Katie Knowles’s life is going as planned. Even her long-time crush on Cameron Hilliard has fallen into place. Katie knows Cameron cares for her. Deeply. But something keeps him from committing completely.
Cam Hilliard is thirty-two years old before he finds himself wading the murky waters of true love. At twenty-four, Katie’s so young. So pure. So innocent. Although he’s found Christ and is at peace with his past, Cam can claim none of those things. Is it fair to ask such a special woman to tie her future to his?
Then Katie comes face-to-face with a ghost from a part of Cam's past he’d like to erase, and he is forced to acknowledge the very real possibility of losing her. Suddenly their differences no longer matter. He has to find a way to set the situation right, accept the consequence of his most shameful secret, and win back Katie’s trust and love.
But when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas day, it’ll be too late. Is their faith and love strong enough to bring them a real-life Christmas miracle?
Christmas, twenty-two months ago
Watching her sister show off her ring, Katie Knowles grinned. Belle glowed brighter than any of the Christmas lights scattered in a glorious display across their mother’s living room—and she deserved that glow. She also deserved a great guy like Nick Santini. Handsome. Rich. Italian gorgeous.
This holiday gathering provided the perfect venue to announce an engagement. Always a big deal in their family, Christmas this year would be even more memorable, thanks to Belle’s and Nick’s joyeous news.
But despite the excitement of the news from her older sister and best friend, and the pleasure of meeting her future brother-in-law, Katie’s gaze drifted across the room again and again. Kicked back in her mother’s recliner, Cameron Hilliard’s face was lit by a broad smile. Owner of the Hilliard Agency, and her sister’s boss and dear friend, Cameron set Katie’s heartbeat to a racing rhythm.
She’d met him five years ago. Barely nineteen, she’d made the ninety-minute drive to Pohono on her own to visit Belle. They’d made a special trip to the agency so Katie could meet her sister’s co-workers on Belle’s day off.
That’s all it took. One look into those gentle eyes—blue as the purest sapphire—that sweet face and shy smile, and Katie’s heart was lost to Cam Hilliard forever.
A man eight years her senior. A man who thought of her—if he thought of her at all—as nothing more than his prize employee’s little sister.
The only man in the world for Katie…and that meant she had to make him see her as the woman she’d become in the years since they’d met.
Starting right now.
She turned from the little crowd of family and friends gathered around Nick and Belle and plopped into the matching recliner next to Cam.
“So why aren’t you over there admiring my sister’s new ring?”
Cam’s grin widened. “Already saw it. Some rock, huh?”
“Uhm…yeah. And perfect for Belle. She’s so classy, but not in a ‘hey-look-at-me’ kind of way. It doesn’t surprise me her ring would be stunning, but not too large or…uhm, ostentatious.”
Cam laughed. “Wow. Careful there, Katiekins.” He used her sister’s pet name for her. “That’s a pretty hefty word for a little sprite like you.”
Groan. So Cam did still think of her as a child…and she couldn’t deny she was a bit on the small side. Even Belle, at five-foot-two and noticeably petite, stood taller and boasted more womanly curves than Katie. Her miniscule five-foot frame had not been counterbalanced with any real shapeliness, much to her own regret. Still, she’d never lacked admirers, so someone recognized her as a grown-up woman.
Would Cam ever see her that way?
She studied him for a moment, her teeth gently tugging at her lip. “So when are you going to put a ring on someone’s finger?”
Now Cam laughed outright. “Take a good look at this baby face. Come on. Do it.” He stretched his neck in a deliberately comical fashion and turned his face side to side.
Katie laughed. “I’ve seen your face before. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well…now look over there and let your eyes feast on the man your sister’s hanging onto like there’s no tomorrow. That, my dear Katie, is what modern women are looking for.”
For a moment, her breath refused to be found. Surely this wonderful man didn’t really believe that nonsense?
In one slow, deliberate movement, she vacated the chair she’d claimed only moments earlier, took two steps, and knelt at his side. Drawing on every ounce of courage she possessed, Katie laid her hand on top of his.
Cam’s eyebrows shot toward his hairline, but he didn’t remove his hand from under hers. Maybe that was a good sign.
“Let me tell you something, Cameron Hilliard—and you listen up. Not all women want a man like Nick.” A sudden, uncharacteristic shyness threatened to overwhelm her, but Katie determinedly captured his gaze with her own and refused to let go. “I don’t.”
Early October, twenty-two months later
Sliding her key into the lock, Katie Knowles listened for the click of success, and then pushed into her office at Pohono Elementary School. Once the door swung shut, she took a moment to cast a contented glance around the space. Not exactly fancy—what public school office ever was? But the room exuded warmth and welcome.
Any child who visited “Miss Katie” suffered some type of emotional or mental problem. Otherwise they’d never have a reason to see her. The last thing she wanted was for her young charges to be put off by dull, unattractive surroundings—or a cold, unwelcoming one. Hence the plush rugs on the floor and the brightly colored, child-oriented art on the walls. Her desk, while as utilitarian as any other in the public school system, sported a couple coats of pleasant, robin’s egg blue paint, as did the tall, four-drawer file cabinet shoved against the wall behind it.
