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Excerpt for Looking for Ginseng: by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Looking For Ginseng


Copyright 2017 B. S. Todd

Published by B.S. Todd at Smashwords

Ebook ISBN: 978-0-9991169-0-6




Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.






Acknowledgements

To my family: Thanks for listening to my incessant droning over the past four years.

Thank you, Teri at editingfairy.com. I look forward to working with you again.

To my beta readers: The diva girls, D. Herzog and J. Kulhanek. Thank you for reading my first draft and still encouraging me to go forward. And my first reader, C. Leslie, thanks for kick-starting my flat-lined brain.

But more importantly, I want to thank you, the reader, for reading my first novel.




One

Jesse

Does this road ever end?

Jesse leaned against the shoulder strap as the comforting rhythm of country music played softly on the radio. The four-hour drive would have been the perfect opportunity for sightseeing, but once the sun set, everything became one big mass of darkness, a sight she didn’t care to observe.

Pulling herself out of the seatbelt, she lay across the bench seat and adjusted her body to a more comfortable position. The large box truck wasn’t the easiest place to catch a few zees, but after packing boxes all day, she was more than exhausted. As the truck continued down the highway, her breathing eventually regulated and she drifted off to sleep. It wasn’t until she heard a door slam that her eyes shot open and she realized the truck had stopped moving.

The cool night air and pervasive smell of gasoline filled the cab, causing her breath to hitch and her eyes to water. “Where are we?” The first thing out of her mouth was a simple enough question. Too bad her dad wasn’t there to give her the answer.

Startled by the silence, she bolted upright in the seat and her legs bumped against the cat carrier that occupied most of the passenger side floorboard. “Sorry, Moose,” she whispered as she leaned forward, looking up through the windshield. The single incandescent bulb from the overhead lamppost lit the area between the gas pump and truck, but did little to ease her mind. You’re at a gas station; relax. But that couldn’t stop the goosebumps from prickling her arms as she scanned the gravel lot.

Jesse looked past the pump to the small cinderblock building, cast in shadows from the towering trees that surrounded it. She noticed the interior light first, and then her dad, who was standing at the counter, waiting for the cashier to shuffle in behind the register. The cashier nodded and placed the money in the till before looking out the window—his green eyes flashed in the darkness.

She jerked back, pressing her body against the seat and turning her head to avoid eye contact. That was creepy, she thought, staring across the highway. She scanned the tree line as shadows danced with the swaying branches and wrapped her arms around her body to ward off a shiver. And this is better?

Hidden behind a thin layer of clouds, the moon dimly lit the area as the burning stare from unseen eyes crept over her. She sucked in a breath. Stop it! There’s no one there! Even so, she quickly reached over and pushed the door lock down before rolling the window up.

“Welcome to Cloverly,” the cashier said as he followed her dad out the door, drawing her attention back to the building.

“Thank you. It’s good to be home,” her dad replied, pulling open the driver’s door.

Daring a glance towards the stranger, Jesse couldn’t see his eyes for the shadow that fell across his face. See? It’s just your imagination, she thought as an orange glow highlighted his features. He flicked the cigarette through the air, and it hit the ground in a shower of red sparks. “What an idiot,” she mumbled as her dad slid into the seat beside her and started the truck.

Sparing one last glance over her shoulder as the truck turned onto the highway, the man was no longer in sight.

“What are you looking for?” Dr. Williams asked as he reached over and adjusted the volume on the radio.

“Nothing, I just never noticed that gas station before.”

“That’s because it’s not usually open this late at night.”

“How late is it?” she asked as they passed the Welcome to Cloverly sign.

“Midnight.”


***


Morning came early as Jesse stretched out on the mattress and yawned. After multiple dreams of green eyes chasing her through the woods, she was glad when daylight crept between the curtains. She looked up at the black, spiral staircase that led to a small roof hatch in the center of the ceiling. That was something she would definitely check out as soon as she found the time.

Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she rolled over to confront the sea of haphazardly stacked boxes and bags. I’m really here. She smiled as she crawled off the mattress, slowly making her way around the cluttered room to the window bench that overlooked the tree line.

“Here kitty, kitty,” she called out as the gray tabby pattered his way between the stacks of boxes. “What do you think of your new home, Moose?” She picked up the cat and giggled when he nudged her chin. “I agree; I think you will love it here.”

Moose sat on the bench while she opened the box nearest the window and pulled out a pair of white shorts and a pink paisley top. Excited to start her day, she changed her clothes and twisted her curly, black hair into a messy bun. It probably wasn’t the prettiest sight, but it would do. She then slipped on her sneakers and walked out the door.

“A beautiful day this is going to be,” Jesse sang out of tune while walking into the kitchen and hugging her grandmother. The smell of coffee and cinnamon drifted in the air, causing her stomach to rumble.

“Good morning, sunshine.” Her grandmother patted her arm and reached for a cup in the overhead cupboard. “I didn’t expect you up so early. Did you sleep well?” Gramma asked, handing Jesse the cup of coffee she had just poured.

She wasn’t about to tell her grandmother she had only gotten a few hours’ sleep, due to the anxiety from the night before. Her grandmother would more than likely offer her a room on the second floor, and she preferred the attic bedroom. “I was too excited to sleep. I have so much to do, and with it being my first full day as a resident of Cloverly, I don’t want to miss a single second.” She leaned against the counter, sipping her coffee gratefully while her grandmother busied herself about the kitchen. “I left Lori a message; she and Megan should be here soon.”

“I’m surprised they weren’t here last night.” Her grandmother pulled another cup from the cupboard.

“They probably would’ve been, but I didn’t tell them I was coming. I wanted it to be a surprise,” she said with a glance around the kitchen. The large farmhouse sink and white-windowed cabinets dated the room, along with the old, daisy-shaped clock that hung on the wall above the round top refrigerator. She smiled and placed her cup in the sink and pushed away from the counter. “Gramma, if you need me, I’ll be out on the front porch.”

