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Nolan Campbell, professor of history, stared woefully at a skinny white Christmas tree standing in one corner of the staff lounge at his Columbia, Missouri, college. The tree was virtually smothered in pink ornaments and cellophane bows. Several strings of hot-pink bulbs flashed intermittently, and every few seconds his conservative blue tie turned a ghastly shade of green.
Two colleagues brooded beside him. Camp, as he was known by his peers, gestured toward the tree with a glass cup too dainty for his masculine hand. "Fake or not, Lyle, Christmas trees should be green. What's wrong with the world today?"
"Plenty," snorted Lyle Roberts. "Especially with the people in charge of this party. Did you get a load of those tiny sandwiches at the buffet table?
No crust and less filling. Takes four to make a decent bite."
"Who planned this do?" asked Jeff Scott, economics prof. "Invaders from another planet?"
"Yeah," Lyle said sarcastically. "Aliens. In other words, our women's studies department. Hey, that reminds me of a joke I heard. How do Columbia housewives call their kids to dinner?"
Camp and Jeff shrugged.
"They say, 'Come on, kids, get in the car.'" Lyle tittered. "Women don't cook anymore."
Unlike his associates, Camp didn't laugh. "I eat out a lot, too," he said, recalling all the evenings he stopped at a cafe near his home rather than face a solitary meal. "It's a sign of the times, I guess. Home is no longer the focal point of a family." Camp's gaze traveled to a huddle of women instructors. "Eight-plus hours at a job doesn't allow time for domestic chores."
"Are you kidding?" Roberts exclaimed. "Modern women have erased the word domestic from their vocabularies. I've said it before and I'll say it againmy great-grandmother's generation spawned the last real women. In her era they cooked tasty meals on wood stoves. No boxed garbage of undetermined origin. She planted a garden and sewed for herself and the kids. And she was happy doing it."
"Get a life, Lyle." Camp's sister, Sherry, department chair for women's studies, left her group to confront the men. "Try stepping into this century. Women pioneer in a lot of fields. Politics, medicine, corporate Americato name a few. And Lyle," she added sweetly, "we live longer than Great-grandma did."
Lyle wagged a finger in her face. "If settling the West depended on coddled women like my ex-wife, civilization would be permanently stalled east of the Ohio."
She batted his hand away. "Those so-called historic facts about the West are fantasies dreamed up by men. And if you think women today are all pampered, spend an hour in the Women's Hub listening to the battered ones left penniless by well-heeled exes."
"Really? My ex spends the child support I pay her on cosmetics and manicures."
Camp insinuated himself between the two. "Sherilyn, you missed the crux of our conversation. Lyle's referring to basic evolutionary changeslike, if modern women had to wash without a machine, cook without gas or electricity, they'd have difficulty surviving."
"That's right," Jeff interjected. "Economically speaking, women still expect men to be the hunters, the main breadwinners in the family."
"Oh, pu.. leeze! Like you three men could skin a bear and put him in a pot." Sherry thumped her chest. "I could live primitively. Thankfully I don't have to."
Camp lifted a brow. "Toss your electric toothbrush, straightening iron and microwave, sis. Then we'll talk."
"Horse feathers. You history types always lament the loss of the good old days." Her sarcastic sneer was suddenly replaced by a wide smile. "The other day I received a brochure at the Women's Hub advertising a wagon-train reenactment along the Santa Fe Trail. Led by a woman, incidentally. Her train leaves Boonville, Missouri, in June, if I recall. Sponsor a few women on that trip, brother dear. See how they compare with your precious pioneers."
Lyle hooted. "Don't waste your hard-earned money, Camp. I daresay they wouldn't make it as far as Independence."
"Oh, yeah?" Sherry met him glare for glare.
"It's a silly notion," Camp said impatiently. "Just accept that today's women are softer."
"Camp's spouting sour grapes," a woman behind them shouted. "Because Greta Erickson refused to spend her life shackled to that hundred-year-old house he'll be restoring for the rest of
Pain licked ever so fleetingly through Camp's brown eyes.
Sherry dealt the speaker a dark look. She could grumble at Nolan and call him bossy. That didn't mean she'd stand for others picking on him. Greta had hurt him.
Yet it was Lyle who spoke up. "Greta thought Camp's house was fine until she met Mr. Got-bucks, who upped the ante with a fancy new rambler in a gated subdivision. Man isn't important to a relationship anymore. Only the perks he provides."
"Nonsense, Lyle. One of these days you'll have to eat your words." Sherry thrust out her jaw pugnaciously.
