The Secret of Hunter's Bog

Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-373-5
eBook release: 
Mar 7, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-374-2
Print release: 
Mar 7, 2016
Word count: 
55,300
Page count: 
212
Type: 
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For Koichi McNab, the shop he and his twin sister Kimmy are opening in Hunter’s Bog Mall is a fresh start after their old one burned down. A way to move on. Especially when he meets the hunky owner of the luxury camping goods store next door. Koichi’s never been an outdoorsy guy, but Will Hood just might change his mind.

Will came to Southern Alabama to establish his own life away from his big, intrusive family—and in hopes of finding Anthony, the lover who vanished two years ago. But meeting Koichi throws everything off-kilter. Anthony was a long time ago. Koichi’s right here, smart and funny and cute, and Will wants him.

As Koichi and Will become friends, then lovers, Will’s past and Koichi’s present tangle into a dangerous knot that brings them face-to-face with secrets, theft, treachery . . . maybe even murder. With their lives on the line, their only way to safety is together.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

“There it is, in all its dubious glory.” Koichi McNab surveyed the brand-new space where he and his twin sister, Kimmy, were getting ready to reopen the family business. The place was bland as custard, but it was four walls and a roof. A big display window, even, with the shop’s name already painted on it. He wrinkled his nose. “It’ll do, I guess.”

Kimmy waved one hand in a dismissive gesture. “Stop being such a grump. It’s fine.”

He cut her an oh, please look, which she ignored. They both knew the strip mall wasn’t an ideal spot for McNab’s Organic Home Goods. But it was newly built and clean, and the rent was cheap. Besides, after their old place in downtown Duchene had burned down, this was the only space available—unless they wanted to run their business out of Koichi’s house, or move the shop ten miles north to the next closest town, Bay Minette.

Koichi sidestepped away from thinking of the fire. He’d escaped by the skin of his teeth with nothing worse than a small burn on his arm, but the real scars were the invisible ones.

“Yeah. Fine.” Koichi patted the cowlick at the back of his head, where his hair always stuck straight up no matter how hard he tried to make it lie down. “Well, like Mama said, it’s a place, right? It’ll grow on me.” I seriously fucking hope.

Laughing, Kimmy hooked her delicate little hand through Koichi’s elbow. “She told you to quit bitching and be grateful we had the old building insured enough to replace our stock and rent this new place.”

Guilt stabbed Koichi in the gut, like it did pretty much all the time. The whole family kept telling him he had nothing to prove—that the fire was an accident, and no one blamed him—but he knew better. He saw how they all gave him the side eye when they thought he wasn’t looking.

“Right.” With a deep sigh, he peered into her upturned face. “Shall we, sister of mine?”

She tossed her long black ponytail over her narrow shoulder. “Oh, let’s.”

Together, as they’d been their whole lives, they sauntered into their new shop.

***

It took another couple of weeks to get everything in order for their opening. They were lucky. Lots of the tenants of the new Hunter’s Bog Mall took much longer to get ready, mostly because they were newbies. New to Alabama, particularly to the rapidly developing countryside north of Fairhope and south of Bay Minette.

“I don’t think any of these guys have the slightest idea how to run a business,” Koichi observed as he and Kimmy arranged homemade soaps, detergents, and other products on their locally sourced wooden shelves.

Kimmy shook her head. “I don’t know what makes you think so. I was talking with Margie Sullivan yesterday. You know, the lady who’s opening the nail salon? She’s got a solid business plan.”

“She’s an exception, then.” He placed the last bar of handmade goat’s milk soap on the display and stepped back to examine his work. “These people are way too excited to be in a stupid strip mall next to a swamp. We’re not gonna do as well here as we did in town.”

“You don’t know that. It’s not like we ever got anything other than local trade in downtown Duchene.” She studied the display of beeswax-and-honey lip balms beside the register and started rearranging them for at least the third time. “Hell, we might do better here. At least we’re on the main road. That means tourists, Chichi.”

