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The last thing Johanna Macpherson expected to encounter on the winding Kentucky mountain road was a gussied-up flat-lander.
Leaning forward, she pressed her bosom to the steering wheel and slowed the pickup for a better look-see at the stranger running like a skinned cat from her neighbor's pack of coonhounds. Suit tails flapping in the wind and tie ringing his neck, the "cat" was losing ground fast. Served the man right if the pack treed him.
She'd been taught from a young age not to trust flatlanders—anyone not born on the mountain. She'd never understood the clan's suspicion of strangers—until she'd attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington and discovered that people weren't always what they appeared to be.
Some lessons had to be learned the hard way.
As she pulled the pickup even with the stranger, she noticed his face was redder than a prize-winning tomato and his cheeks puffed like a steam locomotive. The poor idiot was plumb tuckered. After retrieving the shotgun from under the bench seat, she pointed the barrel out the passenger window, then blasted the truck horn.
The stranger glanced at her. His eyes widened until only the whites were visible and then he dived into the mess of baby cattails growing in the ditch. Good grief. Did he expect her to shoot him? Jo aimed the gun skyward and fired. The hounds scattered—except Beauregard. She steered the truck to the side of the road.
Weapon in hand, she traipsed back to where the stranger had taken cover. If it was possible to lick a human to death, then Beauregard had accomplished the feat. All one hundred pounds of beagle-foxhound mix rested on the man's chest, while hislong, pink tongue laved the stranger from neck to hairline. The flatlander played possum—attempted to, anyway—but the fool forgot to hold his breath.
Amused, Jo propped the shotgun on her hip and tugged the brim of her floppy felt hat lower to shield her eyes from the midafternoon sun. The man's face was lean and angular, in contrast to his large mouth. Thick brows, several shades darker than his tussled wheat-colored hair, slashed across his forehead. Not a handsome face, but an interesting one, nonetheless. Jo stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled. Beau's ears perked and he sprang from his perch, eliciting a loud oomph! from the possum.
"Go!" She pointed to the woods, and Beau bounded up the hill. Leveling the rifle at the trespasser's heart, she asked, "How long you planning to lie there like a carcass?"
One eye—brown in color—cracked open. "Depends." "On what?" "On whether there's any shot left in that gun." "I got shot left, mister." "You going to use it on me?" "Depends." "On…" "What business you have in our hollow." "Your hollow?" Grunting, the interloper rolled to his knees and hauled himself to his feet. Tall, he towered over Jo's five feet six inches.
Not until he cleared his throat did she realize she'd been caught checking him out. Well, phooey. She hadn't come in contact with a man this… Okay, he was sort of attractive. Never mind. "This side of the mountain is private property."
Eyes narrowed on the gun, he inquired, "You any good with that thing?"
Jo aimed at the woods, took a bead on her target, then fired. A pinecone exploded from the branch of a tree.
The flatlander swallowed hard. "My car ran out of gas. I was returning to town—" he motioned behind her "—until the dogs showed up out of nowhere. Then I switched directions." He pointed over his shoulder. "My car's parked around the bend."
"I've got a gas can in the truck. Meet you there." Without affording him an opportunity to respond, she hopped into the pickup and sped off. She glanced in the rear-view mirror and grinned at the trespasser's whopper-jawed gape.
Did he expect her to give a stranger a lift? As soon as she rounded the curve in the road, she spotted the car. A red Corvette. Typical hoity-toity flatlander vehicle—useless. She parked behind the sports car, hopped out of the truck and grabbed the gas can. Ten seconds later she swore under her breath. The blasted gas-tank door was locked. So much for her plan to be gone by the time the owner caught up.
She considered leaving the fuel and driving off, but there was something wily about the stranger that kept her feet planted. At least, that was what she told herself rather than admit she wouldn't mind another gander at the man who'd made her heart go thumpity-bump.
A few minutes passed and he came into view, his face scrunched. Squashing her lips together to keep from smiling at his annoyed expression, she stuck her arm through the truck window and placed her hand on the shotgun—a person couldn't be too careful these days.
