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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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BOOK: Disguised Blessing
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“What’s wrong?” Catherine asked anxiously.

“One of the counselors noticed she was upset, and when she asked if she could help, Lynda broke down and started crying. The counselor took her to the nurse’s office and they finally got her to tell them about Ray.”

“How could I not have known how much he meant to her?”

“I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Nothing that happens to Lynda stands alone anymore. When she gets upset about one thing, she loses the ability to handle everything else. She’s like a traffic cop who stops to tie her shoe and looks up to see cars headed toward her from every direction.”

“How do you know these things?” She didn’t doubt him, she simply wondered how he could be so perceptive with someone he’d only known a couple of months.

“Experience. And I’ve learned not to take anything at face value. If one of my kids—one of my
burned kids—is getting along better than they should, or is always on their best behavior, I get suspicious. Lynda’s a remarkable young woman, but she’s not as different as she wants all of us to think she is. You don’t go through what she’s been through without getting hurt on the inside, too. Our job is to make sure whatever she’s carrying around gets the exposure it needs to heal properly.”

“No matter how many times I say thank you to you and the people at the Firefighters’—”

“When I said
our
job, Catherine, I meant you and me.”

Blue came into the kitchen, his toenails clicking on the tile floor, providing a distraction that Rick ignored but Catherine couldn’t.

He sat in front of a cupboard and twisted his head to look at Rick, a pleading expression in his eyes. “He knows I’m leaving,” Rick explained. “It’s his version of a guilt trip.”

“You keep his treats in that cupboard,” she said with confidence. Along with assorted canned goods, crackers, cereal, and pasta, she could have added just as confidently.

“Would you mind getting one for him? I’d like to get out of here as soon as possible.”

“Is there something you’re not telling me?” She’d had no idea such random fears hung around so close to the surface and could be aroused so readily.

“I just thought it would be better if we got there before the campfire skits start. Lynda’s cabin is putting them on tonight, and I don’t want her to miss it because of us.”

Her relief left her eager to give something back. “Have you had dinner?”

“Not yet.”

“Why don’t I make us some sandwiches to eat on the way?”

“You don’t have to do that.” He smiled. “But it would be nice if you did.”

“Go on, get in your shower. I’ll take care of everything out here.”

“The bread is in—”

“I know where the bread is. And everything else. Trust me, I can handle this.”

Blue let out a soft whine. “Oh, and don’t let him talk you into giving him more than one dog bone.”

“From the look on his face I don’t think one is going to be enough.”

“Break it in half,” Rick said from the doorway. “That way he’ll think he’s getting two.”

Catherine looked at Blue when they were alone. “That’s not going to fool you, is it?”

Blue thumped his tail and woofed.

“I didn’t think so.” She took the box from the cupboard and found two pieces that weren’t whole, but more than half. He took the first one and looked at her expectantly as he chomped it down. The second one he held in his cheek until he was curled up on the rag rug by the back door.

Catherine washed her hands and without thinking reached for the towel hanging off a hook on the side of the cupboard, knowing it was there. She was headed for the refrigerator when she spotted the double row of drawers and gave in to the temptation to snoop.

She smiled in discovery and appreciation as she opened and looked inside the drawers. Rick had solved the problem of what to do with the odd utensils that invariably created junk drawers in most kitchens. Everything that grated or minced was in one drawer, if it cut or sliced, it was in another. Large spoons and ladles were combined with salad tongs while meat forks were in with a set of crab crackers and picks.

She thought about her mother’s kitchen and how easily the drawers could be installed if she took out the cupboard where she kept her cookie sheets. But in order to tell her about it she’d have to tell her where she got the idea. That was bound to lead to questions about why Catherine had been in Rick’s kitchen in the first place. Questions she’d begun to ask herself. Questions she either wasn’t ready to or couldn’t answer.

28

R
ICK PARKED NEXT TO THE ADMINISTRATION BUILD
-ing, set the emergency brake on the truck, and turned to Catherine. “This is it. Camp Cassidy in all of its military-green glory. Come on, I’ll introduce you to everyone.”