He cast her a sharp look. Her face revealed nothing. He couldn’t tell if she was just trying to make him feel better about the fire or not. She’d done a lot of that ever since it had happened. Which was sweet and annoying at the same time.

In any case, she had a point. Anyone who visited the tiny town of Duchene had to do it on purpose, since it was off the beaten path. Hunter’s Bog Mall, on the other hand, sat on the main highway running along the Eastern Shore from the Gulf of Mexico all the way into the Alabama interior. Which meant the new mall had good business potential. Historically, the Gulf and the quaint little towns along Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore had always been the big draw for tourists and transplants alike. But lately people had started to discover the excellent kayaking and fishing available along Alabama’s southeastern rivers, which meant more tourist dollars in the Duchene area.

On the other hand, they’d had a steady stream of customers at their old shop; locals who’d been buying from their family store for decades, ever since Grammy McNab opened it fifty years ago. Koichi worried over how much trade they might lose with this forced move. Tourist dollars were great, but that money wasn’t as dependable as local business.

A soft thump startled him out of his thoughts. He turned in a circle, but saw nothing out of place. Frowning, he crossed the shop and stuck his head into the storeroom in the back. All the boxes still seemed to be where he and Kimmy had put them.

“Hey, Kimmy?” he called.

“Yeah?”

“Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“That thump. A few seconds ago.” Outside, beyond the open back door and the employee parking lot, Hunter’s Bog stretched out as far as he could see. The mist that shrouded the swamp every morning was gone, and the afternoon sun drenched the dreary place in a warm golden light. It was pretty in a sad, bedraggled sort of way. “I thought it came from in the shop, or maybe the storeroom, but I don’t see anything out of order.”

“It’s probably the ghost.”

He jumped at Kimmy’s voice right behind him. “Damn it, Kimmy.”

She cackled as he turned to glare at her. “I scared you, huh?”

“You wish.”

“I know.”

He sighed. “So, did you hear that thump?”

“Yeah.” She gave him a look suggesting he’d asked something unforgivably stupid. “I told you, it’s probably the ghost.” She brushed past him, went to the shelves along the wall, and picked up a box of sage bundles. “You do know the bog’s haunted, right?”

“I’ve heard the stories.” Who hadn’t? It was a local legend: countless hunters over the years had gone missing in Hunter’s Bog, and their restless spirits now haunted the twelve-plus square miles of stunted trees, tall reeds, and winding waterways beside which the developers had inexplicably decided to build a strip mall. “Even if I believed that, which you know I don’t, why would the swamp ghosts be making thumping noises in the building? That’s weird, even for a ghost.”

Kimmy switched paths without missing a beat. “Could be our new neighbor. He’s got a crap-load of heavy stuff over there.”

Well, that made more sense, anyway. Koichi followed his sister out of the storeroom and back into the shop. “I didn’t know that space was rented yet. What’s in there?”

“Hood’s Luxury Outdoor Expeditions & Supplies.”

He laughed. “Wow. That’s a mouthful.”

“I know, right?” She set the box of sage on the floor below her display of herbs and started unpacking. “He’s gonna be taking people glamping.”

Koichi had heard of the glamour camping trend, but he didn’t get it. You could dress up a tent however much you wanted, but it was still a tent. In his opinion, tents were for when civilization ended and all the hotels were gone.

He took several bundles of sage from the box and handed them to Kimmy to arrange on the display. “There’s enough weirdos out there that he’ll probably make a killing.” The thump came again, this time definitely from the other side of the wall they shared with the glamping place. It was followed by a squeak, like someone moving furniture. “There it goes again. I guess it’s not any ghost after all.”

“Guess not.” Kimmy gave him a sly glance as she moved herbs around, stacking some on the raised shelf and laying others on the counter below it. “You should go over there.”

“I don’t camp, sis.”

