gh. Are we about finished, Rhea?” Jeannie asked, balancing a load of dirty sheets on her hip while she pushed open the screened door of one of the assembly grounds' picturesque cabins.
“Yes. Just about.” Rhea looked up from sweeping the front walkway of Azalea House, a cute pink cottage with white gingerbread trim. She watched her best friend angle her way down the porch steps and, with a strength surprising for her petite size, heave her load of sheets into the back of a green pickup truck.
Rhea grinned, but felt her smile fade as she noticed some of the letters of
Laurel Springs Camp Assembly Grounds
flaking off the door of the truck.
Jeannie caught her gaze and waved a hand dismissively. “No sense in wasting worry over a little paint picking off, Rhea. Nearly everything shows a well-worn look around the assembly grounds these days.”
Sighing, Rhea sat down on one of the front steps of the house. “Yeah, and I hate to see things getting so run down.”
“I know.” Jeannie gave her shoulder an affectionate pat before settling down on the step below her. She leaned back against the porch rail and blew out a long breath. “Whew, it sure feels good to sit down. We've been busy today.”
“Don't be regretful for that, Jeannie Ledford.” Rhea shoved her playfully with a foot. “We need the money, and it's always a blessing to rent more than half our cabins on the weekend.” She pushed a stray strand of honey-brown hair off her face.
Jeannie gave her an impish smile. “Wouldn't it be great to win the lottery and get a big pile of money, Rhea? What would you do if you won a half million dollars or something?”
Rhea leaned back against the porch rail to think. “I'd fix up all the rental cottages, repave the roads and the campsite pull-in spaces, and put a strong roof on the covered bridge coming over the creek.”
She leaned toward Jeannie, warming to the subject. “I'd buy a dozen rental bikes and nice washers and dryers for the coin laundry, a new cash register for the store, and updated computers for the administrative offices. I'd paint the assembly church and fix that broken stained-glass window near the front door. I'd hire someone to resurface the swimming raft and put fresh rails on the gazebo by the lake, and I'd buy a few new canoes.” She paused. “I think I'd reseed the meeting grounds where the grass has worn away to dirt, too, and buy a popcorn machine for the market. I think we could make some extra money if we popped corn and sold it every day.”
“Stop! I wish I hadn't asked.” Jeannie laughed. “I should have known you'd spend it all on Laurel Springs.” She leaned back and sighed. “As for me, my mind veered more toward how nice it would be to take one of those luxury cruises in the Caribbean about now. That would be sweet.”
Rhea studied her. “Would you really like to do that?”
“Absolutely.” She closed her eyes dreamily. “I'd leave little Beau with my mother, and Billy Wade and I could have a second honeymoon on one of those big ocean linersâsitting on the deck in the tropical sun and sipping little pineapple drinks with umbrellas in them.”
“You think Billy Wade would like that?” Rhea smirked at the idea, trying to picture it.
“I'd be sure Billy Wade had a
time, if you know what I mean.” She giggled. “Besides, he works too hard. I'd like to see him enjoy a real vacationâand if not a cruise, then something else.”
Rhea sighed. “Seems like we often talk about wishes and what-ifs.”
“Oh, don't be getting all serious and down-in-the-dumps on me 'cause I was doing a little dreaming at the end of a busy day.” Jeannie punched Rhea's arm playfully. “It's not like cleaning tourist cottages is a real glamour job, you know. It would be fun to use some of that lottery money to hire cleaning help for this place. I remember when a lot more staff worked at Laurel Springs.”
“So do I.” Rhea sighed again and checked her watch. “You'd better take the truck and the laundry on back. You'll have time to throw a couple of loads in the washers before you need to pick up Billy Wade and drive him to Newport to get his truck at the shop. Nana Dean said she'd keep Beau until you got back, but I don't want her to get too worn out.”
“Your grandmother is a peach to keep Beau for me so often. I know at six he's a handful.”
Rhea stood up and stretched. “Nana enjoys him. She says Beau helps to keep her young.”
“I feel just the opposite.” Jeannie laughed and headed toward the truck. “By the end of some days, that child makes me feel old!”
She paused at the truck door, turning to give Rhea one of her crinkly grins. “You going to ride up to the front of the camp with me?”
