Authors: Jillian Hart
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Christian Fiction
makes her home in Washington State, where she has lived most of her life. When Jillian is not hard at work on her next story, she loves to read, go to lunch with her friends and spend quiet evenings with her family.
Published by Steeple Hill Books
STEEPLE HILL BOOKS
A HANDFUL OF HEAVEN
Copyright © 2006 by Jill Strickler
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the editorial office, Steeple Hill Books, 233 Broadway, New York, NY 10279 U.S.A.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
This edition published by arrangement with Steeple Hill Books.
® and TM are trademarks of Steeple Hill Books, used under license. Trademarks indicated with ® are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Canadian Trade Marks Office and in other countries.
When I am afraid, I will trust in You.
Thank you for choosing
A Handful of Heaven.
I hope you enjoyed reading Paige and Evan’s story as much as I did writing it. Paige and Evan were both heartbroken from their marriages and they found it easier, each in their own way, to live without love. Better to be safe than to be hurt like that ever again. I wrote this story because I wanted to remind others that it’s never too late for wonderful blessings to come into a person’s life. True love can be just around the corner. As hard as it is to trust again, it is worth the risk to live with a whole and loving heart.
Wishing you peace and love,
ey, Mom!” The diner’s back door slammed shut with an icy gust of wind. Heavy boots tromped across the clean kitchen floor. “I took the garbage out. The bathrooms are spotless. I even cleaned the milkshake machine.”
Paige McKaslin turned from the prep table to take one look at her seventeen-year-old son who was giving her “The Eye,” as she called it, the one meant to charm her. He’d been using it effectively since he was fifteen months old. Alex was tall, blond and athletic and rangy. One day he would fill out those wide shoulders of his, but in the meantime he was eating as though he had two hollow legs. “You just had supper. Do you need two chocolate doughnuts?”
“You don’t wanna stunt my growth, Ma!” He pretended to be shocked but those baby blues of his were twinkling. “Can I go? The movie starts at eight and Beth doesn’t like to miss the previews.”
One thing a mother didn’t want her teenage boy to have—aside from the keys to her car—was a girlfriend. Especially a girl who did not belong to their church or any church in the county. “You behave, and remember what I told you.”
“Yeah, I know, I’ll be a gentleman. As if!” He rolled his eyes, his grin widening because he’d achieved victory. “I’m outta here.”
“Drive safely. It’s icy out there.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I passed my driver’s test, remember?”
As if she could forget. Letting go was hard but necessary. She bit her lip. Alex was a good driver even if he was young and inexperienced. “Don’t forget to call me at the diner the second you get home—before your curfew.”
“Mom, I know the drill. See ya!” He pounded out of sight, whistling. The back door slammed shut and he was gone.
Off to any kind of danger.
Paige bussed the eight plates from the Corey family’s party.
She’d thought nothing could be more worrying than having a toddler. Alex had been such an active little tyke, and fast. She’d been a wreck trying to stay one step ahead of him, worrying what he would try to choke on next. Or electrocute himself with next. Or fall off of and break open his skull next. How she’d worried!
Little had she imagined all those years ago that her sweet little boy was going to turn into a teenager and do something even more dangerous than try to stick pennies in electrical sockets. He would drive. She dealt with that the way she always dealt with anxiety—she just tried hard not to think about it.
“I had that same look of sheer panic,” Evan Thornton commented as she shot down the aisle. “It was right after each of my boys got their licenses. I don’t think I’ve calmed down yet, and they’re both in college now.”
“No, of course you’re not calm because they are probably out there driving around somewhere.”
Evan chuckled, and the fine laugh lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled handsomely. “Exactly. It’s hard not to be overprotective. You get sort of fond of ’em.”
She heard what he didn’t say. There was no stronger love than a parent’s love. “Lord knows why.” She balanced the plate-filled dishpan on her hip. “Would you like a refill on your fries?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Are you kidding? I’ll be right back. Looks like you need more cola, too.” She flashed him a smile on her way by.
Evan had been frequenting the diner most evenings. Bless her regular customers who gave this tough job its saving grace. She did like making a difference, even if it was only cooking or serving a meal that they weren’t in the mood to fix for themselves.
On the way down the aisle, she stopped to leave the bill with a couple who looked as if they had wandered in off the interstate. They still had that road-weary look to them. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“Oh, no thanks.” The woman, who was about Paige’s age, tried to manage a weak smile, but failed. Sadness lingered in her dark eyes. “I suppose we ought to be heading on.”