"Thanks for the lift," he spat, then removed his keys from his pants pocket, directed the fob at the car and bleeped open the gas door. Ignoring her, he set to filling the tank.
"What brings you up here?" she asked.
Okay, maybe she wasn't Ms. Ambassador for the Appalachian Mountains Tourist Bureau, but she'd loaned him her gas can. "If you'd state your business, I might be of help."
His chest expanded with a deep breath, which he held for more than the count of three, before he released the air in a noisy burst. With purposeful movements, he capped the can, shut the tank door and faced her, his mouth twisting in a cynical grimace. Just like a city slicker, showing emotion in front of a stranger. "Heather's Hollow."
Fortunately for Jo she had practice concealing her emotions from people she didn't trust. After that slip, the stranger was definitely in the don't-trust category.
"I stopped at the post office in Finnegan's Stand. The clerk wasn't much help. Nodded to the mountain and mumbled, 'Up there.'" The man stowed the empty gas container in the truck bed. "I've been driving in circles for the past hour and a half. You're the first person I've run across on this road."
Not a surprise. Folks tended to remain at home with their families on Sunday afternoons. Seeing how it was a warm endof-April day, she suspected several of the clan's men had headed for the banks of the Black River to tickle trout.
The stranger stopped before her and Jo swore she caught the scent of cologne—a musky, warm smell that made her want to stand on tiptoe and sniff his neck. He dug his wallet from his pants pocket and held out two twenty-dollar bills. When she didn't accept the cash, he added, "For the gas—" he ran his gaze up and down her tattered overalls "—and whatever else."
First he'd trespassed on her mountain. Second he'd insulted her with an offer of money for lending a helping hand. And third he could have pretended not to notice her ragged work clothes. Johanna Macpherson, since when have you cared what a man thinks of your appearance?
"And—" he wiggled the bills under her nose "—for scaring off the dogs."
Accepting a stranger's cash didn't sit right with Jo. But if taking the payment sent the man on his way… She removed one bill from his fingers. "The dog-scaring was complimentary."
He smirked, showing off big white teeth and a hint of a dimple.
Forcing her gaze from the sexy little pit in his right cheek, she asked, "What do you want with Heather's Hollow?"
"Sullivan Mooreland from Seattle." He held out a hand.
"I'm a reporter for the Seattle Courier newspaper." When Jo ignored his hand, he shoved his fingers through his mussed hair, sending bits of dry grass and weeds floating into the air. "I'm covering a story for the paper."
Six years ago, Jo had been betrayed in the worst way, producing a heightened sense of suspicion when it came to strangers. "What kind of story?"
His eyes flooded with indecision, changing the color to dark chocolate. Fascinating. She wondered if Sullivan Mooreland realized the brown orbs broadcast his emotions. He glanced up the road. Then down the road. Then into the ditch alongside the road. Finally determining that they were alone, he whispered, "Lightning Jack. I intend to interview the famous bootlegger."
Stomach churning like flash-flood waters, she asked, "And you believe you'll find him here?" "My research claims Lightning Jack is a member of the Scotch-Irish clan that lives in Heather's Hollow. I intend to question his relatives and neighbors regarding his activities and whereabouts."
Panic escalated inside her. "Your sources are wrong, mister." She didn't need a big-city reporter sniffing for information on the local legend. Corralling her jumbled nerves, she fibbed, "Last I heard, Lightning Jack lives on the other side of the tunnel."
"Cumberland Gap Tunnel." Jo remembered her grandfather praising the construction of the tunnel that carries U.S. 25E under the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park near the intersection of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. He'd claimed the original trail through the Cumberland Gap belonged to the clans whose ancestors had settled the area, and not to tourists and hippie hikers.
"What's on the other side of the tunnel?" the reporter asked.
"None of my research suggested that the bootlegger might be found in Tennessee."
Jo quirked an eyebrow. "Last I heard he moved down there because people kept pestering him."
"Then I'd guess he's living under a false name."
"Right," he interrupted. "Last you heard. Once I clear the tunnel, what direction do I head?"
"Thirty-two south until you cross the Clinch River." And to irritate the man further, she added, "Last I heard he's hunkered down somewhere along the riverbank."
