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Lost in the Woods Ch. 01

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
Lost in the Woods Ch. 1

© 2011 All Rights Reserved

"Hey, everybody! I want to tell you about a volunteer opportunity before we get started."

Willow Oakton gave a mental roll of the eyes before turning her attention to the speaker. Holly Stone was hosting the book club this month, and so she had the floor. Whenever Holly had a "volunteer opportunity" to discuss, it tended to result in everyone else volunteering while Holly supervised.

"What is it this time, Holly?" This was from Ivy Blackwood. She slid a knowing wink to Willow. "I'm not taking abandoned dogs for walks again. Ruined my shoes."

Willow covered her mouth to hide a grin and saw a few others doing the same. A few women gave Ivy looks of mild disapproval.

"Okay." Holly sat with back straight, knees together and legs angled to one side, hands in her lap. Her blonde hair was twisted up and back so that not a strand escaped, the style emphasizing her high cheek bones. Willow was reminded of a prim teacher ready to lecture her students. "So you know it's Earth Day in a couple of weeks, right?" There nods around the room. "My brother's friend is a park ranger and they're looking for people to help clean up the park."

"Sounds good so far," Ivy said, and there were approving murmurs from the other book club members.

"What's the catch?" Willow almost jumped in her seat; she hadn't meant to say it out loud, but she'd learned to be cautious of Holly and these types of plans. Willow's green eyes darted around the room and she saw a few people waiting on Holly to answer.

"There's no catch, Willow." Holly gave her a baleful look before continuing. "There will be eight park rangers and they'll divide everyone into four groups. They'll take us to different areas of the park where we'll pick up litter and things like that. It'll be a two-night camping trip—an outdoor slumber party!" Holly beamed at the end of her little speech.

That generated a buzz of excitement and curiosity. Holly went on to explain how in addition to giving basic tips on keeping the park clean, the rangers would instruct everyone on camping, from how to set up tents and fires, to how to cook and properly clean up the site when finished.

"I'll pass around a form later, so put your name down if you're interested," Holly said when the voices died down. "Now, let's get to the book!"

Willow pondered the volunteer effort while they moved on to discuss the book club selection. She hadn't been interested in it—it was some depressing family story that she'd had to force herself to finish—and so didn't mind letting everyone else talk about it. She chimed in when asked a direct question, to say that although the book was well-written, it had been a relentless downer and wasn't for her. She saw Holly sniff in disdain.

Should have been more tactful since she picked the book, I guess. Willow gave a mental shrug; she hadn’t liked it and didn’t feel like searching for those ambiguous comments that might lead a person to think she did.

After the book discussion, Holly passed around a paper and Willow joined some others in adding her name, cell phone and email address to the list. Camping wasn’t her usual idea of a weekend trip, but it could be fun to do something new, she decided. She said her good-byes, grabbed her jacket and waited for Ivy by the door.

"God, am I glad that's over." Ivy shook her curly brown hair back from her face as she got in the car. "That book was the most boring thing I'd ever read."

Willow laughed. "I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought so."

"The Earth Day thing sounds fun, though. I used to go camping a lot when I was younger. Mom and Dad would pile us all in the camper and off we'd go." Ivy grinned at the memories.

"Not me." Willow shook her head. "My mom's idea of roughing it is a hotel with less than four stars, and my dad can't light a match, much less a campfire." They both chuckled. "Still," Willow continued, "I figure what the hell? It's just two nights, and it could be fun." She ran a hand through wavy dark-blonde hair. "I mean, I know I'm leery about going new places, but I can't avoid it forever. I need to try new things."

"Me, too, and if one of those new things is one of the park rangers—Yum!" Ivy flashed a grin.

"Ivy, you're incorrigible."

"No, I'm insatiable."

"Okay, you can stop right there." Willow shook her head with a smile.

"Oh, come on, Willow, you think so too."

"I do?"

"Don’t you know who Holly's friend is?"

"Should I?"

Ivy gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes. "Remember Clay Wilder?"

"Clay Wilder?" Willow frowned. The name was familiar but she was having a hard time matching a face to it. "I'm not sure."

"You must remember him." Ivy's voice was full of disbelief. "Come on, at the Fourth of July party Holly had last year? The guy in the blue trunks?"

"Blue—oh." Willow swallowed in a dry throat. "Oh, um. Yeah, I remember. Clay."

How could she have forgotten him? He'd been about six feet of near perfection to Willow's eyes. They'd met when Willow had tripped and knocked them both into the pool. She'd never been so embarrassed. He'd been fine, laughing about the whole thing once he'd realized it was an accident and joking that it saved him the trouble of deciding whether to go back in the water.

"I knew you would." Ivy turned onto Willow's street. "He's a hard one—ha ha—to forget."

"Mmmm." With any luck, Willow thought, Clay had forgotten all about her.

"Here you go. The flowers look great, Willow. Wish I had your touch with that. It just all says 'Spring is here! Be happy!'" Ivy looked at the trail of colorful flowers that led up to Willow's door. There were nasturtiums, petunias and hyacinths creating a bright line up to the porch. More grew in plant boxes that hung on the porch railing, and a pretty green wreath hung on the door.

