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DANGEROUS SANCTUARY (Camp Hope #1)
Lois Richer
Tyndale House Publishers
Romance
ISBN: 0842364366

PROLOGUE

Tiny sparks, fanned by the wind and boosted by an unseen accelerant, burst into devouring flames. Mutely ominous, they crept across the gable end of the house in a silent quest for more, then bit into the scrolling gingerbread trim with malicious delight.

Once savored, their appetite became insatiable.

They licked across the roof, hungry, flickering orange tongues, dazzling against the inky blackness of midnight. Barely minutes later the upper story of the house blazed in the night shadows as the crackling inferno consumed in a mad, voracious anger.

It was a fitting end.

Now, let her feel the same pain he carried in his soul --- poker hot. Searing.

No one noticed the skeleton of a smile lift his thin, angry mouth. No neighbor saw him walk to the bus stop on the corner, linger there, waiting under a pine tree for Calgary's firemen to arrive.

Come. He ached to shout it, to tell the world. It doesn't matter now. You're too late to tame the beast I've let loose.

Grim satisfaction eased his fury when the whining cry of a fire engine moaned around the corner, howled to a halt. Firemen poured onto the street, then gaped in horror. Where to start?

Still, he waited in the shadows --- and the hoses spurted their puny stream over his inferno.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Bitter gall soured his stomach, accentuating the void. As he turned to leave, a car plummeted through the barricade, squealed to a stop. A woman fell out, screaming her grief in mournful wails as she tried to break free of a firefighter's restraining hold.

Her!

He swore at the futility of it. All that planning and he'd missed his target. The unexpected again. He hated chance, hated having his plans disrupted. And yet, wasn't that exactly why he was here?

She'd ruined it all. Utterly destroyed everything. Now, for the second time, she had escaped justice. For that he would exact payment --- in full.

With a curse of disgust, he turned, slipped into the denseness of a smoky gloom that allowed him to leave without arousing suspicion. He walked a long time, pausing to check over his shoulder every so often. No one followed.

A single thought brightened the darkness of his soul. Perhaps tonight wasn't a waste but merely another step along the path of retribution she deserved. For months he'd waited . . . watched. He could afford to wait longer. Meanwhile, she would suffer.

This was just the start of the battle, the first assault.

But he wouldn't lose. She would pay his price.

Justine demanded no less.


CHAPTER ONE

"You're leaving? To go where?"

He frowned, which Georgia interpreted as a reminder that she stay in touch.

"I don't know where, Doug. Not yet. I just know I've wept for too long. Nothing will bring them back. Nothing. It's been nearly two years. It's time I figured out how to live the rest of my life." A pause, a break in her voice as she fought for control. "Please understand. I have to learn to move on."

"Yes. But move on where? To what? Back to nursing?" He watched her carefully.

"No." That much was certain. "I'll always be 'that' nurse. People will always wonder if I did it deliberately, if I knew." Georgia shook her head. "I can't go back. I have to go ahead."

"And that means leaving the city?"

"For now."

"Okay. Where?" Worry lines carved his forehead.

"I haven't decided for certain, but I thought perhaps I'd visit the bush country Dad always talked about. I need some place where I can think."

"Sounds lonely. And then?"

"I don't know about the future, Doug. I can't think that far ahead. I'm not booking hotels or anything. I'll just drive, take things one day at a time."

"Why not stop at that camp I told you about? The one the youth group has decided to raise funds for. Our church supported a student who worked as a counselor there last summer, remember? Apparently it's in the boonies, very much back to nature, which you claim is what you want."

Doug's eyes flashed with an excitement she remembered from long ago. "It might be good, Georgia. Anyone who's been there says the rustic peace of the place restores them. In fact, if you're traveling north to your dad's old stomping ground, you'll drive right past it."

"It's a children's camp, isn't it?" In her mind rang an echo of toddler laughter, the sound of pure joy abruptly silenced. "A summer camp. There probably isn't anyone there yet. What did you say it's called?"

"Camp Hope. And I think someone lives there year-round. Why not check it out? You can always leave if it's not what you want."

Camp Hope.

"Good name." She leaned forward, hugged him. "I'll think about it. Bye, Doug."