She hesitated. When they’d crested the summit and she’d caught sight of Lake Tahoe shimmering gold in the waning light, she’d been hit with doubt about what she was doing. If Lynda had wanted her at camp, she would have called. Catherine had checked the answering machine at home and nothing was on it, not even a message from Brian.

“Second thoughts?” he asked gently.

“Second, third, and fourth. I promised Lynda more freedom. Now here I am, chasing her down at the first sign of trouble.”

“It was my idea, remember? You’re just along for the ride.”

“She’ll never buy that. She knows me too well.”

“We can still turn around and go back. No one has spotted us yet.”

Catherine looked up and saw someone waving to them. “Oh, yeah?”

Rick followed her gaze, smiled, and waved back. “That’s Rachel. Even if we don’t stay, we’ve got to take a minute for you to meet her.” He opened his door and came around the truck to open hers.

“I’ve been watching for you,” Rachel said. “I was hoping you’d get here before campfire.” She opened her arms for a hug. Rick obliged, lifting her off the ground and planting a kiss square on her mouth.

Catherine experienced an insane moment of jealousy so intense she could only laugh it off. To say or do something would be the real insanity.

Rick put Rachel down, but kept his arm around her waist. “Rachel Issenberg—Catherine Miller.”

They shook hands. Catherine even managed a smile. “How is Lynda?”

“Still a little quiet, but I put her to work helping Sandi get ready for tonight’s skit.”

Rachel was nothing like Catherine had expected—someone she’d mentally patterned after a boot camp instructor. Not only was she tall and slim with long black hair pulled back into a bouncy ponytail, she had the glow and confidence that came with being in superb physical condition. She had flawless skin, large, expressive eyes, and fashionably full lips. She was beautiful, sophisticated, and at least fifteen pounds lighter and five years younger than Catherine. Most of all, she had a thing for Rick that he
either didn’t see in his expansive friendliness for everyone or chose to ignore.

“Catherine’s concerned about being here,” Rick said. “She’s afraid Lynda will think she’s intruding.”

Rachel directed her answer to Catherine. “Then instead of introducing you at campfire, we’ll take our cues from Lynda and keep you low-profile.” She glanced at Rick and smiled. “Besides, we can always blame it on Rick. I knew he’d show up sooner or later. There was no way he could stay away the whole week.”

When Rachel turned her smile on Catherine, it was filled with such genuine warmth, she, too, fell under the woman’s spell.

“Come on.” Rachel took Catherine’s arm. “I’ll show you around the place while we’re waiting for Lynda to finish with Sandi.”

They headed for the dining room, which, Rachel informed her, was also the arts and crafts area. “Wait until you see what the kids did with the bird feeders, Rick. I think we have a couple of budding artists in the group.” To Catherine she said, “I assume Rick told you about the feeders?”

“No, he didn’t.” The innocent question had effectively put her on the outside of his circle of friends. She knew what she had to know about him as Lynda’s mother, little more. She had to fight an urge to tell Rachel that she might not know about the feeders but she’d been to his house and she knew about his part-time dog and his incredible neighbor who had taken Lynda under her wing just because
Rick had asked her to. But she only knew these things peripherally; they weren’t hers to claim or share.

“He conned some man he met at a crafts show into donating the plastic bubbles that hold the seed and then Rick made all these bird and squirrel and fire-engine cutouts that hold the bubble. The birds sit on a dowel and pick seed out of a hole in the bubble. When he first showed it to me, I told him there was no way any self-respecting bird was going to stick its head in that hole. Guess who won that argument.”

“Lynda mentioned she was helping out with them,” Catherine said. “She said she was bringing one home with her. A fire engine, I think.”

“Rick
—,” a high-pitched voice squealed from across the green. He turned just as someone else yelled, “Hey, look everybody. Rick’s here.”

A short, stocky boy in a bright yellow T-shirt came running toward them. He was followed by a girl wearing a long red scarf around her neck. The volleyball game stopped and the teams set off at a sprint.