Camp felt the discussion was getting out of hand. "I might consider your experiment, Sherryif you'd agree to drive one of those wagons." He knew his sister's penchant for luxury and figured that'd end the argument.
"Go for it, girl. Show him." The other women egged Sherry on.
Sherry mulled it over. Spending a summer vacation plodding across the dusty prairie was the last thing she wanted to do. However, she knew a couple of women who were capable of making these men eat their words. Gina Ames, a freelance photographer who last year backpacked across the Sierras. And Emily Benton, Sherry's counterpart at a college nearer St. Louis. Widowed young, Em had returned to the workforce to pay off a philandering husband's debts rather than take one penny from wealthy in-laws determined to drive a wedge between her and her two kids.
Deciding to settle the argument once and for all, Sherry hooked her arm through her older brother's and steered him toward the stairs. At six foot two and leanly muscled, he cut a dashing figure. Too bad these guys from the history department were all several generations too late. "I'll grab that brochure on the wagon train before I leave on Christmas break. We can discuss my proposal some more at Mom and Dad's. I assume you'll be there for Christmas dinner."
"A forty-year-old man should have someplace more exciting to spend Christmas than with his parents," Camp said glumly.
"You're not fortyyou're only thirty-eight." She punched his arm playfully. "If you add years it makes me older. I prefer to think that at thirty-one, I'm in the prime of life."
"Prime, huh? Then why are you spending the holiday with Mom and Dad instead of serving plum pudding to some lucky guy?"
She smacked him harder. "Very likely for the same reason you're not fixing stuffed goose for a special lady."
Nolan rubbed his shoulder. "So Lyle was rightyou can't cook."
"You really are a Neanderthal moron sometimes, Nolan. Women are quite capable of surviving without a man. I certainly don't need one around."
He frowned as she stomped off. Nolan had forgotten how bulldog-stubborn she could be. Wasn't she ever lonely? He was. Thrusting his hands in his pockets, he clattered down the stairs. "I'd just like to find a woman who enjoys the simple things in life," he muttered as his steps faltered on the bottom landing. Wrenching the door open, he stepped out and breathed in a lungful of noxious city fumes.
"Ugh!" For a minute Camp stared at the cars whizzing past and actually recognized merit in his sister's challenge. Give women a chance to prove they could cope as well as their pioneer ancestors. The real question, though: could anyone today, man or woman, give up modern conveniences for an entire summer? "Hmm, the answer to that does have the makings of a great academic paper."
Absently, Camp dug out his car keys. For two years his department chairman had been hounding him to write and publish. A comparison-and-contrast piece on modern versus pioneer women might be the ticket. Although, if such a comparison was to be real and valid, information would have to come directly from the women involved.
Driving home, Camp played with the idea. What if he leased and stocked a few wagons in exchange for the participants' feedback? That'd work. But to remain an impartial observer, he'd have to dissociate himself completely. By following the train on horseback, say, and sleeping in a tent. Except he hadn't ridden a horse inhow long?
Bad idea. Okay, what if he stopped at motels along the route, instead? That way, he could input the women's findings every night on his laptop computer and all but have the paper written by trip's end. Suddenly, what began as an irrational dare sounded pretty good.
With a grin, Camp turned off the highway onto the graveled lane leading to his old farmhouse. What better opening for this paper than to point out the author's dependence on a most modern conveniencea computer? Both witty and modest, if he did say so himself.
Sherry would never know what a coup she'd handed him.
By the time Christmas dinner was overa dinner during which her brother talked of nothing but what he now referred to as his summer project, Sherry regretted having butted into the men's conversation, no matter how irritating. All she'd been trying to do was shake them out of the past. Now here was Nolan reading excerpts from his stupid history books about the he-men who'd tamed the West. The simple fact was, her brother needed some modern woman to boot him into the twenty-first century. Him and his pals.
"Suppose the wagon train still does have room?" Sherry asked as they stood together on the porch, preparing to make mad dashes to their separate cars through the falling snow. "How will you choose your guinea pigs?"
Camp chucked her under the chin. "Did you see Field of Dreams? The movie where Kevin Costner cleared his cornfield and put in a baseball diamond? I'll lease Conestogas and women will wade out of the corn rows to volunteer."
"Dream on." Sherry jerked away. "You may look a little like Kevin, but even he had to work to entice players to his field."
Camp flipped up his jacket collar. "Let's have it, Ms. Organizer. How should I attract female adventurers?"
