For Better or Worse (Book 2 in the Forgiving Hearts Trilogy)

BOOK: For Better or Worse (Book 2 in the Forgiving Hearts Trilogy)
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For Better or Worse:

Book Two in the

Forgiving Hearts Trilogy

by

Erin Landy

 

©2015 Erin Landy

Photo courtesy of : Jose AS Reyes

Used under license from Shutterstock.com

All rights reserved.  No part of this e-book can be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted without the written permission of the author.

This book is fiction and its characters are purely a manifestation of the imagination of the author.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places, and events is entirely coincidental. (15)

 

All verse quotations are from the King James Version of The Holy Bible.

 

Other books by Erin Landy:

Finding the Way Back - Book One in the Forgiving Hearts Trilogy

His Flower Girl

 

 

This book is dedicated to my parents

whose unconditional love showed

me the true meaning of forgiveness.

 

To err is human: to forgive, divine.

Alexander Pope

Prologue

From his position under the car, Jackson heard the sound of feminine laughter long before he spied the tanned legs walking down the sidewalk running in front of his house. His heart lurched in a familiar mixture of excitement and anguish.

He’d had a crush on Hannah Grimes ever since she hit the home run that won the state championship. Unfortunately for him, it was destined to be a one-sided affair. Even at twelve years old, girls don’t have time for a boy who can’t play sports and has scars marring one side of what would otherwise have been a nice-looking, but unspectacular face. Five years later, the odds of her noticing him hadn’t improved.

Jackson could remember every word of their few conversations. Thanks to living in the same neighborhood and attending the same schools, he saw her often; but watching from a distance was hardly a substitute for the relationship he longed to have with her.

To his surprise and dismay, the footsteps he’d unconsciously been counting swerved in his direction. His heart began to pound just as the wrench slipped from his fingers, hitting his forehead on its way to the ground. A groan of pain escaped his lips.

“Jackson? Is that you under there?” Hannah asked.

“Yeah,” he answered, his eyes fixed on her sandaled feet. “What’s up?”

“Can you come out here? I need to ask you something.”

Leaving his current position meant exposing his awkwardness as well as his dirty clothes and greasy hands.
Could she have come at a worse time?
Taking a deep breath, he edged his way out from under the car and struggled to his feet. He instinctively ran his fingers through his dark hair before he remembered what was on them.
Great! Now he had oil in his hair.
Wishing he could disappear into the ground, he slowly raised his eyes to her face.

“You know a lot about cars, don’t you?”

He shrugged. “I guess so.”

“I’ve got a flat tire. My parents are out of town, and Mitchell’s at work. Is there any way you could help me?”

He winced at the mention of Hannah’s boyfriend. Jackson wasn’t an envious person in the normal way. His faith kept him from becoming bitter about the tragic accident that shattered his knee and burned half of his back and face. The only thing Mitchell had that Jackson wanted was Hannah.

His eyes went from the long brown hair to the green eyes before coming to rest on her sweet-looking mouth. There was no way a girl like this would ever consider someone like him. In truth, Jackson knew his chances with any girl were slim. Not many people could look past his physical imperfections to see the person inside.

“Sure. Let me get some tools out of my trunk. We’ll have to take my mom’s car. I’m not finished with mine yet.”

Her glance strayed to the shiny black car with the red racing stripes. “Oh, really? I was hoping to ride in it.”

She couldn’t regret it more than Jackson. He dreamed about taking her for a drive in his car at least once a week. Reaching through the open window, he pulled the lever for the trunk. As he limped to the rear of the car, he felt the protest of the muscles in his leg. Stifling a grimace of pain, he grabbed a hand jack and his toolbox. When he turned around, he caught pity in the eyes he longed to see filled with admiration.

“Does it hurt you to walk?” Hannah asked.

Her compassion brought a faint smile to his face.
Was this the only emotion he could arouse in anyone?
“I’m just stiff from being in one position too long.”

After putting his tools in the back of his mom’s minivan, he went around to the passenger side and opened the door. As Hannah slid by him, he caught a whiff of her perfume. She smelled like a summer garden. His hand clenched on the door.

