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Meg met Eric on the shore of the lake the next evening. In the failing light, the water was the color of pale emeralds and smooth as silk. A canoe had been pulled up out of the water onto the damp ground.
"You made it," he said, looking pleased.
"No problems at all," she said. "I told Lacey I'd do double duty for her whenever she wanted it." When Meg had asked Lacey if she could step out for the evening, Lacey hadn't peppered her with questions. It was understood that counselors needed some "alone" time because of the intensity of their job.
"Your yacht awaits," Eric joked, shoving the canoe into the water and helping her into her seat. Meg looked at Eric's broad shoulders as they started paddling across the smooth lake.
A whippoorwill called out, and two snow-white herons lifted gracefully off the bank when the canoe glided near. Tree branches dipped low over the water, brushing the surface with lazy, leafy fingers. Tree frogs began their evening symphonies, fireflies dotted the shoreline, and overhead, stars winked on.
"It certainly is peaceful out here." Meg spoke quietly so as not to shatter the silence.
"Better than church," Eric answered over his shoulder.
Meg found the lapping sound their paddles made comforting, and the pull on her arms as the paddle sliced through the water was invigorating.
Since he was in front, Eric guided the canoe with his paddle, and soon Meg realized that he had a destination in mind. "Are we going somewhere in particular?" she asked.
"Yes, straight toward that rock that's jutting out."
She could see it in the gathering twilight and helped him paddle toward it. Beside the rock, Eric swung the canoe around and nudged it close to the reedy shore. He helped her out, pushed the canoe farther into the reeds, and said, "Follow me."
"Where are we going?" she asked. He certainly appeared to have a plan.
"It's a surprise."
"It's getting dark, hard to see."
"Faithful scout have fake fire," he said, flipping out a small high-beam flashlight from his pocket and taking her hand.
She followed him through the woods. The trail widened, then opened out into a meadow ringed by tall trees. In the center of the clearing a blanket had been spread out, and on the blanket were a picnic basket, a couple of pillows, and about half a dozen unlit candles.
"Let me get these going," he said, dropping down on the blanket and taking out a lighter. In seconds, the candles flickered, throwing off warm golden light that sank into darkness beyond the edge of the blanket.
She sat beside him, amazed. "You did all this for me?
"For us," he said. "I stumbled across this place one day when I went exploring and thought it would be the perfect spot for a moonlight picnic. All I needed was the perfect girl to share it with."
"Why, Eric, this is just beautiful."
"Don't sound so shocked. Guys know how to be romantic when they put their minds to it." He opened the basket and brought out paper plates and a cluster of grapes. "I've got cheese too. And sodas. Lie back. Make yourself comfortable."
Meg fluffed a pillow and stretched out. Above her a thousand stars twinkled down. All she could think about was how sweet it had been of him to think up the idea. True, his presence didn't make her heart pound the way Morgan's did, but Eric certainly was fun to be with. He had style and imagination. "So, confess, how many girls have you done this with before me?"
"I'm crushed," he said popping a grape into his mouth. "This was carefully premeditated with you in mind."
She nibbled on a slice of cheese. "Well, I'm totally impressed. Thank you. But why me? Why not ask one of the other girls?" She was thinking about Chelsea.
"Because I like you best?" He offered his explanation as a question.
Eric shivered. "Cold as ice, that one. Besides, she's got a boyfriend. Ditto Katie. I mean, who wants to run afoul of Josh? He's nuts about that girl and would probably pound my brains in if I so much as looked at her."
"She's cute, but I'm not interested."
Meg felt let down on her friend's behalf.
"No, I like you best, Megan Charnell, so stop trying to pass me off to some other girl. You're the one I want to be with. End of story." He stretched out beside her, lacing his fingers through hers.
She was flattered that he liked her but not quite sure how she felt about his attention. She wasn't prepared for a summer romance. "What do you do when you're not cooking at camp and taking girls on moonlit picnics?" she asked. "College? A fulltime job?"
"I'm starting junior college in the fall. My sister's idea. I live with her and she thinks I need a good education, so to keep the peace, I'm going."
Since she loved college and learning, his answer surprised her. "Don't you have any dreams? Anything you want to do with your life?"
"Make a lot of money."
"That takes a skill."
He rolled over, boosted himself up on his elbows, and peered down at her face. "I can get that lecture from my sister."
"I didn't mean it the way it must have sounded. I was just making conversation." In the candlelight flickering on the side of his face, Meg could appreciate how attractive he was.
"I'd rather go light on the conversation and . . ." He let the sentence trail off.
"And what?" Her pulse began to pound.
"I'd like to kiss you," he said. "Can I?"
No boy had kissed her since Donovan, and she felt woefully out of practice. "Permission granted," she told Eric.
He slid his arm beneath her shoulders and cradled her close. He touched her temple with his lips, sending small shivers down her spine. He kissed her softly on the forehead, then on the cheeks, and then fully on the mouth. The incredible sweetness of it all went through her like melting candle wax.
She let him trail kisses down her neck, along her throat, then back to her mouth. She reveled in the sheer physical pleasure of the moment. When he pulled back, she didn't even open her eyes. She was floating on a sea of warmth, and she savored it the way a hungry person savors a succulent dollop of deep, rich chocolate.
"You taste good," he whispered. "I really like you, Meg."
She couldn't answer. Although she'd experienced physical pleasure in his arms, a part of her felt disengaged and uninvolved. And some voice inside her was saying that he had done this before, and that it worked for him. He knew how to romance a girl, all right. He knew just what to do, just what buttons to push. She was certain that many girls had fallen for his charm, enjoyed his kisses.
"Your picnic was wonderful," she said in his ear. "Thank you. But I really have to be getting back. You know we're always on call around here, and I shouldn't leave Lacey alone with my group all evening.
Eric's expression turned to one of astonishment, but he recovered quickly. "Are you sure? It's not that late. We've only been gone a little while."
"Sorry," she said with her sweetest smile.
If he was mad, he didn't show it. He began to put things away. She helped him blow out the candles, pack up the basket, and fold the blanket.
"You okay?" he asked before they started back to the canoe.
"I'm fine, Eric. Better than I've been in months."
He grinned. "Then we can do this again?"
She shook her head. "Probably not."
"I don't get it."
"I'm not sure I do either, but this is the way it has to be."
They returned to the canoe, got in, and paddled in silence back to the place they'd shoved off from. Once on land, Meg caught his hand. "Thank you, Eric. I really mean that."
"Um--yeah, sure," he said, but he looked totally confused in the pale light of the half moon.
Meg stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the mouth. Then she turned and hurried back toward her cabin, leaving Eric standing on the shore, shaking his head.
In nearby shadows, Morgan stood watching. So Eric had made a move and Meg had gone for it. Morgan felt an edgy spark of jealousy, an emotion he hadn't felt since before Anne died. It's a free world, he told himself. She can do anything she wants, be with anybody she wants. Still, his insides simmered.
There was nothing he could do about it, except maybe give Eric a wide berth for the next month. The guy got on his nerves. Morgan recalled the moves he himself had once put on Anne and how she'd turned him away. At the time, he'd been hurt. Then he'd learned of her HIV status, and he had been grateful. Anne had been a wonderful girl. He missed her.
Meg was the first girl to interest him since Anne, and she was attracted to a guy like Eric. "Figures," Morgan said under his breath. Life just didn't seem to have a way of working out for him. No, it surely didn't.
From the Paperback edition.