CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Monday 8:10 p.m.

            My computer monitor flickered briefly, and the screen went black. The lights in the ceiling high above my desk made a buzzing sound and then they, too, went dark. The window beside my desk offered little help. The bright May sun had set fifteen minutes ago.

            Muttering under my breath, I reached for my cell phone only to remember that I’d set it on the oak console table on the opposite side of the office. A bolt of lightning momentarily illuminated the room, enabling me to make my way around the old oak desk and across the wood floor to the table. At a sudden heavy thud from somewhere outside the room, I paused. Standing in the dark beside the table, I waited, listening.  

             Hearing nothing more, I did a quick mental inventory.  My father John Spencer, who owned Spencers Garden Center, and my youngest sister Delphi, had left when the shop closed at eight. I’d turned on the CLOSED sign and bolted the door myself. Then, with no one around, I’d retreated to the office to write my blog – my way of releasing my pent-up frustrations. The store was completely empty, so what had caused the noise?

            I located my phone, switched on the flashlight, and shined it at the open doorway. Thunder rumbled in the distance as I quietly peered out into the huge garden center. 

The office where I worked was on the right side of the shop behind the L-shaped checkout counter. I could see that the cash register hadn’t been touched; the bolt on the big red doors was still thrown; nothing on any of the shelves had been disturbed; none of the outdoor wall decor were askew; and no windows had been broken. That was a relief. But I still had to track down the source of the noise.

           Over a century ago the garden center had been a barn on the very northern edge of Sequoia, Michigan, the last building on Greene Street. Now, with a brand-new arched roof, big picture windows, a high-beamed ceiling, cream-colored shiplap walls, and a shiny oak floor, Spencers was one of the most attractive buildings along the mile stretch of tourist shops. I’d always loved being there – I had a natural green thumb – but I’d never expected to make it my life’s work.

            Another thud turned me in the direction of the outdoor garden area, located on an acre lot behind the barn, and then I had my answer. It was Oscar, our friendly neighborhood raccoon, who liked to steal shiny objects. He’d pilfered any number of items from the area where we kept garden décor. I wasn’t about to let him take another one. 

            Using my cellphone’s flashlight as my guide, I headed toward the back exit, walking down the left side past rows of indoor plants, garden supplies, tools, and small decorative pots. Circling the long, oak plank conference table at the rear of the barn, I pushed the glass door open and stepped outside just as the electricity came back on. Hanging lanterns around the perimeter of a ballroom-sized area right outside the building illuminated a cement floor and a wide aisle down the middle that divided the area into two sections. The left side was filled with shelves overflowing with flowering annuals, perennials, and vegetables, while the right side contained stone, clay, glass, and cement garden sculptures, water fountains, large decorative planters, wrought iron benches, and patio furniture.

            I caught movement from the corner of my eye and backed against the door with a sharp gasp. 

            A man was crouched at the base of a life-sized marble statue of the Goddess Athena, now lying on her back in the grass. He had an open pocketknife in his hand and his cell phone was propped nearby, its flashlight aimed at the statue’s base.  He jumped to his feet, obviously as shocked to see me as I was to see him.

            “Drop that knife and don’t move a muscle.” I thrust my phone forward, the beam pointed at his face and my trembling finger on the home button. “I’ve got the police on the line.”  

            If only that were true.

            The hanging lights flickered, threatening to go out again.  

            “Okay,” he said in a calm voice. “No problem.” Moving slowly, he placed the knife on the ground and raised his hands above his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

            “You broke into our shop. What did you thinkthat would do to me?”

            “Hold on a minute,” he said in a rising voice. “I did notbreak into the shop. I was told to stay here until someone could help me, and that was” –he tipped his wrist to see his watch- “over twenty minutes ago.”

             I gave him a skeptical glance. “You’ve been out here for twenty minutes?” 

            “Over twenty minutes. Again, I’m sorry for alarming you, but I was just doing what I was told.” 

            Undeniably good looking, the man had dark hair that was parted on the side and combed away from his face, big golden-brown eyes, a firm mouth, and a strong jawline.  My gaze was drawn down to his expensive tan suede bomber jacket that showed off his muscular shoulders, dark blue jeans that revealed an athletic build, and noticeably pricey navy leather loafers. 

