Bellamy, Loudon County, Virginia
THAT was Bellamy’s new family doctor?
Camellia Bellamy Sprague stared in dismay and disbelief at the too-young, too-handsome man at her dear, elderly friend Sophie Hardesty’s side.
Oh, my. Was she ever in trouble. Big trouble. No way could she go to that man as frequently as necessary with all the personal and private matters relating to her pregnancy.
Doc Calloway approached Sophie and the newcomer, and Cammie experienced a pang of anger. Why had Doc chosen this particular time to retire? Didn’t he know she needed him to see her through this pregnancy? She was alone, newly widowed, and with no family she could count on. True, she had two older sisters, but they wanted to run her life rather than support the choices she made.
She needed a doctor who knew her, one who had years of wisdom and experience behind him, a father figure, a physician she could trust. She trusted the man who’d delivered her sisters and her—not to mention the greater half of Bellamy’s residents. Not that there were that many of them altogether, Bellamy being the small town she loved, but that made Doc even more desirable as a doctor. She knew him to be up to the task.
How could she trust someone who looked like Tom Selleck, mustache and all, ready to take on crooks, Magnum, P.I.–style, to deliver her baby?
She couldn’t. She simply couldn’t.
She wouldn’t. Since she had to accept the reality of a new doctor monitoring her pregnancy, despite the occasional twinges of illogical anger, she might as well find one in Leesburg—one with more experience and less appeal than this one.
Mind made up, Cammie headed toward the refreshment table. The ladies of the Bellamy Garden Club had outdone themselves tonight. The arrival of autumn’s shorter days and September’s cool weather always inspired great bursts of culinary expression in Bellamy’s kitchens. This party had afforded those gifted ladies the opportunity to show off their talents. On the long, linen-draped table, they’d displayed every imaginable pastry and baked goody to its best advantage. By doing so, the ladies were treating the guests at Doc Calloway’s bon voyage/retirement party and the new physician’s welcome-to-town gathering to a luscious rainbow of scents. Vanilla faded into almond, while cinnamon and chocolate blended sinfully.
Right then, however, Cammie’s throat felt parched. She needed something cool and wet before she could tackle any
of the dreamy confections.
“Camellia, sugar. Now don’t you look the very picture of womanly health?” called Louella Ashworth, president of the Bellamy Garden Club and social maven.
Cammie smiled and patted her rounded middle. “Thanks, Miss Louella. I feel better than I ever have. Pregnancy does agree with me—except for the raging thirst. Could you please pour me a cup of plain ginger ale? I don’t think I’d care for
all the sticky sweetness in the punch right now.”
“Why, sure, honey.” The meticulously maintained, chestnut-haired matron reached under the linen-garbed table and brought up a bottle of soda. As she poured, she stole a glance at the new doctor. “Do tell, Camellia, dear, what do you think of Sophie’s grandnephew?”
“Think of him?” Cammie asked, startled. “Why, Miss Louella, I couldn’t possibly think anything of the man. I haven’t even met him.”
Thrusting the drink at Cammie, the older woman bustled out from behind her serving post. “Well, then, darlin’, it’s fine time we remedied that.”
Miss Louella grasped Cammie’s elbow, and despite Cammie’s gentle demurring, marched her up to the man in question. “Here, Sophie. You do the introductions. I’m mannin’—er . . . womanin’—the punch bowl.”
With that, Miss Louella trotted back the punch table, leaving Cammie tongue-tied and embarrassed to a flush.
Miss Sophie, on the other hand, was in fine form. “I’m plumb thrilled to do the honors, Camellia, honey.” Turning to her grandnephew, she said, “Stephen, this lovely young woman here is Camellia Bellamy Sprague, granddaughter of one of my dearest, most-lamented friends. Don’t you know, Cammie? I still miss your Granny Iris every solitary day. I loved that woman like a sister, and I’ll never stop wishin’ the dear Lord had seen fit to leave her with us a mite longer.”
