Authors: Julie Jarnagin
Cassie fanned her face with her hands, drying her wet cheeks. “What are you still doing here?”
Will could see the pain through her forced smile. He wanted to fix it, but if she didn't want to talk about it anymore, he wouldn't try to force her. “Actually, I was looking for you.”
Cassie shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “Oh. . .okay.”
Will considered his words. Before he met with his father, he needed to find out if Cassie would even be open to what he had in mind. “I wanted to tell you that if you ever need any advice on the business side of the camp that I would love to help.”
Cassie pushed back a strand of hair that blew across her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I've heard this place is struggling, and I have a lot of experience in the real-estate business, and this is a real-estate problem, more or less.”
Her slumped shoulders straightened. “Who told you the camp was struggling?”
It was pretty much common knowledge around Wyatt Bend. Surely she knew that. “I guess I shouldn't have said âstruggling.' I heard finances are tight. I'm just offering to help you.”
help?” Cassie asked.
It sounded more like a challenge than a question. “I could take a look at the finances. We could go over the business plan.”
In an instant, the vulnerable woman he had just witnessed had rebuilt the walls around herself. “Thank you,” she said through her clenched jaw. “But I don't need any help. I do perfectly fine here on my own.”
When Beth pulled the car up to the pink brick building with large glass doors, Cassie pursed her lips in an attempt to hide the dread. She could think of a million reasons to ask Beth to turn around and skip church altogether.
Cassie's church was closed, she still had a lot to do before Mr. Hartley arrived, and she could use a day to relax after a crazy week of campers. Somehow she had managed to get out of bed and put on a cotton dress and sandals before Beth had arrived.
“Tell me again why you chose this church,” Cassie said.
Beth had been attending Pastor George's church with Cassie. When they were left without a service to attend, Cassie asked Beth to choose the church they would try. She never thought Beth would pick out the one Will attended. A couple of days ago, Cassie had been relieved that Will was out of her life for good. She hoped to keep it that way.
“Well, a lot of people love it here,” Beth said. “And it's the biggest church in town. You shouldn't have any trouble avoiding Will if he's here.”
The only experience Cassie had with a larger congregation had been in high school, and it hadn't been a positive one. The girls in the Sunday school class hadn't accepted the new girl full of questions. She had always felt safer in a tiny church. Cassie took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves.
They made their way into a sanctuary ten times larger than what she was used to. The twenty choir members wore robes, and the sound system was nicer than the one she had in the tabernacle. They found seats on the back row. Cassie opened the glossy bulletin. The first announcement on the page was for the upcoming men's retreat at Sunset Camp. Cassie made a mental note to check on all the details for the retreat when she returned to the office. It hadn't occurred to her until now that Will might be part of the retreat. Suddenly feeling warm, she fanned herself with the bulletin.
When the music started, she couldn't deny that the voices of all those people singing a hymn together moved her. She loved and missed the distinct voices of her old church, but this was beautiful in a different way. Strong and powerful, the notes and words seeped into every pore.
The words to the hymn caught in her throat when she saw Will near the front of the sanctuary singing with his eyes closed. What was she doing here?
Cassie gripped the hymnal more tightly. Will knew the camp was struggling, and he had asked to know more. She wished that she could believe he wanted to help, but he wouldn't gain anything by helping her. She understood how business worked.
When the service concluded, Cassie didn't linger in the church but headed to the parking lot. She didn't want to risk running into Will.
She stopped outside the front door to give Beth a chance to catch up to her.
“That wasn't so bad, was it?” Beth asked as she walked up beside her.
“It was nice,” Cassie said, and she meant it.
Beth touched her arm and gestured toward something with her eyes. Cassie looked over to see Will coming toward them.
She looked to Beth for help, but it was too late to escape. Beth simply shrugged her shoulders. “I'll be in the car if you need me.”
Will looked different without the gym shorts and T-shirt. Today he was striking in a gray suit and white shirt, like someone right off the red carpet. “If I didn't know better, I would think you were trying to get away from me,” he said to Cassie.
Cassie fidgeted with the tips of her fingers. “Hi, Will.”
“I'm sorry about your church, but I'm glad you're here.”
“Thanks,” she said.