Swallowing a constriction in his throat, he said, “I need to let my mom know what I’m doing. I’ll be right back.”

He found his mother in the laundry room folding clothes. She looked up at him and smiled. “Done already?”

“No, I had a little interruption. Hannah Grimes needs help with a flat tire. Can I take your car?”

“How long will you be? I have to pick up Molly from swimming lessons in an hour.”

“I’ll be back before then.”

“Okay. Don’t get distracted by that cute smile and hurt yourself.”

Jackson’s blue eyes twinkled with amusement. Though he’d never said a word, somehow his mom had divined his feelings for Hannah. “I won’t. She probably won’t stick around to watch anyway.”

Her glance went to the muscles in his arms and chest that even a loose t-shirt couldn’t entirely disguise. “If you took off your shirt, she might.”

“That’s not my style, Mom.”

She shrugged. “Hey, I’m just pointing out the obvious. You’ve worked so hard to get them; you might as well show them off.”

Jackson turned to leave. “I’ll keep that in mind. See you later.” After joining Hannah, he said, “I’m sorry for leaving you in this hot car so long. The heat this summer has been brutal.”

“Summers in Georgia are always hot. The good news is this is the last one I’ll have to spend here.”

He could feel the color draining from his face. To hide his confusion, he concentrated on starting the car and backing out of the driveway. “Are you moving?”

Hannah laughed. “I guess you didn’t know. We’re leaving in six weeks. My dad got a new job in Daytona Beach.”

His mouth went dry as her words danced around in his mind.
Hannah was leaving.
He’d thought his current situation dismal, but at least he’d been able to see her almost every day. How would he survive not seeing her at all? “You don’t mind going to a new high school for your senior year?”

“I’m going to dual-enroll at the local community college.”

“What about Mitchell?” Though Jackson didn’t care for Mitchell, he wondered how her boyfriend felt about her leaving.

“Mitchell is coming, too. He has relatives living in Ormond Beach, so we won’t be too far apart.”

Jackson pulled into her driveway and shut off the engine. “I know that makes you happy. You and Mitchell have been together for years.”

She smiled widely. “We love each other. He’s the one I’m going to marry someday.”

Her words burned a trail of pain down deep into his heart. Turning away, he got out of the car. “I’ll get started on the tire,” he said quietly.

“Do you need me to help with anything?”

As much as he wanted to be near her, Jackson needed time to adjust to the news of her impending departure. “No, thanks.”

“Okay, but if you change your mind, I’ll be inside.”

Jackson watched her walk away, his eyes wistful. As he went about the task of jacking up Hannah’s car, he tried to ignore the desolation pervading him. The optimistic side of him searched for a silver lining to this dark cloud. Maybe Hannah leaving wasn’t the worst thing in the world. This infatuation or whatever it was that had gripped him for so long might die a natural death if its object was no longer around.
Hadn’t he persisted in this lost cause long enough?

The more realistic side of his nature refused such flawed logic. Her premature exit had little chance of altering his feelings. It only deprived him of her physical presence. He carried sufficient pictures of her in his head to keep her ever-present in his life. It would require more than distance to remove Hannah from the place she held in his heart.

Fifteen minutes later, he slid the flat tire off the axle. As he laid it on the ground, he heard the screen door close.

“I brought you some lemonade,” Hannah said as she walked up behind him.

Wiping the sweat from his face, he took the glass from her. “Thanks.” Aware of her intent gaze, he turned the damaged side of his face away and took several long drinks.
Was she comparing him to Mitchell?

“How did it happen, Jackson?”

He picked up one of the lug nuts and examined it as if he’d never seen it before. “We were returning from a camping trip. A truck came across the median and hit us. My dad was thrown from the car, but I got pinned between the seat and the dashboard. The rescue team was working to get me out when the gas leaking from the tank caught fire.”

Jackson felt her crouch down on the ground beside him.
What was she doing?
Just when he thought things couldn’t get any more disturbing, he felt the stroke of her fingers against his scarred cheek. For a second, he couldn’t breathe or move as a thousand sensations exploded in his brain. A shudder went through him as he struggled with the competing desires to move closer or pull back. Before he could decide what to do, her hand fell away.

