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Light the Fire

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Chapter 2

It turned out to be a good thing Grace had brought the casserole dish because by the time Jo took a break from organizing and cleaning, she was absolutely wiped out and even thought of making a sandwich seemed painful. She’d mostly been subsisting off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches plus a bag of mixed fruit--easy to prep and clean up, for the most part.

Jo peeled back the tinfoil cover and peered at the dish. Something creamy and with chicken? Well, that was always a good start. Too hungry to take the time to heat it up, she dug her fork in and popped some chicken-sauce-breadcrumb combo in her mouth.

“Ommghdh,” she mumbled, quickly digging for another sporkful. Either she was even more starving than she thought, or Grace made a heck of a chicken casserole thingy dish. She was going to have to give the lady some profuse thanks later. “This, my ghostly friends, is heaven,” she announced to the kitchen, waving her fork in the air. “You’re really missing out.”

She grinned a little at the thought of there being Scott ghosts. There were a lot of weird things in this world, for sure, but she’d yet to encounter any ghosts. She sighed and re-covered the pan, now with a large, empty corner, and then stood up to stick in in the fridge. Nope, she highly doubted there was anything spookily exciting in this house. Which was a good thing. Half the point of coming here was to stay far away from anything exciting.

More than half the point, honestly.

Well, this was a good stopping place to go and make her supply run she supposed. She glanced down at the dirt-covered overalls, debating if she should change. Probably so, since this was going to be her first real foray into town. Didn’t want to start off her time here with the wrong impression if she really was going to stand out as much as Grace had warned.

Quickly changing into some clean jeans and a t-shirt, she re-tied her straight black hair back into a ponytail, grabbed her keys and purse, then locked up before heading out to the car. Her dad had insisted she take the Subaru, saying at least its all-wheel drive would be better than her little city-friendly economy car. She found herself grinning a bit as the car bumped its way down the gravel road toward the main highway. Thanks, Dad.

Once she was on the main road, it was just a matter of following it until she reached Jackson’s Hollow proper. It wasn’t going to take her long to find her way around here. She already remembered which road led to the community college, after having stopped by yesterday to officially enroll. Jo hadn’t really taken a look at the various stores when she’d driven through the town yesterday, so she thought she might walk around and see what all was available here. Best to know now what she could get in town and what she’d have to order off of Amazon.

Jo pulled into one of the angled spots on Main Street in front of a store that said “Bill’s Hardware,” figuring she’d save any grocery store shopping for last. There seemed to be a few people in the store, so she supposed that was always a good sign. Jo took a deep breath. Okay, citizens. She could do this, she’d done just fine with Grace and her kids earlier. Before she could chicken out, Jo firmly pushed the car door open.

Cleaning supplies, cleaning supplies. Jo wasn’t being intentionally rude, but she also didn’t make any eye contact with anyone as she hurried into the store, rushing past a couple older men who were sitting outside, rocking back and forth in a couple rocking chairs that were for sale. She bobbed her head a little at them, hoping that was polite enough. Her dad had said that people in her grandparents’ hometown might be overly friendly or, on the other hand, standoffish. Grace had been nice, but Jo hadn’t interacted with anyone else yet. She didn’t want to jump into the deep end of the town’s social scene today (or probably any other day), so she was going to get in and out as quick as possible.

Once inside the store, she headed down the first aisle, glancing up at the signs. Except there weren’t any signs. Okay... She looked at the goods on the shelves, where there were hundreds of bins containing nails, screws, and staples. Not exactly what she was looking for.

She hurried out of that aisle and peeked down the next. Yardwork tools: rakes, shovels, gardening stuff. She moved on until she finally found the cleaning supplies. That’s when she realized she had forgotten to grab a basket. Great...

She found the empty baskets with their worn handles at the front of the store, next to the door. As she picked one up, someone at the front desk cleared their throat.

“Anything I can help you with?” There was a middle-aged man with curly brown hair and dark brown skin at the desk, a half-smile on his face. “If you need a cart, there are some outside.”

“I think I’ll stick with the basket,” Jo said, though she did need a broom...She could carry a broom. “Thanks...Bill?”

“Good guess, but Bill is my dad,” the man said, “I’m Seth McClain.”

He was giving her an expectant look, so she smiled back. “I’m Jo Scott. New to town.”

“Couldn’t tell,” Seth said with a laugh that made it sound like he had probably already heard of her name and knew exactly how new she was. It wasn’t like Jackson’s Hollow was a large town or anything. It had a community college simply because it was actually one of the bigger towns in the county, but that didn’t mean much in an area where a town could fit on a postage stamp. “Well, Jo, let me know if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Mr. McClain.”

“Let’s go with Seth,” he said, shaking his head.

Jo nodded, knowing that feeling, and headed back into the shelves.

She picked up some cleaning supplies and then headed to the hardware section for some of the other non-grocery items on her list. A hammer and some nails--her dad had said there was a toolshed with things like that, but the toolshed had been locked with a rusty old padlock, and she’d yet to find the key.

