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Authors: Merrillee Whren

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BOOK: Hometown Promise
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Embarrassed, she quickly turned to the door and fumbled to fit her key in the lock, the gift bag dangling from her arm. “Thanks again. I had a lovely time.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

She hunched her shoulders, afraid to turn and face him. Misery marched in and swept away all the good feelings of the evening. She thought she’d forgiven him, thought she’d put the past behind them. Why had she let that bad memory ruin everything? How was she going to explain?

Taking a deep breath, she shook her head. “I’m sorry, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.”

“Would you care to explain, or should I go?”

She couldn’t let him go. He deserved an explanation. Maybe getting that event out in the open would put the relationship on a better footing. Isn’t that what she wanted?

She turned, anguish pressing down on her chest. “Don’t go. I want to explain. Please come in.”

“Are you sure?”

Not trusting her voice, she nodded and opened the door. She headed for the couch and sat on one end. She looked up at Lukas, who stood hesitantly just inside the door. “Please sit wherever you want.”

“Okay.” He took the chair he’d sat in on his very first visit.

Swallowing hard, she looked at him. What must he think? Just as Juliane started to say something, Elise came bopping into the room.

“Hi, you guys.”

“Hi,” Juliane and Lukas chorused.

Elise smiled. “Okay, I can see I’m intruding. I’m off to bed. Wouldn’t want to disturb a couple of lovebirds.”

If Elise only knew what she was disturbing.
As Elise scurried upstairs, Juliane scooted forward on the couch, sitting on the very edge. She closed her eyes for a moment and gathered her courage with a little prayer.
Lord, help me.

“Are you okay?”

Opening her eyes, she nodded. “I hope you understand.”

“What happened out there?”

She nodded again. There was no easy way to talk about this, so she might as well lay it all out there—the story and her unexpected reaction. No sugarcoating, just the truth. “Will you promise not to stop me until I’m done?”

“Okay.” His voice resonated with uncertainty.

Unable to look at him, she stared at her hands as she twisted them in her lap. Taking a deep breath, she launched
into the story. In a monotone, she went through the events of that night, explaining how terribly scared she’d been. When she finished, silence captured the room. Finally, she forced herself to look at Lukas. Hurt and sorrow emanated from his eyes before he averted his gaze and hung his head.

“I’m so sorry I hurt you.” He shook his head. “I don’t remember any of that.”

“I know.”

“But when you handed me my keys the night you helped with Grandpa, I felt some connection with you, me and a set of keys. I dismissed it, but now I know why I had that thought.” He stood. “Please forgive me. I’ll leave now.”

“No. I’ve already forgiven you.” Juliane jumped to her feet. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I panicked for absolutely no reason. You aren’t that man anymore, and I know that now, but somehow some deep dark part of my mind didn’t get the message. Forgive me for ruining our evening.”

“You’re asking for my forgiveness?”

“Yes.” She stepped closer. “Can we try that kiss again?”

A little smile tugged at the corners of his mouth—a very kissable mouth. “You’re sure?”

“Very.” Standing on her tiptoes and lacing her fingers at the back of his neck, she went gladly into his arms and lifted her face to his. He brushed his lips against hers. She closed her eyes and old worries faded as he deepened the kiss. Contentment replaced her old concerns. Her heart opened to the future as the past fled.

Chapter Fourteen

P
opping out of bed, Juliane looked at Lukas’s weather house sitting on the nightstand. The little man had inched his way out. More bad weather? Hadn’t they had enough of that this winter? Despite the little house’s unwelcome prediction, its presence reminded Juliane of the man behind the gift and the love that was developing between them. Finally getting the incident with Lukas out in the open gave her a new peace.

A month had passed since the night of the banquet, and they’d spent every weekend together often doing something with Tim and Melanie Drake. At least once a week, they ate dinner with Ferd and Dot. This time together created a sense of contentment until she thought about how she hadn’t completely faced the issues surrounding the possibility that Lukas could relapse on his sobriety.

