Three years later
Men were drawn to Camille Kennison like bees were to honeysuckle blossoms.
While she walked to her father's hardware store, gentlemen doffed their hats and wished her a pleasant day. She always gave them a smile. But where most women would be flattered by the attention, for Camille it became a chore to say "Good afternoon" so often.
She liked men, of course. But she noticed the way they looked at her. They were more interested in her appearance than in what she had to say. As her father so often reminded her, pretty women were never thought of as smart conversationalists. And throughout her life, Camille had been told she was a regal beauty.
Men saw only that she was a statuesque woman with honey-blond hair, had a gracefully curved figure, and an oval face with skin like fine ivory. Dozens of times, she'd been told her mouth was lush and kissable, its color a deep blush like that of dew-washed roses. And if she were honest with herself, she'd have to admit that she'd been kissed by dozens of men. Chastely. Demurely. Certainly not passionately. No man had ever ignited that in her, so she didn't believe sexual delirium existed except in fiction tomes and poetry.
However...Alex Cordova sorely tested her theory. With his shoulder-length black hair and full, sensual lips, he could look at her as if she were brainless and she probably wouldn't care.
Alex Cordova was deliciously appealing.
The man was an enigma. Nobody knew much of anything about him now that he didn't play baseball, and that made people curious. Women couldn't keep their eyes off him when he came into town. Herself included.
Shifting a lunch pail from one hand to the other, she opened the store's door and walked across the sawdust floor. A smoky kerosene odor hovered in the air. The interior was poorly lit, but James Kennison kept things neat and tidy. She skirted three stacks of zinc washtubs. Piled on big tables were slop jars, cuspidors, dishpans, sadirons, washbasins, coffee grinders, and household necessities.
Camille's father stood at the counter in conversation with Dr. Teeter, who could talk up a week's worth of Sundays all in one day. The dentist had an ingrained need to show off his mouthful of white teeth. He never missed an opportunity to talk and grin and laugh. She didn't know why he felt he had to use himself as an advertisement. Being the only drill-and-fill man in town, he wouldn't have lacked for customers even if his teeth had been less than perfect.
Her father interjected "Is that so?" in the appropriate places while Dr. Teeter droned on, but Camille suspected he listened only out of obligation to his customer. Wearing a cashmere suit, and with string apron tied around his slim waist, her father dressed the part of a successful businessman. And he was. He worked hard to turn a profit while establishing his good name in the community.
"I brought you lunch, Daddy." A trace of Camille's Louisiana accent always came out when she addressed her father. The slight emphasis she put on the last syllable of da-Dee made it sound faintly Southern.
He barely noticed her, saying without a word of thanks, "Put it over there, Camille."
She slipped behind the counter and set the lunch pail next to the cash register. The clasp of her pocketbook easily opened beneath her gloved fingers. She took out the tiny notepad and flipped the cover over. On the pristine paper, she'd written everything she needed to get her garden started this year.
Early May had been unseasonably wet, so she hadn't been able to plant her beds. But she could console herself with the fact that everyone else would have a late start, too. She'd still have the opportunity to cultivate the best flower and vegetable beds in Harmony. It was imperative that she did so, because this was the year she planned to run for president of the Harmony Garden Club.
She had a fairly good shot at it, too. Last year, Mrs. Calhoon held the esteemed position. The year before, Mrs. Plunkett -- for a record three terms. Both ladies had made competent leaders, but they weren't willing to try new things. During the past few years, younger women had started to join the club, and it was time for a younger woman to run it. Camille had a host of ideas that were a bit unconventional. Modern fertilizers and up-to-date pruning methods. She planned to show the club ladies exactly what open-minded thinking could do for one's garden.
Camille had barely taken a step toward the Burpee seed display when Dr. Teeter's comment stopped her short.
"It's a shame about yesterday's game," he said, lounging next to the counter's edge. "If it weren't for bad fielding, we could have won."
Her gaze darted to her father, and she held her breath. These days, there were two subjects you didn't bring up with him: baseball and Ned Butler.
Daddy's hardware store owned and had sponsored the local baseball team for ten years. Kennison's Keystones had never caused any fanfare on the field. But since they'd been accepted for membership into the American League this year, her father had high hopes for the officially renamed Harmony Keystones.
Only those hopes had been diagnosed with a bad case of eczema. Dr. Porter said that Ned Butler, the manager of the Keystones, had a condition brought about by exhaustion of the nervous system. It had gone haywire dealing with James Kennison day in and day out.
Ned had begun to itch during spring training. Then, three weeks ago on opening day after the Keystones had been trounced by the Detroit Tigers 9-0, he collapsed with a skin rash the likes of which the townspeople of Harmony had never seen. Per doctor's orders, Ned wasn't supposed to become excited, be exposed to undue or sudden transitions from heat to cold, exercise excessively, breathe impure air, or wear improper clothing.
