Thursday’s Throwback with Leeann Betts

Giveaway and Excerpt

A Game is Afoot

Beginning a new series is never easy—particularly when it means the previous one has ended. Saying goodbye to characters we’ve known and loved and argued with is difficult. 

So instead of simply stopping one and starting the other, I came up with the great idea of writing a segue between the two. Actually, it wasn’t my idea—an author I know was asked by their published to write a bridge novella—I simply changed the name.

My first series took place from 2002 through 2006, moving slowly through the months. My main character, Carly Turnquist, was a 50-something forensic accountant, married to a computer programmer. She has two step-children, and two grandchildren, one of whom, in 2006, is six years old.

Fast forward to the present. Her granddaughter, Margie Hanson, a recent graduate of library sciences, inherits a mystery bookstore in Edgewater, Colorado, from her great-aunt who died under mysterious circumstances. Carly and Margie come to Colorado to figure out what happened.

Each book in the four-book series will feature a rare and/or expensive manuscript, contains a phrase from a vintage detective story, and is guaranteed to make you put on your thinking cap.

Excerpt from The Game is Afoot

Chapter 1

Margie grabbed her ringing cell phone and checked the caller ID. Her Great Aunt Rosella. “Hello?”

“Their voices assault my hearing.”

“What are you talking about, Auntie?”

A long sigh. “I already told you.” The older woman’s voice lowered a notch in both volume and timbre. “Their voices assault my—”

“I heard that. Who are you talking about?”

“The voices.”

Margie, newly graduated from Rutgers University with her Masters in Information and Library Sciences, sank back in the lumpy sofa of her off-campus studio apartment. She eyed the cloisonné clock perched beside her recently framed diploma—the clock a graduation gift from her aunt, the diploma the result of six years of diligent study. “Are you hearing voices?”

Three abrupt thumps, and Margie pulled the phone from her ear. What the—? Oh, right. Aunt Rosella often emphasized her displeasure by whacking the nearest tool at hand against the closest hard surface. In this case, her phone likely contacted a table. Or the wall.

“Don’t speak to me like I’m a batty old woman. I’m not hearing voices. At least, not in the way your tone implies.”

“Sorry. Tell me what’s going on.”

“What is going on, as you so eloquently put it, is criminal. And that’s all I’m going to say about the matter until I speak with you face to face.”

Margie unfolded her legs and sat forward. “Are you coming to Maine?” She hadn’t seen the older woman in years, although they chatted several times a year by telephone, and her aunt always remembered her on her birthday and at Christmas. And on the occasion of her graduation, of course. “That’s great. When?”

“I am not coming to you. You will visit me here in Denver. Immediately, if not sooner.”


“No buts about it. I have a matter I need you to look into. You have an enquiring mind, child. I’ve always appreciated that about you.”

Margie smiled. “Must have gotten it from you.”

“Pshaw. Just because I own a bookstore dedicated to mysteries doesn’t mean I can solve them. It simply provides me a business reason to read as much as I like.” She chuckled. “But don’t tell the tax man.”

“My lips are sealed.” Margie glanced at the three letters on the coffee table. Job offers. Very good ones, at that. Her dream come true. One at a public library in a small town in Indiana where she’d be librarian, curator, and teacher. The second from a local law firm, where she’d be in charge of the law library and its tomes of precedents and cases. And the third at her alma mater, where she’d be assistant to the chief librarian. The problem was deciding which to accept. “But I can’t leave right now. In fact, I have to choose between—”

“Between helping me or abandoning me to the wolves.”

“Surely it can’t be as bad as that.” Spending her days surrounded by mysteries must be affecting her aunt’s mental processes. “Perhaps I could come out over Thanksgiving?”

“It will be too late by then.” Her aunt sniffed. “Never mind. I suppose there’s nothing you can do anyway. You have a good mind for mysteries, as I said. Not as good as your Grandma Carly’s, though. She’s got a mind like Dame Agatha’s. I’ll call and see if she’s willing to help this old woman.”

Margie shook her head, seeing through her aunt’s play for sympathy. She leafed through the letters. All three graciously gave her a month to decide, leaving her three more weeks before crunch time. Perhaps a quick dash to Denver for a week or so was in order. Getting away from Augusta might free her mind. Give her time and space to analyze her options. Make the best career choice.

And the mention of her grandmother gave her another idea. “How about if I call Grandma Carly and the two of us visit?”

“Oh, that would be grand. You can stay with me in the apartment over the bookstore. The spare room has two single beds ready and waiting for you.”

Interesting how the woman’s concerns immediately translated into vacation mode. Possibly things weren’t so serious—no, she’d said she’d come. “Grandma can make up for my shortcomings, and you can show us around your beloved Denver.”

“Oh, not my Denver, dear. My Edgewater. I never venture into the Mile High City.” Another sniff. “They sell drugs on every corner and call themselves medical dispensaries.” A sigh. “Such wickedness.”