“Will you be traveling far? I have a friend who owns a nice little bed and breakfast in Bozeman. It’s the most restful place and reasonably priced. If you’re staying in the area, I could give her a call for you. No pressure, I just thought I’d try to help.” Paige slipped their bill on the edge of the table.
“Sounds like just what I need, but we have a funeral we’re expected at in Fargo in the morning. The airlines were full, and so we’re driving straight through.” Tears rushed to the surface.
Paige whipped a pack of tissues from her apron pocket and slipped it onto the table. “I’m so sorry.”
“Th-thank you.” The woman covered her face, her grief overtaking her.
Her husband shrugged his shoulders. “We’re going through a tough time.”
“I know how that is. Let me know if you need anything.”
Not wanting to intrude, Paige backed away, the memory of her own losses made fresh by the woman’s grief. The day her parents had died had been the day after her sixteenth birthday, and it was as if the sun had gone out.
Time had healed the wound, but nothing had ever been the same again. She was thirty-eight, on the edge of turning thirty-nine—eek! But time had a strange elasticity to it, snapping her back over two decades to that pivotal loss.
Maybe there’s something I can do to make the woman’s journey easier.
In the relative calm of the late evening diner, Paige bustled into the back, where the evening shift cook was sitting at the prep table bent over the day’s newspaper.
Dave looked up, his expression guilty. “I thought I got everything done I needed to. But here you come looking like I’m in trouble. What’d I forget to do?”
“Nothing that I’ve found. I can come up with something if you’d like.”
“Are you kidding? I just got set down. It was a heavy Friday rush. I’m about done. I’ve been standing in front of that grill for twenty years and every night just seems longer.”
Sometimes Paige forgot how much time had passed, not only for Dave but for her, as well. She’d been in this place for so long that the decades had begun to blur. She still saw Dave as the restless wanderer just back from Vietnam. He’d come in for an early-Saturday lunch and stayed on as one of the best short-order cooks they’d ever had.
In a blink, she saw not the past but the present, and the man with liberal shocks of gray tinting his long ponytail, looking the worse for wear. “Go on, get home. And don’t forget to take some of the leftover cinnamon rolls with you. They’ll be a nice treat for breakfast tomorrow.”
“I wasn’t complainin’, you know. I don’t mind stayin’ in case you get a late rush.”
“I’ll handle it. Now go, before I take hold of the back of your chair and drag you out of here.” Paige turned to snag one of the cardboard to-go boxes. A few quick folds and she had two of them assembled and ready.
“Well, if you insist.” Dave’s chair grated against the tile floor as he stood.
“I do.” She split apart a half dozen of the last rack of cinnamon rolls—why they hadn’t moved this morning was beyond her. Yesterday the whole six dozen she’d been regularly buying had disappeared before the breakfast rush was over. She popped the sticky iced treats into the waiting boxes and added a few of the frosted cookies, too—those hadn’t moved, either—then snapped the lids shut.
“Here. Go. Hurry, before a bunch of teenagers break down the door and take over the back booth.” She slid one box on the table in his direction.
“Only if you promise to call me if you get slammed.”
“Deal. Now beat it.” She pounded through the doorway and into the dining room where the grieving woman and her husband were just gathering up their things to leave.
It took only a few moments to fill two extra large take-out cups with steaming coffee, stick them in a cardboard cup holder, and fill a small paper bag with sweetener, creamer and napkins.
“That sure hit the spot.” The husband slid the meal ticket and a twenty on the counter by the till. “That was the best beef stew I’ve had in some time.”
“My Irish grandmother’s family recipe. I’m glad you liked it.” She rang in the sale with one hand while she pushed the baker’s box and cup holders in their direction. “Here’s a little something to keep you alert while you’re on the road. It’s a long stretch between rest stops once you’re past Bozeman. I’ll be praying for a safe journey.”
She counted back change, but the husband held up his hand, shaking his head. “Keep the change. That’s mighty kind of you.”
“Bless you.” The woman teared up again and headed for the door, wrapping her overcoat more tightly around her.
After taking the box and cup holder, the husband joined his wife in the entryway and held the door for her. They stepped outside, the door swished closed, and they were gone.
“That was awful nice of you.”
Paige startled, spinning around to see Evan Thornton watching her along the length of the serving counter. “I don’t know about nice. I had extra cinnamon rolls that I didn’t want to go to waste.”
“Still. Not everyone would go to the trouble.”
