Authors: Julie Jarnagin
The sight of Cassie walking across the lawn, her arms loaded with papers and folders, sent a charge of anxiety through Will. He was thankful for the chance to be near her this weekend. He was also unsure if the time together would bring them closer or confirm that they could never work past the issues that pulled them apart.
Will's father was ready to close the deal on Sunset Camp with Marvin Hartley. Will had petitioned him for more time, but time was running out. Will's desire to help the camp also hadn't gained him any points with his father when it came to trusting Will with bigger contracts.
If Cassie wasn't interested in Will's help, there wasn't much reason not to pursue the deal. If the camp was closing and they didn't purchase it, someone else would. But the idea of hurting Cassie haunted him.
Will left the group of guys who were checking in outside the meeting room doors and jogged across the grass to Cassie. He resisted the urge to brush the hair out of her eyes. “Can I help you with that?”
“Hi, Will,” she said, her face barely moving. “I've got it, but thank you.” She readjusted her arms around the load.
All business, as usual. Not exactly what he was hoping for. But what could he expect? “I thought you would try to avoid me this weekend, but here you are.”
Cassie didn't react. “I was just on my way back to my office and wanted to make sure everything is running smoothly.”
He would rather see her angry than for her to have no emotion with him. He wasn't going to get anywhere with her like this. He bobbed his head in an exaggerated nod trying to hide his disappointment. He held up his itinerary. “So far, so good.”
“Good. Let me know if you need anything.”
He looked down at the stack of folders and paper in her arms. “What is all of that?”
For the first time, her expression broke. He had asked the wrong thing.
Cassie pulled the stack closer to her chest. “I'm using this to prepare for an upcoming meeting with the conference board.”
Will was aware of every breath she took and how she leaned away from him. “Cassie, I don't blame you for not returning my calls,” he said, taking a risk by crossing the line she had clearly drawn between them.
Cassie avoided his gaze.
“But I wanted a chance to explain myself,” he said.
“We really don't need to talk about this now.”
Maybe it was too late for “I'm sorry,” but he had to try. Not wanting to lose his chance, he said, “I'm really sorry things got so complicated between us. I've done some things that weren't fair to you.”
She didn't respond, only stared right through him.
“If we had met under different circumstances, I'd like to think things might have worked out between us.”
A breeze rustled the papers in her arms. “Let's just focus on surviving this weekend.”
Will's jaw clenched. “If it's what you want, Cassie.”
Several of the men from his church had gathered nearby.
Cassie looked at them and back to Will. “I have to get back to work now.”
“Wait,” he said, desperate to stop her from walking away. “These guys want to hike this weekend, and the only time I've been up the canyon was with you leading me in the dark.”
“The path is easy,” Cassie said. “If you follow it, it will lead you straight to the top of the canyon.”
“They don't want to hike up the same trail as the grade-school kids. They want a challenge. Do you think you could go with us?”
The group of men had moved closer. They pretended not to listen, but none of them spoke.
She might not want to help him, but he knew Cassie. She always put the people staying in her camp first. Will leaned in closer to her. “I'm sure the last thing you want to do is spend any more time with me than you have to, but I'm trying to make this a good weekend for the guys.”
Cassie bit her lip.
He could see her considering it. “Please,” he pleaded. “I'll probably lead them off a cliff or something.”
Cassie shifted back and forth. “I don't know. I have a lot of work to do.”
“If it's your toe, I'll totally understand.”
“It's not my toe, I just. . .”
The men stared at them. Cassie looked from her office to the group. When she didn't say anything, he nodded, disappointed. “Sorry, guys. She just has too much work to do. We can take the trail instead.”
The men groaned. Cassie's shoulders slumped. “I'll do it.”
“Really?” Will asked.
“I'll meet all of you beside the tabernacle tomorrow,” Cassie said.
Will wanted to grab her and hug her. “Thank you. I owe you one.”
Will's footsteps echoed down the dark hallway to Cassie's office. He knocked his knuckle against the door. “Cassie, are you in there?”
No answer. He tried the door handle, but it was locked. He needed to talk to Cassie about accommodating one more man who wanted to come down for the last two days of the retreat. It also served as another excuse to be near her.
A figure of a woman walked toward him, but with the light to her back, he couldn't see her face. As she neared, he saw a lady with a short, red bob. He studied her familiar face, trying to place her. “If you're here for Cassie, like me, it looks like we're out of luck.”
The woman's lips formed a tight line. “I don't know where that girl disappears to. Dinner is almost ready at the house.”
He finally recognized her from the photo on Cassie's desk. Hadn't Cassie said she didn't get along with her family? “You're Cassie's mom.”
The woman grinned. “Why, yes I am.”
Will held his hand out to her. “I'm Will.”
Her thin hand shook his. “I'm Nora. How did you know who I am?”
Will pointed a thumb at the door. “Cassie has a photo of you in her office.”
She leaned back and put a hand on her heart. “She does?”
Will nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”
Nora and Will ambled together down the hallway toward the door leading outside. “So, you're here all the way from Albuquerque?”
“Yes. Her sister and I came for a visit. How do you know Cassie?”
He held the door open for Nora and stepped out behind her into the still evening air. The setting sun had turned the sky hues of pink and blue. “We met when I volunteered as a counselor here. This weekend I'm here as part of a men's retreat.”
A glint in her eye told him she was like his mother and didn't miss much when it came to her kids. “You wouldn't happen to be the gentleman who helped my daughter when she hurt her toe, would you?”
The idea that Cassie had talked about him to her mother excited him, but Nora might know more than he would have hoped. “That would be me.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “I see.”
He gave her a sideways glance. “How much do you know about me?”
