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Authors: Merrillee Whren

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BOOK: Hometown Promise
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Lukas had done nothing more than kiss her, but she couldn’t forget the way he’d scared her with that stolen kiss. Hoping never to see him again, she hadn’t gone back to the theater group.

Even with all the time that had passed, the memory still made her shiver. Was Lukas still that kind of man? Maybe
not. The Lukas she’d known in college wouldn’t have darkened the door of a church. Did his presence here mean he’d changed his lifestyle? She should be glad if that was the case, but his sudden appearance had unnerved her. Thankfully, a great deal of attention wasn’t required tonight.

As soon as the rehearsal was over, Juliane rushed over to Tom. “Do you have a few minutes to talk in private?”

Tom wrinkled his brow and shrugged. “Sure, if you want to wait until everyone else has left.”

“I’ll wait.” Juliane left the stage and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Lukas hurry off in the opposite direction. As she started to sit on the nearby pew, she heard Val call her name and turned. “Did you want me?”

“Yeah. We’re all headed to the coffee shop. Are you going to join us?” Her cousin gestured to the group gathered near the door.

Juliane was relieved to see that Lukas wasn’t among them. “Sure. I’ll be over after I talk to Pastor Tom.”

“Okay. We’ll see you in a little while.” Val hurried down the aisle.

After Val left, Juliane sat on the front pew and tried to study her lines and music while she waited for Pastor Tom. He was having tryouts for small solo parts. She wondered whether Lukas had tried out. When had he done that? When had he moved to town? Had he been in church on recent Sundays? She hadn’t seen him. It seemed as though he had appeared out of nowhere.

Juliane shook her head in an attempt to focus on her part instead of letting her thoughts drift back to Lukas. He wasn’t even here, and yet he filled her mind. Maybe the initial shock of seeing him again would wear off and she wouldn’t think about him anymore.
Wishful thinking.

“Are you ready to talk?”

Startled, Juliane glanced up to find Pastor Tom standing in front of her. “Oh, sure.”

“What do you want to discuss?” Tom sat next to her.

She stared at him for a moment. How was she going to ask her question without seeming ungracious toward Lukas? She should’ve figured that out while she sat here. She took a deep breath. “Well…I thought Nathan was going to be David. You know Nathan and I were the lead soloists in the Christmas program just a few weeks ago, so I thought we were going to do the leads in this program, as well. I was really surprised to hear that Lukas will be playing that part.”

“I know you expected Nathan to be the male lead. He intended to do that, but while you were away on your buying trip this past week, he told me he’d rather not have a lead part since he’s going to be extra busy at the bank. Then Lukas showed up at church two weeks ago and volunteered. He has a great voice.” Tom wrinkled his brow. “Do you have a problem with that?”

Yeah, but there was no way she could tell Tom about it. “I was concerned that Nathan would be upset.”

“I’m glad I could ease your concern.” Tom patted her on the shoulder. “I heard Val invite you to join the others at the coffee shop. So I’ll let you run along.”

“Okay. Thanks for explaining. See you later.” Juliane shuffled down the aisle and contemplated the fact that Lukas had been here for two weeks. She’d been out of town last Sunday, but why hadn’t she noticed him the Sunday before? How was it possible to be in the same room as Lukas and not notice him? His good looks and magnetic smile had always drawn attention.

She gave herself a mental scolding. Lukas’s attractiveness wasn’t the issue. The issue was whether he could be trusted. Their parts in the program meant weeks of interaction. There
was no getting around it. Trying to avoid him would be impossible at church as well as in this little town. Would she feel uncomfortable around him? He didn’t seem to remember what he’d done. It had been a long time since then. Maybe he truly had changed.

Juliane shrugged into her coat and rushed to her car in the church parking lot. The January night air made her shiver as she brushed snow from her windshield. While she drove the short distance to the coffee shop on Main Street, she hoped she could relax and forget any future dealings with Lukas at least for tonight.

She needed some downtime after her hectic day at the department store that her family owned. Although she loved her father, sometimes working with him was not the easiest. Their ideas about how to run the business often clashed. Things were better now that he was sober—six months and counting—but how long would that last? She’d seen him fall off the wagon often enough to learn her lesson. She could never trust a drinker, not even her father—and especially not Lukas Frey.

