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Authors: Merrillee Whren

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BOOK: Hometown Promise
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Déjà vu.
Juliane stared at him in the dim light, her pulse pounding all over her body. She pushed the bad memories aside as she took the keys. This was for Ferd. She could do this. “Okay, I’ll be glad to help any way I can.”

“You’re a lifesaver.”

“I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

“Thanks again.” He waved, then sprinted to the ambulance and hopped in.

Juliane hustled to Lukas’s car, the keys biting into her hand. As she opened the car door, she watched the ambulance drive away, lights blinking and sirens wailing. Her concern for Ferd overrode all her thoughts about Lukas and the past for the moment, but she knew that would change.

Driving through the quiet streets toward the hospital did nothing to calm her mind. By the time she reached the hospital, her stomach was tied in knots and her head throbbed. The ambulance pulled away from the entrance as she parked the car in the nearby lot.

She shivered in the cold night air that reminded her of that night eleven years ago. Her mind fought against the unpleasant memories. She wouldn’t think about them, not tonight. She had better things to do than dredge up the past.

Juliane shook the disconcerting thoughts from her mind as she entered the emergency waiting room. The place was filled with people of all ages, most of them looking tired and grim. An antiseptic smell permeated the air while the laugh track from a television sitcom blared over the muted conversation. Lukas sat on one of the molded plastic chairs, his head in his hands. When he glanced up, weariness and worry radiated from his eyes.

“How’s Ferd?” she asked, knowing that no matter what had happened in the past, God didn’t want her to hold it against Lukas now.

 

“I’m not sure. They’re still examining him.” Lukas stood as Juliane drew closer. Her hair gleamed in the light cast from the florescent fixtures. Why was he noticing how
great she looked when he should be thinking about his grandfather?

“Did they tell you anything?”

Shaking his head, Lukas sighed. “The doctors are getting him stabilized.”

“Here are your keys.” She held the key ring on one fingertip of her outstretched hand.

Staring at the keys for a moment, he had the oddest feeling that they had some connection with a set of keys in the past. He gave himself a mental shake to clear his mind of the crazy thought. When he took the keys, the cold metal brought the gravity of his grandfather’s situation into full focus. “Thanks for driving. I appreciate your help.”

“I’m glad to help Ferd any way I can. He’s a dear man.”

Lukas noticed she’d said nothing about helping him, only his grandfather. Did she still have an unfavorable view of him based on his past? He wished he could change that, but something told him he’d have a lot of work to do on that account.

He’d been sober for nearly six years, and he thanked God every day for sending Bill Martin into his life to show him God’s love and a way out of the bottom of a bottle. Despite his mentor’s unconditional acceptance and his assurance that God forgives and Christians would, too, Lukas was never quite sure he believed that Christians would accept his past. Juliane had probably witnessed his drunken state enough times to convince her that he was probably not a very reliable man. Could he convince her otherwise? And why did it seem to matter so much to have her approval and acceptance?

Right now he needed a friend. He wanted her to stay, but that was a lot to ask of her. Did he dare? Looking away, he gathered his courage, then returned his gaze to her. “I hope you don’t mind staying for a while. I could use some company.”

Silently, she stared at him with those caramel-colored eyes.
Was he imagining the panic in them? His heart sank. She wanted to leave. He couldn’t blame her. She barely knew him, and what she knew didn’t give her a favorable impression.

Then, without warning, she sat on the chair next to the one where he’d been sitting. “Sure. I can keep you company. Hospital waiting rooms can be lonely places.”

“Thanks.” He tried not to let her see how much her willingness to stay meant to him as he returned to his seat. “If it gets too late, I’ll call a cab to take you home.”

“No need for that. I can call my mom. She’d be glad to pick me up and take me to get my car.” Juliane unzipped her purse and pulled out her BlackBerry. “I’ll call and give her an update.”

While Juliane talked, Lukas closed his eyes for a moment and said a silent prayer of thanks. God had sent him a friend—a somewhat reluctant one from all appearances, but still someone who was willing to help. And best of all, her presence would help keep him safe from his own bad instincts.

