Second Chance Summer - Kait Nolan - E-Book

Second Chance Summer E-Book

Kait Nolan

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2018 RITA ® Award Winner Best Contemporary Romance-Short

Professor Audrey Graham shouldn't be alive. But she didn't walk away from the accident that should've taken her life. She shouldn't have ever walked again according to the doctors. But after two years of physical therapy and countless surgeries, she's got a second lease on life. First stop? Camp Firefly Falls to try and catch up on some of the living she never did before her accident.

Firefighter Hudson Lowell shouldn't be alive. In the wake of losing two members of his team in a structure fire gone wrong, he's been unable to work, unable to pull himself out of the survivor's guilt. In a last ditch effort to snap him out of it, his family surprises him with a 2 week reunion session at Camp Firefly Falls, reminder of a simpler, better time. The last thing he expects to find is the woman he helped cut out of a snarled up wreck of a car two years before.

As sparks ignite between rescuer and rescuee, Audrey finally gets the chance to repay her hero. But can she convince this proud, stubborn man that life is still worth living? Or will Hudson let this chance at happiness slip through his fingers?

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Contents

Invite

A Letter to Readers

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Epilogue

Once Upon A Campfire

When You Got A Good Thing

Other Books By Kait Nolan

About Kait

Second Chance Summer

Written and published by Kait Nolan

Copyright 2017 Kait Nolan

Cover design by Lori Jackson

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction. All people, places, and events are purely products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely coincidental.

For all the recovering academics out there…there’s life beyond the university! Don’t forget to live it.

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A Letter to Readers

Dear Reader,

This book also contains swearing and pre-marital sex between the lead couple, as those things are part of the realistic lives of characters of this generation, and of many of my readers.

If any of these things are not your cup of tea, please consider that you may not be the right audience for this book. There are scores of other books out there that are written with you in mind. In fact, I’ve got a list of some of my favorite authors who write on the sweeter side on my website at https://kaitnolan.com/on-the-sweeter-side/

If you choose to stick with me, I hope you enjoy!

Happy reading!

Kait

Chapter 1

“I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYBODY so excited to ride a bus before.”

Audrey Graham gave a little bounce on the vinyl-covered bench seat, strangely delighted with the squeak of springs. “I’ve never been on one. I mean, not a school bus. Just the public transit kind.”

Beside her, Samantha Ferguson, her partner in this adventure, chuckled and grabbed hold of the seat in front of them for balance as the bus lurched through a pothole. “Whatever floats your boat, sugar.”

“If you’re looking for an authentic school bus ride, I can always start a spitball fight.” This came from the guy who’d twisted around from the next seat up. The mop of sandy hair and smattering of freckles across his cheeks made him look several years younger than he probably was. He stuck out a hand. “Charlie.”

Was this what camp was like? All first names all the time? It was so different from the formality and pretentiousness of academia.

“Audrey. And this is Sam.” They all shook hands.

“Where are you from?” Charlie asked.

“Little bitty town in northeast Tennessee called Eden’s Ridge,” Sam replied. “Though most recently Chattanooga. I teach at a small, private college there. So does Audrey.”

For now. “I’m originally from Kansas City, though.”

“Long Island. I work in Manhattan these days.”

“Yeah? What do you do?” Audrey asked, unable to imagine this golden retriever of a man amid the stiff suits and stuffed shirts.

“I’m an assistant editor at Macmillan.”

Sam brightened. “Yeah? What genre?”

“Don’t laugh. Romance.”

“Now you’ve done it,” Audrey warned. “The book monster has awoken. Sam’s an English Lit professor and romance aficionado.”

“Really? I’d have thought you’d turn your nose up at romance.”

“No way. I love it. I even teach a class on the development of the genre and its relation to feminist theory.”

Audrey hid a smile as the two launched into an animated discussion of favorite authors. She had no idea if there were any prospective sparks there, but at least Sam had found a kindred spirit.

“Are you two returning campers to Camp Firefly Falls?” Charlie’s question pulled her attention back to the conversation.

“First timers,” Sam told him. “Audrey here is a summer camp virgin.”

