Southern Born
Wrapped Up in Christmas, Book 2
Release Date:

Aug 14, 2024



More From Janice →

Wrapped Up in Christmas Joy


Janice Lynn

This Christmas season creates an unexpected connection…

Quilt shop owner Sophia Davis has always loved history and mysteries so when she finds a soldier’s journal in a box of donated books, she’s intrigued. Her father was a vet, so Sophia feels a deep connection to the young man and his deeply emotional entries. Wanting to return the journal, Sophia sets out to return the journal. 

Former Marine Cole Aaron battles to find his personal peace and purpose when he returns to civilian life. He enjoys his work as a fire fighter, but still can’t shake his memories of the battlefield. When an attractive, sunny young woman returns his journal, all he wants to do is trash it.

But Sophia’s not that easy to avoid and soon they are both volunteering on several Christmas committees in their small Kentucky town. He doesn’t want to look back, but can he and Sophia look forward and find a future touched by joy?

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Chapter One

“I’ll pay somebody fifty bucks to take my place,” Cole Aaron offered his fellow firefighters at the Pine Hill Fire Department.

What were the odds that he would be the one to pull the “winning” green candy cane from the fuzzy red stocking he and the guys had passed around? Not that he felt like he’d won anything. If anything, getting stuck in the role of Santa felt like a huge mistake. Did they really think it was a good fit for a former tough-guy Marine turned firefighter to dress up as Santa in the Pine Hill Christmas parade?

He didn’t have any Christmas cheer whatsoever. Christmas generosity, perhaps, such as when he’d offered to pay for poinsettias for the nursing home residents—but trying to make up for all the bad things you’d done in life didn’t suddenly make you qualified to be Santa.

“This one is all you … Saint Nick.” Andrew snickered.

Of course, his best buddy Andrew would find humor in the idea of Cole donning a red suit, fake belly, white beard, and wig. Had the roles been reversed Cole would be cracking up, too. Only, Andrew hadn’t gotten the short end of the stick, er … candy cane, in the “Who Gets to be Santa on the Rescue Truck for the Christmas Parade?” lottery. Cole knew they should have gone with rock, paper, scissors.

He was good at that. He turned to Ben, another of his close friends.

“Don’t look at me,” Ben advised, continuing to help Jules and another firefighter decorate a ten-foot tree to “give the fire station a festive spirit,” as the chief had put it. The Christmas music blasting over the intercom system all week had also been Chief’s idea. As if to taunt Cole, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” came on.

The guys all snorted with laughter.

Cole groaned. “I look nothing like Santa.”

“Which is what that’s for.” Andrew gestured to the red suit Chief had sat on the table where Cole had been doing a crossword puzzle just minutes before, trying to ignore how Christmas was taking over his beloved firehall.

“Come on. You know red’s your color.”

Glaring at his best friend, Cole peeled the plastic wrapper off the offending green candy cane and stuck the end in his mouth. Yuck. He couldn’t even determine if it was green apple, watermelon, spearmint, or some horrible combination of all three. It certainly didn’t taste like peppermint or anything to do with Christmas.

“That bad, eh?” one of the other firemen asked, looking just as amused as Andrew and Ben. The entire crew found it funny that the new guy had to be Santa. Or maybe they were all just ecstatic they weren’t the one stuck with having to put on the red suit and go around saying, “Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas.”

Not Cole’s idea of a good time, either.

Any of the other crew members would be more qualified than Cole to spark the magic of Christmas for the kids at the parade. He suspected most of the guys would even like playing Santa, but were enjoying ragging him too much to step in. Cole hadn’t even celebrated the holiday in years. How was he supposed to pull off being Santa to this full-of-Christmas-spirit small Kentucky town?

“Not nearly as bad as having to wear that.” To prove it, he stuck the tip of the candy back into his mouth—and immediately regretted doing so. It should be against the law for candy canes to come in any flavor other than peppermint.

Or for guys with tainted souls to play the ultimate Christmas good guy.

“Come on, Cole. Model the suit for us,” Jules said from where she stood on a stepladder placing an ornament of a dalmatian in a fire helmet on the tree.

Ben handed another ornament up to Jules as he added, “You do need to make sure the costume fits.”

Glaring at his coworkers, Cole bit off a piece of the candy and crunched the disgusting stuff between his teeth.

“Ben’s right,” Chief confirmed, his salt and pepper mustache curling upward as he rocked his six-five frame back on his heels.

“Last year, the pants had to be hemmed for Bob. I suspect you’ll have to have the extra length let back out.”

“Or maybe Bob should just be Santa again this year,” Cole mumbled, wondering how long the candy’s bad taste would linger in his mouth.

“His daughter is expecting her first baby that week,” Chief reminded, his brown eyes twinkling with humor, as well, beneath his bushy brows. “Bob will be in Connecticut to meet his grandchild.”

There was that.

“I’ll be in my office—I have a meeting in a few minutes.”

His gaze connected with Cole’s.

“But for the record, I couldn’t have chosen anyone better to be the department’s Santa. You’ll do great.”

Cole wasn’t the type to argue with his boss, nor did he usually feel the desire to do so. But, for once, he longed to list all the reasons Chief was wrong.

Instead, he sighed.

Whether he wanted to or not, he was going to be Santa in the Pine Hill Christmas parade. Santa should be some happy, jovial fellow, not a former Marine who’d done things that still haunted Cole’s dreams.

No one else at the firehall battled the demons Cole fought.

Thank God.

Cole was proud to have been a Marine, proud of the brotherhood he’d belonged to. He would die filled with love for the good ole US of A and pride that he’d served his country with all his heart. But when it came to the things he’d done… There was no pride in himself, nor should there be.

