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Bad habits died hard, that is, if they died at all. Kyle Lancaster understood that intimately after sharing living space with some repeat offenders who made the peccadilloes of his youth seem like child's play. As he stepped through the door of Hickory Ridge Community Church for the second time that day, Kyle needed no further proof that his bad habit of letting others talk him into crazy plans was alive and well.
He was working as a consultant for a new Michigan prison ministrynow that was an idea he never would have pictured. But then he never would have imagined himself inside a cell, either. And now he would never get the stench or the squashing feel of it out of his memory.
Kyle could understand why the Milford Area Ecumenical Council might want input from a real-life ex-con as it built its program, but he knew full well his brother, Brett, had only suggested him for the job to keep him busy and out of trouble.
Beggars couldn't be choosers, and he needed this job, at least for a while.
Halfway through a double-glass door, he stalled as the early May wind swirled past him into the building. Though he'd endured the meeting with the two ministers this morning, he wasn't sure he was ready to face the whole church community yet. He'd almost opted to delay the inevitable when a man and three women came up behind him.
Stepping to the side, Kyle held the door open for the other adults. The last one through the entry, the guy, surprised him by patting his shoulder. On instinct, Kyle whirled to face him.
Youth Minister Andrew Westin grinned as he held up his hands in the sign of the unarmed. "You came, after all."
Kyle gripped Andrew's extended hand. He was uncomfortable receiving help from anyone, but he was trying, with God's help, to be gracious in accepting it.
"There was a break in my social calendar." He didn't need to clarify that his whole calendar was blank.
"Well, I'm glad you changed your mind. I hope you're as hungry as I am. It's pasta night."
Kyle stomach growled but not loudly enough for the youth minister to hear. "I've never heard of a church having Wednesday-night dinners."
"The choir director suggested it about a year ago. With all the church activities on Wednesday nightschildren's choir, adult choir, the Deacon board and prayer meetingsome families were having a hard time fitting in dinner together. Now they can have dinner with the whole church family."
"Anyone can come? To the dinner, I mean." Kyle hated the insecurity he heard in his voice. He would have to get over worrying about what other people thought if he ever hoped to adapt to life on the outside.
Andrew studied him for several seconds before he spoke again. "Kyle, really, I wouldn't worry about the folks here at Hickory Ridge. This church is filled with sinners, not saints. Just the way it's supposed to be."
"Thanks for that, but"
"Everyone deserves a second chance. I know I had one."
That last comment begged for elaboration, but before Kyle could ask any questions, Andrew started down the hallway leading to the Family Life Center. Andrew glanced over his shoulder at him. "Aren't you coming?"
Kyle followed gamely behind him. Maybe now wasn't the time to ask Andrew about second chances, but he would tuck his question away for later.
Loud voices and laughter escaped the gymnasium as Andrew pulled open the heavy metal door that separated the Family Life Center from the rest of the church. The aroma of garlic and oregano wafted along with the sounds.
Inside, a dozen long tables were lined with folding chairs to await the dinner crowd. Along the gymnasium's far wall, about thirty adults and children were in line, heading for the main serving counter with its roll-up metal window. At another table to the side, guests who already had plates of spaghetti or lasagna were serving themselves bread sticks and bowls of fresh salad.
"Hey, there's some food left," Andrew said.
As soon as he stepped in line behind a preteen girl with a mass of dark, curly hair, he gave the girl's ponytail a playful yank.
She turned around, a frown scrunching her cute face until she recognized the culprit. "Daddy Andrew!"
She flung herself into his arms. When he set her on the ground again, Andrew turned her to face his guest. "Kyle, this is my stepdaughter, Tessa." He gestured with his hand. "Tessa, meet Mr. Lancaster."
"Hi." She smiled shyly and turned back to her friends.
As they reached the front of the line, Kyle asked for a slice of lasagna and then made his way to the salad table. Only instead of a vat of iceberg lettuce and a pump container of French dressing like he was used to, he approached a spread with carrot shavings, cucumber slices, boiled eggs, croutons and sunflower seeds. Quantity and choices. There were even several dressings. He grabbed a second plate and started to build a salad, resisting the temptation to make a pig of himself.