A crisis could trigger the urge to find comfort in a bottle—something Lukas hadn’t felt in a good while, but he knew the danger lurked. He was very aware that the feeling could strike at any time. The Lord knew just what he needed—that extra assistance to escape from temptation.

As Juliane ended her conversation, one of the emergency-room doctors made an appearance. Lukas stood as the doctor approached. “How’s my grandfather?”

“We’ve done our initial evaluation, and we have him stabilized. I’m ordering some more tests to determine his condition.”

“What tests?”

“First, we’ll do a chest X-ray, then a catheterization to determine whether he has any blockage in his arteries.” The doctor motioned toward the exam room. “You can see him for a few minutes before they start.”

“Thanks.” Lukas turned to Juliane. “Do you want to come?”

“If you think it’s okay.”

Lukas glanced at the doctor for confirmation, and he nodded before Lukas turned back to Juliane. “I know Grandpa would like to see you.”

“Okay.”

Lukas let Juliane go ahead of him as they entered the room. His eyes closed, Ferd lay on the hospital bed. “Grandpa, how are you?”

Lukas’s stomach sank when his grandfather, who was hooked up to an IV, oxygen and numerous machines, didn’t respond. Lukas moved closer and touched Ferd’s arm. He opened his eyes, and Lukas read the uncertainty in them. Ferd grasped Lukas’s hand. “What did the doctor say?”

“Didn’t he tell you what they are going to do?”

Ferd nodded. “I didn’t understand.”

“Grandpa, can you hear what the doctor is saying?”

“Some of it.”

Lukas sighed, wishing there was something he could do about his grandfather’s hearing problem. “Would you like me to tell them that they should talk louder so you can hear them?”

Nodding, Ferd closed his eyes again.

“Are you in pain?”

“No.” Ferd’s voice sounded barely above a whisper.

“Juliane is here, too. We’re praying for you.”

Ferd smiled weakly as he looked toward Juliane. “Thank you for coming. You are a wonderful young woman.” Ferd turned to Lukas. “You ought to grab this one before she gets away. She would make you a good wife.”

Embarrassed by his grandfather’s pronouncement, Lukas didn’t dare look at Juliane. She was probably thinking he was the last man she wanted for a husband. Did he dare say anything? Probably better to ignore it.

“The doctors are going to take good care of you,” he said instead.

Ferd waved a hand at Lukas. “I’m not so sure those doctors know what they’re talking about.”

“Grandpa, please listen to them. They only want to help you.”

Juliane stepped closer to the bed. “Lukas is right, Ferd. The doctors are doing their best to find out what’s wrong and help you get better.”

Ferd sighed. “I suppose you are right.”

A nurse and an orderly came into the room. The nurse’s shoes barely made a sound as she walked to the head of the bed. “Okay, young man, we’re off to take a picture of your chest.”

As the orderly prepared Ferd to go to the radiation department for an X-ray, Lukas took the nurse aside and told her about his grandfather’s hearing. She assured Lukas that she would make sure his grandfather understood everything.

After they wheeled Ferd away, Lukas and Juliane returned to the waiting room. Lukas looked over at her. “We could be here for a while. Do you want to see if we can find something to eat or drink?”

“I can look, so you can stay. That way you’ll be here when your grandfather returns or if the doctors or nurses need to tell you something.”

“Thanks. I appreciate that.”

“The cafeteria is closed, but I’m sure I can find a vending machine.”

“That’ll be fine.”

“What would you like?”

“I’ll take a cola.”

“Any snacks?”

“Whatever.” Shrugging, Lukas reached into his pants’
pocket, pulled out a money clip and slipped a ten-dollar bill from it. He held it out to Juliane. “This ought to cover it.”

She shook her head. “Keep your money. It’s my treat.”

“Thanks.” Lukas watched her disappear down the hall. Despite her helpfulness tonight, he still sensed her unease around him. He laughed a little to himself at the irony. She was probably thinking about how she couldn’t wait to leave while he…well, he couldn’t seem to help thinking about how much better and easier things seemed to be when he faced them with her by his side.

