For today’s blog, I thought I’d share the first chapter of my latest book, Forgiving Tess. If you like what you read, you can grab a print or digital copy from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Enjoy!
Ephesians 5:8 “For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light.”
The doors squeaked open and Tess Carson stepped outside where a wave of heat hit hard, making her want to dive back into the air-conditioned safety of the bus. She wondered whether her skin was melting as sweat trickled down her arm and dripped onto the pavement with a sizzle.
Tess was annoyed at everything and yet trying desperately not to be. The trouble was her life, the humidity, the stiff-backed bus seats, and especially Uncle Stu—who’d dragged her along on this mission trip—seemed bent on reminding her of all that continued to war against her. It was the first time she’d been away from her hometown in nearly two years and she wasn’t sure she was ready, even if she wasn’t given a choice; Uncle Stu made sure she was coming along. Otherwise, he wouldn’t bail her out again.
“Come on, let’s get settled.” Tess didn’t need to look to know it was Stu who’d walked by, his backpack shouldered on one side of his body. He wasn’t a tall man, but his presence made up for it. He was kind, firm, and lately- the only person remaining who was willing to give Tess another chance.
Tess drew a deep breath, certain her hair was rapidly turning to thick and unruly frizz in the humidity. As if she cared how she looked.
“I still don’t get why you hate me,” Tess muttered as she tugged her backpack higher on her shoulder. While she didn’t care that she’d left a majority of her minimal wardrobe at home, it did bother her that this pit stop after graduation from nursing school meant she was forced to wait even longer to begin applying for work that would take her away from her hometown and into the rest of her life.
It was a move she needed desperately.
“That’s not how you change, Mouthy,” Uncle Stu said, using his nickname for her- one, he insisted, she deserved.
Humph. Tess never cared much for Uncle Stu’s wisdom, no matter how right he always was.
“I can change without frying to death.”
Stu glanced at the group of people from his church who volunteered to go to the small town near Cocoa Beach to help build a youth center for their sister church there. Tess slowly followed him toward the bunkhouse.
“You aren’t going to fry to death,” he muttered. “These people took time from work-some of them vacation time that they could be spending laying on a beach instead of being taunted by working near one.”
Tess looked into her uncle’s deep brown eyes and nodded. Everyone else danced around the subject instead of getting to it, but not Stu; he told Tess the truth and refused to hold back even when it was hard.
Maybe that was why she trusted him.
“You’re right. I’m working on it. Scouts honor.”
Stu nodded and reached out to give her a big hug. “I love you, kid. Come on.” He started walking toward the large building in front of them. They’d arrived at a church complex that was a neighbor to the Cocoa Beach Alliance church where they were going to be helping rebuild a youth center that was badly damaged by a tropical storm. The neighboring church, St. Luke’s, offered to allow the use of its activities building to feed the missionary workers, who would sleep in bunkhouses behind the church. Since it was only a short walk to the Alliance church, it was a great set up.
Tess started to walk with him but realized she’d left a bag in the cargo hold of the bus. “I’ll catch up,” she said. “I forgot the extra Bibles.”
Stu nodded and kept going as Tess turned and ran back to the bus where several members of the team were divvying up their luggage. Tess hung back, waiting for a chance to grab her bag. She hadn’t yet tried to make friends with many of the people on the trip, which was better anyway. Tess had burned a lot of bridges and making amends was difficult. Besides, if she didn’t have friends, she didn’t have to work to keep them.
“Need a hand?” a deep voice asked behind her. Tess turned and found herself facing a broad chest. She raised her eyes and was stunned to be looking into the familiar blue eyes of her childhood friend Joshua Thorne, a man she hadn’t seen in over twelve years.
What was he doing here?
Tess was certain her heart stopped beating and her knees definitely were weak. She drew a breath in an effort to bring strength.
Inwardly she groaned. Those sweet dimples were even sweeter now.
Josh lived next door to Tess and her family for seven years of their childhood, and he’d been best friends with Tess’s brother, Brody. The boys played on the softball and basketball teams together- and of course a little football too, while Tess, who was five years younger, trailed after them trying to keep up. But the friendship was so much more. They’d hung out together. And if there’s anything to be said about kids, the real learning and bonding takes place in those moments when you’re doing nothing. That’s when you’re doing everything.
In a flash, Tess remembered that his birthday was August tenth, he loved her grandmother’s blueberry muffins, and he hated when Tess taunted him about his terrible pitching record from his sophomore year. All in all, not bad for not having dreamed of him in so long.
And he’d once entered her dreams every single night.
Tess’s mouth opened but she was unable to form any words. Instead she stared up at him stupidly, thinking that he’d gotten even more handsome since she’d seen him last- when he was eighteen and heading to college and she was mourning the loss of the boy she was certain would one day be her husband. Back then he’d been cocky, followed by a gaggle of giggling girls who were certain he was in love with them all. It made Tess so jealous that she’d gotten into more trouble than she wanted to remember ruining his dates as only smitten teenaged girl could.
Tess worked to say something, cursing herself that the words still refused to emerge. Surely Uncle Stu knew about this. Why hadn’t he warned her?
“Um, hi…” she said weakly.
Josh smiled. “I’m guessing Stu didn’t tell you this is my church?” he asked. Tess shook her head. Why did he insist on looking like he’d walked straight off a movie set? She swallowed hard, now wishing her hair didn’t look like she’d taken a bath with her toaster.
“He… didn’t mention it,” she said softly. Josh nodded as Tess turned to grab her bag, glad for the distraction. Her childish love for him was the stuff embarrassment was made of- complete with foolish homemade gifts and ridiculous gestures. She was certain he could remember it all as well as she could. Her stomach tied itself in knots as image after image of her pranks played in her mind. It was foolish to hope he’d forgotten.
