Village of Hope #2
August 1, 2015
Harlequin (Love Inspired)
Available in: e-Book

Nursing the Soldier’s Heart

Loving the Soldier

Nurse Kirsten Bailey places her family above all else. She refuses to give former army medic Brady Hewitt any leeway for being weeks late in visiting his ill grandmother. But Brady has a good excuse, and he’s eager to show the pretty nurse that first impressions aren’t always right. While working with Brady to care for his grandmother and two orphaned boys, Kirsten realizes that his charm and kindness aren’t an act. But Kirsten plans on doing missionary work abroad, and she’s determined not to fall for the engaging soldier. Could the man she once dismissed be the one to make her stay forever?

Chapter One

The familiar recorded voice on the other end of the line made Kirsten Bailey’s stomach churn. The phone number had an Atlanta area code, but if it was a cell phone, no telling where the owner resided. She mustered some politeness and repeated her daily mantra. How many messages would she have to leave before she got a response? She slammed down the phone.

“Why are you abusing the phone?” Jen Chafin, the other late-shift nurse, swiveled in her chair as she tucked a lock of auburn hair behind one ear.

Kirsten grimaced. “Cora Barton asked me to call her grandson again. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve left him a message. The man obviously doesn’t care about his grandmother.”

“Are you calling the right number?”

“Absolutely. The voice mail message says, ‘This is Brady Hewitt. Leave a message.’” Kirsten shook her head again. “I hate the expression on Cora’s face when I tell her I haven’t reached him.”

“Does he have a job where he’s out of signal range for a period of time?”

“Cora doesn’t know what he does.” Kirsten shrugged. “Sounds like he’s a ne’er-do-well who picks up jobs here and there when he feels like it.”

Jen turned back to her computer. “Does Cora have any other family?”

“I don’t think so, otherwise, I’m sure she would’ve asked me to call someone else. Her daughter died in a car accident when her grandson was young. Cora raised him.”

Jen stopped typing. “That certainly makes him ungrateful.”

“My thoughts exactly. How could someone ignore a grandmother like Cora? She’s one of the sweetest women I know.”

“Next time you could always leave a message telling him what you really think.” Jen laughed halfheartedly.

“I’d like to, but I have to keep it professional.” Kirsten grimaced. “At least Cora has lots of friends here at The Village to make up for her inattentive grandson.”

Jen nodded. “And speaking of friends, look who’s coming down the hall.”

Kirsten peered over the counter. “Annie and her kids. That’ll make Cora’s day.”

Kirsten waved at Annie Payton and her two small children, Kara and Spencer. The kids let go of their mother’s hand and raced to the nurses’ station.

Shaking her head, Annie caught up to her children. “Sorry, Kirsten. They’re excited to see you.”

“That’s okay.” Kirsten greeted the youngsters with a hug. “Who are you here to see?”

“Ms. Cora,” the children said in unison.

“We want her to get better, and Mommy says our visits will help.” Kara scrunched up her little nose. “I hope Ms. Cora gets out of here soon.”

“We all do.” Kirsten turned her attention to Annie. “How are the wedding plans?”

Annie’s face brightened. “Everything’s falling into place. Just ten more days.”

Kirsten came around the counter and gave Annie a hug. “I’m so happy for you and Ian.”

“Thanks.” Annie glanced down the hallway. “Guess we better get down to see Cora. Talk to you later.”

Kirsten waved as the trio went down the hallway. Seeing Annie and her children made Kirsten long for the family she’d almost had. But she shouldn’t dwell on what could have been. She had to concentrate on the here and now.

“Are you going with someone to Annie and Ian’s wedding?” Jen asked when Kristen returned to her computer.

Kirsten frowned. “That’s another sore topic.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Maybe we should work and not talk at all.”

“But I can work and talk at the same time.” Jen waved a hand over the computer keyboard. “You know the rest of the evening is usually pretty quiet. Besides, you can’t leave me hanging like this.”

Shaking her head, Kirsten looked straight ahead as she input some data. “No fair. You have a husband who’s a built-in date for such occasions, so you don’t have to worry about someone trying to find you an escort.”

“Your dad?”

Kirsten released a harsh breath. “Yeah. Ever since I came back from Brazil, he’s been pushing some guy at me. I think he’s hoping I’ll find someone here, so I won’t go back.”

Jen nodded. “I can understand that. Lauren’s a college senior, and I’m hoping she finds a job close to home when she graduates. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a child in another country, where you could never see them. Look at it from your dad’s point of view.”

