After graduating from her M.B.A. program, Alice Reed is surprised when she’s recruited for the management training experience at legendary Camp Durand, owned by Durand Inc.’s young, billionaire CEO, Dylan Fall. The company usually recruits from Ivy League schools, not insignificant colleges like Alice’s.
Alice enthusiastically accepts, but she still wonders why Dylan would choose a girl from the wrong side of the tracks for the prestigious program. But after a passionate encounter one night, she discovers exactly why—Dylan wants her, and Alice can hardly resist his fierce sexual appetites, though she is amazed that she could appeal to an experienced, sophisticated man like Dylan.
As Dylan introduces her to thrilling, erotic territory, Alice discovers a delicious new part of herself. Night after night, she steals away to find ecstasy and escape in Dylan’s arms. But behind her lover’s powerfully magnetic facade, Alice senses darkness, secrets from Dylan’s past lurking in his beautiful, lonely mansion—secrets that are starting to haunt Alice. And the ghosts of the truth might tear Dylan and Alice apart forever . . .
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Alice Reed was used to hiding her nerves. She was used to hiding almost everything. Today was different though. She could have disguised her anxiety about her upcoming interview as easily as she could have ignored a provocative mathematical challenge.
“Don’t worry about it. It’ll be a piece of cake. Just focus on what you know. You’re pretty damn awesome when you do that,” Maggie Lopez said soothingly as she stood over Alice and gave her a friendly but critical once-over. Maggie was her graduate advisor at Arlington College’s executive MBA program. After a series of initial screwups that now looked like serendipity, Alice rented the apartment above Maggie’s garage. Most importantly, Maggie and Alice had become friends. She respected Maggie’s opinion, so her anxiety ratcheted up even higher when she saw her mentor’s slight frown as she stared down at her. A horrible thought hit her. She plopped her hand palm down on the top of her head.
“Shit. My roots. They’re showing, aren’t they? I forgot to color them. I got so caught up in running those numbers last night, I forgot about everything,” she moaned as she flung herself out of her chair and rushed to the mirror mounted on the wall in Maggie’s office. She was a decent athlete, but unaccustomed to wearing anything but combat boots, flip-flops, or tennis shoes. She nearly took a header in her new interview pumps.
Maggie sighed in amused exasperation behind her. “Only you would forget an interview for a chance at the most coveted executive training program in the United States—the world—because of some inconsequential calculations.”
Alice stared wide-eyed into the mirror. Her face looked especially pale due to her anxiety and the contrast between her short, near-black hair, navy suit, and lined dark blue eyes.
“You were the one who asked me to run those inconsequential numbers,” Alice mumbled distractedly. She flattened the hair next to her part and peered furiously into the mirror, as if she held her reflection responsible for all her many shortcomings. Sure enough, there were the telltale glimmering, reddish-gold roots. “Fuck it,” she muttered through her teeth. “This is a joke anyway. Durand has never sent a recruiter to Arlington College’s MBA program before. Is this another example of famous Durand charity?” she demanded, rounding on Maggie.
Maggie had grown immune to her frowns and sharp tongue in the past two years, however. She knew damn well that Alice’s bark was much worse than her bite.
“Don’t you dare put down this program,” Maggie warned with a pointed finger and an ominous expression. “I happen to be extremely proud of it and everything we’ve accomplished in the past few years, thanks in large part to your brilliance, hard work, and groundbreaking research. Am I surprised Durand asked to recruit from our graduating class? No. I’m not,” Maggie added with finality, when Alice gave her a half-hopeful, half-doubtful look. “The philanthropy and profit article sent shockwaves through the business community. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she said as she dropped into her desk chair, making the springs protest loudly.
Alice’s pique deflated.
“I am proud of the P and P study,” she said honestly, referring to the groundbreaking business article she and a few other grad students had published with Maggie as the lead researcher several months ago. “Did Sebastian Kehoe tell you he was coming to Arlington because of the study?” she asked. Kehoe was the vice president of human resources for Durand.
“Then why is he?” she grumbled.
Alice halfway wished Sebastian Kehoe had continued to ignore her little college. She performed best in solitude. It grated to have to sell herself to interviewers as if she were both a commodity and the pitchman for that commodity. To say she didn’t interview well was a gargantuan understatement.
“Durand is coming because they’re searching for talented, top-notch executives, I expect.”
Alice snorted. “You told me to look at this interview as good experience for future interviews. Even you don’t actually believe anyone at Arlington stands a chance with Durand.”
“I don’t know what I think, to be honest,” Maggie said stiffly. She snapped several tissues out of a box and held them up for Alice to take. “Now wipe off some of that crap you insist on putting on your eyes. Comb your hair back from the part to hide the roots. Put on a little lipstick for once. And for God’s sake, stiffen up the spine, Reed. I expect you to rise to the challenge, not wilt in the face of it.”
Alice’s spine did stiffen in reactionary anger for a few seconds before the truth of Maggie’s words penetrated. Her mentor was right. As usual.
“I’ll go to the bathroom to wash up a bit,” Alice agreed in a subdued tone. “I have ten minutes before the interview starts.”
“Good girl,” Maggie said bracingly.
“Alice,” Maggie called sharply as Alice reached for her office door.
“Yeah?” Alice asked, looking over her shoulder. She went still when she saw the unusually somber expression on Maggie’s face.
“There’s been a little change of circumstances as far as your interview. Sebastian Kehoe became ill a few days ago and had to send someone else in his place.”
A perverse, savage combination of disappointment, triumph, and relief swept through Alice. So. They’d sent some low-level stooge in Kehoe’s place? Figured. She knew Durand would never take anyone in her graduating class as a serious contender for “Camp Durand.” The four-week-long program on the shores of Lake Michigan was where the brightest and best business school graduates went every summer to show their stuff. Sixty percent of the Camp Durand counselors were chosen to become the highest-paid, most elite young executives in the world. Through a combination of team-building exercises, intense observation, and a highly reputable children’s camp held on the lake, Durand culled the chosen few, ending up with the best of the best.
Those selected for Camp Durand were paid a hefty sum for their weeks of service, whether they went on to become permanently employed or not. Alice coveted that chunk of money, even if she didn’t dare to hope she’d ever be offered a regular corporate position at the highly successful international company. She had student loans that would come due soon, and no solid job leads. Still . . . she was torn about being forced to prove herself to the slick, influential company.
“I knew Durand couldn’t be serious about Arlington,” Alice said.
Maggie must have noticed the smirk Alice strained to hide. “They’re so unserious about Arlington College that their chief executive officer is coming in place of Sebastian Kehoe,” Maggie said.
Alice’s hand fell from the knob of the door and thumped on her thigh.
Suddenly, Maggie seemed to be having difficulty meeting her stare. “Several Durand executives were on a business trip here in Chicago recently. When Kehoe got ill, Dylan Fall agreed to fill in for his remaining appointments.” Maggie glanced at her warily. Or was it worriedly? “I . . . I didn’t want to tell you because I thought you’d get more nervous, but I didn’t want you to walk in unprepared, either,” she said miserably.
