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Authors: Merrillee Whren

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BOOK: Hometown Promise
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Despite her sore throat, she laughed and rose to a sitting position. “Are you here to rob me or feed me?”

“Your voice sounds better.” Elise’s words came through in muffled tones. “We’re here to feed you homemade chicken soup that Lukas bought from one of the booths at the festival.”

“That sounds good, but how did you find those masks?”

Elise set the tray down over Juliane’s legs. “I was looking for something in the pantry a week or so ago, and I saw them. I had no idea we’d have any use for them.”

“Here’s your soup.” Lukas set the bowl and a spoon on the tray, as well as a few crackers and the juice. “Just what the doctor ordered.”

Juliane looked up at him as a warm fluttery feeling filled her chest. She was sure he was smiling behind that mask if the twinkle in his blue eyes was any indication. She wasn’t sure whether her light-headed feeling came from being sick or having Lukas so near.

“Thanks.” Feeling a little self-conscious about having an audience while she ate, especially a masked one, Juliane laughed. “You guys are cracking me up with those masks. I’m beginning to feel like Typhoid Mary.” She picked up the spoon. “How did the performance go?”

Lukas patted Elise on the back. “Your sister is amazing. She did a fantastic job. Everything was perfect.”

Elise smiled at Lukas. “He exaggerates.”

“No, I don’t. Your professional experience was an asset. And we’re all set for tomorrow’s performance.”

“That’s a relief. We won’t be running around like crazy again tomorrow.” Elise headed for the door. “I’m going to call Mom and Dad and tell them how you’re doing. They wanted to come over, but I told them they shouldn’t. We don’t want them to get sick.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Lukas said as Elise left the room.

Taking a spoonful of soup, Juliane tried not to let Lukas’s praise of Elise bother her. Why was she twisting herself in knots over nothing? A few weeks ago she didn’t want anything to do with Lukas. Now she was worried that he might take an interest in her sister. Juliane knew she should
get her head on straight. As she sipped the warm liquid, it soothed her throat, as well as soothing her thoughts.

Lukas leaned against the doorjamb, his mask still in place and the twinkle still in his eyes. “How’s the soup?”

She gave the thumbs-up sign.

“Oh, I forgot you shouldn’t be talking. I’ll go and let you finish eating. Take care of yourself. Get some more rest. I want you healthy for the Valentine’s banquet.” He blew her a kiss.

Blowing him a return kiss, she smiled, and her heart raced.

How would she react to a real kiss? Would that old incident haunt her, or was that completely a part of the past and no problem now? Why had that thought even entered her mind? Must be foggy thinking brought on by her fever.

After Juliane finished eating, she set the tray aside and lay back in the bed. Worn-out from eating, she didn’t have enough energy to keep her eyes open. She snuggled under the covers again. Even though she was tired, she couldn’t seem to go to sleep.

Hearing Lukas heap praise on Elise created fertile ground for the seeds of jealousy to sprout. She couldn’t let them grow. Lukas had asked her to the banquet, not Elise. And Elise had been so happy for her. So there was no reason to be jealous. Juliane rolled over in her bed and pounded her pillow. Why did that ugly green monster spring up at the slightest provocation?

While Juliane lay in her bed listening to the two of them laugh together in the other room, she tried to drive that into her head. She didn’t want to be jealous. She and Elise had started getting along so well. Juliane couldn’t let this incident sabotage all the good feelings that had developed between them.

Lukas had braved coming over to see her and taken the chance of being exposed to her illness. He’d brought her soup. Why should she doubt that he cared?

Chapter Thirteen

N
ervous anticipation had plagued Lukas all day while he’d waited to attend the Valentine’s banquet. Thankfully, in the two weeks since the Winter Festival, Juliane had fully recovered from her strep throat. Fighting the tension that buzzed through his body, he opened the door for her. “Be careful. The parking lot is like a skating rink. I’m glad we dropped Grandpa and Dot off at the door. I suppose you should’ve gotten out, too.”

