Spoiler Alert!-Do not read if you haven't read Lost and Found, Book One of The Forest Chronicles.
Faith Tompkins shoved the last of the open, wooden crates overflowing with homemade Pinterest-inspired wedding decorations in the back of her midnight blue pickup truck. A series of cool breezes wafted through the live oaks and long leaf pines of the Ocala National Forest. Faith allowed a sigh of relief to fill her chest and took a moment to be still, shifting her gaze to the canopy of stars poised above. Tonight was a feast for the senses. On a clear December evening, one could get lost for hours in the pleasure evoked by the night sky. The illumination from the millions of stars in the midst of darkness reminded her of a renewed commitment to the One who created her—the One who obliterated darkness with billions of light points. As a child, she would stare at the sky for hour upon hours imagining connecting the dots and making pictures before she knew constellations existed.
The volume of the nocturnal serenade was turned up a notch, especially since the other guests had long since gone home after the lively reception and the endless chatter had faded into relative silence. Faith tucked one raven strand of shoulder-length hair behind her ear to better appreciate the stellar performance of the plethora of winged creatures who occupied the upper levels of the southernmost forest in the United States. Counting her blessings, she recognized the unique surroundings in which she lived. Although the Atlantic Ocean was a good sixty-mile drive east, this part of Central Florida boasted more than 600 bodies of water for her to canoe, kayak, snorkel, and swim to her heart’s content. In fact, if it weren't so late she’d take the little skiff docked outside her waterfront cottage for a spin tonight.
Faith closed her eyes and stretched her neck to the left and right, rolling it from one side to the other, wincing as she heard the snaps, crackles, and pops. Twenty-eight wasn’t supposed to sound like that, was it? Probably not. But twenty-eight that felt like eighty-three, most likely.
Exhaustion had settled into her bones. The lag in her step was the result of a good tired—much like the endorphin rush she felt after completing a triathlon or biking a long, arduous trail. However, prior experience taught her the crash often followed by the high was on its way; all the more reason to be snuggled in the confines of her river-front cottage sooner rather than later. Yes, it was time to go home, relax, and regroup.
As tempting as it was, she decided to put off the boat outing to the next day and opt for a decent night’s sleep instead. Despite her weariness, Faith didn’t regret the actions leading to the extreme fatigue. She’d been asked to assist in the planning of Aiden and Ember’s wedding months ago and to her delight, they were currently in route to their honeymoon. Since moving to the area a few years ago, Faith had only allowed a few people into her circle of trust, and her beautiful fiery red-headed colleague, along with her new husband, were two people whose relationship she cherished. Both friends had experienced hardship, so Faith was ecstatic when the two finally realized they were in love and took a leap facing a future full of hope. They would be gone for an entire month on a whirlwind tour of the United States. She would miss them, but wouldn’t deny them these next thirty days for anything. What a beautiful feeling it must be —hope in a future.
Hope. A word foreign to her in many ways. An unexpected wave of melancholy threatened to destroy her joy as she rounded the corner of the River Springs Church to find Ms. Ellie and tell her she was going home.
Come on, Faith. Where did that come from? It’s been a good day. A happy day. Shake it off. A smile followed, thinking of the ever-present pop tune sharing that name. Great. Now she would be singing those three words all weekend.
“Faith, honey, there you are.”
Champagne-colored chiffon floated towards her as the petite Georgia-born preacher’s wife, and mother of the groom extended her arms and reached for Faith’s hands.
“You were a God-send through the whole planning of this wedding. Thank you does not adequately express how much Pastor Buck and I appreciate your help.”
Faith blushed at the older woman’s praise. She considered Ms. Ellie a mentor, one to whom she looked for guidance—both spiritually and emotionally. Kind, heart-felt, affirming words served as a balm to Faith’s parched soul, a soul whose memory book contained too many blank pages, so each syllable was captured in the deepest recesses of her heart to recall later when she was at her lowest.
“Ms. Ellie, I only wish I could have given more.”
