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"Juliane, tell me you're not serious. Tell me Seth Finlay is not joining us for dinner tonight." Staring across the kitchen table at her sister, Juliane, Elise Keller gripped the top of the Windsor back chair until her knuckles turned white. She gritted her teeth as a crushing sensation took her breath away.
"I'm sorry, Elise, but it's true. He'll be meeting us at Mom and Dad's."
Elise counted to ten with the hope that her words would come out in a calm cadence rather than in a shriek. "How could Dad have invited Seth? For that matter, how could he have hired him in the first place? What was he thinking?"
Juliane, dressed in the navy blue suit she'd worn to work, took a step back. "We've been over this. Dad didn't do the hiring. Nathan did. Dad was only on the committee. And just like he told you, he thought Seth was the best man for the job, along with all the other committee members. After all, his experience as a cruise director makes him very qualified to run the new recreation facility. Even you had to admit he was good at his job. And since you won't talk about the problems you two had other than to say they were personal and not job related, the committee made the only logical choice."
Taking a deep breath, Elise closed her eyes. Seth's image clouded her thoughts. She tried to shake away the image of his handsome face with the chiseled cleft chin, but his tall, lean physique marched through her mind and left a snapshot. His dark brown eyes, which matched his hair, seemed to stare at her from the back of her brain. "That still doesn't explain why we're having dinner with him tonight."
"I don't know. Maybe you can ask Dad tonight."
Elise narrowed her gaze. "And no one was going to tell me that Seth is going to be there?"
"That was the plan. Mom and Dad have no idea what went wrong with the two of you. I think they're hoping you'll work things out now that Seth is in town. But nothing can happen if you won't see him, which is why they didn't tell you. But I thought you deserved to know."
Elise released a heavy sigh. "I don't believe this."
"Well, believe it."
Crossing her arms at her waist, Elise shook her head. "How am I going to handle this?"
Scrunching up her face, Juliane hunched her shoulders. "I don't have a clue."
"Great." Elise clenched her fists, trying to fight back the fury. "I've been ignoring his attempts to contact me for over a year. Now not only is he moving to town, but I have to have dinner with him tonight. Did you just find out about this today, too?"
Juliane lowered her gaze.
"You knew about this and didn't tell me, didn't you?" Fists still clenched, Elise raised her arms and beat at the air. "How could you keep the information from me until the last minute?"
"I'm sorry." Juliane let out a harsh breath. "I just thought you needed some closure with this guy. Rid yourself of the bad feelings. It's not healthy to carry around the anger or whatever it is you feel toward him. You know from my experience that forgiveness is a great healer."
Trying to relax, Elise took a deep breath and dropped her hands to her sides. Juliane was right, but Elise didn't want to talk about forgiveness. "I had closure with Seth when I quit my job on the cruise ship and came home to get away from him. I don't need him coming around and dredging up the past."
"It's been over a year since you moved back to Kellerville, and I think you're still not over the past. You've been running away from it ever since you returned."
"What makes you say that?"
"You won't talk about what happened between you and Seth."
"What good would that do?" Shaking her head, Elise wished Juliane could let it go. "Seeing him won't help get rid of anything. I just want to forget."
"But you're not forgetting, are you? Be honest."
Crossing her arms again, Elise pressed her lips together. She didn't want to admit that her sister was right. "Okay. I haven't forgotten, but seeing Seth Finley again promises turmoil in my life. Everything is going so well. Why would I want to throw Seth into the mix? It would be like frosting a cake with mud."
"That's an unappealing analogy." Juliane laughed halfheartedly. "There's nothing you can do about it. Seth's here whether you like it or not."
"Thanks for the encouragement." Elise couldn't keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
Juliane walked around the table and put a hand on Elise's arm. "Hey, sis, I know you're not happy about this, but you can deal with it. You're a strong woman."
"Well, this strong woman has to study, then figure out how to be pleasant to Seth Finley. Let me know when you're ready to head for Mom and Dad's." Elise rushed from the kitchen before Juliane could give her any more advice or bad news.
