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Dannie Marsden's book Desert Heat

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Desert Heat

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Diamond Dreams - Chapter 1

Chapter One

 

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The ball made a loud pop as it whizzed past Cameron St. Angelo and hit the leather of the catcher’s mitt. The inside pitch was meant to brush her back from the plate, but Cam barely twitched as the ball breezed right past her face. After the umpire bellowed, “Ball two,” Cam stepped out of the batter’s box and tapped the aluminum bat against the metal cleats on both shoes. She turned her head toward the pitcher’s mound and grinned. “Is that the best you got, Bugsy?”

 

“You damn well know it isn’t,” the pitcher growled back.

 

“Are y’all gonna play ball or jabber the rest of the game?”

 

Cam stepped back into the batter’s box. “Sorry, Blue.” She twisted her right foot in the packed clay until she felt comfortable and dropped her hand, indicating she was ready for the next pitch.

 

“’Bout damn time, St. Angelo,” the catcher barked. “This gear is hot, so let’s get a move on.”

 

“Bring it,” she called out to the pitcher.

 

Ursula Bugg, or Bugsy to Cam, was a top-ranked pitcher on the opposing team, and Cam knew she had a wicked-fast rise ball. She also knew that Ursula had a weakness and it was Cam herself. They had competed against each other in every sport since they first met in high school, and Cam had always proven to be the superior athlete. As hard as she tried, Bugsy had never bested her in any sport, and facing Cam now as the opposing pitcher would make no difference. Yes, Bugsy was good, but Cam was better, and she understood how much she got into Bugsy’s head. They’d battled through three years in high school, and by their senior year, Bugsy’s frustration had grown to an obsession. Bugsy’s continued attempts to flirt with her creeped her out at first, but Cam learned to deal with Bugsy by ignoring her comments and gently reminding Bugsy that she had no interest in dating her.

 

It didn’t matter that Cam was an all-state shortstop and the team’s leading cleanup hitter, bound for Baton Rouge in the fall with a full ride to play softball for LSU. Bugsy was determined to strike her out. Cam could almost hear the grinding of Bugsy’s teeth as she reached deep down inside for extra strength and released the next pitch.

 

“High and wide,” the umpire called out. “Three balls and one strike.”

 

Forced to throw a strike, or risk walking her, Bugsy stepped off the mound to wipe her hand, as Cam waited on the fastball that would be nestled in the center of the plate. Bugsy then stepped up to the pitching rubber, using the toe of her right foot to dig the hole beside it deeper for more traction and power, then begin her windup. She moved as if in slow motion to Cam, and the ball looked the size of a cantaloupe as it approached. Cam’s eyes locked on their target as she tucked her chin to her chest and started her swing. Her teammates were probably holding their breath, but Cam had no doubts the ball was leaving the park. She caught the ball on the sweet spot of her bat, and it sailed out of the park for a walk-off home run. She rushed out of the batter’s box toward first base as the left fielder backed toward the fence until she realized there was no keeping the ball in the field of play. Cam rounded the base and slowed her pace to a jog as Bugsy glared at her from the pitcher’s mound. When her cleated foot touched home, the umpire called, “Ball game.”

 

Welcomed by her teammates with high fives and slaps to her helmet, Cam made her way to the dugout to drop off her gear before joining her friends in congratulating the other team on a game well played. When she approached Bugsy at the end of the line, she smiled. “See you next fall.”

 

“You better believe it,” Bugsy answered, finally cracking a smile. She would also be attending LSU to play softball. “Maybe we’ll meet again next week if we make it to the tournament.”

 

 

As they packed their gear, Cam looked over and smiled at her childhood friend, Brenda Toussant. “Are you still coming over tonight, Bren? Dad’s not cooking, so we can go over to the camp for a fire and maybe a few brews.”

 

“Dontcha know it. I’ve been looking forward to the weekend. Just think, in three more weeks, we’ll be high school graduates.”

 

“Yes, we will. Have you given any more thought to college?”

 

“Thought, yes, but there’s no way we can afford tuition, and going to another school just wouldn’t be fun without you.”

 

Cam’s heart sank, but she knew Bren was right. The tuition at LSU was expensive, and Bren’s parents were struggling to raise her five younger siblings. They both knew the eventuality of Bren’s future was to miss out on college and go straight from high school to work, but for now, they would enjoy the last few weeks of freedom.

