HOMETOWN DAD by MERRILLEE WHREN

 

 

 

 

 

HOMETOWN DAD
Publisher: Harlequin
Genre: Inspirational romance
Pub date: Feb. 1, 2011
ISBN:  978-0-373-87651-8
Format:  Mass Market Paperback

 

© 2011, Merrillee Whren

Chapter One

 

“Anxiety knotted Melanie Drake’s stomach as she pushed open the heavy glass door leading into the Kellerville National Bank. Her seven- and eight-year-old sons, Andrew and Ryan, raced ahead, chasing each other around the deposit counter in the middle of the floor. As she tried to corral them, their laughter and the slap of their tennis shoes on the marble floor seemed to echo off the walls of the cavernous lobby with its cherry paneling and granite columns. Their misbehavior did nothing to soothe her frazzled mind.

Melanie grabbed each of the boys by an arm and pulled them to a stop. Letting go to adjust the satchel she’d slung over her shoulder, she leaned over and looked them in the eye. She forced herself not to raise her voice. “You two, settle down. Now.”

When a teller gave them a disapproving look, Melanie feared her harsh whisper hadn’t been as quiet as she’d intended. Staring at her wide-eyed, the boys nodded and said nothing.

“Okay, then.” She tried to put on a happy face, even though nothing was going as planned today. She guided the boys to a couple of navy leather chairs situated against a wall near the bank offices. “Sit here.”

Andrew and Ryan settled on the oversized chairs, and she handed them each a book. Ryan surveyed the book then, looked up, wrinkling his nose. “Do I have to read this? It looks boring.”

“I’ll read it.” Andrew snatched it from Ryan’s hand.

“Hey, I want that.” Ryan grabbed it back.

While Melanie tried to take charge of her warring sons, a stern-faced woman approached. “May we help you?”

Melanie took a calming breath and met the woman’s critical gaze. “Yes, I’m Melanie Drake and I have an appointment with Nathan Keller at three-thirty.”

“Mr. Keller should be with you shortly.” The woman glanced at her watch, then toward the office where Nathan Keller was clearly visible through the large window. She looked down her nose at the boys before turning her attention back to Melanie. “You’re welcome to wait right here.”

“Thanks.” Melanie sat on one of the chairs opposite Ryan and Andrew and breathed a sigh of relief as the unsmiling woman resumed her position behind a desk at the far side of the lobby.

“Mom, he touched me.” Ryan pushed Andrew’s arm.

Standing, Melanie glared at her sons and pointed to the chair next to hers. “Ryan, over here.”

“Okay.” Ryan jumped up and obeyed her orders.

After he was seated, she hunkered down between them. “I know you guys don’t want to be here, but if you can’t behave while I have this meeting, I won’t hesitate to make my excuses and leave. You’ll both be grounded, and I won’t unground you until I see improvement in your behavior. Do you understand?”

They nodded, their little faces solemn, but Melanie wasn’t sure they believed her. She sat down and plucked a paperback novel from her satchel. Although she tried to read, her thoughts wandered to her children. Some of their bad behavior was the result of her lax discipline since their father had died. She was working on being a better disciplinarian, but sometimes she found the task difficult. She knew how much her little boys missed their father and hated to make them feel worse by scolding them.

A single mom, she had all of the parental responsibilities, making for extra stress in her life. People from church stepped in from time to time to help her out, but it wasn’t the same as having Tim there to share the parenting duties. She tried to remember that God was with her and would see her through, but she sometimes forgot that one important truth.

Every day was another step toward learning to deal with her grief. She wasn’t going to let that sadness keep her from being the best parent for her boys. Loving them and caring for them was her top priority.

She’d been putting on a brave face for her sons, but some days were really hard. She’d made a lot of progress in the past two years, maybe not as much as she would have liked. She wanted Ryan and Andrew to have a bright future, and part of that meant having this meeting with someone who knew investment strategies and could help her make the first move in getting her financial life in order. That’s why she was here.

Melanie glanced toward the office where Nathan Keller talked with an older couple. Could he help her? His sandy brown hair, cut in a neat short style, gave him a business-like appearance. Did his serious demeanor mean she could trust him to give her the advice she needed?

Although she was a friend of Nathan’s cousin, Juliane, and they attended the same church, Melanie didn’t know him very well. His father was the bank president, and his mother taught at the local college. They were prominent people in the little town of Kellerville. According to Juliane, Nathan was being groomed to take over the bank when his father retired. Melanie had to believe Nathan could answer her financial questions.

