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Authors: Julie Jarnagin

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BOOK: Canyon Walls
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“If it isn't my two new best friends,” Will said.

Beth kicked Cassie under the counter. Cassie smiled, remembering Beth's plan to keep a close watch on Will. “You were a pretty easy friend to win. All we had to do was point you in the direction of coffee.”

Will pointed to the older man with him. “This is my cabinmate Roger. We've recently discovered that fourteen-year-
old boys are the smelliest creatures on the face of the earth.”

“Try cleaning their cabins every week,” Cassie said.

Will wore swim trunks and a bright towel around his neck. “That's dedication.” He laid a dollar bill on the counter. “Could Roger and I get a couple bottles of water?”

She took out the waters and wrapped paper towels around the outside. “I see you're planning to take a swim.”

Will took the waters and handed one to Roger. “I saw some of the guys trying to dunk each other. We're going to show them how it's done.”

When the men had walked away toward the pool, Cassie took a deep breath, trying to stay as casual as possible and not worry Beth. “Did I mention that the boss is going to be coming down to the camp next week?”

Beth, who had hopped up to sit on the edge of the chest freezer, leaned forward. “Mr. Hartley's coming here? Why? Why doesn't he send someone from his office like he usually does?”

Cassie kept her eyes on a boy and girl who had separated from the group and were sitting on the grass side by side. “I don't know. His e-mail said—”

“Wait a minute,” Beth said. “He e-mailed you?”

“Yes, and he has some issues to talk to me about.”

Beth swung her legs. For a moment, she looked like one of the campers. “Are you worried? I mean, he doesn't come down here unless it's something pretty big.”

Cassie's head ached because of the stifling heat. She needed to lie down. She shouldn't have brought up the e-mail. “I don't think it's a big deal. I mean, he probably has to visit every camp at least once or twice a year.”

An awkward silence hung between them until two boys, sweating and out of breath, ordered Gatorades.

Beth shrugged. “Sure, you're probably right. Nothing to worry about.”

Three

Will pushed his brother's tool belt and electric drill from the passenger seat to the dusty floorboard and climbed into Connor's four-wheel-drive pickup. “This thing's a mess.”

Connor drummed his thumbs against the steering wheel. “It's a work truck. What do you expect?”

Despite their innate differences, Will and Connor made a good team. Connor handled the construction side of their real-estate business, spending his days outside the office on job sites. Will dealt with the development end, negotiating deals and looking for new projects. “This needs to be quick. I have a guy down there covering for me in a cabin full of crazed teenagers.”

Connor sifted through a stack of paper on his dashboard. “It shouldn't take long. My crew can't start working on the renovation until you sign these contracts.” Connor pushed a clipboard of papers and an ink pen into Will's hands.

Will read through the first page and flipped to the next. He rolled his shoulders in an attempt to relieve some of the tension that crept back into his muscles. Will loved his work, and he was good at it. But he hadn't even realized the pressure he felt from his father and their clients until he had a break from it at the camp.

“I have to hand it to you,” Connor said. “You're pretty committed to your job, spending a week down there.”

Will looked up from the paperwork. “What do you mean? I'm taking a week off work.”

“Sure.” Connor rested an arm on the open window, staring out past the wooden
Sunset Camp
sign toward the canyon. “I just can't believe Dad talked you into doing something so crazy for a deal.”

Will fought off annoyance at Connor's assumptions. “There isn't a deal right now. Dad is just interested in the place.”

Connor's face creased with surprise. “I figured he put you up to this. Everybody knows the camp is on the verge of going under. Why else would you be here?”

Their father had suggested Will look into the property, but it wasn't why Will was at the camp. “The youth minister said he needed another adult to volunteer. I'm here to help out.”

“Then I'm surprised Dad was so gung ho about you taking the week off work,” Connor said.

Will couldn't remember the last time any of them had taken an entire week away from the business. “You have a point.”

“He could be testing you. If we end up buying this place, maybe he'll let you handle more of the big contracts.”

And maybe his father would stop treating Will like he was seventeen.

“Mom would be happy. That's for sure,” Connor said.

Their mother had been trying to get their dad to slow down and travel more or at least stop spending sixty hours a week in the office. “I don't know. Buying this place would make perfect business sense, but right now I just want to help them get out of their mess. I'd hate to see it close.”

