Almost Paradise

A Novel

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Debbie Macomber dazzles in a contemporary update of Snow White. Despite the picturesque view, it’s a kiss that turns an unlikely pair into a fairy-tale romance.
 
A mountain cabin. A moonlit night. And not a stepmother around to spoil the moment. For a burnt-out grad student looking for a little fun, this camp is paradise . . . well, almost. With seven mischievous girls in her cabin, Sherry White barely has time to whistle while she works. Then there’s the camp director, who may be the most gorgeous man Sherry’s ever met—and the most serious too. Even after they share a perfect kiss under the stars, Sherry wonders whether they’ll ever see eye to eye.

When Jeff Roarke founded his camp for gifted children, he had a vision of rigorous education and self-improvement. Now Sherry is about to ruin everything with her insistence that kids need to let loose and play. Sherry’s minions are driving him crazy, but the worst part is, Jeff’s beginning to think that resistance is futile. Because Sherry is messing with his agenda, his head . . . and his heart.

Praise for Debbie Macomber

“No one tugs at readers’ heartstrings quite as effectively as Macomber.”Chicago Tribune

“The reigning queen of women’s fiction.”The Sacramento Bee

“It’s impossible not to cheer for Macomber’s characters. . . . When it comes to creating a special place and memorable, honorable characters, nobody does it better than Macomber.”BookPage

Published by Debbie Macomber Books

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Almost Paradise

Chapter 1

“Mirror, mirror on the wall—who’s the fairest of us all?” Sherry White propped one eye open and gazed into the small bathroom mirror. She grimaced and quickly squeezed both eyes shut. “Not me,” she answered, and blindly reached for her toothbrush.

Morning had never been her favorite time of day. She agreed with the old adage claiming that if God had intended for people to see the sun rise, He would have caused it to happen later in the day. Unfortunately, Jeff Roarke, the director of Camp Gitche Gumee, didn’t agree. He demanded his staff meet early each morning. No excuses. No reprieves. No pardons.

Fine, Sherry mused. Then he’d have to take what he got, and heaven knew she wasn’t her best at this ungodly hour.

After running a brush through her long, dark curls, Sherry wrapped a scarf around her head to keep the hair away from her face and returned to her room, where she reached for a sweater to ward off the chill. Then she hurried across the lush green grass of the campgrounds to the staff meeting room. Once there, a hasty glance around told her she was already late.

“Good morning, Miss White,” Jeff Roarke called when she took the last available seat.

“Morning,” she mumbled under her breath, crossing her arms to disguise her embarrassment. He’d purposely called attention to her, letting the others know she was tardy.

His sober gaze had followed her as she’d maneuvered herself between the narrow rows of chairs. Now his intense eyes remained on her until her heart hammered and indignation caused heat to color her cheeks. She experienced a perverse desire to shatter Jeff Roarke’s pompous attitude, but the feeling died a quiet death as she raised her gaze to meet his. It almost seemed that she saw a hint of amusement lurking there. At any rate, he was regarding her with a speculative gleam that was distinctly unsettling. Evidently satisfied that he’d unnerved her, he began to speak again.

Although she knew she should be taking notes, Sherry was having trouble tearing her gaze away from the camp director, now that his attention was off her. Jeff Roarke was tall, easily over six feet, and superbly fit. His jaw was lean and well defined—okay, he was absurdly good-looking, she’d grant him that. But to Sherry’s way of thinking he was arrogant, uncompromising, and pompous. She’d known a month earlier when she’d met Mr. Almighty Roarke for the job interview that they weren’t going to get along. She’d flown to Sacramento from Seattle for a meeting in his office, praying she hadn’t made the long trip in vain. She’d wanted this job so badly . . . and then she’d blown it.

“I think it’s a marvelous idea to name the camp after a cute children’s song,” she’d said cheerfully.
Roarke looked shocked. “Song? What song? The camp’s name is taken from the poem ‘Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.”