Jesse moseyed through the house, reveling in the warmth of family memories that lingered inside the rooms as she made her way to the front door. She stepped out onto the porch where hanging ferns cast soft shadows on the white clapboard siding in the early morning light. She loved everything about the old farmhouse, but especially the tall windows and wrap-around porch. Some of her happiest memories occurred right there on that porch.

A horn sounded in the distance and she glanced down the road. Growing up in a large city, the neighborhood in Cloverly was the polar opposite of what Jesse was used to. Quiet and somewhat secluded, Cloverly was a small town bordered by farmland, forest, and a low-lying river toward the west. To her, however, it was sheer paradise.

The warmth of the sun greeted her as she walked off the porch and followed the sidewalk to the edge of the woods that ran alongside her house. Her mind drifted back to the gas station when she reached into the bristly branches of a huge tree. Slowly withdrawing her hand, she allowed the soft pine needles to slip through her fingers. See? There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Sunlight filtered through the branches as she stepped past the tree line and the woods around her came to life. Birdsongs drifted overhead and a lone squirrel jumped from branch to branch, making her wonder what other animals lived there. Jesse loved all animals, but most of all, her cat. Soft meows drifted down from the window and she stepped out from beneath the trees and glanced up to where Moose was pacing back and forth, his fur rubbing against the window screen.

“Moose, get out of that window!” Jesse yelled as a familiar voice called out from the street and she looked back over her shoulder. Chestnut-brown hair, mingled with a pair of arms waved frantically out the car’s window and she instantly knew it was Lori. Squealing with delight, she raced down the steps, forgetting about Moose as Megan pulled the little, red car over to the curb.

As quickly as Lori could throw open the passenger door and jump out, Jesse caught her in a fierce hug. “Look at you; you look great!” She stepped back for a better view and Megan joined them in a group hug.

Jesse smiled, thinking back to the day they met. They had been best friends since she was ten years old after meeting on the sidewalk in front of Lori’s house, two doors down. She was roller-skating that day when she noticed Lori and Megan playing at the corner house. After introducing herself, she handed her skates to Lori, and sat down on the concrete porch to play dolls with Megan. Lori spent the rest of the afternoon skating up and down the sidewalk as Jesse and Megan waved, smiling happily each time she passed. Later that evening, she invited the girls to supper, and over pizza and soda pop, the three girls sealed their friendship.

“What time did you get in? It had to be late because I didn’t get your message until this morning. And I brought you a nightlight,” Lori said through a yawn.

“After midnight. We haven’t had time to unpack everything yet, so I was hoping I could get some help from my two favorite people. And there are fresh cinnamon rolls in the kitchen if you’re hungry.” Jesse grinned as they followed her up the driveway to the opened box truck that was parked beside the house. Bribing them with food was a brilliant idea because they would do just about anything for her grandmother’s homemade cinnamon rolls.

The muddled expression on Lori’s face when she noticed the mountain of boxes in the back of the truck made Jesse laugh. “Surely you didn’t pack all this for a two-month stay,” Lori said.

“Surprise!” Jesse said, throwing her hands in the air. “You’re looking at the newest resident of Cloverly.”

“You’re kidding! You moved here?” Megan twisted her hips and danced around, a clear indication of how thrilled she was. Then she frowned when Lori grabbed her by the shoulders, halting her steps.

“This is a geriatric neighborhood. Do you mind?” Lori grumbled as Megan fell into a fit of giggles and Jesse pulled her from her grasp.

“I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner, but I wanted to surprise you. Dad’s replacing Dr. Sanders at the end of the month.”

“If you think that will get you off the hook, you are so wrong. I’m mad at you! You said you were going to spend the summer with us and when you didn’t call, I thought you changed your mind and went to D.C. instead,” Lori pouted.

“I did go to D.C. for two weeks, which is why I’m so late getting here. Mom wasn’t happy that I wasn’t spending the summer with her, but with Joey in Little League, she knew that most of their time would be occupied with him, so she caved,” Jesse said as she repeatedly jabbed Lori with her elbow until she smiled.

Unable to contain her excitement any longer, Lori swatted her away and laughed as Megan bounced on her toes, causing her strawberry-blonde curls to flop around her head. “She’s like a little jack-in-the-box. When she gets wound-up, she pops.”

“I’m excited, okay? So back off, and pull that stick out of your butt,” Megan retorted as she climbed into the back of the truck.

“I’m excited she’s here too, but this is Cloverly. Who in their right mind moves to a small town like this intentionally?”

“Well, I don’t care why you moved here,” Megan said, passing boxes down from the truck. “I’m just glad you’re here.” She jumped to the ground and Jesse grinned as they followed the sassy blonde into the house. Standing every bit of five feet tall, Megan was probably the strongest of the three.

“There’re my girls,” Gramma said, holding open the front door. “If you’re hungry, I have breakfast and coffee in the kitchen.”

“Thank you, it smells wonderful.” Megan kicked up her knee to readjust the large box she was holding.

Jesse shifted her boxes to one arm and scooped Moose up off the floor. “What are you doing down here?” She nuzzled the gray feline before introducing him. “Lori, Megan, I’d like you to meet Moose.”

“Wow, Moose, you’re a big boy. The name’s fitting.” Lori reached out but quickly pulled her hand back when Moose growled. “Somebody needs catnip.”

“Ha! That makes two of you. Ignore her, Moose, she’s being ugly today,” Megan said as she walked past, but apparently, Moose wasn’t impressed. He reached out and snagged the sleeve of her shirt.

“Moose! Where are your manners?” Jesse scolded when he wedged his head beneath her arm. “I’m sorry; he’s never done that before. He didn’t scratch you, did he?”

“No, but he killed my sleeve.” Megan laughed. “But don’t be too hard on him. Most cats keep their distance because I’m more of a dog person, and I think they can sense it,” she said before following Lori to the attic bedroom.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Lori placed her box on the floor. “Is there really a room here, because I don’t see one?” She looked back as Megan and Jesse walked into the room.

