The Antietam Creek Project came to a rude halt when the blade of Billy Younger's backhoe unearthed the first skull.
It was an unpleasant surprise for Billy himself, who'd been squatting in the cage of his machine, sweating and cursing in the vicious July heat. His wife was staunchly opposed to the proposed subdivision and had given him her usual high-pitched lecture that morning while he'd tried to eat his fried eggs and link sausage.
For himself, Billy didn't give a rat's ass one way or the other about the subdivision. But a job was a job, and Dolan was paying a good wage. Almost good enough to make up for Missy's constant bitching.
Damn nagging had put him off his breakfast, and a man needed a good breakfast when he was going to be working his tail off the rest of the day.
And what he had managed to slurp up before Missy nagged away his appetite was sitting uneasily in his gut, stewed, he thought bitterly, in the goddamn wet heat.
He rammed the controls, had the satisfaction of knowing his machine would never bitch his ears off for trying to do the job. Nothing suited Billy better, even in the god-awful sweaty clutch of July, than plowing that big-ass blade into the ground, feeling it take a good bite.
But scooping up a dirty, empty-eyed skull along with the rich bottomland soil, having it leer at him in that white blast of midsummer sunlight was enough to have 233-pound Billy scream like a girl and leap down from the machine as nimbly as a dancer.
His co-workers would razz him about it unmercifully until he was forced to bloody his best friend's nose in order to regain his manhood.
But on that July afternoon, he'd run over the site with the same speed and determination, and damn near the agility, he'd possessed on the football field during his high school heyday.
When he'd regained his breath and coherency, he reported to his foreman, and his foreman reported to Ronald Dolan.
By the time the county sheriff arrived, several other bones had been exhumed by curious laborers. The medical examiner was sent for, and a local news team arrived to interview Billy, Dolan and whoever else could help fill up the airtime on the evening report.
Word spread. There was talk of murder, mass graves, serial killers. Eager fingers squeezed juice out of the grapevine so that when the examination was complete, and the bones were deemed very old, a number of people weren't sure if they were pleased or disappointed.
But for Dolan, who'd already fought through petitions, protests and injunctions to turn the pristine fifty acres of boggy bottomland and woods into a housing development, the age of the bones didn't matter.
Their very existence was a major pain in his ass.
And when two days later Lana Campbell, the transplanted city lawyer, crossed her legs and gave him a smug smile, it was all Dolan could do not to pop her in her pretty face.
"You'll find the court order fairly straightforward," she told him, and kept the smile in place. She'd been one of the loudest voices against the development. At the moment, she had quite a bit to smile about.
"You don't need a court order. I stopped work. I'm cooperating with the police and the planning commission."
"Let's just consider this an additional safety measure. The County Planning Commission has given you sixty days to file a report and to convince them that your development should continue."
"I know the ropes, sweetheart. Dolan's been building houses in this county for forty-six years."
He called her "sweetheart" to annoy her. Because they both knew it, Lana only grinned. "The Historical and Preservation Societies have retained me. I'm doing my job. Members of the faculty from the University of Maryland archaeology and anthropology departments will be visiting the site. As liaison, I'm asking you to allow them to remove and test samples."
From Birthright by Nora Roberts, Copyright © 2003 Nora Roberts, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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