A Soldier at Heart

A Soldier at Heart

Pam Mantovani

March 2023 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61026-218-7

Cowboys of Burton Springs, Book 5

Our PriceUS$14.95
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He's Army Strong. Can she be that strong again?

Army widow Jessica Palmer is in Burton Springs Montana for one thing—to start over. Although she's still coming to terms with her husband's death, she's ready to move on, determined to take advantage of whatever possibilities she discovers… as long as none of them involve another soldier.

Major Walker Thorne, a 3rd generation West Point graduate, is in Burton Springs to recover from a battle injury…and decide what to do next. Should he go on another tour of duty, take the Pentagon desk job his father's pushing, or quit altogether? And that decision becomes next to impossible when he falls for Jessica Palmer, and learns of her aversion to anything military.

As they spend time together, Jessica realizes that despite it all, she still can't resist a man in uniform. Walker is someone she could see herself spending her life with.

But how can she have the fresh start she wants, when she's right back where she started—praying for the man she loves' safe return?

Author Bio:
An author of passionate, emotional romances with heart, Pam loves crafting stories about independent women and men who discover the thrill and joy of falling in love. After years of moving as both an Army brat and corporate wife, Pam and her craftsman husband settled in Atlanta, close to family and friends. When not writing, Pam enjoys quilting, planting beautiful flowers, home improvement projects and spending time with her wonderful family.

"A winning combination of emotion, strong writing and wonderful characters."—Joan Johnston, NYT and USA Today bestselling author

"Big city meets small town in this perfectly sweet and heartwarming tale of family, loss and the healing magic of love and Christmas. Beautifully written, The Christmas Baby Bargain is one of those books that will remain on any romance lover's keeper shelf. Including mine!"—Naima Simone, USA Today bestselling author

"A great romance story, full of emotion and real life characters who steal your heart from the firstpage." —USA Today bestselling author, Rita Herron on Cowboy on her Doorstep

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Chapter One

JESSICA PALMER LIFTED the last of a stack of T-shirts out of the dresser drawer, glancing down when she felt something slip free and bounce against her foot. Putting the shirts in the open box, she closed her hand around the Gold Star pin pre­sented to a family member of a soldier killed in action. She picked it up and held it to her heart. Such a waste....


Tossing the pin in with the shirts, she closed the lid and reached for the packing tape. "Back here, Frances. I’ll be right there.”

Frances lived on the other side of the duplex outside of Fort Riley, Kansas, with her Army sergeant husband of almost seven­teen years and two sons. The off-base complex was a popular area for families of deployed soldiers. Fifteen months earlier, knowing he would soon be leaving on a deployment, she and Steve had signed a two-year lease and moved in. Four short months later, she’d opened the door to an officer and a chaplain. In the months since, she’d cleared her way through the shock of grief and dealt with all the necessary military red tape... along with the blinding betrayal that followed when his personal belongings were delivered.

When Jessica walked into the kitchen, it didn’t surprise her that Frances had brought along a pound cake she knew Jessica favored and had coffee brewing. A stack of papers, many of them official military documents, reminded her this wasn’t an ordinary social visit.

"How are you doing today?” Frances asked, studying Jessica’s face. "Looks like you got some sleep at least.”

"I’m sure the two glasses of wine I drank with dinner last night helped.”

"At least you ate something.”

"Frances...” Jessica laughed, and God it felt good to do so after so many days of grief and loss. "If I ate half as much as you wanted me to, I’d be wider than I’m tall. Not that I’m all that tall to begin with.”

"You’re petite. With as hard as you work, you need to eat. Why, you helped with that Habitat for Humanity build. Then, there’s all the renovations you’ve made around here.”

In exchange for a reduction on her own rent. "I guess work is another decision I need to make.”

"I envy you.”

From where she poured a cup of coffee, Jessica glanced over in surprise.

"I love James, and our boys,” Frances said, putting thick slices of the cake on paper plates. The women sat down at the small kitchen table. "But there’s a part of me that wishes I’d had the chance to do something more than just be a wife and mother. I’m sorry—and I will always be sorry—that you lost your husband so young. But, Jessica, it’s time for you to move forward with your life. Think of the freedom you have now. You can go wherever you want, do whatever you want.”

"Instead of going where and when the Army says.”

"Why don’t you visit that ranch you told me about. The one you wanted to go to with Steve.”

Jessica glanced toward the stack of papers, which included the brochure for a ranch designed to help couples and families reconnect after a soldier returned from deployment. "Why would I go there? It’s for military families.”

