The Secret of Hunter’s Bog

TheSecretOfHuntersBog_400x600For 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.

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© Copyright 2016 Ally Blue

 

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.