In short, he was confined indefinitely to a sickroom while Mrs. Butler painted glycerine on him to alleviate his itching.
Ned Butler was the tenth manager the Keystones had had in as many years. Her father had been in Ned's way from the moment Ned stepped off the train to the moment he dropped flat on his keister after that Detroit game. Daddy could be a tad anxious when things didn't go well. And they weren't. The Keystones had lost twelve of the last twelve games they'd played this season.
Her father existed in a constant state of irritation that was getting harder and harder to live with. Camille had considered growing and selling potted plants, decorating flower containers to go with them. She would earn only a modest amount, but it would be enough to allow her to pay for a room at the boardinghouse and to gain a bit of independence. Not to mention distance from her father's volatile moods.
"Bad fielding!" Contempt sparked her father's words as he wielded a feather duster. "It was a lot more than bad fielding. Charlie Delahanty and Specs Ryan slammed into each other chasing a fly ball in the fifth inning." He vigorously brushed off the case beside him, then took out the dangerous-looking knives it housed and swished the duster over the shelves. "Doc Nash overthrowing to first base in the seventh." White feathers scattered in the air as if chickens were taking a dust bath. "And that bonehead play at home plate with Cub LaRoque and the wild pitch in the ninth."
Camille had watched the game from the stands. And no matter her father's reasoning, all the fielding in the world wouldn't have allowed the Keystones to catch up to the Cleveland Blue's six unearned runs. Because the Keystones couldn't hit worth a darn, either.
"Well, the season's still young," Dr. Teeter remarked, teeth filling his optimistic grin. "The Keystones could be in the pennant race."
Her father continued to dust an area that hadn't needed dusting in the first place. "I promised Harmony a winning team this year. And I'm a man of my word. We'll get there if I have to manage the team for the entire season myself."
Camille fervently hoped that wasn't going to happen. She'd brought him his lunch today because he had to close the store an hour early to get to Municipal Field on time for this afternoon's game. There, she knew he would alternately stand and sit and pace and yell and throw down his hat and pick it up, only to throw it down again. On a good day, her father had a short fuse. On a bad day -- which had been all the days since Ned had been confined to his bed -- he was as sour as a crabapple.
Thinking the touchy subject had been dropped, she took another step. She hadn't put her shoe heel down when Dr. Teeter added, "Although it would have been a lot surer bet" -- she froze and braced herself for what would come -- "if we'd been able to keep Will White."
"Will White!" Her father's temper exploded like a blast from the lumbermill's lunch whistle. The feather duster came to an abrupt halt and his face grew ruddy. "When I find that young no-account, he'll be sorry he ever ran out on his contract."
Between paying Will White a bonus -- just before the man skipped town, paying Ned Butler a partial salary the manager hadn't earned, and building a new clubhouse this year, James Kennison couldn't invest much more money into his team without its becoming a financial burden.
The Keystones had had a chance of seeing a pennant when her father signed the quick-delivery pitcher this past February. He'd cost a handsome price, but Will brought the most hope to Harmony's baseball fans they'd had in years. But he left in the middle of spring training, taking off with his contract pay before ever pitching a scheduled game.
If Will hadn't gone to the Elm Street theater to watch a performance of Antony and Cleopatra, he wouldn't have seen Pearl Chaussee. Or her legs in a pair of opaque tights and her ample bosom in a low-necked silk tunic. The Women's League had drawn the curtain on the "scandalous" production after two nights. If they'd shut it down after the first performance, Will wouldn't have become lovesick over Pearl and left the Keystones high and dry.
Dr. Teeter, realizing he'd struck a nerve -- which didn't bode well for his dental skills, focused on Camille. "How's that third molar of yours you had me check in January?"
"It's still rooted to the spot," she replied.
The dentist guffawed, all teeth. "That's a good one. I'll bet next to my wife, you were the smartest girl in your finishing-school class."
Johannah Treber Teeter and Camille had both graduated from Mrs. Wolcott's Finishing School this spring.
"She doesn't need to be smart," her father informed the dentist, laying the duster back on the shelf. "She's pretty. With her looks, she could have any man for a husband." He scowled at her. "She's just picky."
Camille did her best to hide her embarrassment.
Her father had been saying things like that since she turned thirteen. She only wished he wouldn't say them in public. It made people look at her differently. As if she were stuck up. She had never considered her appearance an attribute. In fact, she thought it a nuisance.
"I suppose I should be on my way," Dr. Teeter said, adjusting the angle of his hat. "Nice talking with you, James."
"See you again," her father said in farewell as the dentist retreated out the door. As soon as the man was gone, her father whined, "Doesn't he have any patients to occupy his time? Make another appointment with him, Camille."
