Find love as sweet as the song of an angel…
Let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth. ~1 John 3:18~
Quinn Sanders juggled a full tray of breakfast platters in one hand and a coffee carafe in the other as she bustled along the crowded booths at Gus’s Diner. Outside, dark clouds lowered over the horizon like a blanket of lamb’s wool. Snow was imminent. Quinn thought of the bald tires on her weather-beaten sedan and cringed. She’d meant to have them replaced with last month’s tips, but then Linsey came down with bronchitis, and the doctor bills had drained just about every cent she’d earned. Maybe she’d win the lottery…if only she had the cash—and the time—to play.
“Miss, can I get a refill over here?”
Quinn turned to find Mr. Siefert rapping his coffee cup with the tines of a fork. He arrived at the diner like clockwork, the same time every afternoon, and Quinn was sure his purpose in life was to make her miserable. Despite her irritation, she plastered on a smile and nodded. “Decaf, right?”
“That’s right.” His watery gaze narrowed as he removed a battered leather hat from his head and set it on the seat beside him. “And, if it’s not too much trouble, sometime in this decade would be nice.”
“Of course.” Ugh. There was always one yahoo who pushed to make her day miserable. Quinn struggled to keep a pleasant tone of voice. “Coming right up.”
“I’m not getting any younger.” No, he wasn’t. The thinning, grizzled hair, complete with comb-over, was proof. Quinn huffed out a breath and gritted her teeth as she turned away. How many more hours ’til she could go home to Linsey? She glanced at the clock on the wall above the cash register as she blew a stray wisp of hair from her eyes…still another two hours—two long hours.
Her feet screamed, her lower back wailed, and she felt the kink in her neck creeping up to invade her brain. It was barely noon, and already she’d put in half-a-dozen non-stop hours. The diner’s door flew open, ushering in a frigid gust of wind along with a trio of women carting shopping bags.
Black Friday. Ugh and double ugh! Didn’t all these people have anything better to do than rush through crowded stores and throw their money at overworked cashiers?
But then Quinn felt the heaviness that filled the pockets of her grease-splattered apron…cash tips— enough to replace the sedan’s tires and pay off the rest of Linsey’s doctor bill, with perhaps a bit left for a special treat for Linsey. She thought of the Christmas list she’d helped her daughter write just last night. There were only a few things Linsey wanted, but even those were more than Quinn could afford on her meager salary and tips from the diner. If only she hadn’t deviated from Mama Cantori’s teachings during college.
If only she’d stayed closer to home and been a bit less foolish.
Coins jangled in Quinn’s pockets, drawing her back to the crowded diner. Maybe the day wasn’t such a waste after all. A bell in the order window chimed, signaling another round of meals ready for pick-up. She nodded to Gus, the rotund owner and head cook, and held up a finger to let him know she was on her way. He offered his signature wink, coupled with a gap-toothed smile, in reply.
She delivered the platters in her hands and filled half-a-dozen coffee mugs as she made her way back to the service counter, thanking God along the way for Gus’s generosity. The kindly man had offered her a job when she needed it most.
“Busy day, huh?” Gus spoke in a thick, southern accent distinctive of someone who’d spent his entire life in the Appalachian area. He’d run the diner for nearly a decade, and could have retired as head cook years ago, but he loved keeping his hands busy. So he still manned the grill several times a week. Now, he smiled as he took the order receipt Quinn offered and clipped it along the wall above the serving line.
“Crazy busy.” Quinn grabbed the tray of meals and a carafe of decaf coffee. “And some people seriously lack the Christmas spirit.”
“Oh, don’t let Joe Seifert get the best of you. His bark is worse than his bite.”
“If you say so.” Quinn nodded and flashed Gus a weary smile before doubling back to fill the cantankerous old gentleman’s mug. She leaned into the booth, careful not to splatter coffee on the table as it splashed into the ceramic mug. “Can I get you anything else, sir?”
“No, but I think Jason’s trying to get your attention.”
“Jason?” Quinn turned toward the windows, where snow had indeed begun to fall in fat, sloppy flakes that blanketed the parking lot. A guy, tucked into the last booth in the corner, motioned with a single finger raised into the air. He offered a slight grin as if apologizing for interrupting her rhythm, and slipped from his jacket, setting it on the seat beside him. She tried not to notice the way his navy polo shirt hugged a terrain of muscles across the wide breadth of his shoulders. He sported disheveled dark hair, just long enough to make him look a bit dangerous, and eyes the color of blue topaz.
“Oh, I don’t know how I missed him.” Quinn padded in his direction, her tennis shoes squeaking across the polished tile. As she approached his booth, she grimaced. “I’m so sorry—”
“Don’t be.” He brushed her off with a wave of his hand. “I see you’re packed to the proverbial gills in here. Just coffee, please. Make it strong and black.”
“For this round, if that’s all you’ve got. But I’d be beyond appreciative if the next round is fully loaded.”
“Sure.” She splashed a hit of coffee into his cup. For some reason her hands trembled as his eyes studied her, and her pulse raced like she was the one downing gallons of caffeine. She chastised herself as she bumped the creamer, splattering the table. She sopped up the mess as she distracted him with small talk. “Been shopping?”
