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Authors: Merrillee Whren

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BOOK: Hometown Promise
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The scent of pine cleaner did nothing to cover the medicinal smell associated with illness as Juliane entered the nursing home. Walking the hallway lined with residents in wheelchairs—some lucid, some not—she couldn’t help thinking about Ferd’s distaste for being here. He had made that quite clear when she’d visited him after work the past two days. She could imagine that Ferd gave Lukas an earful every time he came to visit.

Today she’d taken off work a little early so she could fit her visit in before she went to choir practice. She’d been gearing herself up all day for the upcoming encounter with Lukas. She’d prayed about it, but sometimes she felt as though her prayers never reached beyond her mind. Why was God feeling so far away these days?

Both Monday and Tuesday evenings she’d met Lukas as she was leaving and he was coming to the nursing home. And even though she’d spent hours having a lengthy conversation with him while they were at the hospital, somehow the impending interaction was on a whole different level—one for which she wasn’t prepared.

The thought of another extended encounter with him had her trying to decipher her mixed-up feelings. She’d managed to spend a couple of minutes making small talk with him the past two nights before they’d gone their separate ways, but she wasn’t sure how she would cope with the two-hour choir practice.

The thought of singing with him had her emotions as jumbled as the letters in the new word search book she’d bought for Ferd. The kindness that Lukas showed to his grandfather drew her in, but she was still uncertain about him. What did he want from her? Forgiveness? Friendship? More? What was she willing to offer? Could she ever reconcile these conflicting thoughts?

Deciding would be much easier if he wasn’t so heart-stopping gorgeous.

Deep in thought, she plowed into Ferd’s room, then did a double take when she realized Lukas sat in the chair next to his grandfather’s bed. Ferd occupied the other chair in his half of the semiprivate room. Her heart nearly stopped and then started racing as she stared at Lucas’s handsome, smiling face.

He stood. “Hi, there.”

What are you doing here?
The words almost tumbled out of her mouth, but she managed to regain her senses before she spoke. “Hi. I’m surprised to see you here.”

“I left work a little early because I wanted to make sure I had time to visit Grandpa before choir practice.” Lukas motioned to the chair where he’d been sitting. “You can have my seat. I’ll sit here on the bed.”

“Thanks.” Juliane went over and gave Ferd a hug. “You are looking better every day.”

“Not because of the food they’re serving.” Ferd waved a hand toward his half-eaten meal. “Gelatin again. I wonder what flavor I’ll get tomorrow.”

Juliane chuckled. “It can’t be that bad.”

“Well, maybe not, but I’m ready to get out of here.” Ferd nodded toward Lukas. “Tell that grandson of mine.”

Juliane glanced at Lukas. He appeared unmoved by his grandfather’s plea. “I don’t think Lukas has much say in the matter, do you?”

Lukas grinned. “Not really. I’m taking my cue from the therapists and the docs.”

His grin made her legs feel like the gelatin on Ferd’s dinner tray. She immediately sat in the nearby chair to get off her wobbly legs. This was crazy. Why was she reacting this way now? She’d been so determined not to fall for him. There was only one conclusion. She’d spent far too much time thinking about Lukas today.

“I brought you another book. This one’s a word search.” Juliane handed it to Ferd.

“You are too good to me—unlike my grandson.”

Juliane patted Ferd’s hand. “Lukas has been very good to you. You should appreciate him.”

“I’ll appreciate him when he springs me from this place.”

“Thanks.” Lukas smiled at her.

“You’re welcome,” Juliane said with a sense of satisfaction warming her. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. “Has the doctor indicated when Ferd can go home?”

Ferd was about to open his mouth, but Lukas glared his grandfather into silence. “Maybe Friday.”

“That’s sooner than you expected, right?”

“Yes, but still not soon enough for me.” Ferd tapped himself on the chest.

“Grandpa, just be satisfied it’ll probably be Friday.” Lukas sighed. “I’ve scheduled an appointment for you to see about hearing aids, too.”

“Another annoyance.” Ferd frowned.

Rolling his eyes, Lukas stood. “Let’s take a walk and get a little exercise.”

“That sounds like an excellent idea. I could use the exercise myself.” Juliane hopped up from her chair and hoped Ferd wouldn’t give Lukas any more grief. Maybe it was the grandson-grandfather relationship that caused Ferd to be so uncooperative. He was never grouchy and uncooperative at the senior center. Or maybe his attitude was the result of his health problems.

Ferd pushed himself up from his chair. “If it means getting out of this place sooner, I’m all for it.”