Kirsten shrugged. “I suppose. Family’s important to me. That’s why I came home as soon as I found out how sick Mom was, and I stayed even after she passed away because Dad needed me. But he needs to let me live my own life, and he needs to get on with his.”

“I’m sure the loss of your mom still weighs on him.”

“I know. It hasn’t been easy for either of us.” Kirsten stopped typing and looked at Jen. “His duties as director here at The Village keep him busy, and that’s good. But the nights are hard for him. He didn’t want me to move into my own place, but I think that’s better for him, don’t you?”

“Probably, but your dad still looks at you as his little girl. You’re an adult, but you’re also his child.” Jen grabbed a folder from the end of the desk. “He wants the best for you.”

“I know that, but I wanted to adopt those three children in Brazil. Now that won’t happen.” Kirsten fingered the beaded bracelet on her wrist—the one Luciana, Nathalia and Rafael had made for her right before she came back to the States.

“Do you think they’ll lift the suspension of international adoptions?”

“Those children are lost to me. But I’m still trying to get a new visa in order to go back.” Kirsten tried not to think of those sweet children, but the image of their smiles and dark brown eyes looking up at her wouldn’t go away. Losing them was worse than the day she’d found out she could never have children of her own.

“What about trying to adopt children here?”

“Another thing my dad suggests when I mention going back to my missionary work, but it’s not the same. The kids here at The Village have wonderful homes with house parents who love them. The children in Brazil are in crowded orphanages with an inadequate number of caregivers. And there are many more on the streets.” Kirsten tried to shake away the sad memories. “I love my dad and want to be here for him, but he has to move on with his life. So do I. Going back to Brazil is my plan. That’s what I want more than anything.”

“Even though the kids in the children’s homes here have a wonderful place to live, don’t you think the ones who are eligible for adoption wouldn’t want a special family of their own?”

Kirsten shook her head. “I only know the children I worked with in Brazil were destitute and neglected far too often.”

“Do you ever think these things happened because God has another plan for your life?”

Kirsten didn’t want to answer that question. “For the ten years I was in Brazil, I knew God wanted me there. I want to go back.”

“Think of it this way. You’re still helping—helping your dad and these seniors who need your gentle caring spirit in their lives.”

“I’m not sure my spirit is so gentle.” Kirsten tried to smile. “Tracking down wayward grandsons and shoveling pills at senior citizens isn’t exactly what I’d hoped to be doing with my life.”

Forcing herself not to dwell on Jen’s assessment of the situation, Kirsten grabbed some more charts and prayed for an uneventful evening. Were Jen and her dad right? Should she think about adopting children here? If she did that, how could she ever go back to Brazil? Why wouldn’t God want her to return to Brazil as a missionary nurse? What better plan could He have for her?

After Kirsten finished her paperwork, she got up and checked the medication cart, then turned to Jen. “I’ve got a few meds to deliver, and I’ll have to give Cora the bad news.”

Jen shook her head. “I hope the unresponsiveness of her grandson doesn’t affect Cora’s recovery.”

“Me, too. I hate giving her distressing news.” Kirsten headed down the hall.

As she delivered the medications to her elderly patients, she willed herself to get rid of her negative attitude toward Cora’s grandson. It would do Cora no good.

Four doors down the hall Kirsten came to Cora’s room. The door was slightly ajar. A television blared with the local news.

Kirsten peered through the small opening. While Cora’s roommate watched the television, Cora appeared to be sleeping. Not wanting to disturb her, Kirsten backed away, but she caught sight of a man with a scruffy appearance sitting in the chair at the foot of Cora’s bed.

Who was he, and what was he doing there while Cora slept? Kirsten’s radar for trouble zoomed into action.

*

Brady sat on the chair at the foot of his grandmother’s bed and glanced around the room. What would he find here at The Village of Hope? His grandmother had come to live here after she’d had a slight stroke about four years ago. He’d prayed this place was a good home for her.

At the time, he’d been in the army over in Afghanistan. There had been no chance to get home to see her. He shouldn’t use that as an excuse because even when he’d been stateside, he’d never taken the opportunity to spend time with the person who’d saved him from foster care. He’d never appreciated that until now. He should’ve come to see her rather than calling her a few times a year.

Guilt for the years he’d stayed away consumed his thoughts. The time had come to make amends—to renew his relationship with the one person on this earth who actually cared about him. She looked so frail lying there, her gnarled fingers resting on top of the blanket. What had happened to the robust woman of his childhood?

Was she okay? Her eyes still closed, she didn’t move a muscle, but the steady rise and fall of her chest eased his mind. Her glasses and her well-worn Bible lay on the table next to the bed. She used to read that Bible every day and went to church every Sunday. He’d disregarded her faith—even mocked it. He was sorry about that, too.