“Put on the suit,” Andrew repeated, barely able to contain his laughter as all the crew began chanting along with him.

“I’ve heard about taking advantage of the new guy, but this”—he held up his putrid green candy cane—“is ridiculous.”

“Hey, I think it’s cool you get to be Santa,” Ben said, and Cole had no doubt he meant it. Cole’s friend would have jumped at the chance to take the role if he’d drawn the green candy cane. Ben always smiled, was friendly to everyone, and would make a great Santa.

“Just think, all the kids are going to love you,” his friend continued.

Not one of Cole’s life goals. Not that he wanted kids to dislike him—far from it. He just didn’t think much about kids one way or the other. He certainly had no plans to ever have any of his own.

No way would he ruin a kid’s life by giving him or her a dad as messed up in the head as he was.

Cole still marveled at the life he’d made in Kentucky, at how much he had changed from the civilian drifter he’d been when he’d signed up for firefighter school. Working as a firefighter had given him purpose and coming to Pine Hill to move into the farmhouse his late uncle had left him had given him a home. The Marines had been his family for more than a decade, and now he belonged to a second family, too. But at times like these, he questioned the motives of his brother firefighters. They sure liked to push him out of his comfort zone, and if he didn’t know better, he’d think they’d rigged the stocking draw.

Regardless, being Santa in the parade was what was expected of him. Cole would do his job, and he’d do it well. Never again would he be the weak link of his team.

“Fine. I’ll put on the suit. But if I catch any of you with your cellphones out taking pictures, I refuse to be held responsible for my actions.”

Andrew grinned. “Just be sure to say cheese when you come back out.”

“Instead of ho, ho, ho?” Cole shook his head. “Not happening. If I’m going to do this”—and it looked as if he had to—“then I’m going to do it right, so every one of you clowns better straighten up if you want to stay off the naughty list.”

At six foot one, Cole was a good four inches taller than Bob, and the pant legs currently only came down mid-calf. The cuffs definitely needed to be let out, Cole thought miserably as he stared at himself in the mirror. His tall black boots mostly hid the poor fit except when Cole moved and they rode up, exposing his calves.

He noted the tilt of the red hat with its big fuzzy white ball on top, the fake belly that added girth to his middle but did nothing to fill out the sleeves and pants, as his muscular legs and arms were far more toned than Santa was meant to be. Additionally, his furry coat sleeves were also a bit too short, though he supposed they could be made to work with a pair of gloves that covered more of his wrists. The white wig and beard fit right, at least, and covered most of his face except for his eyes, nose, and the top of his cheekbones.

He eyed the furry white stick-on brows and shrugged. Why not? He removed the backing and pressed them over his own eyebrows.

With some adjustments and help with makeup from Jules—and a position up on top of the fire truck, where no one could see him all that closely—maybe none of the kids would notice what a terrible Santa he made.

“Here goes nothing,” he muttered to his Santa reflection, and then, sucking in a deep breath, he embraced his role.

Like true brothers, the other firefighters would just keep ribbing him about being Santa if they thought it bugged him, so the best way to get through this would be to show how unbothered he was. As he reentered the break area, he slapped his round midsection and bellowed, “Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas. Who’s first to sit on Santa’s lap?”

“Hey, Cole, there’s someone here to see you.” Andrew’s voice cut through where Ben sang along to the Christmas music still playing on the overhead speaker.

Looking over, Cole saw the pretty young woman standing next to his best bud, looking toward him with wide, surprised hazel eyes and her shiny hair—light brown streaked with gold—falling around her shoulders. She wore jeans, mid-calf boots, and a red sweater with a big cartoonish reindeer face on it, and her jaw was hanging open as her gaze met his.

A hard punch landed deep in Cole’s gut, making his breath whoosh out from between the white hair that surrounded his lips.

Sophie Grace Davis.

He almost took a step back from the impact of her expressive eyes. Which was saying a lot because Cole usually ran into the face of danger, not away from it. Always had, and he suspected he always would. And for some reason, meeting Sophie’s eyes felt exactly the same as all those times he’d seen danger straight ahead.

Not that Cole knew Sophie. Not really. They’d briefly met over the summer at Andrew’s Grandma Ruby’s Fourth of July picnic and had bumped into each other a few times around town in the months since then. All of which Cole could recount in vivid detail, even if he’d barely said two words to her.

Seeing Sophie always left him a bit discombobulated, uncomfortably aware that he was too stiff and awkward. But seeing her while wearing a furry red suit that didn’t properly fit, with the wig and beard that mostly covered his face, and with his great entrance comment … yeah, could this day possibly get any worse?

Not in a million years had Sophie Davis expected to see Cole Aaron dressed up as Santa Claus. Why hadn’t Chief warned her?

Of course, Sophie had instantly recognized Cole. As much as she’d tried, she’d not forgotten his pale, almost icy, blue eyes, or how ruggedly well-built he was—which even the costume couldn’t fully disguise.

Nor had she forgotten how standoffish he’d been on the few occasions their paths had crossed. She’d taken the hint and avoided him the last few times she’d spotted him around town, and she was well aware he’d done the same.

“Here to give Santa your Christmas list?” Andrew teased, standing next to her with his arms crossed. Their families were friends, but Andrew was several years older than her, so they’d never been close. They just occasionally saw each other at family and town events.

Family friend or not, she felt like elbowing him at his teasing.

Taking a deep breath and forcing a smile, she kept her gaze locked with Cole’s. “No, but I am here to return something of Cole’s.”

Had he even realized what he’d done? That he’d accidentally donated his journal for the church’s Christmas fundraising rummage sale?

