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Authors: Merrillee Whren

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BOOK: Hometown Promise
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“When I saw how Bill believed in me when no one else
did, I knew I couldn’t let him down again. He stood by me and told me God would, too, if I’d just give Him a chance.”

“Did your friend insist that you go back to rehab the second and third times?” Juliane asked.

“No, but every time I failed to do it on my own I went back. I wanted to get better. I really did. I thank God I had someone like Bill to help me.”

“So your friend’s persistence made a difference?”

“It did. He made a huge difference. He wouldn’t give up until I saw my need for God.” Lukas paused and finished off the bag of pretzels, then took a deep breath. “Now I don’t know how I ever lived without God in my life. I’m not saying I’m never tempted, and I’m not saying it’s easy. But now I have a source of strength I never had before.”

Juliane was glad for Lukas that someone had helped him, but it made her wonder. Her dad was a Christian and attended church regularly, so why couldn’t he rely on God? What kept him from tapping that source of power to overcome the drinking? She was almost tempted to talk to Lukas about it, but he was still more of a stranger than a friend.

Despite Lukas’s struggle with alcohol, she couldn’t open up to him about her father. Deep down she was ashamed to admit that her father wasn’t as strong as Lukas, that he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do what Lukas had done. And what about her? If she’d been more like Bill Martin, would she have been able to help her father?

“So you really find a source of strength from God?”

“Don’t you?”

“After listening to you—maybe not as much as I should. I guess I see all too often people who are supposed to be Christians not living the way they are supposed to live. Sometimes that includes me.” Juliane was learning a lesson from a very unlikely source. The discussion hit her right
where she was struggling to let God’s power into her life—her embarrassment over her father’s alcoholism.

“I don’t know what to tell you. I can’t speak for other people. I know how it works for me. God is my anchor. I memorized these verses from Psalm 118 when I was in rehab. ‘I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation.’”

“Those are great verses. Guess I should put them to memory, too.”

“They mean a lot to me. I’m sure you’ve heard the one-day-at-a-time thing for people dealing with addictions. Well, it’s true. It’s like walking a tightrope. You have to put one foot in front of the other over and over again. You can’t look down—so to speak. You have to keep your eyes on Jesus. Those verses remind me.”

“Thanks.” Juliane touched Lukas’s arm. “Thanks for sharing this with me.”

“I wanted to do it so you’d look at me differently. I don’t like to go around broadcasting that I’m an alcoholic. I was hoping by setting things straight with you that all this could stay in the past and not be brought up now.”

Juliane instantly knew what he meant. “You might have one more person to deal with besides me.”

“Who?”

“My cousin Nathan. He knew you in college, too.”

“Would I have seen him since I’ve moved to town?”

Juliane shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s vice president at the locally owned bank and goes to church with us. He’s in the choir, but he’s been busy lately and hasn’t had time to attend practice. He and I usually sing the lead parts when the choir has a special program.”

“So you’re saying I got the part Nathan usually has? I
suppose that didn’t make you happy.” Lukas gave her a questioning look.

“I never said that.”

“But you thought it.”

“Okay. I did.” She grimaced and hoped he wouldn’t hold it against her.

She could see now that he truly had changed and felt guilty for her initial suspicions. But still she cautioned herself not to let his confession and explanations make her like him too much. He still wasn’t what she was looking for in her life. He was too attractive, too compelling. Men like that went for Elise, not her. Elise…who would be in town soon, and who would have the chance to catch Lukas’s eye. And after that, Juliane wouldn’t stand a chance. She had no business entertaining romantic thoughts about Lukas Frey. That scenario could lead to trouble—and most likely heartbreak down the road.

“Does Nathan remember me? Should I remember him?”

Juliane shrugged. “I have no idea. I haven’t spoken to him since I returned from my buying trip. I thought he would be at choir practice last Wednesday, but he wasn’t.”

“So I got the part by default?”

“No. You got it because you deserved it. You’ll do a good job.”

“Thanks for your confidence.”

“Just stating fact. Remember, I’ve heard you sing before.”

