Southern Born
Wrapped Up in Christmas, Book 1
Release Date:

Aug 14, 2024



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Wrapped Up in Christmas


Janice Lynn

This Christmas brings an unexpected gift…

For years, quilt making has been Sarah Smith’s creative outlet. When she starts donating her one-of-a-kind quilts to hospitalized wounded warriors, she hopes her artistic designs will bring the soldiers peace and the knowledge that their service is appreciated. But this holiday season, Sarah finds herself mired in an arm-length repair list for the B&B she’s hoping to open. 

Former Army Ranger Bodie Lewis knows he’s lucky to be alive. But he’s struggling to adjust to civilian life after his injury and mired in survivor guilt. Needing a distraction, he sets out on a private mission to thank the quilt maker for her gift that comforted him during his recovery. He’s hoping he can do a good deed in return. Bodie’s stunned the artist is a young, beautiful woman and amused she mistakes him for the handyman. 

Bodie works on Sarah’s home repairs and soon her sweetness and Christmas spirit imbue him with something he thought he left on the battlefield…hope.

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Chapter One

After months of sweat, grit, and sheer determination to get to the picturesque Kentucky town he’d only recently heard of, Bodie Lewis had finally arrived in Pine Hill.

He turned off his pickup’s engine, ruffled Harry’s scruffy black and white fur, then let out a long breath. Put him in a dangerous overseas mission and he was in his element. Searching out a little elderly lady in the civilian world to express his gratitude? Not so much.

“We made it,” he told the dog that had been at his side nonstop for the past few months.

A dog and a quilt.

Not exactly things he’d expected to call his own, nor to have made such an impact on his life.

If he added the just-purchased truck he was sitting in and a rarely touched bank account, he’d be listing all of his worldly possessions. Until recently, he hadn’t been in one place long enough to justify his own transportation and had always driven government-issued vehicles when the need arose.

He ran his hand over his dark hair. Although an average length by most standards, the strands felt out of place. He’d worn a crew cut most of his adult life—a cut he was no longer required to maintain thanks to his honorable discharge.

The “honorable” was enough to gut him.

There had been nothing honorable about the demise of the rest of his unit.

Pain shot across Bodie’s chest. Pain of grief and emotion so raw he longed to scream. His ever-present anger, threatening to boil over into rage, constantly simmered at the loss of his brothers-in-arms, and at the loss of his career.

All he’d ever wanted was to be a soldier. To serve and protect his country.

So much for dreams.

He glanced around the town square. Mom-and-pop storefronts provided a fresh facelift for old brick buildings. That was what he had to do—give his old dreams a fresh makeover. Surely his upcoming job with iSecure would fill that driving need inside him, wouldn’t it? His need to do more? To be more?

He had been more, and now…

His gaze shifted to a flag that whipped in the November wind atop a pole in front of the stately brick courthouse. The material stretched and stood at attention within the wind’s invisible fingers, saluting him.

Bodie nodded his head in silent acknowledgement of that flag and all it represented.

Of what he’d been willing to give to defend that flag.

In acknowledgement of what many had given.

Feeling the pain tighten his chest again, he sucked in a deep breath and stopped his mind from going where it went too often. Wasn’t that what the therapist the military had required he work with told him? To refocus when his mind wandered into dark places?

Fine. He concentrated on the reason he was here in Pine Hill: to find the elderly woman who’d affected his life with her kindness.

His task shouldn’t be too difficult for someone used to tracking down terrorists. Pine Hill, Kentucky, wasn’t exactly the mecca of booming civilization.

Even though he had never stepped foot in the town, he’d pictured it so clearly. Sarah’s description was burned in his mind, offering him a safe space to escape when memories overpowered him. So, seeing his safe haven come to life brought him an unexpected sense of belonging. Apple-pie America at its best.

And a far cry from his childhood home in Houston, where he was headed after this slight detour.

Not that there was much of a home in Texas. Just his mom, stepfather, and a couple of much-older stepsisters he’d never been close to.

He wouldn’t be there long. The moment he got the go-ahead to start his new job, he’d provide top-notch protection to the rich and famous around the globe. Not the life he craved but staying in the same place for very long made his feet itch. Always had.

Which was why he’d turned down the Army’s offer of a desk job. A desk job? For him? Never.

He glanced toward the quilt in the passenger seat. He’d be starting his next journey as soon as he’d had the chance to thank Sarah Smith for pulling him out of a dark, dark place.

He’d never heard of Quilts of Valor prior to being presented with the special gift. But that red, white, and blue quilt had given him something to hang on to—literally and figuratively—while he was recuperating.

Which was why he was in Pine Hill, to thank the quilt’s maker in person.

He owed her more than a simple thank you could convey, but that was what he’d come to give.

A thank you and then he’d be on his way.

Humming along with the Christmas music playing over the church’s intercom system, Sarah Smith sewed white yarn through a cut piece of plastic canvas. The snowflakes she made each year with the pieces of canvas and yarn were some of her favorite homemade Christmas decorations.

She glanced around the room at the mix of women, teens, and children busily making ornaments to be sold at Pine Hill’s annual On-the-Square Christmas Festival. Many of the twenty or so volunteers were the same smiling faces who had helped with Sarah’s past projects—people she adored.

With her employment as Pine Hill Church’s administrative assistant and special projects planner, Sarah was always organizing something. Often, she believed their projects helped those participating as much as, and sometimes more than, they helped the recipients of their work. Giving truly was better than receiving, which was why Sarah loved Christmas so much.

She enjoyed everything about Christmas. The decorations, the smells, the food, the kindness and good cheer that prevailed. The get-togethers with family and friends that made everything sweeter. If it were up to her, she’d arrange for Christmas to come way more often than just once a year.

“I couldn’t do this without you all,” she told the group of women busily working at her table. The Butterflies, as they referred to themselves, had an assembly line going to make the plastic canvas snowflake ornaments.