Elise took the stairs to her second-floor bedroom two at a time as if she were trying to outrun the images of Seth that still floated through her mind. Sitting at her desk, she opened her textbook. As she tried to study, the words swam in her head along with memories she couldn't shake.
Concentration wouldn't come.
Was she strong, as Juliane had said? She didn't feel that way. When Seth had called several months after she'd returned to her little hometown in southwestern Ohio, she'd refused to talk to him, hanging up as soon as she'd heard his voice. Now she feared how she'd handle all her unresolved feelings.
She'd spent the past eighteen months pushing thoughts of him further and further to the back of her mind until she'd convinced herself that they were locked in a dark corner never to resurface. But the prospect of his appearing had unlocked the door and let the memories run wild.
She had loved him—but he'd broken her heart when he'd proven just how far he was from the honorable man she'd believed him to be. She should have known better. He'd led her far away from the principles she'd learned growing up. Nothing good could come from seeing that man.
She worried that Seth's presence in this town would throw her life off course. Despite her ill will toward him, her feelings were still so confused. How much of their relationship had been as real for him as it had been for her? She couldn't be sure. She wanted answers, but was afraid of them at the same time.
Light tapping sounded on the door. Time to go already? Elise jumped out of her chair. Before she reached the door, Juliane stepped into the room. Gazing at her diminutive sister, Elise straightened to her nearly six-foot height, a great intimi-dator. "I suppose this means it's time to go."
Juliane sighed. "Don't act like you're going to your execution. I came up to tell you that we'll be leaving in half an hour."
"Thanks for the warning. Am I dressed appropriately for the evening?" Holding out her arms, Elise twirled around.
"That's up to you. I'm wearing what I've got on. If you want to wear your jeans, that's your choice." Juliane raised an eyebrow. "Worried about what Seth will think?"
"No. What Dad will say."
"It's your call. Thirty minutes."
As Juliane left the room, Elise looked out the window at the backyard below. Lilies of the valley displayed their little white blossoms in a shady corner of the yard. Springtime brought with it the hope for warmer weather, but there was no way she could feel any hope about seeing Seth Finley again. She vowed not to let him mess up her life once more.
When she first met him, she was a college dropout who'd fled home with a job singing on a cruise ship. After the strain of hiding her father's alcoholism, she'd needed to get away. But those years had led her away from her family and God, making it hard to come home. Now, seven years later, she was back home, and her life was coming together. Finally, her dad had acknowledged his drinking problem and was getting help.
Since her return a year and a half before, she'd gone back to college while working part-time at her family's department store. She'd reconciled with her family and with God. At the end of the summer, she expected to finish her courses and get her music education degree. Life was good.
Under no circumstances was she going to let Seth's appearance derail her plans.
Seth stopped his car in the driveway of Ray Keller's redbrick ranch house just outside of Kellerville. Turning, Seth looked at his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. "Olivia, we're here."
"Daddy, get me out." She worked to undo the buckle.
"I'll let you out in a minute." Seth opened the back door and released Olivia from the car seat. "Okay, you have to be a good girl tonight and do what Daddy says."
"'Kay." Nodding, Olivia wrapped her little arms around his neck as he lifted her out of the car. Seconds later, she squirmed to get down. "Me get down."
As Seth set her down, she wiggled out of his grasp. Dark curls bobbing, she scampered up the walk toward the front door. With the distraction of a cute toddler, dressed in a pink sweater and pink pants covered in little flowers, he couldn't concentrate on the impending encounter with Elise. He only had time to think about the little girl whose favorite color was pink, even though she lived with a single dad.
Grinning, Seth hurried after her and swung her up into his arms. "Whoa there!"
She giggled. The sound touched him deep inside as he gathered her close. He loved this child more than he'd ever thought possible, in spite of all the problems she'd caused. She'd turned his world upside down and inside out. Her presence was a huge hurdle that he would have to overcome in his attempt to reconcile with Elise.