"I'll be praying," he whispered.

Hadn't he always?

******

The Northern Canadian Woods

Georgia MacGregor huddled in the back pew of the old country church and asked herself why she bothered now that Evan wasn't here to share with her. Why keep up their Sunday morning tradition? Why torture herself with a dream that would never live again?

"God's very nature is love. Pure, honest, intense love that never changes."

She didn't want to hear it. But in spite of her efforts to block them, the words of the sermon slipped through her consciousness, pierced through to her very soul.

"He may discipline us. He may send us people or allow events that we don't understand or appreciate, but the truth of who He is never changes. God personifies love."

No! She wouldn't listen anymore.

Georgia reached for the trifold bulletin and scanned it with mounting desperation, searching for something --- anything --- that would keep her mind off questions no one could answer. Baby- and wedding-shower announcements sprinkled through the list of dates to remember. A ninetieth birthday, two retirement parties, a funeral notice. A picnic for the church family and a church cleaning. There was plenty going on in this small rural assembly, even though it was hidden away from the hubbub of the city. Proof that life went on?

She smiled at the list of special dates marking weeks and months that lay in the future, every important milestone lovingly remembered by friends, families, and neighbors who cared.

Once Georgia had considered remembering a good thing. But in the end, the memories had almost consumed her --- until she'd run away, determined to find a new life.

Yet she could not forget. She would never do that. Just to stop hurting, that's all she craved. And hadn't found. Not in six weeks of endless traveling.

It was time to go back.

Camp Hope needs a head cook for the summer. Our first camp begins soon! The situation is critical. Please contact the camp office if you can help out.

Doug's camp. Georgia flipped the paper closed, her mind swinging back to her childhood. The few times she'd been allowed to attend summer camp she'd loved it. Did kids today do the same silly things she'd done? Toilet paper the cabins, stash candy from the tuck shop for evening parties conducted after weary counselors finally fell asleep?

She opened the bulletin to the back page, reread the ad. Sounded like they were desperate.

"Miss MacGregor, it's lovely to see you back with us again."

The minister! Georgia jumped to her feet, only then realizing she'd somehow missed the closing hymn and the benediction.

"Th-thank you," she stammered, her hand limp in the pastor's firm grip. She wouldn't correct him --- he didn't need to know. Besides, technically she wasn't a Mrs. any longer, was she?

"It seems you stayed a little longer than you intended." The pastor's blue eyes twinkled, as if to remind her of her insistence that she couldn't possibly remain for their brunch last weekend.

"Actually I did," she murmured, drawing her hand from his. "I traveled up to the lakes last week. With all the road construction, I had to return this way."

"Ah." His intent gaze probed the curtain of reserve she tried to draw between them. "And did you enjoy your trip to the north?"

"Oh yes. It's a beautiful area. I hadn't realized so much wild country still remained out here." She searched for a way to escape. But the woman on the other side of her was deep in conversation with a petulant child. Both of them blocked her only exit. There was no way out.

Georgia gave up and faced the garrulous pastor.

"I suppose you've had a chance to see Camp Hope then." He grinned. "It's our pride and joy. Thirty years ago that place was nothing but bush. Now it houses camps all summer long. Even a few in the winter."

Georgia followed his gaze to the bulletin in her hands. "I'm afraid I didn't go there. In fact, I've only just read their announcement in here."

"Yes, the cook." He shook his head, his smile disintegrating. "It's a serious situation, I'm afraid. Normally they've long since filled their staff vacancies. But after all the rumors . . ." He sighed. "Well, we've been praying for Kent."

She didn't really care about the camp, but what was this about rumors?

"Kent?" she asked, hoping he would take the bait and offer some illumination on his unusual comments.

"Kent Anderson. He's the camp director. He was here this morning. I'll introduce you, if you like. Just let me look." The pastor glanced around the sanctuary but didn't find the person he sought. His gaze moved to outside the window behind her. "Yes, there he is." He chuckled. "I might have known."

"Known?"

"Look over there, with the Murdock sisters. Funny hats," he added when she didn't immediately see where he was pointing. He laughed. "To that boy, those ladies are the equivalent of twin grandmothers --- double everything!"