“Unfortunately, she doesn't tell me as much as I would like. My daughter has trouble opening up to people. Even her mother.”
Will knew about that all too well. “Where are you headed?”
“Back to Cassie's house. Would you like to walk with me?”
Will glanced at the men playing basketball on the courts. “I would love to.”
“Cassie's a wonderful girl,” Nora said. “So headstrong and independent.”
“I agree wholeheartedly.”
She smiled at him. “I figured you would.”
Will looked down at Nora. She was petite, just like Cassie. “She can also be a tough one to figure out.”
Nora nodded. “She had some rough times when she was a kid, and that's given her some extra hurdles, especially when dealing with men.”
Will didn't want to press her too hard, but he was interested at the chance to get a glimpse into Cassie's heart. “Like what?”
They strolled onto the gravel drive that ran through the camp. “Unlike my youngest daughter, Cassie was a daddy's girl from the day she was born. After her father left us when Cassie was ten, he would call her and tell her he was coming back home or that he was sending her a plane ticket to come visit him. She would get so excited and tell all of her friends. He let her down every single time,” Nora said, her voice cracking.
Will's protective impulses coursed through him. How could someone do that to his own daughter?
“This went on for years. Eventually she created this hard little shell around her that I still haven't figured out how to break through.”
Will's chest ached for Cassie. After being let down so many times before, finding out about his meeting with Mr. Hartley must have felt all too familiar to her. No wonder she had reacted like she did.
“It breaks my heart that the problems between her father and I are still affecting her,” Nora said. “I'm afraid she'll never trust anyone.”
Will stared down at his feet as he walked. “I've been an idiot.”
Nora stopped. “What are you talking about?”
Will shook his head. “I think she started to trust me, and I destroyed it. I just wish she would give me a chance to try to fix it. Any advice for me?”
Nora pointed at his chest. “You need to be patient with her. She's worth the wait. If it's right, it will happen.”
“I hope you're right, Nora.”
On Saturday the group of guys thanked Cassie as they followed her through the trees to the path up the canyon. They quickly moved off the trail to a steeper slope covered with rocks and roots obstructing their route. She led them toward the most challenging means to the top of the canyon wall that didn't include rock climbing. Will stayed at the front of the pack of hikers near Cassie but turned around every few minutes to stop and encourage the men or tease the guys about their progress. “We better not tell Elizabeth about this,” he said to a man in his early twenties. “Your honey-do list will get even longer if she knows you have this much energy.”
It was obvious by the way the men laughed and bantered back that they respected him.
“I think Gary is part mountain lion,” he said to a balding man scrambling up a stone.
If only this was the sole side of Will, but she had already seen him as the sneaky and self-interested businessman. To trust him now would be naive.
By the time they reached the top, most of the men's shirts dripped with sweat and were stained with orange from the rocks they climbed. Cassie moved to the back of the pack and let them enjoy their rewardâthe view from the summit.
Not even out of breath, Will looked like he had taken an elevator to the top. He came and stood by Cassie, his hands buried deep in his pockets.
“Does everything come so easily to you?” The words slipped out of her mouth too easily.
Will leaned forward and looked in her eyes. “Is that what you think of me? That I've had everything handed to me?”
She had offended him. She wasn't trying to be hurtful. There was so much she wanted to say to him, but she couldn't find the right words. “I'm not talking about your family. I'm talking about you. When people look at you, they see someone who has it all together. Someone who knows exactly what he's doing.”
Will's gaze went over her head. “Cassie, there's more to me than what you see.”
There was a silence between them that Cassie didn't know how to break. The conversation hadn't gone where she had meant for it to go. She didn't know how to get everything back where it needed to be.
Will cleared his throat. “Cassie, is there any chance for us to put this behind us? To try to separate the business from us?”
If only it could be that easy. Cassie checked to see if the men were listening, but they were all looking out over the edge of the canyon or sitting on boulders resting before their trek down the trail. She pursed her lips together. “I don't think you understand how much I love this camp.”
Will opened and closed his hand at his side. “That's just it, Cassie. I love it here, too. I wanted to explain that to you.”
Cassie faced him. “Then why did you sneak behind my back? Why did you meet with Mr. Hartley?”
Will held open hands out to her. “I'm sorry for not telling you.”
“But you're not sorry for the meeting or for trying to buy the camp.”
“I know it looks bad, but you have it all wrong.”
Cassie didn't trust him. She couldn't.
“We talked to him about buying the camp if it was going under,” Will said. “But I also talked to him about ways to help you save the camp.”
Cassie wanted to believe he had good intentions, but telling her he was helping her by meeting with her boss was ludicrous. “Helping me would be to stay out of it. Now that Mr. Hartley knows someone is interested in this place, my chances of saving it have gone down the tubes.”
Will looked up toward the sky. “I'll be honest, Mr. Hartley isn't sold on the idea of working to save this place, but you have to believe me, I've been doing everything I can to convince him.”
“And if you don't convince him?” Cassie asked. “What happens then?”
Will rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. “My father wants to pursue purchasing the camp, but if it's closing anyway. . .”
Resentment coursed through her. “Okay, Will. Here's your chance.” She stepped away from him. “If your intentions with Mr. Hartley were good, tell me why you kept it a secret. All that time we spent together, you never thought it might be something I should know.”
Will's fists clinched. “I don't know,” he murmured. “I guess I thought I was trying to protect you.”
Cassie bit the inside of her cheek. “I don't need you to protect me, Will. I really don't.” She turned to leave, but he cupped his hand on her elbow. She stopped.
“Cassie, please look at me.”
She spun around and crossed her arms on her chest.