“Well I’m hoping to bring order to the chaos,” Jesse said, placing Moose on the floor, along with her boxes. “We were in a hurry to unload as much as we could last night, so some of these boxes belong to Dad. But with my two besties helping out, I’m sure we’ll have this room shipshape before nightfall.” Jesse flashed a smile before merrily heading back down the stairs.

Two

Jesse

Trudging the heavy boxes up two flights of stairs became a chore all its own as the unpacking continued late into the afternoon. Jesse laughed while sorting through a box of sewing supplies and Lori and Megan giggled and goofed off—making Jesse’s jaws ache from the entertainment they offered. “I really do appreciate your help,” she said between bursts of giggles.

“Are you kidding? You couldn’t keep us away if you tried.” Lori chucked a purple teddy bear across the room and Jesse snatched it out of the air as her dad peeked around the door with a grin on his face.

“Cowards,” Jesse said when Lori and Megan ducked behind the boxes, laughing.

“Anyone hungry? I brought pizza,” Dr. Williams said, stepping into the doorway of what used to be his childhood bedroom.

“I’m starving,” Jesse exaggerated as she tossed the teddy bear over the boxes, causing Megan to screech. She grinned and Lori’s head popped up when she lifted the top of the pizza box, fanning the smell of pepperoni into the room. That was all it took to coax Lori out, and Jesse winked up at her dad. “So what do you think?” Jesse asked, trying not to laugh while watching Lori carry the pizza over to the mattress that lay on the floor in the corner of the room.

Dr. Williams chuckled when Lori bit into a large slice of pizza and moaned. He swore she had a tapeworm, considering how thin she was and the amount of food she could eat. “I think you have more boxes than I do.” He stepped further into the room.

“Don’t kid yourself. Some of these belong to you and you know it.” Jesse handed him a small box.

“This is the thanks I get for bringing pizza?” Dr. Williams waved as Megan moved out from behind the boxes, her face turning red as her sneakers. She waved back.

“Yes and there’s more where that came from,” Jesse warned.

“Stack them by the door and I’ll get them later.” He handed her a six-pack of sodas and sauntered out of the room.

“Thanks, Dad,” she called out before joining Lori and Megan on the mattress.

“I still can’t believe you moved here,” Megan said, lying back and rubbing her belly.

“By the time we get those boxes emptied, you’ll believe it,” Lori groused, shoving the last bite of pizza into her mouth.

“Yeah, but I figured Jesse would be on her way to college and we would never see her again.” Rolling over onto her side, Megan propped up on her elbow and pooched out her bottom lip.

“As if. I love you guys, and I love Cloverly too, which is why I’m going to let life lead me for a while. Who knows what opportunities await me here?”

“You’re delusional if you honestly think there are any opportunities here,” Lori sarcastically replied. “This place isn’t even on the map.”

“I don’t care.” Jesse had always wanted to live in Cloverly, and now that she could, she intended to make the best of it. “What about you, Megan?”

“I told you last year what I wanted to do. And I’m still willing to share a space with you if you’re interested?”

Jesse and Megan had talked in great depth about opening a business, which was why Jesse had worked so hard over the past year to build her inventory. She didn’t expect to get rich, but with proms, weddings, and a limited number of stores to shop at, she hoped to sell a few of her designs locally. “It sounds great, but I need to get settled in first.” Jesse walked over to the window and the afternoon breeze carried the smell of honeysuckle into the room. As she stared out the window, Megan squealed and Jesse practically jumped out of her skin.

“Do you know what this means? You’re finally gonna meet Brian!” Megan clapped excitedly.

“Not if I have a heart attack first,” Jesse complained, causing Lori to snicker.

“No, seriously.” Megan pulled back the curtain at the front window. “I think you two would make a cute couple.”

“Aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself there, sweet pea?” Lori chuckled, glancing between the two.

“But he’s cute,” Megan insisted as the curtain fell back into place. “His name is Brian Edwards and he lives right across the street.”

“Ducks are cute. You have to give me more than that,” Jesse said, pushing the curtain to the side. The glare from the afternoon sun was bright as it reflected off the windows of the split-level house across the street. The house itself had a unique look with brick at the bottom and vinyl siding at the top, but it didn’t quite fit the neighborhood. Her eyes followed the roof line to the privacy fence that surrounded the backyard. From what she could see, large sliding glass doors opened up to a patio at the side of the house, and further out in the yard stood two large trees. She tittered as the curtain fell back into place. “So what’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing, he’s a fireman… and you know what they say about firemen.” Lori grinned. Finally, her smutty best friend had arrived and she laughed when Megan rolled her eyes.

“You’re vulgar. That’s all I’m saying.” Megan lifted her hand and snubbed Lori. “Brian spends his summers at Camp Semiway. He’s a counselor there. Well, he used to be until this year. With his new job, he only has two weeks that he can volunteer now.”

“Then what’s the catch? I mean If he’s all that, why is he still single?” Jesse looked back toward the window as Megan opened another box.

“I promise he’s dated plenty of girls. He just hasn’t found the right girl for him.” Megan winked.

“If he’s as great as you say, why aren’t you dating him?”

“Yuck! That would be like dating my brother,” Megan gagged.

“You mean like Randy? Despite what Megan says, the only reason she doesn’t have a boyfriend is because she won’t give Randy the time of day.” Lori wrinkled her nose when Megan stuck out her tongue.

“That’s not true. I did go out with him, twice, but he’s not my type.”

“He rides a motorcycle for Pete’s sake! How can he not be your type?”

“Maybe I don’t like motorcycles,” Megan said, trying to keep a straight face.

“Randy wags after her like a lovesick pup. I think she likes playing hard to get.”

“Excuse me, but love is not a word in Randy’s vocabulary. Love could bite him on the butt and he’d think he had fleas. Nope, love is definitely not a word he knows,” Megan countered.

“See what I mean? She thinks he’s a flirt, but I think it’s his playful personality.” Lori snubbed her nose.

“Wait a minute. Are we talking about the spindly, little, dark-haired pest that chased us around the neighborhood with frogs?” Jesse asked.