"So you can put the past behind you and start fresh.” Frances gripped her hand with a surprising force. "Take however much time you need to do what you want for a change. There are so many possibilities for a young woman with your talent and willingness to work. Personally, I think you should get serious about fixing houses and selling them. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but you’ll have the money from the death benefit to support you until you figure out what you want to do. Go to Montana, spend some time at that ranch. Take a chance. Do something for yourself.” She smiled as she removed her hand. "Who knows, maybe you’ll find a handsome cowboy and have a good, healthy fling.”

"Frances.” Jessica laughed again even as a little spark of fire came to life in her belly.

Later, after Frances returned to her side of the duplex, Jessica continued to sit at the small table. She ran her fingers over the polished top, remembered finding the discarded table at the dump, bringing it home, sanding and repairing the gouges before applying a new stain and clearcoat. She’d been so proud once it was finished. Now she’d leave it behind.

For the past eleven months—thanks to her landlord insisting her lease couldn’t be broken—she’d roamed this side of the duplex by herself. She’d slept in a bed with memories of times shared with her husband, the whispered plans they’d made, the dreams they’d shared. The long stretches of silence when she was alone.

None of the tears and memories, the few regrets, would bring him back. She’d loved him, had struggled past the pain of losing him. Now it was time to decide how best to move forward.

Should she follow Frances’s advice and go somewhere new? To make peace with this new phase of her life? Was she brave enough to pack up her few belongings and set out for some­where she knew nothing about? And why would she even think that? Wasn’t that exactly what she’d done throughout her marriage? Packing up and moving, leaving friends and some­times possessions, behind... over and over again?

She should do the sensible thing and return to her home­town and family. But she feared that returning to the past would prevent her from moving forward.

Reaching out, she pulled the brochure from the stack of papers. There were photos of snow-capped mountains, wide pastures, horses. Each cabin had its own small kitchen, but there was also a central cookhouse where the guests were invited to enjoy a meal and company. She couldn’t see herself, as Frances had teased, having a fling with a cowboy. Though it might be a fun thing to think about....

IN THE END, JESSICA did go home to Mississippi and visit with her father and brother... which quickly confirmed that returning home wasn’t the best choice for her. In just a few days, her father started depending on her for all the cooking and housework, something he’d managed quite well on his own before she got there. It made her realize how much she’d lived her life trying to fulfill the expectations of the people she loved.

Three weeks later, shortly after crossing the state line between Montana and Wyoming, Jessica got out of her truck on the side of the road and took in a deep lungful of fresh mountain air. She knew it was probably just her own imagination, but it felt as if she could suddenly breathe easier than she had in months.

The photos she’d seen hadn’t even come close to the reality of Montana. The mountains speared higher into a sky wider and bluer than any camera could capture. The land stretched for miles, flat in some areas, rippling in others. She couldn’t hold back a laugh as she stared in the distance and spotted a small herd of cattle being guided by two men on horseback.

As someone who’d been raised in a small town, and had had far too many expectations thrown at her, she couldn’t help looking around in wonder. This place was filled with endless possibilities. The vast landscape, which should have felt at least a little intimidating, challenged her. Stay, the wind seemed to whisper. Stay, and find your future.

After climbing back into her truck, she pulled onto the road. Ten miles later, she crested a small hill and passed under an iron sign announcing her arrival at Evergreen Ranch. In the valley below she counted six cabins, a barn and corral, and what must be the cookhouse.

Sudden nerves had her rubbing her hands up and down her thighs. Well, she’d dealt with the same kind of uncertainty and insecurity at each new base, and she’d manage it now.

Once she parked, she stepped out of her truck and scanned the surroundings. She spotted a narrow track used for pitching horseshoes, as well as a circular fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs. On the other side of an intricate iron gazebo, a man and his young daughter kicked a soccer ball back and forth. She turned back when she heard the cookhouse door open. A lovely young woman, hugely pregnant, stepped outside.

"Welcome to Evergreen Ranch,” she said, and Jessica heard the distinctive Boston accent she recognized from her phone call about the reservations. "You must be Jessica Palmer. I’m Sydney Evans.”

Jessica walked up the steps to the porch, offered her hand. Sydney took it with both hands, and the look in her brown eyes was every bit as welcoming.

"I’m so sorry you had to come alone, but we’re glad you’re here.”

"I’m looking forward to enjoying my first visit out west.”

"Then let’s get you signed in and settled so you can begin your adventure.”

