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Temptation, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  rowing, and they didn’t show. We’ve looked everywhere.”

  “We can’t panic,” Eden said, as much to warn herself as Candy. “Roberta Snow? Isn’t she the little brunette who stuck a lizard down one of the other girls’ shirts? And the one who set off the morning bell at 3:00 a.m.?”

  “Yes, that’s her.” Candy set her teeth. “The little darling. Judge Harper Snow’s granddaughter. If she’s skinned her knee, we’ll probably face a lawsuit.” With a shake of her head, Candy switched to an undertone. “The last anyone saw of her this morning, she was walking east.” She pointed a finger, paint-spattered from her early art class. “No one noticed the other girls, but my bet is that they’re with her. Darling Roberta is an inveterate leader.”

  “If she’s walking that way, wouldn’t she run into that apple orchard?”

  “Yeah.” Candy shut her eyes. “Oh, yeah. I’m going to have six girls up to their wrists in modeling clay in ten minutes, or I’d go off myself. Eden, I’m almost sure they headed for the orchard. One of the other girls admitted she heard Roberta planning to sneak over there for a few samples. We don’t want any trouble with the owner. He’s letting us use his lake only because I begged, shamelessly. He wasn’t thrilled about having a girls’ summer camp for a neighbor.”

  “Well, he has one,” Eden pointed out. “So we’ll all have to deal with it. I’m the one most easily spared around here, so I’ll go after them.”

  “I was hoping you’d say that. Seriously, Eden, if they’ve snuck into that orchard, which I’d bet my last dime they have, we could be in for it. The man made no bones about how he feels about his land and his privacy.”

  “Three little girls are hardly going to do any damage to a bunch of apple trees.” Eden began to walk, with Candy scurrying to keep pace.

  “He’s Chase Elliot. You know, Elliot Apples? Juice, cider, sauce, jelly, chocolate-covered apple seeds, whatever can be made from an apple, they do it. He made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want to find any little girls climbing his trees.”

  “He won’t find them, I will.” Leaving Candy behind, Eden swung over a fence.

  “Put Roberta on a leash when you catch up to her.” Candy watched her disappear through the trees.

  Eden followed the path from the camp, pleased when she found a crumpled candy wrapper. Roberta. With a grim smile, Eden picked it up and stuffed it in her pocket. Judge Snow’s granddaughter had already earned a reputation for her stash of sweets.

  It was warm now, but the path veered through a cool grove of aspens. Sunlight dappled the ground, making the walk, if not her errand, pleasant. Squirrels dashed here and there, confident enough in their own speed not to be alarmed at Eden’s intrusion. Once, a rabbit darted across her path, and disappeared into the brush with a frantic rustle. Overhead a woodpecker drummed, sending out an echo.

  It occurred to Eden that she was more completely alone than she had ever been before. No civilization here. She bent down for another candy wrapper. Well, very little of it.

  There were new scents here, earth, animal, vegetation, to be discovered. Wildflowers sprang up, tougher and more resilient than hothouse roses. It pleased her that she was even beginning to be able to recognize a few. They came back, year after year, without pampering, taking what came and thriving on it. They gave her hope. She could find a place here. Had found a place, she corrected herself. Her friends in Philadelphia might think her mad, but she was beginning to enjoy it.

  The grove of aspens thinned abruptly, and the sunlight was strong again. She blinked against it, then shielded her eyes as she scanned the Elliot orchards.

  Apple trees stretched ahead of her as far as she could see, to the north, south and east. Row after row after row of trees lined the slopes. Some of them were old and gnarled, some young and straight. Instantly she thought of early spring and the overwhelming scent of apple blossoms.

  It would be magnificent, she thought as she stepped up to the fence that separated the properties. The fragrance, the pretty white-and-pink blossoms, the freshly green leaves, would be a marvelous sight. Now the leaves were dark and thick, and instead of blossoms, she could see fruit in the trees closest to her. Small, shiny, and green they hung, waiting for the sun to ripen them.