“Wouldn’t happen to be eight reindeer and a sleigh, would it?” Barely smothering his laughter, Andrew rocked back on his heels.

“She kinda looks like one of Santa’s reindeer herself,” another teased.

“Hey, Cole? You missing a cute reindeer to lead your sleigh?”

Heat rushing into her cheeks, Sophie glanced down at her bright red Christmas sweater with its big, flashing red nosed reindeer. It was one of her favorites, and this was her first time wearing it this Christmas season. Was it too soon to have turned on the battery-operated nose?

On the other hand, Cole was wearing a Santa suit, so what was a snazzy Christmas sweater in the grand scheme of feeling self-conscious? It wasn’t as if she hadn’t felt self-conscious every other time their paths had crossed, too.

She gave him a pleading look. “Is there somewhere private we could talk a few minutes?”

“Hey, Sophie. Santa Cole been threatening you with the naughty list, too? Doesn’t he know your name is written in permanent ink at the top of Santa’s nice list?”

At hearing the familiar, friendly voice, Sophie smiled at Ben Preston. How had she not noticed he was helping decorate the cutest fire department–themed Christmas tree ever?

Then again, Cole had always had a knack for capturing all her attention, and that was before she’d realized he was her wounded warrior.

“Hey, Ben.” Sophie had always liked the good-natured man she’d known since high school. He’d been a couple of years ahead, in her dear friend Sarah’s class rather than Sophie’s, but they’d all hung out together in their church’s youth group. Ben’s frequent smiles, sparkly dark eyes, and his love of God, had impressed Sophie. She’d crushed on him a bit in high school, but she’d missed the boat; the only time he’d shown interest, she’d had other obligations. Now, she could only see him as a friend.

“No, Cole … er, Santa Cole, hasn’t threatened me with the naughty list.”

Ben smiled and went to stand near Cole, who’d not taken a step or said a word since spotting her.

“Good to know he hasn’t been bothering you.”

Not unless one counted how his written words tore at her peace of mind and invaded her dreams. If those were factored in, then Cole had bothered her a great deal.

Cole studied her with an intensity that didn’t at all match his white wig locks, bushy white brows, and thick fake mustache and beard. “There must be some mistake,” he said. “How could you have something of mine?”

Not wanting to explain where everyone could overhear, she replied, “I promise I’ll only take a few minutes of your time if you’ll humor me a bit in private, please.”

“See, that Santa suit is already bringing you good luck.” Ben elbowed Cole’s arm and earned a quick glare. “Go talk to the lady.”

Ignoring Ben and looking puzzled, Cole’s gaze held hers. “Okay if I go change first?”

Sophie nodded, because, really, what else could she do?

One of Sophie’s favorite Christmas carols came on and she attempted to let the song ease her mounting nerves at just standing in the large, open area of the firehall where the men were gathered. Surely, thoughts of Santa being up on the housetop would calm her jitteriness.

But it wasn’t working. Because Cole was now Santa in her head. A Santa in desperate need of a good seamstress, which she just so happened to be.

Sucking in a deep breath, which triggered a grin from Andrew who still stood next to her, Sophie ditched him to walk over to where Ben had returned to decorating the tree. “How’s LaTonya doing?”

Ben smiled at the mention of his twin. “Living the lawyer high life in Louisville as she fights for justice for all.” Visibly proud, Ben told of his latest phone conversation with his sister.

Sophie tried to keep her attention on him, but her mind kept straying to Cole. Maybe Ben wouldn’t notice how many times she said Mm-hmm and Oh, really?

When Cole came back into the festively decorated firehall, he glanced around at the others who were watching them intently, then frowned. “We can go outside. It’s not private, but it’s better than being the main event in here for these jokers.”

“Yes. Going outside sounds like a great idea.”

Maybe she would be able to breathe better outdoors.

Sophie waved goodbye to Ben and Andrew, then smiled at Cole, grateful that she’d be able to give him the journal privately so he could tuck it away if he didn’t want the others to see.

His coworkers might already know about his time in the military, but if not, he should be the one to decide who knew about the things he’d gone through. No one else.

Which made her feel a smidge guilty at having read his journal in the first place, but there had been no name. She’d only meant to read enough to try to figure out whose diary it was, but once she’d started, the pages had beckoned to her with a call she hadn’t been able to resist.

Even after reading it completely, she’d still not found a name. All she’d known was that the author was a male Marine who’d seen and endured too much, just as her father had. Not having a name or a face to assign to the journal meant that the connection between the two men had blurred.

For a week, the intense journal had haunted her. Nightly, she’d picked it up to reread passages that had left her chilled and aching for the man who’d written the heart-wrenching words. Who was he? Where was he? Had he pieced his life back together or … or had the darkness overtaken him as it had her father?

Only when she’d found the Christmas card tucked into a crossword puzzle book that had also been in the donated box had she realized the writer’s identity. Discovering that the quiet, stoic man she’d briefly met at Ruby Jenkin’s Fourth of July party was the wounded warrior monopolizing her every waking thought had been a surprise.

Apparently, Cole was full of surprises. She certainly wouldn’t have expected to find the man whose journal she’d read wearing a Santa suit and teasing his coworkers.

Maybe she should have insisted that he keep wearing the suit. Talking to Santa Cole had to be easier than talking to Gorgeous Fireman with a Tormented Past Cole.

Her stomach was a fluttery tangle of nerves.

She shouldn’t be nervous at all. Her palms shouldn’t be clammy. Her heart shouldn’t be racing. She snuck a glance toward Cole and gulped.

He made her feel giddy and feminine and a whole lot nervous. He’d had that effect on her even before she’d read his journal, and now that she’d read it, she wanted to help him.

