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Finally & ForeverKatie Weldon Series
By Robin Jones Gunn
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2012 Robin's Nest Productions, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKatie Weldon woke with a start.
She drew in a jagged breath and tried to focus. The list of credits for an in-flight movie was running on the small TV screen embedded in the seat in front of her. Her headset was in her lap, and a thin airline blanket covered her legs.
Katie's heart pounded as she slowly turned her head to see the familiar face of the passenger beside her. Eli met her gaze with a steadfast look and the same intensity that had unnerved her more than once during the past year.
I didn't dream this. It really happened. I am on a plane right now on my way to Africa with Eli Lorenzo.
"Am I insane?" The words were supposed to be only a thought, but they tumbled out of Katie's dry lips before she could catch them.
Eli removed his headset and leaned closer. "Did you say something?" His sun-streaked brown hair was mussed up just enough to make him look even more outdoorsy than he usually did. His warm expression seemed to be kept aflame by his coal-gray eyes. He had shaved his goatee at some point when Katie wasn't noticing a lot of details about him, and now rough stubble shadowed his jawline.
"No," Katie answered, "I didn't say anything. I mean, yes, I did, but I didn't mean to." Feeling claustrophobic, she unbuckled her seat belt. "I need to use the restroom."
Eli stepped into the aisle and offered his hand to Katie as she slid out of the row. She didn't accept the offer of assistance but looked away and hurried past rows of sleeping passengers. As soon as she reached the back of the plane, the click of the bathroom's lock served as a starting gun for her emotions. Her pent-up fears took off running as tears streaked down her face.
"What have I done?" Katie pulled a bunch of tissues from the box built into the wall.
What was I thinking? This is crazy!
She blew her nose and took a long look at her reflection in the hazy mirror.
"Come on, Katie Girl. Pull yourself together. You are on an adventure. That's what you were thinking. You wanted to take a risk and you wanted to be with Eli. This is what you wanted, remember?"
She wiped her tears and remembered the kiss, Eli's kiss, their first kiss, the one they had shared almost ten hours ago at the San Diego airport. It was like no other kiss she had ever experienced. Katie could vividly see the expression on Eli's face when he realized that she was at the airport because she had decided to travel to Kenya with him. He had taken her face in his strong hands, looked at her intensely, and asked, "Are you sure?"
Katie's answer was, "Yes, I'm sure."
To which Eli replied, "Then I'm going to kiss you." And he did. Oh, how he did!
Katie touched her lips, stared into the bathroom mirror, and wondered what it all meant. Jumping on a plane and flying off to Africa with Eli seemed to make sense in the middle of the night when her friends, Todd and Christy, helped her to book her flight and encouraged her to make this wild leap into the unknown. Now it seemed crazy. All of it.
It was Eli's African proverb that got to me.
Katie mumbled the words that had sunk deeply into her thoughts when Eli first said them to her in the cafeteria at Rancho Corona University. "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
And here she was going very far from all that was familiar, and she and Eli were going together.
Katie started to cry again. This was so unlike her.
Stop it. Get a grip.
Wetting a paper towel, Katie held her copper-colored hair up and pressed the towel to the back of her neck. The pulp scent from the damp towel reminded her of the dorm restrooms at Rancho Corona University, the place she had called home for the past few years. Dabbing her tears with the towel, she gave herself a pep talk.
You are a college graduate. You are a competent woman. You have been waiting for an adventure like this for a long time. God opened all the doors for you on this. You know he did. Don't turn into a doubting mush-head now. Go with it.
A whisper of peace settled over her. The stall somehow felt more spacious.
"Okay." She lightened her tone as she looked at her clear green eyes in the mirror and repeated, "This is what's next for my life. I am going to Africa. With Eli. This is a good thing." The words felt like a prayer of acceptance more than a rallying cheer. But it worked; the wave of panic receded.
Katie offered Eli a smile when he rose to let her back into her window seat.
"Are you feeling okay?" he asked once she was settled in.
Katie nodded. She leaned closer. "Would it terrify you if I told you I just came pretty close to freaking out?"
"No." He took her hand in his and wove his rough fingers between hers. "This is a big deal, Katie. You'll probably have a meltdown or two once we arrive in Nairobi. It's okay. It doesn't change anything. All it means is that you're adjusting to a huge upheaval in your life."
Katie rested her head on his shoulder. For the first six hours of the flight, the two of them had talked nonstop about what their expectations were of each other and what would happen once they arrived at Brockhurst, the conference center outside of Nairobi where Eli's parents lived.