 

Cam draped her arm across Bren’s shoulder as they carried their bags to the bus for the short ride back to school. On the way, the team sang along at the top of their lungs to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

 

“See ya when I see ya,” Cam teased as she pulled Bren into a hug. “Be careful. I’ll be ready by the time you come over.”

 

“I’ll be there as quick as I can. Daddy’s going to let me use his truck, but I’ve got to be home before midnight.”

 

“I wish you could stay, but I’ve got to be up early too. I promised to help Dad with cutting some sugarcane.”

 

Bren disappeared into a crowd of sweaty boys as spring football practice ended and they headed to the showers. Cam’s heart ached when Bren raised up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on Rudy Merchant’s lips. Rudy had graduated two years earlier, and had been hired as an assistant coach for the football team. Bren and Rudy had dated for the last four years, and Cam was almost certain he would ask Bren to marry him after she graduated. That’s what everyone expected, and her moving out of the house would mean one fewer mouth for her daddy to feed. Rudy was a good guy and treated Bren kindly, even though she was making him wait until after they were married to have sex. The thought of Bren in another’s arms made Cam shiver.

 

She turned away and strolled over to her Jeep. She was no beauty, but Cam and her dad had gotten her running, and so far, she had proven reliable. Cam had heard her parents talking about giving the Jeep a paint job for her graduation present. She grinned at herself in the rearview mirror. Bren gets an engagement ring and I get a paint job. At least I’ll have a few more years of freedom before I have to decide where my future lies.

 

She pulled away from the curb and drove for home, the lyrics to “Sweet Home Alabama” still playing in her head. When she turned into the long drive leading to her house, her eight-year-old baby sister Sandy was searching the ditch for crawfish. Cam pulled the Jeep to a halt when Sandy rushed over to her.

 

“Hiya, Cam.”

 

“What you doing, Squirt?”

 

“Looking for crawdads.” She beamed.

 

“Find any?”

 

“Just a couple, but I let them go.”

 

Cam smiled at her. “Hop in.”

 

Sandy was barely tall enough to open the door, and Cam reached across and offered her a hand to climb into the Jeep. She saw Cam’s uniform. “Did you win today?”

 

“Is it hot out?”

 

“It’s a bit warm.”

 

“Yes, we won, and your big sister hit a home run. How was your day at school?”

 

“It was good. I had a home run, too, in our kickball game.”

 

“Awesome.” Cam offered her a high five. “I have to help Dad with harvesting some sugarcane tomorrow, but when I get done, why don’t we check some cages and see if we can round up enough mudbugs for dinner tomorrow night?”

 

“I’d like that, Cam.”

 

“When we get home, I’ll check with Mama and see if that’s okay with her.”

 

“Is Bren coming out tonight?”

 

Cam noticed the sparkle in her baby sister’s eyes and wondered if she wasn’t the only St. Angelo crushing on Bren. “Yes, she is. We’re going over to the Island for a campfire at the hunt camp.” Sandy drew in a deep breath. “No, before you ask, you can’t go with us tonight.”

 

“Aw, Cam. Why not? Are you two meeting boys over there or something?”

 

She couldn’t hold back her chuckle. “Nope, no boys allowed, and no baby sisters either.” Cam ruffled Sandy’s hair. “Don’t worry, we’ll have all afternoon.”

 

Sandy poked out her bottom lip in her best attempt at a pout. Cam ignored the plea. “Crank up that window for me, please.”

 

With an audible huff, Sandy turned the metal crank to raise the passenger-side window.

 

“C’mon, let’s go see what Mom’s cooking. I don’t know about you, but I could eat a horse.” Cam walked around to the passenger side and took out her bag. “Hop on, Squirt,” she said and turned her back to Sandy.

 

Sandy wrapped her legs around Cam’s hips, and arms around her shoulders. “Giddyup, Horse.”

 

Cam twisted to the right, then spun back to the left, but remained conscious of the precious cargo clinging to her neck. “Better hold on tight,” she warned and bolted for the side door.

 

Her mother, Camille, and sister, Teresa, were in the kitchen preparing dinner when they raced through the door.

 

“Whoa, slow down, you two. You gonna make my cornbread fall with that commotion,” their mama teased.

 

Cam spun one last time before lowering Sandy to her feet. “Will you carry my bag to my room?”

 

“Sure, Cam.”

