Friday Sneak Peek – Perfectly Pretend

You know, sometimes people will read one of my books and ask, “Is this about you?!” And I always respond truthfully by telling them no. There are bits and pieces of my life and my experiences in all of my books, of course, but I’m not any of the characters.

But if I was… I would be Hope Connor. Yes, of all the Jenn Faulk characters, Hope is the one I look at and go, “Oh, well, yeah. That’s me. Socially awkward pastor’s wife.” There’s probably more of me in her than I originally intended when I started writing Perfectly Pretend, but the end result is a story that I LOVE. And I think you will, too!

Here’s a little excerpt from the beginning of it…

Perfectly Pretend

~Hope~

Hope Connor knew that this call was the one.

She’d been holding onto her phone all day, waiting for the call and going so far as to conceal the little device in her bouquet as she’d walked down the aisle. Her mother would have been mortified had it rung mid-ceremony just as Hope’s younger brother, David, said his vows or as Cammie, her childhood friend, put the wedding band on his finger.

Hope knew that she could have potentially ruined the entire ceremony with her phone.
She couldn’t have ruined the marriage, though, as Cammie and David were so clearly besotted with one another. That was weird enough for Hope, who had always regarded Cammie as her unofficial sister, but it was even weirder for Charity, Hope’s twin sister, who had experienced the great misfortune of walking in on Cammie and David saying goodnight to one another earlier in the week.

“Oh, man,” Charity had groaned to Hope later on, “I think I need therapy after seeing that. It was getting a little intense, to the point of being totally inappropriate.”

Hope had made a face at this, recalling the few occasions she’d seen her brother and his bride-to-be exchanging discreet kisses and adoring glances in the week leading up to the wedding. They’d come back from the mission field just in time to adjust to the time difference before saying “I do” at New Life-Dallas, where their father, Paul, was the senior pastor and where they had all grown up together.

“Really?” Hope had asked, trying to rid her mind of a disturbing image of David and Cammie mugging down. “I don’t want to hear this.”

But Charity kept right on talking. Because Charity? Was always talking.

“I saw his tongue,” she had muttered. “And I swear, it took me right back to pasta nights when we’d come home from college. And David? When he was in high school? You remember?”

“Goodness, yes,” Hope had sighed, remembering how gross David had been. “He’d lick his bowl clean. Then yours and mine if we didn’t take them to the sink. He must have been going through a growth spurt or something. He was, like, a whole foot taller than me in a month’s time thanks to that pasta.”

Charity hadn’t been listening, still caught up in what she’d unfortunately witnessed.

“Seriously!” she had exclaimed. “All I could see was his tongue, all –” And here, she had demonstrated just what she’d observed of her brother’s kissing skills, sticking her tongue out, closing her eyes, and flailing about.

“Bless Cammie’s heart,” Hope had murmured, absolutely horrified.

“I know!” Charity had shrieked. “I just wanted to shout, ‘Girl! Have you lost your ever lovin’ mind?!’ And I was concerned at first, you know, feeling bad for her because she’s going to have to have sex with him –”

Ugh.

“Mercy, Charity! Please shut up –”

“– and then I was thinking that David is just a little too eager this close to the wedding, you know?” Charity had continued on, lowering her voice. “But before I could even clear my throat to let them know that I was in the room and give Cammie a chance to recant while she can, she moaned, seriously, moaned, and said in this breathy, hair-raising voice, only two more days, David, until I get to rip off your clothes, and –”

“Oh, for the love,” Hope had shuddered just a little.

“For the love!” Charity had hissed. “Seriously! Has she forgotten when we were all kids and he would eat his boogers and pick his scabs and be just generally disgusting?”

There in the sanctuary at New Life-Dallas on that crowded wedding day, it had appeared that Cammie… well, that she had forgotten it completely. Or, even more bizarrely yet, that she now found the memories endearing, as evidenced by the way she had sighed appreciatively as David, done saying his vows, had raised her hands to his lips and kissed them.

And then, there had been David. Looking just as smitten, swallowing back tears as Cammie murmured, “I take you, David Paul Connor,” laughing like a giant fool when she grinned at him, and then winking at her knowingly as they were pronounced man and wife, likely thinking of her ripping his clothes off.

For the love. Seriously.

But they’d gotten through the ceremony without Hope’s phone ringing. They’d gotten through the pictures afterwards. They’d gotten through the trek across New Life-Dallas, from one end to the other, from the sanctuary to the reception hall, where everything had been done as extravagantly and beautifully as it had been for Charity’s own wedding several years earlier.

“Takes you back, huh?” Hope murmured to her as they made their way in, hand in hand like they’d been for years, their bridesmaid dresses the only thing making them look similar.

People had never believed that they were twins, back when they were little girls and even now that they were grown women.

Fraternal, Charity had always clarified, a sassy hand placed just so on the curvy hip that she always jutted out seductively, which had matched the rest of her. She had always been short, but she’d always been rounded in all the right places. And she’d always known it, tilting her head just so as she giggled, her blond curls falling to the side in a way that was flirty even before she knew how to define what she was doing.

Yeah, fraternal, Hope had always added, a fist clenched at her side, ready to pop someone right in the face for not taking the two of them seriously, a brittle effect that matched the rest of her. She had always been tall, and she’d never been round in any place, quite frankly. And she’d always known it, standing taller as she’d frowned, her brown hair never even moving from the tight ponytail she always kept it in.

Fraternal twins. But still twins. And sisters, of course. Closer as adults than they’d even been as children. Now, with Charity more rounded than before, thanks to motherhood, with Hope sharper than before, thanks to the stress of being the unmarried daughter of the most important man in the convention…

Speaking of.

“Glory, yes,” Charity sighed. “I think this is crazier than my wedding was! Dad’s new position must have added five hundred people to the guest list.”