Ferd led the way while Juliane and Lukas strolled behind him through the halls of the nursing home. Ferd used his cane, but he was moving right along without any trouble. Lukas hung back with Juliane as Ferd continued to forge ahead, stopping occasionally to visit with one of the other residents or one of the nurses. He laughed and talked, and Juliane saw the man she knew from the senior center emerge from behind the cantankerous facade he displayed whenever he was conversing with Lukas.

“Now that’s the Ferd I know,” Juliane whispered to Lukas as they observed at a distance.

“Yeah, I seem to bring out the worst in him.” Lukas laughed halfheartedly. “At least lately.”

“I’m sure things will get better once he leaves here.”

“I hope so.”

While Juliane walked beside Lukas through the nursing home, she realized her discomfort with being around him had subsided. She wasn’t completely comfortable, but her attitude was a whole lot better. She was on his side as he dealt with his grandfather. God was answering her prayers in His own time. He was making her see that she’d been praying but trying to take care of her problems on her own rather than relying on Him to take care of them.

After they’d traversed every hallway in the nursing home, they returned to Ferd’s room. Just as he settled on his chair, two white-haired women appeared at the door. Juliane recognized them from the senior center.

Ferd immediately stood again, a wide smile on his face. “Dot, Evelyn, it is so nice of you to visit me. I’m glad to see you.”

“We were just stopping by to say hello, but we see you already have company.” Dot, the shorter of the two women, started to retreat.

Lukas stepped aside and motioned for them to come in. “That’s okay. There’s plenty of room in here. Besides, Juliane and I have been here a while, and we have to get to choir practice. So this is a good time for us to leave and let you visit with one another.”

The two women proceeded into the room, and Juliane introduced them to Lukas. Then Juliane and Lukas bade goodbye to Ferd and stepped into the hallway.

As Juliane bustled toward the exit, Lukas fell into step beside her. “Are you always in such a hurry?”

She glanced over at him. “I just walk fast.”

“You managed to keep a slower pace when we walked with Grandpa tonight.”

“Well, that was different.” Juliane narrowed her gaze as she felt a little of her old irritation return. She quickly tamped it down. Lukas didn’t need her prickliness on top of Ferd’s.

He grinned at her. “I was only kidding.”

“I’m sorry—”

“You’re forgiven,” he interrupted. “I’m starved. How about getting something to eat?”

Chapter Six

J
uliane’s first reaction was to decline, but his invitation was another test of her resolve to deal with Lukas and all of her conflicting emotions about him. “Okay, but it has to be somewhere fast.”

“Fast food?”

“No, just fast service.”

“Is there someplace in town where we can get a quick meal without going to a fast-food restaurant?” he asked.

“Yeah, follow me.” Juliane headed for her car.

Minutes later, Lukas joined her as they approached a café on Main Street, not far from the church. “One of my dad’s cousins runs this place.”

They slid into the booth with dark faux-leather seats, and the waitress immediately appeared and handed them menus. Lukas looked his over, then glanced up. “What do you recommend?”

“I always get the chicken fingers basket.”

“Okay. I’ll go with your recommendation.” He closed his menu as the waitress returned to take their order.

“I hope I didn’t steer you wrong,” Juliane said after the waitress left.

“I’m sure you didn’t, but in case you did, you have an in with the management.” Lukas chuckled. “Does your family own everything in town?”

“No, only half of it.” Juliane laughed, then shook her head. “I’m only kidding. My family owns a lot of the older businesses in town because they’ve been passed down through the generations, but things have changed in the past ten years.”

“How so?”

“More people moving in from the city. We’ve really become a bedroom community for Cincinnati.” Juliane took the napkin off the flatware. “New businesses have sprung up all over town. The plant you run is new.”

“So how do the folks around here feel about all the changes?”

“Some think they’re good. Some think they’re bad. That’s the way it is with any change.” Juliane thought of the change Lukas’s presence had brought to her own thinking. “You have to adjust.”

“And how have you adjusted?”

“You mean me personally?” What was he getting at? Did he realize how she was struggling since he’d arrived in town?

“You personally and your store.”

“We had to make a number of changes when the big discount store opened on the outskirts of town.” Juliane picked up her fork as the waitress brought their order.

“That was quick.”

“I told you the service is fast.”

“Would you like me to give thanks?”

“Sure.” Bowing her head, Juliane put down her fork, embarrassed that she hadn’t considered praying.

For a few minutes after the prayer, they ate in silence.
Juliane’s mind wrapped around one thing for sure. Being with Lukas was getting her more in touch with God. In her wildest imagination, she never would have believed Lukas could be the one to help with her spiritual life.

Lukas took a big gulp of his drink, then eyed her. “Tell me about the changes you’ve made in order to compete with the discount store.”

Juliane reflected for a moment. Leave it to Lukas to ask something that brought into focus all the problems she had with her father. “Most of the changes had to do with the kind of merchandise stocked. I had a terrible time trying to convince my dad that we couldn’t compete with the discount store with the lines we were carrying.”

