Unlikely Allies, page 8
"Are you excited about your night off?" Rick asked, buttering a roll before dipping it into his hearty stew.
"Yeah, it should be fun," I said, still not completely convinced.
"They're always a hit," he said, taking a swig of iced tea. "Of course, you guys might get rained out when the cold front moves in tonight," he added.
"Cold front?" I asked. The last few days had warmed up significantly, and for the most part, a hooded sweatshirt was all I needed.
"Yep, looks like Mother Nature wants to give us one more blast of winter before she lets go."
"But it's almost the third week of June," I protested, hating the idea of wearing the heavy parka again.
"Welcome to global warming," he said, laughing at the irony that we were getting the exact opposite of warm. "Don't worry though, if you guys are lucky, maybe it will hold off until your campout is over."
"I hope so," I said half-truthfully. Getting rained out seemed like the perfect excuse. By the excited chatter around our table that night, I could tell my feelings were solitary.
"You don't sound very enthusiastic," Rick stated.
"I was just contemplating the idea of wearing my parka again just when I thought I was going to be able to bury it," I lied.
He laughed. "Yes, I've noticed cold weather doesn't seem to be your thing. You're a California girl through and through," he said.
"Not really," I said, kicking myself. I had made it my goal to fit into Rick's world as much as I could. Bitching about the cold weather wouldn't go a long way in helping my cause.
"Kimmie, there's nothing wrong with preferring a certain state," Rick said quietly.
"I want to fit in, in this state," I said looking down, not liking how vulnerable I felt.
"You're doing amazing," he said, reaching over to squeeze my hand. "You've adapted wonderfully to this lifestyle, better than most people thrown into the same circumstance," he added.
I flushed with pride at his words. "Thanks, Rick. It really is an amazing camp, and the kids are great," I said, letting my gaze linger on Lyssa and Quinn who happened to be sitting together at the next table over.
"Yeah, it's hard not to get attached," he said, turning serious as he followed my gaze.
"Everything okay?" I asked, puzzled by the sudden tension radiating off him. I wondered if it was because a boy and girl were sitting next to each other.
He sighed and lowered his voice. "I got a call from Alyssa's court advocate and the loony-ass judge has granted her father temporary custody again, effective immediately," he said grimly.
"What does that mean?" I demanded, not liking the sound of it.
"It means they're coming to get her tomorrow," he said, defeated.
"What?" I screeched, pissed beyond further words.
"Shhhhhh," he said, trying to quiet me down as everyone in the dining hall turned to look at me. "She doesn't know. Louise and I plan on telling her after dinner and we want you and Amy to join us."
Uncharacteristic tears filled my eyes. The judge was a moron. What the hell was he thinking putting her back with her father?
"That sucks ass," I said, not bothering to watch my language in front of him.
"I know," he sighed. "But it's our job to make it as easy on her as we can."
I nodded my head, knowing he was right. "We'll be there," I said.
"Good, I knew I could count on you," he said, squeezing my hand one last time.
I turned my gaze from his and found Mason studying us with interest. For the first time in days, I didn't glare at him. Right now, our apparent animosity toward each other seemed silly. We were insignificant in the whole grand scheme of things.
I pulled my gaze from his when Amy said my name on the other side of me.
"What was Rick saying about Alyssa?" she asked quietly.
"They're sending her back to her dad tomorrow," I whispered back.
"Mother of focking hell, are you kidding me?" she hissed.
"I wish," I said miserably. "Rick wants us to join him and Louise when they tell her."
"Of course, but dang it to hell," she said.
"I know. Hard-Knock Girl strikes again," I added.
The rest of the meal passed quickly as the three of us contemplated the impending unpleasant task ahead of us. When the meal was over, Amy and I headed over to Lyssa.
"Hey girlie, we need to talk with you for a few, okay?" Amy said.
She looked at us apprehensively and I tried to smile at her reassuringly, but it came out more as a grimace. Together we headed to Rick's cluttered office.
Amy and I perched on the small loveseat on the far side of the room with Alyssa sandwiched between us. Rick sat on the corner of his desk while Louise leaned against the wall looking like she wanted to strangle someone.
"Whatever it is, spit it out," Lyssa said in her usual abrasive way that I had come to realize was nothing more than a shield.
Without asking permission, I reached over and grabbed her hand. I expected her to pull it away in her normal sassy way, but she surprised me by gripping it hard in her own hand.
"Judge Lewis has awarded custody back to your father," Rick said, not beating around the bush.
"When?" she asked in a distant voice.
"Effective immediately. They're sending your court liaison tomorrow to pick you up."
"Oh, I guess I better go pack," she said in a dead voice, dropping my hand as she stood up.
"Alyssa, sweetie, do you want to talk about it?" Louise asked, leaving her place against the wall.
"Talk about what? The fact that my dad got custody once again? It's no big surprise, right? I'm the Hard-Knock Girl after all," she added, looking at Amy before heading out the door.
Amy groaned and dropped her head into her hands. Without thinking, I jumped off the couch and ran after her.
"Lyssa, wait up," I said, reaching her as she hit the trail for our cabin.
