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"Bet you're laughing your ass off, aren't you, Dunk?" Rick Warren directed his comment skyward. He unlatched his seat belt but made no move to exit the car, rethinking the favor Gus Hargrove was calling in.
One summer, that was the commitment. Compared to his former tours of duty, two months was nothing, and anything was better than unemployment—sitting at home, putting on a beer belly. Besides, he'd already said yes. Honor. Courage. Commitment. Time to face this like a marine.
He opened the car door and strode across the street and up the walk of the gray stone house. Neither his confident manner nor the doorbell's seraphic chime could lift the dread from the pit of his stomach.
The wisp of a woman who was Agnes Delaney opened the door and welcomed him into the house with her genial "Come in, come in." Her husband, Herschel, showed up close on her heels, his beefy, red face broken by a toothy grin.
"Rick." Herschel's large hand clapped hard on his back. "Glad to have you on board."
Rick forced a smile. "Thank you, sir."
"I slept better last night than I have in months." Agnes's eyes shimmered with gratitude as she looped her arm through Rick's and led him down a wide hallway. "Let's go in here and sit while we talk. I need to keep an eye on Peewee."
Agnes steered him into a great room, which opened onto a large lawn and pool area. A Yorkie was doing laps around the pool, chasing birds, squirrels, butterflies—anything that moved.
"Very nice." Rick indicated the room with its rich leather furnishings and fabulous view.
"Well, hopefully, now you're here we'll be able to keep it," Agnes said, and gave his arm a motherly pat, and he began to feel a little better about his decision.
"You see, Rick.. " Herschel indicated a chair, then sank heavily into his own well-worn one. "I didn't say anything before, but Agnes and I invested our complete retirement fund into this venture. With the downturn in the economy, we've had several years of barely breaking even. If things don't go well this year, we'll have no choice but to sell."
Wow, no pressure here. Dread took another swat at Rick's insides. He waited to sit until Agnes perched lightly on the end of the couch. "Well, sir, I'll do my best. How many campers are we expecting?"
"Since we can only afford a skeleton crew of six adults, we've cut it off at twenty. Ten boys and ten girls for each month-long session. The first month is eight- and nine-year-olds. The second is ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-olds. There'll be a week between."
Rick nodded. "That sounds manageable."
"Would you like some iced tea?" Agnes jumped up and moved toward the bar.
"Yes, ma'am, please." What he really wanted was a cold beer.
"We have four barracks that sleep ten each, but we'll only use two of them this summer to cut down on utility expenses," Herschel continued. "Each one has a counselor's room at the back. Both assistants indicated they'd like the night duty since it ups the pay a little for them, but if you want "
Rick shook his head. "No, that's fine." After a long day with the kids, a few hours off would be imperative to his sanity.
Herschel seemed to read his mind. "Long days. Six in the morning to ten at night."
"I've never had a job that didn't have long hours." Rick took a drink as he processed all the information being thrown at him. "Will I be bunking with the other boys' counselor, then?"
"No, we don't expect you to do that, and like I said before, I'd rather not open up the other dorms. We own a couple of cabins just across the path from the camp property that we rent out during deer season. If you'd like one of them for the summer, you can stay rent free. Gus and Nadine always moved into one of them. Saves the drive back and forth from Paducah to the lake every day."
No pets. No girlfriend. Rick couldn't foresee any reason to drive back home to an empty house every night. "I like that idea. Thanks."
Agnes handed him a glass of tea and a piece of paper. A quick glance showed him it was a contract, and his throat threatened to cut off the sweet tea making its way down the passage. He breathed slowly to loosen the muscles and focused back to what Herschel was saying.
" assistant director and head counselor for the boys. Charlie Prichard's been camp director for several years, so he knows what he's doing. He'll make sure the place runs smoothly and just wants you to take care of the activities like Gus did. Hell, you've headed up a government office, so twenty kids should be a piece of cake."
Rick cringed inwardly at the mention of his recently defunct position, but he kept his face impassive.
"We hired a couple of new graduates for the assistant counselor positions." Herschel took a long draw from his tea and smacked his lips appreciatively.
"And what about the girls' head counselor?" He'd have to work closely with whoever was in that position.
Agnes cocked her head and shrugged, reminding him of a bird listening for a worm. "We thought we had someone hired, but she backed out yesterday. That's why I sounded so anxious when you called." She gave him a warm smile that made him feel quite heroic and terribly uncomfortable.
