Taming Chloe Summers

 

We all make mistakes in our lives.
This book is for those who love us anyway.

 

Prologue

4 years ago…

 

The lake. Midnight. You can bring a swimsuit. Or not…

Clasping the note in my fist like a lifeline as I hang on the windowsill, one leg in, the other outside, I try to make a silent escape. Luckily, we usually keep the window open at night, because July in California is hot enough. Sleeping in a room with six other girls and keeping everything locked… Yeah, you would probably hear about fatal heatstroke in the news all over America tomorrow. Unfortunately, the door to our room always makes this eerie creak—like the worst horror movie sound—when somebody opens it, and that is the only reason I use the window right beside my bunk to sneak out. Because, frankly, trying not to get caught by one of the four watchdogs who keep this summer camp running isn’t my biggest problem.

What I really want to avoid is waking my new friend, Lesley Caruthers. She is the queen bee at our high school—feared by many, admired by all. Since I started running with her pack in the past couple of weeks, my life has become significantly more exciting. Riskier. More fun. And adventurous. I mean, look at me. Here I am sneaking out in the dead of night to meet a guy down by the lake. And not just any guy. All through freshman year, I stalked him through the school building. He was in none of my classes, but we had lunch together and I know some of his friends. Only, I was always too shy to speak to him.

No longer.

The problem now is that I don’t want to share him with anyone. And Lesley is the nosiest person in the world. Even if I told her to let me meet this guy alone, she’d most certainly follow me to check him out.

Uh-uh, not happening. This is my moment. New friends or not, I don’t care for prying eyes in the bushes.

My pink camisole snags on a protruding nail as I lower myself to the ground and rips, the nail scraping the skin at my waist. I breathe a silent curse, my fingernails digging into the windowsill and scratching off the ancient red paint. Feeling the cool grass under my naked toes, I let go and inspect the damage. No blood, just a scratch and a small slit at the side of my top. Nothing too bad. And who cares, anyway? In ten minutes, I have a date with the boy of my dreams.

I smooth the camisole back down and adjust my short pajama bottoms. A dirt track leads from the three huts, which are placed in formation around a picnic table, into the woods. Ducking along the line of bushes, I scurry away. The boys’ cabins stand at the opposite side of the lake, along with the dining hall. That’s where somebody slipped this note into my hand from behind earlier this evening.

Immediately, I knew it was from him. I know how his hand feels against mine and how his soap smells. The beguiling scent drove me almost crazy a few days ago when he kissed me for the first time. Never will I forget that.

My heartbeat hammering in my ears drowns out the song of the crickets in the humid night. It’s not far to the lake, maybe half a mile, but once there I have to jog to the west shore. A dock made of old, dark wood leads a few steps out into the water. He’ll wait for me there, because that’s the place where we kissed.

I slow down as the dock comes into sight. With the moon so full and beaming above me, there’s no need for a flashlight to find my way. The water’s surface lies smooth, like freshly made bed sheets. The song of the crickets doesn’t reach me here, only a couple of frogs croaking somewhere in the distance.

Despite the night, the wood still retains the sun’s warmth as I step onto the dock and warily walk to the square platform at the end. The moon reflects dreamily in the water. Everything’s perfect.

And then a soft shiver trails from my neck way down to my toes as his low voice carries forward from the shore behind me. “I’m glad you came.”

The wood creaks under his shoes as he saunters closer. My breathing difficult to rein in, I spin around. From the looks of it, he didn’t go to bed before sneaking out and coming here. Or maybe he did and then dressed again. His legs seem longer than ever in those blue jeans that hang on his narrow hips like they have to cling onto them with invisible claws in order to not drop off. His arms are thin and sinewy, his chest rather lank under his white T-shirt. Given, however, that he pulled me out of the water and onto this dock without any effort only a few days ago, I know he’s a lot stronger than he looks.

As he slowly comes closer, the dock vibrates gently with each of his steps, the sensation crawling up my legs to warm my body even more than the mild midnight air already does. At sixteen, I’m taller than most girls and can almost look straight in his eyes when he stops in front of me. His hair is hidden under a ball cap that also shades his face from the moonlight. Shame. I love his careless appearance when it comes down to his tousled hair. Will he take the cap off before he kisses me again?

Reaching out, he hooks his finger around mine. That square inch of body contact is enough to make me forget about his cap completely and shiver with anticipation.

“Did you bring a swimsuit?” he asks, pulling me inches closer to him.

Nervously, I chew on my lip. Then I quickly shake my head and smile.

His eyes warm with a grin. “Neither did I.”

 

 

Nineteen months ago…

 

“Do I look like a nutcase to you?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why the hell do you keep talking to me as if I am?” I send a dirty look to the man wearing an ugly, gray- and yellow-striped pullover in the armchair across from me. In the past twenty-five minutes since my mother pushed me into his practice, he’s taken notes on every damn word I’ve said.

He lowers the chart on his lap, pulls off his glasses, and pinches the spot between his mud-brown eyes. When he puts the spectacles back on his long nose, his well-trained business smile slides right into place. It’s demeaning. Like he’s permanently singing inside his head: Because your mom is paying for my next trip to Hawaii with your sessions.

Grinding my teeth, I pull my feet up onto the black couch, not caring that my boots will probably scuff the leather, and wrap my arms around my legs, dipping my forehead to my knees. I don’t want to hear any of this. I don’t want to be here. All of my friends are having fun with hot guys right now. Only I have a date with a shrink.

“Why don’t we start over again?” he says, with this kindergarten patience that makes me throw up in my mouth a little. “Let’s begin with you telling me why you think you’re really here.”

“I’m here because if I’d refused, there’s no chance they’d ever give me my driver’s license back or let me do the exchange year in Europe after graduation,” I growl into the gap between my chest and my legs. “But it doesn’t mean we have to chat. Why don’t we just sit here in silence and wait until the hour is over? I’m sure you’ll receive your paycheck anyway.”

Dr. Sigmund Freud over there clears his throat, tapping his pen loudly on his chart. Is he trying to get on my nerves on purpose? As he waits for my undivided attention in this clean, unfriendly room, I lift my head and arch a brow.

“You lost your driver’s license?” he asks then, with enough innocence in his voice to turn Miley Cyrus into a saint. “What happened? Did you run a red light?”

Oh, come on! “You know all this shit.” I lean my head forward again, hiding my face from his professional friendliness, and grab the legs of my stretchy jeans for comfort. “And no, I did not run a red light.”

“Did you join in a drag race, perhaps?”

Agh! At the dead end of my patience, I smash my fists into the leather cushions at my sides and straighten my back. “I wrecked my car, okay? I was trashed, lost control, and drove into a tree!” The damn thing just wouldn’t get out of the way when my VW Polo began to fishtail after a ninety-degree curve. “And before you keep this game of stupid questions going, when you should already know all the answers from the police report, yes”—I make a duh face with heaps of cynicism for his benefit—“afterward, I walked into the water!”