Margie smiled. No doubt her aunt’s little burg also offered marijuana and other previously illicit pleasures, but she’d not spoil the woman’s Pollyanna view of her Edgewater, a tiny city nestled between Denver, Lakewood, and Wheat Ridge. Situated beside a large lake. The park-like atmosphere with its quaint old-style downtown was exactly the Eden-like surrounding her aunt loved.

Margie scrolled to her calendar app. “I’ll call you back to confirm when we’ll arrive, and we’ll plan to stay a week.”

“With your grandmother’s help, that should be plenty of time.”

“Will somebody meet us at the airport?”

“Yes. My nephew, Arthur. You remember him, don’t you?”

Margie’s memory cast back to the far-in-the-past family reunions, recalling a weaselly boy with thick eyeglasses and a sarcastic tongue. Hopefully the years had changed him for the better. “Okay. Let me make arrangements, then I’ll call you with details.”

“Good. And bring the clock I sent you. It’s very important. Do you understand?”

“Okay.” She glanced up at the item again. After unpacking it yesterday, she hadn’t even bothered to wind it up. Just as well, since it would only run out in her suitcase, being a twenty-four-hour mini-version. Decorative, but not very practical. “Anything else?”

“A jar of Maine blueberry jam.”

“Got it.”

A long silence filled her ear, and she wondered whether her aunt had disconnected. Then a rustling sound. Almost as though Aunt Rosella covered the receiver with a hand. To keep her from hearing a conversation in Edgewater? Or to make certain somebody there didn’t hear what she said next?

Neither made sense.

And her aunt’s words only added to her confusion.

“The game is afoot.”

Giveaway: Answer the following question, and we’ll randomly draw from all answers for a print (US only) or ebook copy of The Game is Afoot.

Question: If you could choose your dream job, would it be (a) a librarian in a public library, (b) a small independent bookstore owner, or (c) a publisher. And why?

About Leeann

Leeann Betts writes contemporary suspense, while her real-life persona, Donna Schlachter, pens historical suspense. Together she and Donna have published 50 novellas and full-length novels. They ghostwrite, judge writing contests, edit, facilitate a critique group, and are members of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, CAN, and SinC.

Website: Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!




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Thursday’s Throwback with Donna Schlachter

Free chapter excerpt and Giveaway!

Today I have Historical Christian fiction author, Donna Schlachter here to share her novel, Christmas Under the Stars.

This romantic suspense is set in Utah Territory in 1858 at the height of the westward expansion and wagon trains.  Edie is traveling west with her brother to meet up with another brother and his family who went ahead of them. Edie’s father was an itinerant preacher who barely managed to keep his family together. Tom is heading to California to hopefully start a church. Already we can see problems, at least as far as Edie is concerned. And although Tom is attracted to Edie, once he’s introduced to her and hears she shares the same name as the man traveling with her, he assumes they are husband and wife.

Although he didn’t ask for it, Tom is soon appointed as head of their wagon train, and a series of accidents and unfortunate circumstances threaten to sabotage their journey. But are these incidents more than that? Or is someone determined to prevent them from reaching their destination?

Through miscommunication and misunderstandings, Edie and Tom muddle through as best they know how, which is true of many of the emigrants. And the good news is that just like the travelers of the time, they do make it, although a little the worse for wear.

Get your copy!



November 1858, Utah Territory
Edie Meredith strives to keep her temper and her tongue under control as she heads west with her brother to California. Raised in an itinerant preacher family, she promises she will never marry a man of the cloth.
Tom Aiken, drover of the wagon train, longs to answer his true calling: to preach, and while he realizes not every woman would choose a preacher for a husband, he hopes to soon find his help-meet.
Suspicious ‘accidents’ plague their journey. Is someone trying to keep them from reaching their destination? Or will misunderstanding and circumstances keep them apart?

Enter the Giveaway

Leave a comment to be entered into a random drawing for a print copy (US only) or ebook version of Christmas Under the Stars.

Read a chapter excerpt

Tom Aitken strode beside the lead wagon in the train, encouraging on the two lumbering oxen he could hear but not see. “Git on Blue, git on. Brick.” The beasts lowered their heads at the sound of his voice and strained into the traces. Tom grit his teeth against another blast of cold air blowing from the Canadian Rockies.

What had he been thinking, taking a wagon train to Echo at this time of year? He’d focused on the offer of free passage to California. Free, indeed. Might not have cost him any money, but the two-month journey was surely grinding years off his life. 

Digging his hands into his armpits, seeking some warmth, no matter how small, he trudged along, head down, wishing for a heavier coat. Echo was just a few more miles up this canyon. In good weather, a half day’s travel.

In this storm, forever.