“That’s him all right, but these days, he’s not the one doing the chasing. He’s all grown up and hot to boot.” Lori faked a swoon.

“Well, if Randy’s so hot, what does that make Brian?” Jesse asked, but Lori and Megan ignored her.

“Where would you like the bed? Pick a spot. You are not sleeping on the floor for a second night. This place could have spiders crawling everywhere,” Lori said, changing the subject. The disgusted look on Jesse’s face made her laugh. “Well, it’s true! This house is like Civil War-old.” She lifted the iron headboard away from the wall and rolled it across the floor.

Jesse scowled at the mattress as if that would do any good. She never considered the threat of spiders when she went to bed the night before and she shivered. “Umm, I think the bed would look good closer to the window, but not against the wall,” she quickly added. “About here, I think.” Jesse put her arms out, showing Lori the spot she had chosen, but as she gauged the distance from the wall to the bed, a movement out the window caught her eye.

“Holy moly!” Jesse marveled at the shirtless hunk in the neighboring yard. He stood tall next to his car with well-defined muscles and enough skin showing to turn her PG-rated thoughts to R.

Lori leaned over and pulled back the curtain. “That, my dear, is Jack, your new, hot-as-hell backyard neighbor. He’s one fine-looking man. Most definitely drool worthy, but seriously stuck-up.”

“Please, you would drool over any man not wearing a shirt,” Jesse joked, leaning closer to the screen.

“What can I say? It’s been a hobby of mine since I was fourteen.” The flick of her brow was expected and Jesse rolled her eyes. Only Lori could say something like that and make it the truth.

“Let me see.” Megan hurried across the room and ducked under Jesse’s arm.

“Do you know him?” Jesse asked, looking down.

“No, not really. But I’ve seen him going into the bookstore. And he’s not stuck-up.”

“How would you know if you’ve never talked to him?”

Jack looked toward the house before turning back to his car. “Oh crap! Do you think he heard us?” Megan dropped to the floor and peeked over the windowsill, despite the snickers from the other two.

“Doubtful.” Jesse laughed.

“Hey, Megan, I dare you to flash him,” Lori urged and Megan’s face turned a deep shade of red. “It’s a great conversation starter.”

“I don’t think so,” Megan stomped back across the room.

“I was only kidding, but I do think you should talk to him.” Lori nudged Jesse. “She has a secret crush on the guy; she just won’t admit it.”

“I’ll pass. I have enough going on as it is, and he would be nothing more than a temporary distraction.” Megan dismissed him with a wave of her hand.

“Oh, please. I could use more distractions like him in my life. You know, all work and no play will find you sitting home on a Saturday night. You need to walk on the wild side and live a little,” Lori said, turning back to the bed.

By the time evening rolled around, the mountain of boxes that once stood in the center of the room were emptied and crushed down, with only a handful left to unpack. “Jesse, how do you want the fabric arranged on the shelves?” Megan looked down into yet another box of cloth.

“It doesn’t matter. I’ll organize everything when I have more time.” Jesse yawned and carefully placed Moose on the window bench. “I can’t believe how different this room looks.”

The room had taken shape over the course of the day after all the dusting, sorting, stacking, stashing, and unpacking. The musty blue curtains were happily replaced by pink lace, which matched the pink and purple quilt Lori draped over the bed. And although the white walls were somewhat boring, the new material Megan was stacking on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf added plenty of color to the room. “Thanks again for helping me. I couldn’t have done this without you guys,” Jesse said as a low growl resonated around the room and Moose bristled in the window.

“It’s not because of me this time,” Megan chuckled.

Jesse sat down on the bench and peered out the window as the cat growls turned into a hiss and then Moose bolted under the bed. Unable to shake off the spidery chill that crawled up her spine, she rubbed her arms. “Shut off the light,” she whispered to Megan. Unprepared for the darkness that instantly engulfed her, she froze. “Lori, I thought you brought a nightlight?”

“I did. It’s still in Megan’s car.” Lori inched her way toward the bench, bumping into the last of the boxes along the way. She cursed under her breath as she locked arms with Jesse and the two huddled at the window.

“Do you hear that?” Megan whispered while walking over to join them.

“No,” Lori said.

“How can you not hear that?” Megan whispered again. She knelt down beside Jesse. “There’s something moving through the trees. It’s getting closer.”

“Shh,” Jesse replied. But as branches snapped below, she fell backward, knocking Lori to the floor before both rolled away from the window.

“What the hell?” Lori squawked while scooting up against the staircase.

“I don’t know.” Jesse shuddered.

“It was probably a deer,” Megan said. Walking across the room, she flipped on the overhead light.

“Or a wolf,” Lori countered, hugging her knees to her chest.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t think we have wolves in this area,” Jesse said, reassured by her knowledge of the local wildlife. She grabbed the side of the window seat and pulled herself up off the floor.

“Not according to the local legend,” Lori mumbled. “Do we have bears? I’m pretty sure we have bears.”

“No, it wasn’t a bear. It was probably a deer.” Jesse laughed, although she wasn’t totally convinced herself.

“You say that now, Miss I’m-scared-of-the-dark, but I’ve read the stories, and I, for one, am glad I don’t live next to the tree line.” Lori smirked.

“So I guess that rules out you spending the night?”

“You got that right,”

“Sorry, but I can’t stay either. I have to rise with the roosters, which means I should be getting home,” Megan chimed in.

Two hours later, Jesse plumped her pillow and crawled into bed while adoring her new bedroom. Happily snuggled beneath the quilt, enjoying the cool night breeze sweeping through the window screen, she pulled back the curtain as headlights lit up the backyard. Expecting to see her sexy new neighbor when the lights shut off, her anticipation fueled her smile.

Three

Jesse

“Gramma, why didn’t you wake me this morning?” Jesse asked as the smell of freshly mown grass teased her nose, a true sign summer was just around the corner.