“All those years ago when I wasn’t quite sober?”

“You sing well under any circumstances.”

“Maybe.” Releasing a harsh breath, Lukas stared at her. “I hate thinking about the wasted years.”

Juliane nibbled on the last of her candy bar as she listened to him. She couldn’t believe how much her perception of him had changed in one evening. Yet she wasn’t quite sure how to
respond to her new opinion of him. She wasn’t even sure how to respond to his comment. How could she figure this out?

Finishing the last of her cola, she realized she was forgetting the main thing—the thing Lukas had been talking about all night. The Lord was her strength.
Lord, please help me.

“You’ve suddenly gotten very quiet. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable with all my confessions.” Lukas shifted in his chair and drained the last of his cola.

Did she dare tell him the problem lay with her, not him? Maybe they should talk about something else. “I’m just thinking.”

“About what?”

“About what you’ve said. I’m glad you wanted me to understand. And you’ve made me examine some things about myself.” Juliane hoped the discussion could end here. “Should we talk about the banquet entertainment? After all, that was the original intent of this evening.”

“Sure.”

Before Juliane could say another word, one of the emergency-room doctors came through the double doors and approached Lukas. “Mr. Frey, we’ve finished examining your grandfather. I’d like for you to step into the room while we explain to him what we’ve found.”

Lukas popped up from his chair. “Is he going to be okay?”

“Let’s all talk together.” The doctor moved toward the doors.

As Lukas followed, he turned to Juliane. “You can come, too.”

Juliane shook her head. “No, this should be just you, your grandfather and the doctor. You can fill me in later, if you want.”

“Okay.” Lukas hurried after the doctor, the double doors closing behind him.

Juliane sank back onto the chair and bowed her head.
Lord, please be with Ferd and keep him safe. Please be with Lukas and keep him strong. Don’t let this crisis derail him from his sobriety. And help me be the friend that he needs.

The minutes dragged, but finally Lukas returned. His ashen face told her that the news wasn’t good. Her heart in her throat, she rushed over to him. “What’s happened?”

“The tests confirmed that Grandpa had a heart attack. He has a blocked artery. They’re going to transfer him to Cincinnati where they can do an angioplasty. They aren’t equipped to do one here.”

“How soon?”

“Right away. As soon as the helicopter arrives.” Lukas fished his car keys from one of his pockets. “I’m going to drive ahead to the hospital in Cincinnati. I’ll meet them there.”

“Is there anything I can do?” For an instant Juliane wanted to give Lukas a hug, but she pushed the urge away. She didn’t need to go there.

“Just pray.”

“You know I will.”

“Do you want me to call a taxi for you?”

“No need to worry about me.” Juliane pulled her BlackBerry from her purse. “I’ll give my mom a call right now. She’ll come and take me to my car.”

“That’s fine. I’d better get going.” Lukas raced out the door.

BlackBerry in hand, Juliane ran after him. “Call me anytime to let me know how things are going.”

“Sure.” He waved as he got into his car.

Forgetting about the cold, Juliane watched him drive away. She’d learned a lot about Lukas tonight. Everything he’d told her made him more likable. He’d been sober for six years—way longer than her father had ever been. She could so easily start to like him too much for her own good, but she would reserve judgment. He would have to earn her
trust. Her experience with her father told her that too often alcoholics told you what they thought you wanted to hear. They made all kinds of promises but never delivered.

Chapter Five

T
he steady beep, beep, beep of the heart monitor had an almost hypnotic quality as Lukas stared at the numbers and lines on the display screen. Nearly forty-eight hours had passed since he’d taken his grandfather to the emergency room. The angioplasty had gone well, and his grandfather rested peacefully in the nearby hospital bed.

Lukas had bought a book in the hospital gift shop, but he couldn’t concentrate long enough to read more than a few pages at a time. His eyes were constantly drawn to the monitor and the jagged lines that indicated his grandfather’s heartbeat.

A knock sounded on the door, taking Lukas’s attention away from the monitor. He glanced up.