A steady, hard-working hand covered both of hers, patting gently. “Honey you gave creativity and time—two of life’s most precious commodities. You will forever be a part of their dearest memory.”
Tears filled Faith’s blue eyes as the meaning of Ms. Ellie’s words resonated. Ms. Ellie patted the younger woman’s rosy cheek and linked her arm through Faith’s. “Now, about Christmas . . .”
Trepidation suddenly invaded the moment. “Ms. Ellie—”
“Oh, I know what you told me. Maybe this. Might that. You should be aware by now that vague answers don’t work with me.” They arrived at Faith’s truck as Ms. Ellie stopped, reached up, and turned Faith’s shoulders towards her. “Now, I want honest answers, young lady. Are you or are you not going home for Christmas?”
Faith’s eyes never left those of the persistent preacher’s wife. Faith didn’t know what the word, home, meant anymore. The story she had spun to the people in her new life cast eccentric parents off the grid out west, a zany grandmother and a half senile aunt in Georgia, and the memory of a sister—long gone. All true—technically, but no details were asked, and none were offered. The less truth any of these dear people knew, the better. “No, ma'am.”
“Are you planning on having friends over or going to someone else’s home to celebrate?”
“Maybe—I don’t . . .” She shook her head, conceding defeat. “No.”
The older woman reached across the span of space and patted her cheek. “Good girl. Honesty is always the best policy.” Ms. Ellie, satisfied, turned on her heel and started back in the direction of the church, one hand flitting back and forth like a hyperactive firefly, punctuating her sentences. “Christmas dinner is at 3:00. I’ll expect you then. Dress comfortably. Jeans, or shorts depending on the weather.”
Faith watched Ms. Ellie disappear from sight and released a pent up breath. As she turned and reached for the door handle of her truck, she jumped and muffled a stifled scream when an imposing figure walked out of the darkness into the dim light cast by the full moon.
“She means no harm. You know that, right?”
“John—” Long, slender fingers pushed hard against a massive chest, barely moving the off-duty officer from his fixed stance. “Don’t you ever do that to me again!” She couldn’t control the shaky voice and the trembling hand that covered her heart. “You scared me to death.”
An expression of remorse and concern immediately covered his boy-next-door features as he reached out his long arms to embrace her slight form. “Faith, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
At 6’6’’ and 250 pounds, Officer John Bannitt could intimidate innocent bystanders by simply walking onto a scene. Put the man in uniform, and everyone either stopped to stare or started running. Faith, however, knew his heart and trusted him implicitly. He was the only person on the planet she would allow to fold her into a bear hug. Only friends, good friends, but John knew more about her history than anyone else and his knowledge only reached into one corner of shadows, wherein a whole household stood undiscovered. John was the first person she’d met when she drove back into Marion County.
Because of her interest in one of his cottages, he’d asked general questions about her past as any landlord would and Faith had answered as honestly as possible without revealing much. She knew he’d done his homework considering the resources he had at his disposal, but even so, he couldn’t connect all the dots. No one could.
Months of long talks, early mornings, bike rides, and hanging out and a genuine friendship formed. Three years later, honesty compelled Faith to admit something deeper than friendship, but she didn’t possess the word in her vocabulary to define it. Love was something she’d only ever known once, and that love was from a beloved grandmother, not a man.
She would never admit to anyone the safety she felt in his arms, or how the mixture of spice and evergreen that permeated everything he wore calmed her frayed nerves. As her rapid heartbeat settled, she took two steps back and leaned against her car, replying, “You’re forgiven. This time.” One dark eyebrow rose as she assessed his pressed khaki slacks, white button down shirt, and red, satiny tie. “You look extremely nice tonight, by the way. Not man in uniform nice, but nice all the same.”
Laughter floated down to her ears, along with an adorable crooked smile accentuated with two deep-rooted dimples. To add to his infuriating appeal, he tipped an imaginary cowboy hat. “I’ll take that as one of your infamous back-handed compliments, Ms. Tompkins.”