"Thanks. It's fun. I can help you set some up at your place if you want, just give me a call."

"No, I have too much compassion for the flowers to subject them to me." Ivy winked. "I'll just borrow from you when I need help."

"No problem. Thanks for the ride." Willow stepped out and closed the door, then waved as Ivy pulled away.

x-x-x-x

Clay Wilder listened with forced patience as his best friend's sister, Holly, chattered on about recruiting volunteers for the Earth Day clean up.

"Okay, Holly. Yes, sounds great. Give me a final list when you can and I'll get you a list of supplies everyone should bring. Right. Say hi to your parents and Ash for me. Bye." He put down the phone and rubbed at his face.

"Hey, Wilder!"

Clay turned at the sound of his name. "What?"

Adam Fossey came into the office. "What do you want for lunch?"

"A bottle of Excedrin." Clay leaned his elbows on his desk and rubbed at his temples. "My God, that woman can go on forever without taking a breath."

"Some guys would consider that an asset."

"It would be, if she didn't talk at the same time." Clay was quiet for a moment, then looked up with a grin that made Adam suspicious. "And she's been gathering volunteers for Earth Day."

"Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?" Still wary, Adam put his hat down and went over to get some coffee.

"Because you'll be hiking with women in Prada shoes, wondering where they can get a good glass of wine." He flashed a grin at his friend.

Adam groaned. "Oh, come on, man. Tell me you're kidding."

"I am, mostly. I'm exaggerating. Holly never struck me as the camping type, but I could be wrong. And she and the others are volunteering, and we'll give them lots of information. They'll know what they're getting into." Clay felt slightly cheered by his reasoning.

"I don’t know." Adam sat down and frowned at his coffee. "A lot of those do-gooder types like to think they're getting 'in touch with the earth,' you know? The reality check doesn’t usually go well."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. A lot people back out of these things at the last minute, and I really don't think anyone worried about ruining their shoes would sign up in the first place." Clay sighed and got up for his own coffee, hoping the caffeine would chase the headache away. "I'll send out a list of supplies. That will weed out anyone who isn't serious."

"True, true." Adam ran a hand over close-cropped brown hair.

"So how is it out there? All of the campers okay so far?" Clay sat down and sipped at the coffee, wincing at the strong taste.

"Oh yeah." Adam shrugged and covered a yawn. "Not many out there, and they all seem to be old hands. People who really like to camp, you know? And they're smart about it."

"That's a relief." Clay concentrated on his coffee and hoped that Holly's friends were half as smart as the campers they had in the park now.

x-x-x-x

Willow studied the list that Holly had emailed. Nothing too exotic, she thought, or expensive. All reasonable supplies for a short camping trip. Some things she probably had around the house, others she'd have to acquire, but that was all right. She was now glad that she'd picked up the hiking boots last year; she hadn't used them much, but at least she wouldn't have to lay out for a new pair.

"Okay, let's see." Willow pulled out a piece of paper. "Sleeping bag…I can borrow my brother's. And didn't he buy a tent last year? Insect repellent I'll have to buy, and suntan lotion, too. I have a water bottle…." She muttered to herself as she compared the list on the screen to her mental list of things she had on hand.

It took three rings before she heard the phone.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Willow. It's Ivy."

"Oh, hey. How are you?"

"Good. I was just going through the supply list."

Willow laughed. "Me too. Great minds, huh?"

"Depends. Was your great mind thinking of a shopping trip?"

"For some things, sure. I think my brother may be able to lend me the rest. Do you want to try our hand at the shopping?"

"You bet." Ivy sounded determined and enthused. "And if I can get me a hunky salesman to demonstrate his, ahem, equipment, then all the better."

"Ivy!" Willow cracked up. "You're terrible."

"Insatiable," Ivy corrected. "I thought we'd covered this."

"Whatever. What say we go to Cabela's? They've got everything we could possibly need for camping. Even if we don't buy stuff there, we can probably get ideas and recommendations."

"Sounds great. I'll drive; pick you up in an hour?"

"You bet. Thanks, Ivy."

"No problem. I'll make sure to save a hunky salesman for you, too."

"Gee, thanks."

Willow shook her head but smiled as they hung up. She was glad Ivy was going; that would make the trip more fun. Her next phone call was to her brother, who did indeed have a sleeping bag and a tent that held two people, and was happy to lend them to her. He also promised to give her some tips on setting it up when she came to get it.

Pleased, Willow hung up. Maybe she and Ivy could share the tent, she thought, and then realized there was no guarantee they'd be in the same group. She wondered if there would be some sort of buddy system, and hoped so. Her one fear had nothing to do with bugs or fires or anything like that. Willow sighed as she went to get a drink.

You really should get over this, she admonished herself. You were fine. You weren't even really lost, just scared. And mom and dad found you within an hour.

Trying to push the thoughts away didn't help and her mood started to decline, so she decided to go check on her flowers before Ivy came. Working with the bright blooms always cheered her up. She forced herself to concentrate on weeding and not on how frightened she'd been when some friends had led her into the woods and left when she'd been distracted watching a family of rabbits.