A wave of queasiness hit her.
“Dylan Fall,” Alice stated in a flat, incredulous tone. “You’re telling me that in nine minutes, I’m going to be interviewed by the chief executive officer of Durand Enterprises?”
“That’s right.” Maggie’s expression of stark compassion faded and was replaced by her game face. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I don’t expect you to get a spot at Camp Durand, necessarily—that might be too much to hope for, all things considered. But you’re a unique, smart girl, and you’re kick-ass with numbers, and . . . well, you’re the best Arlington has got. You’re the best I’ve ever known,” she added with a defiant look. “At the very least, you had better walk in there, hold your head up, and do Arlington College proud.”
• • •
MAGGIE’S proclamation still rang in her head while Alice waited on hot coals in the waiting room of the dean of business’s offices. The dean had apparently cheerfully vacated his office for Dylan Fall.
Fall probably had people regularly lying across mud puddles so he could cross without soiling his designer shoes.
Maggie had been right to call her out earlier. Alice didn’t stand a chance of getting into Camp Durand—let alone getting hired as an elite Durand executive. But that didn’t mean she would cower. Alice had stood up to bastards and lowlifes that were a hundred times scarier than a suit like Dylan Fall.
She’d stood up and walked away, pride intact.
“He’s ready for you,” Nancy Jorgensen, the business department secretary twittered as she stuck her head around the corner of the door leading to a hallway. Alice stood, clutching her new vinyl portfolio and trying not to sway in her heels. She cast Nancy Jorgensen a dark glance. The middle-aged, typically gray little woman looked suspiciously flushed with color and excitement. She suspected she knew why: Dylan Fall. Traitor, Alice thought bitterly as she stalked past Nancy.
Just get this damn thing over with.
Instead of walking into the office Nancy specified, Alice charged. The door was lighter than she’d imagined from its formidable, oak-paneled appearance. She pushed at it too aggressively and it thumped against the wall inside the office. Alice started at the loud noise and froze on the threshold. The man sitting behind the large oak desk looked up and blinked.
“Is there a fire?” he asked quietly.
“No,” Alice said, frowning, wary because she wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not. Funny he had mentioned fire. She hadn’t been this nervous since she’d locked herself in her bedroom and her uncle Tim had ignited some of her mother’s meth-cooking chemicals in order to smoke her out of it. He hadn’t succeeded, but he’d very nearly killed Alice—and himself—in the process.
Nancy closed the door behind her with a hushed click. Dylan Fall studied her while Alice’s lungs burned for air.
He suddenly whipped off the glasses he wore and stood. Alice willed her ungainly limbs to move. He reached out his hand.
“Alice. Dylan Fall. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to meet you,” he said, his voice low with just a hint of gravel to it. Her spine flickered with heightened awareness at the sound.
“Thank you for taking the time to see me,” she said, gripping his hand firmly and giving it a perfunctory pump. He held out his other hand in an elegant “please, sit” gesture and lowered into his seat. She sat in the leather chair before the large desk, feeling like her arms and legs were glaringly out of sync with her brain . . . worse, like she were a beggar supplicant at the polished altar of the god of wealth and power. She absolutely refused to be impressed or cowed by Dylan Fall.
You can refuse all you want. You are.
“I’m glad to have the opportunity to meet with you. From what I’ve gathered, much of the statistical brilliance from the philanthropy and profit article in the Journal of Finance and Business is owed to you,” he said, picking up a pen and tapping it on the desk. He moved the pen in an absentminded fashion, running long fingers over the smooth metal cylinder, flipping it, and repeating the process.
Alice ripped her stare off the vision and focused on his face. Her heart had started to beat uncomfortably fast. He played with the pen in a distracted way, but his gaze on her was razor sharp. The thick drapes were drawn, blocking out the spring sunlight. The contrast of shadow and glowing lamplight made his strong jawline and near-black eyes appear even more dramatic. Enigmatic. She’d already known what to expect from his looks, or at least that’s what she’d told herself. He had dark brown hair that was smooth, despite its thickness. It was longer in the front than in the back. He wore it combed back, the style suiting his business attire, even if it did look like it could be sexily disheveled in a heartbeat by a woman’s delving fingers. A pair of lustrous, drilling eyes advertised loud and clear you better give Fall exactly what he wanted, or he’d freeze you to the spot. Dark lashes and slanting brows added to a sort of sexy gypsy-gone-corporate-pirate aura about him. His face was handsome, but in a rugged fashion—full of character and strength. He was far from being a pretty boy. There was something rough about him, despite the expensive suit and epic composure. The cleft in his chin only added to the sense of hard, chiseled male beauty.
The media loved him. She’d seen photos of him clean-shaven, sexily scruffy, and even once with a beard and mustache. Currently, he wore a very thin, well-trimmed goatee. His skin wasn’t pale, but he didn’t look like the type of man who tanned as a matter of course, either. Alice imagined that, like her, he spent a lot of his time reading reports and squinting at numbers on a computer screen, or else sitting at the head of a boardroom table.
Durand Enterprises was well known for not only its strong philanthropic practices, but its financial robustness. Alice herself had suggested it right off the bat for their multifactorial, longitudinal study about the correlation between company philanthropy and profit. Alice had pored through journal and magazine articles, collecting relevant data on Durand, so she’d seen photos of Fall.
She’d stared at those photos a lot. So much so, in fact, that she’d started to think she was getting a little obsessed with the business mogul.
She was pretty unimpressed by men as a rule. She’d had to deal with her share of strutting, bullshitting, worthless, and dangerous males in her life. Good-looking men usually had even fewer redeeming qualities than the plain or ugly ones, in her opinion. The ugly ones had to compensate somehow in order to compete for women. She didn’t usually blink twice when she met a hot guy, but Dylan Fall was the kind of rough-and-tumble gorgeous that had all sorts of involuntary chemical reactions sparking in her body.
At the moment, she damned him straight to hell for it. Didn’t he possess an unfair amount of advantages as it was?
She straightened her spine and cleared her throat. “I was one of four research assistants on Dr. Lopez’s project. We all did our share of research and running numbers.”
His sliding fingers slowed on the pen. His gaze narrowed on her. “You’re a team player, then?” he asked quietly.
“I’m just stating the truth.”
“No. You’re not.”
Her chin went up. She almost immediately ducked her head when she felt how muscle and skin tightened, making her thrumming pulse probably more obvious to him, exposing her vulnerability.
“I spoke to Dr. Lopez about it in person before arriving here today,” he said. “She says that most of the innovative statistical analyses run on the project were not only completed by you, but designed by you.”
She couldn’t think of what to say, so she just held his stare.
“You don’t want to brag about your accomplishments?” he asked.
“Is that what you’d like? A little dog-and-pony show?”
His long fingers stilled, holding the silver pen mid-flip.