  How many times had she eaten applesauce that had begun right here? The idea made her smile as she began to climb the fence. Her vision of an orchard had been a lazy little grove guarded by an old man in overalls. A quaint picture, but nothing as huge and impressive as the reality.

  The sound of giggling took her by surprise. Shifting toward the direction of the sound, Eden watched an apple fall from a tree and roll toward her feet. Bending, she picked it up, tossing it away as she walked closer. When she looked up, she spotted three pairs of sneakers beneath the cover of leaves and branches.

  “Ladies.” Eden spoke coolly and was rewarded by three startled gasps, “Apparently you took a wrong turn on your way to the lake.”

  Roberta’s triangular, freckled face appeared through the leaves. “Hi, Miss Carlbough. Would you like an apple?”

  The devil. But even as she thought it, Eden had to tighten her lips against a smile. “Down,” she said simply, then stepped closer to the trunk to assist.

  They didn’t need her. Three agile little bodies scrambled down and dropped lightly onto the ground. In a gesture she knew could be intimidating, Eden lifted her left eyebrow.

  “I’m sure you’re aware that leaving camp property unsupervised and without permission is against the rules.”

  “Yes, Miss Carlbough.” The response would have been humble if it hadn’t been for the gleam in Roberta’s eye.

  “Since none of you seem interested in rowing today, Mrs. Petrie has a great deal of washing up to be done in the kitchen.” Pleased by her own inspiration, Eden decided Candy would approve. “You’re to report to Miss Bartholomew, then to Mrs. Petrie for kitchen detail.”

  Only two of the girls dropped their heads and looked down at the ground.

  “Miss Carlbough, do you think it’s fair to give us extra kitchen detail?” Roberta, one half-eaten apple still in hand, tilted her pointed chin. “After all, our parents are paying for the camp.”

  Eden felt her palms grow damp. Judge Snow was a wealthy and powerful man with a reputation for indulging his granddaughter. If the little monster complained . . . No. Eden took a deep breath and not by a flicker showed her anxiety. She wouldn’t be intimidated or blackmailed by a pint-size con artist with apple juice on her chin.

  “Yes, your parents are paying for you to be entertained, instructed and disciplined. When they signed you up for Camp Liberty, it was with the understanding that you would obey the rules. But if you prefer, I’d be glad to call your parents and discuss this incident with them.”

  “No, ma’am.” Knowing when to retreat, Roberta smiled charmingly. “We’ll be glad to help Mrs. Petrie, and we’re sorry for breaking the rules.”

  And I’m sure you have a bridge I could buy, Eden thought, but she kept her face impassive. “Fine. It’s time to start back.”

  “My hat!” Roberta would have darted back up the tree if Eden hadn’t made a lucky grab for her. “I left my hat up there. Please, Miss Carlbough, it’s my Phillies cap, and it’s autographed and everything.”

  “You start back. I’ll get it. I don’t want Miss Bartholomew to worry any longer than necessary.”

  “We’ll apologize.”

  “See that you do.” Eden watched them scramble over the fence. “And no detours,” she called out. “Or I keep the cap,” One look at Roberta assured her that that bit of blackmail was all that was needed. “Monsters,” she murmured as they jogged back into the grove, but the smile finally escaped. Turning back, she studied the tree.

  All she had to do was climb up. It had looked simple enough when Roberta and her partners-in-crime had done it. Somehow, it didn’t look as simple now. Squaring her shoulders, Eden stepped forward to grab a low-hanging branch. She’d done a little mountain-cli
mbing in Switzerland; how much harder could this be? Pulling herself up, she hooked her foot in the first vee she found. The bark was rough against her palm. Concentrating on her goal, she ignored the scrapes. With both feet secured, she reached for the next branch and began to work her way up. Leaves brushed her cheeks.

  She spotted the cap hanging on a short branch, two arms’ lengths out of reach. When she made the mistake of looking down, her stomach clenched. So don’t look, Eden ordered herself. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. She hoped.

