When Geo signs up for Family Camp, he envisions nature hikes, s’mores, and a chance to win over his recalcitrant new foster kids, Jayden and Lucy. He’s tried to become a dad for so long, and he hopes the three of them can be the family he’s always wanted. What he doesn’t anticipate is the prickly and gorgeous camp counselor who constantly comes to his rescue.
Travis spends a week every year at Camp Evermore, the camp his adoptive parents own. As a pro baseball player, his presence guarantees a full campground and excited campers. He has one rule: never, ever mess around with anyone at camp. His profession demands he stay in the closet. But one sweet and funny new dad is about to test all his resolve.
Sparks fly for Geo and Travis, and not because of the nightly campfire. Having been a foster kid himself, Travis is drawn to Geo’s sincerity and big heart and to his kids. The four of them just fit. But will this be a summer romance? Or can they find a way to be a family long after Family Camp is over?
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The wail that came from the back seat was at a pitch Geo had never heard before in his life. It was an ungodly sound somewhere between an ambulance siren and the call of peacocks.
Geo’s hands clenched on the steering wheel, and he took his foot off the accelerator, glancing in the rearview mirror. “What is it? What’s wrong, Lucy?”
Yeah, good luck being heard over the cacophony coming out of her mouth. Her little face was pinched up, eyes screwed shut, mouth gaping like a portal to hell.
Geo’s Honda Civic jerked and sputtered, as if it, too, was reacting to the sound.
“Jayden?” Geo asked, trying to sound calm. “Can you see what’s wrong with Lucy?” Geo scanned the side of the road for a place to pull over. They were on the last stretch of their drive, and the two-lane mountain road up to Big Bear was winding and narrow with no shoulder to speak of.
“I dunno.” Jayden gave the kind of bored shrug only a twelve-year-old boy could master. “What’s wrong with you, Lucy?”
Unsurprisingly, this had no effect on Lucy. She continued to wail.
It was several minutes of eardrum-bursting torment before a dirt pull-off appeared to the right. By then, the car’s engine was making little hiccupping noises, which Geo refused to acknowledge. One crisis at a time.
He put on his flashers and pulled over. For a moment he just clutched the wheel, heart racing. Then he undid his seatbelt and turned in his seat.
“Lucy? Honey? What’s wrong?”
She waved her arms in the air, both fists clutching her dolls.
“Is the seatbelt pinching you? Is your tummy upset? What’s the matter, sweetie?”
Geo steadily did not look at Jayden. He was pretty sure Jayden wouldn’t have done anything to hurt Lucy. From what he’d seen in the rearview mirror, the boy had been ignoring her. And Geo. And the car they rode in on, for that matter. He wasn’t exactly excited about this trip. Showing any suspicion of Jayden, even in a glance, would be death at this stage of their relationship. Geo knew that.
“I think she lost one of her dolls,” Jayden pronounced.
Geo blinked. He looked at the dolls being waved in Lucy’s clenched little fingers. There was Dad doll—an old Ken with molded blond hair, black pants, and a blue knit sweater. Mom doll was there—a brunette Barbie in a yellow dress. In Lucy’s other fist was the pre-pubescent girl doll—Cindy or Candy or Corny or something like that, with her straight blond bangs, flat chest, and sailor dress. And he thought he saw Baby doll too, an inch-long nugget in a pink flannel blanket.
“No, they’re all there.” Geo reached between the seats and patted Lucy’s leg, trying to soothe her. “Honey. It’s okay.”
“Not the dog,” Jayden said challengingly.
Shit. The dog.
“Did it fall on the floor?” Geo asked, feeling a tendril of panic.
“Could you please look?” Geo forced himself to ask nicely.
With a sigh, Jayden undid his seat belt and leaned forward to look. Lucy continued to wail.
Shit, shit, shit. Please, God, don’t let the dog doll be lost.
So far the day had been a can of crap served steaming hot with a sauce of fuck-my-life. Jayden and Lucy had both been crabby getting up early this morning for their trip, no matter how much excitement and enthusiasm Geo had laced into the conversation.
We’re going to Family Camp! It’s going to be so much fun!
