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Harsh memories flashed through Juliane Keller's mind as she stopped in the middle of the church aisle. The subject of those memories—Lukas Frey—stood with members of the choir on the stage at the front of the sanctuary. Why was he here?
Brushing snowflakes from her coat, she could think of only one good reason—his wonderful singing voice. But the Lukas she'd known eleven years ago would never have used his voice to sing in a church choir. Light-headed, she grabbed the back of a pew and watched him converse with her cousins Carrie and Val. Tonight was the first official practice of the musical they were performing for Winter Festival at the end of January. Strangers weren't supposed to be there.
What was she to make of his sudden appearance in her little hometown of Kellerville, Ohio?
With everyone absorbed in conversation, no one had noticed her entrance. Could she escape before Lukas became aware of her presence? She wanted to avoid Lukas, who dredged up things better forgotten, until she had a chance to find out what he was doing in town.
She crept backward down the aisle. She hoped her slow, quiet steps would guard her from detection. As she eased away from the stage, she bumped into someone. Letting out a yelp, she turned and came face-to-face with Tom Porter, the music minister, a rotund man with graying brown hair.
Tom grabbed her shoulders. "Juliane, are you all right? Didn't mean to startle you."
"That's good. We've been waiting for you. I'm glad you finally made it."
Trying to smile, Juliane knew everyone, including Lukas, was looking at her. "I got stuck at the store doing some last-minute stuff for my dad. Sorry I'm late."
"That's okay. Now that you're here, we can get started." Tom gestured toward the front and hurried up the aisle.
Heat creeping into her cheeks, Juliane followed Tom, keeping her eyes on the blue tweed carpeting that matched the padding on the pews. She didn't dare look at Lukas, who appeared, at least from a distance, not to have changed much in the eleven years since she'd last seen him. He was still tall and lean with coal-black hair. Was his personality the same? There was no way to tell. At least he seemed to be sober—for now. She shuddered as she recalled her last brush with a drunken Lukas Frey. Was he remembering the same thing? She hoped not.
But why was she worried? He probably didn't even remember her or their last encounter. As a college freshman, she'd barely been a blip on his graduate student radar.
When Tom reached the three steps leading to the stage, he stopped and turned to Juliane. "I want you to meet the newest member of the choir."
Juliane kept her gaze focused on Tom as her stomach churned. Lukas? A new member of their choir? How could that be? He didn't even live here. Besides, she had a hard time believing he was involved with a church, much less the choir. He hadn't exactly been the churchgoing type.
How should she handle this situation? Should she pretend not to know him? God expected her to tell the truth, but she was sorely tempted to lie. If only she'd been able to get away.
She forced another smile. "Who?"
"Lukas, come meet Juliane." Tom motioned for Lukas to join them.
Glancing their way, Lukas grinned. As he made his way across the stage, his gaze met hers. She remembered those startling blue eyes. They made her shiver, but relief washed over her when no recognition showed on his face. He didn't remember her. Her concern was for nothing.
Why would he remember her anyway? They'd only met in passing at a few different theater department productions. When she'd first encountered him at rehearsals, she'd wondered why someone in an MBA program would be involved in the theater group. She soon learned he was dating a graduate assistant in the theater department.
He'd been hard to miss with his handsome face, those blue eyes and dark hair. But his constant drinking had disgusted her, so she'd avoided him until the night her cousin Nathan had asked her to do a good deed by giving Lukas a ride home. As she pushed the memories away, he came down the steps and extended his hand.
"Hi, I'm Lukas Frey."
Offering him her hand, Juliane tried to keep her lips from quivering as she held her smile in place. "I'm Juliane Keller."
He narrowed his eyes. "Have we met before? Somehow you seem familiar. My grandfather lives here. Have we run into each other in town?"
Juliane digested that bit of information while an easy lie formed in her mind. He would never know the difference if she led him to believe they'd met here. But no matter the cost, she couldn't give in to the temptation. "Yes, we've met before, but not here. We met when we worked on the same theater department musical. As I recall, you were in grad school, and I was a freshman."
"How could I not remember you?"
What was that supposed to mean? Did he suddenly recall their last meeting? Doubtful. Maintaining her smile was getting painful, but she'd have to be cordial and pretend that meeting him wasn't setting her nerves on edge. "Are you visiting your grandfather?"
"Not exactly. I've moved here."
Realizing the stupidity of her question, Juliane shook her head. Lukas had her mind in a dither. "Since Tom said you're in the choir, I should've known that. Welcome to Kellerville. I hope you and your family will enjoy living in our great little town."