Reluctantly, Tess turned back and looked up again to find he was still smiling. “You look great,” he said.
So, he was a liar. At least he wasn’t completely perfect. There was some solace in that.
But looking up at him was giving Tess a neck cramp. Had he grown after he left for college?
“Your dimples look great too,” she said, cursing herself when Josh laughed. She blew a stray piece of hair from her eyes and continued, hoping he would quickly be distracted by something –or maybe a flash hurricane would allow the ground to swallow her. “What…? I mean, you go to church here?”
“I’m the youth pastor.”
Tess’s stomach sank. Another score for him, another strike for her. “Youth pastor? Wow. Congratulations, that’s… impressive,” she said awkwardly. “Um… yeah. So, I better go. I’m sure I’ll see you later.”
Tess started to walk away but Josh grabbed her arm and swung her back around, causing her to nearly drop the Bibles. He grabbed them to steady her.
“Hey! We have a lot of catching up to do!” he exclaimed.
Josh kept hold of her elbow as Tess prayed he’d let go and she could melt into the pavement. Instead, he steered her past a group of young girls who were wearing matching green tee shirts- probably members of his youth group. They watched Josh territorially before turning back to each other with whispers and giggles. They’d made themselves comfortable at a nearby picnic table and seemed uninterested in moving.
“You girls could help the team with the luggage!” Josh called over his shoulder. “Clarissa… Lydia… Taylor…Lila… get a move on.” The girls scrambled off the picnic table and went to the remaining ministry members who were struggling with packages, materials, and luggage.
“You sure do have a way with them,” Tess said as he led her into a tiny office and closed the door.
Where did Uncle Stu go?
Tess gulped as she drank in the walls, covered in sports memorabilia and pictures of Josh and his family, as well as a few that included Tess, her brother Brody and even their parents. She looked up at Josh and smiled, aware that there wasn’t one picture of him with anyone who could have been mistaken for a wife, fiancée, or girlfriend.
Interesting. None of her business. But, interesting.
“Um… what’s up?” Tess asked, reminding herself that she was a grown woman, not a kid sick with puppy-love.
Josh pulled her into a hug. “I can’t believe you’re here! Stu said you were coming but I asked him not to say anything so it would be a surprise!” He stepped back, his hands still on her shoulders. “So, surprise!”
He smelled amazing. Tess wondered if it was possible for her entire body to be on fire. Or maybe she was getting a glimpse of what hell was actually like. Although she was certain of her salvation, it never hurt to be reminded of how far she’d come.
“Yeah…” Tess tried to sound cheerful as she watched Josh go behind the desk and flop into his chair as if exhausted and relieved all at the same time.
And he was still grinning. Would it kill him to put the dimples away?
“Please sit. I’ve been so excited you were coming that I hardly slept.”
“Really? You were that excited about seeing ME?” Now Tess smiled as she lowered herself into a worn chair and tried to wrap her mind around what he’d just said. She’d spent years pining for him- granted, back then things couldn’t possibly have worked out- but the words he’d spoken were ones she once longed for, but likely ones that were based on his idealized view of a childhood that had long since passed them both.
Surely she could hold him at a distance and run away before he discovered all the ways she was no longer a child.
Tess squirmed as Josh continued staring at her, his dimples popping as he grinned goofily. She drew a deep breath and tried to assess the situation.
There were a few options. She could run and hide, hitch her way back home and be gone to who-knows-where before Uncle Stu even got back. But of course that meant when Stu did find her- and Tess was sure he would eventually- he’d wring her neck and disown her.
Since he was the only family left who still had any faith in her, that plan wouldn’t work.
Of course Tess could simply tell Josh everything and get on with it. He’d be embarrassed for how he was acting, but better that over the final alternative which was the one the new Tess was certain she was going to take.
With a smile that could win her an Oscar, Tess met Josh’s eyes and decided to ignore the problem entirely. She was going back home when her work on the youth center was complete and Josh would be staying in Florida; they’d never see each other again- or at least not for a long time- preferably after Tess moved as far away as possible and Josh had no way of finding her.
“It’s great to see you, Jed. But it sure is a…surprise.” Her childhood nickname for him slipped out so easily Tess hoped he didn’t catch it.
Josh laughed. “No one’s called me that in a long time, Tornado,” he said with a wink.
Tess blushed. Josh often called her a ‘pig-tailed tornado’ when she’d made yet another mess he and Brody were forced to clean up. It was one more reason she’d fallen hard for him.
Well, that’s what her childish brain concluded anyway.
“And no one calls me Tornado either.” Even if they still think of me that way. She glanced around his office. “Listen, this is great and I do want to catch up but shouldn’t we… get back? Isn’t there a barbeque?”
“Oh!” Josh stood quickly. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking… you must be hungry.”
“It’s not that…” Tess said. “I figured you’d need to… work?” She had no clue what went into being a youth pastor, but she was certain it didn’t include reminiscing with your old friends while the team that came to help you re-build a youth center waited for dinner.
Josh smiled and Tess instantly warmed. She smiled back.
“You’re right. How ‘bout we eat, and once things quiet down you and I can slip away for a cherry ice cream cone? There’s a great place not far from here.”
Against her better judgment, Tess found herself nodding. She never could turn down cherry ice cream. “Sure. And then I can harass you in private.” Where had that come from? Already she was flirting with him? Tess mentally kicked herself while Josh chuckled.
“Great. I can’t wait to hear about what you’ve been up to- and Brody…your grandma!” Josh stood and Tess did too. “Let’s go get you some food so you don’t faint. I’ll bug you for information later.”
Tess smiled and nodded as he held the door and followed her out of his office.
Want to read more? Check out the link for Amazon (also available through barnesandnoble.com)