Cammie smiled. “I know, Miss Sophie. I feel the same way. Granny Iris was . . . oh, I don’t know . . . a true original.”
Miss Sophie’s snow-white Gibson girl do bobbed in agreement. “And wasn’t she pure proof the good Lord makes each and every one of us individually and in his own image?”
“Oh, I’d have to say you’re one of a kind yourself, Aunt Sophie,” said the new doctor. Cammie turned to him, surprised she’d managed to forget his presence while chatting with Miss Sophie.
“I’ll be takin’ that as a compliment, my dear Stephen,” his great-aunt said with another bob of her cloud-soft topknot. “Anyway, son, as I was saying, this is my very dear Cammie Sprague, and this, Cammie, is my nephew, Stephen.”
“Pleasure,” she murmured, extending her hand.
“It’s all mine, Mrs. Sprague,” he responded, wrapping warm, sturdy fingers around hers.
Cammie felt the heat swim straight to her middle. His smile flew right up to her head. The rich, deep voice tumbled down into her lonely heart. Oh, my. Time to make a discreet escape.
But it wasn’t to be.
“Your due date’s in . . . about four or five months, right?” the young physician asked after perusing Cammie’s midsection.
His scrutiny made her even more self-conscious, and Cammie wished she’d made her getaway a second earlier. “No. I’m seven months along.”
One of his dark eyebrows rose. “Small baby, or not enough weight gain? You’re not trying to diet, are you?”
A pinch of pique pierced Cammie. What right did this perfect stranger have to ask her such questions? At a public gathering, no less. With dignity, she met his gaze. “According to my doctor, my baby and I are doing just fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
“Of course,” he cut in with a nod. “I’ll see you in the office on . . . ?”
Cammie’s cheeks went from hot to scalding. “Actually, you won’t. I’m . . . ah . . . going to see another . . . doctor. In Leesburg, that is.” It wasn’t technically a lie. After all, she had decided no more than ten minutes ago she’d do just that.
But Dr. Stephen Hardesty’s skeptically arched brow made Cammie squirm inside. “I see,” he murmured. “Well, I won’t keep you any longer.”
“Ah . . . thank you. There’s someone I should . . . speak to,” she responded, knowing how lame she sounded.
As she hurried off, Cammie berated herself. That had not been one of her finer moments. Stealing a guilty glance over her shoulder, she caught Sophie’s bewildered expression and Dr. Hardesty’s ironic smile. Speeding up her pace, she kept her gaze on the tips of her shoes as they made their way toward the kitchen. That way she could avoid anyone she might meet on the way out.
“There you are,” said Magnolia Bellamy Marlowe, one of her sisters. “We’ve been searchin’ every last haystack of folks we come up to, but kept on findin’ neither hide nor hair of you.”
Terrific. After her awful performance before the town’s newest resident, the last thing Cammie wanted was a run-in with either of her sisters. Both older than she—Maggie by two years and Lark by four—they felt honor-bound to tell Cammie how to live—if not how to breathe and walk and talk.
Dear Lord, please give me an extra measure of your grace. I sure seem to have used up all I had to start with. “How can I help you, Maggie?” she said.
“Oh no, Cammie,” inserted Lark, Cammie’s other sister, appearing at her shoulder. “You don’t need to help us. We’re the ones who want to help you.”
Cammie sighed. “I’m fine, Lark. I can’t think of a thing I need.”
Maggie tsk-tsked. “Why, sugar, I simply can’t believe that a’tall. You’re pregnant out to here.” Her arms drew a mammoth circle in front of her slim, diminutive frame. “You have a house full of—” her voice dropped—“strangers, and you’ve never had a head for business.”
Lark nodded sagely. “Why don’t you let us come over and help? I just sent the latest issue of my Critic’s Choice magazine to the printers, so I have plenty of time to put things to rights for you. You want to have your life in order by the time the baby comes, don’t you?”
