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Despite its name, Camp Hope didn't manage to lift Emma Shaver's spirits. If anything, she just felt heavier.
She leaned over the steering wheel of her SUV as they rolled nearer the camp, ignoring the steady thump of her thirteen-year-old son Cody's fingers pounding a rhythm on the dashboard beside her. The camp's main structure, a two-story, log cabin-style house, held court in the middle of autumn-weary acreage, still dry from the unforgiving heat of a Louisiana summer, faded golden fields stretching as far as the eye could see. The outbuildings, a rustic, get-it-done crimson barn and an open-sided lean-to, nestled behind two rows of temporary buildings that, according to the camp's website, served as the dorms for the teenagers.
Cody could probably weasel his way out of one of those with a toothpick.
She inhaled a tight breath. Pick her battles, was her motto. Cody was here, readyif not willingto get the help he needed or else. That was a battle she had to fight. Annoying drumbeats were not.
Rat tat tattat.
Camp Hope looked tired. Or maybe she was just tired.
"That's really getting old, Cody." So was the headache pounding at her temples that hadn't stopped since their appearance in court. The day she got the news that would forever change her world.
Cody shrugged and flopped against the seat, the seat belt stretching across his thin chest and tangling in the cords of his iPod. At least he'd changed shirts. That was yet another battle she'd had to fight this morning before driving to Broken Bend, Louisiana. She wasn't sure where he'd gotten that holey, rumpled excuse for a T-shirt, but she knew enough about gangs to know it was going straight into the trash.
Too bad all her psych books didn't tell what to do when the client was your own kid. The rules blurred then, the text grew fuzzy. Nothing was black-and-white anymore like it used to be in college when she'd been working toward her degree. She might have earned her master's and opened a successful clinic in Dallas, Texas, against all odds, but at homeshe was an epic failure.
But she wouldn't cry. Not in front of her son.
She steeled her nerves. "We're here." Not exactly the way she imagined her Monday going, but hey, life was full of surprises. She could write the book on that one.
Cody yanked the iPod buds from his ears, grumbling. "I still don't see why I had to come."
That was precisely the problem. She counted to ten before answering, even as she steered the car toward the dusty, gravel parking lot. "You heard what the judge said. It's either Camp Hope or juvenile detention." She pulled into a spot between a beat-up pickup and a shiny hybrid. Guess it took all types to have troubled teens. Yet the reminder didn't make her feel better. This wasn't anyone's kidit was her kid.
She angled a glance at her muttering son as she shifted into park. "You think me making you change shirts was bad? At least it wasn't an orange jumpsuit."
Cody snorted, but she could tell her point got across. He grudgingly released his seat belt and peered out the window at the house before him. Was he as nervous as she was? It was hard to trust a system she knew from her job didn't always bring positive results. But the judge had been adamant, and here they were. It beat juvenile detention by far. Apparently the facility had become quite popular with local officials for its moral-based program and positive outcomes.
She'd have been more prone to hope except the camp was back in her hometownthe town she hadn't visited once since her father's funeral five years ago. She'd arranged to take some time off and stay with her mom in Broken Bend while Cody went through the program, maybe work on some of her own issues. She couldn't avoid her hometown forever, and Cody would benefit from seeing his grandmother again. Besides, despite her own painful past, she had to do what was best for her son. Being nearby if he had a breakthrough was crucial. He'd been miles away for far too long already.
But what if the camp didn't help and Cody ended up in juvie later anyway?
Her stomach flipped, and bile rose in her throat. Here she was a professional counselor, and her son had been caught breaking and entering into his school and vandalizing the gym with a crowd of older teensafter shoplifting the month before and getting into a fistfight in the cafeteria three months before that.
Could one month of hard work, counseling and time spent with animals really turn him around?
Not that she had a lot of choices at the moment. She had to trust that the leaders of the programwhoever they were, as the website info had been vague at bestknew what they were doing.
Had to trust that God wouldn't give up on her son.