So many of the decisions he’d made had been made with only a thought to his own life. Could he break that pattern? It might not be easy, but the time had come for him to think about someone besides himself.

Brady’s stomach rumbled, and he glanced out the window at the tall pines interspersed with oaks and maples with leaves that held a hint of fall color. He wished he’d stopped to eat, but he’d wanted to get here before the place closed to visitors. Did they have a cafeteria where he could get supper, or a vending machine? If he went searching, he might run into the disagreeable nurse who had left far too many messages on his voice mail. Shaking his head, he smiled at his ridiculous thoughts. Why was he afraid to face this unknown woman of the numerous phone calls?

He was done hiding out in his grandmother’s room. He would march out there and let the nurse know he was here. Brady Hewitt—soldier, oil-rig worker, commercial fisherman and all-around good guy. That last part was a stretch, but he was working on the good-guy stuff.

Pushing out of the chair, Brady looked toward the door. A nurse stood in the doorway. Their gazes met. Her chocolate-brown eyes held him captive, and he couldn’t look away. He fought to keep his mouth from dropping open. Did this attractive woman belong to the impersonal voice he’d heard over and over on his phone? Maybe she wasn’t the nurse who’d called. He could hope. He hated to think that such a pretty face served as a facade for those unpleasant messages.

“Sir, may I speak with you out here in the hall?” The nurse motioned with her hand.

Nodding, Brady sauntered across the room to the door. He couldn’t mistake the voice. The attractive nurse belonged to the frosty tones on his phone’s voice mail messages. He followed the nurse, whose dark hair was pulled into a knot at the back of her head. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”

Although she wasn’t short, she had to look up at him. “Do you mind telling me why you’re in this room?”

“Cora Barton is my grandmother. Is there a problem?” He feigned an innocent expression along with a smile as he rubbed his stubble-covered chin.

His height advantage didn’t intimidate her as her dark eyes seemed to bore into his soul. She frowned. “So you’re Brady Hewitt. I’ve been trying to reach you for days. Make that weeks. Why didn’t you tell us when you arrived? Why didn’t you answer my calls?”

“So you’re Kirsten Bailey. Nice to meet you, too.” He broadened his smile into a grin. Could he make her smile? She was the beauty and the beast rolled into one. Prickly and pretty all at the same time. Or maybe she was the beauty, and he was the beast. His disheveled looks might put him in that category. Was she going to chastise him? “Yes, I’m Brady Hewitt, and I arrived a few minutes ago. I know you’ve been trying to reach me.”

“At least you could’ve told us you were coming, so I wouldn’t have kept calling.”

He’d lived on the edge for most of his life. He liked a challenge, and he could sense she was going to be one. “You know after listening to dozens of your messages, I figured I wasn’t really interested in talking to you. But now that I’m here I’ll let you know what I think.”

“And what would that be?” Kirsten gave him a defiant look.

She wasn’t backing down, and he liked that. But he wasn’t going to back down, either. “You need to work on your bedside manner, Kirsten. Is it okay if I call you Kirsten?”

Blinking, she opened her mouth as if she was going to say something, then closed it without uttering a word. She stared at him as if she couldn’t believe what he’d said. Okay, then. She obviously didn’t have a sense of humor, either. Now what?

They stood there staring at each other until Kirsten finally blinked. “We have rules here, very strict rules about people coming and going.”

Brady gave her a lazy grin. “Ma’am, I apologize if I broke your rules, but my name was on the list at the guard house at the main entrance, and the lady at the front door here had my name, as well. She buzzed me right in.”

“But didn’t she tell you to check at the nurses’ station for Cora’s room number?”

“She did, but on my way in, I met, ah…Annie was her name. She had two cute kids with her. The little girl was quite talkative and said they’d been visiting my grandmother. They gave me her room number and directions to get here.” Brady could tell by Kirsten’s expression she didn’t have a response for his explanation. He took some pleasure in knowing he had her tongue-tied. “So you see I had no reason to check at the nurse’s station.”

Tight-lipped, Kirsten nodded. “Please remember in the future to let us know you’re here. For security reasons, we like to know who’s in the building.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be glad to check in with you.” Brady saluted, hoping to get a smile out of her, but none appeared. “Since Cora’s sleeping, is there some place where I can get something to eat?”

“Follow me.” Kirsten turned on her heel and proceeded down the hall.