"Excuse me, please. Coming through," a feminine voice called from behind him.
Kyle turned to see a blond pregnant woman holding a tray of fresh fruit. He set down his plates and lifted the tray for her, setting it on an empty spot near the end.
"Thanks." The woman grinned at him and then turned to look over her shoulder. "Is that the last of it, Julia?"
"I think so," answered a female voice as its owner pushed through the swinging kitchen door carrying a tray of brownies and cookies.
Kyle's breath caught as a raven-haired woman with a porcelain face like Snow White and Catherine Zeta-Jones combined came into view. No, neither the cartoon reference nor the Hollywood one did justice to that kind of perfection. Julia wore a low ponytail that fell in a silken stream to the middle of her back.
She glanced up at Kyle as she set her tray on the table, and her deep brown eyes widened, exaggerating their almond shape. For a moment Kyle thought he saw recognition in her eyes before her lush lashes swept down and she averted her gaze.
At the sound of Andrew coughing into his hand, Kyle started. Snap out of it, Lancaster. He was acting as if he'd never seen a beautiful woman before. Well, not up close in a long time, but still
Andrew began introductions, but he indicated the blonde first. "Kyle, this is Hannah McBride. You already know her father, Reverend Bob Woods."
He set his plate on the edge of the table again so he could shake her hand. "It's nice to meet you."
Hannah indicated the brunette with a tilt of her head. "This is my friend, Julia Sims."
He smiled at Julia, balancing on the tightrope between looking and staring. She was attractive but not as perfect as he'd first thought. She wasn't particularly tallno more than five foot fourand her curves were more generous than fashion-magazine wisdom demanded. He would have searched for additional flaws, but she smiled and he forgot why he was looking so hard.
"Julia, this is Kyle" Hannah paused, waiting for him to fill in the blank.
"Lancaster," he supplied.
He hated that Julia's eyebrow lifted at the mention of his name. He hated even more that her reaction bothered him. Of course, his reputation had preceded him.
"Lancaster?" Julia asked. "Are you any relation to Brett Lancaster?"
"I thought you looked familiar."
So that was it. She'd only noticed a family resemblance when she'd looked at him. Maybe the whole church didn't know about his prison record, after all.
"You two do look a little alike," Andrew said. "Except for Brett's short hair."
"You know cops." Kyle shrugged, figuring his hair was plenty short enough. On reflex, his hand went to his neck. His hair barely covered it now, though a week ago it had been long enough to tie with a band.
Julia smiled again, an expression that lit up her whole face. "You must be such a proud uncle since Brett married Tricia and got an instant family. Brett is such a proud daddy."
Kyle tried to smile back and hoped he succeeded. "I can't wait to meet them."
"I didn't know Brett had a brother," Hannah said, tilting her head to the side and squinting as if trying to recall. "But I've met your sister, Jenny."
"She works in the hospital obstetrics ward with my sister," Julia added.
He had little time to ruminate on how everyone he'd met in Milford seemed to know everyone else, before Hannah posed the question Kyle would like to have asked himself.
"If you're visiting tonight, why isn't your brother here to show you around?"
Maybe for the same reason Brett hadn't even been by to see him since Kyle had moved into his downtown apartment over the weekend.
"Oh, I invited him," Andrew answered, covering the lingering pause. "Kyle's going to be working with our new prison ministry and helping out with plans for the Homecoming celebration. We want to familiarize him with some of the other church programs."
"The celebration's going to be great," Julia told him, excitement clear in her voice. "It's like a big family reunion for anyone who ever attended our church. We scheduled it on the same weekend as the Milford Memories festivalthe second weekend in August. That way, former members can make a vacation out of their visit."
One of those cat-just-made-a-snack-of-the-canary smiles appeared on Hannah's face before she spoke again. "Andrew, have you told Kyle about all the church programs? What about our singles' program?" She turned to Kyle. "It's called Christian Singles United. Julia's a member. You should ask her about it."