The drive from Fresno to Big Bear Lake and Camp Evermore was a long five hours. It had been made longer and infinitely more stressful when Lucy went missing at a rest stop two hours ago. They’d searched and searched, Geo going repeatedly into the women’s restroom to look, too worried to even care about the glares he got.
Images of Lucy, only five years old, getting picked up by some random pedophile, sex trafficker, or serial killer, stuffed into another car, and driven off, made him physically ill. He had the entire staff at the rest stop helping him.
She doesn’t really talk. And she might hide. I just turned around for a moment to get Jayden a juice from the machine.
Yeah. Parent of the Year Award right there.
He’d been about to call the police and beg for an Amber Alert when Lucy had been found—sitting behind the counter of a closed information booth, quietly playing with her dolls and lost in her own little world, as usual. She seemed oblivious to what she’d put him through.
That had been two hours ago. If she’d left the dog doll behind at the rest stop, there was no way he could drive all the way back and get it. It wasn’t even about money, or about the wear and tear on the Civic, or his own patience. He didn’t think either Jayden or Lucy would tolerate being in the car for an additional four hours today.
So maybe this hadn’t been the greatest idea he’d ever had—driving five hours to Family Camp when he’d only had the kids for six weeks. But he’d been so determined to give them the perfect summer, built up all these rosy plans and bucolic visions. He’d tried too much too fast.
Please, God. Please, Geo prayed, his heart sinking. Just one little break today. That’s all I ask. I’ll give up the jelly beans in my desk forever.
He waited until a car passed on the busy mountain road before getting out and going around to the back passenger door. He opened it.
Lucy looked up at him, still wailing. Her eyes were big and dark, her face red with fury. Her black hair was so thick and straight it refused to hold the barrettes Geo had bought for her. Her expression was miserable and accusatory, and it made his heart ache. She looked like the worst fate in the world had befallen her, and it was all Geo’s fault.
“Aw baby, hush. Just let me look, all right? Your doggie must be around here somewhere.”
Her wailing changed in pitch, downgrading to a lower, steady cry, as if this was going to be a marathon not a sprint. Great. Geo opened the door wide and patted around the floor by her feet. The rubber mats were still relatively clean from when he’d detailed the car in preparation for the foster care inspection a few months ago. The dog doll was not there.
He heard the other back door open. He looked up to see Jayden getting out.
“Jayden, please stay in the car,” Geo said sharply.
“I ain’t stayin’ in there. Gonna fuckin’ bust my eardrums,” Jayden muttered, getting out and slamming the car door behind him.
Geo clenched his teeth. “Jay, it’s a busy road. Please. I don’t want you to get hit. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use that word.”
“Eardrums?” Jayden smirked.
“No, ‘ain’t.’ At least come over to this side of the car.”
“I ain’t gettin’ on the road. I ain’t stupid. What’re those?” He wandered closer, pointing to the base of the tall pine trees at the side of the road.
Geo brightened. “Those are pine cones.”
“Pine cones? That big?”
“Yup. Different kinds of trees have different sized pine cones. They’re basically big seeds. The trees drop them and some of them will end up getting buried in dirt and debris and will become a new tree. Cool, huh?”
Okay, so all that was hardly relevant at the moment. But Geo’s inner teacher popped up at the least provocation.
Jayden walked over to the trees and picked up a pine cone, studying it curiously.
Telling himself Jayden was fine, Geo bent to look in the car again where Lucy was still wailing.
“You’re not sitting on the doggie, are you? Are you sitting on the doggie?” He used a silly voice and widened his eyes, hoping she would respond to humor. She didn’t.
He patted around the soft knit aqua shorts and aqua-and-white T-shirt that said PRINCESS he’d bought her last week. He checked behind her back and along the bench car seat.
The dog doll, like her other dolls, had come with Lucy from the foster care system, so he didn’t know its origin. But he knew it was only a few inches long. It looked like a brown Scottish terrier with flocked fur. He checked the floor on Jayden’s side too. The dog wasn’t there.