Audrey felt her cheeks heat with a blush and had no idea why. It wasn’t like she was that kind of virgin.

Not exactly far off… her brain reminded her.

Shut up.

“No shit? Well, the Retro Session is definitely the way to go to get the experience,” Charlie said. “I came here every summer, when I was a kid. Got super pumped when I found out it’d been turned into a camp for grown-ups.”

“Me too I’m tackling some entries on my bucket list lately, and when I heard about Camp Firefly Falls, it seemed like an opportunity to knock a few out in one fell swoop.” Which was the most understated way Audrey could possibly explain her reasons for being here. But spilling her guts to a complete stranger on the camp bus as they drove up from New York was not one of those bucket list items.

“So you’ve never been to camp, and you went to camp somewhere else?” Charlie asked, looking from Audrey to Sam.

“Hale River Camp and Farm, in North Alabama,” Sam replied.

“That’s a long way from the Berkshires. How’d you hear about Camp Firefly Falls?”

The flash of phantom pain in her legs kept Audrey from answering immediately. Riding the wave, she forced a smile. “Oh, someone I met once mentioned coming here as a kid. I guess the name stuck in my head.”

“I’m just along for the ride and to get my nostalgia on,” Sam put in. “I loved camp. Went every year, from the time I was seven—camper through counselor.”

She and Charlie fell back into easy conversation, and Audrey let them, focusing instead on breathing through the ache. The novelty of the bus ride was wearing thin. She’d been sitting too long and her legs were beginning to cramp up. A walk would be in order as soon as they got their stuff dumped at the cabin. Maybe a stroll along Lake Waawaatesi. It had looked so picturesque in the promo photos online.

From the back of the bus, someone began to sing “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain” as they turned onto the long, winding road that would, according to the map Audrey had studied, lead up to Camp Firefly Falls. They were nearly there. Then she’d have two, long, glorious weeks with no cell phone, no email, no reminders of the career decisions she still needed to make. Two weeks to relax. Two weeks to take life by the horns and really live it. Which meant pushing herself out of her comfort zone. She’d become an expert at pushing herself the last two years. More than she ought to, according to her parents, but what did they know? If she’d listened to them, she wouldn’t have anything resembling a life anymore.

Well, okay, that wasn’t entirely fair. They meant well. They’d always meant well. But it was her life, and she was finally going to live it. Going to camp was just the latest in a long line of small rebellions. Who knew that she, of all people, would develop a taste for defiance at the ripe old age of twenty-seven? But was it enough to change her life over? That was part of what she was here to figure out. Maybe, by the end of session, she’d finally know what she wanted.

Abruptly, the lush green trees opened up and the bus turned beneath an arched sign that read Camp Firefly Falls.

“We’re here!” Audrey couldn’t keep the excitement from her voice.

A cheer swept the bus as they pulled into a gravel parking lot, where a blonde woman with a boathouse stood behind a folding card table, surrounded by a handful of staff members in Camp Firefly Falls t-shirts. Audrey was on her feet the moment they rolled to a stop. Her legs protested the rapid movement, and she had to grab Charlie’s seat to catch her balance.

Sam slipped an arm around Audrey’s waist to steady her. “Okay?”

“Just stiff. Let’s get out.”

They edged into the aisle and filed off the bus with the other campers. A couple of other staff members circled around to the back and began offloading luggage as Audrey, Sam, and the others got in a loose line at the table to register and pick up their cabin assignments.

“Hi!” The blonde offered up a wide smile. “I’m Heather Tully. My husband and I own the camp. Welcome!”

“We’re so excited to be here. I’m Audrey Graham, and this is Samantha Ferguson.”

“Excellent. You’re in Cabin 7.”

“Lucky number,” Sam pronounced.

If this were one of the camp movies Audrey had binge watched before coming, some guy would make a crude joke about getting lucky in Cabin 7. Apparently, the Camp Firefly Falls alums were a little more discreet. Or maybe real life was less salacious than the movies.

“Now, if you’ll just turn in your cell phones. We’ll keep them locked up at the lodge, so no worries something might happen to them.” Heather held out zip top bags with their names scrawled out in marker.

