Authors: Merrillee Whren
“That’s the truth.” Ray’s voice boomed above the cacophony of sounds echoing through the baggage claim area. “We should celebrate. I think we should have a big party to welcome Elise home.” He turned to his wife. “What do you think, honey?”
Barbara clapped her hands. “That is a marvelous idea. All your cousins, aunts and uncles and old friends would love to celebrate. Maybe we can rent the church hall.”
“Mom, Dad, you don’t have to make a big fuss.” Elise grabbed the remaining bag off the carousel. “I don’t want you going to a lot of trouble.”
“No trouble. It’ll be fun.” Barbara rubbed her hands together. “Are we ready to go?”
Elise nodded. “Looks like we have it all.”
“Everyone grab two bags, and I’ll take this duffel, as well.” Ray slung the strap over his shoulder and led the way to the car, pulling the wheeled bags behind him.
Trailing the others, Juliane fought against the jealousy that seeped into her heart as she listened to her parents plan a party for Elise. They’d never planned a party for her. Hadn’t she been the dutiful daughter, taking care of the store, being there whenever her parents had needed her? At least she had to give Elise credit for not pushing the party, although it was a given now that their dad had come up with the idea. Juliane vowed not to let her bad attitude ruin this reunion for her parents.
“I can’t believe how much I’ve missed this place.” Elise flung herself onto Juliane’s couch as their parents left.
“My house?” Juliane took in the pile of luggage littering her living room and wished Elise would at least take it to her bedroom. Their dad had offered to carry it up, but Elise had insisted that she would do it later. Memories of Elise’s room when they were in high school made Juliane shudder. She had forgotten what a slob Elise could be. What had she been thinking when she’d agreed to share her house with her sister?
“No, silly, Kellerville.”
“I can’t believe you said that.” Juliane playfully looked
behind the cushions decorating the couch. “What did you do with my sister?”
Elise picked up a cushion and threw it at Juliane. Juliane threw it back. Soon they were tossing cushions and dodging luggage as they fought a mock battle.
Finally, exhausted and laughing, Juliane held her hands in the air. “I give. You win.”
“You give up too easy.”
Juliane knew that was true where her sister was concerned. Juliane had always let Elise win. Life was simpler that way. “Would you like some help getting your bags into your room?”
Elise waved a hand at Juliane. “Oh, let’s wait until tomorrow. Let’s relax and enjoy ourselves tonight.”
Juliane tamped down the irritation that accompanied Elise’s procrastination. “I won’t be able to help you tomorrow. I have to be at the store early.”
“That’s okay. I’ve got all day tomorrow to work on it. I can do it by myself.” Elise resumed her seat on the couch. “So how’s Dad been lately? I can’t very well ask when we’re all talking on the phone together, and I never know who’s reading your e-mails.”
Juliane wondered whether she would come home from work tomorrow and find all this stuff still sitting here. She determined not to think about it. “If you’d paid attention, you’d know that you could send e-mails to my private account without any worry.”
“I know you said that, but I could never remember which one was which.” Elise wrinkled her nose.
“Dad’s been fine, since last summer. No drinking at all, even through the holidays.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Everything’s been going very well.”
Even as she said it, Juliane couldn’t help thinking about Lukas. Everything had been going well until he’d shown up and upset the peacefulness of her life. But the changes he’d triggered had been good ones. He’d made her reexamine her reliance on God and her judgmental attitudes. She was seeing them even now in the way she was thinking about Elise. Maybe Elise’s return would yield positive results, as well.
“You certainly have gotten your second wind.”
“Well, that nap on the way home helped.”
“Are you feeling okay?”
“You’ve lost a lot of weight, haven’t you?” Juliane held her breath while she waited for an answer.
“It’s very evident.” Juliane joined Elise on the couch, forgetting her earlier irritation. “I’m surprised Mom didn’t say something about it. Are you having some health issues? Is that why you quit your job?”
“Wow! Juliane, you’re worse than Mom and Dad with the inquisition.”
Juliane refused to let her sister redirect the conversation. “Just call me concerned and nosy, and answer the question.”
“That’s hard to believe. How can anyone lose weight on a cruise ship?”
“Easy. You work a lot of hours and don’t eat much.” Elise stretched out her long legs, encased in a pair of khaki pants.
“Do you have any clothes for cold weather in all those suitcases?” Juliane noticed her sister’s lightweight shirt as well as her pants that definitely weren’t warm enough for January in Ohio.
“Maybe a couple of things, but I’m sure I can pick some
stuff up at the store.” Elise glanced around the room. “Hey, do you know you’ve got a message on your answering machine?”
Turning, Juliane looked into the kitchen where the bright red message light blinked on and off. “I guess I do. How did I not notice before?”