The new position, of course, was the presidency of the convention. Paul Connor wasn’t just the pastor of the biggest church in their denomination. He was now also the president of that highest organization within the denomination, the convention that served every single one of the churches all across the nation. He’d been elected just a few months earlier, and while the work he was already doing to theologically reform the convention had been successful, there had been sacrifices.

Churches protesting. Very tense calls and meetings. Death threats.

Paul Connor had laughed at it all, telling Hope that they’d done worse to Jesus and that he was looking forward to seeing how it all unfolded for the good of the Gospel, honestly, no matter what it meant for him personally. Phoebe Connor, however, had been a little less spiritual about it all, going on anxiety medication around the same time she got her concealed handgun license.

And Hope, the daughter left to see it all with them? Had looked for a way to escape.

“Five hundred,” Hope murmured, her mind on all that she’d been through at her father’s side while her sister and brother were living life far away from Dallas. “And we thought your wedding was the most amazing wedding that would ever take place here.”

“Oh, but my wedding was the most amazing wedding that’s ever happened,” Charity swore. “Because of the groom, Hope. Because my groom? Is the most amazing guy I’ve ever known.”

The most amazing guy Hope had ever known, too.

John. Her brother-in-law.

Hope suppressed a sigh at all the memories that came flooding back every time Charity mentioned her husband.

He’d been Hope’s friend first. She’d met him during her first year of college, where she’d been intent on nothing but studying and growing closer to Christ. John was like-minded in that, at least, and he was ministry-bound, intent on becoming a pastor one day, which Hope could easily see happening, given his godly character. They’d become friends in a fellowship group on campus and had grown closer and closer every day.

Meanwhile, Charity had been off living like the devil, as Hope had defined it, enjoying the freedom and debauchery of being away from their parents and reinforcing every wild pastor’s daughter stereotype out there. Her social life was so full and extensive that she rarely saw Hope beyond the apartment they shared, so she’d never met or even known about John, even though he was such a big part of Hope’s life. She’d never seen how he and Hope were real with one another, how they talked about eternity with similar hearts, how they hinted at a ministry together some day, and how Hope had loved him.

Love. Oh, to be nineteen again and feel that way. Hope couldn’t imagine ever feeling like that again. Love. So sincerely. So simply. So secretively as she’d waited for John to say he felt the same.

Maybe he had. There had been occasions that Hope had recounted countless times that first year when John had looked at her as though he felt something, as though he knew her, as though he was as convinced as she was that he was going to marry her one day.

And then, he met Charity.

He’d visited Hope back in Dallas during the summer break, and once he’d come into the Connor house where Charity was living while trying to get her grades up at the local community college, he saw her.

“Well, clearly you’re fraternal twins,” he had said, staring at Charity with almost comical reverence.

Hope had felt her fist clench in a way it never had before, as Charity had laid her eyes on John, on the man that Hope had prayed that she would marry one day, and giggled that flirty, annoying laugh of hers.

It was over right then and there.

Hope had convinced herself that giving John up, as though it had been her choice, was something she’d done as unto the Lord because Charity, thanks to John’s patient friendship and then more, so much more, had honestly come to Christ in a way that had completely changed her life. She was a pastor’s wife now, with a heart for changing the world as much as Jesus had changed her.

Jesus hadn’t completely changed her personality, though, Hope had noted even as Charity caught sight of her husband and their children in the reception hall after the wedding and all but squealed at the sight of her perfect little family.

Hope smiled, too. But even as she did so… it still hurt. Charity had known what she was doing way back then, back when she’d stolen John right away from her, but Hope had comforted herself with the simple truth that Charity, for all of her wild living to fill a need she couldn’t fill on her own, was hurting.

And John, bless his heart, had been hurt, too, not long after that when he’d done what he did.

Hurt people always hurt people.

She’d known no better, after all. How many hurt people had hurt her father in ministry simply because they knew no better? How many hurt people had hurt Jesus Himself, simply because they knew no better?

Hurt people hurt people. Hope knew it.

And she’d been hurt, but she’d gotten over it.

Mostly, at least.

John was there across the reception hall at New Life-Dallas, waiting for them, holding six month old Amelia in his arms with four year old Aiden jumping up and down next to him as he saw his mother and his aunt.

“John looks worn out,” Charity giggled, then lowered her voice. “Welcome to my life, buddy. He goes up to the church, and leaves me to the insanity in the parsonage. Exhausting!”

Hope didn’t have a chance to even comment before John gave the signal, giving Aiden permission to run across the room and launch himself at his aunt.

“Aunt HOPE!” the little boy yelled, even as Hope snatched him up, twirling him around as he laughed and threw his arms into the air.

“Little man,” she said, backing up from the kiss she’d planted on his cheek, “why are you all sticky?”

“He got some gum out of Charity’s purse during the ceremony,” John said, leaning down to brush his lips against Charity’s even as Amelia reached out to grab her mother’s face. “Kept him occupied through the vows, but it didn’t end well.”

“Way to go, Daddy,” Charity grinned, holding out her arms for her daughter. “Come here, baby!”

“Had it all over my face,” Aiden exclaimed, his hands now in Hope’s hair… along with a good portion of the gum that John hadn’t gotten to.

“And you’ve got it all in your aunt’s hair,” John sighed, reaching over to pull his son’s hands out of her hair gently, his eyes meeting hers for a moment as he leaned forward to hug her as well. “Hey, Hope.”

“Hey, John,” she said, smiling at him. “Can you believe this crowd?”

“Yeah,” he grinned. “Though David’s accustomed to it. Just like you two. But Cammie’s gotta be freaked out, just like I was back when it was our turn.”

“All of twenty-one,” Charity laughed, dancing their daughter around in her arms, “and neither of us with any idea what we were getting ourselves into. But we didn’t care, did we? I was just so ready to be your wife.”

And here she gave him a smile.

Hope turned back to Aiden, not wanting to see the affection returned.