“Oh my God, don’t pretend to be stupid. Go say hello, okay? Be neighborly.” The loudest thump yet rattled Kimmy’s rack of essential oils. “Maybe help him move some of that shit before he knocks a hole in the wall.”

Koichi watched his sister with thirty-three years’ worth of well-earned suspicion. “What’re you up to?”

“Huh?” She glanced at him, all wide green eyes and false innocence. “Why would I be up to something?”

“Don’t give me that. We shared a womb.” He crossed his arms and stared at her while she draped a sparkly scarf over the metal frame at the back of the shelf. “Are you trying to set me up again?”

She tried to hide the quick flash of guilt in her eyes, but she wasn’t fast enough. He sighed. “Goddamn it, Kimmy.”

She threw both hands in the air. “I’m not trying to set you up, okay? I just think you ought to make more of an effort to meet people.” She stared at the floor, shoulders hunched. “We’ve had this place for weeks now. We’ve been over here several times. I’ve met almost all the other owners, but you haven’t talked to one single person.”

Shit. She was right. Not that it made him any more eager to go make friends. “I’m sorry I accused you, sis. And I know I haven’t been friendly or anything, but . . .” He sighed. “It’s hard for me. You know that.”

“I know.” She raised her head. Her eyes glittered with compassion and frustration. “Look, I totally get that you’re more of an introvert than me. That’s fine. And believe me, I know what a rough time you had growing up here. It wasn’t always easy for me either. But we’re not kids anymore. Sometimes you just gotta put yourself out there.”

Resentment flared through Koichi’s blood, dying out as fast as it rose. He couldn’t stay mad at Kimmy just because she didn’t understand what growing up gay in rural Alabama was like, or because she didn’t get that his adult experiences had shaped him every bit as much as his childhood had.

“Sis, I love you more than anyone else in the world. And I seriously appreciate you standing by me ever since . . .” He swallowed, his throat tight. He still had a hard time talking about it. “You know. The fire.”

Her expression softened. “Chichi—”

He cut her off before she could tell him any comforting lies. “You’re right, okay? I need to get out there more. But I need to do it in my own time. Can you understand that?”

“Yeah, of course.” Next door, something heavy hit the floor, followed by an eloquent stream of curses. “For now, could you please go help that poor guy with his stuff? I’m seriously afraid he’s gonna either break something, or hurt himself.”

Part of him resisted the idea of going. He vividly remembered the time he’d mustered the courage to speak to the friendly-looking boy at the desk next to his in ninth-grade algebra, only to be jumped by that boy and two of his friends on the way home from school that afternoon. He still had two crowns from the broken teeth.

On the other hand, the guy next door really did seem to be in danger of causing damage to either the building, his inventory, or his spine.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll go help out, for you, and for the integrity of this building.”

She grinned as if she knew all the things he thought but hadn’t said, which she probably did. “Thank you, Chichi.” Abandoning the herb display, she took his hands in hers and kissed his cheek. “You’re my favorite brother. Love you.”

He laughed. She used that line all the time, since he was the only boy out of the five siblings. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

“If you don’t come back, I’ll assume you’ve become ensnared by his masculine wiles.”

Christ almighty. “Bye, Kimmy.”

Leaving his sister to her herbs, he walked out into the April sunshine and stopped outside the smoked-glass door marked Hood’s Luxury Outdoor Expeditions & Supplies. Inside, a tall, broad-shouldered man in faded jeans and nothing else was lifting a long metal rack into place on the wall. The muscles in his arms and back stood out hard and firm. The only bit Koichi could see of his face was part of a jaw, but it seemed tight, as if his features were set in a grimace.

The rack was obviously too long for one person to hang alone. Once it was up, it would take up half of one wall. No wonder there’d been so much noise over here. It must’ve fallen more than once. Koichi felt bad for him, that he didn’t have anyone to help him.