Her cheeks flooded with heat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that,” she said, flustered. “I’m just a little confused as to why Durand is here at Arlington College. We all are, to be honest. Did you come because of the article?”
“Does that surprise you?” he asked, tossing the pen on the blotter. “Durand was one of the main companies featured. You single-handedly vindicated our strong philanthropic principles using hard statistics to do it. I’m impressed,” he said starkly. She swallowed thickly when he leaned forward, elbows on the desk, and met her stare. “Very.”
“Did you need vindication?” she couldn’t stop herself from asking.
He shrugged slightly and leaned back again, the action bringing her gaze downward to broad shoulders and a strong-looking chest. He knew how to wear a suit, that much was certain. Powerful. Elegantly dangerous. On Dylan Fall, a suit was transformed into the modern-day equivalent of a warrior’s armor.
“Not really, no. Durand is a privately held company, as I’m sure you already know. There are no stockholders to whom I need to justify my actions.”
“What about to other officers on the board?” she asked, curiosity trumping her anxiety.
His stare narrowed on her. “I was under the impression I was the one interviewing you.”
“Sorry,” she said quickly. Is that all she was going to do during this interview? Apologize? And was that a tiny smile tilting his mouth? Somehow, she’d rather it wasn’t, as unsettling as she was finding this whole experience. She wasn’t wilting, like Maggie had worried she would, but she was blowing this. Not by a slow burn, either.
More like death by blowtorch.
“I was just curious about Durand’s reaction to the article,” she backpedaled. “I worked on that project even in my sleep for fifteen months straight. It sort of gets into your blood.”
“As someone who sleeps, drinks, and eats Durand, I’m inclined to understand completely,” he said dryly. “Actually, Durand’s philanthropic goals are built in to Alan Durand’s—the company founder’s—directives. Durand has a long tradition of community projects, people-building, and charitable programs. After completing the study, were you convinced it’s a worthwhile goal for a company to have?”
“Do you think most companies should include philanthropy in their operating directives?”
“The statistics certainly indicate they should.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
She stared at her interlaced fingers lying on top of her folder. A small patch of perspiration wetted the vinyl. “If a company can increase its profits by doing good works for the community and its people, it seems like a win-win situation all around, doesn’t it?”
She looked up at his dry laugh. “That’s certainly a politically correct answer. Now give me an honest one, Alice. Do you think companies like Durand should continue with philanthropic community efforts?”
The silence stretched taut.
“Alice?” he prodded quietly.
“Of course. It’s just . . .”
“It’s nothing.” His dark brows slanted menacingly. “It’s only . . . It seems . . .” What the hell, you’ve already blown the interview anyway. Everyone knows you never stood a chance from the get-go. “A little patronizing, that’s all.” She cringed a little when he went eerily still. “Aside from that, I think the answer is an obvious yes. I think large corporations should have charitable directives.”
“Patronizing?” he asked, his quiet voice striking her as similar to the deep purr of a misleadingly calm lion. “Like Durand is grandstanding, you mean. Making itself look good in the public’s eye for the sole purpose of selling widgets . . . or candy bars, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate milk, among other things, in Durand’s case.”
“All of the things your campers at Camp Durand—low-income urban youth from poverty-infested neighborhoods—consume,” she couldn’t stop herself from saying. Heat rushed into her cheeks.
She forced herself not to flinch under his boring stare, but her defiance definitely wavered. To call his eyes merely “deepest brown” or “almost black” vastly understated their impact. They shone like polished stones with fire in the depths. Somehow, his eyes managed to startle her on a constant basis instead of a quick rush.
“Do you consume those products, Alice?”
“Once in a while,” she said with a shrug. In truth, she was a chocoholic. Durand Jingdots, Sweet Adelaides, and Salty Chocolate Caramels rated among her favorite guilty pleasures while sitting at her computer running numbers. Not that she’d confess that weakness to Dylan Fall. “Why?” she asked warily. “Is that a prerequisite to be chosen for the Durand training program?”
“No,” he said, picking up a piece of paper from his desk. Her heart raced. He was going to tell her any second the interview was over. Let him. The sooner she was done here, the better. He idly perused what she realized was her resume. “But I happen to know that Little Paradise—where you grew up—is one of the crime-infested, low-income urban areas you just described.”
Her heart jumped uncomfortably against her sternum. She unglued her tongue from the top of her mouth.
“How did you know I grew up in Little Paradise?” she rasped, mortified that Dylan Fall, of all people, knew about the infamous place where she’d grown up—Little Paradise, the grossly inaptly named, sole remaining trailer park within the Chicago city limits; a grimy, mangy little community tainted by toxic-smelling fumes from the nearby factories of Gary, Indiana. The address wasn’t on her resume. She wanted no part of Little Paradise. She’d used a local address ever since she’d left for college nearly six years ago.
“Dr. Lopez mentioned it,” he said without batting an eye. “Are you ashamed of where you grew up?”
“No,” she lied emphatically.
“Good,” he said, dropping her resume to the desktop. “You shouldn’t be.”
He was probably only ten or so years older than her almost twenty-four years. She resented him for his air of experience and unflappable composure, despite his relative youth. What were the circumstances of him becoming CEO of Durand at such a young age? Wasn’t he related to the company founder or something? She struggled to recall. It’d been extremely difficult to find personal details about both Alan Durand and Dylan Fall. She’d never found many details about Fall’s meteoric rise in the powerful company.
It suddenly struck her full-force how out of place she was in the face of his polished, supreme confidence. He was no doubt amused by her gauche defensiveness and confusion.
“Are you going to ask me any relevant questions in regard to business, my interest in Durand, or my qualifications?” she asked through a tense jaw.
“I thought that’s what I’d been doing.” Her rigid expression didn’t break. He exhaled. “Fine.” He briskly put on the charcoal-gray glasses he’d been wearing and picked up some papers from the desk. He looked extremely sexy wearing those glasses.
“I have some questions for you in regard to your research decisions on the philanthropy and profit research.”
She began to relax slightly as he launched into a series of pointed queries regarding her statistical analysis. Alice knew mathematical models backward and forward. She was also a workaholic. In this arena, he couldn’t fluster her. Even so, she sensed after a period of time that Fall not only understood the nuances of the statistics as well, if not better, than her, he was light-years ahead of her in knowledge about what her conclusions meant in the practical workings of the business world. She was envious of his knowledge, but also curious. Hungry. Tantalized by the glittering promise of power that those numbers might grant her when paired with knowledge and experience like Fall’s.
After nearly an hour of intense question and answering, he tipped his forearm and glanced at his watch.
“You’re a statistical trend spotter, aren’t you?” he asked casually, referring to her ability to absorb data and quickly break it down into meaningful trends, spot anomalies, and even predict outcomes.
“I suppose you could call me that,” Alice said.
“Are you a savant?”
“No,” she denied tensely. The word savant labeled her as a freak. All she wanted was to go unnoticed. Freaks didn’t blend in. “I just have a decent feel for numbers and what they mean.”