By the time Ivy arrived, Willow had managed to put most of it out of her head. It was silly, she told herself. They were going to be in groups and for heaven's sake, it was an Earth Day event to clean up a park, not a survivalist weekend in the rain forest.

"I am really looking forward to this," Ivy said as she drove. "I was kind of iffy at first—you know how Holly can be with her volunteer stuff—but I checked out the park and everything and this could be great." She grimaced. "It's a little depressing, though, to read how people litter in the park and how much trash there is. I mean, God, is it so hard to take a trash bag with you?"

"I think it should be fun," Willow said. "I haven't had a chance to just get away from everything for a long time. I know it's just a short trip but I think it will be nice to be away from the noise and all."

"They did advise taking your cell phone for emergencies, but I'm with you." Ivy nodded. "Sometimes I can't believe how I go from screen to screen all the time. You know, computer at work, iPhone on break, computer at home, then television…."

"Yeah, me too," Willow agreed. "I've been trying to make myself stay off the computer for at least an hour a day. Just to make myself read a book or listen to music without so many distractions."

"Now don’t get me wrong, I'm not looking to go live off the land," Ivy said as she parked the car. "But sometimes you do forget there's a lot of beautiful stuff out there."

"There is." Willow got out of the car and stretched. "And it wouldn't hurt us to make it a little prettier by picking up some trash."

"That's the spirit." Ivy came around and tossed an arm around Willow's shoulders. "Come on, let's go get an electric blanket."

Willow laughed. "Where would you plug it in?"

"Extension cord."

"Kind of defeats the purpose, Ivy."

"Hell with that, I want to be warm."

Willow laughed again as they entered the store, her worries fading. With Ivy around, the trip was sure to be fun.

x-x-x-x

"Oh, now I must need this!" Holly smiled and held the box out towards Clay, who bit back a harsh reply.

"Holly, it's for gutting fish. I don't think we're going to be fishing." He made his voice neutral, since he knew gentle was out of the question. How did I let her brother talk me into this? Ash was going to owe him, and owe him big.

"Oh, gross!" Holly all but threw it back on the shelf.

"Why don't you let me show you the best options for what you need?" Clay tried to wrest control of the shopping expedition. He'd thought Holly would let him lead, but it appeared that when it came to shopping of any sort, Holly put herself in charge. He spoke again when she made to protest. "Holly, please. I do this for a living. You'll enjoy it much more if you have the proper equipment. I'll just make suggestions; final decision will be up to you."

"Whatever you say." Holly fluttered her eyelashes and Clay cringed. Holly was okay, but he didn't think they had a single thing in common. He wished she'd stop flirting, and wondered how to nicely tell her he wasn't interested. Not that she'd given any sign she'd considered that possibility.

Clay guided her down the aisles, pointing out what he thought would be most useful and trying to keep Holly from overspending. Holly didn't seem concerned about that, but Clay saw no point in her laying out money for a tent that would keep a person safe in Antarctica when she was only going to be out for two nights in a state park in the spring.

He managed to talk her into a two-person tent with few frills, a medium-sized back pack, and a down sleeping bag. It was spring but the nights were still cold, Clay reasoned, so that was a good investment. He had one like it.

"Okay, Holly, let's get you some hiking boots." Clay pushed the cart to his right, aiming for the shoes.

"Whatever you say." She smiled again and put her arm through his as he pushed the cart. "And here I thought I could manage with just sneakers."

"Sneakers are okay but I really think you'll be grateful for the boots." Clay counted to ten before continuing. "I'd bring sneakers, just in case, but the boots will have better traction and keep your feet warmer. Wool socks would probably be good, too," he added.

"Oh no!" Holly looked dismayed. "I'm allergic to wool!"

Of course you are . Clay nodded and kept his expression bland, although a scream of frustration fought for release. "No problem. There are lots of options; just go for something warm, and you can always layer."

She nodded and followed along. Clay asked after her parents just to make some conversation, and was distracted enough that when someone bumped into him, he stumbled before regaining his balance.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" The woman who had tripped tried to right herself, which nearly made Clay lose his balance again. On reflex, he tightened one of his hands on the shelf he'd grabbed, then the other around her waist, and she stilled.

Clay straightened but didn't let her go. She felt pretty good, he had to admit. Then he chastised himself. "Are you all right?"

"Yes…yes, thanks." She stepped aside and he released his hand with a pang of regret. She looked up and started to talk, then blushed furiously. Before Clay could ask her anything else, Holly spoke up.

"Willow? What in the world are you doing here?" Holly did not sound pleased.

Clay ignored her and turned to the other woman. "Really, are you okay? I should have been looking where I was pushing the cart."

"No, no, it's my fault." She was flustered and ran a hand through her hair. "I was carrying too much and something started to drop and then I don't know…I just tripped and…."

"It's okay," he assured her. "I'm Clay Wilder." He held out a hand.

"Oh, I'm Willow. Oakton." They shook hands and he liked the feel of hers in his.

"Clay, don't you remember? You met Willow at the party last summer," Holly said.