Chapter Four

P
raying for Ferd and herself, Juliane hurried down the hall as she searched for a vending machine. Not sure what she was still doing here, she hoped her prayers might give her an answer. Why had she agreed to stay with Lukas? She had done her good deed in getting his car to the hospital. Ferd was in capable hands now, so Juliane was tempted to call her mother to come and get her, despite her offer to keep Lukas company.

Juliane wished her feelings about Lukas didn’t seem so complicated. Maybe she was only making it that way because she couldn’t get over the fact that, besides having a handsome face that was hard to overlook, tonight he was a very likable man. His concern for his grandfather affected her in a way she couldn’t decipher and made him completely different from the Lukas Frey who used to get drunk—too drunk to remember much about their troublesome encounter all those years ago.

While she let the conflicting emotions roil through her mind, she spotted the vending machines. Trying to push aside all of her contradictory thoughts, she perused the contents of the machines and quickly purchased a couple of
colas, two candy bars, a bag of chips and a bag of pretzels. She hoped Lukas wasn’t looking for good nutrition.

As she made her way back, she fought against the unpleasant memories about Lukas—the same ones she’d been fighting all evening. This wasn’t the time to let old offenses stand in the way of helping someone. Lukas was new to the community and needed a friend. No one else was here to help, so it fell to her to be that friend. And besides, when he’d looked at her with those blue, blue eyes full of anxiety and said he could use some company, she hadn’t been able to say no.

When she walked back into the emergency waiting area, Lukas had moved. He was sitting in a chair near the double doors that led to the room where the doctors examined the patients. His head was bowed, and he appeared to be praying. Had he talked to the doctors? Had they given him bad news? She didn’t want to disturb him, so she waited quietly nearby.

After a few minutes, he raised his head and glanced her way. “So you found something.”

“I did. Some good old-fashioned junk food—perfect late-night emergency-room cuisine.” She held up her purchases. “Take your pick.”

He stood and walked over to her. Grabbing one of the colas, Lukas chuckled. “My kind of food. We can share the chips and pretzels. I’ll let you have first dibs on the candy.”

“Okay.” Noticing how the waiting area was nearly empty now, Juliane made her way to a chair near the double doors where Lukas had been sitting. She looked over at Lukas as he resumed his seat next to her. “Any more word from the doctors? Is everything okay with your grandfather?”

“No answers yet. I don’t know any more than I did before you left.”

“Since you moved, I thought maybe—”

“I moved to be closer to the doors in case the doctors want to talk to me.”

Leaning back in the chair, Lukas twisted the cap off his cola. “They told me they haven’t found anything conclusive. They’re running more tests. The nurse said she’d keep me updated.”

“I guess that’s good.” Juliane didn’t have a clue as to what else she should say now. Opening the bag of pretzels, she hoped eating would save her from having to make small talk. She popped several pretzels into her mouth as she held the bag out to Lukas.

“Thanks.” He dumped some pretzels into his hand but stopped before he ate them. “I can’t thank you enough for staying around. I hope you understand how much I appreciate this.”

Juliane didn’t know how to respond. Thankfully her mouth was full of pretzels. Nodding, she chewed slowly. Maybe by the time she swallowed, she could come up with a response. She took a swig of cola, then looked his way. “You don’t have to thank me. It’s nothing.”

“But it’s something to me.”

“I’m glad to help out however I can.”

He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, then closed it. He sat silently for a minute twisting the cap on and off the bottle of cola. After he ate several pretzels, he looked at her again. “Could I clear the air between us?”

“What do you mean?”

“About the past.”

Juliane’s stomach sank, and her heart raced. Did he suddenly remember the way he’d acted that night? She didn’t want to discuss it. She didn’t even want to think about it—not that she’d been able to stop herself all evening. She swallowed hard. “What about it?”

He took a deep breath. “I wanted to apologize for
anything I may have done to offend you in the past, and to let you know that I’ve changed.”

“I can see that.”

“But you’re not sure.”