“You have a phenomenal feel. A rare gift,” he corrected, his deep voice making her spine prickle again in heightened awareness.
“I think you’ve informed me of just about everything I need to know,” he suddenly said briskly, his gaze on the papers on the desk. Alice eased forward in her chair, recognizing the end of the interview. “I was wondering—were you interested specifically in Durand Enterprises before you began the philanthropy study?”
She shook her head. “No. I mean . . . I knew about it, of course. I was familiar with both its corporate success and philanthropic emphasis.”
“Ah. I was under the impression from your advisor that you were the one who first suggested Durand for the study,” he said.
“I might have been. I’m a business major,” she said shrugging. “Durand Enterprises is one of the most successful businesses in the world.”
He took off his glasses, his gaze on her sharp.
“Are there any questions you have for me?” he asked after a pause in which Alice had to force herself not to squirm.
“How many people will be chosen as Camp Durand counselors?”
“Fifteen. We try to keep the camper-to-counselor ratio as low as possible, while offering scholarships to as many of the kids as we can. New-participant numbers remain fairly steady, but the returning campers have to keep a clean legal record and pass several random drug tests if they have a history, in addition to maintaining an acceptable grade point average. As you probably already know, the camp focuses on junior high and high school-aged kids. Each counselor usually has around ten kids on his or her team.”
“So only nine counselors make the cut to become a Durand manager,” she reflected. “Do you honestly think that this setup—a summer camp on the shores of Lake Michigan for three weeks—really gives Durand the information it needs to hire top-notch executives?” she asked skeptically. “It seems a little”—silly, she said in the privacy of her brain—“odd to expect business graduate students to have the necessary experience. We’re not social workers or teachers. Or babysitters.”
He flashed her a glance when she mumbled the last under her breath.
“You’re not expected to be any of those. Well . . . maybe a teacher, but not in the classic sense. There are regular, experienced staff at Camp Durand—cabin and grounds supervisors around the clock. It’s true, though, that the counselors play a crucial role in the camper’s experience. The Durand counselors are, essentially, the face of leadership and support to each individual camper. We offer a weeklong training period to the counselors, so they know what to expect. That training program is similar to many management retreats utilized around the world by companies to hone leadership skills. But that’s only the beginning. Then the kids arrive, and the challenge really begins. What’s required to succeed as a counselor—and as a Durand executive—is a large measure of ingenuity, leadership, people skills, and humanity. Those are qualities we’ve been unable to measure adequately from a resume, recommendation letters—which are almost always glowing—and a few interviews. Camp Durand works for us, no matter how unconventional it may seem. It’s worked for us for decades. The executive contestants are under nearly constant observation for four weeks: one week of training and the three weeks while the children are there. Their schedule is arduous. They’re considered to be on the clock from seven thirty in the morning until nine p.m., when the night supervisory staff takes over for them. They’re expected to work Saturdays until three, with only Sundays off. It’s not enough to brag about qualities of leadership, planning, intelligence, innovation, salesmanship, compassion, determination, hard work, and courage: The counselors have to demonstrate those skills daily with a group of children, some of whom have been labeled as criminal, uncooperative, manipulative, lazy, or unreachable. It’s a lot harder than it sounds at first blush,” he said, his mild tone in direct contrast to his lancing stare.
“So Durand does it again. It combines philanthropy—no, it uses it—to optimize the bottom line.”
His smile was closemouthed, slashing . . . dangerous.
“Yes, I understand. That’s the way you would view it,” he mused as if to himself, sounding not at all concerned by her pessimism as he leaned back in his chair. His stare on her made her feel like a wreck he was considering making into a project. It was a cold, sharp knife, that stare, so Alice couldn’t figure out why it made her sweat so bad.
“Would you be adverse to accepting a position at such a seemingly mercenary organization?” he asked.
“No,” she replied without pause.
His gleaming brows arched. “Ah. So you’re a little mercenary yourself.”
“I don’t know about that. I’m not stupid, if that’s what you mean.”
He gave a gruff bark of laughter. “No one could accuse you of stupidity,” he said with a swift glance at her paperwork spread across the desk. He stood abruptly. Alice jumped up like she’d been released after being held down on springs.
“This has been enlightening,” he said briskly, holding out his hand. They shook. “We’ll be making our decision on finalists for Camp Durand within the next two weeks. Chicago-area colleges and universities were Sebastian Kehoe’s last stop on the recruitment tour. We’ll be in contact.”
His eyes flashed. She grimaced. She hadn’t meant to sound sarcastic, but recognized she had. Well, at least this fiasco was over with. Now she had all the valuable interviewing experience either she or Maggie could ever want for her. Everything after Dylan Fall would be trite. She had a future full of cakewalk interviews before she landed her new, realistic job.
Probably a boring, entry-level, menial one given the current job market.
She turned to go.
She came to an abrupt halt, pausing in the action of reaching for the door. She didn’t care for the fact that she looked over her shoulder with a measure of eagerness. It was hard not to crave every glance she could get of Dylan Fall. Despite the fact that he intimidated her, he was one hell of a sight.
“I know a man—he’s a member of the Durand board, in fact—who grew up in the Austin neighborhood on the west side of Chicago,” Fall said. “Are you familiar with that neighborhood?”
She studied him narrowly, trying to see his angle and failing. “Yeah. It’s one of the worst in the city.”
“Worse than Little Paradise.”
She barely repressed a snort. Mr. Slick, Gorgeous CEO in his immaculate Italian suit had a lot of nerve, presuming to know about Little Paradise. He noticed her flash of disdain, because his brows rose in a silent, pointed query.
“There’s nothing worse than urban hillbillies, Mr. Fall,” she explained with a small, apologetic smile. “I don’t know how much you actually know about Little Paradise, but that’s a pretty apt descriptor for who lives in the trailer park there. It’s just that in our case, the ‘hill’ is a giant garbage dump.”
She’d been trying to use levity. She must have only sounded flippant, though, because he looked very sober.
“My point is, Durand doesn’t just offer philanthropy to needy kids to get publicity and prime photo ops, and then drop them off on the streets and forget about them. The man I’m speaking of rose through the ranks, starting as a Camp Durand camper when he was twelve years old. People-building isn’t an empty philosophy at Durand. We want the best, no matter where the best comes from.”
She realized belatedly she’d turned and was staring at him now full in the face. Searching. Suspicious.
Against her will, her gaze flickered down over his snow-white tailored dress shirt and light blue silk tie. A vivid, shocking impression popped into her head of sliding her fingers beneath that crisp cotton and touching warm skin, her palm gliding against the ridges and hollows of bone and dense, lean muscle. Her gaze dropped to his hands.
Just the thought of his hands sliding across her skin made her lungs freeze.
I’ll bet he could play me perfectly. He just looks like he knows his way around a woman’s body. He’d do things to me I’ve never even imagined.