As they stepped inside the large room, Jessica took in the simple design, appreciating the solid craftsmanship and the way clever positioning of furniture separated the dining area from the entertainment area. Buffet tables offered a selection of fresh fruit, baked goods, and an assortment of drinks. She looked up, admiring the dark exposed beams against the cream ceiling.

"This is wonderful,” she said, looking back to find Sydney studying her. "I dabble in home renovations. Your builder did an excellent job.”

"A good part of the work was done by my husband and his friends. It’s necessary to do as much of the outside work as possible before winter hits.” She patted her stomach. "Since we had to expand our own home, we got lucky these two picked summer to arrive.”


Sydney grinned. "I might look like I’ve got a baby hippo packed in here, but Gabriella, Doctor Ferguson, assures us there’s only two.”

"I think you look beautiful.”

"You’re good for my ego, Jessica. I’m going to make sure I talk with you every day that you’re here.”

"How far along are you?”

"Thirty weeks. The doctor says that every week these two stay where they are is a bonus.”

The two women chatted easily as the papers were signed, the remaining balance paid, and keys to the cabin were handed over. Sydney then gave her a quick rundown of the activities offered, how the meals worked, and suggestions for local sights. They returned to the central room just as another woman, wearing a spotless white apron around her slim waist and carrying a pitcher of lemonade, complete with floating slices of lemon, came out of what Jessica assumed was the kitchen.

"You’re supposed to be resting,” she told Sydney.

"She sat behind the desk the whole time she checked me in,” Jessica said.

"This is our wonderful cook and friend, Ellen,” Sydney explained, affection coating every word. "She actually runs the place and just lets Ryland and I think we do.”

"That lemonade looks delicious,” Jessica said, then looked at Sydney. "Maybe we could each have a glass while sitting outside on the porch and you can tell me a little more about the area.”

"Slick,” Sydney murmured when Ellen agreed to bring a tray of drinks, along with some cookies, outside. "Not only do you get me off my feet but Ellen’s going to be grateful to you that she doesn’t have to browbeat me into sitting down.”

"Everyone wins.”

No sooner had Ellen delivered the tray than Jessica saw two men walking toward the porch. Although they both wore jeans and boots, she knew they weren’t cowboys. They walked too erect, as if marching in a parade. Except for the one on the right. His stride was marked by a slight hitch as he favored his left hip.

"I should have known he’d show up as soon as Ellen brought out the chocolate chip cookies.” Sydney smiled. "My husband has a weakness for anything chocolate.”

"Why aren’t you napping?” he asked, stepping onto the porch and leaning down to kiss her before he whispered something in her ear that caused her to let out a low rumble of laughter.

"Easy to say when you know you’re in no danger of me expecting you to make good on that promise,” Sydney Evans commented. "At least not anytime soon.” She touched a hand to his cheek. "By the way, I’m sitting here with our newest guest. Jessica Palmer, my husband, Ryland Evans.”

Jessica returned Ryland’s nod of greeting, more aware of the silent man standing within easy reach. A least a foot taller than her barely-over-five-foot height, his camouflage T-shirt was so commonplace, she gave it little thought. But she took note of how it hugged his chest and broad shoulders. He had the kind of days-old beard that she’d often noticed on soldiers returning from overseas. His eyes, a shade lighter than her own blue, had yet to stray away from her. Everything about him triggered a response in her.

Had she ever experienced this kind of immediate and strong attraction before? Never.The honest answer did little to slow her pulse. With a calculated breath, she rationalized that her astonishing response was absolutely normal. Surely any young, healthy woman who hadn’t had sex in more than a year would react the same way.

"This is Walker Thorne,” Ryland said. "Major Thorne.”

"Just Walker.”

She wished the confirmation of his military status would have acted like a splash of cold water in her face. With Steve, her feelings had been a slow evolution, going from childhood friends to those first tentative dates, then finally becoming lovers before they married, believing they’d have a lifetime together. When he’d been away, she’d had opportunity to accept the blatant, and subtle, invitations from other men, soldiers, and civilians alike. More than vows had kept her faithful. None of those men had ever incited the slightest hint of the temptation she was now feeling.

Wasn’t that just her damn luck? Instead of finding herself a cowboy, she was attracted to yet another soldier.

