October 23, 2018
Available in: e-Book (reprint)
Elise Keller believes she finally has her life and faith in order until her former boyfriend Seth Finley takes a job in her hometown. She wants nothing to do with this bad boy single father, but Seth has other ideas.
Since their breakup, Seth has become a Christian, and he wishes for a renewed relationship with Elise. Family and faith are important to him now, and he wants to show her that he is a changed man—one who will love her in the way she deserves.
Will once-bitten, twice-shy Elise find it in her heart to forgive Seth and return his love?
This contemporary Christian romance is the second book in the Kellersburg series.
Originally published August 2010 in mass market paperback by Steeple Hill Love Inspired #579.
“Juliane, tell me you’re not serious. Tell me Seth Finley 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.”
“So my cousin is trying to ruin my life, too?” Elise frowned.
Julianne shook her head. “Nathan knows nothing about you and Seth. And Dad was only on the committee. 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 ever-present five o’clock shadow, but his tall, lean physique marched through her mind and left a snapshot. His dark-brown eyes that 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.”
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 Kellersburg, 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 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 that she couldn’t handle 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 intimidator. “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’d first met him, she was a college dropout who’d fled from 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, 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 Kellersburg. 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 on the ground, 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 hope 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. Kewa. 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. 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. Earlier I rounded up some small utensils for her to use. Let me see if I can remember where I put them.”
As Barbara turned and began searching in a nearby drawer, Juliane came around the kitchen’s center island to shake his hand. With her chin-length light-brown hair and caramel-colored eyes, she looked almost the same as the last time they’d met. The sisters’ coloring was much the same, but Elise was tall and willowy while Juliane was at least a head shorter—petite like their mother. “Seth, good to see you again. Welcome to Kellersburg. We’re all so excited that you’ve taken the job.”
“Thanks.” Seth wondered whether all included Elise. He guessed from her expression that it didn’t.
Although warmth radiated from the rich oak cabinets, granite countertops, and homey oak furnishings in the room, there was no warmth in Elise’s gaze. “Hello, Seth. How have you been?”
“I’ve been good—busy, but good.” He couldn’t help noticing that she was the only one who hadn’t offered to shake his hand.
“I’m happy for you.”
Seth tried to measure the sincerity of her words. Was she really glad, or was she being polite in front of her family? He doubted that her parents, or at least her dad, knew the whole story about the end of their relationship. If her parents knew, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the job, much less this dinner invitation.
Olivia squirmed as Seth held her. “Down, please.”
“Okay, here you go.” Glad for Olivia’s polite request, he gently deposited her on the hardwood floor that matched the kitchen cabinets. When he glanced up, Elise was watching him. She immediately averted her eyes, as if embarrassed to have been caught staring at him. Wondering what she was thinking, he could hardly wait for the chance to talk with her alone. He didn’t have a clue when that might happen. He had to get through this evening first.
On the other side of the kitchen, Elise looked down at her brown clogs. Seth had caught her staring. How was it possible that he had the little girl he’d refused to acknowledge eighteen months ago? She wanted to ask, but tonight’s dinner wasn’t the time for such a conversation, and she intended to see to it that they wouldn’t meet again. Somehow she would get through this night. Then hopefully, she wouldn’t have to see Seth for any length of time. She’d just have to live without answers.
Elise shifted her gaze to the child. The sad, stricken face of the little girl’s mother swam in Elise’s mind as she looked at Olivia. She had her mother’s big dark-brown eyes—the color of black coffee. Looking at the child made Elise relive that day in Key West—the day Seth had shown his true colors as he turned away Olivia and her mother. Elise tried to block the scene from her memory as a lump rose in her throat.
Turning from the drawer where she’d been rummaging, Barbara held up a small spoon and fork in triumph. “I found the things for Olivia. Just her size.”
“Looks perfect.” Ray held out a hand to Olivia. “Should we put them on the table by your plate?”
Barbara laughed as Olivia nodded and willingly followed Ray into the dining room. “Seth, I think Olivia has stolen my husband’s heart. He’s dying to be a grandparent like his brothers and sisters.”