“With all the unpacking you girls did last night, I figured you needed the extra sleep,” Gramma said as she stepped toward the doorway of what looked like an old wooden outhouse. Her flower-print gardening gloves clashed with the long-sleeved, plaid blouse she wore and her black plastic kneepads bunched up the light blue denim around her knees.

“You know how much I love working in the garden,” Jesse said, glancing into the rustic, little shed, which was wide enough for a push mower and a few garden tools, but had seen better days. It leaned slightly to the left, causing the wood door to hang ajar; and if it weren’t for the large holly bush at the back corner, it would have probably fallen down.

“I remember quite well.” Gramma chuckled and Jesse grinned.

“In my defense, I’d never seen a baby snake before. I thought it was an earthworm.” She glanced over at the pink rambling rose bush on the far side of the yard where she released “Frieda,” the principal reason she never ventured back to pick the flowers. She shuddered.

“Yes, you were a delightful, little sprite back in the day.” Gramma grabbed a straw hat off the rusty hook beside the door and slapped it against her hip before placing it on her head.

Jesse’s jaw dropped. “There could be spiders in that hat!”

“Only if they survived the slap.”

The idea of spiders crawling down her neck made Jesse’s scalp prickle. “I’m here to work. Just tell me what you need me to do.” Jesse followed her grandmother to the garden as a slight breeze lifted her hair. Wearing denim shorts that exposed the length of her legs and a light lavender tank top that complemented her complexion, she was ready to dazzle the daylights out of the dark-haired stud in the adjacent yard. She glanced down at the white, open-toed sandals that did little to keep her feet dry and groaned when the moisture seeped between her toes. It was not something she was expecting and she looked back towards the cabin, glad Jack wasn’t outside to witness the green, furry feet she sported.

It took Jesse a couple of hours to rake out the tilled garden while her grandmother pulled the remaining weeds. “So that’s your secret,” Jesse said as she leaned the rake against the scroll-top fence separating the yards. She looked down at the soft blister that had formed between her thumb and index finger. She should have worn gloves but unlike her grandmother, she wasn’t taking any chances with spiders.

“Calcium is good for tomato plants.” Gramma lightly packed the crushed eggshells around the young plants.

As the sun rose in the noonday sky, Jesse lifted the hair off her neck and a stream of sweat trailed down her back. “Gramma, you need to cool off. I’ll clean up the mess,” Jesse said, noticing the flush on her grandmother’s face. She helped her off the ground and waited until she was inside the house before gathering up all the tools. Once she had everything put away, she placed wire cages over the tomato plants and walked over to sit down beneath the large oak tree in the far corner of the backyard.

The shady cold made her shiver and Jesse looked over her shoulder, noticing the footpath that led into the pine-scented forest. With a quick glance towards the house, she stood up and inched her way behind the tree, chewing her lip as she studied the path.

Over the years, her grandmother had frequently warned her against going into the woods, but she was an adult now, almost eighteen, and perfectly capable of self-survival. Surely a few steps ventured in wouldn’t hurt, and her grandmother would never have to know.

Grinning, she hurried along the path as sunlight streamed between the branches. Comforted by the light, she eventually stepped off the trail as a blue-tailed lizard zipped down the side of a maple tree and beneath the canopy of a poison ivy vine. Mindlessly scratching her arm, she continued walking deeper into the woods, where despite her isolation, she felt safe.

Moisture tickled her nose as she looked down at the large, flat stones resting on the bottom of a narrow creek bed. She kicked off her sandals and jumped into the shallow water and an icy tremor ripped through her body. Once the initial chill had passed, she stomped and splashed around, laughing at herself for acting like a child. Finally, when her feet were sufficiently clean, she shook off the last drops of water and slipped on her shoes.

The cushiony pine needles beneath her feet caught her attention and she froze. The area was quiet, eerily beautiful, and she glanced up at the thick canopy that blocked out the sun, making it somewhat dark. “This is just great.” She stepped back onto the path, suddenly unsure of which way to go.

Twigs snapped in the distance, and she peered through the trees as her heart jumped up to her throat. She listened closely but nothing moved. No birds fluttered, and even the breeze had died down. She swallowed hard as she reached into her pocket and realized her cellphone was charging on the nightstand. Another twig snapped, shattering the silence, and she stumbled back against a tree.

“Who’s there?” her voice cracked and her body trembled. “Is somebody there?” Jesse stared into the shadows, her imagination darkening the area even more. You had to take a walk, didn’t you? She knew better than to enter the woods, and now she would have to explain her lame-brained adventure to her grandmother. That is, assuming she lived to tell the tale.

She darted about, searching for something to use as a weapon, and spotted a large stick half hidden beneath a vine. Grabbing hold of the stick, her body fell forward, but the stick didn’t move. “A tree root!” She stood up and angrily kicked the root, sending her sandal flying into the underbrush. Hopping on one foot, she quickly retrieved the sandal and slipped it back on. With images of wolves and bears flashing through her mind, she wrapped her arms around her waist as sweat beaded across her forehead.

“That was entertaining.” The deep, sultry, voice caught her offguard, and she spun around as her hand landed on her chest. Greeted by beautiful, sapphire-blue eyes, Jack was easily six feet tall with sooty, black hair that was damp with sweat. She glanced down at the shirt draped over his shoulder and drew in a calming breath. Great! Now he thinks you’re staring at his chest. Her eyes swiftly descended to the shorts hanging low on his hips. Don’t look down! She quickly looked back up, her face burning beneath a blush. The amused grin on his face only deepened her blush, and if she could have found a rock large enough to crawl under, she would have. Damn! You got caught ogling a complete stranger.

“Jack, you scared me.” she said, stumbling over the root she had foolishly kicked.

He offered his hand to steady her and led her back to the path. “How do you know my name? Have we met before?” His brow creased as he released her hand.

Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, a distraction to keep from looking at the streams of sweat trailing down his chest, she cleared her throat. “Um, I saw you out my bedroom window yesterday. Lori and Megan were helping me unpack. Do you know them?” She rambled on and wrung her hands mindlessly. She wasn’t about to tell him they had been drooling over him; but judging by the smirk on his face, he probably already knew. Looking down at her feet, she was glad she chose to stop at the creek.