Needed to help him.

Not that he looked as if he needed help. Now that he was out of his Santa suit, he looked tough, handsome—a bit dangerous, even, as if he could take on the world and win.

He wore the standard black uniform pants and a polo shirt with the firehall emblem over his heart and short sleeves that accentuated his muscles. His dark brown hair was cut in a no-nonsense short style. His eyes—a Siberian Husky pale blue with a darker, deep blue rim—flashed with intelligence, curiosity, and annoyance.

On the outside, Cole was a good-looking, well-put-together firefighter who had probably started more than a few fires in the hearts of Pine Hill’s female population. Hadn’t she noticed him at the picnic and every time their paths had crossed since?

But now, Sophie knew the heartache his handsome exterior hid.

Catching her not-so-sneaky peek in his direction, Cole’s brow rose. “Did I misunderstand you a minute ago? Are you here to pick something up from me rather than give something back? I told the lady on the phone I’d drop the money for the poinsettias by the nursing home. Did they need the check right away?”

Poinsettias? He was the one who had donated the money to buy the poinsettias for the nursing home residents? She’d heard someone had, but—

Sophie half-tripped over her own feet and almost face-planted on the concrete firehall floor. She steadied herself in time that she didn’t think he noticed her lapse as they stepped outside into the sunshine. Or if he did notice, he didn’t let on.

A soft mid-November breeze blew, tickling her face with her hair.

“I’m not here about the poinsettias or money,” she began, tucking the stray strands behind her ears in hopes of keeping them at bay. “And you didn’t misunderstand me. I found something that belongs to you, and I’m here to return it.”

She reached into her bag and pulled out his journal that had the Christmas card tucked inside it.

“This is yours, isn’t it?”

Cole’s gaze dropped to what Sophie held. A sucker punch rammed into his stomach, knocking his breath out of him and leaving him going-to-retch-his-insides-out nauseated.

He could stare down an enemy holding an AK-47 and not flinch, but the book that Sophie held made his knees weak.

“Where did you get that?” he growled, barely managing not to snatch the book from her hands to hurl it aside, like a grenade that needed to be thrown as far away as possible for everyone’s safety.

For his safety.

Sophie winced. He felt a pang of regret over the harsh tone he’d used, but he couldn’t formulate words to apologize. The beauty from the BBQ had his journal.

“I found it at Pine Hill Church in a box of books.”

The sinking sickness pitched back and forth in his stomach, making him wish he’d forgone his protein shake that morning. His journal had been in the stuff he’d dropped off at the church?

“I, well, when I realized whose it was…” Her nervousness was palpable as she sank her teeth into her lower lip and looked up at him with hesitation. “I knew you’d want it back.” She gave a little shrug of both shoulders. “So here I am.”

“You were wrong.” Bile rising in his throat, he gestured to the abomination she held. “I don’t want that.”

Further confusion darkened her eyes. “But…”

“Look.” He ran his fingers through his hair, still not completely used to having anything more than stubble after years of keeping his dark hair buzzed. “I’m sorry you wasted your time. You should’ve just thrown it out. That book’s nothing but garbage.”

Lots and lots of scribbled garbage a chaplain had suggested he get out of his head by pouring it into the journal the man had gifted to Cole. Not for the first time, Cole regretted giving in to that advice. Seeing everything written out just made him more disgusted with himself, causing the memories to hang even heavier on his shoulders.

Why hadn’t he burned the book rather than packing it with the things he’d brought with him to Pine Hill? The mere act of destroying the journal might have gone further in annihilating his memories than putting them onto paper ever had.

“But,” Sophie began again, her eyes wide and her voice a little trembly. “But it’s … I mean, well, it’s—”

“Garbage,” he repeated, cramming his hands into his pants pockets and clenching his short nails into his palms as deeply as they’d go. He just wanted away from their conversation, away from the book that felt like his personal Achilles’ heel—the weak spot in his defenses that could ruin everything good he’d patched his broken life with. “Throw it away.”


At her indecision, understanding dawned. “You read it, didn’t you?” Cole felt like a fool for not immediately realizing. A new wave of nausea spread through him, popping sweat beads out over his skin despite the crisp November air.

Wide-eyed, her lips parted but no sound came out. No matter. She didn’t need to say the words. The truth was written all over her face.

One of the things Cole most enjoyed about being in Pine Hill was that no one knew of his past. Chief had some idea, and the guys had picked up on a little thanks to Cole’s occasional nightmares, but none of them were in on the nitty-gritty details.

In Pine Hill, he was seen as a man who volunteered his time and energy to everything the firehall was asked to participate in; a man who put his life on the line to save others.

If, while out battling those fires, he fought inner demons, trying to quench them the way he and his crew squelched nearly uncontrollable blazes from time to time, well, no one needed to know that but him.

Only, Sophie had read about his bleakest moments—and his biggest mistake. She knew the truth.

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking truly remorseful that she’d pried between the pages of his private hell. “I opened it thinking I might find a name so I could return it, but there wasn’t one.” Grimacing, she continued. “And, well, the truth is that once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.”

She’d read it all. Of course, she’d read it all. She probably thought him a monster.

As much as he wanted to look away, he didn’t. Jaw locked tight, he kept his gaze unyielding as it met hers. He could handle whatever judgment she placed on him.

Lord knew she couldn’t judge him any more harshly than he judged himself.

“How did you figure out it was mine?”

“There was a Christmas card addressed to you inside a crossword puzzle book that came from the same box. I stuck the card there, inside your journal.”

Without looking at the book, he knew the one she meant. Why had he kept the photo card his mother had sent?

“Toss it as well.”

“But…” She paused. “You’re sure?”