“We’d better stand back,” Rachel warned Catherine, her eyes brimming with humor. “This could get ugly.”

The boy in the yellow T-shirt never slowed down. He hit Rick at full speed, wrapping his arms around his waist as Rick laughed and braced himself to stay upright. “How are you doing, Danny?”

He looked up and grinned. “Good. I can use my fingers now.” He held his hand up and wiggled the
three fingers that still remained. “See?”

The girl arrived, growing shy as she neared. “Melinda—you look fantastic,” Rick exclaimed. “Who did your nose?”

“Dr. Wiggins.”

“Turn sideways,” he said. She did. “Outstanding.” He held his hand up for a high five.

She beamed at his approval.

The volleyball team arrived. Rachel motioned for Catherine to follow her. “We might as well go on without him. He could be tied up here for a long time.”

Catherine watched from the window when they were inside the dining room. “They seem to like him. A lot.”

“It goes deeper than that. He works magic with these kids. He’s the perfect father or big brother or uncle that a lot of them don’t have. Half the time when I find a kid in tears at the end of camp it’s because he knows he won’t get to see Rick for another year.”

“I’m surprised he could stay away. He must have known how disappointed the kids would be.”

Rachel gave her a puzzled look. “He didn’t tell you?”

Again, the feeling of being on the outside. “Tell me what?”

“Why he didn’t come this year?”

She shook her head.

“Sorry. That was a dumb question. Of course he wouldn’t tell you. He stayed away because of Lynda.
He thought it was more important for her to gain the confidence that comes from knowing she can make new friends on her own than it was for him to be here. He knew she’d never believe she’d done it by herself if he was around for her to lean on.”

“He didn’t tell me. Or Lynda. She thinks he stayed to work for a friend whose wife is sick.”

“He didn’t have to take the shifts he did. Someone else would have worked them this week. Firefighters always take care of their own. It’s one of the things I admire most about them.” She took Catherine over to a table lined with paint-splattered newspaper and half-finished bird feeders.

She saw bright-blue-and-orange squirrels, as well as some that were gray and brown. There were pink-and-green loons and even a couple of black-and-white ones. Every fire engine was red, however.

“This is Lynda’s,” Rachel said.

Catherine shouldn’t have been surprised. Lynda had always shown an artistic streak. But she’d had no idea her daughter had this kind of talent. The engine was painted with painstaking detail, from the lettering on the side to the firefighters on board. “It’s wonderful.”

“She’s incredible with the little kids,” Rachel added. “But then, you already know that. I told her she should be a teacher. She has a real gift.”

“She’s going to be a business major,” Catherine answered automatically. She and Lynda had discussed it for the past two years and agreed business was the one degree that would give her financial freedom. Unspoken but understood was the need
for Lynda to protect herself should she have inherited her mother’s skill at choosing men.

“I never would have guessed that. She seems more the English lit or history type.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Catherine saw someone walk by outside. She looked closer and saw that it was Lynda. She was dressed in a gathered skirt, an off-the-shoulder white blouse, huge earrings, and rows of plastic beads around her neck. All of this set off by a Bakersfield Fire Department baseball cap.

Rachel spotted her, too. “I’m not supposed to know this, but their skit involves fortune-telling. They’ve made up Wild stories about what the counselors are going to find waiting for them when they get home.”

Catherine was on her way out the door when she heard another loud squeal and realized Lynda had spotted Rick. Decorum abandoned, she, like the others, ran into his arms. He lifted her the way he had Rachel and swung her around, her skirts swirling like a square dancer’s.

“We do a lot of hugging around here,” Rachel said. “Touching is important to these kids. For some of them, this is the only place they receive any physical contact at all.”

Instead of immediately going outside, Catherine stood at the door and observed. The genuine warmth between Rick and Lynda went deeper than camp routine. They liked each other. Lynda looked at him with an adoration she’d never shown another man, not even her father.

“What are you doing here?” Lynda asked, her voice brimming with surprise and happiness. “Never mind, I’m just so glad you came. Wait until you see our skit. It’s
soooo
cool. We’ve been working on it all week.”