Chapter Two

M
usic, conversation and laughter floated around Lukas while he sat at a table toward the front of the coffee shop. On the small nearby stage, a lone guitarist entertained the crowd while they lingered over their coffee.

Val and Eric Hughes sat across the table from him. This young couple had gone out of their way to make him feel welcome at church from the moment he’d set foot inside the door. In fact, everyone he’d met so far had welcomed him and treated him kindly. More than anything, he wanted their friendship and respect, but would his bad behavior in grad school ruin his chance?

What would happen when Juliane told them about his past? She remembered him from his college years. He feared she was already giving Pastor Tom an earful as she stayed behind to talk to him.

Lukas had heard Val invite Juliane to come, and he hoped that during this time together he could befriend her. Then maybe she wouldn’t have any reason to bring up his past, but that was probably wishful thinking.

“So what do you think?” Eric gestured around the room. “Do we do things up right here in Kellerville?”

Nodding, Lukas smiled. “It’s great to have entertainment on a weeknight.”

“You should hear the jazz combo that plays on the weekends.” Val looked at him over her coffee cup. “Not bad for a one-horse town.”

“Hey, we’re at least a two-horse town.” Eric chuckled.

“A two-horse town where everyone knows everyone, and at least a quarter of us are related to each other.” Val glanced at Carrie Wilson, who sat next to her. “Sometimes that’s nice, and other times it can be a pain, right, Carrie?”

“Yeah, it’s a real pain being related to you.” Laughing, Carrie nodded. “Val’s my cousin. So is Juliane.”

“Did all of you grow up here?”

“Eric, Carrie, Juliane and I did.” Val tapped Adam, Carrie’s husband, on the arm. “But Adam here had the good fortune of finding us through Carrie.”

“It’s a great little town even though you have to put up with the Kellers and their relatives on every corner.” Adam winked at his wife.

Lukas took in the good-natured kidding. “Is that why the town’s called Kellerville?”

Eric nodded. “Val’s great-great-great-great—”

“Quit enumerating the greats,” Val interrupted.

“Okay.” Eric laughed. “The town was founded by her ancestors who led a group of settlers from North Carolina to this area.”

“Do you get many transplants to your town?” Lukas wondered how he would be accepted. Sometimes people in small towns didn’t readily welcome newcomers.

“More these days than when we were kids. The town’s been growing a lot in recent years. Kellerville has always
been a wonderful place to raise a family.” Grinning, Adam patted his wife’s very pregnant figure. “And we’re adding to the population.”

After taking a gulp of his coffee, Eric glanced at Lukas. “Did I hear Juliane say she knew you in college?”

“Yeah, but not that well. We worked on a theater production at the same time, but we didn’t run in the same circles.” That was an understatement, and Lukas hoped this conversation wouldn’t lead to a discussion of that time.

Thankfully, Juliane wasn’t here now, but what would happen when she joined them? What stories would she tell? He barely remembered her, had no idea what she’d seen him do. So many of his memories from that period were a blur. How else could he explain meeting such a beautiful woman and forgetting her almost completely?

He glanced toward the door to see whether she’d arrived. Although he was worried about facing her, part of him hoped he could show her that he wasn’t the same Lukas Frey she’d seen all those years ago. The other part feared what she might reveal.

Lukas couldn’t forget the way the color had drained from her face when he’d told her he had the male lead in the musical. He wasn’t sure whether the look in her caramel-colored eyes tonight had been disgust or pity. Either way, he wanted to change her opinion of him.

“There’s Juliane.” Val waved her hand above her head. “Juliane, we’re over here.”

Lukas watched as she made her way toward them. Was he imagining the displeasure in her expression, or was he being paranoid about the past? He jumped up and pulled out the empty chair next to him. “Glad you could make it.”

Juliane took the chair he offered. “My meeting with Pastor Tom didn’t take long.”

“That’s good,” Val said before Lukas could add anything.