Sarah’s projects would be nothing without the Butterflies to see her ideas to fruition. She could always count on them. The four women had been a part of Sarah’s life from the beginning and she loved them dearly.

“Yeah, yeah.” Maybelle Kirby’s old blue eyes didn’t lift from where she was hot-gluing sparkly white sequins to a finished snowflake. “Use it or lose it, I always say. And these old bones ain’t got much more to lose, so I gotta keep using.”

Maybelle was Sarah’s favorite—possibly because she had been Aunt Jean’s best friend. The two women had bonded over both being young military widows, neither of whom had remarried or had children. Although in her early seventies now, and the oldest of the group of volunteers, Maybelle was a firecracker and knew how to do just about anything Sarah took a fancy to learn. As the church’s previous special projects planner, Maybelle had been adopting do-gooders such as Sarah for years and was a font of knowledge and encouragement. Sometimes Sarah thought Maybelle missed her role as planner. That was why Sarah made sure she kept the woman involved.

“Besides, someone has to keep you in check,” Maybelle muttered, earning a few chuckles from the others at her table. “Don’t know how you think you’re ever going to meet a man if all you do is work, work, work.”

Sometimes Maybelle’s energy and involvement wasn’t a good thing. Like when it came to Sarah’s love life—or lack thereof. Though to be honest, it wasn’t just Maybelle. All four women thought it their responsibility to marry Sarah off.

“I happen to love my work,” Sarah reminded, smiling at Maybelle as she added, “Besides, who says I want to meet a man? The last man—and I use that term loosely—in my life sure wasn’t worth taking time away from work or you ladies.”

Richard and his big city dreams were, thankfully, long gone from her beloved Pine Hill. Although memories snuck in from time to time reminding of how her heart had broken when he’d left her, these days, mostly, she just bid him good riddance.

Any man who didn’t want a calm, normal, white picket fence, churchgoing, Christmas-loving life in Pine Hill wasn’t the right man for her. Plain and simple.

Sarah added, “With trying to get the bed and breakfast open by Christmas, I don’t have time for a man.” Renovating the old Victorian ate up all her time and then some. “Fulfilling Aunt Jean’s dream of turning Hamilton House into a B & B is my number one priority outside of church and work.”

Her father’s older sister had belonged with these women—had grown up with them and been a part of everything in Pine Hill. Sarah’s mother had died giving birth to her, but her father’s older sister had stepped up to give her niece a woman’s guidance.

“How’s that going?” Ruby asked.

Sarah was especially glad that Ruby seemed to have accepted the subject shift away from Sarah’s love life. Ruby was happily married to the man of her dreams for going on fifty years and would gladly tell anyone who’d listen about her wonderful Charles. It made her a very determined matchmaker, since she wanted everyone to be as happy as she was. Ruby and Charles were a sweet couple, but the Butterflies often teased Ruby about her longtime love affair with her husband.

“Yeah, about that.” Sarah’s shoulders sank. “I placed another handyman ad, if that tells you anything.”

Four concerned faces winced in unison.

“Did you fire another one?” Ruby asked.

Maybelle’s eyes narrowed. “Or did this one quit, too?”

Sarah shrugged. What did it matter? This time, the sloppy handyman had splattered paint on the hardwood floor. When she’d gotten upset, he’d only picked at his teeth with his dirty fingernail, saying it would clean. He hadn’t been the right handyman for Hamilton House any more than Richard had been the right man for her.

“Girl, your aunt didn’t mean for that house to take over your life,” Rosie Matthews reminded from where she was attaching ribbons and hooks to Maybelle’s decorated snowflakes. Rosie was a mover and shaker and sometimes made Sarah’s head spin with her crowded social life. Flaunting her energetic, youthful spirit with her bright blue hair, Rosie liked men and they liked her. No doubt the woman had broken more than a few hearts over her sixty plus years. Although she’d been married three times and had had a few proposals since, she’d remained single after her last husband had passed a few years back.

“I listened to Aunt Jean talk about restoring Hamilton House to its former glory those last few weeks before her death,” Sarah said. “She knew what I’d do when she left the house to me, that I’d find a way to bring it back to life even if I can only do so a few rooms at a time.”

If she wanted to keep the sprawling Victorian home, it had to bring in enough income to pay for its upkeep. Not to mention paying back the hefty loan she’d finagled at the bank to make needed repairs and updates.

With her background from old money and lots of it, Maybelle had offered to fund the restoration, but Sarah had refused. She needed to do this and, thankfully, the loan officer had approved the loan.

Hopefully her determination would pay off and be the perfect legacy to her darling aunt whom she missed so much.

“Jean should have told you to sell the place for every penny you could get and travel the world,” said Claudia while dusting a completed snowflake with snowy glitter. Though she’d stayed in Pine Hill all her life, she was known for wishing she’d spent her life dashing from one exotic locale to another or at least gone on a vacation or two with her husband.

Maybelle rolled her eyes. “As if you could pry our Sarah out of Pine Hill.”

Sarah laughed. “Are y’all trying to get rid of me?”

“Pine Hill would be lost without you,” Claudia assured, the others nodding their agreement.

“We’d be lost without you,” Ruby clarified. “My Charlie is always marveling at how much joy you add to our lives.”

Smiling at the love she had for and received from these ladies, Sarah tied off a knot at the end of the plastic canvas piece she was working on. “Good thing you think so, because I’m not leaving. Pine Hill is home.”

It had been for four generations of Sarah’s family. Even if she and her dad were the only ones left, the small Kentucky town was a part of who she was.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere but here.”

Clicking the completed piece of canvas into another she’d already done, she surveyed her work. It would be even better once decorated with the sparkly glitter, tiny pearls, and sequins. The snowflakes had been a big hit last year at their church booth at the Christmas festival. In fact, they’d sold out—which was why they planned to double how many they made this year. The proceeds helped fund backpacks filled with school supplies for needy kids each fall, goodie baskets for hospitalized patients’ family members, and so many other charitable projects that came up throughout the year.