As he punched the doorbell, the thought of seeing Elise again had him twisted in knots. How many times had her tall, statuesque figure, pretty face and long brown hair streaked with honey-blond highlights come unbidden to his mind? How many nights had he dreamed about her and seen her brandy-colored eyes staring back at him? He couldn't count them. He'd handled things so badly with her. He'd pursued this job with the hopes of making things right, but would she give him the chance?
The doorbell sounded inside the house, shaking him from his thoughts. Two females were playing havoc with his peace of mind. He wanted both of them in his life. Was that dream possible?
Seth took a deep breath as a shadowy figure appeared on the other side of the leaded glass in the front door. Tonight was supposed to be about a new job, but it also meant seeing Elise. He had to keep his head on straight.
The door swung open, and Ray motioned toward the interior of the house. "Seth, come in."
"Thanks for inviting me." Holding Olivia, Seth stepped into the entry hall, where a colorful area rug sat on the slate floor.
"And this young lady is your daughter?" Ray asked.
"Yes, she is." Seth set her down. "Say hello to Mr. Keller, Olivia."
Olivia clung to Seth's leg but didn't hesitate to speak. "Hello, Mr. Kewwa. I Olivia." She held up two fingers. "And I this many."
Ray, who had neatly trimmed brown hair without a trace of gray, hunkered down next to Olivia. "I'm very glad to meet you. I have two girls, but they're all grown up. Would you like to meet them?"
Olivia nodded, then glanced up at Seth, as if to seek his approval. "'Kay."
Ray turned his attention to Seth. "They're all back in the kitchen. Follow me."
Grabbing Olivia's hand, Seth took another deep breath and prepared to greet Elise. How would she react when she saw him? Since she'd left the cruise ship, she'd refused to talk with him, but she could hardly shun him while her family watched. Still, his heart raced as he followed Ray down the hall.
The sound of merriment floated from the kitchen. Seth immediately recognized Elise's throaty laugh. The sound made his heart trip. He swallowed a lump in his throat. Wishing he could untie the knots in his stomach, he gave himself a mental shake. He was putting too much stake in this meeting. He wasn't going to change Elise's opinion of him in one evening. Tonight was only one step in what was probably going to be a long journey.
His plan to explain things about his life now brought with it a flood of uncertainties. Had his selfish behavior in the past destroyed forever all traces of the love they had shared? Would she understand when he tried to tell her what had happened with Olivia? Would Elise even give him a chance to explain? He needed a lot of patience and time to show her he wasn't the man she used to know.
Delicious aromas floated through the air as Ray escorted Seth and Olivia into the kitchen. Seth remained silent as he stopped just inside the doorway and waited for Ray to open the conversation. Still holding Seth's hand, Olivia pulled his arm down. He glanced at her, then picked her up, balancing her in one arm as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
Ray waved a hand toward the three females occupying the kitchen. "Barbara, Juliane and Elise, I believe you all know Seth, but I'd like you to meet his daughter, Olivia."
Nodding, Seth didn't miss the way the color drained from Elise's face when she glanced at his little girl. The forced smile didn't mask the questions in Elise's eyes, but she didn't say a word, only nodded. He tried to relax as his gaze skimmed over Elise and settled on her mother.
He stepped forward and extended his hand to the petite middle-aged woman with short, light brown hair, liberally sprinkled with gray. "Hello, Barbara. It's good to see you again."
"We're glad you and Olivia could join us for dinner. I hope you like plain, old-fashioned cooking. We're having pot roast."
Seth smiled, feeling the tension in his shoulders loosen. "Sounds great! That's one of my favorites."
"One of my favorites, too." Ray chuckled as he patted his protruding middle. "As you can tell by the extra weight, my wife is an extraordinary cook."
Blushing, Barbara focused her attention on Olivia. "How about you, little girl? Do you like pot roast, as well?"
Clinging to Seth, Olivia laid her head on his shoulder. "She likes almost anything. You don't have to worry about her."
Straightening, Olivia looked at Barbara. "I a big girl and feed myself."
Olivia's pronouncement brought a smile to Barbara's face. "That's good to hear. I rounded up some small utensils for her to use earlier. Let me see if I can remember where I put them."