Juliane chuckled. “I think that’s the pot calling the kettle black.”
“Okay, you’ve got me there.” Barbara glanced at Seth. “Seth, maybe you can let us borrow Olivia.”
He smiled. “Does this mean you’re offering to babysit? I’m going to miss having my mother around.”
Barbara clasped her hands. “That’s an excellent idea.”
“I was kidding. I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“No imposition.” Barbara looked at Ray, who had just returned to the kitchen with Olivia still clinging to his hand. “Ray and I would love to watch Olivia, wouldn’t we?”
“I think that would be great!” Ray’s voice boomed through the room.
Seth smiled as he glanced from Ray to Olivia. “Looks like you’ve got a new friend.”
“Mr. Kewa is nice.” A little smile curved Olivia’s mouth.
Being careful to keep a straight face, Elise smiled inwardly at Olivia’s assessment. Maybe tonight wouldn’t be so bad after all. Still, every time she looked at the child, she couldn’t help remembering how badly Seth had behaved. What had changed? The question haunted her.
Barbara retrieved a couple of dishes from the refrigerator and set them on the counter. “Ray and Juliane, please take these into the dining room and get everyone settled. Elise and I will bring in the rest.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Seth asked.
“No, thanks. You’re a guest. We’ve got it covered, but I’ve got something for Olivia.” Barbara went into the pantry and returned a few seconds later with a bright-red booster seat. She handed it to Seth. “You go into the dining room and get Olivia settled.”
“Thanks.” Seth took the booster seat, then glanced at Olivia. “Look what we’ve got. You want to help Daddy find a place at the table?”
“’Kay.” Olivia scampered ahead.
Elise watched Seth follow his daughter, and her heart did a little flip-flop. She didn’t want to have this reaction to him. She didn’t want to feel anything for Seth—good or bad. She just wanted him somewhere else, but that was an impossible wish.
“Do I sense a little surprise from you about Olivia?” Barbara grabbed a big platter from the nearby cupboard and put the roast on it. “He told your father that you knew he had a daughter, but you seemed thrown at seeing her with him.”
Surprised at her mother’s perception, Elise stepped closer and put her back to the dining room so her voice wouldn’t carry into the other room. She didn’t want Seth to hear any of this conversation. “Do you intend to quiz me about Seth, or have me help you?”
“Both. You can put the potatoes and carrots in there.” Barbara handed Elise a bowl. “So am I right?”
Elise didn’t want to talk about it, but letting her mother know the truth was probably best. Still, there was no way Elise could possibly tell her mother the whole story. She didn’t know the whole story herself. “Seth and I had a falling out just before I left my job on the cruise ship, and yes, part of it had to do with Olivia, but at that time, he didn’t have custody. Seeing her was surprising.”
“I had no idea he had a child until he came here to interview. When did you find out?”
“This isn’t the right time to talk about it.”
“I agree, but for your father’s sake, please make this a pleasant evening.”
“I have no other intentions.” Following her mother into the dining room, Elise prayed for God’s peace to settle in her heavy heart.
When Elise reached the table, the only place left to sit was directly across from Seth. Still waiting for that peace she’d prayed for, she put the bowl on the table and took her seat. She didn’t know which was worse—looking at Seth or Olivia. They both filled her mind with troubling images from the past. Purging her thoughts of all disconcerting memories, she focused her attention on her father, who sat at the head of the table.
“It’s so good to have my two girls here along with our guests. Let’s thank God for this food and fellowship.” Ray bowed his head.
As Elise bowed her head, she noticed that Olivia had bowed her head and folded her little hands. The sight touched Elise’s heart. Was Olivia mimicking Ray, or had she learned about prayer from somewhere else? Elise doubted that Seth had encouraged Olivia to pray. When they’d been together, he’d had little use for God. Seth had never seen the point in believing in God or leaning on religion. She’d let him draw her away from the faith she’d known while growing up in Kellersburg—a faith she had embraced again since her return, a faith she hoped would see her through tonight and all future encounters with Seth Finley.
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