“I heard it was going to be something special. It’s one of the reasons we came up tonight.”

“We?” Lynda turned, her gaze going to her mother as if drawn there by the force of her need.

Catherine knew a moment of sickening fear. What if Lynda didn’t want her there? The fear melted—along with her heart—when she saw a look of raw love and sheer joy come over Lynda’s face.

Lynda ran to her and they hugged, longer and harder than Catherine could ever remember the two of them hugging.

Rick and Rachel gathered the kids surrounding them and herded everyone off to campfire, leaving Catherine and Lynda alone.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get to tell Ray good-bye,” Catherine said.

“At least you and Brian were there. He got to say good-bye to someone.”

“I told him you would call when you were home again and he was settled. The hospital gave him a phone he can use by himself so he’ll be able to call you, too. I even checked into getting an eight-hundred number for Ray to use when he wants to call us. That way he wouldn’t have to worry about his aunt getting upset over the telephone bill.” First thing tomorrow morning she would have to send
out her résumé. And keep sending it out until she had a job.

Lynda brightened. “That’s a great idea.”

“And I told him that if his aunt wouldn’t let him come to see us over Christmas break, then we’d fly out to Kansas to see him.” When Lynda didn’t say anything, Catherine cupped her chin in her hand and looked her square in the eyes. “One way or another, this will work out. I promise.”

She saw Rick signaling them from behind a green building that held an enormous homemade sign that said,
SPICE GIRLS CABIN.
“I think they’re waiting for you.”

Lynda slipped her hand in Catherine’s and led her across the quad. Catherine followed, a contented smile on her face as her gaze locked on Rick’s. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d held hands with her daughter, or the last time she’d felt as comfortable being watched by a man.

Catherine sat next to Rick on the wooden bench in the small amphitheater. They were in the last row, higher than everyone else and able to see everything, including the audience.

The kids sat in groups with their counselors, laughing and clapping their approval at punch lines that made little sense to Catherine. Her pleasure came in recognizing Lynda’s hand in the composition and direction of the short play and in watching the unaffected way Rick joined in on the fun. Periodically, he would lean in close and explain one of the running jokes, usually directed at the kitchen
staff—firefighters from Sacramento, Chico, and Bakersfield, all longtime camp veterans and favorites of the kids.

When a light breeze moved in, she crossed her arms and pulled into herself for warmth. Rick noticed and put his arm around her, drawing her into his side. For one brief moment she let herself believe she belonged next to him, that they were more than friends, that she’d finally found the soul mate she’d dreamed of when she was an impressionable young girl.

She was filled with a longing so powerful she knew her only escape was to get away before she did something that would embarrass them both, like touching his cheek or kissing him, or asking him to touch or kiss her.

As soon as Lynda’s portion of the skit ended and another group took over, she stood and said, “I’ll be right back. I have to use the rest room.”

Instead, she went to the truck, got her jacket, and walked around until she was sure her foolish yearnings were under control.

She returned to see the final bows being taken. With shouts of excitement, everyone headed for the kitchen and the traditional mile-long ice cream sundae. While it wasn’t a mile long, Catherine guessed the rain-gutter trough used to hold the ice cream, bananas, marshmallow cream, chocolate sauce, nuts, and whipped cream was a good sixty feet long. Spoons and napkins were handed out, chairs and benches dragged up, and the order to begin eating shouted out.

Rick insisted she join in. They took their positions on the end, sitting opposite each other. When he saw how daintily she ate, he began feeding her, catching a drip of chocolate with the spoon and a smear of whipped cream with his finger.

“Stop,” she laughingly protested when she saw a mound of ice cream twice as big as her mouth headed in her direction. “I’ll explode if I eat another bite.”

He grinned and put the spoon down. “Okay, since we’re done here, you can lick your lips.”

She did but could see by the look he gave her that she hadn’t gotten everything.

He picked up his napkin and wiped the corners of her mouth. “Stick out your tongue.”

“What?”

BOOK: Disguised Blessing
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