WALKER DIDN’T try to resist staring at the young woman sitting on the porch. Earlier, when he and Ryland approached the cookhouse after a walk-through of the obstacle course perimeter, he’d observed her when she’d parked in front of the cookhouse, signaling her new arrival status. At the time, he thought she’d snagged his interest because she drove a truck rather than a car. And when she stepped out of the truck and he took in her small, almost fairy-like, build, he’d definitely taken notice. She looked fragile enough to stir his protective instincts, and yet she moved in a way that told him she was no pushover.

Still more interesting was the fact that she was alone.

Walker’s hip might ache like, well, like when the bullet had damn near shattered the bone. But he also felt something other than pain. A stirring of interest he hadn’t experienced in.... He blew out a breath while calculating the time. Between the deployment that resulted in his injury and then the long re­covery, he couldn’t recall the last time he’d noticed a woman in the way he was doing now. And unless he was reading it wrong— and he didn’t think that was the case—she’d noticed him as well.

"Ryland.” Walker shifted his gaze, as Sydney reinforced her words by reaching for her husband’s hand. "I’m just going to walk with Jessica to the cabin, not carry her luggage.”

"You mean like you did with the new arrival last week?”

"They had a toddler,” she protested. "I was just trying to help.”

"Please don’t feel you have to bother,” Jessica said, ges­turing in the direction of her truck. "I can manage on my own.”

"I’ll help her,” Walker said, earning a variety of looks from everyone. Ryland eyed him with speculation while Sydney simply smiled.

"I’m perfectly capable of carrying my own luggage,” Jessica said.

"I’m sure you are.” He cocked his head slightly in Sydney’s direction, silently asking her to relent so that Sydney would stay seated.

"Then again, it has been a long drive,” Jessica said. "I’d appreciate the help.”

"Thank you, Walker,” Sydney said. "Jessica’s staying in the cabin next to yours.” She sent her husband, who had a cookie lifted to his mouth, a glance. "We’ll just sit here a bit longer. Then we’ll see you at dinner?”

"Sure.” He took a step back, a small one, giving Jessica room to walk down the steps. Despite the fact that she came in nearly a foot under his six-three height, she managed to look down her nose at him.

"My luggage is in the truck bed.”

"What branch do you serve?”

"None. I’m a widow.”

He froze for a minute. "I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

"Why would you? But thank you,” she said in a polite, automatic way that told him she’d said those words far too often. "When I called to cancel my reservation, Sydney said I was still welcome to come. And a friend encouraged me to take some time for myself.”

When they got to her truck, he said, "You’re trusting,” as she lowered the tailgate and nimbly jumped onto the truck bed. He turned back and saw that Ryland and Sydney were watching their every move. "You took a chance that it wouldn’t rain,” he explained when she glanced over her shoulder.

"Not much choice.” She shoved a large suitcase toward him.

"What about in there?” He gestured to the end nearest the cab where there was one of those steel cabinets that could be locked.

"My tools are more valuable than my clothes.”


"Yes.” She jumped down, then turned to lift the tailgate back into place before he could. Opening the passenger door of the truck, she pulled out a computer bag. "I do repairs and renovations.”

"You mean like those shows where they flip houses?” he asked while she hooked the strap of her bag onto her shoulder.

"I’ve never done a whole house. Yet,” she added under her breath. But there was nothing wrong with his hearing.

"How’d you get started?”

"In the beginning, I traded work for rent. Then I was hired by a local construction crew and learned as I went along.” For a small woman, she moved quickly as they crossed the central yard. "My husband was deployed more often than not during our marriage, so I stayed off-base.”

"Some of the family housing I’ve seen is barely a step above a slum.”

"I couldn’t agree more.”

He nodded. "On the plus side, being off-base helped you find work you enjoy, right?”

She tilted her head. "I suppose it did.”

"Are you any good?” he asked, grinning.

"I’ve had no complaints so far about any of the minor projects and renovations I’ve done. I did some work on a Habitat for Humanity house, and the crew chief overseeing the project said he’d recommend me for a job to a contractor he knew.” She moved a shoulder. "I came here instead.”

"Is this where you’re hoping to flip your first house?” he asked. When she hesitated, he added, "I heard what you said about not having renovated a whole house yet.”

"I haven’t decided what I’m doing yet... about anything. That’s why I came here—to think about what to do next.” She stopped and glanced around. "What about you, Major? Why the Army?”

"Family tradition. Father, grandfather,” he explained when she glanced up. "Grandfather on both sides.”

"Is that how you know Ryland? Through the Army?”

He hesitated, just long enough for her to lift a brow in ques­tion. "About seven years ago, we were on a mission together.” It had been his first one out of West Point. He’d been nervous, but Ryland, who was actually his same age, had been sure and steady. Deadly. At the time, he’d been a little intimidated. But he understood better now what had driven Ryland to act the way he had at the time.