“Are you going to dance?” she asked her nephew, even as he licked the rest of the gum off his hands.

“Yeah!” he said, forgetting the gum and throwing his arms back around her.

“Well, we have to wait until Aunt Cammie makes her grand entrance,” Hope said. “And David, of course. But no one’s really here to see the groom.”

“Not even important,” John murmured.

“And there they are,” Charity said, smiling as David and Cammie made their way into the reception hall and went straight to the dance floor. David had his arms around her, even as she stood on tiptoe, a huge grin on her face as she wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss.

“Still weird,” Charity murmured. Then turning to John, “We should dance, too!”

“Me, too!” Aiden shouted.

“Maybe you can dance with Grandma,” Charity said. “She’s over there, being the pastor’s wife when she should just be the groom’s mother today.”

Sure enough, there was their mother, Phoebe, talking up church people across the reception hall. The woman definitely needed someone to help her politely disengage so that she could enjoy her son’s wedding reception.

“Here,” Hope said, putting Aiden down on his feet. “You go over and ask Grandma to dance with you.”

“Okay!” he yelled, running that way.

“And give Amelia to me and dance with your husband,” she said to Charity.

“Well, twist my arm,” Charity said, handing the tiny girl over, even as John smiled down at her and put his hand to her waist.

Just as Hope was getting settled in at a table with her niece in her arms, the phone rang.
Hope knew that this call was the one.

“Hope Connor,” she said, answering it briskly and efficiently, confident that she had authority in her voice, remembering belatedly that she probably should have included gentleness in her tone.

It didn’t come naturally. Being gentle and all.

She’d have to work on that some more.

“Hi, Miss Connor, this is Denise, from the missions office.”

This was the one.

“Yes, Denise,” Hope said, trying to make her voice softer, less abrasive. “And it’s just Hope. None of this Miss Connor stuff.”

She could very nearly hear the woman on the other end of the phone smile. That was a good sign. “Hope,” she said. “Well, I’m calling about the job.”

Of course she was. Hope had been waiting for their decision.

“Yes?” she said, taking another deep breath.

“Normally, we would require more in terms of interviews and observation before offering anyone a position,” Denise said. “But after we talked on the phone a few weeks ago, I did my research. And your recommendations from Dallas… well, my goodness. You started that center from nothing.”

Hope had. She had started the New Beginnings Pregnancy Center all on her own, from the ground up, back when she’d been only nineteen and looking for a place to have her own ministry and make her own way in the world.

Well, honestly, it hadn’t started like that.

She’d just been doing her father’s bidding on a weekend when the only other option was to be the third wheel at home while John was there visiting Charity. Her dad had told her that there was a group of ladies protesting at a crisis pregnancy center known for performing abortions, just a few blocks away from their church, and had strongly encouraged her to go and help them out.

At the time, Hope loved Jesus and merely tolerated babies. To her thinking, though, spending an afternoon righteously pointing out sin and degradation instead of watching Charity make moon eyes at John was the better choice. So, she’d gone with the ladies, not knowing what to expect.

She’d talked to five different young women that morning during her first three hours there. Well, talked at five different young women, as none of them wanted to have a conversation with her.

Then, there was one that finally did.

She was fifteen. She looked like she was twelve, as Hope would later recall, thinking of how she’d carried herself. She’d come out of the building with a note in hand, no tears in her eyes, and a look of steely determination as she’d headed back towards the parking lot where a boy was waiting in a car for her.

Hope had stepped right in her way.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she’d said, authority in her voice.

The girl had jumped just slightly from the surprise.

“Excuse me,” she had said, after staring at Hope for a long moment, then attempting to walk around her.

But there had been something in her eyes that Hope had seen in that moment. Doubt.

“Hey,” she had said, following the girl, planning to capitalize on that doubt, “this isn’t what Jesus wants from you. It’s a sin, what you’re going to do. It’s murder. You know that, right?”

And the girl had stopped walking, her back to Hope.

Hope had naively believed that she would fall to her knees, dramatically repent and tell Jesus that she was going to love this child that He had knit together in her womb, and –

“Excuse me?” the girl had said, slowly turning around.

But the words had been different the second time around.

Hope had been naively undeterred by this.

“Murder,” she had said. “You don’t have to do this.”

The girl had glared at her for a long moment. “And just what should I do instead, then?”

“Have the baby,” Hope had said, thinking that sometimes even the biggest problems called for very simple solutions. “Have the baby. Keep the baby. Or adoption. Just have the baby and work it all out later.”

Simple. Right?

“I’m fifteen years old,” the girl had said, her teeth gritted. “I can’t have a baby.”

“Well, yes, you can,” Hope had said. “Obviously. You had sex, and now you’re pregnant. So technically, you’re already having a baby.”

“I don’t want to have a baby,” the girl had said, even angrier now.

“Then, you probably shouldn’t have had sex,” Hope had answered her.

Simple, right?

The girl had very nearly laughed at this. Bitterly, of course. “Well, it’s a little late for that now, isn’t it? But not too late for me to not ruin my life.” Here, she had waved the paper in her hand triumphantly.

An appointment card. For what would come next.

“Still murder,” Hope had said, thinking that Jesus must surely be cheering her on. She was like her father – offering up the truth without apologies.

Or tenderness. Or gentleness. Or even compassion.

Hope had always had this problem.

“I mean, it sucks that you have this problem,” she had amended, going for kindness. “But don’t make it worse, right? Jesus doesn’t want you to do that. He loves that baby. He loves you. He wants better for you.”

Hope hadn’t been much of a compassionate person. Or a kind person, really. But she had been certain of this, if nothing else.

Jesus loved people. The unborn, the grown. All of them. And He wanted better for them all.

Again, Hope had naively expected that the girl would have an “ah-ha!” moment at this.
But she hadn’t.