Speaking of which, he also felt kind of bad for standing there ogling the guy instead of going in to offer him a hand, since that was why he’d come over in the first place. But hell, what sort of normal person could manage not to stare? That body was fucking gorgeous.

As if he’d heard Koichi drooling, the man turned his head and nearly dropped the rack again when his gaze caught Koichi’s. Embarrassed, Koichi waved through the window. “Need help?” he called.

Mister Hot Stuff blinked a couple of times like he was trying to clear his vision, then hollered back. “It’s unlocked. C’mon in.”

Here goes nothing. Putting on his friendliest smile, Koichi pushed the door open and went in.

On this side of the glass, his neighbor’s struggle with the heavy rack seemed a lot more urgent, his breathing heavy and a tremor running through his arms. Those beautifully muscular arms . . . Mmmmm . . .

Focus, Koichi.

He hurried over, took hold of the sagging end of the rack, and lifted it. “Hi. I’m Koichi McNab, from McNab’s Organic Home Goods next door.”

Hot Stuff grinned, brown eyes sparkling. “Will Hood. Good to meet you. Thanks for rescuing me.”

“No problem.” A drop of sweat trickled from Will’s armpit and ran down his side. Koichi ordered himself not to watch it meander south toward the jeans clinging to Will’s sharp hip bones. That way madness lay. “So. Uh. What’re we doing here?”

“I just need to get this stupid thing in the brackets. I can’t seem to get it by myself.”

“Okay. Say when.”

“On three.”

Will counted, and the two of them heaved the heavier-than-it-looked rack into place. Even working together, it was a tougher job than Koichi would’ve thought. They each had to push their end of the rack down into the tight brackets at the same time to keep one end or the other from sliding loose.

Once they were done, Koichi wiped sweat from his brow with the tail of his T-shirt. “Damn. No wonder you couldn’t do it by yourself. That thing’s a real bitch.”

“No kidding.” Will peered at him with those big, dark, long-lashed eyes and smiled. “Thanks, Koichi. I probably would’ve been here all day trying to get that done if you hadn’t come by to help.”

“My pleasure.” Koichi felt himself returning Will’s smile. He knew he looked goofy, because he always did when faced with a good-looking man. And damn, but Will Hood was seriously cute, with his little-boy grin and tousled brown hair falling into his ridiculously pretty eyes. “Is there anything else you need help with? As long as I’m here, I mean.”

I promise not to lick you. Or sniff your crotch. Koichi kept those things behind his teeth where they belonged. Though to be fair, he wasn’t sure if he was being polite, or if he simply didn’t want to make promises he wasn’t positive he could keep.

Biting his plump bottom lip in a most fetching way, Will cast a worried look at the wall he shared with McNab’s Organics. “You sure you don’t need to get back and help Kimmy?”

For half a second, Koichi was thrown for a loop. Then he remembered his sister had already been over here.

He put on an unconcerned expression and dismissed Kimmy with a wave of his hand. “Naw, she’s fine. I’ll just be in her way at this point.”

Which might even be true. She liked the displays a certain way, and had an annoying habit of rearranging arrangements he’d already arranged. Might as well let her do it the way she wanted from the get-go and save them both the aggravation.

Will’s smile returned, wider than before. “Well, if Kimmy’s okay with it.” He scratched his long fingers through his hair, making it even more perfectly ruffled. How in the hell did he do that? Did he just fall out of bed looking like a fucking model? Wow. “I have some more shelves to put up, and a glam tent to raise in the corner over there. I’d sure appreciate the help.”

“It’s settled, then. I’m all yours.” Koichi spread his arms wide, beaming, as if his skinny ass was some sort of prize.

“Fantastic. Thank you.” Will turned and marched his hot self into the back of the shop. “C’mon. We’ll grab the tent and get that set up first.”

Koichi swallowed. Hellfire and damnation, as Grammy would say.

He followed Will into the storeroom.

