I always enjoy reading about characters from small-town America. Maybe because I’m from a small town – born, raised, and currently living in one. Where everyone knows your name, your business, your family and heaven knows what else. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best way to live, because even though those folks may know more than you’d like, they’d also do anything for you, give you the shirt off their backs if that’s what it ever came to.
Leif and Zoe discover just that in Snowberry Creek, which is just what they need when it comes to finding each other and what they want and need out of life as it now is for them, despite hopes that it might be different. But change is slow in small towns, so what you hope for and what you end up with may be so very different by the time all is said and done.
So take a few minutes to get to know Leif and Zoe and Snowberry Creek. I think you’ll be glad you did.
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 showtime.
“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 the afternoon.
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, right—he 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 me.”
“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 movie.”
Gage looked pleased. “I’ll let her know. Meanwhile, I’ll grab my toolbox and head around to see what Nick has planned for us.”
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 trouble.”
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 good.”
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 afternoon.”
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 sharp edges.
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 volunteered!”
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 flower.”
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 Creek.
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 flew.
“Damn, Sarge! Nice job.”
Nick grinned and traded Leif the tool for the camera. “Your turn.”
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 school.
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 sledgehammer.”
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.”