“It must have been awful. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

Still not sure what had happened when she touched him, Jackson stared at the ground. “It wasn’t fun, but it taught me to appreciate life.” He handed her the empty glass. “Thanks again for the drink.”

“No problem. I’ll bring some more out later.”

For several minutes after she left, Jackson didn’t do anything. In all his life, he’d never experienced such a rush of feeling. Just thinking about it made his heart beat faster. The sound of a phone ringing in the house broke the spell. He couldn’t keep sitting here wasting time. His mom needed her vehicle back.

Reaching for the spare tire, he slid it into place. As he tightened the lug nuts, he tried to quiet the disorder inside him. He couldn’t even pretend Hannah had touched him out of affection. She felt sorry for him – that was all there was to it. With a last vicious tug, he tossed the wrench into the toolbox. He was finished here.

Chapter One

Jackson reached across the seat of the truck and rubbed the head of the German shepherd next to him. Freya was the perfect companion for someone who’d found the human race to be less than tolerant. She didn’t judge him by his appearance, and she didn’t mind when he forgot to make the bed or do the dishes. “Not long now, girl. We’re almost there.”

His glance lifted to the star-filled sky. He enjoyed traveling at night when the traffic was less heavy. “This was a good move for us. I landed my dream job, and you’re getting a yard to run around in. You’ll like that after living in an apartment, won’t you?” A cheerful bark brought a grin to his face.

Jackson had spent most of his life in a rural community in middle Georgia. The move to St. Simons took him to the east coast and gave him the opportunity to be part of a clinic known nationwide for sports rehabilitation.

Exiting the highway, he pulled into a gas station and topped off his tank. The young man at the register stopped texting long enough to take his money.

“Is there a grocery store close by?” Jackson asked.

The man nodded. “There’s one about three miles east of here.”

“Thanks.”

As he secured his seatbelt, he addressed his companion. “I need to pick up milk, bacon, and eggs. Along with that container of food Mom gave us, we should be fine for a few days.”

The parking lot of the grocery store was crowded in spite of the lateness of the hour. As Jackson made his way through the sliding doors, he could feel his leg stiffening up again. All he wanted to do was get to the house he’d recently purchased and go to bed.

After finding what he needed, he headed to the check-out line. There were only two registers open; he took his place in the shorter line and shifted some weight off his bad knee. Above the buzz of conversation, he heard a familiar voice.

Jackson’s head jerked around. As his eyes moved over a sea of strange faces, he had to laugh at himself. He must be more tired than he realized. The chances of Hannah being here were too small to be considered. She and Mitchell should be married by now.

Feeling foolish, he pretended an interest in the cooking magazine displayed on the rack next to him. The chicken pot pie pictured on the cover reminded him that he hadn’t eaten for several hours. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone approaching the other register. As the woman got closer, Jackson’s eyes got wider. The long hair was gone, but the lovely smile was just as lethal to his heart rate.
Was he seeing things?

When the woman finished her conversation and turned to leave, he didn’t hesitate. Stepping out of line, he followed her as quickly as his limp would allow. When he got close enough, he tapped her on the shoulder.

“Slow down, Hannah. You always were in a hurry.”

The woman turned around, a look of confusion running across her face. Then a teasing smile tugged at her lips. “Jackson Steadman! Is that really you?”

“Sure is. I let my hair grow out, and you cut yours off.”

Hannah laughed. “I don’t have time to mess with it anymore. What are you doing here?”

“Not much yet. I just arrived a few minutes ago. I thought you were in Atlanta.”

Her lips twisted. “I guess you didn’t hear about the wedding that never happened.”

Jackson hoped the shock spreading through him wasn’t evident to her. “No, I didn’t. I’m sorry, Hannah.”

She shrugged. “Are you passing through or what?”

“I’m in the process of moving here.”

“Really? What are the chances of two people from Cochran ending up here?”