“So you’re my neighbor?” he asked, pulling the shirt off his shoulder and slipping it over his head.

“Yes.” She paused as his muscles flexed and scandalous thoughts flashed through her mind. “I’m Jesse,” she said as his shirt fell into place.

“It’s nice to meet you, Jesse. But I have to ask, what brings you to the woods all alone?”

“Nothing important. Just checking out the scenery, looking for ginseng, and I got a little side-tracked.” She smiled sheepishly, trying to hide how nervous and lost she felt, while lying through her teeth. He was absolutely gorgeous. Perhaps she sensed a bit of attitude beneath the surface, but he was definitely not stuck-up.

Jack grinned. “You know, it’s illegal to harvest ginseng this time of year.”

“I wasn’t really looking for ginseng,” she admitted, after he just caught her in a lie. “But I did find some poison ivy. Actually, I was on my way home. Mental note-call Lori ASAP!

“Well, I’m going that way. If you don’t mind, I’ll walk with you.”

“Good. I was afraid I wouldn’t get out of here before dark, and this is no place I want to be when the sun goes down.” Jesse talked like it was insignificant, but she sensed he could tell she was quite a bit shaken.

“Being out here in the dark and alone is not a good idea. But you know, this path runs uphill, so if you’re ever lost, all you have to do is close your eyes and take a few steps in one direction. If your body leans forward, you’re going uphill. If it leans backward, you’re going downhill.”

“But we’re not on a hill,” Jesse argued as she scanned the area.

“We are on a hill. It has a very slight incline, and you can’t always see it, but if you close your eyes, you can feel your body leaning automatically with it. It gets steeper further on up the path.”

Jesse closed her eyes and took a few steps. Letting her body lean slightly, she opened her eyes. “That’s uphill.” She pointed victoriously as if she had just done something remarkable.

“Right, and you want to go downhill if you want to go home.”

“That’s good to know, but my hiking days are over. As it is, I’ll probably have nightmares over this for a week.”

“If you think this is bad, imagine it at night. The woods can be a very dangerous place.”

“You sound like you speak from experience?” The ominous warning played in her head as she walked down the path beside him.

“Yeah, you could say that.” He shrugged.

.

Four

Jack

The tinkling of wind chimes greeted Jack and Jesse as they stepped out of the woods and into the shade of the oak tree. Jack grinned when Jesse ducked around a low-hanging wind chime, only to bump into one himself. He rubbed his head and reached up to quiet the offending chime as his eyes drifted from branch to branch.

“Sorry, my grandmother collects them.”

Shaking his head as he walked over and leaned against the fence post, Jack was hoping Jesse wasn’t in any hurry to go inside. She seemed oddly out of place when he first met her in the woods but after letting her guard down, she was fun to talk to, especially when she became flustered and red-faced. Her kicking at the tree root turned out to be the highlight of his day, until her shoe flew off. That was hilarious! And still funny when he thought about it, so he struggled to keep the grin off his face until he heard the soft patter of sneakers and his mood shifted. He knew it was Tracy without ever looking over his shoulder, but when she eventually disappeared down the road, he turned back to Jesse. “So where are you from?”

“Indianapolis,” Jesse replied. “How about you?”

Glancing over his shoulder although Tracy was no longer in sight, he knew that didn’t mean she wasn’t lurking nearby. “I grew up across the river in Kinsley.” Jack tilted his head as the faint crunching of dried leaves caught his attention. He turned, waiting for the fiery redhead to join them.

“Jack, I’ve been searching everywhere for you.” Tracy cut across the edge of the woods and hurried over to where he stood. “And you must be our new neighbor. Hi, I’m Tracy.”

The smile on her face adequately concealed the wolf within although her green eyes flashed with envy. The reason she acted that way towards other females remained a mystery to him. It wasn’t like she had just crawled out of the dog patch. She was uniquely stunning in her own right, but as the black-haired beauty stood before her, it soon became clear that Tracy considered Jesse a threat.

“Is that your hair or is it a weave? It’s really pretty, but I’m not sure the color suits your complexion.” Tracy smiled smugly.

With narrowed eyes, Jack watched Tracy lightly pull a strand of Jesse’s waist-length hair through her fingers. He knew the claws could come out at any moment, and he was ready to intervene if needed, but, if only for Tracy’s sake, he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

“It’s not a weave.” The smirk on Jesse’s face revealed exactly what she thought about Tracy’s observation, and she didn’t flinch beneath the subsequent scrutinizing stare. Jesse was a few inches shorter than Tracy, but she didn’t seem intimidated or envious as most girls might have felt.

Jack crossed his arms over his chest as the two girls continued to talk. Clearly, Tracy was jealous and that meant only one thing: she would be a pain in the ass for the next several days; ergo, they would all have to listen to her rant and rave. He glanced over at Jesse’s house and the kitchen curtain fell into place. Uncomfortable as the target of spying eyes, he cleared his throat and turned back to the conversation. “It’s been lovely talking to you ladies, but I need to get into the shower.”

“I have a better idea. Let’s go skinny-dippin’ in the lake,” Tracy suggested, leaning her body forward as if Jack were a magnet pulling her in.

“Thanks, but I’d rather not.” He longed to continue his conversation with Jesse, to learn more about her, but obviously, that would have to wait.

“Oh, well, you can make it up to me tonight. Jesse, it was nice meeting you.” Tracy ran her hand up Jack’s arm and over his shoulder before she sauntered off across the yard.

Jack frowned at the confrontation he anticipated once he was back at his cabin. But if he didn’t deal with Tracy before she left, her next encounter with Jesse might not be as friendly. He huffed out a breath. “Guess I should go too. Maybe we can talk later,” Jack suggested, walking backward across the yard.

“Sounds good.” Jesse smiled.