"I don't need to." She squinted in an effort to read the items on her list, then glanced at the light flickering above her head. "When are you going to tap into the city's electrical lighting instead of using kerosene lamps?"
"Never. I don't want my store so bright that anyone standing clear over on Hackberry Way can see inside. If the place were lit up like a Roman candle, I couldn't see what Bertram Nops was up to without him knowing I was watching him."
James Kennison and Bertram Nops had been having a hardware feud since back in '89 when Camille's family arrived in town. Nops Hardware Emporium was located directly opposite of Kennison's. Hackberry Way and Sycamore Drive separated the two businesses, the town square sandwiched in the middle. If the two men spent less energy trying to outdo each other with sale prices, giveaways, and dastardly tricks, they'd have more time to actually enjoy doing business.
Camille sighed in frustration. "I just think electric lights would improve things, is all."
"You leave the thinking to me, Camille sugar. All you need to worry about is what hat to wear and who you're going to marry."
How could he not see she had interests other than hats? She was twenty-one. She did have a brain in her head, and she used it quite a lot -- only he never gave her a chance to use it on things that mattered. She would have liked to push up her sleeves and reorganize his store, but he'd scoffed when she'd asked him. If he hadn't, she could have brought Kennison's Hardware into the new century. She didn't need a hat or a husband to figure out that washtubs displayed near wash soap would sell more of both.
But he wouldn't take her seriously. Not once had he told her she'd done a good job on anything. Even when she'd won an essay-writing contest on why education was important when she was nine, composed a poem about the Mississippi River that was printed in American magazine when she was eleven, and came up with the winning entry in the Armour's Beef recipe-writing competition when she was twelve. None of those accomplishments had bowled him over, so she gave up entering contests.
Because she could never please him, she'd spent her whole life trying to be perfect at what she did. With her bid for the Garden Club presidency, she'd prove to him she could accomplish something. And in the process, prove to herself how successful she could be. She'd make such a splash with her gardening innovations, her father would have to take notice and be...proud.
At the idea, tears burned her eyes. Her throat tightened. She dashed away the sudden, foolish tears.
Her attention was diverted when the door opened and a tall, dark-haired man entered. She doubted he was older than thirty, his body solid and strong, yet he had a simple mind. She'd spoken to him a few times. He worked doing odd jobs at Plunkett's mercantile. A relative newcomer to Harmony, he was named Captain. Alex Cordova fiercely looked after him. Talk in the small community said they were related somehow.
James Kennison saw Captain, and his face lit up over the prospect that Alex wasn't far behind.
"Alex sent me in for something," Captain said with a good-natured smile. "He's making a chesty bride."
Both Camille's and her father's eyes went wide.
Captain frowned deeply in thought. "Or was that a bride's chest?"
"Ah. A wedding chest," her father said in clarification.
Alex Cordova owned a modest woodworker's shop at the end of Elm Street, where he kept mostly to himself. On several occasions, Camille had seen some of his pieces displayed in the homes of her friends. He favored soft colors in his woods and finishes, and to say he had talent was a gross understatement. He was a classic craftsman.
"So..." -- her father looked beyond Captain's wide shoulders -- "where is Cordova?"
"He's not coming in."
Her father's hopeful expression fell. "Why not?"
"He says he's tired of you pestering him to play baseball."
For seven months, James Kennison had tried every persuasive tactic he'd known to lure and snare Alex "the Grizz" Cordova into playing baseball for the Harmony Keystones -- to no avail.
"Then tell him to say yes and I'll stop," her father proposed.
Camille held on to a smile. Inasmuch as she wanted the Keystones to win this year, she thought it admirable that Alex had such staying power.
When he'd come to Harmony, he hadn't made any attempt at hiding his identity. But neither had he boasted of the fact that he'd been the one to bring the Orioles the pennant in '96 and '97. And because of that, he'd been the most sought after player in the National League before he quit the game and dropped out of sight in 1898.
Captain only shrugged at her father's suggestion, then drew up next to the counter. He was a head taller than her daddy and had a black beard. "Now what was it that Alex said he wanted?" He slipped his hand into his pants pocket and produced a penny. Staring at it, he grew contemplative.
Camille watched him struggling with his thoughts, a fierce look of concentration on his face. She could feel his discouragement. What he was trying to recollect wasn't coming to him. Her sympathy went out to him, but from the pride set in his shoulders, she doubted he wanted it.
"I didn't get a headache today." Captain put the penny back in his pocket.
"Headaches aren't pleasant," Camille said.
"One time, I had a headache and I didn't know how much medicine to pour in the glass and I slept for a really long time. Now Alex keeps it locked up. I have to take medicine every day. I don't like it, but Alex says it's good for me."
Her father's handlebar mustache wilted at the constant mention of Alex and the apparentness that he wouldn't be making a visit. "Is Cordova all out of finish nails?"