“Apparently pretty good. I shouldn’t keep you standing around when you’re working. Are you busy tomorrow? I’d love to take you to dinner. We can exchange stories and catch up on what we’ve been doing since high school.”

Her smile faded. “That would have been nice, but I have to work until nine. By that time, I’m pretty tired.”

The younger Jackson would have accepted this and moved on. The older and more stubborn Jackson refused to give up so easily. “You still have to eat; I promise not to keep you out late.”

She tilted her head to the side. “I don’t remember you being this persistent.”

He grinned widely. “I guess I’ve improved with age.”

“I can’t promise that I’ll be great company.”

“I can live with that.”

Hannah laughed again. “Okay, then, can you pick me up here? My car is in the shop right now and won’t be ready for a few days.”

“No problem. I’ll see you after nine tomorrow.”

She disappeared through the door leading to the management offices, and Jackson slowly made his way to the end of the line.
Had Hannah Grimes actually agreed to have dinner with him?
He felt almost light-headed with excitement.
He wasn’t the insecure teenager he’d been in high school, but that didn’t mean his feelings for Hannah had diminished. The intense infatuation that had characterized his high school years had blossomed into the enduring, mature love of a man.

When he finally reentered the truck, Freya gave him a reproachful glance. “Sorry about that, but it isn’t every day I run into my first and only love. I’ll make it up to you by an extra-long walk tomorrow.”

* * * *

As he eased his legs over the side of the air mattress, Jackson smiled tiredly at his companion’s eager barks. “You want to go outside. I get it; but have you forgotten how long it takes this old man to get going in the morning. It’s not as if I had a great night sleeping in this death trap.”

Freya trailed him down the hall into the kitchen. She walked to the door, her tail wagging expectantly. “I refuse to do anything else until I get the coffee started, and there’s no point in giving me that look. You know the routine.” Jackson removed the coffee maker from a box on the floor and set it on the counter. “Now I just have to find the filters and the coffee.” The dog moved from her position by the door to stand beside a large canvas bag. Jackson peered into the bag. “No one likes a show off.”

After pushing the start button on the coffee maker, Jackson unlocked the door and laughed as Freya practically knocked him down in her rush to get outside. The large, fenced yard was one of the main reasons he’d chosen the house. It also had the advantage of being only ten minutes from his new job. He could put up with the outdated kitchen, ugly brown carpeting and small bedrooms.

Leaving Freya to fully explore her new domain, Jackson headed back inside. He still had to unload the rest of his furniture from the truck. If the soreness in his leg was any indication, he was in for a long day. There was, however, a bonus waiting for him at the end. He was going to see Hannah. The move to St. Simons was looking better and better.

A smile touched his mouth as he remembered last night. The cute teenager had transformed into a beautiful woman. That wasn’t surprising, but he certainly hadn’t expected to find her unmarried. It was disquieting how much that news affected him. He hardly slept at all last night thinking about it. Intellectually, he knew this didn’t change anything, but that didn’t stop his heart from hoping for a miracle.

Jackson absently poured coffee into a thermos cup. He’d gone on exactly three dates his entire life, and all of them had been a disaster. It was probably better for him not to think of tonight as number four. The romantic ideas dancing around in his head had best stay there. Grabbing a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread, he quickly made a sandwich. He couldn’t stand around daydreaming any longer; he had work to do.

* * * *

Hannah gave the elderly man opposite her a patient smile. “Sir, the apples were on special this week, but the sale ended yesterday.”

Puffing out his florid cheeks, the man said, “The sales flyer that came in the mail last weekend said the prices were good until Saturday. That’s today.”

She knew that wasn’t true, but she was also familiar with the golden rule about customers. “In that case, we owe you an apology and a refund. If you’ll come with me to the service desk, I’ll take care of everything, and we’ll have you on your way in no time.”

A satisfied grin settled on his face. “I appreciate that, young lady.”

“You’re very welcome.”

After the man disappeared through the sliding doors, Hannah met the amused glance of the woman standing a few feet away. “Don’t look at me like that, Jessica. I wasn’t going to argue over seventy-eight cents. I’m off to eat my lunch. Page me if you need something.”