“Uh-oh. Is my business-savvy brother turning sentimental on me?”

Will chuckled. “I wouldn't go that far, but the new director and I were reminiscing about being campers. She's pretty passionate about what they do down there, and I can't really blame her.”

Connor raised a dark eyebrow. “So you're not interested in the property because of this woman?”

“It's not like that. I just met her, and apparently she's not too fond of me.”

“Then she must not know you're Wyatt Bend's most eligible bachelor, or she'd be throwing herself at you like all the rest.”

Will shook his head at the ribbing from his brother. “From what I can tell, she thinks I'm pretty obnoxious.”

“I like her already,” Connor said.

“Very funny.” Will scribbled his signature and the date on the bottom line and handed the contract back to Connor. “Besides, she's not my type. Don't get me wrong. She's gorgeous in a tomboyish sort of way, but she's stubborn and unreasonable.”

Connor shoved the clipboard back onto his dashboard. “Sounds exactly like the kind of girl you need to keep you in line. But if you want Dad to stop breathing down your neck every day, you'll figure out a way to make this deal happen.”

❧

Cassie shone the flashlight on the path to her house. Trees hid all but the chimney of the home that sat twenty feet up the narrow road leading out of the canyon.

Inside, she turned on the radio to chase away the quietness. She didn't have a television, and in the evenings the silent house was a stark contrast to the screaming youth.

Petal, Cassie's plump yellow cat, dozed on the couch, curled up on her favorite afghan. Cassie hopped as she unlaced her hiking boots. Petal opened one eye, letting her know she had woken her.

The phone rang, and Cassie tucked it under her ear. “Hi, Mom,” she said without hearing the voice on the other end of the line. Her mother called three times a week without fail before she went to bed.

“Where were you? I've been trying to call you all evening,” her mother said.

Cassie plopped onto an overstuffed chair. The blanket she used to cover the ratty cushions slipped down, revealing outdated brown and orange fabric. “Mom, you know I can't always get home on time. It's not like I work a nine to five.”

The sound of running water and dishes clanking came from the other end of the phone. Since her father had left when Cassie was ten years old, her mother had lived alone. Most likely she had cooked for Cassie's sister, Melissa; Melissa's accountant husband; and the couple's two girls, but Cassie was too stubborn to ask about her sister. She wasn't in the mood to hear her mother talk about Melissa and her perfect life.

“Honey, I know you don't work a normal job, but maybe that's the problem.”

“Not tonight, Mom.”

The sound of running water stopped. “I'm worried about you.”

Petal jumped into Cassie's lap. When Cassie had taken over as director, the cat had shown up at the kitchen door. She purred and pressed her paws into Cassie's leg. “There's nothing to worry about. I'm fine.”

Cassie and her mother had had this conversation a hundred times before, and Cassie couldn't figure out how to keep from repeating it. She closed her eyes to prepare for what was next.

“How are you going to meet a husband if you spend all your time working?”

There it was. The question she hated most, even more than, “When are you going to get a real job?” Cassie held her breath.

“Cassie? Are you still there?”

She tapped the phone against her forehead then held the phone back up to her face. “I'm still here, Mom.”

“I want you to settle down like Melissa. She is your
baby
sister.”

Petal lifted her chin in the air when Cassie scratched her neck. “It's not like twenty-seven is ancient. A lot of women have careers before they have families.” This argument was impossible to win.

“Honey, if you want a career, go back to managing a restaurant.”

Cassie had worked in the restaurant business after college graduation, managing an upscale restaurant in Albuquerque. The hours were hard, but no worse than what she was doing now. The pay was great, but her heart wasn't in it. When she turned down a promotion and returned to Sunset Camp, her family and friends told her she was crazy.

“Use the degree you earned,” her mom said. “What you're doing isn't a career. You're still at summer camp.”

Her mother's words hurt. She had spent every summer at the camp from the time she was in junior high, first as a camper and later as an employee during college between semesters. She had lived in the tiny workers' cabin with other students. When she accepted the assistant director position, it was like coming home. Now she served as the interim director, and she didn't want anything to ruin her opportunity.

“I never would have let you go down there when you were twelve if I had known it would become your whole life.”

Coming back with all her usual defenses was pointless. Cassie didn't bother pointing out she was a director, the youngest and only woman camp director in the state, even if it was only temporary. Explaining that she was making a difference in kids' lives by bringing them closer to God wouldn't even help her argument. She'd tried them all before.