Sarah loved Pine Hill and the warmth within this community, the love people showed for each other. She truly wouldn’t want to live anywhere other than where her parents met, fell in love, and had planned to grow old together.

“Me, either.” Ruby sighed, a bit nostalgically. “Pine Hill is the perfect backdrop for my love story with Charlie.”

A noise that was somewhere between a gag and a snort harrumphed from Rosie’s throat.

“Don’t listen to her,” Claudia warned, cutting plastic canvas pieces to be used to make more snowflakes. “You sell that place and go see the world. London, Paris, Rome … the world is calling for you.”

“That’s not the world calling for her,” Maybelle advised drily, gluing down a row of faux pearls. “That’s your hearing aid squeaking and squawking.”

More good-natured laughter sounded around the table as their assembly line of snowflakes continued.

“I’ll remind you I don’t wear hearing aids. Even though I am the world’s greatest grandma, I’m still younger than you old biddies.” Chin held high, Claudia gave each of them a pert “so there” look, then tilted her head toward Sarah. “Except that one, and she seems destined to toss her life away fixing up Jean’s crumbling old mansion, rather than expanding her horizons.”

“Aunt Jean’s house isn’t crumbling.” Not anymore, thanks to her loan and her having spent every spare moment over the past year working on restoring the outside and the downstairs to their former glory. She’d worry about the upstairs once she got the bed and breakfast up and going. “It just needed some TLC.”

And a repair guy to stick around to finish up the job. She’d had a few good contractors for the bigger jobs, thank goodness. But none of them were currently available and the independent handymen weren’t working out. Didn’t anyone take pride in their work? If so, she’d yet to find that elusive handyman who paid attention to details.

Hopefully God would answer her prayers and the right person would respond to her help wanted ad. Otherwise, she’d have to delay her planned grand opening of Hamilton House.

The thought of that made her heart hurt a little. She wanted to do this for Aunt Jean.

Please, Lord, let them respond.

The door to the community room opened, and all heads turned to see who’d shown up to join their ornament-making festivities.

Sarah’s eyes widened at the unfamiliar six-foot-plus man wearing jeans and a sherpa-lined blue jean jacket. He rubbed his hands, warming his bare fingers from the chill outdoors as he surveyed the Christmas chaos Sarah adored.

Ask and the Lord shall deliver.


Okay, so she didn’t really believe the stranger was there to answer her prayers, but still, his timing was impeccable. Who was he?

Apparently, she wasn’t the only one wondering. It wasn’t that you could hear a pin drop—not with the holiday music playing—but there was a collective curiosity pervading the now-muted room that had been loud with chatter prior to his arrival.

“I’ve been extra-good this year and Santa’s delivering early,” Rosie whispered under her breath, elbowing Claudia. Her lively eyes sparkled with mischief. “That’s exactly what I asked for.”

Giving the newcomer a once-over, Maybelle snorted. “You ain’t been that good your whole life.”

Claudia snickered. “That’s the truth.”

“That one there makes me wish I had been.” Rosie sighed, fanning her face. “He’s easy on these old eyes. A few years back, I’d have invited him over for some of my grandma’s cinnamon bread. That never fails to warm a man over to my way of thinking.”

“Charles didn’t think much of your grandmother’s cinnamon bread,” Ruby reminded, a cheeky smile on her face as she happily sewed white yarn in and out of the plastic canvas piece she now held.

“Only because that was my first attempt at making it,” Rosie defended, obviously annoyed at the reminder. “Be grateful I didn’t have the recipe down yet or your Charles would’ve been my Charles.”

Knowing better, Ruby just smiled and kept on sewing.

Still amused at the timing of the man’s arrival, Sarah’s lips twitched. Rosie’s grandmother’s cinnamon bread was the stuff legends were made of. Women had been attempting to copy the recipe for years without success. Rosie closely guarded the recipe as she swore it was guaranteed to put a sparkle in a man’s eye. She wasn’t about to let the other town women in on her little secret.

Maybelle’s penciled-on brow arched, and she made a loud tsking sound at Rosie. “If you really thought you had a chance with Mr. Tall, Dark, and Stoic there, you’d have fired up the oven and started stirring the batter.”

Rosie’s gaze narrowed but with good nature as she intoned, “I’ll stir your batter, Maybelle Kirby.”

The women laughed as one Christmas song ended and another began.

With almost every eye on him, the man scanned the room, apparently searching for something, or someone. He didn’t look impressed—more like he didn’t belong in the room or around happy people in general. With his observant, stern expression, he stuck out like a pumpkin on Christmas morning.

Despite the stranger’s serious demeanor, Rosie was right that he was easy to look at. Give the man a smile and he’d make women of all ages swoon.

Who was he and why was he there?

“You should go say hi, Sarah,” Claudia suggested, giving her arm a nudge. “Maybe he’s a traveling man and you’ll get to see the world.”

“Ask if he’s single,” Rosie added, waggling her drawn-on brows.

“Ladies,” Sarah scolded them. “Didn’t I just remind you of the reasons why I don’t care if he’s single or not? Still, as the planner, I should see why he’s here.”

She started to stand, but another volunteer positioned closer to the door walked up to talk to the newcomer. With the music and the chatter around the room that had resumed, Sarah couldn’t hear what he said, but Carrie turned and was pointing toward Sarah’s table.

Sarah’s belly did a flip-flop.

“Do you know him?” she asked the woman sitting next to her, wondering if this handsome stranger was some long-lost son.

Maybelle squinted her eyes toward the man, then shook her head. “Can’t say as I do but looks like we’re about to find out. He’s headed this way. Rosie, you’d best behave.”

Rosie pursed her lips at Maybelle. “I’m not making any promises. He offers to whisk me off my feet and carry me to his castle, I’m out of here.”