“Positive.” He didn’t want the sentimental reminder of the family he’d never felt a part of any more than he wanted the journal. His mother had her new life, as did his father, complete with new families. There wasn’t a place for him in that picture—but at least they were happy. That was enough for Cole.

“I’m so sorry for what you went through,” Sophie said softly, hugging the journal to her as if she was clinging to the book in effort to keep her hands to herself. As if she wanted to reach out to him.

He didn’t need or want her pity. He’d rather she screamed and yelled at him for his failures. Feeling sorry for him? That, he couldn’t take. He wasn’t some emotional charity case needing her Christmastime goodwill.

He was fine.

Frustration and anger that she’d read his journal burned, taking hold and quickly consuming him. The rational part of him knew it was his fault for not realizing the journal was in the donated box, but in this moment, rational thinking didn’t matter. That book had never been meant for anyone to read, and especially not the bubbly, full-of-goodness woman he’d met over the summer. She never should have been exposed to the pure ugliness marring the pages. Marring him.

When he spoke again, he kept his voice low and steady. “I get that you didn’t know who the journal belonged to, so you read it. Fine. Go back to your life-is-a-bed-of-roses existence and forget everything you read.”

Wincing a little, she shook her head. “I can’t do that.”

Surprised at how her gaze hadn’t wavered from his when he’d expected her to walk away and never waste another breath on him again, Cole frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Her chock-full-of-emotion gaze studied his. “I won’t forget what you wrote as long as I live.”

“Then I’m the one who’s sorry.” No one should be subjected to his failings. Not in real life. Not in writing. “But that doesn’t mean I want the book back. Thanks, but no thanks.” He couldn’t bring himself to look at the journal clutched to her chest, much less to touch the worn leather book.

“Do the world a favor and throw the thing in the trash. Or better yet, burn it.” Even Superman has his Kryptonite, he reminded himself, determined he would not let this drag him down into a place he never wanted to return to. “I don’t care so long as you get rid of it because I never want to see that book, or you, again.”

Chapter Two

“Can you believe he didn’t want the journal back?” Sophie mused later that day as she unpacked a shipment of holiday fabric at The Threaded Needle. She and her sister worked hard to keep fresh supplies available to their clients at their boutique-style quilt shop located on Pine Hill’s town square.

From the far end of the checkout counter, Isabelle said, “What I can’t believe is that you’re still talking about him and that journal you found.”

Sophie paused from pulling out a bolt of candy-cane print material to stare at her sister. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve been talking about him all morning,” Isabelle pointed out. She tucked a strand of her shoulder-length pale blond hair behind her ear, then shrugged. “So what if the guy didn’t want his journal back? It’s his choice, right? Do as he asked and get rid of it.”

Horrified, Sophie gasped. “Absolutely not!”

Isabelle didn’t know what the journal contained, as Sophie had glossed over the details when her sister had asked. Even before she’d met Cole, Sophie had felt protective of the book and its contents.

Isabelle arched a brow, frowning in that older sister way she had. “You’ve got no right to keep his journal, not when he told you to get rid of it.”

Purposely not looking at Isabelle, Sophie went back to pulling Christmas-printed fabric bolts from the box and ignored the smidge of guilt she felt at disregarding Cole’s wishes.

“I do have the right,” she said after a few minutes of mental gymnastics. “He donated it to the church holiday rummage sale, and I bought it.” Even though she’d assumed Cole had donated it by mistake, she’d still insisted on paying for it before taking it away from the church. The event helped raise money to give families with limited means grocery gift cards for them to purchase food for Christmas.

“I tried to return it,” she continued. “He didn’t want it back.” Maybe he truly wanted to just forget. She supposed she could understand that. Still, she couldn’t imagine tossing out something that contained so much of him on the pages.

She couldn’t do it.

“It’s mine now.”

“Fine.” Sighing, her sister shook her head. “It’s bought and paid for.” Isabelle’s eyes crinkled with curiosity. “Tell me, though, what did this guy look like? Was he cute?”

Cute? That was like calling Mount Everest a mound of dirt.

Cole was … feeling her face flush, Sophie averted her gaze and shrugged. “Um, you’ve met him. At Ruby’s this summer. He’s … okay.”

Okay was a worse description than cute, but she wasn’t telling her nosy sister how disturbingly attractive she found Cole.

“Oh my goodness.” Isabelle’s voice took on a higher pitch as she came around the corner under the guise of helping with the fabric. “I don’t remember him, but he really must be cute. I can tell by your face.”

Sophie focused on unpacking the brightly patterned material as if she were unveiling delicate prized possessions that required her utmost attention and care. She kind of did feel that way about fabric, especially this shipment as they prepped for the Christmas season.

“Okay,” Isabelle picked up a snowman-printed bolt, “now, I want to know more. Tell me all.”

Sophie shoved a cardinal-red bolt of fabric at her sister. “Not much to say. Here, go put this on the shelf. With the upcoming holidays, we’re going through this shade like crazy. I bet we use even more after I teach my class on do-it-yourself stockings in December.”

Isabelle laughed. “I haven’t seen you this flustered over a guy since Jimmy Allbad in the seventh grade.”

“His name was Jimmy Algood,” she corrected, unable to stop herself even though she knew Isabelle was just teasing her with the mistake. “And thank goodness that didn’t work out.”

For real, Sophie was thankful for that miss.

Sure, someday she’d like to meet the right guy, marry, and have a few kids, but Prince Charming needed to hold off a few years until Sophie had the time to think about anything other than making sure they could pay the bank note on the quilt shop.

Cole was no Prince Charming. More like a surly brute who’d snapped at her, then walked away, leaving her slack-jawed as she watched him disappear inside the fire station.