“I just don't want you to end up single because you think every man is going to leave you like your father.”

Cassie cringed. Her mother reserved mention of Cassie's father for when she really wanted to make a point. The last time Cassie had heard from him was a year ago when he told her he was marrying a casino waitress in Las Vegas.

“Can we drop it?” Cassie asked.

Her mother was quiet for a moment. “I'll leave you alone,” she said in a serious tone, “when you move back to New Mexico, meet a nice man, and have a couple of my grandbabies.”

“Oh. . .just that.”

Her mom laughed. “Good night, honey. You need to get your rest.”

Cassie stopped scratching Petal's neck, and a fat orange tail hit the phone.

“What was that?”

“Oh nothing. Only Petal saying good night.”

“Good night.” Cassie heard the exasperation in her mother's voice.

Some days, especially paydays, she didn't know if moving to Oklahoma had been the right decision, but when she saw the difference in the kids after a week at the camp or when she woke up early to go on a hike up the canyon, she remembered why she was there.

Now she feared it might all be taken away from her.

Four

A steady thumping in her head woke Cassie. She struggled to open her eyes and focus them on the glow of her alarm clock: 1:38 a.m. Her fingers fumbled for the aspirin in her nightstand drawer, but the banging returned.

The front door. She grabbed a sweatshirt off the back of the chair and pulled it over her tank top and pajama bottoms.

The banging on the door got louder and caused her head to throb even more. Someone was losing patience.

“I'm coming,” she yelled. “Hang on.”

Through the peephole, she saw a chin and a neck but no face. “Who is it?”

“It's me,” Will said.

She placed her hand on the doorknob but stopped. “This is the second time you've woken me up since we've met.”

“Cassie, I need your help. Please open the door.”

The shakiness in his voice made her throw the door open.

He stepped inside the entryway, his face pale and his lips tight. “A couple of my boys are missing.”

The fog of sleepiness lifted from Cassie. “What? How?”

“They're gone,” he said. “I'm such a light sleeper. I don't know how it could have happened.”

Cassie didn't need to hear any more. She was already pulling on her hiking boots with her pajama pants.

“I'm sorry to wake you, but I figured you might know where to look. Should we call the cops? Should I wake up the other counselors?”

She almost enjoyed seeing Mr. Calm frazzled, not knowing what to do next. Unfortunately, there was no time to revel in the moment. “I'm sure they just snuck out. Don't worry. We'll find them.”

“Should we check if anyone else is missing?” Will asked.

“Not yet. If we wake up the counselors, the campers are going to wake up, too.”

A few minutes later, Cassie knocked on the door of Beth's one-room cabin, and soon Beth's face was peering out the window. Her eyes were hardly open, and her forehead was scrunched like a shar-pei's. She opened the door wearing a robe and carrying a baseball bat.

“Expecting someone?” Cassie asked.

Beth held her hand over her heart. “I watched a movie about a stalker before I went to bed.”

Cassie took the baseball bat from Beth and leaned it on the front porch. “We have some boys out of their cabin. Can you help us look?”

“Of course. Let me change out of my pj's.”

“Will and I will check the hiking paths. You check the other popular places.” Cassie motioned for Will to follow her.

“I'll be right behind you,” Beth said, going back into her cabin.

Cassie headed across the open grassy area to the canyon wall on the other side of the tabernacle. She trudged under the weight of her sweatshirt and dreaded the march through the wilderness with Will Overman. On the other hand, being with Will could possibly bring her some insight into his motives, but she'd need to be careful not to give up any information about the camp.

Will jogged to catch up to her. “Did you say we're going hiking?”

“We have to whisper, and please, trust me,” Cassie said, not wanting the missing campers to hide from them. “I've done this before, and they are almost always at one of a few places.” Cassie pointed the unlit flashlight at the canyon wall. “The top of the canyon is one of them.”

“You're suggesting we hike up the canyon with only that little flashlight?” Will asked.

“No. We won't use the flashlight until we find them. We don't want them to spot us before we see them.” Cassie concealed her smile. “You're not afraid of the dark, are you?”

“Afraid of the dark?” Will stepped in front of her. “I'll lead.”