No words were necessary as her eyes left his and focused on the patch of weathered grass the color of cinnamon.
His voice was coaxing, but with a hint of whine she wasn’t in the mood for at the moment. “Come on, Faith. Don’t just sit in that little cave of yours all alone on Christmas. Take a chance and come out to the celebration. No one will bite you—I promise.”
Her head jerked up, and she aimed her ice-cold stare directly at his pleading one. “I don’t remember asking your opinion or permission concerning my holiday. Besides, I like my cave. And you should too—Mr. Landlord.”
Before she could throw herself in the driver’s seat and escape the scene, he placed a firm grip on her shoulder. “Wait.”
The command was gentle, yet effective.
She faced him.
Against her will, her throat filled with emotion. Rapid blinks chased the sensation away. Darn it. John’s eyes were the undoing of her at times. She’d read romance novels wherein authors tried to come up with dozens of adjectives to describe the color of a character’s eyes. And although she didn’t know a word to adequately articulate the hypnotic swirls of brown, green, and gold, the compassion and sympathy expressed in them tugged at her heartstrings threatening to unravel knots she had already pulled tight.
“Tonight was perfect for Ember and Aiden, and they have you to thank. A job well done, Faith.”
She shrugged her shoulders, oddly blushing at praise when it came from his lips. “Me and Pinterest.”
He dipped his chin but said nothing. She felt an overwhelming urge to hide from his searching gaze. Sturdy walls of protection threatened to crumble the longer he studied her with that kind of intensity. The familiar sense of flight or fight rose up in her chest, and she knew she needed to leave—now. She liked John—a lot, but with him, she felt exposed. Quickly, she sat in her car, and replied, “Thank you, John. Goodnight.” She didn’t look in the rearview mirror as she made her escape.
Bright yellow tail lights lit up the woods surrounding the tiny country church. He watched until they disappeared and stood still as the churchyard grew dark, save the light provided by the Maker himself. Due to his chosen profession, John was aware that his senses were always on hyper-alert, but never more than when he was in her presence.
If the Almighty had a list of his weaknesses, John knew Faith held the number one spot on the list. Ever since the day she pulled up on his property inquiring about one of the two cottages he owned near the Ocklawaha River, John became invested in her well-being. Something about her, probably that infuriating independent streak coupled with the sense she was constantly looking over her shoulder, invoked protective instincts buried deep in his bones.
With jet black shoulder-length hair, cobalt blue eyes, and the muscular build of a cross-fitter, Faith would turn the head of any man, including his. But John had dated many beautiful women and had been intimately involved with more than a few. His past was riddled with mess-ups, and he didn’t intend to include Faith on the roster of regrets. Not that she was interested.
She wasn’t. At times, he wondered if their friendship meant much to her beyond a casual acquaintance. Her shoulder shrugs and eye rolls irked him more than he would ever admit. Hard to get wasn’t in her repertoire, but if she could disappear, she would.
Mystery surrounded Faith, beginning with the fact that she changed her name. Stormy Dawson became Faith Tompkins before relocating from South Georgia to Florida—a fact she wasn’t aware he knew. John dug into her history when she first inquired about renting a cottage. Beyond a standard background check, John was never much for snooping. But Faith didn’t have much of a credit history—in fact, she had nothing. Everything was cash. Naturally, he was suspicious. So he continued looking. Initially, he didn’t get much beyond her straight-A status at a small university in Georgia and a glowing recommendation from an administrator at her previous place of employment. But John had resources at his disposal, and in her case, he used them.
Faith was running. He didn’t know from whom or what. But she was fleeing. Not from the law. But from something that she was ashamed of, scared of—or both.
Amanda Williams is a forty-year old wife and mother of two who can still swing her pony tail and display just a tad of sass. She is also a Jesus loving girl who realizes she is nothing without the One who saved her. Amanda has two degrees specializing in serving students with special needs and is currently working in the field of Leadership Development. She is a Christian author, speaker, blogger, and publisher who loves serving beside her husband at her local place of worship, First Baptist Church of Ocala.