"They seem like a nice couple,” she said.

"They are. And they’re building something good here.”

She reached out to steady him when he tripped over a small hole in the ground, and he tried not to wince at the pain that shot into his hip. "Shrapnel?”


"That’s tough.”

Could he recall another woman so calmly accepting the proof that he’d so narrowly escaped death? Then again, her husband hadn’t been so lucky.

They climbed the short flight of steps, and he stopped just behind her, reaching around and sliding open the door. She stepped inside, keeping her back to him.

"Which bedroom should I put this in?” he asked.

"Just set it there. I’ll move it once I look around.”

"What would you change?” he asked, realizing that she was, in fact, looking around.

"What makes you think I would change anything?”

"I figure it’s an occupational hazard. You look at a place and see something you’d do different.”

Her lips quivered into a small smile. "Guilty. I like the use of the island to separate the living area from the kitchen. But I would, however, have added shelves at this end.” She walked over to the end closest to the hall leading to the bedrooms and bath. On the island was a small bowl with fresh fruit. "In such a small space, it’s always good to have extra storage.”

"I’ve only been here two days, but from what I’ve seen, most everyone takes their meals at the cookhouse.”

"Why not? It’s a luxury to have someone else doing the cooking. Still, there would be times, maybe while watching a movie or playing a board game at night, when you’d want snacks. Shelves could hold serving bowls or baskets.”

"I see your point.”

She wandered back toward a small mudroom. "This would have been more practical in the front of the cabin.” She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans, making them snug on her butt. "But it’s also nice to have somewhere to put things, like skis or skates or boots and coats in the winter, so they’re out of the way.”

Now that she’d started, she moved into one of the bedrooms. "Pretty standard,” she mused, taking in the king-sized bed and the single dresser. "Better to invest your money in activities around the ranch rather than on a room where, hopefully, the guests won’t be spending much time.”

"I don’t know.” Walker grinned when she looked at him. "Isn’t part of the reason for this ranch so that couples can get reacquainted after returning from deployment?” And it was entirely too easy to picture the two of them tangled on this par­ticular bed. Or on the one in his cabin. That was something he needed to think about.

She surprised him by laughing. "You’re right.”

He liked the way she met his gaze, the way she didn’t evade although he saw a hint of reserve in her eyes.

"After all, the brochure encourages everyone to take advantage of all the amenities.” She smiled.

"Let me know if you want someone along to share your enjoyment of them.”

"Like I said, I’m used to taking care of myself. But why are you here at Evergreen, Major?”

"Walker,” he corrected. "While I was in the hospital, Ryland invited me to stay here for a couple of weeks.”

"That doesn’t explain why you came.”

"You’re very literal. That must be a byproduct of your line of work.”

"You’re avoiding the question. Try this. Why are you here instead of at home where you could have some of that traditional family keeping an eye on you?”

He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and having his family around would only make figuring out the path forward even harder. It wasn’t as if he didn’t want to go back into the service... he just wasn’t sure he could.

His injury was his own fault. He’d hesitated. He wasn’t sure why, nor was he sure it wouldn’t happen again. And that hesitation had resulted in the loss of one life, one that he knew would haunt him. He still lived with the dread that once he was back in the field, his uncertainty might reappear. And have a different, deadlier, result.

"You answered your own question. I needed the space.”

"Where you can escape the expectations and demands of the people who love you,” she finished, as if understanding. "From what I’ve seen in my short time here, Montana has space to spare.”

She looked all alone, standing here in a strange room, about to live the next week among strangers. He wondered if this was how she’d felt at the beginning of each of her husband’s new assignments. Or was today different, somehow?

"Hopefully, we’ll both find the answers we’re looking for.” He grinned when she covered her yawn with a hand. A hand, he studied, that looked far too delicate to handle building tools. "Is that your way of telling me to get out of your way?”

"Sorry. The trip is catching up with me.”

"How far did you drive?”

"Factor in stopping off in Mississippi to visit my dad and brother for a few days, more than a thousand miles.”

"That’s a long way for a woman to travel alone.”

"For anyone to travel alone.”

He acknowledged her point, stepping forward a little, not missing the way her eyes narrowed. "Then you won’t mind if I stop by and walk you to dinner later?”

"I don’t need a military escort, Major.”

He grinned as he turned and made his way to the door. "Yeah, but maybe I do.”

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