Brady followed. He’d better behave himself because he’d sure hate to further annoy the pretty nurse. His haggard appearance wasn’t going to win him any accolades. Nearly twelve hours of driving could take a toll on anyone’s looks. And he had to remember this wasn’t all about him.

When she reached the nurses’ station, she stopped and turned in his direction. “Let me introduce you to the other late shift nurse, Jen Chafin. Jen, this is Brady Hewitt, Cora’s grandson.”

The other nurse, who was older and a little on the plump side but with a much friendlier demeanor, came out from behind the counter and extended her hand to him. “Hello, Mr. Hewitt. So glad you’re finally here.”

Brady shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Jen. Please call me Brady since I’ll be hanging around here as long as Cora’s here.”

“She’s a dear. We love her, but we’re eager for her to make a complete recovery and get back in her apartment.” Jen smiled.

He was glad to see his grandmother had loads of friends, who, unlike him, had been there for her when she needed help. “Is there a chance she could lose her spot in the assisted living center?”

Jen shook her head. “Not unless the doctor believes she needs to stay here, but that’s not likely. She’s making good progress.”

Brady nodded. “Good.”

Kirsten stepped behind the counter. “Brady would like something to eat. Should we send him to the cafeteria?”

Jen glanced at the clock, then back at him. “If you hurry, you might find the cafeteria open. Turn left down this hallway and go through the double doors. Signs should direct you. If they’ve closed down, you can still get something from the vending machines there. You’re welcome to bring your food back to Cora’s room.”

“Thanks.” Brady headed in the direction Jen had indicated, but stopped and looked over the counter at Kirsten. “Kirsten, I appreciate you letting me know about Cora. Have a good evening.”

Brady didn’t wait for a response because he probably wasn’t going to get one. He was going to enjoy getting to know the by-the-rules nurse and see whether he could get past her defenses. A kind word was a better approach than his earlier criticism.

Besides having to soothe the ruffled feathers of the pretty nurse, he had to figure out what he was going to do now that he was back in Georgia. He’d rather be someplace less crowded—someplace with lots of space to breath—but he’d been thinking about his own wants for too long. The time had come to put his grandmother first. That meant finding a permanent job and a place to live here. He wasn’t quite sure where that would lead him. Figuring it out was his first priority, not the attractive woman whose disdain challenged him to change her mind.

But he intended to put his charm into full gear.

*

“Now there’s a fine-looking man, wouldn’t you agree?” Jen leaned on the counter.

Kirsten shook her head. “If you like tattoos and the scruffy unshaven look.”

“I was concentrating on those golden-brown eyes and that tousled brown hair.”

Shaking her head, Kirsten frowned. “He looks like he’s been sleeping in his clothes, and that tousled brown hair hasn’t seen a barber in weeks.”

“Looks good on his six-foot-plus muscled frame.” Jen let out a low whistle. “I think somebody needs an attitude adjustment.”

“I suppose you mean me.”

“Uh, yeah.”

Kirsten sighed as Jen came back around the counter. “I know I was rude, but he made me angry. He was impolite not to let us know he was coming or that he’d arrived.”

“Did he tell you why he never responded to your messages?”

Kirsten lowered her head and put a hand to her forehead. “He implied my messages were curt and unfriendly.”

Shrugging, Jen frowned. “I thought you sounded okay when you left messages.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t hear them all. Maybe my anger came through even when I was trying not to let it show.” Kirsten raised her head. “Oh well, he’s here now, so I don’t have to worry about it. I hope his presence will make Cora happy. That’s all I care about.”

An unsettled feeling washed over Kirsten as she tried to concentrate on her work. She didn’t want to spend time defending her reaction to the smooth Mr. Hewitt. The man had waltzed in here thinking he could flash around his good looks and charm and make everything okay. Nothing about a cocky guy appealed to her, especially one with a plethora of military and animal tattoos decorating his arms. She suspected there were probably more that couldn’t be seen.

Jen raised her eyebrows. “Did Cora seem happy to see him?”

“Don’t know.” Kirsten shrugged. “She was sleeping, and he was sitting there beside her bed when I looked into the room. All that matters is Cora’s happiness.”

“You’re right.” Jen nodded. “But I was thinking he might be a good candidate for your date to Annie and Ian’s wedding.”

With incredulity screaming through her mind, Kirsten turned to Jen. “You’re joking, right?”

“No, I’m as serious as can be.” Jen tapped her fingers on her keyboard. “Taking Brady would show your dad you can get your own dates.”

“My dad would have a fit if I showed up with a guy sporting tattoos.”

“And the plot thickens.”

Kirsten shook her head. “There’s no plot, and the only thickness is in your skull.”