"That's nice." Georgia wondered if she dared nudge the woman who blocked her exit, but when the child began to wail anew, she declined, concentrated on what the pastor was saying.

"They must have asked him for lunch. I can tell from the way he's helping Miss Emily into her car instead of teasing her about her hat that she's offered him food."

Georgia glanced out the window again. A man stood with his back to them, carefully assisting a tiny white-haired woman from her walker into the passenger seat of the oldest car Georgia had ever seen. The feathery nest trembling atop Miss Emily's white head demanded attention. Georgia stifled her giggles. She didn't blame the man for his gingerly help or the smile that flickered at the edge of his mouth. That hat threatened to topple with the tiniest gust of wind.

She focused on the man. He was good-looking, his face a blend of rugged angles and tanned lines that told the tale of his outdoor life. Tall and muscular, he wore faded corduroy pants, a checkered shirt, and battered brown loafers with an air of elegant grace. All in all, Kent Anderson looked very comfortable standing there waiting, as a car older than he rumbled away.

"He's not going with them. Isn't the Murdocks' a good place to lunch?" she asked absently, still watching.

Kent covered the smile on his face with one hand while the car rounded the corner in a series of backfires. He turned, only then becoming aware of the attention several giggling teenage girls were paying him. He grinned, then pretended to doff his hat at them, bowing from the waist. They giggled even more.

"Good afternoon, ladies," he called. "Got your registrations in for teen camp?"

"Not yet," one of them said. "We weren't sure whether --- "

"You'd better hurry." He cut across the rest of their sentence, his voice betraying a hint of strain. "Things are filling up. Teen camp is always a good one."

They nodded.

He seemed to want to say more but apparently changed his mind and instead jumped upward in time to snatch a bright red Frisbee, which he tossed back to a little boy. "Good one, Jeffry. You're getting better."

Jeffry grinned with delight at Kent's praise, and Kent grinned back.

Georgia watched him amble across the lawn in a long-legged stride that carried him toward a van on which Camp Hope had been painted in large, if not precise, dark blue letters. The Frisbee landed at his feet. He stopped, then crouched down. Jeffry raced over to speak to him. Georgia couldn't help smiling at the bent heads and serious gestures, imagining a manly discussion on Frisbee throwing.

"That man purely loves kids. And don't let him fool you. He's going for lunch all right," the pastor assured her. "The Murdock sisters' is the best place in the world for a bachelor. Delicious food and plenty of it. By the look on Kent's face they're serving chicken and dumplings today."

Kent ruffled the boy's hair, laughing as the child walked backward to grab his dad's hand.

Georgia turned to the pastor. "Dumplings. Oh." She hid her smile. "How can you tell?"

"See the way he licks his lips?" The pastor performed a gesture that Kent immediately copied before he climbed into his van. "See?"

Georgia blinked in surprise. "How did you know?"

"Kent loves dumplings." The pastor's eyes hinted that he wished he were going to attend a feast at the Murdock sisters' too.

"'Course, right about now Kent loves almost anything somebody else prepares. He's acting as chief cook and bottle washer at Camp Hope, but if he's going to the Murdocks', he must have got a reprieve." A faint look of distaste crossed his face. "His cooking --- it's not a good thing, Miss MacGregor. Not with them trying to rebuild."

He stopped, thought a moment, then began again. "Next week the school groups start coming in. I can't imagine how he'll manage then, even if he wheedles a stack of baking from those two ladies."

"I see." She didn't, not really. Rebuild what?

All at once Pastor Benjamin's faded eyes opened wide. "Say, you don't happen to know anything about cooking for big groups, do you?"

"Uh . . . well . . ." Georgia gulped, searched for a denial that wouldn't come. "A little," she admitted at last. "But not enough for what they want, I'm sure."

"What they want is someone who can make pots of spaghetti, dozens of grilled-cheese sandwiches, and gallons of juice. Those are about all the qualifications you need to feed kids at camp." He tipped backward on his heels, his eyes narrowing. "Might give you a break from all this traveling you've been doing, Miss MacGregor. Something new to focus on."