Throwing on her robe and slippers, she pushed away that troublesome thought. She only wanted to think about the fun evening she’d spent with Lukas and the Drakes, playing board games well past midnight.

As Juliane made her way to get the newspaper on the
front porch, she noted that a silent house meant that Elise was still sleeping. Opening the front door, Juliane gasped. Bad weather for sure. At least a six-inch blanket of snow covered everything in sight. When she closed the door and turned toward the kitchen, she spied Elise coming down the stairs.

“Good morning, Jules. Late night?”

“Yeah, what’s your excuse for sleeping in?”

“I stayed up writing a paper for one of my classes.”

“Have you looked outside?”

“No, what’s going on?”

“Take a look.” Juliane pointed toward the front window. “More snow. I can’t believe it’s snowing again, and it’s still coming down.”

Elise went to the window and pushed aside the drape. “But you have to admit it’s beautiful.”

“You may think so, but I don’t.” Juliane pouted. “Lukas and I were supposed to go to Cincinnati to a movie this afternoon and dinner tonight.”

“I would sympathize, but all I have on my agenda is more schoolwork. So I don’t feel sorry for you.”

“You’re not nice.” Juliane picked up a decorative cushion from the couch and tossed it at Elise.

Elise threw her arms up to ward off the pillow that landed at her feet. “Are you forgetting already how I helped when you were sick? I also helped you and Lukas get together.”

“I appreciate the care when I was sick, but I hardly think you should take credit for Lukas and me. You probably should share honors with Ferd.”

“We both had the right idea, didn’t we?”

“You did.” Juliane grinned. “Since we’ve both slept late, I’m going to get dressed, then fix some brunch. How about omelets?”

“Sounds good.” Elise headed to the kitchen. “I’ll get all the stuff out while you get dressed.”

“And I’ll call Lukas to see whether we’ll still be able to drive to Cincinnati.”

When Juliane entered the kitchen a few minutes later, Elise looked up from the stove. “Did you talk to Lukas?”

“No, maybe he’s out shoveling snow in Ferd’s driveway. I’ll try again later.”

Juliane and Elise worked together to fix brunch. While they ate, they talked about what was happening at the store and about Elise’s classes. Juliane marveled at how well they were getting along with each other. The old rivalries seemed buried. All her worries about living with Elise had never materialized.

As Juliane and Elise cleaned up the kitchen, the doorbell rang. Wondering who would be out on a day like this, Juliane rushed to the front door. When she opened it, Lukas stood on the porch, snow gathering on his dark blue ski jacket and stocking cap.

“Are you going to invite me in, or do I have to stand out here until I look like a snowman?”

“Lukas, what…how did you get over here?”

“I could say in a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer, but I actually made it in my trusty car that I equipped with great tires last fall in an example of brilliant forethought. Are you going to invite me in?”

“I’m sorry.” Her heart skipping a beat, she stood aside so he could enter. “I’m just surprised to see you.”

Snow fell all over the rug when he stepped inside. He glanced down. “Sorry about that.”

“That’s okay. Why are you here?”

“Do I have to have an excuse to see my favorite girl?”

Trying to hold back a smile, Juliane let out an exasperated sigh. “You know what I mean. Aren’t the roads terrible?”

“The side streets are, but the snowplows have been on the main roads, so they aren’t too bad if you take it slow and easy. The main thing is to watch out for the inexperienced drivers.”

“You mean there are other crazies out on the roads besides you?”

“Yeah, and I intend to take you out on the road with me.”

“You mean we’re still going to Cincinnati?”

“No, I have better plans.”

“What?”

“Tim and Melanie are taking their boys sledding, and they invited us to come along.”

“I don’t have a sled.”

“I do. Grandpa’s a pack rat, and he had my childhood toboggan in his garage.”

Juliane laughed. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“Absolutely, you’ve been working overtime at the store, and you need to have a little fun.”

“You mean board games until one-thirty in the morning isn’t enough fun?”

“No, besides, I promised you a fun day in Cincinnati, and that’s not going to work out because of the snow. So we’ll take advantage of the snow this way.”