“Sure thing. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Hannah laughed as she grabbed a bright green tote bag from underneath the counter. “How much trouble can I get into in twenty minutes?”

Jessica winked. “Honey, I can get in trouble in five minutes.”

Shaking her head, Hannah made her way down the soda aisle and through the swinging doors leading to the employee break room. Laying her bag on the table, she sank down onto a hard, plastic chair that was itself a reason not to linger. Halfway through a ham sandwich, she heard the chime of her phone. She glanced at the message and smiled.

Got back into town early. Let’s go out tonight and celebrate my promotion.

She was about to accept Bradley’s invitation when she remembered Jackson.

Can’t do it tonight. How about tomorrow night? I open so I’ll be out of here by five.

When the cat’s away, huh?

It’s not a date; just dinner with an old friend from high school.

Is this ‘old’ friend a guy?

Wouldn’t you like to know?

Thanks, Hannah. You just guaranteed me a long, lonely evening spent thinking about you with another man.

You have nothing to worry about. Are we on for tomorrow?

I’ll pick you up at six. I hope this friend of yours has gone bald and gained fifty pounds.

Hannah laughed. Jackson had certainly changed since high school, but not for the worst. He was at least four inches taller and had put on about twenty pounds of muscle.

Gotta go. My break is almost over. See you tomorrow.

As she slid the phone back into her pocket, she wondered if spending time with someone who’d known her in the past was a good idea. Did she need another reminder of how far she’d strayed from God? She wasn’t that innocent, idealistic girl anymore. Hannah had buried her beliefs beneath layers of compromise and bad decisions. The mistakes she’d made had parked themselves in her life, and she’d refused to do what was necessary to make them disappear. She wondered if she ever would.

* * * *

The annoying organ in his chest was knocking violently by the time Jackson pulled into the store parking lot at five minutes to nine. Hopefully, he would calm down before Hannah joined him. None of the lectures he’d given himself on the way over had done anything to dampen his enthusiasm. The more excited he allowed himself to get, the more disappointing would be the return to normal.
Why was he doing this to himself? Hadn’t he learned anything from his past experiences?

Jackson winced as his feet hit the pavement. It was a good thing Hannah already knew about the limp because there was no hiding it today. As he made his way around to the passenger side of the truck, he wished the Advil he’d taken would work faster. Every step sent a stab of pain shooting up his leg. A wiser man would have stayed home and allowed his body to recover from the hours he’d spent unloading furniture and boxes.

When he caught sight of Hannah walking toward him, every ache left his body.
She was so lovely, so perfect.
A sensation similar to rushing headlong down a steep drop on a roller coaster settled in his stomach. Such reactions might be normal given his feelings for her, but he wished they didn’t make it so difficult to breathe or think.

When she got closer, she looked at the truck in surprise. “Where’s the Mustang?”

Jackson grinned. “I needed something a little easier to get in and out of.”

“I feel cheated; I never did get to ride in it.”

As he opened the door and helped her step up into the truck, he remembered the last time he’d been with Hannah. He felt the same nervous anticipation, but it was mixed with the deeper longings and passions of a man. In high school, he hadn’t fully understood why he was drawn to her; there was no mystery now.

“You’re the expert on St. Simons,” he said as he started the engine. “Where would you like to eat?”

“Two months doesn’t make me an expert, but I can suggest a place if you give me some idea what you like.”

Jackson hid a smile. It was strangely pathetic that after growing up together she knew so little about him. Years of observation had given him all sorts of information about her: her favorite color was pink, she hated the freckles on her face (he thought them adorable), she loved mushrooms on pizza and was allergic to shellfish. The list went on and on. “I’ll eat almost anything except Chinese.”

“There’s a Mexican place not far from here.”

“Sounds good to me.”

* * * *

The restaurant sat at the end of a string of shops. The cheerful waiter led them to a table by the window overlooking the blue water of the Atlanta Ocean. After they’d given their order, Jackson turned to Hannah with a grin. “I still can’t believe we ran into each other like this. It’s like something you’d see in a movie.”

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