Cammie drew a deep breath. “Lark, Maggie, what gives either of you the notion that my life is out of order? I’m doing exactly what the Lord’s called me to do: I’m making a home. I don’t have money troubles—praise God—and everything is under his control. I’m content with my life as it is.”
“Yes, but, sugar,” Maggie objected, her Southern drawl thickening even to Cammie’s decidedly Southern ear, “you’re all alone over there with no one of your very own—”
“How can I be alone when Willie Johnson, Suze McEntire, Stu Richards, and Ray Ling are in and out of the house all day long? And Sophie stops by for a visit every day after she and Rich close up the Country Store?”
At the mention of her fiancé’s name, Lark smiled. “Speaking of Rich, is there anything he could special order
for you? I mean, you need nutrition for two, you know. Sea veggies would do you good, not to mention soy milk instead of the cow stuff—to avoid allergies in the baby, you understand—and of course, tofu every day would boost your protein intake.”
Cammie wrinkled her nose. “Thanks, Lark. I know you mean well, but I doubt I could stomach any of those things.”
“Amen!” chimed Maggie.
Lark frowned, then went on. “But you’re still at the mercy of a bunch of strangers. What do you know about them? Are they really who they say they are? Do any of them have police records? How about their personal finances—what do you know? Are any of them likely to pull a swindle—”
“Stop!” Cammie cried. “That’s enough. Those ‘strangers’ are like family to me. They’re my friends. I don’t appreciate your big-city-reporter questions, Lark, any more than I appreciate your wrongheaded notions. You don’t have to tell me how to lead my life.” She squared her shoulders and took another step toward the kitchen. “If this is what I have to look forward to in your efforts to ‘help’ me, I’m glad I’m as alone as you two like to think I am.”
Maggie’s china blue eyes popped wide open while Lark’s emerald green ones narrowed. To forestall any further upsetting comments from either of them, Cammie forged ahead. “I came and welcomed the new doctor, said farewell to Doc and Mrs. Calloway, and now I’ll say the same to you. Good night, Lark, Maggie. I’m heading home.”
Leaving her stunned-silent sisters behind, Cammie entered the vast kitchen of the Bellamy Community Church’s fellowship hall at a hearty clip. She crossed the delectably fragranced expanse and strode out to the cool autumn-evening peace.
The last thing she needed was two older sisters, to whom she’d never been close, suddenly hovering over her like . . . well, like a younger, less-numerous version of the Bellamy Garden Club. With God’s help she could handle her pregnancy without the intrusion of the flower-loving busybodies who stuck their noses into everything in Bellamy with appalling regularity.
She certainly didn’t need Lark and Maggie.
And since she’d recently decided it was time to stand up for herself as they always had, she’d felt the need to set them straight about her feelings. Even though she wished things were different among the three of them, the last three living Bellamys.
Then a stray thought crossed her mind. Was her decision to become more assertive Christlike? Although it had felt great to finally tell her sisters where she stood, she wasn’t sure how God would view her actions.
Still, both Maggie and Lark had recently professed faith
in Christ. Maybe there was hope for them yet.
And for sisterhood.
“Well, I’ll be hog-tied,” said Maggie.
“I’ll say,” answered Lark.
“I can’t believe baby Cammie’s out-stubbornin’ any ol’ mule.”
The two sisters remained silent for a moment, their gazes on the still swinging kitchen door. Then Lark turned to Maggie. “She’s headed for trouble.”
“Amen. Makin’ a beeline right to it. And she’s lonely, too.
I still remember how bad it was before I got Buford. And met Clay, of course.”
Lark gave a self-effacing shrug. “I have to confess I was, too. I mean, lonely. Before you gave me Mycroft, of course.”
Maggie winked a blue eye. “And before you finally got together with your childhood sweetheart, Rich Desmond,
Lark’s cheeks turned a becoming shade of coral. “Oh, yes. He’s a gift from God. Well, an occasionally obstinate, ornery, obstreperous gift, I’ll grant you, but a gift nonetheless.”