“No cell phones?” Sam asked, digging in her purse.

“It’s a new rule we’re trying out for the Retro Session. Cell phones weren’t a thing back when we were kids at camp, and we’re trying to get back to that feel as much as we can.”

“Sign me up. I can’t remember the last time I went a day without hearing a phone ring.” Sam slipped her phone into the bag.

Audrey sent one last text off to her mom. Arrived at camp safely. No phones allowed. I’ll talk to you in two weeks. Then she powered down and slid her phone into the other bag. Two whole weeks where her parents couldn’t pressure her about Berkeley. That sounded like heaven.

Heather pulled out a map for each of them and circled Cabin 7. “If you head just up that trail and take the left fork, past the dining hall, you’ll find your cabin ready and waiting. Dinner’s going to be served at six, and we’re having a little opening night mixer at the boathouse starting at seven-thirty. Come ready to dance!”

Audrey took her map. “We’ll be there with bells on.”

At the sight of the bus turning onto the final road to Camp Firefly Falls, Hudson Lowell grimaced. The last thing he wanted was to get caught up in the crazy of drop off day with all the other campers. Was it even called drop off day now that they were all adults? Didn’t matter. Either way, there’d be enough excitement and good cheer that he’d be liable to deck somebody. Better to kill a little time and circle back. There’d be no avoiding the walk down memory lane the next two weeks, but he could ease into it rather than leaping feet first. So, he drove on past the turn and kept heading north, wondering if Boone’s was still in business.

Part gas station, part general store, part diner, Boone’s had always been an official stop before his parents dropped him off to camp as a kid. Located halfway between camp and Briarsted, the nearest town, Boone’s was the last bastion of civilization before two weeks of unfettered, summertime awesome. Ten minutes later, he pulled his Jeep into the lot. The whole complex was smaller than he’d remembered, but the scent of freshly brewed coffee was the same. It drew him back into the diner, where he settled into a booth and grabbed the laminated menu from between the napkin holder and the ketchup. He looked at the options without much interest.

A gum-chewing waitress appeared at the table, a pot of coffee in her hand. “What can I getcha, hon?”

“Just coffee. And a slice of pie.” Pie was always a good idea.

She turned over the cup at his elbow and filled it near to the brim. “Apple or peach?”

“Peach. With ice cream.”

“Comin’ right up.”

As she disappeared, Hudson slipped his phone out. Might as well make this last call before he got on up the mountain. Reception would probably be spotty.

“Hudson!”

“Hey Mom.”

“Are you there yet? Is it fabulous? I’m so curious what all they’ve done to change the place since you were a boy.”

He gritted his teeth against her cheer. “I haven’t quite made it to camp yet. I stopped in at Boone’s.”

She laughed. “Of course. Couldn’t go to camp for two weeks without your Twizzlers.”

Had he even had a Twizzler in the past decade?

The waitress returned with his pie a la mode, and Hudson nodded his thanks.

“I just wanted to check-in one last time, before I got up there. Cell coverage will probably be lousy. You’ve got the number to the camp office, in case you need to reach me for anything.” Translation: In case there’s any change in John’s condition.

“Got it right here. But sweetheart, I really want you to give this a chance. Embrace the whole camp experience. You used to have such fun up there. Unplugging from things will be good for you.”

Unplugging. An unfortunate word choice. Hudson closed his eyes as his brain conjured the tone of a flatlining heart monitor. His hand fisted around the fork. “Yeah. I’ll try.”

By the time he got off the phone, he’d lost whatever appetite he’d had for the pie. He ate it anyway, a mechanical shoveling in of food that had become habit the past few months. Food was necessary fuel, whether you tasted it or not. Leaving some cash on the table to pay his bill, he gassed up the Jeep. Then, remembering the promise to his mother, he bought a couple of packs of Twizzlers for nostalgia’s sake and got back on the road to camp.

The bus crowd had cleared out. A lone blonde with a ponytail sat at the registration table. She looked up at his approach and broke into a grin. “Why Hudson Lowell. Didn’t you grow up nice?”

“Don’t know about nice, but I grew up. So’d you. Heard you married Michael.”