"I did?" Clay looked down at the woman before him and tried to place her. She had dark blonde hair and he'd caught a glimpse of green eyes and what he was sure were kissable lips. He liked the casual jeans and shirts she wore, which showed off the kinds of curves he liked. Despite all that, he couldn't quite remember if he'd seen her.

"I'm sorry," he said. "My memory must be going. You're too pretty to forget." He groaned to himself. You didn't really say that, did you?

Willow smiled and was about to speak, but Holly broke in again.

"She pushed you into the pool, Clay. You must remember that." Holly crossed her arms and gave Willow a look, then turned back to Clay with a coy smile and pressed one hand on his arm. "Come on. I need to get those boots, remember?"

"Hey, Willow, what's…oh, hi, Holly." Another woman with dark hair and a ready smile came over. She held a hand out to Clay. "Hi, I'm Ivy. Not sure if you remember, but we met at Holly's party last summer. Clay, right?"

"Yes. Hi, nice to meet you." He did remember Ivy, and wondered how he could have forgotten Willow.

"We're here getting ready for the Earth Day trip at the park. Mind if we run our stuff by you?" Ivy asked, then grinned. "Might as well get expert help while we can."

"Sure, no problem." Clay turned to Willow. "Are you coming, too?"

"Um, yeah." She cleared her throat and seemed to collect herself. "Yes, I'm looking forward to it and Ivy's right. If it's not too much trouble, could you give us a quick opinion on what we have so far?"

"Love to. Holly, why don't you head over to the shoes? Tell the salesperson what you're looking for and get two or three pairs and I'll be over in a minute to look at them, okay?"

"Fine." Holly managed a glare at Willow before turning and walking away.

"You'll have to excuse her," Clay said in apology, "she's just…."

"Being Holly," Ivy interrupted with a wink. "We know."

Clay suggested they find a place out of the way so he could help them and led them to a spot near one of the hunting displays. Clay was impressed with their choices; they had put in the thought that Holly hadn't, or wouldn't. He advised them to skip a few things he thought unnecessary for such a short trip, and gave some recommendations on items they had yet to buy.

"Thanks, Clay, this is great." Ivy nodded in satisfaction. "Hey, Willow, wait for me here, okay? I need the ladies' room and then we can grab some food. Bye, Clay. Thanks again." She darted off without waiting for an answer.

Clay was silent for a moment, not sure what to say.

"So, we really appreciate you all coming out to help with the park," he said. "It'll be a big help."

Willow laughed. "Really? A bunch of novice campers? You'll probably be pulling us out of the poison ivy and keeping us from tipping over tree roots."

"Here's a secret: Poison Ivy is…." Willow looked at him intently. "The best Batman villain ever." Clay winked.

Willow stared at him, then couldn't stop a laugh. "Trust me, I know Poison Ivy, both types. My brother had a huge crush on her when he was twelve, and I ran through some once and had it all up my left leg for a week. It was terrible."

Clay laughed, too, then said, "Seriously, the best thing to do is make sure your legs are covered and keep an eye out for the plant. You know what it looks like?"

Willow adopted a solemn tone. "Leaves of three, let it be."

Clay grinned. "You'll do fine." He was reluctant to leave, but he knew Holly must be impatient. He was surprised she hadn't come over to drag him back. He sighed to himself. "It was nice meeting you again, Willow, but I'd better get back to Holly."

"Okay. Thanks, really. This has been so helpful. Ivy and I don't want to be any trouble, so this will give us a great head start." She smiled at him.

"All right, then. See you on Earth Day."

"See you."

x-x-x-x

Ivy restrained herself until they were in the car. "He likes you," she said in a sing-song voice.

"What? What are you talking about?" Willow looked at her, puzzled, as she buckled her seat belt.

"Willow, don't be dense. It doesn't look good on you." Ivy backed the car out of the space and worked her way out of the parking lot. "Clay, dummy. He likes you."

"Oh, God, please don't remind me." Willow buried her face in her hands. "That was so embarrassing. 'She pushed you in the pool.' Did she have to say that?"

"He didn't seem to care."

"He was just being nice." Willow stared out the window. Once Holly had said that, the memory of bumping into Clay at the party had come back in all its vivid, embarrassing detail. How Willow had slipped on the concrete around the in-ground pool, and unable to right herself, had fallen against Clay. How they'd both fallen in a tangle into the pool, sending up a huge splash.

A few other memories surfaced and she bit her lip. How Clay's arm had gone around her waist, just as he'd done in the store, and how he'd felt just as warm and strong against her as he had at the party. She thought of how he'd helped her out of the pool and how she must have looked like a drowned rat, her clothes soaked and plastered to her body, her hair hanging down in ragged wet tails. She'd had to borrow a robe while waiting for her clothes to try, since she hadn't brought a swim suit with her.

At least today I didn't need a towel, she thought. Still, for God's sake—the man probably thought she had inner ear balance problems.

She and Ivy chatted as they drove, and Willow was grateful Ivy dropped the subject of Clay Wilder.

"Well, here you go. Thanks for coming, Willow." Ivy pulled up to the curb. "Need help getting stuff inside?"

"No, I'm good, thanks. And thanks for the ride. I'll talk to you later."