Maggie chuckled. “Do you all talk to each other in those five-dollar words all day?” At Lark’s nod, she continued. “Then you’re as well matched as a peck of peas in a pod—”
“Yes, but we weren’t talkin’ about Rich and me, remember? What should we do about Cammie?”
“She won’t let us near.”
“Then we’ll have to find someone else to get near her.”
“Miss Sophie’s not the right one, though. The two of them already get on like gangbusters in a house afire, so she’s more likely to agree with Cammie than with us.”
Maggie reached a hand out to Lark. “We need some real help here—heavenly help, that is.”
Lark squeezed back. Then she prayed, “Father God, you know we haven’t had the kind of relationship we should with Cammie. But we want to help her. Open our eyes, Lord. Show us how best to bring her out of her loneliness—and to show her how much trouble she’s headed for.”
“What are you two up to?” asked Clay Marlowe, slipping an arm around his wife’s slim waist.
“Trouble, no doubt, Clay,” answered Rich Desmond, dropping a kiss on top of his fiancée’s short red curls. “These Bellamy women are nothing but trouble.”
“But they’re so lovable, aren’t they?” Clay queried as he dodged Maggie’s elbow jab.
“Oh my, yes,” Rich answered, mischief dancing in his eyes as he soft-shoed his toes away from Lark’s stomping heel.
Clay wrapped one of Maggie’s long blond locks around his finger. “They’re always such delightful, agreeable, wonderful company—”
“Delightful . . . ,” drawled Lark, weighing the concept.
“Agreeable . . . ,” murmured Maggie, the word honey-sweet and molasses-slow.
“Wonderful company,” the sisters chorused.
“That’s it, Lark!”
“Of course, Mags!”
They trotted off, chattering quietly if with lively animation, and leaving their respective escorts staring after them. Long moments later, the men faced each other.
“Trouble,” they said as one.
Halfway home, Cammie applied the brakes to her rapid-fire pace. She couldn’t go home just yet. She’d volunteered for cleanup after the party. But she couldn’t go back and face her sisters again.
Nor could she imagine coming face-to-face with Stephen Hardesty another time. At the mere thought of the handsome new doctor, a flutter of the same heat she’d felt when he’d clasped her hand riffled through her. What an incredible, unsettling impression he’d made.
Was it her guilty conscience over “fudging” a bit that had her steaming up at the thought of him? Was it embarrassment? Or was it more a matter of his intense eyes, dark wavy hair, and tall, solid frame?
More than likely, in spite of her being pregnant and widowed, it was a matter of his robust masculinity wreaking havoc on her common sense. Which meant she had to remember who she was: Camellia Bellamy Sprague—settled, commonsense Cammie. The dependable Blossom, as the town referred to the three florally monikered Bellamy sisters. The one who everyone said knew her lot in life and, as Scripture taught, had learned to be content in whatever situation befell her. Even while she’d been trapped for five years, working to turn around a loveless marriage. Even when her husband’s car had crashed, leaving her a widow.
She reckoned that God had allowed everything that had happened to her—including her husband’s death. So she’d asked God to help her accept what came her way, and he had.
“And right now, Camellia Sprague,” she told herself out loud, stiffening her spine, “a pile of messy dishes and a mile of dirty tables are headed your way.”
Reluctance weighing down every step, Cammie went back to fulfill her responsibility. For a while the good-natured chatter of the other women on kitchen duty kept her mind off less pleasant matters.
As she slid the last drippy plate into the yawning maw of the commercial dishwasher, the door to the fellowship hall swung ajar. Cammie glanced that way, and what she saw had her biting her bottom lip. “Oh, dear.”
Miss Louella, known far and abroad as Bellamy’s most devoted matchmaker, had cornered Cammie’s elderly, debonair boarder, Willie Johnson—all of seventy-five, if a day—and Miss Sophie. The dear, sweet widow, alone for decades, hadn’t a clue what had hit her—if one could go by her starry-eyed look.
