Army veteran Alessandra Castillo just wants to be left alone. Life has been tough since her deployment in Afghanistan, and the holiday season makes it even more difficult. Unemployed and homeless, she’s currently living with her brother, who refuses to let her avoid all things social.
Enter Brad Kovac, youth pastor and good friend of Alessandra’s brother. He’s tall, gorgeous, and outgoing, three things guaranteed to catch Alessandra’s interest. At least they would have caught her interest before she survived an assault by a fellow soldier. Now all she wants to do is run from him and avoid anything resembling a relationship.
Will God provide a miracle in time for Christmas, or will Alessandra lose her chance for romance?
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.” Alessandra Castillo glared at her older brother and tugged on her coat. “I need a job and an apartment, not a social life.”
“Actually, you need one of those too.” Tony picked up the box of craft supplies sitting on the kitchen counter and shoved it into her arms. “Besides, you like kids.”
“Kids, yes. But what do I know about teenagers?” She shifted the large cardboard box, getting a better grip on it. “I’ve never worked with them.”
“You used to be one, and not that long ago, so you know enough.” He hefted a second box and guided her toward the door that led into the garage. “Besides, it’s not like you’re going to be all alone with them. The youth pastor is going to be there.”
Alessandra sighed as she passed through the door he held open. “I have a great idea. Why don’t you help the teenagers make wreaths, and I’ll untangle the Christmas lights?”
“Sorry. You know I’m hopeless when it comes to crafts. Besides, I already told Brad you were going to help him.” Tony popped the trunk of his dark green sedan and set his box inside. “He’s looking forward to meeting you.”
“So you’ve said.” She nestled her box beside his then stepped back and crossed her arms. “But you still haven’t given me a good reason why I should want to meet him.”
“Because he’s a good man and a strong Christian. Just the kind of man you need in your life.” Tony closed the trunk and headed for the driver’s door.
Alessandra fought the urge to follow him and smack him upside the head. As if she didn’t get enough grief from every woman in their family about her singleness. She didn’t need her brother playing matchmaker as well. He should know better, anyway, considering she’d caught her last boyfriend with another woman. She hadn’t bothered to tell him about the sexual assault she had dealt with from a guy in her company after that, but the cheating boyfriend should have been enough to get through to him.
He opened his door, and then looked at her. “Let’s go.”
She blew out a breath and climbed into the front passenger seat. As he pressed the button on the remote to open the garage door, she turned toward him. “I know this Brad guy is your friend and works at your church, but please don’t try to fix me up with him. A relationship is the last thing I need right now.”
“Can I at least introduce you to people so you can make some friends?” Tony glanced at her as he started the engine.
“You’re not going to let that social life thing go, are you?”
“Nope. Everybody needs people they can count on. People they can hang out with and relax around.”
She stared out the window at a stack of boxes containing her belongings as he backed out of the garage. “I had that.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have that here.” He braked and laid a hand on her shoulder. “I know things are tough for you right now, but I’m trying to help.”
“I know.” She sighed and glanced at him. “I do appreciate everything you’re doing for me, but this time of year is hard.”
“And that’s why I’m trying to keep you busy and get you connected with other people.” Tony gave her shoulder a squeeze, and then backed down the drive. “You’ve got to get out of your head to find Christmas cheer.”
“Christmas cheer...right.” She looked at her car sitting on one side of the drive and wished she was in it instead of stuck with her brother.
Thankfully, he let the sarcastic comment slide. He lived for the Christmas season, as did most of their family, but she couldn’t do it this year. She hadn’t been able to do it last year or the year before either. Something about being deployed in Afghanistan and dealing with the constant threat of death and violence had killed holidays for her. Or maybe it was the friends she’d lost over the years. Memories of her childhood best friend drifted through her mind.
She put a stop to the depressing thoughts and reached into her coat pocket. The carefully wound length of olive drab paracord filled her palm, and she closed her fingers around it. Few people understood how soothing working with the cord was, but the monotony of creating bracelets had calmed her more than once since an Army Ranger had taught her how to do it.
Tony glanced over as she retrieved her pocket knife. “You know, I’m not particularly comfortable with you playing with knives while I’m driving.”
“Well, I forgot to shove a pair of scissors in my pocket, so get over it.” She pulled the long loop of paracord, releasing it from the coil. Ignoring her brother’s exasperated sigh, she kept pulling until she had somewhere around seven or eight feet. Then she cut the cord and returned the knife to her pocket.