“You Jesus people come down here,” the girl had spat out, “and you try to tell me what to do with my body. Keep the baby, you say. Upend everything in your life because you made a mistake. Pay for it your whole life, you say. But you do nothing beyond that. You do absolutely nothing to help.”

For a moment, Hope thought about what this ministry, these ladies who came here, planned to do beyond this. What was the plan beyond telling girls to reconsider? What was the plan if they helped a girl change her mind?

Was there a plan?

She hadn’t been entirely sure, sad to say.

The girl had kept on, not knowing how hard her words were hitting. “So, you say you do this because you love me and this… baby. That Jesus does, too. But you do nothing. You don’t really love anyone. Neither does Jesus likely.”

She had taken an unsteady breath, the first sign that she wasn’t doing so well after all.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go out there and tell my boyfriend when we need to come back to get this problem taken care of. And I better not see you when I leave the next time. You mean nothing to me. Jesus means nothing to me.”

Of all the words Hope had been listening to and considering from this girl, it was this that hit her the hardest.

Hope had heard her. Hope had felt the truth of her words. Hope had realized that she had no answers and no simple fix for this problem, which went way beyond an unborn child and a scared teenager.

Jesus means nothing to me.

Terrifying. Hope had to change her mind.

So before the girl had been able to turn away and leave, her hand still holding onto the appointment card, Hope had answered her.

“You’re right,” she had said. “Shame on me. Shame on all of us.”

The girl had stopped. “Excuse me?” she’d asked.

“Shame on me,” Hope had said, “for thinking I can know it all. That’s so like me, you know. Because I’m smart, right? And I get things faster than most people.”

The girl had frowned at her and opened her mouth to speak.

But Hope kept right on talking. “But with as much as I know, I so totally don’t get that Jesus means nothing to you. Because what’s worth anything in this world if you don’t have Jesus? It’s just pointless.”

The girl had turned around again, giving Hope a one-finger salute as she had begun walking away. The other church ladies had gasped.

Hope Connor. Persecuted for the Gospel sake.

Not yet. Hope hadn’t even begun sharing the real Gospel, the real heart of Jesus with this girl.

But she was going to. She was going to.

“I won’t tell you what you should do,” she had called after her. “I swear, I’m done telling you what to do. But I want to tell you something else.”

The girl had kept on walking.

“I’ll help you!” Hope had called out, the words falling from her lips without her even thinking them through, her heart seized within her, knowing so clearly that Christ was calling her to more than what she’d been doing. “I’ll make it so you can have this baby, still have the life you were going to have, and never, ever have to regret anything.”

It had been a bold, stupid promise. One that Hope would come to realize that she couldn’t fulfill.

But she had Christ. This girl could have Him, too. Hope could give her that.
She would do something.

She had no idea what it would mean, to do something, and how much it would change their lives.

“I promise you,” Hope called out again, “I’ll do something.”

And miraculously, the girl had stopped.

She’d turned to Hope. And she’d frowned with even greater anger than before. “Excuse me?! Who are you, you crazy –”

Well, and then, she had said some very bad names that had the church ladies gasping some more. Didn’t even bother the pastor’s daughter, though, as she’d heard deacons – yes, church deacons – yell worse at her father.

“Well, actually, none of those are my name. My name is Hope,” Hope had answered after the girl seemed very nearly done repeating all the vile words she knew.

She’d looked at Hope with a condescending smile.

“Hope? Is that your real name?”

Hope had shrugged. “Lame, right? But yeah. I’m Hope. You came for an abortion, and you met Hope.” And at this, Hope had laughed out loud.

She was always bad in awkward situations like this.

“Why are you laughing?” the girl had asked.

“Because I’m doing a spectacularly bad job at this,” she had said. “Jesus does better. Infinitely better. And you can blow me off and tell me I’m stupid, but… please don’t let Him mean nothing to you.”

Her voice had cracked just fractionally, hopeless indeed at the thought of anyone rejecting Jesus, who was the only one who had ever truly seen her.

The girl had watched her with confusion.

And Hope had noticed for the first time that her hand trembled as it held the appointment card.

She had only been fifteen.

“Please?” Hope had asked. “Just let me help you.”

The girl had turned away again and had made it, at last, to the car waiting on her. Hope could hear the boy inside yell at her before she could even get the door fully open. She couldn’t decipher the words, could only hear the frustration and anger in both voices now, as the girl yelled, as her boyfriend yelled. Wild gesturing towards Hope, who had kept her from hurrying out, obviously, who was at least part of the source of all the drama that day, as evidenced by the way that the boy was also glaring at her now.
She was counting them both as lost and lost forever when he did something unexpected. He reached over, grabbed the door from out of the girl’s hands, and slammed it in her face. Before she could get over the shock and respond, he’d locked the door, put the car in reverse, and sped away, out of the parking lot.

The girl had turned to Hope with even more fury on her face.

Uh-oh.

“Thank you for that!” she’d yelled as she made her way back. “Thank you for making this ten times worse than it was!”

But Hope’s mind was on something else. “Was that guy the father?” she’d asked, wondering.

“That was my boyfriend,” she’d answered. “Was being the important word there because you drove him off. Thanks for that.”

“He didn’t go in with you?” Hope had asked, not even hearing the last part. “He didn’t go in to help you?”

And she’d seen it. A flash of hurt on the girl’s face.

Hope had gotten that. Understood it. Her face had looked like that when John had forgotten all about her in the light of Charity.

John. John wouldn’t leave a woman in this kind of situation. If, heaven forbid, Charity found herself in this same type of situation because John, heaven forbid, had let her talk him into all kinds of debauchery… well, John was the kind of guy who would be right beside her. And not here, not where they would talk about how to eliminate the problem, but at a doctor’s office, getting Charity what she needed, what the baby needed, then on to get her a ring, get her father’s permission, and make it right.