“Lord knows times like that are tough enough. We’ve all been there, battling heartbreak.”
“Yes, we have.” Evan’s face hardened, and he turned away, staring at his plate.
He’s known heartache, too, she remembered. She didn’t know the details, but he’d been divorced long ago. She knew just how much pain that could give a person.
Maybe it was just her mood today, but the shadows seemed to darken quickly. Maybe a storm was on the way.
Night fell like a curtain until she could see the lighted reflection of the diner in the long row of front windows and her own tall, lanky form standing there, nearly as dark as the world outside.
She saw something else in that reflection. Evan Thornton turned on the bar chair in her direction. Her stomach gave a funny tingle. Was he watching her? And why on earth would he do that? When she looked his way, he wasn’t studying her at all but recapping the ketchup bottle, his attention squarely focused on the task.
Funny. Maybe it was her imagination. Or maybe he’d been drifting off in his own thoughts, the way she’d been.
The back door clicked shut and the screen door banged, telling her that Dave had fled while the getting was good. It might be Friday night, but she expected it to be a quiet one from here on out. There were no games or matches at the high school. The middle school’s spring musical pageant had been last week, and weekend nights were typically quiet in the lull after Easter. It didn’t help that winter had decided to sneak in for a final showdown and the hailstorm earlier would keep most folks at home and off the slick streets.
Except for her son, wherever he was. She checked the wall clock above the register. Enough time had passed that he should be off the roads and safely inside the movie theater. She wouldn’t have to worry about him again for two more hours when the movie was over and he’d be out on the roads again.
That left her to worry instead about the growing list of things needing to be done. Like the extra cleaning she’d been trying to fit into the quieter times, and the general ledger, which was still a mess on the desk, and the paperwork for the ad she needed to place in the paper—
She was back in the kitchen before she realized she’d made a conscious decision to go there, apparently lured by the exciting thought of cleaning behind the refrigerator, which was the first thing on her list that needed doing.
Now, if she could only find the energy, she’d be in seventh heaven. What she wanted was chocolate. Lots of cool, soothing, rich chocolate.
“Hey, Paige?” It was Evan Thornton calling from the front.
Trouble. She knew the sound of it well enough. There was no disguising the low note of concern in his rumbling baritone. Now what?
Four steps took her into the narrow hallway between the kitchen and the front. The thought of taking a chocolate break and then cleaning behind the refrigerator vanished at the sight of water creeping from the men’s bathroom. Not just a trickle, but a shining sheet of water silently rushing from wall to wall and nosing like a giant amoeba toward the front counter.
There Evan was, a formidable shape of a man on the other side of the creeping waterway. “I could engineer a bridge for you.”
She blinked. Was it her imagination or was he practically smiling? She’d never known Evan Thornton, an engineer, to have a sense of humor. Then again, she really didn’t know him, which was the way she liked it and wanted to keep it. Getting too close to men, especially single, handsome, and apparently nice men, always led to trouble. At least, in her experience. “Uh, no, I’ll risk the current without a bridge, thank you.”
Why was it that some men looked better with a little distinguished gray in their hair? He shrugged those gorgeous shoulders of his, strong and straight. “Just thought I’d help. Let me know if you need me to toss you a lifejacket. Or a buoy. Or a marine? No?”
She blinked again. There he went again, and this time he was definitely almost smiling. The gentle upward curve of his hard mouth cut the hint of dimples into his lean sun-browned cheeks. She felt a flutter of interest down deep in her heart, and dismissed it. She was a woman after all, sworn to a single celibate life, but that didn’t mean she was dead. “Call for help if I don’t return.”
“You can’t deal with that yourself.”
“Watch me.” She swept past him, wading through the torrent streaming down the hallway. What would it be like to be free of this place? She’d been here so long, she couldn’t even imagine it. But she would sure like to.
She was planning to put the diner up for sale this summer. She’d been accepted at the nearby university to begin classes in the fall.
“Do you want me to call a plumber?” He spoke with that polished baritone that could make a girl take a second look.
She absolutely refused to turn around. She didn’t need a second look. She wasn’t interested in Evan or in any man. “Not yet, it might be something I know how to fix.”
“Are you telling me you’re a good cook and a handyman, too?”
“Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I can’t use tools.”
Evan watched Paige McKaslin march away from him, all business. She was a study in contradiction. On the surface, she was brusque, crisp and coolly efficient. A man might draw the conclusion that she was made of ice.