What was Miss Louella thinking? Miss Sophie wasn’t some pining spinster, desperate to find a mate. No, sirree, she was happily single and secure in her present life. So why would a content widow—especially one of Miss Sophie’s vintage—need a man? After all, yet another abandonment seemed likely, since Willie was no spring chicken either.
Someone had to protect Miss Sophie from Miss Louella’s matchmaking, before it was too late. Marching up to her dazzled friend’s side, Cammie donned her most polite expression. “If you all will excuse me, I need Miss Sophie for a moment.”
Miss Louella gave Cammie a reproving look while Willie’s smile melted into drooping dejection. “But you’ll bring her back, won’t you?” he asked.
Not hardly. “I don’t rightly know, Willie,” Cammie answered, cupping Miss Sophie’s elbow. “I’ll leave that up to Miss Sophie herself. But right now I do need to speak to her.”
With a series of determined tugs, Cammie led her friend to a quiet corner in the emptying room. “Miss Sophie!” she cried in an alarmed whisper. “What were you thinking?”
“Excuse me, dear,” said Miss Sophie, shaking herself. “What do you mean, what was I thinkin’? I plumb don’t know if I’ve been rightly thinkin’ a’tall.”
“That’s just what I mean. Miss Louella’s up to no good, and she’s up to it with you and Willie Johnson.”
“Oh, pshaw.” Miss Sophie’s cheeks bloomed with roses. “Don’t be silly, sugar. There’s no mystery for her to sniff out here.”
Cammie closed her eyes and shook her head. “That’s not what I meant—”
“Well, that’s good, dear, because for a second, I thought your mind had begun to wander. I’d hate for you to wind up like Euphonia Hickerstrop’s granddaughter, with all that vague talk of little green men and outlandish travels. Still, she was decades older’n you, goin’ through—” Miss Sophie cast a surreptitious look around—“the change. Although, of course, you’re far from that kind of trouble.”
“So are you,” countered Cammie. “Well, not for the change, of course, but you’re not senile. Besides, it wasn’t your mind that went a-roving. It looked to me as if your eyes were taking some kind of tour of Mr. Johnson’s dapper self.”
Miss Sophie’s flush reached her hairline. “Oh, nonsense, honey. I was merely bein’ polite, is all. You must know how he is, with him living at your house and all. Why, he’s so handsome and interestin’, and he’s always tellin’ the best stories.”
Things did not look good. “But, Miss Sophie, Miss Louella’s up to her usual matchmaking.”
If Miss Sophie got any redder, Cammie feared she’d have to call on Stephen Hardesty to treat his great-aunt for apoplexy or something.
With a dismissive wave of her plump hand, Miss Sophie said, “Pshaw. Lou knows I’m a happy woman right enough. I’m not in the market for a romance. I’ve got my job at Desmond’s Country Store, the Garden Club, my Bible study, prayer group, and you. What—” her voice faltered—“what more could a woman want?”
Cammie’s relief broke through in a smile. “That’s more
like it. As you and I have often remarked, life for us is calm, routines are simple, and days are full. Besides, nothing happens to God’s children unless it goes through his personal filter first.”
“There you are, Aunt Sophie,” interrupted the new doctor as he leaned down and gave his elderly relative a hug. “I was wondering if you were ready to head home.”
“Oh no!” cried Willie Johnson, stepping out from behind Stephen. “It’s far too early in this lovely eve for a star of Miss Sophie’s magnitudinous shine to be put to bed. Come, dear lady. Let us enjoy the quiet hours. The night is still young.”
“That’s exactly right, Willie,” chirped a beaming Miss Louella from Cammie’s right. “The night is truly young, as are dear Camellia and Stephen.”
Matters were indeed becoming dire. Trouble was a-brewing, all right. If the gleam in Miss Louella’s gray eyes meant what Cammie feared it did, Sophie wasn’t the matchmaker’s only target.
It was time to make her escape, before things got any worse.