Hope had looked down at the girl’s hand. No ring. Just that appointment card.

And no boyfriend.

He wasn’t like John.

“Your boyfriend sucks,” she had said.

The girl had let out a long, resigned breath. “That’s the only right thing you’ve said all day. But it’s…”

And she had looked around again, hopeless, hurting…

“Well, someone needs to give you a ride home now,” Hope had said. “And you need lunch, too, probably. So do I.”

The girl had looked back at her, tears in her eyes. “Today sucks,” she’d said.

“No kidding,” Hope had answered. “Let me get you lunch. You can do whatever you need to. Yell at me, cry, whatever.”

And acceptance. Just acceptance.

“Hope,” the girl had finally said, wiping away tears. “My name is Liz.”

They’d had a long lunch that day. Hope hadn’t tried to talk her out of anything. She’d just listened, then shared the truth of Christ, the love of Christ. And after they’d said goodbye, with Hope’s number in Liz’s phone, she’d known that some things were out of her hands.

But she’d done something. She’d listened. She’d shared.

And on the day of the appointment, Hope had been praying in class, wondering at what was going on with Liz, when she’d gotten a text.

Didn’t go back. Can u meet me?

Hope had left in the middle of class and gone to meet her new friend.

That friendship had started some ideas for Hope.

While Charity was falling in love with the boy Hope had been meant to marry, Hope began falling in love with ministry.

She made presentations for funding once she had gotten a vision for what could be done, thanks to Liz and her friendship. She made so many presentations, to the home mission board, to her home church, to the pregnancy crisis center in town, all while she’d done what she could for Liz, earning her trust as she’d helped her to manage appointments, to get her through the breakup with her boyfriend, to help her deal with the fallout with her parents, to help her find ways to finance the bills, and to help her figure out what would happen next.

About the time Liz’s daughter had been born, the funding had come through. They’d secured space in New Life-Dallas for all the groups Hope was going to lead with some volunteers from the church, friends of her mother’s, and friends from her college ministry. Hope had jumped in with both feet, balancing it all alongside her own college work, empathizing with the new mothers-to-be that came her way, one right after another, so many looking for support, for help, for someone to say, “You’re not alone.”

New Beginnings Pregnancy Center.

A new beginning for Hope, too.

It had taken off. Funding came in from other groups, like-minded Christian organizations and New Life itself, then from the mission board as Hope’s father took on a bigger role in the convention. They were making it possible for young, single, teenage mothers to keep their babies and go on to live lives that they’d thought were no longer possible.

Hope had hosted hundreds of baby showers. She’d had no less than twenty-three little baby girls named after her. (And a couple of boys named Connor.) She’d been a bridesmaid in fourteen weddings in the past year alone.

In her dreams, her prayers, and her constant thoughts were all of the teenage mothers who had said to her, “I can do this. Jesus is going to help me do this.”

And He did. He did, every time.

Hope had gotten to be there to see Him do it, through the work of her hands, the aches of her heart, and the complete change of her own life.

It had been hard work, but it had been so worth it.

“Yes, I started the center,” she said very simply, her phone held to her ear, even as she watched the wedding guests dancing on the floor. “With the help of my church, of course.”

“That’s another thing,” Denise said. “New Life-Dallas. Once I put two and two together, you, the church…”

Ahh. Here it was.

I figured out that you were related to THAT Connor. Paul Connor. Your father is the most important man in our denomination. And as such, we had to contact him. Because if his daughter is going to be part of our organization, we want a piece of him, too. Think of the exposure. Think of the publicity. Think of the favor. But when we told him that we were taking you far, far away, he paid us off. You don’t get the job. Sorry.

It had happened before. Hope had been looking for a way out. She loved the center, she loved her work, and she loved being who Christ was calling her to be.

But she needed to leave home. She needed to be on her own. Being Paul Connor’s daughter, the single dutiful daughter at home, was something that she’d done for long enough.

It was time to move on.

She’d applied for so many similar positions, knowing she had the experience required. More than required, actually. Plus, she had more degrees than anyone she knew, thanks to her love for school, her father’s prompting that she keep on with the seminary studies, and the study hours she kept with all those expectant teens who were studying for their GEDs. Hope had a BA, an MDiv, an MA, and a PhD. She should have been teaching seminary herself, honestly.

Yet, she couldn’t get a job because her father knew everyone and had been stopping each lead with a phone call, each and every time.

She held her breath, waiting for it to happen again.

“Well,” Denise said, “I realized that I’d already heard about you. From one of the teachers at a center in another part of the state, who came from your ministry at New Life-Dallas.”

Oh. Well, this was unexpected.

“Really?” Hope asked, still waiting for the connection to Paul, the elimination of yet another opportunity to get out.

“Hope,” Denise said, real appreciation in her voice, “she had such wonderful things to say about you.”

“Who did?” Hope asked. “I mean, who was she?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Her name is Allison Rhodes.”

Hope remembered Allison, of course. She’d been one of the first to benefit from the program, coming in at just seventeen years old, two months pregnant and absolutely freaked out. Hope had convinced her that with the program’s daycare availability, the part time job they would find, and the applications to the local junior college, they would get her through it all. Allison had worked so hard, like so many of the other girls that Hope had helped over the years, and junior college had led to university, to a four year degree, to a teaching position, to faith in the very same Jesus who had seen her through, and to, happy surprise of happy surprises, marriage to a godly man who treated her four year old son as his very own.

His job had involved a transfer, and they’d gone to Louisiana, Hope could recall.

And Allison, apparently, had taken it upon herself to find a center like the one that had changed her life and was now using the skills she had to help other teenage mothers.

“Allison,” she said, the gentleness in her voice genuine. “Glory be.”

“We want you to come,” Denise said. “Not as a program director over one of the centers, like you applied to be, but as the director over the regional area that funds all of the centers in our area. You’d be working in our home missions office with a team that oversees other ministries, then going out to work with each of the centers themselves as your availability would allow you to. And, first and foremost, to start more centers.”