That reminded her, actually. She’d looked up how to break padlocks and the two methods that she’d settled on as being the most foolproof (for an amateur locksmith like her), were either using compressed air to freeze the lock and then hitting it with a hammer or using bolt cutters. Maybe she should buy both items? The bolt cutters weren’t far away, she picked them up and examined them. Hmm, larger than what she’d pictured. Bolt cutters had seemed the easiest, but she wasn’t sure if they would require a lot of strength now that she saw the size of them.

Or, well, she supposed that was what Seth was here for. He’d know the best option. Maybe she should just ask him. She carried the bolt cutters as she turned toward the front since they were a bit awkward to fit in the basket. But as she neared the register, it looked like someone else was talking to Seth.

“How many more signs are you putting up?” Seth was asking. She couldn’t see much about the man he was talking to, since his back was to her.

“Enough,” the guy grumbled, his voice closest to what Jo thought might be a baritone. She’d only taken chorus for a few years, but she thought baritone was somewhere in the middle range for guys. “Those hikers just go wherever they want this time of year. Can’t wait until tourist season’s over.”

Jo waited politely at the end of the aisle, pretending to study some local tourist brochures and maps. Probably looking exactly like the kind of person this guy didn’t seem to like.

She peeked over at him, able to see a bit of his side profile now as he turned to swipe a credit card. He looked somewhere about her age, maybe nineteen or twenty. His hair was short and a bronze-y brown color. He was tall, pretty tan as if he spent a lot of time outside, and, well, those muscles seemed to indicate he worked hard at something, that was for sure...

Jo snorted. Geez, it wasn’t like she’d come to this mountain town to hit on some locals.

The guy turned and looked at her. Jo froze, completely caught in the act of checking him out, but it was like she couldn’t look away from those piercing gray-colored eyes. Wait, were they gray? Brown? Forest green? Jo was mesmerized by the intensity of his gaze and the shifting colors. Why wasn’t he looking away either? Her pulse quickened and her muscles tensed, but finally Seth made a sound that seemed to release her from this guy’s hold. Jo quickly looked back at the maps with the intensity of a very type-A tourist, hoping that the guy wouldn’t notice the way her cheeks were suddenly reddening.

“A hiker who needs bolt cutters?” the guy asked, both amusement and a sharp questioning tone in his voice. Jo looked back at him and blinked in surprise--his hazel eyes were stern, almost as if he was warning her. It didn’t seem like he had looked away the way she had. Wait, was he accusing her of being up to some kind of underhanded activity?

“Jo just moved into the old Scott place,” Seth said, smiling at her. She was officially adding him to her count of nice locals, up there with Grace. This other guy...well, he might be the start of the not-so-nice list.

“I thought that place was abandoned,” the guy said, frowning over at her. He seemed oddly tense, like she was actually a threat or something. Little did he know.

“Obviously it’s not anymore. And it’s none of your business what I need,” she said to the nosy guy before returning Seth’s smile, though hers was a little more forced. She was still bristling from this man’s harsh stare, especially because she hadn’t been doing anything wrong. It wasn’t a crime to buy bolt cutters, the last time she had checked.

“No need to get prickly,” the guy said, leaning against the counter as Seth went through a stack of signs behind the desk, counting out more of them than anyone should’ve needed. All of them had some kind of ‘no trespassing’ warning on them. “You can’t blame me for thinking that a hiker shouldn’t have bolt cutters. What good would they get up to with those?” He was still studying her as if trying to determine how good of a bolt cutter mountain burglar she was.

“I’m not a hiker,” she said, still waiting for him to be done at the counter. “You make it sound like a professional occupation.” Her basket was starting to get heavy on her arm.

“Okay, okay,” he said, picking up his signs. “Sorry for bothering you, Jo who just moved to town and doesn’t hike.” His tone was both flippant and aggravating, and Jo made a face. It only seemed to amuse him, which annoyed her even more.

“Don’t mind Ryker,” Seth said as he gestured for the tall guy to move out of the way. “He’s just on his yearly tirade against the tourism industry.” He took her basket from her as she stepped closer, her shoulder turned toward the guy, Ryker. On top of being muscular, she noticed now that she was closer that he was obscenely tall. Like she was five foot five, and he was practically a foot taller than her.

“Doesn’t that bring money to town, people coming to visit?” she asked, tilting her head to look up at him. Sure, she guessed that tourists could be annoying, but wouldn’t they just pour money into the economy? That seemed to be how that worked. Ryker stared at her like she was an idiot, and she crossed her arms over her chest, glowering right back at him, ignoring the way her heart thumped from being so close to this giant man. “Am I missing something?”

“He’d just like them to stay on the marked trails,” Seth said, answering for him.

“Have fun with your bolt-cutters,” Ryker said, “And thanks, Seth.” He shot Jo one last look that seemed chastising, like she had done something wrong. Again, buying bolt cutters wasn’t a crime! He disappeared down the aisle, but it felt like he was still judging her as he left.

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