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Nora Roberts

  This book is dedicated with gratitude

  and affection to Nancy Jackson.

  Chapter 1

  “If there’s one thing I hate,” Eden mumbled, “it’s six o’clock in the morning.”

  Sunlight poured through the thinly screened windows of the cabin and fell on the wooden floor, the metal bars of her bunk, and her face. The sound of the morning bell echoed dully in her head. Though she’d known that long, clanging ring for only three days, Eden already hated it.

  For one fanciful moment, she buried her face under the pillow, imagining herself cuddled in her big four-poster. The Irish-linen sheets would smell ever-so-slightly of lemon. In her airy pastel bedroom, the curtains would be drawn against the morning, the scent of fresh flowers sweetening the air.

  The pillowcase smelled of feathers and detergent.

  With a grunt, Eden tossed the pillow to the floor, then struggled to sit up. Now that the morning bell had stopped, she could hear the cries of a couple of excited crows. From the cabin directly across the compound came a happy blast of rock music. With glazed eyes, she watched Candice Bartholomew bound out of the adjoining bunk. Her sharp-featured pixie’s face was split by a grin.

  “Morning.” Candy’s long, clever fingers ran through her thatch of red hair like scoops, causing it to bounce into further disarray. Candy was, Eden had always thought, all bounce. “It’s a beautiful day,” she announced in a voice as cheerful as the rest of her. Watching her friend stretch in frilly baby-doll pajamas, Eden gave another noncommittal grunt. She swung her bare legs off the mattress and contemplated the accomplishment of putting her feet on the floor.

  “I could grow to hate you.” Eden’s voice, still husky with sleep, carried the rounded tones of her finishing-school education. Eyes shut, she pushed her own tousled blond hair away from her face.

  Grinning, Candy tossed open the cabin door so that she could breathe in the fresh morning air while she studied her friend. The strong summer sunlight shot through Eden’s pale hair, making it look fragile where it lay against her forehead and cheeks. Her eyes remained shut. Her slender shoulders slumped, she let out an enormous yawn. Candy wisely said nothing, knowing Eden didn’t share her enthusiasm for sunrise.

  “It can’t be morning,” Eden grumbled. “I swear I only lay down five minutes ago.” Resting her elbows on her knees, she dropped her face into her hands. Her complexion was creamy, with just a suggestion of rose on the crest of her cheekbones. Her nose was small, with a hint of an upward tilt at the tip. What might have been a coolly aristocratic face was gentled by a full, generous mouth.

  Candy took in one last breath of air, then shut the door. “All you need is a shower and some coffee. The first week of camp’s the toughest, remember?”

  Eden opened wide, lake-blue eyes. “Easy for you to say. You’re not the one who fell in the poison ivy.”

  “Still itching?”

  “A little.” Because her own foul mood was making her feel guilty, Eden managed a smile. Everything softened, eyes, mouth, voice. “In any case, this is the first time we’re the campees instead of the campers.” Letting out another fierce yawn, she rose and tugged on a robe. The air coming through the screens was fresh as a daisy, and chilly enough to make Eden’s toes curl. She wished she could remember what she’d done with her slippers.

  “Try under the bunk,” Candy suggested.

  Eden bent down and found them. They were embroidered pink silk, hardly practical, but it hadn’t seemed worthwhile to invest in another pair. Putting them on gave her an excuse to sit down again. “Do you really think five consecutive summers at Camp Forden for Girls prepared us for this?”

  Haunted by her own doubts, Candy clasped her hands together. “Eden, are you having second thoughts?”

  Because she recognized distress in the bubbly voice, Eden buried her own doubts. She had both a financial and emotional interest in the newly formed Camp Liberty. Complaining wasn’t going to put her on the road to success. With a shake of her head, she walked over to squeeze Candy’s shoulder. “What I have is a terminal case of morning crankiness. Let me get that shower, then I’ll be ready to face our twenty-seven tenants.”

  “Eden.” Candy stopped her before she closed the bathroom door. “It’s going to work, for both of us. I know it.”