One-on-one over not just a single center but over a whole web of them. More women reached, more futures saved, and more eternities set for glory.

Plus, the job was in another state. Far away, or far enough away, from all that she’d been living for far too long.

“I’ll take it,” she said, freedom in her sights. Finally.

When she ended the phone call a few minutes later after noting some details, she looked around to share her good news with someone. There was her father, entertaining a whole group of very important people. There was her mother, dancing with Aiden. Charity and John, their heads bent close together as Charity talked and he smiled. Cammie and David… completely unaware that anyone else was even present.

And Hope was by herself.

She put her phone on the table and looked at her niece. Amelia had no idea what she was saying, no idea how big the words were, and no idea what this meant for the future.
But Hope said them anyway.

“Looks like I’m finally getting out of here.”

 

~Craig~

 

“Well, it looks like I’m finally getting out of here.”

Craig Lucas said the words to the last box he’d packed up in the church office.

He’d been surprised to find that he didn’t need many boxes to hold all that he’d accumulated over several years of good ministry at River Fellowship. He would have thought his professional baggage would have exceeded the amount of emotional baggage he was carrying from this place, but it had been fractional in comparison.

But he was getting out now. For his own good.

He would have smiled at the very thought of escaping from these last few years of painful memories, but he didn’t smile much anymore. He glanced over his office, checking one last time for anything he might have forgotten.

Just as he was about to tape up that last box, satisfied that he was finally finished, there was a knock on his door.

“Come on in,” he called out, putting aside the roll of tape and looking that direction.

It was Stephen. Of course.

“Hey,” he said, coming right in, making himself right at home, as he’d done Craig’s entire tenure as associate pastor. “Just about got it all done?”

Craig nodded, reaching out for his mentor’s hand one last time. “Just about.”

Stephen shook his hand with a smile, settling into the seat across from his desk where he’d sat countless times, even after the breakup, even after all that had gone so wrong.
Stephen had meant a lot to him all these years. In all that they’d been through, he’d been consistently there, helping Craig along every step of the way. He’d gone from being his boss to his friend, his pastor to his mentor, his example to his colleague. There had even been a day when he’d been his future father-in-law.

Until, of course, he wasn’t.

“You driving up tonight?” he asked.

“Getting started that way, at least,” Craig answered, thinking of the car that was already loaded up with all of his things, the rest waiting to be moved from the storage facility he’d put it all in after closing on his house. The couple who had bought his home were newlyweds, excited about their future, about the happiness that was theirs, all of the good things waiting for them up ahead –

“Plenty of good things for you up ahead,” Stephen noted, forcing Craig to at least smile as if he actually believed it. “Though I was surprised when you said it was an administrative job, not a pastorate.”

Yeah, no kidding. Craig’s experience was all ministry. He’d come straight out of his MDiv program and into the associate pastor’s position at River Fellowship several years earlier, and he’d honestly thought that after a few years of time put in here, he’d take a step up into a senior pastorate somewhere.

But he’d found that he enjoyed working at River Fellowship so much that after only a few months, he was considering changing that plan and making this job, working underneath a pastor whose vision he shared, a permanent thing.

The fact that he’d met Faith at the same time had nothing to do with his decision, of course. Not really.

Even as he affirmed this in his head, his heart reminded him of that evening he’d been at Stephen’s house, around the table with the pastoral family, so new into ministry and so excited about all that God was going to do.

“If we can wait just a few minutes,” Chloe, Stephen’s wife, had said, “Faith should be back downstairs and can join us.”

“Craig,” Trish Thibideaux, Stephen’s mother-in-law, had leaned over to Craig and asked, “have you met Faith yet?” She had smiled at him, and he had smiled back, not for the mention of her granddaughter but for the familiar accent. Trish had been from Louisiana, too, and the two of them had bonded over it instantly when he’d come to River Fellowship and taken up a life in Florida.

“No, ma’am,” he’d said. “Gracie tells me she’s been gone finishing up some work for school?”

Gracie, Stephen’s youngest daughter, had nodded. “Yep, finishing up. Just got a job back here. Central Florida Midwives something or other.” She had shrugged. “I don’t know the details. She starts talking childbirth, and I just close my ears. I suggest you do the same, Pastor.”

She had winked at him at the word. She had been flirty with him since he’d moved to the church, but he’d noticed that she was that way with every other man above a certain age. Which was just as well because she was, in her flighty, giggly, silly way, not his type.

No, his type was the serious, focused, brilliant, godly type.

And beautiful. His type was beautiful, too.

He’d affirmed that last part to himself again as, just a few minutes later, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen had walked down the stairs and into the dining room, a flushed look on her face at having arrived late, a quick and uncertain glance over at him as he’d stood to his feet, staring at her.

“Uh, Craig,” Stephen had said, looking to his young colleague with amusement, “this is my daughter, Faith.”

And Faith had smiled politely, held her hand out to him, and said, “It’s good to meet you, Craig.”

Craig had held her hand in his and had said, confidence and certainty in his voice, “It’s even better to meet you, Faith.”

Craig thought of that meeting and of the days that followed, even as he stared at the boxes in his office. He’d been her friend. She’d been shy, soft-spoken, and so completely different from her sister, and he’d approached her as such. He’d gone out of his way to be around her, of course, but he’d given her space as she’d settled back into life in Orlando, her new job, and her place in their church as the grown daughter of the senior pastor.

He’d given her time to get to know him, as he’d gotten to know her, confident with every conversation and every day spent with her, that she was the one for him.

They’d become real friends. Good friends. Close friends. So much so that everyone except Faith could clearly see what was going to happen, how they were going to end up together. People were probably talking about why he was waiting so long to make a move, but he wasn’t going to rush it.