Chapter Two

Will watched Koichi on the sly while the two of them set up the tent. He couldn’t help it. Koichi was slim and graceful, with a lovely Cupid’s bow mouth, and the way his midnight-black hair stuck up in the back made Will’s heart thump for reasons he couldn’t explain. But it was his eyes that truly commanded attention: almond-shaped and green as spring leaves, with an intensity that pierced like needles and left Will feeling naked.

Discomfort squirmed in Will’s belly. He hadn’t come to Alabama looking for a man. Well, in point of fact, he had. But so far, that particular man had proven elusive. And he hadn’t seen Anthony in a couple of years, which put this whole adventure on shaky ground from the start.

What was wrong with looking at an attractive guy, anyway? He was only human. And Koichi was awfully cute.

“Will?”

Startled, he shook himself out of his thoughts. Not literally. He hoped. “Hmm? Yeah?”

Koichi’s lips curved into the half-sweet, half-devilish grin that had been screwing with Will’s head ever since his neighbor had walked through the door. “What do I do with this?” Koichi held up a curtain made of embroidered blue-gray silk, so large it hid him from view and puddled on the floor.

“Oh. That’s a tent divider.” Will lifted the heavy material from Koichi’s hands, accidentally-on-purpose letting their fingers brush together. An unmistakable heat flared in those brilliant green eyes for a second. Grinning, Will bent and picked up the bag of sturdy, rustproof metal rings from the floor. “C’mon. We’ll hang it up. It looks a lot nicer than one of those zip-up nylon walls.”

He got a husky laugh in answer. “I’ll bet.” Koichi followed him into the canvas tent, which was set up now but not yet furnished. “So. Glamping, huh?”

“Yep.” He sat on the floor and set the bag of curtain rings beside him. “You want to start on one end and I’ll start on the other? We’ll get done in half the time that way.”

“Sure.” Koichi plopped onto the floor beside him, watched him work for a moment, then started popping rings into place with near-perfect technique. “I’ve never been into camping, myself. If I’m away from home, I’d prefer a four-star hotel.”

Will laughed. “Spoiled.”

“You sound like my sister.”

“I like your sister.”

“You and the rest of the world.” Koichi cast him a coy glance from under his lashes. “She’s gonna be after you to take her camping. Just so you know. She loves camping.”

Will barely managed not to bounce in place like a moron. He could imagine having a wonderful time camping with Kimmy. “Hey, she can come with me anytime. I’d love that.”

Koichi wrinkled his nose. “Y’all have fun.”

Damn, he was cute. Will wanted to pounce on him and give him hickeys, but thatf might not go over so well. “I bet I could convert you. To glamping, I mean.”

Pfft, went Koichi. “Bet you can’t.”

“Is that a challenge?” Will had never been able to resist a challenge. Especially when it came to convincing skeptics of the joys of glamping.

Koichi tilted his head sideways, studying Will as if he couldn’t decide what to think of him. Which was probably true. “Depends. Are you up to that level of challenge?”

And thus, the gauntlet was thrown.

Will leveled his most intimidating stare at Mister Smart Mouth. “Oh, I’m up to it, McNab. I’ll pamper your four-star-hotel ass off. And you’ll like it.”

“You’re on, Hood.” Flashing that troublemaking grin again, Koichi held out his hand. “Shake on it.”

Will took Koichi’s hand in his, and they shook.

The shop door opened with a rush of traffic noise from outside. “Hello? Where’re y’all at?”

Kimmy. Will let go of Koichi’s hand and scrambled to his feet. “We’re in here. In the tent.”

He heard Kimmy snicker. “Okay, then.”

“Jesus Christ, sis, get your mind out of the gutter.” With a swift, apologetic glance at Will, Koichi stood and strode out into the shop. Will followed him.

Kimmy grinned at them both. “Sorry. But, I mean, c’mon. You can forgive me, right?”

