Temptation, p.12Nora Roberts
a moment, wanting to believe dreams were possible. He was so solid, so real. But so were her responsibilities.
“Chase, you know I can’t.” Fighting for rationality, she drew away. “I have to stay at camp.”
Before she could move away again, he caught her face in his hands. She thought his eyes had darkened, a stormier green now, with splashes of gold from the sun. “And when summer’s over, Eden? What then?”
What then? How could she have the answer, when the answer was so cold, so final? It wasn’t what she wanted, but what had to be. If she was to keep her promise to herself, to make her life work, there was only one answer. “Then I’ll go back, back to Philadelphia, until next summer.”
Only summers? Was that all she was willing to give? It was the panic that surprised him and kept the fury at bay. When she left, his life would be empty. He took her shoulders again, fighting back the panic.
“You’ll come to me before you go.” It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t a demand. It was a simple statement. The demand she could have rebelled against; the question she could have refused.
“Chase, what good would it do either of us?”
“You’ll come to me before you go,” he repeated. Because if she didn’t, he’d follow her. There would be no choice.
Red and white crepe paper streamed from corner to corner, twined together in elongated snakes of color. Balloons, bulging with air from energetic young lungs, were crowded into every available space. Stacked in three uneven towers were all the records deemed fit to play.
Dance night was only a matter of hours away.
Under Candy’s eagle eye, tables were carried outside, while others were grouped strategically around the mess area. This simple chore took twice as long as it should have, as girls had to stop every few feet to discuss the most important aspect of the evening: boys.
Although her skills with paint and glue were slim at best, Eden had volunteered for the decorating committee—on the understanding that her duties were limited to hanging and tacking what was already made. In addition to the crepe paper and balloons, there were banners and paper flowers that the more talented members of campers and staff had put together by hand. The best of these was a ten-foot banner dyed Camp Liberty red and splashed with bold letters that spelled out WELCOME TO CAMP LIBERTY’S ANNUAL SUMMER DANCE.
Candy had already taken it for granted that it would be the first of many. In her better moods, Eden hoped she was right. In her crankier ones, she wondered if they could swing a deal with the boys’ camp to split the cost of refreshments. For the moment, she pushed both ideas aside, determined to make this dance the best-decorated one in Pennsylvania.
Eden let an argument over which records had priority run its course below her as she climbed a stepladder to secure more streamers. Already, the record player at the far end of the room was blaring music.
It was silly. She told herself that yet again as she realized she was as excited about the evening as any of the girls. She was an adult, here only to plan, supervise and chaperone. Even as she reminded herself of this, her thoughts ran forward to the evening, when the mess area would be filled with people and noise and laughter. Like the girls below her, her thoughts kept circling back to vital matters—like what she should wear.
It was fascinating to realize that this simple end-of-the-summer dance in the mountains was more exciting for her than her own debutante ball. That she had taken lightly, as the next step along the path that had been cleared for her before she was born. This was new, untried and full of possibilities.
It all centered on Chase. Eden was nearly ready to accept that as a new song blared into life. Since it was one she’d heard dozens of times before, she began to hum along with it. Her ponytail swayed with the movement as she attached another streamer.
“We’ll ask Miss Carlbough.” Eden heard the voices below, but paid little attention, as she had a tack in her mouth and five feet of crepe paper held together by her thumb. “She always knows, and if she doesn’t, she finds out.”
She had started to secure the tack, but as the statement drifted up to her, she stopped pushing. Was that really the way the girls saw her? Dependable? With a half laugh, she sent the tack home. To her, the statement was the highest of compliments, a sign of faith.
She’d done what she had set out to do. In three short months, she had accomplished something she had never done in all her years of living. She had made something of herself, by herself. And, perhaps more importantly, for herself.