Only…no, no, no. Sophie needed to quit thinking about him.

“Yeah, you two didn’t make it past eighth grade,” Isabelle teased about Jimmy. “So, what was it about this Marine that has you in such a teenage-girl tizzy?”

Was that why Sophie couldn’t stop thinking about him? Because she was schoolgirl crushing? She didn’t think so, since she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the journal’s owner even before she’d known it was Cole. His words had reached in and put her heart through the wringer. That he had the most intriguing eyes of anyone she’d ever met had just added to the fascination.

Sophie fought fanning her face.

Okay, so maybe she was schoolgirl crushing. Not that it would do her any good, if the anger in his eyes had been any indication. She’d read his journal and that apparently made her enemy number one.

He never wants to see me again.

Sophie’s face heated as she realized she was still distracted. No wonder Isabelle thought she was in a schoolgirl tizzy.

Rolling her shoulders back to stretch the tension in her neck, Sophie sighed. “I’m just disappointed he didn’t want his journal.”

“Not everyone cherishes journaling the way you do,” Isabella pointed out.

“You keep the birthday dairies Aunt Claudia gives us every year, too,” she reminded.

Their aunt had always given the best gifts, and the diaries had been Sophie’s favorites. Each year, she’d wondered what butterfly design would be on the cover, what handwritten note her aunt would have penned about emerging from her cocoon and spreading her wings to fly. Her aunt’s whimsies had always appealed to the dreamer in Sophie.

She’d kept a diary since receiving her first one on her tenth birthday. She had little bits of herself, her dreams and hopes, scattered over the pages, carefully tucked away in her nightstand, that she’d written for more than a decade. She’d agonize if she lost any one of them. She’d thought Cole would feel the same.

She’d been wrong.

“Yeah. I used Aunt Claudia’s diaries,” Isabelle agreed drily. “But my entries were more along the lines of I can’t believe she got me another one of these books when I really wanted new clothes.”

As Sophie recalled, her practical sister had mainly used the diaries to make lists. Lists of the things she’d done that day and lists of her goals for the following day, goals for the future.

She and Isabelle were as opposite as night and day. Maybe that was why they were so close.

“Say what you will, but I love that Aunt Claudia always gave us diaries. Someday, that’s what I’m going to give your kids as gifts, too,” she teased, loving how her sister’s face contorted in mock horror. “Only, I’ll search out ones with dragonflies on them and come up with cool little sayings to write on the inside covers for my nieces and nephews.” At Isabelle’s don’t-you-dare look, Sophie fought giggling and added, “Yep, dragonflies, year after year, with notes about how cool their Aunt Sophie is.”

“Dragonflies? Ha.” Isabelle snorted and tossed a piece of plastic packaging toward Sophie. “Well, at least my hypothetical kids will be spared that for as long as they stay hypothetical—which will probably be forever. I’ll die an old maid living in this town.”

“That’s not likely to happen,” Sophie corrected, frowning at her sister’s comment. Did Isabelle regret having moved back to Pine Hill? Did she miss her accounting job in Nashville? She never said so, but sometimes Sophie did wonder. “You’re beautiful and smart. Any guy would be lucky to have you. You just have to learn to say yes to a few of your constant stream of date offers.”

Isabelle wrinkled her nose. “Have you met the guys who’ve asked me out? Thanks, but no thanks. I’m fine staying single and never having children, especially in light of your Aunt Sophie gift threats.”

The doorbell chimed, indicating they had a customer. Giving her sister one last look, because she would really have liked to question her further, Sophie stopped unpacking fabric to go help the newcomer.

Somehow, she even managed to put Cole Aaron out of her head … until a bolt of Christmas fabric with Santa Claus on it caught her eye.

Living right off Pine Hill’s town square had its advantages. For one, Sophie could walk to church and work.

Most days, weather permitting, that was what she did. She spent long hours sitting at a sewing machine and when she was done, she liked to make the most of the fresh air and the chance to stretch her legs.

Sophie had stayed late at The Threaded Needle to use the shop’s longarm quilting machine to stitch a queen-sized double wedding ring pattern Odessa Adams had topped as a Christmas gift for her newlywed granddaughter. The sun had long set by the time Sophie locked up the shop and headed home, but the well-lit streets warded off the darkness.

She made her way up festively lit Main Street with its snow-frosted garlands, each with a bright red ribbon, wrapped around every lamppost. Breathing in a deep breath of crisp night air, Sophie swung her bag over her shoulder.

Despite her pleasure in being outside, enjoying the peaceful setting and the refreshingly brisk breeze, Cole’s journal weighed heavily in her bag, just as her heart weighed heavy with his rejection.

If only—A yellow, furry streak ran in front of Sophie, stopping her in her tracks as she stared down the now empty street, wondering where the half-grown cat had disappeared.

Speaking of rejections…

“Here, kitty, kitty.” She knelt and called in the direction the cat had gone, but to no avail as the cat stayed in the shadows.

“You know,” she told the elusive cat, “I’ve been leaving food for you for over a week. Although I’ve seen you peeping in my shop window from time to time, I’d like a closer look. A thank-you meow or two would be nice, too.”

The cat had been hanging around the square and surrounding neighborhood for the past several days, but, as tonight, had been too skittish to do more than watch Sophie from a safe distance. Knowing the poor thing had to be hungry, Sophie put a small bowl of food on her front porch each evening and left an old throw out for the kitty to snuggle up in during the cold winter nights.

“Someday, you’re going to realize that I’m not so bad, and then you’ll want to be my friend,” she told the unseen cat as she stood back up and started walking towards her house again.