“He offers to whisk you off your feet and carry you off to his castle then somebody had better call 911 because I’d have a heart attack right here and now,” Maybelle warned, her tone its usual dry sass.

Still talking to Carrie, the man nodded, then headed toward her table, too, his gaze settling on Maybelle.

“He looks more like a villain trying to storm the castle than the prince inside,” Sarah mused, studying the man’s intent expression, his broad shoulders that tapered to a narrow waist, and his proud stride.

He definitely had a “you’d better not mess with me” vibe.

“Ma’am,” he said, his eyes trained on Maybelle, before taking a moment to visually acknowledge each of the women at the table. His gaze lingered a millisecond when it connected with Sarah’s, almost as if he was surprised by her presence, perhaps because she was so much younger than the other women. But then his sharp blue eyes moved back to Maybelle.

Sarah gulped, wondering at the tightening in her throat at his perusal. She’d swear she’d just been mentally photographed. That they all had been, to the point where if he was called upon to give every detail of the room and the people in it, he’d be able to do so with vivid detail and perfect accuracy.

“Do I know you, son?” Maybelle never had been one to beat around the bush.

“No, ma’am.” His stance was stiff, overly formal. “But I came to Pine Hill to find you.”

“Lucky you,” Rosie stage-whispered, giving Claudia another elbow to the arm.

It was rare for anyone to surprise Maybelle, but the woman looked shocked. “Why in the world would you want to find me?”

He glanced around the table again, looking a little uncomfortable. That surprised Sarah. She doubted much got under this man’s skin. He came across as a guy who had seen a lot during his lifetime.

“Is there perhaps somewhere we could go talk in private, Ms. Smith?”

Four jaws dropped, but not Maybelle’s.

Maybelle arched a brow and gave him a look that had been straightening up naughty Sunday school children for years. “Ms. Smith?”

“The blond at the door pointed me in this direction. You are Sarah Smith?”

Rosie’s shoe delivered a swift nudge against Sarah’s foot. Sarah knew that any second now, Rosie would be inviting him to join them for ornament making and pointing out Sarah’s ringless finger. With her stomach feeling fluttery, Sarah tucked her feet as far back beneath her chair as they’d comfortably go and attempted to use telepathy to get the woman to hold her tongue.

No doubt fully aware of Rosie’s soccer tryouts beneath the crafting table, Maybelle laughed. “Looks like your ad in the paper worked this time, Sarah, and found you a man, after all.”

Sarah knew where Maybelle’s mind had gone. It wasn’t on help-wanted ads or house repairs. Ugh.

“This one looks as if he can take anything you dish out at him,” Maybelle continued all innocent-like.

Sarah gave Maybelle her best glare. She hadn’t dished out anything to the other handymen. She’d expected them to do their job. Hamilton House deserved better than a messy, thrown-together restoration.

If she was lucky, this guy could finish the needed remodeling to the downstairs suites and the odd-and-end repairs she needed to get done prior to her grand opening of Hamilton House on Christmas.

“Let’s hope he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty,” Rosie piped up from across the table.

Sarah’s gaze dropped to the stranger’s hands. They did appear capable of anything she might ask of him. Sturdy, slightly callused, with bluntly cut, clean fingernails. Ringless.


Now why in the world had she noticed that? Because of her friends’ earlier suggestions? Or because his blue eyes were fringed with thick lashes and held intelligence and intrigue that made her want to dig deeper? Because his strong chin beneath high cheekbones indicated determination and resolve while the tiny scar above his left brow hinted he was a man who didn’t back down when things got tough?

She didn’t need to feel Rosie’s shoe nudge hers again to know exactly why she’d noticed his bare finger. Had her friends been nowhere around, she’d still have noticed the handsome stranger. He wasn’t a man a woman could ignore.

She’d have to be careful not to encourage the Butterflies, or they’d really be playing cupid.

Even if she’d been interested in meeting someone—which she wasn’t—a man who had yet to smile wasn’t her type. No matter how handsome he was.

Chapter Two

Bodie hadn’t been surprised when the old man on Main Street had told him he’d find Sarah Smith at church. She’d talked about church in her note. That the stately woman he’d identified wasn’t Sarah did confuse him.

He took in the women at the table, trying to figure out which one was Sarah. All the women were sixty-plus, save one who he’d guess her to be in her twenties.

A blue-haired, ruby-red lipped woman bared her gleaming white dentures in a flirty smile, then waved and batted her lashes at him. Was that Sarah Smith?

“As you can imagine from the ad, Sarah needs a man desperately,” a dyed redhead pointed out.

What kind of ad had Sarah put in the paper?

“You have a resume? Any photos of past jobs so we can see your work?” This came from the woman he’d first thought was Sarah Smith. “Just because she’s desperate doesn’t mean just any man will do.”

“She’s picky,” a petite woman with a grayish white bun and a round face confirmed. Had she not been sitting on the opposite end of the table from where the blond had pointed, he’d have guessed she was Sarah Smith.

“You’ll have to have references,” Blue-hair said, her face overly friendly. “And be affordable.”

“But that doesn’t mean you can compromise on the work. Doing the job right is a must.”

The older women were enough to make Bodie wonder if he’d made the right decision in coming to Pine Hill. Maybe he should’ve just written a thank you note and been done with it.

The young woman watched the others with an expression that spoke of a mix of loving indulgence and an intense desire for them to quit talking. When her gaze met his, she gave a little shrug at the women’s rapid-fire comments. Despite the long red-and-green ribbon in her hair and the somewhat ugly Christmas sweater she wore—the first, more appropriate for a teenager and the second, better suited to a senior citizen—he was sure that he’d been right in his first assessment of her age.

Clearing her throat to silence the older women—surprisingly successfully—the mid-twenties woman stuck out her hand. “Hi. I’m Sarah. I’m the one who placed the help-wanted ad.”

