Willa Bennette surveyed the freshly turned field that was bordered by a mix of green cypress and pine trees. It was the last thing to check off her to-do list before leaving on this trip. She could smell the fresh soil as it began to warm under the midmorning sun, and it was a scent Willa could never get enough of. She stepped over the primitive border log that edged the field. It was no more than a foot high, yet Willa managed to catch the toe of her boot when she misjudged the height. She stumbled several steps forward into the soft dirt as she recovered her balance, but not without a zing of frustration.
As much as she tried to ignore it, or pretend it wasn’t happening, there was no denying that Willa’s vision was progressively getting worse, and it was now to the point that it was affecting her depth perception. Eventually, the sight in her right eye would blur, darken, and fade into complete darkness. Willa closed her bad eye and peered out over the field wondering how she was ever going to get used to the fact that one day she would be partially blind. She crouched down and took a handful of soil in her hand, then brought it to her face and closed both eyes. Willa inhaled the earthy scent of the land. Her land. The smells around her gave her a sense of peace and tranquility, and she could feel the tension in her muscles fade away. Feelings she once thought she’d never have again. Willa wondered if her other senses would heighten as her vision faded away. She let the dirt filter through her fingers and paused in the moment trying to slow the passage of time. She took a deep, satisfying breath and let it out slowly. It was times like this, when she was alone with nature, that she had no desire to be anywhere else. She stood, clapped the dust from her hands, and made her way back toward the house.
She had always dreamed of having her own farm. It was one of several dreams that she gave up the moment Dr. Carter sat her down and uttered the unexpected word, cancer. As soon as the word was spoken, Willa had set a plan into motion that would ensure those around her would be sheltered from the process and the outcome, good or bad. While the diagnosis and its aftermath had devastated Willa’s life in nearly every way, she had survived.
Willa never discussed the “C-word” with anyone, not even her brother and business partner, Kyle. He had no idea the effects that the chemotherapy and radiation had on her physically or emotionally, and he most certainly didn’t know that she was steadily going blind as a result of her treatment. Her treatment had no visible effects on her. There were no scars, no hair loss, and no uncontrollable nausea. All in all, the worst of it was the surgery to implant the radioactive plaque directly onto her eyeball over the tumor inside the eye. Then she spent five days in quarantine in the hospital wearing leaded safety glasses. She had no computer, no cell phone, and no visitors outside of the hospital staff.
Willa didn’t want sympathy or sad looks. She didn’t want anyone going out of their way or changing their life to help her, and she refused to have anyone treat her differently because of it. Yet, as much as she avoided discussing it with others, she had a constant reminder she could never escape. Willa had done what she needed to do each step of the way. She received the diagnosis, began treatment, and got scanned every six weeks. But even now she hadn’t truly processed everything that had happened over the last three years of her life, at least not in the way everyone else thought she should.
Until she began to lose her vision, she had been able to compartmentalize the events surrounding her illness. She tried to keep it separate from her life. If she didn’t, she was afraid that she would be too scared to move on for fear of it returning or spreading within her body. Willa couldn’t live like that. How could anyone live with a constant fear of death looming over them every moment of the day and night? It was bad enough she had such a reminder every four months when she went to Miami for her routine scans and the inescapable anxiety that accompanied them.
One of the ways Kyle thought she should deal with things was to attend a group camp in the Colorado Rockies. He had come to her a few months earlier with an acceptance letter from Valiant Adventures for her to attend a cancer survivor camp. She appreciated that he cared enough to submit an application on her behalf, but she was also annoyed by his audacity at taking it upon himself to sign her up for six days of misery in the mountains. How could commiserating with a group of cancer patients in the middle of nowhere be anyone’s idea of a good time? She had combated the disease and won, that’s all that had mattered to her.
Kyle heaved the duffel into the back of the black pickup. It landed with a booming thud. “What on earth do you have in this thing, Will?”
“I don’t know, everything. The list of crap was damn near two pages long.” Willa might have overcompensated and packed an extra this or that just in case. Her entire body was awhirl with anxiety and anticipation and not in a good way. She hadn’t slept at all the night before thinking about the coming days. When Kyle had come to her with this idea, she had no intention of actually going on this trip. That was until she had some time to think about it and go over the packet of materials they had included with her acceptance letter. The brochures and pamphlets were filled with images of smiling campers on horseback on a beautiful, historic ranch surrounded by whitewater rivers and mountain lakes. There wouldn’t be enough time to even think about cancer with all the activities that were planned for the week. And that, Willa was more than okay with. Even still, a part of her felt guilty leaving her brother to tend to their farm on his own. “I don’t have to go, Kyle. There are a ton of things we could be doing around here instead of—”
Though she was still a bit hesitant with the idea of spending a week with complete strangers, Willa was excited about her trip. It had been years since Willa had taken any time to step away from life. Truthfully, the last major adventure she’d been on was to Wyoming and the Grand Tetons with her ex-girlfriend, Haven. It had been their last trip as a couple and the most memorable time in her life. Less than a month after they returned, her world imploded, and Willa chose to make the most painful decision in her life. She left Haven. Without reason or explanation, Willa walked out on her, the life they had built, and the future they had planned together. As soon as the doctor uttered the word cancer, Willa vowed that she would not put Haven through the agony of seeing her suffer, becoming her caregiver, or God forbid, watching her die.
Her chest tightened and she tried to swallow around the lump in her throat known as guilt and regret as she remembered the painful months following her diagnosis and the devastating heartbreak she inflicted not only on Haven, but on herself as well. Her life had changed in such a short time. Willa still had days where she wondered what would’ve happened had she not made the decision she had. There was no use worrying about such things now. It had been three years since all that, and she wouldn’t be where she was had it not all gone down the way it had. The way she had arranged it.
“Enough, Will. You’re going. For once, take some time for yourself. You need it.”
Willa hopped into the rusty pickup, and the engine sputtered to life. She was going to cancer camp. The best she could hope for was a week of fun and adventure, trying new things, and doing as little talking about her cancer as possible. Although she knew that was almost as unlikely as Kyle making it a week without cutting off a finger doing something stupid.