Her stomach churning, she looked back at Ryan and Andrew and hoped she could get through the afternoon without another outburst from them. If the boys misbehaved during the meeting, she would be mortified. Would Nathan look down his nose at her the same as the woman behind the desk had?

Melanie felt as though she’d spent most of her life dealing with people who looked down on her because of her upbringing. Her late husband’s parents were people like that. Ever since she’d met them, she’d been trying to show them she deserved their respect, not their disdain. She didn’t want to think about them and forced herself to concentrate on her book.

“Mrs. Drake.” A deep male voice startled her. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. It’s nice to see you.”

“That’s okay, and it’s good to see you, too.” Standing, Melanie looked up into Nathan’s brown eyes—brown, the color of her morning tea. They exuded warmth. Despite the kindness in them, her thoughts skittered. She hadn’t realized she was so nervous, but the notion of making the wrong decision about the money she’d inherited had kept her from making any decision at all. “Thanks for meeting with me.”

“The bank is here to serve you.”

As he shook her hand, she tried to ignore the little prickles that raced up her arm. Melanie looked over at her sons. “These are my boys, Andrew and Ryan. I didn’t intend to bring them, but my sitter cancelled at the last minute. I didn’t have time to find another one.”

Nathan looked over at the youngsters. Melanie watched to see his reaction. He smiled. Kindness radiated from his smile just as it had from his eyes. “Hello. Which one is Ryan?”

“Me.” Ryan sprang from the chair.

Not to be outdone, Andrew pushed his way in front of Ryan. “And I’m Andrew.”

Melanie wanted to scold Andrew, but she’d done enough scolding already. Besides, she was too embarrassed to correct her sons in front of this man, who was a VIP in Kellerville.

Nathan shook hands with each of the boys. “I’m glad to meet you, Andrew and Ryan.”

The tension in Melanie’s shoulders eased as the boys politely returned Nathan’s handshake. At least they remembered some of the manners she’d taught them.

Nathan escorted them into his office and indicated that Melanie should sit in the wood frame armchair at the side of his desk. Grabbing two armless chairs, he set them in the corner in front of a small desk containing a computer. “You guys can sit here, and if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you play one of my games.”

“We won’t tell.” Ryan glanced at Andrew. “Will we?”

Shaking his head, Andrew looked at Melanie, then back at Nathan. “I won’t, but what about our mom?”

Winking, Nathan grinned at her. “What about it, Mom? Will you keep our secret?”

“Sure. Your secret’s safe with me.” Melanie noticed for the first time how Nathan’s grin made a nice looking man twice as handsome. But this wasn’t the time to let a heart-stopping grin make her realize the way his broad shoulders filled out his gray pinstriped suit. She’d barely been aware of him when they’d met in passing at church during the last two years. Why was she noticing so much about him today?

While Nathan gave the boys instructions about the game and outfitted them each with a set of headphones, Melanie tried to collect her thoughts. Despite Nathan’s affability, her mind whirled. She shouldn’t be this nervous. He was trying to put her at ease, but for some reason, his smile had her thoughts scrambled. She gripped the satchel and took a shaky breath. Finally, she squared her shoulders and looked at him as he settled on the chair behind his desk.

“What can I do to help you?” He smiled again.

Her heart hammered. She didn’t want him to think she was a complete dunderhead, but she felt out of her league talking about investments. Trying to remember the little speech she’d practiced, she pulled a folder from the satchel and laid it on the desk. “You know I’m a hygienist in your uncle’s dental practice. Dr. Joe told me that I should see you about some financial advice.”

“Yes, good ole Dr. Joe. He’s always looking out for his employees.” Nathan patted the folder. “What do you have here?”

“My financial papers.”

“What kind of financial advice are you looking for?”

“I’m not sure.”

Nathan picked up the file. “May I look through this?”

Studying Nathan’s demeanor as he thumbed through her papers, she hoped she hadn’t made a mistake in following Dr. Joe’s advice. Her boss was like the father she’d never had, and she trusted him to steer her in the right direction. But as she watched Nathan’s eyebrows knit in a little frown, she worried that she’d made the wrong decision.

Finally, Nathan looked up. Warmth still radiated from his eyes, but she detected a little curiosity, as well. “There’s a lot here. Do you want me to draw up a financial plan for you?”