"Why?" she asked in the same belligerent voice she used the first day I met her.
"Because, I care about you," I said, reaching out to put my hand on her shoulder.
"You care about me? That's rich," she mocked, jerking back away from me. "You have two parents who want you, princess. You don't think we all see you strutting around on your high horse around here. Poor Kimberly feels bad for the orphans. Boo for you," she lashed out, striding toward the cabin door.
I stood where she left me, shell-shocked. Did everyone here really feel that way about me? I knew I was worlds removed from the pain they had suffered, but I didn't realize they all thought of me as a fraud.
"She's just upset," Amy said, coming up beside me.
I shook my head. "My mom always says there's a grain of truth in everything everyone says," I mumbled.
"Kimbe, she's just upset. None of us feel that way," she said, grabbing my hand to drag me off toward the bonfire that was blazing to life in the center of the campsite.
"Shouldn't we make sure she's okay?" I asked, trying to shake of the last of my hurt feelings. This wasn't about me. This was about the hurt little girl in our cabin.
"She just needs a little space. Hopefully, we'll get to see her again next summer if you decide to spend the summer with us again," she said, wagging her eyebrows at me.
"Are you sure?" I asked, shooting one last look at the cabin before I let her drag me away.
"I'm positive. Trust me, sometimes when you get a blow like this, you need time to pick yourself up and dust the disappointment off," Amy answered, making it clear she'd been in the same position before.
"This totally sucks," I said, kicking a rock as hard as I could.
She laughed harshly. "It's life. If I had a quarter for every time my life turned unpleasant, I'd be rich. Trust me, I know how Alyssa feels. She just needs a little time to get her shield back in place. It's tough to leave people behind that actually care about you," she added, clearly speaking from experience.
"I'm sorry," I said, slipping my arm through hers.
Pushing my concern to the back burner, I let her drag me to the group that was laughing and chattering happily around the blazing fire. I felt it was a betrayal to be partying while Lyssa was so unhappy, but remembered only Amy and I knew what was going on. We plopped down on one of the benches, watching the flames leap into the night sky.
Travis came loping up to us as soon as he spotted Amy. "What took so long?" he demanded.
"I had to do my nails," Amy quipped, flashing him her hand, which was funny because her nails were notorious for being ragged. Between rowing and other chores, most of her nails were broken down to the quicks.
"They look lovely," he said, capturing her hand in his, not bothering to check since his eyes never left hers. "Come dance with me," he said, dragging her to her feet.
"There's no music," she protested, giggling.
"John, music," he called out over his shoulder. Within seconds, John's iPod was docked and blasting out of the speakers. "Now there is," he said, grinning at her.
"Fine, but you better not ruin my pedicure," she joked, following him to the clearing where a couple of the other counselors were dancing to the music.
I watched them for a while, enjoying the feel of the fire on my chilled skin. Rick had been right, a cold front was definitely moving in. I would never get used to this wacky weather. Someone changed the playlist on the iPod and softer music filled the night. Travis pulled Amy into his arms like he had been waiting for this moment all his life. I watched them for a few minutes before deciding that while I wasn't exactly jealous, I was envious of the obvious affection they shared. I stood up and dusted off my butt so I could go check on Lyssa.
"Not up to your usual party standards?" Mason asked, stepping out in front of me. His dog tags gleamed in the glow of the campfire.
"Do you wear these to try to be cool?" I asked, reaching out to grab them.
His warm hand came up and covered mine. "They were my dad's. He died during deployment nine years ago," he said quietly.
"Damn you," I said after a moment. "Why do you manage to bring out the worst in me? I'm not this mean, snippy person," I said, dropping my head. "Why do you hate me so much?" I finally added, looking up at him more confused than ever. I wanted to hate him as much as he hated me, but I couldn't help being drawn to him. My emotions had been put through the wringer tonight, and for the first time in forever, I fought back a sob.
"I don't hate you," he said in a raspy voice, dragging me closer with my hand still clutched in his. "I don't know what I feel, but God knows it's not hate," he added a breath away from me.
My heart pounded in my chest, almost painfully. How had we wound up this close, staring at each other so intently when we were just exchanging insults?
"It's not?" I asked, thinking I heard him wrong.
"No, Kimberly, it's not," he said. "Dance with me," he said softly, changing the subject.
"Why?" I asked, afraid I was being punked again.
"Because, I've been thinking of holding you in my arms for days, and I'm done fighting it."
I shivered as goose bumps popped up on my arms. His closeness was affecting my breathing as I puffed out short shallow breaths.
He pulled me into his arms and locked them firmly around me. Our bodies swayed slowly together to the nearby music in the air. I could feel the heat of his body as he pulled me even closer. I nervously moistened my lips with the tip of my tongue. His eyes darkened as he watched me. I tucked my tongue back in my mouth quickly, not wanting him to think I had done it on purpose.
His free hand moved up my arm, past my shoulder, until it cupped my neck. "I just can't seem to get you out of my mind. God knows I want to," he said huskily, moving even closer.
"Why don't you want me in your mind?"