"Okay. We'll work out details for Friday. I can probably drive if you want." Ivy stretched as Willow unloaded her purchases from the trunk. "I'm such a control freak. That's why I never ask you to drive."

"No problem. Saves me gas money," Willow teased.

"Bye, Willow." Ivy gave her a mischievous grin. "Remember, I'm never wrong about these things. He likes you. You've swept him off his feet twice!"

"Oh, Ivy, that's awful." Willow groaned. "Please, don’t keep reminding me."

Her friend laughed. "Lighten up, kiddo. Take it easy."

Willow waved and went up to the house. She pondered the upcoming trip as she brought everything into the house, and wondered if she'd be in Clay's group.

x-x-x-x

Clay nodded to his fellow rangers as they filed into the room. Adam was there, along with Sandy Audubon and Brooke Goodall. They talked sports while they got coffee and settled into the chairs in the room while they waited for the other rangers to arrive. Four more men showed up, grabbed their coffee, and sat down.

"Okay, guys." Clay spoke up and they all turned their attention to him. "Tomorrow is the Earth Day event, and we have the volunteers coming to help clean up the park. The bosses want this to go smoothly."

"Yeah, that'll happen." Brooke scoffed and the others gave wry smiles.

"I know, I know." Clay raised a hand and they settled down. "We've got a list of about fifty, and I figure there will be some last-minute cancellations. So we should each have about ten or twelve in our groups."

"They realize there's no hot tubs, right?" asked Brooke, grinning. "No espresso machines?" Brooke was a rough-and-tumble, tomboy type who had been raised on hunting and camping.

"Come on, Goodall." Clay arched an eyebrow, then grinned in return.

"She's got a point," Sandy said. "You know there's always a few who expect the park to be just like home but with more windows."

"Guys, look, I know a few of the people coming, and they're pretty down-to-earth." Clay snickered as they groaned at the pun. "It won't be that bad. They were smart about packing, and asked for advice, so if they're an example, we should be in good shape."

"Cool." Brooke downed her coffee. "Anything else, Clay? I need to make my patrol."

With that, the meeting broke up and Clay went back to his desk to start the paperwork that never seemed to end. He filled out forms, then remembered he needed to get waiver forms for the volunteers. Nothing says 'Thanks for helping' like asking people not to sue, he thought with a sigh. He found a stack and slid them into a folder that he put aside for the next day.

Clay hoped he hadn't been too optimistic with telling the others he thought the volunteers would be easy to deal with. He was basing his opinion on Willow, Ivy, Holly and Ash, Holly's brother. A reasonable sample, he decided.

He smiled as his thoughts went back to Willow. She'd looked so embarrassed at the mention of the pool incident, but he remembered it differently.

At the party, he'd just gotten out of the pool and stepped aside to talk to Holly's mother. He'd noticed a pretty woman with blonde hair off to his side, and wondered who she was. He'd seen the accident coming: someone had left a pair of shoes by the side of the pool and the blonde hadn't seen them, and had tripped and stumbled.

Clay had reached out to steady her, but she'd landed too heavily and they'd both gone into the water.

It wasn't so bad, though . Even now he smiled at the memory. She hadn’t panicked, just sputtered a bit when they came up from the water. She had felt nice against him, he thought. Soft curves that had been highlighted by her clinging clothes; he hadn't minded that at all. He'd meant to get her name, but once she was out of the pool, she'd dashed into the house and he'd been handed a towel and recruited for grilling duty.

She still felt pretty good, he thought as he got up from the desk. He decided to cut over and catch Brooke on her patrol; Clay had been stuck inside all day and was desperate to get out and breathe the clean forest air. He wondered if he could get Willow into his camping group without being too obvious.

x-x-x-x

Willow woke up on Friday, stretched and rolled over. Taking the day off was a great idea, she thought. She'd originally planned to take a half day, but the week had been beyond hectic and she'd worked until nearly eight every night, so she'd gone for the full day. With a smile, she let herself fall back to sleep for another hour, then got up.

She grabbed a shower and decided to do some cleaning, figuring it'd be nice to come home to a clean house after a couple of nights in the woods. After talking to her brother, a camping enthusiast, and receiving the last informational email about the excursion, she felt less anxious.

Everyone would meet around six o'clock that evening, hike a little to a camping spot and set up for the night. The next day, they'd hike deeper into the woods and work on cleaning up. There would be rest and meal breaks, and they'd work their way back around to the campsite. The following morning, they'd hike back. Willow thought it sounded like fun, and was glad she'd signed up.

Cleaning kept her hands busy and her mind occupied, but Clay still broke into her thoughts. She shook her head at herself and sighed. He was nice, but then, he's a nice guy. And Holly is after him. That would have been obvious to a blind person, she thought.

After Ivy had returned from the restrooms at the store, they'd eaten and then finished shopping, every so often crossing paths with Clay and Holly. Willow and Ivy had had to fight to keep from laughing at the fluttering eyelashes, the doe eyes, and the way Holly had taken every opportunity to hang on Clay's arm. Ivy had also pointed out that Holly had all but gone in the opposite direction every time the pairs met; it was clear that Holly had meant to keep Clay focused on herself.