“What exactly does that mean?”

“I can give you ideas about where to invest your money.” He glanced at Andrew and Ryan, who were thankfully quiet and busy with the video game. Looking back at her, Nathan nodded his head in the boys’ direction. “I imagine you want to put some of this in a college fund for them.”

“Yes.” Melanie nodded. “I’m sure you’re wondering why it’s taken me two years to do something about this.”

Nathan shook his head. “No, I imagine you’ve had to collect yourself after a shocking, life-changing experience. Sometimes, it’s better to do nothing than to make emotional decisions that you might regret later.”

Melanie placed a hand over her heart. “Oh, you do understand. I just couldn’t bring myself to tackle the job. Every time I thought about it I would…”

Closing her eyes, Melanie pressed her lips together. She wouldn’t fall apart now. Tim was gone. She couldn’t bring him back. He would always have a place in her heart, but she had to pick up all of the pieces of her life and move on. That included the money from Tim’s life insurance that she’d let sit in the bank and his other investments that she hadn’t paid enough attention to.

She summoned her courage. The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. The words from a Psalm she’d recently memorized as part of her grief recovery group flitted through her mind, giving her peace for the moment. When her husband Tim had died from an aneurysm at the young age of thirty-four, she’d started the group as a church ministry. Somehow she felt as though she should have it all together by now, rather than letting memories of Tim make her feel weepy two year later.

“Are you okay?”

At the sound of Nathan’s soothing voice, Melanie opened her eyes and tried to smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let this affect me. I’m doing better, but as you see, looking at this stuff brings back all the sorrow.”

“So you’ve been putting it off?”

“Exactly. Thank you. Thank you for recognizing the difficulty I’ve been having.” Melanie smiled. This time it was genuine, not forced. “I’m trying to move on with my life.”

Nathan nodded. “You are. Just the fact that you came to see me shows that.”

“Dr. Joe has been such a help to me. I’m so glad he suggested that I get your financial advice. You’ve made me feel better already.”

“Good. I’m here to help you.” Nathan closed the folder. “Do you mind if I keep this and look it over more fully? That’ll give me time to formulate some recommendations for you. Then we can meet again and get a better understanding of your needs.”

“Okay. When would you like to get together?”

“At your convenience.”

What would another meeting with Nathan bring? Melanie couldn’t forget how this initial encounter made her heart race, but that was from nervousness, wasn’t it? She barely knew the man. How could there be any other reason?

“Mom, he’s cheating.” Andrew’s voice made Melanie jump, short-circuiting her response about another meeting. Embarrassed, she hurried to the corner to negotiate the peace. She’d been doing a lot of that lately.

“I’m not cheating. He’s just a sore loser.” Jerking off the headphones, Ryan stared at her.

Andrew also removed his headphones. “I wouldn’t lose, if he didn’t cheat.”

“The game is over for both of you.” Melanie didn’t want to turn and face Nathan. What must he think after he’d been so nice to allow them to play? She couldn’t slink away, although she wished she could. Gathering her courage, she turned to Nathan. “I’m sorry about this. I’d better take them home.”

“That’s okay. I’ll give you a call after I’ve had time to study this?” He held up the folder.

“That would be fine. Thanks.” Melanie could hardly wait to make her exit as she moved toward the door.

Nathan accompanied her and opened it for her. “I’ll call you in a few days.”

“I’ll be waiting to hear from you.” As Melanie ushered her sons out of Nathan’s office, she couldn’t imagine what he must be thinking. It all had to be awful—everything from her sons’ misbehavior to her inability to keep her emotions in check had shown her in a bad light. He must surely think she was a basket case with a couple of miscreants on her hands. How was she going to face him again? Maybe they could work out the details of her investments by phone and e-mail, and she wouldn’t have to see him again. But whatever happened, she wasn’t going to let the investments fall by the wayside again, no matter what she had to do.

She’d overcome a terrible childhood, and she would make sure her kids never had to suffer the way she had.

Standing in his office door, Nathan watched Melanie and her sons leave the bank. Her dark brown hair shone in the warm sunshine of a late May afternoon. He wasn’t sure what to make of his reaction to her. He could still see the sadness in her coffee-colored eyes. Her vulnerability made him feel as though he needed to protect her, even though he barely knew her.

Since she’d moved to town more than two years ago with her husband and children, Nathan had seen her on occasion at church, but their paths had rarely crossed. He’d never paid much attention to her before, but the attractive young widow certainly had his attention now.