Bodie prided himself on rarely being caught off guard, and on not showing it when he was, but he was sure his face currently displayed his shock. She was Sarah Smith? This smiling young woman had been the one to make his quilt?

“Thank you for responding in person,” she continued.

Her wholesome aura hit him deep in the gut with sugary goodness that couldn’t be for real in this day and time. Warning bells clanged in his head to get out of Dodge—er, Pine Hill—but they were silenced in an instant when he looked into her warm brown eyes. The intensity of his reaction blared through his whole jaded being.

“Though a phone call would have been fine.”

His gaze dropped to her outstretched hand. Those fingers had stitched his quilt? Had lovingly held the material as she created a work of art?

All this time, he’d pictured an elderly woman whiling away time making his quilt. The only person he’d ever known to quilt had been his great-grandmother and he’d thought hand-quilting a dying art. Never had he considered that a woman younger than him had placed the intricate stitches.

Why would she have spent the hours and hours making his quilt? Did the older women keep her locked in a tower or something? That would certainly explain her wholesome persona and why she’d spend so much time on such a time-consuming task for a complete stranger.

Her smile deepened, lighting her pretty face. “You are here about the ad, aren’t you?”

“We hope so. Sarah really does need a man,” Blue-hair managed to get out before Red elbowed her.

“Yeah, she’s never going to get that big old house fixed up by Christmas if you guys keep quitting on her,” Gray-bun said, finally clueing him into what Sarah needed a man for.

“Do her a favor and stick around to finish the job.”

Sarah blushed.

It had been a long time since Bodie had seen a woman blush and he stared at her in continued wonder, questioning again if she was from another day and age.

The world was harsh, cruel—not filled with kind, smiling women who blushed.

Realizing that he should have already acted on Sarah’s outstretched hand, Bodie caught her hand just as, her smile fading, she was lowering it.

Opening his mouth, he started to introduce himself by giving his rank, then paused. Whether he liked it or not, he was a civilian now.

Heart heavy, he said, “Bodie Lewis.”

Her hand felt small in his, almost fragile. Feminine. He’d worked beside some amazing women in the military, had dated a few. None of them had hands like Sarah’s—soft, but capable of creating beautiful things.

“Nice to meet you,” she assured, pulling her hand free and looking a little disconcerted. “So you’re here about the ad. And since you came in person, I’m guessing you can start right away?”

The desperation as she asked the question pleaded with him to say yes.

She’d spent a lot of time making his quilt, had given without expecting anything in return. Now that he’d met her in person, his first impression was that she was a genuinely kind and generous person.

From what the women had said, she needed house repairs. Having grown up with a stepfather who made his living as a handyman, there wasn’t much around the house Bodie couldn’t do.

Indecision tore at him. He didn’t have to be anywhere for a few weeks.

If the woman who’d made his quilt needed his help, he should help her. He couldn’t walk away and leave her hanging after what she’d unknowingly done for him. Not if he wanted to maintain any sense of pride in himself as a man.

Not knowing what he was getting himself into, Bodie nodded. “Tell me exactly what it is you need me to do.”

“I need a favor,” Bodie said into his cell phone as he opened his truck door and motioned for Harry to jump in. The dog had patiently waited outside the church on the stoop right where Bodie had left him.

Once the dog was in the passenger seat, Bodie climbed in, shut the door, and gave the dog a scratch behind the ears.

“Okay to list you as a reference?” he asked the man on the phone.

“For a job?” Lukas Watts sounded almost as surprised at the request as Bodie was that he was making it. It was no wonder his best friend sounded shocked. A job in Kentucky certainly wasn’t in the cards when he’d left Lukas’s house early that morning.

Bodie had planned to thank Sarah, then hit the road to Texas, not go to work for her. But this wouldn’t require a major change in his plans. From the sound of things, he’d only be here for a few weeks. No problem. He had the time to spare before starting the next phase of his life.

“You’re still coming to work for iSecure?” Lukas continued. Lukas had served in the Army with Bodie for six years and had quickly become Bodie’s best friend. Lukas had opted out rather than reenlisting a few years back and had started the protective services business. They’d stayed in touch on the rare occasion Bodie had access to communication with the outside world. Lukas and his wife had come to visit him not long after he’d been transferred to a hospital in the states. While he was grateful for his friend’s loyalty, he’d still hated anyone seeing him so helpless and dependent upon the nurses and therapists.

His leg and hip still ached, and he had some nasty scarring, but he was slowly getting his strength and agility back. To see him now, few would guess that earlier that year he’d been told he’d never walk again. As Lukas and Kelly had taken him in after his discharge from the rehabilitation facility, they’d witnessed how far he’d come, how he’d gone from self-loathing that he’d been the sole survivor of his unit to determination to live again—thanks to a quilt reminding him of the world beyond his harsh experiences in the Middle East and various medical facilities.

“For some reason, iSecure’s owner doesn’t want me to start until the new year,” he drawled.

“Yeah, for some reason.” Lukas laughed. “Like that busted-up hip and leg of yours and him wanting you to take some time to recharge.”

“My hip and leg are fine.” They both knew that the continued time off Lukas insisted upon had more to do with the things Bodie had seen, felt, rather than his physical injuries. The pain in his left leg and hip was nothing compared to the one in his heart at the far-too-early end to his military career, not to mention the anger that burned at the senseless death of his comrades. “The reference is for a small job I’m taking in the interim.”

“Why take an interim job at all? A few more weeks to recuperate before starting at iSecure will be good for you,” Lukas said. “Besides, you can’t start at iSecure until your official background check is approved.”

Bodie snorted. Lukas knew more about his background than a computer search would reveal. His friend knew what a bad mental place he’d been in, so it was no wonder Lukas was hesitant to put him in a possibly high-stress situation.

But if by “recuperate,” his friend meant “forget what happened,” well, that wasn’t ever going to occur. To the day Bodie died, he’d be reliving that nightmare.