As he debated whether to pull the wagon train off the trail and set up camp for the night, a faint cry echoed off the rock walls behind him. He slowed his step, allowing the oxen to pass him, waiting to hear the sound again. Nothing. He pivoted on one foot to trace his steps back, straining to see who was calling and whether they were friend or foe. Having spotted Indians several times over the past week or so, he was determined to stay alert.

Nothing but swirling, blinding snow. Lots of it.

He must have been hearing things. Probably just the wind echoing down off the canyon walls. No doubt where Echo got its name. He turned to face forward and felt someone – or something – press on his shoulder. His right hand on the knife in a sheath at his waist, he whirled around, ready to fight.

The man in the second-to-last wagon stood before him, face white with cold – or fear – and hands raised in surrender. His rough Irish brogue bespoke his heritage, and his coarse woolen coat and muffler his financial status. “I can’t find the Meredith woman.”

“I saw her maybe a ‘alf hour ago, when the wind stopped blowin’ long enough to see me ‘and in front of me face. Me missus remarked then that the lass was looking peaked.”

Tom grit his teeth against the sharp retort rising. Must he be like a mother hen to these travelers? No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he repented of his hardness of heart. Lord, forgive me. Help her. Please. For her husband’s sake.

His silent prayer done, Tom gestured to his wagon. “Take my place as lead. Keep them straight on the trail. We’ve got just about twelve miles to go.”

The man nodded and Tom stopped, allowing the rest of the train to pass him. Although the rule was that only the very young, very old, and very sick got to ride in the wagons, sometimes folks hitched a ride when they were exhausted.

He sighed, his breath escaping like a puff of smoke from a chimney, carried off on the northerly gale. He’d have to check every wagon that passed to see if she’d climbed aboard.

If she hadn’t – well, he’d pray she was curled up in a pile of quilts rather than consider the alternative.

Tom plowed through a snowdrift nearly up to his chest. Edie Meredith wasn’t in any of the wagons. Her husband, Mark, as leader of the final wagon in the train, had been walking at the head of his team to keep them on the trail and hadn’t noticed when she’d gone missing. Tom stopped the train, and word passed up and down the line until all of the wagons paused. Women-folk and children climbed aboard their wagons to warm up, and the men divided into several groups to go in search of Miss Meredith.

 The man accompanying Tom heaved along behind him, his breath sounding labored in the cold air. Harnesses jingled as the huge oxen shook themselves and got comfortable as they waited, and questions chased him as he traveled the length of the train.

“Found her yet?”

“What was she wearing?”

“Prob’ly find her froze to death.”

Tom shook off this last comment and pressed on. No, he would find her before that happened. He’d noticed the pretty young woman the instant he joined the wagon train, her red hair lighting up into a thousand pinpoints of gold in the afternoon sun. Freckles dotted across the bridge of her nose as she stared at him, a smile creeping across her face.

But that was as far as their relationship was likely to go. The broad-shouldered hulk standing next to her, laying claim to her with his protective attitude and gruff voice was enough to keep any sensible man in his place. No siree, her husband was not to be trifled with. Mark and Edie Meredith. That’s how they were introduced to him. That plus Meredith’s, “She’s spoken for” when she’d smiled and bobbed her head at him, was enough to keep any sane man a sensible distance away. No matter how he might wish the situation could be otherwise.

For now, he would look for her because that was his job. 

And he was good at his job. Rather, his two jobs. Drover by day and preacher by night. Such a strange combination of occupations, he was certain. Still, the good Lord knew what He was doing, and drovering was just until he got to California. Then he would start his own church at the first town that needed him.

Tom peered into the storm, the faint outline of a shadow forming ahead of him, to the side of the trail. As he neared, he could have sworn he heard singing. A soft, lilting melody, like a lullaby.

A few more steps, and he paused over the form on the ground. Already snow gathered on her cheeks, filling in the concave hollows of her eyes, testifying to how cold her skin was that the particles didn’t melt.

He knelt beside her, fearing the worst. In a neat pile beside her, a pair of gloves and a shawl. Her coat unbuttoned, she looked dead.

But there, a slight flare of her nostrils confirmed there was life in her yet. He turned back to the man following him. “Over here. Over here.” 

The man came running, and together they lifted the unconscious woman and carried her to the nearest wagon. She needed warming up, and soon. 

He called to the man he’d put in the lead. “Pull the train over toward the palisades. There should be some caves around here that we can overnight in.”

The men hastened to do his bidding, and the wagon beneath him lurched, throwing him off balance. He landed in a tangle against Miss Meredith and stared into her green eyes, wide open in surprise.

 No doubt about it. She was beautiful. Tendrils of damp hair at her temples decorated her pale skin. But he couldn’t sit here admiring her. She was nearly frozen to death. Her blue lips and white complexion scared him. 

“What do you mean, man? Speak up.”