 

Sandy raced from the kitchen as Cam kissed her mama’s cheek. “What you got smelling so good in here?”

 

“Swamp cabbage, fried fatback, cornbread, and Teresa’s going to try her hand at creamed corn tonight.”

 

“Ewwee, there’s gonna be some gas up in this house tonight.”

 

“When isn’t there?” Camille replied.

 

Cam chuckled. “You do have a point there, Mama. Are you up for a boil tomorrow night? I promised Sandy I’d take her out to check some crawfish traps tomorrow, if you were up to having a boil.”

 

“That does sound good,” T chimed in. “Would you mind if I invited Buster out?”

 

“Good Lord, I’ll have to find a lot of mudbugs if Buster’s coming,” Cam groaned with a smile.

 

Camille smacked Cam’s hand as she reached for a slice of fatback. “You are gonna have to wait like the rest of us. Why don’t you and Sandy make an afternoon of it and bring us several catfish to fry? That way nobody should go hungry.”

 

“We can do that.”

 

Sandy returned to the kitchen. “Do what?”

 

“Catch up a mess of catfish to fry up with the boil. T’s inviting Buster out, and you know how that boy can eat.”

 

“Oh heck yeah, I love to fish.”

 

Camille pointed at Cam. “You go hit the shower. Tell those sisters of yours to come set the table as you pass by their room, and you, ma cherie, go tell your papa to get ready for dinner. We’ll be eating in twenty minutes.”

 

“Yes, Mama,” Sandy said and bolted out the back door.

 

Cam chuckled at Sandy’s exuberance. She bent down and kissed her mother’s cheek. “Love you, Mama.”

 

“I love you too. Now git or you’ll hold up dinner.” She shooed her out of the kitchen and smiled. Her mama always said her five beautiful girls completed her and her dad’s dreams. She, Teresa, Karen, Wanda, and the baby Sandy kept them in stitches with their antics, but each and every one of them had their own special skills to help keep the family businesses thriving.

 

 

Being the oldest did come with a few small privileges. Like a private room and a tiny bathroom all Cam’s own. T, the next oldest, would take over her room in the fall when she left for college. Cam stripped out of her uniform and turned on the shower.

 

The warm water felt good on her skin, and when finished, she dried off and dressed in worn jeans and a tank top. After dinner, she’d slip a flannel shirt over the tank for the ride out to the Island. The full Louisiana summer had yet to arrive, so the night on the water could still be a bit on the cool side. Cam pulled on thick socks and her broken-in work boots, then ran her hands down her thighs. Her jeans were worn, and nearly see-through. She’d be lucky if they lasted the summer.

 

I reckon I’ll have to break down and buy some new clothes for college. Wow, college. The word excited and terrified her at the same time.

 

She’d been away from home a few times for ball tournaments, and one spring break down at the coast. Sure, Baton Rouge wasn’t that far away, but it was much larger than her little town, and there was so much a young, naïve country girl could get into in the big city that could get her bounced right back to Podunk.

 

She shook the negative thoughts from her head. She was determined to be successful and the first in their family to graduate from college. Cam opened her door to find Sandy with her hand raised, ready to knock.

 

“Dinner’s ready. Mama says get a move on.”

 

“Oh yeah?” Cam stepped out of her room and placed Sandy behind her. “Race you.”

 

Sandy squealed, “You cheat,” and did her best to pass Cam, who weaved down the hallway to block her until the very end when she let Sandy sneak by her. “I won,” she cried out.

 

“This round, yes, but I’ll get you next time.”

 

Cam looked up to find her mama smiling at the exchange between sisters and winked at her. “She’s a fast one, Mama. You’re gonna have to keep an extra-close eye on this one when I’m gone.” It was too late to take back her words, and Cam felt a twinge of guilt as she looked at Sandy, who was on the verge of tears. “Hey now, Squirt, I won’t be gone forever. I’ll come home every chance I get, and if you’re lucky, I may get an extra ticket for a football game in Death Valley.”

 

Sandy squealed. “Really, Cam?” Her disappointment temporarily forgotten, she slipped into a chair beside Cam.

 

Her dad walked into the room, his shoulders slumped with weariness. He smiled down at his oldest daughter. “Yak Box here said you hit another homer. What’s that make, about twenty?”

 

“Twenty-two, and the state tournament is next week. Maybe I can add a few more to the record books before I graduate.”