Rhea looked across the road toward a brown cottage, called the Dancing Bear, tucked under a group of pine trees. “No. I still need to sweep off the porch at the Bear. I'll clean and check inside, too. A family from Indiana is coming tomorrow to stay there for a week. I want to be sure everything looks good. I'll walk back when I finish.”
“Okay.” Jeannie bounded into the truck with her usual enthusiasm and then turned to wave two fingers cheerily in good-bye.
Rhea envied her carefree disposition. “You always bounce around all cute, cheerful, and bubbly like the proverbial cheerleader.”
Jeannie wrinkled her nose. “So? You know I coach the cheering squad at the high school. It makes me feel young and carefreeâreminds me of my own cheerleader days, too.” She sent a sunny smile Rhea's way. “Besides, you cheered, too, when we went to Cosby High.”
“I know.” Rhea grinned at the memory. “You coached me so I could make the squad even though I was too tall and not very good.”
“You did fine.” Jeannie shut the truck door and laughed. “We had some great times in high school on all those game weekends, tooâyou, me, Billy Wade, and Carter.”
Rhea smiled thinking of Jeannie's husband, Billy Wade. “Everybody still calls Billy Wade the best wide receiver Cosby ever had.”
“And Carter made a good kicker before he injured his knee.” Jeannie giggled. “After he got sidelined, I remember Carter took pictures at every game during senior year and wrote up great articles for the newspaper.”
“Well, that was a long time ago. Nine years.” Rhea frowned and picked up her broom and started toward the cottage across the street.
Jeannie's voice, in a softer tone, followed her. “I wasn't going to tell you, Rhea, but Carter is coming in for a vacation soon.”
Rhea kept her eyes toward the Dancing Bear cottage and didn't look back at Jeannie. “So? Why should you not want to tell me that? Carter's family lives on part of the grounds; they co-own the Laurel Springs Camp Assembly Grounds. It figures he'd wander in sometime. He is Wes and Mary Jane's only son, after all.”
“Yes, but, like you said, he hasn't been home in nine years, Rhea, not since he went away to college and then got married. It's been a long time.” She paused. “Mary Jane said he's bringing his little boy to visit. His wife's been gone a whole year now.”
“What's your point, Jeannie?” Rhea turned to glare at her friend. She knew her voice snapped more sharply than she intended it to.
Jeannie twiddled with her watchband. “Well, you and Carter were special to each other before he went away.”
Rhea gripped the broom handle with clenched hands. She didn't like the direction this conversation was heading. “Yes, and then Carter went away, got married, started a family, and made a new life. I went to college here and made my own life, too. Time has marched forward a long time since high school, Jeannie Ledford. There's no sentimental, yearning spot left in my heart for Carter Layman. So don't start playing around with that idea in your mind.”
“All right.” Jeannie shrugged. “But I hope maybe you and Carter can be friends again when he comes back. It would be fun for the four of us to get together while he's here. Like old times.”
“I wouldn't count on it.” Rhea turned and started toward the Dancing Bear. “And it wouldn't be like old times. Ever. Those times are gone.”
In the background she heard Jeannie blow out a breath, start the truck, and drive away. Only when the sound of the truck's engine faded into the distance did Rhea turn to look after it. When she did, there were tears dripping down her cheeks she hadn't wanted Jeannie to see.
She kicked at a pinecone on the cottage's walkway as she headed toward the porch steps.
If it wasn't summer and the height of tourist season, I'd take off on a trip somewhere to avoid even laying eyes on that traitor again.
Rhea started sweeping the Dancing Bear's porch with a vengeance, furious she'd spared even a tear for the memory of Carter Layman. She shouldn't feel even a twinge of pain anymore after all this time.
“I hate him for what he did to me and how he hurt me. I really do.” She spat the words out, needing to give vent to her thoughts as she whacked the broom against a porch rail, her anger kicking up. “Jeannie must be crazy to think I'd want to buddy up to Carter Layman and be chummy friends again. No, sir. I'm going to stay as far away from him as possible while he's here for his little visit.”