An awkward silence hung between them. Will pulled at the collar of his shirt. “I wanted to talk to you about the men's retreat.”
Cassie should have known this was coming.
“You've been working with Craig, right?” he asked.
“Craig's pregnant wife is on bed rest. I volunteered to take over the planning while he takes care of his family stuff.”
“I hope everything is okay,” Cassie said. “If you talk to him, let him know they're in my prayers.”
A tall man in a cowboy hat patted Will on the back. Will shook his hand and watched as the man walked away. “He'll appreciate that. I'm not sure what needs to be finalized before the retreat.”
Cassie bit the inside of her lip. She hated dealing with all the insecurities and fears about his motives. Now she would have to add Will back to the list of stresses in her life. “You can call next week,” she said in her most professional voice. “We'll iron out all the details.”
He stared at her as if he wanted more, like she hadn't said what he wanted to hear. “Okay then,” he said. “I guess I'll be in touch with you.”
She turned to leave.
Cassie pivoted around.
He held his open hands out toward her. “I also wanted to apologize about the other day. I didn't mean to offend you or insinuate that you're not great at what you do.”
She nodded. “I appreciate that.” She turned and walked toward the car. She could feel him watching her.
Beth was waiting for her with the motor running. “What was that all about?”
“Just business,” she said.
Will flipped through the schedule on the receptionist's desk.
“9:00 a.m. Marvin Hartley.”
It was written in his father's handwriting. “Dad,” he yelled down the hallway. Will carried the spiral-bound book to his father's corner office. “Did you schedule a meeting for me this morning?”
“Yes.” His dad swiveled his chair from his file cabinet. Their offices on the Wyatt Bend town square weren't fancy, but the old building certainly had character, with original hardwood floors and exposed brick walls like the one behind his dad's desk.
“I'm having a meeting and thought it might be good for you to come along,” his dad said.
His whole life, people in town told Will he looked like a younger version of his father. Will used to deny it, but every now and then his reflection in the mirror would catch him off guard. If his dark wavy hair turned gray and he had a few more laugh lines, they might be difficult to tell apart. “Okay, but who is Marvin Hartley?”
His dad rested his elbows on a pile of plat maps and blueprints on his desk. “I can see you haven't done your research. Marvin is the director of camps for his denomination's conference. He runs the board that makes all the decisions regarding Sunset Camp.”
Will's muscles tightened. His lack of progress toward purchasing the camp was already causing his dad to lose faith in him. “Dad, I've already explained to you that I need more time.”
His father stood and walked around the old oak desk. “It's simple. If we don't step in soon, another investor will.”
Will dropped the schedule on the wingback chair. “You always tell me that I need to learn to trust my gut.”
His father raised a gray eyebrow. “Connor mentioned you met the camp director while you were there.”
His brother had a big mouth. “Of course I met her.”
“She wouldn't have anything to do with your resistance to this deal, would she?”
Will looked out the window toward the courthouse. “You don't give me enough credit.”
“Then why would we hold back?”
Will turned to face his father. “I think I could help them. I'd hate to see that place close if it didn't have to. It just doesn't feel right.”
His father sat on the edge of the desk. “Son, I appreciate where your heart is, but don't be naive. The camp is in serious financial trouble. Either we're going to purchase it or someone else will. We could make something great out of that place. Imagine how much business the extra tourism will bring to Wyatt Bend.”
Would he really be doing it for Wyatt Bend, or would he be doing it for his father? Would he be doing it for the money?
His dad walked to Will and slapped him on the back. “Come on, son. We're meeting Marvin Hartley for coffee. It won't hurt to talk to the man.”
Will clenched his jaw. Cassie probably wouldn't see it the same way.
By Monday the camp looked better than Cassie had ever remembered seeing it. All her staff had agreed to come in on Sunday to clean and make repairs. Emory had planted flowers around the sign at the entry of the camp, and Beth baked, filling the cafeteria with the sweet smell of cookies and bread.
Still, Cassie's stomach twisted into a knot. She hadn't slept the night before, unable to turn off the thoughts running through her mind. She felt like Mr. Hartley was coming to judge not only how well she was running the camp, but how well she was running her life, which hadn't been going so well.