"No family here except my grandfather. He moved here a couple of years ago when he retired. He wanted to get out of the city." Lukas smiled wryly. "And if I need a taste of city life myself, Cincinnati's not far away."
"Do I know your grandfather?"
Lukas shrugged. "I don't know. His name is Ferdinand Engel."
"I don't recall meeting him."
Tom jumped into the conversation. "Lukas will be in charge of running the new plant in town."
"You mean the medical devices plant?" Lukas certainly must have changed since his grad school days. Years before, he hardly seemed like someone who could handle the responsibilities of a plant manager or responsibilities of any kind. Was he truly more trustworthy now…or had he just gotten better at hiding his drinking problems?
"Yes, I'll be supervising the start-up, then the day-to-day operations."
"Are you living with your grandfather?"
Chuckling, Lukas shook his head. "Grandpa wouldn't have that, so I did the next best thing. I purchased a house in the same block where he lives. Grandpa thinks he can take care of himself, but I took this job specifically to keep an eye on him. His health's been poor in recent years."
Juliane hoped the surprise didn't show on her face. She'd never expected him to be the type who would care for a grandparent. "So you took the job here to be close to him?"
"Sort of. I've worked for this company for several years. It's a good promotion for me, and it gives me the opportunity to look after him."
Tom clapped Lukas on the back. "I had no idea you two had met before. This will give you a chance to renew your acquaintance."
"Certainly." Juliane stifled a groan. She didn't want to renew anything with Lukas Frey, but somehow she managed to smile again. By this time, her smile surely looked disingenuous. How long could she keep up this pretense?
Lukas turned to Tom. "I didn't mean to take up so much time talking. I know you want to get started."
"No problem." Tom hopped onto the stage and picked up a stack of booklets. "Okay, everyone, these contain the music score and speaking parts. You can follow along while we listen to the recording of the program and get an idea of how it goes."
Hurrying up the steps, Juliane took a booklet from Tom, hoping to distance herself from Lukas. "Are we supposed to sing with the recording or just listen?"
"We're not concerned about actually singing tonight, but if you want, you can sing along, especially those of you who have solos like you and Lukas." Tom turned toward Lukas as he joined them on the stage, then added, "Those of you with speaking parts can underline your part in the booklet."
Juliane's mind buzzed as she settled on the front pew in the choir loft. Lukas had a solo? How had that happened so quickly? She glanced at Lukas. "What part do you have?"
"I have the male lead. I think the character's name is Dave." Lukas stared at her. "How about you?"
"I've got the part of Grace, the female lead." Juliane didn't want to believe it. How had Lukas wound up with the lead male role? Her cousin Nathan was supposed to have that. Sometime tonight she needed to have a talk with Tom and find out why the change had been made.
Smiling, Lukas sat at the other end of the pew. "Great. Then we'll be singing together."
Yeah. Great. That wasn't the word she'd use to describe the situation. Thankfully, before she could respond, Tom turned on the recording.
While they listened to the songs, Juliane couldn't concentrate on her part, especially when she realized how much interaction David and Grace had in the musical. That meant lots of interaction between Lukas and her. Could she get someone else to take her part? That would solve the problem.
Juliane dismissed that idea instantly. Maybe God was trying to remind her that His love extended to everyone— even people who sometimes seemed unlovable. Dealing with Lukas was definitely a test of her resolve to be Christ-like.
Besides, she'd been looking forward to this year's program for the Winter Festival and the opportunity to tell the story of God's love not just to churchgoers but also to the community at large. She wanted to use her voice for God's glory. Now she had to put God's love into practice by being nice to Lukas even though she didn't relish the idea.
When she glanced up from the music score, Lukas was looking at her. He didn't seem embarrassed to be caught staring. His audacity hadn't changed in eleven years. Had anything else?
She'd been at a cast party on that night eleven years ago when she'd looked out the window to see Lukas headed for his car, keys in hand. She couldn't let him drive home after all he'd had to drink at the party. He'd kill himself or someone else. How could she stop him?
As she'd turned to find help, her cousin Nathan approached. She hurried over to him and explained the situation.
"You're right. We can't let him drive." Without waiting for her, Nathan raced out the door.
Juliane followed him into the night. She caught up to him just as he reached Lukas, who was still fumbling to unlock his car.
Nathan put a hand on Lukas's shoulder. "Having a problem?"
"Yeah, man." Lukas looked up, a silly grin on his face.
Nathan reached for the keys. "Let me see what I can do."
Juliane sighed with relief when Lukas handed over his keys without resistance. Nathan unlocked the car.
"Hey, man. Thanks." Lukas leaned against the car still grinning like a fool. "Now I can go home."