Because Faith was the kind of woman who wouldn’t settle for just anyone. And she was worth waiting for.

When Trish had gotten sick, he’d been more involved with their family than he’d been before, helping Stephen out with the pastoral responsibilities and being the liaison between the Hayes family and the church. God had not tarried in taking Trish home quickly after her health had begun to fail, and Craig had been there for the entire family, both at the church and at home during her illness and her passing.

On the day Trish had passed away, Craig had arrived to the house only a few hours later. As he’d expressed his condolences to Stephen, to Chloe, and to Gracie, he’d looked for Faith, expecting the same reserved politeness that had characterized the whole of their friendship.

But she, more than the others, had been distraught at her grandmother’s passing. As the rest of the family had been making plans and comforting one another downstairs, he’d gone up to Faith’s old childhood room, looking for her.

She’d been sitting on her bed, holding an old, stuffed unicorn to her chest and looking out the window, tears rolling down her cheeks.

He’d felt his own heart hurt at the sight, wondering at all that was going through her mind as she’d mourned the loss and seemed to be searching for someone out there who would understand what she was going through…

“I’m so sorry, Faith,” he’d said softly, watching her and wondering how he could help.

And she’d turned to him and seen him standing there, and before he could even appreciate what was happening, she’d come to him, wrapped her arms around him, and sobbed onto his chest.

She’d fit so perfectly, right there in his arms.

As the months had passed, they’d moved from friends to more. They never defined it, discussed it, or determined anything, but she would always respond when he’d reach out for her hand, she would always say yes when he’d ask her to go somewhere with him, and she became his entire life.

He was so serious about her, about letting her be his everything, that he’d brought his parents to Orlando to meet her for the first time. Before they’d even gotten to know her all that well that night, Craig had gotten down on one knee in front of both of their parents and had asked her to marry him with a ring that was more expensive than he could honestly afford.

Which was fitting. Because she was a greater woman than a guy like him could have ever deserved.

He had been sure his life was finally heading somewhere really, really good when she’d said yes.

And then, she’d changed her mind.

Well, first, she’d been vague about setting a date. Then, she’d run off to Texas, of all places, to take another job.

He could still remember how he’d followed her there after weeks of bad communication and something strange in her voice over stilted, awkward conversations.

He’d stood there at her door in Houston, ready to figure this out, once and for all. He wouldn’t leave without a plan, wouldn’t let her continue to put him off, wouldn’t continue doing everything he could to make this work without her help.

She’d opened up the door, clearly expecting someone else as she’d smiled… then turned nearly white when she’d seen him.

Like a completely pathetic loser, he’d noted her reaction and still couldn’t help himself.

“Faith,” he’d said, “I’ve missed you so much.”

He’d stepped through the door, put his arms around her and lifted her right off the floor as she’d tentatively put her arms around him. He’d told himself to memorize this, to really feel this, to be able to remember it in the weeks ahead, in the weeks until he could come here for good –

Yes. He’d been willing to leave everything to make the relationship work.

“I didn’t even know you were coming!” she’d said as he held her.

He could hear slight irritation in her voice. Maybe even a little accusation that he’d surprised her, that he’d just come into her new life without warning her.

He hadn’t missed it. But he’d gone on like he had.

“I know,” he’d laughed softly. “I was going to wait until we could make plans for a longer visit. But I was missing you so much that I was willing to come for just a day. What’s the cost of a last-minute flight, if it meant I could see you, right? And you could see me… right?”

It was a lot. The cost was high. Financially. Emotionally. Because whatever it was that was waiting to be said in the look that she gave him… well, it was definitely going to cost him. He could feel it.

Before she could say anything and speed along the heartbreak he was even then praying against, he had brushed his lips against hers, respectfully, chastely, like he always did.
He held himself to a higher standard than anyone he knew regarding this. You didn’t play around with women. Not with their hearts, not with their bodies, not with any part of them. His own history had taught him that tough lesson, how you didn’t take anything from them, expect anything from them, until you were honest and true, covenanted together rightly, able to take responsibility and be the man you were supposed to be.
He didn’t expect more. Which is why it only slightly concerned him that Faith was always hesitant to kiss him, to express any affection towards him, how she was almost apologetic as she’d back away from his embraces, not in an innocent, blushed way… but in a disappointed way, her eyes averted.

He should have known. And he probably had. But he’d tried so hard to ignore all the obvious signs, hoping against hope that he would win her over.

“Are you glad I’m here?” he had asked, injecting all the hope and optimism into his voice that he could.

“Yes, of course,” she had said absent-mindedly, finally smiling at him for the first time since she’d laid eyes on him that day. “Come on in. This is… home.”

She’d led him into the living room, her eyes on the bag that he dropped next to the couch. “Are you… staying?”

“Yeah,” he’d said. “Not here, of course. I got a room at a hotel a few blocks away. Took care of it all as I was waiting for the flight.” When he wasn’t praying, thinking through all he had to say to her, all that they had to resolve…

He had pulled her into his arms again. “It’s really good to see you. I hate being away from you.”

“Not so far away,” she had murmured, watching her hands as they settled onto his chest, the engagement ring he’d given to her catching both of their eyes…

“Fifteen hour drive,” he had sighed, thinking of the distance in all the many different ways he’d calculated it back when she’d said she was coming out here for a job. “Three hour flight. Much too far away, especially when my hope was that we would have a wedding date by now and would be making plans to live in the same house, not just the same city, really soon.”

“The job here is really amazing,” she had said to him. Again. This is what she’d said again and again, trying to convince him, to convince herself, that she’d gone away for the right reasons.

Because had her escape really been for a job?

“I know,” he had said softly, telling himself that it had to have been. If she believed it, he would, too. And he had.

And he’d been making some plans of his own. “I get that,” he had said to her there in her new home. “And so, I’ve been doing some work myself.”

“Oh?” she had asked, as he led her over to the couch and sat down with her.