Would Cole Aaron ever realize the same thing?

The Twenty-Second Annual Pine Hill Christmas Toy Drive was just starting to get underway.

This was Cole’s first holiday season in Pine Hill, but from the time he’d moved here, he’d learned this town meant business when it came to holidays. And it seemed that the Christmas season was the be-all end-all. For Cole, it was just another day, but even he wasn’t so jaded that he didn’t recall the excitement of Christmas morning as a kid.

Kids needed toys.

When Chief said the fire department was taking on an active role in collecting toys for kids, Cole had signed on to help however he could. He had no wife, kids, or significant other to require his time during the holidays like some of the crew, so he volunteered for whatever came up. No one would miss him if he spent more hours away from home. It made sense that he’d volunteer so others wouldn’t need to.

Assuaging his ever-present guilt was how he found himself sitting in the church community room with about twenty other people, mostly ignoring what was being said.

He spotted Sophie sitting near the front of the room. Her table’s occupants were an odd-looking mix, from Sophie’s sunny presence, to Chief towering over the others, to an almost regal woman in her seventies who looked vaguely familiar, to a cyan blue-haired punk granny with glaringly bold lipstick. Apparently not content with letting her bright colors do the talking for her, she also waved her hands frequently while whispering something to a brunette who appeared to be about the same age as Sophie. Whatever she was saying must have been entertaining—and possibly inappropriate, because the young woman kept suppressing her laughter and shaking her head. Andrew’s grandparents were there, too.

But the one he couldn’t take his eyes off of was Sophie. Sophie Grace Davis. Yep, he knew her full name … because the guys at the firehouse had teased him mercilessly about her appearance yesterday morning. Between that and his bit as Santa, they’d not let up with their Santa Cole jokes. Seriously, couldn’t his parents have named him something that didn’t sound the same as coal?

Hopefully, Ben and Andrew wouldn’t start in again when they spotted him watching Sophie. Because, no, he didn’t want to take her for a ride in his sleigh, and no, she wasn’t getting him for Christmas. Cole had no intentions of ever settling into a relationship. His friends knew that, although they weren’t clued in on his reasons why. As Andrew had also sworn allegiance to permanent bachelorhood, they’d become two peas in a pod, avoiding dates together and openly giving their buddy Ben a hard time as he sought out falling in love and starting a family rather than continuing in their bachelor life.

But lately, the teasing had turned to him as his friends seemed to consider it their duty to rag him as much as possible about why Sophie had stopped by the firehall looking for him. He hadn’t told them about the journal, or about his telling Sophie he never wanted to see her again.

How many times had those words played through his head?

Too many to count, for sure. Just as visions of Sophie had played through his head too many times.

“Look who’s here.” Andrew gestured toward her table. “You need to say hi.”

If looks could kill, his buddy would need a graveyard plot.

“Hey, if you don’t want to talk to her, maybe I should,” Ben teased, waggling his brows.

Ben could join Andrew six feet under.

Cole didn’t need one of his buddies dating a woman who’d read that journal. He’d hoped his path wouldn’t cross Sophie’s again anytime soon. He should have known better.

He had known better. Pine Hill wasn’t that big.

“I asked her out once,” Ben admitted, frowning as he stared toward the table where Sophie sat. “In high school. I was a couple of grades ahead of her, but I liked her smile. She told me she was busy attending a sew-in, whatever that is.”

Andrew snorted.

Cole frowned. “A sew-in? As in sewing?” He couldn’t help but ask, ignoring how strangely pleased he felt that Sophie hadn’t gone out with Ben back then.

What did it matter whether or not Ben had dated her in high school?

Ben gave a self-derisive laugh. “Yep. A sew-in. I never asked again. I figured her saying she was sewing was akin to her saying she was washing her hair or some other thanks-but-no-thanks excuse.”

“Can you blame her? Who’d want to go out with your ugly mug?” Andrew ribbed Ben, to Cole’s relief. If they were needling each other, then neither one of them was giving him a hard time.

“If you think you’ll have better luck this time, go for it,” he told Ben, secretly hoping that wasn’t what his friend would choose to do.

His friend might be single, but it wasn’t because women didn’t want to be in Ben’s life. It was more that Ben dated women just long enough to decide whether or not they were “the one,” then moved on to the next woman to catch his interest.

“You’re not calling dibs?” Ben eyed him suspiciously.

“I keep telling you—there’s nothing there. I barely know her. She just found something of mine in one of the boxes we brought over to the church, and thought I’d donated it by accident. She tried to return it. It wasn’t something I wanted back. End of story.”

“Yet she wanted to talk to you in private?” Ben raised a brow.

“As private as it gets when standing just outside the firehall in plain sight of anyone who came by or looked out a window,” Cole pointed out, clearing his throat for emphasis on the window part.

“I think she just wanted an excuse to get away from you, Benny boy,” Andrew added with a grin.

Ben tossed a paper wad toward his friend, which Andrew deflected, sending it flying off in a different direction.

Cole glanced around the church community room floor, meaning to pick up the paper but he didn’t see where it landed. Just as he was about to get up to search for it, a woman tapped on a microphone.

The well-put-together seventyish woman from Sophie’s table had gone to the front podium, cleared her throat, and almost instantly silenced everyone. Even cyan-blue granny had quieted down.

Cole was impressed. He’d seen less effective drill sergeants.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re here today to officially kick off the planning for this year’s Christmas toy drive. For any of those who may not know me”—she sounded as if she thought that an impossibility, the words a formality she needed to say all the same—“I’m Maybelle Kirby. I’ve headed up the toy drive since I co-founded it over twenty years ago.”

Again, impressive. Obviously, she was a pillar of the community.