“Um.” Will shuffled his feet, embarrassed.

Koichi gave his twin a playful shove. “Shut up. Listen, you’re gonna like this.” He shot a sidelong glance at Will. “Will’s gonna take us glamping.”

Kimmy’s mouth fell open. “Wait, what? You are voluntarily going camping?” She frowned up at the ceiling. “Did the world end and I didn’t notice?”

“Oh, ha-ha, you’re hilarious.” Koichi planted his hands on his hips. “He bet he could convert me to glamping. I bet he couldn’t. It’s that simple.”

“I’ll convert him,” Will said before Kimmy could answer. “By the time I’m done, he’ll be thanking me for introducing him to the best thing in the whole world.”

Koichi gazed up at him with a clear challenge in his eyes. “We’ll see.”

You’ll see. I’m right.” Will wiped off a dew of sweat from his upper lip. “So. Kimmy. D’you need any help next door?”

She beamed at him. “Such a gentleman. Thank you, sweetie, but I’m good. Everything’s pretty much done. I came over to see if you needed anything.”

There was still a good bit to do, but he hesitated to say so. Ever since leaving his family behind, he’d done his level best to stand on his own. The last thing he wanted to do now was take advantage of anyone and live down to his father’s opinion of him.

You’re a user, William. You won’t be able to get along without your family. You need us. You need me. You need my money, you weak little piece of—

Koichi’s voice jerked Will out of the unwelcome memory. “Hey, sis, would you mind too much going to get some dinner for us? I don’t know about y’all, but I skipped lunch, and I’m starving.” He clasped his hands together in supplication. “Please? We can all eat together, then finish up whatever work’s left in here.”

“Sure.” She glanced from Koichi to Will. “Is Burger Barn okay with everybody? I could seriously go for a bacon double cheese right now.”

Mmm. Cheeseburger. Will’s stomach rumbled, reminding him that the oatmeal he’d had for breakfast was long gone. “That works for me.”

“Me too.” Koichi patted his pockets. “Kimmy, I’m buying for everybody, so take whatever money you need out of my wallet. I think I left it in the desk. You know where I usually keep it.”

She nodded. “What d’you want?”

“Burger Barn Special with pepper jack and sweet potato fries. And an RC.”

Will’s mouth watered. “I’ll have the same, only make my drink a sweet tea.”

“Tea. Got it.” Kimmy pulled her phone from the back pocket of her jeans, swiped it on, and tapped in the information. “Okay. Be back soon.”

“Thank you,” Will called to her as she pushed open the door.

She saluted with her phone, then strode out of sight.

A charged silence settled in. Will cleared his throat. “Okay. Well. Guess we should finish hanging that tent divider before Kimmy gets back with the food.”

“I guess so.” Koichi stepped close, his head tilted back, his hands in his pockets and his gaze locked onto Will’s. “Gotta say, I’m glad I came over here. I think this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Will forced a laugh, in spite of the fist that closed over his heart. Casablanca was Anthony’s favorite film. “I agree completely.”

A strange expression came over Koichi’s face—serious, watchful, inquisitive. As if he’d noticed Will’s sudden sadness and wondered what it meant. Will held his breath. Don’t ask. Please don’t ask.

Either he was lucky or Koichi was psychic. He shook his head—shaking off his curiosity, Will thought—and smiled. “C’mon, Hood. Let’s get busy.”

***

By the time Kimmy got back with the burgers, Will and Koichi had the tent setup finished. The three of them sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor and ate, talking and laughing the whole time. Afterward, the twins insisted on hanging around to help Will finish setting up his various displays. He was grateful for more reasons than simply the work. Having them around drove away the pensive quiet, not to mention the loneliness that had dogged him ever since he left Houston.