She opened her car door and squinted against the afternoon sunlight. Sliding her sunglasses into place, she motioned for Cody to get out of the car and grab his duffel. Packing for a month at a working ranch had been trickier than she'd thought, especially when Cody's wardrobe mostly consisted of dark pants, black T-shirts and tennis shoes. She'd bought boots after she'd browsed Camp Hope's requirements list online but couldn't for the life of her picture Cody wearing them.
Maybe that was a good thinga sign that he would undergo a complete transformation.
She just wanted her son back. The one who used to crawl on her lap during thunderstorms, make hideouts from superhero sheets and a few chairs, and open her car door for her while boasting about being a gentleman. What had gone so wrong, so quickly?
Tears pressed behind her lids and she blinked rapidly to clear them away. Last time she'd let her guard down and cried in front of Cody, he'd snuck out of the house for three hours with no word of where he was going. Besides, it wasn't healthy for a child to see his mother cryespecially if he was the cause of the tears.
Cody shut his car door a little harder than necessary and shouldered his duffel. The defensive scowl on his face as he slipped his iPod buds back in reminded her of his dad. She'd managed to stuff away thoughts of Max Ringgold for years, until recently, when Cody's attitude mirrored his absent father's more than she wanted to admit. Cody's hair was blond like hers, but he had a similar cowlick to his dad's, a testament to their shared stubbornness. He also had that same charming, do-no-wrong smile Max had always worn as easily as his trademark leather jacket.
But Max had done wrong. A lot of wrong.
Images flashed through her mind. Weapons stashed under truck seats. Rolled up baggies of white powder stuffed in the glove box. Beefy fists banging on the window of her car, muted threats assaulting her ears as they made out down by the lake.
Yeah, once upon a time, Max Ringgold had been trouble with a capital T. All the more reason Cody needed help, nowbefore the darkness in his genes had a chance to fully take over.
Before she lost her son the way she'd lost his father.
A familiar finger of regret nudged her, sending an icy shiver down her back. Choosing not to tell Max she was pregnant had been the best choice at the timemake that her only choice. After she went to college and two pink lines on a stick had determined her fate, she returned to Broken Bend, panicked and unsure how he'd react. He'd made promises about his behavior before she'd left, so many promises. But a baby didn't fit into Max Ringgold's bad boy style any more than the promiscuous role she'd temporarily adopted fit into hers. Would he even accept herthem?
After catching Max unaware in the middle of another drug deal, with one of the county's slipperiest and most dangerous gang leaders no less, the decision was made for her. Max wouldn't get a chance to reject them.
She never looked back.
Approximately thirteen years later, Cody didn't know the difference. She'd made a home for them, a loving home, despite the sacrifices and hard work required of a single mom putting herself through college, avoiding her hometown and keeping the details a secret from her parents. She didn't want the shotgun wedding her father threatened. Not with Max Ringgold. She might deserve to pay for her mistakes, but her kid deserved better.
Yet despite all those logged miles on the treadmill, Emma had never quite been able to outrun the guilt.
She shut her car door and steered Cody toward the front porch of the main house, where she assumed registration would take place. "Let's go." Time to shake off the pastthat's why they were there, after all. To get a fresh start, a second chance. Maybe for both of them. Secrets long buried were best left buried, and just because she was back in Broken Bend didn't mean they'd all be resurrected.
The front screen door squeaked open on its hinges, and boots thudded onto the wooden porch. She glanced up at the approaching cowboy with a smile, relieved that someone was finally there to take charge. She could relax, take a much-needed break. Cody would be in good hands.
The cowboy lifted the brim of his black hat, and her smile slipped away as shock gripped her in a cold, unrelenting vice.
He'd be in Max Ringgold's hands.
Max Ringgold always figured his past would one day come back to taunt him. He just never dreamed it'd latch around his ankle and knock his feet right out from underneath him.
He stared at the blonde woman before him as if she might have two heads. Two identities, for sure, because she looked exactly like Emma Shaver. Yet there was no way. No way. Emma hadn't been back in Broken Bend in a decade. Maybe longer. He used to know the weeks to the day but eventually stopped counting. Hard to heal from an injury when you kept poking at the wound.
But this woman was looking at him as if he'd sprouted a second head, tooso maybe it was possible after all.