  Eden cautiously inched her way out to the cap. When her fingers made contact with it, she let out a low breath of relief. After setting it on her own head, she found herself looking out, beyond the tree, over the orchard.

  Now it was the symmetry that caught her admiration. From her bird’s height, she could see the order as well as the beauty. She could just barely glimpse a slice of the lake beyond the aspens. It winked blue in the distance. There were barnlike buildings, and what appeared to be a greenhouse, far off to the right. About a quarter of a mile away, there was a truck, apparently abandoned, on a wide dirt path. In the quiet, birds began to sing again. Turning her head, she saw the bright yellow flash of a butterfly.

  The scent of leaves and fruit and earth was tangy, basic. Unable to resist, Eden reached out and plucked a sun-warmed apple.

  He’d never miss it, she decided as she bit into the skin. The tart flavor, not quite ripe, shot into her mouth. She shivered at the shock of it, the sensual appeal, then bit again. Delicious, she thought. Exciting. Forbidden fruit usually was, she remembered, but she grinned as she took a third bite.

  “What in the devil are you doing?”

  She started, almost unseating herself, as the voice boomed up from below. She swallowed the bite of apple quickly before peering down through the leaves.

  He stood with his hands on his hips, narrow, lean, spare. A faded denim workshirt was rolled up past the elbows to show tan and muscle. Warily, Eden brought her eyes to his face. It was tanned like his arms, with the skin drawn tight over bone. His nose was long and not quite straight, his mouth full and firm and frowning. Jet-black and unruly, his hair fell over his brow and curled just beyond the collar of his shirt. Pale, almost translucent green eyes scowled up at her.

  An apple, Eden, and now the serpent. The idea ran through her head before she drew herself back.

  Wonderful, she thought. She’d been caught pinching apples by the foreman. Since disappearing wasn’t an option, she opened her mouth to start a plausible explanation.

  “Young lady, do you belong at the camp next door?”

  The tone brought on a frown. She might be penniless, she might be scrambling to make a living, but she was still a Carlbough. And a Carlbough could certainly handle an apple foreman. “Yes, that’s right. I’d like to—”

  “Are you aware that this is private property, and that you’re trespassing?”

  The color of her eyes deepened, the only outward sign of her embarrassed fury. “Yes, but I—”

  “These trees weren’t planted for little girls to climb.”

  “I hardly think—”

  “Come down.” There was absolute command in his tone. “I’ll have to take you back to the camp director.”

  The temper she had always gently controlled bubbled up until she gave serious consideration to throwing what was left of the apple down on his head. No one, absolutely no one, gave her orders. “That won’t be necessary.”

  “I’ll decide what’s necessary. Come down here.”

  She’d come down all right, Eden thought. Then, with a few well-chosen words, he’d be put precisely in his place. Annoyance carried her from branch to branch, leaving no room for thoughts of height or inexperience. The two scrapes she picked up on the trip were hardly felt. Her back was to him as she lowered herself into a vee of the trunk. The pleasure of demolishing him with icy manners would be well worth the embarrassment of having been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. She imagined him cringing and babbling an incoherent apology.

  Then her foot slipped, and her frantic grab for a limb was an inch short of the mark. With a shriek that was equal parts surprise and dismay, she fell backward into space.

  The breath whooshed back out of her as she connected with something solid. The tanned, muscled arms she’d seen from above wrapped around her. Momentum carried them both to the ground and, like the apple, they rolled. When the world stopped spinning, Eden found herself beneath a very firm, very long body.

  Roberta’s cap had flown off and Eden’s face, no longer shadowed by the brim, was left unguarded in the sunlight. Chase stared down at her and felt soft breasts yield under him.

  “You’re not twelve years old,” he murmured.

  “Certainly not.”

  Amused now, he shifted his weight, but didn’t remove it. “I didn’t get a good look at you when you were in the tree.” He had time to make up for that now, he decided, and he looked his fill. “You’re quite a windfall.” Carelessly, he brushed stray strands of hair away from her face. His fingertips were as rough against her skin as the bark had been to her palms. “What are you doing in a girls’ summer camp?”