They were completely inappropriate thoughts, but that didn’t halt her instinctive reaction. Need rushed through her like a shock to the flesh, leaving a trail of heat in its wake. Her thighs tightened, as if to contain that unexpected flash fire.
Maybe it was because her few former lovers suddenly seemed young and clumsy in comparison to Dylan Fall?
Her stare leapt guiltily to his face. His dark brows slanted dangerously, but he also looked a little . . . startled? His eyes flickered downward, just like hers had. She hunched her shoulders slightly at the web work of sensation that tingled the skin of her breasts, tightening her nipples against her bra.
The whole scoring, nonverbal exchange lasted all of three ephemeral seconds.
Her hand curled into a fist when she recognized she’d let her guard drop.
“I’m happy for your friend. But I’m not a charity project,” she said.
“Neither was he.”
She flinched slightly at the stinging authority of his reply. Dylan Fall was a little scary in that moment.
“We’ll be in touch,” he repeated, looking down at the desk in a preoccupied fashion, and she knew she’d imagined not only that spark of mutual lust, but his cold, clear anger at her pitiful display of insubordination.
SEVEN WEEKS LATER
The first thing Alice’s gaze settled on when arriving at Camp Durand was the pale stone, ornate Victorian mansion looming above them. It stood perhaps a hundred and fifty feet from the edge of a craggy limestone bluff that dropped off dramatically to what Alice supposed would be a Lake Michigan beach. She couldn’t tell for certain with all the surrounding trees and foliage blocking the view immediately in front of the slow-moving limousine in which she rode.
Her avid stare at the mansion was torn away by a flash of gleaming, tanned skin and flexing muscle. The object of her snagged attention was probably around six feet tall and had short wavy golden-brown hair. He was definitely an athlete, given that body. He was helping another young man suspend a large banner that read, Welcome to Camp Durand. Welcome Home, between two oak trees. The brisk Lake Michigan wind was giving the pair a challenge hanging the flapping sign. Alice guessed they were two other Camp Durand counselors.
Yes. You actually are part of their elite little group. This isn’t a dream.
She had to keep reminding herself, but the trancelike quality of her consciousness only seemed to be amplifying since they’d pulled onto the long country road that led to the camp.
Within seconds of culminating her interview with Fall, she’d already abandoned all hope of getting a position at Camp Durand, let alone at Durand Enterprises itself. She’d shot above herself, but fortunately, she hadn’t let her head get too caught up in the stars.
She’d moved on, interviewing for several stable, boring-sounding positions in the city. Maggie had been right about one thing: The encounter with Fall had turned her from a hopeless interviewee into an average one with better-than-average qualifications.
She’d survived Little Paradise and graduate school. She’d lived through an interview with Dylan Fall.
What else could rattle her?
When she’d gotten the call from Sebastian Kehoe two weeks ago, she’d been floored.
Kehoe hadn’t said so, but given the lateness of the invitation call, she’d figured one of the counselors—one of the ones who actually belonged at Camp Durand—had backed out at the last moment.
“That’s Thad Schaefer,” Brooke Seifert said confidently from where she sat across from Alice, nodding at the gorgeous guy holding the sign. Alice sat alone on the long seat next to the window of the chauffeur-driven limo. Brooke Seifert and Tory Hastings, two other Camp Durand counselors, sat across from her, chatting about topics Alice knew nothing about. Which was the whole point: to shut Alice out.
This morning, Alice had taken the “L” out to O’Hare Airport to meet up with the limo driver and two other incoming Camp Durand counselors. Alice had almost immediately noticed Brooke and Tory’s silent judgment when she introduced herself, the cool, slightly incredulous glances at her frayed jean shorts, T-shirt, combat boots, worn backpack, and army-surplus duffel bag. Which was fine by Alice. She’d already dismissed Tory and Brooke when the driver had mentioned their elite East Coast MBA programs and preppy, rich-girl names.
At the moment, however, all three of them shared something in common. They were all drooling over the half-naked golden dude outside the window. Something about the proprietary quality of Brooke’s tone just now implied she knew the guy personally.
“What kind of a name is Thad?” Alice mumbled, even though she didn’t unglue her gaze from Thad for a second.
“It’s short for Thaddeus, an old family name,” Brooke snapped. “We went to school together at Yale,” she said, her voice segueing to an intimate and slightly mischievous tone as she focused her attention on Tory, once again excluding Alice. Brooke had acquired Tory as a willing slave within two minutes of their meeting at the airport. Alice rolled her eyes, her gaze flickering back up to the stark mansion on the hill as if drawn by a magnet. She’d never seen a place with so many elaborate cornices, verandas, and towers. It looked so beautiful and still up there on the hill. Not that a house moved, of course. It was just that the trees and flowers swayed from the lake breeze and white clouds soared across the robin’s-egg-blue sky, but the house itself remained impervious to the flutter of second-to-second everyday life, like it was enchanted . . . frozen in time.
“His family and mine go way back. Dad went to school with Judge Schaefer, Thad’s dad,” Brooke was saying to her new best friend forever, Tory.
“Who lives in the big house?” Alice asked.
Brooke made a muted sound of annoyance at the interruption of her story, but she must not have been able to stop herself from showing off her unique knowledge. “They call it Castle Durand around Morgantown,” Brooke said, referring to the nearby Michigan town where Durand Enterprises’ corporate headquarters and several manufacturing plants and warehouses were located. Durand employed more than fifty percent of Morgantown’s population. “And Mr. Top Hot himself lives there, of course,” Brooke said smugly as the car slowed.
Alice jerked around. Mr. Top Hot could only mean one man.
“Dylan Fall? Lives on the same grounds as the camp?”
“This property isn’t just a camp. It’s the Durand estate. It’s not like he’ll have campers traipsing through his drawing rooms or splashing around in his pool,” Brooke said, scowling. “The estate is enormous. There are two golf courses, stables, several swimming pools, woods, a marina, miles of hiking trails, tennis courts, and gardens, and those are the private ones, not the ones designated for the camp. Although Fall very generously shares the stables, tennis courts, and one of the golf courses with the campers, from what I understand. My father played golf with some Durand managers here once at the executive course, and got a tour of the grounds,” she added, turning to Tory.
“We get to go there . . . To the castle, I mean,” Tory said. “Once in a while. There’s a dinner up there on the night we finish our training, before the kids come, and there are other events scheduled up there as the weeks go on. It was on the agenda in our packets. So . . . what were you saying about Thad Schaefer?” Tory wondered.
Alice silently absorbed this unsettling news as the sedan swung into a parking lot and Brooke resumed her self-satisfied jabbering. She’d read about the events in the literature Sebastian Kehoe had sent. She’d thought the term Castle Durand was some kind of fancy term for the camp headquarters or something. She hadn’t for a second imagined going to Dylan Fall’s house.
“The Schaefers threw a big party for Thad and me when we heard the news,” Brooke was saying. “It’s the first time in Yale history that two of us were chosen from the School of Management for Camp Durand. Usually Durand only selects one. Thad and I hated competing for the spot. You can imagine how thrilled everyone was when we got the news we both got in.”
