A Child's Only Hope
When widower Nathan Porter brings his grieving son, Zach, to Wyndermere House's camp, he is desperate for a lifeline. Nathan's hoping the change of scenery to the woods of upstate New York will help mend his son's heart. But the counselor assigned to his son's care seems too youngand too prettyto be qualified. Paige McFarlane's learned what loving someoneand losing themcosts. But soon her efforts with Zach reveal that to help the son she must also help the dad. As Nathan and Paige work together to mend the boy's broken spirit, they realize the walls around their own hearts could be crumbling, as well.
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McFarlane paced the patterned carpet of the front office, her fingers clenched in the pockets of her khaki shorts. How could George put her in this position?
Seated behind his mahogany desk, the burly manager of Wyndermere House tapped a pen on his blotter. "A seven-year-old boy desperately needs your help, Paige. His father is a longtime customer, as well as a personal friend. You'd be doing us both a big favor, not to mention helping a child."
Paige stopped to face her employer and friend, trying hard not to picture a devastated little boy grieving the loss of his mother. Trying hard not to allow memories of her own horrific loss creep back into her consciousness. "My heart goes out to him, George, but I have no practical experience in grief counseling. He deserves a qualified professional."
George Reynolds's bushy eyebrows snagged in the middle of his broad forehead. "They tried that already, but it didn't work out."
Perspiration dampened Paige's palms as she fought the beginning of panic. "I'm not sure this would even be ethical since I haven't earned my certification yet." I'm not ready for this.
"Don't worry. I'll make it clear that you'd treat Zach more in the capacity of a camp counselor."
Paige noted the pleading gleam in her boss's brown eyes, and felt her resolve slipping. Why was she always such a sucker for someone needing help? She really should practice saying no more often. Psychology student, heal thyself
"Zach is already enrolled in your Bible camp, so you'll have lots of time together." He fixed her with a pensive stare. "You could use some extra money for school, right?"
Paige winced. Understatement of the yearnot to mention a low blow. George knew she was scraping together every last penny for her final year of her master's degree.
"You know I could," she said quietly.
George swiveled in his leather chair. "Why not look at this as an opportunity to make some cash on the side then?"
"I don't know, George " She twisted a loose strand of blond hair around her index finger, doubts wreaking havoc with her desire to help. Textbooks were all well and good, but could she honestly say she was ready to handle a troubled boy's grief? What if she made a mistake and compounded the problem?
"I wouldn't ask if I wasn't confident you could help."
Paige groaned and dropped back into the guest chair. George had been her boss since she'd started working at Wyndermere House in her teens, and he knew all too well how to use her weaknesses against her.
"Will you at least meet Nate and Zach and see how you feel? They arrive tomorrow morning, which will give you a couple of days before camp starts."
He looked so hopeful Paige didn't have the heart to say no. And the extra money wouldn't hurt.
"Fine." She threw up her hands in defeat. "I'll meet them. But I can't promise any more than that."
His smile created wrinkles around his eyes. "Thanks, kiddo. I knew I could count on you."
Good old Paige. Everyone could always count on her. She sighed a few minutes later as she pushed out the employees' entrance onto the wraparound porch. What had she gotten herself into? This could be a huge disaster in the making.
She paused to lean against the stone wall, taking in the view of the velvet lawn sloping toward the lake, and allowed the beauty of God's handiwork to steady her. The tension in her shoulder muscles eased a fraction.
Other than her hometown of Portsmouth, New Jersey, the Finger Lakes region of New York rated as close to perfection as Paige could imagine. She'd been coming here during the summer for as long as she could rememberfirst on vacation with her family, and later as an activity coordinator for children. She loved everything about Wyn-dermere Housethe majesty of the sprawling stone inn, the breathtaking scenery surrounding it and most of all, the wonderful people who'd become like family.
George and Catherine Reynolds had turned this beautiful setting into a five-star resort, while using the rustic cabins farther back on the property as a summer camp for kids. Parents could leave their children under the counselors' care and partake of the resort's amenities, knowing their kids were having a blast at camp.
Paige reached into her pocket for her sunglasses, and her fingers brushed the envelope she'd hastily stuffed there before her meeting with George. Immediate tension cinched her spine as she recalled the message typed inside. "Second installment of tuition fees due."
Paige unclenched her fingers and released the envelope. Maybe God was giving her a gentle nudgean opportunity to increase her finances, as well as a way to ease into the type of work she wanted to do. Still, she couldn't quite quell her anxiety. Would she be able to treat this boy without falling victim to the paralyzing emotions that had engulfed her after Colin's death?
Was she brave enough to try?
* * *
Nathan Porter scowled over the massive desk at George and bit back the words that burned on his tongue. Despite his friend's good intentions, George was meddling where he didn't belong.
"Look, Nate, you can't give up on counseling. From what you've told me, Zach's behavior is getting worse."
Nathan scrubbed a hand over his jaw. "We tried therapy and got nowhere. Zach hated every minute of it, and other than yelling obscenities at the therapist, refused to say a word. I came here for a break from all that."