His pen flies so fast over the chart on his thigh, the outcome can’t be anything more than wavy lines on the paper. “I see, I see,” he mumbles along, for once not looking down his nose at me but concentrating hard on what he’s writing. “Do you want to talk about why you wanted to drown yourself?”

“I didn’t say I wanted to drown myself. I just needed to escape from my cousin and her boyfriend. They were taking over the beach, so I owned the water.” Drunk, it had seemed like a totally normal thing to do. Two weeks later and sober…not so much.

He lifts his chin, his speedy hand coming to a stop. “All right. Then tell me why you wanted to escape from the two of them.”

I start biting my bottom lip with nervousness. This is the part I really shudder to reveal. It’s been five weeks since my cousin Samantha moved into my house, four weeks since she stole my family and friends, three weeks since she fell in love with the boy I had a crush on, and two weeks since I said sorry for trying to drive her out of the country for all of that. Please, give me a break!

Crossing my legs at the ankles but keeping my knees up, I tug the sleeves of my white cashmere sweater over the heels of my palms and fist them. My chin-length hair annoys me like hell, as it’s constantly swinging forward into my face. The devil must have been screwing with my mind the day I came up with the idea to cut my long locks short and die them raven-black to copy my cousin. I totaled my car only two days later.

My chest lifts and falls back with a few deep breaths. “Can’t we just fast-forward to the part where I say I’m sorry for everything that happened and swear I’ll never do it again? Just sign this damn form and tell everyone I’m not an alcoholic, so they can finally give me my license back.”

The shrink gives a shrewd laugh. “If only it was that easy, Chloe.”

“Why isn’t it? What’s the problem?”

“The problem is that you won’t get around one and a half years’ worth of therapy, four hundred hours of community service, and a clean record of no drinking, all at once. And you’ll probably need to do blood tests to prove sobriety, if you ever want to get behind the wheel again.”

“Fine. Cross me off your list then,” I mutter. “I’ll just take the bus in England.”

“I’m afraid you can’t. You’re on probation. The year abroad will have to wait, too.”

“What?” My voice hitches. “But we have it all planned!” Les, Kir, Brin, and I already sent our applications to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. Ewan McGregor, Orlando Bloom, and Daniel Craig graduated from there! And while Brinna is still waiting for her acceptance, the rest of us had our dads secure our places with a small cash infusion. We’re going to have the time of our lives next year. Parties, boys, and no adults dictating to us. How dare this stupid doctor ruin it all for me?

Boiling with rage, I push up from the couch and stomp to the door. “I’m going to talk to my dad about this.”

“Your father already did everything he could for you.” The shrink’s calm warning slides like a cold snail down my back and stops me, my hand on the doorknob.

“What do you mean?” I grit through my teeth as I turn around. “He’s a lawyer. He can bail me out of this.”

“Chloe, you crashed your car. You were accused of underage drinking. You ran away from the accident, and according to your friends, you did want to end your life that night, because of your unrequited love for your cousin’s boyfriend.” He heaves a deep sigh that sounds like a mix between sympathy and frustration. “If it wasn’t for your father, you would’ve been arrested that night and might now be in a psychiatry ward where they’d have kept you from getting your hands on anything sharp. They probably would even have pulled the laces out of your shoes so you couldn’t strangle yourself.”

“What?” I croak hoarsely as a wave of horror floods me. The door begins to rattle when my hand starts to shake on the knob.

The doctor rises and comes for me, gently guiding me back to my place on the black leather couch. Then he fills a glass with water at the sink behind his massive desk. Placing it in front of me on the glass-topped coffee table between us, he offers me a clinical smile and sinks back into his armchair.

I take a sip, my trembling hands causing a tsunami inside the glass.

“You do understand now that sessions with me as well as community service is the better end of the deal, don’t you?”

I put the glass back on the table and suck in a few deep breaths before I look up at him. Reluctantly, I nod.

“Very good.” He grabs his chart and places it on his lap once more. “Shall we speak about your cousin’s boyfriend now? Tony, right? It says here that a while back, he was your boyfriend. Is that true?”

I swallow the lump in my throat. He was, but only for a few days last summer, and today it seems ridiculous to bemoan his loss. But I nod again anyway.

 

Chapter 1

Present day

 

I’m out of breath. Taking the train home to Grover Beach from San Francisco every third Friday of the month is a pain in the ass. Worse is running from the train station to Dr. Devonport’s practice because my parents couldn’t pick me up today.

But it’s okay. After all, this is the last time I’m going to walk into the clean, white office with the black leather couch, three windows overlooking Chilton Street, and wide desk, from behind which, the tall, lanky doctor greets me with a business-like smile every time. My probation for underage drinking and causing an accident comes to an end in four weeks. Now I only have to sit through one last hour with the shrink to prove I’m definitely not suicidal—and never was—and then I’m rid of him forever.

Europe is waiting for me.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Devonport,” I greet the man behind the desk as I slip through the door after a quick knock.

“Chloe.” Admittedly, his smile has become a lot more friendly than clinical over the past months, but I still don’t like him very much. Knowing that my future is in his hands and he can decide whether I’m going to drive my own car in London this year or still have to take the damn bus every freaking time I want to go shopping causes me nausea. He holds out his hand as he rises from his chair. “Please, take a seat.”

I sit down in my usual place, in the middle of the long leather couch, but instead of hugging my knees to my chest like during the first few sessions I had with the shrink, I’m now sitting confidently and straight, one leg slung over the other, my hands neatly folded in my lap.

“How’s college going?” he wants to know.

“Good. Finals were this week,” I answer curtly, not in the mood to start a private conversation if we can hurry this up instead. “Where do I have to sign?”

Confused, he adjusts the glasses on his nose. “Sign what?”

“My release.” I smile as I run my fingers through my hair, which has grown a lot since I started coming here. The stark black color has washed out too, but, instead of dying it blond again, like I did for so many years in high school, I decided to stick with my natural brown after enrolling at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco last fall.

“This is our last session. I’ve never missed an appointment, I haven’t sampled a drop of tequila and company in nineteen months, and I’m a happy, stable twenty-year-old now.” Hopefully he gets the hint. My senior year of high school was an episode I’d rather forget. Risking my life for a boy I was crushing on but who’s happily in love with my cousin was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done—and I did many stupid things in high school…

The sooner I can walk out of here, the sooner I can close this chapter for good, pack my suitcase, and fly to Europe with my friends. The ticket has already been bought, and Les and Kir have a luxurious four-bedroom apartment in Mayfair, which we’re going to share for the next year. Luckily for me, they decided to finish their acting classes in England, and I don’t have to do my study abroad year alone after all. They’re merely coming home for a month this summer to see their families. So I’m going to do exactly two things this summer: for the first half of it, I’ll party and sip nonalcoholic cocktails with Brinna, Lesley, and Kirsten beside the pool in our garden, and for the second half, I’ll party and sip real cocktails overseas.