Willa looked back toward the farm as they bumped down the gravel drive to the road and she felt her chest swell with pride. She could still hardly believe that what she was looking at was hers. Well, hers and Kyle’s. Three years earlier, every hope and dream she had seemed lost, either snatched from her or tossed away. But then came the day when she heard Dr. Carter tell her that the treatment had worked. However, with the good news came the bad. He warned her that due to its proximity to her retinal nerve it was possible that she could lose some or even all of the sight in that eye. He didn’t seem overly concerned until her first scan and vision test. The tumor had maintained its size, but they were already seeing a slight reduction in clarity of her vision. It seemed that she would in fact lose sight in her left eye. She didn’t feel the need to tell anyone, including Kyle. Willa never talked about her treatment or prognosis with him, and he knew her well enough never to ask.
With the tumor under control, Willa began to work toward gathering the pieces of her life back together. She had closed herself off from everyone, except for Kyle, and that was only due to his unyielding commitment to always be around. Even if she never told him, she was glad for his companionship. When Willa had the idea to move forward with her dream of buying a piece of land to start a farm, there was no question that she would want Kyle to be her partner. Besides Haven, he was the only person she could make it work with. She might not have been able to salvage the wreckage of her previous life from the choices she had made, and cancer might have taken everything else from her, but if she could make this venture work she would ask for nothing more from the time she had left on this earth.
As they got closer to the airport, Willa got more and more reluctant about getting on the flight. With these memories bombarding her, she started to feel uneasy about the trip. She wasn’t afraid of flying as much as she was uncomfortable with the unknown. Plus, she was leaving Kyle on his own to tend to her responsibilities. She had grown used to having very few people around her on a daily basis, and she wasn’t going to know a single person on this trip. Willa felt her stomach churn and her breathing quicken at the thought of having to talk about herself, about her cancer in front of a bunch of strangers. Hell, she hardly knew the person she had become over the last few years, and now she would have to talk about herself? She had a sudden desire to jump out of the moving truck and run in the opposite direction of the airport. She rubbed her temples, trying to ease the headache that was now threatening to take over her entire head. This was going to be a long week.
Haven Thorne closed her eyes and steeled herself before the reverend called her to the pulpit. It wasn’t the first time that she’d been called before the congregation and guests to express her deepest condolences for the loss of their friend. “Thank you all for being here to celebrate the life of our dear friend, Falsey Daniels. A beautiful soul whisked away from us by the bane that is cancer. So many times I have been asked why I choose to fight alongside these brave men and women as they battle whatever comes at them. My answer is simple, because I am one of them.” Haven finished her eulogy and dabbed the tears that clung to her lashes.
In what seemed like a lifetime ago, Haven had been a victim of cancer. She had been diagnosed when she was seventeen after a rapidly growing mass was discovered on her thyroid. Within months, what had started as a small lump had grown to the size of a golf ball. As a self-conscious teen in her senior year of high school, Haven had simply done what she could to hide the growth and pretend it would just go away on its own. It hadn’t.
“Haven, what is that?” Willa asked.
Haven covered the large lump at the base of throat. “It’s nothing. Just a knot.”
Willa grabbed Have’s hand and moved it out of the way to expose the knot on her neck. “This isn’t nothing, Haven. Do your parents know about this?” Willa’s face flushed white.
That was all it had taken before all hell broke loose in her life. The next few weeks were a buzz with doctor visits, waiting, biopsies, waiting, CT scan, bone scans, blood tests, always followed by more waiting. She could still recall the fear in everyone’s eyes when the results determined that it was in fact cancer. She had cancer. How could this be happening? She was only seventeen.
The whole time, Willa had never left her side. She was there with her on the day of her surgery, holding her hand and talking about everything they still had yet to do in their lives.
“We could take a gap year and backpack across Europe. Or we could move out to Colorado and work as ranch hands for minimum wage.” Willa did whatever she could to keep Haven’s mind on the future.
“You’ve been my rock through all of this.” She knew that there wasn’t anyone else she wanted to spend her future with. “I love you, Willa.” Somewhere in the middle of the worst days of her life, she had fallen in love with her best friend. The last thing she remembered before they took her to the operating room were the soft, warm lips pressed against hers.
In the end, Haven had been lucky. The tumor was centralized to her thyroid, and she was able to avoid both chemotherapy and radiation. Of course, she was now forced to take daily medications to compensate for hormones her body could no longer produce. For years, it had become the only reminder of her cancer battle, and in her mind, she got off far easier than so many others.
Haven returned to her seat and sat next to Bianca Nathan and let her own hand be held in Bianca’s lap. She wasn’t always opposed to public displays of affection. Sometimes, Haven felt that Bianca’s constant adorations and declarations were a bit over the top, but she always knew when Haven needed a little external support, whether it was a hand or a hug, or even a boost of confidence when she was feeling low on self-esteem. Their relationship was still quite new to Haven, both personally and professionally. She was just getting used to the directions her life was taking, but she was thankful to have someone like Bianca supporting her as she explored this life she was making for herself.
Her road out to Colorado was an interesting one. For Haven, her cancer had always been just a blip on the radar. Save for her anxiety disorder, it wasn’t an issue that came up often or affected her in any significant way. As strange as it was, most of the time she actually forgot that she’d had it unless some stranger noticed the scar on her throat and asked her about it. Which, awkwardly enough, was how she eventually found herself on a plane to Colorado to attend Valiant Adventures. As fate would have it, she met a fellow cancer survivor, Caitlyn, when she began dating one of her friends back home. It was her experience with melanoma that led her to Valiant as a means of meeting others dealing with cancer and learning how to keep living in spite of it. While Haven had thought she was doing a fine job of living beyond cancer, she had no idea just how much it had truly affected the decisions she made every day. Caitlyn helped her see that no cancer is easy, and that Haven still found herself obsessing over every odd bump or pain wondering if it might be the disease making its return to her life.