As the waitress came to take Juliane’s order, he realized that she hadn’t hesitated to sit beside him. Maybe he was mistaken about her expression when she’d entered the coffee shop. The vanilla scent of her perfume mingled with the smell of brewing coffee. He took in the chin-length, light brown hair that framed her pretty face and matched her eyes and wondered why he was aware of so many details about her.

After the waitress left, Juliane took off her coat and let it hang over the back of her chair. “I see you’ve found our favorite hangout.”

“Yeah, thanks to Val and Eric.”

Was she uneasy about his presence here, or was she just making conversation? Why was he always second-guessing himself? She’d been very polite, but her politeness seemed forced. Or was he projecting his own discomfort onto her? He had to get a grip and quit imagining that her expression was filled with disgust when she looked his way.

A few minutes later, the waitress deposited a steaming cup of coffee in front of Juliane. Val and Carrie began peppering Juliane with questions about how she knew Lukas. She fidgeted in her chair and gave him a tentative smile. What was she going to say? His stomach knotted as he waited for her answer.

She shook her head. “We barely knew each other. During my freshman year, we were in a couple of musicals together, but Lukas was one of the leads, and I was only in the chorus. We didn’t have much interaction, did we, Lukas?”

“That’s right.” Lukas breathed a sigh of relief. She didn’t want to discuss the past any more than he did.

“When did you move to Kellerville?” she asked, as if she was eager to change the subject.

“A couple of weeks ago. I actually started my new job
over a month ago, but I was driving back and forth between here and Cincinnati for a couple of weeks until I found a house I wanted to buy.”

“So are you all settled?” Juliane stirred her coffee, then took a sip.

“I haven’t hung any pictures, if that’s what you mean.”

Leaning forward, Carrie tapped Lukas on the arm. “You should have Juliane help you decorate. She’s great at that.”

Juliane eyed her cousin with unmistakable irritation. “Don’t volunteer me for anything. I have enough work to do.”

Carrie held up a hand. “I was only making a suggestion.”

Juliane sighed. “Sorry. That’s okay. I’m just feeling the pressure of running the store. You know after the first of the year we have to do inventory. That means a lot of extra work.”

Lukas surreptitiously watched Juliane as she continued to run new store promotions by her cousins to get their input. Was the fact that she was eye-catching with her feminine curves the reason he had a vague memory of her from his graduate school years? Even though he couldn’t place their exact meeting, she’d obviously made something of an impression on him. Yet uneasiness about her that he couldn’t quite grasp floated at the back of his mind.

Even though men turned to look when she walked into a room, something more than her good looks sparked his interest. Still, he knew he had to keep any attraction to her in check. He wanted her friendship. He had little doubt that she’d never be interested in anything more because of his past.

“You’d like to do that, wouldn’t you, Lukas?”

Lukas glanced at Val and tried to hide the fact that he hadn’t been listening and had no idea what she was talking about. “I’m not sure.”

“Let me convince you.”

“Okay.” He hoped his noncommittal response would somehow get her to give him another clue about her question.

“I know you just moved here, but it would be a good way to meet a lot of people in the congregation.”

“Yeah, everyone has a great time at the Valentine’s banquet.” Eric clapped Lukas on the back.

“Tell me what’s involved.” Lukas hoped his inquiry wouldn’t signal his inattention to their conversation.

“Sure.” Val glanced around the table. “We’re all involved in some way. I’m responsible for providing the food and getting the youth group to help serve it. Carrie and Adam are heading the committee in charge of decorating the fellowship hall. Eric is helping with the setup. Juliane, as I mentioned, is in charge of entertainment. And I thought since the two of you have worked together before that you’d be able to help her out.”

Val had dropped another opportunity to get involved in the community in his lap—just what he wanted. Dealing with Juliane was a bonus. Maybe this would be his chance to have her get to know the new him.

Lukas turned to look at her. The color had drained from her face again. She didn’t want to work with him. Had anyone else noticed? Did he dare say yes and put her on the spot? “What do you say, Juliane?”

 

Lukas’s question rattled around in Juliane’s brain and created the beginnings of a headache. She clenched and unclenched her fist in her lap. Eager faces around the table told her she had to say yes.

What was God trying to teach her by dropping Lukas into her life on top of the other challenges she faced?