Sure, Andrew had mentioned it, and Kyle had been quick to nix the idea. Still, though Hannah's approach had been about as subtle as a two-by-four to the head, Kyle couldn't resist sneaking a peek at Julia.
She rolled her eyes and frowned.
"Julia teaches first grade at Johnson Elementary," Hannah continued. "She's a great teacher and a great catch."
"Gee, thanks, Hannah." Julia shook her head, looking embarrassed.
"No problem. Now, Andrew and I are going to see if anyone needs help in the kitchen. You two enjoy your dinner."
She grabbed the youth minister's arm and pulled him toward the kitchen. Over his shoulder Andrew gave an apologetic shrug and disappeared through the swinging door.
When Kyle turned back to Julia, her light olive complexion had deepened to a pretty maroon, but she was too polite to cut and run.
"Sorry about that. You'll have to forgive Hannah. Ever since she got married a year and a half ago, she's been setting up everyone."
"I'll remember to keep my distance then."
Julia nodded as though she'd received the message that he wouldn't be a player in the local dating game. He had no business even thinking about the opposite gender, anyway. He had so much hard work ahead of him for the next few months. So much to prove.
"Well," she began again, "we still have to eat. So, do you want to " She let her words trail away in an unspoken dinner invitation.
He glanced at his plates, all but forgotten on the salad table. "Sure."
As he collected his food, Julia reached for the brownies, placing two on a dessert plate. "Get your own," she said when she caught him watching.
He couldn't help grinning at her since she didn't have any dinner and was still making sure she didn't miss dessert. He had to respect a woman who had her priorities in order.
She led him to a long table, set down her plate, indicating for him to take the spot opposite hers. As soon as he took his seat, though, she hurried off to the serving table. When she returned, she was carrying a salad to go with her brownies.
"That's great that you'll be working with the Homecoming committee. Do you know which subcommittee you'll be working on? I'm on the Search and Invitation committee. We'll be trying to locate and invite as many former members as we can."
"I still don't know what I'll be doing for the celebration. They'll probably assign me where they need the most help."
She nodded, but he wondered if he saw disappointment in her expression. Instead of saying something more, Julia forked a bite of her brownie into her mouth and then started on her salad.
"So, you're a member of the singles' group." Kyle blinked.
Where had that come from, and how could he take it back?
Julia lifted her head. "I guess you could say that." She chewed her lip before continuing. "But I'm not the best advertisement for it."
Kyle managed to keep his face blank, which was no small feat because in his opinion, a picture of Julia Sims would be exactly the kind of advertisement a singles' program could use. If group organizers wanted to attract new singles of the male persuasion, anyway.
"Why would you say that?" he asked.
"I've been a member for three years and I've never really, you know met anybody."
She flitted her gaze his way but looked away again, something in her salad requiring all of her attention.
"Sure, I've met people," she began, still looking at the table, "but just no one special for me."
"I still find that hard to believe." He also found it hard to imagine why he couldn't keep his mouth shut.
She looked up at him with a sheepish grin. "There were extenuating circumstances with a few of the men I met. In one case, my friend, a young widow, tried to set me up with this guy, and then she realized that God intended for them to be together."
"You mean ?"
"Yes. Tricia tried to set me up with your brother."
"You never went?"
Julia shook her head but was quick to add, "Brett never asked, either."
"Oh." His relief was more for Julia's sake than his own. His boring Dudley Do-Right brother would never have been a good match for an intriguing person like Julia Sims.
As if you would be.
"There were some others, too. Hannah tried to convince me to go out with her best friend, Grant. The only problem was that Grant was more interested in Hannah and hasn't dated anyone else since she got married."
Kyle shook his head, chuckling. "You're making this stuff up. It sounds just like a soap opera."
"It gets better. Tricia wanted me to go out with Brett's former partner, but she couldn't even convince him to visit the singles' group."
"Ouch." It sounded like a comic routine on the trials of dating in the new millenniuma regular comedy of dating-scene horrorsbut he didn't tell Julia that.