The crunch of tires on the gravel driveway out front
announced the arrival of the first guests. Leif glanced out
the front door to see if he recognized anybody before
heading off to the kitchen to let Callie know it was
"Gage and his daughter just pulled in, and there's a pair of
pickups right behind him."
He made the announcement from the safety of the dining room
door. The kitchen had been declared off-limits to him, Nick,
and even Mooch. Since right after breakfast, Callie and
Bridey had been preparing for the potluck dinner they were
hosting for the crew of volunteers Nick had recruited for
She had just taken a huge tray out of the oven. The scent of
fresh brownies wafting through the air made Leif's mouth
water, but Callie knew him well enough to keep the pan
safely out of his reach. She smiled at him. "Can you let
Nick know, too?"
The last time Leif had seen Nick, his former sergeant when
they were deployed together, he'd been heading around to the
backyard to set up the tables and chairs that Callie had
borrowed from a local church. The shortest route was through
the kitchen, but he knew better than to try to go that way.
Instead, he did an about-face and went back through the
dining room toward the front door. On the way, he whistled
for Mooch. The dog came running but skidded to a stop when
he spotted the leash Leif had snagged off the table.
When the dog tried to avoid capture, Leif lost patience.
"Damn it, Mooch, hold still. There are too many cars pulling
in right now for you to be outside without the leash.
Otherwise I'll have to lock you in the den for the day."
Not that he would do any such thing, but it did the trick.
Finally, Mooch slunk over to lie down at Leif's feet,
looking pitiful. Yeah, rightĂ˘â‚¬â€ťhe had it cushy here in
Snowberry Creek, and they both knew it. After clipping the
leash onto Mooch's collar, Leif patted his furry friend on
the head. "Okay, boy, let's go greet our guests."
Outside, Sydney had her father by the hand and was towing
him across the yard. "Come on, Dad. Mooch is waiting for
"Slow down, Syd. There's no reason to run."
Even so, Gage made no real effort to stop his daughter's
headlong rush toward the porch. In his role as chief of
police for the town of Snowberry Creek, the former Army
Ranger was as tough as they came. But when it came to his
daughter, he was pretty much a pushover. Leif liked that
about him. He stepped out onto the porch with Mooch hot on
his trail. As soon as the mutt spotted Syd, he yipped
happily and wagged his tail like crazy.
"Hi, Gage. Hi, Sydney. Mooch has been watching for you."
That much was true. The dog had spent most of the morning
lying on the back of the couch, which afforded him a clear
view of the driveway out front. Leif eased his way down the
steps to join Gage and his daughter in the front yard.
Before handing off the dog's leash, Leif set the ground
rules. "Syd, I know you're really good with him, and I don't
have to worry about Mooch when he's with you. But until
everyone has arrived, I don't want him running loose. Too
many moving cars. I've already told him that it's either the
leash or he's locked in the den. So if he tries telling you
otherwise, ignore him. Okay?"
The nine-year-old giggled at the notion but nodded
vigorously as she took control of the leash. "Come on,
Mooch. We can still have fun."
They took off running, carefree and happy in the way only
children and their four-legged friends could be. Leif called
after them, "Syd, can you tell Nick that people are
arriving? He's out back."
She nodded as they dashed around the far end of the house.
Gage stood next to Leif and watched until the pair was out
of sight. "Thanks for letting me bring Syd with me. My folks
offered to watch her today since this is supposed to be a
work party, but she was so excited about the chance to play
with her buddy."
"Not a problem. Callie brought over a couple of her favorite
Disney DVDs in case Sydney gets bored and wants to watch a
Gage looked pleased. "I'll let her know. Meanwhile, I'll
grab my toolbox and head around to see what Nick has planned
When Gage went off to get his gear, Leif crossed to where
the other new arrivals were unloading stuff from their cars.
Two of them were strangers, but he recognized Clarence Reed,
the owner of the local hardware store. Normally the older
man wore neatly pressed khakis with a plaid shirt and a
sweater vest, all topped off with a flashy bow tie. Today he
was dressed in a chambray shirt, jeans, and sturdy work
boots. The change in style looked good on him.
"Mr. Reed, it's good to see you again!"