  “I know it, too.” Eden closed the bathroom door and leaned against it. She could admit it now, while she was alone. She was scared to death. Her last dime, and her last ray of hope, were tied up in the six cabins, the stables and the cafeteria that were Camp Liberty. What did Eden Carlbough, former Philadelphia socialite, know about managing a girls’ summer camp? Just enough to terrify her.

  If she failed now, with this, could she pick up the pieces and go on? Would there be any pieces left? Confidence was what was needed, she told herself as she turned the taps on. Once inside the narrow shower stall, she gave the tap optimistically marked HOT another twist. Water, lukewarm, dripped out halfheartedly. Confidence, Eden thought again as she shivered under the miserly spray. Plus some cold, hard cash and a whole barrel of luck.

  She found the soap and began to lather with the soft-scented French milled she still allowed herself to indulge in. A year ago she would never have considered something as lowly as soap an indulgence.

  A year ago.

  Eden turned so that the rapidly cooling water hit her back. A year ago she would have risen at eight, had a leisurely, steaming shower, then breakfasted on toast and coffee, perhaps some shirred eggs. Sometime before ten, she would have driven to the library for her volunteer morning. There would have been lunch with Eric, perhaps at the Deux Cheminées before she gave her afternoon to the museum or one of Aunt Dottie’s charities.

  The biggest decision she might have made was whether to wear her rose silk suit or her ivory linen. Her evening might have been spent quietly at home, or at one of Philadelphia’s elegant dinner parties.

  No pressure. No problems. But then, Papa had been alive.

  Eden sighed as she rinsed away the last of the lather. The light French scent clung to her even as she dried her skin with the serviceable camp-issue towel. When her father had been alive, she had thought that money was simply something to spend and that time was forever. She had been raised to plan a menu, but not to cook; to run a home, but not to clean it.

  Throughout her childhood, she had been carelessly happy with her widowed father in the ageless elegance of their Philadelphia home. There had always been party dresses and cotillions, afternoon teas and riding lessons. The Carlbough name was an old and respected one. The Carlbough money had been a simple fact of life.

  How quickly and finally things could change.

  Now she was giving riding instructions and juggling columns in a ledger with the vain hope that one and one didn’t always make two.

  Because the tiny mirror over the tiny sink was dripping with condensation, Eden rubbed it with the towel. She took a miserly dab of the half pot of imported face cream she had left. She was going to make it last through the summer. If she lasted through the summer herself, another pot would be her reward.

  Eden found the cabin empty when she opened the bathroom door. If she knew Candy, and after twenty years she certainly did, the redhead would be down with the girls already. How easily she became acclimatized, Eden thought; then she reminded herself it was time she did the same. She took her jeans and her red T-shirt with CAMP LIBERTY emblazoned on the chest, and began to dress. Even as a teenager, Eden had rarely dressed so casually.

  She had enjoyed her social life—the parties, the well-chaperoned ski trips to Vermont, the trips to New York for shopping or the theater, the vacations in Europe. The prospect of earning a living had never been considered, by her, or her father. Carlbough women didn’t work; they chai
red committees.

  College years had been spent with the idea of rounding out her education rather than focusing on a career. At twenty-three, Eden was forced to admit she was qualified to do absolutely nothing.

  She could have blamed her father. But how could she blame a man who had been so indulgent and loving? She had adored him. She could blame herself for being naive and shortsighted, but she could never blame her father. Even now, a year after his sudden death, she still felt pangs of grief.

  She could deal with that. The one thing she had been taught to do, the one thing she felt herself fully qualified to accomplish, was to cover emotion with poise, with control, or with disdain. She could go day after day, week after week through the summer, surrounded by the girls at camp and the counselors Candy had hired, and none of them would know she still mourned her father. Or that her pride had been shattered by Eric Keeton.

  Eric, the promising young banker with her father’s firm. Eric, always so charming, so attentive, so suitable. It had been during her last year of college that she had accepted his ring and made her promises to him. And he had made promises to her.