Once she made the decision to attend the camp, she learned so much in just six days with ten survivors on the rivers of Colorado. It changed her life, but more than that, it gave her life back. She could help others the way Caitlyn had helped her. She found a family and they filled her with hope and purpose. Haven was now dedicated to Valiant and helping other cancer patients find their new normal and the strength to keep up the fight. Unfortunately, there were times when that also included saying a final good-bye to them when they were too weak to go on.
After the service, everyone flowed out of the church. Haven and Bianca mixed and mingled briefly on the steps outside of the church before saying good-bye and heading to the car. “I still don’t understand how you do it,” Bianca said, holding the passenger door open for Haven.
“Because it makes such a difference in their lives. Before it’s too late.”
“But they always die. You make friends and then they die.” Bianca closed the door and circled around to the driver’s side.
Haven had answered this question before. Not just from Bianca, but from just about everyone she’d ever talked to about her dedication to the nonprofit camp she volunteered with. She took a deep breath as Bianca slipped into the car. “They don’t always die. And if they do lose the battle, I know that for a time they lived. Truly lived, and I get to be a part of that. I get to see them in their happiest moments, living in spite of the disease that is trying its damndest to kill them.”
“It just seems like a lot of loss to purposely set yourself up for, you know?”
“None of us are getting out of here alive, Bianca. Valiant gives them a chance to experience life, even for a short time. It gives them hope. It gave me hope.”
“And it brought you to me, and for that I am thankful. You’re an amazing woman, Haven. I love you.” Haven smiled as Bianca reached once again for her hand and rested them on the console between them.
As they approached the next intersection, Haven blurted out, “Wait, turn here!”
“What? You’re not coming home with me?” Bianca asked.
“I can’t, hon. I’m leaving for camp in the morning, and I haven’t gotten any of my stuff together yet,” Haven said.
“You do this every time.” Bianca laughed. “Are you serious? I don’t know how you manage to get anything done sometimes.”
“That’s what I have you for, remember? At least that’s what you constantly tell me. You can always come stay with me and leave in the morning when I do.”
“Do you have to go away to camp this time? I’d like us to spend some actual time together.”
Haven sensed what was coming next. They were minutes from her apartment, but she didn’t think they were going to get there before Bianca would get to ask her question. No matter how hard she pressed her foot into the floorboard, the car wouldn’t go any faster.
“Why don’t you just move in with me? Then we don’t have to spend half our time arranging our relationship around all our commitments.” Bianca pulled into the parking spot but made no move to exit the vehicle, which meant neither could Haven.
“Bianca, you know I’m not ready for that. We’ve only known each other a short while and have dated barely half that time. I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“It’s a fine idea if you think about it. We could combine our professional and personal relationship into one perfect package. And I wouldn’t have to keep asking you how your portraits are coming along. I could see it for myself.”
Haven always felt that the moment she would make art her career that it would no longer be fun for her. She didn’t like to be told what to do, and she certainly did not like being hovered over. Whether it was in her life, love, or career, she had always found it difficult to meet any sort of deadline. The best way to get her not to do something was to tell her she had to. And that hadn’t changed just because she had moved to Colorado and gotten involved with Bianca, her artist agent. She decided that she wasn’t going to think about that right now.
“Oh, wow. Um. How about we go inside?” There was nothing Haven wanted less than someone standing over her shoulder watching her work. The idea almost made her never want to pick up a brush ever again. Haven headed into the house.
“So, is that a yes?” Bianca asked, following Haven inside and closing the door behind her.
Haven took a deep breath and strode toward Bianca. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “Bianca, I like things the way they are right now, and I can think of several different things I’d much rather be doing than talking about this, again.” Haven traced a finger along Bianca’s collarbone. Haven dipped her head and ran her tongue along the taut muscle leading up to her ear. Bianca purred.
“Now? We just got back from—ahhh.” Haven flicked open a button and slid her hand into Bianca’s shirt. She cupped a full breast in her palm and pinched a nipple roughly between her fingers until it rose in response. Bianca sucked a quick breath through her teeth.
“Everyone has sex after a funeral. Plus, I leave tomorrow for an entire week. A whole week without sex is the worst part about these trips.” Haven quickly worked the buttons of Bianca’s shirt open. This was just one of the things she’d rather do than discuss a question she had no intention of answering. She slipped Bianca’s shirt down off her shoulders and dug her nails into her soft and supple skin. Goose bumps rose over her own body as Bianca groaned from the sting.
“Mm, somebody wants to play rough, I see,” Bianca said.
Haven stepped back and feigned innocence before Bianca lurched forward and took a handful of Haven’s long hair and wrapped it around her wrist. Haven gasped at the jolt of electricity and heat that flooded her body. Bianca controlled Haven’s movements and pulled her close, tilting her head to the side and exposing Haven’s neck.
“Take me,” Haven demanded as she offered herself to Bianca. As Bianca leaned in to lick Haven’s delicate skin, Haven ran her hand down to the zippered seam of Bianca’s tight pants. She felt an unexpected yet familiar bulge and her heart raced with anticipation. “You naughty girl.” To think that Bianca had packed for a funeral with every intention of taking Haven whenever and wherever she’d asked sent waves of need through her.
Bianca held all the control with one hand wrapped tightly in Haven’s hair. She spun her around and bent her over the back of the couch. She tossed up Haven’s skirt and squeezed her ass. Haven moaned with desire. Bianca pushed her panties down and ran her fingers through Haven’s wet folds.
Bianca released Haven’s hair and freed her silicone cock from the boxer briefs. Once free, she slid inside Haven with a commanding thrust. Bianca gripped Haven’s hips and pushed deep inside her, claiming her, taking her. Haven opened herself up and let Bianca take everything she wanted. Everything except for her heart.
Haven pulled into the driveway and honked the horn. As she waited, she connected her cell phone via Bluetooth so she could access her music files on the drive. This was one of her favorite parts of camp week, the drive up into the majestic Rocky Mountains. To make it even better, her dear friend Wendy was coming along for the ride. She had met Wendy just a year earlier when Haven attended camp as a camper.
Haven looked up as Wendy lugged her duffel to the SUV. Her modern black and blond hair was pulled up in a short, simple ponytail. Haven hopped out and opened the back so Wendy could toss her things in. “Hey there!”