Now there’s only one last thing to cross off my list before takeoff.

“I guess I’ll need an official notice from you for the authorities to let me retake the driving test next week?” I ask.

Dr. Devonport chuckles. “Ah, always so eager to leave my office. But you did hold to your part of the deal, and there’s no point in rolling out old stories today, I believe.”

Damn right!

“Did you bring all the paperwork I need to let you off? The results of your last FST?”

Diligently, I pull the folded sheets from my handbag and hand them over to him across the table. “All here.”

“Very good.” He thumbs through them, looking pleased. “And the signed proof of your community service, please.”

“Um, yeah, about that… I haven’t gotten to do all of the hours yet.” I lower my gaze and scratch my brow. “You see, with the new school and the hard schedule and all, there just wasn’t enough time.”

He looks up at me. “How many hours did you get done then?”

I twist my mouth to one side, biting the inside of my cheek. “Er…fifty-three?”

The doc stares at me like I’m a damn bus on a collision course. “Fifty-three hours? In a year and a half?”

“Yeah. Spare time was scarce.” I shrug, feeling an uncomfortable heat rising inside me. “But that won’t be a problem, right? I mean, I can do the remaining hours when I get back from my year abroad, or maybe continue with them in England.”

“I’m afraid not.” Lips pursed, he scratches his clean-shaven chin. His eyes find mine. “Community service has to be done before the end of your probation, which will be…” He grabs a folder and skims through the pages.

“At the end of July,” I help him out in a voice flat from shock.

“Right.” He closes the briefcase. “If you can’t complete the hours by then, you’ll have to go to court again. And the penalty may be tougher this time.”

Horrified, I jump to my feet and start pacing the room in front of the line of wide windows. “Even if I go to the soup kitchen every weekend from today, it will take like a hundred years to fulfill that demand!”

“You might have thought about that sometime in the past year and a half.”

Yeah, rub salt into the wound, why don’t you? That’s what he does best, anyway. I grit my teeth.

“Perhaps there’s a solution to your problem, though,” he murmurs. I stop in my tracks and spin to face him. He taps his pen against his lips, his gaze moving to the wall in thought. “You could do them in a block.”

“What do you mean?”

“My son and his friends wanted to go to summer camp in July. It’s supposed to be five weeks long, but the camp is short two counselors. Two they had lined up canceled recently, and if they can’t find replacements, the whole session has to be called off.”

“You want me to be a counselor at a summer camp?” My chin drops a little. “To watch some ten-year-olds flounder about in the water?”

“All the campers are between twelve and fifteen. And yes. Considering your predicament, this might just be the perfect chance for you.” He waves his hand, asking me to sit down again, but I shake my head. “The camp starts in the middle of July. That’s early enough for you to complete your hours before the end of the month.”

“And after my hours, I can leave?”

“Of course not. For the camp to happen in the first place, you have to commit to the full five weeks.”

“But that’s impossible. I’m flying to Europe the first week of August!” And I’m definitely not going to cancel that trip a second time.

The doc tilts his head. “You can either do this, or find another way to complete your hours.”

Rubbing my hands over my face, I weigh my options, which are quite limited. Continuing with volunteering at the soup kitchen means it’d take forever to finish my service hours. If I agree to be a counselor, on the other hand, all my problems could be solved in one go. And who says I have to do the whole five weeks? I could just fall ill at the end of July or find another reason to leave. Once my probation is over and I’m safe, it’s really not my problem what happens at a silly summer camp.

“So, let’s say I agree…” My hands drop to my hips, and my gaze sharpens on him. “What about the second counselor? You said they were short by two.”

“I know the director has asked another college student. If he agrees, too, then your problem is solved.”

“What if he doesn’t?”

“Then there won’t be a camp.”

I spin on the spot and gaze through the wide window into the bright sunlight that’s warming my face. If that other guy says no, I could ask Brinna to come with me instead. She didn’t make it into the drama school in London last year after all, and in hindsight, I was quite glad about it. Living in San Francisco without a best friend would have sucked. As I think of her by my side, the whole idea of dealing with hyperactive kids for a couple of weeks doesn’t seem so loathsome anymore. And afterward, I can party with Les and Kir in London.

“So?” the doctor prompts me.

I take a deep breath, wrapping my arms around myself, and turn back to him. “Fine. I’ll do it.”

 

*

 

I step out of the blue Camaro, stretching my neck and spine after the drive to Frog Pond Mountain, and blink up at the high-noon sky. Outside the air-conditioned car, the heat forces a drop of sweat to roll down my nape into the collar of my black blouse. I wipe it off and scan the area around me. The pebbled parking lot is packed with parents saying goodbye to their kids, some of them actually tearing up. Seriously, how stupid is that? If anyone should be crying right now, then it certainly should be me. I’m about the only person here who didn’t come voluntarily.

Brinna climbs out of her car, too, and gets my suitcase from the trunk. We have to lift it out together, because it’s so big someone might think I packed a corpse in it…or two. “You have everything you need?” she asks as she slams the trunk then runs a hand through her bramble-colored curls.

“Yes.” Three weeks’ worth of fresh clothes plus nail polish and makeup is in the suitcase, and my iPod and phone in my purse. “I’m all set to wait out my time in hell.” Until the end of July. Then I’ll be gone.

In an excessively dramatic move, she throws her arms around me. “I’ll miss you!” Yeah, drama school is definitely going to her head. Then again, she’s probably referring to more than just my time at camp. When this torture is over, I only have one last weekend with my best friend before flying out of the country—to stay with my other two best friends. Brin has a boyfriend now in San Francisco and refused to apply to Guildhall a second time. Jace is a cute guy. She’s probably doing the right thing not leaving him behind.

I hug her back and thank her for the ride. Too bad it turned out she can’t do this whole summer-camp-freak thing with me, because the other guy agreed to help out after all. Doc Devonport called to tell me the very same evening he dropped the bomb that the first half of my summer vacation wouldn’t be filled with pool parties and fancy cocktails, but rather with a bunch of teenagers kicking off into puberty.

“If you need anything, call me,” Brinna says as she pulls back. “And I’ll be waiting right here the night of July 31st.” Then she cocks her head and smirks. “Unless you need me to spring you from this prison earlier. Then I’m totally your girl!”

I laugh. “Yeah, let’s keep that option in mind, okay?”

Brinna’s eyes take on a sad quality. “I really hate that we don’t get to spend your last couple of weeks in the country together.”

“Me, too.” More than I can even tell her. Suddenly, the farewell sadness of the parking lot seems to rub off on me. My throat clogs. I press my lips together and hug her one last time. Then I watch her climb back into her car.