            His expression seemed sincere, but the truth was that I was alone with a stranger behind a big barn on Greene Street, the main thoroughfare of our small lakeside town, with only my phone and my wits to protect me. The other shops had already closed and any tourists who’d stuck around would no doubt be comfortably seated inside a restaurant or one of the local sports bars. With the storm quickly approaching, who would hear my cry for help?

            I jumped at a sudden clap of thunder. With all the bravery I could muster, still holding my phone, I pointed toward the lane that ran behind the shops on Greene. “You need to leave right now.” 

            “Will you at least give me a chance to prove I’m telling the truth? If you don’t believe me, I’ll go.”

            A strong eastern wind blew through the garden area, shifting the hanging lanterns, and causing my long, blue sweater to billow out around my white jeans. I could smell the rain coming.

            Brushing long strands of light brown hair away from my face, I said, “Make it fast.” 

            “The young woman who waited on me -- I didn’t get her name -- is probably in her late twenties, with lots of curly black hair tied with some kind of fuzzy purple thing. She had on a purple sweater, jeans, and bright green flip-flops. She was shorter than you but had more. . .” He gave me a sweeping glance, his eyes moving from my long brown hair all the way down to my white flats. He saw the narrowing of my gaze, and finished with, “color in her cheeks.”

             That wasn’t what he’d meant to say and we both knew it. He had just described Delphi, my airhead of a sister who, like my other two sisters Maia and Selene, had the curvaceous bodies, shorter stature, and olive complexions of my Greek-American mother, Hera Karras Spencer. I, on the other hand, was the only one who had inherited the pale, slender form and straight light brown hair of my English-American father. 

            It was quite likely that Delphi had gotten busy with something and had forgotten to tell me. Her absentmindedness was common enough to convince me the man could be telling the truth, but still, what did he intend to do with that knife? 

            I gestured toward the statue. “What were you doing?”

            “Can I put my hands down? My arms are tired.”

            At my curt nod he said, “Thank you. I’m Case Donnelly by the way.” 

            As he walked closer, holding out his hand to shake mine, I realized I was still clutching my cell phone. 

            “You might want to put that away.” His mouth quirked as though trying to hide a grin. “I’m guessing the police hung up a long time ago or they’d have been here by now.”

            I stood my ground, my gaze locked with his.

            “And your flashlight app is on, by the way.”

            He wasn’t missing a trick. Feeling a blush starting, I turned off the app, slid the phone in my back pocket, and took his hand. “Athena Spencer,” I said in a crisp, business-like voice. I’d gone back to my maiden name when my divorce had become final.

            “Athena.” He looked impressed. “Like your Treasure of Athena.” 

            That he knew the statue’s name surprised me since it wasn’t written on any tag.  

            “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Athena. Are you the owner here?” 

            His charming smile and warm, firm grip left me a little breathless. I dropped his hand and stepped back, feeling awkward and at the same time angry with him for causing it. “I’m the business manager. My father owns the garden center. Now would you answer my question, please?”

            “I’d be glad to.” He gestured toward the overturned figure. “I was trying to find out if the statue is authentic.”

             “She’s authentic.”

            “Do you have the legal paperwork to prove it?”

            Feeling my temper on the rise I said, “Yes. It’s called a sales receipt.”

            “And does it say on this sales receipt that the statue is by the Greek sculptor Antonius?”

           I paused to think. Had I seen the name Antonius anywhere on the receipt in the file marked Statue? I’d only noticed that it wasa receipt because it had been sticking up out of the file when I was putting something else away. Who was Antonius anyway?

            As though reading my thoughts Case said, “Antonius is a Roman artist from the early twelfth century who became famous posthumously for his sculptures of Greek gods and goddesses.”

            I lifted my chin. “As a matter of fact, I do know that.” Not.“And anyway, it doesn’t matter. The statue isn’t for sale.”  

            “That’s okay. I wasn’t interested in buying it. But just out of curiosity, may I see the receipt?”

            His impertinence irritated me. “No, you may not. It’s late, I’m hungry, and I was supposed to meet someone for dinner ten minutes ago.” 

            Case studied me with a shrewdness that made me uneasy. “It’s just after eight o’clock. Why isn’t the garden center open?”

           “All of the shops in town close at eight. You’re not from around here, are you?”

           Completely ignoring my question, he glanced back at the statue. “I’m betting you paid a lot of money for her.” 