“Hey, hey!” Wendy said before she grunted and tossed her bag into the truck.
“Are we ready to go?”
“Giddyup!” Wendy said, tapping on the dashboard.
Haven still found herself in awe each time she headed west on I-70. The earth dipped and then rose suddenly toward the sky. It kept rising with each curve and turn along the way. The red rock cliffs transformed into steel gray rock face covered with evergreens and splashes of yellow from the early changing aspens. Remnants of the Old West dotted the mountainsides with abandoned gold mines, vacant tunnels, and dilapidated ore mining rails jutting out and dropping off the hillside. The Colorado River rushed alongside the highway, and Haven couldn’t wait to get back on the water. The river roared between the colossal range and surged over the boulders and obstacles in its way, and her heart raced with it.
Haven and Wendy met up with two other volunteers, Caliente and Diego, on the patio of the main lodge. Haven was excited about the week already. She’d met them when she was once a camper at Valiant. They had each changed her life in the most unique and unexpected way. Prior to her experience as a camper Haven had never considered herself a cancer survivor in the grand sense of the term. In her eyes, her personal experience with the disease had been brief. In her mind, she had barely had time to absorb her diagnosis before she was declared disease free.
Haven rubbed lightly at the scar on her throat. Her heart skipped, a rush of adrenaline surged through her, and her thighs tingled with pins and needles. She took several deep breaths and fought back the sudden onslaught of panic. She could rappel from a three-hundred-foot waterfall, kayak a Class IV rapid, or zip line over a thousand-foot gorge, but when her thoughts centered around her health, it sent her anxiety into full tilt. She always became hyperaware of each and every pang and pain in her body.
It was when she attended the camp that she finally confronted those repressed fears, irrational thoughts, and the uncertainty about her future if the cancer ever returned. As much as she told herself that she’d escaped the worst of the cancer, ultimately, her mental and emotional battle was like that of so many others regardless of severity or prognosis. It was worse every twelve months when she went in for her routine scans. Fortunately, this anxious episode was brief and she pulled herself back into reality and the excitement of the day and the week ahead.
Besides Wendy, Diego was one of her best friends. His heart was as big as he was, and a single hug from him wrapped Haven in more love than she thought possible. During their first camp together, he and Wendy became her people instantly. They were the three musketeers and forged a bond that would last a lifetime. They were the reason she packed up her life in Florida and moved eighteen hundred miles across the country. Of course, a devastating breakup had its own significant role in the decision as well.
Everything always came back around to Willa Bennette, the woman who broke her heart into a million tiny shards. The woman who stuck by her through her diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. The woman she’d known nearly all her life, and the one who almost killed her the day she walked out of her life without reason or explanation. Haven almost didn’t make it to that first camp to meet Diego, Wendy, and so many strangers who she now considered her family, her tribe. It was in her darkest and scariest months afterward, when Haven found it just about impossible to deal with life, that she found Valiant. It was a cancer camp, but she found more solace and hope for life in one week than she ever thought possible. She owed them her life, in more ways than one.
As the black SUVs rounded the long driveway, Haven grew even more excited. She couldn’t wait to meet the newest members of the Valiant family and experience so many amazing moments with another group of fighters and thrivers. Haven hoped there was a mixture of young and old, men and women, as it made things so much more interesting. The way such an environment could bring together a thirty-five-year-old mother from Tennessee with a seventy-six-year-old gay man from Boston and spark a connection that would last a lifetime.
Haven stretched her back from side to side in preparation for the hardest part of the guests’ arrival. The luggage. She was thankful to have Diego and his mass of muscles to help out with this part. Her belly grumbled as the trucks pulled up to the lodge, and she wished she’d eaten the energy bar she knew was still sitting on the counter between the kitchen and dining room.
As soon as the vehicles came to a stop, the doors popped open at once. And just like that, people and bags were spilling out of every opening. It was a cool afternoon at 13,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, so it was easy to tell who her fellow thin-skinned Southerners were as they smiled and laughed between gasps of surprise and the weird fishy mouth movements they made trying to see their breath in the air. There were hugs and cheek kisses all around as the volunteers greeted the guests as well as the other volunteers just arriving. Everyone introduced themselves.
The commotion was exhilarating, and Haven moved amongst the crowd making her way toward the rear of the truck. She stopped when a large black duffel came flying out of the backseat and landed with a heavy thud on her feet. “Whoa, shit!” Haven shouted at almost being knocked out by a sixty-pound sack chucked at her.
“Sorry!” the voice shouted from inside the vehicle.
She had expected a deep, male voice in response to her, but what she heard was not deep, nor was it male, but it was all too familiar. Her stomach leapt into her throat and her heart slammed to a stop. She peered into the truck as a figure emerged. Her head was tucked, and Haven couldn’t see her face. Her heart started again but in triple time. The woman stepped out onto the ground with a crunch of gravel beneath her worn brown Justin work boots. Her jeans hung loose around the calf but worked up to a snug fit around strong thighs. Haven’s gaze traced up from the boots up, and her heart felt like it would burst from her chest. Her head told her it couldn’t be, but everything else inside said her otherwise. She could feel her ears burning, and the whooshing of her blood deafened her. The T-shirt, front-tucked to show a statement buckle that Haven had once purchased as a gift. Haven watched the woman’s hand as it reached up to the bill of her ball cap as she straightened it and then looked with dark brown eyes straight into her own.
“What the fuck?” Haven said without any ability to do otherwise. Her hands turned into ice, her blood ran cold in her veins, and she struggled to keep her legs beneath her. Haven had no idea where she was. For all she knew, she had just been hit by a bus and was in the throes of death on her way to the hospital. “I…I need…” Haven stumbled backward, pulling her feet from beneath the heavy bag. She held up her hand and mumbled something about nothing. She blinked in confusion, trying to make sense of what, or rather who, she was seeing. She turned away and headed through the crowd into the lodge. Someone had handed her a backpack and a bag of cups and napkins as she passed, so she set them down on the table as she made her way through the dining room in a daze.