Grabbing the handle of my suitcase, I wait for her to drive off, but after she starts the engine again, she rolls down her window. “I almost forgot…” As she leans over to get something from the glove compartment, I shuffle closer. She holds out a cell phone to me.

My brows form a V of confusion. “What’s this for? You know I have my own.”

“It’s an old phone from my little sister. Call it precaution. You know the rules at camp. No phones, no tablets, no laptops, no nothing that could ever let you get in touch with”—she makes a funny face—“the world outside.”

“That rule only applies to the campers, certainly not the counselors,” I reason.

“Are you sure?” Brinna arches her brows. “If I’m right, you’ll have to hand in your phone, and then you’re thoroughly screwed.”

“Valid point.” I take her sister’s discarded phone and drop it into my handbag, then I wave goodbye until the Camaro is long out of sight.

With one last deep breath that smells of pinewood and teenage anticipation, I pivot and wheel my giant suitcase behind me across the lot, gravel skidding everywhere. The point of no return is marked with an arched board set high above the ground on two thick poles. The red color has faded a little over the years, but the name on the sign still reads the same as the last time I stood beneath this arch, four years ago.

Welcome to Camp Clover!

My chest expands with a deep sigh, then I forge on. If nothing has changed over the years, it’s the walk of a quarter mile to the main office on the girls’ side of the camp. The boys’ huts and the dining hall should be across the lake.

Some kids are storming past me, squealing and laughing. Their suitcases don’t seem to weigh more than half of mine. What did they bring? A bikini and nothing? Maybe the hair dryer and straightener were a bit much, but I don’t want to spend the next couple of weeks with frizzy hair.

The walk down the dirt path becomes increasingly troublesome with roots and twigs lying across it. Perhaps I should have put on sneakers today instead of my black high-heel boots that match my white stretchy jeans. Thank God there’s a selection of shoes to pick from every day in my luggage. If it wasn’t too cumbersome now, I’d open my suitcase and change immediately. At least the trees lining the path provide some shadow, so I won’t break out in sweat before reaching the office.

Five minutes later, a strange feeling of coming home settles over me, as I stop at the end of the path and my gaze sweeps over the campsite. Just like in my memory, there are the three log cabins, housing up to eight girls each, fronts turned toward the picnic table situated in the middle. The birch tree next to the hut with a tiger painted over the door has grown a few feet since I last saw it, but everything else still looks like no time has passed at all.

The girls who stormed past me on the way here sit on the picnic table like they own the place and excitedly discuss into which cabin they might be going to move. More memories rise up at the view. Memories of playing games, forming new friendships, and living with an odd flutter in my stomach the whole summer.

A smile turns up the edges of my mouth. I shake it away and head on to the main office, which is some eighty feet to the right. The office isn’t a log cabin but a tiny house with yellow plaster and a red-shingle roof. Several people linger in the doorway, mostly parents waiting for their turn to get their kids registered.

Leaving my suitcase outside, I squeeze past them and find the person in charge. The ginger-haired woman behind the desk is bent over a list, obviously trying to find a particular name by running the end of her pen from bottom to top.

“Excuse me,” I say and lean down toward her until she lifts her head and makes eye contact. “My name’s Chloe. I’m supposed to meet with the other counselors somewhere around this place.”

Offering me a welcoming smile, she brushes her bangs out of her face. “Wonderful! The others are already waiting for you. Just walk to the back of the building. That’s where the—”

“Sickroom is, I know,” I cut her off, remembering how I once got my elbow scraped and had to have it tended to there.

She gives me a knowing look. “You’ve been here before?”

“Not as a counselor, but as a camper. A long time ago.”

“That’s great. You’ll find that nothing has changed over time.” She hands me a sheet of paper that she drew from a pink folder. “Please fill this out and turn it in later today. For now, just go meet your colleagues in the sickroom. My assistant will be with you in a few minutes and explain everything.”

“Okay.” I fold the paper and stuff it in my purse, then I fight my way through the crowded room toward the back. Just before I reach the door, a shiver runs through me, as if someone tossed ice water on me, making the small hairs on my arms stand on end. Unease crawls up my body, from my toes to the back of my neck.

I whirl about, but there are only strange faces. Rubbing away the chill that is totally out of place on a scorching-hot July day, I make my way out of and around the building. The sickroom has its own entrance at the back, facing the path down to the lake. Outside, leaning against the wall with one leg angled, the sole of his sneaker placed against the plaster, stands a tall guy with flattened brown hair and a plaid shirt tied around his waist. He’s puffing out the last lungful of smoke from his cigarette, then he drops it to the ground and kills it by rubbing it into the dirt with his toe.

“Seriously?” I say, lifting my brows at him. I know I’m not a big role model to the kids myself, and I’m not even trying to be, but smoking in a camp with a bunch of twelve-year-olds? Even I know not to do that—if I were a smoker, anyway.

He offers me a sheepish grin that moves the acne spots on his cheeks closer together. “Sorry.” Shoving dirt over the stub with his foot, he makes an effort to bury it. “That was my last, I swear.”

For the sake of his flawed skin, I pray that he’s right. “Trying to stop?”

“For the sixth time this year, yes.”

Now, I actually feel sorry for the thug, who’s probably about my age. “Good luck with that.”

“Thanks.” He holds out his hand. “I’m Greyson, by the way.”

“Chloe.”

His long fingers wrap around mine, squeezing with too much nervousness. Either it’s the detox he’s afraid of, or this is his first time in a summer camp. Of course, it’s my first time as a counselor, too, but I can’t say that I’m antsy like him. Then again, I don’t intend to do much over the next two weeks but get a nice tan down by the pond. The other three watchful counselors can deal with the kids.

Greyson follows me into the sunny, clean room that holds a few cupboards and a dark-green bed with a layer of thin white paper on top. A girl sits on the backless swivel stool and spins around, her shoulder-length dark hair woven into two tight braids. The eyesore topping her cutoffs—a garishly yellow T-shirt—is probably a magnet for bees and bugs. Note to self: keep a distance outside.

Her smile when she spots me is scary. She jumps to her feet and skips over, shaking my hand without me even reaching out. “Hi! You must be Chloe,” she chirps.

And you must be Snow White’s happy sister. I bite back the remark and just nod.

“We’ve been waiting for you. I’m Julie Bloom. You’ve met Greyson already, right?”

I nod again.

“I’m so glad you look young and nice,” she blabbers on, and I can only tilt my eyebrows in response. Quickly, she corrects herself. “Oh, I mean friendly. Last time I was at camp, we had a counselor who must have been 105.” She rolls her eyes dramatically. “It wouldn’t be fun to run a camp with a hag like her. But you look like someone who knows how to have fun. We’ll have a great time entertaining the youngsters with games, food fights, and what not! Don’t you think?”