Those dolls meant everything to Lucy. There wasn’t a minute of the day they weren’t in her hands or spread out on the floor as she played with them. When she shut out the world, which was often, her dolls were her happy place.
Geo had tried to wash Mom doll’s hair once, because it was gunked with glue or oatmeal or something more nefarious. But any mention of touching the dolls, much less doing it, sent Lucy into a DEFCON-1 wide-mouthed grimace, preparing for total hysteria. He’d put his hands up in surrender. Back. Away. From. The dolls. So losing one was, in a word, apocalyptic.
Geo gave up looking and wiped his face in frustration. He bent over Lucy’s car seat. “Lucy, honey, look at me.”
She did, still crying. Her face was blotched red and wet from tears.
“Oh, sweetie.” He grabbed a napkin from the front seat and wiped her face. “When we get to the hotel, I’ll call the rest stop and see if they found your doggie. They can send it to us at the camp. Okay?”
Nope. It wasn’t okay. She went back to full-on shrieking.
Jayden appeared at his shoulder. “You’re gonna have to drive back and get it,” Jayden said, with a taunt in his voice. “So let’s do it. Ain’t like we don’t have to be in the car for another fifty billion years anyway.”
Geo swallowed and took out his phone. “Actually, we were almost to Big Bear. And we can’t turn around now. There’s nothing for miles back the way we came.”
“So? We got water bottles. And you bought all those stupid snacks and stuff.”
Stupid snacks. Forty bucks’ worth. Thank you, Jayden.
“Because we, uh, we need gas.” He searched Google maps for nearby gas stations. The closest was ten miles ahead in Big Bear.
His heart sank further and he felt a little sick. Ten miles. The way the car had sputtered it wouldn’t even make one. Please God. Just one break today. I’ll give up my subscription to Muscle & Fitness, I swear.
“Holy shit! We’re out of gas?” Jayden hooted. “Dude! How come you didn’t stop before? We only passed, like, a million gas stations!”
Because my gas gauge is broken, and I chose to spend every dime I’ve made for the past year on buying a little house and fixing it up so the foster care people would let me, maybe, finally, be a dad. And because I got distracted by Lucy going missing and possibly being dead and forgot to fill up an hour ago like I planned. But mostly? Because I fucked up.
“Get back in the car, Jay. I’ll take care of it.”
Jayden, still laughing at Geo, got into the car. “Oh my God, you suck at this whole ‘family trip’ thing, huh?”
Geo knew Jayden wasn’t trying to be cruel. Maybe he was even trying to be funny. But it stung. It stung hard. Geo leaned down again to pet Lucy’s hair and wipe her heated face. “Honey, I promise you we’ll get your doggie back. Okay? It may not be today, but we will get it back.”
She continued crying as he shut the door and plodded around the car to the driver’s side. He got in, his heart in his shoes.
He took a deep breath and turned the key in the ignition. Come on, car. Just ten miles. If you ever loved me….
But the earlier hiccupping of the engine had not been a fluke. The engine caught, sputtered, and died. The out-of-gas light still worked, despite the gauge being broken. It flashed red, giving him the bald truth: He was screwed.
Having been, at various times and under different names, a minister’s daughter, a computer programmer, a game designer, the author of paranormal mysteries, a fan fiction writer, and organic farmer, Eli has been a m/m romance author since 2013. She has over 30 books published.
Eli has loved romance since her teens and she particular admires writers who can combine literary merit, genuine humor, melting hotness, and eye-dabbing sweetness into one story. She promises to strive to achieve most of that most of the time. She currently lives on a farm in Pennsylvania with her husband, bulldogs, cows, a cat, and lots of groundhogs.
In romance, Eli is best known for her Christmas stories because she’s a total Christmas sap. These include “Blame it on the Mistletoe”, “Unwrapping Hank” and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles”. Her “Howl at the Moon” series of paranormal romances featuring the town of Mad Creek and its dog shifters has been popular with readers. And her series of Amish-themed romances, Men of Lancaster County, has won genre awards.
In 2018 Eli hopes to do more of the same, assuming they reschedule the apocalypse.
Her website is http://www.elieaston.com
You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org