She finally let her legs give out, and she fell into a large blue denim chair. She sank down and prayed that it would swallow her whole. Haven tried to convince herself that she was seeing things. She’d heard many times about doppelgangers; it could be that. There could be another woman on Earth who looked, dressed, and smelled just like Willa. She knew it wasn’t a doppelganger, or a long lost twin situation. She knew there was not another woman in the world with eyes that could see into her soul. The world had one Willa Bennette, and she was here.
Haven’s heart was beating double-time. She clenched her fists, closed her eyes, and jammed the pads of her thumbs into the sockets at the bridge of her nose. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. Her entire body was ablaze. Not with arousal or desire, but with a building fire of anger that she hadn’t felt since the day Willa had given her some bullshit excuse for why “the relationship was no longer working for her.” Haven had replayed the moment in her head a thousand times, but suddenly with the rushing of blood in her ears, and the beads of sweat forming on her lip, she couldn’t recall the exact words Willa had used. The last words she thought she’d ever hear her say, before today.
Willa could only stare in disbelief as she watched Haven disappear into the lodge. The awe and wonder that she had experienced driving up into the mountains was gone in an instant. Her mind swirled with a thousand disconnected words, her ears hummed with the buzz of muffled voices, and her body stood frozen in place. How was it even possible? Willa couldn’t even begin to fathom what the odds could be that she would come face-to-face with Haven after three years, eighteen hundred miles, and thirteen thousand feet.
Her hair was blonder, more of a bleach blond versus her once natural golden color. It was a wild style sticking out in various uncontrolled directions with a vibrant headband doing nothing to hold the unruly strands in place. Willa couldn’t help but notice how natural it looked on her, but also how uncharacteristic it was for Haven. Add that to her capri length, roughed-up boyfriend jeans, and what Willa could describe as a sort of long, crocheted, hippie sweater vest. Anyone else might not have recognized her. Hell, had it not been for her steel blue eyes and the familiar way her lips puckered up as she silently mouthed her name, Willa would’ve missed it, too.
A tap on her shoulder zapped Willa out of her haze. She blinked and focused on Diego, who stood next to her motioning to her bags.
“Hey there,” Diego said. “Is this all we have for you?”
“Uh. Yeah. That’s it.” Willa stooped to pick up her duffel, but he was faster.
He scooped her bag up and slung it over his shoulder in one smooth motion. “Follow me,” he called to her, heading off and away from the main lodge.
Willa glanced one more time toward the door where Haven had disappeared before she jogged along after Diego. “We’ve got you in cabin two with your bunkmate, Corey.”
Just then, Corey popped her head out the front door of the cabin and smiled.
“Hey there. It looks like we’re roomies.” Willa was pleasantly content with her roommate lottery. She and Corey had actually met in the airport earlier that day as they sat and waited for the other campers’ flights to arrive. She was eleven years younger than Willa but mature beyond her twenty years. Cancer did that to people, it seemed, but Corey had an undeniable love for life, and it showed on her face with a constant toothy grin. Willa expected such a perky attitude to grate on her nerves, but so far so good.
Diego bid his farewell. They had just enough time to freshen up and change for dinner. Willa heaved her duffel onto the bottom bunk, and to her relief, the younger and smaller Corey had opted for the top bed before Willa had to beg. The cabin was small and old. The floors creaked with each step and sloped more than a little to one side. She leaned down to take a look out the window, and she could feel the draft from the outside. She had a feeling it was going to get a bit cooler both inside and out as night moved in.
Willa rummaged through her bag looking for something to change into. She was kicking herself that she hadn’t brought a single nice thing to wear. She was prepared with an assortment of water-friendly attire made of the less-than-flattering spandex. As she removed each item from her bag, she thought she might have under packed. She growled and threw a wad of undergarments back into her duffel.
Corey peeked down over the railing of the top bunk. “What’s up, Willa?”
“Would you believe it if I told you that I didn’t bring anything to wear?”
“No. Your bag weighs a million pounds. I’d say you brought everything to wear. Why does it matter?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t.” Willa picked out a pair of jeans and a T-shirt from the pile and wrapped them up together. An image of Haven flashed through her mind. While her chance at a first impression was out the window, she thought she could make it up by changing into something a bit nicer for her.
“You don’t have to impress me if that matters any. I met you after a six-hour flight and two-hour time change, so it’s all downhill from here.” Corey reached out for Willa instead of taking the ladder at the end of the bed.
Willa chuckled and helped Corey off the top bunk. She was a small girl, made even smaller by the effects of chemo. Willa imagined that if she had to, she could carry Corey around on her back. “Don’t get used to this, miss.”
“Too late,” she said as Willa set her down onto the floor. “Now, why are you so concerned over your clothes?”
“Nothing. No reason. I just like to be presentable. You never know.” Willa dismissed her and picked up her change of clothes.
“Oh. You’re gonna be a fun nut to crack. Don’t worry, I’ll figure you out.” Before she even finished her threat, Corey disappeared into the bathroom.
“Hey, not cool,” Willa called out before she smiled and sat on her bed. Willa liked her. She was fun, and she had no doubt that the kid was going to be able to ferret out everything sooner rather than later. Though she would prefer it be later. Much later. “Hurry up. I have to pee!”
Oh yeah. Just like having a little sister.
Haven stood at the sink as the cold water hissed from the tap. She stared down at the lettuce she turned over and over in her hands.
“Haven. Hello, anybody home?” Wendy reached over and took the world’s cleanest vegetable from Haven’s hands. “You’ve nearly washed the green right off this lettuce. Where are you right now?”
“What? Oh, here. I’m here.” Haven was sure her body was where she thought it was, but her mind was most definitely somewhere else. “Sorry,” she said as she turned off the running water.
“It’s okay. But you’ve been acting like a weirdo since the campers got here. Weird as in it’s not like you to run off and hide while we are trying to get everyone’s stuff unloaded.” Wendy ripped the leaves of lettuce into small shreds and dropped them into the bowl beside her. “Cut those avocados,” she said as she motioned with her head toward the bowl of wrinkled fruit.