Comfortable, child-sized chairs and a low, round table filled the center space. Stacked atop the table, sketch pads and a variety of colored markers, pens, and pencils provided an alternate medium of communication for those young guests to whom talking didn’t come easily. In one corner, a couple of standing shelves held an assortment of toy trucks and cars, action figures, dolls, and bright jewelry.
All the tools she needed to help her relate to a child’s mind. She was good at it, even if success meant “becoming a child” herself. She’d been known to push a truck around the room, making all the appropriate noises, to win the trust of a troubled little boy. Nor was it beyond her to don cheap, gaudy earrings and wrap a feather boa around her neck, or cradle a doll in her arms and play Mommy with a sad-eyed girl.
Whatever it took to reach a child.
After graduating high school, Katie had kept her nose to the educational grindstone. She’d put her social life on hold, sacrificed lazy weekends and carefree vacations and plowed through the rigors of an accelerated graduate program. That single-minded dedication resulted in a Master’s degree just in time to apply for this position in Pohono.
Given her minimal hands-on experience, Katie’s job title was ‘Counselor’s Assistant.’ The official Psychology Counselor, responsible for a dozen county schools, made her home base in Eufala, sixty miles away. She held a cyber meeting with Katie once a week, offered advice when needed, but put in an actual appearance at the school only once or twice a quarter. Since the beginning of the current school term, Katie had thought of the Pohono counselor’s office as her own.
She slipped her sweater off her shoulders, but quickly decided against removing the extra layer. The past week had brought on a bit of a chill that announced winter’s approach, way too soon. Old Man Winter must be planning a humdinger of a season, to be awake and blowing whispers of ice into the atmosphere in early October.
After sliding her purse into the bottom desk drawer, she picked up a small, framed photo that lay face-up in the same space. Although not strictly forbidden, displaying personal photos was subtly discouraged, so she kept the picture of herself with the love of her life in that drawer, where she’d see it every morning when she put her purse away. The photographic reminder that she and Cameron Hilliard were a couple never failed to start her work day off with a smile.
They’d started dating not long after Belle’s engagement to Cam’s friend, Nick Santini. Thank God her sister worked for the Hilliard Agency. Otherwise, Katie might never have met Belle’s boss. Scary thought, since life without Cam would be…well, she didn’t even want to entertain such a devastating scenario.
She giggled. Successful business owner or not, the man would blush to the roots of his dark blond hair if he could see into her thoughts. Sweet, quiet Cam, with his moments of unexpected shyness that always swelled her heart with something so profound, so intense, it often frightened her. Those elements of his personality were a large part of what made Cam Cam…and Katie loved the whole package.
A sharp knock on the door pulled her out of her daydreams. She glanced at her appointment book then hurried across the room to welcome her first little challenge of the day. Aidan Seth Treadwell. He was new to her lineup of young cases, and she looked forward to meeting him.
Her friend, Heidi Greer, waited at the door, her fingers wrapped around those of a little blond boy. Small for a third-grader, the child cast his gaze somewhere around the vicinity of his toes as his teacher made the introductions.
“Good morning.” Katie knelt and tried to catch his eye, but he seemed determined not to let that happen.
Heidi sighed. “This is Miss Katie, Aidan. Say hello.”
“’Lo, Miss Katie.” The boy mumbled a barely audible greeting.
“You and I are going to have a lot of fun together, Aidan.”
Heidi stepped into the office and pulled out one of the small chairs. “Come over and sit down, sweetie. You’re going to visit with Miss Katie for a little while, and then I’ll be back for you.”
The boy moved toward his teacher, never once raising his gaze off the floor. He ignored the chair and lowered his small form to the rug, cross-legged.
Heidi cast a frustrated glance in Katie’s direction. “Your turn to try, my friend. Good luck and all that.”
“Later, Heidi.” But I don’t need luck. Just a little inspiration from On High.
Alone with her young visitor, she joined the boy on the floor—face to face, but far enough apart to avoid making him uncomfortable. “I’m so happy to meet you, Aidan.”
She’d already determined to use his name often. His diagnosis of mild autism spectrum disorder was a recent one. For some autistic children, constant use of a name helped ground them in time and space, counteracting the tendency to take mental journeys inside themselves.
Katie plucked a sketch pad and pencil from the table. Heidi had told her during their pre-appointment discussion that her prime concern for Aidan was his inability—or perhaps refusal—to interact with others. The boy’s condition interfered with his learning in only a couple of areas. Overall, his grades were high. His foster parents had indicated that the child’s condition had declined steadily in the nine months he’d been in their care. At first, Aidan showed little evidence of autism, although the diagnosis was indicated in his records. But as time passed, he’d lapsed into more of the behaviors and symptoms common to the condition.
He displayed artistic skills far beyond that of a normal eight-year-old. Heidi had included a few of his drawings in his file to corroborate that opinion, and they did indicate surprising ability. Katie hoped to utilize that natural talent as a possible means of communication.
But only if Aidan made the first move. She wouldn’t try to force the issue.
She placed the pad and pencil on the rug between them. “Do you like to draw, Aidan?”
The boy crossed thin arms over his chest and rocked forward without looking up. Katie waited for the backward swing, but it didn’t come right away.
“Well, I heard you like it a lot. That’s why this sketch pad is here.” She plucked the pencil off the thick tablet of drawing paper and held it up as if he was actually watching her, even though he hadn’t glanced in her direction even once. After a moment, she laid it down again. “Think you could draw something for me?”