“Yeah,” he had said. “I’ve put out my resume.”

He loved River Fellowship. Any of the dreams he’d had about his own church had seemed a dull contrast to being a part of the team at his church. He was running the singles’ ministry and the young adults’ ministry, along with overseeing staff for the youth ministries, children’s ministries, and preschool ministries. He was Stephen’s go-to guy when it came to filling in at the pulpit, handling pastoral concerns on the rare days the senior pastor got away for a break, and sitting in on committees and meetings.

He saw real ministry happening every day, and had often thought of how even being the pastor of his own church, casting his own vision and setting a new pace, wouldn’t be able to compete with the fulfilled way he felt every day now.

But he would have left it behind to make things work with her.

He was so willing to do anything, Could she see that? Could she see what she meant to him, what marriage to someone like her meant to him?

She could, if the panic in her eyes was any indication.

“Wow,” she had breathed. “Any interest?”

“Three churches, already,” he had said, thinking of the unappealing places that had expressed enough of an interest to at least acknowledge receipt of his resume. (Which wasn’t saying that there was much interest at all. But he was trying, for Faith’s sake.) “All in Houston, of course. I know people, from seminary, who were able to get me connected.”

“Anything you’re seriously considering?” she had asked.

“Considering them all,” he had said. “They’re all a step down from where I’m at now, and I’ll miss being part of your father’s team… but it’s worth it, right?”

And she’d nodded numbly, looking like she was a million miles away.

His heart had clenched at this. No. Please, please, please…

He had been honest. Finally.

“Faith,” he had said, simply and honestly. “I want to make this work. But I’m getting the feeling that you aren’t on board with any of it. A new church, a new job… me.”

It had been difficult to admit this. But once the admission was out, he saw her whole countenance change. He’d given her permission, in a way, to say what she needed to say, to do what she needed to do…

… to break his heart completely.

“I told you yes, though,” she had said, and he saw her hand go to her ring again.

She had said yes, as all four of their parents had very nearly gasped at the surprise, as Faith herself had looked a little overcome and rushed…

But she’d said yes. Before she’d run away. Before he’d come after her. Before they’d started this painful conversation.

“I know,” he had said to her. “So, it isn’t too much to ask you to set a wedding date, right? I mean, if I’m going to take a job here, resign from the job I love, and move all the way out here… you can finally agree on a date, right?”

And before she’d said the words, he could see the truth of it in her eyes.

“Craig… we need to talk.”

She’d made some good points that night. That things weren’t entirely right. Not on her end. Not with how she felt.

And, surprisingly enough, not on his end. He’d never introduced her to his parents before the night of the proposal. He’d never once told her he’d like to take her to see where he grew up. He’d never talked about his brothers other than to tell her they were much younger than him. (And too young for Gracie, who was always there and always asking him to fix her up with one of them.)

That was another thing, she’d told him. They were so involved with her family. He was so involved with her family, her church, and her life in Florida, almost as though he’d fallen in love with all of that, not her. She just made sense, but it wasn’t really her he wanted.

He’d told her she was wrong. He’d sworn it wasn’t like that at all.

But it hadn’t mattered because at the end of the night, he was left with a tearful, apologetic goodbye, and a very expensive engagement ring in his hand, still warm with her memory.

He sighed as he looked over at Stephen there in his office, thankful that this man he respected so much hadn’t seen him make such a fool of himself. He knew more than Craig wanted him to, probably, given how he’d nodded sympathetically at him when he’d returned to Florida after Faith had already called and told her parents the news.

But he’d helped him move on professionally, at least, never mentioning it again, not even when Faith showed up with a really ugly, old guy several months later. A really ugly, old guy that she touched differently than she’d ever touched Craig, even as she kissed him rather passionately right there in the foyer of the church, not knowing that Craig could see what she was doing and how she was making him look like an even bigger loser than he’d been all of his sad, pathetic life.

She’d married that guy. Craig had taken vacation the week of the wedding, just to avoid all the sympathetic looks, and he’d come back a little less enthusiastic, a little harder, and considering, for the first time in a long time, that maybe this place wouldn’t be the right place forever.

It wasn’t even about her now. She was just a reminder of who he was, how he’d always be Craig the Loser, rejection and all. And her memory had made River Fellowship the very same to him.

He needed to get away.

“Yeah,” he said, looking over at Stephen there in his office. “The job. I’ve been looking for a pastorate, but nothing’s worked out yet. Been looking for the past few years. But you knew that.”

Stephen nodded. “Gave great recommendations for you,” he said. “Every time someone called.”

“And I appreciate that,” Craig affirmed. “Had some offers for associate positions.”

“Did you?”

Craig nodded, thinking of the offers, all to churches where he’d be second in command to men he didn’t respect half as much as he respected Stephen, to churches that weren’t half the church that River Fellowship was. Best case scenario was a pastorate of his own, something new, something challenging, something to get him out of this funk he’d been in for the past few years. But it hadn’t worked out. And an associate position was less appealing now.

Craig had some good theories on why he couldn’t seem to secure a senior pastorate.

“Yeah,” he said. “Turned them down, though. I have some connections back in Louisiana, though.”

“Back home,” Stephen smiled.

Kinda. Craig chose not to elaborate on this.

“Close to, yes,” he said. “They need someone at the state missions office to do church relations work. I’m qualified, thanks to all the ministries you’ve let me be a part of here. And I’m hopeful that it’ll open the door to a pastorate there.”

“I’m sure it will,” Stephen said. “You’re just the man some church is waiting for, you know.”

Craig hoped it was true.

“I’m ready for them, too.”

Stephen smiled at him. “Been praying for you, Craig. There’s plenty of good up ahead for you. I know it.”

And Craig chose to believe him if only for a moment.

 

Want to read more? Get your copy of Perfectly Pretend here!

 

 

 

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