No. Longer than that. Ever since Anthony had vanished more than two years ago. The rift his affair with Anthony had caused between him and his family had never healed. How could it? Growing up dyslexic, cripplingly shy, and homeschooled by a private tutor, he’d had no friends. All he’d had was his family. He’d thought they loved him unconditionally. They’d let him live at home while he earned his business degree from the University of Houston. Attending his dad’s alma mater, then going to work for him—helping with payroll on the ranch—had gone a long way toward gaining him the approval and affection he’d always craved from his stern, distant father.

For a little while, at least. Then he’d fallen in love with a stable worker named Anthony Ruiz, and was forcibly reminded that his family’s reputation mattered far more to them—especially to his father—than his happiness did.

Having people around who were there because they liked him was novel and fantastic. He didn’t want it to end.

Kimmy stepped back from a portable table that she’d decorated with his best flatware and a lovely tin lantern with cutout stars. “I like it. What d’you think, Will?”

“It’s gorgeous.” He looked around his shop. Everything was in place, something that would’ve taken him at least a couple of days on his own. “It’s all gorgeous. I never could’ve done this without you two. Thank you so, so much.”

Smiling, Kimmy ran over, rose on her tiptoes, and kissed his cheek. “We were glad to do it, honey.”

Koichi slapped him on the back. “Don’t worry. We’ll take our payment in tent-based servitude.”

A whole series of decidedly impure images sashayed across Will’s vision. He shoved them away, because, damn it, now was not the time. “I’m already looking forward to it.”

“When are we going?” Kimmy peered up at him with an eager sparkle in her eyes. “Sorry, I don’t mean to rush you or anything. It’s just, I’m super excited. I’ve never been glamping before.”

“Hmm.” Will considered. “How about tomorrow night? The weather’s supposed to be nice. And now that the shop’s all set up, thanks to the two of you, I actually have the time to do it before the big opening on Friday.” He glanced from Kimmy to her brother and back again. “What about it? Does that work for y’all?”

“Sounds good to me.” Koichi raised his eyebrows at Kimmy. “What about it, sis?”

“Perfect. We don’t open ’til Friday either.” She squealed, grabbed Will’s hands, and bounced on her toes. “Yay! This is gonna be so much fun!”

He laughed. “I’m going to make sure y’all have the time of your lives.”

Koichi hmphed, but a smile curled his lips and crinkled the corners of his eyes. “We’ll see, my friend. We’ll see.” He grabbed his sister by the shoulders. “Let the man go, Kimmy. We need to lock up and get going. You promised Mama you’d stop by before you went home, remember?”

“Oh shit, I did, didn’t I?” She dropped Will’s hands and let her head fall backward with a heartfelt groan. “Okay, well, no point in putting it off. Will, gimme your phone, I’ll put my number in. You can call me in the morning and tell me what time we need to be here.”

“Okay.” He fished his phone out of his pocket and handed it to her, and took hers when she shoved it at him. He thumbed on her phone, found the contacts, and started entering his information. “When should I call you?”

“Anytime. I’m usually up by six.” She finished typing and glanced at Koichi, who was watching the two of them with transparent amusement. “I’ll call Chichi later. He never gets up ’til like nine.”

Will snickered as they traded phones again. “‘Chichi’? Seriously?”

Koichi aimed a fierce frown at him. “Hey, it’s silly, but it’s not that bad.”

They didn’t know. That made it even funnier. Will laughed out loud.

The twins exchanged a what the fuck look, which made Will laugh harder, in spite of how stupid he was starting to feel.

“Wait, time-out.” Koichi stepped in front of Will and stared up at him with a stubborn determination that he found dead sexy. “Explain why that’s so funny.”

Will grinned. “‘Chichi’ is Mexican slang for . . .” He stopped, remembering that he’d literally just met the twins today. Would they be offended? They didn’t seem like the type. Especially Kimmy. But you never could tell. “Uh. You know.” He held his hands cupped in front of his chest. “Bosoms. Only the T word.”