Georgia blanched. He couldn't know. He couldn't possibly have guessed how much she wished to bury herself in something --- anything --- that would take her mind off the past and the brooding questions. He couldn't know that she didn't want to go back home, not until she'd found some of the answers she sought. All she needed was a reason not to return, but he couldn't know that either.

"Then again, there's plenty of busywork." His speculative gaze assessed her scraped-back hair, her thin face with its camouflage makeup meant to hide the circles under her eyes. "Wouldn't want you to overtax yourself."

Georgia was tired, but it was a mental weariness that dragged at her spirit. Busywork was exactly what her doctor had ordered, something to focus on so she wouldn't have time to think about her future. But cooking for children?

"I couldn't possibly spend the entire summer there." The old fear erupted like molten lava. In a place like this, gossip would spread fast. Once they found out, people would talk, stare. Maybe she'd even give the camp a bad name. If she hung around that long. Georgia swallowed, hard. "Not possibly."

The minister nodded. "Of course not. No one expects that. But maybe a few days? a week? Be nice to give Kent a break before the big camps get going. He's got an awful lot to do out there." He rubbed his stomach ruefully. "Believe me, cooking just isn't his forte. And I should know. I ate his stuff last Friday. I'm still swallowing heartburn medication."

She didn't need to ask --- his puckered face conveyed his meaning in vivid detail.

"There's only one person to run the place?" It didn't sound like much of a camp to Georgia, nothing like she'd pictured from Doug's description. Anyway, why was she even discussing this? She'd left home for solitude, to forget.

"Oh no, Kent won't be the only one! Not by a long shot." Pastor Ben shook his head, big grin firmly in place. "Fred and Ralna Jones are there already. Fred tries to manage the maintenance work the camp needs, though it's getting to be a bit much for him. Ralna handles the office stuff, helps out in the kitchen when she can, and generally acts as the camp grandmother to the kids. They've been there forever."

He stopped for a moment, his mind obviously somewhere else. Then he smiled at her. "I wander out myself now and then. Makes me feel young."

He rambled on, painting a vivid picture of boisterous camp life that attracted Georgia in spite of herself. Suddenly she longed to be needed, to listen to the laughter of exuberant children, to relish the freedom of living among people who didn't care about her past, hadn't heard the rumors and innuendos, and were too busy to care.

"Well, I can see I'm putting you to sleep." Pastor Ben chuckled. He waggled his fingers in front of her nose, drawing her attention back to him. "I'm sorry, Miss MacGregor. I do tend to get carried away when it comes to Camp Hope. They do such good work. I hate to see the place suffer just because no one will commit to cook a few meals."

"It sounds like a lot of meals to me." Georgia picked up her purse, anxious not to give herself away. Not yet. In spite of her misgivings, in spite of the little warning voice in her head and the prickles of nervousness that flickered over her, she was interested in Camp Hope. Maybe looking after someone else's needs would help her forget --- for a while. At least she wouldn't have to go home yet.

Home --- where was home?

"Will we see you next week?"

"I'm not sure." Georgia stepped out from the pew and into the aisle, glad to be free of the constricting space, when the woman beside her finally moved. "I don't plan too far ahead. Not anymore." What was the point?

Pastor Ben nodded, his face grave. "Sometimes that's best, isn't it? Then the Lord can step in and turn us around more easily." He reached out, folded her hand in his, and patted it gently. "Well, take care, Miss MacGregor. Trust in God; He'll lead you."

Her feet faltered as her mind absorbed the words: trust in God? Her mouth pinched tight. The pastor wasn't at fault. He wouldn't understand, and she couldn't explain that God had left her alone two years ago to face a future she didn't want.

Georgia nodded good-bye, then strode toward the door, her advantage in height allowing her to negotiate a clear path through the small group of folks who remained behind to chat, only then remembering that she hadn't learned what the rumors he'd mentioned were. But what did that matter? She had firsthand experience of just how little truth rumors contained and how damaging they could be.

Perhaps she was being foolish, but she thought she might take a drive out to this camp. Just to look.

Excerpted from DANGEROUS SANCTUARY (Camp Hope #1) Copyright 2004 by Lois Richer. Reprinted with permission by HeartQuest, a registered trademark of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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