It wasn’t going to stop here. Eden dropped the rest of the tacks into her pocket. The summer might be nearly over, but the challenge wasn’t. Whether she was in South Mountain or Philadelphia, she wasn’t going to forget what it meant to grow. Twisting on the ladder, she started down to find out what it was the girls had wanted to ask her. On the second rung, she stopped, staring.
The tall, striking woman strode into the mess. The tail of her Hermès scarf crossed the neck of a cerise suit and trailed on behind. Her bone-white hair was perfect, as was the double strand of pearls that lay on her bosom. Tucked in the crook of one arm was a small piece of white fluff known as BooBoo.
“Aunt Dottie!” Delighted, Eden scrambled down from the ladder. In seconds she was enveloped by Dottie’s personal scent, an elusive combination of Paris and success. “Oh, it’s wonderful to see you.” Drawing back from the hug, Eden studied the lovely, strong-boned face. Even now, she could see shadows of her father in the eyes and around the mouth. “You’re the last person I expected to see here.”
“Darling, have you grown thorns in the country?”
“Thorns? I—oh.” Laughing, Eden reached in her pocket. “Thumbtacks. Sorry.”
“The hug was worth a few holes.” Taking Eden’s hand, she stepped back to make her own study. Though her face remained passive, she let out a quiet sigh of relief. No one knew how many restless nights she’d spent worrying over her brother’s only child. “You look beautiful. A little thin, but with marvelous color.” With Eden’s hand still in hers, she glanced around the room. “But darling, what an odd place you’ve chosen to spend the summer.”
“Aunt Dottie.” Eden just shook her head. Throughout the weeks and months after her father’s death, Dottie had stubbornly refused to accept Eden’s decision not to use Dottie’s money as a buffer, her home as a refuge. “If I have marvelous color, credit the country air.”
“Hmm.” Far from convinced, Dottie continued to look around as a new record plopped down to continue the unbroken cycle of music. “I’ve always considered the south of France country enough.”
“Aunt Dottie, tell me what you’re doing here. I’m amazed you could even find the place.”
“It wasn’t difficult. The chauffeur reads a map very well.” Dottie gave the fluff in her arms a light pat. “BooBoo and I felt an urge for a drive to the country.”
“I see.” And she did. Like everyone else she had left behind, Eden knew that her aunt considered her camp venture an impulse. It would take more than one summer to convince Dottie, or anyone else, that she was serious. After all, it had taken her most of the summer to convince herself.
“Yes, and since I was in the neighborhood . . .” Dottie let that trail off. “What a chic outfit,” she commented, taking in Eden’s paint-spattered smock and tattered sneakers. “Then, perhaps bohemian’s coming back. What do you have there?”
“Crepe paper. It goes with the thumbtacks.” Eden extended her hand. BooBoo regally allowed her head to be patted.
“Well, give them both to one of these charming young ladies and come see what I’ve brought you.”
“Brought me?” Obeying automatically, Eden handed over the streamers. “Start these around the tables, will you, Lisa?”
“Do you know,” Dottie began as she linked her arm through Eden’s, “the nearest town is at least twenty miles from here? That is if one could stretch credibility and call what we passed through a town. There, there, BooBoo,
“Where was I? Oh yes, the town. It had one traffic light and a place called Earl’s Lunch. I was almost curious enough to stop and see what one did at Earl’s Lunch.”
Eden laughed, and leaned over to kiss Dottie’s cheek. “One eats a small variety of sandwiches and stale potato chips and coffee while exchanging town gossip.”
“Marvelous. Do you go often?”
“Unfortunately, my social life’s been a bit limited.”
“Well, your surprise might just change all that.” Turning, Dottie gestured toward the canary-yellow Rolls parked in the main compound. Eden felt every muscle, every emotion freeze as the man straightened from his easy slouch against the hood.
He smiled, and in a familiar gesture, ran one hand lightly over his hair. Around him, a group of girls had gathered to admire the classic lines of the Rolls and the classic looks of Eric Keeton.