"Because, I wasn't looking for a summer fling with some girl heading off to college."
"Fling?" I questioned, dropping my eyes to his lips. For days I had been fighting the urge to think about how they would feel pressed against mine, and now they were just inches away.
Catching my look, he tightened his hold on me before finally dropping his lips to mine. Delicious heat flared through me followed by a blanket of coolness as the skies opened up above us. I felt the stinging rain pelt my face, but paid it no mind as his lips claimed mine for his own. I snaked my free hand along his stomach until it gripped the side of his shirt, pulling him closer.
"It's raining," he mumbled against my lips.
"I don't care," I said recklessly. There had been such a fine line of hate between us for days that it felt surreal to be wrapped in his arms.
"Neither do I," he said, dropping his lips almost roughly back on mine once again. I moaned softly at how delicious the pressure felt. He used the tip of his tongue to coax my mouth open and I complied without hesitation. Time stood still as we stayed locked in each other's arms.
"Alyssa's gone," a loud disapproving voice said from behind me.
"What?" I asked, turning around to see an unhappy Rick standing directly behind us.
"I said, Alyssa is gone," he repeated, emphasizing his words.
"What do you mean 'gone'?" I demanded as water dripped down my face.
"She ran away. Her cot is empty and she left a note saying she'd rather live in the woods than live with her father," he said, looking panicked for the first time ever.
"Holy crap, what are we going to do?" I asked, scanning the immense forest that surrounded us.
"I'm organizing search parties until the forest rangers can get here."
"Okay, let's go," I said, anxious to start the search.
"Not so fast. You need to change. The cold front has moved in and everyone needs to dress warmer and wear a rain slicker," he said, blatantly pointing out our drenched state. His words seemed to trigger a reaction in me, making me suddenly aware I was standing in a torrential downpour. Shudders ripped through me as my mind and body connected to how chilled I was.
"But we need to find her now," I said as my teeth started to chatter.
"We will, but we need to be prepared before we go off traipsing through the woods all willy-nilly. Meet me in the mess hall in five minutes," he said, shooting us one last disgruntled look before heading off to the other cabins.
I turned to Mason, confused over everything that had transpired in the last few minutes.
He sighed as he watched me shake uncontrollably from the cold. "Go change, we'll sort this mess out after we find Alyssa," he said, dismissing me as he strode off toward his cabin.
Sort the mess out? So, kissing me was a mess? I thought angrily. He was the one that initiated the lip-lock, and now he wanted to categorize it as some mess that needed to be swept under the carpet. I swear, he's mental, I grumbled to myself as I stomped to my cabin.
The lights were on as I pushed the door open. All eyes were on me when I entered.
"Is it true?" Parker asked with eyes filled with tears.
"Yeah," I answered quietly as the graveness of the situation fully gripped me. "But don't worry, we're going to find her," I said, grabbing a stack of dry clothes before heading to the bathroom. I could hear the worried voices of the younger campers as I hurriedly stripped off my wet clothes. Shivers shook my body, making it hard to pull the dry clothes on. After my second layer was added, I finally began to feel some relief from the cold that had gripped me. I headed back to the main room to pull on warm socks as Amy burst through the door, looking like a drowned rat.
I couldn't help laughing briefly at the sight of her.
"Can you believe this?" she asked through chattering teeth.
"Which part?" I asked gravely.
"I know, right?" she said, heading to the bathroom.
The room was now silent as all the girls watched me, waiting for reassurance.
"We're going to find her," I
"It's raining though," said Tracey, one of the shyer girls.
"I know, which means she probably didn't go far," I answered, hoping I was right.
"Ready?" Amy asked, coming out of the bathroom and pulling on her own rain slicker.
"Yep, try not to worry," I told the girls as we headed out of the cabin and raced over the mud-slicked ground toward the mess hall.
The large room was busy with activity. Everyone crowded around one of the round tables that had a map spread out on it. "We're going to split up in teams and take the five different trails," Rick said, pointing to various spots on the map. "It's likely she stayed on familiar ground, but I still want us to search all the trails, including the advanced ones. Mason will team up with someone and take the Mountain Lion trail, while Travis and I will take the Black Bear trail. The easier trails will be divided up by the remaining teams. Amy I want you to stay behind in case Alyssa comes back. She knows you best," he added.
"What about me?" I asked.
Rick turned to me, but before he could answer, Mason answered for him. "You'll be with me," he said.
Rick started to argue, but Mason interrupted again. "Look, she doesn't know the trails at all and I'm your best guide. If we're partnering up, she should be with me."
"You better watch her like a hawk," Rick answered, giving Mason an odd look that was hard to read.
"Yes, sir," Mason said with just a touch of anger.
Without a doubt, the tension between them had something to do with me, but now wasn’t the time to deal with it, not with Lyssa out there somewhere.
Rick handed me a lightweight backpack. "Keep this on at all times," he ordered.
"What is it?" I asked, adjusting the straps on my shoulders so it would fit more comfortably.
"Emergency supplies in case anything happens."
"Oh, okay," I answered, feeling it was overkill. I wasn't the one lost in the forest.
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