Yeah…no. I don’t think I want to play tug of war with the kids. And pizza in my hair? Absolutely not.

Freeing myself from her hand, I walk over to the bed and sit on the edge. “So, where’s number four? I was told there wouldn’t be a camp with only three of us.”

“He popped in and said hi a few minutes ago but had to get a few things from the office. Apparently, he’s the camp director’s right hand.”

“The redhead’s assistant?”

“Yes. And boy…” Julie makes dreamy eyes and leans closer. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she checks if Greyson is out of earshot. He took a seat behind the narrow desk and is now playing with a pen-like flash light as a cigarette substitute, so we’re safe and she squeaks under her breath, “He’s hawt.”

“Number Four? Really?” I whisper back, feeling a small amount of anticipation for the first time since I was forced to come here.

Her short braids flail as she bobs her head.

Good to know, because pimple-faced Greyson isn’t actually dating material. And spending the days at the lake with some eye candy to check out sounds like just the right distraction to get me through the next couple of weeks.

“Oh, look!” Julie’s chin lowers, eyes fixing on the door, as she grabs my arm to share her excitement. She struggles to bite back her grin. “He’s coming.”

My own flirty smile falls into place, but I wait until I hear his footsteps inside the room before I push my hair over my shoulder and turn my head toward the door.

A wave of coolness wafts off the guy on his slow stride in. His jeans, washed out and fitting loosely, run up a set of endless legs. They hang low on his hips, and from the look of his front, I would guess he has a tasty ass, too. His tight white T-shirt wraps around a flat stomach. A six-pack could be hiding beneath it. Or maybe even an eight-pack. I wouldn’t mind either. And the firm chest defined under the fabric makes me want to cop a feel.

Yeah, that’s definitely a body I’d like to check out in swimming trunks down by the lake.

My gaze roams up his strong shoulders to his face and— Fuck! I jump from the bed with a shriek. “Justin!”

He stops a few feet away from me, his butterscotch gaze burning as he smirks. In my shock, I retreat to the window, which obviously amuses him. “Chloe Summers…” he drawls, folding his arms over the chest I was drooling over only moments ago. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again before our ten-year class reunion.”

Julie straightens, too, and plants her hands on her hips, casting me an intrigued glance. “Oh, wow. You two know each other?”

“We were in history together in high school,” I inform her, slightly out of breath for no obvious reason.

“And math, science, and English,” he adds, his voice cool and relaxed.

Julie’s head moves from left to right, looking between us, then only her eyes continue the action. “So you’re friends?”

Justin’s cold gaze remains on me. The corners of his mouth twitch up, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah…” He snorts. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

No, Justin Andrews and I weren’t friends in high school. In fact, we gave each other the widest possible berth whenever we could.

Feeling like a horde of ghosts has come down to Camp Clover to haunt me, I cough, trying to get rid of the annoying frog that made itself comfortable in my throat. Then I croak the first thing that comes to my mind. “So, you’re Number Four?”

He cocks his head, and the tips of his dirty-blond hair fall into his eyes. “Number Four?”

“The fourth camp counselor.”

“Oh.” Running his hand through his hair, he rakes the long strands off his forehead. “Yes.”

“And you’re also the director’s assistant?”

“Uh-huh.” As if he knows how this information gives me the creeps, he licks his bottom lip and shifts his mouth to one side, suppressing a grin. “Mrs. Turner is leaving the camp later today and will only check in once every week. In her absence, you’ll have to deal with me if you need anything.”

There are two other people in this room, so why the hell are his eyes still solely focused on me? I swallow. If he’s the person in charge here, he may also be familiar with my case—the reason I have to do this whole counselor crap in the first place. Dammit! Apart from Brin, Kir, and Les, none of my former classmates know about my sessions with the shrink and all my other obligations. And I only told my closest friends because they demanded an explanation for my sudden change of plans about London and going to Guildhall. Justin is the last person on earth I want to be informed of that fact. So how much does he know?

“And you’re one of us,” Greyson points out with inscrutable enthusiasm, coming around the table to sit on the edge, his sneakered feet dangling in the air. “That’s awesome! That means we’re free to do whatever we want this summer. No curfew for the kids, no restrictions—no rules whatsoever.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Justin chuckles, casting him a brief glance. Then his gaze switches back to me, and his chuckle slackens to a sneer. “Or not.”

 

Chapter 2

Chloe

 

I cross my legs on the bed and hear a low tearing sound. My heel ripped the thin paper cover. Smoothing it out, I toss my hair back and sigh, ready to get this boring meeting over with. When Julie wheeling back and forth across the room on that doctor’s stool starts to get on my nerves, I deliberately turn my head in the other direction and shield my vision by holding my hand to the left side of my face, bracing my elbow on my knee. Only, that leaves me staring at Justin, who’s sitting on the broad windowsill, so I’m not sure if it really improved the whole situation.

Sitting sideways, he has one leg pulled up on the sill, the other dangling. From the list on the clipboard that rests against his thigh, he reads out the next item on the agenda. “Camp games.” He looks up at us, waiting to discuss it, like we did the previous seven points while he took notes.

“Oh, oh, oh!” Julie squeals and rolls forward on her doc-mobile. She lifts her hand as if we were back in high school and she an ardent student. “I’ve made a list of all the games I loved most when I was at camp. I have it right here.” Pushing herself to the desk, where she left her purse, she fishes out a folded piece of paper then begins to read. “Scavenger hunt. Capture the flag…”

I disengage, because the list is long. There’s only one game I’d really like to play anyway. Soccer. Even though I haven’t played a serious game since high school, I’m probably still better than most of the kids coming here today. Definitely better than Justin. He wasn’t on Grover Beach High’s co-ed soccer team. If I recall correctly, riding a murderous BMX bike and reading comics was his thing. A snicker escapes me at the memory of how some people at school used to call him Spider-Boy. Yeah, okay, not many—just Lesley and me—but it was fun.

“You have any suggestions?” Justin asks, his questioning eyes on me.

“Er…what?”

“Games? For the kids?” He lifts his brows as if I’m one beer short of a six-pack. “You just laughed, so I’m wondering if you have a better idea you want us to know about.”

“Yeah, no. Julie’s ideas will keep us going until Christmas anyway.” I try hard to make it sound like a joke, but she blushes anyway.

“I’m a little overeager, I guess,” she apologizes.

Justin offers her a warm smile. One that I haven’t gotten from him since he walked into this room. “No, I love your enthusiasm about this,” he encourages her. “That’s absolutely what we need here.” The quick sideways glance he throws at me then feels like a jab in my ribs.

“We could also save an hour or two each day for sports,” Greyson proposes from his place behind the desk. “Like volleyball and soccer for those who want to play.”