Juliane smiled and gave Lukas a little hug and kiss on the cheek. “I think you’re right. This does sound like fun.”

“Hi, Lukas.” Elise walked into the room. “What sounds like fun?”

“Hi, Elise. You want to go sledding with us?”

“Yeah, you should come.” Juliane amazed herself as she agreed with the invitation. She wasn’t jealous that Lukas invited Elise to join them—one more signal that the old rivalries were dying.

“I’d love to, but I have to study. Midterms.”

“Come on, Elise, we haven’t been sledding since we were kids.”

Elise shook her head. “Maybe another time. You guys go and have fun.”

“Okay, then.” Juliane glanced down at her jeans and green cable-knit sweater. “Do you think I’m dressed appropriately for this outing?”

“You look pretty good to me.” Lukas winked at her.

Juliane put her hands on her hips. “I didn’t ask if you liked how I look.”

“Okay, I won’t tell you that you look fantastically ready for sledding.”

“I should’ve known better than to think you’d give me a straight answer.” Juliane headed for the kitchen. There was no doubt. She was falling in love with Lukas. The thought petrified and thrilled her all at the same time. “I’ll be back with coat, hat, gloves and boots.”

“Great. I’ll meet you in the car.” Lukas opened the door. “Bye, Elise. Don’t study too hard.”

As Juliane got bundled up in her gear, Elise joined her in the kitchen. “I think my big sister is falling head over heels.”

“You might be right, and it scares me silly.”

“Why are you afraid?”

“Isn’t love always scary?”

“True. If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here.”

“Yeah, and if you ever want to talk about Seth, same goes for me.” Juliane hugged Elise, then raced out to meet Lukas.

After Juliane got in the car and buckled her seat belt, Lukas maneuvered his car down the snowy street. He glanced her way before turning his attention back to the road. “Tim already tested the hill behind their house. He says the sledding is terrific. This ought to be fun. I haven’t ridden a toboggan since I was a kid.”

“You sound as excited as a kid.”

Lukas chuckled. “Wait till I get you on that toboggan.”

Tim, Melanie and their children, Andrew and Ryan, were bringing their sleds out of the garage when Lukas pulled into their driveway. While Juliane greeted everyone, he removed the toboggan from his trunk.

“Glad you guys could join us.” Tim shook Lukas’s hand, then tapped Andrew and Ryan on their heads. “These boys could hardly wait until you got here. So let’s head out to the hill.”

The group trudged through the snow, dragging their sleds behind them. When they reached the edge of the slope that went down to a stand of trees near a small creek, Tim looked at Lukas. “The slope flattens out a good ways before you get to the trees, but be careful that you don’t get going so fast that you can’t stop.”

Lukas laughed. “Thanks for the warning. Juliane wouldn’t appreciate it if I took her for a ride into a tree or the creek.”

“That’s for sure.” Juliane surveyed the toboggan. “Can I trust you to steer this thing?”

“No promises. Just a fun ride. Trust me.” Lukas motioned toward the wooden sled. “I’ll sit on the back, and you can sit in front of me.”

Juliane took a seat with her knees bent. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Lukas sat behind her. “Are you ready?”

“Why do I feel like I’m putting my life in your hands?”

Lukas put his arms around her and grabbed the rope attached to the toboggan. “Don’t worry. You’re in good hands.”

Juliane’s heart skittered. “I’m holding you to that.”

Next to them the entire Drake family piled onto another toboggan. The little boys shouted for them to go. As they
started off down the hill, the boys screamed with delight. Without warning, Lukas shoved off, and Juliane screamed herself as they barreled down the hill behind the Drakes.

When the toboggan swerved sideways, Juliane tumbled into the snow. Lukas hopped off the sled and helped her to her feet. “Are you okay?”

“I think so.” She dusted the snow from her pants and coat. “Is that what you call good hands?”

“You didn’t wind up in the creek.” Lukas put an arm around her shoulders. “Ready to go again?”

“Yeah, but this time give me a little warning before you take off.”

