother was making it sound, she couldn’t ignore him either.
“Listen, dear,” her mother went on. “Isabel will stay with me. I’ll be home tomorrow to take over the hotel. You can fly out the day after. It’s all been decided.”
“It has?” Anger replaced confusion, causing Maren’s breaths to quicken. It was always like this with her father—him ordering, her jumping. And now her mother was joining in? Though part of her needed to see him if he was hurt, another part balked at the thought of going anywhere near the Yucatan. “By whom?”
“Careful, young lady. You may be almost thirty-three, but I’m still your mother. Now…” Sophia took a deep breath. “I have to pack. And don’t worry, dear. I’m sure everything will be fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When the phone clicked in Maren’s ear, she fought the urge to hurl it across the room. Slowly, she replaced the receiver and rested her hands on the desk.
Fine? Things weren’t going to be fine. Her father was hurt. In Mexico. And he was ordering her to come to him.
She was still reeling from her mother’s call when Candace poked her head around the door and handed her a message. “I forgot to tell you. Lisa Maxwell called earlier. Said she’s meeting you in Cancun day after tomorrow. I guess this means you’re taking a trip, huh? Gotta be a hot surfer or two in Cancun. I’d go for that over a pharmaceutical rep any day.”
Maren stared at the slip of paper in her hand, barely hearing Candace’s words. Lisa? Cancun? Her heart raced. If her father had asked Lisa to come down for moral support, it meant things were a thousand times worse than Maren had predicted. Should she go now? If things were really that bad, why was her mother telling her to wait until Friday to leave?
The phone rang again. In a daze, Maren lifted the receiver out of its cradle. “Hudson.”
“Ms. Hudson, ah, it’s Randy out on the course. We have ourselves a little…situation…out here.”
Situation… It took several seconds for Randy’s words to register, but when they did, Maren realized there was nothing she could do until her mother came home. She had too many responsibilities to leave and jump on a plane this afternoon. And she didn’t want Isabel anywhere near Mexico.
Maren pinched the bridge of her nose and focused on breathing. Slow, in and out. The way she always did in a crisis. “I’m listening, Randy.”
“Well, ma’am, it seems we have an excavation going on. Eighth fairway.”
“Shit.” This, at least, was a normal crisis. One Maren could handle. She rubbed her temples. “Sand pit again?”
“Get a golf cart up to the lobby. I’ll be out in five minutes.” She clicked off the phone and glanced at Candace. “Forward any calls to my cell. I may be dealing with this for a while.”
She moved for the door. Candace’s hand on her arm stopped her.
“Maren? Are you okay? You look a little rattled.”
She was more than rattled. She was reeling. “I’m fine. But you might not be in a minute. Sophia Hudson is coming home. By Friday, you’ll be working for her again, not me.”
She left Candace staring wide-eyed at her back and headed for the lobby. Moments later, she eyed the pristine grass laid out before her like a carpet of green as she drove the cart across the grounds. Not that she saw any of its beauty. All she could see was her father’s face when she’d left him in Mexico nine years before. Yeah, she’d seen him since then, but that image of him was forever emblazoned in her mind. And knowing she was going back there again…
Her stomach rolled. She forced the images away and waved a greeting to the greenskeeper as she passed the maintenance building and cut across the fairway, then glanced up when she rounded the hill. Just as Randy had said, the marauders were camped out on the eighth fairway.
She turned off the engine, hit the brake with her foot, and eased out of the cart. Her heels sank into the soft ground as she stalked toward the sand pit, making her wish she’d worn slacks instead of the pencil skirt she’d slipped into this morning.
“No, you guys are doing it wrong!” The young girl’s terse voice drifted to Maren’s ears as she drew closer. Dark hair tied back in a ponytail whipped across the girl’s shoulder when she turned to the two boys crouched in the sand behind her. “You can’t just tear through the dirt. You have to be gentle. You’re dealing with years and years of sediments there. If you yank and pull, you’ll ruin the integrity of the artifacts. Use your trowel and your whisk.”
The boys grumbled. It was clear they just wanted to dig and get dirty. They didn’t want to play this game or be bossed around by a girl. One boy flicked sand over his shoulder, contaminating the site, which had been carefully cordoned off with rope and stakes. The girl turned and glared at him.
Amusement cut through the fear bubbling in Maren’s belly, but she tamped it down and put on her best head-honcho face, then cleared her throat. The dark-haired girl whipped around at the sound.
“Just what, exactly, is going on here, young lady?”
Lacing her fingers behind her back, the girl quirked one dark eyebrow and bit her lip. “Ah, an excavation?”
Maren forced back the smile teasing the corners of her lips and wished like hell she could do that damn one-eyebrow thing. She could hardly blame the girl for setting up her own dig. Maren had done it a thousand times herself as a child, on the same golf course, in the same exact spot, for that matter. But there were rules. And rules had to be followed. She’d learned that the hard way.
“The guests don’t like having a dig on their course.”
“Ah, Mom. Can’t you tell them to leave us alone? This is science here.”
The ah, Mom did it. Maren’s heart slammed against her ribs as her eight-year-old daughter shifted her weight from one foot to another, reminding Maren that this was all that mattered. Not a place. Not a moment in the past. Just this.
Maren eyed the dirty khaki pants and T-shirt that read Archaeologists do it in the dirt, then frowned. “Science or not, this dig is dug. Get your tools, and get out of that pit.”
“Bugger,” Isabel muttered under her breath. “Come on, guys. We’re busted.”
The two boys grumbled again as they stood and dusted off their legs. But they did as they were told and followed.
“Who are your partners in crime?” Maren asked as she watched.
“This is David. He’s staying in 518. And Paul. He just got here today.”
Maren studied the two boys. They looked decent enough. At least halfway normal, even if they were palling around with a bossy girl. Isabel was always running with kids staying at the hotel.
She waited as the children hauled themselves out of the sand pit, and remembered, with vivid clarity, what it was like to be the hotel brat. She’d lived it herself. And though she hated that Isabel was now experiencing the same things she’d gone through as a child, she knew her father’s influence was the reason they both shared a love of the past.
She had to go to him. She could put aside her own fears and horrible memories of the Yucatan for him. This one last time.
“Pack up your gear,” Maren said to her daughter, fingering the locket at her chest, “and I’ll give you all a lift back. And I want you to change your shirt when you get back to the lodge, young lady. You know how I feel about that shirt. And Isabel,” she added when her daughter dropped her shoulders. “The next time you want to set up a dig, do it in the hills behind the hotel, not on the golf course.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Isabel muttered.
Maren let go of the locket and turned for the golf cart just as her cell phone rang. She pulled the clip off the waistband of her skirt and hit Answer without looking at the screen. “Hudson.”
“That’s Dr. Hudson,” a weak voice said on the other end of the line, “and it gets confusing when we’re both using it.”
“Dad?” Her heart felt like it skipped a beat as she waited. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” he said again, this time stronger. “Did you speak with your mother?”
“Yes. But you don’t sound good. If you’re not well, I should come earl—”
“Friday is good. Just…” He coughed. “Don’t miss your plane, Maren. I need you.”
He needed her. The words caused her chest to tighten. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d wished to hear those words from his lips. Not her, the archaeologist, but her, the person. His daughter.
She swallowed around the lump in her throat. “I’ll be there. I promise.”
“Good. Good,” he said again on a sigh. “You won’t regret it.”
Maren closed the phone and looked toward her daughter, laughing and joking with the boys in the golf cart. And though she couldn’t explain why, his last words sent a shiver straight down her spine.