“But I wanted to be with you.” Juliane smiled up at him and slipped her arm through his. “I’ll hang on to you. So as long as you don’t fall down, I won’t either.”

Her statement warmed his heart but still didn’t take away the anxious feeling that wouldn’t let go. How many times had he used alcohol to fortify himself in social situations like this? He prayed that those days were gone forever.

What did he have to be nervous about? Juliane was his friend. But he couldn’t forget that he wanted more than friendship.

As they slipped their way across the parking lot, not only her touch, but also the way she put her trust in him made his heart race. He shouldn’t be nervous, but he was. He’d
spent weeks practicing with her in the choir, going to the coffee shop or grabbing a quick bite to eat with her. But tonight was different. This was a real date, even with his grandfather and Dot along.

As Lukas helped Juliane take off her coat, he couldn’t help admiring the way she looked in her sleek red dress. He hadn’t seen it before because she’d been wearing her coat when he’d picked her up for their date. He wanted to compliment her, but his thought processes froze like the icicles hanging from the church eaves.

Before Lukas could come up with the right thing to say, Dot reached over and touched the silky-looking fabric. “Juliane, that’s a lovely dress. Did you get it from your store?”

“Thanks. I did.” Juliane nodded and smiled. “It was a special order I made before Christmas, but it was back-ordered, so it came in too late. I’m so glad I have a chance to wear it now.”

“It is perfect for Valentine’s.” Dot slipped her arm through Ferd’s.

Ferd turned to smile at Dot. “You look lovely, too, in your bright red sweater. It matches my red tie.”

“It does. Thank you. It’s good for a cold night.”

Lukas hoped for another opportunity to tell Juliane how lovely she looked. If he said something now, he figured it would seem lame. He was out of practice giving compliments to women. He’d rarely taken a woman out since he’d been sober. When he’d been drinking he was never nervous on dates. He’d been the life of the party, but he’d been getting his bravado from alcohol. Not anymore.

Over the past few weeks, he’d realized that Juliane meant a lot to him. Tonight’s date was more important than any of the others. He wished for a perfect evening. He didn’t want to mess up, because she was taking a chance on him—a guy she knew to have a big flaw. Still, she’d agreed to go out with him.

While they made their way toward the fellowship hall, laughter and conversation filtered into the hallway. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he escorted Juliane into the room. The aroma of garlic and tomato sauce wafted through the air. The red-and-white-checked tablecloths on the round tables throughout the hall signaled the evening’s Italian theme. Centered on each table, red candles flickered inside hurricane glasses filled with red and white hearts, while posters of famous Italian landmarks decorated the walls.

Leading the way to their table, Lukas resisted the urge to run a finger around the inside of his shirt collar. His necktie felt as though it was choking him.

Soon after they were seated, Juliane’s parents and Val and Eric joined them at the table for eight. Lively talk swirled around Lukas as he tried to think of something to say. What was the matter with him tonight? She was going to think he was a very boring date.

A few minutes later, Nathan stepped to the microphone and quieted the crowd. He gave thanks for the food. While soft instrumental music played over the sound system, the teens from the church youth group served the Caesar salads. Soon everyone around Lukas was eating, and the need for conversation waned. He began to relax.

Val patted Juliane’s arm. “I’m sorry you had to miss the Winter Festival, but I’m glad you recovered in time for this.”

“Me, too.” Juliane turned to Lukas. “I’m just glad I didn’t give it to Lukas or Elise. They were both so good to me while I was sick.”

“Everyone here is glad that you didn’t share your strep throat. Otherwise, you would’ve been scrambling to come up with some new entertainment.” Lukas glanced around the table.

Even as the words came out of his mouth, he knew he’d blown it again. Here he was talking about everyone, when
he should be saying how happy he was to have her here. Could he rewind the clock and start the evening over? Too bad that wasn’t possible.

While Lukas sat there stewing, the salad plates were whisked away and replaced with the entrée, chicken parmesan, and baskets full of garlic bread. Maybe he should eat rather than talk. He’d let the others discuss the success of the Winter Festival, local news and the weather.