His smile was perfectly angled as he walked toward her. His walk was confident, just a shade too conservative for a swagger. As she watched him, Eden saw him in the clear light of disinterest. His hair, several shades darker than her own, was perfectly styled for the boardroom or the country club. Casual attire, which included pleated slacks and a polo shirt, fit neatly over his rather narrow frame. Hazel eyes, which had a tendency to look bored easily, smiled and warmed now. Though she hadn’t offered them, he took both her hands.
“Eden, how marvelous you look.”
His hands were soft. Strange, she had forgotten that. Though she didn’t bother to remove hers, her voice was cool. “Hello, Eric.”
“Lovelier than ever, isn’t she, Dottie?” Her stiff greeting didn’t seem to disturb him. He gave her hands an intimate little squeeze. “Your aunt was worried about you. She expected you to be thin and wan.”
“Fortunately, I’m neither.” Now, carefully, deliberately, Eden removed her hands. She would have been greatly pleased, though she had no way of knowing it, that her eyes were as cold as her voice. It was so easy to turn away from him. “Whatever possessed you to drive all this way, Aunt Dottie? You weren’t really worried?”
“A tad.” Concerned with the ice in her niece’s voice, Dottie touched Eden’s cheek. “And I did want to see the—the place where you spent the summer.”
“I’ll give you a tour.”
A thin left brow arched in a manner identical to Eden’s. “How charming.”
“Aunt Dottie!” Red curls bouncing, Candy raced around the side of the building. “I knew it had to be you.” Out of breath and grinning broadly, Candy accepted Dottie’s embrace. “The girls were talking about a yellow Rolls in the compound. Who else could it have been?”
“As enthusiastic as ever.” Dottie’s smile was all affection. She might not have always understood Candice Bartholomew, but she had always been fond of her. “I hope you don’t mind a surprise visit.”
“I love it.” Candy bent down to the puff of fur. “Hi, BooBoo.” Straightening, she let her gaze drift over Eric. “Hello, Eric.” Her voice dropped an easy twenty-five degrees. “Long way from home.”
“Candy.” Unlike Dottie, he had no fondness for Eden’s closest friend. “You seem to have paint all over your hands.”
“It’s dry,” she said, carelessly, and somewhat regretfully. If the paint had been wet, she would have greeted him more personally.
“Eden’s offered to take us on a tour.” Dottie was well aware of the hostility. She’d driven hundreds of miles from Philadelphia for one purpose. To help her niece find happiness. If it meant she had to manipulate . . . so much the better. “I know Eric’s dying to look around, but if I could impose on you—” She laid her hand on Candy’s. “I’d really love to sit down with a nice cup of tea. BooBoo, too. The drive was a bit tiring.”
“Of course.” Manners were their own kind of trap. Candy sent Eden a look meant to fortify her. “We’ll use the kitchen, if you don’t mind the confusion.”
“My dear, I thrive on it.” With that she turned to smile at Eden and was surprised by the hard, knowing look in Eden’s eyes.
“Go right ahead, Aunt Dottie. I’ll show Eric what the camp has to offer.”
“Go have your tea, darling.” She kissed Dottie’s cheek. “We’ll talk later.” She turned, leaving Eric to follow or not. When he fell into step beside her, she began. “We’ve six sleeping cabins this season, with plans to add two more for next summer. Each cabin has an Indian name to keep it distinct.”
As they passed the cabins, she saw that the anemones were still stubbornly blooming. They gave her strength. “Each week, we have a contest for the neatest cabin. The reward is extra riding time, or swimming time, or whatever the girls prefer. Candy and I have a small shower in our cabin. The girls share facilities at the west end of the compound.”
“Eden.” Eric cupped her elbow in his palm in the same manner he had used when strolling down Broad Street. She gritted her teeth, but didn’t protest.
“Yes?” The cool, impersonal look threw him off. It took him only a moment to decide it meant she was hiding a broken heart.