"We're still looking."
"Nadine says she'll stay on, but only as our last resort." Herschel gave a lopsided grin. "She and Gus are gonna miss having summers off together. Neither of them wants to make the drive from the lake every day even though they've always said the little cabin in the woods is like a second honeymoon."
Having twenty kids within spitting distance hardly sounded like a romantic haven to Rick.
"What about the assistant counselor?" he suggested. "Is she a possibility?"
"Tara doesn't want the responsibility." Agnes dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. "We still have a few weeks. We'll find someone."
Rick wasn't so sure. "And if you don't?"
"Couple of possibilities," Herschel said. "We could make the first session an all-boys camp this year. Plenty of applicants. That would buy us some more time."
Rick considered the option. "Sort of a boot camp? Give the young men a little taste of a soldier's life?"
Herschel shrugged. "As long as it's fun. Gotta make sure they enjoy it."
Rick nodded. "And the other possibility?"
"Send the deposits back, call it quits and put it on the market." Herschel grimaced as if in pain. "Gus said you're getting your real-estate license?"
"I've just started the online class," Rick explained. "My mom's a Realtor in Little Rock, so it was a knee-jerk reaction when I found out the Department of Wildlife office was closing."
"Maybe you can make some notes? You know, just some suggestions of things that need to be done, in case it ever comes down to having to sell the camp?"
Agnes interrupted before Rick could answer. "Let's not talk about that until until we have to." Her voice faltered, and she looked at Rick again as if he were a godsend. "Selling's a last resort, and we'd rather not do it unless we're forced to. Our hope is to pass the property on to our girls someday."
His own selfishness poked a finger in Rick's chest. Man up, Warren. These people need you to save their camp. He clapped his hands together in a show of enthusiasm. "Well, let's get started. You mentioned you had copies of the applications for me? I'd like to start getting to know my soon-to-be charges."
"Sure." Herschel eased out of the chair. "I'll get those for you." His heavy tread up the stairs echoed across the spacious room.
Agnes smiled sweetly. "You'll be good at this, I can tell. Children say and do the cutest things."
"Yes, ma'am, but they have to be watched constantly." Rick's brain flashed an image of the little Afghani girl who sprang up in his nightmares sometimes. He blinked the image back into the recesses.
"Are you married? Any children?" Agnes asked.
"No, ma'am, to both questions. But I led my share of nature hikes when I was a park ranger. Inevitably, there was some kid who wanted a closer look at a copperhead."
"I've known one or two like that." An amused glint lit her eyes.
Peewee's yelp pulled their attention to the backyard. An irate blue jay swooped down at the dog as he made his laps.
Agnes rolled her eyes. "Such a baby. We got him after our youngest moved out, and I'm afraid we've spoiled him rotten. Just like we did the girls."
"How many children do you have?" Rick killed some time with polite conversation.
"Three girls. The oldest two are married now. The youngest is, well " Agnes's eyebrows drew in as if she were searching for the correct word.
"Agnes!" Herschel's loud bellow echoed from somewhere upstairs. "What'd you do with those forms?"
"They're on your desk." Agnes's voice rose to a screech. "I saw them this morning."
"Well, you must've stuck them somewhere."
"I know where I'd like to stick them," she muttered under her breath. She sat her glass down. "Herschel had triple bypass surgery a year ago, and he still has some brain fog. I'll be right back."
In the couple's absence, Rick looked over the contract. It seemed to be standard, so he went ahead and signed on the line, then tried to get his mind off what he'd just committed to by sipping his tea and watching the bird taunt the dog some more. The dog's yelp was irritating. He found himself rooting for the bird.
Suddenly, Peewee made a beeline toward the corner of the yard, giving happy little yips.
Rick's gaze followed the dog. He blinked. Hell-pee-roo! A fairy had appeared through the wooden gate. He blinked again. Not a fairy, but a girl—maybe a tiny woman?—dressed in a fairy costume, complete with a long, full pink dress, a sparkling crown and wings.
"Stop it, Peewee." The high female voice admonished the dog, who was springing up and down like he was attached to a pogo stick. "You're going to get me dirty. Stop it!"
The dog paid no heed to the command.
The fairy stooped down and set her bag on the ground. It fell over, startling the dog, who yelped and jumped back a few feet. Then, with lightning speed, he darted to the bag, grabbed something and took off around the pool.
