The burst of crisp air lifted the hairs on the nape of Bridget’s neck. She glanced toward the opening door as the bell above it chimed, and smiled out of habit. She froze her muscles in place as an old schoolmate who used to tease her walked in. “Hey, Julie. What brings you in today?” She knit her fingers together to keep from fidgeting.
Julie beelined her way. “Bridget! I’m glad it’s you here today. Not that your gran isn’t lovely, it’s just that I’m hoping you can help me. You did assist me that one other time.”
As if she could forget Julie wanting a love potion from her. She fought the urge to roll her eyes. Instead, Bridget tucked her dark curls behind one ear. “Of course, what do you need?”
Julie leaned in closer and glanced around furtively, despite no other customers being present. “Something for nausea,” she whispered and touched a palm to her abdomen. “Because…you know.”
She sucked in a surprised breath and widened her eyes. “You’re pregnant?” Bridget kept her voice soft and cut her eyes over to the door for a split second.
Nodding, Julie beamed. “It’s still early and we’re going to wait to tell anyone, but the morning sickness is killing me.” Her diamond ring glinted in the light as she brushed her bangs to the side. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks since I found out. I thought since you had something for attracting Ben, then you might have something now?”
Uncomfortable warmth smoldered in Bridget’s chest. “No, no. The lotion I gave you wasn’t for attraction. It was for confidence. Lavender for relaxation, ylang-ylang to boost romantic thoughts and rosehips for feminine allure. All combined to give confidence in yourself. A natural inner glow is what attracts someone, not the lotion you put on. Soft skin and smelling good boosts self-assurance. Nothing more.” She spun and stepped to the back wall with Julie trailing along.
“Whatever you say.” Julie laughed and waved a hand. “All that matters is that you have something to solve my morning sickness problem.”
Bridget snagged a tub from the third shelf in front of her then led the way to the left wall and picked up a tin. “Here you go.” She held both out. “Lotion to put on pressure points when you’re feeling nauseated. Rub it into those spots, and the massage plus the scent should help lessen it.”
Julie examined the containers as Bridget continued talking.
“Tea to help keep things at bay. Ginger and lemongrass, plus caffeine-free.” They crossed the well-loved dark wood floor over to the ornately carved mahogany counter with an heirloom cash register prominently displayed on it. Beside it rested a small white tablet and credit card reader. An assortment of colored leaves and tiny pumpkins dotted the length of the desk.
As Bridget rang up the items, she flashed a quick smile. “Hopefully these will ease your tummy troubles, but obviously I can’t give any guarantees.” She shrugged and opened her mouth to apologize, but Julie interrupted.
“Okay, whatever you say. I’ll try anything at this point and even if it’s just a little relief, I’ll take it!” She tapped her card and grabbed the gold-embossed navy paper bag with her goods. “Thank you so much. I knew you’d have what I needed.” She stepped back and arched one brow with a colder smile. “You’re so magical.” Julie turned back and headed out. “After all, you are the town witch!” Julie’s laugh vibrated after her exit.
Bridget wanted to protest, but in the pit of her stomach, an icy void opened for a shaky moment. As Julie walked out of view, Bridget wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and swallowed hard. “Not a witch. Not magical. I just sell herbal stuff. That’s it.”
Ugh, when would the people of this town learn? They never seemed to mind when they needed her products but wouldn’t associate with her outside of the shop. To make herself feel less isolated, she shot off a quick text to her cousin, Becca, to see about grabbing dinner together this week.
Then she shook off her mutterings and anxiety, instead focusing on closing up the shop for the night. A quick sweeping of the floors, restocking gaps on the shelves and closing out the register and Bridget deemed herself ready to head home.
She poked her head out a side door and called up the stairs. “Gran, I’m heading home.”
A lined face peeped into the hall. “Night, Bridgie! I’ll open up in the morning and see you around midday.”
Bridget furrowed her brow. “You sure? I don’t mind coming in.”
Gran waved her off. “Enjoy your morning. It’s not as if I haven’t been running this store for almost my entire life.”
With a sigh, Bridget relented. There was no arguing when Gran made a decision. Like moving out of their little house together to live above the shop. Apparently, Gran wanted to live out her remaining years without a granddaughter “cramping her style” in case she had any “gentlemen callers.” While Bridget couldn’t fault her grandmother for wanting a bit of independence after raising two granddaughters, she still felt the sting. And the loneliness of the empty house.
“All right, Gran. I’ll bring lunch then. Good night!”
After locking the front door, Bridget tucked her hand into the pockets of her hunter-green peacoat and walked up the block to the Harvest Street parking garage. The brisk fall wind lifted the heavy mass of long, dark curls from her shoulders. Tension released from her muscles as each step took her from Three Sisters Apothecary. She lifted her face to the evening sunlight, enjoying the warmth. Today had gone well. Sales were decent, the autumn decorations added a fresh breath of vibrancy and the customers were friendly…ish.
A beep from her phone revealed a response from Becca, suggesting Tuesday for dinner at her house. Happiness filled her chest as she smiled and sent back a message agreeing.
With September ushering in the pumpkin patches opening for the season and the leaves starting to turn, more and more tourists were trickling in. The upcoming annual harvest festival in two months would keep those numbers climbing. A grateful breath left her as a red truck rumbled down the road. She glanced at the brown-haired, bearded man inside the cab as he passed, but didn’t recognize him. Maybe another tourist? New lumberjack in town for seasonal work?