They worked for several minutes in silence until Jen craned her neck to see down the hallway. She chuckled. “The hero of our story is on his way back.”

“Will you please behave?” Waving a hand at Jen, Kirsten stared at the computer monitor and hoped the man would pass by without a comment. “Don’t say a word to him.”

“Can’t be unfriendly.”

“We have work to do.” Kirsten tried to concentrate on the scheduling chart on her monitor and not be tempted to see where Brady was. Why was she letting him bother her? She had to admit Jen was right. Underneath the tattoos and scruffy appearance was a good-looking man, but she couldn’t let that interest her. Charm and good looks didn’t undo bad character. What kind of man would ignore his grandmother for years?

“Hello, ladies. Care to share some of my contraband?” Brady held up a plastic bag bulging with unseen goodies. “I caught some of the cafeteria workers before they’d completely closed down. They loaded me up with treats.”

“No, thanks. We’ve already eaten.” Kirsten berated herself for not following her own advice. She had engaged the man in conversation. Now she’d have to pay the price.

Jen cast Kirsten a quizzical look, then smiled up at Brady. “She’s not speaking for me. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

“Sure.” Brady set a large drink on the counter, then proceeded to take several plastic containers out of the bag. “Roast beef. Gravy and mashed potatoes. Corn on the cob. Chocolate cake.”

Jen stood and surveyed Brady’s bounty. “How did you manage to get all this?”

Brady grinned. “I used my considerable charm on the ladies.”

With her gaze downcast, Kirsten rolled her eyes. Besides being ill-mannered, this guy was full of himself, too. Hardly a captivating combination. But who was she to judge? She’d been rude, too. The urge to apologize sifted through her mind, but she couldn’t find the words and quickly dismissed any desire to join the conversation.

Kirsten recognized that it wasn’t just Brady’s unresponsive behavior toward Cora that bugged her. He reminded her of Lance Tucker, the man who’d broken her heart in college. A charmer just like Brady, Lance had convinced her that he loved her. In the end, though, he’d broken her heart. She’d gone to his apartment unannounced and found him with another woman.

Jen nodded. “Looks like you used your charm well.”

“There’s more. I helped myself to the vending machine, too.” Brady dumped several bags of junk food onto the counter. He picked up one bag and held it up. “I haven’t had pork rinds in a long time.”

“Not my favorite snack.” Jen wrinkled her nose. “On second thought, Kirsten’s right. We’ve already eaten so I’d better refrain from eating more, but you must be hungry.”

Don’t you have a grandmother to see? Kirsten wanted to ask him the question, but she pressed her lips together to enforce her own silence.

“Yeah, my stomach’s been growling since I hit Interstate 285. I would’ve stopped to get something, but I wanted to get here.” Brady split open the bag of pork rinds and popped one into his mouth.

“How far did you drive today?” Jen asked.

Brady swallowed. “Too far. Started out in Dallas this morning.”

“Wow! You’ve driven a long way. You must’ve been eager to visit Cora.”

Brady nodded and gathered his haul. “And I’d better get down there and see if she’s awake.”

As he sauntered down the hall, the bag swinging by his side, Kirsten couldn’t help but look. She watched him until he disappeared into Cora’s room. Aggravated with herself, she turned to find Jen grinning. “Okay, so you’re right. He is good-looking.”

“A-ha. So are you going to ask him to the wedding?”

Frowning, Kirsten narrowed her gaze. “Absolutely not. I just met the man. What would he think if I asked him to a wedding when he barely knows me or anyone here?”

“He’d think his abundant charm had wooed you.” Jen laughed.

Kirsten shook her head. “Maybe I’ll take Dad up on one of his date suggestions just to put an end to this discussion.”

Jen tapped a finger on her head. “Oh, good thought. Make the new guy jealous.”

“You’re impossible.” Kirsten pressed a button on her keyboard and the nearby printer sprang to life. “I have reports to prepare. These days registered nurses spend more time filling in charts and reports than they spend with patients.”

“I agree with you there.” Jen lifted her own stack of papers and resumed her spot at the desk.

Kirsten grabbed the pages from the printer and pinned the schedule to the bulletin board, then sent an email copy to the nurse’s assistants and LPNs. While she checked the next scheduled doses of medications, she tried not to think of Brady, but the image of his broad shoulders and disarming grin flitted through her mind. Despite his appeal, too many things about him said bad boy. She’d already dealt with one of those, and she didn’t want to repeat the experience. Brady Hewitt was everything she didn’t want in a man.

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Short Contemporary Finalist Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award

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