He owed it to his friends not to forget.

“Should I be concerned that one of my competitors is trying to steal you away?” Lukas asked.

How could he explain the position he’d be taking? He’d not mentioned the detour to Pine Hill when he’d left Lukas’s that morning. How much did he tell his friend? That he’d gone to tell his quilt maker thank you and he’d gotten sucked into applying for a handyman job?

“This isn’t for a bodyguard position.” Bodie glanced down at Harry as the dog laid his head over Bodie’s thigh. Bodie swapped hands holding the phone and put his hand on the dog’s back. “I’m doing some house repairs and was asked for references. Just keep information minimal.”

“What? Listen, man, if you need money—”

“This isn’t about money.” He’d been in the military since he was eighteen and the Army had covered almost all his expenses. His salary had been auto-deposited, and the money in the account had done nothing but grow over the years, especially thanks to bonuses with each active combat deployment, and his minimalist living. It wasn’t as if he’d had a lot of opportunity to spend where he’d often been.

“Speaking of money, Kelly found what you left on the coffee table. You shouldn’t have.”

“Room and board for the past few months. No big deal.” Scratching Harry, Bodie shrugged despite the fact his friend couldn’t see him.

“You didn’t need to do that. iSecure is doing great and even if it wasn’t, you’re always welcome here. You know that.”

“Yeah, well, put it toward the kid’s college fund.” Kelly was due to deliver their first child in a couple of months. Which was the main reason Bodie had headed out that morning. He’d been going to Texas so the couple could have some time to themselves before their baby arrived.

“A gift from Uncle Bodie?”

Bodie heard a chair squeak and could picture his friend sitting at his desk. Lukas had transitioned into civilian life without issues. Bodie was glad, and hoped he’d be able to find the same sense of peace in the civilian world. At iSecure, he’d start with smaller jobs, mostly guarding celebrities or politicians, as he continued to recover. When Lukas felt he was ready, he’d move to the more secretive jobs the company didn’t advertise. Governments and the mega-wealthy came to them seeking their services for high-risk situations. Bodie could do babysitting bodyguard jobs while he honed his body back to full capacity and placated Lukas. What a joke when his friend knew the things he’d done and was capable of.

“On the reference you’re needing, this an undercover job?”

Since he hadn’t told Sarah why he was there in case she refused his help under those circumstances, he supposed he was undercover.

“Yes.” His tone warned Lukas not to push. He’d rather his friend not know he’d gone soft and was helping Sarah because she’d once made him a quilt. Lukas already teased him about the quilt having super healing powers as his friend had witnessed the change in Bodie after its arrival.

Maybe the quilt did have something special in its stitches. Beneath the fabric, he’d felt comfort. No, that wasn’t right. He’d felt the need to do something, to be something. For the first time since his injury, he’d felt he had a reason to heal, spurred by the idea that there was something out there waiting on him.

Seeing the quilt, he’d had flashbacks to when he’d been five years old and taken his only out-of-state trip with his mother. He’d stared out the window in awe at picturesque barns with painted quilts on them surrounded by lush green fields as she’d driven them through Georgia for his grandmother’s funeral. They’d packed a few of his grandmother’s belongings to bring back to Texas, including a raggedy old quilt that Bodie had slept beneath on the drive and countless times thereafter.

Touching the quilt from Sarah had taken him back to when, wrapped in that tattered quilt, he’d watched old war movies while downing a bowl of cereal and dreaming of being a soldier to fight for justice for all.

Sarah’s quilt had reminded him of who he’d been, of who he’d wanted to be and why he’d needed to quit wallowing in gloom.

Like a magic cloak, he’d wrapped it around him to ward off darkness and it had worked.

“Fine,” Lukas agreed, interrupting Bodie’s trip down memory lane. “You got it. You know there’s no one I’d trust more. How’s my dog?”

“You mean my dog, and he’s good.”

Lukas laughed. “A good traitor. Must have sensed our family was expanding yet again and decided he wanted to keep to the bachelor life.”

“Must have.” Bodie scratched Harry’s scruff while the dog looked up at him with his one blue eye and one green eye. Harry’s expression was one of pure adoration.

Bodie had owned pets over the years, but he’d never had a dog as smart or as loyal as Harry. From the moment he’d arrived at Lukas and Kelly’s place, Harry had taken to him so intently it was impossible not to notice the dog’s attachment. Sarah’s gift had helped him to push through the physical and emotional pain and refocus on why he’d done the things he had. But he hadn’t been ready for a dog to want his attention and affection twenty-four seven. Harry hadn’t cared if he was ready or not. If Bodie wasn’t gone for his physical therapy, or to a doctor’s appointment, the dog refused to leave his side.

Lukas had insisted Harry go with him when Bodie left that morning, stating he’d gladly take the dog for extended visits when Bodie left on iSecure jobs, so the dog didn’t have to be boarded.

Bodie talked with Lukas a few more minutes, then dialed his stepfather.

Leaning his head back against the truck’s headrest, he scratched Harry’s neck.

“Thought you planned to go back to high-stakes, behind-the-scenes adventures,” his stepfather mused after Bodie explained his new plans. “You know, if you want to do this handyman kind of thing, I’ll hire you in a heartbeat. You were the best help I ever had. Your mother wasn’t the only one who was disappointed when you joined the military. I’d always hoped you’d join me.”

His stepfather was a good man and had taught Bodie everything he could to prepare him for life from the time Bodie had met him at age ten. Bodie had been lucky in that regard. Steve had treated him well, like his own son. Thanks to the man’s patience and guiding hand to a kid whose real father had long since stepped out of the picture, there wasn’t much Bodie couldn’t do around a house.

“I’ll keep it in mind, Steve. I appreciate the offer and the reference.”

Hanging up the phone, he glanced down at Harry.

“Now what?” he asked the dog, who just cocked his head as if to say You tell me.