Right. People celebrated across the known WASP world.
“Two of you,” Tory said in awe. “I was the first to be picked from Brown in three years.”
“They try to even things out among the big business grad schools and then leave room for . . . you know. Possible outliers and unique cases,” Brooke explained patiently in a manner that set Alice to grinding her teeth.
“At least I’m unique,” Alice said, shoving open the car door immediately when the car halted.
“Oh, you’re special all right,” she heard Brooke say behind her as Alice lunged onto the gravel lot. She slammed the door shut in order to halt the sound of choked laughter coming from within. Brooke and her minion would want the limo driver to open the door for them anyway.
The last two hours in the backseat of that car had been pure torture. It definitely didn’t bode well for the next four weeks. Maybe this whole thing wasn’t so much a dream as a nightmare.
She hauled her backpack onto her shoulder and gave the emerging driver a nod. He’d introduced himself earlier as Todd Barrett.
“I’ll get all the bags and deliver them to the camp,” Todd said in a friendly fashion, starting to move past her. He paused. “The cabins and dining hall are down that path, right over through the woods,” he said, pointing. “If you want to have a look around, go on ahead. You can see the main lodge there through the trees.”
“Okay, thanks,” Alice muttered, embarrassed because something in his tone of voice told her he’d noticed her “outsider” status with Brooke and Tory during the drive, and felt sorry for her.
The banner hangers had risen on their stepladders. As Alice slowly approached them, a strong gust of lake wind suddenly jolted the dark-haired guy on his ladder and whipped the sign out of his grip. The vinyl material plastered against his chest and face. He made a muffled sound of distressed surprise and faltered on the stepladder, blinded. The hand that held the hammer flailed in the air as he grabbed for a solid grip with the other. Alice dropped her backpack, ran, and flew up the first three steps of the stepladder, grasping him at the waist.
“Whoa, hold still. I’ve got you,” she said. When he’d steadied on his feet, she reached and helped him peel the sign off his face. He looked around at her with thankful, startled dark eyes.
“You okay, Dave?” someone called.
Alice glanced aside and saw the guy they’d been leching over in the limo running up to them, the other end of the flapping banner and a hammer in his hands. Dave seemed to have gained his balance. She let go of him and stepped back down onto the ground.
“That’s a frickin’ strong wind,” Dave said disbelievingly, following her down the stepladder.
“Maybe you guys should hang it in the direction of the wind,” Alice suggested delicately, pointing between two alternate trees. “I know the kids won’t see it when they first arrive next week, but they will as they walk toward the cabins.”
Thad laughed. “The brains of the outfit,” he said, hitching a thumb at Alice. “I guess Harvard taught you everything but basic common sense,” he told Dave.
“You were marching in the same asshat parade. I was just doing what Sebastian told us to do. It was supposed to be a welcome for the counselors, too, but Sebastian and his crew didn’t get it up in time,” Dave said, firming his hold on the end of the madly flapping banner. Then he smiled, and Alice realized he was really very handsome in a quiet, reserved, smart-guy fashion. “So . . . welcome. And thanks, by the way,” he said to Alice, stretching out his hand. “Dave Epstein. And that’s Thad Schaefer.”
“Alice Reed,” she said, shaking Dave’s hand first.
“You move fast,” Thad told her as they exchanged a handshake. “I like that it in a woman.”
Dave snorted. Alice rolled her eyes and smiled, because Thad Schaefer had clearly been teasing. He had a tattoo of a leaping shark on his biceps and a smear of dirt on a bulging pectoral muscle. His green eyes were warm and friendly on her face. She didn’t think he was a male clone of Brooke, or at least that was her first impression.
“Seriously,” Thad said as she dropped her hand from his. “I like fast people in general. At least while I’m here I do. Sebastian put me in charge of football, swimming, and sailing. Do you want to help me coach football? You’re a Durand counselor, right? You three are the last to get here. We’ve been waiting for you,” he said, nodding in the direction of the sedan. The driver was removing their luggage from the trunk, and Brooke and Tory were milling around, glancing in their direction, Tory holding back her long windblown blond hair from her face.
“Hey. I thought I was going to coach football with you,” Dave said, scowling.
“That was before I saw her,” Thad replied.
Dave made a subtle “I see your point” shrug. Alice laughed. She couldn’t help but be flattered. Thad hadn’t said it in a gross, lecherous fashion. He’d sounded honest and down to earth, and just plain nice. The two men seemed completely at ease with each other, and their comfortable bubble seemed to expand somehow to include her. It was just what she needed after sitting in the backseat with Brooke gnawing at her nerves for hours.
“Still, no fair recruiting her before anyone else gets a chance,” Dave persisted. “Are you any good at archery?”
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “I’ve got a pretty good aim with a rock though.”
“Do we want to know why?” Thad laughed.
He had a dimple in his right cheek and a great smile.
“I’m nothing great at football, but I like running. And oh . . . yeah, I am a Durand counselor,” she said dubiously, checking off Thad’s earlier queries.
“You sound a little uncertain about that,” Thad said.
“I feel a little old to be a camp counselor, I guess. It’s a unique setup they have going on here,” she said.
“If you call being under the microscope during an almost fourteen-hour workday a unique setup,” Dave said quietly. She shared a glance of silent understanding with him. Durand employees would be watching them constantly while they were there, observing how they reacted to stress, tallying who rose to challenges and who failed.
“Well, I plan to have some fun while I’m here,” Thad said. Dave gave him a skeptical look. “There’s nothing to say I can’t work hard and have fun, too,” Thad reasoned.
“Spoken like a true-blue Durand executive,” Dave replied with amused sarcasm.
“I’m just a little nervous about the kid factor,” Alice admitted honestly. “I’m not so sure what being a Durand exec has to do with babysitting.”
“Maybe the question should be: What does being a Durand exec have in common with being a prison guard or probation officer?” Dave said. “I hope I don’t sound too pessimistic for saying that, but Sebastian Kehoe told Thad and me firsthand a few minutes ago that quite a few of our sweet little future protégés have multiple past arrest records.”
“He was probably exaggerating to make a point,” Thad said with a shrug.
“I don’t think so,” Alice replied. She felt Thad’s gaze go sharp on her, but didn’t flinch in returning his glance. She herself had a couple petty arrests on her record, both acquired before she was seventeen. Police prowled Little Paradise constantly. Alice could never claim to have been an angel growing up, but neither could most kids. It was just that in Little Paradise, you had a damn good chance at being caught at something suspicious. She’d been squeaky clean since moving to Chicago and earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees. But it was kind of hard to live in Little Paradise—it was sort of challenging to be Sissy Reed’s daughter—and not have any run-ins with the law. She imagined it was a similar scenario for a majority of the kids who would be arriving by the busload from Chicago and Detroit in a week’s time.