Nathan strode across the lobby and gazed outside. Melanie was already out of sight, but she wasn’t out of his thoughts. She had her hands full with those live-wire boys. With a smile, he remembered his own childhood. He’d been exactly like them—full of mischief and always fighting with his older brother Marcus. Or maybe a more accurate description was trying to compete with him. Wasn’t he still trying to compete with Marcus? Their father was always bragging about some big deal that Marcus had closed. Nathan wanted that kind of attention. But he didn’t want to think about that. He’d rather think about the lovely widow.

Nathan felt an obligation to help her in whatever way he could, because single parents had double duty. Despite her attempt to put on a brave face, he could see that she was still struggling with her grief. What must a person go through when someone close to them died, especially a spouse? He had no idea. No one close to him had ever died. His parents, both sets of grandparents, brother and sister were still living. Yet, Melanie believed that he understood.

Wishing he knew more about her, Nathan stared out the glass doors toward the Kellerville town square where the courthouse stood. A gazebo graced the expansive lawn in front. As he stood there, the clock in the tower chimed four times. He supposed he should get back to work, but he couldn’t get Melanie off his mind. Maybe he should talk to his cousin Juliane. She and her husband Lukas babysat Melanie’s boys occasionally. Could Juliane shed any light on the young widow?

With a heavy sigh, Nathan turned toward his office. Then he spied Trudy Becker, who had given Melanie and her boys a rather disdainful look when they left the bank. She’d given the same look to him and his brother Marcus when they’d been kids. He hadn’t liked it then, and he didn’t like it now. Her expression prompted him not to wait, but to find out about Melanie today.

Nathan marched over to the loan officer’s desk. “Trudy, I have some personal business I have to take care of away from the bank. If anyone needs me, you can reach me on my cell.”

Not waiting for any comment from Trudy, Nathan left the bank. He hardly ever left the bank early, especially for a personal reason, and he enjoyed seeing the speculation in Trudy’s expression. He hated having bad thoughts about people, but the woman was sometimes unpleasant to be around. He often wondered why his father had hired her, but she’d been there since he was a kid. He hoped by the time he took over as president of the bank that she would be retired.

As Nathan crossed the square, he shook unpleasant thoughts from his head. He wanted to enjoy the beautiful spring day in this little southwestern Ohio town, where he’d grown up.

Quickening his step, he passed the gazebo surrounded by a rainbow of tulips. He headed straight across the square to Keller’s Variety, where Juliane worked for her father as manager. When he entered the store, the smell of potpourri and leather goods greeted him. Looking around, he spied Juliane as she helped a customer.

While he waited, he perused the merchandise that ranged from knickknacks to specialty clothing. “Variety” was definitely a good name for the store that his uncle Ray owned.

After the customer left the store, Juliane came his way. “Hi, Nathan. I’m surprised to see you here. What are you shopping for today?”

“Information. Do you have time to talk?”

Curiosity painting her face, Juliane glanced around the store. “No customers at the moment, so I guess so. What kind of information do you need?”

“Information about Melanie Drake?”

Juliane raised her eyebrows. “So you finally has a romantic interest—”

“Absolutely not. This is strictly business.”

Juliane chuckled. “I should’ve known. My nose-to-the-grindstone cousin doesn’t have time for romance. He’s in love with the bank.”

“You’re right. I love that bank. It’s what gets me up in the morning and makes my day.” Nathan knew his response would get a rise out of Juliane, but his life did revolve around work.

In the past few years, his dad had taken more and more time off as his parents did a little globetrotting. He left Nathan in charge. He knew this was his father’s way of testing him—to see whether he could run the bank. And Nathan intended to show his father that the bank would be in good hands when he retired.

“You’re no fun to tease.” Juliane swatted at him with one hand. “So why do you want to know about Melanie?”

Nathan wondered how he could get a handle on Melanie’s life without divulging her reason for coming into the bank. He’d have to keep his statements as vague as possible. “She was in the bank today with her two boys.”

“So what do you want to know?”

“How’s she doing? She seemed a little…ah…I guess you’d say lost.”

“Lost? Still grieving maybe, but not lost.” Grimacing, Juliane shook her head. “I thought she was doing better. Do you think she isn’t?”

“I don’t know. I sensed that she might feel a little overwhelmed with having to raise those boys by herself.”