Ah well , Willow thought, it's not like you can blame her. He's a good-looking guy. She turned her attention to cleaning and packing. By the time Ivy arrived a bit before five, she didn't think she could be any more prepared.

"Hey, Willow, what's this?" Ivy picked up a black device, a little bigger than a cell phone, with a small screen.

"Oh, it's a GPS. For walking, though, not for driving."

"You weren't going to bring this, were you?" Ivy looked at her. "I mean, come on, we'll be in a group. It's a state park, not the lost world."

"I thought about it, but no." Willow stared down at it. "I never could get it to work, and I'm not sure I'd know how to read it anyway. But I don't know, I thought about it." She bit her lip. "What can I say? You know how I am about getting lost."

"I promise we won't lose you." Ivy smiled and patted her shoulder. "Let's go."

x-x-x-x

Clay watched as people started arriving. He checked his watch; not quite six o'clock. The sun was still up—Hurray for daylight savings time, he thought—and he was anxious to get the final head count and get moving. It would be dark by eight, probably earlier, and he wanted everyone to reach the camping sites before full dark.

He gritted his teeth into what he hoped was a smile and waved at Holly as he saw her pull up. He liked Holly well enough, he thought; it was just that he wasn't interested.

"Looks like a decent crowd." Adam came up beside him.

"Looks like." Clay nodded. "Our last count was around forty-three, but we'll see how many show up. Not sure it'll actually be quite that many, but that might be good."

"I guess."

"Come on, Fossey. They're donating their time when they don’t have to, and we should appreciate that."

"I can appreciate her." Adam let out a low whistle.

Clay turned a bemused grin in the direction his friend was looking, and then he clenched his jaw. Willow was stepping out of a little green car. If Adam was thinking about Willow…Clay took a breath. It wasn’t like Willow was his, after all. Then Ivy stepped into view and he saw a grin spread over Adam's face.

"Now there is a woman I wouldn't mind sharing a sleeping bag with."

Clay laughed. "Easy, tiger. You don't even know her."

"Yet."

"Be nice to me, Fossey. I know her."

Adam turned. "No shit? You do? Introduce me."

Clay considered. "You fill out the paperwork for a week if I do."

"All right, but no putting me down when you do the introductions."

"Deal."

Clay hoped to get over and say hello to Willow and Ivy, but Holly got to him first, and by the time he extracted himself, he had to organize the volunteers.

He went over to Brooke, who had gotten started handing out name tags and waiver forms. That had been Sandy's idea; he'd pointed out that with so many people, it would help to be able to call names instead of "Hey, you in the black shirt!" Clay had agreed, figuring that anything which made this easier was worth doing. Sandy stood next to Brooke, collecting the waivers as people signed them.

The final count was forty-eight. Before dividing the groups up, Clay asked for anyone with any camping experience to raise their hands. He was pleased to find about eight people, including Willow's friend Ivy, although Willow herself stood back.

"All right. Everyone, if I could have your attention?" Clay raised his voice and the volunteers turned to him. "My name is Clay Wilder, I'm the guy in charge, and these are my fellow rangers." He introduced Sandy, Brooke, Adam and the others who would help lead. Each raised a hand as Clay called out their name.

"We're going to divide up into groups. When your name is called, please go over to the table there and grab a t-shirt. They're a small thank you for your help, and color-coded to help everyone stay together. After that, your group leaders will come over and explain the rest of the trip to you. We really appreciate everyone's help, and hope you have a good time."

Clay began calling out names, making sure to put at least one experienced camper in each group. Exercising what might have been a small abuse of power, he assigned both Willow and Ivy to his group, then after a pause, added Holly. Flirting or not, she had worked to organize recruits and he had to remember that.

At last they were sorted into red, yellow, blue and orange groups. The t-shirts would be more useful the next day, when people separated into smaller clean up groups. Clay and Adam took the red group, Sandy and Brooke blue, and the remaining four rangers were split between yellow and orange.

As everyone went back for their gear, Holly came over to him. Clay steeled himself.

"Oh, Clay, I'm so excited to be in your group." She gave him a bright smile. "I'll feel so much safer with you."

He cleared his throat. "I'm sure it'll be fun. Why don't you go over with the rest of the group, Holly? I need to do a couple of things and then I'll be right there."

"Looking forward to it." Holly gave him a coy look before leaving.

Adam caught him as he walked over to his group. "That was slick, man. Thanks."

"Hey, I'll introduce you. That's all. You'll have to trap…I mean, charm her all on your own."

"Yeah, yeah." Adam shook his head, then grinned. "Actually, this should be fun. One of the campers is a guy I knew in high school, and another has been through Army training. He'll probably be telling us what to do."

Clay clapped Adam on the shoulder as the other man went over to the volunteers. He went back to his checklists and got a face full of clipboard when he bumped into someone.

"Oh! Oh, I'm sorry! I'm so clumsy, I…." A feminine voice trailed off.

Moving his clipboard aside, Clay smiled when he saw Willow. "Hi there. Don't worry about it. My fault, I wasn't looking where I was going."