As she pushed in the lighter in the dash, Tony flipped the turn signal and slowed for a stop sign. “You a smoker now?”
Alessandra rolled her eyes. “Of course not. I just thought you’d prefer me using the car’s lighter instead of my own. Since you don’t like knives while you’re driving, I figure open flames are out as well.”
“I appreciate your consideration of my feelings.” He shook his head and navigated the turn. “You do realize we’re going to be there before you even get started, right?”
“Don’t care.” The lighter popped out, and she grabbed it. The pungent odor when she pressed the cut ends of the paracord to the hot element let her know it melted well enough to keep it from fraying. It probably wasn’t pretty, but at least it would do the job.
By the time Tony pulled into the church parking lot, she had attached the paracord to the small carabiner she removed from her key ring. She started the chain sennit as he parked. He turned off the engine but made no move to open his door.
Alessandra glanced over to find him studying her with a slight furrow between his eyebrows. She fought down her rising irritation. “What?”
“You gonna be okay?” Concern shone in his eyes as he reached out to tap the carabiner taking the place of the plastic buckle she would normally use. “You don’t usually seem so desperate to work on one of these.”
She sighed and lowered the partial bracelet to her lap. It figured he would wonder about her sudden urge to make a bracelet. “I’m here, I’m going to meet your friend, and I’m going to help those teens with their craft project. Let me deal with everything in my own way, okay?”
“All right.” Tony opened his door and glanced back before climbing out. “If you want to talk, I’ll listen.”
“I know.” She forced a small smile then gathered the working ends of the paracord and shoved the project in her pocket. Although she would much rather sit there and finish the bracelet, she had promised to help the youth group make wreaths to take to the local nursing home. If she didn’t follow through with the commitment, her brother would worry more than he already did, and she wanted to avoid that. His concern would likely force her to tell him things she didn’t want to think about, and the less he knew about those things, the better.
She joined him as he popped open the trunk. Boxes in their arms, they headed for the entrance to the small church. She had been there only a handful of times since her brother moved to Prairie Heights a few years ago, but each time she came a sense of peace permeated her soul. Perhaps if she stayed in town long enough, that peace would stick with her when she left...assuming she could ever get a job to replace the one she’d lost at the beginning of November when the factory downsized two months after they hired her.
Shrugging off the thought, she stepped through the glass-and-wood door her brother held open. She had plenty of time to worry about finding a new job later. She’d only moved in with Tony three days ago — barely enough time to unpack and get settled into his guest room. Since he had been encouraging her to come stay with him since she left the army last spring, she figured she had until at least February or March before he started hinting that she might want to find her own place. She planned to be out of his house long before then, but finding a job hadn’t proven as easy as she’d hoped.
Her pondering crashed to a halt when a man in his late twenties or early thirties stepped into the hall. Several inches taller than her, broad shoulders, trim waist...as much as she had protested her brother’s attempts to introduce her to people, this was one man she wouldn’t mind meeting. Her heart thumped in anticipation as she took in his light brown hair and friendly green eyes.
Slow down, girl. You don’t want a relationship, remember?
Alessandra inhaled deeply, hoping oxygen would encourage her to think clearly. So what if this guy was gorgeous? She didn’t need a boyfriend for Christmas — or at all. Not when she had enough other stuff to keep her occupied. Although she had to admit a boyfriend would probably be much more pleasant than her annual visit to her best friend’s grave. But a boyfriend meant obligatory time alone with a guy...
“Hey, man! It’s about time you got here.” A warm male voice broke into the memories threatening to drag her down, and she looked up to see the gorgeous guy greeting her brother with a slap on the back. “The natives are getting restless.”
Tony laughed. “We’re early, so any restless natives aren’t our problem yet.”
“And there’s the operative word — yet.” He turned to Alessandra and reached for the box of craft supplies. “Let me take that for you.”
“It’s all yours,” she said, relinquishing the box.
Tony set his burden on the floor and put his arm around her shoulders. “Alessandra, meet Brad Kovac, youth pastor and your cohort in crime tonight.”
Brad’s eyes lit up and sent a little shiver down Alessandra’s spine as he gave her a once-over. “Ah, so you’re Tony’s sister. I’m glad to finally meet you.”
She studied him, suspicion taking the place of some of her interest. “Finally?”
“Yes, your brother’s been telling me about you for quite some time.” Brad winked and leaned closer. “Is it true that you went to Afghanistan to play in the snow?”
Alessandra looked at her brother, and Tony shrugged as he withdrew his arm from her shoulders. “Hey, you’re the one who sent me the picture of a snowball fight.”