“I’ll do my best.” He saluted and grabbed the sled with one hand, and one of her hands with the other.

As they climbed up the hill for another run, Juliane couldn’t help thinking that being with Lukas was the ride of her life. Could she withstand the perils of a relationship with him? Maybe it was too late to be asking that question.

For the rest of the afternoon, Juliane tried not to think of anything except having fun. It wasn’t hard to do as they made numerous trips down the hill and later had a playful snowball fight and made snow angels on the hillside.

As the sun sank lower on the horizon, the snow stopped falling, and the sky began to clear. The leafless hardwood trees that surrounded the property were covered in snow. The pinks and oranges created by the setting sun in the dissipating clouds gave an iridescent glow to the landscape. The scene presented a picture worthy of any winter postcard.

Lukas, Tim and the boys started to make a snowman. Lukas looked at Juliane as he rolled a ball of snow for the body. “Aren’t you going to help?”

Melanie stepped forward before Juliane could answer. “I’ve got homemade chili in the slow cooker, so I want you
guys to stay for supper. Juliane and I can get things ready while you finish the snowman.”

Lukas stopped rolling the ball and straightened. “We don’t want to wear out our welcome.”

“You can’t do that. We’d love to have you. Please say you’ll stay.”

After checking for Juliane’s nod of agreement, Lukas turned back to Melanie. “Hey, I’m not one to refuse some good homemade chili. Thanks.” Lukas grinned.

“Great!” Melanie turned to Juliane. “Let’s go inside.”

Juliane followed Melanie into the house. “Thanks for rescuing me from the cold. I’m not sure I can feel my feet anymore.”

“I know what you mean.” Smiling, Melanie closed the door. “Do you want to change into some dry clothes? We’re about the same size. You can wear something of mine.”

“That would be wonderful.”

Juliane put on the clothes that Melanie gave her, then went to the kitchen to help. “This has been a wonderful day. Thanks for inviting us.”

“I’m so glad you came.” Steam rose into the air as Melanie lifted the lid of the slow cooker and stirred the contents.

“I love chili on a cold snowy day. Smells delicious.”

“Thanks. Me, too.” Melanie took some bowls from the cupboard. “I’ve wanted to tell you how much Tim and I have enjoyed doing things with you and Lukas the past few weeks.”

“We’ve had a great time, too.”

“It’s hard to move to a new community where you don’t know anyone. So I really appreciate your friendship. The church people are always friendly, but until we started spending time with you and Lukas, I didn’t feel as though I had developed any close friends.” Melanie laid a hand on
Juliane’s arm. “I thank God for the times we’ve spent together and that Lukas is such a good friend and boss to Tim.”

“I’m glad you count me as your friend. I grew up in Kellerville, so I have no idea what it’s like to move to a new town.”

“You and Lukas seem so happy together. I could see at the Valentine’s banquet that he was singing those songs right to you.” Melanie got napkins and a box of crackers from the pantry, then turned to Juliane. “I hope you don’t mind my asking. Is this a serious relationship?”

Juliane swallowed hard. “We haven’t been dating that long.”

Seemingly embarrassed, Melanie shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry or put you on the spot. Sometimes love happens fast and other times it’s a slow process. Tim and I knew we were right for each other almost from the first date.”

Before Juliane could make a response, noisy feet and voices sounded from the laundry room just off the kitchen as Lukas, Tim and the two boys entered the house.

Juliane couldn’t help thinking of Melanie’s question and subsequent comments. Juliane knew she was serious about her feelings for Lukas. But loving Lukas meant accepting him and all his flaws. They’d overcome their past, but what about their future? Was their relationship—along with Lukas’s faith and commitment to sobriety—strong enough to stand the test of time?

Throughout the rest of the evening, Juliane tried without much success to push troubling thoughts aside. She was going to have to answer that question eventually.

But not today.

Today was all about having fun. She just wanted to enjoy being with Lukas. He loved God, he cared for her and he was good with kids, too. She’d seen that today while he’d played with the two boys.

BOOK: Hometown Promise
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