“Is your dad as stubborn as my grandfather?”

Juliane nodded. “Actually, a lot of times I made the changes without consulting him. When the changes did well, he didn’t complain.”

“I can see you doing that.” Lukas laughed.

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“You are determined, and when you want something, nothing is going to stand in your way. I can tell that by the way you walk.”

“You judge people by the way they walk?”

“Sometimes. Body language can tell you a lot about people.”

“Speaking of body language, did you notice the way your grandfather’s eyes lit up when he looked at Dot tonight?”

“No. Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. You mean Mr. Body Language Expert missed a clue?”

Lukas shrugged. “I guess, if you’re right. I don’t see Grandpa having a romantic interest in any woman. He’s been a widower for nearly forty years, and as far as I know, he’s never even taken a woman out on a date.”

“Maybe he just never met the right woman before.”

“No.” Lukas vehemently shook his head as he finished off his chicken fingers. “He told everyone time and time again that no one could replace his Anna. My grandmother died before I was born, before the escape from East Germany. Breast cancer—just like my mother. Good thing I didn’t have a sister.”

Sorrow and pain radiated from Lukas’s words. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose her mother even now, much less as a teenager. For an instant Juliane was tempted to reach across the table and cover his hand with hers. But she held her hands tightly in her lap. She couldn’t let herself be drawn into his life any more than she already had. “I’m so sorry about your grandmother and your mother.”

“Thanks. I didn’t mean to be such a downer.” Lukas pulled his BlackBerry out of his coat pocket. “We’d better get the check and be on our way to practice.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m glad you told me.” Juliane picked up her purse and slid out of the booth. “Our check’s already been taken care of.”

Standing beside Juliane, Lukas knit his eyebrows in a little frown. “How’s that?”

“Remember, my dad’s cousin owns the place.”

“Are you saying the meal was on him?”

“No, I just said the bill’s been taken care of.”

“You are a sneaky one.” Lukas grinned. “I’ll take care of the bill next time.”

Heading for the door, Juliane wondered what that meant. Did he plan on taking her out to dinner another time? Why did the prospect worry her and excite her at the same time? This was not good.

Lukas opened the door and waited for Juliane to go outside. “Do you really think there’s something going on with my grandfather and Dot?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. We’ll have to wait and see.” Juliane hurried down the sidewalk to her car, which was parked next to Lukas’s. She slowed down when she remembered his comment about her speedy pace. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

“Don’t drive as fast as you walk.” Grinning, he hopped into his car and closed the door.

Sitting in her car for a moment, Juliane couldn’t forget the way Lukas had looked when he’d told her about his mother and grandmother. The tiny soft spot that had found its way into her heart over the previous days grew a little. She was beginning to understand him so much more. He’d been through a lot, and he was now relying on God—something she’d neglected to do lately.

Everything about her interaction with Lukas today had been positive—preparing her for choir practice tonight. Had she finally turned the corner with him, or would her old feelings of discomfort return without warning? If she was making progress on this front maybe she was ready for the next big challenge—dealing with Elise’s return.

 

Airline passengers streamed up the escalators as Juliane and her parents searched the crowd for Elise. Juliane’s mind buzzed with anticipation. A gamut of emotions washed over her. Anxiety reigned above the rest of them. Juliane tried to push the negative attitude away, but it returned with a vengeance every time she thought about her sister’s homecoming. There had always been an unhealthy competition between them. How would they get along after all this time?

Juliane had agreed to share her house with Elise. Now Juliane wondered about the wisdom of that decision. Everything about her life seemed out of control lately. She hated that feeling. She lived for stability, but the events of the past
few weeks had tested her ability to lead an orderly life. She couldn’t put her interactions with Lukas and Elise into neat little boxes.

Nothing was working out the way she’d planned. She enjoyed living alone, but she felt obligated to share her house with Elise. Now the peace and quiet of her day-to-day life was at risk.

Then there was Lukas. Although everything at choir practice was going smoothly, Juliane was tying herself in knots over her feelings for him. Nothing was tidy about trying to figure out what they meant—why one minute she liked him and the next she worried about getting too close.

Elise was coming home for good, and Lukas was constantly in her thoughts. Juliane wondered how she was supposed to cope when her life was turning upside down. Wasn’t that why she was supposed to be trusting in God?

“There she is.” Juliane’s mom rushed forward, waving her hand above her head.

Juliane hung back as her parents hurried to embrace her sister. Elise, her long curly brown hair accented with honey strands, dropped her backpack and fell into their arms. Juliane felt left out, but the feeling was of her own making. No one was keeping her at a distance. She was doing it to herself.