Eli's steady, logical approach to this last-minute leap of faith for Katie made everything seem as if a plan was in place for both of them, and all they had to do was show up and do the next thing. Eli's dad worked for a mission organization that helped dig wells in Africa to provide clean water in villages where diseases were rampant. The health and welfare of the people were radically altered by the accessibility to clean water.
Katie was familiar with the work. She had helped to put together a fund-raiser that spring to gather money to dig more wells. Eli assured her that his parents would welcome her with open arms and that she would have plenty of work to do wherever she wanted to jump in, either at Brockhurst, or even in the villages with the well-digging projects.
"Are you having doubts about us?" Eli's lips were buried in her hair as she rested her head on his shoulder.
"I don't know." Katie pulled back and looked at him. "I mean, no. That's what I meant to say. I had a flash of uncertainty a few minutes ago, but I know that I have to remember what you said at the beginning of the flight. We have all the time and space we need to figure out where our friendship is headed. Kenya is just the backdrop for us as we take each day and see what happens."
"That's right. It has to be that way in Africa. Flexibility is the only way to survive in the culture we're going to."
Katie nodded. She understood the words, but the meaning had yet to be discovered. She had no doubt that everything was going to be radically different.
And it was.
From the moment they stepped off the plane in Nairobi, Katie knew she was in another world. The air felt humid and much cooler than she had expected, even though Eli told her they were arriving during the end of the rains. He had explained that, being south of the equator, Kenya had its hottest days from December to early March, and then the rains came until early June. The rest of the year was dry with temperatures in the upper seventies, with another round of short rains always hoped for in November.
Katie followed Eli through customs and on to baggage claim. She thought of how not only had they landed on the other side of the world, but the seasons also were in reverse order. Of course life was going to feel upside down and backwards. But she could deal with that. This was an adventure. She longed for adventure.
So why the anxiety attack on the plane?
Katie overheard someone next to them say "Hakuna matata" in a loud voice. She knew she'd heard that saying somewhere before.
"What does that mean?" she asked Eli.
"Relax. No worries."
"That's right. It was in The Lion King. Hakuna matata. I need to remember that."
Eli grinned at her.
"You've only been here fifteen minutes and you're already speaking Swahili. I knew you'd fit right in."
Katie appreciated Eli's supportive words but she still didn't quite share his optimism.
Once they had pulled their luggage from the congested baggage claim carousel, the first thing Katie hunted for in her large duffel bag was her favorite Rancho Corona University hooded sweatshirt. She pulled it on and realized that when she lifted her arms, she didn't smell as fresh and friendly as she had when she started this journey almost thirty hours ago.
They stepped outside of the baggage claim area, and Katie was assaulted with a myriad of sounds and unpleasant fragrances from the smash of travelers and the log jam of vehicles. It was dark. She had no idea what the local time was. This didn't feel like any airport she had ever been in.
Eli stopped and looked around. Katie watched as a slight smile grew on his face. She knew that this was all familiar to him since he had spent his childhood in several different parts of Africa. For Eli this was home, and he was comfortable maneuvering his way through the throngs of people. It felt strange to watch Eli in these surroundings after having watched him try to fit in to the Southern California setting for the past year.
A man in a white shirt with ebony skin glistening with perspiration made eye contact with Katie and spoke to her with a British accent. "May I take your bag, miss?"
Assuming he was an airport porter of some sort who would carry her bag to the bus stop, Katie said, "Sure. Thanks."
Just as she was about to hand over her heavy bag, Eli grabbed the handle, and in a firm but friendly tone, he said, "I have it. Asante sana."
Trading Katie one of his large, wheeled suitcases for her duffel bag, he creatively slid his arms through the two strap handles and carried the beast on his back. "Here. We need to go this direction."
Katie trotted along beside him. "I thought that guy was a porter."
"That's probably what he hoped you thought."
"Why else would he ask to carry my bag?"
Eli glanced at her and raised his eyebrows. He kept walking. "The question is, where would he have carried your bag off to?"
Katie caught on. "That was a scam? He saw that I was obviously not from around these parts, and he was trying to grab my bag and run?"
"It's possible. I always like to be cautious." Eli adjusted the bulky duffel bag on his back. "I'll tell you one thing. He might have gotten his hands on this bag, but I doubt he could have run very far. What did you bring with you, Katie? This thing is heavy."
"Pretty much everything I own. That's the extent of my worldly possessions. Right there. Thanks for carrying it for me." Katie realized that if she were completely honest with Eli, she would tell him that although he was carrying the extent of her worldly physical possessions, she did have another significant possession. She had a lot of money in the bank, thanks to an inheritance she'd received several months ago from a great-aunt she had never met.