"I can't let you drive," Nathan said.
Juliane held her breath while she watched the exchange. Would Nathan be able to convince Lukas that he shouldn't drive himself home? Thankfully, Lukas was a happy drunk, not a surly one.
"Then how do you expect me to get home?" Lukas slurred through his question.
"Juliane will drive you." Nathan turned her way.
Her heart sank into her stomach. "Me?"
"Yes." Nathan pulled her aside for a moment. "You can drive him to his apartment. Unlock his door, then keep his keys, so he won't decide to drive himself out for a White Castle. I'd do it myself, but I have to help load all the tables and stuff we borrowed, so the guys can return them."
"I don't know where he lives."
"In that complex a couple of blocks from campus. You know the one I mean?"
"Good. I'll be there in a few minutes to pick you up. Think of this as your good deed for the day."
Letting out her breath, Juliane glanced at Lukas, who stumbled toward them. He was still grinning, his eyes glazed over as he stopped beside her. Taking him home wasn't what she wanted to do, but she couldn't let him drive. "Looks like I'm elected to take you home."
"The pretty lady wants to drive me home?"
Not really. "Sure, get in."
Without an argument, Lukas slumped into the passenger seat. Thankfully, she was able to make the trip without having to stop for a traffic light. Turning into the parking lot, she glanced at Lukas, who was still slumped in his seat. "Which building is yours?"
"This first one." Looking at her, he gave her that silly grin again. "You know… you're pretty. Why haven't I seen you before?"
She ignored the question as she got out. "We need to get you inside. Can you walk?"
"Of course, I can walk." He opened the door and exited the car. He lurched forward but managed not to fall down. "See?"
Once inside the building, Juliane followed Lukas up the stairs to his apartment. She unlocked the door and let it swing open. She turned and looked at him. "You're home. I'm keeping your keys, and Nathan will see that you get them back tomorrow."
He stumbled into the apartment and pulled her with him. "Okay, pretty lady, what do you have for me?"
"Nothing." Her heart hammered as she tried to pull her arm from his grasp.
He gave her that sappy smile, only this time it seemed more like a leer. "You didn't drive me home for nothing."
"I've got to go. Nathan is waiting for me."
"He can just keep waiting." Lukas kicked the door closed, pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
Juliane tried not to panic as she twisted her head away and kneed him in the groin. He let go of her and slumped over. Seeing her chance to escape, she opened the door and fled down the stairs.
Through the open door, he yelled, "Hey, whad ya do that for? I was only trying to get a kiss."
Maybe that was all he had been trying to do, but she wasn't sticking around to find out. He had scared her. Feeling sick to her stomach, she raced across the parking lot. When Nathan finally picked her up, he asked why she was waiting out in the cold. She told him she hadn't felt like spending time with a drunk. She never told him anything else. She never told anyone about it.
Lukas had done nothing more than kiss her, but she couldn't forget the way he'd scared her with that stolen kiss. Hoping never to see him again, she hadn't gone back to the theater group.
Even with all the time that had passed, the memory still made her shiver. Was Lukas still that kind of man? Maybe not. The Lukas she'd known in college wouldn't have darkened the door of a church. Did his presence here mean he'd changed his lifestyle? She should be glad if that was the case, but his sudden appearance had unnerved her. Thankfully, a great deal of attention wasn't required tonight.
As soon as the rehearsal was over, Juliane rushed over to Tom. "Do you have a few minutes to talk in private?"
Tom wrinkled his brow and shrugged. "Sure, if you want to wait until everyone else has left."
"I'll wait." Juliane left the stage and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Lukas hurry off in the opposite direction. As she started to sit on the nearby pew, she heard Val call her name and turned. "Did you want me?"
"Yeah. We're all headed to the coffee shop. Are you going to join us?" Her cousin gestured to the group gathered near the door.
Juliane was relieved to see that Lukas wasn't among them. "Sure. I'll be over after I talk to Pastor Tom."
"Okay. We'll see you in a little while." Val hurried down the aisle.
After Val left, Juliane sat on the front pew and tried to study her lines and music while she waited for Pastor Tom. He was having tryouts for small solo parts. She wondered whether Lukas had tried out. When had he done that? When had he moved to town? Had he been in church on recent Sundays? She hadn't seen him. It seemed as though he had appeared out of nowhere.
Juliane shook her head in an attempt to focus on her part instead of letting her thoughts drift back to Lukas. He wasn't even here, and yet he filled her mind. Maybe the initial shock of seeing him again would wear off and she wouldn't think about him anymore. Wishful thinking.
"Are you ready to talk?"