  “Running it,” she said coldly. It wasn’t a complete lie. Because it would have bruised her dignity even more to squirm, she settled on sending him an icy look. “Would you mind?”

  “Running it?” Since she had dropped out of one of his trees, he had no qualms about ignoring her request. “I met someone. Bartholomew—red hair, appealing face.” He scanned Eden’s classic features. “You’re not her.”

  “Obviously not.” Because his body was too warm, too male, and too close, she sacrificed some dignity by putting her hands to his shoulders. He didn’t budge. “I’m her partner. Eden Carlbough.”

  “Ah, of the Philadelphia Carlboughs.”

  The humor in his voice was another blow to her pride. Eden combated it with a withering stare. “That’s correct.”

  Intriguing little package, he thought. All manners and breeding. “A pleasure, Miss Carlbough. I’m Chase Elliot of the South Mountain Elliots.”

  Chapter 2

  Perfect, just perfect, Eden thought as she stared up at him. Not the foreman, but the bloody owner. Caught stealing apples by, falling out of trees on and pinned to the ground under, the owner. She took a deep breath.

  “How do you do, Mr. Elliot.”

  She might have been in the front parlor pouring tea, Chase thought; he had to admire her. Then he burst out laughing. “I do just fine, Miss Carlbough. And you?”

  He was laughing at her. Even after the scandal and shame she had faced, no one had dared laugh at her. Not to her face. Her lips trembled once before she managed to control them. She wouldn’t give the oaf the pleasure of knowing how much he infuriated her.

  “I’m quite well, thank you, or will be when you let me up.”

  City manners, he thought. Socially correct and absolutely meaningless. His own were a bit cruder, but more honest. “In a minute. I’m finding this conversation fascinating.”

  “Then perhaps we could continue it standing up.”

  “I’m very comfortable.” That wasn’t precisely true. The soft, slender lines of her body were causing him some problems. Rather than alleviate them, Chase decided to enjoy them. And her. “So, how are you finding life in the rough?”

  He was still laughing at her, without troubling to pretend otherwise. Eden tasted the fury bubbling up in her throat. She swallowed it. “Mr. Elliot—”

  “Chase,” he interrupted. “I think, under the circumstances, we should dispense with formalities.”

  Control teetered long enough for her to shove against his shoulders again. It was like pushing rock. “This is ridiculous. You have to let me up.”

  “I rarely have to do anything.” His voice was a drawl now, and insolent, but no less imposing than the bellow that had first greeted her. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Eden Carlbough.” And he’d seen the newspaper pictures that he no
w realized had been just shy of the mark. It was difficult to capture that cool sexuality in two dimensions. “I never expected a Carlbough of Philadelphia to fall out of one of my trees.”

  Her breathing became unsteady. All the training, the years she’d spent being taught how to coat every emotion with politeness, began to crack. “It was hardly my intention to fall out of one of your trees.”

  “Wouldn’t have fallen out if you hadn’t climbed up.” He smiled, realizing how glad he was that he’d decided to check this section of the orchard himself.

  This couldn’t be happening. Eden closed her eyes a moment and waited for things to fall back into their proper places. She couldn’t be lying flat on her back under a stranger. “Mr. Elliot.” Her voice was calm and reasonable when she tried it again. “I’d be more than happy to give you a complete explanation if you’d let me up.”

  “Explanation first.”

  Her mouth quite simply fell open. “You are the most unbelievably rude and boorish man I have ever met.”

  “My property” he said simply. “My rules. Let’s hear your explanation.”

  She almost shuddered with the effort to hold back the torrent of abuse that leaped to her tongue. Because of her position, she had to squint up at him. Already a headache was collecting behind her eyes. “Three of my girls wandered away from camp. Unfortunately, they climbed over the fence and onto your property. I found them, ordered them down and sent them back to the camp, where they are being properly disciplined.”