During all the heart-to-heart conversations she and Eli had on the plane, Katie never felt quite right bringing up that detail. She wondered if Eli had any idea about her inheritance. One of these days, she knew she needed to tell him.
Eli picked up the pace as they wove through clusters of travelers gathered at the curbside. "Almost there," he called over his shoulder.
Katie knew his parents weren't picking them up. Eli had told her that they were going to take a shuttle bus to where his parents lived, which was about an hour and a half from the airport. He stopped at the end of a line of people and unstrapped the duffel bag, letting it fall to the ground with a thud.
"Careful. I might have something breakable in there."
"Like ... I don't know. Something breakable." Katie knew the irritation in her voice was noticeable.
"Okay. I'll be more careful."
She tried to calm down by looking around. She saw an older couple with fair skin standing a little farther ahead of them in line. That's when she was struck with the realization of how "white" she and Eli were. She never had felt that way in California, even though she was always around a blend of ethnicities. In California she felt like part of the diverse mix, with her red hair and pale skin. Here she felt like an alien. A white-bread-and-mayonnaise sort of foreigner with noticeably red hair.
"You know what you said earlier about me fitting in? Well, I need you to retract that thought. People are looking at me."
"You'll get used to it." He moved forward, toting the duffel bag as the people ahead of them boarded a small shuttle the size of a large van by US standards.
Katie hung back, assuming that after a dozen or more people had entered with their luggage, the van would be full. The people behind her pressed her forward.
"Come on." Eli hoisted Katie's duffel bag in through the side door that slid open. He then reached for his two large, wheeled suitcases, and someone inside the van extended a hand out to help haul them inside.
"Are we going to fit?" Katie asked.
"Of course." Eli motioned for her to step up into the van.
As she did, she noticed that all the seats were taken. "Where am I supposed to go?"
"Right there is fine." Eli climbed in and stood smashed up against her and all their bags.
The guy behind him started to climb in but then seemed to assess the situation and withdrew. He closed the sliding door, and the van took off with a jerking motion.
Katie was standing facing the back of the van with her head bent down since she was too tall to stand up straight. Eli already had taken a seat on top of one of his suitcases. He patted the top of his knee, indicating that if she was going to have a seat on this shuttle, there it was.
She was sweltering in her hooded sweatshirt and wanted to take it off, but that simple task seemed challenging in the cramped conditions. Reaching out and bracing her hand against the closed window, Katie cautiously sat on Eli's lap, fully aware that a sea of dark faces was fixed on them. An unpleasant mixture of intense perspiration odor, thick dust, and diesel emissions filled Katie's nostrils as she wrapped her other arm around Eli's shoulders and tried to balance herself so she wouldn't be too heavy on his lap. She would have sat elsewhere, on her duffel bag or Eli's other suitcase, if that had been an option. But those had been shoved under the front bench seat, and at the moment a large woman balancing three plastic shopping bags on her lap was using Katie's duffel as a foot rest.
"We should have waited," Katie mumbled.
"Waited for what?" "The next shuttle," she whispered. Since English was the language that had been taught in Kenyan schools for decades, Katie had a pretty good idea that everyone in the van could understand what she was saying.
Eli didn't seem to be concerned about keeping their conversation private. In a regular voice, he said, "The next shuttle van would probably have been just as crowded."
"At least we could have been the first ones on and gotten a seat."
"We'll get a seat eventually. Not everyone will be going as far as we are."
Eli's words about "going far" reminded Katie of the African proverb, and she couldn't help but swallow a grunt over the irony of it all.
"I heard you just now. You were trying hard not to react to what I said. Why? What was so funny?"
Katie gave in but kept her voice low. "You said not everyone is going as far as we are."
"They're not. They'll get off at the stops along the way, and we'll have a seat before we head up the mountain."
"No, what was it you were thinking? Tell me."
Katie paused. She took inventory of the moment. Here she was, sitting on Eli's lap, whispering to him her deepest thoughts and riding in a bumpy shuttle bus with a dozen strangers watching her every move. If a school locker suddenly appeared and she was unable to remember the combination, then she would know for sure this was all a dream. A bizarre, surrealistic dream.
Katie looked down at her worn-out tennis shoes. She was in Africa with Eli, and only two other people in the world knew she was here: Todd and Christy. The reality was that Eli was all she had. If this relationship ended up not going very far, then where would she go? What would she do? All her eggs were in one basket, and in a setting like this, Katie was realizing how easily such a basket could be upset.
Excerpted from Finally & Forever by Robin Jones Gunn Copyright © 2012 by Robin's Nest Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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