“Too busy talking and getting Mom and Dad out of our hair so we can have some sister time.”
Juliane walked into the kitchen and punched the button to play the message.
“Hey, Juliane. It’s Lukas. I tried to leave you a message on your mobile, but you never called back. Hope all went well when you picked up your sister. I meant to ask you earlier today about getting together for the entertainment thing, but I forgot. Grandpa’s doing great. Give me a call when you can.”
As the message ended, Juliane wished she’d discovered the message while she was alone. Now Elise would ask questions in her so-called sister time.
Before Juliane could turn around, Elise was by her side. “So who’s Lukas?”
“Just a guy who’s helping me with the talent program for the Valentine’s banquet.”
“Just a guy, huh?”
“Yeah, he’s new in town, and Val sort of pushed him into helping me.”
“You’re jumping to a lot of conclusions, aren’t you? He could be some old married man.”
“But he’s not, is he?” Elise grinned.
Juliane sighed. “No, but there’s no matchmaking going on. Val was helping him get acquainted with the community.”
“Okay, if you say so, but what’s this about him seeing you earlier today? And why is he giving you a report on his grandpa?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got plenty of time.”
“Okay. I saw him at church this morning.”
“Oh, yeah, church. When you travel, you kind of lose track of the days.”
“And going to church?”
Elise grimaced. “I’m kind of out of the habit.”
“Will that change now that you’re home?”
“I suppose it’ll have to if you have anything to say about it.”
Juliane couldn’t miss Elise’s little dig, but she wasn’t going to let it get to her. “What you do about going to church is between you and God, not me.”
“What about his grandfather?” Elise asked, seemingly ignoring Juliane’s comment about church.
Juliane proceeded to tell Elise about Lukas and what had happened to his grandfather. “So now are you satisfied that nothing’s going on with Lukas and me?”
“Hardly. I can’t wait to meet him!”
Out of nowhere, a stab of jealousy hit Juliane. What did she care if Elise met Lukas? She had no claims on him. She didn’t even want any. So why was she having these feelings? She had to get over them, and with God’s help she would.
he next day gray skies foreshadowed the snow that was rolling in from the west. Juliane locked up the store and waved goodbye to her dad, who was on his way to the bank to make a night deposit. She hated gloomy winter days, and this particular gloom only added to her apprehension about sharing her house with Elise.
Juliane had vowed to get over second thoughts. But when she’d stumbled over Elise’s luggage on her way to the kitchen this morning, her vow had faded as quickly as the daylight was fading now on this late afternoon.
Light shone through the large picture window in the living room as she pulled into the driveway at the side of her century-old brick house. She punched the button on the garage-door opener. While the door slowly rose, Juliane prepared herself to find Elise still surrounded by a mess of luggage while she watched TV. She had complained of jet lag last night, so Juliane wouldn’t be surprised to find her sister still in bed.
I will not be angry. I will not be upset.
The mantra rolled across her mind as she traipsed through the breezeway that
her uncle had added between the garage and the house. With her uncle’s help, she had also remodeled the old house and made it her own. She didn’t want her sister to come in and make it a pigsty.
Opening the back door, Juliane took a deep breath and prepared for the worst. Instead, wonderful smells greeted her as she stepped into the kitchen.
Elise turned from the counter where she was preparing some kind of salad. “Hi, Jules. You’re home sooner than I expected.”
“Dad and I got out of the store as soon as it closed today.” Hanging up her coat on the hook just inside the door, Juliane gazed around the kitchen. “What are you doing?”
“Fixing supper.” Elise returned to her salad. “I thought it would be ready when you got here, but I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
Juliane couldn’t contain her shock. “You…you’re cooking?”
Grinning, Elise continued to work. “You sound surprised.”
“But you hate cooking.”
“That’s before I took the time to learn how.”
“But Mom tried to teach us how to cook. You were never interested.”
“I know, but while I was sailing around the world, I learned. They have the most fabulous cooking classes on the ships these days for the passengers who are interested. So when I had free time that coincided with the cooking demonstrations, I took advantage.”
“Wow! I’m impressed.”
“Wait till you taste it.”
“How soon will it be ready?”
“In about fifteen minutes.” Elise glanced over her shoulder. “You have time to get out of that suit and into some comfy clothes.”
Smiling, Juliane shook her head. “I can’t get over it. This is a treat. I’ll change and be right back, so I can help you.”
Elise waved her away. “Relax. I’ve got it all under control.”
More surprises greeted Juliane as she walked through the living room. Not a single piece of luggage remained. The room was absolutely spotless—not a speck of dust anywhere. Elise had cleaned? As Juliane headed to her bedroom, she felt a surge of guilt for her mean-spirited assumptions earlier. Elise had surprised her, just as Lukas had surprised her.
