Aiden Steele is satisfied with the reclusive lifestyle he has created in the picturesque Ocala National Forest. He can write his novels with no distraction, while canoeing, fishing, and hiking to his heart’s content. Abandoned at the altar five years ago by his fiancee, Aiden has no desire to open up his heart for another near fatal blow. That is until the beautiful Ember Bennett moves next door.
Compelled by one old man’s dying wish, Aiden is determined to watch over the fiery redhead set on independence. Despite Aiden’s attempts to dig his heels into his loner lifestyle, Ember’s zest for life and contagious enthusiasm create a desire in him to trust again.
Lost and Found, Book One of The Forest Chronicles, introduces the reader to a world of romance and intrigue set in the wilds of Central Florida.
The sun had only just dipped below the horizon, saying its goodnight with a magnificent tapestry of pinks, oranges, yellows, and indigos, by the time Ember Rose Bennett rambled down the long, dirt driveway leading to the half-century old, somewhat secluded log cabin. The sky transitioned from day to night much as a symphony obeys its maestro. She found the timing of her arrival strangely appropriate as the sun was setting on one chapter of her life, yet simultaneously rising on another.
Excitement mounting, Ember quickly unfastened her seatbelt and slipped her cramped legs out of the vehicle and planted them on solid ground—land that now bore her name. A laugh escaped her lips as she jogged up the oak steps, not bothered by the zapping of the overhead light wherein insects met their untimely demise. She took out the key and fiddled with the lock for only a second before she stood just inside the doorway hands shaking only slightly, eyes darting from one corner of the room to the next—light and momentary—much like a butterfly’s dance. Ember took a deep breath, silently promising all the remembrances she would reacquaint herself soon, and made a beeline to her favorite memory-laden spot. A quick flip of a switch found just inside the back wall of the laundry room lit up the screened lanai that promised a crystal clear view of a small but fully stocked lake she remembered fishing in for hours as a child. Her eyes misted, remembering all the life lessons carefully passed down during the baiting and casting of cane fishing poles while sitting on the edge of the water, munching on apple slices and peanut butter sandwiches.
Ember could already smell the aroma of the delicious coffee she would hold in her hands tomorrow morning while observing the wildlife of the Ocala National Forest. Without thinking, her hand fell on the back of the oak rocker. Gently, she set it in motion, imagining her grandfather so vividly, smoking his pipe and craning his neck toward the starry night; tears sprung to her eyes. Bittersweet peace filled her from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. For months, she had dreamt of this moment.
Shaking off the heaviness of yesterdays gone by, her footsteps took her back into the house, and she ran long, slender fingers through her fiery red ponytail as she explored her new home. Emerald green eyes surveyed every detail: the spotless hardwood floors, the original pine walls, the comfortable open living/kitchen space, the charming four bedrooms, and the newly renovated bathroom. Thirteen hundred square feet wasn’t much, but to her this efficient space—once belonging to her beloved grandfather, Ransom Bennett— was paradise. The smooth, coolness of the metal railing slid under the palm of her hand as she lightly skipped down the wooden steps to retrieve the few bags she had brought from Jacksonville. Ember pushed the button on the remote to pop the trunk of her faithful Accord and smiled at the nocturnal serenade tickling her ears. As a little girl, she had always loved nighttime in the forest. She and Pops, slathered in a generous coat of bug-spray and armed with flashlights, would explore trails known only to them. Ember never felt fear with Pops, only a sense of wonder and adventure. She looked forward to revisiting places that reminded her of those happy times.
Smiling to herself, she stopped cold and frowned as bright headlights ominously lit up the woods surrounding the property. Deep breaths filled her chest as she tried to calm a gnawing sense of fear. To her knowledge, no living soul knew she was here tonight. Her hands automatically touched the holster hidden underneath her shirt.
The crunching of gravel rang through the night, and she squinted her eyes as the old, red pickup truck came to a stop before everything was bathed in black, lit only by the dim lights emanating from the porch. Her cell phone with the flashlight was sitting on the console of her car, not doing her any service at the moment. All she could make out was a tall, dark-haired man walking towards her; the sight of him rendering her speechless.
A deep, baritone voice interjected itself into the darkness, “Em?”
Ember audibly gasped. No one called her Em except Pops. Her mother and father called her by her middle name, Rose. She preferred Ember, but Pops tagged her with Em ever since she could toddle.
Her stammered response spoke of fear, “I—I’m sorry, but who are you?”
His voice was quick to respond, seemingly intent on setting her at ease. “Aiden. Aiden Steele —I knew your grandfather,” he paused. “Can we move up to the porch so we can see?”
Aiden. The teenager that worked for Pops. Vague memories of the tall, thin boy fishing with Pops down at the lake lingered on the outskirts of her little girl memory. No longer ready to fight or take flight, she led the way up the stairs. When she turned to face him, the cadence of her heart went into triple time, but not from fear. Aiden Steele stood ramrod straight—at least 6’ 2’’ with coal black hair that curled around his collar and fell over his forehead, coffee-colored eyes, and smooth olive skin. Calculating from memory, he had to be in his early to mid-thirties. Suddenly, she was conscious of her oversized mocha latte-stained t-shirt, yoga pants, and lack of makeup. The flavor from the sub sandwich and sour cream and onion chips combination she had gobbled on the road casually hung out in her mouth, and she was fairly sure she probably had remnants stuck in her teeth. Again, she rubbed her hand through her tangled curls, trying to adjust any that might have gone wildly astray.
In turn, Aiden put his hands in the front pockets of his dark-washed Wrangler jeans, then looked back at his truck as a dog started barking. Apologetically, he said, “Sorry, that’s Rusty.”
Ember craned her neck to catch a glimpse of his troubled companion.
He looked back at her to reassure, “He’s harmless. Just a chocolate lab that hates being solo.”
Nervous laughter echoed through the trees.
“I didn’t mean to scare you. Your grandfather wrote me a couple of months ago, told me about his condition and informed me he was leaving the place to you. I—knew he was gone, but I wasn’t sure when you would arrive.” His head looked to the left of the property through fifty yards of brush. “I live next door and saw the headlights. Wanted to check on everything to make sure all was well.” He looked down at the deck before meeting her eyes. “Is it?”
The rhythmic cadence of his voice put her in a trance-like state. Her body shivered as she shook her head willing herself to speak. Unconsciously, her arms found themselves wrapped around her waist, warding off a slight chill. “Yes—yes, I’m fine.” She inclined her head, looking up into his eyes. “Thanks for checking on me . . . I remember you.”
His head shifted, and his dark eyebrows rose in surprise. “Do you?”
She nodded. “Yes, I was young, but I do remember—you fishing with Pops, doing odd jobs. Am I right?”
Aiden shuffled his feet, cleared his throat, and rubbed his forehead, but with a slight nod confirmed her memory. “I should get going. Can I come by tomorrow morning and go over some paperwork with you?”
In response to her open, quizzical look, he continued, “I’ve managed the property for the last twelve years. I’d like to go through some of the details with you if that’s okay.”
Ember fidgeted with the diamond stud in her left ear but slowly nodded. “Yes, of course. Coffee at seven? Or is that too early?”
Aiden walked down the steps of the cabin towards his truck but turned back to answer, “Coffee at seven. Perfect.”
She called after him, stopping him in his hurried tracks, “You were there, weren’t you?”
Slowly, he turned to face her. She could barely make out his expression, but she sensed rather than saw a look of sadness. “Yes, I was there.”
Book release date: April 30
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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.