Haven hated avocados, but everyone always insisted that she was the best at cutting them up. Everybody has something. Willa loved avocados. She would eat them any way they were served—cubed, sliced, mashed, or guaced. Her first thought was to cut an extra or two just for Willa, but then she came to her senses. She didn’t need avocados; she needed to get the hell out of Haven’s space.
Her beautiful, new, heartache-free space. She didn’t move eighteen hundred miles across the fucking country to have Willa just stroll into her new life and start screwing shit up. Haven had spent three years trying everything she could to get her out of her mind and memory. How was it even possible that after all that Willa would find the one place on earth where Haven was at peace and ruin it? Haven heaved the chef’s knife down into the pit of an avocado and hacked straight through it. She stared at the murdered fruit with shock. She had no idea how much force it should take to split an avocado pit in one swoop, but she just did it. She set the knife down and backed up a step from the counter. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Wendy, who was just as surprised and a little paler than usual.
“What the hell?” Wendy said as she grabbed Haven by the shoulders and maneuvered her away from the instruments of death. “Okay. Spill. Something is going on with you. You could have cut your entire hand off. What gives?”
“Willa,” Haven whispered.
“Your ex? What in the world does she have to do with anything?”
“Shhh.” Haven’s eyes darted around them as the campers started to gather in the lodge.
“Why?” Wendy’s eyes followed Haven’s. “Is she here? Ha.” Wendy’s laugh was truncated when Haven looked her in the eyes with certainty.
“What. The. Fuck. You’re shitting me.”
“Oh, how I wish I was.”
“I didn’t know she had cancer, too.”
“She doesn’t.” It wasn’t until Wendy said it that it hit Haven, and it hit her like a ton of bricks. “Oh.” She felt her lungs tighten and her stomach turn. Why else would she be at a cancer retreat? Seeing Willa get out of the SUV had been a jolt, but the realization that Willa had cancer was paralyzing. How did she not know? When was she diagnosed? Why hadn’t she called? A million questions flooded her mind. The thought of Willa fighting the disease alone was devastating to Haven. Although, as far as she knew Willa wasn’t alone. A selfish streak flashed as she imagined someone else holding Willa’s hand through her battle. Guilt overtook the jealousy as she admonished herself for even thinking it. “I’m going to be sick.”
Wendy slid her hand under Haven’s arm just as her legs began to shake. “Come on.” Wendy and Haven slid out the back door of the lodge into the cool evening air. She took several deep breaths and grounded herself. So many thoughts and emotions swirled inside her mind and body, each one being replaced by another as quickly as they came. “Look at me,” Haven said as she held out her trembling hands.
“I’m speechless, Haven. I don’t have any idea what to say. I should say something, but, yeah, I’ve got nothing.” Wendy rested a comforting hand on Haven’s.
“You and me both,” Haven said as the dinner bell rang out.
“I’ve got to go, but I think you should stay here. Go back to the bunkhouse for a bit. I’ll bring you a plate.”
“Nah. I’m just gonna sit here for a minute. Till I get my legs back, plus I’m not all that hungry anymore.”
“Okay. I’ll be back to check on you once everyone is all set.” Wendy gave Haven a couple of quick swipes on her back before she disappeared back into the house.
As soon as Wendy was gone, Haven pulled herself up and wandered off the porch into the dusky night. She followed the stone path around the lodge to the clearing between the main house and the cabins. They led her back to the fence line of the north pasture just beyond a stand of evergreens. Several large boulders made for an elevated perch above the damp grass. She hoisted herself up onto the flattest one and crossed her legs.
The ridgeline was barely visible as the last of the evening sun set beyond the mountains. Soon the sky would dance with a million diamonds, so spectacular it would make her dizzy if she hadn’t been already with the arrival of Willa and the subsequent whirlwind of emotions.
“Three years.” So much had happened in just three years. Haven had lost the love of her life when Willa walked out on her. Haven spent month after month holding out hope that a lifetime of friendship and love was enough to bring Willa back. She avoided familiar places and painful memories. And when none of that worked, Haven said good-bye to the sand and sun of her hometown and moved to Colorado. She found a new life in the mountains, a new career as a professional artist, and a new romance with Bianca. But it had always been Willa Bennette. From their childhood days on the kindergarten playground, they had been inseparable. First as friends and then as lovers. They had experienced every moment of life together, good, bad, or indifferent. They had grown up together, grown into each other, and the day Willa left, Haven felt that her body had been torn in two, like a tree struck down the middle by a bolt of lightning. It was a deep scar, ripped open once again by those dark brown eyes.
Willa and Corey sat together at the long, rustic table made from a solid plank of wood. Silverware clanked on plates and laughter filled the room as campers and volunteers got to know one another. Willa tried to pay attention to everyone as they introduced themselves, but her mind was somewhere else. Her attention was caught by every movement beyond the dining room as she searched for Haven. She wasn’t at the dinner table, and Willa hadn’t seen her since she arrived. She was starting to think that maybe she truly didn’t see her, and it had been some bizarre hallucination. She felt someone looking at her and scanned the room for Haven, but it wasn’t her. Diego and another one of the volunteers, a woman, smiled and waved at Willa from the end of the table. Willa returned their greeting with a nod. As she smiled in return, she watched the woman’s focus shift beyond Willa and her eyes widen with surprise.
Without needing to turn around, Willa felt Haven’s presence behind her. Diego looked from Willa to Haven and back again, before standing and calling out to her, “Haven, over here.”
Haven made her way over to Diego without ever looking in Willa’s direction. Haven smiled and greeted everyone she passed except for Willa, but she wasn’t surprised. She got to Diego and rubbed his broad shoulder with her petite hands. Willa didn’t recall Haven’s hands being so small, but she did remember how soft they were. It was when Haven leaned down to the woman beside Diego and put a gentle kiss on her lips that Willa looked away.
The unexpected expression of affection hit Willa in the gut and left her breathless. She crumpled her dinner napkin and dropped it onto her unfinished plate. She was becoming anxious and suffocated by the warm air and chattering people in the shrinking dining room. Willa looked over at Corey in a panic. “Excuse me. I need to get out.” Willa barely waited for Corey to move over before she shifted to stand and swung her leg out over the bench.
