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Camp Wild Pines Maine, USA
Nurse Ellie Mackenzie watched a man jog past the camp infirmary as she put away the medical supplies. She didn't mind the task. Frankly, it kept her hands busy and her mind off of the last difficult year of her life, which was what she needed right now. A fresh start. A break from everything that was familiar, habitual, ingrained in her by years of ICU nursing with a side dish of humility for good measure. With a quick glance at the photo of her parents that sat on her desk, she returned to her task. She liked seeing them there.
The jogger was someone she didn't know, so she didn't take much notice as he cruised by the other direction. No business of hers who was running around outside in the sweltering June sunshine in Maine. She was here to work, take a break from hospital nursing for the summer, chase healthy kids around for a few weeks and forget about the recent emotional traumas that had nearly broken her spirit. The man was probably just a counselor enjoying a solitary run before the campers descended tomorrow. After that, there would be no peace and quiet for anyone until the end of summer. At least, that's what her friend, Vicki, had said. Vicki had been a nurse here for several summers, so she should know. Now that Vicki and her husband, Sam, had had a little girl, and Sam had entered a new residency program, they couldn't spend their entire summer here. That's how Ellie had been recruited for the job.
Ten minutes later, the lone jogger ran by in the opposite direction. Catching only a glimpse of long muscular legs, bare torso and a baseball cap turned around backward, she tried to concentrate on the task at hand, but those legs were a definite distraction. She'd likely meet the fellow and the other staff later at the lodge, then she could put a name to the legs, er, face.
Before she finished her task, the squeaky screen door announced a visitor, and she entered the front room to investigate.
"Hello?" Audible wheezes caught her trained ears the second she entered the room.
The jogger had come into the infirmary. Sitting on one of the wooden chairs designated for patients by the front door, the man leaned forward with his hands on his knees, huffing and sweating. "Hi, there." He waved while he caught his breath.
"Hi, yourself. Are you all right?" Moving closer, she gave his thin frame a closer inspection.
He held up a hand, indicating he still needed a minute to catch his breath. "I'm good."
"You don't look good." Wondering if he were experiencing heat exhaustion, she sat on the chair next to him and checked his pulse. It was rapid, but not bounding. The red color of his face indicated he'd been exerting, but he looked as if he were starting to settle down.
Wiping away the sweat on his face with his shirt, he laughed. "Thanks. I'm not used to the humidity and heat here."
"Where are you from? Obviously not Maine," she said, more accustomed to it than he was having lived in Dallas, Texas, for several years.
"New Mexico." He wiped his arm across his forehead. "Hot, but not humid."
"Hey, that's cool. I went to nursing school there, but now I live in Dallas where it's hot and humid. Are you one of the counselors? I'm Ellie." Now that his color was returning to normal, she relaxed somewhat. Not that she couldn't handle it, but she really didn't want to have to deal with a medical emergency the second she arrived at camp and without the assistance of a backup. Since he was able to carry on a conversation, he wasn't in too much distress, and otherwise he looked healthy.
"Yes, and no. I'm assuming you're the nurse?"
His striking green eyes met hers for the first time. Keen intelligence shone from them. Another time or place she might have been intrigued, but now she looked away. Any interest in men and relationships was on hiatus for the summer. She was too tired to tackle either one. The last relationship had worn her out. Not that she couldn't admire the beauty of the male form; she just didn't want to get close to one just yet.
"I'm the camp's doctor, Mark Collins."
"Oh," she said with a nod and then sat upright as the realization of what he'd just said hit her. "Oh." He was so not what she'd expected. From what Vicki had told her about her new colleague and his extensive professional experience, she'd thought him to be much older than he obviously was. This put an alarming new perspective on those legs that she would be around a whole lot more than she expected.
He wiped his hand on his shorts, then held it out to her. "Nice to meet you."
Ellie shook the rather sweaty hand, then removed hers from his grip. "Same here. So, do you know Sam or Vicki?"
"Sam. We worked together for a few years at the university hospital in Albuquerque. And you?"
"I'm a friend of Vicki's. We went to nursing school at UNM together. She convinced me that taking a leave of absence and being a camp nurse for the summer would be good for me. Did you get the same line from Sam?" She smiled, suspecting that their mutual friends had begun a small conspiracy.
Mark grinned and put his shirt on. "Nearly identical. Seems they went to great lengths to find substitutes for themselves so they didn't have to come back."
Long awkward silences bothered Ellie, so she usually filled them with idle chatter, attempting to keep her patients comfortable. She did the same now, falling back on the best technique she knew. Having a casual conversation with a stranger was something she'd learned to do. Naturally shy, it didn't come easily to her, but she'd learned to hide behind her nurse persona.
"So, are you ready for tomorrow?" she asked. "I hear that it's pure chaos the first day or two, especially with the younger campers who are away from home for the first time." Memories of her own camp experiences as a kid were good, though she hadn't gone to sleepaway camp as young as some of these children.
"Yep. Ready as I'm going to be." He indicated the pile of empty cardboard boxes strewn around the floor. "I see you've been tackling the supplies already. How about a break? Come down to the dock and meet some of the others with me? There's going to be a bonfire just for us tonight, then another one with the kids tomorrow night."
"Sounds great," Ellie said, but hesitated, glancing at the load of trash and boxes scattered about the infirmary. A job left undone was just work to do later, or for someone else to finish, and she hated leaving things incomplete. She simply couldn't do it in good conscience. The nagging voice of her past rolled through her, and she nearly shivered. She hated that voice and thought it had finally left her alone for good.
"Something wrong?" Mark asked, his eyes intense and watching her, unsettling her.
"Didn't a bonfire nearly destroy the camp two summers ago?" she asked, trying to direct his attention away from her.