Justin points his pen at him. “Excellent.” Then he scribbles something down on his list. “Julie, would you like to take over the volleyball team?”

She bobs her head. “Sure.”

“Great. I’ll do a group for basketball. And soccer…” He bites the end of his pen, looking from Greyson to me and back. I clear my throat aggressively. He knows how much I love soccer, and he certainly wouldn’t assign that to— “Grey, can you supervise the kids playing soccer?”

What the hell? “Justin,” I grumble, waiting for him to graciously give me his attention before I mutter, “What about me?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll find something for you, too. How about a dance club?” he says cheerfully. “Maybe some hip-hop or jazz. The girls will love it.”

That son of a— I gnash my teeth. “I don’t dance.”

“Learn. It’ll help you loosen up a bit.”

Outraged, my chin smacks downward. “Excuse me?”

He chuckles and takes more notes. Is he actually writing my name down?

“I didn’t say yes,” I protest.

“Right.” He keeps his amused eyes on the sheet but never stops scribbling. When he lifts his head again, he doesn’t spare me another look. “Next point: curfew.”

“Curfew was always the worst part about camp,” Greyson whines. “I say we cross it off the list.”

Julie backs him up, gripping the edge of the stool between her straddled legs and leaning heavily on her arms. “I’m with Greyson on this. As long as the kids stay close by, they should be allowed outside however long they want.”

“Hmmm. I’m not sure about that.” Justin taps the pan against his lips, then he drops his knee and sits straight, facing us. “They’re teenagers. Kids need rules. And what’s more, if you drop curfew, you also take away the chance for them to sneak out after dark. Isn’t that the one thing that really makes camp exciting? They’ll make their best memories knowing there’s actually something at risk.”

While Julie and Greyson agree with a reluctant nod, Justin sneaks a fiery look at me that makes me catch my breath. “Chloe, do you have an opinion?” he asks in a low, dark voice.

“Letting them stay outside means watching them longer,” I grumble, still mad about the dancing issue. “I’m all for an early curfew.”

“All right. I say ten thirty in the cabins and lights out at midnight. Any veto?” He waits a couple of seconds. “No? Okay. That’s settled. Last thing to discuss: phones.”

This time, I’m the first to speak up. “Let ’em keep them. Some texting home won’t hurt anybody.”

“I agree to that,” Justin says without hesitation. “Julie? Greyson?”

“Uh…I think the kiddos should hand them in,” Julie says, scrunching her face up. “You know how awful we were at their age. An hour was nothing when we got started playing those games or texting our friends.”

“Julie’s right,” says Greyson and sticks a stethoscope in his ears, listening to his own heartbeat. “What’s the point of making them stay in the wild when they do nothing but while away on their phones? I vote for collecting them and handing them back at the end of camp.”

Justin scratches the side of his nose. “Good point.”

“The kids will need to make a final call home to inform their parents before turning the phones over,” Julie adds, “so no one at home gets worried. How about those who are homesick and want to call their parents can come to us and get their phones for a few minutes every other day? Also, to be role models, we should put ours away as well.”

“Okay,” Justin says. “We’ll do it your way, then. Same rules for everyone.” And again, he throws a prodding look at me. “You cool with that, Summers?”

I grin back, sending a silent thanks home to my genius friend. “Absolutely.” I have Brin’s phone to hand in and mine to stay in touch with my friends. The only problem is that I can’t text them with people around. But, all things considered, that’s a minor issue.

Justin takes my answer with some amazement and nods. Then he puts the clipboard away, clasps the edge of the sill, and crosses his legs at the ankles. “Finally…which team do you guys want to take charge of? There are only thirty-one kids this year. Barely enough to fill four cabins. On the plus side, we counselors get to sleep in cabins of our own and don’t have to hang out with the campers at night as well.”

Julie raises her hand again. When everybody’s eyes are on her, she says, “I’d like to take over the Owls. I was in that group as a teenager myself. Call me nostalgic, but I think it would be fun.”

“Cool. Owls for you then.” Justin tilts his head to me. “Chloe? What do you want to be? Tiger or Squirrel?”

I roll my eyes. Do I look like a freaking rodent? “Tiger,” I huff.

“Of course.” He snickers, then gives Greyson the choice between Foxes, Raccoons, or Wolves.

“Er…Raccoons.”

“So I’ll take over the Wolves.” Justin slides down from the high windowsill, clapping his hands, and that’s the cue for the rest of us to stand. “Now, go get your kids all settled in. I’ll see you at dinner tonight and will have a copy of this list ready for you.”

Numbers Two and Three swoosh out of the room, eager to meet their groups of campers. Justin follows them, but I remain by the bed, leaning against the edge. Before he can leave, I quietly say his name. Stopping in the doorway, he turns to me.

For a long moment charged with memories of high school, evasion, reproaches, and secrets, we stare into each other’s eyes. “What’s up, tiger?” he asks me then, and the tender tone he uses warms my heart in a strangely familiar way.

Taken aback by the sudden change in his attitude, I struggle for words. Dammit, I must look like a stranded fish with my mouth flapping open and closed like this. He laughs softly, leaning against the doorjamb, obviously waiting for me to come forward with whatever was riding me a second ago.

I only manage it after I look away from his eyes and down at my toes. “How come they made you an assistant?”

“I guess it’s because of my studies.” He comes back and leans next to me against the bed, folding his arms and crossing his ankles. “Cybil Turner is a friend of my mother, and she knew I needed an internship this summer.”

I lift my gaze to him. “What are you studying?”

“I started out with social work. But I’m thinking about going into teaching.”

Strange how we’re suddenly able to have a normal conversation, with the other two counselors gone—and twelve months after seeing each other for the last time, at graduation. Reluctantly, I shake my head and admit, “I’d never have guessed you were into teaching. Or dealing with teenagers in general.”

Pressing his lips together in a tight smile, he slants his head. “That’s because you don’t know me very well.”

True.

“What about you?” he asks then. “How does counseling fit into your life as a prospective actress?”

“How do you know about—”

“Drama school? I read your file,” he explains, cutting me off. “All counselors’ files, in fact, so don’t get the impression I have a special interest in you.” When he laughs, it sounds reserved. “So, why camp? It’s not for the sake of old memories, I take it.”

I search his eyes for any hint that he knows the truth and is just playing dumb here, but Justin keeps a poker face. Is it possible that I was worrying completely in vain and my chart says nothing about my community hours after all? “I…er…had to find a summer job that gets me in touch with people is all.”

“Is that so?” He bites down a snicker, blinking innocently. “And it has nothing to do with your probation?”

“Actually,” I snap, ready to tell him that he’s an ass for fooling me. But then I let out my breath and unclamp my jaw. “Yes.” What’s the point in lying, if he knows anyway?

I expect him to sneer at me again, but he surprises me when he resorts to his friendly voice once more. “Over three hundred hours, huh?”