He was alone in a wagon with a desirable woman who needed his help. 

He unbuttoned his jacket and pulled her to his chest. The sudden chill took his breath away, but he persisted in his ministrations. As the heat flowed from him, he was gratified to note color returning to her lips. 

Her hands pressed against his chest, and he increased his grip on her. She needed warmth now. He’d heard of folks dying in the snow who’d stripped down to their underclothing.

He glanced at the woman now resting quietly in his arms, wishing he was holding her so close, so intimately, for a different reason.       

But she belonged to another.

He had no choice.

About Donna

Donna writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 40 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of several writing communities; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; blogs regularly; and judges in writing contests.

Thursday’s Throwback with Merrillee Whren

Today I have USA Today bestselling author, Merrillee Whren sharing her book, Hometown Promise, book 1 in the Kellersburg series.

Some secrets are hard to hide…

Lukas Frye has moved to Kellersburg, Ohio, to renew his relationship with his grandfather, who lives there. For the past six years, Lukas has worked hard to put his reckless past behind him, and Kellersburg seems like the perfect place to do that—until he encounters Juliane Keller. She could derail all his plans.
Juliane remembers Lukas from her college days, and her memories of him are anything but good. He says he’s a changed man, but can she trust that claim? Besides, his presence in town is a constant reminder of the secret her family harbors.

When secrets are revealed, will love find a way to forgive?

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Read an excerpt of Hometown Promise

Chapter One

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. Lightheaded, 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 Kellersburg, 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 him, as he 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.”

“I’m fine.”

“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 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 that dark hair. But his constant drinking had disgusted her, so she’d avoided him until the night her cousin Nathan, who was also in that theater group, 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 gaze. “Have we met before? Somehow you seem familiar. My grandfather lives here. Have we run into each other here 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 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 Kellersburg. 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?” Juliane asked.

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 him. “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 Christlike.

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 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. “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?”

Juliane nodded.

“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. He 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’d 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 Julianne 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?”

Startled, Juliane glanced up to find Pastor Tom standing in front of her. “Oh, sure.”

“What do you want to discuss?” Tom sat next to her.

She stared at him for a moment. How was she going to ask her question without seeming ungracious toward Lukas? She should’ve figured that out while she sat here. She took a deep breath. “Well…I thought Nathan was going to be David. You know Nathan and I were the lead soloists in the Christmas program just a few weeks ago, so I thought we were going to do the leads in this program as well. I was really surprised to hear that Lukas will be playing that part.”

“I know you expected Nathan to be the male lead. He intended to do that, but while you were away on your buying trip this past week, he told me he’d rather not have a lead part since he’s going to be extra busy at the bank. Then Lukas showed up at church two weeks ago and volunteered. He has a great voice.” Tom wrinkled his brow. “Do you have a problem with that?”

Yeah, but there was no way she could tell Tom about it. “I was concerned that Nathan would be upset.”

“I’m glad I could ease your concern.” Tom patted her on the shoulder. “I heard Val invite you to join the others at the coffee shop. So I’ll let you run along.”

“Okay. Thanks for explaining. See you later.” Juliane shuffled down the aisle and contemplated the fact that Lukas had been here for two weeks. She’d been out of town last Sunday, but why hadn’t she noticed him the Sunday before? How was it possible to be in the same room as Lukas and not notice him? His good looks and magnetic smile had always drawn attention.

She gave herself a mental scolding. Lukas’s attractiveness wasn’t the issue. The issue was whether he could be trusted. Their parts in the program meant weeks of interaction. There was no getting around it. Trying to avoid him would be impossible at church as well as in this little town. Would she feel uncomfortable around him? He didn’t seem to remember what he’d done. It had been a long time since then. Maybe he truly had changed.

Juliane shrugged into her coat and rushed to her car in the church parking lot. The January night air made her shiver as she brushed snow from her windshield. While she drove the short distance to the coffee shop on Main Street, she hoped she could relax and forget any future dealings with Lukas at least for tonight.

She needed some downtime after her hectic day at the department store that her family owned. Although she loved her father, sometimes working with him was not the easiest. Their ideas about how to run the business often clashed. Things were better now that he was sober—six months and counting—but how long would that last? She’d seen him fall off the wagon often enough to learn her lesson. She could never trust a drinker, not even her father—and especially not Lukas Frey.

About Merrillee

Merrillee Whren is an award-winning, USA Today bestselling author who writes inspirational romance. She is the winner of the 2003 Golden Heart Award for best inspirational romance manuscript presented by Romance Writers of America. She has also been the recipient of the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award and the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award. She is married to her own personal hero, her husband of forty- plus years, and has two grown daughters. She has lived in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Florida but now makes her home in the Arizona desert. She spends her free time playing tennis or walking while she does the plotting for her novels. Please visit her Website and signup for her newsletter and connect with her on Facebook.