Looking great in a pair of gray slacks, a cable-knit sweater and a warm smile, Juliane stood in the doorway. “May I come in?”

“Sure.” Jumping up from his chair, Lukas waved his hand for her to join him. “This is a surprise.”

“I hope it’s okay for Ferd to have visitors.”

“It is, but right now he’s sleeping.”

“Should we come back later?”

“We?”

“Yeah, my folks are with me.” Juliane motioned toward the hall. “I was just checking before we all barged in.”

“Your folks know my grandfather?” Lukas wondered whether Juliane had given her parents the lowdown on his past. Was that question going to plague him every time he met one of Juliane’s acquaintances?

“My mom does. We’re going to dinner here in Cincinnati. So we thought we’d stop by and see how Ferd’s doing.”

Looking at Juliane, Lukas realized how glad he was to see her—something that wasn’t going to help him keep his interest in her in check. “How does your mom know him?”

“Since Ferd’s sleeping, why don’t you come out to the waiting room with me? I’ll introduce you to my mother, then she can tell you how she knows him. We can visit with my parents until he wakes up.”

Lukas glanced back at his grandfather. He hadn’t moved. The heart monitor still indicated a good steady heartbeat. Turning back to Juliane, Lukas wondered whether he was up for this meeting. He’d already met her father, but that was before he understood his relation to Juliane.

Why was he suddenly tying himself in knots about meeting new people? Dumb question. He knew the answer. He wanted to make a good impression. Because they might know about his past? Yes…but also because he wanted to give Juliane another reason to smile at him, warmly and sincerely, the way she had just moments ago. Why was he always thinking about himself? These people were here to see his grandfather, not him. “I suppose I can leave him for a few minutes.”

Juliane led the way into the hall. “Have you been here the whole time?”

“No, I’ve stepped out to eat but stayed nearby the room
most of the time. I did go to a hotel last night, but my sleep was pretty restless.”

“Are you okay?”

Rubbing the stubble on his chin, Lukas realized what he must look like—unshaven and disheveled. Although he’d showered this morning, he hadn’t bothered to shave because he’d never counted on visitors. “Yeah, but I know I look terrible.”

“Not terrible, but tired. How much sleep did you get?”

“Not much. I kept waking up and worrying about Grandpa.” Lukas didn’t relish this encounter. What kind of an impression was he going to make? He should be beyond caring at this point, but for some reason he wasn’t. He wanted Juliane’s parents to like him.

“I can understand. I don’t think I would’ve gotten much sleep either.”

As Lukas trailed Juliane down the hallway, he spotted her father sitting next to a middle-aged woman with short light brown hair that was liberally sprinkled with gray. They stood as Juliane drew near. He braced for the meeting and reminded himself that they were here because of his grandfather, so he should get over himself.

Lukas shook Ray Keller’s hand. Then Ray introduced his wife, Barbara. Ray and his wife were a picture of contrast. Not one gray hair marked Ray’s brown hair, and where he was a little thick around the middle and very tall, his wife was petite and trim. Although Juliane was taller than her mother, Lukas saw the resemblance between them immediately.

Barbara shook Lukas’s hand, then placed her other hand over his and squeezed it. “I’m pleased to meet you. We’re so sorry to hear about your grandfather, but we’re glad you got him to the hospital before things got worse.”

“Me, too.” Lukas glanced at Juliane. “And I appreciate Juliane’s help.”

Juliane gave him a little smile. “It was nothing.”

“Good thing Juliane called me so we could start the prayer chain.” Barbara released Lukas’s hand. “I met your grandfather when our ladies’ circle from church helped with a holiday party at the senior center last month. How is he doing?”

“As well as can be expected. The angioplasty went according to plan, and he’s sleeping now.”

“I hope we get to see him before we have to leave. We stopped by on our way to dinner,” Barbara said.

“Yes, Juliane told me.”

Barbara smiled. “Juliane tells me you have the male lead in the Winter Festival program. She says you have a wonderful singing voice.”

Lukas wondered whether that was all Juliane had said about him. He looked her way. “Thank you.”