"So you're going to do what? Hide from your problems all summer?"
Nathan clamped his mouth shut to rein in his anger. He wouldn't take his ill humor out on one of his best friends. "After what I've been through, I think I deserve some time off."
"That's all well and good, but what happens in September?"
Nathan stalked over to the window, where he stared out at the large expanse of water with unseeing eyes. That simple question summed up his greatest fear. Five months after his wife's sudden death, Zach was in serious emotional turmoil. Nothing Nathan did made any difference. In fact, his efforts seemed to make matters worse. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. If only the pain would go awayjust for a little whilemaybe Nathan could think clearly again.
A warm hand squeezed Nathan's shoulder. "Are your in-laws still on your back?"
"They're threatening to sue for custody if things haven't improved by September." He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Apparently they called the school and found out Zach had been suspended for fighting. And they know I'm still not workingwhich gives them two good excuses to claim I'm an unfit parent."
George leaned a shoulder against the window frame. "Then why not see if Paige can get through to Zach? You'll be no worse off."
Nathan clenched his teeth, his idea for a peaceful respite slipping away as surely as his control over his life had. He closed his eyes for a moment, before turning to face his old friend. "I guess it wouldn't hurt to meet her."
"Great. I knew you'd come around to my way of thinking."
Nathan shot George a stern look. "I have one condition. I'd like to keep my profession out of this."
George frowned. "I don't see what"
"Take it or leave it." Nathan's deep humiliation over his inability to work for the past ten months was not something he wished to discuss with anyone, especially a stranger.
George shook his head. "Fine. I'll leave that part up to you." He glanced at his watch. "Paige should be here any minute. I'm sure you'll like her as much as everyone else does."
As if on cue, a knock sounded. George strode over to swing the door open. "Come on in, kid. You're right on time."
Kid was right. Nathan frowned as a slim, blonde girl entered the room. Surely this couldn't be the grief counselor. Dressed in beige shorts and a green polo shirt containing the Wyndermere logo, her hair looped back in a ponytail, she had the fresh-faced, makeup-free complexion of a high school student.
"Paige, this is my friend Nathan Porter. Nathan, our camp director, Paige McFarlane."
The girl stepped forward, a sympathetic smile on her face, and held out her hand. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Porter. I'm so sorry to hear about your recent loss."
He took her hand, surprised by the softness of her fingers and the almost too personal squeeze she gave. Irritation prickled the back of his neck and he quickly released her hand. He turned on George, not even attempting to disguise his disapproval. "You expect me to believe this teenager is qualified to help my son?"
The girl stiffened, her arms clenched tight at her sides. "I'm hardly a teenager." She glared at him with cool green eyes. Her frosty tone should have deterred him, but it didn't.
"What kind of experience could you possibly have dealing with grief-stricken children? You look like you're barely out of high school yourself."
A splash of rosy color bled through her cheeks. George placed a large hand on her shoulder, whether to comfort her or warn her, Nathan wasn't sure.
"Paige has almost finished her master's degree in psychology, including courses in grief counseling. I wouldn't recommend her if I wasn't confident in her abilities."
Master's degree? A quick calculation put her age somewhere in her midtwentiesnot so very far from him after all. Why wasn't that thought more comforting?
She lifted her chin and crossed her arms, as if prepared for battle. "I don't have any formal experience, but I have worked with children for years, both here and volunteering with various programs at home. In addition, I have an undergraduate degree in child psychology. I'm willing to meet your son and at least do an initial assessment. After that you can decide what is acceptable to you."
Her direct gaze caused him to squirm in his suit jacket. He wasn't usually so rude. He wasn't usually such a mess either. The nautical clock on George's desk ticked out the seconds while Nathan fought an internal debate. He looked from one to the other and finally released a long breath. "I guess we've got nothing to lose."
"Excellent." George clapped him on the back, relief softening the strain around his mouth.
Miss McFarlane looked around the room and raised a brow. "Where is your son? I'd like to meet him."
"With Lou in the kitchen. I'll go get him." Nathan strode out the door at top speed. Around the first corner, he stopped and sagged against the wall, laboring for air.
This was supposed to be a relaxing retreat, a time to get his life back in order. But nowlike everything else around himthe situation seemed to be spinning out of his control.
George had better know what he was doing. Zach's well-being depended on it.
The moment Mr. Porter marched out of the room, Paige thrust her shaky hands in her pockets, blinking to get the man's military-like posture and the grim set of his mouth out her mind. Far from seeming appreciative of her assistance, he had turned disapproving and cold the moment she'd entered the room.
Frowning, she trained a laser stare on George. "What's with your friend? I thought he wanted my help."
George held up his hands in mock surrender. "I know Nate's a bit gruff. This tragedy has taken a toll on him, and he's not himself right now. But Nate's a good guy, trying to do what's best for his son. Give him a chance. Please?"