            His sudden switch of topics threw me off guard. Plus, I was growing hungrier – and angrier – by the second. I hadn’t wanted to dine so late anyway, especially not with Kevin Coreopsis, the “good Greek boy” my mother was encouraging me to see, but of course, when did my wishes ever count? I would’ve much rather had dinner with my son at The Parthenon with the rest of the family.

           “First of all, I didn’t buy the statue. My grandfather did. He was going to use it at his diner, but it was too large. Secondly, how much he paid isn’t your concern. Now would you please keep your promise and leave?”

            “I’ll take that as a yes, she did cost a lot of money. I hope your grandfather at least bought her from a reputable art dealer.”

            “Not that it’s any of your business, but he bought her at an estate sale.” Why had I told Case that?

            My stomach rumbled, reminding me why.

            “So, an auctioneer sold it to him? Is the auction house reliable?”

            I balled my hands into fists, not about to admit that neither the auctioneer nor the auction house was one I knew anything about. I hadn’t even been aware that Pappoús had purchased it until it was delivered.

            “Okay,” Case said, “I’ll mark that down as a you don’t know. Whose estate was up for auction?”

            I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. “Get out now or I really will call the police.”

            “One more question. Did the auctioneer inform your grandfather that someone had applied a thin layer of cement over the bottom of the statue where the sculptor’s name should be?” 

            I glanced in surprise at the sandal-clad feet of the marble Athena and saw that Case had indeed scraped off a bit of what appeared to be a cement coating. 

            “I’ll take that as no,” he said. “Therefore, my question for you is, why would someone put cement over the sculptor’s name unless it wasn’t a genuine Antonius?” 

            I absorbed the information with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Had my pappoús been ripped off?

            Case straightened his jacket cuffs, clearly satisfied that he’d made his point. 

            And indeed, he had. With one eye on the black clouds overhead I asked, “How long will it take you to find out if she’s authentic?” 

            “Five minutes, and I won’t even charge you for my services.” 

            I stared at him in surprise. 

             Case smiled, revealing a charming dimple in his cheek. “I’m joking.”

           His teasing helped break the tension between us, and I couldn’t help but smile back. I glanced at my watch. “All right, Case Donnelly, you’ve got five minutes.” 

            As he crouched down to work, my nerves kicked in. What if this outrageously expensive statue was a fake, not even worth what we’d paid to move it from the Talbot’s estate to the diner and then to Spencers? I felt sick to my stomach thinking about it. 

           I’d protested mightily that it was too big for the diner and too far out of my grandparents’ budget anyway, but as always, my voice went unheard. The family had gathered behind my stubborn Pappoús because he was the head of the family and his decisions were final, regardless of what his college educated granddaughter had to say. 

           The problem was twofold: it too large for The Parthenon’s front entryway, and Spencers was stuck with it until we could convince Pappoús we needed to sell it, which didn’t seem likely. He loved his Treasure of Athena and would often bring his lunch down and sit at one of the outdoor tables gazing at her as though waiting for her to come to life.

As Case worked, I had to admit that the statue was beautiful. I hadn’t seen such exquisite detail in a sculpture since I’d toured Greek museums with my family years ago.  

            Standing at over six-feet tall, Athena wore a traditional flowing toga gathered over one shoulder with a clasp so that the material draped down over her small, firm breasts. Another layer of material swirled down from her waist to the sandals on her feet. Her hair was swept up beneath a helmet that covered the top of her head. Her arms were bare and slender, but her strength was evident. One hand rested on her right hip, the other hand was outstretched in greeting. She was the Goddess of War and Wisdom, strong, courageous, and independent, none of which I felt.

            Case blew away the dust he’d scraped off, uncovering a small brass plate attached to the bottom of one of Athena’s soles. I knelt down for a closer look as he wiped off the brass with his palm. “There’s your marking.” 

            I squinted at the etching but couldn’t make sense of it. “Is that in Greek?”

             “You don’t read Greek?” 

            “I usually skipped Greek school. Does that mean the statue’s an authentic Antonius?”

            “She’s authentic, all right, and worth a small fortune.” 

            As he hoisted the sculpture back to its standing position, I stared at it in awe, my heart racing as the wordssmall fortuneechoed in my head. We owned an authentic Greek Antonius? Surely Pappoús wouldn’t mind selling now. And just think what they could do with that money to spruce up the interior of their outdated diner.

            Case held out a hand to help me up. “There’s one more thing you should know about her, Athena.” 

            “And that is?”

            He brushed dirt off the statue’s exquisite marble face. “She’s mine.”

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