Temptation, p.4
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       Temptation, p.4

           Nora Roberts
 
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  Chase’s lips twitched as he continued to stroke the mare. Miss Philadelphia was nervous, he thought. She covered it well enough with frigid manners, but her nerves were jumping. It pleased him to know that she hadn’t been able to brush off that quick, impulsive kiss any more than he had. “No, I haven’t.” Before she could avoid it, he reached down for her hand. An opal gleamed dully in the shadowed light, nestled in a circle of diamond chips that promised to catch heat and fire.

  “Wrong hand for an engagement ring.” He discovered that the fact pleased him, perhaps more than it should have. “I’d heard you and Eric Keeton were to be married last spring. Apparently it didn’t come off.”

  She would like to have sworn, shouted, yelled. That’s what he wanted, Eden told herself, letting her hand be passive in his. “No, it didn’t. Mr. Elliot, for a, let’s say, country squire, you have boundless curiosity about Philadelphia gossip. Don’t your apples keep you busy enough?”

  He had to admire anyone who could shoot straight and smile. “I manage to eke out a bit of free time. Actually, I was interested because Keeton’s a family connection.”

  “He is not.”

  There, he’d ruffled her. For the first time since her initial surprise, she was really looking at him. Take a good look, Chase thought. You won’t see any resemblance. “Distant, certainly.” Capturing her other hand, he turned the palms up. “My grandmother was a Winthrop, and a cousin of his grandmother. Your Philadelphia hands have a couple of blisters. You should take care.”

  “A Winthrop?” Eden was surprised enough at the name to forget her hands.

  “We’ve thinned the blood a bit in the last few generations.” She should be wearing gloves, he thought, as he touched a blister with his thumb. “Still, I’d expected an invitation and was curious why you dumped him.”

  “I didn’t dump him.” The words came out like poisoned honey. “But to satisfy your curiosity, and to use your own crude phrase, he dumped me. Now if you’d give me back my hands, I could finish for the day.”

  Chase obliged, but continued to block her way out of the stall. “I’d never considered Eric bright, but I’d never thought him stupid.”

  “What a delightful compliment. Please excuse me, Mr. Elliot.”

  “Not a compliment.” Chase brushed at the bangs over her forehead. “Just an observation.”

  “Stop touching me.”

  “Touching’s a habit of mine. I like your hair, Eden. It’s soft, but it goes its own way.”

  “A veritable bouquet of compliments.” She managed one small step backward. He had her pulse thudding again. She didn’t want to be touched, not physically, not emotionally, not by anyone. Instinct warned her how easily he could do both. “Mr. Elliot—”

  “Chase.”

  “Chase.” She acknowledged this with a regal nod. “The morning bell goes off at six. I still have several things to do tonight, so if there’s a purpose in your being here, could we get to it?”

  “I came to bring you back your hat.” Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out the Phillies cap.

  “I see.” One more black mark against Roberta. “It’s not mine, but I’d be happy to return it to its owner. Thank you for troubling.”

  “You were wearing it when you fell out of my tree.” Chase ignored her outstretched hand and dropped the cap on her head. “Fits, too.”

  “As I’ve already explained—”

  Eden’s frigid retort was interrupted by the sound of running feet. “Miss Carlbough! Miss Carlbough!” Roberta, in an angelic pink nightgown and bare feet, skidded to a halt at the open stall. Beaming, she stared up at Chase. Her adolescent heart melted. “Hi.”

  “Hi.”

  “Roberta.” Voice stern, teeth nearly clenched, Eden stepped forward. “It’s almost an hour past lights-out.”

  “I know, Miss Carlbough. I’m sorry.” When she smiled, Eden thought you could almost believe it. “I just couldn’t get to sleep because I kept thinking about my cap. You promised I could have it back, but you never gave it to me. I helped Mrs. Petrie. Honest, you can ask. There were millions of pans, too. I even peeled potatoes, and—”

  “Roberta!” The sharp tone was enough for the moment. “Mr. Elliot was kind enough to return your hat.” Whipping it off her own head, Eden thrust it into the girl’s hands. “I believe you should thank him, as well as apologize for trespassing.”

  “Gee, thanks.” She treated him to a dazzling smile. “Are those your trees, really?”

  “Yeah.” With a fingertip, Chase adjusted the brim of her hat. He had a weakness for black sheep and recognized a kindred soul in Roberta.

  “I think they’re great. Your apples tasted a whole lot better than the ones we get at home.”

  “Roberta.”

  The quiet warning had the girl rolling her eyes, which only Chase could see. “I’m sorry I didn’t show the proper respect for your property.” Roberta turned her head to see whether Eden approved of the apology.

  “Very nice, Roberta. Now straight back to bed.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” She shot a last look at Chase. Her little heart fluttered. Crushing the cap down on her head, she raced to the door.