It didn't take them long to reach the open gazebo behind the tabernacle. Small groups met there when they didn't mind going without air-conditioning, which wasn't often these days. When Cassie had been a camper, nothing in the camp had been air conditioned except the nurse's station. Campers would fake headaches for the chance to lie on a cot in the cool room.

Trees and plants hid the opening to the trail behind the gazebo, and Will walked back and forth searching for it.

“Need help?” Cassie asked. The search would go faster if he would let her take the lead.

“No, I know it's right here. . .somewhere.”

She would have forced him to ask her for help, but the teens were wandering around by themselves. She cleared her throat, and he motioned for her to go ahead of him. She found the path immediately, and they hiked silently, listening for voices or footsteps.

Darkness fell around them. The trees blocked the moonlight, and the lights from the buildings and cabins were out of sight. Luckily, every turn, every tree stump, and every rock were familiar to Cassie.

“Are you up for a shortcut?” she asked, eager to test Will.

Will sighed. “I am if you are.”

The steeper, more difficult path was on their left, and it inclined almost straight up. A rope had been secured to a tree at the top of the slope to make it possible for hikers to pull themselves up the slick rocks. Cassie jerked the rope to make sure it was secured tightly. “Hold on to this,” Cassie said, handing him the rope.

Will reached through the darkness, first touching his hand to hers, then taking the rope.

“This will lead us the entire way, but the stone under your feet is going to be slippery, so watch your footing,” she said.

Will didn't respond. She felt him pull at the rope behind
her.

They worked together silently. When Cassie fought to scale a boulder, Will put his hand on her elbow. She felt as if she were climbing blindfolded, but she let the rope lead her up the canyon. After several minutes, she reached the trail, and she gave Will a hand as he maneuvered the final step.

“Thanks,” he said, his hand still wrapped around hers.

Cassie pulled it away, spun around, and pretended not to notice how effortlessly he made it up the rocks.

“We're almost there,” Cassie said. “One more incline to go, which will seem like a cakewalk compared to this.”

The main trail stretched in front of them, and with no trees above them now, the moonlight lit their way. A rustling came from the bushes beside them. They stayed motionless as they listened. “Cooper? Seth?” Will whispered.

Will and Cassie both jumped when a gray armadillo popped out of the leaves. It turned and ran at the sight of them.

Cassie couldn't help but laugh. Will playfully slugged her on the arm before laughing with her. “I hope I can make this hike sometime when I'll have a chance to enjoy it instead of searching for bandits. It's actually pretty beautiful up here at night.”

The sandy rocks of the canyon left orange stains across his white T-shirt, and beads of sweat glistened on his forehead.

They reached the highest point of the canyon wall, and the cloudless night gave them a blanket of stars. It was nights like this that made Cassie wonder how anyone could not believe in God.

She ran her hand across the boulder covered with carved names and initials. At one time she hiked to this spot every morning to pray. She felt close to God when she was there, but now she struggled to escape from work.

“I guess they're not here.” Will turned back toward the trail. “I hope Beth is having better luck.”

A piece of paper caught Cassie's eye. “Hang on.” She leaned over and grabbed a sticky wrapper from the ice cream sandwiches Beth had planned to serve the next night. “Whoever was here raided our kitchen first.”

Will took the wrapper. “But it would have been impossible for them to come down the canyon. Surely we would have seen or heard them.”

“Not if they went down the other way.”

Will scratched the back of his head. “I remember going down that way when I was a camper.”

“So you remember how steep it is.”

He nodded. “But the caves below the summit are pretty cool. If I were the boys, I'd want to see it at night. You better lead the way though. It has been years since I've done this.”

It had been a long time since Cassie had hiked the back trail, too. She had never attempted it in the dark, but she would never admit that to Will.

Cassie poked around the wall of bushes and branches. When she found the narrow opening, Will walked close behind her.

❧

Will followed Cassie's loose ponytail as they trekked down the rocky path. A few days ago Will couldn't have imagined he would be hiking in the middle of the night with someone like Cassie.

She was different than the girls he grew up with in Wyatt Bend. Fiercely independent, she challenged him at every turn.

“So, how long have you been director here? Six months?” he whispered, so the boys, wherever they were, wouldn't hear him.

Cassie glanced at him over her shoulder. “Actually, it's been about nine.”

Will reached over her head to pull up a branch hanging in her path. “So how's it going?”