“I did. We run this place together.”

“Suits you,” Hudson said. Heather Hawn had been one of his first camp crushes, but she’d never had eyes for anybody but Michael Tully. She looked happy. The kind of down-to-the-bone happy that exhausted him just from looking.

She checked her clipboard. “You’re in Cabin 16 with Charlie Thayer. He got here about an hour ago from New York. You’re in Syracuse these days?”

“I am.”

Seeming to sense his reticence to talk, Heather turned all businesslike. “Not that I think you’ll need it, but here’s a map of camp and our list of available activities. Dinner’s at six, and we’re having an opening night dance at the boathouse at seven-thirty.”

He’d rather be shot. But he took the handouts and thanked her before turning toward the Jeep for his gear.

“Oh, Hudson, I’ll need your phone.”

“Sorry?”

“We’re banning them for the Retro Session. This is a technology-free zone.”

“Not happening, Heather.”

“You don’t strike me as the type who’d be addicted to Candy Crush.”

“I’ve got family in the hospital. They need to be able to reach me if things take a turn for the worse.”

Her smile faded. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Well, keep it, then. But I’ll warn you, reception is spotty, at best.”

“Noted.”

Charlie—whom he had dim memories of from years before as someone they’d short-sheeted once—wasn’t at the cabin when Hudson arrived, though he’d already claimed the right side for his own. The cabin was still rustic in appearance, but the Tullys had done quite a bit more than spruce the place up. Instead of the old-school bunk beds with room to sleep eight, there were only two twin beds with quality mattresses, already made up with real bedding instead of lying bare and waiting for a sleeping bag. Hudson shoved the one he’d brought beneath the bed. The bathroom was small, but functional, with hotel-style towels and travel-size toiletries. They definitely hadn’t had AC back in the day. Curious despite himself, he headed out to see what else had changed in the past seventeen years.

The lodge was the most obvious difference. A grand structure of wood and stone, he’d read that it now housed five-star dining with an honest-to-God chef in residence, along with conference rooms, staff quarters, and luxury suites. Hudson guessed there was a market for those kinds of amenities, but he hoped there’d be some straight up burgers cooked over a campfire while he was here. He was more a pot of chili kind of guy, or he could go for a vat of spaghetti, served family-style around the long table at the firehouse. Not that he’d been doing any of that lately either.

They’d added a ropes course—a big, sprawling labyrinth of ropes and platforms. It was the kind of setup that looked more intimidating than it actually was. Climbers would be strapped into harnesses and attached to guide wires the entire time. Probably the liability insurance for the place wouldn’t allow for anything else. But still, he’d check that out, at some point. Maybe he’d see if they had gear for some rock climbing, too. That kind of physical exertion suited his desire to push himself to exhaustion in hopes of maybe sleeping. He might not be out with his company, but he’d kept himself in top shape since he recovered from the fall.

The wooded trails crisscrossing the grounds felt the same, as did the long pier that branched off to the boathouse. Hudson could see racks of kayaks and canoes. He followed the pull toward the water. The gentle lap of it against the wooden pilings soothed his nerves a bit. He had definite plans to grab one of those kayaks and disappear. There were countless inlets to explore along the length of Lake Waawaatesi. He might even do some fishing while he was here. Fish didn’t talk or expect you to talk back. He figured that made for much better therapy.

As he started to turn back toward camp proper, he caught a flash of fire. A woman strolled along the bank on the other side of the lake, her face tipped up to the sunshine, a gorgeous fall of red hair rippling in the breeze. From this distance, Hudson couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was smiling. Everything about her posture suggested absolute peace. He found himself watching until she disappeared into the trees.

Shaking off the vague ripple of envy, Hudson decided to curtail the rest of his tour. Better to unpack and settle in before dinner, get a little quiet. He’d have to deal with people soon enough.

Chapter 2

“WELCOME TO OUR RETRO Session at Camp Firefly Falls!”