  When she discovered the hurt was still there, Eden coated it, layer by layer, with anger. Facing the mirror, she tugged her hair back in a short ponytail, a style her hairdresser would have shuddered at.

  It was more practical, Eden told her reflection. She was a practical woman now, and hair waving softly to the shoulders would just have got in the way during the riding lessons she was to give that morning.

  For a moment, she pressed her fingers against her eyes. Why were the mornings always the worst? She would wake, expecting to come out of some bad dream and find herself at home again. But it wasn’t her home any longer. There were strangers living in it now. Brian Carlbough’s death had not been a bad dream, but a horrible, horrible reality.

  A sudden heart attack had taken him overnight, leaving Eden stunned with shock and grief. Even before the grief could fade, Eden had been struck with another shock.

  There had been lawyers, black-vested lawyers with long, technical monologues. They had had offices that had smelled of old leather and fresh polish. With solemn faces and politely folded hands, they had shattered her world.

  Poor investments, she had been told, bad market trends, mortgages, second mortgages, short-term loans. The simple fact had been, once the details had been sifted through, there had been no money.

  Brian Carlbough had been a gambler. At the time of his death, his luck had turned, and he hadn’t had time to recoup his losses. His daughter had been forced to liquidate his assets in order to pay off the debts. The house she had grown up in and loved was gone. She had still been numbed by grief when she had found herself without a home or an income. Crashing down on top of that had been Eric’s betrayal.

  Eden yanked open the cabin door and was met by the balmy morning air of the mountains. The breathtaking view of greening hills and blue sky didn’t affect her. She was back in Philadelphia, hearing Eric’s calm, reasonable voice.

  The scandal, she remembered and began marching toward the big cabin where mess would be served. His reputation. His career. Everything she had loved had been taken away, but he had only been concerned with how he might be affected.

  He had never loved her. Eden jammed her hands into her pockets and kept walking. She’d been a fool not to see it from the beginning. But she’d learned, Eden reminded herself. How she’d learned. It had simply been a merger to Eric, the Carlbough name, the Carlbough money and reputation. When they had been destroyed, he had cut his losses.

  Eden slowed her quick pace, realizing she was out of breath, not from exertion but from temper. It would never do to walk into breakfast with her face flushed and her eyes gleaming. Giving herself a moment, she took a few deep breaths and looked around her.

  The air was still cool, but by midmorning the sun would be warm and strong. Summer had barely begun.

  And it was beautiful. Lining the compound were a half-dozen small cabins with their window flaps open to the morning. The sound of girlish laughter floated through the windows. Along the pathway between cabins four and five was a scattering of anemones. A dogwood, with a few stubborn blooms clinging to it, stood nearby. Above cabin two, a mockingbird chattered.

  Beyond the main camp to the west were rolling hills, deeply green. Grazing horses and trees dotted them. There was an openness here, a sense of space which Eden found incredible. Her life had always been focused on the city. Streets, buildings, traffic, people, those had been the familiar. There were times when she felt a quick pang of need for what had been. It was still possible for her to have all that. Aunt Dottie had offered her home and her love. No one would ever know how long and hard Eden had wrestled with the temptation to accept the invitation and let her life drift.

  Perhaps gambling was in Eden’s blood, too. Why else would she have sunk what ready cash she had had left into a fledgling camp for girls in the hills?

  Because she had had to try, Eden reminded herself. She had had to take the risk on her own. She could never go back into the shell of the fragile porcelain doll she had been. Here, centered in such open space, she would take the time to learn about herself. What was inside Eden Carlbough? Maybe, just maybe, by expanding her horizons, she would find her place.

  Candy was right. Eden took a long last breath. It was going to work. They were going to make it work.

  “Hungry?” Her hair damp from whatever shower she’d popped into, Candy cut across Eden’s path.

  “Starved.” Content, Eden swung a friendly arm around Candy’s shoulder. “Where did you run off to?”