As folks finished their dessert, Nathan went to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are proud to have some wonderful entertainment for you tonight. First, we have, straight from her world tour aboard world-renowned cruise ships, Elise Keller.”

Elise trotted out from the kitchen wearing a sparkly black dress. Loud applause greeted her as she took the microphone from Nathan. “Thank you, everyone. I believe our master of ceremonies is exaggerating my credentials a little.”

The crowd laughed, and Elise grinned as Nathan cued the accompaniment. “I hope you’ll enjoy the love songs I’ve chosen to sing.”

As the intro faded, Elise’s voice filled the hall. The words of the song “Valentine” settled into Lukas’s brain. He wished somehow he could convey that message to Juliane. He glanced her way, but she wasn’t paying any attention to him. Her eyes were focused on her sister.

When Elise finished singing, loud clapping and whistles filled the air. She bowed and smiled. As Elise began to sing, “When You Say Nothing at All,” Lukas caught Juliane’s eye. His heart hummed along with the soft guitar chords. Could he speak right to Juliane’s heart without saying anything? So far tonight he hoped that was the case, because he wasn’t doing a very good job with the spoken word.

Elise sang a few more songs, and when the last notes of her final song sounded, again the crowd erupted in applause. Smiling, Elise took several bows before handing the microphone back to Nathan.

“Let’s give Elise another round of applause before we welcome out next performer.” Clapping filled the room, then Nathan introduced Jasper Cornett, who soon had the crowd doubled over with laughter as he told jokes and did his impressions.

Jasper finished, and again Nathan took charge. “Next Lukas Frey will entertain us.”

Making his way to the stage, Lukas tried to calm his nerves as applause sounded around him. He hadn’t been nearly this nervous singing before the whole town at the Winter Festival, but this was different. Juliane was here, and he wanted to impress her.

As Lukas reached the stage, he took the microphone. “Thank you. This first song was made famous by Nat King Cole. Although I can’t duplicate his rendition, I hope you’ll enjoy my version of ‘Unforgettable.’”

Lukas wanted to sing the song just for Juliane, but he was almost afraid to look in her direction. He let his gaze roam through the room and finally rest on her. His heart beat in double time when she smiled at him. He was a goner, and she was definitely unforgettable. When he finished he took a few seconds to acknowledge the applause, but quickly launched into his second song, “Till There Was You.” He hoped Juliane realized both songs were for her, along with all the rest of the songs in his set.

As Lukas finished, again applause thundered. Nathan walked back to the stage while Lukas rushed into the hallway where he met Elise. “You have the costumes?”

Nodding, Elise held out a plastic bag. “The stuff’s in here.”

After Lukas donned the shaggy brown wig and mustache, he glanced up at Elise, who wore a wig with long, straight black hair. “Do you think we’ll pass for Sonny and Cher?”

“Let’s find out.” Elise signaled to Nathan from the hallway.

“Folks, I know you enjoyed the entertainment so far. Now we have another treat for you.” Nathan waved them onto the stage.

Lukas and Elise ran out as the first notes of “I Got You Babe” rang through the air along with the laughter and clapping from the crowd. After Lukas and Elise finished, they removed their wigs and immediately launched into another duet, “Love Will Keep Us Alive.”

When the last notes of the song sounded, Lukas and Elise received a standing ovation. As he surveyed the crowd, Juliane was standing and clapping. Hers was the only ovation Lukas needed.

He returned to his seat amid loud cheering. In addition to Juliane’s approval, Lukas basked in the pride that registered on his grandfather’s face. Lukas knew he’d come a long way since those days when his grandfather had given up on him, but he reminded himself that he still had to take one day at a time.

The evening’s entertainment concluded with the not-so-newlywed game. Val and Eric were the first couple called while cheers and jeers emanated from the surrounding tables. Then Juliane’s aunt Eileen and uncle Carl, her parents and Tim and Melanie Drake made their way to the stage.

Lukas leaned over to Juliane. “This ought to be interesting. I’m waiting to see whether my assistant manager and his wife can beat your parents.”

