To AshRB (aka my dear santee who has been so very patient with me),

I know this isn't exactly what you asked for, but I hope you get some enjoyment out of it anyway. Merry belated Christmas and Happy not belated New Year! :)


"A-hem… the library is closing for the day, miss."

Claire snapped her book shut and grinned up at the librarian standing above her, her arms crossed and her toe tapping in mock impatience.

"Sorry, Mary," she whispered, a blush spreading across her freckled cheeks. "I just get so absorbed in this story every time I read it. It's like the characters are coming to life before my eyes!"

Mary smiled as she took the book from her friend's hands and inspected the worn cover. "Jane Eyre," she said approvingly. "This was one of my favorites when I was a little girl. Father used to read it to me before bed. He stopped when I started having nightmares, though." She shuddered. "That whole part with the deranged wife was just too creepy."

Claire laughed as she held a hand out for Mary to help her up. "Yeah, that is pretty freaky. Although I have to admit it's probably my favorite part. It's what makes the story so exciting!" She sighed wistfully as Mary walked her to the door. "Sometimes I think our own town could use a little excitement like that…"

Now it was Mary's turn to laugh. "Well, if you discover someone hiding a lunatic in their house, promise me I'll be the first person you tell," she joked, handing the book back to Claire. She smiled as her friend cradled it to her chest like Gollum with his precious ring. "In fact, you can keep this copy for yourself. It's one of our older ones, and I'm pretty sure we have at least six others."

Claire's eyes sparkled like newly fallen snowflakes. "Really, Mare? You're the sweetest! Thank you so much!"

She wrapped her arms around Mary's neck and planted a kiss on her cheek before bidding her farewell.

Mary lingered in the doorway as she watched her go, one hand resting on her cheek. Claire's enthusiasm could be a little… overwhelming at times, but it was one of the things she loved most about her.

Unfortunately, most of the other Mineral Townspeople didn't share her fond view of the blonde farmer who had moved here with her father a little over a year ago. She cringed as she remembered the conversation she had overheard earlier that day between Sasha, Manna, and her own mother Anna, the infamous village gossips.

"Did you see what she was wearing the other day? That sweater was downright hideous!"

"Yes, but at least she wasn't wearing overalls with it. I swear, you would think a girl with such a pretty face would give a little more thought to her appearance!"

"It's a shame, really. She could easily snatch up any of the fine young men in our village if she didn't spend all her time with her nose buried in a book. I heard from that handsome traveler Rock- you know, the one who's staying in the Inn? You should hear the things I've heard about him–anyway, I heard that he's taken a fancy to her, but she won't even bat an eyelash in his direction! Poor boy…"

"Ah yes, I heard that too! Now don't get me wrong, she's a very nice young lady and I truly appreciate the friend she's been to my Mary (and I especially appreciate the business she's given to her library), but she's just so… so…"

"Weird? Odd? Eccentric? Strange? A bit off her rocker like her old man?"

"Now, Manna!"

The three women broke into a chorus of titters and Mary scurried away, her face hidden in a book and her face burning with anger. She hated the way everyone in town talked about Claire like she was a foreign species instead of a girl who didn't care much for fashion or boys and happened to like books more than people.

And to be honest, Mary couldn't really blame her.

"Papa, I'm home! …Papa?"

Claire frowned as she peered into the shadows surrounding the doorframe, fumbling for the box of matches she kept in her coat pocket. Her father didn't believe in the use of electricity except in the direst of situations, which made for very dark and very cold winters in their little cottage nestled in the woods outside of Mineral Town. Claire didn't really mind anymore- she had grown accustomed to wearing three layers of clothing.

What she wasn't used to was her father not being home so late. Had he gone away on a business trip again and forgotten to tell her?

Claire sighed, ran her hands through her damp hair, and pulled her blue and white striped scarf more tightly around her neck. She knew she wouldn't stop worrying about her father if she just sat at home and waited for him, so she might as well start looking.

Hopefully he didn't fall into a lake again like last time, she thought with a sharp twinge of panic as she braced herself against the snow that was coming down in furious sheets. In this weather he'll freeze to death before he can even yell for help!

Claire shook the morbid thought from her head as she squinted at a light that was bobbing in the distance. Was that him?


"Hello, beautiful!"

Oh, no.

Claire quickened her pace, her hands stuffed in her pockets and her eyes downcast. Maybe if she pretended like he wasn't there he would go away and find some other poor girl to prey on.


The light she had seen earlier suddenly filled her vision. Blinded, Claire stumbled several stepped backward and slipped on a patch of ice. She would have ended up in a snowbank if a gloved hand hadn't caught her by the wrist just in time.

"Whoa there, pretty lady!" Rock laughed as he held her steady, his brown eyes glinting with amusement. "Where are you going in such a hurry so late at night?"

Claire was thankful she was wearing a scarf, because she could feel her face glowing about ten shades of scarlet. She yanked her wrist out of Rock's grip and attempted to step around him, but he blocked her path.

"Hey now, don't I get a hello back or even a thank you? I did just save that cute ass of yours from freezing in the snow, after all." Rock winked at her, which only made her face turn redder.

Claire huffed. "First of all, Rock, I would appreciate it if you kept your eyes off my backside. Second of all, you were the one who shoved that stupid lantern in my face which is what made me fall in the first place. So yes, thank you very much."

Her obvious annoyance didn't even faze him. "Aw, come on sweetheart," Rock chided, shaking his blonde bangs out of his face and flashing the grin that made girls back home in Forget-Me-Not Valley swoon. He slid his fingers under Claire's chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. "You know you can't stay mad at me. I'm irresistible."

"Actually, I can. And no, you are not," Claire retorted, pushing his hand away. "Now if you'll excuse me, I need to find my father. And you should get back to Doug's Inn before you catch your death out here."

She began heading in the direction of town, mentally groaning when she heard hurried footsteps behind her.

"Wait, your dad's missing? What happened to him? Can I help you look?" Rock sounded genuinely concerned, which made Claire feel slightly bad for the way she had treated him. But only slightly.

"Nothing happened that I know of, Rock. He just isn't home yet and I want to make sure he's okay. I'll be fine by myself."

"Oh… okay." Rock paused, and a look of remembrance illuminated his chiseled features. "Now that you mention it, I think I saw him over by Aja Winery a few minutes ago. He had something with him- it looked like one of his weird inventions. Maybe he was trying to sell it to the ghosts there."

He had been trying to make a joke, but judging by the way Claire's face paled she wasn't taking it very well.

"Aja Winery?" she repeated, her heart dropped to the pit of her stomach. The winery had been abandoned by its owners Duke and Manna years ago. There were rumors about that place- silly ones, but unsettling nonetheless- rumors about ghosts haunting its hallways and strange sounds emanating from its walls at night. What would her father be doing there?

"I have to go, Rock. I'll see you later." And with that she took off towards town, a trail of frenzied footprints the only trace she left behind.