I can’t look him in the face any longer, so I glare at my toes again. “Mm-hm.”

“I wonder what got you into that kind of trouble.”

Is that him playing stupid again? Probably. But I tell him anyway. “Remember my car accident senior year?”

“Yes.”

“I was trashed when it happened,” I mumble. “Twenty months on probation and a shitload of community work.”

He’s so silent, I have to look up and check if he zoned out for a moment. “You didn’t know about me being drunk?”

Very slowly, he shakes his head, his eyes narrowed with honest bafflement. That sort of shocks me, because one of the guys who went looking for me after the accident—along with my cousin and her boyfriend—was the soccer team captain, and he also happened to be Justin’s best friend. It’s weird that Ryan never told him the truth. Half the soccer team was out on the street looking for me that night, and when the interrogations at the police station were over, they did all swear to keep the truth between us.

But, although there never were any rumors later, I didn’t quite trust them. Seems like they kept their promise after all.

“Do Lesley and Kirsten know about your punishment?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“I’m surprised they kept quiet about it. Would have assumed they’d let such big news slip at the first possible occasion.”

I laugh bitterly. “No, they wouldn’t. They’re my friends.” More importantly, I know things about them that would put them on probation longer than for driving while boozed up. “Anyway, I’m free at the end of July, so I’d appreciate it if you could treat this information confidentially.” I give him a cold, pointed look. “Isn’t that part of your job as an assistant, anyway?”

“Right.” He bites his lip, letting a smile slip. Amused? Scornful? I’m not able to make heads or tails of this conversation.

Taking a deep breath, I fix him with a stare. “This is weird.”

“What is?”

“Us talking like normal people. I don’t remember the last time we did.”

He hesitates a couple of seconds then startles me as he says, “I do.” His warm gaze rests on me for a long moment and wraps me in a comforting cloud of memories. I wonder what we would be like today if some things had gone in another direction. If different decisions had been made. Then his eyes turn lynx-like all of a sudden, sending shivers down my back. He slaps his hand on my thigh, squeezing slightly before he straightens and walks to the door, murmuring, “Probation.” His snide chuckle is the last thing I hear.

Yeah, why don’t you just fuck off, idiot! I wait until he’s gone, then push away from the bed and stalk out into the summer heat. The noise of excited kids drifts like a beacon through the trees and around the building. My suitcase is still sitting untouched in front of Mrs. Turner’s office. Pulling it behind me, I fight my way through the people who are positioned like obstacles on a racecourse.

From afar, Julie’s yellow T-shirt is glowing against the wooden door of the Owl cabin behind her. She’s raising her hands and, from the squeaky sound, also her voice, but the turmoil of girls at the foot of the steps doesn’t seem to really be taking notice of her. If this is how she intends to rule the kids, she’s got a hard summer in front of her.

Yeah, that’s not my problem. I aim for the Squirrel hut, where Julie and I will sleep, and stop at the stairs. On the many vacations with my family in luxurious spa hotels, there was always a bellboy who brought our belongings to our room. Unfortunately, I don’t see who I can tip here to carry up my luggage for me.

Forced to do it myself, I turn around, grip the handle of my suitcase with both hands, and hoist it up the stairs backwards, one step at a time. Damn, but this thing is hard to move. Maybe the entire vanity case was a bit too much. On the other hand, what’s a girl without her makeup, huh? As I pull on it harder, my hand slips away from the handle, and I feel a sting in the tip of my right pointer finger. A broken nail, freaking great! And I had them done only two days ago.

A volley of curses escapes me, but it doesn’t make dragging my stuff any easier. Finally on the roofed porch, sweat beads on my forehead, and I wipe it away with the back of my hand.

The door to the cabin stands open, and three untouched bunk beds, two single beds, a small desk, and two big wardrobes are all there is to this huge, square room. Everything is made of the same cappuccino-brown wood, giving me the impression of moving into a real squirrel den. The boards creak under my steps. Last time I was at this camp, I lived in the Tiger cabin for five weeks. Though the furniture was exactly the same back then, it appears much more comfortable in my memory.

A bright pink rolling suitcase stands at the foot of a bed by the window, so that’s probably the one cheery Number Two has chosen for the stay. I claim the only other single bed and sag, exhausted, into the plain chair by the desk.

None of the beds have sheets on them. One point on the checklist I received in the mail a couple days ago said to bring my own sheets. I’m not going to lie down anywhere in here before the sheets are on. The mattresses look old and faded, but at least they smell fresh. They must have been thoroughly cleaned before camp started.

Unpacking can wait until after dinner. Justin kept us quite a while in the sickroom, and by now my stomach is rolling with hunger. I retrieve my Sprite from my purse, but the drink is warm and disgustingly sweet. Screwing the top back on the bottle, I toss it into the trash can by the door and dig into my bag once again, trying to find the damn emery board I always have with me for emergencies like this.

I run it over the rough edges of my ruined nail as I walk out onto the porch again. In front of the opposite hut, Julie is still struggling for attention, trying to part the group of girls into two. Oh boy, who gave this poor excuse for an authority figure the job of counselor? Snickering, I keep tending to my nail until it’s again shiny, if irritatingly short. I put the emery board away and shoot a quick text to Brin while I’m still alone, telling her about the annoying twist of having Justin at camp. Her immediate “WTF” reply gives me a feeling of being understood by at least one person in the world. But I can’t text her all day, and hanging out in the cabin alone for the rest of the afternoon doesn’t sound very appealing. With my limited options, even Julie’s company holds a vague hint of attraction—weird as that seems.

Of course, when I go and check out the situation, she’s still fighting the battle of her life. Shaking my head, I roll my eyes and march through the unruly crowd at her feet. Taking up position next to her, I clear my throat once, then put two fingers in my mouth and whistle so loud that a bunch of birds takes off from the tree beside the hut. Immediately, all the girls turn shocked faces to me.

“Thanks for your attention, everyone. My name’s Chloe Summers, and I’ll be taking over the Tigers,” I say with a saccharin smile. Then I nod at Number Two. “This Owl here is Julie. If you want to be in her group, pick up your stuff and move into the Owl den. The rest, come with me.”

I trudge down the stairs and walk the path between the girls. Their big eyes are fixed on me, but otherwise they don’t move an inch. Turning around, I bark, “Now!”

With an instant hustle, all of them grab their duffle bags and suitcases, and while half of the crowd is fleeing toward Julie, the rest of them obediently follow me to the Tiger hut.

There you go. That’s how you command a bunch of annoying kids.

 

Chapter 3

Justin

 

I bang my forehead on the bathroom door. Chloe Summers. Of all the girls from high school, Chloe Summers has to be one of the counselors.

“Justin? Are you all right?” Greyson’s voice drifts through the gap under the door.