“Oh—uh, I mean, of course,” Sherry said, her face flaming.

From there the interview seemed shaky, and Sherry was convinced she’d ruined her chances as Roarke continued to ask what seemed like a hundred unrelated questions. Although he didn’t appear to be overly impressed with her qualifications, he handed her several forms to complete.

“You mean I’m hired?” she asked, confused. “I . . . I have the job?”

“I’d hardly have you fill out the paperwork if you weren’t,” he returned.

“Right.” Sherry’s heart had raced with excitement. She was going to escape her wacky stepmother, Phyliss. For one glorious summer no one need know where she was. But as Sherry began to complete the myriad forms, her enthusiasm for her plan dwindled. She couldn’t possibly put down references—anyone she’d list would be someone who’d have contact with her father and stepmother. The instant her family discovered where Sherry was hiding, it would be over.

Roarke seemed to note Sherry’s hesitancy as she studied the forms. “Is there something you disagree with, Miss White?”

“No,” she said, hurriedly filling out the names and addresses of family friends and former employers, but doing her best to make them unreadable, running the letters together and transposing numbers.

Nibbling anxiously on her bottom lip, Sherry finished and handed over the completed paperwork.

From that first meeting with Jeff Roarke, things had gone swiftly downhill. Sherry found him . . . she searched for the right word. Dictatorial, she decided. He’d let it be known as director of Camp Gitche Gumee that he expected her to abide by all the rules and regulations—which was only fair—but then he’d proceeded to give her a Tolstoy-length manual of rules and regulations, with the understanding that she would have it read by the time camp opened. Good grief! She’d been hired as a counselor for seven little girls, not as a brain surgeon.

“Are there any questions?”

Jeff Roarke’s words to the early-morning assembly broke into her consciousness, startling Sherry into the present. Worried, she glanced around her, hoping no one had noticed that she’d casually slipped into her memories.

“Most of the children will arrive today,” Roarke was saying.

He’d gotten her up at this time of day to tell her that? They’d have to be a bunch of numskulls not to know when the children were coming. The entire staff had been working all week to prepare the cottages and campgrounds for the children’s arrival. Sherry glared at him for all she was worth, then squirmed when he paused and stared back at her.

“Is there a problem, Miss White?”

Sherry froze as the others directed their attention to her. “N-No.”

“Good—then I’ll continue.”

The man never smiled, Sherry mused. Not once in the past week had she seen him joke or laugh or kid around. He was like a man driven, but for what cause she could only speculate. The camp was important to him, that much she’d gleaned immediately, but why a university professor would find such purpose in a children’s camp was beyond Sherry’s understanding. There seemed to be an underlying sadness in Jeff Roarke, too, one that robbed his life of joy, stole the pleasure of simple things from his perception.

But none of the counselors seemed to think of Jeff Roarke the same way she did. Oh, the other female staff members certainly noticed him, Sherry admitted grudgingly. From the goo-goo eyes some of the women counselors were giving him, it seemed they, too, were impressed with his dark good looks. But he was so stiff, so dry, so serious, that Sherry considered him a lost cause. And she had enough on her mind without complicating her life worrying about someone like the camp director.

Sherry expected to have fun this summer. She needed it. The last year of graduate school, living near home, had left her mentally drained and physically exhausted. School was only partly to blame for her condition. Phyliss was responsible for the rest. Phyliss and Sherry’s father had married when Sherry was a college freshman, and Phyliss, bless her heart, had never had children. Seeing Sherry as her one and only opportunity to be a mother, she’d attacked the project with such gusto that Sherry was still reeling from the effects three years later. Phyliss worried that Sherry wasn’t eating well enough. Phyliss worried about the hours Sherry kept. Phyliss worried that Sherry studied too hard. To state the problem simply: Phyliss worried.