"Advertise online in the local newspaper and neighboring college papers. Of course, you'll need an application form that'll weed out kooks. To prove I'm a good sport, I'll help with that. I'll even mail your applications."
"Hmm. I thought maybe word of mouth around our campus would be easiest."
"Taking all your participants from one pool will skew results, Nolan. Besides, aren't you afraid colleagues will steal your idea? You know how much pressure there is to publish these days. Which reminds mewhat about professional liability? Participants should sign a release giving you permission to use their input. And that would be easier if you offered a small stipend. I mean, you are asking women to give up vacation plans or work."
"I hadn't thought of liability. What makes you so savvy?"
"I am woman," Sherry said smugly. "So shall I put together an application?"
"Sure. I guess," he muttered. "Although sending defenseless women on the trip outlined in Maizie Boone's brochure will probably give me nightmares."
"Poor baby." Gritting her teeth, Sherry stepped into the driving snow and left him standing there. She hurried home to call Gina Ames, the wilderness photographer. After twisting Gina's arm and making her promise not to reveal their friendship, Sherry said that her friend should be on the lookout for an application.
Next morning, Sherry decided to visit Emily Benton.
"Sherry, what a delightful surprise," exclaimed the attractive redhead who answered Sherry's knock. "I thought you were my kids. They're at a neighborhood snowball fight. Come in and warm up. I was just making tea." She released the chain and opened the door to one half of a small duplex. Emily hung Sherry's coat on a wrought-iron coat tree, then skirted a shiny new bicycle, two boxed TVs and the components for two or more computers as she led the way to a tiny kitchen.
"Wow!" Whistling through her teeth, Sherry absently handed over a box of homemade cookies she'd brought. "Fencing stolen goods are you, Em?"
Emily frowned. "My in-laws' presents to the kids. It doesn't matter that our house won't hold all this stuff. It's their latest ploy to convince me to move in with them." Her blue eyes frosted. "As if I'd let them get their hooks in Megan and Mark after the way they overindulged Dave."
Sherry slid into the compact eating nook. "Maybe they feel bad because their son turned out to be such a rat. Guilt does funny things to people."
"A Benton suffer guilt? Hah! It's always someone else's fault. Dave's backers lacked vision. His womanizing was my fault. Don't you know I spent too much time volunteering at church and at the kids' schools?" She poured water over tea bags with a trembling hand. "Sorry for dumping on you, Sherry. The holidays have been a trial. If I didn't owe Toby and Mona so much money, I'd take the kids and move to Alaska or Timbuktu. I told you Dave's folks literally own this town. I had to look long and hard to find a place to rent that didn't belong to them or one of their companies. I desperately need the job at the college here, but "
"I wish we had an opening in our department. My dean may retire at the end of the school year. New deans almost always hire additional staff."
"What if he doesn't retire?" She gave a small shrug. "I'm checking the ads in the Chronicle of Higher Education. So far, nothing."
"At least let me offer you a short-term reprieve." Sherry dropped a brochure on the table and quickly described her brother's project.
Before Sherry had finished talking, Emily was shaking her head. "There's more to this, right? Something you're not saying. Oh, noI hope you're not planning to set me up with your brother. You're one of the few people who know what a nightmare my marriage was. I'm sure your brother's a nice man, Sherry, but I'm not interested. I don't care if I'm thirty-four and life is passing me by, I'm just not interested. Okay?"
"Boy, have I bungled this. I'm not setting you up, Em. I love Nolan, but I wouldn't wish anyone that chauvinistic on a friend. I'm doing this because.. well, you could call it gender rivalry."
"Do I ever understand that. Megan just turned fourteen. She's constantly lording it over Mark, who's only twelve and still pretty much of a kid. To tell you the truth, Sherry, a wagon train in the middle of nowhere sounds perfect. A whole summer without grandparents, shopping malls and TV." She fingered the brochure. "Will your brother want children in his study? What makes you feel he'd choose me? Oh, I can't go, Sherry, I really need to teach summer school and earn some money." Jumping up, she began to arrange cookies Sherry had brought on a plate. "I heard through the grapevine that Dave's parents want me to default on my loan. It'll give them leverage to petition for custody of the kids. You wouldn't believe how many times they bailed Dave out of bad land deals. On the last scheme, he lost all the front money for building a casino."
Sherry got up to hug Emily. "Those creeps. Hey, I forgot to mention that Nolan's trip comes with a small stipend. You need a break, Em. Fill out this application exactly the way I've penciled it in. Then mail it. Just don't tell Nolan we're friends." With a final bracing hug, Sherry left her to chew on the idea.