“What have you been doing with yourself?” He waved his hand in a gesture that took in the compound and the surrounding hills. “Here?”
Holding on to her temper, Eden decided to take the question literally. “We’ve tried to keep the camp regimented, while still allowing for creativity and fun. Over the past few weeks, we’ve found that we can adhere fairly tightly to the schedule as long as we make room for fresh ideas and individual needs.” Pleased with herself, she dipped her hands into the pockets of her smock. “We’re up at six-thirty. Breakfast is at seven sharp. Daily inspection begins at seven-thirty and activities at eight. For the most part, I deal with the horses and stables, but when necessary, I can pitch in and help in other areas.”
“Eden.” Eric stopped her by gently tightening his fingers on her elbow. Turning to him, she watched the faint breeze ruffle his smooth, fair hair. She thought of the dark confusion of Chase’s hair. “It’s difficult to believe you’ve spent your summer camping out in a cabin and overseeing a parade of girls on horseback.”
“Is it?” She merely smiled. Of course it was difficult for him. He owned a stable, but he’d never lifted a pitchfork. Rather than resentment, Eden felt a stirring of pity. “Well, there’s that, among a few other things such as hiking, smoothing over cases of homesickness and poison ivy, rowing, giving advice on teenage romance and fashion, identifying fifteen different varieties of local wildflowers and seeing that a group of girls has fun. Would you like to see the stables?” She headed off without waiting for his answer.
“Eden.” He caught her elbow again. It took all her willpower not to jab it back into his soft stomach. “You’re angry. Of course you are, but I—”
“You’ve always had a fondness for good horseflesh.” She swung the stable door open so that he had to back off or get a faceful of wood. “We’ve two mares and four geldings. One of the mares is past her prime, but I’m thinking of breeding the other. The foals would interest the girls and eventually become part of the riding stock. This is Courage.”
“Eden, please. We have to talk.”
She stiffened when his hands touched her shoulders. But she was calm, very calm, when she turned and removed them. “I thought we were talking.”
He’d heard the ice in her voice before, and he understood it. She was a proud, logical woman. He’d approach her on that level. “We have to talk about us, darling.”
“In what context?”
He reached for her hand, giving a small shrug when she drew it away. If she had accepted him without a murmur, he would have been a great deal more surprised. For days now, he’d been planning exactly the proper way to smooth things over. He’d decided on regretful, with a hint of humble thrown in.
“You’ve every right to be furious with me, every right to want me to suffer.”
His tone, soft, quiet, understanding, had her swallowing a ball of heat. Indifference, she reminded herself, disinterest, was the greatest insult she could hand him. “It doesn’t really concern me if you suffer or not.” That wasn’t quite true, she admitted. She wouldn’t be averse to seeing him writhe a bit. That was because he had come, she realized. Because he had had the gall to come and assume she’d be waiting.
“Eden, you have to know that I have suffered, suffered a great deal. I would have come before, but I wasn’t sure you’d see me.”
This was the man she had planned to spend her life with. This was the man she had hoped to have children with. She stared at him now, unsure whether she was in the midst of a comedy or a tragedy. “I’m sorry to hear that, Eric. I don’t see any reason why you should have suffered. You were only being practical, after all.”
Soothed by her placid attitude, he stepped toward her. “I admit that, rightly or wrongly, I was practical.” His hands slid up her arms in an old gesture that made her jaw clench. “These past few months have shown me that there are times when practical matters have to take second place.”
“Is that so?” She smiled at him, surprised that he couldn’t feel the heat. “What would go first?”
“Personal . . .” He stroked a finger over her cheek. “Much more personal matters.”
His lips were curved as his mouth lowered. She felt the heat of anger freeze into icy disdain. Did he think her a fool? Could he believe himself so irresistible? Then she nearly did laugh, as she realized the answer to both questions was yes.
Temptation by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love have rating 4.2 out of 5 / Based on42 votes