  “Roberta.” She whipped back around at the sound of Chase’s voice. He grinned at her. “See you around.”

  “Yeah, see you.” In love, Roberta floated off to her cabin. When the stable door slammed at her back, all Eden could manage was a sigh.

  “It’s no use,” Chase commented.

  “What isn’t?”

  “Pretending you don’t get a kick out of her. A kid like that makes you feel good.”

  “You wouldn’t be so sure of that if you’d seen what she can do with mashed potatoes.” But Eden gave in enough to smile. “She’s a monster, but an appealing one. Still, I have to admit, if we had twenty-seven Robertas in camp this summer, I’d end up in a padded room.”

  “Certain people just breed excitement.”

  Eden remembered the dinner hour. “Some call it chaos.”

  “Life flattens out quickly without a little chaos.”

  She looked at him, realizing she’d dropped her guard enough to have an actual conversation. And realizing as well that they’d stopped talking about Roberta. The stables suddenly seemed very quiet. “Well, now that we’ve gotten that settled, I think—”

  He took a step forward. She took a step back. A smile played around his lips again as he reached for her hand. Eden bumped solidly into the mare before she managed to raise her free hand to his chest.

  “What do you want?” Why was she whispering, and why was the whisper so tremulous?

  He wasn’t sure what he wanted. Once, quickly, he scanned her face before bringing his gaze back to hers with a jolt. Or perhaps he was. “To walk with you in the moonlight, I think. To listen to the owls hoot and wait for the nightingale.”

  The shadows had merged. The mare stood quietly, breathing softly. His hand was in Eden’s hair now, as if it belonged there. “I have to go in.” But she didn’t move.

  “Eden and the apple,” he murmured. “I can’t tell you how tempting I’ve found that combination. Come with me. We’ll walk.”

  “No.” Something was building inside her, too quickly. She knew he was touching more than her hand, more than her hair. He was reaching for something he should not have known existed.

  “Sooner or later.” He’d always been a patient man. He could wait for her the way he waited for a new tree to bear fruit. His fingers slid down to her throat, stroking once. He felt her quick shudder, heard the unsteady indrawn breath. “I’ll be back, Eden.”

  “It won’t make any difference.”

  Smiling, he brought her hand to his lips, turning it palm up. “I’ll still be back.”

  She listened to his footsteps, to the creak of the door as he opened it, then shut it again.

  Chapter 3

  The camp was developing its own routine. Eden adjusted hers to it. Early hours, long, physical days and basic food were both
a solace and a challenge. The confidence she’d once had to work at became real.

  There were nights during the first month of summer that she fell into her bunk certain she would never be able to get up in the morning. Her muscles ached from rowing, riding and endless hiking. Her head spun from weekly encounters with ledgers and account books. But in the morning the sun would rise, and so would she.

  Every day it became easier. She was young and healthy. The daily regimented exercise hardened muscles only touched on by occasional games of tennis. The weight she had lost over the months since her father’s death gradually came back, so that her look of fragility faded.

  To her surprise, she developed a genuine affection for the girls. They became individuals, not simply a group to be coped with or income on the books. It surprised her more to find that same affection returned.

  Right from the start, Eden had been certain the girls would love Candy. Everyone did. She was warm, funny, talented. The most Eden had hoped for, for herself, was to be tolerated and respected. The day Marcie had brought her a clutch of wildflowers, Eden had been too stunned to do more than stammer a thank-you. Then there had been the afternoon she had given Linda Hopkins an extra half hour in the corral. After her first gallop, Linda had thrown herself into Eden’s arms for a fierce and delightful hug.

  So the camp had changed her life, in so many more ways than she’d expected.

  The summer grew hot with July. Girls darted around the compound in shorts. Dips in the lake became a glorious luxury. Doors and windows stayed open at night to catch even the slightest breeze. Roberta found a garter snake and terrorized her cabin mates. Bees buzzed around the wildflowers and stings became common.

  Days merged together, content, but never dull, so that it seemed possible that summer could last forever. As the time passed, Eden began to believe that Chase had forgotten his promise, or threat, to come back. She’d been careful to stay well within the borders of the camp herself. Though once or twice she’d been tempted to wander toward the orchards, she stayed away.

  It didn’t make sense for her to still be tense and uneasy. She could tell herself he’d only been a brief annoyance. Yet every time she went into the stables in the evening, she caught herself listening. And waiting.

  * * *

  Late in the evening, with the heat still shimmering, Eden stretched out on her bunk, fully dressed. Bribed by the promise of a bonfire the following night, the campers had quieted down early. Relaxed and pleasantly weary, Eden pictured it. Hot dogs flaming on sharpened sticks, marshmallows toasting, the blaze flickering heat over her face and sending smoke billowing skyward. Eden found herself looking forward to the evening every bit as much as the youngest camper. With her head pillowed on her folded arms, she stared up at the ceiling while Candy paced.