There was a long pause. “It's fine.”

Not exactly the response he had hoped for. Will wanted more. Not so he could report back to his dad, but because he wanted to know more about her. “Do you like your job?”

Cassie stopped and turned around to face him. “I love it.”

He squinted, trying to see through the shadows to the emotion on her face.

Cassie crossed her arms. “What about you? Do you like your business?”

Will took a step back. “For the most part, I do love being in real estate. It's never dull.”

“What are you working on right now?” Cassie asked.

His pulse quickened as he recalled the conversation with his brother. “We have some projects in progress, but I don't know what's next.”

Cassie turned back around, walking faster as the path widened in front of them. Something rustled the grass alongside the trail, but this time Cassie didn't stop to investigate.

They reached a point in the path where they had to slide down a ten-foot slope. Cassie lay down feetfirst with her stomach to the stone. She descended with a small groan and wiped off the front of her sweatshirt. Will followed. As he and Cassie walked together, a low rumble cut through the whisper of the breeze against the leaves.

Voices. Relief washed over Will.

He gripped Cassie's shoulder. She pulled it away, but as the voices grew louder, she froze.

Cassie took off toward a small overhang of the cliff wall. Will reached an arm out in front of her. “Wait,” he whispered. “Can I handle this?”

Cassie handed him the flashlight and moved off the path, letting Will pass by her.

Will ran his hand along the rock wall, following the voices and feeling his way into the dark cave.

“What time is it?” a girl asked.

Sneaking out to meet girls. He should have known.

“I don't know,” another said. “But what do you think the counselors would say if they found out we snuck out of our bunks?”

The high-pitched giggles of teenage girls rang out through the darkness. Will clicked his flashlight on and shone it on his face.

The teens screamed.

Will aimed the light at the boys' stunned expressions. “I would probably say it was irresponsible, immature, and dangerous.”

Will turned the light toward the teens. Whitney, one of the members of his church's youth group, sat with her mouth open. “What are you doing out here?” He followed her gaze with his flashlight. “Marcy, you, too? You guys are in so much trouble.”

Cassie moved out of the shadows to the path in front of them.

“Because of you, three people had to get out of bed to search for you in the dark.” Will's voice boomed against the canyon walls as he shone the light in each of the four stunned faces. “This means I'll be extremely grumpy in the morning when determining your punishment.”

The guys groaned. Whitney's lip quivered.

“You're not going to call my mom are you?” Cooper asked.

“Oh man, my mom would kill me,” Seth said.

He had found their weak points—Mom. He would remember that and use it to get through the week.

Marcy stood from a rock and pointed at the boy in the cap. “You promised me we wouldn't get caught.”

Will looked down at the other teens sitting on the rocks. “I think this should be a lesson to you to make your own decisions and not let other people talk you into doing things you shouldn't.”

Cassie cleared her throat. Will turned around to see her swirling her finger. Time to wrap it up.

“Okay, let's head back to camp,” Will said. “You guys have been out too long as it is.”

Will and Cassie followed behind the teens, like guards escorting prisoners.

“I can't believe the girls from my church would sneak out,” Will said to Cassie.

Cassie shrugged. “I know, but at least we found them. We'll get them back where they belong.”

“Do you think Beth is still looking?” Will asked.

“I'll call her on her cell phone and get the girls back to their cabins,” Cassie said. “You can make sure the guys are back in their bunks. Then let's meet at the pool just to make sure no one had any problems.”

They parted ways at the tabernacle. The boys shuffled their feet as they walked.

“So, come on, guys. You have to tell me how you did it,” Will said.

“Huh?” Seth asked.

“How did you sneak out?”

The boys looked at each other and then at their tennis shoes.

“WD-40,” Cooper said. “We sprayed the hinges on the door earlier today.”

A few minutes later, after Will had returned the boys to the cabin and arrived at the pool, a slender hand dangled an ice cream sandwich in front of his face. Will looked up from where he sat at the edge of the pool. “You sure know the way to a man's heart.”

He moved his shoes to the other side so Cassie could sit beside him.

Her bare feet slipped into the water, and she gave a satisfied sigh. Will studied her as he unwrapped his ice cream. Her face looked soft and smooth, and she finally acted more relaxed around him—not the same defensive girl she had been.

BOOK: Canyon Walls
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