“No.” He lifted the cup to his lips, drew a long gulp, then tilted his head and offered her a sidelong glance. “I wouldn’t be caught dead out there with all those bargain-hungry vultures.”
“Sorry for assuming.” Quinn’s mouth curled into a slight smile at his offhanded remark. Until now, she’d felt as though she was the only one who avoided the annual sale-hungry mobs. “You just look…”
“What?” He leaned back in the booth, his gaze slipping over her as he waited for her to finish.
“I mean, you seem a bit tired and…frazzled.”
“That so?” He scratched a spatter of stubble across the length of his jaw. His fingers, Quinn noticed, were long and strong. “So, now the coffee comes with a therapy session?”
“No.” Quinn backpedaled, stumbling over a chair. The coffee carafe bobbled in her hand, and she was glad she had a tight grip on the handle or the guy— Jason—may have been gifted with a scalding coffee shower. The song on the radio segued into a festive Christmas tune as she stuttered, “I’ll, um…refill your cup. Would you like anything else?”
“Nothing I can find in here.” He drew another gulp of coffee, his gaze drifting to the snow that began to engulf the parking lot and the two-lane road beyond. “So, no, thank you.”
The aroma of french fries mingled with coffee and grilled chicken, making Jason Graves’s stomach lurch as he watched the woman juggle a tray filled with lunch plates. She wove her way along the string of booths, her cheeks flushed from the exertion. He hadn’t been by the diner in a while, but he knew Gus always scheduled at least three hostesses on a busy day such as this. Where had the others gone?
The woman was smaller than average, her hands petite and delicate. But she seemed to have no trouble juggling a quartet of plates. Steam drifted from a meatloaf dinner, filling the diner with the aroma of rich ground beef and brown sugar. Usually the meatloaf was Jason’s favorite. But not today—no, he couldn’t imagine trying to eat anything with his gut wound so tight.
Something about the woman seemed incongruous to their surroundings. She was too polished for the greasy diner, with a sassy blunt cut that skimmed her shoulders when she crossed by the wall of windows overlooking the snow-covered parking lot. Her eyes were a rich mahogany—a near reflection of her hair color—and he imagined she had a bite of temper to match the dark red hair; he’d noticed the look she’d given Joe Siefert, the old codger, when he clinked his mug and demanded more coffee. Yes, Miss Hostess could surely hold her own.
Jason hadn’t seen her here—or anywhere else in Landers Hollow, for that matter—before. She must be new in town. He watched her rush back to Mr. Jeffers’s table for the third time in less than a dozen minutes. Why didn’t she just leave the old guy his own personal coffee carafe and let him serve himself?
Coffee…ahh. The muddy liquid warmed Jason’s belly, chasing away nausea. This morning had been less than smooth, and the afternoon didn’t look much better. Now, the snow falling like a burst of confetti from a dark, ominous sky just further complicated things.
Mrs. Donaldson, his volunteer to help coordinate the church’s Christmas pageant, had been rushed to the hospital with a gall bladder attack just after midnight. He’d been to visit her, and though the surgery was successful, she’d be off her feet for the next few weeks. And there wasn’t another volunteer on the docket. It had taken Jason a full week to persuade Mrs. Donaldson to take the job in the first place. She was an expert at set design and had a way with the kids, too. The prospect of finding someone to replace her was less than bleak.
“Here you go.”
Jason glanced up to see the hostess staring at him with voluminous eyes. She slipped a slice of warm apple pie, buried in a mound of vanilla ice cream, onto the table. Steam curled, carrying the rich aroma of cinnamon. The knot in his belly eased slightly as his gaze held hers.
“But I didn’t order that.”
“On the house.” She smiled. “You look like you can use a little pick-me-up.”
Apples mingled with vanilla and Jason breathed deeply, feeling his blood pressure slack just a bit. Maybe the day would be OK after all. Maybe…
“That’s really nice of you.” He nodded, splaying a hand across his belly as it rumbled. Mortified, he glanced up to see her staring at him. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem.” She laughed and dimples deepened at the corners of her mouth. Jason noticed a cute little smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, too. Suddenly his pulse kicked up a notch.
What the heck…
“You’ll need this.”
As she handed him a spoon, he caught the scent of her perfume…something subtle and floral.
“And I think you’ll need more than coffee, too.”
“I guess so.” Five minutes earlier, his stomach had balked at the idea of food. Now, he found himself ravenous. He struggled to draw his gaze from her, and failed miserably. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” She nodded, and a few strands of hair skimmed her cheek. “It just came out of the oven. Enjoy.”
Jason watched her retreat as he dug in, her hair swishing along her shoulders in time to the music that sang overhead. He didn’t know which was more appealing…her or the pie. Of course, the pie was delicious with warm apples and a perfect blend of the sweet, vanilla bean ice cream. But she was an appealing mystery, as well.
Jason shook the thought from his head as he washed down apples with a sip of coffee. What had gotten into him? He refocused on the task at hand— finding a replacement for Mrs. Donaldson. He took out his day planner and went through the list of contacts once more. There had to be someone who could help him out…someone who enjoyed being around kids and was willing to carry an extra load for the next month.
Someone who knew that the true meaning of Christmas held more than the thrill of hunting for the best deal on Black Friday.
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