Cheers practically raised the roof of the boathouse. Strands of twinkle lights were wrapped up the columns and around the rafters, giving the whole place a party vibe. The general jubilation of the campers added to the effect. Up on the little stage, Heather grinned from ear to ear. “Tonight kicks off two weeks of turning back the clock. We’ve got all your favorite, classic camp activities.” She listed off several options Audrey remembered seeing in the brochure. “—with a few more grown up options thrown in.” She gestured toward the bar that had been set up to one side of the dance floor. “My husband, Michael, is playing bartender tonight. We remind you to have fun and please drink responsibly. That said, let’s get this party started!”

The sound system rocked out with “Here’s To Never Growing Up” and people exploded onto the floor.

Audrey hadn’t expected quite this level of chaos. She leaned toward Sam, raising her voice to be heard over the music. “Is this a normal camp thing?”

“Don’t know about here. Hale River had dances, but nothing like this.”

“This is a Camp Firefly Falls dance on steroids,” Charlie said.

“Let’s get out there!” Sam gave a little hop in time with the chorus.

“You two go ahead. I’m going to get a drink.” With a drink, she’d have reason to stay outside the chaos and observe. No way would her legs allow for dancing. Not after today.

Sam gave her two thumbs up and dove after Charlie into the gyrating crowd. Was this what a mosh pit was like?

Audrey edged her way around the floor, watching and absorbing body language, automatically analyzing with her scientist’s mind. It seemed a lot of these people knew each other. From what she’d heard, this was as much a reunion as a throw-back session, so that made sense.

What must that be like? To have friends you made as a child that either stayed with you for years, or who you could pick back up with after all this time passed as if it were yesterday. Audrey couldn’t imagine that. She had friends, of course. Plenty of them as an adult. But as a child, she’d been painfully self-conscious, shy, and so far above her peers intellectually they hadn’t been able to relate to her at all. She’d been weird. Awkward. A freak. It had been easy to retreat into her studies.

School was easy. School followed some sense of logic and rules, and her academic performance had delighted her parents. Continuing along that track had just made sense. College. Grad school. Going into research professionally had been a no brainer. Audrey had an aptitude, and, in the Graham family, ignoring that would’ve been considered a crime. Over the years, she’d quietly amassed a list of all the life experiences she’d missed out on because of a lifetime spent worshiping at the altar of academia—never with any clear idea what she was going to do with it. It was more as a form of observational research. After the accident, that list had become her Holy Grail.

“Hi there.”

Audrey slid her gaze up to the guy who’d paused beside her. He was attractive in a clean cut, Ivy League sort of way, with the kind of confidence she’d seen often during her stint at Yale. The jeans and Camp Firefly Falls t-shirt he wore saved him from being unapproachable. She wondered where she could get one of those and made a mental note to track down one of the staff to ask.

“I’m Brad.”

The correct social convention is to speak. Open your mouth, she ordered herself. “Audrey.”

“Want to dance, Audrey?”

A refusal was on the tip of her tongue, but the music shifted into something less energetic. Something by Jack Johnson. Not a slow song, exactly, but something she could get away with not bouncing around to. Number thirty-seven on her list was Attend a school dance. This was probably as close as she’d ever get. She worked up a smile. “Sure.”

Brad knew how to dance. That much was obvious when she put her hand in his and followed him out onto the floor. His grip on her was light but sure. Audrey forced herself to relax and follow his lead.

“First time at Camp Firefly Falls?” he asked.

“What gave me away?”

“The way you’re watching everybody, like you’re not quite sure what to do.”

Audrey tried not to take offense at that since it was true. “I expected something a little more low-key tonight.”

“Kumbaya and s’mores?”

Number fifty-four: Roast marshmallows over a real campfire to make authentic s’mores. That had to be better than roasting them over the burner of the gas range in her apartment.

“Well, I did have my heart set on s’mores.”

“They have a campfire for that purpose every night, so if that’s what your heart desires, we can absolutely make that happen.” He flashed a too-practiced smile.

Was he flirting with her? Or just being friendly? This was one of those areas of human behavior she’d never felt comfortable assessing with any kind of accuracy. Uncertain, she gave a half smile and continued to watch the people around them. Probably it was rude not to maintain eye contact, but that felt too intimate. She didn’t know what to say to this guy.