She broke Thad’s stare when Tory and Brooke drew near. Brooke squealed Thad’s name and flew into his arms, her fingertips brushing over dense shoulder and back muscles. Alice noticed with grim amusement that her hug was a hell of a lot more enthusiastic than Thad’s perfunctory one. But in all fairness, maybe that was because he was holding a flapping sign and a hammer at the same time.
Thad and Brooke made introductions.
“Dave Epstein,” Brooke mused a moment later as she shook Dave’s hand. “Didn’t you go to high school at Choate Rosemary Hall with Thad?”
“Yeah. On most days, that is . . . when Thad wasn’t skipping class and fishing around the Thimble Islands in his dad’s boat or sleeping off a hangover,” Dave gibed with a half grin.
Thad looked like he was going to defend himself, but then just shrugged. “If it wasn’t for Dave riding me constantly in high school to study, I’d probably have ended up as a fisherman instead of being here with all of you guys. Forget that. I’d just be a bum in a boat,” Thad amended, his eyes gleaming humorously as he glanced at Alice. “I suck at catching fish.”
“As if,” Brooke said, automatically dismissing Thad’s joking modesty. She glared briefly at Alice, and then gave Dave a sidelong, assessing glance before she swung her attention back wholesale to Thad. Alice wasn’t surprised to learn that she wasn’t the only one Brooke found wanting. Even Tory had seemingly become invisible with Thad present.
“Here comes Sebastian Kehoe,” Dave told Tory and her quietly under his breath after they’d chatted for a few more minutes.
Alice glanced in the direction Dave was looking, curious and a little anxious to meet Durand’s vice president of human resources. Kehoe’s position was so significant to the company that he actually sat on the Durand board—another example of Durand’s almost obsessive commitment to hiring and developing top-notch managers. The other counselors would have met Kehoe during their interviews. Alice was the exception. Yet another reason she felt like she was beginning two steps behind the starting line.
Sebastian Kehoe was her boss for the next four weeks. If she didn’t pass muster with him, there was no way she’d ever be considered for a position at Durand. Kehoe’s salt-and-pepper hair placed him in his early fifties, but he appeared younger because of a relatively unlined face, a tall, lanky frame, expensive-looking outdoor clothing, and a vigorous spring to his step. He gave the impression of being fit and energetic, but in a neat, meticulous kind of way. Alice figured he was the type to never waver from his high-protein, low-carb diet and daily, ritualistic workouts.
“Brooke, Tory, wonderful to see you. Welcome to Camp Durand,” Kehoe called, stepping up and shaking hands. “And this must be Alice Reed.”
“Yes, sir, it’s nice to finally meet you in person,” Alice said, shaking his hand. She’d only spoken on the phone with him briefly, when he’d called to offer her a position at Camp Durand.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know you better,” Kehoe said in a friendly fashion, but Alice noticed his assessing, curious glance. “It’s unprecedented for me to not be more familiar with the recruits. Mr. Fall spoke so highly of you, though, I knew you’d fit right in.”
His words seemed to vibrate and swirl in the gusty air that surrounded all of them, perhaps because the opposite of Kehoe’s statement seemed glaringly obvious to everyone, including Alice.
“You know Dylan Fall?” Thad asked her, amazement edging his tone.
“No,” Alice assured quickly. She gave Kehoe an anxious glance. Kehoe’s gaze was on her bare legs, but quickly leapt up to her face. He’s trying to figure out why in the hell Fall vouched for you. A spike of irritation went through her when she realized Kehoe thought it might have to do with her legs . . . or any other part of her body aside from her brain. “I mean, yes,” she fumbled. “Mr. Fall interviewed me for the Camp Durand position.”
Dave whistled softly, as if impressed. Brooke looked mutinous.
“Call me Sebastian, please, Alice,” Kehoe said a little sharply. Had he noticed Dave’s whistle and Thad’s awed tone at the mention of Dylan Fall? Alice had the impression their unguarded admiration for Fall annoyed him. “And you and I will have plenty of opportunity to get to know one another here. All of us will. By the end of training and camp itself, you’ll know each other as well as your closest friends and even some family members. Maybe better. The cohort of Camp Durand managers we hire every year remain close-knit for lifetimes, all because of what happens here on this shore and in these woods,” Kehoe said.
Alice forced her face into a polite, interested expression. Somehow, when Kehoe talked about Camp Durand, it reminded her of the processing for a cult. Dylan Fall may have been infuriatingly confident, but he’d never given her that particular impression of Camp Durand or Durand Enterprises. Fall was too blatantly individual to ever be remotely considered a company drone.
“Are you two having trouble with the sign?” Kehoe asked.
“Only because we were hanging it against the wind. Alice was kind enough to point out our idiocy and told us to hang it in an east-west direction,” Thad said, seeming to find his own stupidity on the subject funny. Alice liked him even better for it.
“The wind has been unusually bad since yesterday,” Kehoe conceded. “That’s why we hadn’t gotten the banner up for your arrivals. There’ll be plenty of time to hang it this week before the kids get here. We always put the welcome sign between those two trees, so that the campers can see it from the second they arrive. It’s a Camp Durand tradition,” Kehoe said, trumping Alice’s banner hanging advice single-handedly. Like it matters, she told herself disgustedly. She really needed to get over the idea that she didn’t belong there. She had the qualifications and she’d been hired for the job, fair and square. And perhaps most importantly, starting today she was being paid a heretofore-unimagined amount of money.
For that salary and the possibility of an even larger one in the future, she could get over a lot.
Thad and Dave started to roll up the vinyl banner. Alice stepped forward to assist by taking the hammers they both clutched.
“Let’s get up to the lodge so that I can make introductions and we can have lunch. The ten other counselors are waiting for us. We have a lot of business to attend to this afternoon: getting to know one another, a tour of the camp, orientation to the training schedule, a general overview of our camp philosophy and how our classes and activities demonstrate it,” Kehoe said, as if ticking off a mental list. “Hopefully you’ve already gotten a good understanding of all that from the packet of literature I’ve sent, but now you’ll begin to see the principles put into practice. Ten Durand managers usually volunteer every year to assist me here. We have an unprecedented twelve this year, though. We find it helps to refresh employees about Durand’s origins and philanthropic directives,” Kehoe explained as Dave tucked the rolled banner beneath his arm and Thad shrugged on his shirt.
Alice glanced at Dave and read the wry message in his dark eyes.
And it never hurts to have extra Durand staff to spy on us, of course.
She suppressed a small smile, guessing his thought.
“Plus, we need to do cabin assignments. The counselors pick their roommates randomly,” Kehoe said as he started down the path and they fell into step surrounding him. “I think you’ll be pleased with the cabins, by the way. Mr. Fall had all of them renovated last fall. Even the camper team cabins are extremely luxurious.”
Alice listened, observing everyone closely as Tory asked how the children and counselors were assigned to teams.