As a dedicated health nut, her stepmother made certain that Sherry ate correctly. There were days Sherry would have killed for a pizza or a hot dog, but Phyliss wouldn’t hear of it. Then there was the matter of clothes. Phyliss loved bright colors—and so did Sherry, in moderation. Unfortunately, her stepmother considered it her duty to shop with Sherry and “help” her choose the proper clothes for college. As a result, her closet was full of purples, kelly greens, sunshine yellows, and hot, sizzling pinks.

So Sherry planned this summer as an escape from her wonderful but eccentric stepmother. Sherry wasn’t exactly proud of how she’d slipped away in the middle of the night, but she’d thought it best to avoid the multitude of questions Phyliss would ply her with had she known Sherry was leaving. She’d managed to escape with a text sent from the airport that stated in vague terms that she was going to camp for the summer. She hated to be so underhanded, but knowing Phyliss, the woman would arrive with a new wardrobe of coordinated shades of chartreuse—and order Sherry’s meals catered when she learned that her beloved stepdaughter was eating camp food.

Sherry had chosen Camp Gitche Gumee because it had intrigued her. Being counselor to a group of intellectually gifted children in the heart of the majestic California redwoods sounded like the perfect escape. And Phyliss would never think to search California.

“Within the next few hours, fifty children will be arriving from all across the country,” Roarke continued.

Sherry childishly rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. He could just as well have given them this information at seven—the birds weren’t even awake yet! Expecting her to retain vital information at this unreasonable hour was going beyond the call of duty.

“Each cottage will house seven children; Fred Spencer’s cabin will house eight. Counselors, see me following the meeting for the names of your charges. Wherever possible, I’ve attempted to match each child with a friend in an effort to cut down on homesickness.”

That made sense to Sherry, but little else did.

As Roarke continued to speak, Sherry’s thoughts drifted again. In addition to Jeff Roarke, their fearless leader, Sherry knew she was going to have problems getting along with Fred Spencer, who was the counselor for the nine- and ten-year-old boys. Fred had been a counselor at Camp Gitche Gumee for several summers and was solidly set in the way he handled his charges.

Sherry had come up with some ideas she’d wanted to talk over in the first few days following her arrival. Since Fred was the counselor for the same age group as hers, it had seemed natural to go to him. But Fred had found a reason to reject every suggestion. Five minutes with him and Sherry discovered that he didn’t possess a creative bone in his body and frowned dutifully upon anyone who deviated from the norm.

Sherry had gotten the distinct impression that, more than disagreeing with her, Fred highly disapproved of her and her ideas. She wasn’t sure what she’d done to invoke his ire, but his resentment was strong enough to cause her to feel uneasy whenever they were in a room together.

With a sigh, Sherry forced her attention back to Roarke. He continued to speak for several minutes, but most of what he had to say was directed to the housekeepers, cooks, and groundskeepers. The classroom teachers had been briefed the day before.

A half-hour later the staff was dismissed for breakfast—and not a minute too soon, Sherry mused, as she walked toward the large dining hall. Blindly she headed for the coffeepot. If Jeff Roarke was going to call staff meetings when the moon was still out, the least he could do was provide coffee.

“Miss White,” Roarke called, stopping her.

Sherry glanced longingly toward the coffeepot. “Yes?”

“Could I speak to you for a minute?”

“Sure.” She headed to the back of the dining hall, where he was waiting for her.

- About the author -

Debbie Macomber, the author of Sweet Tomorrows, A Girl’s Guide to Moving On, Last One Home, Silver Linings, Love Letters, Mr. Miracle, Blossom Street Brides, and Rose Harbor in Bloom, is a leading voice in women’s fiction. Ten of her novels have reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller lists, and five of her beloved Christmas novels have been hit movies on the Hallmark Channel, including Mrs. Miracle and Mr. Miracle. Hallmark Channel also produced the original series Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove, based on Macomber’s Cedar Cove books. She has more than 200 million copies of her books in print worldwide.

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