Juliane glanced at her mother, then back at Lukas. “Mom didn’t realize at first who I was talking about when I told her about Ferd, but she finally made the connection when I mentioned the senior center.”

“Grandpa certainly loves going there. I’m glad there’s a place like that for him. Otherwise, I think he’d sit in the house all day and watch TV.”

“Does he attend church anywhere?” Barbara asked.

“He used to, but his hearing got so bad that he quit going. He said he couldn’t hear anyway, so he started listening to preachers on TV.” Lowering his head, Lukas rubbed the back of his neck. “I had intended to set up an appointment for him to see about getting hearing aids before all this happened.”

“Can the senior center help him find a place to get a hearing aid?” Barbara looked at Juliane. “I think they have information about that kind of thing, don’t they?”

“Yes, I think they do.” Juliane glanced from her mother to Lukas. “I’ll look into it for you.”

“Thanks.” Lukas couldn’t get over Juliane’s helpfulness. Another reason not to think of her romantically. She was becoming too important to him as a friend. He wondered what she thought after he’d run off at the mouth the other night. Afterward he couldn’t believe he’d practically told her his life’s story—almost every disgusting detail. Maybe it was the stress of his grandfather’s emergency that had him talking to her so openly. But she’d been so easy to talk to—so easy to like.

“Did he attend where we go?” Juliane’s question brought him back to the present. “I don’t recall seeing him there.”

“No. He went to another church.”

“When he’s better, you should bring him with you. We have special earphones for the hearing impaired.” Juliane glanced at her mom. “They even have someone who teaches sign language, if he’s interested in learning. The ladies’circle started that ministry a couple of years ago, didn’t they, Mom?”

“Yes, they did. We have several seniors who use the earphones. They say it really helps them.” Barbara glanced at the chairs behind them. “Should we sit down?”

“Good idea.” Ray settled on one of the chairs covered in a brown tweed material. “Lukas, how are things going at the plant?”

“Everything’s right on schedule, but I’m taking off work until I can get my grandfather settled into the nursing home back in Kellerville.” Sighing, Lukas shook his head. “He doesn’t understand why he can’t go home.”

Barbara nodded. “It’s always hard when an older person has to go to a nursing home. How long will he have to stay?”

“Probably not more than a week. I want to make sure he can take care of himself.” Lukas glanced down the hall and
wondered whether he should go check on his grandfather again. After all, Grandpa was the one they’d really come to see. “I’d like him to live with me, but he wants to be on his own. He won’t consider it.”

“It’s hard for older folks to give up their independence. Ray and I have both dealt with that kind of thing with our parents.” Barbara patted Juliane’s arm. “Juliane here has been such a help to us. She ran the store while we were taking care of Ray’s parents. We’re so glad she decided to return to Kellerville after she graduated from college.”

Lukas took in the praise Barbara heaped on her daughter. He envied Juliane’s relationship with her parents. He barely had contact with his father these days. So taking care of his grandfather was on the top of his list. He hoped he was doing the right things to preserve that relationship.

Lukas also wondered about Juliane’s sister and how she fit into their family, since she’d been away for so long. The more he learned about Juliane the more she intrigued him. But he couldn’t act on his interest. He had other things—a job and his grandfather—to take care of now. Besides, even if she could forgive him for his past, she’d never want to be with someone like him.

Lukas stood. “I’m going to check on my grandfather. Do you want to wait here?”

“I think that would be best,” Barbara replied.

“If he’s awake, I’ll come back and get you.” Lukas pulled his BlackBerry from his pocket and glanced at it. “How long before you have to leave for your dinner engagement?”

Ray looked at his watch. “We have about an hour.”

“Good.” Lukas started down the hall. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

Lukas wondered what Juliane and her parents would talk about while he was gone. Would they talk about him?
Quit
thinking about yourself.
Stopping for a moment, he took a deep breath. He was tying himself in knots for no good reason.
Lord, help me to put this all in Your hands. I’m not doing so well on my own.

