Liam once approved of helping others, but not anymore. He lost his mother due to a crazed street person, and he's hardened his heart. Now a successful photographer, he’s returned to set up shop in his hometown--directly across the courtyard from his sister’s best friend.
Zoe runs an outreach center and encourages the homeless and needy, especially at Christmas. Nursing a soft spot for Liam that started as a girlhood crush, she sets out to help him by creating her unique brand of encouragement cards. Her hope is to reignite the fire and love for Christmas and God, which Liam once had.
The cards and ornaments countdown to Christmas, but what if Liam doesn’t want to be one of Zoe’s projects? What happens when her crush grows into something more? What if they both receive more than expected?
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.
~ Romans 12:16
15 Years Ago
“He needs ’couragement.” Zoe ignored the walk light and stopped at the curb.
Her best friend, Meredith Gorgeous, went on ahead.
Would Mom be mad if Zoe talked to the man on the bench?
His crossed arms told her that he sought warmth from the ragged blanket, which was too small to cover the front of his body. Though his knees were pulled up, the metal bench had to be ice cold. Did the poor man have anyone to share Christmas with?
From the corner of her eye she caught Liam stay his sister with a hand, and return her to Zoe’s side, where Meredith stood rooted. Zoe felt the heat of Liam’s heart-stopping blue eyes as he looked down at her.
“What kind of crazy word is ’couragement?”
Meredith jerked from her brother’s touch and bumped into Zoe. “Just because you’re a teenager now, Liam, doesn’t mean you can pull me around.”
Zoe liked Liam’s protection. She’d never been afraid walking with Meredith in downtown Lincoln. On Saturday afternoons, he often escorted them from a movie to the SUV where Mrs. Gorgeous waited.
“I’m obeying Mom, Meredith. And Zoe, that stranger might be as crazy as the word you used.”
The heat of Liam’s attention pulled Zoe’s gaze off the homeless man. She raised her eyes and had to tip back her head. Liam’s handsome face was capped by dark blond hair that brought his last name to life. He’d grown again since school began. She looked down to listen to what he said without being distracted by staring up at him.
“You’re in the fifth grade now, way too old to not say the word correctly.”
Her heart did a flip-flop at the sound of his deep voice. They’d never be in the same school again. Next year he’d go to high school at the same time she and Meredith advanced to middle school.
“Let her be, Liam.” Meredith hit him on the shoulder. “So what if she says the word without the beginning letters? I want to always be a little girl at heart.”
Zoe reached for Meredith’s hand. “That man on the bench. He’s sad. He’s cold and alone. I want to make a Christmas card to ’courage him.”
“OK, squirt.” Liam circled her tender earlobe, freshly pierced. “I got it. You want to encourage the man to make him feel better.”
“Right. Could you ask your mom to take us to the craft store on the way home so Meredith and I can make a card tonight? Let’s look for him next week after the movie.”
That night, the girls sat at Zoe’s kitchen table, which was covered with scrapbooking materials. “Meredith, since Mom works at the hospital on Saturdays, I’m glad your mom drives us. Do you think Liam will walk us girls around a couple blocks by the theater? I’ll pray first on Friday night.”
“I’ll pray, too. I want to give this card I’m making to just the right person.”
Zoe worked her tongue while she cut silver paper. “Did you see the face of the man on the bench today?”
“I did. He made me think of Santa Claus.” Meredith swung her heavy, long braid over her shoulder.
“It shouldn’t be hard to find him with that white beard. I want this card to go to him. I wish I was older and had a job so I could buy him a big blanket to keep him warm.” Zoe handed the scissors to Meredith.
“You look for him. I want to look for a raggedy woman. Maybe even someone who has a place to sleep at night, but looks lonely and lost. God will show me if a sad lady needs Christmas cheer from my card all decorated like a beautiful tree.”
“I have an idea.” Zoe reached for gold foil and a snow-white sheet of paper. “Let’s each make a card and then make one together. That way we can give out three cards for three Saturdays.”
“You work your favorite number nine into everything you do.” Meredith uncapped a bottle of silver glitter. “That’s OK. We don’t have enough time to make twenty cards.”
“You’re my best friend, Meredith Gorgeous, but I’ll never understand why your favorite number is twenty.”
“Why does anybody have a favorite number?” Meredith straightened the table mess.
Three weeks later, the girls waited inside the lobby for Liam. He and his friends had met for a sci-fi movie, yet to end. Meredith bopped to a tune plugged into her ear.
Zoe scanned past the movie posters, and sighed at the sight of Liam loping down the corridor. Her mom said she was too young to read romance novels, but as long as they were Christian and her mom had already read them, it was OK. Every hero in every book she read had Liam’s face. She’d never told Meredith the way Liam made her feel. He was strong and protected them. He did funny things to her insides, and she often didn’t know what to say or do. He thought she was his sister’s best friend, and nothing more. I want to marry Liam someday.
He approached and yanked out Meredith’s earbud.
Zoe waited, but he didn’t look at her.
He waved to his friends as they headed for a different exit.
Outside the theater, the girls held hands, Liam walking behind so it didn’t appear as though the three were together.
A homeless man pushed off the wall of the building and into their path. “You girls are angels.”
Liam’s shoes slapped on the sidewalk as he ran to catch up. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders, preventing them from getting too close to the man.
Zoe smiled at the man who wore a light jacket over a frayed, hooded sweatshirt that looked more gray than black. “We’re not angels, we’re ’couragers.”
“I like that better. It takes courage to approach a reprobate like me. I’m not gonna hurt them, laddy. You girls encouraged me last week by that beautiful gold angel card. Prettiest thing my hands have held in a long, long time. You gave me hope, so much I’m gonna clean up and find a church Christmas Eve.” He gave a slight bow and moved aside.
The girls didn’t say a word as they walked the two blocks to the SUV.
Liam clambered into the front.
Zoe waited to open the door. “Meredith, let’s always remember each other at Christmastime.”
“Why would we forget? We’re best friends forever. How could we forget each other?”
“I don’t know.” She braved a look at Liam through the window, where he slouched in the seat, drumming his fingers on his knee. “He always keeps us safe when we walk downtown.” I’ll never forget Liam, either.
Zoe closed the door on a lilting Irish version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and set her coffee on a hard plastic table outside the coffee shop. The only one brave enough to sit outside on this December day, she folded her heavy scarf to cushion the icy seat. She put on her left glove and lifted the cup with her right, arrested by the sight across the street.
A guy sat at the cement base of a street light strumming a guitar, his case open to passersby. It wasn’t the busker who caught her attention, but the man who’d stopped, staring down at the guitar case. So lost in her study of the man, she burned her mouth as she touched the fragrant brew with her lips.
She couldn’t take her gaze off him, convinced something about the man was familiar. Her mind traveled back. Instead of the guitar player, she envisioned a hunched man with a white beard and a conversation with her best friend Meredith and her brother, Liam. Zoe sipped a cautious taste of her chocolate-flavored coffee and made sure it didn’t drip as she set it back down.