Paige huffed out a sigh, remembering her own debilitating grief not that long ago. She certainly hadn't been herself then, and she supposed she could give Mr. Porter the benefit of the doubt. For his son's sake, if nothing else. "All right," she grumbled. "I'll do itfor you."
"Thank you." His smile deepened the craggy lines around his mouth and eyes.
"You're welcome." She hesitated, gathering the nerve to bring up a subject she loathed. "I hate to ask you this but I need a favor in return."
"Name it." He picked up his coffee mug from the desk and took a quick swig.
She twisted her fingers together. "Could I get an advance on my pay? Enough to cover a partial tuition payment?"
George straightened, a frown pinching his brow. "Of course. Why didn't you ask sooner? I could have had the money to you a week ago."
She sighed. "I didn't realize the next installment was due so soon. I thought I had until August."
"I'll have a check for you tomorrow."
"Thanks, George." A huge weight lifted from her shoulders. Now she'd have some breathing room until the end of the summer to pay the remainder of her fees. If she could work things out with Mr. Porter to pay her for counseling Zach, she might be able to squeak by without having to beg the bank for more loans. Paige crossed the room to perch on the edge of his desk, her mind returning to her next challenge. "So, tell me, how did you and Nathan Porter get to be friends? He's closer to my age than yours."
"I'm actually a friend of Nate's father. Jim and Nancy used to bring him here for two weeks every summer. They became like family to me. That was before I met Catherine, and they took pity on a lonely bachelor."
Paige snorted. "Yeah, right. I'll bet you had ladies beating a path to the inn."
"Well, now that you mention it." His lips snagged up in a grin.
"So you hung out with the Porters in the summer. What else?" She sensed there was more to the story.
George shrugged. "Jim was an older father and not the outdoorsy type. So I took Nate boating and fishing and taught him to swim. We bonded."
The conversation stopped when the door opened. Nathan reappeared, tugging a child behind him. The boy stood scowling at George and Paige, his arms crossed over his striped T-shirt. His hair, a lighter version of his father's, looked as if someone had just tousled it. Probably Lou.
The jolly cook had a soft spot for kids, especially troublesome boys.
Paige's focus shifted to Nathan Porter, this time paying more attention to his appearance. With black hair that waved over his forehead, sculpted cheekbones, a strong jaw and piercing blue eyes, Nathan Porter was one of the most handsome men Paige had ever met. A pity he wasn't more pleasant. She pulled her gaze away and focused on the guy she was really here to see as Nathan gave the boy a nudge forward.
"Zachary, you remember Mr. Reynolds. And this is Miss McFarlane. She's in charge of the camp you'll be attending."
Taking her cue, Paige crouched in front of the still-frowning boy and smiled. "Hi, Zach. You can call me Paige."
Zach turned angry eyes on his father. "She's a girl. How's this camp going to be any fun if she's in charge?"
Nathan's dark eyebrows slammed together. "Zachary, apologize to Miss McFarlane right this minute."
Zach planted his feet more firmly on the carpet. "I won't."
"If this is the way you're going to behave, then"
Paige rose and quickly laid her hand on the man's arm. "Mr. Porter, could I talk to Zach alone for a moment?"
Both man and boy turned furious eyes on her, and Paige stifled a sigh. She'd have her work cut out for her, if she decided to take on this challenge. Instead of clinging to the remaining parent, as was most often the case, Zach oozed anger and defiance at his father. She had to admit the unusual dynamics of this father/son relationship piqued her professional curiosity.
"I don't want to talk to her." Zach's eyes shot daggers at her while Nathan's face turned a mottled shade of red.
Drastic action was needed to defuse the situation. "Do you like animals, Zach?"
Still frowning, he shrugged.
"I thought we could go down to the barn. We have four horses. And our cat, Misty, had kittens a few weeks ago. What do you say?"
A gleam of interest lit up his brown eyes for a moment, but the scowl returned, and he clamped his mouth shut.
Paige waited a beat, then shook her head. "That's too bad. Guess I'll just leave you here with your dad and find another camper who wants to help with the animals. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Porter." She started toward the door, ignoring the looks of disbelief on George's and Nathan Porter's faces.
"Wait." Zach's voice rang with desperation.
Hand on the doorknob, her back to the boy, Paige's lips twitched in victory. She sobered and turned to face him.
"I guess going to the barn is better than hanging around here."
Paige looked to Nathan for confirmation. He only nodded, his expression hovering somewhere between frustration and bewilderment.
"Good. We'll be back later then."
Before father or son could change his mind, Paige ushered Zach out the door.
On the way to the stables, she offered silent prayers Heavenward for help with this angry boy and slowed her steps to accommodate Zach, who trudged along beside her as though she were taking him to the dentist for a filling. Hopefully the horses and kittens would provide the icebreaker she needed.
"So what's your favorite animal?" she asked as they walked, dust kicking up from the dirt path.
"Dinosaurs." He glared over at her, as if daring her to contradict his choice.
"Dinosaurs are cool. I bet you like the T. rex best."
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