As Lukas arrived at his grandfather’s room, a nurse was leaving. She smiled. “I just checked on your grandfather. He’s doing great. In a little while, we’ll get him up for a walk.”

“So he’s awake?”

“He is.” The nurse bustled away, chart in hand.

Lukas stuck his head around the door frame. “Hi, Grandpa. You have visitors. Do you feel like entertaining company?”

The older man nodded. “I could use some new scenery. All I see is you and those nurses.”

Chuckling, Lukas hurried back down the hallway toward the waiting area. Juliane smiled as he approached, and his heart seemed to jump around like the lines on his grandfather’s heart monitor. Trying to tamp down the reaction, he took a calming breath. She shouldn’t make him feel this way. Who was he trying to kid? She’d had his attention from the moment he’d seen her at choir practice. She had his emotions jumping through hoops.

He forced himself to look at her father, who stood as Lukas motioned for them to come. “He’s awake and ready for visitors.”

“I’m so glad we get to see him before we have to go.” Juliane hurried up beside Lukas and plucked a package from her purse. “I brought him a little gift.”

“You’re going to spoil him.”

“He deserves spoiling.”

“I don’t know about that. He’s already hard to deal with without you spoiling him.” Lukas laughed.

When Juliane and her parents entered the room, his grand
father smiled. Juliane went over to the bed and took one of his gnarled hands in hers. “You are looking wonderful.”

“You are so sweet to an old man.” Ferd beamed.

Lukas took in the way Juliane grasped his grandfather’s hand and wished he were in his grandfather’s place. Lukas shook the image away. He had to quit thinking about Juliane in the context of romance. How many times had he thought that since Juliane and her parents had arrived? Too many.

Then he remembered the other night and how his grandfather had made the pronouncement about Juliane making Lukas a good wife. Oh, great. He hoped his grandfather wouldn’t start his matchmaking again, especially in front of her parents.

Juliane quickly introduced her father to Ferd, then produced the little package she’d shown Lukas. “Here’s a little something to occupy your time.”

“Thank you. You didn’t have to bring me a gift.”

“I know, but I wanted to.” Juliane’s eyes lit up with pleasure. She clearly enjoyed giving. “Go ahead. Open it.”

Ferd tore into the paper, revealing a crossword puzzle book. “How did you know I liked to do crossword puzzles?”

“I saw one sitting on the table next to the recliner in your living room the other night.”

“You are a brilliant young woman.” Ferd winked at her.

Lukas had to admit he was losing the battle to keep himself neutral when it came to Juliane Keller. He let that thought roll around in his brain while he listened to Juliane, her parents and his grandfather engaged in a lively conversation. He said a prayer of thanks that folks like the Kellers cared enough to come and visit. He thanked God for another day of sobriety that let him be there for his grandfather and enjoy the company of friends.

Eventually Lukas joined the conversation. Despite the worry over his attraction to Juliane, he liked the Kellers and
hoped they would find more occasions to visit. They were already helping him feel a bond with their community. In such a short time, Kellerville was feeling like home.

“Well, it’s time for us to get going. We have to meet these people for dinner.” Ray extended his hand to Ferd. “You take care of yourself and get better soon.”

Ferd shook Ray’s hand. “I will. That grandson of mine won’t give me any other choice. He’s got his nose in everything I do.”

Chuckling, Barbara gave Ferd’s arm a pat. “He’s taken good care of you. So listen to him.”

“He has to. He can’t get rid of me.” Lukas shook hands with Ray. “Thanks so much for stopping by.”

“Let us know when you’re back in Kellerville.” Juliane leaned over and gave Ferd a kiss on the forehead. “Be good.”

“All this advice and a kiss from a pretty girl, too.” Ferd beamed.

Lukas tried not to think of kissing Juliane himself. He had to wipe that thought out of his brain before it had time to settle. He was headed for dangerous territory—territory he hadn’t explored in a long, long time. He was pretty sure he wasn’t ready for any such adventure. But as he watched them leave, one question dominated his thoughts. When would he see Juliane again?

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