Tracy was waiting in the kitchen as he expected when he walked in the back door. “Really, Jack? I can’t believe you’re hanging out with that female,” Tracy spat out once the door closed behind him.

Jack scowled, moving over to the sink and grabbing the bar of soap off the windowsill. Turning on the faucet, he wet the soap beneath the water and bubbly suds dripped from his hands. “I wasn’t hanging out with her and even if I were, it’s none of your business. So adjust your attitude.”

“My attitude is fine. You need to remember: you’re part of a pack, and as such, we stick together.”

“No, Tracy, you need to stop interfering in matters that don’t concern you. Pack or otherwise.” Jack shut off the faucet and reached for a hand towel. “So again, adjust your damn attitude and mind your own business.” He tossed the towel onto the counter and turned toward the living room, but stopped when Tracy grabbed his upper arm.

“I’m not trying to get in your business. I’m looking out for the pack’s best interest, unlike you.”

Jack jerked his arm away. “The pack’s best interest? Since when does this pack matter to you? You have absolutely no desire to fit in with us.”

“She’s human, and humans always screw things up. You, of all people, should already know that.” As her head bobbed, her earrings jingled, and the copper spikes touched her shoulders.

“You do not want to go there.” His eyes flared. Trying to push back the memories of years gone by, memories that haunted his dreams, Jack struggled to control his anger. “I am the alpha here. So unless you are challenging me, I suggest you do exactly as you’re told.” A harsh growl echoed through the room and she lowered her eyes.

“It wasn’t a challenge. I was just saying they don’t understand our kind. They always lead to trouble.” She took a step back.

“You need to stop blaming humans for what happened to your grandfather. They did nothing to deserve his wrath.”

“If they had done what they were told, he would still be…” Tracy’s face paled as her voice trailed off.

“The alpha? Your grandfather was ruthless and cruel, so he got what he deserved. The pack lost a lot of good members because he was so power-hungry. So stop trying to defend someone that doesn’t deserve my spit!” Jack stomped out of the room with Tracy following a few steps behind.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“It’s exactly what you meant! And I’m not going to stand here and listen to you glorify an alpha that killed a female just for protecting her own.” He opened the front door and stepped to the side, motioning Tracy forward. “This conversation is over.

Tracy’s shoulders slumped as she tromped across the yard, but Jack was long past the point of caring. Who the hell did she think she was? Trying to preach to him about pack politics? He waited until her foot hit the asphalt before slamming the door. Being an Alpha-in-Training, he expected he would have to play the alpha card from time to time, but he never thought it would be owing to Tracy’s jealousy.

***


Honeysuckle and pine lingered in the air as Jack leaned back in the swing and closed his eyes. Still reeling from the pissing match Tracy started the day before, he could only imagine how the summer would be. He drew in a deep breath, willing his mind to settle. After a night of restless sleep, he was exhausted and within minutes, he drifted off to sleep.

“Looks like you had a rough night.”

Jack opened his eyes to the enormous shadow looming overhead. “Whoa, I didn’t hear you come up.”

Tucker, a mountain wolf, was easily the largest male of the pack. With his tall stature and burly build, he dwarfed the Cloverly wolves into a pack of coyotes. “Damn, you look like hell.” He took a seat on the edge of the porch and leaned back against the post as the swing came to a stop. “Tracy knows there’s a new female in the area,” Tucker said.

“Based on her history, she probably knows a lot of things.” Resting his elbows on his knees, he looked up to see if the post would hold as the massive male leaned heavily against it.

“I was talking about the other night. On our way home from Sallee’s, she picked up the scent at the tree line. She should be a scout. She sure has the nose for it.”

“Well, her nose also tends to get her into trouble,” Jack said. “She saw me talking to the neighbor, and afterwards—”

“You pissed her off.”

“I always do. It’s a gift I have, one that only Tracy seems to appreciate.” Jack laughed to hide his frustration.

“Well, it sounds like she handled it pretty well, all things considered.”

“Not hardly. She’s probably at home now, plotting ways to take over my position in the pack, assuming she knows what’s best for us.” Jack ran his hand over his hair, then stretched his arms overhead and yawned.

“Your position in the pack is not what she wants.” Tucker flicked his brows. “By the way, are we still on for Sallee’s tonight?”

“No. I think it would be safer if we went to the lake. You know how unpredictable Tracy can be when she’s in one of her moods. I don’t trust her.” Jack lowered his arms and leaned back in the swing to watch Tucker pulling his long, brown dreads into a ponytail.

“It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other,” Tucker said as Whitney and Mason cut across the yard, joining them on the front porch.

“Why are we running at the lake?” Mason asked, his brows drawn down.

“Tracy,” Jack replied curtly, as if he expected his beta to already know.

“What did she do this time?” Whitney asked.

“She met Jack’s neighbor,” Tucker chuckled.

“That can’t be good. I remember the last time she showed her ass.” It was clear Mason was troubled by the news when he rubbed his hand over his jaw.

“Well, in her defense, it was the first time she had come face to face with a group of females that weren’t wolves,” Whitney said.

“Maybe so, but growling didn’t help her cause.” Mason looked down the road as Whitney pushed up off the porch.

“I’ll go talk to her and see what I can do,” Whitney interjected and Jack chuckled when she rolled her eyes. Unlike Tracy, Whitney wasn’t the jealous type, having found her mate in Mason three years ago. As she walked across the yard, her long, black ponytail swished from side to side.

“You’re a lucky man,” Jack said, nudging Mason.


Five

Jesse

Jesse hurried down the street as Steve and Lori walked out her front door. It had been two years since she last saw him, and although he still wore the same spiked hairstyle, he had grown out of the gawky-boy stage and looked pretty frickin’ fabulous. She skipped up the sidewalk and took a seat on the edge of the porch, grinning when he winked. What a charmer.

“It’s almost dark, are you sure you don’t need a ride?” Steve dangled his keys in front of Lori’s face, but instead of grabbing for the keys, she pulled him down to her level and whispered in his ear.