Mr. Hartley had called on Friday and bumped their meeting time back by two hours. A last-minute change was unlike him, but so many things surprised her these days.
She sat in her office going over the books one more time in case he had questions about the finances. She had a list of things she wanted to tell him, things she had done to improve the camp and plans she had for the future of the camp. Beth had even been by to wish her luck.
She watched as Mr. Hartley's white Lincoln pulled in front of the cafeteria. She walked outside to meet him. He wore his usual khakis that were a little too short and a shirt that fit a little too tight. He had never been anything but kind to Cassie, but he had also never been afraid to speak the truth to her. When he first let her take the job as director temporarily, he spoke of his concerns about her openly, especially the fact that she was the youngest person ever to run one of the camps in the state.
“How are you, Cassie?” he asked in a straight, monotone voice.
“Fine, Mr. Hartley. How was your trip?”
He took an old, battered briefcase out of the backseat of his car. “There were too many trucks on the highway.”
Cassie clasped her hands together. “Well, what should we do first? Would you like to take a quick tour around the grounds?”
He nodded. “That would be fine.”
They walked through the common area to the tabernacle, down the gravel road past the snack bar and swimming pool, and by the small-group areas. Cassie pointed out the new signs around the pool and the potholes in the road that they had filled. She took him into the cabins that had been renovated, including cabin five with the new mattresses.
He didn't say much, keeping quiet except for asking an occasional question like how many campers they had had during the summer and whether they had any problems with the wildlife this year. He wrote the answers in a small notepad he had removed from his shirt pocket. He snapped the pad shut when she tried to peek at what he had written.
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep herself from blabbering to fill the silence.
“Did you have any problems at the camp last week?” he asked.
“Not really,” she said. “We had a bit of a prank war, but nothing serious.”
“What do you mean?” he said as he looked at the playground one of the local churches had installed as a project. He wrote something in his notebook.
“Pink dye in the swimming pool,” she explained.
He pushed his glasses up on his nose.
“Just teenagers being teenagers,” she said.
He clicked his pen and flipped the little notebook to a new page. “And were there others?”
She was tempted to take the little notebook and throw it into the swimming pool. “It was no big deal.”
He stared at her.
There was no graceful way to describe it. “Boxer shorts strung up the flagpole.”
Instead of the humor defusing the tension, Mr. Hartley's lips formed a thin line. “Let's head back to the cafeteria,” he said.
In the cafeteria, she offered him the oatmeal cookies Beth had baked, but he politely declined. Beth would be disappointed. He asked that they go somewhere to talk, and she led him into her office. Her foot twitched as he dug through his briefcase, overfilled with papers and folders. She mentally prepared herself for the dreaded news: him telling her they found a new director or, worse, that they were shutting down the camp.
She studied his face to figure out exactly why he was there, but it held no expression. Finally, when she couldn't stand the suspense, she took a deep breath and asked, “Mr. Hartley, why did you come today?”
He looked up at her with wide eyes and his mouth slightly open.
“I don't mean any disrespect to you,” she continued. “You have the right to come here whenever you please, but it was so unexpected, and you didn't tell me much in the e-mail.” She was rambling now and resolved to let him answer.
He wiped his brow before opening a folder and handing her a sheet of paper. “You deserve to know why I'm here.”
Her eyes scanned the words, trying to make sense of them. It was the itinerary for the next board meeting, but it didn't give her any explanation as to why Mr. Hartley was in the camp. She looked up at him.
He reached over and pointed at the page. “Look at item number six.”
She read down the page until she saw number six. It simply read, “Sunset Camp.”
“They're going to talk about us at the board meeting?”
Mr. Hartley stuffed the piece of paper back in his briefcase. “Cassie, they're going to talk about closing this camp and holding all the camps that meet here at one of our other locations.”
Cassie could feel herself getting choked up. She couldn't look at him, so she turned and looked out the window. “We're closing.”
“Not yet. It is on the agenda to be discussed. Nothing is happening right away.”
His words didn't do anything to ease Cassie's fears, which left her numb.
“But if they vote to close the camp, it will happen this fall,” he said. “This has been our least profitable camp for a long time, and now that Henry is gone. . .”