“We’ll see. They might have a good chance. I don’t think my parents will be very good at this game. My dad can’t remember what my mom said yesterday.” Juliane laughed.
“How’s he going to remember her favorite color or whatever questions Nathan decided to use?”

“We’ll see.” Settling back in his chair, Lukas listened to the questions, the answers and the laughter that ensued and wondered whether he could make a good husband. He’d just about given up on that idea until he’d gotten to know Juliane.

 

Joy captured Juliane’s heart as she sat in Lukas’s car. The banquet had been everything she’d imagined. She couldn’t remember when she’d had a better time. Lukas gripped the steering wheel, his attention on Ferd, who climbed the steps and unlocked his door. Turning, he waved before going inside.

“I wish he didn’t want so much independence. I always worry that he’ll fall, but he insists he doesn’t need any help.” Sighing, Lukas put the car in gear and pulled into the street.

“He and Dot were so cute tonight.”

“I think he kissed her good-night when he walked her to the door.” Lukas chuckled. “I couldn’t tell for sure in the dark.”

“Keeping tabs on your grandfather?”

“Someone has to.”

While they rode in silence, Juliane wondered who was going to keep tabs on her heart. Lukas was winning it over day by day and little by little. She still wasn’t sure that was wise. But one thing she knew for sure—she hoped Lukas followed his grandfather’s example when saying good-night.

She was ready for Lukas’s kiss.

Not a drunken kiss, but a kiss that he gave her because he knew her and knew where he was. A kiss given with tenderness and caring. She’d been thinking about it ever since he’d asked her to the banquet. She wanted to experience his kiss, but thinking about it was tying her insides into knots. She should put her mind on something else.

“When did you and Elise cook up that bit with the Sonny and Cher costumes? That wasn’t in the original plan.”

“During those last-minute practices for the Winter Festival. Elise had done a number like that during a cruise show and thought it would be fun.”

“Everyone loved it. You guys did great tonight. I wish I could’ve heard you at the Winter Festival, too.”

“I wish I could’ve sung with you.” He pulled into her driveway and shut off his car.

“We’ll have another chance.”

“I hope so.” He reached into the backseat and brought out a small bag decorated with red hearts. “I got you a little gift. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Juliane’s heart fluttered. “But I didn’t get you anything.”

“I didn’t expect anything. Your going to the banquet with me was a gift.” The intensity in his gaze took her breath away.

She took the bag and opened it. A little wooden house sat nestled in the tissue paper. She lifted it out.

“It’s a German weather house.” Lukas pointed to the figurines standing in the doorways on either side of the thermometer mounted on the front. “When the weather is bad the man comes out slightly, and when the weather is sunny the woman comes out.”

“It’s adorable. I love it.” Looking up, she saw relief in his eyes. “Thank you.”

“I have to give Grandpa credit. He suggested it.” Lukas pointed to the thermometer. “The temperature indicates that I should get you out of this cold car.”

“Good idea.” Juliane laughed and put the weather house back in the bag and slipped her arm through the handles.

Walking to her front porch in the cold night air, she snuggled against him as he draped an arm around her shoulders.

They skirted an icy patch in front of the steps. “You should get some deicer for that spot. I wouldn’t want you to fall and break something.”

“You’re right.” She was falling all right—falling for this wonderful man. She hoped it wouldn’t mean a broken heart. When they stepped onto the porch, she turned to face him. Her heart hammered as he smiled. “I had a great time tonight.”

“Me, too.” He stepped closer.

Her pulse raced with anticipation as she raised her head to look into his eyes. She couldn’t miss the caring in them. Every nerve hummed. He gently pulled her into his arms.

He lowered his mouth to hers. But at the last second, as she was about to close her eyes, that old incident raced through her mind in a blinding flash, leaving her shaken. Alarm took over, and she turned away.

A huge lump formed in her throat. All evening she’d waited for this moment, anticipated this kiss. Why had she panicked? She wished the porch would open up and swallow her.

He stepped back, a troubled expression clouding his features as his eyebrows knit in a frown. He didn’t say anything, just stared at her.

BOOK: Hometown Promise
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