"No, I was trying to get this bag, but it tangled here and I just…." Willow sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm really not usually this much of a klutz."

"Just around me?" Clay teased, and she blushed.

"It's coincidence, I guess," she managed.

"Not a problem," he assured her. "Come on, let me help you. We'll take this over, I'll give everyone an overview, and then we'll get moving."

He grabbed Willow's pack and they walked over. "Hey, this looks well-packed."

"Thanks. My brother helped me. He camps a lot. He wanted to come, actually, but he was on call this weekend."

"Looks like he taught you well." Clay handed her the bag back as they reached his group. She smiled her thanks and stepped over to stand next to Ivy.

"Okay, everybody. Again, my name is Clay and Adam and I will be your guides. Let me get these preliminaries out of the way, then feel free to ask questions. We'll be heading up to a campsite tonight, not too far, and we should be there by dark. Then we'll set up tents, make some dinner, and hit the sack. Tomorrow we'll pack up and start the clean up and work our way back to the camp. Then the next day we'll work our way back here, but no real schedule, so feel free to take pictures, video, whatever. Any questions?"

The group shook their heads and Clay was pleased. They all seemed willing and eager, and since no one voiced any complaints about sleeping outside, he figured he was off to a good start.

x-x-x-x

"Oh, this is so nice." Willow looked up at the trees and smiled as she took a deep breath. "I'm so glad we did this, Ivy." The sun was setting, and the gold, red, and oranges of the light filtered through the leaves.

"Me, too." Ivy looked around. "I love spring, when the flowers are coming out, and the trees are such rich shades of green. You know, maybe I should be a ranger."

"Maybe you should. I know you hate being inside so much with your job."

"Yeah, but it pays well." Ivy sighed. "I hate it when the practicalities of life interfere with your dreams."

"You should think about it, though. Maybe there's just something else you could do that would get you out of the office, even if it isn't being a ranger."

"I should, I really should. Hey, maybe I can ask Clay about it, if he has time. See what goes into training and all."

"Good idea." Willow nodded. "I'm not sure it's for me, though. I'll just have to keep recycling my aluminum cans."

Ivy laughed. "Every little bit helps."

"You ladies all right?" Clay came up to them.

"Yes, fine." Willow smiled, for once too caught up in her surroundings to feel nervous around him. "I was just saying how beautiful it is here. I like to take care of my flowers, and have a garden, but this…." She spread her arms out. "This is the kind of thing we forget about and think will always be there."

"Very true." Clay nodded and smiled at her enthusiasm. "I like to think I'm doing a little part towards keeping it around."

"I'm sure you do a great job." Willow looked at Ivy. "Ivy was just saying she might want to be a ranger."

"Well, I'm not sure," Ivy spoke up quickly. "I'm not dumb enough to think you just read a nature book and put on the uniform. But I used to love being outdoors when I was little, and camping, and now it just feels like I'm hermetically sealed in my office."

"If you want to talk about it, let me know," Clay told her. "Might be easier after the trip, and I do have some brochures I can give you when we get back."

"Fantastic!" Ivy grinned. "Thanks so much."

"Quite welcome. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think Holly's about to meet Batman." He strode off.

"What the hell did that mean?" Ivy stared.

Willow laughed. "Poison ivy. Holly's about to step in some, and she's wearing those silly crop pants. Trust me, you want Clay to catch her, or the rest of this trip will be miserable."

"Why didn't she wear jeans?"

Willow sighed. "My best guess is she didn't really think it through. Plus, remember how she was at Cabela's? I have a feeling she thinks capris do more for her than jeans."

Ivy snorted. "What a doof."

"Keep it down," Willow hissed but couldn't stifle a laugh. "Come on, it's terrible having that. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

After another half an hour, with the sun setting, Clay called a halt to the hike. "Okay, everybody. This is where we'll stay tonight. Why don’t you get started setting up your tents, and let me and Adam know if you need any help."

Ivy and Willow dug out their tent and began assembling it. Willow was glad her brother had shown her how to do it before, and she and Ivy had little trouble. As they worked, a dismayed cry made them look at each other and shake their heads.

"Clay!" Holly wailed. "This isn't going according to the instructions!"

"Hold on, Holly," he called back.

Willow and Ivy watched as Clay worked with another volunteer, exchanged a few words, then came over to them.

"Could you two do me a big favor and see if anyone else needs help?" Clay jerked his head towards Holly. "I think I better go."

"Sure." Willow nodded and looked at Holly, who sat on the ground, a tent pole in each hand. She would have been the epitome of dejection if not for the fluttering of her eyelashes. They managed not to laugh for a few minutes.

x-x-x-x

A little later, the tents were up, a fire was going, and everyone sat around chatting. Clay was relieved that everyone got along, although Holly seemed to want to get along with him more than anyone else. She'd sat next to him with no invitation and had inched closer to him every minute. By reflex, he inched away and realized he'd scooted so close to Willow that he was about to knock her over. With a sigh, he sat up and asked Holly to move back in the other direction.

Adam, he noted, found more than one excuse to talk to Ivy.

As they talked about the next day, one woman raised her hand in a tentative fashion. "Um, excuse me, but…what do we do about bathrooms? I mean, I know bears shit in the woods, but I'd rather not."