He punched the address Sarah had given him into his phone’s map app. She lived less than ten minutes away, which meant he had a couple of hours to kill.

For now, he and Harry needed sustenance and time out of the truck cab.

Thinking back over what he’d passed on his drive into town, he recalled a diner that had several cars out front and wondered if they were pet friendly.

He’d not eaten since early that morning during one of many pitstops made to stretch the stiffness out of his hip and leg from the long drive. He hated having to take such mundane things into consideration, but he’d do whatever was necessary to heal back into tip-top shape.

He’d been told by multiple health professionals that had he not been in such good physical condition, he’d never have survived the IED.

There had been a time when he wished he hadn’t survived.

He glanced over at the folded patriotic quilt sitting on top of a duffle bag in his passenger floorboard and was reminded of exactly why he was in Pine Hill.

Sarah had meant to get to Hamilton House and straighten up any extra mess before her new handyman arrived. No such luck. It had taken longer to clean the church community room from their Christmas crafting than she’d intended, which was why she was feeling anxious as she drove the short distance home.

Her nervousness had nothing to do with the man she was meeting.

Just that she was running late and keeping an eye on her speedometer to make sure she kept it at the speed limit. Silly Donnie Jones had written her a ticket last week.

When she got to Hamilton House’s driveway, a late-model pickup she didn’t recognize was already there. She pulled up beside it and saw the cab was empty.

She glanced around and spotted Bodie in her yard. What was he doing? Surprised, she realized he was petting a black and white speckled dog.

“Sorry I’m late,” Sarah apologized as she got out of the car, putting on her hat and scarf as she eyed the unfamiliar animal. He looked like a Blue Heeler mix, but she’d never been great on telling one breed from another. Where had he come from? He looked friendly enough and seemed to be eating up the attention Bodie was giving him, but who knew what the forty-or-so-pound dog was capable of?

“Be careful. That’s not my dog. I’ve never seen him before,” she warned, pulling her jacket tighter around her to block the chilly wind as she walked toward Bodie.

Straightening, Bodie stuck his hands in his jean pockets. “Harry’s mine.”

As if to second the notion, the dog, Harry, ruffed and took a sitting-but-on-guard post at Bodie’s feet, watching Sarah’s every move as she stepped closer.

As she approached, using caution in case the dog decided he didn’t like her getting near, Sarah’s eyes widened. “You have a dog?”

“I have a dog. You sound as if you thought I’d be more likely to have a dragon or something.” He reached down to scratch the dog’s head again.

The dog watched her with great curiosity, as if trying to decide if she were friend or foe, and waiting for his owner to clue him in.

Heat infused her cheeks at her rudeness. “Sorry. You just didn’t come across as a dog person.”

Harry licked Bodie’s fingers in appreciation of the scratch.

“No? What type of person did I come across as?” Flecks in his eyes caught the light, almost giving the impression he was teasing her.

“Surely not as a cat person,” he continued, his lips edging upward ever so slightly.

“No,” she assured, thinking for a second Bodie was going to smile.

Hoping he was going to smile.

Come on, she wanted to encourage. Smile for me.

Which made no sense.

It did not matter to her whether he smiled or not.

He was here for a job. Not a friendship.

Then again, didn’t she pride herself on being friendly to everyone? If Bodie was going to work at Hamilton House, of course she’d want to be friends.

“Not that there is anything wrong with cats,” he continued, his blue eyes still looking a bit mischievous. “I grew up with a houseful. But since meeting Harry, I’ve discovered I’m a dog guy.”

Harry nudged up against him as if to say that he was a Bodie Lewis kind of dog. The love the animal had for his owner was obvious and had Sarah softening even if Bodie hadn’t smiled. Animals were good judges of character, right? Maybe Sarah’s first impression had been all wrong. After all, anyone who had a dog had to smile from time to time. How could they not?

“May I?” She looked to Bodie for permission to pet Harry.

Interestingly, the dog seemed to also be waiting for Bodie’s permission as he cocked his head and looked expectantly up at his owner.

Having witnessed Bodie’s nod of approval, Harry was happy for more attention and hunkered into a somewhat submissive position. He rolled onto his back so Sarah could scratch his belly, then back onto his feet to nudge her hand with his nose.

Laughing at the dog’s antics, she glanced up at Bodie. “I’ll admit, I didn’t see you as a pet person, in general, but I can see how Harry would win a person over.”

Hands back in his jeans’ pockets, he eyed her petting Harry. “You just met me, so I’m not sure what to say to that.”

True enough. She didn’t know what to say to that, either.

Knowing she’d stuck her foot in her mouth enough for one conversation, she gave Harry one last stroke behind his ears, then straightened and gestured toward the house. “You want to come inside and see what needs to be done? Or do you want to see the outside of the house first?”

He glanced toward the house. “I took the liberty of walking around and inspecting the outside while I was waiting. It’s in good shape, overall. Looks like you recently had it repainted. The trim work is great, especially around the porch. There are a few places that need to be touched up that were missed and a piece of damaged wood that, although covered with fresh paint, really needs replaced to keep in line with the rest of the woodwork. Otherwise, not bad on the outside. It’s a beautiful place.”

Sarah knew exactly the piece of trim he meant and those missed paint places had driven her crazy. Although they’d done a great job overall, she’d mentioned the spots to the painters several times, but they’d never come back to correct the areas. That Bodie noticed impressed her. At first glance, the paint job looked good, but she wanted Hamilton House perfect.

Perfection was impossible when referring to a house that was over a hundred years old. She knew this. But still, how much more work would it have been for the painters to have replaced the damaged trim piece rather than to just slap a couple coats of paint onto it? Especially when she’d been willing to pay to have it made right?

“You’ve had someone inspect the foundation?”

“Structurally, the house is sound.” Or so said the architect she’d consulted prior to embarking on her dream of turning Hamilton House into a B & B. The gentleman was a local, a friend of her father’s, and hadn’t charged her a penny even though she’d tried to pay him.