Just as she’d gotten both legs onto the other side, Mama Lu called everyone’s attention. Willa groaned with an unexpected volume. Corey looked at Willa with wide questioning eyes. Willa made an attempt to cover it up by clearing her throat and then taking a large sip of her beverage. “I’m so sorry. That came out wrong. Please, continue.” Willa hung her head, embarrassed, and she had no doubt everyone in the room stared in her direction, including Haven. Willa wished for nothing more than for the entire room to shrink down into a speck with her in it and implode into a little poof of smoke.
Willa sat with her back against the table as Mama Lu announced the plans for the remainder of the evening, which involved the first group evening meeting to be spent by the campfire. Willa had hoped that after dinner she could escape to her cabin and figure out what she was going to do about Haven for a week. The group was dismissed with just enough time to go and gather sweatshirts or other items for warmth since the temperature had dropped.
Willa beelined toward her cabin with Corey close on her heels. “Willa, wait up,” she called after her. Willa didn’t slow down, so Corey sped up. “Dude. For real, your legs are longer than my entire body.”
Willa heard the breathlessness in Corey’s voice, so she slowed down enough for her to catch up. “Sorry.”
Once they were alone inside their cabin, Corey grabbed her by the arm. “What the hell was that all about?”
Willa tucked and rolled into the bottom bunk and let out an exasperated sigh. “My ex is here.”
“What? Bullshit! Who?” Corey asked as she invited herself into Willa’s bunk and crossed her legs.
“Yesss,” Willa hissed as she flung her arm over her eyes. “Okay. Okay. Good grief. You have so many questions. Okay. Wow.” Willa could feel the bed vibrating with Corey’s unrestrained excitement.
“This is so exciting!”
Willa uncovered her eyes and stared at Corey. “This is anything but.”
“Oh, ended badly, did it?”
“You could say that.”
“Was it your fault or hers?”
For Willa, “fault” implied that she or Haven had done something specific to lead to the demise of their relationship. It wasn’t like Willa gave herself cancer as an excuse to bail on Haven and their life together. In fact, Willa felt that she had ultimately done Haven a favor. “Let’s just say that she had no choice. I ended it, and I didn’t give her any other option.”
“You cheated on her, didn’t you? Not cool, Willa.”
“No, I didn’t cheat on her. But I may as well have. It would be a better story than the truth.”
“You chased her away. You got cancer, and you chased her away.”
Willa sat up so quickly that she bumped her head on the slats of the top bunk. “How the fuck could you know that?”
“I have cancer, too, remember? You aren’t the first person diagnosed who’s shut everyone out or chased everyone away. It’s easier than when they leave you, I suppose.”
“You know, I never even told her I had cancer. I just decided that I didn’t want her to be responsible for taking care of me. She’d already fought her own battle. She didn’t need me putting her through that again.”
Willa had never told anyone that, not even her brother. “I never thought I’d see her again or have her find out. And now here I am eighteen hundred miles from home at a cancer camp with her.”
“You didn’t know she’d be here?”
“No fucking idea. None. I’d never even heard about Valiant until my brother signed me up a few months ago.”
“What?” Fate. Willa didn’t believe in fate. Not anymore. Once upon a time she had, back when she and Haven first met in elementary school. In high school, they’d both struggled with their feelings for years, as life pushed them together and pulled them apart. It wasn’t until college that they decided to stop denying themselves a chance at true love. “Fate is crap.”
“I don’t think so. But either way, something brought you both here together.”
“You did see her kiss that other chick, right?”
“What? No! Who? The other blonde, Wendy? Ha! No way. She’s married to a jujitsu instructor in Denver.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“At dinner, when I was talking to Scrat, the kayak instructor who was sitting next to you.”
“Who? Kayaking?” Willa hadn’t heard any of the conversation held right under her nose, literally.
“Oh my, let’s go. I’ll fill you in on the way to campfire.” Corey crawled out of the bunk, grabbed the large hoodie hanging on the post, and tossed it to Willa.
Haven and Wendy picked their log at the campfire and scooted close to each other. Each of them had layered up in comfy sweats and coats with a thick wool blanket across their laps. After they were settled and warm, Diego strolled up looking to get in. Haven took one look at his flip-flopped feet and flung the edge over his bare legs.
Once they were settled, Diego leaned over Haven. “What was with the kiss at dinner, ladies?”
Wendy leaned toward him, until Haven was squeezed in the middle. “That’s what I want to know,” she whispered.
“I’m so sorry about that. I was feeling a little overconfident after spending twenty minutes psyching myself up.”
“And part of that was to use me to make her jealous? Not that I mind. I’ve had worse offers,” Wendy said.
“No. Not at all. I just…I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Yeah, I don’t know what you’re going to do the rest of the week, because if you keep kissing me it’s going to start all kinds of rumors around here. Not that I mind. I could use a sharper edge.”
“You don’t need any more edge, Wendy,” Diego said.
“Don’t worry. I won’t do it again. I’m just going to avoid her, that’s all. Kitchen duty for me.” Haven despised kitchen duty, and washing dishes make her sick to her stomach. But it was a sacrifice she was willing to make in order to avoid seeing, hearing, or interacting with Willa.
“Um, I doubt Mama Lu is going to let you do that. Plus, you won’t be able to hide in the kitchen all the time.”
“I can try like hell.”
“Then you better get going,” Diego said as he sat back and looked out across the fire.
“What?” Haven asked as she spotted Willa and her bunkmate. She couldn’t see the detail in her eyes through the flickers from the flames, but she knew Willa was looking straight at her. “Shit.”
Haven’s stomach turned. She tried to look everywhere except at Willa, who had decided to sit across from her. She looked stiff and frozen already, and Haven remembered just how much Willa hated being cold. She refrained from suggesting that she choose a chair where she could move closer to the fire in order to be warmer. She told herself that she couldn’t care less if Willa froze her ass off. She wrapped her hands into the heavy quilt, not caring.