  “You know me, I can’t let any part of this place run by itself.” Like Eden, Candy swept her gaze over the camp. Her expression reflected everything inside her—the love, the fear, the fierce pride. “I was worried about you.”

  “Candy, I told you, I was just cranky this morning.” Eden watched a group of girls rush out of a cabin and head for breakfast.

  “Eden, we’ve been friends since we were six months old. No one knows better than I what you’re going through.”

  No, no one did, and since Candy was the person she loved best, Eden determined to do a better job of concealing the wounds that were still open. “I’ve put it behind me, Candy.”

  “Maybe. But I know that the camp was initially my venture, and that I roped you in.”

  “You didn’t rope me in. I wanted to invest. We both know it was a pitifully small amount.”

  “Not to me. The extra money made it possible for me to include the equestrian program. Then, when you agreed to come in and give riding lessons . . .”

  “Just keeping a close eye on my investment,” Eden said lightly. “Next year I won’t be a part-time riding instructor and bookkeeper. I’ll be a full-fledged counselor. No regrets, Candy.” This time she meant it. “It’s ours.”

  “And the bank’s.”

  Eden shrugged that away. “We need this place. You, because it’s what you’ve always wanted to do, always worked and studied toward. Me . . .” She hesitated, then sighed. “Let’s face it, I haven’t got anything else. The camp’s putting a roof over my head, giving me three meals a day and a goal. I need to prove I can make it.”

  “People think we’re crazy.”

  The pride came back, with a feeling of recklessness Eden was just learning to savor. “Let them.”

  With a laugh, Candy tugged at Eden’s hair. “Let’s eat.”

  Two hours later, Eden was winding up the day’s first riding lesson. This was her specialty, her contribution to the partnership she and Candy had made. It had also been decided to trust Eden with the books, mainly because no one could have been more inept with figures than Candice Bartholomew.

  Candy had interviewed and hired a staff of counselors, a nutritionist and a nurse. They hoped to have a pool and a swimming instructor one day, but for now there was supervised swimming and rowing on the lake, arts and crafts, hiking and archery. Candy had spent months refining
a program for the summer, while Eden had juggled the profit-and-loss statements. She prayed the money would hold out while Candy ordered supplies.

  Unlike Candy, Eden wasn’t certain the first week of camp would be the toughest. Her partner had all the training, all the qualifications for running the camp, but Candy also had an optimist’s flair for overlooking details like red ink on the books.

  Pushing those thoughts aside, Eden signaled from the center of the corral. “That’s all for today.” She scanned the six young faces under their black riding hats. “You’re doing very well.”

  “When can we gallop, Miss Carlbough?”

  “After you learn to trot.” She patted one of the horses’ flanks. Wouldn’t it be lovely, she thought, to gallop off into the hills, riding so fast even memories couldn’t follow? Foolish, Eden told herself; she gave her attention back to the girls. “Dismount, then cool down your horses. Remember, they depend on you.” The breeze tossed her bangs, and she brushed at them absently. “Remember to put all the tack in its proper place for the next class.”

  This caused the groans she expected. Riding and playing with the horses was one thing, tidying up afterward was another. Eden considered exerting discipline without causing resentment another accomplishment. Over the past week, she’d learned to link the girls’ faces and names. The eleven and twelve-year-olds in her group had an enthusiasm that kept her on her toes. She’d already separated in her mind the two or three she instructed who had the kind of horse fever she recognized from her own adolescence. It was rewarding, after an hour on her feet in the sun, to answer the rapid-fire questions. Ultimately, one by one, she nudged them toward the stables.

  “Eden!” Turning, she spotted Candy hustling toward her. Even from a distance, Eden recognized concern.

  “What’s happened?”

  “We’re missing three kids.”

  “What?” Panic came first, and quickly. Years of training had her pulling it back. “What do you mean, missing?”

  “I mean they’re nowhere in camp. Roberta Snow, Linda Hopkins and Marcie Jamison.” Candy dragged a hand through her hair, a habitual gesture of tension. “Barbara was lining up her group for