The flatlander's narrow-eyed stare accused her of being a dog-faced liar, which she was. Still, she took exception. By the time he searched the fourteen-mile stretch of woods hugging the river, he'd be too exhausted to care about finding his story.
"All right." He straightened his shoulders. "Since you're the only person who's offered me the time of day, I'll have to accept your word that Lightning Jack isn't here."
What did the stranger expect when he'd driven a hotrod sports car into a small mountain holler? The clanpeople didn't take kindly to outsiders snooping in their backyard. They were a proud, independent group who watched after their own and out of necessity harbored a deep mistrust of strangers.
"I'm on my way to town. I'll follow you," Jo announced. He hesitated, his frustration burning into her. Did he honestly believe she'd leave him unsupervised? She cranked the truck engine and waited for the road-weary fool to get into his Corvette.
During the drive down the winding mountain road, the reporter checked his rearview mirror several times, and Jo suspected he hoped she'd turn off before they reached Finnegan's Stand. She had to give the guy credit. Unlike her boyfriend in college, who'd treated her with a false sweetness, the outsider didn't hesitate to show displeasure with her. She admired his honesty—and his interesting face. Too bad he was a city slicker. The Corvette stopped at the one-lane wooden bridge extending across Periwinkle Creek.
Was he reconsidering? Maybe a nudge… Her truck crept up to within an inch of his car's bumper before she punched the brake. What had gotten into her? If the pickup so much as nicked the fender of the sports car, he'd contact the state patrol and file a report with his insurance company.
A vehicle approached on the other side of the bridge—Tom Kavenagh, the clan blacksmith. Tom waved the stranger through, leaving the reporter no choice but to continue. When the Corvette exited the other side, Jo put the truck in Reverse and signaled for Tom to cross first.
The blacksmith stopped alongside her. "Trouble, Jo?" "Nope. Trouble's leaving."
"I'M THIRTY-EIGHT-YEARS OLD. What the hell am I doing schlepping through the Appalachian Mountains, searching for an old-timer who's probably developed some sort of dementia and believes he's Daniel Boone now," Sullivan muttered as the town—rather, map dot—of Finnegan's Stand disappeared in the rearview mirror.
Finnegan's Stand. Crazy name. Sounded like a vegetable lean-to on a rural road. Eight hundred twenty-seven residents and seven businesses—a bank, hardware store, beauty shop, post office, café, grocery mart, gas station and a church with a white steeple rising above the tops of poplar, oak and ash trees. The entire Stand could fit into one city block of downtown Seattle, with room left over for a parking garage.
Stomach churning, Sullivan decided he should have bought a burger at Scooter's Café after he'd filled his tank. His last meal had been earlier in the morning—a burrito from a convenience store in western Kentucky. He suspected nerves and not indigestion were the cause of his gastrointestinal discomfort—and a certain stubborn, know-it-all, smart-mouthed redhead. Never before had Sullivan retreated from following a lead on a story. Why had he allowed the mulish woman to intimidate him? Because she could shoot a pine-cone out of a tree at a hundred yards.
Three days ago, his editor had announced his retirement. Sullivan had assumed he was next in line for the promotion, then discovered the newspaper's editor in chief, Howard Baker, planned to interview an outsider for the position.
Angered that his years of dedication and sacrifice had been overlooked, Sullivan had resolved to take matters into his own hands. He was certain winning the MontereyAward for best feature story of the year would gain Howard's attention.After hours of rummaging through his idea files, Sullivan had stumbled across an old FBI report of Lightning Jack's moonshine activity in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. The article identified the bootlegger as a descendant of the Scotch-Irish clan that had settled near Finnegan's Stand in the early 1700s.
Sullivan had asked Ed, his coworker, to join him in the search for the notorious criminal, but Ed had declined the invitation, choosing family over career. Sullivan didn't understand. What did it matter that the man's wife was pregnant and due any day—with their fourth kid? Sullivan would have expected the whole labor-and-delivery experience to grow old after the first time, but what did he know? He wasn't a father, nor did he intend to be one.