He was certainly putting her on the spot. She bit her lower lip. He hadn’t said anything about that night. Maybe he still didn’t remember. “Am I that transparent?”

He smiled, a hint of relief on his face. “Just a little. From the moment I met you again at choir practice the other night, I sensed that you had some big reservations where I’m concerned.”

Juliane knew she had to tell the truth. “Yeah…maybe some.”

“That’s what I thought.” He sighed. “When you told me you remembered me from your college years, I knew I probably wasn’t on your list of people who had impressed you—at least in a good way. I’m sure you considered me obnoxious.”

“Are you trying to make me say bad things about you?”

His smile turned into a full-fledged laugh. “No, I wanted you to know that I understand if you don’t have a very high opinion of me. Did you ever see me sober?”

“Well…when you were performing. I guess.”

“That’s what I thought.” He shook his head, a faraway look in his eyes. “I’m not very proud of that time in my life. I drank too much and studied too little. I’m still amazed that I managed to earn my degrees and find a job.”

“What changed your life?”

“First, I got fired from that job I’m surprised I got.”

“So that made you mend your ways?”

Lukas laughed halfheartedly. “No, not immediately. Right after I got fired, I went on an extended binge.”

“That made you change?” Juliane wondered where this was going.

“Not the binge, but the consequences. I was arrested for
drunken driving. I damaged a lot of property—sideswiped a half-dozen parked cars. I’m thankful that I didn’t kill anyone.”

Juliane munched on some chips as his confession whirled around in her mind. His admission made her think about that night. What would he say if she told him about it? She shook the thought away. This wasn’t the time to bring it up. He was trying to make some kind of amends, and bringing up his bad behavior wasn’t going to help. “Then what happened?”

“I called my former boss.”

“You did? Why?”

“Because when he fired me, he told me he was doing it to wake me up. And if I needed any help, any time, he said I should call him.”

Juliane was impressed. If Lukas had been her employee, would she have done the same thing, or would she have washed her hands of him? She was ashamed to admit that the latter was probably more likely. “Why did he do that?”

“Because he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself—potential.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I’m not sure I can explain it exactly.” Sighing, Lukas shook his head. “My former boss Bill Martin is a Christian, and he never failed to let me know that God loved me—no matter what I had done. That was his message even when he was firing me.”

“Did you believe him?”

“Hardly.”

“Then why did you call him when you were arrested?”

“He was the only person I knew that I thought would help me.”

“What about your family? Your grandfather?”

“I wasn’t close to my family for a long time.” Lukas lowered his head and ran a hand through his hair, then shook his head. “Whoa. You don’t want to listen to my life’s story.”

“I’ll listen if you want to tell it.” Juliane didn’t miss the surprise in his expression when he looked her way.

He took a big gulp of his drink, then gave her a crooked smile. “You might have noticed my grandfather’s German accent.”

“I did. What does that have to do with your relationship with your family?”

“Well…being a dumb kid, I was embarrassed that everyone in my family spoke with heavy accents. I had no idea what it took for them to escape from East Germany and communism.”

“Wow! They did that?”

Taking another swig of his cola, Lukas nodded. “See? Everyone who hears that is impressed, but all I could see back then were parents who weren’t like everyone else’s.”

“You were ashamed of them?”

“Yeah. Dumb, wasn’t I?”

“Should I agree with you?” Juliane smiled, then bit into another pretzel.

“It doesn’t matter whether you say so. I know I was. I was dumb about a lot of things.” Lukas continued talking without looking at her, almost as if he were telling the story to the empty chairs across the room. “I was also on the shy side, but when I got my first taste of a beer buzz, I wasn’t shy anymore. I fit in. I wasn’t that geeky kid with the foreign parents. I was somebody cool, or at least I was under the mistaken impression that I was.”

“How young were you when you started drinking?”

“Fifteen.”

“Were you drinking all the time?” Juliane asked, wondering how young her dad had started.

“In the beginning, I only drank at parties on the weekends. That’s pretty much the pattern I followed through my
school years—binge drinking on the weekends. But occasionally I drank during the week, too. I was getting my courage from a bottle.”