"Hi, Leif." After they shook hands, Mr. Reed introduced his
companions. "These are my sons, Jacob and Joshua. And that
plastic container there in the backseat has two of my wife's
blueberry pies in it. Just a fair warning: Neither of my
boys can be trusted within ten miles of anything she bakes,
so I'll take them inside for safekeeping. While I do that,
do me a favor and tell Nick to put my boys to work as soon
as possible. It's the only way these two will stay out of
His sons, both of whom towered over their father, just
laughed. Leif made a point of eyeing the pies when Clarence
got them out of the car. "If I slip you a few bucks, would
you hide one of those in the den? Even half of one would be
Jacob, who looked to be in his late teens, was already
shaking his head. "We already tried bribery and got nowhere.
I figure if Dad said no to his own flesh and blood, he's
gotta say no to you, too. It's only fair."
Joshua joined in. "Dad said the only way we could earn a
piece of Mom's pie was to work as hard as we could this
If that was the going price for a piece of Mrs. Reed's pie,
Leif could pretty much kiss any chance of tasting one
good-bye. Considering the shape his leg was in these days,
there was no way he could keep up with Mr. Reed, a man twice
his age and half his size, much less his two able-bodied
sons. On the other hand, Callie's friend Bridey had brought
along two of her cheesecakes, and she was a soft touch.
"You guys should find Nick in the backyard somewhere. I'll
be along as soon as everyone else arrives. Nick will assign
jobs, but I think Callie has told him he has to make a
speech first. That should be fun. There's nothing Sarge
hates more than public speaking."
After another fifteen minutes of directing traffic and
parking, Leif finally joined the rest of the small crowd
gathered in the backyard. He caught Nick's eye to signal
that the last of the scheduled crew had arrived. Nick
immediately ducked inside the house, no doubt wanting Callie
by his side when he kicked off the afternoon's festivities.
While everyone waited, Leif pulled one of the lawn chairs
closer to the porch where he'd have an unobstructed view of
the proceedings. Trying not to wince, he lowered himself
onto the seat and stretched his legs out.
He'd skipped his morning dose of painkillers because they
made him too sluggish to work around power tools safely.
Right now he regretted that decision. Damn, his leg hurt,
but he was determined to ignore the throbbing pain that
dogged his every step. There was no way he'd let it rule his
life. Not now, not ever.
The sound of the back door opening snapped him back to the
moment at hand. Bridey walked out ahead of Callie and Nick;
she headed right for him with a can of pop. When she handed
him the drink, she also slipped him a couple of pills. "Nick
thought you might need these about now."
Was it that obvious? Leif glanced at the pills and was
relieved to see they were just aspirin. They wouldn't knock
out the pain completely, but maybe they'd at least blunt its
She patted him on the shoulder as they waited for Nick to
get the show on the road. The sergeant looked a bit twitchy
up there on the porch, but he finally cleared his throat and
started speaking. "I want to thank everyone for coming
today. I promise not to work you all too hard, and it means
a lot that you all volunteered."
One of Clarence's boys called out, "Or in our case, got
Clarence shot his son a dirty look but then grinned. "His
mother begged me to bring them with me. Something about
wanting an afternoon off from having to worry about what the
pair of them were up to."
Someone from the back shouted, "Can't say as I blame her."
Everyone laughed, including Jacob and Joshua. It had been a
long time since Leif had been around the kind of humor that
arose from everyone knowing everyone else's business in a
close-knit community like Snowberry Creek. As a teenager
he'd hated it and was only too glad to leave his hometown
behind when he'd enlisted. Odd to realize now that he'd
actually been missing this kind of camaraderie after all
these years. Meanwhile, Nick picked up where he'd left off.
"Well, however you came to be here, Callie and I both
appreciate it." He paused to take her hand, his smile fading
a bit. "As you all know, Callie inherited this place from
our good friend Corporal Spencer Lang."
At the mention of Wheelman's name, everyone in the crowd
grew silent. They'd all lost one of their own. Thank God
Nick kept the pause too short for Leif to lose himself in
the past for long. "In Spence's memory, we're not just going
to restore the house and the grounds to their former glory.
As of today, we're making it official that we'll be
converting the place into a bed-and-breakfast and naming it
Rose Blossom Place, after his mother's favorite kind of
Everyone clapped as Nick and Callie hugged each other,
looking so damned pleased to be sharing their future plans
with so many friends. Leif might have been jealous under
different circumstances, but Sarge deserved to be happy.
Besides, maybe now the couple would stop feeling guilty
about having inherited the place and just be glad for the
gift Spence had given them. As the applause died away,
Callie left Nick's side long enough to pick up the surprise
she'd had Leif stow in the back corner of the porch earlier
in the day. She held up the brightly wrapped package.