“The returning campers are assigned to their old team color. As for the newcomers, after observing all of you this week during your counselor training, and studying our staff child psychologist’s assessments about each camper’s strengths and challenges, myself and the other managers will designate the teams later this week,” Kehoe said briskly, leading them to the clearing that was in front of a handsome, modern, mountain-style lodge building. “Mr. Fall himself will be giving you your list of campers and file folders, as well as designating your team color at the dinner up at the castle on the last night of your training.”
Alice knew from the literature she’d received that the teams engaged in a friendly competition that culminated at the end of camp. Every child and team was rewarded and commended for something meaningful without exception, but the awarding of the Camp Durand Team Championship trophy was a special event. Each team could acquire points that were either earned straight out—say, by the winning of a competition or achievement of some team goal—or they might gain merit points awarded by Kehoe and/or other managers based on individual character growth and excellence.
She would have thought the whole thing sounded a little too rigid and militaristic for her liking if it weren’t for the photos she’d seen of kids of various ages grinning away while they played water polo, piloted sailboats, rode on horseback, or painted on easels set up on the white sand beach. The informational packet Kehoe had sent her had made one theme crystal clear: The Durand counselors were expected to give these kids the time of their lives. Whatever happened at Camp Durand had to be wonderful, because the experience was meant to expand the impoverished children’s horizons, to encourage them to hunger for more, to expect good things of themselves, other people, and life in general.
An organization with that primary goal couldn’t be so bad, could it?
She felt a tickle on her right cheek and turned to see Brooke studying her as they walked up the lodge steps, her eyelids narrowed. Alice straightened her spine and cast her eyes forward. Might as well face it. Brooke Seifert was going to do her damndest to make sure that Alice was one of the first counselors to be checked off the Durand employee list.
And out of pure stubbornness, Alice was just as determined to see Brooke fail in that task.
“Just out of curiosity, what’s the dress for the dinner at the castle, Sebastian?” Brooke asked.
Brooke shot a triumphant glance at Alice as they all started to file through the lodge’s front doors. Despite her determination, Alice felt herself wilting. Brooke had known she wouldn’t have anything “semiformal” in her grubby duffel bag.
Certainly not one thing suitable to wear to the prince’s castle perched atop the hill.
• • •
THE weeklong training flew by in a flurry of activities, challenges, and meetings. Every counselor was expected to complete every activity in which they’d lead the campers. In addition, they had to then learn how to instruct the campers in the various tasks safely and with psychological acumen.
Alice excelled in almost anything that involved strategy, physical strength, thinking out of the box, mental and physical endurance, and most aspects of teamwork. She knew right away—and realized with a sinking feeling that Sebastian Kehoe and the various managers recognized, too—that she had significant challenges when it came to basic knowledge of some activities, such as nutrition and cooking class, public speaking, or artistic expression.
And her most gaping shortcoming? Trust of her peers. Trust in any of the Camp Durand process. Part of her loved being in the gorgeous outdoor setting, testing her personal strength, playing games, and bonding with some of her fellow counselors.
Another part remained observant, but aloof. Wary. She got along especially well with Dave Epstein because they had that quality in common. Thad became another quick friend, but Thad was just too nice of a guy to ever be as cynical and vaguely amused as she and Dave were by the whole process. Thad never hesitated to throw himself into the thick of things. He also never wavered on his stated plan on that first day to have fun. Alice envied and respected his ever-present drive, optimism, and energy.
Alice thought for certain they were going to send her home on the afternoon she was paired up with Brooke Seifert on a steep and treacherous zip line challenge. Why someone would ever want to leave the solid ground and zoom over the canopy of the forest while suspended on a thin wire, Alice couldn’t fathom.
In the same fashion as the campers would be handled, the counselors were paired up according to their experience. Brooke had zip-lined several times, so she was labeled the “expert.” She had the task of coaching and reassuring Alice, who was a designated “novice.”
Alice wasn’t just a novice though. What she was, was deathly afraid of heights.
As a very young child, she’d taken a bad fall and woken up in the hospital. She didn’t remember the accident—or anything at all before waking in that hospital bed. Nevertheless, ever since then, her stomach and brain had minds of their own when her feet went too far off the ground. Of course, she’d withheld all of that from Sebastian Kehoe when he’d asked them some pre-activity questions.
If thirteen-year-old campers could finish the zip line task, she could.
But Brooke reassure her? What a joke. She’d muscle through the task on her own, thank you very much.
Despite her determination, she’d been stiff with anxiety and dizzy by the time they climbed to the way-too-skinny forty-five-foot-tall wooden platform suspended over the woods. She’d held her own, though. Until . . .
“Look at that,” Brooke said under her breath while Jessica Moder, their assigned Durand manager, had turned away to adjust their equipment. Alice instinctively glanced where Brooke pointed, vertigo hitting her like a tidal wave when she stared directly down at the forest floor. Far below, she blurrily registered Sebastian Kehoe talking tensely and gesticulating to a tall Durand manager with a military-style haircut and a face like it was carved from a rock. A cold sweat broke over Alice. The canopy of leaves blurred in her vision, and she barely managed to jerk her gaze off the horrible drop to the forest floor.
“That manager, Sal Rigo, is a creep,” Brooke muttered under her breath. “It looks like Kehoe is giving him hell for always slinking off from his assigned post. He deserves it.” Brooke turned to smile brightly at Jessica, who now was approaching them with a harness.
“I was telling Alice that I was a little nervous the first time around, but once I was airborne, it was too fantastic,” Brooke told Jessica enthusiastically. Her chattiness diverted Jessica from noticing Alice’s pallor and struggle to keep down the contents of her lunch, but that was just happenstance. Alice knew perfectly well Brooke had tricked her. She’d been an idiot to listen to her and look down over the edge of the platform.
Alice went first, Brooke’s saccharine reassurances for her safety bouncing right off her. What did she care about Brooke or her stupid platitudes when she was harnessed to this death contraption?
“Are you ready, Alice?” Jessica asked gently.
“As I’ll ever be,” Alice replied grimly. She held her breath.
Then she was sailing past the lush green treetops, her stomach seemingly left behind with Jessica and Brooke on the platform. A yawning vacuum had taken its place in her gut. She was positive she was going to drop to her death at any moment, but hated that prospect less than the idea of showing weakness in front of Brooke or any of the Durand managers.
She vaguely recognized Thad Schaefer’s smiling face at the next platform, but was too blank with terror to put a name to the other people waiting for her with outstretched arms.
They helped her unharness, but Alice was having trouble decoding the enthusiastic, encouraging comments people were making. The only thing she was sure of in a muzzy sort of way was that the task was done, and she’d survived. All she wanted now was to be alone. No one seemed to realize that her legs were barely holding her up and the edges of her vision were black. She didn’t really come back to herself even partially until she was back on the ground.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of Beth Kery
“You’ll be addicted.”—Julie James, New York Times bestselling author
“Wicked good storytelling.”—Jaci Burton, New York Times bestselling author
“Nuclear-grade hot.”—USA Today
“Intoxicating and exhilarating.”—Fresh Fiction