That got a round of laughter.

"No problem. Did you see the porta-johns as we came in?" Clay asked her. She shook her head. "Okay, see the path here?" He aimed his flashlight a little to the right of the circle to show a well-trodden path. "Follow it this way—" He moved the flashlight along the path a few feet. "—and you'll see them after about twenty or thirty yards."

"Hold on, I'll go with you." Ivy stood, dusted off the seat of her jeans and grabbed her flashlight. "Anybody else?" A couple more people got up and the group headed off.

"You know, Clay, this is so romantic." Holly put a dreamy face on, and Clay had to bite his cheek to keep from groaning. He saw Willow turn and try to hide a smile in a yawn. "An open, warm fire, out under the stars…I don't know why I don't do it more often."

Lack of central air and heat, he thought but didn’t say. He'd known Ash and Holly's family for years, and never once had she expressed interest in camping.

"You may not think that tomorrow," he told her, "after you've been cleaning and walking all day. A bed indoors might look pretty attractive."

"Only if you were in it with me." Holly gave him that coy look again and he nearly choked.

Did she really say that? He was mortified and saw Willow laughing behind her hand.

"Well, um, that's nice, Holly, but…." He turned to Willow. "Anyway, you've been pretty quiet, Willow. Having a good time so far?"

"What? Oh, yes, thanks." She coughed to clear her throat, gave in to one last giggle, then composed herself. "It's a lovely park. I haven't been here often, but my brother comes quite a bit and has nothing but good things to say. I know I'll fall back into my old habits, but it is so nice to be away from computers and phones and everything else. Just for a while."

"It sure is," spoke up another man. He was in his fifties, balding and had also shaken off his own laughing fit. "I just realized while we were walking that I haven't had a vacation in two years, and the last one was spent almost entirely inside. That is going to change. When I think about how I was a kid, and we spent so much time outside…." He shook his head.

"You do wonder what happens." A young woman, maybe twenty-one, nodded in agreement. "I mean, I used to go bike riding, or take walks with my friends, and now it's all library and classes and studying…I'm going to try studying outside when it's warmer."

The bathroom group returned and took up their places, and more of them chimed in with their reminiscences of and wishes for being outside more and inside less. Clay found himself appreciating his job anew. Sure, he had paperwork, and personnel issues like anyone else, but at least he could get out and breathe whenever he needed, and not just on a sidewalk downtown.

"Well, I guess it's my turn." Willow bit her lip. "Anyone else need a bathroom break?"

Clay watched as she played with the flashlight, nervous fingers drumming on the handle.

"Oh, I guess I do." Holly stood up.

"Okay, let's go." Willow took a deep breath, shined her light on the path, and walked over, Holly behind with her own light.

Clay noticed Ivy staring after the two women with concern. "She okay?" Clay asked. The other campers had fallen into conversation amongst themselves.

"Yeah, she's fine, but…." Ivy shrugged. "She's just nervous about getting lost. I should have gone with her."

"I'm sure she'll be fine." Clay tried to reassure her. "It's not that far, after all."

Ivy nodded and turned to Adam, asking if he had time to talk about becoming a ranger, and he was happy to answer her questions. Clay noticed her eyes kept darting back to the path and couldn't stop his from doing the same. After a few minutes, Holly came back alone. He frowned.

"Where's Willow?" Ivy jumped up and asked before Clay could.

"In one of the porta-potties." Holly rolled her eyes. "What, are you two joined at the hip?"

"Why didn’t you wait for her?"

"Oh please." Holly huffed out a breath. "She told me I didn’t have to. What are you, her mother?"

Ivy stomped off with her flashlight, muttering to herself.

"For God's sake." Holly dropped down next to Clay again. "What, is Willow a baby or something? She's being ridiculous."

Clay turned and looked at her, studying her expression. He'd thought Holly was just flirting—heavily—with him, but now he saw an expression in her eyes as she stared after Ivy that he didn't like.

"Holly, it's not smart to leave someone alone like that. She could trip over something and get hurt, even with the flashlight. One thing about camping, you need to watch out for each other."

Holly's voice was tight. "They're barely a hundred feet away. What could happen?"

Clay resisted the urge to throttle her when Ivy and Willow came back into the circle. He was relieved, even though he doubted anything would happen. He noticed that Willow looked pale, although it could have been the light from the fire playing on her features.

Ivy led her back and they sat down again. Ivy glared at Holly as Willow wrapped her arms around herself and took deep breaths. Ignoring Holly, Clay got up and moved to sit on Willow's other side.

"You okay? You look a little shaky. See a bear?" He kept his tone light.

Willow gave him a wan smile. "No, no bears. Maybe a moose."

He laughed, glad to see she could joke about it, then turned serious and put a hand on her arm. Ignoring the pleasant shock that went through him at the touch, he said, "Listen, anything like that happens again, don’t be afraid to call out. Just stay where you are and give a yell. Sound carries pretty good out here, and someone will find you."

"Okay, thanks." Willow nodded.

I'll find you , he thought and stayed next to her until everyone went to bed.

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