Inhaling a deep breath, I turn the knob and walk back into the room that he and I are going to share for the next five weeks. “Sure.”

“Oh. Okay.” With a puzzled look on his face, he points a thumb over his shoulder as I walk past him. “It just sounded like you were falling against the door in there or something.”

Yeah, that was me trying to hammer a girl out of my head who has no right to be in there in the first place.

“I tripped,” I say curtly and finish putting my clothes and other stuff into one side of the only wardrobe in this cabin. Fair enough, it’s big, but how eight boys are supposed to fit their belongings into it escapes me.

Luckily, Greyson and I occupy this cabin alone. From the looks of it, he didn’t bring much. Me neither. Some clothes, stuff for the bathroom, hiking boots, and an extra pair of sneakers. Most of the stuff unpacked, the only things left in my suitcase are sheets. I sit down on the mattress and do my best to shove the pillow into a blue-patterned cover. Greyson is done putting the cover on his quilt. Man, it looked so easy when he did it.

“So, what do you think about the girls?”

“Hm?” I look up from the fight with my pillow to where my roomie now lounges on his bed.

“Chloe and Julie,” he explains, starting to suck on the third licorice since we returned from dinner. He keeps pulling them out of his backpack like it’s some kind of stupid magic hat. “What’s your first impression?”

“Julie seems cute.” I fasten the last button on the pillowcase then start up another fight with the bed linen. “I like how she’s wholeheartedly throwing herself into this camp adventure. She’ll make a good counselor.”

“Yep. And she’s pretty, too,” Greyson muses out loud.

I’m not sure if he’s aware of the sigh that just escaped him, but I cast him a smirk. “You like her?”

“She’s funny.” He bites off a chunk of the red stuff and speaks around it with a grin. “When she told those jokes during dinner, I nearly pissed my pants.”

Even I chuckle again at the memory of how the girl with the black braids almost made me choke on my burger at the counselor table in the dining hall.

“And Chloe,” Grey continues. “She’s really hot stuff. Do you know if she’s taken?”

Uh-oh. “Girls like Chloe never are,” I warn him, my brows tipping together. “You’d be smart not to get involved with her.”

“Really? Why’s that? I thought you were friends. Sort of.”

“Long story.” I roll my eyes and eventually conquer the quilt in the fight I’ve been battling for the past few minutes. “To keep it short, in high school, she was kind of a spoiled brat who didn’t care about anybody or anything but herself.”

“And you think she hasn’t changed since then?”

I give his licorice a pointed look. “I wouldn’t bet your candy on it.” Then again, who knows? Chloe Summers might have changed after all. She could have a boyfriend now. Maybe she’s lost the nickname of man-eater, become courteous, and started treating people with respect. Or…she’s still the same little bitch who once slept her way through the soccer team. The basketball team. And half the senior class as well. She always walked away, never looking back. Not once.

“I don’t know.” Greyson shoves the rest of his candy all the way into his mouth and chews noisily. “She made a nice impression during dinner.”

“Because she was silent all through dinner,” I counter. “If she doesn’t open her mouth, nothing bad can spill out.” It’s really that simple. And if she’s not drawing attention to herself around Grey, it can only mean he’s not her type. Probably not athletic enough for her to chase.

And she wouldn’t—not in a billion years—make a move on me, that’s for sure.

“Perhaps you’re judging her too harshly. After all, it’s been a year since you last saw her.”

Annoyed at the twerp’s defense of Chloe, I fluff up my pillow in irritation before speaking. “And your point is?”

“Many things can happen in a year. She might be nicer now and surprise you.”

I shrug it off. “Well, we’ve got five weeks to find out, right?”

Greyson gets up from the bed and rummages in his backpack until he pulls out a yellow pack of M&Ms. Ripping it open, he pours a few in his palm and tosses them in his mouth, offering me the open pack.

“Seriously?” I laugh but reach inside and grab a couple anyway. “You got some candy addiction here or what?”

“Smoking withdrawal.”

“Ah. How long have you been on detox?”

He casts a glance at his watch. “Seven hours and thirty-two minutes.”

“Dude, that’s tough.” I shake my head and pop the M&Ms in my mouth, a yellow one first.

“It’s hell!” he whines. “I need a distraction.” Then his face brightens a notch. “Know what? How about we call the girls over for a late-night soda in the dining hall?”

I arch a caustic brow at him. “You mean call as in use the tree phone?”

My sarcasm rolls off him. “Oh, right. Maybe we shouldn’t have locked away everyone’s phones after all.”

“Too late for regrets, pal.” I pull my hoodie on over my white T-shirt and open the door. “Come on. Let’s go over and ask them to come.”

Grey slips out the door but stops on the porch and turns back to me. “What do we do with the boys? Can we leave them alone?”

I’m not worried about any of the kids stepping out of line on the first evening. They’re all supposed to be busy moving in. Deciding not to take a risk, however, I hop over the banister instead of taking the stairs and head for the Wolf cabin.

As I pull the door open, a stink wave hits me straight in the face. “Whoa.” Grimacing, I stumble backward and fan myself. What is it with boys farting all the time when no girls are around? The collar of my hoodie draped over my nose, I forge through the jumble of rowdies jesting and hollering as they store their things away in the cupboards and drawers, and open the window in the opposite wall. Leaning far out, I suck in a deep breath of fresh, night air then turn around.

When none of them seem to have even noticed my entry, I clap my hands twice and shout, “Guys!” The room falls quiet, and I finally make my speech. “At dinner, you heard about the duties every group will have here at camp. Greyson and I came up with a little competition that will allow the winners to dump two days’ worth of their kitchen duties on the losing team.”

That earns me a round of cheers from the kids.

While unpacking my stuff earlier, I came across tons of board games and puzzles in our wardrobe. Every cabin has its own selection of games, so I stride to the cupboard across the room and retrieve two one-thousand-piece puzzles from the top shelf. One of the boxes I hand to the guy lounging on the top bunk to my right, who was making the entire room laugh at his jokes a moment ago. If I remember it right, his name’s Brian. His chaotic hair is stiff with gel, and the collar of his denim jacket is pulled upright. He seems to have group-leader potential. Better he put that to good use than lazing around.

“The team that finishes their puzzle first,” I say, my gaze on him, “wins.”

Instantly, Brian slides down from the bunk bed and starts to set up the puzzle on the floor. “Get your lazy bones down here,” he commands his friends, proving me right. All the boys drop whatever they’ve been doing and surround him on the floor.

Greyson takes the second puzzle box and carries it into the Raccoon cabin, laying out the rules to his own group.

When he comes back, he smacks me on the shoulder. “Brilliant idea.”

“Kids need an occupation. Give them something to do, and none of them will come up with shit.” I zip my hoodie and tuck my hands into the pockets as I start off toward the lake. “Let’s go visit the girls now.”

***

JUNE 23 – where books are sold!

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