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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 already as sweat trickled down her arm and dripped onto the pavement.
Tess was annoyed at everything and yet trying desperately not to be. The trouble was that 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 Maple Ridge in nearly two years and she wasn’t sure she was ready. Not that she was given a choice. Uncle Stu made sure she was coming along; otherwise, he promised he wouldn’t bail her out again.
And she believed him.
“Come on, let’s get settled.” Uncle Stu 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 his niece 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 what anyone thought of her appearance anymore.
“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 trouble, 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 from Pennsylvania to the small town near Cocoa Beach to help rebuild a youth center for their sister church there. Tess slowly followed him toward the bunkhouse.
“You won’t fry to death,” he muttered. “And I’d stop complaining. Nearly everyone else took time from work—some of them vacation time that they could be spending lying on a beach instead of working near one.”
Tess searched her uncle’s deep brown eyes and nodded. Everyone else danced around the subject instead of getting to it, but not Stu. He’d 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. I promise.”
Stu nodded and reached out to give her a big hug. “Love you, kid. Come on.” He started walking toward the large building. They’d arrived at a church campus that wasn’t far from the church they’d come to help rebuild from the aftermath of a tropical storm. The neighboring congregation offered to allow the use of its activities building to feed the workers, who would sleep in bunkhouses that were situated behind the main church building. Since it was only a short walk to where they’d be working, it was a great set up.
Tess followed her uncle until she 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. She hung back, waiting for a chance to grab her bag. She wasn’t likely to make friends with many of the people on the trip, which was better anyway. Tess burned a lot of bridges in the last few years, and making amends was difficult. Besides, if she didn’t make friends, there would be no problem keeping them.
“Need a hand?” a deep voice asked behind her.
Tess turned and found herself facing a broad chest. She raised her head and was stunned to find 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 blinked rapidly as her knees went weak. She drew a breath in an effort to find strength. Inwardly she groaned. Those distracting dimples were even sweeter now.
Josh had 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 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 was anything to be said about kids, the real learning and bonding took place in those moments when they were doing nothing. That was when they were 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 dreamt of him in so long. There was a time when he 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 he left—when he was eighteen and heading to college and she was mourning the loss of the guy she was certain would one day be her husband. He’d been a cocky boy, 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 a smitten teenage 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.
“I’m guessing Stu didn’t tell you this is my church?” Josh asked with a smile.
Tess shook her head. Why did it appear as if he’d walked straight off a movie set?