"Damn it, Peewee," the fairy shrieked. "Give me back my wand."
Rick walked over to the door and stepped outside, waiting until the dog came around the shallow end and headed his direction, then he moved directly into the dog's path. "Pee-wee! Halt!" he bellowed.
The stunned dog dropped the stick and let out a yelp like he'd been kicked. He darted past Rick and launched himself into the arms of the fairy, who Rick could tell was most definitely a young woman now that he had a closer look. He picked up the stick lying at his feet.
"Oh, poor baby," the fairy cooed, moving in Rick's direction. "It's okay. Calm down now." As she neared, the dog shrank deeper under her arm, whimpering and trembling violently, and pushing her cleavage into a splendid presentation within the round neck of her gown. "Thanks." She smiled with gratitude as she took the stick and held it for the dog to sniff. "But you nearly scared him to death."
"Dogs, kids and marines—you have to let them know who's in charge."
The fairy's chin rose a fraction. "And who's in charge is determined by who yells the loudest?" Her smile wavered and then vanished completely. "I've never felt his heart beat this fast. You don't think he could have a heart attack, do you?" Her eyes—the bluest Rick had ever encountered—grew wide with concern. She puckered her lips and pulled the pooch against her cheek. "Shhh. Shhhh. You're my good little boy, aren't you? Yes, you are. You're my good little Peewee boy."
The top of the woman's head only came to Rick's chest. He gazed down at an ocean of golden waves cascading down her back. Glistening in the sunlight, they created quite an intoxicating vision.
"I'm Rick Warren, by the way."
"Hi, Rick." She shifted Peewee to her other arm. "I'm—"
Herschel's voice boomed from behind them, followed by Agnes's high-pitched "Summer! What are you doing here?" Agnes's and the fairy's voices were almost identical.
The fairy's concerned expression softened into an angelic countenance when the couple appeared. "Hey." She gave them hugs. "I had a little time between parties, so I thought I'd drop by."
Herschel looked pleased, but Agnes's brows pinched into a worried frown.
"Rick, this is our youngest daughter, Summer." Herschel made the quick introduction. Rick wished now that Agnes had finished her earlier description of their youngest daughter.
"Summer, this is Rick Warren, the new assistant director for Camp Sunny Daze."
The smile, which had returned, vanished again from the young woman's eyes, instantly replaced by a hint of something that made Rick uneasy.
"Glad to meet you, Rick. Or should I call you Mr. Assistant Director?" The voice was a purr with a distinct edge to it.
"Summer runs her own business." Agnes pointed to the dress. "Fairy Princess Parties."
"I see." Pretending to be a fairy princess. The idea was laughable. "Well, if the business doesn't make a go of it, you can always get a job at a theme park, right?" Rick thought he'd made a joke, but the blue eyes shot a round of daggers his direction. He tried again. "What's the thing—the, um, wand—made of?"
"The stick's just painted wood, but the star's amber." Summer's voice held a note of pride. "It was a gift from Mom and Dad when I started the business."
Sparkly crowns and amber-tipped wands. He pressed his lips together. Agnes had called it—spoiled rotten indeed. Mommy and Daddy probably still subsidize the paychecks.
Summer's indignant eyebrow arch indicated she'd read his thoughts and dared him to say anything snide.
Agnes took the still-shivering Peewee from Summer. "Why don't we all go in and have a snack?"
Following her inside, Rick saw his chance to escape. "Thanks, but I have some things to take care of this afternoon." He picked up the paper he'd left on the table. "Here's the contract, signed and ready."
"And here are those forms you wanted." Herschel handed him a thick folder. "There are also daily itineraries of events we've scheduled. You'll have quite a bit of freedom with that. These are just some basics."
"Thanks." Rick eyed the folder as the four of them headed toward the front door. "And don't worry. I'm sure you're going to locate a girls' head counselor soon." The look of something akin to terror that passed between Herschel and Agnes told him he'd misspoken.
Summer's eyes widened in question, and her gaze darted between her parents.
"Yes, well, we'll be in touch. Thanks again, Rick."
Herschel's slaps on the back pushed Rick out the door.
As he made his way down the sidewalk, he couldn't keep from gawking at the old, gaudily painted purple SUV with Fairy Princess Parties lettered down its side in baby pink.
A grown woman parading around as a fairy princess. Hell-pee-roo.