Mama Lu and her son, Wingman, welcomed everyone and began the round robin tradition of introductions, beginning with themselves. As they moved around the circle, Haven grew more and more anxious to hear Willa speak. She hadn’t heard her voice in about three years before that afternoon. Haven was dreading the moment she would hear Willa say that she had cancer. She wouldn’t wish the disease in any of its forms on her worst enemy, and now she was going to hear the woman she loved say it. Well, the woman she used to love, before she walked out on her and stomped her heart into dust.
Why was she feeling sorry for Willa? Haven was the one who was left heartbroken when she left. It wasn’t her concern that she had cancer. If Willa had wanted her to know, she’d have called or texted or emailed. She could’ve sent a damn carrier pigeon, for fuck’s sake. If Willa didn’t care, Haven didn’t care. Simple as that.
When it was Willa’s turn, Haven looked anywhere but at her. As soon as she spoke, Haven could hear the nervous rattle in her voice.
“Hey. Uh, I’m Willa Bennette. I’m from Florida, and I was diagnosed with stage one intraocular melanoma about three years ago.”
The words and meanings flashed through Haven’s brain. Ocular melanoma—cancer of the eye. Three years? She looked up and across the fire at Willa, who was staring back at her. Willa nodded just enough for Haven to know that what she was thinking was correct. The timing could have been a coincidence, but it seemed that Willa had left not long before she was diagnosed. Or was it after? The thought that Willa knew she had cancer before she broke up with Haven made her stomach harden. Willa wouldn’t have done that to her—to them. She had to have known that Haven would have helped her fight, just as Willa had done when Haven had been diagnosed. Haven’s hurt quickly turned to anger when she thought of Willa not even giving her the chance to help take care of her during that time. She had managed to tune the other campers out, and she felt heat flushing through her body that wasn’t from the campfire. She suppressed her anger long enough to catch the end of the introductions.
Haven’s rear was starting to go numb from sitting and she knew they still had a couple more hours of cleaning and prepping to go before the volunteers were let go. Thankfully, Mama Lu gave the announcements for the next day’s activities. Haven loved this part because it got the campers all worked up with ideas and excitement since they didn’t tell them what they’d be doing, just how they needed to dress.
The day before, Haven had been overjoyed about getting back on the river. In addition to the river guides, Haven, Wendy, and Diego were always the extra boats on the water to help with whatever situations might arise. Haven was always the designated photographer of camp, so she went everywhere the campers went. But not this time, there was no way she was going to be able to spend six days following Willa around the damn Rockies. She was going to have to give up her spot to another volunteer. Haven felt a small pang of disappointment that she wouldn’t be in the water this time around, but there would always be other camps. She just knew that she needed to stay as far away from Willa as possible for the next six days.
Before Willa even had the chance to get up, Haven had disappeared. She had no idea what she was going to say to Haven if she ever stood still long enough to get the chance. A part of her felt a sense of relief at having told Haven, and complete strangers, about her cancer. She rarely, if ever, said it aloud or told anyone outside of her very small social circle. Willa never had any intention of telling Haven, mostly because she never anticipated coming face-to-face with her again.
She only had herself to blame. Their relationship might not have crashed and burned if she had been honest with Haven about why she had ended things. If Willa had believed in fate she would’ve thought that this was fate making an obvious opportunity for her to come clean with Haven about everything. She just didn’t think it would benefit Haven to learn the truth after all the time that had passed. She had moved and begun a new life far from their old one.
“Oh, I’m so excited! What do you think we’re doing tomorrow?” Corey asked as she bounced up next to Willa.
“I don’t know. Hopefully, it doesn’t involve talking.” Corey looked rebuffed by Willa’s statement. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just not a ‘let’s talk about our feelings’ type of person, that’s all.”
“Yeah, I get that about you.”
“I’m not that obvious.”
“Really? You literally introduced yourself in fifteen words or less. And that was it. No story, no quirky jokes, not even a window for questions had anyone dared to have one to ask.”
No, she didn’t. Sure, she could’ve given them backstory. She could’ve told them that she was single and running a farm in Florida with her brother. She could’ve gone into detail about the life-changing decision she made when she walked out on her partner to undergo cancer treatment alone. She could’ve opened up about how that woman was sitting across from her now, but she didn’t. “Yeah, not my thing, I suppose.”
“I’m sure that having Haven sitting across from you didn’t make it any easier.”
Corey was beginning to creep Willa out with her uncanny ability to read both her thoughts and postures. “How do you do that?”
“Do what?” Corey smiled. “I’m gonna go get some cookies. Wanna come?”
Willa was about to say no but then figured what the hell. She liked cookies. “Fine.” Willa followed along after Corey, who skipped along the path to the lodge. In spite of their differences, Willa found herself connecting with Corey’s bright and positive energy. She wasn’t the type of person Willa would normally be friends with, but she liked her nonetheless. Willa could be herself and, hell, even a little childish. “Race ya!” Willa called as she took off at a sprint and passed Corey on her left.
“What? No fair!” Corey squealed and took off after Willa up onto the front porch of the lodge.
Willa reached the door first and swung it open as she looked back at Corey and laughed victoriously. “I beat y—” Her triumph was cut short when she almost smacked right into Haven. Willa stopped, their faces mere inches apart. Willa’s heart pounded, and her chest burned for air. She found herself breathless from the horseplay, but paralyzed before Haven’s eyes. Her mind flashed to one of the last times she had been this close to her. Haven had kissed her and asked her what she had felt. In that moment, Willa had felt heartbreak and guilt, because she had slowly been pulling away and Haven felt it.
Willa was jolted from the moment as Corey slammed into her. “What the hell?” she asked before peeking around and spotting Haven. “Oh. Um.”
When Willa could find her voice she said, “We came to get cookies.” She never imagined that those would be the first words she would say to Haven after years apart.
“Right. They’re in the kitchen. Help yourself.”
Haven’s voice wasn’t bitter or harsh. It was soft and sweet and unexpected. “Thanks. Uh. Would you like one?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“Oh, no thanks. I made them.”
“Of course,” Haven said.
“I know,” Haven said as she slipped past Willa and out the door.
Willa had no words. She had even forgotten what she was doing before that had led her to this spot. “Cookies,” Corey said as she grabbed her by the arm and led her into the dining room.