Jesse’s suspicions grew when Steve glanced her way before strutting down the sidewalk as he ran his fingers through his brown hair. With a grin, he climbed into the driver’s seat of the patina-brown pickup and closed the door. “If you ever decide to dump him, let me know. I’ll take your sloppy seconds.”

She laughed and jumped off the porch to avoid Lori’s swat. “That will teach you to whisper about me.”

Lori smirked and joined Jesse on the sidewalk as the remaining daylight faded into a deep, royal blue. “So how’s small town life treating you?” she asked, waving when Steve drove off.

“I love it. There’s something about this place… it feels like home.” Jesse hopped back and forth across the sidewalk. “Step on a crack, break your mama’s back.”

“Speaking of your mama, is she still working for the DOJ?”

“Oh yeah. It’s her dream job.” Jesse chuckled.

“That’s so cool. Before long, she’ll be president and I can brag that I’m the best friend of the first daughter. That’s like badass royalty shit there.”

“Well, it’s not like she hasn’t mentioned it once or twice. But I have to admit it would be cool to visit the White House.”

“Like mother, like daughter?” Lori lifted a brow.

“Definitely not. I don’t think I could handle the stress.”

The two girls turned onto Main Street as the streetlights blinked on. The traffic was little more than a dozen cars since the town was settling in for the evening. Other than a horn honking and a few whistles from a passing truck, it was fairly quiet for a Friday night.

“Welcome to the nightlife,” Lori said as they crossed the street, their sandals slapping against the blacktop.

“Oh, look, I didn’t know Cloverly had a flower shop.” Jesse ran over and peered through the window of Brid’s Flower Pot.

“Oh good Lord! Could you be any more girlish?” Lori rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should add florist to your list of career options.”

“Maybe I should.” Jesse pouted as Lori dragged her down the street. Giving the little shop one last glance over her shoulder, she swore she could smell every blossom in the building. Jesse loved flowers as much as Lori loved books, but becoming a florist had never even crossed her mind. Who knows what other opportunities might pop up?

“Where would you like to sit, bar stool or booth?” Lori asked as they passed by the bookstore and wove their way through the concrete tables that were set on the sidewalk in front of the cafe.

“Let’s sit by the window,” Jesse said as the overhead bell chimed, announcing their arrival.

Entering the cafe was like stepping back into an era of poodle skirts and skating waiters. The restaurant had been there since the fifties, and nothing about it had changed. The red vinyl stools with chrome accents lined the counter and matching upholstered booths hugged the walls. Decorated with tin signs advertising everything from chocolate malts to patty melts, it was truly a classic. Jesse waved when she spotted Megan in her teal and white uniform. She was adorable with her springy curls bouncing around her head and a little apron tied neatly at her waist. Too bad they didn’t wear poodle skirts anymore. If anyone could pull off the look, it would have been Megan.

“I’m so glad you all stopped by. What can I get for you? It’s on the house,” Megan offered, setting two glasses of ice water on the table before pulling the order pad out of her pocket.

“I’ll have a sweet tea and she’ll take a chocolate shake.” Jesse looked over at Lori and she nodded.

“Well, that’s easy enough. I’ll be back in a jiffy.” Megan smiled, tucking the order pad into her apron before heading back to the counter.

“I still can’t believe you were in the woods with Jack after the other night. You’re either crazy or you like to live dangerously.” Lori took a napkin from the dispenser and spat out her gum.

“Not so loud. Gramma thinks I was at the edge of the woods. If she found out I lied, she would threaten me with a switch. You know how she was always warning us about going into the woods,” Jesse whispered across the table.

“You’re almost eighteen; I think you’re a little too old for the switch now.”

“Are you kidding? Dad still treats me like I’m fourteen.”

“Yeah? Mom still treats me like I’m fourteen, too, but I’m young at heart.”

“You mean immature.” Jesse simpered.

“Whatever. You’re just trying to change the subject. I still think you were staring at his ass.”

“I was not! I was staring at his swagger,” Jesse argued. After meeting Jack in the woods, as soon as she was back in her room, she called Lori, giving her all the details of their encounter. Right down to his swagger, and Lori practically swooned over the phone.

“Here you go, ladies,” Megan said, interrupting their hushed conversation as she set their drinks on the table and handed each of them a straw. “By the way, Jack does have a nice swagger.”

“Shh,” Jesse hissed, narrowing her eyes when Lori started to laugh. “Lori, you promised not to say anything.”

“I didn’t. Scouts’ honor.” Lori crossed her heart and flashed a peace sign.

“It’s not my fault you all don’t know how to whisper.” Megan laughed as she pushed Lori’s hand down.

“I did whisper!” Jesse insisted as Lori knocked on the window to get Steve’s attention.

“That’s what they all say.” Megan tittered. “If you need anything else, whisper.”

Jesse stared slack-jawed as the little eavesdropper hurried back to the counter. “There’s no way she heard us.”

“It’s Megan. She hears everything,” Lori said, drawing Jesse’s attention to the window.

Steve’s truck was parked at the curb, so Jesse assumed he was entering the cafe when the doorbell chimed. But hearing the commotion behind her, she glanced over her shoulder at the horde of girls gathered in the doorway, Steve was merely standing in the mix. Someone’s in trouble, she thought and turned back to Lori. “Where did they come from?”

“Must’ve crawled out of the gutter,” Lori sneered.

Jesse snickered at the sour look on Lori’s face. Trouble brewed for Steve if he didn’t play his cards right, and she couldn’t help feeling a teensy bit sorry for the guy.

“Talk about a red carpet welcome,” Steve said as he slid into the seat next to Lori, who ignored him. “Come on, don’t be like that. You know anytime Randy comes to town, he causes a stir.” Jesse sipped her tea as Steve tried to smooth things over but Lori wasn’t having any of it.

“Whatever. It screams desperate.”

“It’s harmless. They just want his autograph or something.”

“Shh, here he comes.” Lori snarled when Randy approached the booth. “Glad you could join us.”

Jesse’s shot a questioning glance across the table before she turned to greet their guest.


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