“I’m sure it has to be hard without Tim. I should’ve been better about checking on her, but we haven’t visited as much since she went back to work.” Juliane sighed. “Maybe you should ask her out.”

“Don’t get any crazy ideas.”

“Come on. It would do you both good. You need some social life, and she’d probably like some adult conversation outside of work at least one evening a week.”

Nathan shook his head. “Don’t try to play matchmaker, Juliane. I’m the last person she needs to date. After what she went through with her husband, she probably isn’t looking for another man with a health problem.”

“Come on. It’s been at least two years since you’ve had a flare-up with your Crohn’s disease.”

Nathan dropped his gaze. He didn’t want her to guess that he’d had a couple of flare-ups that she didn’t know about. Keeping his health problems to himself was the way he liked to operate. He quietly sought treatment and definitely didn’t broadcast his difficulties. He knew the stress from work caused some of his problem, but work was what he lived for. “Are you forgetting that I’ve already been through one broken relationship because of it? I don’t need to have another one.”

“I haven’t forgotten, but Andrea didn’t deserve a good man like you. She was selfish and spoiled. I’m glad she broke up with you.”

“Wow! I had no idea you liked her so much.”

“Quit being sarcastic.” Juliane gave him an annoyed look. “You know she did you a favor by dumping you. You’d have been miserable being married to that…that—”

“Drop it. It’s history. Besides, I like my single life.”

Juliane laid a hand on Nathan’s arm. “I’m sorry I was grousing about your old girlfriend, but she treated you shabbily.”

“Let’s not talk about her.”

“Okay.” Juliane brightened. “Let’s talk about Melanie instead.”

Nathan narrowed his gaze. “Juliane.”

“I thought that’s why you came to see me.”

“I did, but I didn’t expect that you’d start with this matchmaking.” Nathan sighed. “So what do you think about getting her boys involved in the youth baseball league? They are so full of energy, so I thought playing baseball would be a good outlet for their liveliness. Has she ever mentioned signing them up?”

“Not that I recall?” Juliane gave him a puzzled look. “You mean you had to ask me whether you can recruit her kids for the bank’s youth baseball team?”

“No.” Nathan frowned. He had no idea he would invite Juliane’s matchmaking with his inquiry about Melanie and her kids. “I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t think I was interfering if I suggested the baseball for them. Also, I was just wondering how you think she’s doing these days.”

Juliane chuckled. “I don’t know about the baseball, but now that I’ve had a chance to think more about the two of you together, I like the idea.”

“Well, I don’t. So stop.”

Juliane gave him a Cheshire-cat grin. “Okay. If you say so.”

“Would she be receptive to a little help with her kids?”

“You’ll have to find that out for yourself. I can’t help you with that, but I can help you if you’d like to ask her out.”

“I won’t be asking for that kind of help.”

The bell over the door jangled as a woman entered the store. Saved by the bell. The old cliché couldn’t have been more appropriate.

“We’ll see.” Juliane hurried off to wait on the customer. “Remember what I said.”

“I’m sure you’ll remind me. I’ll talk to you later.” Annoyed, Nathan left the store and moseyed across the square toward the bank. His visit with Juliane had not gone as he’d planned. She not only didn’t give him any clue about Melanie’s state of mind, but Juliane had started that whole dating scenario. That was the last thing he wanted.

How was he going to get the answers he needed when even Juliane, who was as close to Melanie as anyone, didn’t seem to know what was going on with her? He wanted to help her, especially with her boys. From what he’d seen, they needed a male influence. He still wasn’t sure whether Melanie would think he was interfering unnecessarily if he interjected himself into her sons’ lives. Did he dare take a chance and ask?*

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Buy a copy of Merrillee’s HOMETOWN DAD at ChristianBook.com

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Merrillee Whren is an award winning author. She writes contemporary inspirational romance for Harlequin’s Love Inspired line.

Visit Merrillee’s Web site: http://www.merrilleewhren.com/index.html

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To enter the drawing for an autographed copy of HOMETOWN DAD:

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2.  Leave a comment on HOMETOWN DAD’S Chapter 1.

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About Vicki Hinze
USA Today Bestselling and Award-Winning Author of 40+ books, short stories/novellas and hundreds of articles. Published in as many as 63 countries. Featured Columnist for Social-IN Worldwide Network and Book Fun Magazine. Sponsor/Founder of ChristiansRead.com & CleanReadBooks.com. FMI visit www.vickihinze.com.

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