The twins gaped at him. He had about half a second to notice for the first time how much they really did look alike. Then Koichi shook his head and turned away with a resigned sigh while Kimmy busted out laughing.

“You realize,” Koichi said, raising his voice over his sister’s guffaws, “that she’s going to use this against me.”

Will scratched his head. “Um . . .”

“Titty McNab! Oh my God.” Kimmy wiped tears from her face. “Yeah, this is now a thing. Get used to it.”

Koichi glared. Will hunched his shoulders. “Sorry?”

The death glare eased into something softer. Warmer.

Koichi covered his face with both hands. “Christ almighty. The two of you are a pain in my ass.” He dropped his hands. A smile was fighting its way through the irritation. “All right. This subject is dead. See you tomorrow, Will.”

He nodded. “Looking forward to it.”

Kimmy reached up to wrap her arms around his neck and hugged him. “Talk to you then, honey. Night.”

“Good night. And thank you both for everything.”

They left in a flurry of good-nights and see-you-laters. He waited until they were out of sight, then went into the office to fetch his toothbrush and soap.

A few minutes later, face washed and teeth brushed, he flipped off the lights and stood at the back door watching the sun set over Hunter’s Bog. Ever since arriving here a couple of weeks ago, he’d loved the serene, disheveled beauty of the marsh. It called him to explore—to take a canoe, or tramp off on foot, and search out the secrets of the crooked creeks, the moss-hung trees, the beds of reeds that whistled in the wind like lonely spirits. In the orange light of the sinking sun, the trees became black statues springing from rivers of fire.

In all his life, Will had never seen anything more stunning, or more mysterious.

He wondered if there was enough dry land in there for a decent campsite. The wheels in his brain started turning because he’d been born and raised as a businessman, and that was part of who he was. There had to be plenty of clients who’d pay for a luxury camping expedition into the bog. Especially the more well-off clients. If there was one thing he knew for a fact about people with too much money, it was that they were always on the lookout for the next exciting thing to relieve the boredom of their lives. Swamp glamping wasn’t exactly on a par with exploring the Amazon, but it was different enough to appeal to the rich and adventurous.

He was still standing there mentally developing the idea when a swift movement in the marsh caught his eye. Frowning, he pressed his forehead to the window and cupped his hands around his eyes. Maybe he’d just seen a bird, or a squirrel. Even a deer. Animals were everywhere out there.

He’d almost convinced himself he’d imagined it when it happened again—a shadow, gray in the deepening dusk, flitting quick as thought from tree to tree. It had no discernible form, even when he squinted to see better.

A hard chill ran up Will’s spine. He ignored it, flung open the door, and marched across the parking lot to the edge of the swamp.

The mid-April evening was warm and humid. A sluggish breeze flowed from the west in tired fits and starts, bringing with it the wet, earthy smell of the marsh. The crickets and bullfrogs and night birds he’d grown used to were strangely silent.

Try as he might, he couldn’t see the shadow anymore. But he couldn’t shake the sense of something watching.

He stood barefoot in the overgrown grass at the edge of the parking lot, peering into the growing dark, until the neck-prickling feel of unfriendly eyes on him eased and the familiar sounds of a Southern night returned. Finally, when full dark had fallen and the streetlamp at the end of the parking lot came on, he turned and went back inside.

He washed his feet before entering the display tent. Keeping it clean was important, since it had to double as his makeshift living space and a selling point for his business.

Gotta find a damn place to live.

That would have to wait until he’d made some actual money on this venture. With a deep sigh, he turned on the battery-powered lamp he’d bought at a yard sale, stretched out on the lounge chair with his book, and settled in to read.

from Crystals Many Reviewers

Wonderfully written, complex characters surprises all throughout.

from RT Book Reviews

[A] thrilling tale of love in unlikely places.

from Publishers Weekly

[A] light and playful romance.

from That's What I'm Talking About

The Secret of Hunter’s Bog is a well-written, enjoyable story that was a lot of fun to read.