 

“Are the finals next weekend?”

 

“Yes, sir, on Saturday at the LSU field.”

 

“Maybe we should load up the girls and go to the big city, Ma.”

 

Camille carried a bowl of cabbage to the table. “That would be a nice break for all of us.”

 

“Let’s make it happen, then.”

 

 

The girls pitched in to clean the kitchen while their parents relaxed in the living room. Sandy carried the dishes from the table and sat on a stool watching as Cam and T washed and dried them while Wanda and Karen put away the leftovers.

 

T nudged Cam’s shoulder. “Did I hear you say earlier that Bren was coming out tonight?”

 

“Yes, we’re going over to the Island for a campfire at the hunt camp.”

 

“You aren’t gonna be sampling any of Dad’s cooking, are ya?”

 

Heat rose up Cam’s neck. “Probably not, I’ve got to be up early to help Dad and she’s got to drive home.”

 

T leaned in closer. “Y’all could stay out at the camp and get up early. No one would be the wiser.”

 

“You have grown into such an instigator, Teresa St. Angelo,” Cam teased. “Have you and Buster done that?”

 

T’s face turned scarlet. There was no need to answer Cam’s question. Her face revealed everything. “Only once, but we didn’t stay all night.”

 

“Uh-huh, you better not let Dad hear that or Buster may be in big trouble.”

 

“He won’t be the only one in trouble,” Karen said as she bumped T with her hip. “You better keep those legs crossed, girlie.”

 

“Will y’all relax? Buster’s all hands and lips.”

 

Wanda moved behind Sandy and covered her ears. “We all know what hands and lips can turn into quick,” she said before Sandy wiggled out of her grasp.

 

 “Will you stop, Wanda?” Sandy cried out.

 

“Sorry, Squirt, but some things you shouldn’t be hearing yet,” Cam said and shot a glare at Karen and Wanda.

 

Before anyone else could speak, a vehicle pulled up in the yard and Sandy rushed out of the kitchen to greet Bren.

 

“Slow down,” Camille hollered from the living room as Sandy sped to the back door and slung it open.

 

Cam looked out the window to see Bren step out of the truck just as Sandy arrived. Her best friend ruffled Sandy’s hair just as Cam had done so many times. Sandy reached for Bren’s hand, and her mouth was moving ninety miles an hour as they walked to the house. Cam smiled at her baby sister’s innocence and felt a twinge of jealousy at how easily Sandy took Bren’s hand.

 

“Go ahead. We’ll finish up here,” Wanda told Cam after smacking her butt with the dish towel.

 

“Damn, ouch, that hurt. Tell Bren I’ll be out in a minute. I’ve got to brush my teeth and get a flannel shirt.”

 

Wanda nodded toward the yard. “No worries, I think Sandy will keep her busy for a few.”

 

“It looks that way.” Cam chuckled and left the room.

 

 

When Cam returned to the kitchen, Sandy was still talking ninety to nothing. “And Dad said he was going to load all us girls up and come watch y’all play in the finals next weekend.”

 

“Whoa, slow down, Squirt. We’ve got to make it to the finals first.”

 

“Cam, you know good and well you’ll be there. No team has come close to beating y’all this year.”

 

“That doesn’t mean we can’t have a bad day and lose.”

 

Sandy cocked her head as she let Cam’s words sink in. “I reckon that could happen.”

 

Bren smiled sweetly at her. “We’re going to do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen, though.”

 

“Darn straight we are.” Cam looked at Bren. “Are you ready to head out?”

 

“Yes, I am.” She hugged Sandy and kissed the top of her head. “See you next week, Squirt.”

 

“Bye, Bren. You sure I can’t go with you tonight, Cam?”

 

“Positive. Now get some sleep tonight so you can get up and help Dad and me with the cane so we can get out on the water sooner. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

 

Cam walked into the living room to say good night to her parents. Ronny St. Angelo grinned at his daughter. “Go easy tonight. I put a six-pack of Abita’s in the fridge if you’d rather have those. Make sure Bren’s okay to drive before she leaves here. I’d rather she spent the night than end up in a ditch.”

 

“Thanks, Dad.” She leaned down to kiss his cheek. “We won’t be out late, Mama.”

 

“Just be careful.”

 

“Yes, ma’am. See you bright and early, Dad.”

 

“Good night, Cam.”

 

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