A mother and child walked in her direction about half a block from her. Without thinking, Bridget lifted the corners of her mouth in greeting, but the woman took one look at her and jerked to halt. Then she tugged her child’s hand and they scurried to the other side of the road.
The wind carried the child’s voice. “Mommy, is that the witch?”
The woman rushed to quiet her son, but it was too late. Bridget’s brief moment of confidence and contentment fizzled and died within her. She pulled the collar of her jacket tighter and tucked her chin into the fabric. Eyes down, she double-timed her steps to get to her car and get home. Alone.
* * * *
Jack scratched at his beard, still adjusting to having hair on his face, as he drove down the main road in Fallbank. What was he doing in the middle-of-nowhere Oregon again? Oh yeah, investigating whether this local logging company would be the next great acquisition for Thompson Incorporated. He tightened his fingers on the wheel of the red pick-up truck he’d purchased used as part of his “undercover boss” scheme. His grandfather’s scheme. The one designed to “help find his path in life.” Being groomed to take over the family business didn’t count.
“I guess an MBA and landing all those deals for our current companies over the last five years isn’t enough,” he grumbled as he drove through the quaint downtown. All of the shops had fall-themed window displays and the sidewalks were lined with wooden flower boxes overflowing with chrysanthemums of all colors, with large pumpkins nestled between them. A massive sign stretched across two light poles advertising the “Forty-Third Annual Fallbank Fall Festival” on Halloween this year. Was that what counted as excitement around here? He shook his head. Well, at least this town wasn’t completely devoid of any form of entertainment.
Jack had to admit a quieter pace for a few months would be a nice change from the high intensity of the office and hustle of Seattle. A way to reset the nagging sense of restlessness, of life slipping by with only shallow platitudes to show for it. Sure, money could buy a lot, but there was something missing from his life that Jack couldn’t name.
The vehicle passed a woman in a dark green coat, then a mother and child duo. The kid waved as he drove by and Jack raised a hand in return. Maybe that was what was missing. Companionship. A relationship with a woman who didn’t want him for his money and gilded last name, but for him as a person. As a partner in life. Not that he was going to find that here. He snorted. Nope, he was here to learn the logging business firsthand and see how it fit within the massive holdings of the family business.
Two lefts and one right turn later and his phone had successfully navigated him to the office of Timber Logging Company. Jack hopped out of his truck and walked in. A tall, lanky guy with glasses met him.
“Hey, I’m Cornelius. You must be Jack?”
Shaking his offered hand, Jack nodded. “That’s me. Nice to meet you. Sorry I’m late, traffic getting out of Seattle was even more ridiculous than I expected.”
Cornelius laughed. “Well, that’s one thing you won’t have to worry about here. So, you’re the new hire, huh? Ever done logging before?”
Heat crept into his cheeks and Jack found himself grateful for his newly grown beard. “Uh, not really. I’ve worked construction, though. I’m hoping that will give me something to go off. I’m a quick learner.”
Cornelius lifted his eyebrows but didn’t show any other surprise. “We’ll do our best to keep you alive as long as you do the same for the rest of us.”
“I can agree to that.” He glanced around at the dated office interior. Linoleum flooring, faux-wood paneling, plain drop ceiling and well-used furniture. No wonder his father was eager about this deal. The business clearly needed an infusion of funds. Except the offices would shift up to Seattle once bought and they would bring their own teams to do the logging. As he looked back at Cornelius, a small stab of guilt hit him in the gut. Jack shook it off. This was business, not personal.
“You have a place to stay, Jack? Need anything to get you settled?” Cornelius nudged his glasses up his nose.
Jack cleared his throat. “I’m staying at the local hotel while I find a place to rent. I’ve got a couple of leads to check out. I think I’ll be set by the weekend.”
“Good, good. Let me know if you need any leads or want suggestions for things to do around town. This time of year, the tourist traffic picks up because of the crisp weather and fall celebrations happening in the surrounding area. There’s got to be at least two each weekend within a fifty-mile radius. And of course, we have our own at the end of October.” He grinned wide. “Fallbank is famous for our festival and lumberjack competition. Some great competitive games we’ve hosted. The festival boasts the largest turnout in the state for the last ten years since TLC sponsors it in conjunction with the fair.” Cornelius waggled his brows. “The ladies love it.”
Jack laughed with him and shook his head. “That’ll be a sight to see. Who knows, maybe I’ll have learned enough to enter a beginners’ tournament. Although I’m not on the relationship market at the moment.”
Cornelius hummed with a nod. “You have a girlfriend back in Seattle?”
“Nah, just taking a break after the last one.” A year-long break, but who was counting?
“I hear you. I must admit, the fawning is nice. A little ego boost is never a bad thing.”
“Right. Well, what time should I show up tomorrow? And where?”
Cornelius ran a hand through his sandy-blond hair. “I’d say around eight o’clock and you can meet me here. We usually ride up in teams with the equipment trucks.”
“Sounds good.” Jack nodded once more. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Back in town, Jack checked into the larger of the two hotels offered in Fallbank and crashed out on the bed. The hard mattress had him rethinking if he should have stayed at one of the multitudes of B&Bs around the area instead. He shook the thought off. He had several rentals to check out in the next two days so he could suck it up until he found a more permanent option. With that in mind, Jack set an alarm on his phone and closed his eyes. Travel weariness settled in his bones and in no time, he was out.