“So are you saying that you alienated your family with your drinking?” Juliane took the last pretzel and popped it into her mouth.

“Mostly I alienated my grandfather. He was the one trying to reach out to me. My parents had other things on their minds.” Lukas let out a harsh breath. “Near the end of my senior year in high school, my mother died of breast cancer. For most of my high school years, my parents were consumed with her illness, and my drinking was pretty much under their radar.”

Juliane felt a burst of sympathy. She hadn’t known that Lukas had lost his mother. “So are you saying that because of your mother’s illness, they weren’t paying much attention to you?”

“Yeah, I guess I’m saying that.” Lukas grimaced. “After I went to college, my father moved back to Germany. The Berlin Wall had come down, and Germany had been reunited. He wanted to see the family members he’d left behind. With my mother gone, he felt no reason to continue living here.”

“How did you feel about that?”

“I was on my way to college. I had my own life to live.” Lukas shook his head. “I was selfish, only thinking of myself. As long as my father paid my college tuition, I was happy.”

While Juliane listened to Lukas tell his story, she wondered whether something tragic in her father’s life had led to his drinking. She’d never considered such a possibility before. “But you weren’t really happy, were you?”

“True. In the beginning I used the drinking to be cool, but when my mother died I used it to blunt the pain. Grandpa
began to notice, but I didn’t listen to anything he said. The more he tried, the harder I pushed him away. So he pretty much washed his hands of me.”

“I noticed there’s some tension between you. Is it still because of your drinking?”

Lukas sat up and looked at her. “No, no. He knows I’m sober now. The tension you see is all about him wanting his independence. He thinks I’m encroaching on it by my constant attention. But as you see, he needs it.”

“And he’s fortunate to have you.”

“Thanks. I appreciate your saying so.”

“If it’s any consolation, the way you take care of him has made me see you in a more positive light.”

“That’s good to hear.” A slow smile brightened Lukas’s face. “I didn’t mean to go on and on about all this, but I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot in this town. I wanted you to understand.”

“But you still haven’t told me how your former boss helped you.” She couldn’t believe she was asking him to continue when only a little while before she’d been desperate to leave. Yet she couldn’t help but want to hear the rest of his story.

Lukas’s shoulders sagged. “You really want to hear more? Are you a glutton for punishment?”

“I guess I am. I really do want to hear about it.” She opened one of the candy bars and took a bite.

“I used my one call to phone Bill Martin. For some reason, I still had his card in my wallet.”

“How did he react?”

“He told me he’d help me however he could but under one condition. I had to go into rehab.”

“Did you agree?”

“Not right away. I had to sit in a jail cell overnight. When I sobered up, I figured it was my best way out.”

“So going to rehab was the answer?”

Shaking his head, Lukas smiled wryly. “Not hardly.”

“But I thought you said he helped you.” Juliane frowned.

“He did, but the rehab didn’t work until I finally realized I had to turn my life over to God.”

“So how did that happen?”

“I was in and out of rehab three times but after the first two times, I started drinking again.”

“Why?”

“I was relying on myself. And when things didn’t go right for one reason or another, the temptation to take a drink was too strong. I had nothing to help me resist, and I couldn’t do it on my own.”

“But I thought you said your friend—your boss—was a Christian. Didn’t he tell you how Jesus can help?”

Lukas nodded. “Yeah, he did, but I never bought into the whole religion thing, at least not the first two times I was in rehab even though the counselors there also tried to teach me about relying on God. That was for weaklings, and I was no weakling.”

“How long did all of this take?”

“Three years. Every time I came out Bill helped me get a job, but I always got fired because I started drinking again.” Lukas’s voice trailed off, and he sat in silence for a moment with his head bowed. Then he looked up. “But Bill didn’t give up on me, even after I failed.”

Juliane had to strain to hear Lukas’s words, and she was almost sure she saw tears welling in his eyes. A lump formed in her throat, and for a few seconds she couldn’t speak as his testimony about his friend and Lukas’s obvious gratitude touched her. “So what made you finally decide to change?”

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