  “I’m sure we could do it, Eden.”

  “Hmm?”

  “The dance.” Gesturing with the clipboard she was carrying, Candy stopped at the foot of the bunk. “The dance I’ve been talking about having for the girls. Remember?”

  “Of course.” Eden forced her mind back to business. “What about it?”

  “I think we should go ahead with it. In fact, if it works out, I think it should be an annual event.” Even after she plopped herself down on Eden’s bed, her enthusiasm continued to bounce around the room. “The boys’ camp is only twenty miles from here. I’m sure they’d go for it.”

  “Probably.” A dance. That would mean refreshments for somewhere close to a hundred, not to mention music, decorations. She thought first of the red ink in the ledger, then about how much the girls would enjoy it. There had to be a way around the red ink. “I guess there’d be room in the mess area if we moved the tables.”

  “Exactly. And most of the girls have records with them. We could have the boys bring some, too.” She began to scrawl on her clipboard. “We can make the decorations ourselves.”

  “We’d have to keep the refreshments simple,” Eden put in before Candy’s enthusiasm could run away with her. “Cookies, punch, that sort of thing.”

  “We can plan it for the last week of camp. Kind of a celebrational send-off.”

  The last week of camp. How strange, when the first week had been so wearing, that the thought of it ending brought on both panic and regret. No, summer wouldn’t last forever. In September there would be the challenge of finding a new job, a new goal. She wouldn’t be going back to a teaching job as Candy was, but to want ads and résumés.

  “Eden? Eden, what do you think?”

  “About what?”

  “About planning the dance for the last week of camp?”

  “I think we’d better clear it with the boys’ camp first.”

  “Honey, are you okay?” Leaning forward, Candy took Eden’s hand. “Are you worried about going back home in a few weeks?”

  “No. Concerned.” She gave Candy’s hand a squeeze. “Just concerned.”

  “I meant it when I told you not to worry about a job right away. My salary takes care of the rent on the apartment, and I still have a little piece of the nest egg my grandmother left me.”

  “I love you, Candy. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”

  “The reverse holds true, Eden.”

  “For that reason, there’s no way I’m going to sit around while you work to pay the rent and put dinner on the table. It’s enough that you’ve let me move in with you.”

  “Eden, you know I’m a lot happier sharing my apartment with you than I was living alone. If you look at it as a favor, you’re going to feel pressured, and that’s ridiculous. Besides, for the past few months, you were taking care of fixing all the meals.”

  “Only a small portion of which were edible.”

  “True.” Candy grinned. “But I didn’t have to cook. Listen, give yourself a little space. You’ll need some time to find out what it is you want to do.”

  “What I want to do is work.” With a laugh, Eden lay back on the bed again. “Surprise. I really want to work, to keep busy, to earn a living. The past few weeks have shown me how much I enjoy taking care of myself. I’m banking on getting a job at a riding stable. Maybe even the one I used to board my horse at. And if that doesn’t pan out—” She shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll find something else.”

  “You will.” Candy set the clipboard aside. “And next year, we’ll have more girls, a bigger staff and maybe even a profit.”

  “Next year, I’m going to know how to make a hurricane lamp out of a tuna can.”

  “And a pillow out of two washcloths.”

  “And pot holders.”

  Candy remembered Eden’s one mangled attempt. “Well, maybe you should take it slow.”

  “There’s going to be no stopping me. In the meantime, I’ll contact the camp director over at—what’s the name, Hawk’s Nest?”

  “Eagle Rock,” Candy corrected her, laughing. “It’ll be fun for us, too, Eden. They have counselors. Male counselors.” Sighing, she stretched her arms to the ceiling. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve spoken with a man?”

  “You talked to the electrician just last week.”

  “He was a hundred and two. I’m talking about a man who still has all his hair and teeth.” She touched her tongue to her upper lip. “Not all of us have passed the time holding hands with a man in the stables.”

  Eden plumped up her excuse for a pillow. “I wasn’t holding hands. I explained to you.”

  “Roberta Snow, master spy, gave an entirely different story. With her, it appears to be love at first sight.”

  Eden examined the pad of callus on the ridge of her palm. “I’m sure she’ll survive.”

  “Well, what about you?”

  “I’ll survive, too.”

  “No, I mean, aren’t you interested?” After folding her legs under her, Candy leaned forward. “Remember, darling, I got a good look at the man when I was negotiating for the use of his lake. I don’t think there’s a woman alive who wouldn’t sweat a bit after a
look at those spooky green eyes.”

  “I never sweat.”

  Chuckling, Candy leaned back. “Eden, you’re talking to the one who loves you best. The man was interested enough to track you down in the stables. Think of the possibilities.”

  “It’s possible that he was returning Roberta’s cap.”

  “And it’s possible that pigs fly. Haven’t you been tempted to
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