When her parents stepped back, Elise’s brandy-colored eyes found Juliane. The haggard look on Elise’s face surprised Juliane as she stepped forward to hug her sister.

Elise held Juliane tight. The embrace lasted longer than Juliane had anticipated, almost as if Elise didn’t want to let go. Holding her sister, Juliane realized how thin Elise was. Haggard. Pale. Was Elise ill? Was that why she hadn’t signed another contract with the cruise line?

Elise let go of Juliane and stepped back. “It’s so good to
be home.” Elise laughed and hugged Juliane again. “You don’t know how good.”

“We’re glad you’re back.” Despite her misgivings about her sister’s return, Juliane realized she really meant it. But she was concerned about Elise and wanted to ask her why she looked so tired. Maybe the long day’s travel had exhausted her? “Are you worn-out from the trip?”

“I am. I’ll probably fall asleep in the car on the way home. Maybe I’ll fall asleep just waiting for my baggage.” Elise laughed again and gave Juliane another quick hug.

At least it appeared that Elise was in good spirits, despite her long trip. They walked leisurely to the baggage claim as their parents peppered Elise with questions about her trip. When they reached the right area, they stood in silence for a few moments as they searched for the correct carousel.

“This is it.” Ray stepped closer to the empty carousel, then turned to Elise. “What are your intentions now that you’re home? Do you plan to get a job?”

“I’m planning to move in with Juliane. I thought you knew that. Didn’t she tell you?” Elise looked at Juliane with concern.

Ray nodded. “She did, but I wondered about your plans for the future, not just your living arrangements.”

“I’m going back to school and finishing my music education degree.”

Barbara clasped her hands together as a big smile curved her mouth. “What wonderful news. When will you start?”

“As soon as classes resume for the semester.” Elise wrinkled her brow. “I can’t remember the exact date, but it’s next week.”

“So soon? When did you have time to register?” Ray asked.

“I did it all online as soon as I decided not to sign another contract with the cruise line.”

“Why didn’t you tell us your plans?” Ray eyed his younger daughter.

Elise eyed him back. “I wanted to do this on my own—no interference from well-meaning people like you.” Laughing, she poked her dad in the ribs.

“Okay, I get the message—no interference from the old man. Are they going to accept all your old credits?” Chuckling, he shook his head.

Elise gave him a cheesy grin. “Yes, I checked on that, too. So I’m all set.”

“What do you intend to live on?” Ray asked.

“My good looks.” Elise did a little pirouette with her arms held wide. When she came to a stop, she grinned at her dad.

“I’m serious, girl.”

Juliane took in her father’s questioning with surprise. She was used to being grilled by her father, but hardly remembered him ever grilling Elise. Maybe she had a selective memory.

“Me, too, Dad.” Elise slipped her arm through her dad’s and smiled up at him. At nearly six foot, she was only inches shorter than he was. “I hope you’re in need of some part-time help at the store.”

“That’s Juliane’s department.” He patted Juliane’s back.

Juliane grimaced. “You know we always cut back on help after the holiday season, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks, Jules.” Elise gave Juliane another hug.

As Elise continued to tease their dad, Juliane’s reservations about her sister’s return came into sharp focus. Elise had a habit of waltzing into a situation and expecting everything to go smoothly for her. And somehow it always did—or at least, that’s the way it had always seemed to Juliane. This job thing was just another example of it. Everything always worked out for Elise, and she never seemed to realize that the world didn’t work that way for everyone else.

Elise could always sweet-talk their dad, but she’d never made any effort to stop him when it came to his drinking.
She acted as though the problem didn’t matter. So Juliane and her mother were left to deal with the consequences and cover for him. They’d been taking care of this while Elise spent six years gallivanting around the world.

As the carousel started moving and luggage began to appear, Juliane took a deep breath. She was falling into the old traps. She didn’t want that to happen, but how could she ignore the way Elise behaved? This was not a Christian attitude, and she should pray about it. But right now she wasn’t in much of a praying mood.

Juliane told herself these feelings were only temporary. She’d get over them in time…or would she? She pushed the troubling thoughts into a dark corner of her mind as she helped retrieve Elise’s bags.

Lifting a large black bag, Juliane groaned. “What do you have in here?”

Shrugging, Elise laughed. “Who knows? I don’t remember what I packed in any of the suitcases. I was cramming stuff here and there just to get it all in.”

“How many more pieces of luggage do you have?” Ray surveyed the bags surrounding him.

Elise pointed, silently counting the bags. “Two more.”

“That’s good. Otherwise, I’m not sure we’d have enough room to take them all home.” Barbara looked pointedly at Elise. “It’s a good thing we’re all here to help you get this luggage to the car.”

Elise went over and put an arm around her diminutive mother. “It’s so good to have us all together.”

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