Cole liked that about Pine Hill. There were people who’d lived there their entire lives, who’d devoted themselves to making it a better place. It still astonished him that this apple-pie-and-baseball-loving life existed in the world. No wonder his uncle had never moved away from his small farm just outside the town.

“Donations were down last year, probably due in part to the loss of our dear co-chair, Jean Hamilton. We miss her so much.” The woman’s gaze slid over to the brunette at the table before she gave a slight nod of acknowledgement. Cole took that to mean that the young woman had been a relative of the departed. “We barely had enough toys to meet our requests.”

Maybelle’s lips thinned, and she lifted her chin with a determination Cole admired, one that said she refused for any child in need to not receive a toy on her watch. No doubt they never would while she was in charge.

“The committee and I have been working to ensure this year’s drive is a smashing success,” she continued, glancing toward her table that must be the committee. Made sense, given that Chief was seated there.

No surprise Sophie was there, either. Ben had taken great pleasure in telling him about goody-two-shoes Sophie Davis and her volunteering at the church. No doubt she had more than a few gold stars in her crown.

“We appreciate each of you for being a part of this wonderful work.” Maybelle smiled at Chief. “We’re excited to announce that we’ve paired up with the fire department this year and will be using the firehall as an additional drop-off point for toys. Sophie, you and Sarah pass out the information sheets.”

Sophie and the brunette stood and began handing papers to each volunteer. Cole had hoped the brunette would make her way to their table, but it was Sophie who stopped there, pausing mid-sentence when her gaze met his.

“So glad—um, Cole, uh, yeah, hi.” She sounded as breathless as someone he’d just pulled from a burning building.

Seeing him flustered her. Because she’d read his journal, or because he’d been a jerk to her?

He hadn’t wanted to see her again. Still didn’t want to.


Knowing any show of friendliness would be exaggerated a hundredfold by his two friends, Cole barely acknowledged her as he took a flyer. As an added bonus, it meant he didn’t have to see the pity or disgust that he knew had to be reflected in her eyes.

How humiliating that she knew so many things about him—things he’d never wanted to share with anyone. Best thing he could do was let her go on thinking him a jerk. It would make her less likely to want to cross paths with him again.

He’d seen her, what, a handful of times since moving to Pine Hill? If each of them tried to avoid the other, maybe their paths would cross only rarely.

“Anyone not have a paper?” Maybelle asked when Sophie and the brunette returned to the front. When no one responded, she continued. “As I mentioned, we’re doing things differently this year. We’re breaking into three committees responsible for covering different needs.”

Breaking into groups? Cole had thought he and the guys would just pick up toys around town, put out a few collection boxes, wrap a few presents, and maybe deliver them to some kids.

“If you look at the top of the page, you’ll notice a number written on the stocking in the upper right-hand corner. That’s your committee number. Those with a number one are in my group, naturally. We’ll be handling media for the drive and getting word out via the local paper and online sources, as well as being a contact point for the kids involved.” She smiled at the crowd, then at the chief. “Chief Callahan, you’re in my group.”

Cole’s boss nodded at Maybelle. Cole couldn’t be sure, given the distance between them, but he’d swear Chief’s cheeks had gone pink.

Maybelle smiled at him, then moved on. “Groups two and three will be working together within the community. The group leaders have lists of businesses who made donations or collected toys last year. Each group is responsible for contacting all the businesses on their list. Charlie and Ruby Jenkin will lead one group.”

“Maybe we’ll be with your Grandma Ruby, and she’ll feed us.” Cole leaned over and whispered to Andrew when the couple in their early seventies stood, holding hands as per usual, and smiled first at each other, then at the other volunteers. Andrew’s grandmother had welcomed Cole to her fold and invited him to all their family get-togethers since he’d come to town. He’d actually gone to a few, as well as the Fourth of July picnic. He still remembered the fancy dilled potatoes that were, according to Andrew, Grandma Ruby’s specialty.

“Theirs is group two.” Cole glanced at the number three on the stocking in the upper corner of his paper and sighed. No edible perks for him.

“Group three will be led by Sophie and Sarah.”


“Trade with me.” He reached for Andrew’s paper to snatch it out of his hands, but his friend evaded him.

“How come?” Andrew’s eyes twinkled. “You in somebody’s group who you want to avoid?”

Deciding to ignore Andrew, Cole focused on Ben.

“I’ve got a three,” Ben said, showing his paper, and chuckling. “You’ve got it all wrong, Andrew. Ole Cole’s trying to trade into someone’s group.”

Glaring at his friend, Cole held up his paper, displaying the three so Ben would know he was trying to avoid Sophie, not be forced to be in her company.

Seeing the pity in her eyes when she looked at him left him raw and uneasy. And even before he knew she’d read his journal, he’d been committed to giving Sophie a wide berth. He knew her by reputation, and he had no doubt that, given the chance, Little Miss Do-Gooder would try to make him one of her many pet projects and attempt to fill his world with snowflakes, gingerbread houses, and Christmas cheer.

A green candy cane forcing him into being Santa was more than enough Christmas for Cole.

He turned back to Andrew. “Come on.”

At first Andrew shook his head, then, finally, taking on a more serious expression, he shrugged. “Okay. Fine. Since it’s important to you, I’ll trade. What are pals for?”

Relief flooded Cole.

That was, until he noted the humor in his friend’s gaze and glanced down at the paper Andrew had handed him. A three was in the upper right-hand stocking on his friend’s paper, too.


Cole would be collecting toys with Sophie.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping August 14, 2024

ISBN: 978-1-964703-40-4

August 14, 2024

Order links for Wrapped Up in Christmas Joy coming soon!

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