She’d needed all the help she could get since she didn’t know anything about foundations, architecture, electrical wiring, or plumbing. She just knew that she loved this house, had loved visiting her aunt Jean every afternoon when she’d gotten out of school and staying with her during summer breaks while her father was at work. Aunt Jean had taught her so many things—how to cook, to sew, to quilt—and had encouraged her love of reading, her love of serving others.

Oh, how she missed Aunt Jean.

“I’ve gotten a lot done over the past year, including an unbelievable amount of paperwork to make sure I have all the right permits and licenses. I’ve been able to do that end of things myself. On the physical repairs, I’ve worked on what I can, but it needs a lot more. Much more than I can afford to give, really.” The sooner she got up and running, the better. “My goal is to have the downstairs looking sharp by Christmas, which will be”—hopefully, and depending upon him—“the grand opening of Hamilton House Bed and Breakfast.”

She loved saying the name out loud. It made her dream seem more real. Aunt Jean’s dream.

“As the bed and breakfast takes off, I’ll do renovations to the upstairs rooms and get them rent-ready.”

Renovations that would include replacing furniture her aunt had sold off over the years for financial reasons. Sarah had found a ledger in which her aunt had kept records of each piece and who she’d sold it to. An antique store in Louisville had purchased most of the pieces initially, but over the last few years her aunt had sold only to an entry marked as “B.”

Sarah’s heart ached at the permanent loss of the lovely antique pieces her aunt had once owned. Antiques Sarah had treasured and that had been a part of her childhood. Pretending she was mistress of the house, she would go from room to room imagining that she was hosting elaborate dinner parties and balls. She could vividly recall the grandeur of each room—the lavish decor, the tapestries on the walls, the rich woods of the sturdy furniture.

Once upon a time, Hamilton House, as she’d dubbed it as a child, had been a gorgeous home that could have been snatched straight out of a movie. Unfortunately, Roy Hamilton had gone to serve in the Vietnam War and had never come back. He’d left his teen bride in his family home with his elderly parents, a well-to-do couple who’d lived with Aunt Jean until their passing. He’d left his young widow well-off financially by 1960s standards, to the point where she’d never had to work. But neither one of them could have predicted the twists and turns of the financial market, or how that would impact Jean’s situation. As the years had passed, so had the money, apparently.

Sarah hadn’t known about her aunt’s poor finances in her latter days. How could she have when it had been years since she’d had reason to go into any of the four second-level bedrooms while visiting her aunt? She’d had no idea her aunt had been emptying one room after another, each slowly stripped of its treasures. How it must have pained Aunt Jean to let each piece go. If Sarah had known, she’d have taken on another job or moved in and paid rent.

Something. Anything.

“The roof looks new, too,” Bodie said, calling Sarah’s attention back to him.

“I replaced it this past spring.” It was the first thing she’d done after getting her loan. “As a matter of necessity. Apparently, there had been a slow leak for years.” The memory had her stomach dropping. That the wood beneath the roof was so rotted had been a big blow. “There was so much damage that they had to rip out and replace a section of beams and wood in the attic ceiling, too.”

Sarah glanced up at the new roof that topped the mint-green house with its intricate white trim work.

“Fortunately, the interior damage from the leak was limited to a section in the attic.”

She’d had to toss a few boxes of old books, receipts, and papers that had been water damaged. Someday, Sarah planned to go through the remaining boxes and trunks in the attic in hopes of finding things that had belonged to Aunt Jean or to Sarah’s grandparents. Once she got the downstairs restored to its former glory and Hamilton House was up and running, then she’d make time for going through taped-up boxes with layers of dust on top.

Sarah pointed to the porch that wrapped around one side of the house. “You ready to have a look inside? There’s a lot to be done before I open up the house to visitors.”

They made their way up the porch, Harry at Bodie’s side.

“If you don’t think he’ll bother anything, Harry can come in,” she offered. It was chilly outside, and Harry was so well behaved, she couldn’t imagine him causing trouble.

Bodie nodded. “He can wait inside the door.” After they followed Sarah inside, he paused and looked at the dog. “Stay.”

After only a moment’s obvious disappointment, Harry laid down on the rug, looking up at his owner with obedient, loving eyes.

Bodie glanced around the foyer of Hamilton House. He took in the curve near the top of the staircase with its beautiful walnut handrail and top-to-bottom antique runner down the center of the wooden steps, the gleaming hardwood floor, and the ornately trimmed ceiling with its decades-old chandelier. His gaze paused at the three photos on the stair wall—a black and white of Uncle Roy’s parents at their wedding, a black and white of Aunt Jean and Uncle Roy on their wedding day, and one of Sarah as a snaggle-toothed little girl. Sarah had complained that the photo needed to be updated, but Aunt Jean had insisted she could only replace it with a black and white wedding photo.

That goofy picture would probably be there as long as the house stood.

The foyer was the showpiece of the house. Always had been. Pride filled Sarah as she watched Bodie’s eyes fill with appreciation of the room.

An appreciation she hoped each guest would feel when they visited Hamilton House.

“I had the floors redone and the paint freshened,” she said, unable to hold in her excitement, “but otherwise, this is how this room has looked since the house was first built.”

Even when her aunt’s financial situation had worsened, she’d kept this room pristine, knowing that it was the first thing a visitor would see and that it would shape their opinion of the house. It was also the threshold her beloved groom had once carried her over the first time she’d entered the house as his wife.

“Well, except for the light fixture,” she corrected, eying the intricate metal and crystal chandelier. “I know it’s old, but I’m not positive it’s the original fixture or if it was added at some point. And obviously, the photos are newer additions. But otherwise, this is Hamilton House as it should be.” She spread her arms and slowly turned. “This is what I want to restore the rest of the house to.”

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping August 14, 2024

ISBN: 978-1-964703-39-8

August 14, 2024

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