Her mouth opened and closed, then pressed into a tight line. Red dotted her cheeks. Yep, that was her. He'd always been able to make her blush. Part of the problem. He'd been inexplicably drawn to the Good Girl, her to the Bad Boyand the chemistry that resulted could have blown a crater throughout most of the town. Why did something that happened a lifetime ago suddenly seem like yesterday?
He knew he should say something, anything, to break the awkward silence, but his years of training in dealing with troubled teens didn't cover how to deal with moms who were ex-girlfriends.
He took off his hat, then regretted it. He probably had hat hair, and now he felt even more vulnerable under her laser-sharp gaze. "I'm Max."
Emma's fair eyebrows lifted, and he winced. She knew that. But he had to say something. Besides, the kid didn't know who he was, and that's why they were there. He turned his attention to the teen standing beside Emma and offered his hand. Man to man. "Max Ringgold."
The boy grunted, reluctantly offering a quick, limp shake. They'd have to work on that. A man was known by his handshake. "Cody Shaver."
An alarm sounded in Max's subconscious. Shaver. So Emma wasn't married. He darted a glance to her left hand to make sure, and wanted to kick himself with his own boot as she caught him, well, red-handed. He slammed his hat back on his head.
"Come on inside. We'll get you signed in then catch up with the rest of the tour." Max held the door and motioned them forward. Cody clomped inside, dragging his duffel behind him on the floor. Emma followed, gaze lowered, the scent of her peppermint perfume lingering long after she squeezed past.
Max checked his watch, partly to know the time and partly to resist the urge to touch her hair, silky and shiny as a shampoo commercialthe kind that definitely didn't belong on his ranch with all the dirt, dust and horse sweat flying about. Good thing she wasn't staying.
His heart seconded that idea as she flashed wary azure eyes at himthe same eyes that peeked at him from the photo he still had stashed in his sock drawer.
The photo didn't do them justice.
He let the screen door snap behind him as he directed them to his office off the dining room, which he'd converted from an old closet. He didn't spend much time there, except for the occasional paperwork, prayer time or private conversations with the kids.
The other nine campers, three girls and six boys, had arrived and checked in half an hour before and were being given a brief tour by the live-in counselors, Luke and Nicole Erickson. He'd noticed the increasing size of Nicole's stomach beneath her maternity top earlier and had raised an eyebrow at Luke, who'd assured him she wasn't due for another month. Just in time to finish this camp. Then he'd have to find a replacement for her while she took maternity leave.
The stress of that significant problem suddenly dimmed compared to the throbbing in his temples at Emma's proximity. He slipped behind the desk to give himself space, trying to ignore the way his heart pounded under his work shirt like a runaway horse.
"Here we are. Cody Shaver." He ran his finger over the printed name and made a check mark in the columnand a mental note not to let Nicole handle the precamp paperwork anymore. If he'd seen Emma's name as Cody's guardian on his forms earlier, he'd have had a heads-up. All he personally received was the list of the kids' names two weeks prior to camp, so he could pray for them.
Then again, the odds of another ex-girlfriend popping up seemed a little slim.
"Is there a problem?" Emma's voice sounded as strained as the muscles in his neck as he jerked his head up to look at her, realizing he'd been staring at the document for far longer than he should have. Emma Shaver. Wow. When did she have a son? How old was Cody? He'd have to check the full file later. But apparently Emma hadn't wasted a lot of time pining over Max after leaving for college.
Though she was supposed to have come back.
The thought burned his stomach and he licked his suddenly dry lips. "No, there's no problem. No problem at all." The past was the past. The important part now was that Cody was here, and he needed helpregardless of who his mother was. Max had to get his priorities in order, quick, or he'd do more harm than good. These kids counted on him, and he wouldn't let themor Goddown.
He found his warmest smile, despite the cold expression in Emma's eyes attempting to freeze his heart. "Welcome to Camp Hope, Cody. It's going to be a great month."
The kid grunted, as if he didn't believe him. Emma didn't look as if she particularly believed him, either.
Which was fine, because at the moment, he didn't fully believe himself.