She blew out a breath, wondering just how much the big mouth had told Brad and who knew how many others. “Okay, yes. I went to Afghanistan, but it wasn’t to play in the snow.”
“But you played in it while you were there?” Brad lifted an eyebrow, amusement dancing in his eyes.
“Yes, I played in the snow with some other people.” She looked away, trying not to think about the stressful day that had precipitated the snowball fight. “We all needed to blow off some steam.”
“A snowball fight is a fun way to do it.” Brad hefted the box in his arms. “Come on. I’ll show you where we’re setting up the wreath factory, and you can tell me all of Tony’s dirty secrets.”
Against her will, a small smile escaped. “He doesn’t have any.”
“That’s what you think,” Tony said and tugged on her ponytail. “I’ll see you later.”
Alessandra followed Brad down the hall. The sound of young voices reached her ears as they approached an open door. Brad stopped beside it and turned to her with a grin.
Alessandra stepped through the doorway and found herself in a classroom with folding tables set up in a U shape and surrounded by metal chairs. Three middle school-aged boys stood by the far wall, busily covering the whiteboard in black, green, and blue graffiti. Those had to be the restless natives Brad mentioned, but they looked rather content to her.
She removed her coat and draped it over the back of a chair as Brad set the box on the center table. The three boys turned around, their gazes snapping to Alessandra.
“Who are you?” the youngest asked.
“Brad’s helper for the evening.” She ignored the curious expressions and dug her partial bracelet out of her coat pocket.
Brad chuckled and focused on the boys. “Her name’s Alessandra. She’s Tony Castillo’s sister.”
She dropped into the chair beside her coat and untangled the paracord. As she worked on the pattern, she couldn’t ignore the young male voices speaking in hushed tones about her being the one Tony had asked the church to pray for while she was in Afghanistan. After listening to a little more speculation about what she’d done there, she blew out a breath and looked up at them.
“You know,” she said in a bored tone, “I can hear you. If you want to know something about my time in the army, just ask.”
The boys took chairs near her, their eyes wide. She suppressed a laugh at their obvious interest and caught Brad watching as he unpacked the craft supplies.
The oldest of the boys leaned forward. “Did you fight in Afghanistan?”
Alessandra paused the work of her fingers and considered the best way to answer. “That depends on what you mean. Are you asking if I was in a combat position?”
The boys exchanged glances, and then he nodded. “Yeah.”
“In that case, no. I was in a supply unit and spent a lot of time running convoys.” She continued her bracelet as she spoke again, using the monotony of the pattern to keep from thinking too much. “But it wasn’t as boring as it sounds. Going outside the wire, leaving the base, always carried the risk of attack and roadside bombs.”
The awe in the boys’ voices made her smile. She’d always loved the way kids thought being a soldier was the coolest occupation ever. They didn’t understand how rough and frightening it could be on deployment, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. They needed to hold on to their innocence as long as they could, a task that was becoming increasingly difficult for kids in the modern world.
The middle boy shifted in his seat. “So, um, did you ever get attacked?”
“A few times.” Alessandra drew in a deep breath and regretted ever offering to answer questions. When she was already nervous was not the best time to talk about her difficult memories.
Brad stepped over. “Hey, why don’t you guys run down to the elementary classroom and see if you can find some glue and markers?”
The boys left the room, and Brad pulled out the chair beside Alessandra. She kept her gaze on her bracelet. Although grateful for him saving her from answering more questions about Afghanistan, she wasn’t sure she wanted to deal with Brad either.
After a moment, he spoke gently. “You okay?”
“You look like you have some pretty heavy thoughts on your mind.”
Alessandra set her almost finished bracelet on the table and turned toward Brad. “Have you been taking lessons from Tony?”
“Not since he tried to teach me to fish and all I caught were tree branches and rocks.” Brad’s smile faded, and sincerity filled his eyes. “I can tell you don’t want to tell me anything right now, probably because I’m a complete stranger to you, but I want you to know that listening is part of my job. You ever want to talk, I’m here.”
She stared at him, her brain frozen. He reminded her so much of Kyle Aronson, the Army Ranger who had taught her so many things and helped her deal with so many others. The only difference was that Kyle knew what she dealt with because he’d been there. Relying on her usual defense mechanism, she picked up her bracelet again. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“You might be surprised.”
The sound of young voices drifted in from the hallway, and Brad leaned close and winked. “I have a cousin in the army who loves to write long emails.”
He stood and went back to the craft supplies before she could reply.