"There's one more thing. As most of you know, Nick's going
to have to leave soon to finish out his tour in the army.
Once he's back, he'll open his own remodeling business here
in Snowberry Creek."
After another round of applause, she handed Nick the
package. "Go ahead and open it."
He shot Leif a WTF look before tearing into the paper. When
he had it unwrapped, he studied the certificate that Callie
had had framed for him. His eyes were blinking like crazy as
he turned it around and held it up to show everyone else.
"It's my business license. As of right now, I guess Jenkins
Renovations is officially up and running." Nick swallowed
hard and once again pegged Leif with a long look. "And just
so you know, Leif, I left room for your name if you ever
decide you want to throw in with me. We'll hold that spot
open until you're ready, regardless of how long it takes."
When Nick jumped down off the porch, Leif pushed himself up
to his feet. What could he say? They both knew his current
goal was to resume his army career. But looking around at
the people scattered across the backyard, it hit him that
there were worse places to end up than here in Snowberry
He and Nick exchanged one of those awkward man hugs that
never felt comfortable but still meant so much. "Thanks,
Sarge. That means a lot. No promises, though."
His friend nodded. "I understand. I just wanted you to know
that you've got options."
Leif's throat clogged up with the volatile mix of emotions
that seemed to be his constant companion these days. The
look in Nick's eyes made it clear he was having the same
problem, but he once again spoke to the crowd. "It's time to
kick off the work on Rose Blossom Place. The goal today is
to move all the furniture from the third-floor bedrooms down
to one of the spare rooms on the second floor. Once
everything is out of the way, we'll start knocking down
walls and ripping up carpet! First of all, though, Leif and
I will take a couple of ceremonial swings with the
sledgehammer to get things started off right!"
While everyone else gathered up their tools and got their
assignments, Leif headed inside to start the trek upstairs.
It was a long haul to the top, but damned if he'd miss
seeing Nick take out that first chunk of plaster. Right now,
the plan was turn the third floor into a private apartment
for Nick and Callie.
Nick had confided that he'd also drawn up plans to convert
the large attic on the fourth level into a master bedroom
and bath combination so that there would be more room if
they expanded their family. It was hard for Leif to get his
head around the idea of Nick already thinking about kids,
but good for him.
He reached the third floor just as the rest of the crew came
pounding up the steps. Earlier, he and Nick had shoved all
of the furniture in the first bedroom to one side. Everyone
crowded into the small room, lining the walls as they waited
for Nick to take that first ceremonial swing. Using the
camera on his cell phone, Leif prepared to preserve the
moment. He loved that Sarge made a production of it,
pretending to spit on his hands and taking two practice
swings with the sledgehammer. Then he threw all his strength
behind the first blow to connect with the old
plaster-and-lathe construction. Dust and wood splinters
"Damn, Sarge! Nice job."
Nick grinned and traded Leif the tool for the camera. "Your
He hefted the sledgehammer, liking the heavy feel of it in
his hands. Like Nick, he took a couple of trial runs before
finally really cutting loose. The impact sent a jolt
screaming up his arms, but it felt good. Kind of like
hitting a home run back when he played baseball in high
All the other men hooted and hollered while Nick stood next
to him and grinned. "I've always known you had a real talent
for wrecking things, Corporal!"
Leif handed back the sledgehammer and clapped his friend on
the shoulder. "I learned from the best, Sarge."
Nick looked around the room at the other men. "We probably
shouldn't bash up any more walls until we get the rest of
the furniture out of the way and the carpet ripped up."
He handed Leif a clipboard and a mechanical pencil along
with a pair of screwdrivers. "Here's the list of jobs that
I'm hoping we can get through today. I've already told
everyone where they should start and to check in with you
when they're finished."
Next, Nick pointed at a separate list on the second piece of
paper. "I put you down for taking a bunch of stuff off the
walls, including light switch covers and the like. There are
boxes and packing tape in the closet over there to put it
all in. That should keep your lazy ass busy when you're not
playing supervisor. Any questions?"
"Yeah, one. As supervisor, does that mean I get to tell you
what to do?"
His friend smiled and shook his head. "You can try, but you
might want to remember which one of us has the
Laughing, Leif hung the clipboard on a nail that was
sticking out of the wall. "Good point, Sarge. Guess I'll get
started on those light switches now."
"You do that, Corporal."