Checking inside the cottage later, Rhea's thoughts drifted to Carter again, despite her intention not to think about him. They'd grown up together, she and Carter, been best friends through childhood and sweethearts later on.
It was hard to sweep away a lifetime of memories, even if you tried. She heaved a sigh. And she certainly had tried.
Walking into the boys' bunkroom in the Dancing Bear, Rhea encountered still more unwanted reminders of Carter Layman. Old prints of classic cars from the sixties and seventies marched in a somewhat crooked row across the wall. Rhea straightened them with reluctanceâhating to even touch them in her present mood. Carter had chosen and framed these car prints one summer when they painted and fixed up the cabin's bunkroom.
Rhea ran a finger across the faded photo of a red convertible. She didn't know the make of the car, but Carter would know right away. He loved vintage cars. Especially that old red Pontiac Firebird convertible he'd fixed up and driven through junior and senior year of high school.
She pressed down the sweet memories trying to creep into her thoughts as she looked at the photo.
Oh, no you don't. Don't you dare go soft thinking about Carter Layman even for one minute. He's a snake. He didn't prove true to youâor even to his own professed dreams.
Turning away and encountering her own troubled face in the dresser mirror, she shook a finger at herself. “You keep in mind that Carter Layman drove off to California to college in his Pontiac convertible. Drove off to study computer gaming so he could make a lot of money to help save Laurel Springs. Or so he
” She snorted. “Remember all that big talk? All those big plans? And then he became a hotshot computer game developer, married some rich man's daughterâand never came back. You keep that firmly in mind, Rhea Dean, and you remember just how much you can trust Carter Layman. Not one inch.”
She stomped out of the room and pushed open the door to the back porch, where she began to sweep the leaves and debris away with a fury.
An hour later, Rhea's long strides took her back along the East Cabin Road, following the dusty tracks left by the assembly truck, and then up the paved North Assembly Road toward the main entrance of the camp on Highway 32. She'd vented out her frustrations and anger in work and felt calmer now. As she approached the historic covered bridge over Little Cascades Creek, she could see a car parked inside in the deep shadows.
Rhea frowned as she started toward the bridge. It could be dangerous to stop on the bridge. What were those people thinking? The road through the bridge was a narrow two-lane one, long and dark inside; traffic could hardly see a stopped vehicle from either direction.
With annoyance, she moved closer to the entrance of the bridge and called out a warning to the driver. “You need to pull your car out of the covered bridge. It's dangerous to stop in there.”
Hearing the vehicle start up now, Rhea stepped back off the road, leaning against the fence rail out of the way.
As the car nosed out of the shadows of the bridge, a familiar voice floated out before it. “I see you're still as bossy as ever, Rhea Dean.”
Rhea gripped the rail behind her to steady herself as her heartbeat escalated. She'd know that voice anywhereâeven after a hundred years.
Into the summer sunshine drove Carter Layman, his familiar black hair a little too long, his dark eyes still mischievous and sleepy, his mouth tweaked in that old sardonic, know-it-all smile. He pulled the white convertible to a stop beside her, draping an arm over the door to study her slowly from head to toe.
She could have died right then. She wore a soiled white T-shirt, a shabby jeans romper with a faded overall top, and battered canvas shoes. Terrific. Her hair straggled down her back and stuck out from under the barrette she'd tried to pin it back with. Any semblance of makeup had faded over the day, and dirt streaks undoubtedly decorated her face from sweeping and cleaning. She still carried her dilapidated work broom, too.
It was definitely not how she'd wanted to look when she saw Carter Layman again for the first time, but, of course, she'd never let him know that. Lifting her chin, she studied him back, giving him the same once-over he'd given her, steeling her face not to give away a shred of discomfort.
She let her eyes sweep over him casually. Dastardly man. He looked heartbreakingly the sameâand yet different somehow. She'd seen occasional pictures of him through the years, so she shouldn't be shocked at how he'd matured, filled out, and become more sophisticated. He seemed tan and fit, easy with himself, his dark coffee eyes watching her with amusement, his even white teeth flashing in a typical Carter grin. Despite the casual clothes he wore, he reeked of money, too. A big diamond ring winked on a middle finger of his hand, and she stood close enough to see the word
on the watch on his arm.