Juliane nodded and tried to smile. Smiling had certainly been difficult tonight. “I’m sure between the two of us we can come up with some super entertainment.”

“Great. When do we start?” Lukas leaned forward with enthusiasm, but he seemed surprised by her agreement.

Juliane shrugged. “Whenever you want.”

What was his motivation? Why had he involved himself in church as soon as he moved here?

“When are you free to discuss it?”

A sinking sensation hit her stomach. Free to discuss it—as in meeting with him one-on-one? Yeah. That was probably what he meant. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her BlackBerry out of her purse and wished her calendar were full for the foreseeable future. “I’ll have to check.”

“Great.” He reached into a pocket in his coat and brought out his BlackBerry, too.

Breaking eye contact, she searched her calendar. “I have a couple of free evenings, but since I just returned from a business trip, I have to check with my dad to make sure he hasn’t planned a store meeting I don’t know about yet.”

“That’s fine.” He narrowed his gaze. “Is Raymond Keller your dad?”

“Yes, why?” Juliane’s heart jumped into her throat. How could Lukas possibly know her dad?

“I met him the other day at the chamber of commerce meeting. I’m just now making the connection. Your dad’s quite the storyteller.”

“Yeah, he does enjoy a good laugh.” Juliane couldn’t help comparing the two men—both charming but flawed.

“He said I should meet you when you got back from your buying trip.”

Juliane wondered what had prompted her dad to mention her to Lukas. She’d never been the daughter her father wanted to show off—that was her sister, Elise.

He handed her a business card. “Here’s my contact information. You can call me after you talk with your dad.”

“Thanks.” She took it. Her pulse quickened as their fingers touched. Her reaction caught her off guard. She’d let his charm undermine her initial caution. Nothing seemed right since Lukas had shown up. She shoved the card into her purse and hoped that when she looked up Lukas wouldn’t be staring at her.

She got her wish. He was already deep in conversation with Adam and Eric as they discussed the local high school basketball team. So why was she disappointed that he wasn’t paying any attention to her?

His sudden reappearance had thrown her completely off balance, but she wasn’t going to let that continue.

She gave herself a mental pep talk.
Forget Lukas Frey.
But how could she when she had to interact with him on a weekly basis, if not more? Well, she was no wimp. She would deal with it one way or another. She wouldn’t think about herself anymore.

Juliane turned to Val. “Is your mom watching the kids?”

“Yeah. She calls these nights her grandma duty, but she loves it.” Val took a sip of her coffee.

Carrie patted her very protruding stomach. “My mom can hardly wait for her grandma duty.”

Carrie and Val laughed, and Juliane joined them. Her mother was just hoping she’d get to be a grandma one day. But Juliane had no potential marriage partners. The few eligible men in town held little interest for her.

Except Lukas Frey.
She shook away the thought. After the way he’d behaved all those years ago, how could that thought have popped into her head? Lukas Frey should be the last man on her list of marriage prospects. Romantic ideas about him had no place in her thinking. No matter how attractive he was, she knew better than to think of him that way. She knew all too well what marriage with an alcoholic was like.

Never.
That wouldn’t happen to her.

Juliane cast a furtive glance in Lukas’s direction. He drained the last of his coffee while he listened to Eric’s assessment of the Cincinnati Bengals football team and the upcoming NFL playoff games. Looking away, she felt oddly out of place. She didn’t fit in with the guys discussing sports or the women talking about babies.

Sometimes being single was tough. Everything around her seemed geared for couples, especially at church. She glanced at Lukas again. Did single guys ever feel out of place in a couples’ world, or was that only a malady of single women?

“Did I hear that Elise is coming home?” Val asked before Juliane could answer her own question.

“Yeah, she’s flying into Cincinnati two weeks from Sunday. Mom and Dad are so excited that she’s finally decided to quit roaming the high seas.” Juliane thought of her sister, who had worked for a cruise line as an entertainer for the past six years.

Juliane had to admit that she was sometimes jealous of her sister. Elise had had the courage to go against their parents’ wishes and drop out of college and see the world, while Juliane had returned to her hometown after college to a mundane life. She shouldn’t begrudge her sister the opportunity she’d taken to use her singing talent to earn a living.

BOOK: Hometown Promise
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