After she changed into a pair of black corduroy pants and a gray sweater, she joined Elise. “So what are you feeding me?”
“Have a seat, and you’ll find out.”
Juliane turned toward the round oak table and Windsor chairs in the kitchen corner. “Are you sure you don’t want my help?”
“Yes. You worked all day. Now it’s your time to relax.” Elise opened the oven and pulled out a roasting pan.
Dumbfounded, Juliane sat at the table as Elise filled two plates with steaming food. Last night she’d been joking when she’d asked Elise what she’d done with her sister. Now Juliane was tempted to believe that some stranger occupied the kitchen. What other changes in her sister would she discover?
Juliane stared in amazement as Elise approached the table. “You made Cornish hen?”
“Yeah, with wild rice stuffing, braised carrots and green beans.” She set the plates on the table, then turned back to the counter. “I’ve also got a little side salad, too.”
“Do you want me to give thanks?” Juliane asked as Elise slipped into a chair.
“Sure, or maybe you should taste it first.” Elise chuckled.
“If it tastes as good as it smells, I’m sure I’ll be thankful.” Juliane bowed her head and said a short prayer, then started
eating. “Elise, this is too good. I think I’ll let you cook every night.”
“Thanks. I’ll do the cooking until I start my classes.”
“What day is that?”
“Next Wednesday.” Elise set her fork on her plate. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. That guy…Lukas…he called before you got home. He said something about going to visit his grandfather and wanted to know whether you could meet afterward to work on that banquet stuff.”
“Did he say I should call him?”
“Yeah, but no need. I invited him to come over.” Elise grinned. “I want to meet this guy you have no interest in.”
Juliane almost choked on her bite of Cornish hen. She tried to be calm. If she protested Elise would surely think something was going on. “So what time did he say he’d get here?”
“He thought around eight o’clock because that’s when his grandfather starts watching his favorite TV shows.” Elise smiled smugly. “So you have plenty of time to get yourself ready for his visit.”
“And just exactly what is that supposed to mean?”
Elise shrugged, still smiling. “Whatever you’d like.”
Juliane lowered her gaze and tackled her food. There was no point in discussing this with Elise. She’d made up her mind that Juliane had some kind of romantic interest in Lukas so it was pointless to argue. They ate in silence for several minutes.
She wouldn’t think about Lukas. Instead, guilt over the way she’d neglected to keep in touch with her sister percolated in Juliane’s mind. She should have known about Elise’s newfound love of cooking. She should know why Elise had decided to stop the cruising life and go back to school. Could they be close, something they hadn’t been since they were little kids?
When Juliane finished eating, she picked up her plate and headed to the sink. “Thanks, Elise. The food was terrific.”
“You’re welcome.” Elise joined her and started putting plates in the dishwasher.
While they worked together, Juliane had dozens of questions swirling around in her mind. She might as well start with an easy one. “Did you manage to get some rest today after all the cleaning and cooking?”
Elise laughed. “So you noticed, huh?”
“Yeah, I slept in till about eleven—eight o’clock Pacific time. My body will eventually get used the Eastern time zone.”
“You do look more rested today than yesterday, but you still look like you’ve lost too much weight.”
“Don’t worry about my weight. If I keep cooking like this, I’ll gain it back in no time.”
“Well, it isn’t fair. Why is it that the people who don’t need to lose weight are the ones who have no trouble doing it?”
“Are you still worrying about your weight?” Elise poured dishwasher soap into the little cup, then pressed the buttons to turn the machine on.
“Not really.” Wanting to avoid Elise’s pointed gaze, Juliane lowered her head and started washing the roaster pan. She hadn’t worried about her weight since Elise had left town. A few inches taller than their mother, Juliane had always wondered why she’d inherited their mother’s genes for shortness and their father’s genes for the tendency to carry extra weight. Elise, on the other hand, had inherited their mother’s slimness and their father’s height.
“Good, because you shouldn’t. You have nice curves. You’re not built like a stick. Look at me.”
Juliane looked up to see Elise holding her arms out from her sides. Laughter bubbled up inside Juliane until she couldn’t control it. “We’re both dissatisfied with how we look. We are pathetic.”
Elise put an arm around Juliane’s shoulders and nodded. “I think you’re right. We are. But don’t think about that now. You’d better get ready for your visitor.” Elise waggled her eyebrows.
“Quit teasing me.”
“You’re trying to make this into something it isn’t.” Juliane was tempted to tell Elise that she was more likely to be Lukas’s type than Juliane, but the words caught in her throat. Probably because she was sure they were true. She and Lukas had been spending a lot of time together, but she knew that would change once he met Elise.
The headlights of Lukas’s car illuminated the big white snowflakes that fell like confetti as he drove through an older neighborhood in Kellerville. Creeping along the snow-covered street, he finally spotted the address that Juliane’s sister had given him. He maneuvered his car into the driveway of the redbrick house with the white trim. It seemed to suit Juliane.