"That's what I heard, but it all worked out well in the end. Got a new soccer field out of it, too." He pointed to the fire extinguisher by the door. "There are more extinguishers around, but after that experience, it's doubtful there would be a repeat."
Ellie nodded, then stood. "That makes me feel a little better. Well, I'd better get back to it. There are a few more things for me to unpack yet." She hoped that wasn't too straightforward, but if she intended to get this project done before nightfall, she needed to keep moving.
"Want some help? I've finished my run and am happy to give you a hand." He glanced at his watch. "We've got two hours before the bonfire starts."
"No." Again, she hesitated. "I've got it." Stepping back, she moved away from him. He was a very intense man, and she didn't need that right now. She was supposed to be soothing her frazzled nerves, not getting them more so. The energy he had seemed to want to pull her in. She was here to relax, not get embroiled in other people's high energy, no matter how enticing it seemed.
"Can't I at least take some of the empties out to the recycle pile?" he asked and pointed to the stack by the door. "Won't take but a minute."
"Okay. But I've got the rest."
"After that, I'll unpack my stuff, take a shower and head down to the bonfire." He started toward the door and loaded his arms with the empty boxes, then paused. "You really ought to come down, eat some sticky marshmallows and hang out with the rest of us. You'll make everyone feel guilty if they know you're up here working while we're all down there having fun."
She chewed her lower lip, then reached past Mark to open the door for him. "Maybe. We'll see how much of this I get finished first." Though the idea was tempting, she doubted that she'd go. There was so much to do before tomorrow. There was always so much to do, and she never seemed to have enough time in her life to get everything done.
Mark strolled down to the edge of the lake just at sunset and the spectacular rays of orange, yellow and red bounced off of the gentle ripples of water. Breathing deep, he pulled in the fresh, humid air that was so different than he expected it to be. Not that he hadn't been in humid climates before—he had, all over the world, but something was different about this experience. It was fuller, fresher, much more alive than he'd remembered air ever being. Maybe he was being fanciful, but that's what it seemed to him tonight, and he was okay with being a little fanciful now and then. Kept things interesting. Life was too short to be serious all of the time. He'd certainly learned that lesson in spades not long ago.
As twilight deepened, he paused on the dirt path, savoring the moment. Night creatures crawled from their dens to explore their world and created such a symphony of sound that he was compelled to stop and listen for a few moments.
Sam had been right. This remote experience was exactly what he needed after all he'd been through in the previous few years. Tension he hadn't been aware of holding onto began to slowly unwind, and his shoulders relaxed. The persistent gnaw in his gut eased a fraction. Working as a pediatric trauma physician was intense enough, then becoming a patient in his own hospital with a life-threatening illness had brought his world to an abrupt halt. Tension didn't begin to describe the hell he'd been through.
Now that he was past all that—three years past—he was still having difficulty getting back into the swing of having a normal life. He was no longer sure what normal really was. It was definitely not what it had been a short time ago. Nagging doubts, and the agonizing wait of two more years before his body was considered free of cancer, loomed over him every day and influenced him in ways he'd never imagined. Should he rent or have a mortgage? How much life insurance should he buy? Would he die before the tires on his car wore out? Could he engage in a short- or long-term relationship? These were at the top of the list. So many decisions were now based on his questionable longevity.
Chasing after a bunch of healthy kids all summer was going to be a monumental change for him, but one he anticipated being good.
The hoot of a night bird pulled him from his thoughts, and he continued down the hill to the fire blazing at the edge of the water. The smell of charred marshmallows was already heavy in the air, and he hoped that it would entice Ellie into joining the group.
"Hi, Mark. Glad you made it."
"Gil, nice to see you." He shook hands with the camp administrator.
Gil looked up the path. "Where's your nurse?"
"Ellie's finishing up a bit of housekeeping in the infirmary, then she'll be down." At least, he hoped she would be.
"Okay. There's a spot by me and the bag of marsh-mallows. You can join me there."
"Just what I wanted to hear." With a laugh, Mark followed the man through the tangle of people who had just plopped down anywhere near the fire. Casting one last glance up the path that had fallen completely dark, he hoped that Ellie would come. She seemed nice, and he needed to make friends with her while they were here for the summer. The community of people he called friends had dwindled during his illness, and he needed to rebuild his support system differently this time. His fiancé, who was supposed to be with him through sickness and health had they married, had bailed during his first treatment. She'd said it was because he wasn't likely to be able to father children, but now he knew better. The shallowness and insecurity he'd never seen had become blindingly clear.
Not wanting to cloud the evening with thoughts of the past, he put her fromhis mind and followed Gil to the fire.
Though he enjoyed the atmosphere of young adults and experienced counselors who returned year after year, something was missing. Maybe it was just because he was a first-timer here, maybe because he really didn't know the others yet, but something was out of place. Having grown up in a large family that didn't recognize boundaries, loneliness had never been part of his life, but now that was the feeling that came to mind.
Footsteps on the path and a quick, feminine curse alerted them to the arrival of someone else.
"Hello? Is this where the party is?"
Ellie had arrived. A smile covered Mark's face, and he stood. "Over here," he said and waved, hoping she'd recognize him against the backdrop of the fire.
"There you are," she said and made her way through the tangle of people seated on blankets and camp chairs. She reached for Mark's outstretched hand and grabbed on. Her touch was strong and firm.
"We've got a nice spot here," he said and eased down to the ground with Gil on one side and Ellie on the other, then released her hand. The small groups returned to their conversations now that Ellie was seated. Someone brought out a guitar and began playing softly in the background.
The slap of a hand against bare skin broke the silence, and Ellie jumped. "Ohh. I shouldn't have worn shorts."
"Bugs getting to you?" he asked and swatted away a mosquito buzzing near his ear. "They sound like tiny airplanes, don't they?"