Captain shook his head. "I don't think that was it. If I had asked Alex to spell what it was, I would have remembered. When I have the spelling of a word, it sticks with me."
"Does he need something for his wood shop?" Camille questioned. It would help if she knew what tools a woodworker used. As it was, her query wasn't much help. There were too many possible answers.
"Could be that." Troublesome lines settled on his forehead as he apparently weighed out his choices. "I hate when I can't remember things."
Her father began to put the knives back in their glass case. "Maybe he needs a new saw blade?" He held up a knife; the blade shimmered under the flickering lamp light. "Something like this?"
Camille could literally hear the breath sucked into Captain's chest as he paled. "That's not a razor, is it?"
"No -- " Her father was cut off.
"R-a-z-o-r. Razor. No shave."
"It's not a razor," Camille quickly assured him.
She watched in growing concern as Captain's gaze fixed on the knife, panic rioting in his eyes. "A-A-Alex," he stammered, raising a hand to his temple. "Where's Alex? My head's starting to hurt."
He began stepping backward, as if he were afraid to turn his back on the knife.
"My father isn't going to harm you," Camille said in a rush.
Captain bumped into the stack of small washtubs and they tipped over with a loud crash onto the floor. In spite of the noise, he didn't look down. "A-Alex! Where's Alex? N-no shave today. No shave. No shave. No shave." His hand fumbled with the doorknob.
"Captain," she called after him, but he'd already stumbled outside onto the boardwalk.
She quickly followed and found him slumped on the bench in front of the store. He was trembling so badly, he couldn't keep his knees from knocking into one another.
"No shave," he pleaded. "No shave."
Hesitantly, she laid her hand on his arm and tried to calm him. "You don't have to shave if you don't want to."
"No shave. R-a-z-o-r."
He needed help, but she was unsure what to do for him. Her eyes met her father's. James Kennison stood in the doorway with an anxious look. "I'll get Dr. Porter," he said, then took off across the town square and headed for the physician's office.
Alone with Captain, she tried to console him. "Everything will be fine."
He looked at her, but she could tell he didn't see her. His brown eyes glittered. "No shave."
Distraught, she looked across the town square, searching for a glimpse of her father and the doctor, and found Alex Cordova instead.
He stopped at the end of the boardwalk, then quickened to a sprint. Black hair blew from under his worn Stetson. Each boot heel that landed hard on the planks sent reverberations to where she knelt. A determined hardness set the features of his face, defined the flare of his nostrils and his well-cut mouth. His dark eyes never left Captain. If he saw her at all, it had been for only a brief moment.
Reaching them, Alex dropped down beside Captain. "Cap, what is it?"
Captain wouldn't speak. His cheeks had turned the color of ash as he stared blankly ahead.
A lock of hair fell over Alex's brow as he lowered his chin. He didn't turn toward her when he asked in a tight and composed voice, "What did you do to him?"
If only she had a tangible explanation. "Nothing."
Slowly, he lifted his head and looked directly into her eyes. Her focus fluttered. "It was the knife," she heard herself saying. "My father was putting them away and the light caught on a blade. That's when he got upset -- "
Alex turned his attention to Captain, gripped his shoulders, and gave him a soft shake. A quiet tenderness filled Alex's expression. There was an almost imperceptible note of pleading in his voice when next he spoke -- as if he willed Captain to come around, he would. "Cap, it's all right."
"Alex? Is that you?"
"Yes, Cap. It's me."
"No shave." The despair in Captain's voice squeezed Camille's heart.
And yet, with those two words, the situation changed. Comprehension fell across Alex's face. His eyes welled with understanding; he clenched his jaw to keep himself under control. Visible sorrow bent his broad shoulders as his hand grazed Captain's with a compassion Camille could feel through her bones.
"Ah, Cap," Alex whispered on a soft exhale. "You don't have to take a shave. Never again."
Hope lit Captain's eyes. "Really?"
Silent understanding passed between the two of them. Camille felt like an outsider. An intruder who had no business witnessing something understood only by those involved.
So, quietly, she slipped back into the store unnoticed.
Copyright © 2000 by Stef Ann Holm
Camille Kennison is the most beautiful woman in Harmony, Montana, but she seems destined to end up a spinster. Although she’s received marriage proposals, no man has stirred her heart or her passion. She thinks she’s struck out forever. Until Alex Cordova arrives in town.
A darkly handsome former baseball star, Alex swore he’d never play ball again, but circumstances have arisen and he needs money. So when Camille offers him a contract with her father’s team, he has little choice but to wear a uniform again.
Soon Camille is managing the bungling team, and Alex would rather make a play for the pretty honey than pitch baseballs. He hopes to win her over, but a secret tragedy in his past could throw them both a curveball…unless they learn that truth paves the path to their field of dreams.