Getting out of his car, he took in the wide porch with the white balustrade running across the front. Unable to see the walk for the snow, he tromped through the yard and onto the porch.
Lukas took a deep breath as he rang the doorbell. Stomping the snow from his shoes, he waited for someone to answer the door. Ever since he’d talked to Juliane’s sister, he’d been thinking about this opportunity to see Juliane again. He couldn’t help thinking about her. At the oddest moments at home, at work or even when he was visiting with his grandfather, thoughts of her would pop into this mind.
He had to admit that his eagerness to see her even outweighed his concern about meeting her sister—another
person who might judge him because of his past. He took some comfort in the fact that Juliane hadn’t told anyone about his past, but sisters sometimes told each other things that they didn’t tell anyone else. Either way, he wanted to make a good impression, wanted all of Juliane’s family to approve of him.
As he stood there worrying about his fascination with Juliane, she answered the door. “Come in, and get out of the cold. I had no idea that the snow had already accumulated so much. The wind seems to be picking up, too.”
“It has. The roads are getting slick.” Unexpectedly nervous, he stomped his feet again, even though he’d already dislodged all the snow.
Shaking off the imaginary snow gave him a moment to gather his thoughts and his courage. He didn’t know why he suddenly needed courage to talk with Juliane. With little difficulty, he’d told her about his life two weeks ago, then again when they’d eaten at her cousin’s café. Why did he run off at the mouth whenever they were alone together? Pushing his muddled thoughts aside, he proceeded into the living room, bringing a gust of frigid air with him.
As Juliane closed the door behind him, a tall, very slim young woman stepped forward. “Hi, I’m Elise, Juliane’s sister. I’m the one who talked to you on the phone.”
“Nice to meet you, Elise. Thanks for inviting me over.” As Lukas glanced from Elise to Juliane, their differences struck him. If he’d passed them on the street, he’d never have guessed they were sisters. Juliane resembled her cousins more than Elise.
“Is Ferd doing well tonight?” Juliane’s question shook him from his thoughts.
“As ornery as ever.”
“So he must be okay?”
Smiling, Lukas nodded. “He’s finally getting used to his hearing aids and agreed to come to church with me on Sunday.”
“I’m glad to hear things are going well for him.” Juliane held out a hand. “Let me take your coat.”
“Sure.” Stepping farther into the room, Lukas shrugged out of his coat. When she took it, their hands accidentally touched. His heart picked up speed, and he didn’t miss the look in Juliane’s eyes before she turned away. Had she felt the spark, too, or was that his imagination?
As Juliane left, he tried not to think about it. He turned his focus on the room with its shining hardwood floor covered with a colorful area rug. He took in the landscape painting of a covered bridge hanging on the wall above the couch. He liked Juliane’s taste. There he was again—thinking about her. Did everything push his thoughts in her direction?
“I hope you guys don’t mind my listening in on your meeting.” Elise made herself at home on one end of the couch.
Juliane returned to the room. “What’s no problem?”
“For me to join in your meeting.”
“That’s fine.” A little frown puckering her brow, Juliane motioned for him to sit in the nearby chair while she sat on the opposite end of the couch from Elise.
As Lukas sat on the chair near Juliane, he wondered what had caused her frown. Was she still reluctant to meet with him, reminiscent of that night after the first choir practice? What had changed since their last meeting? Or was Elise’s presence a problem? He couldn’t believe he was letting all this speculation clutter his mind.
He had to quit making conjectures and asking himself all these questions for which he had no answers. “So where do we start? What kind of entertainment do you usually have at this banquet?”
Biting her bottom lip, Juliane glanced at Elise, as if her sister could tell them what to do. “Good question.”
“Don’t look at me.” Elise shrugged, drawing her knees to her chest and hugging her legs. “I haven’t been around for six years. I’m only observing.”
“What did they do last year?” Lukas asked.
Juliane shook her head. “I don’t have a clue. I don’t know why Val put me in charge of this. I was busy coordinating the servers in the kitchen last year.”
“I know why she asked you.” Elise chuckled. “She knows you can’t say no.”
“That’s not true.”
Elise shook her head. “When was the last time you said no to someone who asked you to do something?”
Juliane let out a heavy sigh, her shoulders sagging. “Okay, I guess you’re right.”
Lukas took in the exchange. He’d thought that he and Juliane had become friends. Was Juliane’s inability to say no the only reason she’d agreed to work with him? Was that why she’d helped him with his grandfather?
Sitting forward in the chair, Lukas wondered about the wisdom of interjecting himself into this conversation. He cleared his throat. “Elise, did I hear that you used to sing on a cruise ship?”